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As if the Irish novelist Ronan Bennett's personal background wasn't sufficiently interesting--he spent several years in Long Kesh prison in the mid 70's as a result of youthful activism against the British--this book has earned him comparisons to Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, and John LeCarre, rarefied company indeed.  Though the story often seems autobiographical and the ethical questions that it raises seem personal to the author, it is actually set in the Congo in 1959, just as the Belgians were surrendering power to the ill-fated Patrice Lumumba.  Perhaps he needed this geographical, temporal and emotional distance to deal with his subject matter.

The narrator of the tale, James Gillespie, is likewise an Irish novelist who emigrated to Britain.  His real first name is Seamus, but he has stripped away all traces of his own Irishness.  As the story opens he has followed his lover, Ines Sabiani, to Leopoldville where she is the correspondent for L'Unita, the Communist paper of Italy.  She is in the Congo to cover the independence movement, the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC), led by Lumumba.  But where she is a true believer, deeply committed to Lumumba and his cause, James is much more detached and cynical.  While she invests herself emotionally in the ongoing political events, he does not really care about anything other than his relationship with her :

    The politics of idealism go hand in hand with disillusion, and when disillusion sets in I will still be
    here for her.

This naturally leads to mounting tension in their relationship, which is exacerbated when he writes a series of inflammatory articles, using information supplied by a beefy American intelligence operative, Mark Stipe, who seems to be on good terms with Lumumba.   The material from Stipe is accurate, even prescient, but Ines distrusts him because the timing of the stories seems to serve his own, and America's, purposes, not necessarily the best interests of the MNC.  As he tells James : "I'd be happy with an independent Congo as long as it were stable and well run."

Meanwhile, James, who considers  it the primary function of the journalist to be objective, is just thankful for the scoops he's receiving; he does not consider it his role to favor one side or the other.  Even after seeing a man killed, he refers to a quote from Ruskin about the duty of a journalist :

    Does a man die at your feet, your business is not to help him, but to note the color of his lips.

As their romance crumbles, Ines says to James : " say that Dante wrote that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crisis maintain their neutrality" and he responds : "Where is this great moral crisis ? I see ambition, I see corruption, I see squalor, I see intrigue and vanity and self-promotion.  Where is the moral crisis?"  Eventually, as it must given their differences, the affair ends in acrimony and Ines takes up with Stipe's native driver, Auguste Kilundu, who has become active in the MNC.

The romantic drama plays out alongside the political drama, which sees the Belgians bail out and Lumumba take power, and the stories collide when Lumumba is toppled and he and his supporters (including Auguste and Ines) are forced underground.  Stipe suddenly proves not to be so friendly and James faces a choice between protecting Ines or having a sweet revenge upon her and Auguste.

Bennett does a nice job of recreating the atmosphere of the period, and his treatment of the political situation, though partisan, is much more nuanced than the heavy handed treatment it received in Barbara Kingsolver's wretched Poisonwood Bible (see review)  The world weary protagonist, doomed love affair, colonial setting and moral quandaries do call to mind such books as The Quiet American, The Year of Living Dangerously, and The Heart of the Matter and the writing is very nearly up to that level.  But at the same time, these elements are so familiar that much of the plot and many of the characters seem a tad too derivative.  There's sometimes a sense that this story was cobbled together from bits and pieces of those other books.

In the end though I think the reader's reaction to the book depends an awful lot on what we think of Ines and I thought her profoundly annoying.  For one thing, Ines and James are so different that their affair seems implausible.  Their only connection seems to be sexual and, while it's easy to see why he's attracted to this exciting younger woman,  it's not readily apparent why she is satisfied with this passive older schlub.  Nor are the sex scenes particularly interesting, though there is one postcoital moment in the book that is arrestingly intimate :

    I feel the blink of lashes on my shoulder and close my eyes to sleep.

That image just struck me as quite human and beautiful.

It is really Ines's politics though that are most bothersome.  She is so self-righteous, so judgmental and so naive that it's hard to take her seriously.  In the first instance, she supports immediate independence regardless of the fact that the native population is wholly unprepared to run the nation.  Her sudden affair with Auguste seems to be more a function of political correctness than anything else.  And, as the true believer, she has the most simplistic view of Lumumba.  Stipe mentions several times that what he's really trying to preserve in the Congo is "context."  I well recognize that my political attitudes intrude here, but that context necessarily includes the fact that the Congo had great mineral resources in a time of world war--Cold War, but war nonetheless.  There was simply no way that the US could afford to let the Soviet Union gain control over these strategically important deposits and to the extent that Lumumba was an unreliable steward or even an ally of the USSR, it's hard to see what alternative there was to deposing him (for more on the situation in the Congo see my review of The Poisonwood Bible.)  I'm simply untroubled by the idea that the Congolese right of self determination ends at the point where the interests of the rest of the Free World are threatened.

There's much to admire here in terms of the atmosphere that Bennett establishes, helped greatly by the drama inherent in the real life setting, and the issues that he broaches, like that of a writer's moral responsibility in the face of injustice, are genuinely interesting.  Though they are mostly unlikeable, and sometimes overly stereotypical, there's an entertaining cast of secondary characters.  If in the end there's no one to really root for in the whole mess, that may well reflect the reality of the situation.


Grade: (B+)


See also:

Irish Literature
Book-related and General Links:
    -EXCERPT : First Chapter of The Catastrophist
    -ESSAY : Marching Orders : Ronan Bennett on the new future of Northern Ireland (London Review of Books)
    -ESSAY : Divided by the Same Language (Ronan Bennett, Index on Censorship Online)
    -ESSAY :  We call ourselves the United Kingdom. But the cultural identities of our four nations are becoming ever more separate.  What do we really know about each other any more? In the first of four reports, Ronan Bennett looks beyond the prevailing image of Northern Irish culture  (Ronan Bennett, The Guardian,  July 16, 1994)
    -ESSAY : Brute force :  Ronan Bennett explains why the Unionists must not be allowed to minimise the reform of the RUC (Guardian/Observer UK, Saturday May 27, 2000
    -INTERVIEW : with Ronan Bennett (David Bowman , Salon)
    -INTERVIEW : Tim Brannigan talks to Ronan Bennett about his latest book and discovers there are monkeys on the shoulder of the Belfast author (Irish News)
    -PROFILE : Wordfest (Harry Vandervlist, FFWD Weekly)
    -REVIEW : of The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett (RAND RICHARDS COOPER, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett (Claire Messud, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett (Elizabeth Costello , Metro Active Books)
    -REVIEW : of The Catastrophist (Robert Allen Papinchak, The Seattle Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Catastrophist (Michael Maiello, Shallow End)
    -REVIEW : of The Catastrophist (Pagitica)
    -REVIEW : of The Catastrophist (Seamas Keenan, Labour Left Briefing)
    -REVIEW : of The Catastrophist (Giles Foden, Electric Mail & Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of The Catastrophist (Jennifer Howard, Boston Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Catastrophist (Jami Edwards, Book Reporter)
    -REVIEW : of The Catastrophist (Peter Randall, Financial Mail)
    -REVIEWS : of The Catastrophist (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Break screenplay by Ronan Bennett (Film Journal)
    -REVIEW : of The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett (Tony Mastrogiorgio, SF Chronicle)

    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "patrice lumumba"
    -Katanga: Congo's Seccessionist Nightmare
    -Patrice Lumumba
    -Remember Lumumba!
    -ESSAY : Patrice Lumumba - Mysteries of History - US News Online
    -World Factbook (entry on zaire/democratic Republic of Congo)