Star-Crossed in the Congo

Mark Hudson

  • The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett
    Headline, 313 pp, £14.99, July 1998, ISBN 0 07 472221 2

At independence from Belgium in June 1960, Patrice Lumumba, the Congo’s first prime minister, inherited a territory the size of India with only 12 African university graduates and no African lawyers, senior civil servants or army officers above the rank of sergeant. Although it was still making vast sums for Belgian commercial interests, the country was bankrupt, and almost immediately it began to fall apart. The Army mutinied in a raping and looting free-for-all. Belgian paratroopers responded with indiscriminate brutality, evacuating the white settler population amid scenes of unimaginable chaos. The mineral-rich southern province of Katanga seceded with the backing of Belgian mining companies and white mercenaries. Troops loyal to the Government committed widespread atrocities in an attempt to prevent the secession of neighbouring Kasai. Lumumba called in the United Nations to reunite the country, and when they refused to take more than a peace-keeping role, he invited the Soviet Union to come to his assistance. He was deposed soon afterwards by a young army officer, Joseph Désiré Mobutu, with American, French and Belgian backing. A global conflagration was underway in the heart of Africa. After a botched escape attempt and a great deal of shillyshallying, Lumumba was put on a plane to Katanga in January 1961, where he was murdered. Three years of civil war followed, after which Mobutu set up his kleptocratic dictatorship (and remained in power until he was deposed last year by the now embattled old Lumumbist, Laurent Kabila).

However one sees Lumumba, as a hero and martyr of international struggle or an irresponsible hysteric whose vanity caused the deaths of thousands of people, it is impossible to deny the epic nature of the drama in which he took part, or the incandescent power of its images. ‘The last pictures of Lumumba,’ Simone de Beauvoir wrote in her autobiography, ‘the photographs of his wife leading the mourners, head shaved, breast bared – what novel could compete with that?’

It’s a very good question. Significant attempts to fictionalise the period have so far been oblique. Ryszard Kapuściński included imaginary scenes from Lumumba’s life in a grimly humorous account of his own incarceration and near-execution by Belgian paratroopers in The Soccer War. V.S. Naipaul’s magnificent A Bend in the River looked at a slightly later period through the eyes of a Kenyan-Asian trader up-river in Stanleyville. Now that the immediate sense of horror has worn off, this episode of late colonial history seems fertile ground for an edgy thriller, with, say, a romance between journalists and the visionary overtones of The Year of Living Dangerously. Ronan Bennett’s novel sets out to be precisely these things, and much else besides.

The cover invokes Graham Greene’s name twice in praise for Bennett’s previous novels. Initially, the book’s narrator, Gillespie, seems a quintessentially Greeneian figure, so scarred by life he is incapable of commitment or feeling – a wearisomely familiar foil for the inscrutability of tropical horror. But Gillespie is different: he’s Northern Irish and the nature of his detachment is highly ambiguous. In his late thirties, Gillespie has been offered one last chance at fulfilment in the vivid and unsettling person of Inès, a fiery Italian journalist. Wrenched out of his torpor, he follows her to the Congo – about which he knows and cares little – in the hope of putting their relationship on a permanent footing, and in the knowledge that the task is hopeless, that the best of their relationship has already gone, that in his diffidence he has squandered the tenderness she so freely gave him in London.

We first meet the two of them towards the end of 1960 during Lumumba’s flight from house arrest in Leopoldville, as they attempt to cross a river to safety. Lumumba has already crossed, but most of his party, including his wife and children, are surrounded by government forces. Recognising that this is not his conflict and that nothing that happens here will fully impinge on him, Gillespie watches as Lumumba’s two-year-old son is hit in the face with a rifle butt. Unwilling to leave his family to their fate, Lumumba recrosses the river to his own certain death. If their party had only moved a little faster, Gillespie reflects, this supreme self-sacrifice would not have been necessary. The chaotic, almost leisurely violence of this scene, with events unfolding while riverside traders carry on selling hard-boiled eggs, is frighteningly well rendered.

The story cuts back to Gillespie’s arrival in the Congo, shortly before the announcement of Independence. The parochial atmosphere of colonial Leopoldville is well imagined, with its crass Flemish civil servants and more worldly Walloons running the bars where the journalists hang out, all oblivious of the impending anarchy. From a millionaire’s garden party, Gillespie and Inès observe a massacre in one of the native quarters on the other side of the river. All they can see is the dust raised by bullets on mud-brick and later, soldiers tipping corpses off a jetty (they become caught in the floating tangles of water hyacinths). Stipe, a cool American, tells Gillespie that the huge growths of hyacinths spread from a settler’s garden and are now killing the river by draining its oxygen.

Gillespie can already feel Inès slipping away, as the momentum of Independence builds, the story hurtling forward through a series of well-realised set-piece riots and demonstrations – Inès determined to become involved with Lumumba and his cause, Gillespie determined to remain detached, while forming a friendship with Stipe, who as a CIA man at the US Embassy, wants to win Lumumba to his cause.

The interaction and polarisation of personal and political commitment, as expressed in their relationship, provides the book’s central subject and emotional thrust. Inès’s misty-eyed ‘commitment’ arouses his revulsion, as well as his admiration and jealousy. ‘She always has friends, she is always with others.’ And she always shines more brightly for them than she does for him. The diminutive Inès, daughter of Communist partisans, is the sort of poetic, romantic leftist who barely exists in Britain. A touching mixture of the dynamic and the vulnerable, with her thinning, brittle hair, naïve vanity and erratic personal hygiene, Inès is a vividly credible presence and the conflict she arouses in Gillespie is well thought out. For him belief itself is an anathema. ‘What is real to me,’ he says, ‘is what can be seen. I understand above all else the evidence of the eyes. She is moved by things that cannot be described, that are only half-glimpsed, and when she writes – is this allowable in a journalist? – it is not primarily to inform her audience but to touch them.’ But ‘sometimes, listening to her song, my lulled emotions slip their noose and follow in the blind career of her allegiance; but then a word, a single word, a note so obviously wrong, interrupts and I am filled with resentment of her and her histrionic lexicon.’

There is a further dimension to their relationship. In London, they tried to have a child without success. On the day Inès was due to receive the results of her fertility tests, Gillespie spied her from the top of a bus. Realising from her expression that the news was bad, and unable to face her distress, he spends the rest of the day browsing in bookshops. This betrayal lacks the power it might have had, simply because Gillespie, the narrator of the story, never quite coheres as a character. While he constantly asserts his detachment, he is twitching with irritation from the outset. Many of his internalisings are expressed in a pithily poetic, but at times stilted prose, at odds with the implied immediacy of a present tense narration: ‘She divides me. Her words divide me. Her language refuses the disciplines of the eye, of history, of the world as it is.’ This is the kind of thing people write, rather than think or feel. One can of course simply accept it as a convention but in the absence of a real sense of the blood and guts of Gillespie, it feels like a substitute for, rather than an amplification of, character.

Although Gillespie is a novelist – and Africa is well described – we don’t feel the disorienting sensual impact of a first visit, seen through the eyes of a novelist – even a novelist, who like Gillespie, prefers to write about what he knows. Throughout the post-Independence mayhem, he carries on writing, slightly implausibly, the book he would have been writing in England. And although this is one novelist writing about another, the sense of a writer and his work is oddly insubstantial.

Frequently Gillespie’s humourlessness and naivety become risible in ways that do not seem deliberate. Having him follow Inès through the crowds round Lumumba’s house, wanting to talk to her about ‘us’ as a massive riot is about to start, may seem like a good way of dramatising the gulf between the personal and the political, but all we feel is the lamentable poorness of his timing (a similarly adolescent solipsism creeps into many of his pronouncements on Inès). Equally, we immediately identify Stipe as an intelligence agent, but fifty pages later, Gillespie is still wondering exactly what he does at the Embassy.

Gillespie has deliberately lost his Ulster accent and exchanged Seamus for James. For Inès, typically sympathetic to the Celtic rather than the Anglo-Saxon, this means he has betrayed his own authenticity, his own ‘struggle’. But Gillespie wants nothing to do with what he takes to be the tribalism and backwardness of Irish politics. We learn eventually that his distaste for the very language of commitment and his eschewal of all things Irish have to do with his parents’ marriage: his mother’s aspirations for the family destroyed by his alcoholic father, a talented waster full of blarney and fine sentiments, irredeemably damaged, it is implied, by the rigidity of his Protestant background. It’s all rather ingenious and provides an interesting dimension to the book, but it’s never properly registered in Gillespie’s narrative voice. For all this background information, we still haven’t quite got the flavour and temperature of the man.

As Lumumba prepares to flee and Gillespie has to choose whether or not to try to save the lives of Inès and her Congolese lover, the book turns into a full-blown thriller. Gillespie’s trip into the torture chambers of Leopoldville is horribly convincing. But while Bennett captures the physical background very well, the historic context is not substantially realised. Anxiety over the Bomb was high (a CND march is mentioned through the feeble device of the overheard news item), but the bleakest of the postwar years had given way to the strained optimism of the Macmillan era, in colonial Africa as well as at home. Gillespie’s ossified Weltschmerz is too post-’68, too ‘end of history’; his instinctive knowledge that all African leaders are ‘corrupt thugs’ has too much the benefit of hindsight. Equally, the CIA man’s view that there is no ideology, only good or bad management, may avoid the standard cold warrior clichés but fails to strike the right historical note. In the late Fifties and early Sixties, it wasn’t only the Left who ‘believed’.

Although the book’s London scenes are brief and marginal, the ‘Camden’ where Gillespie casually cohabits with Inès and meets women in pubs has far too modern a feel. In 1959, serial monogamy was not yet the norm and people like these were still in the sexual avant garde; they could still have a heroic sense of what they were doing, while traditional expectations loomed continually in the background. Gillespie is too much the jaded New Man and his internalisings bear too many traces of ‘me-generation’ psychobabble (‘I wanted to feel well about myself’).

The Catastrophist does, however, inhabit its context, inasmuch as almost all the main characters are white. The book, sensibly, offers no new views or even much in the way of interpretation of its historic setting. Lumumba, a man whose short career makes him difficult to appraise, remains a remote figure (although the messianic overtones of his story do not go unnoticed). The only significant African character is lnès’s lover Auguste, an évolué dandy who throws away his brightly buckled shoes to follow Lumumba into exile. In the hands of a Greene or a Naipaul, this character would have had a hinterland of African knowledge and experience – a suggestive otherness which, rightly or wrongly, remains beyond the white protagonist and the reader’s comprehension. Auguste lacks even that level of complexity. Is he a naïve idealist or merely an idealist? We are not given enough information on which to make a judgment.

This may be appropriate, because finally the questions about authenticity and otherness in this book have more to do with Ireland and England than with Africa and the West, even if we are not quite sure what they are. At the conclusion, Gillespie sits on a hillside in Italy, having heard nothing from Inès since they parted amid the chaotic crowds of Lumumba’s mourners. It is 1969 and the Civil Rights movement is underway in Ireland. Gillespie’s mother, the downtrodden housewife, has been politicised by his Communist sister and now goes on marches. But Gillespie remains as unimpressed and as resolutely detached as ever – except in his residual feelings for Inès. In a typically gnomic pronouncement, she wrote in an early letter that she wanted Gillespie to understand ‘how I am to be found, and where’. Looking back, Gillespie reflects that perhaps she was to be found in moments of ‘commitment’: Lumumba’s turning back at the riverside to save his family by his own death, or the intervention of Charles, the taciturn houseboy who Gillespie assumed despised him, to save him from Lumumba’s mourners. To these, Gillespie could have added the moment when he saved the lives of Inès and Auguste. He always claimed his only motive was his love of Inès and his selfish hope that they might be reunited. To the end he is ungenerous, even to himself.