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[whitespace] Congo Lines: A journalist ponders his role as historian in 'The Catastrophist.'


Belgian Waffling

The political and the personal merge (with difficulty) in 'The Catastrophist'

By Elizabeth Costello

Ronan Bennett's third novel, The Catastrophist, is, as the narrator puts it, "a story of failure." It is about a love affair gone wrong in the Belgian Congo in 1959, just as the country is about to gain its independence. The novel offers a well-rounded blend of emotional and political intrigue as the narrator loses his girlfriend to the chaos of Congolese politics. Bennett, whose works include screenplays for the BBC and a memoir, has both practical and academic experience with revolutions. He spent two years of his young adult life in prison for participating in the uprisings in Belfast in the '70s and later went on to earn a degree in history. He makes excellent use of his background in this novel, utilizing historical fact to create a backdrop for his protagonist's struggle to find love and truth.

James Gillespie is a disaffected Irish/English novelist who follows his radical Italian girlfriend, Inés Sabiani, to the Belgian Congo in an attempt to maintain their relationship. Sabiani, a true believer in the revolutionary cause, is a Marxist journalist who writes passionate diatribes in support of local insurgent Patrice Lumumba. Gillespie has trouble putting faith in anything at all, except his love for Sabiani and his writing. His inability to become "a believer" quickly drives Sabiani away. The rift between them widens as he befriends Mark Stipe, an American with suspicious political connections. Gillespie further disgusts his estranged girlfriend when he begins to write what he believes to be objective journalism based on Stipe's insider tips from the American Consulate.

Stipe is written as a somewhat stereotypical CIA operative, a thuggish and devious man with a streak of paternalistic sweetness. He befriends Lumumba and his supporters until they defy him and seek support from the Russians. His relationship with his Congolese driver, Auguste, is emblematic of his fatherly approach to the Africans. When Auguste sides with Lumumba, Stipe feels betrayed and his work takes on a hint of the personal vendetta. Gillespie has sympathy for Stipe until his personal involvement leads him to help Lumumba in spite of himself. Some of the most harrowing scenes in the book take place as Gillespie begins to understand the full scope of malevolent frat-boy Stipe's power.

Bennett artfully turns arguments between Gillespie and Sabiani into philosophical discussions about the nature of political power. Gillespie stands by Sabiani when she's sick or in danger, but their relationship becomes overrun by dialogue like this:

"And you say that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crisis maintain their neutrality. 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?"

Although the lovers are unable to bridge the gap between the personal and the political, Bennett does an admirable job of interweaving his characters into the larger tapestry of African politics. Those who know nothing about the former Belgian Congo will come away with some understanding of what led up to the Mobutu regime. While the author admits changing a few details, the novel's events are based on actual events. As the situation deteriorates, the quagmire of colonial unrest proves rich territory for suspense as well as for philosophy.

The story drags toward the end, when Gillespie hangs on even though it's abundantly clear that his love is more interested in fighting the good fight than she is in maintaining a relationship with him. However, Gillespie's behavior is typical of the lovelorn ex who can't help but hope. Bennett takes a risk by stepping out of the Congo to recall Gillespie's past in Ireland and England in the middle of the book. These chapters are somewhat disruptive to the flow of the narrative, but they succeed in supporting the development of Gillespie as a character. The trip down Gillespie's memory lane gives the reader a sense of how he became the cynical expat. Bennett makes another break with the plot when he ruminates, through the writer Gillespie, about the nature of writing itself.

"For the first time in a long time ... I see the consequences of my profession ... I have my book, my words, my distance, my impartial eyes; I have the rights not just to my own story, but to theirs. The written account does endure, it outlasts all participants. Eventually it will define them."

In that meta-moment Benett reminds the reader that history is, fundamentally, a story. The author's blend of sociological and psychological insights make The Catastrophist an engaging book, one that wrestles with some big ideas which will continue to confound lovers and philosophers alike for years to come.


'The Catastrophist,' by Ronan Bennett; Simon & Schuster, 332 pages; $24.

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From the March 20, 2000 issue of the Metropolitan.

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