The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett (1997)

Everything since independence has been a sick joke. (p.206)

The Catastrophist slowly builds into a gripping novel on the strength of Bennett’s powerful evocation of its historical setting, the Belgian Congo in the fraught months leading up to and following its independence on 30 June 1960, and in particular what David van Reybrouck calls the Shakespearian tragedy surrounding the murder of its first elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, in January 1961.

However, front and centre of the novel is the story of the narrator’s doomed love affair with a passionately political woman 13 years his junior which gives rise to numerous passages of purple prose and florid digressions on the nature of love which I found almost impossible to read.

Let’s deal with some of the negatives first, before getting onto the muscular strength of the positives.

A novel about a novelist

There are a number of reasons to dislike this novel. For a start it’s a novel told in the first person about a novelist who’s struggling to write a novel (p.12) and spends an inordinate amount of time worrying about the special problems of being a writer, about being so concerned about finding the right words that he is too self conscious to really live, to give himself to the world, to commit… and so on and so on – a subject so hackneyed and tiresome that several times I nearly gave up reading the book.

My third eye, my writer’s eye, monitors every word and gesture. It makes me fearful of my own censure. I can only hold back. (p.108)

Because he is so obsessed with his status and role as a ‘writer’ he feels like an ‘outsider’, like a permanently alienated observer of everything going on around him, and makes sure we know it by continually repeating the fact:

  • I am surrounded – always – by my own distance. (p.10)
  • I am the trained observer…
  • I am not truly part of this…
  • I move away to stand alone, apart, removed from the people…
  • …my ever-evasive presence…
  • [I am] the habitual onlooker… (p.49)
  • I have spent too much time in the cheerless solitude of my own ego.
  • Is this all I have ever been? A selfish, egotistical watcher? (p.268)

It feels like a very lived-in, worn-out, stereotyped character and attitude for a writer, for a fiction.

And my words, what worth have they? From my youth I have lived with disguises and…I have forgotten what my real words are. I have lived disguised from myself, in permanent doubt of my emotional authenticity; and since I am never alone with myself, since I am always watching the character playing my part in the scene, there is no possibility of spontaneity. (p.129)

Accompanying this tremendously narcissistic self-consciousness goes a self-consciously ‘poetic’ style, but of a particularly ‘modern’ variety. During the 1980s the ever-more popular creative writing courses spread the gospel of cutting back on style, removing adjectives, keeping it simple, understating feeling and description in order to produce a taut, clear, plain prose which, however, gives the impression of being charged with suppressed feeling. Less is more. Or at least that’s the intention.

When it doesn’t work, however, it comes over as just plain and boring, particularly if the author turns out not to have much to say, or lacks a real feel for the language. I’m afraid this is how Bennett reads to me:

I go down to the crowd and find myself next to Madeleine. The water-skiers weave and circle, a pied kingfisher hovers twenty feet above the water. There are men in military uniform on the far bank. (p.41)

I wake when she gets up to the bathroom. She urinates, then pads sleepily flat-footed back to bed. She yawns and lets out a small noise as she stretches. She breathes deeply, settling again under the sheet. (p.27)

There is a woman in London. Her name is Margaret. I am not proud of this. (p.49)

I pull out a chair for Madeleine. She takes up her things and comes over. She orders orange juice, coffee, toast and scrambled eggs. She leans back in her chair and crosses her tanned legs. She is wearing a black one-piece swimsuit under her robe. She draws on her cigarette and exhales a jet of smoke. I can’t see her eyes behind the shades. (p.77)

It’s not just that it’s pedestrian, it’s that it’s pedestrian with pretensions to be the kind of taut, understated, reined-in style which secretly conceals profound passion, which I described above as being the regulation, modern, creative-writing class style. It’s the pretentiousness of its deliberate flatness which I find irritating.

But just so we know he doesn’t always have to write this flatly, Bennett jazzes up his basic plain style with 1. occasional flashy metaphors and 2. with turns of phrase which are intended, I think, to come over as sensitive and perceptive, particularly when describing the ‘doomed’ love affair which is the central subject of the novel. 1. Here’s a few examples of his sudden flashes of metaphor:

The pitted sponge of jungle gives way to scrub and sand. The sun is red in the east. (p.9)

Jungle does not look like a sponge. Sponges are sandy colour. Jungle is a thousand shades of green. See what I mean by the deliberate understatement in fact concealing the wish to be taken as poetic.

I might have begun to resent my exclusion from the ribbons of her laughter had I not enjoyed seeing again her social display. (p.23)

‘Ribbons of her laughter’ feels like it is written to impress and it ought to impress but… I’m not impressed. In a way the numb, dumb, plain style is deployed precisely so as to be a background to occasional fireworks but I find Bennett’s fireworks too self-consciously presented for our admiration.

There was a piercing veer to the December wind… (p.72)

2. Here’s some examples of the turns of phrase which are meant to indicate what a sensitive, perceptive soul the writer is, how alert to the subtleties of human relationships, in other words a continuation of his self-pitying sense of his own specialness as a writer, an outsider, a ‘trained observer’.

She is not an early riser, but this morning is different. The air tastes of imminence, there are patterns to the clouds and she can see things. I sit on the bed, silent, feet on the floor. (p.29)

‘The air tastes of imminence.’ There are many phrases like this, rising from the numb, dumb, basic style to signpost the author’s sensitivity to mood and impression. Most of them occur around the subject of his doomed love for passionate, small, sensitive Inès.

Our disagreements are fundamental, our minds dispar, but I live in our differences: my blankness draws on her vitality. She exists me. (p.74)

This type of linguistic deformation wins prizes, literally and is clever and locally effective i.e it gives the reader a frisson of poetic pleasure. But I couldn’t help feeling it wouldn’t be necessary to use rare words or deform syntax like this if he had a more natural ability to express himself with words’ usual meanings and syntax. Instead, moments like this seem designed to show off his special sensitivity, the same sensitivity which condemns him to always be standing apart, at a distance from everyone else. ‘I am not truly part of this’. ‘I move away to stand alone, apart.’ Oh, the poor sweet sensitive soul!

Older man in love with passionate, idealistic, younger woman

It is 1959. James Gillespie is an Irishman living in London. He is a writer. He writes novels.

‘Zoubir tells me you’re a writer,’ de Scheut says. ‘What do you write?’
‘Novels,’ I say.

He has been having an affair with a passionate Italian journalist thirteen year his junior, Inès Sabiani (p.39). (When I was a schoolboy and student I ‘went out’ with girls. It was only at university that the public schoolgirls I met introduced me to the bourgeois domain where people ‘have affairs’, a phrase designed to make hoity-toity people’s lives sound so much more interesting and classy than yours or mine. The way Bennett describes James and Inès’s affair is a good example of the way people in novels often live on a more exalted plane than the humble likes of you and I. Indeed, part of the appeal of this kind of prize-winning novel for its Sunday supplement-reading audience is precisely the way it makes its readers’ lives feel more cosmopolitan, exciting, refined and sensitive.)

The daughter of a communist partisan (p.158), Inès is herself a communist, a passionate, fiery, committed idealist. (Of course she is. Why does this feel so tired and obvious and predictable?) James, her older lover, senses that he is losing her and pines like a puppy to restore their former intimacy. (Of course he does. It feels like I’ve read this tiresome story hundreds of times.)

Why did I react so acerbically? The answer is not hard to find. I am being squeezed out of her orbit. I have come a thousand miles to pin her down, but I see there is no chance of that in these crowded, coursing times. I am bitter. There is no place for me. (p.47)

Inès is a journalist and has been sent to the Belgian Congo to write magazine pieces about the countdown the growing political unrest and calls for independence. The main narrative opens as James flies in to Léopoldville airport, takes a taxi into town and is reunited with his passionate Italian lover. He immediately realises she has become passionately, idealistically committed to the cause of independence and, in particular, to the person of the charismatic Congolese politician, Patrice Lumumba. James is losing her to The Cause.

I look at her with the whole fetch of her story behind my eyes, but she will not yield, she will not soften. Why is she being like this? She used to love me. (p.91)

I wanted to give him a sharp smack and tell him to grow up.

James moves into Inès’s hotel room, they have sex, lie around naked, he watches her pee, they have baths, showers, get dressed, go to parties and receptions. But their former intimacy is somehow lacking and James is puzzled, hurt, frustrated and worries how to restore it. A wall separates them. But then, he realises they are completely different personality types. He is a realist, she is an idealist.

What is real to me 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… it is  not primarily to inform her audience, but to touch them. (p.47)

Inès is chronically late for everything, she has no sense of direction, she comically mangles English words and phrases (p.90). It’s almost as if Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus 🙂

His beloved is so special

Oh, but she is so special, this Inès, and inspires the narrator to special feelings about her specialness and his specialness.

She divides me. Her words divide me. Her language refuses the disciplines of the eye, of history, of the world as it is. Her imagination turns on symbol and myth. She lives in the rush of all-embracing sympathy, and sometimes, listening to her song, my lulled motions slip their noose and follow in the blind career of her allegiance… (p.45)

The prose does this, turns to mush, every time he thinks and writes about his beloved, turns into extended dithyrambs to Inès’ passion and intelligence and insight and way with words and commitment. She is small and fragile. She has small breasts. She has a ‘small, slight’ body (p.72), she is light as a feather (p.117), she has a little bottom (p.131). She is ‘small and trembling’ (p.224). She has a tiny hand (p.69), a tiny fist (p.116) just like Mimì in La bohème but her eyes are big and shining. Life is too hard for such a sensitive soul.

All this is contrasted with James’s stolid, pedestrian practicality. He is self consciously ‘older, wry and amused’ by her idealism, by her political passions (p.70). They first met in Ireland where she had come to do interviews and become passionately, naively excited about the IRA and their campaign for  Irish unification. James tells us he will bide his time before filling her in about the complicated realities of a divided Ireland. He thinks she lives in a simplistic world of good and bad, and feels his lack of commitment, his wry amusement at all types of political passion, is sadly superior.

This is the binary opposition they present in Congo: she young, idealistic and passionate about the cause of independence, increasingly and dangerously involved with the key people; he, older, disillusioned, sardonically superior to political engagement, incapable of any commitment, permanently standing to one side.

James’s sentimental worship of Inès, the committed journalist and passionate woman of the people, closely resembles the sentimental worship of his caring, altruistic wife, Tessa, by the older, jaded protagonist of John le Carré’s novel, The Constant Gardener. In both novels the attitude seems to me sentimental, maudlin, patronising and, arguably, sexist.

The Graham Greene paradigm

As to the setting, well, that is genuinely interesting. Not many anglophone novelists have written about the Congo except, of course, Graham Greene, in his gloomy 1960 novel A Burnt-Out Case. About ten of the many fulsome blurbs on The Catastrophist‘s cover compare Bennett to Greene. He must have gotten heartily sick of the comparison.

But what I find most Greeneian about The Catastrophist is not the ‘exotic’ setting but the extreme predictability about almost every aspect of the story. Jaded older man in love is with vivacious younger woman. Frank descriptions of love making undermined by sadness that he is losing her. These are straight out of Greene’s book-length account of a doomed romance in The End of The Affair (1951) and of the doomed romance in The Quiet American (1955).

A few chapters into the narrative Inès takes James to a swanky reception/garden party hosted by one of the most influential local Europeans, Bernard Houthhoofd (p.35). Here James meets a selection of European colonialists, colons to use the French word, who are straight out of central casting, the kind of chorus of secondary characters which seem super-familiar from Graham Greene’s later works, and from all novels of this type.

  • There is the rich host himself, sleek and unperturbed.
  • There is the snobby or arrogant or ignorant middle-class white woman, Madeleine, who thinks all natives or indigènes (as the French-speaking Belgians call them) are ghastly, they are children, they need a strong leader, they are nowhere near ready for independence etc (p.79).
  • There is the decent businessman, de Scheut, who is worried for the safety of his children in these dangerous times.
  • There is Zoubir Smail, a Lebanese-born diamond merchant (p.268).
  • There’s Roger who is, alas, not the lodger but the thoroughly decent English doctor.
  • There’s a journalist, Grant, the epitome of the English public schoolboy with his height, condescension and floppy haircut (p.113).
  • And there is the crop-haired, big-headed American, Mark Stipe (p.39) who may or may not be working for the CIA.

Could it possibly be more like a Graham Greene novel with a cast almost as stereotyped as an Agatha Christie novel? Or like his heir, John le Carré, with his descriptions of privileged ex-pat communities in places like Hong Kong (The Honourable Schoolboy) and Nigeria (The Constant Gardener).

The whole thing feels programmatic and predictable.

Symbolism

The garden party is a good example of another aspect of the novel which is that, although completely realist in style and conception, Bennett is careful to give his scenes symbolic resonance. Thus the garden party at Houthhoofd’s place doesn’t take place in Léopoldville, capital of the Congo (the city which, six years later, Mobutu would rename Kinshasa) but on the other side of the river, in the French colony of Congo (south of the river was the Belgian Congo, north of the river was the French Congo).

The point being that when all the guests become aware of a disturbance back on the Belgian side, some kind of protest which turns into a riot and then the police opening fire on the crowd, they observe all this at a great distance, only barely perceivable through a pair of binoculars one guest happens to have on him. It is a symbol, you see, of the great distance which separated the pampered lives of the European colons from the harsh lives of the locals.

This and various other moments in or aspects of the book feel as if they’ve been written with the Brodie’s Notes summary in mind, with events and characters written to order to fit into sections called Themes, Character, Symbolism, Treatment and so on, ready for classrooms full of bored GCSE students to copy out. All the way through, I had the sensation that I’d read this book before, because the plot, incidental events and many of its perceptions about love and politics feel not only familiar, but so schematic.

In its final quarter The Catastrophist develops into quite a gripping narrative but never shakes the feeling that it has been painted by numbers, written to order, according to a checklist of themes and ideas and insights which had to be included and checked off.

(The riot isn’t a random occurrence. Bennett is describing the protest march which turned into a massacre which led the Belgian authorities to set up a commission of enquiry – which predictably exonerated the police – but was important because it led directly Lumumba’s arrest and imprisonment for alleged incitement in November 1959.)

Sex in the bourgeois novel

Sex is everywhere in the bourgeois novel. One of the main reasons for reading middle-class novels is the sensitive, caring way in which elaborate, imaginative sex between uninhibited and physically perfect partners routinely occurs. Which is all rather unlike ‘real life’ in which my own experience, the experience of everyone I’ve ever slept with or talked to about sex, everything I’ve heard from the women in my life, from feminists, from advice columns, and newspaper articles and surveys, suggest otherwise. In the real world people struggle in all kinds of ways with their sexuality, not least the fact that people are often too ill, sick, tired, drunk or physically incapacitated to feel horny. Most women have periods, some very painful, which preclude sex for a substantial percentage of the time. According to the most thorough research, about 1 in 5 people have some kind of sexually transmitted disease. In other words, sex in the real world is often physically, psychologically and emotionally difficult and messy.

Whereas the way the male protagonists of novels by Graham Greene or David Lodge or Howard Jacobson or Alan Furst (the most eminent literary shaggers I can think of) or, in this case, Ronan Bennett, can barely exchange a few words with a woman before they’re between the sheets having athletic, imaginative sex with women who are physically perfect and have deep, rewarding orgasms. It’s hard not to conclude that this is the wildest male fantasy but at the same time one of the central appeals of the modern novel. Respectable sex. Wonderful and caring sex. The kind of sex we’d all like to have but mostly don’t.

The narrator tells us that Inès climaxes quickly and easily (p.131). Well, that’s handy. And also that Inès prefers to slow love-making right down, hold her partner in position above her, and then rub her clitoris against his penis until she achieves orgasm with short quiet yelps. Once she has climaxed, penetrative lovemaking can continue until the man climaxes inside her (p.72). Well, I’m glad that’s settled, then.

Setting – the Belgian Congo at independence

Anyway, to focus on the actual setting for a moment: the novel is set in the Belgian Congo in late 1959 and covers the period of the runup to independence on 30 June 1960 and then the 6 months of political and social turmoil which followed and led up to the kidnap and murder of the country’s first Prime Minister, the fiery speechmaker and anti-colonial activist Patrice Lumumba.

Bennett deploys a series of scenes designed to capture the tense atmosphere of the time and place. It’s an early example of Bennett’s realist/symbolical approach when he’s barely touched down and is being driven into town, when the car is hit by a stone thrown by an unseen attacker. It is a first tiny warning of  the resentment felt by blacks to privileged whites, an indicator of the violence latent in the situation. Later he and other guests emerge from a restaurant and see a menacing crowd of blacks at the edge of the white, colonial part of town, who escalate from chanting to throwing stones and then into a full-blown attack on shops and cars. Then there is the garden party scene I’ve described, where the guests witness a riot across the river and some of them spy, through the binoculars, the police throwing bodies of the protesters they’ve shot into the river.

Back in their hotel room after the party/riot Inès punches out an angry impassioned description of the protest/massacre on her typewriter to send to her communist magazine, L’Unità.

The American CIA character, Mark Stipe, steadily grows in importance, until he is nearly as central as the  American character, Alden Pyle, in Greene’s Quiet American. Having him work for some, initially unnamed, US government agency means he can quickly brief the narrator on the Real Situation, or at least as the Americans see it. Stipe lets James read their files about the general economic situation (Congo relies entirely on the raw resources mined by the Union Minière) and the leading political figures – Patrice Lumumba head of the MNC political party; Joseph Kasavubu, head of the Alliance des Bakongo (ABAKO) and chief of the Bakongo people; Antoine Gizenga, leader of the Parti Solidiare Africain.

Early on Stipe bumps into James in a bar and surprises him by taking him to see Lumumba’s (boring, ordinary) suburban house, but then driving on to a dingier part of town, where he locates a safe house, owned by one Mungul, where it turns out that Lumumba is actually hiding. Stipe briefly introduces James to Lumumba, before disappearing into another room for a private convo.

In other words, Stipe plays the role of Exposition, feeding the narrator all the important facts about the political situation so that he (and the reader) can quickly get up to speed.

But he also plays another important role, that of binary opposite to idealistic Inès. Stipe is the slangy, cynical, seen-it-all realist. After talking to him, James feels he knows what is really going on, and this makes him feel superior when he goes back to the apartment and talks to Inès who is all fired up about Freedom and Justice. With our Brodie’s Notes hat on, we could say the novel asks the question: who is right? Cynical Stipe or idealistic Inès? Which side should jaded old James commit to?

(This points to another way in which the conventional modern novel flatters its readers: it makes us feel we understand what’s going on. It makes us feel clever, in the know, well-connected whereas, in my experience of political journalism, no-one knows what’s going on. As the subsequent history of the Congo amply demonstrates…Novels which present neat moral dilemmas like this are almost by definition unrealistic, because most of us live our entire lives without being faced with really stark choices.)

Stipe and Lumumba share a driver/fixer named Auguste Kilundu (p.252). He is one of the rare African voices in the novel. Through him Bennett displays a lot of background information, namely about the évolués, the tiny educated elite which emerged in the last decade of Belgian rule. In 1952 the colonial administration introduced the carte d’immatriculation which granted blacks who held it full legal equality with Europeans. It required a detailed assessment of the candidate’s level of ‘civilisation’ by an investigating commission who even visited their homes to make sure the toilet and the cutlery were clean.

Bennett makes this character, Auguste, the proud possessor of a carte d’immatriculation and another vehicle for factual exposition for he can explain to the all-unknowing narrator the tribal backgrounds and rivalries of the main Congolese politicians. Having handily given us all this exposition, Auguste is then depicted as an enthusiastic supporter of Lumumba’s MNC party which aims to supersede tribalism and create a post-tribal modern nation (pages 85 to 88).

The plot

Part one: Léopoldville, November 1959

Middle-aged, Northern Irish novelist James Gillespie flies into the Belgian Congo in November 1959 to be with his lover, Italian communist journalist, Inès Sabiani. He quickly finds himself drawn into the drama surrounding the run-up to Congo’s hurried independence, forced along by growing unrest and rivalry between native politicians, with a small cast of characters European and Congolese giving differing perspectives on the main events. Central to these is the American government agent Mark Stipe.

James witnesses riots. He sees little everyday scenes of racial antagonism, the daily contempt of the colons for the blacks they insultingly call macaques or ‘monkeys’. He writes articles for the British press about the growing calls for independence and, as a rersult, is spat on and punched in restaurants by infuriated colons. His little cohort of liberal Belgians and ex-pat British friends support him. He grows increasingly estranged from Inès who is out till all hours following up stories, befriending the locals, getting the lowdown and then punching out angry articles on her typewriter for L’Unità. They both watch Lumumba being arrested by the nervous colonial police in front of a crowd of angry blacks following the October riot.

The narrative then skips a few months to the opening of the Belgo-Congolese Round Table Conference which commenced on 20 January 1960. Then skips to 27 February, the date on which the conference announced that full independence would be granted on 30 June 1960. They go out to watch a black freedom march but Inès helps turn it into a riot by walking arm in arm with Lumumba’s évolué driver, Auguste. The sight of a white woman walking with a black man prompts bigoted colons to wade into the crowd and abuse her, and to drag Auguste off and give him a beating. James wades in to protect Inès and has a brief punch-up with a big whitey, before managing to take her out of the mob, though he can do nothing to save Auguste who is beaten to the ground by a furious white mob.

For a period following the riot, Inès is ill, confined to bed, vomiting and losing weight. James is quietly pleased about this as she is restricted to contact with him, ceases her political activities and gives him hope their love will be rekindled. They hadn’t been sleeping together but now, on one occasion, they have sensitive soulful sex of the kind found in sensitive novels about sensitive people designed to thrill sensitive readers.

James and Inès attend an MNC rally in the Matongé stadium in the build-up to the pre-independence elections (held in May 1960). Stipe invites James to go on a long road trip with him and Auguste to the province of Katanga in the south-east. On the journey Stipe shares a lot about his personal life (unhappily married) and motivation.

On the journey it also becomes clear that Auguste is changing and is no longer so sheepish and submissive. Inès has told James that Auguste has not only joined Lumumba’s MNC but been appointed to a senior position. James is surprised; he thought him an amiable simpleton. On the road trip Stipe loses his temper with Auguste because, he admits, he doesn’t want him cosying up to Lumumba and getting hurt. En route they come across abandoned burned villages. The Baluba and Lulua tribes are fighting, a foreshadowing of the huge tribal divisions and ethnic cleansing which were to bedevil the independent Congo.

They meet with Bernard Houthhoofd at his beautiful property in Katanga. Bennett gives us facts and figures about Katanga’s stupefying mineral wealth. Over dinner Stipe and Houthhoofd list Lumumba’s failings: he smokes dope, he screws around, but chief among them is that he is taking money from the Soviets. A senior official from the MNC, the vice-chairman Victor Nekanda, is at this dinner and promises to betray Lumumba and set up a rival party, a symbol of the kind of two-faced African politician, all-too-ready to sell out to Western, particularly, American backers.

On the long drive back from Katanga to the capital they come to a village where they had stopped on  the outward journey, and find it burned to the ground in tribal violence, every inhabitant killed, many chopped up. They discover that the kindly schoolteacher who had helped them has been not only murdered but his penis cut off (p.175). Premonitions of the future which independence will bring.

On his return to Léopoldville (abbreviated by all the colons to Leo) James has a blazing row with Inès, throwing all the accusations he heard about Lumumba in her face (dope fiend, adulterer, commie stooge). She replies accusing him of lacking heart, compassion and morality and being the dupe of the exploiting colonial regime and its American replacement.

She also accuses him of denying himself and his true nature and for the first time we learn that James’s real name is actually Seamus and he that he has taken an exaggeratedly English name and speaks with an exaggerated English accent because he is on the run from his own past in Ulster, particularly his violent father who beat his mother. Aha. This family background explains why James sees the worst in everyone. Explains why he can’t afford to hope – it’s too painful, he (and his mum) were let down by his violent father too many times.

This blazing row signals the final collapse of their relationship. Inès moves out and James descends into drunken, middle-aged man, psycho hell. He drinks, he loses weight. Stipe and de Scheut take him for meals, offer to have him come stay. Just before the elections in May 1960 he can’t bear to stay in the empty apartment, moves to a rented room, writes Inès a letter begging forgiveness. Grow up, man.

Part two: Ireland and England

Part two leaps back in time to be a brief memoir about James’s aka Seamus’s Irish family – his father, William, a good-looking English graduate who swept his optimistic Catholic mother, Nuala, off her feet, and slowly turned into a maudlin, wife-beating drunk. Seamus serves in the army in the Second World War, goes to university, moves to London to complete a PhD about 17th century England. The narrative dwells on the unhappiness of his parents’ own upbringings and then the humiliations and unhappiness they brought to their own marriage. It is grim, depressing reading, conveyed in Bennett’s plainest, starkest prose.

One day, budding academic James picks up a novel in a second hand shop in London, starts reading, can’t stop, reads more, buys more novels, reads obsessively and decides to become a writer, abandons his PhD, meets a young publisher who encourages him, blah blah.

A novelist writing a novel about a novelist writing about how he became a novelist. Could anything be more boring? All painfully earnest, serious, sensitive, not one bloody joke.

Obviously, the purpose of this brief digression is to shed light on the narrator’s psychology and why he fell so hard for Inès and why he was so devastated when she permanently dumped him after their big argument. Those with an interest in unhappy Irish childhoods will love this section, but I was relieved to find it mercifully short, pages 187 to 202.

Part three: Léopoldville, November 1960

I.e. the Irish digression allows the narrative to leap six months forwards from May 1960 when we left it. It is now five months after independence was achieved (on 30 June 1960), after five months of chaos, army mutinies, riots, regional secessions, ethnic cleansing, economic collapse, all of which have led up to the first of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu’s coups, on 14 September.

The narration resumes five weeks after Mobutu’s coup. (It is important to be aware that Mobutu had himself been appointed the new Congo Army’s chief of staff by Lumumba himself and, when the troops mutinied 4 days after independence, he had been charged with dealing with the mutiny and then the series of nationwide crises which followed in quick succession. So Lumumba put his friend and former secretary into the position which he then used to overthrow, imprison and, ultimately, murder his old boss.)

As the chaos unfolded everyone told James to flee the country, as 30,000 Belgians did after the army mutiny and riots of July, but he stayed on and heard Mobutu declare his coup in September and arrest Lumumba.

Now the narrative follows James as he dines with Stipe, the American ambassador and other furtive Yanks, presumably CIA, who now dismiss Lumumba as a commie bastard. The historical reason for this is that Lumumba asked the UN for help putting down the secessionist movements in Katanga and Kasai and, when they sent a few peacekeepers but said they wouldn’t directly intervene, a panic-stricken Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union which immediately gave him guns and lorries and planes i.e. he wasn’t himself a communist, he was taking help from whoever offered it.

The conflict came to a head on the 14 September when the new nation had the surreal experience of hearing President Kasavubu on the radio sacking Lumumba as Prime Minister, followed an hour later by Prime Mininster Lumumba sacking President Kasavubu. It was this absurd political stalemate which Mobutu found himself called on to resolve. Hence he stepped in himself to take control and then, under pressure from the Belgians but especially the Americans, to place his former friend and boss under house arrest.

Knowing his days were numbered, Lumumba begged for UN protection, so – in the present which the novel is describing – his house is now surrounded by blue helmets, themselves surrounded by Congo Army forces. If the UN leaves, everyone knows Lumumba will be murdered, in much the way his followers are now being rounded up and liquidated.

Because this kind of schematic novel always reflects political events in personal events, it is no great surprise, in fact it feels utterly inevitable, when Stipe tells James that his lady love, Inès, is now ‘having an affair with’ Auguste, Stipe’s former chauffeur and friend, who has apparently risen to heights in Lumumba’s MNC having spent a month being indoctrinated in communist Czechoslovakia.

Right from the start of the novel we’ve been aware of James’s attraction to the solid, big-breasted, bigoted colon Madeleine. Now we learn that, on the rebound from Inès, James is fucking her shamelessly, alone in her big house, regularly. ‘Fuck’ is the operative word because Madeline enjoys BDSM and eggs James on to be rougher, harder, swear, shout abuse, slap her. Obviously he enjoys it at the time but later broods, despises himself and wishes he had Inès back.

The difference between the cruel sex with Madeleine and the sensual sex with Inès is as schematic as everything else in the novel and obviously signals the transition from the pre-independence spirit of optimism and the post-independence spirit of cynicism and violence.

Something happens half way through this final long section: the novel begins to morph into a thriller. Out of the blue Inès makes James’s deepest wish come true and contacts him… but not to beg forgiveness and say how much she loves him, but to turn up on his doorstep, collapsing from malaria and begging him to go fetch Auguste from the village outside Léopoldville where he’s hiding and bring him back into town so he can catch a secret flight from the airport which has been arranged by Egypt’s President Nasser to evacuate all MNC members (p.225).

So in the final 40 or so pages the novel turns into a thriller very much in the John le Carré vein, with fat bumbling, self-absorbed novelist suddenly finding himself in serious trouble with the authorities and forced to demonstrate something like heroism.

The tension is racked up for all it’s worth. Calling bland, imperturbable English doctor Roger to come and tend to Inès, James drives out to the village and finds Auguste, alright. He is disgusted when Auguste asks him to help him pack up his and Inès’s belongings from the room in the shanty house which they have obviously been sharing, where Auguste has been screwing her. James stares at the bed, his head full of queasy imaginings.

James hides Auguste in the boot as he drives back into town. He stops at Leo’s main hotel to phone Roger the doctor who is tending to Inès. It is in the hotel immediately after the call, that James is confronted by Stipe who for the first time is not friendly. He asks James twice if he knows where Auguste and both times James lies. Stipe knows James is lying but can’t prove it. James knows Stipe knows and becomes painfully self-conscious about every reply, wondering if his smile is too fake, if Stipe can see the sweat trickling down his brow. Stipe tells him he is being a fool, he is in way over his head, then says a contemptuous goodbye.

James walks back out the hotel to his car realising it’s too dangerous to take Auguste to his own apartment, which is probably being watched. He has a brainwave – Madeline! No-one would suspect the bigoted colon Madeleine of having anything to do with MNC freedom fighters (so Madeleine serves two narrative functions; symbolic dirty sex, and owner of safe house).

So James drives Auguste to Madeleine’s nice town house and, from there, phones his own flat and asks Roger to bring Inès there too. No-one will think of looking for them there. They’ll be safe till the plane arrives. Roger arrives with Inès. Good. Everyone is safe.

So, promising to return and take them to the airport, James drives back to his own house. And sure enough is greeted by a platoon of soldiers. He’s barely begun to protest his innocence before the captain in charge simply borrows a rifle from one of his men and hits James very hard in the side of his head with the rifle butt, kicking him in the guts on the way down, punching and slapping him till he vomits and wets himself. Stipe was right. He’s in way over his head.

He is thrown into the back of an army lorry, kicked and punched more, then dragged into a prison courtyard, along corridors and thrown into a pitch black cell, where he passes out.

He is woken and dragged to an interrogation room where he is presented with the corpse of Zoubir Smail, the Lebanese-born diamond merchant he met at Houthhoofd’s garden party. Smail has been beaten so that every inch of his body is covered with bruises and his testicles swollen up like cricket balls where they have been battered.

James is still reeling from this when the door opens and in comes Stipe, smooth as silk, to interrogate him. There’s no rough stuff, but Stipe psychologically batters him by describing in detail how Auguste fucks Inès, what a big dick he has, how Auguste once confided in Stipe once that he likes sodomy. Stipe forces James to imagine the sounds Inès must make when Auguste takes her from behind. It works. James is overcome with fury and jealousy but he repeatedly refuses to admit he knows where Auguste is. Not for Auguste’s sake, not for the damn ’cause’ – because he thinks being tight-lipped it will help him keep Inès.

Then, as abruptly as he was arrested, they release him, black soldiers dragging him along another corridor to a door, opening it and pushing him out into the street. Simple as that.

James staggers out into the sunlight and there’s Stipe waiting in a swish American car, offering him a friendly lift home, bizarre, surreal. But also telling him, in a friendly way, that he has three days to pack his stuff and leave the country. He apologises for subjecting him to the ordeal, but he was just doing his job.

Then, in the final chapter of this section, the narrative cuts to the scene the novel opened with. We learn that James was able to drive back to Madeleine’s, collect Inès and Auguste and drive them to the airport where they meet up with Lumumba and his people. Except no plane arrived from Egypt. Nothing. So the little convoy of MNC officials go int a huddle and decide to drive east, into the heart of the country, towards Lumumba’s native region where he will be able to raise a population loyal to him.

So they drive and drive, Auguste, Inés, James, Lumumba in a different car with his wife Pauline and young son Roland. But James is appalled at the way they dilly-dally at every village they come to, stopping to chat to the village elders, Lumumba unable to pass by opportunities to press the flesh and spread his charisma.

With the result that, as they arrive at the ferry crossing of the river Sankuru, Mobutu’s pursuing forces catch up with them, a detachment of soldiers and a tracker plane. Lumumba had successfully crossed the river with key followers, including Auguste, but leaving Pauline and Roland to catch it after it returns. But now the soldiers have grabbed her and his son. Everyone watches the figure on the other side of the river, will he disappear into the jungle or… then they see him step back onto the ferry and bid the ferryman steer it back over towards the soldiers. His wife shouts at him not to do it, Inès is in floods of tears, James is appalled.

And sure enough, the moment he steps off the ferry he is surrounded by soldiers who start to beat and punch him. The reader knows this is the start of the calvary which will lead, eventually, to one of Africa’s brightest, most charismatic leaders being flown to the remote city of Elizabethville, taken out into some god-forsaken field, beaten, punched and then executed his body thrown into a well.

James and Inès are released and make it back to Leo, where they immediately pack their things and take the ferry across the river to the freedom and sanity of the French Congo. Here they set up house together and live happily for weeks. Inès even deigns to have sex with poor, pitiful James.

But then one day she gets an AP wire that Lumumba has been murdered (17 January 1961). Mobutu had sent him to Katanga, allegedly for his own safety, but well aware he’d be done in. The official story is that Lumumba was set upon and massacred by villagers in revenge for the killing of their people by Lumumba’s tribe. But everyone knows the murder was committed by the authorities.

The final Congo scene is of Lumumba’s widow leaving the Regina hotel where she had gone to ask for her husband’s body back and walking down a central Boulevard Albert I with her hair shorn and topless, the traditional Congolese garb of mourning, and slowly the city’s civilians stop their work to join her.

James finds himself and Inès caught up in the crowd and then Inès lets go his hand and is swept away. It is another totally realistic but heavily symbolic moment, for the crowd is chanting Freedom and Independence and so it is perfect that Inès the idealist is carried away with it, becomes one with it – while James finds himself confronted by Stipe, furious that he lied to him, who punches him, hard, knocking him to the ground, where various members of the crowd stumble over him and he is in danger of being trampled. Always the clumsy stumbling outsider.

Until at the last moment he is lifted to his feet and dusted off by Charles, the reticent black servant who tended the house he had been renting in Leo. And with his symbolic separation from the love of his life, his near trampling by the Forces of Freedom, his beating up by the forces of capitalist America, and his rescue by one act of unprompted black kindness, the main narrative of the novel ends.

Part four: Bardonnecchia, August 1969

There is a seven page coda. It is 8 years later. James lives in Italy. He spends summer in this remote village up near the French border. In the evenings he dines at the Gaucho restaurant. The atmosphere is relaxed and the food is excellent. Of course it is. He knows the waiter and the owner and the pizza chef and the owner of the little bookshop on the other side of the railway line. Of course he does. Late in the evening he sits on chatting to some or all of them. In the absence of Inès his prose is back to its flat dulness.

This year Alan has come out to join me for a week. His reputation as a publisher has grown in tandem with mine as a writer. It is a moot point who has done more for whom. (p.306)

I help him aboard with his luggage and we shake hands. Alan has his ambitions, he can sometimes be pompous, but he is a good man. I am sad that he is going. (p.311)

Dead prose.

He tells us his most successful novel to date was the one about a middle-aged sex-mad novelist and his doomed affair for a passionately little Italian woman who climaxes easily. In other words, the one we’ve just read. A novel featuring a novelist describing how he wrote a novel describing the events he’s just described to us in his novel! How thrillingly post-modern! Or dull and obvious, depending on taste.

James is still obsessed by Inès. With wild improbability he hears her name mentioned by someone in the restaurant, asks about her and discovers she is now one of Italy’s premier foreign correspondents, writing angry despatches from Vietnam. People in novels like this are always eminent, successful, have passionate sex, know the right people, are at the heart of events.

Every morning he waits for the post but there has never been any letter from her. He is a sad sack. Why 1969? So Bennett can set this coda against the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland. His mother and sister have joined the marchers for civil rights. Young men are throwing bricks and bottles at British soldiers. We know now this was to lead to 29 years of bloodshed, strife, murders, bombings and lawlessness. The world is not as we want it to be. What we want to happen, doesn’t. Marches for independence, marches for freedom have a tendency to end not just in bloodshed, but decades of bloodshed.

The novel ends on a note for the sensitive. The sad narrator knows he will now never see Inès again. I know. Tragedy. Cataclysm. After waving Alan off on the train back to London he takes a walk up the hill to be soulful and solitary. Inèes told him she could always be found among the marchers for freedom and justice. But he is trapped in his own disbelief:

She encouraged me, beckoned me forward. She promised that was where I’d find her. But I could never join her there. I was always too much a watcher, too much l’homme-plume; I was divided, unbelieving. My preference is the writer’s preference, for the margins, for the avoidance of agglomerations and ranks. I failed to find her and I know this failure will mark the rest of my life. (p.312)

I can imagine some readers bursting into tears at this sad and sensitive conclusion, but as I’ve given ample evidence, I found this entire ‘sensitive writer’ schtick clichéd, tiresome, self-centred, hackneyed, old and boring.

Bennett has taken the extraordinary history of the Congo and turned it into a schematic matrix of binary characters and simplistic symbols. Active v passive; male v female; idealistic v cynical; radical v reactionary. The Catastrophist is a good example of why I struggle to read contemporary novels; not because they’re about contemporary society so much as because they tend to wear their sensitive, soulful credentials on their sleeves and humble-brag about their bien-pensant, liberal, woke attitude.

And in doing so miss the dirty, uncomfortable, messy complexities of actual life and politics which don’t fit into any categories, whose ironic reversals defy neat pigeon-holing and clever symbolism.

The catastrophist

is James. It’s another example of Inès’ shaky grasp of English. She says there’s an Italian word, catastrofista which perfectly suits James, and they agree that ‘catastrophist’ is probably the nearest translation into English. Anyway, a ‘catastrophist’ always sees the dark side and thinks nothing can be fixed and uses this pessimism as an excuse for never trying to improve the world, to achieve justice and equality. That’s what she thinks James is.

‘If you are catastrofista no problem is small. Nothing can be fixed, it is always the end.’ (p.131)

And maybe he is. Who cares.

Thoughts

The Catastrophist is a slick well-made production which wears its bien-pensant, sensitive heart on its sleeve. By dint of repetition we come to believe (sort of) in old, disillusioned James aka Seumus and his forlorn love for passionate little (the adjective is used again and again) Inès.

The issues surrounding Congo independence are skilfully woven into the narrative, the mounting sense of crisis is cleverly conveyed through the escalation of incidents which start with a stone being thrown at his car, mount through minor riots to the hefty peace rally massacre, on to the horrifying scene of tribal massacre in Kisai, a litany of violence which, I suppose, climaxes with James being beaten up in the interrogation room and being confronted with the tortured corpse of someone he actually knows (Smail).

The thematic or character structure of the novel is howlingly obvious: Inès is on the side of the angels, the optimists, the independence parties, the clamourers for freedom and justice. James is very obviously the half-hearted cynic who tags along with her for the sake of his forlorn passion.

But it is the steely, hard, disdainful colon Madeleine who won my sympathy. During an early attempt to seduce James, as part of their sparring dialogue, she says if the Congolese ever win independence it will be a catastrophe. And it was. Sometimes the right-wing, racist, colonial bigots who are caricatured and mocked in the liberal press, liberal novels and liberal arts world – sometimes they were actually right.

For me, personally, reading this novel was useful because it repeated many of the key facts surrounding Congo independence from a different angle, and so amounted to a kind of revision, making key players and events that bit more memorable. For example, Bennett confirms David van Reybrouck’s comment about the sudden explosion of political parties in the run-up to the independence elections, their overnight emergence and febrile making and breaking of alliances. And echoes van Reybrouck’s list of the common people’s illusions about independence. He has a good scene where an MNC candidate addresses a remote village and promises that, at independence, they will all be given big houses and the wives of the whites; that they will find money growing in their fields instead of manioc; that their dead relatives will rise from their graves (p.164).

So I enjoyed everything about the background research and a lot of the way Bennett successfully dramatises events of the period. You really believe you’re there. That aspect is a great achievement. The love affair between self-consciously writerly older writer and passionate young idealistic woman bored me to death.

Since the events depicted in the book, Congo underwent the 30-year dictatorship of Mobutu, more massacres and ethnic cleansing until the Rwandan genocide spilled out into the first and second Congo wars, the overthrow of Mobutu, the incompetent rule of Laurent Kabila and his assassination, followed by more years of chaos until recent elections promised some sort of stability. But the population of Congo at independence, when this novel was set, was 14 million. Today, 2021, it is 90 million and the median age is 19. The place and its people look condemned to crushing poverty for the foreseeable future.

The Catastrophist‘s imagining of the mood and events of the period it depicts are powerful and convincing. But in the larger perspective it seems like a white man’s fantasy about a period which is now ancient history to the majority of the country, and whose maudlin self-pitying narrator is almost an insult to the terrible tribulations the country’s population endured and continue to face.

Credit

The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett was published by REVIEW in 1998. All references are to the 1999 paperback edition.


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2 Comments

  1. C Clarke

     /  October 23, 2021

    Absolutely cracking review, or should I say dissection. Who wouldn’t love yet another novel or the cruelty of colonialism, revolution, political corruption and the complexity of allegiances told by marginal white people in a land not their own? We always see the real, important story told through the eyes of the unimportant. Except, of course, as whites, they *are* Most Important of All, of course they are. Your dismemberment of this book reminded me forcibly of all the reasons why I, too, tend to skirt modern fiction, particularly of the school of writing produced by the UEA. If I ever have to read another pared-down, achingly beautiful hetero sex scene, I will throw the book against the wall, pinned by a machete.

    Reply
    • Hi, thanks for your kind words. I try to give authors the benefit of the doubt, and I am awe of their ability to write fiction at all, and this was certainly a carefully structured and, towards the end, genuinely thrilling novel. But the nauseating love interest at the centre of the narrative ruined it, for me.

      Reply

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