In The Footsteps of Mr Kurz by Michela Wrong (2000)

Comparing Michela Wrong and David van Reybrouck

David van Reybrouck’s account of Congo’s modern history is basically an orthodox chronological account and political analysis interspersed with interviews with the many veterans and eye witnesses he has tracked down and spoken with at length.

Wrong’s account feels completely different, less chronological or, indeed, logical, more thematic. Instead of historical analysis, she brilliantly conveys what it felt like to live in Zaire under Mobutu as she sets about systematically exploring and describing different aspects of Zaire society and culture. Her vividness of approach is demonstrated by the way the book opens with the fall of Mobutu in 1997, going light on political analysis and strong on vivid descriptions of what it felt like to live in a crumbling, corrupt third world country.

Chapter one dwells on the role played in so many African states by key international hotels in their capitals, in Rwanda the Mille Collines, in Zimbabwe the Meikles, in Ethiopia the Hilton, in Uganda the Nile, hotels where presidents mingle with mercenaries, dodgy diamond deals are struck between smartly dressed middlemen, security goons lurked in the background muttering into their lapel mics, and the corridors were cruised by the most expensive hookers in town. And how it felt to be one among the pack of foreign correspondents living in Kinshasa’s Intercontinental Hotel as rumours swirled, troop carriers arrived, the president’s son turned up with a pack of soldiers furiously trying to track down the men who betrayed his father. And then suddenly, overnight, all the military figures switched to wearing tracksuits and casual wear in anticipation of the arrival of the rebel troops.

That’s the kind of picture painting and atmosphere Wrong is ace and conjuring up. How a country’s decline can be measured by the way the expensive carpeting in its hotels starts to smell of mildew, the lifts stop working, the blue paint on the bottom of pools comes off on the swimmers’ feet. Van Reybrouck takes an essentially academic approach spiced with extensive interviews. He is a historian whereas Wrong is a journalist, with a telling eye for detail and snappy one-line quotes.

Obviously, in this 314-page book she tells us an awful lot about the origins, rise and fall of the Mobutu dictatorship which lasted from 1965 to 1997, but it is the fantastically evocative way she conveys what it felt like that makes this book such a classic.

Van Reybrouck gives a detailed explanation of the ethnic tensions in eastern Congo which were exacerbated by the Rwandan genocide and then the constellation of political forces which led the Rwandan and Ugandan presidents to decide to invade eastern Congo and create a military coalition (the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, the AFDL) and select as its leader the long-time Maoist guerrilla leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila. This is to the good. His account is worth reading and rereading.

But Wrong tells you what it felt like to be in Kinshasa as the rebel army drew ever closer. The panic among Mobutu’s cronies, the so-called mouvanciers up in their gated mansions in the smart Binza district, the rush by the city’s moneyed classes to get visas for foreign destinations, the way the various western embassies practised evacuating their staff across the river Congo to Brazzaville, capital of the once-French colony the Republic of Congo which was unaffected by Mobutu’s fall.

Van Reybrouck gives you high-level analysis, Wrong gives you the sweat and the fear, the paranoia. She tells us everyone knew the game was up when the grizzled old piano player who’d been playing cocktail jazz in the bar of the Intercontinental for as long as anyone could remember one day disappeared.

She describes how the shopkeepers and population prepared for the mass looting which always accompanies regime change, and passes on the advice of an old hand that it’s best to select in advance one and only one item you want to loot and, once the anarchy begins, focus on getting that and only that. Wrong selects a $1,000 leather jacket for when the great pillaging begins.

She describes the way rumours are spread by ‘Radio Trottoir’, Pavement Radio i.e. word on the street. She conveys the mad, feverish atmosphere of a city about to be taken by rebel forces (p.27).

Another difference is that van Reybrouck sees the history of Congo as a tragedy, or series of tragedies, and he affects the reader with his sense of high seriousness. Wrong, on the other hand, has a lively sense of humour and an eye for the absurd detail. She finds almost everything about Zaire farcical, but then she appears to find all of Africa farcical and hopeless.

As for rebuilding the impression given by the scaffolding and myriad work sites dotted around Kinshasa is misleading. The work has never been completed, the scaffolding will probably never be removed. Like the defunct street lamps lining Nairobi’s roads, the tower blocks of Freetown, the faded boardings across Africa which advertise trips to destinations no travel company today services, it recalls another era, when a continent believed its natural trajectory pointed up instead of down. (p.20)

As this quote indicates, another difference is that whereas van Reybrouck’s account is focused with laser-like precision on the history of just the Congo, Wrong’s anecdotes and comparisons freely reference the many other African countries she’s visited and worked in as a foreign correspondent. There’s a lot more international comparison and perspective. Wrong visits places around Congo but also Brussels to interview historians, to visit the Congolese quarter, and Switzerland to track down some of Mobutu’s luxury properties.

And whereas van Reybrouck is optimistic, on the side of Congo’s bloodied but resilient people, Wrong is both more humorous and more pessimistic. According to her, the story is the same all across Africa, one of unstoppable decline and fall.

Talking to the melancholic Colonel, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the sense of tragic waste, of crippled potential that so often sweeps over one in Africa. (p.178)

In Ronan Bennett’s novel The Catastrophist the Belgian colonials who describe the Congolese as ‘children’ who need order, discipline and control and will make a horlicks of their country if granted independence are condemned as racist bigots – so you must never say anything like that. However, Wrong’s book freely refers to African politics as farcical, its politicians as clowns, and that, apparently, wins prizes.

At times, too many times, politics on Congo resembled one of those hysterical farces in which policemen with floppy truncheons and red noses bounce from one outraged prima donna to another. ‘I’m the head of state. Arrest that man!’ ‘No, I’M the head of state. That man is an imposter. Arrrest him!’ (p.66)

So it’s OK to mock Africans as long as you use the correct phraseology and attitude. Calling them children is a no-no; calling their countries farcical, absurd, ludicrous, surreal, Alice in Wonderland – that’s fine.

And perfectly acceptable to be tired and bored of the absurdity of Africa’s rulers, the comical proliferation of rebels and freedom fighters and guerrilla movements, the bleak iteration of yet another massacre or round of ethnic cleansing somewhere on this blighted continent, like the western media’s news producers and sub-editors ‘shaking their heads over yet another unfathomable African crisis’ (p.7). Africa is for Wrong, ‘a disturbing continent’, ‘Africa, a continent that has never disappointed in its capacity to disappoint’, whose countries brim with ‘anarchy and absurdity’ (p.10).

When the AFDL’s representatives started calling the BBC office in Nairobi in late 1996, claiming they would march all the way to Kinshasa, journalists dismissed them with a weary shrug as yet another unknown guerrilla movement, the length of its constituent acronyms only rivalled by its obscurity, making wild plans and farcical claims. Africa is full of them: they surface, splinter into factions – yet more acronyms – only to disappear with equal suddenness. (p.245)

Several times she mentions Liberia’s drugged freedom fighter who wore wedding dressed and pink lipstick as they mowed down innocent civilians and gang-raped the women. She describes the teenage  FAZ recruits preparing to defend Kinshasa who were so drunk they could barely lift their grenade launchers. When the AFDL rebel soldiers arrive they turn out to be mostly teenagers wearing flip-flops or no shoes at all. Kabila promised to relinquish power once he’d overthrown Mobutu but of course does nothing of the sort. In turn Kabila was himself assassinated (in 2001), replaced by a family member even more corrupt and the whole of East Congo engulfed in a huge, often incomprehensible and seemingly endless war. Farce and tragedy.

The Latin Quarter hit, ‘I’m hearing only bad news from Radio Africa‘ seems as true when Wrong was writing in 2000 or now, in 2021, as when it was released in 1984.

Chapter by chapter

Introduction

Wrong arrived in Zaire as a foreign correspondent in 1994, found her way around, did features on Mobutu and his corrupt circle, the prostration of the economy (‘a country reverting to the Iron Age’, p.31) the uselessness of the army, the universal vibe of fear and poverty. Less than three years later, in autumn 1996, the AFDL seized eastern Congo and began its systematic assault on the country, seizing the mining centre of Lubumbashi in the south while other forces marched on the capital Kinshasa in the west. Wrong is perfectly placed to report on the paranoia of the last days, to fly out to the hot spots, to interview soldiers, shopkeepers, street traders, as well as army officers and government spokesmen.

So the introduction gives us tasters, snapshots: Wrong flying to the pretty lakeside town of Goma which was pillaged by its own inhabitants when the occupying army left. Wrong wandering through the rooms of Mobutu’s legendary palace at Gbadolite, now ruined and looted, the five black Mercedes, the Ming vases.

And she explains the title which is a quote from Joseph Conrad’s classic novella Heart of Darkness about the madness and barbarism he, personally, encountered, in the Congo Free State in 1890, epitomised by the fictional character of Mr Kurz, the high-minded exponent of civilisation who is sent to man an ivory station up the Congo, far from civilisation, and decays and degrades to become an epitome of barbarism and nihilism. Wrong sees herself literally following in Kurz’s footsteps as she explores all aspects of the absurd rule of Mobutu in the mid-90s, then watches his regime collapse in ruins.

Chapter 1

Plunges us into the endgame with a wonderfully evocative description of the atmosphere in Kinshasa and the Intercontinental Hotel where all the foreign correspondents stayed, during the last few days in 1997 October 1997 before Laurent Kabila’s AFDL took the city and Mobutu and his cronies were forced to flee. Snapshots of a city under siege, with brief explanations of Mobutu’s rule, the character of the AFDL and its leader Kabila, their determination to clean up the pigsty and abolish corruption.

Chapter 2

Gives a brisk but effective summary of Stanley’s exploration of the Congo (with backstory about Stanley’s biography) and King Leopold’s disgustingly barbaric regime of cruelty and exploitation, which he called the Congo Free State, 1885 to 1908 (with backstory explaining why Belgium was a relatively new country – founded in 1830 – and its king wanted a colony so as to be taken seriously by the big boys.)

In Brussels she visits the Belgian scholar Jules Marchal, once a whip-wielding colon himself, who has devoted his life to editing and publishing definitive records of the Congo Free State. She visits the Royal Museum for Central Africa and is shocked by the complete absence of references to the atrocities the Belgians carried out there, and to learn that Belgian colonial history is not taught in Belgian schools (p.55).

She takes a tour of buildings by the noted Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta, before pointing out that all the raw materials crafted into these beautiful buildings – the hardwood, onyx, marble, and copper – all came directly from the forced labour of Congolese blacks. Horta was rewarded for his services to Belgian architecture with a barony.

She describes how many of the Free State’s exploitative practices continued after the colony was handed over to Belgian government rule in 1908, including forced labour and use of the dreaded chicotte, the whip made of dried hippopotamus hide. It was only after the Second World War that Congo became less brutally exploitative and a tiny black middle class began to emerge, but if anything the colour bar or informal apartheid against this new breed of évolués or ‘evolved’ blacks grew worse.

Which moves into a description of the appearance, sights and sounds and mentality of the Congolese quarter in Brussels. She ends by making a strong case that Leopold’s atrocities, many of which continued under Belgian colonial rule, acculturated an entire region for 85 long years to abject humiliation, subservience, black market, illegal operations and corruption. Prepared the way, in other words, for just such a dictator as Mobutu.

No malevolent witch doctor could have devised a better preparation for the coming of a second Great Dictator. (p.57)

Chapter 3

Interview with Larry Devlin, the long-retired former CIA station chief in Kinshasa, who emphasises that Wrong only saw the regime at its bitter, pitiful end. She never knew the young, vibrant, charismatic Mobutu or knew the situation of anarchy between elected politicians which his 1965 coup rescued the country from (p.61).

She makes clearer than van Reybrouck or Bennett that Lumumba had actively invited the Soviets to give arms and advisers to crush the secessions. Devlin thinks Lumumba was never a communist, but he was naive. He thought he could invite in thousands of communist advisers at no cost. Devlin says he’d seen that happen in Eastern Europe after the war: your country falls to a communist coup and then Moscow is in charge. So Mobutu’s first coup of September 1960 was not just to bring political peace but to keep the Congo out of Soviet hands – and it worked. Soviet bloc personnel were given 48 hours to leave the country (p.67).

His account emphasises not just that, when the UN and US were slow to respond, Lumumba turned to the Soviets to supply him with arms and strategic advice to put down the secession of two major provinces – but that people of Devlin’s generation had seen this happen before. This was how the Soviets effected their coups in Poland and Czechoslovakia. This is how they established their tyrannies, by taking control of the army and placing personnel in key administrative and political positions. It had never been done in Africa before, but the Americans weren’t about to sit back and watch the Soviets make the experiment. So that’s why the Americans, backed by his political enemies within the country, decided he had to be eliminated. President Eisenhower personally approved CIA plans to assassinate Lumumba (p.77).

Then she backs up to give us the hasty run-up to independence from Belgium in June 1960, the army mutinying for better pay and promotion within days, triggering a mass exodus of the Belgian administrators and technicians who kept the country running, the political rivalry between ‘lethargic’ President Kasavubu (p.66) and passionate Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and how the deadlock between them was broken by young Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, previously Lumumba’s personal secretary, who Lumumba himself had put in charge of the army and who, very bravely, faced down the army mutiny and restored order. Mobutu was encouraged then and ever afterwards by America.

A detailed look at the boyhood and young manhood of Joseph Mobutu from the Ngbani tribe, one of the smaller of Congo’s 250 ethnic groups, emphasising his brightness, reasonableness and extraordinary charisma; educated by Belgian priests, expelled for being a trouble-maker, a few years in the Force Publique rising to rank of sergeant, then contributing (anonymous) articles to new magazines set up for the Congolese, before he committed to becoming a journalist and then came to the attention of Lumumba who was looking for a secretary (pages 68 to 76). Devlin, the CIA man explains how Mobutu was really the best man available when he staged his 1965 coup.

Soon after the 1965 coup Devlin was posted to Vietnam. When he returned to Zaire in 1974 he found a drastically changed man and country. Surrounded by yes men, drinking pink champagne in his palaces, Mobutu was ‘already round the bend’ (p.82).

Chapter 4 Economics

In the immediate aftermath of the coup there were hangings, a new secret police was set up and so on. But the fundamental fact about Mobutu’s regime was he was an economic illiterate. Therefore his sole economic policy was to loot and plunder his country’s natural resources (when the going was good in the late 60s and early 70s) and then creaming the top off huge loans from the World bank and aid agencies. In other words, he didn’t know how to create or run a modern economy. He built a few high-profle white elephants, like the Inga dam, but when the builders left Zaire had no technicians to run it and there was never any coherent plan to create the infrastructure to distribute the electricity to where it was needed. Thus Congo has the greatest hydro-electric potential in the world in the shape of its huge and mighty river – and yet is a country whose cities suffer continual power cuts and outages.

He took up the creed of Pan-Africanism pioneered by Kwame Nkrumah, first Prime Minister of Ghana (who made himself president for life in 1964 and was overthrown by a military coup in 1966 supported by the CIA).

Mobutu promulgated his policies of authenticité, forcing everyone in the country to drop their European Christian names and adopt African names, renaming the state Zaire, renaming Leopoldville Kinshasa and Elizabethville Lubumbashi. He forced everyone to stop wearing European suits and mini skirts and adopt traditional African dress (p.90). He persuaded promoters to hold Miss World and the Ali-Foreman boxing match in Zaire (described in detail in van Reybrouck’s book).

In other words, he demonstrated how facile it is to address ‘cultural’ issues, fuss over ‘identity’ and language and culture. Meanwhile, in the absence of an economic or development plan, the economy tanked and the infrastructure rotted. The first years of his rule were bolstered by the high prices for Zaire’s raw materials created by the Vietnam war, but the end of the war in 1974 combined with the oil crisis to plunge Zaire into an economic hole it never crawled beck out of (p.94).

In 1973 he launched ‘Zaireanisation’ i.e. all foreign held businesses were confiscated by the state with a view to handing them over to ‘the people’ (p.92). The only problem was that ‘the people’ turned out, as when Robert Mugabe did the same thing 20 years later in Zimbabwe, to consist entirely of cronies and clients of Mobutu, who needed to be paid off or kept onside. None of them had a clue how to manage anything and ran businesses large and small into the ground, selling off the assets, living high off the proceeds, then needing further bribes or corruption money when they ran dry. $1 billion of assets were confiscated then squandered. It was gangster economics, ‘Alice in Wonderland finances’ (p.124).

And run on a massive system of cronyism. Mobutu needed so much money because he had to distribute gifts to all his important stakeholders in the manner of a traditional chieftain. Mobutu bought properties for himself around Europe, but he encouraged a system where hundreds of thousands of people scrabbled into the state administration, into the army or civil service, and then used their positions to embezzle, steal, demand bribes and generally be as corrupt as possible. By the mid-1990s Zaire had 600,000 people on the state payroll, doing jobs the World Bank calculated could be done by 50,000 (p.97).

The ambassador to Japan, Cleophas Kamitatu, simply sold the Zairian embassy and pocketed the proceeds. France sold Zaire a fleet of Mirage jets and ten years later, Defence Ministry officials simply sold them and kept the money (p.256). Ministers allotted themselves huge monthly salaries, lavish per diems, and insisted on having two of the very latest Mercedes, and their example was copied all the way down through their ministries, in state-run businesses and onto the street. Everyone stole everything they could, all the time. That’s what a kleptocracy is.

Chapter 5 Congo’s ruined mineral industries

Wrong flies to Katanga to report how nationalisation, corruption and utter mismanagement ran Congo’s mineral industries into the ground, beginning with astonishing stats about the country’s mineral huge wealth, then on to how Mobutu nationalised the Belgian mining corporation, Union Minière, consolidating it into the state-run company Gécamines. Sounds good, doesn’t it, one in the eye for the old imperial power, claiming the nation’s resources for the nation.

Except the nation never saw any of the profits. By 1978 the central bank had ordered Gécamines to transfer its entire annual profit of $500 million directly into a presidential bank account. By 1980 American researchers discovered that company officials were stealing $240 million  a year from Gécamines. Not only stole but smuggled, with huge amounts of diamonds, gold and other precious metals never reaching the books because they were stolen and smuggled abroad. In such an environment, nobody at any level gave a damn about investing in the company, in its stock and infrastructure, and so everything the Belgians had bequeathed the Congolese slowly rotted, decayed, was stolen, till the entire plants were rusting skeletons.

Wrong tours these sites giving us eerie descriptions of entire towns full of abandoned workings, derelict factories, rusting railways. That’s what she means when she described the entire country as slipping back into the Iron Age.

Wrong testifies to the decrepitude of the Shituri plant, describes the white elephant of Inga dam project built solely so Kinshasa kept control over Katanga. Pays an extended visit to the diamond town of Mbuji Mayi in the neighbouring province of Kasai, and interviews traders who explain the deep-seated corruption at every level of the diamond trade and ‘controlled’ by the Societe Miniere de Bakwanga (MIBA). She interviews its long-standing government representative, Jonas Mukamba (p.118) who paid Mobutu a hefty slice of the profits and in exchange was allowed to run Mbuji Mayi as he liked.

Eventually the infrastructure of Mbuji Mayi crumbled and collapsed, as had the mining infrastructure of Katanga. World mineral prices slumped but also, what was being produced was now being almost entirely smuggled. The rake-off from official trade collapsed because official trade collapsed. As the 90s progressed Mobutu lost his power of patronage.

She visits the central bank and the alleyway behind it jokingly referred to as Wall Street because it’s lined with unofficial street money changers. As Mobutu borrowed more and more from abroad and printed more money inflation soared and the currency collapsed. Wheelbarrows full of notes. A 500,000 zaire (the currency) note was printed to general resignation. Printing money led to mind-boggling inflation 9,800% and printing of the 500,000 zaire note. Mobutu had presided over the utter ruination of the economy.

Chapter 6

The collapse in Kinshasa epitomised by 1960s high-rise ministries without functioning lifts. The collapse of public phone system which was replaced by mobile networks, Telecel, for the wealthy. The collapse of the health system exemplified by Mama Yemo hospital which employs guards to prevent patients leaving without paying their bills.

Wrong pays a visit to Kinshasa’s small nuclear reactor, built on sandy soil liable to landslips, hit by a rocket during Kabila’s takeover of power, which had no security at all on the day she visited, and where one or two nuclear rods have recently gone missing.

Chapter 7

An explanation of ‘Article 15’, which is, apparently, the much-quoted ironic dictum by which most Congolese live their lives.

When the province of Kasai seceded soon after independence, it published a 14-article constitution. So many ethnic Luba people returned to the region expecting to become rich that the exasperated secessionist ruler made a speech in which he referred to a fictional, hypothetical 15th article of the constitution, which basically said, in French, ‘Débrouillez-vous!’ meaning ‘get on with it’, ‘figure it out yourself’, ‘deal with it’ or ‘improvise’. Since 1960 has become a universal expression throughout the country to explain ‘the surreal alternative systems invented by ordinary Zaireans to cope with the anarchy’ (p.11) they find themselves living in.

And so Wrong gives an overview of the hundred and one street professions of a people struggling to live in an economy with no jobs and no wages. Wrong gives an extended description of the Mutual Benefit Society run by the disabled street people of Ngobila Beach and the tiny loopholes in the law they exploit to smuggle and sell items.

She meets a fervent Kimbanguist, the religion described by van Reybrouck. Van Reybrouck’s account of Kimbanguism is much more thorough, lucid and logical, but Wrong’s is an in-your-face explanation via one particular believer, Charles, a Zairian who combines high moral principles (‘we are never naked’) with the profession of ‘protocol’ or fixer of bribes at Kinshasa’s notorious N’Djili International Airport.

Chapter 8

Le Sape, Congo’s equivalent of Mods, snappily dressed proles. The origin and purpose of the Society of Ambiencers and Persons of Elegance (SAPE), as explained to Wrong by self-styled ‘Colonel’ Jagger (p.176) as a protest against poverty and the drabness of the constricting African authenticité style demanded by Mobutu.

Then she gives a portrait of the ex-pat community of European idealists and chancers and romantics who came out in the 1950s or 60s and stayed on past independence and into the Mobutu years. This focuses on the example of Daniel Thomas a French construction worker who has repeatedly tried to start small farming businesses only to be repeatedly looted and ruined by his neighbours, and now all of his money is tied up in a farm he can’t sell and who has lost all hope. His wife is exhausted and disillusioned and wants to leave this sick land but they are stuck.

Chapter 9

Wrong details the vast sums loaned or given to Zaire over the years by international banks and especially the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. She interviews insiders who explain that during the 1960s, 70s and 80s very few conditions were attached to vast loans which, predictably, disappeared straight into the bank accounts of Mobutu and cronies.

Chapter 10

Details of the vast palace Mobutu had built for himself at Gbadolite in the jungle in the north of the country, right on the border with Central African Republic. It’s said to have cost $100 million, with an airstrip big enough for Concorde to land on. Musical fountains, ornamental lakes, model farm, gilt, marble. This is what a lot of Western aid paid for. Eventually it came to seem too big and imposing so… he had another one built a few miles away at Kwale, with an olympic size swimming pool,

The story of Pierre Janssen who married Mobutu’s daughter, Yaki, on 4 July 1992, and so became the only white person in Mobutu’s inner circle and a few years later revealed all in a kiss-and-tell memoir. The Moules flown in from Belgium, huge bouquets of flowers flown in from Amsterdam, cakes flown in from Paris along couturiers and barbers.

The weirdness that after his first wife, Marie Antoinette, generally reckoned to be a restraining influence on him, died in 1977, he married his mistress Bobi Ladawa, and took as a new mistress…her twin sister, Kossia. They socialised together, were seen together. Wrong speculates that there might have been a voodoo, animistic belief that the twins would ward of the nagging spirit of his first wife, for twins are regarded in Africa as having totemic powers (p.223).

Chapter 11

A brisk account of the Rwandan genocide which is in a hurry to explain the longer and more significant consequence, which was the creation of vast camps for Hutu refugees just across the borders in Zaire and how these camps, supported by huge amounts of foreign aid, were reorganised by the thuggish Hutu genocidaires who set about planning their revenge attack on Rwanda. By 1995 there were some 82,000 thriving enterprises in the camps which had become mini-towns (p.239), no surprise when you consider that the UNHCR and aid organisations had pumped at least $336 million into them, more than the Kinshasa government’s total annual operating budget.

In early 1996 the Hutu leadership undertook a mission to ethnically cleanse the North Kivu region of its ethnic Tutsis, massacring those it could find, forcing the rest to flee. In late 1996 it was south Kivu’s turn to be cleansed. The local Tutsis, known as the Banyamulenge had watched the Hutus slowly take control of the region, launch revenge raids into Rwanda, and had called on the UN and Kinshasa to neutralise the Hutu genocidaires but the UN did nothing and Mobutu gave them tacit support.

Which is why in October 1996 four rebel groups, with the backing of the Rwandan and Ugandan governments formed the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL) and took the fight to the Hutus, forcing the genocidal Interahamwe to flee west and majority of the refugees to traipse back into Rwanda.

Chapter 12

The main thing about the so-called First Congo War is there was hardly any fighting. The Zairian army, the Forces Armées Zairoises, the FAZ, was a joke and ran away at the first threat of conflict. The only violence came from the FAZ as they looted, burned and raped their way through the villages en route back to Kinshasa. There were a few set-piece battles but for most of the AFDL forces the war consisted of a very long march through jungle, sometimes using Zaire’s decaying roads, mostly using the jungle paths which have replaced tarmacked roads in many areas.

Wrong interviews Honoré Ngbanda Nzambo Ko Arumba, for five years the feared head of Zaire’s security service who explains why the FAZ was so useless. It all stems from Mobutu’s basic management technique which was to keep the army divided between different factions, to create a series if confusingly titled security and military units, to have a multitude of generals and security ministers and to keep them all guessing. To set them in deliberate rivalry, to give them contradictory orders, to create permanent confusion, suspicion and paranoia. Why? Simples: to prevent any single person or unit from becoming a centre of real power and so a threat to his rule.

Also, most of these units were kept down in Bas Congo, close to Kinshasa. Zaire had almost no border guards or forces. Why? Because the army was not designed to fight other countries or protect the country’s security; it was an internal security machine whose sole raison d’etre was protecting the president.

Another reason was simple corruption. The many generals and senior ranks Mobutu created, solely with a view to placating the numerous tribes and/or keeping prominent figures onside, to a man practiced various forms of corruption and graft, the simplest of which was to take the soldiers’ pay for themselves. Which explains why soldiers went without any pay at all for months on end, sometimes half a year. Which was the central reason why they mutinied and not only mutinied but went on great rampages of looting; they were claiming their back pay, taking what they though society owed them. That was the root cause of the two great Pillagings of 1991 and 1993.

And then there was greed raised to the level of comic farce. Most officers or army administrators had been selling off stock for cash for years. Thus the FAZ had out of date East European guns, the wrong ammo for their guns. Initially army commanders in Kivu sold the best of their munitions to the AFDL for a quick profit, arms and ammo the AFDL then turned back on the FAZ, who turned and ran.

Lastly, the neighbouring countries turned against Mobutu. Rwanda and Uganda were the AFDL’s main backers, but the Angolan government had for decades resented Mobutu’s support for the UNITA rebels and took the opportunity to send forces into Zaire to crush their base camps. Zambia co-operated by letting the AFDL cross its land to reach the south. Zimbabwe and Eritrea sent the rebels modern arms and Tanzania turned a blind eye to rebel bases on its territory.

By March 1997 the AFDL had taken Kisangani, next came Mbuji Mayi, then Lubumbashi, capital of the mining region in the south. It took just seven months from the launch of their campaign till the first AFDL troops arrived outside Kinshasa prompting the atmosphere of paranoid panic Wrong describes in the first chapter of this book.

Chapter 13

As so often happens with tyrants, Mobutu’s overthrow coincided with his final fatal illness. It’s as if their imminent fall from power triggers a collapse in their bodies. King Leopold II lasted barely a year after he handed the Congo Free State over to the Belgian government (February 1908) and in an eerily parallel way, the AFDL’s seven-month advance on Kinshasa coincided with 66-year-old Mobutu’s diagnosis with prostate cancer.

As the rebel forces relentlessly advanced westwards, Mobutu was in and out of the most expensive private clinics in the world in Switzerland. Thus his personal intervention and decision making was almost entirely absent during the crucial months. When he returned to his capital in March 1997, he could barely walk and had to be supported from the plane.

On 16 May 1997, following failed peace talks chaired by President of South Africa Nelson Mandela, Mobutu fled into exile and Kabila’s forces proclaimed victory. Mobutu died in exile in Morocco 3 and a half months later, 7 September 1997.

This is where Wrong places a fascinating interview with Mobutu’s son by his second wife Bobi Ladawa, Nzanga Mobutu. He mourns his father and insists he loved his family and loved his country. Wrong gives her account of the very last few days, especially negotiation with the Americans who tried to broker a deal with Kabila, partly through Nzanga’s eyes, partly through the account of US ambassador Daniel Simpson who took part in the actual discussions, and Bill Richardson, the troubleshooter US President Bill Clinton handed the tricky task of persuading Mobutu to relinquish power and tell his troops not to fight the AFDL as it entered Kinshasa, a confrontation which would have led to a bloodbath, anarchy and another Great Pillaging (p.271).

What comes over is the absolute centrality of the Americans as power brokers in the situation, but the refusal of a very sick Mobutu to formally abdicate and of Kabila to make any concessions. Right at the last his generals abandoned him. The knackered Russian Ilyushin jet Mobutu and his close family flew out of Kinshasa to Gbadolite in was peppered with machine gun fire by his very pissed-off personal guard, the Division Spéciale Présidentielle (DSP) who he was abandoning to their fates (p.279).

Chapter 14 Ill-gotten gains

A few months after Kabila took power, he set up the quaintly named Office of Ill Gotten Gains (OBMA) to identify Mobutu’s looted assets, including his multiple properties abroad (p.286). Wrong meets the first director of OBMA, former nightclub owner turned rebel soldier Jean-Baptise Mulemba lists and visits some. Three years after his fall, Wrong visits his large Swiss mansion at Les Miguettes, now falling into neglect.

Epilogue

The epilogue reminds us that this book was published in 2000, when Congo was still in the toils of what became known as the Second Congo War and Kabila was still president. She was not to know Kabila would be assassinated in 2001 and the war drag on for years.

Wrong shows us the dispiriting process whereby the initial high hopes about him and his crusade to undo corruption soon faded, as he found himself having to resort to all Mobutu’s old techniques for trying to hold his wartorn country together, namely creaming money off foreign loans, the mining companies, and even introducing tougher taxes on ordinary Congolese, in order to keep the regional governors and all manner of fractious stakeholders onboard.

Anyway, as Wrong’s book went to press in 2000 it ends with a survey of the many depressing tokens which indicated that Kabila was falling into Mobutu’s old ways, only without the dictator’s charisma or shrewdness. Blunter. Cruder. She calls Kabila a ‘thug’ (p.300).

And she ends with an assessment of whether Mobutu’s missing billions will ever be recovered. The short answer is No, for the simple reason that they don’t exist. All the evidence is that millions went through his hands but en route to the key stakeholders, political rivals, regional warlords, he needed to pay to follow him.

At a deep structural level, the corruption and gangster economy run by Mobutu and then Kabila may be the only way to keep such a huge country, divided into starkly different regions, populated by some 250 different ethnic groups, together.

God, what a thought. The population of Congo in the 1920s when the first estimates about how many died during Leopold’s rule, was said to be 10 million. By the date of independence 1960 described in Ronan Bennett’s novel The Catastrophist it had only risen to 15 million or so. When Wrong’s book went to press in 2000 she gives Congo’s population as 45 million. And now, in 2021? It is 90 million! Good grief. What future for a ruined country overrun by its own exploding population?

France

The French come out of this account, as usual, as scumbags. France was ‘Mobutu’s most faithful Western friend’ (p.287), ‘always the most loyal’ of his Western supporters (p.258). From the 1960s Zaire came to be regarded by the French government as part of its ‘chasse gardée’:

that ‘private hunting ground’ of African allies whose existence allowed France to punch above its weight in the international arena. (p.196)

The French believed they understood the African psyche better than the Anglo-Saxon British or Americans. They clung on to belief in their mission civilisatrice despite their not-too-impressive record in Vietnam and Algeria. Since the 1960s the French government has promoted la francophonie “the global community of French-speaking peoples, comprising a network of private and public organizations promoting equal ties among countries where French people or France played a significant historical role, culturally, militarily, or politically.” (Wikipedia)

The practical upshot of this high-sounding policy was that the French government promised Mobutu their undying support, no matter how corrupt and evil he became. The French government funded schools and media – so long as they promoted the French language. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, French president from 1974 to 1981, was a great friend of African dictators and secured them many loans which just happened to coincide with a building firm run by Valery’s cousin winning quite a few contracts to build Zairean ministries and bank buildings and so on (p.131). Very handy.

It meant military aid, too. When rebels invaded Shaba from Angola, France parachuted legionnaires in to fight them. During the First Pillaging of 1991 France flew in troops to police the streets.

After his downfall, when the OBMA set out to track down the billions of dollars Mobutu had sequestered abroad, the lack of co-operation from the French government stood out.

Confronted with the AFDL’s legal and moral crusade, the silence from France, Mobutu’s most faithful Western friend, was deafening. (p.287)

But France’s standout achievement in the region was to protect the Hutu instigators of the great genocide of Rwanda. This is a hugely controversial subject, which I’ll cover in reviews of specifically about the Rwanda genocide, but in brief: the French government supported the Hutu government. The French president was personal friends with the Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana, so when his plane was shot down and the Hutu government went into panic mode, the French government’s first response was to support them and to carry on supporting them even as they carried out the 100-day genocide. When the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front invaded Rwanda to put an end to the genocide, France continued to support the Hutus and helped the genocidaires escape, along with millions of other Hutu refugees into eastern Congo, where they continued to support them, even after the evidence was long in the public domain that they had just carried out the worst genocide since the Holocaust.

Because for the French government, all that matters is the glory of France, the prestige of France, the strength of the Francophonie. Morality, justice, human rights, all come a poor second to France’s unwavering commitment to its own magnificence.

Hence France’s unwavering support for the evil kleptocratic dictator Mobutu right up till his last days; hence France’s support of the Hutu government, even after it became clear they were carrying out a genocide. A guilt France has taken a long time to face up to, has finally admitted, albeit hedged with reservations and caveats.

Repeated stories

Stories, gossip and educational facts are learned through repetition. Wrong repeats the description of big statue of Henry Morton Stanley, long ago torn down and lying rusting outside a warehouse in Kinshasa. Several times she refers to the two great Pillagings of 1991 and 1993.

She repeats the story about the Congo’s store of uranium dug from the mines of Shinkolobwe being sent by a foresightful colonial administrator to New York where it was discovered by scientists from the Manhattan Project and refined to become the core of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima (p.140).

Her chapter about King Leopold’s rape of Congo under hypocritical claims of freeing it from slavery and barbarism repeats much of the material I’ve read in Hochschild and van Reybrouck. She repeats Hochschild’s mentions of Congolese historian Isidore Ndaywel e Nziem’s estimate that 13 million died or fled the region during Leopold’s rule.

Van Reybrouck thought the tragic story of Lumumba betrayed by his secretary and friend Mobutu was like a Shakespearian tragedy. Wrong thinks it is Biblical like Cain and Abel, two beloved brothers who end up betraying each other. It certainly haunts the imagination of novelists and historians and commentators in a way the later, long rule of Mobutu rarely did, and the rule of Laurent Kabila not at all.

Credit

In The Footsteps of Mr Kurz by Michela Wrong was published by Fourth Estate in 2000. All references are to the 2001 paperback edition.


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

Congo by Michael Crichton (1980)

This book recounts the thirteen days of the last American expedition to the Congo, in June 1979 (p.xii)

Crichton’s habit of stuffing his techno-thriller novels with factual digressions, losing no opportunity to give the reader the full fruits of his up-to-the-minute research about the geography and climate and culture and peoples of the book’s setting and then stuff it with a cornucopia of gee-whizz gadgets, especially anything relating to computers, often completely overwhelms the plot.

Sometimes his books feel like a series of educational magazine articles only just held together by contrived storylines, which, as soon as you stop and think about them, you realise are utterly preposterous. And then there are the so-called ‘characters’, who are given names, ages and CVs but remain little more than cardboard cutouts.

According to Wikipedia, Crichton pitched the idea of writing a modern-day version of King Solomon’s Mines to 20th Century Fox who bought the film rights before the story had even been written, paying him a $1.5 million advance for the novel, screenplay and as a directing fee.

It sounded like a good idea but the result of this big, expensive promise was a serious case of writer’s block, as Crichton struggled to make a start and then to create any kind of coherent narrative. And boy, does it show. He ended up throwing about five separate plot ideas into the mix in the hope that they’d somehow add up to a ripping yarn, and overloading the text with every factual digression he could think of in order to give the text a sense of substance.

Congo is a messy, scrappy, dumb mess of a book, but some of the factual background is interesting; you don’t get to read novels about Africa that often; it was interesting to see what was considered up-to-the-minute technology in 1980 and compare it to the present day; and there was a kind of dumb dogged interest in the narrative itself: I was curious to see what preposterous, contrived and absurd incident he’d chuck in next to try and keep the whole thing afloat. Probably the encounter with the angry hippopotamuses wins the prize for silliest episode.

No doubt hippopotami do have the character and temperament he describes in a typical Readers Digest digression about them, no doubt they do attack by raking their razor sharp teeth sideways over their intended victim, no doubt this would rip and deflate an inflatable raft. But it’s still silly.

1. Earth Resources Technology Services and the race for IIb diamonds

Earth Resources Technology Services Inc (ERTS) is a Houston-based American corporation devoted to locating and extracting rare and precious minerals and resources for industrial use. It is (inevitably) run by a maverick genius R.B. Travis (backstory p.17). The hottest computer analyst in the corps is 6 foot-tall, cold, calculating Karen Ellen Ross.

The entire plot rotates around the desperate search to locate a rumoured source of ‘Type IIb boron-coated blue diamonds’ (pp.109, 115) in the dense rainforests of the Virunga region, in the remote eastern part of the vast Congo jungle. Extended factual digressions explain that this particular type of diamond is very valuable as semiconductors, ‘important to microelectronics applications’, and since, as Crichton explains at length, the future is going to be all about faster and faster computing speeds, possession of a source of diamonds which speed up computer technology will be vastly valuable. Especially the future of weaponry.

Computer speed now stands at the centre of the armament race…The new generation of optical computers will be dependent on the availability of Type IIb boron-coated diamonds. (p.342)

This is why the ERTS expedition into the Congo is not alone, but is shadowed every step of the way by a ‘consortium’ of industrial rivals, made up of a temporary partnership of German and Japanese industrial interests. These guys are hacking into ERTS’s radio communications back to Houston as well as vying for important resources for such an expedition, not least the services of the renowned White African mercenary Charles Munro (backstory pp.101 to 103) who, after bargaining with all the interested parties at his plush pad in Tangiers, opts to go with the ERTS expedition.

So the fact that the ERTS team is trying to get to the rumoured location of the diamonds before their rivals is supposed to give the narrative grip and thrill. For me, it didn’t at all. If this had been a Hammond Innes or Desmond Bagley novel, then this story in and of itself would have been enough, and people would have got killed, probably in gruesome circumstances and it would have felt desperate and tense. At no point did this book feel desperate and tense.

2. The ‘Consortium’

Anyway, it’s not as simple as that. Crichton adds in a few other plot strands which, in my opinion, had the effect of turning what could have been a decent thriller into a ridiculous cartoon. First, there is the important fact that the expedition led by Karen Ross and which recruits Charles Munro, is not the first one sent by ERTS. An earlier one had gone out and the novel actually starts with this first team, camped in the darkest rainforest as the old Africa hand they’ve hired to guide them, Jan Kruger, fires up a satellite video connection with ERTS Houston to report on progress.

But in the 5 or 6 minutes it takes both sides to establish contact (remember the book was written in 1979, 42 years ago, and all the technology is accordingly basic or old fashioned) the entire expedition is wiped out, every member massacred and the campsite wrecked. By the time the camera comes online there’s no-one there. Karen Ross is at the Houston end in charge and she gets the techs to rotate the camera on its tripod, thus surveying the wreckage, then a dark shadow moves across the screen and the camera is smashed, signal ends. What was it? What wiped out the expedition?

Very early on I figured it was either a lost tribe of humans or human-gorilla mutants, as anyone who’s watched a thousand rubbish American films or watched episodes of American adventure TV shows could entirely have predicted.

3. The lost city of Zinj

But meanwhile, I have to explain about the lost city of Zinj. Yes. That’s really what it’s called. Crichton gives us a number of digressions about the (patchy) history of Western exploration into the Congo jungle or up the Congo river (he is particularly fond of the expeditions of Henry Morton Stanley for the simple reason that Stanley was the great pioneer and explored further and more definitively than all previous explorers).

Anyway, Crichton makes up a legendary lost city of Zinj (pp.58 to 60, 82), a clear hommage to the great late-Victorian adventure storytellers such as Rider Haggard (She) and Conan Doyle (The Lost World) and the novel reaches its climax when our heroes arrive after many adventures, at the lost city of Zinj and discover its connection both to a) a culture which use to mine the very type IIb diamonds they are looking for but which also holds the key to understanding

4. Amy the talking gorilla

Yes. A talking gorilla. Because after the first expedition is wiped out and while Karen Ross is persuading Travis that she is the person to lead the second expedition a) to find the diamonds b) to discover what happened to the first expedition, ERTS contacts one of the leading researchers in America into teaching apes American sign language. As you might expect this leads into several lengthy digressions about the entire history of trying to teach apes language, right up to the present (well, 1979 when the book was written) and researchers have managed to teach chimpanzees 200 or so ‘words’ in American Sign Language (vide Washoe, Koko) (pp.35 to 38 and 292).

The researcher is named Peter Elliott (backstory pp.35 to 41), 6 foot tall and bearded, and Peter has been leading Project Amy, i.e. seven years or so of teaching a tame gorilla named Amy to an advanced level of communication. The text settles into conveying their conversations as Peter signing or saying something and Amy’s replies are given in italics. In reality I understand communication between humans and gorillas is very limited, but in this tall story Peter and Amy can hold lengthy discussions.

Now why does ERTS and Karen Ross want a talking gorilla to go on an expedition to the lost city of Zinj in search of industrial diamonds (see how ludicrous the plot is when you spell it out in black and white?)? Because the brief shadow that flickered across the camera of the massacred first expedition looked like a gorilla. So why not take a talking gorilla along in the hope that it can act as ambassador to whoever or whatever massacred the first team.

But why would a comfortably placed American academic want to leave his cosy perch at the University of California at Berkeley to go on some cock and bull expedition into remote rainforest? Crichton must have spent a while mulling over what could possibly motivate Prof Peter Elliott to leave his crib and in the end comes up with a plausible reason.

He invents the notion that Elliott’s work just happens to have recently been picked upon by a high-minded organisation devoted to liberating primates from scientific experiments, the Primate Preservation Agency (p.43). They’ve written harsh articles, are picketing his university office and published Elliott’s address such that he is living in fear of a possible attack. Thus when he gets a call late one night from Karen Ross asking if he wants to pack up and go on a journey to gorilla country in eastern Congo, he leaps at the chance.

And Amy the gorilla is going along, too, of course. The practicalities of ‘explaining’ all this to Amy, and packing for her, and getting her onto a plane and so on, quickly become so ludicrous that…

There’s another element to Amy which is that, when Amy likes doing finger drawings of images she tells Peter she sees when she’s asleep. And these drawings are often of what might be taken for buildings with half-moon entrances. And guess what? Other illustrations of the conjectured lost city of Zinj show it as having half-moon-shaped entrances. Are the dreams actual memories of seeing such a place or ancestral (pp.41 to 42)? Or could this be an example of genetic memory (cue a Crichtonian digression about the history and provenance of genetic memory, ‘Genetic memory was first proposed by Marais in 1911…’ p.46).

5. Congo civil war

There have been a number of civil wars in the region known as the Congo including the massive Second Congo War (1998 to 2003). But back at the time Crichton was writing (1979) the war he refers to involved Ugandan troops fleeing across the border into Zaire when theior country was invaded by Tanzania (p.100). In Crichton’s hands this morphs into a campaign by some parts of the Zaire army to exterminate the Kigani tribe of cannibals. Our heroes go to lengths to avoid both these violent elements, the Zaire army and Kigani, at least until the very end of the book (see below).

Its relevance to the story is that at several key moments the Ross expedition finds itself enmeshed between warring parties, most importantly when they are flying in a small aircraft towards the site of the lost city of Zinj and come under attack from heat-seeking missiles. As you might imagine, the resourceful ERTS team have snappy modern technology to foil the missiles and survive. But it’s just one more element which triggers umpteen Crichtonian factual digressions, and which Crichton throws into the mix hoping something will stick.

Recap

An American company which specialises in sourcing rare and precious raw resources sends 24-year-old  computer whizzkid Karen Ross, along with ape linguist Peter Elliott, his talking gorilla Amy and African mercenary Charles Munro (plus half a dozen Kikuyu porters) into the remote eastern Congo to find the lost city of Zinj in order to find out what happened to the previous expedition and locate the source of the rumoured diamonds which are worth a fortune in industrial processes.

Fact obsessed

As well as the factual digressions on every page, Congo also features academic footnotes and no fewer than three pages of references at the end, including academic papers in learned journals to show just how much research Crichton has done. Some of the many magazine-style digressions concern:

  • Henry Morton Stanley (xii-xiii, 60, 83, 154, 169, )
  • animal rights (50-52)
  • the history of Congo (57-60)
  • the Pearl thesis of animal intelligence (pp.76-77)
  • competitive advantage in information technology (73)
  • the Great Rift Valley (pp.83-84)
  • albedo ie using different light reflection levels to distinguish ancient forest from secondary growth (85-87)
  • B-8 problems in computing (90)
  • holographic night goggles (99)
  • the future of superconducting computers (116-118)
  • computer message hacking (128)
  • electrophoresis and the difference between gorilla and human hair (129)
  • the character of Kikuyu tribesmen (they love to talk) (147, 155) and consider themselves all ‘brothers’ (190)
  • China’s spy operations, foreign aid to and influence in Zaire (147-149)
  • how to distract surface to air missiles with rolled up balls of in foil (156)
  • how automatic parachutes work (162)
  • the Kigani, a tribe of cannibals Crichton appears to have invented (170-172)
  • description of the Kigani’s belief in magic of Angawa
  • cannibalism in central Africa (172-173)
  • Zaire government genocide against the Kigani cannibals (175)
  • levels of electronic jamming and ‘interstitial coding’ (p.180)
  • the rate of global species extinction (189)
  • pygmies and their definitions of different types of ‘death’ (193-196)
  • the Congo river i.e. although it’s vast it’s not easily navigable (201)
  • the character of the hippopotamus (207-209) just before they attack our heroes
  • a history of the attempts to climb Mount Mukenko (which our heroes parachute onto and have to climb across) (218)
  • what to do when faced by a charging male silverback gorilla (don’t move and look at the ground) (230-231)
  • Degusto’s infra-red light technology for making out images hidden under dirt, sand, vegetable matter etc (250)
  • Maurice Cavalle’s 1955 paper ‘The Death of Nature’ (252)
  • the legend of the kakundakari, African equivalent of the yeti (262-263)
  • chimpanzee violent behaviour, especially kidnapping and eating human infants (266)
  • Freud’s theory that a dreamer, confronted with the reality their dream is based on, is often surprisingly apathetic (274)
  • British scientist R.V.S. Wright’s attempts to teach an orangutan to use tools (293)
  • DNA similarity between humans and chimps i.e. 99% identical (294)
  • S.L. Berensky’s 1975 paper about primate language suggesting the apes are smarter than humans (296)
  • the difference between different sign languages of different nations (297)
  • primates stop fighting if infants get in the way or are taken up by one or other of the combatants (312)
  • the origin and periodicity of solar flares, one of which interferes with our heroes communications back to Houston (314)
  • which part of the brain language comes from (Broca’s area) (335)
  • explanation of brontides, the loud explosions that accompany earthquakes (335)
  • most people caught in a volcanic eruption die from the poison gas (336)
  • General Franklin Martin’s Pentagon presentation which argued that Zaire had been vital to US military efforts since the war because of its mineral resources and also that super-fast computers would being to an end the age of nuclear weapons (340-343)
  • US military Project Vulcan to detonate timed resonance explosions in order to graduate the impact of eruptions of Mouna Loa in Hawaii (347-349)

But none of this blizzard of factual information can prevent Congo from being preposterous bollocks.

The expedition encounters a handful of problems such as flying through an anti-aircraft attack mounted by the Zaire army, parachuting into the jungle (everyone lands just fine), rafting down some river into the remote East (they are attacked by angry hippopotami), and trekking across the unstable crust of recently active volcanoes (the Virunga range of volcanoes, as described in an extended factual digression which names the main ones as being Mukenko, Mubuti, Kanagarawi, p.84), all in order to reach the lost bloody city of Zinj which, they eventually discover, is now an overgrown, empty ruin.

a) This is more extensive than they expected. They use high tech radar stuff to see through the layers of grime to the extensive reliefs which describe the ordinary life of the city centuries ago when it was inhabited. The carvings appear to show the inhabitants mined extensively and seem to have trained gorillas to act as security and police (!!) and this is the ridiculous reason for:

b) The final revelation that the previous expedition wasn’t wiped out by gorillas as science currently knows them, but by a new species of intelligent gorilla which the Zinjans bred and developed.

Luckily our heroes had put up an electrified fences round the perimeter of their camp and had brought along loads of fancy laser-guided machine guns which do a good job of killing some of the New Species of Gorilla when they launch their inevitable attack.

Other reasons this is a terrible book

1. Format

In The Andromeda Strain Crichton used the format of a report produced by an enquiry into what went wrong at a virus isolation unit. The pseudo-scientific/bureaucratic format worked well. Here he uses the tone of something more like a documentary. In particular he keeps writing that ‘many months later Peter Elliott realised his mistake’ or ‘speaking later, Karen Ross explained why she made this decision’.

Presumably the narrative is cast in this format to give it the feel of a later report or documentary. But it has the unintended side effect of confirming that the three main characters all survive. In other words, it destroys all suspense or sense of jeopardy. We know they all get out alive. OK, then, well, why bother reading to the end?

2. Out of date

Crichton busted a gut doing all that research and shoehorned it into his text throughout and yet… it’s all hilariously out of date. If you want to read about how fiddly it was to rig up a satellite camera link in 1979 or how big and fast people in 1979 thought computers would become in the 1980s then this is the book for you. There is, quite obviously, nothing about the internet, smart phones, social media or any of the other tech discoveries of the past 40 years. It’s sweet that Crichton thinks ERTS’ technology is ‘staggering’ because it can acquire 16 new satellite images of the earth per hour (p.20).

Acronyms and initialisms

I found it more enjoyable collecting a list of the acronyms than following the ridiculous plot which came more and more to resemble a movie-length episode of Scoobie Doo. My only excuse for reading such twaddle is I was on holiday and picked it up for £1 in a second hand shop.

ADP – Animal Defence Perimeter (p.238)

APE – Animal Pattern Explanation (p.307)

APNF – Animation Predicted Next Frame (p.27)

ASL – American Sign Language aka Ameslan (p.36)

BF – Bona fortuna = good luck (p.123)

C3I – Command, control, communications and intelligence units (p.74)

CFS – Congo Field Study (p.351)

CCR – Communications Control Room (p.12)

CCT – Computer Compatible Tape (p.21)

ECM – Electronic Countermeasures (p.179)

ERTS Earth Resources Technology Services

FZA – Forces Zairoises Armoises, Zaire army (p.157)

GPU – Geopolitical Update (p.98)

LAC – Local Atmospheric Conditions (p.351)

LATRAP – Laser-Tracking Projectile, which consists of multiple LGSDs attached to sequential RFSDs (p.280)

MERS – Mineral Exploration Rights, such as you negotiate with the host government (p.25)

NCNA – New China News Agency, cover for Chinese espionage (p.148)

PNF – Predicted Next Frame: technology for improving poor quality images (p.27)

PPA – Primate Protection Agency (p.43)

PSOPS – Prior Significant Orbital Passes by Satellite (p.97)

RC – Resonant Conventionals: timed explosives (p.345)

SESC – Space Environmental Services Centre in Boulder Colorado (p.315)

Triple E – Expedition Electronics Expert (p.74)

UECL – Unit Extraction Cost Limit (p.115)

WEIRD – Wilderness Environment Intruder Response Defences (p.242)

I work in the civil service and so I recognise the mindset which says that, if you spell something out in title case i.e. you capitalise the names of things it immediately makes them more important; and if you can make an acronym out of them, it makes them sound really grand and makes you sound very big and important when you casually allude to acronyms or initialisms which other people don’t understand.

Bearing this in mind helps to explain why America has some 35 distinct intelligence agencies, each with its own shiny logo and acronym and whip-smart, fast-talking executives, and they all failed to prevent 9/11. And why the US Army, possibly the world epicentre of grand-sounding acronyms, nonetheless made a complete bollocks of invading Iraq and liberating Afghanistan. (I mention this because America’s humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan was all over the news as I read Congo so the comparison made itself.)

No amount of clever-sounding names and titles and acronyms and hi-tech gadgetry can redeem ignorance, stupidity and terrible decisions. Or, in this case, an embarrassing train wreck of a novel.

The end

Our heroes are attacked a couple of times in their camp. Elliott undertakes a ridiculous plan to record the grey gorillas’ strange whispering language, to use Houston’s computers to analyse and interpret it, and then to play it back to attacking gorillas in order to stall them. Despite all the improbabilities Elliott makes this work in a matter of hours and during the next gorilla attack it does, indeed, manage to slow and halt the attack of the puzzled silver gorillas, although a torrential tropical downpour interferes with the experiment.

What brings this farrago of nonsense to an end, in the best boys own adventure tradition, is a huge volcanic eruption which starts rocking the ground during what had promised to be the gorillas’ final assault, when they have killed a few more porters and have our heroes pinned to the ground about to crush their skulls.

The ground starts shaking, the gorillas flee, random lightning strikes electrocute a few more of the African porters, as our dazed heroes grab their most important possessions and flee the ruined camp, trekking through jungle while ash falls all around them, the earth trembles, the volcano spews ash and lava.

They arrive at the crashed container plane of the rival consortium which had been shot down a few days earlier by Zaire army forces (they’d heard the plane flying overhead and seen the surface to air missiles fired at it a few days earlier).

First our heroes have to fight off the Kigani cannibals who were in the middle of eating the dead consortium members and resent being turfed out of the plane’s treasure trove. But then Ross discovers huge tanks of propane in the plane which are designed to inflate a balloon which the consortium had brought along for precisely such an emergency!

And so the preposterous narrative ends with Ross, Elliott, Munro and the couple of porters who haven’t been killed by the silver gorillas or the bolts of lightning or the volcanic ash or the poison gas, inflating, climbing into and flying off over the jungle in a big balloon, a very Jules Vernes ending to a novel which sets out to be a homage to the great Victorian adventure writers but turns into a car crash of overcomplex but completely improbable narrative, drowning in endless Readers Digest factual digressions and hosted by characters which make a puddle look deep.

And the Lost City of Zinj? In the finest tradition of the old storytellers, is buried forever under half a mile of volcanic ash so nobody will ever be able to check the three explorers’ bold claims. It’s almost as juvenile as saying: ‘and then I woke up and it was all a dream.’

The movie

The original deal had been for Crichton himself to direct the movie version and from 1981 to 1987 he maintained the hope of directing it with Sean Connery in the lead, but that version of the project never came to fruition.

Instead Congo was finally made into a movie in 1995, directed by Frank Marshall and starring Laura Linney as the permanently stressed-out woman scientist, Dylan Walsh as the sensitive primatologist, Ernie Hudson as the mercenary and hunter who leads the group and Tim Curry as the camp Romanian millionaire who finances the whole farrago.

I don’t mean to be rude but when two leads in what is meant to be a serious thriller played defining parts in Ghostbusters (Hudson) and The Rocky Horror Show (Curry) you know you’re talking about a turkey.

I’m not at all surprised to learn the movie version received a critical drubbing and was nominated for not one but several Golden Raspberry awards, given to real stinkers.


Michael Crichton reviews

Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming (1956)

Opens with a kind of pre-titles chapter in which we meet a dentist who is smuggling diamonds out of a British diamond mine in Sierra Leone by paying the black workers to smuggle uncut stones out of the mines in their teeth. He pays the miners cash, takes the stones, assembles them into a package and every month drives out to remote part of the desert to rendezvous with a helicopter. He flashes a code phrases (A, B, C) before the chopper lands, hands over the pack of diamonds to the pilot, and is assured payment has gone through to his bank account in London.

London

Cut to the Secret Service building overlooking Regents Park (p.55), where M briefs Bond about the significant losses to British diamonds caused by smuggling. The FBI have helped identify a ‘pipeline’ which goes from the mines in Africa, to London, and on to America. Has he heard of the ‘House of Diamonds’, an up-market retailer in Hatton Garden, run by a man named Rufus B. Saye? (p.20) Might be something to do with it. His mission is to track down the gang responsible. As part of this:

1. Bond goes for a briefing with Assistant Commissioner Vallance of Scotland Yard, who we first met in Moonraker (p.25). Vallance gives Bond further details about the scale of the smuggling and the seriousness of the American gangs. Despatches him with a plain clothes man to interview Saye, at the ‘House of Diamonds’ office. Saye turns out to be a big, very hard American who listens to their ‘enquiries’, then rudely turfs them out (p.37).

2. The plan is to drop Bond into the pipeline as the courier of a package they know is waiting in London to be carried to America. Each month it’s a different courier, but Scotland Yard have their eye on the ‘escort’ who often accompanies them, an attractive woman named Tiffany Case. This month she’s expecting a certain Peter Franks to be the courier (p.25) and be paid $5,000. The Yard will pick up Franks and Bond will impersonate him, courier the diamonds into New York, then try to inveigle his way into the gang, and get evidence against the top people.

So Bond goes to the Hotel and meets Tiffany, the hotel room door opening to reveal her at her dressing table wearing only bra and panties (p.40). Despite this promising beginning, she insists their relationship is purely professional. She suggests Bond pose as a tourist going on a golfing holiday, with a bag of clubs etc, and her people will get the diamonds inserted into golf balls, easy to smuggle. He’ll be collected from the airport and taken to meet Michael ‘Shady’ Tree, who’ll take the stones and pay him. Later, Tiffany makes a call to someone she only knows as ABC, who confirms the golf balls plan, though she herself doesn’t know who she’s speaking to or where the call is taken.

Back at the hotel which he’s checked into as a cover (the Ritz!) Bond receives a hand-delivered letter from M with more information (p.52). Further research has shown that Rufus Saye is none other than Jack Spang, twin brother of Seraffimo Spang, joint controller of ‘the Spangled Mob’, a well-known American crime gang. They bought ‘the House of Diamonds’ five years earlier and there’s every suspicion that it’s a front for the smuggled stones.

Next day a driver turns up to collect Bond, tips the contraband golf balls in amongst all his other balls, then drives him to the airport for his flight to New York. (There’s a long description of checking in and the joys of international jet travel – Fleming is very aware of flying; cf the description of Bond’s momentary panic on the flight to Jamaica in Live and Let Die – maybe it was still a rarity in 1956 and therefore had exotic interest for his readership. He certainly describes the flight to New York in great detail, and then again the flight from New York to Las Vegas, p.160).

New York

Bond gets through Customs and is met by a New York gang member who drives him into the City and to meet Michael ‘Shady’ Tree, who turns out to be a fierce, red-haired hunchback (p.68). Bond carries on playing the part of a mercenary courier and asks for his money. Tree says they’ll pay him some in cash but then arrange for the rest to be paid tax-free and innocently with a scam. Tree gives him the name of a horse to bet on in an upcoming race at Saratoga, the famous racing track in upstate New York. It’s a dead cert; he’ll get his money. Bond has to agree.

Out on the street, Bond becomes aware he’s being tailed and then is gripped by the neck and a hard object shoved in his back. After a tussle there’s a burst of laughter, and his assailant is revealed as Felix Leiter, his buddy from the CIA, who we last saw having been half eaten by a shark in Live and Let Die, swathed in bandages and barely alive. Here he is on the streets of New York, now working for the Pinkerton Agency, limping heavily from his artificial leg and using an artificial arm with a metal hook (p.82).

They banter a lot in a free and easy way which is still appealing 60 years later – ‘you old Limey bastard’ etc, while Leiter explains that he’s been tasked by the Pinkertons to cover corruption up at Saratoga. Ie he’s going to the same race meeting Bond was told to attend by the red-haired hunchback. As M did, Leiter warns Bond that these gangs may have garish silly nicknames – Shady Tree, the Spangled Mob – but they are seriously hard men.

Saratoga

Bond has a day to himself to groom, eat and sleep – cold showers, padding his room naked, ordering steak and champagne. Next day Leiter picks him up and they banter about cars, women and criminal gangs as he drives them 200 miles north to Saratoga. Fleming has done his research: he captures the atmosphere of this horse town, both by quoting a long passage by sports writer Jimmy Cannon (as he previously quoted long passages by Leigh Fermor to describe Haitian Voodoo in Live and Let Die) and by his own sections of bravura description (p.109). Bond and Leiter check into a motel then stroll around soaking up the vibes, watching the horses and owners and jockeys, listening to the accents.

Now, the diamond smugglers had told Bond to bet on an outside horse named ‘Shy Smile’ to win one of the races. They’ve fixed for him to win by the simple expedient of killing the real ‘Shy Smile’ and replacing him with another much faster horse, made up to look like him. But it turns out that Leiter (in an everso slightly enormous coincidence) has been briefed by the Pinkertons to stop ‘Shy Smile’ winning. He’s been told to bribe the jockey – ‘Tingaling’ Bell – to throw the race by committing a brief but decisive foul in the final stretches. Fleming well conveys the noise and excitement of the big track and of the race and, sure enough, Tingaling throws it, resulting in an official foul and ‘Shy Smile’ being disqualified.

In another improbable twist, Leiter asks Bond to deliver Tingaling’s bribe to him, at the Acme sulphur spring and mudbath outside town. In a sequence which reeks of being a documentary description of a place Fleming had really visited, Bond describes every detail of the hot spring/mud bath establishment in Saratoga, the half-hearted attendants, the concrete walkway into the big mud room itself, the disgusting smells, the ominous tall smokestack louring over it all. Here, yet again, he must strip naked before being encased in a coffin-shaped box filled with ‘healing’ hot mud. It is while trapped in this device that he witnesses two hooded hit-men enter the mud room, locate the bribed jockey Tingaling, slap him about a bit with the usual sadistic banter and then – with typical Fleming cruelty – pour a tub of super-boiling mud over his face, thus burning and melting his flesh. Then they go.

After the cops have arrived and sorted everything out, and after Bond has given his testimony as an innocent bystander, showered and returned to his hotel – he describes it all to Leiter who immediately identifies the two men, Wint and Kidd as well-known hoodlums working for the Spangled Mob. Bond phones the hunchback in New York, still playing the part of an aggrieved small-time crooked courier, saying, ‘Hey that horse didn’t win, I lost all my money’. So the voice tells him to go to Las Vegas, check into a specific hotel (the Tiara) and be at a specific blackjack table at a specific time and make a specific bet and he’ll get his money.

Continuing the stream of coincidences, Leiter tells Bond that he has also been ordered to Las Vegas – he’ll arrange for Bond to be collected by a cabby he knows and trusts – and so there’ll be more buddy-buddy hanging out together. Why bother too much about plausibility…

Las Vegas

Another plane journey – New York to Las Vegas – and Fleming giving us a detailed description of the view out the window as the plane turns over the Pacific and heads through a pass in the Sierras into the Martian landscape of the desert before coming in to the unexpected green urban island of Las Vegas.

The heat hits him like a punch, and he’s collected by the friendly cabby Leiter’s assigned him – Ernie Cureo (p.152) – who gives Bond (and the reader) a useful update on Vegas’s recent history ie organised crime has moved in and taken over everything. Ernie indicates the extent of the control – for example, Bond will have been photographed at the airport with a secret camera and the photos will be being scanned against the mob’s databases as they speak. If he’s carrying a gun, Bond will be shadowed by an unseen armed escort. His every move will be followed, especially at the gambling tables. Note the use of modern overhead lighting in all the gambling halls. But note also, how half the light sockets are empty. They’re the one with the cameras recording everything everyone does. Nothing is left to chance. Bond is impressed by the total efficiency of the gangs.

Bond has another day in hand in a luxury hotel to swim, eat well, sleep. Finally he dresses for his appointment at the blackjack table, as arranged by the hunchback in New York. Once again there is a very good, very atmospheric account of Vegas, of the hotel and of the coercive design, sound and behaviour in the massive gambling hall packed with slot machines and ringing to the continual shouts from the crap game tables. Bond is at the appointed table at the appointed time to find the croupier is none other than Tiffany Case! They play it dead straight – she deals him five sets of winning cards and he collects the $5,000 owed him and walks away.

But Bond is irked at having to play this dumb role. He was warned to leave the gambling hall and leave town so instead he walks straight over to a roulette table where he makes four risky bets in a row, winning and raising his takings to $20,000. He notes the hard men standing around with guns barely concealed. As his stakes go up a hard man appears at the dealer’s side with the same cold eyes and black hair styled en brousse; must be Seraffimo Spang, brother of Jack. His cigar points at Bond like a gun, while Bond wins the last turn of the wheel and quits while he’s ahead. But he’s made his mark.

Spectreville

Next evening Ernie picks Bond up in his cab for a cruise round town and this turns out to be the beginning of the climax of the book. While Bond is reminiscing about unnerving Jack Spang in person with his unscripted gambling win the night before, Ernie gives Bond (and the reader) some background about Jack Spang’s hobby. He has bought an abandoned mining town some way from Vegas, fully restored it and the one-track railway line that used to service the mine, along with a vintage locomotive. It is Spang’s (eccentric and garish) hobby to take his gang, associates and girls on champagne trips to this fake Wild West town and make everyone dress up for the weekend.

Ernie notices they’re being followed and Bond, itching for some action, encourages him to try to give the tail the slip. Cue a high-speed chase, in which Ernie shunts the following car, then swerves into a side alley so Bond can get some shots off at the other following car, crash bang! Then they go hide out in a drive-in movie but a) Bond discovers Ernie was injured in the shooting b) the tail follows them, arriving with guns poking through the cab’s doors. Bond is pushed at gunpoint into the baddies’ car and driven out to Spectreville.

Here, as he’s pushing open the swing doors of a fake saloon, he takes the opportunity to jump his two gunmen (McGonigle and Frasso, p.200), badly hurting both of them, before a voice says, ‘Put the gun down’ and – in a stock scene – he realises Jack Spang and some associates in ominous black hoods, and Tiffany Case (!) have been watching all along. The new tough guys manhandle Bond out into the station platform, to view the astonishingly beautiful vintage locomotive, The Cannonball (p.207), then up the stairs and into the luxuriously-appointed Pullman carriage. The characters sit. Bond is fixed a drink. Then his blood runs cold as Spang reveals he’s received a telegram from London saying the real Peter Franks is in police custody. Bond plays the aggrieved innocent so Spang casually tells his associates to put on football boots and kick the crap out of Bond.

In the next chapter Fleming brilliantly describes Bond’s sensations as he slowly, painfully recovers consciousness. The boys kicked him unconscious, left him in a side room, ate dinner and went to bed. Tiffany tiptoed downstairs in the early hours and is now trying to revive him. They are near the railhead and she points out a railroad handcar ie one of the small open machines engineers use to putter up and down lines. Tiffany has planned their escape. But first Bond just about manages to empty petrol cans all over the wooden building and lights it Whoosh! Then onto the handcar and off they go.

Out into the cold desert as Bond’s senses slowly return, he checks that no bones are broken and realises his passport and money are still in his jacket pocket. Phew. But then they sense a rumbling on the line, which gets louder: The Cannonball is after them, and it’s going to catch them.

At just that moment the handcar engine goes put-put and runs out of gas. Great. But Tiffany thinks they’re not far from a railroad junction where a spur of track headed off towards the old mine, they could switch the points, push the handcar down it, then switch the points back. Better still, suggests Bond, go beyond the junction and switch the points so the Cannonball itself is sent hurtling down the sidetrack towards the old mine.

Which is what they do after much straining with the rusty old points. And, moments later, the Cannonball comes hurtling towards them, then hits the points with a judder and is violently switched to the spur line. Not before there are shots from the engine house and – just as it flashes by – Bond carefully looses off the four bullets remaining in his gun and has a split-second impression of Jack Spang’s body lifted and spread-eagled against the side of the cab, then it’s flashed by. Moments later it is out of sight behind the start of the low hills and moments after that – Bang, Crash, BOOM! as the huge locomotive hits the mine railhead at 60 miles an hour, derails, crashes and explodes with a melodramatic fireball. So much for Seraffimo Spang.

Exhausted, Bond collapses, and he would have died then and there in the desert if Tiffany hadn’t guided him and supported him the couple of miles to the nearest desert highway. Here she flags down the only car passing at that time of the morning to discover – and here the coincidence-ometer explodes – the mop of sandy hair and hawk-like features of Felix Leiter! (p.226) who had heard about his pal Ernie being taken into hospital, got the story of Bond’s abduction, driven out to Spectreville to find it going up in flames, got the story from a surviving hoodlum of Bond’s escape on the handcar, and driven out into the desert looking for his old buddy.

All very convenient. Leiter drives Bond to California where they get him patched up by a doctor, checked into a hotel and cleaned up with new clothes. – It is notable how throughout the process Tiffany cradles his wounded head, looks after him but then how, as he slowly revives, she returns to being distant and cold. Much earlier, Leiter had told Bond her life story. Daughter of a single woman who ran a brothel, Tiffany grew up in a harsh environment and then one fateful night was gang-raped by her mother’s customers. Since when she has been a hard and professional survivor. And yet Bond finds himself falling in love with her (p.232).

Leiter books them on a flight to New York, and then onto none other than the luxury cruise ship, the Queen Elizabeth, which is steaming back to England. – Note the chasteness and prudery of the 1950s – Leiter books them into separate cabins, a distinction they themselves maintain throughout the voyage.

The Queen Elizabeth

Here there is a lot of low key relationship stuff between Case and Bond. Dinner, conversation, getting to know each other as Bond falls deeper in love with her but has to overcome the reluctance caused by her brutal past. They discuss marriage and even having children (pp.240-246). Bond says that once in London she can put up in the spare room of his little flat and be looked after by his adorable housekeeper, May. It is a love affair. They are falling in love. They attend an auction for charity where guests in the big ship dining room bet on how long it will take the ship to reach the UK. An odd couple of men take the bidding unusually high and bet it will take much longer than anyone else is predicting.

Bond looks at them, an uncomfortable fat man and a good-looking blond man, and something nags in his memory but at that moment he is distracted by Tiffany’s hand on his. They go walk along the deck, admiring the sea and the moon and the reflections etc and then back to his cabin where they, finally, make sincere and deep love, after which Tiffany kisses him goodnight before tiptoeing back to her cabin and Bond falls into a deep sleep.

He’s awoken by room service with a telegram. It’s a coded message from M in London that they raided the ‘House of Diamonds’ – Jack Spang having fled the country, probably into Africa – and discovered telegram exchanges with a Mr Winter aboard the Queen Elizabeth and Saye/Spang sending orders to ‘despatch’ Case. Jumping into the shower then pulling his clothes on Bond races along to Tiffany’s room to find it empty and ransacked. Christ. Christ, the reader is on tenterhooks because Fleming has led us right into a gentle, loving, tender place only to yank us back into the brutal world of sudden death. Remember how Bond fell in love with Vesper but she died, in Casino Royale.

Bond quickly goes through the ship’s manifest that is given to every passenger and discovers Wint and Kidd are in the cabin directly below Tiffany’s. If he tried to break down the door chances are they’d kill her before he got in. In a desperate expedient, he ties together sheets from her bed and attaches one end to a bulkhead, then swings out the porthole and lets himself slowly, painfully down the ship’s side, trying to forget the immense size of the ship, the fact it is steaming at speed, the way he could probably die from the impact if he fell into the sea, or by sliced to pieces by the ship’s four massive screws.

Now he’s at the porthole of the cabin below, and hears a slap and a girl cry out and with no more prompting swings through the porthole and rolls into the middle of the room, to his feet with his gun in his hand. Tiffany is naked, pinioned by Kidd who is slapping her. Both men turn to face him, ready to draw. Bond tells Tiffany to get up and go into the bathroom and lock the door. Nobody moves while she goes. There is a very intense moment of delay, released when Wint shouts American football numbers for a ‘play’ and both men move in different directions and pull their guns. Bang! Bond shoots one in the head then turns to the other just as his hand reaches for his ankle and twists up. Bang! Bond shoots the other dead, but not before he gets off a cunning throw and Bond looks down to see a knife sticking out of his ribs (p.290).

Complete silence. Bond extracts the knife then moves carefully, staggering, arranging everything so it looks like the two fell out over a card game, he throws Kidd out the porthole and arranges the gun to look like Wint killed himself. It’s not much, but it should delay or puzzle the ship’s authorities. Then he gets Tiffany from the bathroom, they return to her room and tidy up, then she takes him back to his room and tends his wounds.

Epilogue

Bond is in the desert with troops from the nearest British Army garrison and a Bofors gun. They have followed the smuggling dentist out from the mine and are now camped silently half a mile away. Bond remembers the phone call he had with M once the Queen Elizabeth docked at Southampton. a) He put Tiffany into a Daimler taxi to London, to drop her at his flat and into the care of May. b) The police are enquiring into a double murder aboard the ship, does Bond want M to cover it up? Yes. c) Vallance has raised the possibility of prosecuting the girl. Should they? No. d) Will Bond catch an RAF jet to the desert to track down the last link in the pipeline, the missing Spang? Yes.

The helicopter arrives but instead of the German pilot it is – as expected – Jack Spang himself. He takes the dentist’s pack of diamonds, listens to his feeble whining, then shoots him dead. At that moment the loudspeaker from Bond and the army’s truck tells him to freeze. But he jumps back into the helicopter and takes off. Bond in person tracks him with the Bofors gun and lets off a series of shots, one of which hits bull’s eye and the chopper collapses and crashes back to earth with a big explosion. The pipeline is closed. Thank God he can go back to London and the warm arms of his beloved.

Death is forever. But so are diamonds. (p.289)


Themes

Organised crime

The text goes to great lengths to emphasise the breadth, the scale and the ruthlessness of American organised crime. You’d have thought readers were aware of this from the well-publicised lawlessness of the 1930s, featuring Al Capone, Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd among many others, and all those Jimmy Cagney, George Raft film noirs.

But apparently it needs to be explained all over again, so Fleming has M explain in person and then in a hand-written note, and Leiter telling him several times, and then the cabby in Las Vegas explaining once again, that the Organised Crime gangs of America are well organised and ruthless. At least twice, characters refer to the Kefauver Report (p.159) for a full understanding of the breadth and depth of organised crime’s grip on American society, and this turns out to be a very contemporary reference.

Fascinating to learn that these Senate Committee hearings into organised crime feature in fictionalised form in The Godfather part II. My understanding was that the Godfather books and movies trace the transition of Mafia operations from explicitly criminal activities like bootlegging, blackmail, extortion etc, into ‘legit’ businesses, specifically on the move from New York-based crime into the gambling operations in Las Vegas – precisely the setting of the second half of Diamonds.

Enjoyment

Bond enjoys life and his enjoyment is infectious.

It was a beautiful day and Bond enjoyed absorbing the Saratoga idiom, the mixture of Brooklyn and Kentucky in the milling crowds, the elegance of the owners and their friends in the tree-shaded paddock, the efficient mechanics of the parimutuel and the big board with its flashing lights recording the odds and the money invested, the trouble-free starts through the tractor-drawn starting-gate, the toy lake with its six swans and the anchored canoe and, everywhere, that extra exotic touch of the negroes who, except as jockeys, are so much a part of American racing. (p.125)

The cold showers, the luxurious hotels, the very good food, the cocktails prepared just so, his own superb physique – Bond is an instrument through whom we feel the vicarious enjoyment of being alive in such a diverse and interesting world.

Naked

It’s a little detail, in a way, but it’s very symptomatic of the sensuality of the books and their continual physical hyper-awareness, that Bond is frequently naked. He is visiting America in high summer of August, so that New York, Saratoga and – especially – Las Vegas are blisteringly hot. And so it is that Fleming describes Bond’s routine of (generally ice-cold) showers – one day he has four – and then moving around his luxury hotel suites naked. At the mud bath he strips naked and stands like one of the thoroughbred horses, on display to all the other customers in his physical prowess.

Bond stood naked in front of him (p.137)

Bond himself, Fleming, and the reader, are all invited to savour the sight of Bond’s hard, suntanned body – not all the time, but at regular intervals, just often enough to keep us alert to his persistent sensual self-awareness. At the Tiara hotel after his long flight, Bond

took off his clothes and threw himself naked on the bed. (p.169)

Self consciousness

In my reviews of other thrillers from the period, I point out the almost compulsory reference that authors make to the hamminess of their own plots, the often cartoon nature of their own characters, and the way so many of the baddies are acting a tough guy part they’ve learned from the movies.

Typical, thought Bond. Mike Hammer routine. These American gangsters were too obvious. They had read too many horror comics and seen too many films (p.65)

Pissaro looked like a gangster in a horror-comic. (p.121)

Bond is struck throughout by the wacky names and cartoon behaviour of the thugs. His most penetrating comment is that they are overgrown teenagers, kids with guns.

Bond remembered cold, dedicated, chess-playing Russians; brilliant, neurotic Germans; silent, deadly, anonymous men from Central Europe; the people in his own Service – the double-firsts, the gay soldiers of fortune, the men who counted life well lost for a thousand year. Compared with such men, Bond decided, these people were just teenage pillow-fantasies. (p.122)

… he] might then, if he found favour in the eyes of Mr Spang, be given regular work with the rest of the teenage adults who made up the gang. (p.175)

So that was the end of one of the Spangs, one of the brutal, theatrical, overblown dead-end adults who made up the Spangled Mob. He had been a stage-gangster, surrounded by stage properties, but that didn’t alter the fact that he had intended to kill Bond. (p.225)

Attitudes to homosexuals and women

In this novel homosexuality is mentioned for the first time in the series and when it is, it’s a description of the killers Kidd and Wint. Leiter reckons they shack up together, are what we today would call an item, and comments:

‘Some of these homos make the worst killers.’ (p.147)

Later the good-hearted cabbie, Ernie, is given some lines about gay gangsters.

‘I know them guys. Detroit Purple Mob. Couple lavender guys. You know, pansies. Golf ain’t there game. The only irons they can handle are in their pockets.’ (p.190)

In his 1966 essay on the Bond novels, the structuralist literary critic Umberto Eco patronisingly comments from his lofty left-wing point of view that Bond is not a fascist or a racist (interesting to learn that these insult weasel words were being thrown around as long as 50 years ago). He is obviously conservative, but with ‘a cautious middle-class chauvinism’. Race Mr Big is obviously a black criminal mastermind but Live and Let Die is full of characters bending over backwards to say how much they like and admire black people (or ‘negroes’, as Fleming writes, in the terminology of the day). In this book Fleming comments ‘Bond had a natural affection for coloured people’ (p.134). Anti-Semitism I can only remember one Jewish character in these first four novels, and he is a diamond merchant in Hatton Gardens where, I imagine, lots of merchants in the 1950s were Jewish. Sexism His women are in fact more feisty and resistant to his charms than I remembered, and if he has patronising attitudes towards them, then they were the attitudes of his day.

As Eco sums it up, neither Fleming nor Bond display the obsessive hatred of blacks or Jews or women which should really be what we mean by racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and so on. Instead he displays:

‘an art of persuasion that relies on endoxa, that is, on the common opinions shared by the majority of readers’.

For me it seems pointless sticking the same old labels on the Bond books (reactionary, racist, sexist, misogynist and all the rest) and thinking you’ve achieved something. You are merely echoing the stock beliefs of today, as Fleming was echoing the stock beliefs of his day; you are as much in thrall to contemporary values as Fleming was to his.

I think it’s more thought-provoking to take Fleming as a popular writer who wanted to make money from his work and so simply echoed the accepted beliefs of the time. Seen from this perspective, his views actually seem a little progressive. Rereading the novels, I am particularly struck by how independent and feisty his women are. There is actually very little sex in the Bond novels but a great deal of thinking about emotions and feelings and respect. It takes the whole novel for Bond to fall in love with Tiffany Case and to win her over, by which stage he really respects her body and soul. When they finally sleep together (just once in the whole story) it is the climax of a very slow process of learning about each other, rescuing each other from peril, getting to know and respect each other as people. They discuss the possibility of Bond leaving the Service to marry her. They even discuss the possibility of having children (Bond says, Yes, he’d love to have children, but not before he’s retired).

Most people who think about Bond think about the crass, vulgar movies. When my teenage daughter has watched any of the old ones, she is repelled by Bond who she finds ‘rapey’, with his casual expectation that he will have sex with every pretty girl he meets. And the movies are creepy, chauvinist and sexist. This makes it all the more surprising to go back to the source novels from the early and mid-1950s and realise that society’s attitudes were actually more respectful of women, as real people with agency and the ability to rebuff men, as decision-makers and owners of their destinies, before the Swinging Sixties turned them into Playboy dolly birds.

As to homosexuality, we know that Fleming mixed on friendly terms with the gays of his day, for example Noel Coward, who owned a seaside villa just down the coast in Jamaica from him. If Fleming has Leiter comment on the particular creepiness of the two gay killers a) this is a character talking; characters have views different from authors b) Leiter is expressing some of the anti-gay prejudice of his day, no more no less. To us his opinion seems nonsensical: he spends most of the novel warning Bond how psychopathic the American gangs are, and Bond meets plenty of brutal heterosexuals. Why either of them should single out gay killers as being particularly more or less brutal is, to us nowadays, hard to fathom. But it was obviously significant then. It obviously added an extra frisson to think that a pair of killers not only killed, but ‘shacked up’ together – made their criminality more creepy, somehow. And these kind of vanished opinions add to the social historical interest of the books, as windows into a vanished world, with its vanished technologies, attitudes, simplicities and reassurances.

Bond’s breakfasts…

… and lunches and dinners. Bond’s meals are a continual punctuation mark in the texts, far more so than car chases, shootouts or sex (of which there is actually precious little). We are treated to descriptions of:

  • Lunch with Leiter: smoked salmon and Brizzola (beef, straight-cut across the bone, roast and broiled), then half an avocado with French dressing and an Espresso (p.80-84)
  • Dinner with Tiffany: caviar, cutlets, pink champagne (p.88) the cutlets accompanied by asparagus with mousseline sauce (p.94). As apéritif Bond orders Martinis, shaken but not stirred (p.89), the first time that phrase has appeared. As liqueurs to follow the meal, they have Stingers made with crème de menthe (p.94).
  • Lunch by himself at Voisin’s: two vodka Martinis, oeufs Benedict and strawberries (p.99)
  • Lunch with Leiter: at a roadside diner they have scrambled eggs, sausages and Miller Highlife beers (p.102).
  • At the race track: bourbon old-fashioneds and a cheap chicken dinner (p.110).
  • With Leiter: broiled Maine lobster with melted butter and a very dry Martini made with Cresta Blanca Vermouth (p.151).
  • Waiting to go gamble, Bond has a dozen cherrystone clams and a steak, washed down with a Vodka dry Martini (p.175).
  • On the Queen Elizabeth Tiffany sends Bond a room service meal of four small slivers of steak on toast canapés, and a small bowl of sauce Béarnaise (p.248)

Credit

Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming was published in 1956 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 2006 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Other thrillers from 1956

The Bond novels

1953 Casino Royale Bond takes on Russian spy Le Chiffre at baccarat then is gutted to find the beautiful assistant sent by London to help him and who he falls in love with – Vesper Lynd – is herself a Russian double agent.
1954 Live and Let Die Bond is dispatched to find and defeat Mr Big, legendary king of America’s black underworld, who uses Voodoo beliefs to terrify his subordinates, and who is smuggling 17th century pirate treasure from an island off Jamaica to Florida and then on to New York, in fact to finance Soviet spying, for Mr Big is a SMERSH agent. Along the way Bond meets, falls in love with, and saves, the beautiful clairvoyant, Solitaire.
1955 Moonraker An innocent invitation to join M at his club and see whether the famous Sir Hugo Drax really is cheating at cards leads Bond to discover that Drax is in fact a fanatical Nazi determined on taking revenge for the Fatherland by targeting an atom-bomb-tipped missile – the Moonraker – at London.
1956 Diamonds Are Forever Bond’s mission is to trace the route of a diamond smuggling ‘pipeline’, which starts in Africa, comes to London and then to follow it on to New York, and further to the mob-controlled gambling town of Las Vegas, where he wipes out the gang, all the while falling in love with the delectable Tiffany Case.
1957 From Russia, with Love Bond is lured to Istanbul by the promise of a beautiful Russian agent who says she’ll defect and bring along one of the Soviets’ precious Spektor coding machines, but only for Bond in person. The whole thing is an improbable trap concocted by head of SMERSH’S execution department, Rosa Klebb, to not only kill Bond but humiliate him and the Service in a sex-and-murder scandal.
1958 Dr. No Bond is dispatched to Jamaica (again) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the station head, which leads him to meet up with the fisherman Quarrel (again), do a week’s rigorous training (again) and set off for a mysterious island (Crab Key this time) where he meets the ravishing Honeychile Rider and the villainous Chinaman, Dr No, who sends him through a gruelling tunnel of pain which Bond barely survives, before killing No and triumphantly rescuing the girl.
1959 Goldfinger M tasks Bond with finding out more about Auric Goldfinger, the richest man in England. Bond confirms the Goldfinger is smuggling large amounts of gold out of the UK in his vintage Rolls Royce, to his factory in Switzerland, but then stumbles on a much larger conspiracy to steal the gold from the US Reserve at Fort Knox. Which, of course, Bond foils.
1960 For Your Eyes Only (short stories) Four stories which started life as treatments for a projected US TV series of Bond adventures and so feature exotic settings (Paris, Vermont, the Seychelles, Venice), ogre-ish villains, shootouts and assassinations and scantily-clad women – but the standout story is Quantum of Solace, a conscious homage to the older storytelling style of Somerset Maugham, in which there are none of the above, and which shows what Fleming could do if he gave himself the chance.
1961 Thunderball Introducing Ernst Blofeld and his SPECTRE organisation who have dreamed up a scheme to hijack an RAF plane carrying two atomic bombs, scuttle it in the Caribbean, then blackmail Western governments into coughing up $100,000,000 or get blown up. The full force of every Western security service is thrown into the hunt, but M has a hunch the missing plane headed south towards the Bahamas, so it’s there that he sends his best man, Bond, to hook up with his old pal Felix Leiter, and they are soon on the trail of SPECTRE operative Emilio Largo and his beautiful mistress, Domino.
1962 The Spy Who Loved Me An extraordinary experiment: an account of a Bond adventure told from the point of view of the Bond girl in it, Vivienne ‘Viv’ Michel, which opens with a long sequence devoted entirely to her childhood in Canada and young womanhood in London, before armed hoodlums burst into the motel where she’s working on her own, and then she is rescued by her knight in shining armour, Mr B himself.
1963 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Back to third-person narrative, and Bond poses as a heraldry expert to penetrate Blofeld’s headquarters on a remote Alpine mountain top, where the swine is carrying out a fiendish plan to use germ warfare to decimate Britain’s agriculture sector. Bond smashes Blofeld’s set-up with the help of the head of the Corsican mafia, Marc-Ange Draco, whose wayward daughter, Tracy, he has fallen in love with, and in fact goes on to marry – making her the one great love of his life – before she is cruelly shot dead by Blofeld, who along with the vile Irma Bunt had managed to escape the destruction of his base.
1964 You Only Live Twice Shattered by the murder of his one-day wife, Bond goes to pieces with heavy drinking and erratic behaviour. After 8 months or so M sends him on a diplomatic mission to persuade the head of the Japanese Secret Service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka to share top Jap secret info with us Brits. Tiger agrees on condition that Bond undertakes a freelance job for him, and eliminates a troublesome ‘Dr Shatterhand’ who has created a gruesome ‘Garden of Death’ at a remote spot on the Japanese coast. When Bond realises that ‘Shatterhand’ is none other than Blofeld, murderer of his wife, he accepts the mission with gusto.
1965 The Man With The Golden Gun Brainwashed by the KGB, Bond returns from Japan to make an attempt on M’s life. When it fails he is subjected to intense shock therapy at ‘The Park’ before returning fit for duty and being dispatched to the Caribbean to ‘eliminate’ a professional assassin, Scaramanga, who has killed half a dozen of our agents as well as being at the centre of a network of criminal and political subversion. The novel is set in Bond and Fleming’s old stomping ground, Jamaica, where he is helped by his old buddy, Felix Leiter, and his old secretary, Mary Goodnight, and the story hurtles to the old conclusion – Bond is bettered and bruised within inches of his life – but defeats the baddie and ends the book with a merry quip on his lips.
1966 Octopussy Three short stories in which Bond uses the auction of a valuable Fabergé egg to reveal the identity of the Russians’ spy master in London; shoots a Russian sniper before she can kill one of our agents escaping from East Berlin; and confronts a former Security Service officer who has been eaten up with guilt for a wartime murder of what turns out to be Bond’s pre-war ski instructor. This last short story, Octopussy, may be his best.

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