The State of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence by Martin Meredith (2005)

Meredith’s big book (770 pages) does what it says on the tin and tells the history of every African country from the run-up to independence, i.e. starting in the mid-1950s, to the time of writing, i.e. about 2004, covering half a century of tumultuous history. It’s a vast subject but Meredith’s book is an easy and pleasurable read. He writes a wonderfully clear, expressive prose which effortlessly conveys a huge amount of information and profiles countries, leaders and events with deceptive ease.

The narrative is chock-a-block with facts and dates, central figures and key events, but a handful of general principles emerge all too clearly.

Imperialism’s mistakenly long-term view

The colonial powers thought they were in it for the very long haul. As the Second World War ended, most thought the colonies they ruled wouldn’t be ready for independence for centuries, certainly not till the end of the twentieth century. This, in retrospect, was never viable. The idea that generations of natives would be happy to live out their entire lives as second class citizens, die, and hand on to their children who would themselves be content to live as second class citizens and so on indefinitely shows a poor grasp pf human nature.

Instead, as we know, the generation who came to maturity after the war insisted on independence now, in their own lifetimes.

Lack of provision

The fact that the colonial powers didn’t expect to hand over independence for a very long time goes some way to explaining why they made so little provision for education, political inclusion and other aspects of statehood. They didn’t think they needed to; they thought they had decades and decades to slowly, incrementally introduce the elements of a modern state, not least an extensive cohort of properly trained professional administrators, engineers, lawyers and so on.

Rush to independence

But instead of resigning themselves to waiting for decades or centuries, and inspired by the independence of India, Pakistan, Burma in 1948, native political leaders began lobbying hard for independence as soon as possible.

Independence became a shibboleth, an indicator of ideological purity, so that rival parties in colonial countries fell over themselves to demand it soon, sooner, soonest. You can see this at work in Congo where the conference called to discuss independence found itself being bounced into bringing the date ever forward, until it was set at barely 4 months after the conference ended (the first part of the conference ended in February 1960 and set the date of independence for June 30, 1960).

The mad scramble for independence, regardless of whether any of the conditions of statehood were actually in place, explains a lot of what came after.

A tiny educated elite

Thus when independence came, the educated and political class which clamoured for it was still small, a tiny elite (‘no more than about 3 per cent of the population’, p.169). This was to have important consequences. In fact it’s staggering to read Meredith explain just how ill-prepared African countries were to manage themselves. Most African societies were predominantly illiterate and innumerate. In all of black Africa, in the late 1950s as independence dawned, the entire population of 200 million produced 8,000 secondary school graduates. No more than 3% of children of secondary school age actually attended a school. Few new states had more than 200 students at university. In the former French colonies there were no universities at all. Hence the pitiful statistics about the handful of graduates available in countries like Congo or Angola at independence.

Utopian dreams of ‘independence’

Another fundamental fact was that no-one involved really understood what ‘independence’ meant or involved: what it actually took to run a) a functioning state b) a functioning economy.

The prophet of African independence, Ghanaian statesman Kwame Nkrumah, is quoted as stating that, once independence was granted, everything would flow from that i.e. freedom and prosperity for all; that once they had overthrown the colonial economy, they would create for themselves:

a veritable paradise of abundance and satisfaction (quoted on page 144)

You can tell from the phrasing that he has no idea what he’s talking about. Independence became identified, in every country, with everyone’s hopes and dreams, no matter how utopian. In David van Reybrouck’s history of the Congo, he describes how Congolese peasants and street people were led to believe that, at independence, they would all be given a big house like the Europeans lived in, with a free car and a rich white woman as a wife.

African socialism

Africa gained independence during the height of the Cold War. Many African leaders, such as Tanganyika’s Julius Nyerere, sought to distance themselves from both the capitalist West and the Soviet East, and hoped Africa could carve a middle way, a new way, an African way, but most were also swayed by the utopian rhetoric of socialism. As capitalism was associated with the (often brutal) rule of exploitative imperialists, it was no surprise that, given a choice, leaders rejected ‘capitalism’ for ‘socialism’ but socialism with African characteristics, African socialism. They thought rapid industrialisation of the kind carried out by Stalin in backward Russia, and just about to be carried out by Mao in backward China, would also provide a ‘great leap forward’ for backward Africa. Nkrumah declared:

‘Socialism is the only pattern that can within the shortest possible time bring the good life to the people.’ (quoted page 145)

Meredith quotes several leaders and thinkers who thought that ‘socialism’ was more in line with African traditions, in which there had been communal ownership of land, decisions were taken by consensus, in which members of tribes or kingdoms worked together, without an exploiting class severed from the mass of the population. In old Africa there hadn’t been the flagrant inequalities associated with white western capitalism, everyone was more equal.

You can see how the revival of African traditions, the rejection of white western capitalism, the promotion of new ways of doing things, the hope for a revolution in living standards, and socialist rhetoric about equality and wealth for all, were combined into a heady brew of nationalist and socialist slogans, posters, banners, speeches, books, announcements. In the mid-1960s African leaders and their liberal western supporters were brimful of optimism.

Economic reality

There were, unfortunately, quite a few problems with this millenarian vision, but the obvious one was economic: The majority of the population of most of Africa barely scraped a living by subsistence agriculture. In times of drought or conflict they starved, as their forefathers had. In fact Meredith gives a sober and bleak assessment of the economic state of Africa at independence in 1960:

Africa was the poorest, least developed region on earth. Its climate was harsh and unpredictable. Drought was a constant risk, bringing with it famine. Rainfall in half the continent was inadequate. African soil in many regions was thin, poor in nutrients, producing very poor yields. By far the majority of the population, over 80%, was engaged in subsistence farming, without access to even basic education or health care. Severe disease was common and the blight of tsetse fly, which spread sleeping sickness among animals as well as humans, prevented animals being reared or used as beasts of burden on a huge area exceeding 10 million square kilometers. Poverty and disease ensured death rates for children in Africa, in 1960, were the highest in the world and general life expectancy, at 39 years, was the lowest in the world.

The white colonists in all the colonies lived the life of Reilly only because they enjoyed the profit derived from the labour of huge numbers of African workers in plantations, fields and so on, slaving away to produce coffee, tea, rubber, groundnuts and other cash crops, which were gathered, processed, shipped abroad by companies set up and run by Europeans and on whose profits the Europeans lived their fabulous lifestyle, complete with big houses, swimming pools, chauffeur-driven cars, servants and maids and cooks.

That kind of lifestyle, by definition, was only available to a small minority who could benefit from the labour of a huge majority. When independence came, nothing changed in the economic realities of these countries. Instead two things happened:

1. White flight

The Europeans fled, taking their technical and administrative expertise with them. In the two examples I’ve been studying, Congo and Angola, the Belgians and the Portuguese fled in their entirety, leaving the mechanisms of the state but, much more importantly, the management of the economy, to people who had no idea how to do it. Hence, instead of a shangri-la of riches for all, newly independent countries more often than not, found themselves plunged into economic anarchy.

2. Failure of the post-independence elite to live up their promises

The small political/educated elite (a product of the imperialists’ failure to invest in education) found the task of ‘redistributing wealth’ in the socialist sense of the word completely beyond them. a) They found the task of keeping the economic and business models inherited from the Europeans very challenging and, even if they could, b) discovered that the kind of wealth the whites had enjoyed derived from the fact that they were a tiny minority exploiting the labour of an impoverished majority ie there could never be wealth for all.

It was very tempting, then, for the new leaders to abandon any thoughts of redistributing wealth and, instead, fight to keep it for themselves.

Arbitrary nature of African ‘countries’

The whole problem was exacerbated by one of the best known facts about Africa, which is that all the colonies had been arbitrarily carved out on abstract maps which completely cut across the sociological realities on the ground, ignoring the existence of traditional kingdoms or tribal or ethnic groupings.

Very often the imperialists, in their profound ignorance of peoples who lived in the ‘states’ they were creating, either:

  1. broke up homogeneous groupings into separate countries (such as the Bakongo who found themselves carved up between the French Congo, Belgian Congo and Portuguese Angola). ‘In all the new boundaries cut through some 190 cultural groups’ p.1)
  2. or forced together antagonistic groups, such as the rival kingdoms of Buganda and Bunyoro forced to coexist in Uganda or the profoundly different cultures, ethnic groups and religions of north and south Sudan forced into a very uneasy co-existence (p.2).

Secessions and civil wars

This simple fact explains the tendency for almost all the African colonies to experience civil wars, often long running and deeply destructive wars. Some of the wars resulted from two or more parties competing for power in a given state, such as the civil wars in Angola and Mozambique. Others took the form of secessionist movements where entire provinces and ethnic/tribal groups sought independence from a state they felt little or no attachment to, as in the attempt at secession of Biafra in Nigeria, and of Katanga in Congo.

The tendency of these made-up countries with their irrational borders bristling with rival groups to collapse into various types of secession, civil war and anarchy, quickly brought to the fore the only group which could hope to hold the state together, the army.

Inevitable failure of the first generation of independent leaders

So being handed often ridiculously unviable countries almost guaranteed that the idealistic, utopian, often socialist leaders who came to power in the first wave of independence in the early 1960s, would be confronted by a) the collapse of the economy b) the intensification of poverty leading to unrest c) fragmentation, secession and civil war, and so d) would be replaced by military strongmen who a) reimposed order through bloody repression, and b) grasping that the limited amount of wealth generated by their ailing economies would never be enough to lift their countrymen out of poverty c) quickly made the cynical but realistic decision to keep as much of the country’s wealth as possible for themselves and d) for their clients and supporters.

Net effect – military coups, strong men and kleptocracy

In a throwaway sentence, Meredith makes what I think is a major insight, possibly the central point:

The political arena became a contest for scarce resources. (p.156)

There very quickly emerged a dichotomy between the soaring rhetoric of African socialism and African nationalism and African unity on the one hand, and the sordid reality of strong men clambering to power via coups and revolutions, who saw the state not as a vehicle for governing in the best interests of the nation, but as a mechanism to steal as much wealth as they could for themselves, their clients, their hangers on, their clan and their tribe.

Hence unstable countries, characterised by recurring civil wars or civil strife, and recurrent military coups, almost always leading to the rule of Strong Men, Big Men, dictators of one sort or another, who quickly became kleptocrats i.e. stole from the state, creamed off international aid, lived lives of stunning luxury, while abandoning their people to lives of grinding poverty, often falling victim to the random violence of corrupt, generally unpaid, soldiers and police.

All the high-sounding rhetoric about African socialism gave way to a deeper African tradition, that of the chieftain, the king, the emperor, one-man ruler of a one-man state, who encouraged outsize personality cults, playing up the leader’s visionary, even magical, powers.

In practice it turned out that overwhelmingly illiterate populations put their faith not in sophisticated political theories or complex constitutional mechanisms, but in the Great Leader, the Helmsman: the Great Son of Africa, the Scourge of Imperialism, the Doctor of Revolutionary Science, as Sékou Touré, the autocratic ruler of Guinea, called himself (p.64), or the Man of Destiny, Star of Africa, His High Dedication of Redeemer which is how Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah lkiked his state-controlled media to refer to him – just two among the impressive cast of megalomaniacs, tyrants and dictators with which Africa has kept the rest of the world entertained for the past 60 years.

‘System? What system?’ retorted president Bourguiba, when asked about Tunisia’s political system. ‘I am the system!’ (p.169)

Summary

In some countries, such as Rwanda and Burundi, you can throw in vicious ethnic hatred and genocide; in some others, long wars eventually led to independence for seceding states (South Sudan, Eritrea). But the core narrative outlined above applies to most African countries since independence, explains their  troubled histories, and underpins the situation many find themselves in today. As Meredith comments, the odd, almost eerie, thing is how consistently almost all the African colonies followed the same pattern:

Although Africa is a continent of great diversity, African states have much in common, not only their origin as colonial territories, but the similar hazards and difficulties they have faced. Indeed, what is so striking about the fifty-year period since independence is the extent to which African states have suffered so many of the same misfortunes. (p.14)


Credit

The State of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence by Martin Meredith was published by The Free Press in 2005. All references are to the 2013 paperback edition.

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Another Day of Life by Ryszard Kapuściński (1976)

The image of war is not communicable – not by the pen, or the voice, or the camera. War is a reality only to those stuck in its bloody filthy insides. To others it is pages in a book, pictures on a screen, nothing more.
(Another Day of Life, page 108)

Ryszard Kapuściński

Ryszard Kapuściński (1932 to 2007) was a Polish journalist, photographer, poet and author. He received many awards and was at one point considered for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Kapuściński started working as a journalist soon after leaving Warsaw University in 1955. He was sent abroad and ended up developing an award-winning career as Poland’s leading foreign correspondent, working for the communist government-approved Polish Press Agency. By the end of his career, Kapuściński calculated that he had lived through twenty-seven revolutions and coups, been jailed 40 times and survived four death sentences.

In the 1960s developed a reputation for reporting from Africa, where he witnessed first-hand the end of the European colonial empires. But he was quite the globetrotter, reporting from central Asia in 1967, then from South America before moving to Mexico for a spell (1969 to 1972) and then returning to Poland.

In 1975 Kapuściński flew out to Angola to cover the chaos surrounding the country’s independence from Portugal after a long and bitter war for independence (1961 to 1974). He witnessed the wholesale flight of the country’s 300,000 Portuguese and the outbreak of civil war between the three largest independence movements: the MPLA based in the capital Luanda, the FNLA based in the north, and UNITA based in the rural east and south.

It was this trip and reporting which formed the basis for his first book, Another Day of Life, the first in a series of six or so book-length accounts of key coups and overthrows, which established his reputation in the English-speaking world (others in the series described the overthrow of Haile Selasse in Ethiopia and the Shah of Iran).

Another Day of Life

First things first, this is a very short book, weighing in at just 136 pages. It’s divided into five ‘parts’, topped and tailed by empty pages so it’s more like 120-something pages. So it feels both literally and content-wise a very light book. 123 pages of text.

This is reinforced by the almost complete absence of hard facts. Once you start reading, what becomes quickly obvious is that this isn’t traditional reporting. It doesn’t have the close description of actual events found in Fergal Keane’s book about Rwanda or the fact-heavy account by Daniel Metcalfe of his journeys through Angola. Both contained a lot of facts, dates, places, names. By contrast Kapuściński’s text has almost no dates, very few references to specific identifiable historical events.

And as for the names, there are named people in the text but they are suspiciously emblematic, idealised representations of the kinds of people you ought to find in the kinds of scenes he describes. They are often suspiciously like characters in a play, undergoing archetypal experiences such as you’d expect in a novel or play or movie rather than the ragged realities of life.

In fact by about page 30 I realised this is more like a fairy tale than either journalism or history. His stories are very pat, they fall just so, are very rounded and neat. They have the rounded perfection and the symbolic weight of allegory.

All this explains why you can read clean through the entire 136-page text and not be slowed down by a single fact. There are only two or three actual facts in the entire book. All the effects are literary and derive from his conceptualising of scenes as scenes, staged and arranged for literary effect.

Part one (25 pages)

In the first sentence he tells us he stayed in Angola for three months, in a room in the Hotel Tivoli. It is notable that he doesn’t say which months or the year, although after a few pages he mentions spending September there and we know he’s there I suppose we’re for the runup to independence ie September, October, November 1975.

Books of this sort always require eccentric neighbours so he supplies some, Don Silva a diamond merchant who has diamonds sewn into the lining of his suit but can’t leave town because his wife is in the final stages of terminal cancer and therefore deep in her deathbed.

Instead of facts, what Kapuściński conveys is mood and atmosphere. The stricken Silva’s are heavily symbolic of the entire white European culture which is coming to an end in Angola, rich but stricken and trapped.

Kapuściński describes the rumours circulating among the panicking Portuguese that the Holden Roberto’s guerrilla movement, the FNLA, has thousands of members hiding in the capital just waiting for the signal to attack the terrified whites and murder them in their beds. He describes everything as a novelist would:

Rumour exhausted everyone, plucked at nerves, took away the capacity to think. The city lived in an atmosphere of hysteria and trembled with dread. People didn’t know how to cope with the reality that surrounded them, how to interpret it, get used to it. Men gathered in the hotel corridors to hold councils of war. (p.6)

Because it is about panic-stricken people trapped in a city it reminds me a bit of The Plague by Albert Camus, but also because Kapuściński plays up the generic and allegorical aspects of the situation, as does Camus.

People escaped as if from an infectious disease, as if from pestilential air that can’t be seen but still inflicts death. Afterwards the wind blows and the sand drifts over the traces of the last survivor. (p.13)

Because it’s specifically about the slightly hysterical inhabitants of one building it reminds me of J.G. Ballard’s shocker High Rise (published the same year Angola’s independence cause the Great Flight).

You can tell almost immediately that Kapuściński’s prose is translated from another language. English is full of phrases and idioms. Very often all these get omitted by translators keen to translate the sense of the foreign text into smooth, untroubled English. Hence the rather rounded, smooth finish of the prose, which always plumps for the euphonious word and the mellifluous phrase. This is one of the reasons why reading Kapuściński is like eating ice cream in a nice restaurant. Smooth and pleasurable and flavoursome without any sharp angles or surprises.

Everybody was in a hurry, everybody was clearing out. Everyone was trying to catch the next plane to Europe, to America, to anywhere. Portuguese from all over Angola converged on Luanda. Caravans of automobiles loaded down with people and baggage arrived from the most distant parts of the country. The men were unshaven, the women tousled and rumpled, the children dirty and sleepy. (p.10)

He conveys the sense of bad-tempered bickering among the queues of hot impatient white refugees, with whites saying the country will go to the dogs once the blacks take over (as, indeed, it did), how they’ve worked here for forty years, given the best years of their lives etc etc. They argue about who should have priority onto the flights, pregnant women, women with babies, women with young children, women with children, women with no children, well, why not men, then? And so on.

He has an extended riff about crates, about how Luanda was transformed into a city of crates for people to pack their stuff into, big create, small crates, wide crates, narrow crates, crates for the wealthy, crates for the poor. In high allegorical style Kapuściński describes how the ‘city of stone’ (ie bricks and mortar, buildings, homes) was transformed into a city of wood (crates piled high in every direction. Then they were loaded onto ships and sent off into the blue.

Nowhere else in the world had I seen such a city, and I may never see anything like it again. It existed for months, and then it began suddenly disappearing. Or rather, quarter by quarter, it was taken on tricks to the port. Now it was spread out at the very edge of the sea, illuminated at night by harbour lanterns and the glare of lights on anchored ships. (p.17)

See what I mean by fairytale simplicity. Although it’s about a war and fighting and refugees somehow it  is told with the clarity and simplicity of a children’s story, or a certain kind of simplified science fiction story.

The nomad city without roofs and walls, the city of refugees around the airport, gradually vanished from the earth. At the same time the wooden city deserted Luanda and waited in the port for its long journey. Of all the cities on the bay, only the stone Luanda, ever more depopulated and superfluous, waited. (p.22)

See what I mean by ice cream? Kapuściński’s simplified, smoothed-out prose slips down a treat. Then he begins a new riff, based around the categories of basic worker who are leaving. First all the policemen leave, with a paragraph pondering what that means for a city. Then all the firemen leave, ditto. And then all the garbagemen. How do we know? Because very quickly the rubbish starts piling up in heaps. For some reason all the cats start dying. Luanda turns into an abandoned city from a science fiction story.

In a way what’s most interesting in this long enjoyable semi-fictional description is the absence of Africans. Kapuściński reports on a worldview in which, when the Europeans leave, Luanda is deserted. But of course, it wasn’t. Far more blacks lived in Luanda than whites. But they were confined to the black slums at the edge of the city, unknown slums renowned for their lawlessness and extreme poverty.

Two points. One: it is fascinating to enter, through this text, into a worldview of Africa where Africans are banished, invisible and don’t count even in their own country. Two: as a kind of spooky proof of this enormous conceptual divide, even after the whites have mostly left, the Africans don’t come pouring into the abandoned capital. They continue living in their slums even while properties throughout the city fall empty, while the nice, European part of the city become a ghost town.

Having just soaked myself in Dan Metcalfe’s travelogue of modern Angola which is, of course, populated almost entirely by black Angolans, it is striking, strange and mysterious to be taken back to the weeks of independence, not because of their political importance, but because they represented an enormous imaginative shift; from a capital city run by and for Europeans, to one which was inhabited, run by and for Africans.

Part two (11 pages)

Having watched the capital empty of its European owners, Kapuściński goes to be with the soldiers at the front, to the town of Caxito 60 km north of Luanda where MPLA forces have held off an attack by the FNLA.

Part two rotates around Commandante Ndozi of the MPLA, who explains the capital city is being threatened by the FNLA from the north and UNITA from the south. He has been fighting for a long time and Kapuściński portrays his experience through a sort of extended monologue in which Ndozi shares his experiences.

But the highlight of the little chapter, and one of the memorable moments of the book, is the insight into the way inexperienced soldiers fire so much and so loudly so as to drown out their own terror.

A green soldier fears everything. When he is transported to the front, he thinks death is watching him on every side. Every shot is aimed at him. He doesn’t know how to judge the range or direction of fire, so he shoots anywhere, as long as he can shoot a lot without stopping. He is not hurting the enemy, he is killing his own terror. (p.32)

This segues into a description of the MPLA commissar attached to the unit, Commandante Ju-Ju. Despite his name Ju-Ju is a white Angolan. Kapuściński explains that the way to be white and part of The Struggle is to have a beard, the bigger the better. Then the soldiers will call you camarada and assume you are someone important.

Kapuściński watches Ju-Ju politely question FNLA soldiers the MPLA captured. What comes over is how young, uneducated, illiterate and simple they are. A man of the Bakongo people explains that he, like many of his tribe, was pressganged in Kinshasa by Joseph Mobutu’s soldiers, then packed off to join the FNLA. He liked in the FNLA because they gave you something to eat, goat and rice during the week and beer on Saturdays. Better than starving. Another prisoner looks about 12, claims he’s sixteen, and explains that he was told that if he went to the front as a fighter, they’d let him go to school, which is what he really wants to do, so he can become an artist.

Walking round the little town Kapuściński comes to the compound where the 120 or so prisoners are being watched over by a dozen armed guards. They’re all very young men and they’re engaged in a good natured argument about football, as young men everywhere ought to be. Only these men are going to continue fighting and dying. (We modern readers know they would continue fighting and dying for another 27 years. It’s just as well we can’t see the future, isn’t it?)

Part three (18 pages)

Having visited the north, he wants to head south. A digression on the management of roadblocks, which are everywhere. There are 3 phases to the roadblock:

  1. the explanatory section
  2. bargaining
  3. friendly conversation

From a distance you can’t be sure which side is manning the roadblock. Since none of the 3 forces have regular uniforms but ragged combinations of whatever they’ve been able to purloin, it’s difficult to tell. If you hail the soldiers as camarada! and they belong to Agostinho Neto’s MPLA they will hail back. But if they belong to the FNLA or UNITA who prefer to call each other irmão or brother, then they’ll kill you. You need the right papers but it also helps if you take time to chat. Kapuściński gives an example of how he likes to distract the soldiers by telling them about Poland, basic facts which the mostly illiterate soldiery refuse to believe.

He travels all the way south to Benguela, through countless checkpoints, perfecting his essay on the metaphysics of the checkpoint.

There’s a passage which told me more about the physical terrain of Angola than anything in the Metcalfe book, which really brings out how hot and barren and dusty the landscape is.

The road from Luanda to Benguela passes through six hundred kilometers of desert terrain, flat and nondescript. A haphazard medley of stones, frumpy dry bushes, dirty sand, and broken road signs creates a grey and incoherent landscape. In the rain season the clouds churn right above the ground here, showers drag on for hours and there is so little light in the air that day might as well not exist, only dusk and night. Even during heat waves, despite the excess of sun, the countryside resembles dry, burnt-out ruins: It is ashy, dead, and unsettling. People who must travel through here make haste in order to get the frightening vacancy behind them and arrive with relief at their destination, the oasis, as quickly as possible. Luanda is an oasis and Benguela is an oasis in this desert that stretches all along the coast of Angola. (p.53)

Paints a vivid picture, doesn’t he? He finds Benguela even more deserted than Luanda and reflects on the strangeness of the way the blacks haven’t moved into the empty houses and flats abandoned by the whites.

Because it didn’t actually happen while he was there this enormous shift in imaginative possibilities is nowhere directly addressed, but it peeps out from cracks in the narrative.

Kapuściński meets Commandante Monti a white man who is MPLA commander here in Benguela. While he’s waiting to talk to the commandante, a four-man TV crew from Portugal arrives (p.55). They start squabbling about whether to proceed to the front or not. It’s dangerous. But then Monti assigns them an escort, the 20-year-old woman fighter, Carlotta.

Kapuściński is funny and shrewd about the way the Portuguese immediately start vying for her affections but, more than that, the way all five of them conspire to create a kind of collective myth about her, all conspiring to find her attractive and romantic and glamorous. Later on, Kapuściński develops the photos he took of her and realises she isn’t at all attractive. But at that time and that place they needed her to be.

In this slightly delirious mood, they agree when Commandante Monti rustles up a couple of civilian cars for them to be driven the 160 kilometers to the frontline town of Balombo. Through the landscape of war: a damaged bridge, a burned-out village, an empty town, abandoned tobacco plantations.

They arrive at Balombo, a village in the jungle which was taken by 100 MPLA only that morning. Almost all the ‘troops’ are 16 to 18, high school kids. The boys are driving an abandoned tractor up and down the high street. The camera crew film, Kapuściński takes photographs. The sun falls and they get impatient to get away. The jungle comes right up to the houses. The enemy could counter-attack at any moment.

As they climb into the waiting cars to drive them the 160km back to Benguela, all five foreigners remember it was exactly the moment when the driver put the car in gear that Carlotta decided she must stay with the fighters and gets out. Sad goodbye and they roar off into the deepening twilight.

Later they learn that UNITA counter-attacked, took the town and Carlotta was killed. Tough guy sentimentalism not a million miles from Hemingway. They insist they hadn’t been fleeing fighting, there wasn’t any fighting when they left. But if they’d heard gunshots would they have been brave enough to turn round etc?

So there probably is a village called Balombo and it probably was taken by the MPLA then retaken by UNITA and maybe there was someone called Carlotta, but the factual basis of the story has been rounded out, perfected in order to become allegorical, a symbol of the collective male delusions involved in war, and a sentimental tear for its sadness and waste.

Part four (23 pages)

Next day Kapuściński watches the plane carrying the camera crew fly out heading for Portugal. There happens to another small plane at the airport, but this one is heading south to collect a last bunch of white refugees from Lubango, which also happens to be base to the southern command of the MPLA. On an impulse Kapuściński blags his way onto the flight. Having landed, he moves through the desperate white refugees and finds someone who can take him to MPLA HQ. The man in charge is an Angolan white, Nelson, who scribbles Kapuściński a pass for the front and pushes him out the front door where a big, knackered old Mercedes lorry piled with ammunition and six soldiers is about to set off on the long drive south. Kapuściński crams into the cab and off they rumble.

The leader of the little troop, improbably named Diogenes, explains to Kapuściński that they are driving 410km south to the town of Pereira d’Eça, the MPLA’s most remote outpost. They hold the towns but the entire countryside is in the hands of UNITA who may attack at any moment. They have ambushed all previous convoys and killed the troops. Kapuściński conveys the enormous sterility of the Angolan desert very vividly, in fact I remember his invocation of the country more than the people.

Time is passing, but we seem to be stuck in place. Constantly the same glimmering seam of asphalt laid on laid on the loose red earth. Constantly the same faded, cracked wall of bush. The same blinding white sky. The same emptiness of a deserted world, an emptiness that betrays life neither by movement nor by voice. Our truck wobbles and rolls through this unmoving, dead landscape like a small tin car in the depths of a carnival shooting gallery. The owner turns the crank and the toy, stamped out of tin, bucks from side to side, and whoever wants to take a shot is welcome. (p.71)

You can see why the literary reviewers of the time compared him to Graham Greene or V.S. Naipaul the two British writers of the 1970s most associated with exotic settings and colonial conflicts. The text is packed with evocative literary descriptions like this.

After a long day’s drive of nail-biting stress, expecting bullets to fly at every bend in the road, they arrive at the dusty abandoned settlement of Pereira d’Eça which is run by Commandante Farrusco (another white Angolan). They are welcomed. The sun sets. They meet the commandante. Food, cigarettes, conversation. Backstory on Farrusco who during the independence war fought in a Portuguese commando unit, but on the outbreak of hostilities between the three independence armies, volunteered for the MPLA and showed them how to take Lubango and Pereira d’Eça.

Then there is one of Kapuściński’s highly finished, semi-symbolic incidents. A dishevelled man is brought in by the troops to face the Commandante. He is a Portuguese named Humberto Dos Angos de Freitas Quental. He fled with his wife and four children to Windhoek, capital of Namibia to the south. But his 81-year-old mother refused to leave. She is deaf and has run the town bakery time out of mind. All she told him was to come back with some flour, which is running low. So having settled his family in Windhoek, against his better judgement, the man returned with a carful of bags of flower and was picked up by the MPLA troops.

But he has something very important to say. In Windhoek and a couple of settlements on the road in Namibia, everyone is saying the South Africans are about to launch an attack into southern Angola in support of UNITA. Kapuściński realises this is Big News and asks Farrusco for help getting back to Luanda so he can file his story. But nothing moves along the road at night. He has to stay.

Next morning he is up and in a different vehicle, a Toyota being driven by 16-year-old Antonio, along with the Commandante, heading back along the 400km road to Lubango. En route the commandante explains a basic fact about the war which is that the territory is so vast and the number of troops in it so pitifully small that it is like no conventional war. There is nothing like a ‘front’.

On any road, at any place, there can be a ‘front’. You can travel the whole country and come back alive, or you can die a meter from where you’re standing. There are no principles, no methods. Everything comes down to luck and happenstance. (p.83)

Again, you have the feeling of an allegorical, metaphysical force behind these words, spoken by a character in a kind of modern version of Pilgrim’s Progress, with Kapuściński as Pilgrim, stumbling through panic-stricken cities, empty towns and the wide stony desert.

In a new section Kapuściński and the reader are rudely awakened by banging. He made it to Lubango safe and sound and slept in the building commandeered by Commandante Nelson. Now he’s being woken in the early hours because Nelson is going to be driven by his aide Manuel and whiskey-swilling colleague Commandante Bota, all the way back to Benguela. Only catch is there’s some kind of battle going on somewhere on the road.

Sure enough, a few hours later they start to hear bangs as of mortars, then some kind of grenade goes off raining shrapnel on the car roof. As the slow to avoid a parked lorry a soldier leaps out in front of them. He is MPLA and terrified. He tells them UNITA have them surrounded and he needs gasoline to fuel the vehicles to make an assault. Nelson tells him they have none to spare, to get some from the nearest town and then – heartlessly – Manuel the aide steps on the gas and they accelerate through the firefight, such as it is, seeing tracer bullets flying through the night sky. Then the road dips between walls of earth where there’s no firing and they encounter two young black soldiers who are running away from the fighting. They stop and Commandante Nelson tells them sternly to return. But he and Manuel and Kapuściński drive on.

As dawn rises they reach the town of Quilengues which is eerily, surreally empty, not only of humans but any form of life. They tiptoe through the town to make sure there’s no enemy soldiers, no sudden ambush. And then, suddenly confident, Commandante Nelson announces, “Another day of life” and starts to do a round of vigorous callisthenics!

Part five (46 pages)

The fifth part is by far the longest. After his adventures our hero is back in Luanda, in familiar room 47 in the Hotel Tivoli. After a night of feverish dreams he wakes determined to phone or telex his Big News Story about an impending South African invasion of southern Angola through to his employers in the Polish Press Agency. After days of intense travel he feels delirious and has a metaphysical moment:

I looked at the calendar, because I no longer had a feeling for time, which means that time had lost all sense of division for me, all measurability, it had fallen apart, it had oozed out like a dense tropical exhalation. Concrete time had ceased to signify anything and for a long while now the fact that it was Wednesday or Friday, the tenth of the twentieth, eight in the morning or two in the afternoon, had meant nothing to me. Life had propelled me from event to event in an undefined process directed towards an unseen goal. I knew only that I wanted to be here until the end, regardless of when it came, or how. (p.94)

Then he shakes himself and gives us one of those rarities in a Kapuściński narrative, namely a specific concrete fact. It is, he tells us, Saturday 18 October 1975. Four weeks before the date set for independence.

One of the hotel staff gives him a number to call. Secretive voices answer and switch to Spanish. They come round to his room, a big black guy and a stocky white guy, and reveal they are military ‘advisers’ from Cuba, sent to train the army, only they can’t find an army, only small units scattered over a wide area. Kapuściński tells them what he’s heard about the South Africans being about to launch an invasion, and they mull over the scenarios, then leave.

He tells us about Operation Orange which was South Africa’s plan to mount a three-pronged attack on the MPLA designed to seize Luanda by 6pm on 10 November i.e. the day before independence, in order to announce a western-friendly joint government by UNITA-FNLA. He describes how Commandante Farrusco drove south towards the border, until he suddenly encounters the South African column which opens fire, badly wounding him, his driver reverses and drives like a madman back to Pereira d’Eça.

Meanwhile, back in Luanda Kapuściński describes the weird atmosphere in the big empty city, abandoned by its European owners, as the stayers-on hear the sound of artillery fire from the north and  FNLA leaflets are dropped from a plane announcing Holden Roberto will be in the city centre in 24 hours.

He walks to the offices of a local newspaper where the journos tell him that all the FNLA forces, five battalions from Zaire plus mercenaries are attacking from the north. One of the reasons this last part is longest is because Kapuściński includes the texts of telex conversations he has with his managers back in Poland, as they offer to fly him out, he insists on staying but warns communications may be cut at any minute, no-one knows what is happening, anything might happen.

Kapuściński sardonically counterpoints the ‘grand plans, global strategies’ (p.108) he hears on radio discussions – call in the UN, convene a conference, get the Arabs to pay, get behind Vorster the leader of South Africa etc etc – and the cruder reality on the ground. For example the way, in the absence of working radio, one of the few people with any idea what’s going on is Ruiz who flies a beaten up old two-engine DC3 to various MPLA-held points of the country, dropping supplies picking up news and gossip.

He is woken in the middle of the night and has a fearful presentiment that it is the FNLA come to arrest him as a spy. In the event it is Commandante Nelson, along with Bota and Manuel, filthy and hungry and exhausted after a long drive from their southern outpost. They tell him the South Africans have rolled up all the MPLA’s southern positions and are at Benguela, 540km to the south.

Then the format of the text changes to diary entries for the last key week leading up to independence, a day-by-day account of life in Luanda starting on Monday 3 November 1975.

Monday 3 November 1975

The Cubans pick him up and drive him to the front line just beyond the city limits. Earlier in the book Kapuściński had a whole passage about the etiquette of roadblocks and checkpoints, the sussing out, the demand for papers, the drawn-out negotiations, the attempts to extort money of cigarettes. But all the Cubans have to do is say “Cubano” and they are waved through as though they have magic powers.

Kapuściński surveys the landscape all the way to the enemy lines. A message is brought to the Cuban that Benguela has fallen, all the Cubans there were killed. He sees lorries full of Portuguese troops. They have lost all discipline, have no belts, beards, they sell their rations on the black market and loot houses, packing everything into crates. They are scheduled to leave the day before independence and have nothing to lose.

Ruiz the pilot of the only plane the MPLA possesses flies south carrying sappers and explosives to blow the bridge over the Cuvo River which will cut the road between Benguela and Luanda. That night Kapuściński telexes Polish Radio the news.

Tuesday 4 November

Kapuściński is woken along with all the other guests and the hotel manager, Oscar, by armed men, who claim they are infiltrators, fifth columnists. They are sweating and tense and might shoot at any moment. While they wait for transport to take their prisoners away the MPLA press attaché arrives and sends them packing. Kapuściński clearly enjoys privileged status.

It is nowhere stated but I wonder how much this was because he was with the official press agency of an Eastern Bloc country, Poland i.e. a country controlled by the Soviet Union which the Marxist-Leninist MPLA needed as a backer for its attempts to become the new government.

A week earlier he had gone with four other journalists to the town of Lucala 400km east of Luanda which had recently been recaptured from the FNLA. The road to the town was strewn with corpses. The FNLA killed everyone and then decapitated or eviscerated them. Women’s heads littered along the road. Bodies with liver and heart cut out. Cannibals. Drunken cannibals. Hence the panic-fear in Luanda a week later that these are the people threatening to take the city by storm.

Wednesday 5 November 1975

A friend of a friend drives him to Luanda airport. It is almost abandoned and covered in litter and detritus, the wreck left by the hundreds of thousands of Portuguese who have fled. The friend, Gilberto, takes him up the control tower. And as they watch a pinprick of light appears in the dark sky and grows larger. then three more. Minutes later four planes land, taxi to a halt in front of the control tower and disgorge their passengers – scores of Cuban soldiers, battle-ready in their combat fatigues. Next day they are despatched to the front. Lucky Kapuściński happened to be there right at that moment. Or is it another one of his embellished, polished, symbolic fictions?

Right here at the end of the book he makes what is maybe a subtle self defence. He describes the challenges facing any journalist sent by their editor to Luanda and told to report on the fighting: the government will tell him nothing; the MPLA press office stays silent; he can’t get to any front because Luanda is a closed city and he is turned back at the first checkpoint; rumour is rife but there is no radio or any other communication with any part of the country. Brick wall. Hence the temptation to write the story his editors want to hear.

At this point he gives a page and a half long definition of the concept of confusão being a specially Portuguese notion of impenetrable, causeless, fruitless chaos, a handy explanation for all life’s screw-ups. Daniel Metcalfe liked this concept and explanation so much he quotes it in its entirety in his book about Angola written forty years later. Maybe every nation, or culture, has its own distinctive form of confusão.

Monday 10 November 1975

On Monday the last of the Portuguese garrison sailed away, ending nearly 500 years of Portuguese occupation. There is no love lost with the locals who look forward to freedom, but Kapuściński became friendly with some of the officers who he thought behaved with professionalism and courtesy. He notes that they at no point threatened the Cuban military advisers who, after all, were flying in to what was still Portuguese territory.

That night a lorry goes round Luanda removing all statues of Portuguese from their plinths, goodbye to the sailors and geographers and soldiers and administrators and kings, goodbye.

Tuesday 11 November 1975

At midnight it becomes Tuesday, independence day after 500 years of oppression. Kapuściński is with the big crowd assembled in Luanda’s central square. A handful of international dignitaries had flown in for the ceremony, not many because there were rumours one or other of the attacking forces would bomb the airport therefore making departure impossible. MPLA leader and Angola’s new president, Agostinho Neto, makes a short speech then the lights are put out for fear of air raids.

Kapuściński sends a dispatch back to Poland explaining that the FNLA and UNITA have come to a deal and declared their own independent government of Angola to be based at the inland city of Huambo.

He hops a lift with Ruiz and flies down to the southern front at Porto Amboim on the Cuvo River where the bridge has been blown up, leaving South Africa armoured units on the south side and MPLA bolstered by an ever-increasing number of Cubans on the north side. He investigates the front in a downpour of rain. Troops are leading women and children who’ve crossed the river from the south in search of food. That night he flies back in a plane carrying soldiers wounded in a firefight further up the river.

In one of his last dispatches to Warsaw he says the nature of the war has significantly changed in his time there. To begin with it was a conflict of pinpricks without a formal front, as explained by Commandante Farrusco. But the incursion of the South Africans changed that. They have armoured vehicles, artillery and good military discipline. They expect to fight battles. On the other side the MPLA army has been feverishly recruiting and is being whipped into shape by significant numbers of battle-hardened Cuban officers and trainers. In three short months it’s gone from being a desultory guerrilla  conflict to something much more like a conventional war.

He asks to come home. He’s shattered. His managers agree. He says his goodbyes, most notably to the new president, Agostinho Neto who, we learn at this late stage in the day, Kapuściński knows well enough to pop in on. Neto is, among many other things, a poet, and Kapuściński can quote some of his poetry by heart. They sit in the president’s book-lined room chatting. Friends in high places.

Next day he flies back to Europe, itself awash with troops and frozen in a Cold War which was to divide the continent from 1945 to 1990.

Coda

There’s a two-page coda dated 27 March 1976 i.e. four months later. He reports that the last South African units have left Angola, crossing a bridge over the Cunene River where they were reviewed by the South African Defence Minister Piet Botha. Kapuściński writes as if the war is over.

We, now, 45 years later, know that it was only just beginning. There were to be 26 more years of civil war in Angola, leaving 800,000 killed, 4 million displaced, and nearly 70,000 Angolans amputees as a result of the millions and millions of land mines planted throughout the land. Well done, everyone. Bem feito, camaradas.

Thoughts

No doubt most of this did happen. The big picture stuff certainly. Probably most of Kapuściński’s excursions also, yes. But the way he shapes the material, turning the ordinary ramshackle events of life into symbolic moments, turning ugly, stupid or drunk people into Emblems of War – this is all done with the artistry of the imaginative writer, the novelist or playwright. He paces his scenes so as to create maximum impact, giving his characters wonderfully lucid and meaningful dialogue to speak, and punctuating the narrative with profound asides about the nature not only of war, but of time, the imagination, fear and compassion.

At first sight only a skimpy 126 or so pages long, this book nevertheless packs a range of profound punches to the imagination and intellect.

Map of Kapuściński’s Angola

Locations mentioned in Another Day of Life in the order they appear in the text.

  1. Luanda – capital of Angola
  2. Caxito – 60km north of Luanda where MPLA forces have held off an attack by the FNLA
  3. Benguela – 540km south of Luanda, to the MPLA garrison run by Commandante Monti, where he hooks up with the Portuguese TV crew and Carlotta before driving on to…
  4. Balombo – the recently taken town where Carlotta is killed
  5. Lubango – where Kapuściński cadges a flight to, base of the southern command of the MPLA run by Commandante Nelson; and then further south to…
  6. Pereira d’Eça – (subsequently renamed Ondjiva, which is how it appears on this map) the MPLA’s most remote outpost, run by Commandante Farrusco
  7. Quilengues – the deserted town they arrive at having run the gauntlet from Lubango, where Commandante Nelson utters the sentence which gives the book its title and then does his callisthenics
  8. Lucala – town 400km east of Luanda where he sees evidence of FNLA cannibalism
  9. Huambo – city 600km south east of Luanda where the FNLA and UNITA set up their rival government to the MPLA
  10. Porto Amboim – where he hitches a ride to in Ruiz’s plane, 260km south of Luanda to the new southern front, to see the South Africans hunkered down on the other side of the Cuvo River
  11. Chitado – the crossing over the Cunene River where South African troops exit Angola at the end of the narrative

Map of Angola showing locations referred to in the text. Source map © Nations Online Project


Credit

Jeszcze dzień życia by Ryszard Kapuściński was published in Polish in 1976. It was translated into English as Another Day of Life in 1987. All references are to the 1987 Pan paperback edition.

Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions and memoirs set wholly or partly in Africa

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The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett (1997)

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

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

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

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

A novel about a novelist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Older man in love with passionate, idealistic, younger woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is real to me is what can be seen; I understand above all else the evidence of the eyes. She is moved by things that cannot be described, that are only half-glimpsed, and when she writes… it is  not primarily to inform her audience, but to touch them. (p.47)

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

His beloved is so special

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Graham Greene paradigm

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

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

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

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

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

The whole thing feels programmatic and predictable.

Symbolism

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

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

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

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

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

Sex in the bourgeois novel

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

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

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

Setting – the Belgian Congo at independence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The plot

Part one: Léopoldville, November 1959

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part two: Ireland and England

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

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

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

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

Part three: Léopoldville, November 1960

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part four: Bardonnecchia, August 1969

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

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

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

Dead prose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The catastrophist

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

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

And maybe he is. Who cares.

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit

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


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Illuminating India @ the Science Museum

Illuminating India

Illuminating India is a season of exhibitions and events being held at London’s Science Museum to celebrate India’s contribution to science, technology and mathematics.

At its heart are two FREE major exhibitions: 5,000 Years of Science and Innovation and Photography 1857–2017. The first consists of one large room presenting a history of scientific breakthroughs in India; the second consists of three exhibition spaces presenting a selection of photography from its arrival in India in the 1830s through to the present day.

In addition to the exhibitions there’s a season of India-themed events, including film screenings, music and dance performances, conversations with experts and more.

Wedding Portrait of an Indian Couple (c.1920-40) Unknown photographer and artist © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

Wedding Portrait of an Indian Couple (c.1920-40) Unknown photographer and artist © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

Photography in India: 1857-2017

The exhibition is divided into three sections:

  1. Power and Performance
  2. Art and Independence
  3. Modern and Contemporary

(I am often struck by how exhibitions and books about the arts must have alliterative titles cf. the Passion, Power and Politics exhibition just across the road at the Victoria and Albert Museum).

1. Power and Performance

Shortly after its invention in Britain in 1839, photography arrived in India. It was used to document the people and places of the vast sub-continent and as a record of colonial conflicts, particularly of the great Mutiny of 1857. It’s this the show opens with, presenting photographs of the ruined garrisons at some of the key battlefields of the Uprising, such as Cawnpore and Delhi. There’s a map and history briefly explaining the background and course of the Uprising.

Photos were taken by British officers like John Murray, but I was struck to learn that some were taken by Felice Beato, who I came across for his photos of the First Opium War. He was one of the first war photographers and generally staged his photos to conform to artistic conventions.

Bara Imambara after the Indian Mutiny, Lucknow, India (1858) Felice Beato © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Bara Imambara after the Indian Mutiny, Lucknow, India (1858) Felice Beato © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

There are photos of Bahadur Shah Zafar who was rather forced into becoming a figurehead for the rebels which meant that, when the Uprising was finally quelled, members of his family were executed and he – the last descendant of the Mughal emperors – was deposed.

The heyday of imperial control of India was from about 1860 to 1900 and this is reflected in the work of British photographers like Samuel Bourne and Maurice Vidal Portman. Bourne accompanied expeditions up into the Himalayas where he took breath-taking panoramas of the spectacular views, some of which were made up into books and sold to armchair explorers. Photos and bound books of them are on display here.

Portman was a fascinating character, a naval officer who was put in charge of the Andaman Islands and their inhabitants at the age of 19! He was tasked with managing the islands and their inhabitants at a time when several prison camps were established for those imprisoned by the Raj in India. Over the next twenty years he took numerous photos of the native Andamanese, for the British Government and the British Museum.

Portman got to know the natives well and wrote two books on their languages as well as building up a significant collection of ethnographic objects during his time on the Andaman Islands which are now in the British Museum. The selection of his work here emphasises the sinister application of photography, used to photograph islanders from the front and side on, alongside measuring their facial features, skull shape and size and so on, all part of the late 19th century obsession with race.

Ilech, girl of the Ta-Yeri tribe by Maurice Vidal Portman

Ilech, girl of the Ta-Yeri tribe by Maurice Vidal Portman

Meanwhile, a completely different genre grew up which adapted the colour palette  of traditional Indian painting to the new technology: basically, photographs of Indians which were then extensively touched up or painted over to create a distinctive hybrid form.

Maharana Fateh Singh of Udaipur (1849-1930) by Bourne & Shepherd © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

Maharana Fateh Singh of Udaipur (1849-1930) by Bourne & Shepherd © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

There are lots of examples of this kind of thing, depicting many of India’s 700 or so ‘princes’, images which were made for them as portraits but also reversioned in books, used in family ‘cabinets’ or made into postcards for their subjects to buy. The style carried on well into the 20th century as the example at the top of this review demonstrates.

2. Art and Independence

As cameras got smaller and cheaper more Indians were able to set up as commercial and even art photographers. This second section is sub-divided into two: examples of native photographers (Art) and a roomful of photos devoted to portraying Gandhi and Indian Independence (Independence).

The photographer Shapoor N. Bhedwar is represented by a suite of photographs depicting middle-class Indian life at the turn of the century. His studied compositions clearly borrow from the conventions of late Victorian painting.

'The Mystic Sign' from the 'Art Studies' album (c.1890) by Shapoor N Bhedwar © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

‘The Mystic Sign’ from the ‘Art Studies’ album (c.1890) by Shapoor N Bhedwar © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

A wall is devoted to works by a photographer called Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II who developed an approach based on self-portraits taken over many years, in a variety of guises and Indian costumes.

Self-portrait as a Shiva bhakt (c.1870) by Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II © Trustees, Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum, City Palace, Jaipur

Self-portrait as a Shiva bhakt (c.1870) by Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II © Trustees, Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum, City Palace, Jaipur

The second part of this section is devoted to photographs depicting the very end of the career of Mahatma Gandhi, including his funeral, along with photos of the independence on India in 1947 and of the ruinous partition of the sub-continent.

Gandhi was well aware of the importance of imagery in the ‘modern’ world (of the 1930s and 40s). As the curators point out, it’s no mistake that at the end of his life he was being accompanied by not one but two of the pre-eminent photojournalists of the day, Margaret Bourke-White and Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose works are liberally represented.

The curators take the opportunity to juxtapose these two super well-known westerners with works by India’s first female photojournalist Homai Vyarawalla.

Lord Mountbatten among jubilant crowds outside the Parliament House, Delhi, 15 August 1947 by Homai Vyarawalla © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

Lord Mountbatten among jubilant crowds outside the Parliament House, Delhi, 15 August 1947 by Homai Vyarawalla © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

3. Modern and Contemporary

The next space is also sub-divided. The first room contains lots of images from the 1950s and 60s. Gandhi had campaigned on a platform of returning India to its spiritual roots and to an economy based on self-sufficiency and village crafts. But the first prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru (PM from 1947 to 1964) took diametrically the opposite view and set about transforming India into a modern industrialised economy, along with nuclear power and its own space programme.

Hence a wall of wonderful black-and-white photos taken by Werner Bischof and Madan Mahatta of industrial landscapes, building sites, railroad sidings, power plants. A kind of sub-set of these was a couple of b&w photos taken Lucien Hervé. Looking him up on Wikipedia I discover he was French but of Hungarian origin, and I wonder if that accounts for the highly constructivist style of the photos, which remind me of the Bauhaus style of his great compatriot, László Moholy-Nagy.

High Court, Chandigarh, 1955 by Lucien Hervé © J. Paul Getty Trust

High Court, Chandigarh, 1955 by Lucien Hervé © J. Paul Getty Trust

In the next room we come to big colour photos from the 1980s onwards. Two names stand out, Rajhibir Singh and an American called Mitch Epstein. Epstein worked in films and took a cinematic approach to staging and lighting his large, bold compositions. He was, apparently, part of a movement called American New Colour.

Shravanabelagola, Karnataka, India 1981 by Mitch Epstein. Courtesy of Galerie Thomas Zander, Köln

Shravanabelagola, Karnataka, India 1981 by Mitch Epstein. Courtesy of Galerie Thomas Zander, Köln

New Indian Photography

In the final room was a generous selection from the work of three contemporary Indian photographers. As with most art nowadays, it’s not enough to just paint a painting or take a photo, you have to devise a project.

Sohrab Hura (Indian b.1981) worked on a ‘two-chapter’ personal project called Sweet Life from 2005 to 2014. Chapter 1, Life Is Elsewhere (2005 to 2011), focuses on his relationship with his mother who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. A second chapter, Look, It’s Getting Sunny Outside!!! (2008 to 2014) chronicles the improvement of her mental health. An extensive selection from both works is shown on a video screen, along with accompanying commentary.

Image 5 from Sweet Life © Sohrab Hura

Image 5 from Sweet Life © Sohrab Hura

Olivia Arthur (British, born 1980) is represented by a wall of photos which represent, or hint at, the suppressed LGBT+ sexualities of India, specifically in the port city of Mumbai. At one time India’s ‘city of dreams’, according to the wall label an increasingly reactionary political movement in Mumbai has led to the recriminalisation of homosexuality. Hence Arthur’s photos try to capture marginal places and private moments where this now-subterranean sub-culture can be seen, or at least inferred.

Ishan photographed at his parents home in Bombay (2016) by Olivia Arthur © Magnum Photos

Ishan photographed at his parents home in Bombay (2016) by Olivia Arthur © Magnum Photos

Vasantha Yogananthan (b.1985) had the bright idea of retelling the ancient Hindu epic poem the Ramayana through contemporary photos, and titling the (ongoing) series, A Myth of Two Souls. Thus two walls of large colour photos by him show images which are completely contemporary in feel, but which have captions quoting from key moments in the ancient story.

Cricket Match, Chitrakoot, Uttar Pradesh, India (2013) from the series A Myth of Two Souls by Vasantha Yogananth

Cricket Match, Chitrakoot, Uttar Pradesh, India (2013) from the series A Myth of Two Souls by Vasantha Yogananthan

As a set, these were probably the most consistently interesting and stimulating photographs in the exhibition. Yogananthan’s photos are simultaneously modest, homely, undramatic but wonderfully composed and atmospheric. Which is why I’ve included two.

Rama Combing His Hair, Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, India, 2015, from the series A Myth of Two Souls by Vasantha Yogananthan

Rama Combing His Hair, Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, India, 2015 from the series A Myth of Two Souls by Vasantha Yogananthan

If you like India, and you like photography, what are you waiting for? It’s a terrific show and it’s ABSOLUTELY FREE.

The exhibition video


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