We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch (1998)

‘Hutus must stop having mercy on the Tutsis.’
Eighth of the Hutu Ten Commandments published by Hutu Power propagandist Hassan Ngeze in 1990 (page 88)

Disappointment

Simon’s law of book-buying states that the more you spend on a book, the more likely you are to be disappointed. Nothing has brought me as much pleasure as picking up a copy of my childhood favourite, The Town That Went South by Clive King, for 30p in a National Trust second-hand bookshop a few years ago. By contrast, I paid full whack to buy We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families and almost immediately took against it.

The shiny cover of the Picador paperback somehow belies the fact that it was published in 1998 and so is nearly a quarter of a century old.

Next, the introduction by Old Etonian and Conservative Party leadership contender Rory Stewart is reasonable enough but offers no insights or ideas. In fact it opens with disappointing stupidity. His very first sentence is: ‘Is genocide a suitable subject for literature?’ to which the obvious answer is, ‘Yes, everything is a suitable subject for literature’. More specifically, ‘Yes – have you not heard of Holocaust literature?’ Literature about the killing fields of Cambodia, about the Armenian genocide, and so on? So it’s a non-question asked for purely rhetorical effect.

And finally, Gourevitch’s book itself is also disappointing because, although it contains a lot of good quality history of the background and buildup to the genocide, of the events of the genocide itself, and then a detailed account of the aftermath up until late 1998 when he completed his text, and although it contains interviews with a phenomenally large number of representative figures – it is continually interrupted by Gourevitch’s own meditations on the nature of genocide, what we should feel about genocide, whether we can write about genocide, the difficulty of imagining genocide and so on, which are uniformly poor quality, entry-level, GCSE-level. Trite ideas padded out with lame and obvious quotes. It is a big disappointment. Gourevitch may be a terrific reporter but he’s no intellectual.

The tone is set in the puzzling first chapter where Gourevitch retails a conversation he had with a pygmy (one of the aboriginal inhabitants of the region now known as Rwanda, who were swamped by later Bantu incomers and now make up about 1% of the population). This conversation delivers the  thumpingly banal message that humanity is one and needs to be united in its struggle against nature. This is the ‘insight’ message Gourevitch chooses to open his long book about the Rwandan genocide with, i.e. not very insightful at all, certainly not worth paying £10 for.

With a sinking feeling, I realised within a few pages that this book was not going to offer much insight into politics or human nature. In fact, in the passages where he tries to ‘think’ about the genocide, Gourevitch’s banal meanderings tend to blanket and dull the impact of the horrifying facts he sets down so powerfully in the factual passages.

The second disappointment is that a major part of the book’s USP is that it contains interviews and conversations Gourevitch had with scores of Rwandans from all parts of the country, from all classes and professions, Hutus and Tutsis, which go to create an impressive mosaic, like the walls of photos I’ve seen in some art installations, hundreds of photos of ordinary people caught up in a nightmare. Hence the book’s sub-title, Stories from Rwanda.

But I’m sad to report that these stories, also, partake of the general disappointment because they, also, are often surprisingly dull and banal. Obviously, many of the interviewees describe horrifying scenes: they describe entire lives lived in the shadow of the ethnic conflict between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi populations, they describe the repeated crises in the 1960s and 70s, when small-scale pogroms, massacres and localised ethnic cleansing broke out for one reason or another; then they describe the atmosphere of fear created by the RPF invasion of 1990 and the emergence of really vitriolic Hutu supremacism, the advent of magazines and radio stations calling for the complete extermination of the Tutsis; and then describe gathering round their radios to listen to the dreadful news that the moderate Hutu president Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane had been shot down as it came into land at Kigali airport and the terrible sense of doom most of them felt.

And then, of course, Gourevitch includes eye-witness account of going into hiding, being arrested, trying desperately to contact family members, watching people being shot, hacked to death with machetes, driving through smoking villages, coming across streets full of bodies, terror and despair.

The content of these stories is, of course, gripping and horrifying. But the style is uniformly flat. They all sound the same, they all speak very simply. Either that’s because all Rwandans sound the same, very simple and flat. Or because all Rwandans are dull and boring. Or maybe because every interview had to be carried out through an interpreter, since most Rwandans speak French, and French has less lexical variety than English and that’s why everyone comes out sounding the same. Or maybe it’s because all the testimony has been first translated, and then put through Gourevitch’s own style machine. All the interviews are made up of suspiciously complete sentences. There are no hesitations or repetitions or stumblings. All Gourevitch’s interviewees speak in perfect and grammatically correct sentences. They all sound the same and they all sound boring.

He even manages to make Paul Kagame sound boring, which is quite a feat. Paul Kagame was born and raised a Rwandan exile in Uganda. He volunteered to join the Ugandan army, rose quickly through the ranks, studied military theory, was a senior officer in the rebel force which helped Yoweri Museveni overthrow the Ugandan dictator Milton Obote. Kagame then went on to become a co-founder and eventually leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) which invaded north Rwanda in 1990 and fought the Rwandan army to a ceasefire in 1993. Kagame was still working through implementation the peace accords he signed with the Hutu president Juvénal Habyarimana in August 1993, when the latter’s plane was blown out of the sky in April 1994. This was the trigger for Hutu Power extremists in the government to launch their genocide of Rwanda’s Tutsi population, so Kagame immediately resumed the RPF incursion into Rwanda, quickly seizing large parts of the country, taking the capital Kigali on 4 July 1994, then pushing west to conquer almost the entire country and putting an end to the genocide by 17 July 1994.

Kagame then took up the twin roles of vice-president and defence minister in the post-genocide government, but everyone knew he was the real power in Rwanda, which he has gone on to lead down to the present day, 2021, when he is still serving as president.

Kagame is described by analysts as a military leader of ‘genius’ for turning the RPF from a ragtag of half-armed volunteers into a highly disciplined and effective military force (p.218). And then, after all this, he went on to be the military and strategic brains behind the alliance of armies, the AFDL, which invaded east Zaire in 1997 to close the Hutu refugee camps where Hutu Power génocidaires had been regrouping and preparing for genocide part two. This was the incursion which led to the AFDL marching all the way to Kinshasa and overthrowing Zairean dictator Joseph Mobutu.

In other words, Kagame is one of the most fascinating characters of the late 20th/early 21st centuries and Gourevitch has had the privilege of interviewing him not once but on numerous occasions. And yet, in Gourevitch’s hands, this is what Kagame sounds like:

“I have wanted to be original about my own thinking, especially in regard to my own situation here. Not that I don’t realise that there are other people out there to admire, but it is just not my habit to admire anybody. Even if something has worked, I think there are many other things that could work also. If there’s anything else that has worked, I would certainly pick a bit from that. But if there could be another way of having things work, I would like to discover that. If I could have some original way of thinking, that would be OK for me.” (quoted on page 213)

Pretty dull, eh. It’s far too harsh to say that Gourevitch is a lightweight and he makes everyone he interviews sound like a lightweight, but that thought did cross my mind during more than one of the duller interviews in the book.

He’s spoken to literally hundreds of people, including many key players and all kinds of experts and aid and UN officials and yet…hardly any of them say anything interesting. Only towards the end did some of the Rwandan officials complaining about the utter ineffectualness of the international community make an impression.

A literary account, alas

Gourevitch is a longtime staff writer for New Yorker magazine and a former editor of The Paris Review. He knew nothing about Rwanda or African politics before he watched the shocking images on the TV news as the Rwanda genocide broke in spring 1994. Fascinated and appalled he realised he had to find out more (or realised this was a terrific opportunity for an ambitious journalist looking for a subject for a book).

So Gourevitch began visiting Rwanda in 1995 (p.7) and over the next two years made nine trips to the country and to its neighbours (Zaire, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania) to report on the genocide and its aftermath. He made 6 trips lasting a total of 9 months (p.185). During that time he interviewed hundreds of people from Rwanda and the neighbouring countries and the book contains an impressive number of first-hand, eye-witness testimony from many, many Tutsi survivors, as well as more confrontational interviews with men accused of complicity or of organising particular local massacres.

Possibly his lack of background in African affairs partly explains the air of hopeless bewilderment he exudes right from the start. In the opening sections of the book Gourevitch goes heavy on his inability to imagine the events, on the importance of imagination in our lives, his interest in how people imagine their identities, on the importance of the narratives which shape their lives. In other words, he brings a heavily literary slant to his huge and complicated subject.

On the first page of his text he mentions Charles Dickens, on page 3 he is citing Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, there are epigraphs from George Eliot and John Milton. Directly after that limp quote from Kagame which I cite above, Gourevitch says it reminds him of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke writing on love and art (p.213).

Oh dear. It is going to be literary journalism, the worst sort, the type of journalism which spends a lot of its energy emphasising the author’s own sensitivity, which foregrounds his own emotional responses, to the subject matter, rather than doing a journalist’s job which is to get on and tell you what happened and let interviewees tell their own stories, preferably without a load of editorialising about how you everything you find out about the horrors makes you feel. In the showbiz world of American journalism, ruined by the egotistical displays of Norman Mailer or Tom Wolfe in the 1960s, it is acceptable to put the author and his responses at the centre of the story, but I wanted a history, I wanted to know the facts, not reiterations of how a pampered New York journalist was appalled to discover how brutal life  is in much of Africa and how thoughtlessly cruel human beings can be.

His factual sections are sensational but when he stops to reflect on it all, Gourevitch writes quite a lot of stupid things. When he writes that ‘Power is terribly complex’ on page 78 I suddenly realised I was dealing with an idiot. My daughter learned more about political, social and cultural power in her GCSE Sociology course than Gourevitch displays in this entire book. All the ‘reflection’ in the book displays a disappointingly low knowledge of political theory, knowledge of international relations, or philosophy about human nature.

And I was irritated by his casual assumption that the ‘we’ he continually refers to are all white, liberal, college-educated, East Coast readers of New Yorker magazine, that ‘we’ all share his over-developed moral scruples and his severely under-developed sense of world affairs, geopolitics, African history and politics. Right at the beginning he tries to implicate the reader in his sensitive moral scruples:

I presume that you are reading this because you want a closer look, and that you, too, are properly disturbed by your curiosity. (p.19)

Well, er, no. I am not disturbed by my interest in reading about the Rwandan genocide in the same way that I am not disturbed by my interest in reading about the Holocaust, or the Second World War, or the First World War, the Somme, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the American Civil War, the Tapei Rebellion, the rape of Nanking, the Gulag Archipelago, the Russian Civil War, the Ukraine famine, the Partition of India, Islamic State, the Crusades, the decimation of the Incas and Aztecs, the violent rise of Islam, the blood-soaked fall of Byzantium, the life and massacres of Genghiz Khan. I could go on…

I am reading this book because I want to be better informed about human history which, as anyone who has even a superficial knowledge of the subject knows, amounts to an unrelenting series of wars, massacres, genocides and bloodbaths. I’m kind of used to it.

So, no, I am not in the slightest disturbed by my curiosity to want to understand a recent historical event better. Seems perfectly normal to me, and most of the history books I read include passages where historians say the public in general ought to be more aware of history. In addition, many progressive historians and commentators tell us we need to get out of our Eurocentric frame of reference and understand more about the wider world and places beyond London or Paris. So that’s why I’m reading a book about Africa, and about one of the most striking events in post-war African history.

Gourevitch’s comment betrays a basic…what…dimness, obtuseness, ignorance…about the entire subject of History and why people would want to study it, which is to find out what happened, to try and understand why it happened, in order to better understand the forces at work in the world around us, now, in the present.

The facts

The book consists of three elements:

  1. Gourevitch’s self-consciously literary fretting over the power of imagination and the importance of narrative and the centrality of stories and the difficulties of human identity and a familiar checklist of progressive, liberal arts issues
  2. interviews with scores of Rwandans, UN officials, foreign doctors and aid workers, politicians and so on, giving often harrowing descriptions of their experiences or clarifying the political situation in Kigali, in the UN, in the aid camps in Zaire
  3. actual historical facts

When he sticks to the facts, Gourevitch is very good indeed. Suddenly, about a third of the way into the book, after the kind of maundering speculation I’ve been slagging off, it changes tone dramatically and becomes a riveting account of the early history of the country, a description of the colonial era when the Belgians divided the two ethnic groups of Hutu and Tutsi the better to control them, and how this ethnic division, once created, went on to dog the Rwanda, which won independence in 1962 but continued to suffer repeated outbreaks of ethnic violence, pogroms and massacres (the massacres of 59, of 61, of 63, and so on).

In what follows I extract the facts Gourevitch gives and supplement them from other sources to try and create a comprehensive and useful timeline.

Rwandan history

In 1994 Rwanda had a population of about 7 million. Relatively small, it was the most densely populated country in Africa. About 85% of the population were Hutus, 14% Tutsis and 1% pygmies known at the Twa.

Rwanda is divided into five provinces: Kigali, Northern, Eastern, Southern and Western.

Because they were illiterate, no Rwandans before the arrival of Europeans had ever written anything down. Therefore, their prehistory relies entirely on unreliable oral traditions and speculation. Modern archaeology tentatively suggests that the hilly region was inhabited by pygmies as long ago as 8,000 BC, before it was slowly infiltrated from 700 AD by Bantu tribes from West Africa who went on to form the Hutus, and by ‘Nilotic’ ethnic groups from the north who were ancestors of the Tutsi (p.49). Maybe.

Hutus and Tutsis

For centuries before Europeans arrived, the Tutsis were nomadic cattle rearers, which made them wealthier than the Hutu majority who were mostly static farmers; the ruler of Rwanda was a Tutsi and the aristocratic Tutsis looked down on the peasant Hutus.

The regime was essentially feudal: Tutsis were aristocrats; Hutus were vassals. (p.49)

Although there’s a racial stereotype that the Hutus are full-on ‘negroid’ African in appearance while the Tutsis have narrow faces, with narrow noses and thin lips, in reality scores of generations of interbreeding meant the majority of the population didn’t conform to these stereotypes and very often Rwandans couldn’t tell which groups each other belonged to (p.50). Plenty of the Rwandans Gourevitch talks to tell him they pass for one ethnic group when they in fact belong to another. In other words, it wasn’t such a starkly obvious divide as between blacks and whites. Many Hutus and Tutsis are indistinguishable.

Tutsi ruler Kigeli Rwabugiri reigned from 1853 to 1895 and expanded the kingdom to its greatest extent. He oversaw a society which was regimented and hierarchical, with layers of military, political and civil chiefs and governors, priests, tax collectors, sub-chiefs, deputy governors and so on (p.49). Divisions between Hutu and Tutsi were hardened, with the former obliged to perform forced labour for the latter.

When the Berlin Conference of 1884 to 1885 carved up Africa between the European imperial nations, Rwanda was handed to the Germans because they had explored the region, had missionaries on the ground, and nobody else wanted it (p.55). After Germany lost the Great War, Rwanda was combined with the neighbouring nation of Burundi and handed by the victorious allies over to Belgium, because they abut the huge Belgian Congo to the west. Belgium ran Rwanda from 1918 to 1962.

The Belgians hardened the ethnic division in the country by compelling every citizen to state on their identity papers which group they belonged to. This had the effect of crystallising a racial divide which had been far more fluid and flexible before.

The Hutu revolution

Throughout the century Hutu resentment at their inferior status simmered. With the advent of an educated class it found expression. In 1957 nine Hutu intellectuals published a Hutu Manifesto. Its full title was ‘Note on the social aspect of the native racial problem in Rwanda’ and it was ten pages long. The manifesto called for a ‘double liberation’ of the Hutu people, from the colonial oppression of the Belgians, and then from the racial oppression of the Tutsis. The manifesto called for the political disenfranchisement of the Tutsi, banning intermarriage between the two groups, and banning the Tutsi from military service.

1959 Hutu political leaders backed by elements in the Belgian administration overthrew the Tutsi monarchy (which had continued to exist throughout the colonial period) and replaced it with a republic. Violence against Tutsis spread across the country and tens of thousands of Tutsis fled to neighbouring countries, including Uganda. (When many of these exiles returned with the triumph of the RPF government in 1994, they were referred to as ’59ers’.)

Independence 1962

Rwanda was separated from Burundi and the two countries gained independence on 1 July 1962. Tutsi militias raised among exiles, especially in neighbouring Uganda, staged occasional raids into Rwanda, which always led to reprisals by the Hutu government. In December 1963 a Tutsi raid led to Hutu reprisals in which tens of thousands of Tutsis were massacred, in what one journalist called a genocide and Bertrand Russell declared was the worst massacre since the Holocaust. (This Russell quote crops up in Fergal Keane’s book on the genocide; it’s obviously one of those quotable quotes you get extra marks for in your GCSE essay.)

More than 336,000 Tutsi left Rwanda in 1964 to escape the Hutu purges. In 1972 Tutsi school students across the country were attacked, beaten, their houses torched. So large-scale massacres and pogroms came in waves.

Meanwhile, in neighbouring Burundi, it was the Tutsis who were in charge and in 1973 embarked on a pogrom of Hutus. As many as 100,000 were killed and a further 200,000 Hutus fled as exiles into Rwanda, where every one of their stories fed the fuel of anti-Tutsi anger.

The 1973 influx of Hutu refugees inspired the Rwandan president Grégoire Kayibanda to order his army chief of staff, Juvénal Habyarimana, to set up ‘committees of public safety’, which promptly set about massacring Tutsis. On this occasion the victims were ‘only’ in the hundreds, but as many 100,000 Tutsis fled abroad.

To summarise, Rwanda and Burundi have a long record of attack and counter-attack, profound ethnic antagonism and ethnic cleansing of the two groups which dated back before independence and flared up on an almost annual basis, with the Tutsi almost always being victimised, massacred, and fleeing the country in tens of thousands. The 1994 genocide was generations in the making.

Habyarimana’s coup 1973

In 1973 Rwanda’s army chief of staff, Hutu nationalist Juvénal Habyarimana, carried out a coup, overthrowing president Kayibanda and declaring himself president of independent Rwanda. Under his rule Rwanda became a totalitarian, one-party state in which every citizen was compelled to be a member of his MRND party and was required to chant and dance in adulation of the president at mass pageants (p.75). Habyarimana was to remain dictator of Rwanda for 21 years, kept in place by lavish aid from Western nations and in particular from his most loyal Western supporter, France. Naturellement.

Gourevitch makes the point that during the 1980s and 90s France channeled huge amounts of armaments to the Hutu government, up to and through the actual genocide; that French advisers helped the government at all levels; that French president Francois Mitterand’s son Jean-Christophe was an arms dealer who made a packet from the trade (p.89).

In 1986 the global price of Rwanda’s main exports, coffee and tea, collapsed, and real hardship for the majority of the population added to simmering Hutu disaffection. The racist, supremacist policies of Hutu Power spread like a virus, popularising the insulting term inyenzi or cockroaches for Tutsis.

The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) The Tutsis in Uganda

But so did the Tutsi fightback. It is important to understand the role played by Ugandan politics. In 1979 Tutsi exiles in Uganda formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). (It was initially known as the Rwandan Refugees Welfare Association and then, from 1980, as the Rwandan Alliance for National Unity (RANU)). It was formed in response to the persecution of Tutsi refugees by the regime of Ugandan president Milton Obote. Obote accused the Rwandans of collaboration with his predecessor, Idi Amin.

Tutsi refugees Fred Rwigyema and Paul Kagame had joined Yoweri Museveni’s rebel Front for National Salvation (FRONASA). Museveni had fought alongside Obote to defeat Amin in 1979 but withdrew from the government following Obote’s disputed victory in the 1980 general election.

With Rwigyema and Kagame, Museveni formed a new rebel army, the National Resistance Army (NRA). Their campaign to overthrow Obote’s government became known as the Ugandan Bush War.

Obote remained hostile to Rwandan refugees throughout his presidency and in 1981 forced RANU into exile in Kenya. In 1982 he encouraged local councils to force Rwandan refugees out of ordinary civil life and into refugee camps. When Rwandans attempted to cross the border back into Rwanda, the Habyarimana regime confined them to isolated refugee camps and closed the border to prevent further migration.

You can see why many Tutsi exiles found themselves in an impossible position and it explains why so many joined up with Museveni’s NRA with the aim of overthrowing Obote and restoring their rights within Uganda.

In 1986 the NRA captured Kampala with a force of 14,000 soldiers which included 500 Rwandans, some of them senior officers, among them Kagame and Rwigyema. Museveni was grateful for their support and relaxed all Obote’s laws discriminating against Rwandans.

But you can also see why their success in the Bush War led soldiers like Rwigyema and Kagame to  think they might launch a similar military attack against the consider an attack against Rwanda, with the aim of overthrowing the dictatorial Habyarimana regime, installing a moderate government and so allowing the Rwandan refugees inside Uganda to return home. And you can see why the new man they’d helped to power in Uganda, Museveni, would support such a move.

The Rwandan civil war 1990 to 1994

At its 1987 convention RANU renamed itself the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). After a small-scale incursion was repelled in 1989, a cohort of Tutsi soldiers within the Ugandan army deserted, along with uniforms, arms and ammunition and invaded north Rwanda in 1990. It was the right year, as the Cold War came to an end and Western powers abruptly ceased their support for African dictators like Mobutu of Zaire and Habyarimana of Rwanda and force them to instal multi-party democracies.

The RPF incursion developed into the Rwandan Civil War. (To give a sense of the relatively small scale of all this, the original Tutsi incursion numbered some 2,500 soldiers who effectively went AWOL from the Ugandan army, accompanied by some 800 civilians such as doctors and nurses.) The RPF were defeated and repelled by the Rwandan Army (bolstered by French troops flown in to prop up another notorious African dictator) and withdrew to the Virunga mountains where Paul Kagame, establishing himself as its paramount leader, led a very effective regrouping and reorganisation. He attracted funds and exiles, he imposed strict military discipline and turned the RPF into an impressive fighting machine. In 1991 they emerged from the mountains to conduct an effective guerrilla campaign, hitting military targets across the north.

Throughout this period Hutu Power stepped up their propaganda that the Tutsis were parasites on decent hard-working Hutus, exacerbated by the war which Hutus blamed on Tutsi invaders. The circle around Habyarimana’s wife, Agathe, set up a propaganda magazine, Akura, edited by Hassan Ngeze, who developed into the Dr Goebbels of the regime and in December 1990 published a Hutu Ten Commandments mandating Hutu supremacy in all aspects of Rwandan life (p.87).

Propaganda claimed the Tutsis were an alien people, were not Christians, were fighting to gain dictatorial control of Rwanda, restore the old monarchy and reduce the Hutu majority to slaves. In 1992 Hutu Power ideologue Leon Mugesera made a much-reported and chilling speech calling on Hutus to send the Tutsis back to Ethiopia by river i.e. as corpses down the river Nyabarongo (pages 53 and 96). And throughout the war Radio Rwanda broadcast anti-Tutsi hate and there were sporadic anti-Tutsi pogroms around the country, in which thousands were murdered.

The RPF invasion ratcheted up the very anti-Tutsi hate they were set up to counter.

Fragile peace 1993

By 1992 Habyarimana had been forced to accept a measure of multi-party politics and had included politicians not members of his party in the cabinet. It was these opposition politicians who met with the RPF leadership and negotiated a ceasefire in July 1992, leading to face-to-face peace negotiations.

It’s vital to realise that the hardline Hutus, often referred to as the akazu (p.81) and linked with the extended family of the president’s wife, disapproved of Habyarimana’s willingness to compromise and negotiate. They began setting up parallel hard-line Hutu structures within the organs of state, the civil service, the media and the army. Historian Gérard Prunier names late 1992 as the time when the idea of a genocidal ‘final solution’ to kill every Tutsi in Rwanda was first floated among this group. It was led, ironically enough, by one of the new parties encouraged to form by Western pressure to set up a proper democracy, the Coalition for the Defence of the Republic (CDR).

When Habyarimana signed a treaty with the RPF in early 1993 promising a transition to a genuine pluralist democracy in which Tutsi rights would be respected the CDR refused to sign, organised nationwide protests and encourage anti-Tutsi violence in which hundreds were murdered. In response the RPF resumed hostilities, this time defeating the Rwandan army which hadn’t been paid due to the country’s deteriorating economy.

Ever-faithful France sent troops to bolster the Rwandan army. The numbers are tiny. Just the arrival of 400 well disciplined and trained French troops was enough to halt the RPF advance. Nonetheless the RPF came within striking distance of Kigali but Kagali overruled his senior officers and refused to take the capital, shrewdly pointing out that it would alienate his foreign backers and the Hutu population. Instead he declared a ceasefire and called for more negotiations.

On the Hutu side, factions arose in all the parties which allied themselves with what became known as Hutu Power. Each party split into a moderate faction which believed in some amount of political negotiation, and a ‘Power’ faction, which rejected compromise and stood for total Hutu supremacy (p.97). Youth militia wings of each of the parties emerged, including the Interahamwe meaning ‘those who attack together’, who had their origin in football supporters clubs (p.93).

Habyarimana began to realise that the Hutu Power militants were more his enemy than the RPF. After prolonged haggling over the make-up of the post-war Rwandan army, a formal peace treaty was signed on 4 August 1993 (p.99). A transitional government was to be set up with members from all the main parties. UN troops were flown in to supervise the treaty, while Hutu Power authorities began to plan a genocide. Four days after the signing a new radio station set up by the akazu, Radio Television Libre des Milles Collines, began broadcasting genocidal propaganda (p.99).

The general situation was not helped at all when president of Burundi, Melchior Ndadaye, who had been elected in June as the country’s first ever Hutu president, was assassinated by extremist Tutsi army officers in October 1993, leading to a Hutu uprising and a violent crackdown by the Tutsi army which left around 50,000 dead (p.101). The assassination reinforced the notion among Rwandan Hutus that the Tutsi  presented a permanent threat and that there could be no peace, not real long-lasting peace, until they were completely eliminated. This very fragile ‘peace’ lasted from August 1993 till April 1994.

Trigger for the genocide 1994

On the night of 6 April 1994 a plane carrying president Habyarimana and his counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi – both Hutus – was shot down as it approached Kigali airport, killing everyone on board. Hutu extremists blamed the RPF. The Hutu Power wing of the army, led by Colonel Théoneste Bagosora, assassinated the next in line to civilian authority, the (Hutu) Prime Minister,  Agathe Uwilingiyimana, along with ten Belgian UN soldiers charged with her protection (who were tortured first, p.114), and immediately started to implement the campaign of slaughter which they had been developing for years. It was to be a ‘final solution’ to the Tutsi problem.

The RPF claims that Hutu extremists themselves murdered their own president because he was engaged in negotiations with the Tutsis i.e. was a moderate Hutu and seen by a ‘sellout’ by the extremists on his own side.

The very next day, 7 April, as systematic killings across the country began, Kagame warned he was abandoning the treaty and the RPF broke out of its base in the north, attacking into Rwanda in three directions. So the genocide took place against the backdrop of renewed invasion and war. The RPF slowly seized territory in the east, heading south. UN troops were stationed in the demilitarised zone in the north but were ordered to withdraw to their camps to avoid getting involved in the fighting.

You can see why the renewal of war incited the Hutu Power advocates to carry out the genocide with feverish haste, ordering their followers at local level to kill as many as possible as quickly as possible before either the RPF won or the international community stepped in. For Hutu Power, it was a race against the clock.

The genocide – 100 days in 1994

Between April and July 1994, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed in the space of 100 days. Three key facts to grasp are that:

1. The Hutu Power extremists had been preparing for this day for years, had drawn up lists of every Tutsis in the country with names and addresses, had assigned local Hutu leaders to direct and manage the slaughter, and had plans to take over state radio The Hutu extremists set up a radio station, RTLM, and newspapers which circulated hate propaganda, urging people to ‘weed out the inyenzi‘, to broadcast messages of hate. In other words, it was all extremely well planned. The identity cards which every Rwandan had been obliged by law to carry ever since the Belgians introduced them in 1931 (p.56) now became death warrants for any Tutsi stopped by police, militias, at road blocks, in the street, stopped search identified and hacked to death with a machete.

2. Second thing is that Rwanda was unique in tropical African countries in having been, from before Europeans arrived, a highly hierarchical country, organised like a pyramid from each district up to the top of government. Habyarimana’s governing party, the MRND, had a youth wing called the Interahamwe, which was turned into a militia to carry out the slaughter, but they operated within a highly organised society. It was a very well-organised genocide.

3. French troops, fighting on the side of the Rwandan army, freed up resources which Colonel Théoneste Bagosora could redirect to speeding up the genocide (p.90). On the nights of 16 and 18 June French arms shipments were flown into Goma in Zaire and then ferried across the border to support the genocidal Hutu Power regime (p.155). Gourevitch writes of:

The French political and military establishment’s…blatant complicity in the preparation and implementation of the butchery. (p.155)

I was amused to read that as the RPF closed in a French military plane whisked Habyarimana’s wife, Agathe, the central figure in the networks of Hutu Power, the leading figure in the azaku, to safety back in the homeland of liberty, equality and fraternity. Vive la France!

Number killed

At least 800,000 Tutsis were slaughtered in just 100 days, making it the fastest mass killing in human history. People were slaughtered at a faster rate than even during the Holocaust. Some Tutsis, commentators and historians put the figure higher at 1 million, for example a Red Cross report published soon afterwards.

What’s Somalia got to do with it?

Six months before the genocide broke out American troops had carried out Operation Gothic Serpent, an attempt to take on the evil warlord, Mohamed Farrah Aidid.,who ruled Mogadishu, capital of Somalia, which led to the so-called Battle of Mogadishu on 3 and 4 October 1993 during which a black hawk helicopter was shot down and 19 American soldiers were killed and 73 wounded. Not just that. The American corpses were paraded through the streets, and filmed and the video footage beamed around the world. The world’s only superpower was humiliated.

This explains why, when trouble broke out in another faraway African state, the administration of President Bill Clinton desperately tried to ignore it, then downplay it. Gourevitch quotes the press conferences given while the genocide was being carried out in which the poor press secretary tried to explain the administration’s position that ‘genocidal acts’ were taking place but these didn’t amount to an actual genocide. Why the hair-splitting? Because if the Americans conceded it was a genocide, then they would be legally obliged under the Genocide Convention of 1948 to intervene. And Clinton refused under any circumstances to risk another Black Hawk Down humiliation. And therefore officials at every level of the administration were under strict orders never to use the g word.

A bit too neatly Gourevitch says that in May, as the genocide was in full swing, he was visiting the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which happened to have been opened by President Bill Clinton who made a speech repeating the museum’s motto Never Again. But not only did it happen again, and the American government was the number one reason that the West, the international community and the United Nations did not do more to stop it (as explained in detail on pages 151 to 154). Disgusting.

French involvement and guilt

By June the RPF, attracting more and more Tutsi recruits, controlled the east of Rwanda, had surrounded the key cities including Kigali. In the same month France launched Opération Turquoise in the west of the country, entering from bases in the Zairian cities of Goma and Bukavu and eventually controlling the western fifth of Rwanda in order to create a safe haven for refugees. The fact that many of these refugees were Hutus, fleeing the advancing RPF army, and included many Hutu Power administrators and officials, has led to claims ever since that the French in effect protected those responsible for the genocide.

From the moment they arrived, and wherever they went, the French forces supported and preserved the same local political leaders who had presided over the genocide. (p.158)

Throughout the genocide French military spokesman argued that it was a ‘two-way’ genocide, both sides were as bad as each other and sneeringly referred to the RPF as the Khmer Rouge. The French had many motivations. 1. To maintain hegemony over the widest possible area of francophonie. 2. To maintain its credibility with the other African dictators it supported. Hatred of the English. Hard though it is to believe, the French government opposed the RPF because they originated in English-speaking Uganda. French culture must be preserved even at the cost of supporting the largest genocide since the Holocaust. This was recognised as a factor in France’s support for mass murder by as senior figure as Paul Kagame:

‘If they wanted people here to speak French, they shouldn’t have helped to kill people here who spoke French.’ (p.160)

The permanent grievance of the history’s losers.

The signal achievement of [France’s] Opération Turquoise was to permit the slaughter of Tutsis to continue for an extra month, and to secure safe passage for the genocidal command to cross, with a lot of its weaponry, into Zaire. (p.161)

Scum. cf p.289 and p.325.

End of the genocide July 1994

By late June the RPF had surrounded Kigali and took the capital on 4 July, followed on 18 July by the major towns of the north-west, forcing the interim government into Zaire. The RPF victory ended the genocide as well as the civil war. By the end of July 1994 Kagame’s forces held the whole of Rwanda except for the Turquoise zone in the south-west.

The international community, the UN troops on the ground and the French had done fuck-all to halt the worst genocide since the Second World War. (To be fair, Canadian General Roméo Dallaire sent his superiors in New York advance warnings he had learned from high-placed Hutu dissidents that a really huge massacre was being planned. When they ignored his warnings and actively reduced the UN presence on the ground, he and his reduced forces were at least able to provide refuge for thousands of Tutsi and moderate Hutu at its headquarters in Amahoro Stadium, at other secure UN sites, and assisted with the evacuation of foreign nationals.)

Instead the genocide ended solely as a result of the military intervention of Paul Kagame’s RPF (p.143). (Mind you, you could make the case that the genocide only came about because of the sequence of events following the RPF’s initial invasion of 1990, designed to overthrow the ‘legitimate’ Hutu government. Academics, commentators and advocates of all sides can spend the rest of time assigning blame.)

Map showing the advance of the RPF during the 1994 Rwandan genocide (source: Wikipedia)

Aftermath – flight of the Hutus

As the RPF closed in the Hutu extremists prepared not just to flee the country, but used state radio and local authorities to terrify the Hutu population into believing they too, in their turn, would be slaughtered by vengeful Tutsis. Which explains why some two million Hutu peasants took to the road and fled west into Zaire, eventually setting up huge refugee camps as big as cities.

And indeed the RPF were accused of themselves killing thousands of Hutu civilians as they took power, and of pursuing and Hutus across the border in Zaire as they tracked down members of the notorious Interahamwe. The RPF denies this was intentional but Gourevitch has Kagame admitting certain rogue elements in his army may have carried out illegal revenge attacks. He tried to restrain them, some were tried and imprisoned, but there’s a limit to his control.

But the bigger story, which Gourevitch dwells on at length, was the creation of vast Hutu refugee camps which became cities in their own right, homes to countless businesses, run with fear and intimidation by Hutu Power administrators, and funded and supported by the international community and hundreds of well-meaning aid agencies.

Ethnic cleansing in East Congo 1995 to 1996

The resulting situation in eastern Congo became chaotic with Rwandan Tutsis tracking down and massacring Hutus, and Hutu extremists regrouping in the vast refugee camps helped by Western governments and aid agencies a) launching cross-border raids back into Rwanda to murder survivors and kill witnesses and b) embarking on their own campaigns of ethnic cleansing against ethnic Tutsis who had lived in Zaire for generations, specifically in the area of Kivu around the Zairean town of Goma.

In other words, intense Hutu-Tutsi animosity, spilling over into massacres and ethnic cleansing continued for years after the genocide itself was ended by the invading RPF.

First Congo War 1996 to 1997

Gourevitch spells out how the genocide was a gift from God for Congo dictator Seko Sese Mobutu (p.281). The old bastard had been unceremoniously dumped by his Western supporters when the Cold War ended in 1990 and had gone through a lean time manipulating a succession of fig-leaf ‘democratic’ governments while he slowly lost control of the lucrative mining industries which had kept his kleptocratic state alive, inflation soared to 9,000 per cent, the economy collapsed.

But with the advent of nearly two million refugees in the far east of his country in 1994, Mobutu was suddenly the man the international community and countless aid agencies had to go through to help them and he proved a willing participant, seeing as he got to cream off significant percentages of the money passing through his capital and its crooked banks. Leading the charge was, of course, the dictator’s most loyal Western friend and the most avid supporter of the genocidal Hutus, France.

France, ever eager to bail out Hutu Power, broke ranks with the rest of what in Cold War parlance used to be called the ‘Free World’ and unilaterally restored aid to Zaire – which meant, of course, to Mobutu who shovelled the money directly into his Swiss bank accounts. (p.281)

Throughout the spring of 1996 Hutu Power militias based in the refugee camps funded by the West continued a campaign to ethnically cleanse the area of North Kivu of its native Zairean Tutsi population, Gourevitch tours the area after such cleansing, travelling through miles of devastation, meeting terrified refugees. The RPF Rwandan government demanded something be done to protect the Tutsis. Zaire protested no such cleansing was going on. The international community did precisely nothing (p.289).

Eventually Kagame was forced to consider direct military intervention into eastern Zaire where the camps were located. His ally Museveni had introduced Kagame to Zairean revolutionary and guerrilla leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila. They began recruiting troops and creating networks of like-minded soldiers, militias and exiles which coalesced into the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation or AFDL.

Since North Kivu had been largely ethnically cleansed of Tutsis, Kagam predicted the Hutu Power militias would next turn on the 300,000 or so Tutsis living in South Kivu, known as the Banyamulenge after the town they were meant to have immigrated from back in the seventeenth century.

In September 1996 Hutu militias began attacking the Banyamulenge, burning houses, assassinating key officials, executing people in the street. They were fully supported by Mobutu’s army and media, who blamed the Tutsis victims for every atrocity. This was the same pattern and rhetoric which had led to the genocide. Tutsis fought back and were aided by Rwandan soldiers infiltrated into the area (p.295).

When the local Zairean governor declared that the entire Banyamulenge population had one week to vacate their homes and leave the territory, it was precisely the kind of categorical provocation Kagame had been waiting for. He immediately ordered the advance of the amalgamated forces which he, Museveni and Kabila had created into South Kivu. He tells Gourevitch he had three aims:

  1. protect the Banyamulenge Tutsis, arm them, empower them to fight and protect themselves
  2. to dismantle the notorious refugee camps and get their Hutu occupants to return to Rwanda where they would be treated decently
  3. to ‘change the situation in Zaire’ i.e. remove Mobutu as an active supporter of genocidal Hutu Power and replace him with a modern, neutral figure

The AFDL advance was as disciplined and effective as the RWP invasion of Rwanda 2 years earlier. It had the decisive effect of breaking the grip of Hutu Power on the camps and forcing an estimated 700,000 refugees to abandon the camps and trek the 20 or 30 miles back across the border into peaceful Rwanda, and return to their communities. Obviously, there were all kinds of problems with this enormous reintegration into such a densely populated country and with so many divisive memories, but the wholesale massacre of Hutu refugees which the Hutu Power ideologues had terrified the refugees with never happened.

But to the wider world’s surprise the invading AFDL didn’t just invade the Hutu camps, tracking down Hutu Power exponents, freeing the majority of the Hutu refugees into returning to Rwanda – they then declared their intention of marching on Zaire’s capital, Kinshasa, approximately two and a half thousand miles west.

Fall of Mobutu May 1997

It took the AFDL a long seven months to get there, more a tribute to the shocking state of Zaire’s roads and infrastructure than to any opposition put up by the rubbish Zaire army, the FAZ (which Gourevitch describes as ‘Mobutu’s famously cowardly army’, p.256).

As Kabila’s troops approached the capital, president Nelson Mandela of South Africa flew in to try and broker a deal, but failed. Mobutu wanted to stay on the scene, if only as a figurehead president, while Kabila, leading the winning army, wanted all or nothing. Mobutu, his family and cronies fled, Kabila’s troops entered Kinshasa and on 30 May 1997 Kabila was sworn in as president. Next day Kabile changed the country’s name from Zaire to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He was to be president until his assassination in 2001.

The Second Congo War 1998 to 2003

Kabila turned against his own backers, responding to the Congo public’s dislike of the occupying army of Rwandans and Ugandans and summarily expelling them all in 1998. Bad move. Rwanda and Uganda again collaborated in putting together an invasion force, this time with the aim of overthrowing Kabila and installing a more compliant president. However, the conflict ended up roping six other African nations into the fighting which degenerated into chaos.

The conflict dragged on till 2003 by which time an estimated five million people had died as a result of the conflict. Some armed groups remain active in the areas near Rwanda’s border right up till the present day, 2021.

The post-genocide period

The last hundred pages of this 350-page book cover the period after the genocide. Gourevitch describes the surprising number of Tutsis who returned from exile all over the place, not just the neighbouring countries of Uganda and Tanzania, but Europe and America, once it was clear that a democratic, mixed ethnicity and peaceful government was in place. And the inevitable tensions this led to between those who’d lived through the horror and seen family and loved ones literally hacked to death before their eyes, and returnees from abroad who moved into the many empty houses, tidied up the mess left by the departing Hutus, had barbecues, laughed and joked as if nothing had happened. Many of the survivors Gourevitch interviews find this difficult to cope with (pages 229 to 241).

He covers the massacre of Hutu refugees at the Kibeho refugee camp. He visits post-genocide prisons packed with Hutus who are strangely passive. Considering that high-profile Hutus were being assassinated on the outside, many of them were relieved to be in the relative safety of prison, regularly visited by international aid workers and monitors. He describes in detail the paradox of Hutu Power genocidaires being protected and funded by western aid agencies, at the complete inability of the international community, yet again, to intervene to stop their attacks into Rwanda and their ethnic cleansing of North Kivu and, yet again, the only thing to stop it being a military invasion organised by Paul Kagame, this time in the shape of the coalition AFDL.

At this kind of thing – specific settings and the issues arising from them – Gourevitch excels and his book will remain a valuable record and testimony to the tense, disorientated spirit of the period after the genocide and before the second Congo war of 1998, the one which degenerated into the Great War of Africa. Gourevitch thought he was covering an event which had finished but ended up recording a moment in the continual, ongoing flux of human events, the edgy post-genocide moment which has itself become part of history.

Stupid remarks

Gourevitch peppers the books with remarks which are, presumably, intended to be insightful, but as someone who did a history GCSE, A-level, history-based degree and has spent my life reading history books and attending history exhibitions, I found disappointingly obvious and trite.

Colonisation is violence and there are many ways to carry out that violence. (p.55)

Every war is unconventional after its own fashion. (p.82)

They sound good, don’t they, they create a good literary, rhetorical effect, they sound profound, but a moment’s reflection tells you they are trite or untrue. He operates on a very superficial level. When he quotes Lord Acton’s hoary dictum that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as if it was a useful contribution to the debate about the genocide, you realise you are dealing with a child. He quotes Stalin’s alleged saying that one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic, as if it’s a dazzling new discovery (p.201). Disappointing.

Worst of all, Gourevitch develops a theory of human nature based on his literary feelings, on the premise that the most important thing about human nature is the power of the imagination. Instead of seeing things in political terms, he again and again reverts to modish blah about narratives and stories and identity and returns again and again to the importance of imagination, narrative and stories. He is more indebted to Coleridge than Clausewitz. John Milton, Charles Dickens, Rilke, George Eliot, these are his terms terms of reference. It is thin stuff and wholly inappropriate to the subject matter.

He keeps writing things I profoundly disagree with.

We are, each of us, functions of how we imagine ourselves and of how others imagine us… (p.71)

(Note the prissy, attention-drawing use of commas, a rhetorical flourish to make the sentence sound more considered and profound.) I am a Darwinian materialist so I simply disagree. I would counter-suggest that we are, each of us, (sic) not at all functions of how we imagine ourselves, but functions of how our bodies work, products of our biology, of the complex interaction between our genetic inheritance and the myriad biochemical signals the environment we find ourselves in sends us or triggers in our bodies.

If I am starving to death in one of the world’s countless famines or dying of cancer or stroke or heart attack or delirious with malaria it doesn’t really matter what my imagination or anyone else’s imaginations are doing. I am a function, first and foremost, of my biology, all else is secondary.

He writes that the most basic function of power is to coerce us into its narratives. This reads to me like the modish bullshit of the English graduate. The whole approach reeks of the trend across all the humanities and high brow journalism to invoke the magic words ‘narrative’ and ‘story’ as if they explain everything about human nature and politics, but they don’t. If someone puts a gun to your head and tells you to do something or die, complex theories of meta-narrative and Coleridgean distinctions between imagination and fancy become irrelevant. When he writes:

I felt tempted, at times, to think of Rwanda after the genocide as an impossible country. (p.224)

I felt tempted to throw the book out the window. This is high-sounding bullshit. What does it even mean? A country is a country is a country, borders on a map, enforced by border police, with a government and administration and laws and a currency. Russia continues to exist after its century of Soviet tyranny, Germany is going strong, decades after the Holocaust and its violent partition, even Cambodia is still a country after the horror of the killing fields – and so on and so on. Clearly the worry that Rwanda is an ‘impossible’ country is a problem which only exists in Gourevitch’s head and shows you just how obtuse his responses can be.

There’s a lot to be written about the ideology of Hutu Power which drove the genocide and the way it shaped the actions of the génocidaires at all levels of Rwandan society, but Gourevitch doesn’t have the conceptual framework or academic training to do it. He makes repeated efforts to do so, but I found them shallow and disappointing.

The big takeaway

Leaving Gourevitch out of the equation, I think the biggest single thing to take away from study of the Rwandan genocide is that it wasn’t a one-off, inexplicable outbreak of barbarity. The one big thing you learn from studying it is that it was simply the highest point of a century-old culture of ethnic rivalry and hatred, which broke out from the 1950s onwards in repeated massacres and pogroms, exactly as the Jews of Russia and Eastern Europe were subject to centuries of persecution and pogroms way before the Holocaust.

In that sense it is far from inexplicable, it is very, very explicable. What turned the long history of minor, localised outbreaks of ethnic violence into a genocide was the hard work of the Hutu Power ideologues who set out to organise the extermination of the Tutsis by harnessing the organisation and technology of a modern state, using state radio, magazines, and every level of the highly structured administration to promulgate simple messages of hate and desperation. It boiled down to: “Kill the cockroaches before they kill us!” and hundreds of thousands of Hutus, primed by decades of negative propaganda, bought this message and acted on it (p.251).

But study of the Rwandan genocide doesn’t stop in July 1994. Like all the other accounts I’ve read, Gourevitch shows how it leads directly on to the issue of the Hutu refugee camps and the way the Hutu Power génocidaires survived and recreated their power structures there, terrorising hundreds of thousands of refugees, carrying out deadly incursions back into Rwanda, and then setting about the ethnic cleansing of east Congo. And how that led directly to the AFDL invasion of Zaire which became known as the First Congo War, and how that led on to the second invasion of Congo, by Rwandan and Ugandan forces which led to the disastrous Great War of Africa.

For a few months the specific genocidal Hutu Power campaign was able to be carried out with unbridled ferocity, but the killing of Tutsis had been commonplace for decades before it, and the killing of comparable numbers of Hutus (maybe as many as 100,000 Hutus were killed in all forms of revenge attack, from individual reprisals and local pogroms through to the more organised massacres in the refugee camps) followed seamlessly after it.

Gourevitch ends his book gloomily with Bill Clinton’s flying visit to Rwanda in March 1998 (he didn’t even leave the airport) but during which he acknowledged that the events of 1994 had been a genocide and that ‘the international community’ had done too little to intervene. The later sections of his book testify over and over to the complete failure of the international community, America or the UN to act either to prevent the genocide or to intervene to prevent the regrouping of the génocidaires in the camps. Gourevitch gets progressively more angry about it.

But the thing that comes over in his last few pages is the way the killings resumed inside Rwanda. During 1997 and into early 1998, as he was finalising his account, the number of murders and massacres of Tutsis by revived groups of Hutu Power génocidaires was steadily increasing. In fact the book ends with yet another grim atrocity, an account of how a group of 150 Hutu Power militia and interahamwe attacked a boarding school in Gisenyi and hacked to pieces the 17 schoolgirls and a 62-year-old Belgian nun.

In other words, as he ended the book, the tide of communal hate killing had returned and was rising. I’ll need to read other books to find out what happened next…

A correct understanding of human nature

The Rwandan genocide itself was a definable and unique historical event with a specific start and a specific end-point. Gourevitch, throughout his book, professes himself puzzled and bewildered at how it could ever have happened, incapable of imagining the motivation and mindset of ordinary people who took up machetes to hack their neighbours and own family members to pieces.

But the more you study it, the more understandable the Rwandan genocide becomes, provided you have a correct understanding of human nature.

We humans are animals, part of the animal kingdom, subject to the same constraints and urges as other animals. My son who’s just completed his Biology degree, said one of his lecturers summed up all animal activity in a snappy motto: feed, fight, fuck. That’s it. Like all animals, we humans are programmed to mate and reproduce; to do that effectively, we have to fight or compete (albeit in socially mediated and sublimated ways) for a mate. But none of this can take place unless we can feed and water ourselves on a regular basis.

For sure, the so-called ‘mind’ and ‘reason’ which well-fed philosophers have pontificated about for millennia, beginning in the slave societies of ancient Greece and Rome, is also a deep part of human nature – but most people, even the most highly educated, are fundamentally irrational and easily swayed. Humans are very suggestible and easily steered towards courses of action which let them fulfil their primal urges – hunger, lust, violence, and the more socialised wishes for praise and acceptance, wealth and power, no matter how local and fleeting. (Presumably Gourevitch has heard of Sigmund Freud. If so, why has he not learned anything from him, from the grim conclusions Freud drew about human nature based on the First World War?)

The great appeal of war for young men in less-than-perfectly-disciplined armies is that you can fulfil a lot of these really primitive urges. As well as the joy of killing alongside a closely-bonded band of brothers, war all too often provides endless opportunity for risk-free sexual violence. Hence the outbreak of mass raping during every conflict in human history, including the Rwandan genocide.

Once you align your thinking with the basic facts that humans are fundamentally irrational animals, driven by a cacophony of unconscious primitive urges, which lead them to make all kinds of irrational mistakes and, given the opportunity, behave terribly – then most of human history, including all its atrocities, make perfect sense, indeed seem inevitable.

Human nature doesn’t change, at least not on a timescale which human society registers. Give or take a few differences in social conventions, we understand the motives of medieval kings and Roman emperors just fine. And they map very well onto to the behaviour of contemporary African dictators such as Mobutu or Bokassa, just as the lickspittles and hangers-on in the court of each would be interchangeable, and just as the lives of the ordinary businessmen or urban workers or peasants doing forced labour in the fields would be recognisable in 1st century Rome or 20th century Congo.

It is only if you have a wrong understanding of human nature that you are surprised by atrocity and barbarity. Only if you assume that everybody else is as highly educated as you, as well-read in Rilke and Milton, as able to eat out in 5-star restaurants around the world on New Yorker expense accounts. If you come from this blessed background then you might be tempted to think that everyone else is as kind and generous and thoughtful and concerned about issues of gender and equality and identity and narrative as you are. So it is only if you live in this cloud cuckoo-land, liberal arts culture that you are going to be shaken to your core when you visit a country where hundreds of thousands of people undertook the systematic slaughter by hand of their neighbours and even their own family members.

The Armenian Genocide. The Russian Civil War. The Ukraine Famine. The Second Word War. The Holocaust. 20 million Russian dead. Indian Partition. The Great Leap Forward. The Chinese Cultural Revolution. Pol Pot in Cambodia. The Yugoslav wars. Has he not heard of these and many other comparable mass murders?

Why has he not learned the simple lesson that this is what humans do. In the right circumstances, whipped up by the right leaders, humans are capable of any atrocity. The Rwandan genocide wasn’t an inexplicable outbreak of madness but just the most recent example of an enduring and central aspect of human nature.

Gourevitch displays the same naive or obtuse shock every time he comes to ‘think about’ the genocide. The shock and dismay of a privileged, literature-soaked author, at the pinnacle of his liberal profession in the richest country in the world, amazed to discover what life is like in one of the poorest countries in the world (which is how Rwanda was classified by the World Bank in the immediate aftermath of the genocide, a place where the average annual wage was estimated to be $80, far less than Gourevitch and his fellow editors of The Paris Review probably used to spend on one business lunch.)

It isn’t anything ‘wrong’ in human nature or ‘wrong’ about the human imagination which he is discovering. Human nature is human nature just like gravity pulls things towards the centre of the earth, the sun rises in the morning, fire burns and so on. It is a basic fact of the world we exist in.

The reason Gourevitch is shocked is that he had such a completely mistaken view of human nature in the first place. He had read about the Holocaust but not really processed its lessons, what it tells us about what ‘ordinary’ people are capable of, namely any level of cruelty and barbarity if they think it means they and their loved ones will survive.

It is the shock of a pampered American discovering that the rest of the world is not like America, in fact it is inconceivably different. (Gourevitch is well aware of the issue of American parochialness and American ignorance. He routinely criticises the sparse and uninformed commentary on the situation in Rwanda and Zaire which he reads in even leading American newspapers like the New York Time and Washington Post, e.g. pages 297, 343. What’s the title of the Green Day song, American Idiot.)

Because he has diametrically the wrong view of human nature, Gourevitch at various points describes the genocide and the killings which followed it as a kind of failure of political and cultural imagination (p.206).

On the contrary, from my point of view, the Rwandan genocide was a kind of fulfilment of the profound and bestial aspects of human nature which I’ve described – albeit carefully whipped up, legitimised and organised by the Hutu Power propagandists. The genocide is explicable because it derives from understandable, analysable aspects of human nature. Have you not read any human history? Do you not know it amounts to a catalogue of massacres and genocides?

The common objection people make to my view of human nature, starting with my own kids, is: “Well, it’s not like that where I live. Where I live everyone is nice and friendly and caring. If what you say is true, how come everyone isn’t at everyone’s throats all the time?”

But the answer is simple: we in the West are well fed. Really well fed. The biggest medical problem in the West is the epidemic of obesity and diabetes. Fat people don’t fight. Even the most casual knowledge of history shows a direct correlation between hunger and social upheaval. The French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the rise of the Nazis took place in societies pushed to the brink by famine, hunger and extreme social stress; in Weimar Germany mass unemployment meant people were literally starving.

In these circumstances, the most basic human drives come to the fore and can be manipulated and directed by those who understand how: Danton, Lenin, Goebbels, Pol Pot and, in Rwanda, the  exponents of Hutu Power such as Hassan Ngeze and Colonel Théoneste Bagosora.

It follows that the fundamental aim of any government should be to manage the economy in such a way as to ensure that most of its citizens are fed, not only as a good in itself but as the basic protection against social collapse and reversion to barbarism. To take a leaf from Gourevitch’s book and quote a famous literary figure, it was Bertolt Brecht who wrote: “Food first, then fancy talk about morality”. (“Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral” The Threepenny Opera).

Feeding your population, ensuring security of food, then of housing, then of work which is rewarded with a stable currency, are probably any modern government’s top priorities.

Gourevitch’s assembly of all the facts and his narrative of the deep history, build-up to and then catastrophic events of the Rwandan genocide are thorough and authoritative, and he has obviously interviewed an enormous variety of people who shed light on all levels of events, victims and perpetrators, as well as numerous UN and aid officials, ministers, government spokesmen, including president Kagame of Rwanda and president Museveni of Uganda. It’s a hugely impressive roster. He had tremendous, what the journalists call “access”.

For all these reasons his book tells a searing story and will remain important evidence. But every time he stops to ‘think’ about what he’s describing, he displays a regrettably low level of awareness about human nature, society and history. He demonstrates that he is an idealistic American unprepared for a world which is mostly not populated by well-read, New York liberals. His bewilderment is sometimes so total I wish I found it funny, but it ended up being deeply irritating and marring my admiration for the extensive and very impressive factual sections of his book.

Cecile Kayirebwa

We are animals, bound by the same fundamental facts and constraints of biology as all other life forms on earth. And yet we belong to a freak line of evolution which has led us to develop language, speech, writing, mathematics and technology, and create an impenetrably complex labyrinth of cultural artefacts. One among billions of these human artefacts is this song written by Rwandan poet and singer, Cecile Kayirebwa, which laments the victims of the Rwandan genocide.

Credit

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1998. All references are to the 2000 Picador paperback edition.


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

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

Comparing Michela Wrong and David van Reybrouck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter by chapter

Introduction

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

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

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

Chapter 1

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

Chapter 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 4 Economics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 5 Congo’s ruined mineral industries

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 6

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

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

Chapter 7

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

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

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

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

Chapter 8

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

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

Chapter 9

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

Chapter 10

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

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

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

Chapter 11

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

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

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

Chapter 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 13

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 14 Ill-gotten gains

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

Epilogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

France

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Repeated stories

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

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

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

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

Credit

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


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King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild (1998) – part three

‘To gather rubber in the district… one must cut off hands, noses and ears.’
(Charles Lemaire, Belgian commissioner of the Equator District of the Congo Free State)

William Sheppard

Following his coverage of the black American Baptist minister George Washington Williams, who was appalled by what he witnessed in the Congo in 1890 and wrote an open letter of protest to the Belgian king, Leopold II, Hochschild goes on to describes the career of another black pioneer.

This is William Sheppard, a Baptist minister born in Virginia in 1865, who was sent by the Southern Baptists to the Free State, thus becoming the first black American missionary to the Congo. Hochschild emphasises that the church hierarchy ensured he was supervised every step of the way by a white superior, how it was the white man who actually met Leopold in Belgium while Shepherd was excluded, but how it was Shepherd who built up the mission on the river Kasai. Here he won the respect of the local BaKuba tribe whose language he was the only missionary to bother to learn, by his hard work and sympathetic understanding of their lives. They nicknamed him Mundéle Ndom, meaning ‘the black white man’.

Sheppard was the first Westerner to reach the Kuba capital, Ifuca, whose king usually ordered any outsider to be beheaded. But because he was black and spoke some BaKuba Sheppard was allowed to keep his head and stayed for four months, making detailed ethnographical records of their culture, art and religion (‘The Kuba are among Africa’s greatest artists,’ p.156). When he presented his findings to the Royal Geographic Society in London he was made a fellow, and back in the states presented the President with Kuba artefacts.

(Hochschild also mentions the spangling fact that Shepherd’s arrival at the mouth of the Congo coincided exactly with that of Joseph Conrad who was taking up the position of steamboat captain, and that Shepherd’s diary contains numerous references to the gentlemanly bearing of the exiled Pole who he spent some weeks with (p.154).)

Leopold’s grand plans

Leopold had impractically megalomaniac ambitions. He dreamed of linking his Congo possessions with the upper Nile and leasing Uganda from the British, both ideas gently rejected by Prime Minister Gladstone. He suggested raising a Congolese army to protect the Armenians who were being massacred by the Turks. When there was disturbance in Crete he offered Congolese troops as peacekeepers. His cousin, Queen Victoria’ thought Leopold was becoming delusional (p.168). But about one thing he was never deluded: maximising profit from his personal fiefdom in the Congo.

The rubber terror

‘Botofé bo le iwa!’, meaning ‘Rubber is Death!’ — Congo Proverb

Initially Leopold wanted to colonise the Congo because of ivory. As Frank McLynn makes clear in his chapter on the subject in Hearts of Darkness, ivory was the most valuable product of central Africa next to slaves, and the two trades were inextricably intertwined. Arab slavers destroyed native villages not only to enslave their women (killing most of the men) but also to loot the reserves of ivory many villages held, and use the newly acquired slaves to carry the plundered ivory the hundreds of miles to the coast.

It was the invention of the pneumatic tyre by John Dunlop, who set up the company of the same name in 1890, which made bicycling significantly more comfortable than before, which led to the outbreak of the ‘bicycling craze’ and which then led to a sudden spike in demand for rubber, that Leopold realised he was sitting on a goldmine, and that the farming of rubber from the huge rubber vines which twined up trees in the tropical rainforest almost overnight became a very profitable business (p.158). The West’s appetite for rubber grew for use not only in pneumatic tyres for bicycles and then cars, but for a myriad other uses, for example as insulation on electrical cabling which was undergoing an explosion of use around the world.

It is about this point, exactly half way through the book, and after a fair amount of relatively ‘ordinary’ historical and biographical stuff about Leopold and Stanley and so on, that the text takes a very dark turn and the reader is now plunged into the world of disgusting terror, massacre and mutilation created by the authorities who ran Leopold’s Congo Free State.

Force Publique officials were ordered to fulfil rubber quotas. They did this by kidnapping wives or children of villagers and threatening to mutilate or kill their hostages unless villagers handed in the correct and very onerous quotas of rubber. Natives who resisted were beaten, tortured, mutilated and murdered, had their families held hostage, their wives and daughters raped, or their houses and villages burned. If villages failed to fulfil the quota or showed any resistance, they were burned to the ground. The British traveller Ewart S. Grogan, crossing northeastern Congo, wrote: ‘Every village has been burned to the ground, and as I fled from the country I saw skeletons, skeletons everywhere’ (p.230). The Belgians turned Congo into a charnel house.

Most of the food the locals grew was confiscated by European officials leading to poor diet or starvation in many areas. State official Léon Féviez explained to a visiting official that when the local village didn’t supply enough fish and manioc to feed his troops he had a hundred of them beheaded. After that the villagers supplied sufficient food alright, even at the cost of themselves starving (p.166).

The incursions of black troops from one area into another spread diseases many had never previously been exposed to. Smallpox was carried from the coast where it was endemic, inland to populations who had no resistance to it. Worse was sleeping sickness, which is estimated to have killed half a million Congolese in 1901 alone (p.231).

The net effect of all these factors was a collapse in population. Missionaries and travellers through the Congo spoke again and again of entire regions laid waste and depopulated.

Hochschild singles out four factors and then gives copious evidence for each of them, being:

  • Murder
  • Starvation, exhaustion and exposure
  • Disease
  • Plummeting birth rate

The Reverend A.E. Scrivener was just one of many eye witnesses:

Lying about in the grass within a few yards of the house I was occupying were a number of human bones, in some cases complete skeletons. I counted 36 skulls, and saw many sets of bones from which the skull was missing. I called some of the men and asked the meaning of it. ‘When the rubber palaver began,’ said one, ‘the soldiers shot so many we grew tired of burying, and very often we were not allowed to bury and so just dragged the bodies out into the grass and left them.’

There was no census before Leopold’s murderous regime began but the best estimate is that 10 million Congolese lost their lives. This is based on the fact that in areas where population was known, it fell by a half between 1890 and 1910. Since the first detailed population estimate, in 1924, estimated the current population at around ten million, and most experts estimated that it was half the original number, that gives you some 10 million victims of Leopold’s regime, directly murdered or killed by overwork, famine or disease. (In fact at the end of the book, Hochschild devotes a passage to the estimates of modern demographers, who also agree with the 10 million figure.) More, in other words, than the Nazi Holocaust.

Chopping off Africans’ hands

Hands were used as proof that villages had been punished for failing to fulfil their quotas or rebelling. Force Publique soldiers had to prove that every bullet they were issued with was used to kill a villager (and not going off on hunting expeditions) by bringing in a hand for every bullet fired. Hands became a form of proof of discipline. Many soldiers couldn’t be bothered to wait for all the rubber to be counted and just hacked off a few hands at random to impress their superiors with how zealous they were.

But cutting off hands was also a form of punishment and incentive. Hostages – women and children –had their hands cut off unless their menfolk brought in the required quota of rubber. Some villagers, in desperation, instead of slicing a rubber vine and patiently waiting for the drops of sap to ooze out of it, were so panic-stricken that they cut down the entire vine and squeezed every drop of rubber out of it. This killed the vine rendering it unavailable for future use and so in turn was punished by the authorities, in the form which was now becoming universal – the men or their womenfolk or children having their hands cut off. Hochschild quotes scores of officials and soldiers who boasted about how many hands they collected per day.

‘Many fled and some were mutilated. I myself saw a man at Likange who had had both his hands cut off. Sometimes they cut them at the wrist, sometimes farther up . . . with a machete.’

In some military units there was a job, ‘keeper of the hands’ (p.165). Some units smoked severed hands over fires in order to keep them as decorations to hang on poles or over doors as a constant reminder to the locals of what even the slightest infringement would trigger.

Bestand:MutilatedChildrenFromCongo.jpg - Wikipedia

Mutilated Congolese children and adults. Photos taken between 1900 and 1905 by the English missionary Alice Seeley Harris

Hochschild brings out how atrocity acquires a momentum of its own. As in the Nazi genocide or the Soviet labour camps, cruelty and sadism, once permitted, become endemic. Thus René de Permentier, a Force Publique officer in the Equator district, had all the trees and bushes around his house cut down so he could use passing Africans as target practice for his rifle. If he found so much as a stray leaf in the courtyard swept by women prisoners he had one of them beheaded. If he found a forest path poorly maintained, he ordered a child in a local village executed. That kind of megalomaniac momentum.

Two Force Publique officers ordered a man hung by his feet and a fire lit underneath so he was cooked to death. Morel quoted a message from district commissioner Jules Jacques telling his underlings to warn the locals that if they cut down another vine he will exterminate them to the last man (quoted page 229). As the Reverend Scrivener testified:

A man bringing rather under the proper amount [of rubber to a collecting post], the white-man flies into a rage and seizing a rifle from one of the guards shoots him dead on the spot. Very rarely did rubber come but one or more were shot in that way at the door of the store.

There are hundreds of examples of this kind of psychopathic behaviour. Late in the book Hochschild says speakers of the Mongo language refer to the period as lokeli, the overwhelming (p.300).

Edmund Dene Morel

We know so much about the evil practices of Leopold’s state because of the obsessive work of one man, Edmund Dene Morel, who became a one-man international human rights dynamo.

In the late 1890s Morel was a relatively lowly clerk working for the Liverpool-based trading company Elder Dempster (p.177). He began travelling back and forth across the Channel as his company’s liaison with officials of the Congo Free State. Slowly he began to realise something was wrong. Hochschild attributes his revelation to three elements which he saw or, as a clerk handling the official paperwork for the cargoes, was able to calculate for himself while spending time at the State’s docks in Antwerp:

  1. He learned that huge amounts of arms and ammunition were being shipped to the Congo along with surprising amounts of chains and shackles. Why?
  2. The amount of ivory and rubber brought back by the ships greatly exceeded the amount stated on the manifests and paperwork. Someone was creaming off millions in profit. Who?
  3. Over 80% of the goods being shipped to the Congo were remote from trade purposes. In other words, a huge amount of goods were being brought out but very little was going in to pay for them. So how was this wealth of ivory and rubber being generated. Dene realised there could be only one explanation: slave labour.

‘These figures told their own story…Forced labour of a terrible and continuous kind could alone explain such unheard-of profits…forced labour in which the Congo government was the immediate beneficiary; forced labour directed by the closest associates of the king.’ (Morel, quoted page 180)

He called it: ‘the most gigantic fraud and wickedness that our generation has known’ (p.206).

Morel made his fears known to his superiors who told him to keep quiet. The Free State was a major client of Elder Dempster’s. They tried to coerce him into keeping silent. The company offered him a pay rise, then the role of highly paid consultant. Free State officials in Brussels stopped talking to him. He refused all bribes and insisted on speaking out.

Eventually, in 1901, Morel quit Elder Dempster and, after pondering what to do, set up a newspaper, the West Africa Mail in 1903, backed by philanthropic sponsors. It consisted of Morel’s articles, letters from missionaries, maps, cartoons, and pictures. Morel didn’t hold back:

‘Blood is smeared all over the Congo State, its history is blood-stained, its deeds are bloody, the edifice it has reared is cemented in blood—the blood of unfortunate negroes, spilled freely with the most sordid of all motives, monetary gain.’

Morel intended the West Africa Mail to publish everything he knew about the Congo and encouraged all-comers to send him their reports about ‘the shootings, shackles, beheadings, mutilations and kidnappings of a slave labour system’ they witnessed – and they did, in increasing numbers (p.270).

Morel tapped into the resources of existing anti-slavery organisations, namely the Anti-Slavery Society and the Aborigenes Protection Society, as well as roping in influential figures such as the politician Sir Charles Dilke and the author Mary Kingsley. He became a writing phenomenon, working 16 or even 18 hours a day to produce books, speeches, articles and pamphlets about the Congo (p.209). In the first six months of 1906 alone, he wrote 3,700 letters (p.214).

Morel requested information from all and any sources, and developed a remarkable knack for getting inside information from all kinds of people, not only missionaries and travellers in the region, but dissident military officers such as Raymond de Grez, who secretly fed him reports and statistics for many years, as well as people involved in the various shipping companies and testimony from their agents in-country, such as the American business agent Edgar Canisius (p.192).

The more Morel’s reputation grew as the doughty opponent of the evil being perpetrated in the Congo, the more people knew he was the man to slip confidential information (p.188).

It snowballed into a vast publicity campaign, featuring hundreds of public meetings, thousands of letters, he received thousands of letters full of facts and figures which Morel was then able to use in his articles or feed to sympathetic journalists and politicians.

With the aid of the charities and sympathetic politicians Morel secured a debate in the House of Commons which was held on 20 May 1903. At its conclusion the British Parliament passed a resolution to allow the British government to negotiate with the other Great Powers over the matter, avowing that the native Congolese ‘should be governed with humanity’ and, incidentally, noting that ‘great gratitude was due’ to Morel for creating public awareness (p.194). It was a truly impressive achievement. As Hochschild summarises:

Almost never has one man, possessed of no wealth, title of government post, caused so much trouble for the governments of several major countries. (p.209)

Pamphlets were followed by excoriating books, namely:

  • Affairs of West Africa (1902)
  • The British Case in French Congo (1903)
  • King Leopold’s Rule in Africa (1904)
  • Red Rubber – The story of the rubber slave trade that flourished in Congo in the year of grace 1906 (1906)
  • Great Britain and the Congo: the Pillage of the Congo Basin

When I read the title of Red Rubber I immediately saw the link with the campaign against ‘blood diamonds’ originating in Africa under war-torn or oppressive conditions from much the same region of Africa, in our own time.

Roger Casement

The Parliamentary debate directly affected another major figure. Parliament set up a commission to investigate the accusations and ordered the British consul to the Congo, Roger Casement, to go in-country to find out more.

Casement evaded the beady eye of Leopold’s officials, paid his own way and independently interviewed missionaries, natives, riverboat captains, and railroad workers. He then wrote up and submitted to Parliament a report containing 39 pages of testimony and a 23-page index of facts, what has been called ‘the most damning exposure ever of exploitation in Africa’. Morel published the ‘Casement Report’ in full in the West Africa Mail and it was picked up and syndicated around the world.

Hochschild devotes a chapter to Casement who is a fascinating figure in his own right, not least because of his principled but ill-fated support for Irish independence a decade later. (Unfortunately, no modern biographer can abstain from prying into the sex lives of their subject, and so we learn quite a lot about the fact that Casement was gay and kept a detailed log of his sexual encounters wherever he went, with Europeans or Africans. Great – and utterly beside the point.)

When they met they instantly clicked. Both respected each other’s fierce integrity and utter devotion to exposing the evil of Leopold’s regime. Casement was a government employee and so had to go where his superiors sent him, but they kept in touch and he offered Morel important confirmation and moral support, becoming a vital colleague and sounding board for Morel’s campaigns. Morel nicknamed him the Tiger; Casement called Morel the Bulldog (p.207). Chaps.

Congo Reform Association (CRA)

Casement and Morel met again, in Dublin, and agreed that it needed more than a newspaper to bring about the change needed. Casement convinced Morel they needed to set up an organisation and so in November 1903 Dene announced the establishment of the Congo Reform Association (CRA) with a founding manifesto filled with names of the great and good and calling for ‘just and humane treatment of the inhabitants of the Congo State, and restoration of the rights to the land and of their individual freedom’.

An American branch was quickly set up which garnered support from such notables as Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois. Twain was motivated to write a pamphlet, King Leopold’s Soliloquy: A defence of his Congo rule, in 1905, a satirical portrayal of Leopold as a self-pitying old man rambling on, making feeble excuses for the blood on his hands:

‘They burst out and call me “the king with ten million murders on his soul”.’

(It’s interesting that, even at this early point, the figure of 10 million dead was widely accepted. It’s a suspiciously round figure, isn’t it, but one Hochschild backs up with expert testimony at the end of his book)

Illustration from King Leopold’s Soliloquy by Mark Twain (1905)

Arthur Conan Doyle was inspired by his indignation to write The Crime of the Congo in 1908, while Joseph Conrad, in addition to the world famous novella about Leopold’s Congo, Heart of Darkness, co-wrote a novel with Ford Madox Ford, The Inheritors, which contains a devastating parody of Leopold’s greed and mendaciousness and personal oddities (p.257).

In 1904 Morel visited America, meeting with the President and members of Congress, before addressing large audiences around the nation. It took a while for the American campaign to gain traction, but in 1906 public pressure forced Congress to take a stand against Leopold and demand an end to the Congo Free State.

Alice Seeley Harris

Wife of the Reverend John Harris and a Baptist missionary in her own right, it was Alice Seeley Harris who took most of the photos of mutilated Africans which Morel distributed so widely and had such a devastating effect.

The couple had witnessed at first hand numerous atrocities, joined the Congo Reform Association and threw themselves into public activity. One or other of them made over 600 speeches in their first two years with the CRA, displaying implements like the shackles used to chain Congolese and the feared chicotte or whip made of hippopotamus hide, which was used to punish Africans who failed to meet their quotas and sometimes whip them to death (pages 120 and 216). Eventually John and Alice’s activism led to them running the newly combined Anti-Slavery and Aborigenes Protection Society (p.273).

Herbert Strang

The impact of the campaign spread far and wide. Hochschild mentions a British boys’ adventure writer, Herbert Strang, who wrote an adventure story set in the beastly Congo where a stout-hearted English teenager saves the day, titled Samba: A Story of the Rubber Slaves of the Congo. The preface he wrote to his novel is long but gives a fascinating insight into how the issue was seen at the time (1908).

Nearly a generation has passed since King Leopold was entrusted by the great Powers with the sovereignty of the Congo Free State. The conscience of Christendom had been shocked by the stories, brought back by Stanley and other travellers, of Arab slave raids on the Upper Congo; King Leopold, coming forward with the strongest assurances of philanthropic motive, was welcomed as the champion of the negro, who should bring peace and the highest blessings of civilization to the vast territory thus placed under his sway. For many succeeding years it was supposed that this work of deliverance, of regeneration, was being prosecuted with all diligence; the power of the slave traders was broken, towns were built, roads made, railways opened—none of the outward signs of material progress were wanting.

But of late the civilized world has been horrified to find that this imposing structure has been cemented with the life blood of the Congo races; that the material improvements to which the administrators of Congoland can point, have been purchased by an appalling amount of suffering inflicted upon the hapless negroes. The collection of rubber, on which the whole fabric of Congo finance rests, involves a disregard of liberty, an indifference to suffering, a destruction of human life, almost inconceivable. Those who best know the country estimate that the population is annually reduced, under King Leopold’s rule, by at least a hundred thousand. No great war, no famine, no pestilence in the world’s history has been so merciless a scourge as civilization in Congoland.

Yet owing to mutual jealousies, the Powers are slow to take action, and while they hesitate to intervene, the population of this great region, nearly as large as Europe, is fast disappearing.

It has been my aim in this book to show, within necessary limitations, what the effect of the white man’s rule has been.

If any reader should be tempted to imagine that the picture here drawn is overcoloured, I would commend him to the publications issued by Mr E. D. Morel and his co-workers of the Congo Reform Association, with every confidence that the cause of the Congo native will thereby gain a new adherent.

I must express my very great thanks to the Rev. J. H. Harris and Mrs. Harris, who have spent several years on the Upper Congo, for their kindness in reading the manuscript and revising the proofs of this book, and for many most helpful suggestions and criticisms.

By this point the atrocities were so widely known that Leopold had become associated with severed hands and blood in large parts of the press. Countless caricatures in European and American magazines satirised him as a mass murderer, his hands or beard dripping with blood while he hugged his sacks full of blood money (p.222).

Leopold II's Heart of Darkness, by David White | Open History Society

When Leopold’s second wife bore his second child, it was born with a withered hand and Punch magazine published a cartoon with the caption Vengeance from on high. Harsh but an indication of how universally he was despised.

What did Leopold spend his blood money on?

And how did Leopold spend the huge personal wealth he accrued from all this forced labour, slavery, murder and extortion? On grandiose building schemes and his teenage mistress.

1. Buildings

Leopold invested a huge amount of his blood money on buying, building or renovating grand properties. Wikipedia gives a handy summary of a subject which is spread across numerous passages in Hochschild’s book:

The public buildings were mainly in Brussels, Ostend and Antwerp, and include the Hippodrome Wellington racetrack, the Royal Galleries and Maria Hendrikapark in Ostend; the Royal Museum for Central Africa and its surrounding park in Tervuren; the Cinquantenaire park, triumphal arch and complex, and the Duden Park in Brussels, and the 1895–1905 Antwerpen-Centraal railway station.

In addition to his public works, Leopold acquired and built numerous private properties for himself inside and outside Belgium. He expanded the grounds of the Royal Castle of Laeken [one of Europe’s most luxurious royal homes] and built the Royal Greenhouses, the Japanese Tower and the Chinese Pavilion near the palace. In the Ardennes his domains consisted of 6,700 hectares (17,000 acres) of forests and agricultural lands and the châteaux of Ardenne, Ciergnon, Fenffe, Villers-sur-Lesse and Ferage. He also built important country estates on the French Riviera, including the Villa des Cèdres and its botanical garden and the Villa Leopolda.

(In a picquant footnote, Hochschild tells us that one of Leopold’s many villas on the Cote d’Azur was  subsequently bought by the English writer, Somerset Maugham, p.276.)

Hochschild contrasts these extravagant building projects with the many, many, many African homes and villages and entire regions which his officers laid waste and burned to the ground.

2. Caroline Lacroix

Leopold had married Marie Henriette of Austria, a cousin of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria and grand-daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, on 22 August 1853 in Brussels. She was popular with the Belgians, was an artist and accomplished horsewoman, and the marriage produced four children. However, the couple became estranged and ended up living apart, Marie settling in the town of Spa where she lived till her death in 1902.

Meanwhile, Hochschild tells us, Leopold became a regular customer at high class brothels which specialised in young and very young girls, preferably virgins. Still, it comes as a bit of a surprise when Hochschild tells us that in 1899, in his 65th year, Leopold took as a mistress Caroline Lacroix, a 16-year-old French prostitute, and that they were to stay together for the next decade until his death.

It was on Caroline that a lot of the blood money from the Congo was lavished, in the form of cash, bonds raised against the Congo Free State government, castles and villas and dresses and makeup and holidays. Throughout this period they were unmarried, so Caroline was in effect his teenage mistress and became unpopular with the Belgian public and made Leopold even more of a figure of fun and contempt among international critics and cartoonists.

File:Your Majesty! at your age....jpg - Wikipedia

The priest is saying: ‘O sire! At your age!’ to which Leopold replies: ‘You should try it yourself!’

Leopold finally married Caroline in a Catholic ceremony just five days before his death, on 17 December 1909, aged 74. He left her a huge fortune but their failure to perform a civil ceremony rendered the marriage invalid under Belgian law and the Belgian government tried its best to seize all the king’s assets and fortune, giving rise to a jamboree for lawyers. Despite legal wrangles it is likely that she managed to spirit away $7 million, maybe more.

The Vatican recognised their wedding though, and Catholic priests were with him till the end. It is nauseating to read how the Catholic church stayed staunchly loyal to Leopold despite the most disgusting revelations, whereas a large number of the truth-tellers and reports were Protestant missionaries. A classic example of the stark contrast between the generally servile subservience of Catholic officials and the outspoken truth-telling of Protestant clerics, especially of non-conformists such as Baptists and the ever-principled Quakers. (You should read Hochschild’s wonderful account of the campaign to abolish slavery to be moved to tears by the hard work of the non-conformists and especially the Quakers in devoting their entire lives to ending slavery.)

When Leopold first heard about her, Caroline had been the mistress and sometime prostitute of Antoine-Emmanuel Durrieux, a former officer in the French army. It is somehow pleasing to learn that she tried to keep up a surreptitious relationship with Durrieux throughout her time with Leopold and that, seven months after the old monster died, she married Durrieux. Ah. True love.

In 1937 she published her memoirs, A Commoner Married a King: As Told by Baroness De Vaughan to Paul Faure. It is a classic example of the logocentrism of the West, in the sense that the doctored and sentimental memoirs of a royal prostitute are preserved for all time for scholars to pore over, analyse and re-analyse, while the lives and experiences of the ten million or so Congolese murdered, mutilated and starved to death – apart from a handful of testimonies recorded in the Casement Report and a few other public enquiries – are nowhere, nothing, vanished as if they had never been.

Leopold’s death and the end of the Congo Free State

The real question, reading all this horror, is why, despite widespread knowledge of the appalling atrocities, little or no steps were taken against him and nothing changed for so long. Leopold’s personal rule over his Congo Free State lasted 23 years, from 1885 to 1908.

The decisive step was getting the US government to switch its policy from indifference to Congo to active hostility, and this coincided with a massive newspaper revelation about the extent of Leopold’s behind-the-scenes bribery and manipulation of US government ministers, agencies and media.

The American change of heart crystallised with the hostility of the British government and, indeed, of a decisive majority in the Belgian government itself, and in Belgian popular opinion, to make Leopold realise the game was up and he agreed to hand over the running of the Congo Free State to the Belgian government so that it could become a ‘proper’ colony, subject to scrutiny in the press and by third parties.

Still, the canny old miser and manipulator insisted on selling the Congo to the Belgian government and drove a very hard bargain, emerging tens of millions of francs better off. In the end a compromise was reached whereby Leopold was paid $10 million and a further $9 million was assigned to his various grandiose vanity projects across Belgium as ‘compensation’ for losses which in reality he had never incurred.

And so, after months of wrangling, in November 1908 the Congo was handed over from Leopold’s personal control to the Belgian state (p.259). In August 1908 his closest officials spent a week non-stop burning all the official records of the Congo Free State, destroying all the evidence of malfeasance committed during his rule. Nonetheless, because of Morel and his many contributors, a sizeable amount of documentary evidence remained in the public domain.

As you might expect, conditions improved somewhat but most of the Belgian officials running the place stayed in post, the Force Publique didn’t even bother to change its name (p.271) and the basic economic imperatives – to maximise revenue from rubber – meant that, in practice, the living conditions of most Congolese continued to be wretched and brutalised. Thirteen months after handing over the Congo to the Belgian government, Leopold was dead, surely one of the most infamous brutes in recorded history.

Reluctantly, knowing that many abuses would continue to take place, Morel had to concede that, with the arch villain dead, many supporters of the CRA at home and abroad thought the job had been done and the fire had gone out of the campaign. In 1913 he held a last meeting of the Congo Reform Association then dissolved it. It had lasted from 1904 to 1913 and was, in Hochschild’s view, ‘the most important and sustained crusade of its sort between the Abolitionism of the early and middle nineteenth century and the worldwide boycott and embargo against apartheid-era South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s’ (p.277).

Arthur Conan Doyle, a late convert who became a very enthusiastic supporter of the cause, described the management of the Congo in his pamphlet The Crime of the Congo as ‘the greatest crime which has ever been committed in the history of the world’ (quoted on page 271).

The fact that there are statues and plaques in Belgium to this day commemorating Leopold for his humanitarian deeds and philanthropy is beyond grotesque.

The documentary

In 2006 a documentary was released, based on this book and with the same title, King Leopold’s Ghost, directed by Pippa Scott and narrated by Don Cheadle.

Credit

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild was published by Mariner Books in 1998. All references are to the 2012 Pan paperback edition.


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King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild (1998)

I can’t remember the last time a book made me feel this physically sick. About half way through another description of the murders, rapes, dismemberments, garrotings, hangings, torture and shootings carried out by members of the Force Publique which policed the forced labour system set up by King Leopold II in his colony in the Congo (1885 to 1909), I thought I might throw up.

Leopold II, king of the Belgians, and his genocide

If you like historical horror stories, you’ll love this book. It intertwines a biography of lonely unloved Leopold – aloof, shy king of the Belgians, ignored by his parents, separated from his wife – who conceived a great ambition to own a chunk of the dark continent, Africa, during the 1880s when it was being carved up by the the European powers.

Hochschild describes how, once he’d decided on the Congo to be his slice of the pie, Leopold commissioned the greatest explorer of the age, Henry Morton Stanley, to open it up by building a road running 220 miles beside the mighty river, from the post town of Boma to Stanley Pool, which bypassed its many cascades and waterfalls (a back breaking project which took from 1879 to 1885).

And how Leopold then created a system of concessions to commercial companies extracting first ivory, then rubber, which more or less guaranteed that at every level and in every way, the native peoples of the vast Congo basin would be worked to death, exploited, punished and murdered every bit as cruelly and needlessly as the genocides carried out by Hitler or Stalin.

Villages were razed to the ground, women and children were casually shot or taken as hostages to force the menfolk to drain rubber from the vines which grew high up into the rainforest canopy. If enough rubber wasn’t collected, the women or children were murdered. Or their hands were cut off. Or their brains were dashed out with rifle butts. Or they were raped or tortured to death, or beaten, or tied in sacks and thrown into the river, or flogged to death, or left chained to trees till they died of thirst. And much more.

Leopold’s loot

This happened for 20 years or so, roughly 1890 to 1909, over an area the size of western Europe. The profits to the Belgian, French and British companies who extorted raw rubber were big, but as nothing compared to Leopold’s take. This book details the countless cunning ways the king screwed the maximum revenue out of every aspect of the operation. Hochschild quotes the scholar Jules Marchal who estimates Leopold’s total haul at around $1.1 billion in today’s money.

Leopold’s follies

Leopold spent his loot on turning his palace on the outskirts of Brussels into a new Versailles, building grandiose public monuments in cities around Belgium, on collecting a suite of villas on Cap Ferrat in the south of France, and on an impressive series of prostitutes and mistresses, until he fell in love with a 16-year-old fille de joie, Caroline Delacroix, when he himself was an ageing 65.

The genocide

Modern scholars estimate the population of the Congo region was halved, from about 20 million to around 10 million, during the decades of Leopold’s homicidal rule. Hochschild quotes Alexandre Delcommune, ‘a ruthless robber baron’ of the time, saying that, if Leopold had ruled the Congo for another ten years, there probably wouldn’t have been a single rubber vine left, or, quite possibly, a single native. The genocide would have been complete.

It goes without saying the all this was done in the name of ‘civilisation’ and ‘justice’, of ‘law’ and ‘morality’ and it is nauseating to read how Leopold posed as a philanthropist and promoter of civilisation while presiding over a genocide. It is particularly disgusting that the Catholic church, right up until the end and beyond, supported Leopold, a crime just as egregious as its better known relationship with the Nazis.

The resistance

Speaking of Christians brings us to the resistance to Leopold’s bloody rule and among these were many Protestant missionaries, especially from the non-conformist sects. What eventually became a worldwide campaign against Leopold’s rule was run by two passionate advocates, the doughty English shipping clerk-turned-crusader-for-justice Edmund Morel, and the febrile but effective Irishman, Roger Casement who set up the Congo Reform Association.

Through a brilliant series of books, pamphlets, newspapers and speeches, through fundraising and lobbying and especially via the stark photos of the Baptist missionary Alice Seeley Harris (see below), they managed to discredit Leopold’s rule and make the scandal one of the great issues of the Edwardian world, forcing a parliamentary vote on the issue, keeping it constantly in the papers, and travelling to America to lobby the President and Congress.

Hochschild makes the standout point that the CRA’s campaign was the most important and sustained crusade for human rights between the late-eighteenth century abolitionist movement and the worldwide boycott of South African apartheid in the 1970s and 80s.

Black heroes who campaigned against the horror

Beside Morel and Casement, Hochschild goes out of his way to bring attention to the work of several remarkable black missionaries and campaigners, namely George Washington Williams, William Henry Sheppard and Herzekiah Andrew Shanu who, often at great risk, travelled far, took testimony, and publicised the horrors of what Morel called ‘that infamous System’.

Review

I read Hochschild’s book immediately after Thomas Pakenham’s wonderful Scramble for Africa, which covers the same period and a lot of the same subject. Pakenham’s book has the breadth and scale and depth of War and Peace. It is an epic work which also finds space for detailed portraits of key individuals, ranging across the whole continent throughout the scramble period of 1880 to 1914.

Pakenham’s tone is judicious and, for the most part, detached; only occasionally does he pass judgement on the men he’s describing and his biting criticism is all the more powerful for being rare. By contrast, Hochschild’s book is much shorter, much lighter, and he is ready with sarcasm and criticism from the start.

He is sarcastic about Britain’s claims to abolish slavery after the 1830s, he is sarcastic about the so-called ‘civilising’ mission of the explorer and colonisers, he is quicker to dismiss all high-falutin’ rhetoric and, in doing so, I think he misses the complexity of these rhetorics and discourses. Many people  sincerely believed what they said about bringing civilisation to the ‘savages’. A number of native tribes did practice cannibalism and human sacrifice and a number of people in Britain thought that was wrong. It is wrong, isn’t it?

The slave trade was rampant in East Africa and British authorities did do their best to stamp it out, spending a lot of money on the Royal Navy’s East Africa squadron and bringing pressure to bear on the Sultan of Zanzibar to close his slave market in 1873.

Hochschild is particularly scathing and sarcastic about the character and behaviour of Henry Morton Stanley, quoting the passages in his books where he reported whipping his porters or putting some in chains, taking at face value Stanley’s claims that that he led huge well-financed expeditions.

These are  precisely the accusations which Tim Jeal sets out to refute in his exhaustive 2007 biography of Stanley, which explains how Stanley exaggerated the size of his forces for dramatic affect and places the handful of passages about disciplining his porters in the context of scores of other passages where Stanley explains how he tried to save his hundreds of porters – from violent attack, starvation and the other tribulations of exploring – and went out of his way to praise his expedition managers or ‘captains’ as the finest, bravest men in the world.

But it was interesting to read Hochschild giving the traditional, very negative impression of Stanley which is what Jeal was writing against. Between them you have good epitomes of the case for and the case against this central but divisive figure.

Back to Pakenham’s book: because it is maybe four times longer than Hochschild’s, it has the space and depth to explore the highly complicated ways scores and scores of contemporaries struggled to make sense of their world  they were living in and of the mad scramble for African colonies. As such it is a much deeper and more satisfying read. But what it lacks in scale and depth, King Leopold’s Ghost makes up for in intensity and horror. After you’ve read a certain amount, it’s hard not to share his sense of indignation, his anger, that human beings from so-called civilised, so-called Christian, Europe were allowed to get away with such barbarity and depravity for so long.

The end?

Leopold died of cancer in 1909. Despite the worldwide success of the campaign against him, in the end he was only forced to sell the Congo to the Belgian state a year or so before his death (he had planned to leave it to the Belgian people in his will).

And in a depressing final chapter Hochschild makes clear that, although the scale of wanton murder was reined in, forced labour of some sort continued in Congo, and in neighbouring European colonies, well into the 1930s, and was even intensified during the Second World War in response to the Allies’ bottomless need for tyres for all types of war machinery.

One of the most powerful lessons for me was the link Hochschild draws between the occasional tribes who managed to rebel against the system, who stole arms and killed their white torturers and escaped into the jungle to wage prolonged guerrilla campaigns against their oppressors – and the similar tactics adopted by anti-colonial nationalists fighting the British and French following the Second World War, the Mau-Mau and so on. If, as Hochschild book makes you, you powerfully and emotionally root for the first group of freedom fighters – then surely you must, at the very least, sympathise with their descendants.

European civilisation

‘To open to civilisation the only part of our globe which it has not yet penetrated, to pierce the darkness which hangs over entire people is, I dare to say, a crusade worthy of this century of progress.’ (From Leopold’s opening address to the Geographical Conference he called in 1876 to begin his campaign of posing on the international stage as a selfless philanthropist)

Leopold II, king of the Belgians. Note the smart uniform, the shiny medals, the impeccable manners. What a Christian gentleman!

Leopold II, king of the Belgians

Leopold II, king of the Belgians

And now some of the hundreds of thousands of Africans whipped, chained, mutilated, raped and murdered by Leopold’s officers to incentivise them or their parents to gather more rubber for the wise and good king.

Children in the Belgian Congo whose hands have been cut off to encourage their parents to gather more rubber for King Leopold

Children in the Belgian Congo whose hands were cut off to encourage their parents to gather more rubber for King Leopold: some of the hundreds of photos taken by Alice Seeley Harris and used by Morel in his lectures, articles, books and campaigns against Leopold’s evil rule

Credit

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild was published by Mariner Books in 1998. All references are to the 2012 Pan paperback edition.


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Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer by Tim Jeal (3)

Working for King Leopold, 1879 to 1885

The biggest blot on Stanley’s reputation is that he devoted the longest single part of his working life to working for King Leopold II of Belgium helping to map out and establish the core infrastructure for what would become the notorious Congo Free State. This was the enormous area, corresponding to the modern Democratic Republic of Congo, which Leopold managed to get assigned to his own personal rule at the Congress of Berlin in 1885. Leopold posed as a great philanthropist, a promoter of civilisation and Christianity and doughty abolisher of the widespread Arab slave trade which Stanley and all the other explorers had discovered.

It took until the late 1890s for news to leak out of the atrocities Belgian soldiers and overseers were committing on the native population, which slowly brewed up into an international scandal, which led Leopold to hand over the colony to the Belgian government, and the whole humanitarian catastrophe to become the quintessential example of imperialist hypocrisy, exploitation and brutality. The stories which leaked out of unimaginable brutality against the native peoples of the region formed the basis of Joseph Conrad’s harrowing novella, Heart of Darkness (1899). The whole story is told in Adam Hochschild’s harrowing history, King Leopold’s Ghost (published exactly one hundred years after the Conrad, in 1999).

Anyway, the point is that Stanley was approached by representatives of the king, entered discussions and finally agreed to sign a five-year contract to use his knowledge of the Congo to establish a basic transport infrastructure. This consisted of a road from the coast via a succession of small settlements he established or created trading stations at (Boma, Vivi, Isangile, Manyanga, Mfwa) up to the so-called Stanley Pool, designed to bypass the river’s many impassible rapids and cascades. He was a hands-on manager of the other Europeans and the many African labourers co-opted for the work, earning him the humorous nickname Bula Matari or ‘Breaker of Rocks’. Stanley was paid £1,000 a year.

Five years is a long time and much happened, notably: 1. Stanley became incensed by the brutality and racism of the Belgian officers under his nominal command. 2. He very slowly began to suspect Leopold was not the benevolent philanthropist he was posing as and Jeal notes the many letters he wrote Leopold insisting that the white man only had the right to lease property and no right to seize or claim ownership of native land. Stanley insisted that no Belgian officer was entitled to treat the Congolese:

‘as though they were conquered subjects ..This is all wrong. They are subjects – but it is we who are simply tenants.’

Up the roads he built were transported steamships, broken into sections and reassembled above the rapids, which hugely expanded access to the upper Congo.

3. Stanley faced the rivalry of the French explorer, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, who entered the Congo from the north and tried repeatedly to claim the entire north bank of the river and its hinterland for France, requiring repeated negotiations, threats and recriminations, carried out not only on the ground in Congo, but in Paris, London and Brussels, as Leopold managed the threat from the French, while Stanley invoked the possibility of the British stepping in – the last thing both the continentals wanted.

Jeal is writing a revisionist biography. His aim is to exonerate Stanley. As such he describes in detail the various meetings between Stanley and Leopold, quotes from letters between them, the contract Stanley signed, correspondence with intermediaries, diary and journal extracts, all tending in the same direction, which is to show that Stanley took Leopold at his word and believed him a genuine philanthropist. To be fair, so did plenty of other politicians, statesmen, journalists, missionaries and concerned parties.

The crimes against humanity Leopold sanctioned (the most notorious was cutting off the hands of natives who had failed to collect a set amount of rubber per week) only began to take place in the 1890s, well after Stanley had completed his five year contract in 1884 – although he was kept on by Leopold on a retainer and a fractious relationship for a few more years. And news about the atrocities only began to leak out to the press via reports of a handful of activists in the later 1890s, over ten years after Stanley had ceased all contact with the king.

King Leopold juxtaposed with just some of the millions of Congolese who were mutilated during his personal rule

Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, 1886 to 1889

When the Khedive of Egypt had gone bankrupt in 1882 the British had stepped in to administer Egypt and Sudan. Partly as a response to Western ‘occupation’ there had arisen the Mahdi, a low-born Egyptian who presented himself as a charismatic Islamic leader and raised impressive numbers of followers. General Gordon had been administering the southernmost province of British Egypt, named Equatoria, since 1873.

Alarmed at the rise of the Mahdist forces, the British government sent General Gordon to Khartoum with instructions to secure the evacuation of loyal soldiers and civilians and to depart with them. In defiance of those instructions, after evacuating about 2,500 civilians he retained a smaller group of soldiers and non-military men and remained, fortifying the town against a siege which lasted almost a year.

During this time there was huge publicity in the press about plucky Gordon holding out against the mad Mahdi and the forces of barbarism. The government hesitated and worried about the cost but eventually sent an expeditionary force to fight its way through to Gordon and rescue him. As is fairly well known they were too late. After a long siege, the Mahdist forces finally breached the defences of Khartoum on 26 January 1885 and killed the entire British garrison including Gordon and most of the population of the town. An estimated 10,000 were killed.

Apart from the penny-pinching reluctance of the government to launch the relief expedition, and the way the British public memorialise British heroic failures (the charge of the Light Brigade, the siege of Mafeking, the Somme, Dunkirk) the other notable thing about the incident is the immense power of the press. Gordon’s heroics were very widely reported and the matter became one of general public interest, forcing the government to act.

All the same forces came into play in the Emin Pasha affair. With Gordon dead, there remained a British force even further south into Sudan, led by one Emin Pasha, and the issue now arose of how to rescue him and his ‘heroic’ soldiers. Pasha was depicted as a brave soldier of the Empire and a noble fighter against the evils of slavery. On the back of the outcry over Gordon, a committee was set up to lobby for the rescue of Pasha and his men, whose whereabouts was not known exactly. The money came pouring in from public subscriptions (the campaign raised a total of £32,000) and who was chosen to lead the expedition into a particularly obscure region of central Africa? Stanley.

In Jeal’s account almost every element of the two year long expedition was a fiasco and what wasn’t a fiasco was a catastrophe. It can be divided, maybe, into three components.

1. Pasha’s background

It is quite staggering to discover the discrepancy between the stereotype of the noble Christian administrator and abolisher of slavery which Pasha was painted as by the popular press, and the disappointing reality. The beauty of a biography as long and detailed as Jeal’s is you get to learn so much about minor or secondary figures that it at times has the richness and complexity of a novel.

Pasha was no dauntless Briton but had been born Eduard Schnitzer, to Lutheran parents in the Prussian province of Silesia. In 1864, aged twenty-four, this bearded and bespectacled German had qualified as a doctor in Berlin, but had failed on a bureaucratic technicality to be granted a government licence to practise, he settled in Albania – then a Turkish province – where he set up as a doctor. A brilliant linguist, he soon added Albanian and Turkish to the five other languages he already spoke. He was a first-rate pianist and chess player, and also excelled as a botanist and ornithologist. In 1870 Emin joined the staff of Ismail Hakki Pasha, Governor of northern Albania, and served with him till his death three years later. During this time he had an affair with the Pasha’s wife, and after she became a widow, lived with her as she were his own spouse. In 1875, he ran out of money and took Madame Hakki, her four children and six slave girls to stay with his parents in Germany. While there – realising he could not support ten people indefinitely – he abandoned Madame Hakki, and fled the country. He would not contact his family again for fourteen years. (p.315)

See what I mean by ‘like a novel’? By 1875 Emin had made his way to Khartoum (as far away from h is angry wife as he could get), set up practice as a doctor. He now posed as an Arab of Arab birth and came to the attention of General Gordon, Governor-General of the Sudan. In 1878 Gordon appointed Pasha Governor of Equatoria, then the Mahdi rising occurred, Gordon was massacred after a prolonged siege, and the British press clamoured for the noble Pasha to be found and rescued.

2. The expedition

It was the most gruelling and death-ridden of Stanley’s big three expeditions. The cause was starvation. The expedition was very well funded, it was the largest and best-equipped to go to Africa, had plenty of native porters and more white officers than Stanley had had before. It landed on the west coast with the aim of travelling thousands of miles up the Congo before branching off where the Congo makes its great turn to the south, to head east along the Aruwimi river, in order to strike overland to Lake Albert at the southernmost tip of Equatoria.

Leopold had promised Stanley use of his steamers above the Stanley Pool, which the explorer had been responsible for transporting there several years earlier, but in the event all but one were out of commission, which significantly delayed and complicated logistics.

At Yambuya on the Aruwimi, the expedition was running so low on food, and so many porters had deserted that Stanley took the fatal decision of dividing it in two, leaving the majority of goods with several white officers in the rear, depending on a promise from the notorious Arab slaver, Tippu Tip, that he would provide hundreds of additional carriers. Leaving the rear column behind, Stanley forged on through what turned out to be ruinously difficult terrain through the Ituri forest where his own men died of starvation and disease, before emerging into the territory of inhospitable and violent tribes. Of the 389 who set out from Yambuya, only 169 survived the gruelling trek through Ituri. But they had hired many more porters along the way, not least from the slave trader Tippu Tip, so it’s estimated that over 400 lives were lost in total (p.370).

It took some time to fight off the local tribes, try to negotiate alliances and safe passage, before Stanley located Pasha and his motley garrison of Arabs and Sudanese. The two men finally met on 29 April 1888 and Stanley was disconcerted to discover that Emin was in perfectly good health and none too keen on being ‘discovered’ or ‘rescued’. In fact Pasha and his men were able to feed Stanley’s emaciated and fever-stricken followers, thus ‘rescuing the rescuers.’

And, in a major disillusionment, it turned out Pasha wasn’t very keen to be taken back to ‘civilisation’ where he strongly suspected Madame Hakki would quickly take him to court (he was to be proved right about this) but more importantly he deceived Stanley about the paper-thin authority he had over his own troops, who didn’t want to take Stanley’s route of travelling east along the familiar slave route back to Zanzibar, and preferred to travel back north through their own native lands. Pasha’s men mutinied.

Meanwhile, Stanley trekked back towards the rear column with supplies. It is difficult for a modern reader to get their head around the incredible delays and protracted timeframes. The rear column had, by this stage, not had any word or instructions from Stanley for over a year. Half way back they encountered an officer named William Bonny who told them the disastrous fate of the rear column.

3. Pasha’s downfall

There were a lot of issues persuading Pasha to take the eastwards route to Zanzibar, and managing the potentially dangerous defection of many of his most senior officers, which Jeal describes in great documentary detail. What stood out for me was Pasha’s fate. When the survivors of this huge, devastating and gruelling expedition finally made it back to Zanzibar, the consul’s residence and ‘civilisation’, a big party was held. At the height of the festivities, Emin Pasha, the centre of the entire £32,000, three-year operation which had cost so many lives, was found badly injured in the street outside, having fallen from a second-storey balcony.

Did he get drunk, wander onto the balcony and, being short sighted, not see the low balustrade and simply fallen over it? Or was it a suicide attempt, given that the enormous publicity surrounding the affair, all across Europe, had alerted his long-abandoned wife, Madame Hakki, that Pasha was alive, and she had begun proceedings in German courts, which would not only ruin him financially, but blow the cover he had dedicated years and years to creating in Africa (p.378).

Pasha didn’t recover from his fall for months, till the end of January 1890 but he did not return to Europe. He found employment with the Germans who were Britain’s fiercest rivals in East Africa, but his hopes of claiming Buganda for Germany and being appointed its governor were dashed by the careful arrangements of the 1890 Anglo-German Agreement. Pasha fell out with his German employers and set out for the interior on a mission of his own which has never been clarified.

In 1892, a hundred miles from the Congo, Pasha was beheaded by Arabs in alliance with a warlord called Kibongo. The Pasha’s sixty Sudanese followers were all shot. (p.380)

A. J. Mounteney-Jephson, Stanley’s most loyal lieutenant on the trip, made a different calculation, estimating that they set out on the lower Congo with 708 people of whom only 210 survived (p.381). The numbers are variable because extra porters were hired all along the route, and the number of camp followers (wives and children) fluctuated. But the main point is clear. Hundreds and hundreds of natives and over half the white men who started on the expedition, perished, and for what?

The Emin Pasha relief expedition turned out to be the last of its kind, run by a freelance explorer, funded by a private committee. The era of freelance exploration had come to an end and from this point onwards, expeditions were to be funded and managed by the government departments which were taking over all aspects of colonial administration.

Stanley with the officers of the Advance Column, safely back in Cairo in 1890. From left  to right, Dr Thomas Heazle Parke, Robert H. Nelson, Henry M. Stanley, William G. Stairs, and Arthur J. M. Jephson

Marriage and frustration

Jeal gives detailed accounts of Stanley’s many attempts to find a bride. Obviously his prospects changed overnight when he became super well-known as the hero who had found and supplied Dr Livingstone, a fame boosted by swift publication of his bestselling account, How I Found Livingstone (1871).

It is interesting to read about the rather cold-blooded practicality with which Stanley and his friends set about trying to find an eligible partner for him (p.300). It is pretty clear that the best candidate would have been May French Sheldon, an interesting character in her own right. Born and bred in America, May married a banker and developed as a journalist, essayist and novelist. She and husband Eli moved to London, where she corresponded with and then met Stanley who she found fascinating and inspiring. According to Jeal, May and her husband enjoyed an ‘open marriage’, something she informed Stanley about, and they were much in each other’s company.

However, Stanley wanted a wife and children, not a mistress and so, ultimately, May didn’t work out. This was a shame as she continued to worship him and, after Eli died in 1890, she herself undertook several expeditions to Africa, travelling up the Congo (funded and directed by Leopold’s people who gained good publicity out of her) and, on another trip, travelling from Mombassa to Mount Kilimanjaro unaccompanied by any other white person (p.385). She wrote up her travels and undertook lecture tours, becoming well known and was one of the first women to be made a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. In other words, she was right up Stanley’s street, and it would have been a match made in heaven

But instead Stanley was hooked by Dorothy ‘Dolly’ Tennant, scion of a rich family, a socialite and reasonably well known artist, exhibiting at the Royal Academy. Tennant came from a rich, well connected family, a family friend was the Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone. Dolly appears in the narrative on page 300 and then recurrently till the end of the book.

Dolly’s father, Charles Tennant, a lawyer and politician, was 58 when Dolly was born and died when she was 18. For years after his death she kept a diary in which she started each entry ‘Dear father’. With transparent psychology, she was attracted to father figures, men 10 or 20 years older than her, of high status, wealthy and married. She and Stanley became involved soon after he’d been invited to a dinner party at her family’s swanky London house in Richmond Terrace (June 25 1885), exchanging letters and love tokens.

Dorothy Tennant who married Stanley in 1890, painted by George Frederic Watts

However, Dolly was calculating. Jeal shows us how she spent most of the three years that Stanley was away on the gruesome Emin Pasha expedition (1886 to 1889), carrying on an impassioned (though presumably platonic) affair with Sir Alfred Comyn Lyall, Privy Councillor, member of the Council of the Secretary of State for India, a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge and, like most of Dolly’s crushes, twenty years older than her and married. There is no doubt she was in love with him. But, eventually, his detachment, his gloomy personality, and his married status forced her to acknowledge that he was never going to marry her.

Instead, as news arrived back in London that Stanley had reached Zanzibar, and as his fame exploded off the scale, she was happy to revive her correspondence with him and began telling all her friends that she had always had an understanding with the world famous explorer. Stanley, for his part, was naive, inexperienced, all too used to being rejected by the women he wooed, and so was bowled over when this beautiful, clever, rich and well connected young woman agreed to become engaged.

It was a massive, almost a state wedding. They were married in Westminster Abbey to which the blushing bride drove in a closed carriage along Whitehall through cheering crowds (p.400). The bishop of Ripon conducted the service, the signing of the register was witnessed by Gladstone and the two society painters, Millais and Leighton. What more could a girl wish for?

It took a while for them to realise that they were total opposites: she loved living in London, lived for socialising, loved being the centre of attention at high society parties, was perfectly at home with the very cream of London society, Prime Minsters and so on. Stanley was the extreme opposite, self consciously aware of his lower class origin, hating publicity and attention, preferring to be left alone to think and ponder. Stanley records the moment he realised it, after one of their first arguments because he had asked her to leave him alone for just a few hours to write his next book and she couldn’t understand why he wanted to be apart from her and burst into tears.

‘It struck me that is married life was to be a conflict of this nature, between marital duty and that which one owes to the public, there will be little happiness in future. The utter hopelessness of compatibility between her ideas and mine [was] revealed to me so suddenly that I was speechless for a time…’ (Stanley in his diary entry 4 September 1890, quoted page 403)

This caused much conflict until Stanley eventually bought a country house in Pirbright, Surrey, which he devoted himself to doing up and landscaping.

In 1885 Stanley had hoped that Leopold would invite him to become Governor of the new Congo state he was carving out. A large part of the evidence for Stanley’s lack of complicity in Leopold’s crimes of the 1890s is that Leopold never seriously considered this. He realised that Stanley was too fond of Africans and standing up for their rights to be the kind of obedient servant he (Leopold) was looking for. Then came the opportunity of the Emin Pasha expedition and Stanley was totally absorbed in that through till late 1889, then got married in 1890.

When he’d returned from that trip, an exhausted man, Stanley had hoped for several years that he might be asked by the British government to become a governor of the new colonies being legally defined, mapped and established across Africa. His good friend Sir William Mackinnon had been lobbying the government for years to carve out a legally defined British colony in Buganda and Kenya in order to compete against and contain the aggressive colonisation of the area by Germany, to finally stamp out the slave trade and to open the area for British trade.

In December 1892 Mackinnon, by now an old and ailing man, made a final offer of the governorship of the region to Stanley. To his everlasting disappointment, Dolly persuaded Stanley to turn down the offer, saying she couldn’t be parted from him, he was too old and ill, and so on. Instead she strongarmed him into standing for parliament, so he would become more like… her father, the politician. Stanley campaigned for and narrowly lost the election to become Liberal MP for Lambeth North, hating every minute of it, the public scrutiny, the big meetings, the heckling. In July 1895 there was another general election, Dolly again forced Stanley to stand, and he was elected Liberal Unionist MP for Lambeth, serving from 1895 to 1900. He hated it. For a man used to the widest, openest spaces in Africa, being cooped up for 14 hours a day in a badly ventilated, stuffy chamber listening to pontificating windbags, was his idea of hell.

It is heartening to report that the final years of Stanley’s life were made bright and happy after he adopted the six month son of one of his many distant Welsh relatives. The boy was brought to Pirbright and named Denzil and, as Stanley grew older and suffered a series of strokes, the small boy was to become the light of his life. He died in his bed at Pirbright on 10 May 1904, aged 63. Having read this long, thoroughly researched, ultra-detailed, and convincingly argued biography, I’m astonished he managed to last that long. What a life!


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

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The Unbearable Bassington by Saki (1912)

The spirit of mirthfulness…certainly ran riot in the boy, but it was a twisted wayward sort of mirth

‘Comus,’ she said quietly and wearily, ‘you are an exact reversal of the legend of Pandora’s Box. You have all the charm and advantages that a boy could want to help him on in the world, and behind it all there is the fatal damning gift of utter hopelessness.’

Saki published two novels. This is the first one, relatively short (47,720 words) and cast in 17 chapters. It has a slim plotline which I will now summarise:

Executive summary

Francesca Bassington is a member of London’s High Society. She is 40, a widow, and living in a very nice house in Blue Street, surrounded by her precious possessions. The house was left to her by her friend Sophie Chetrof when she died, but only till Sophie’s daughter, Emmeline marries, at which point it will revert to Emmeline (and her husband). Emmeline is still only 17 but that gives Francesca only 4 or five more years of possession and it makes her anxious.

Francesca has one cherished hope which is that she can persuade her only son, the difficult tearaway Comus Bassington, to marry Emmeline.

Once this is all explained, we get a chapter showing Comus at his boarding school where he is shown gleefully thrashing Emmeline Chetrof’s brother, Lancelot, thus permanently turning Emmeline against her. Oh well, so much for that plan.

Jump forward two years and Comus is now 19 and a dashing, slender, good looking addition to London society. He comes to the notice of the fabulously rich Elaine de Grey and the most of the rest of this short novel is devoted to describing the rivalry between young, selfish Comus, and twenty-something handsome Courtenay Youghal for her hand.

This basic premise is spun out via scenes depicting classic activities of the class Francesca and Comus belong to – dinner parties, society gossip, riding in Hyde Park, the opening of a new art show at a fashionable gallery and the first night of a new play, all of which give Saki ample opportunity to display his knowledge of Edwardian High Society, and its refined gossip and malice.

In the event quite a trivial argument with Comus (he asks Elaine for yet another loan to cover his gambling debts, while they’re sitting in deckchairs by the Serpentine) is the straw that snaps Elaine’s patience, and she stalks off by herself. Later she goes out for dinner with Youghal and says yes to his proposal of marriage.

News of this gets back to Francesca, who has a confrontation with her son in which she says that, since he has blown all his opportunities for advancement in London (first with Emmeline, then with Elaine) there’s nothing for it but to throw himself into the Empire. Her brother, Henry Greech, has news of an opening ‘in West Africa’. Comus accepts this meekly but with great misery. He attends the first night of a play, drinking in the sights and (bitchy) sounds of London society, knowing it is the last time he’ll ever see them.

There are three remaining scenes. In one, we see Francesca on honeymoon in Vienna, discovering that Youghal is every bit as selfish and self-centred as Comus, when he forces her to go to a masked ball and has a whale of a time, leaving her bored and disconsolate.

In the second scene, we find Comus in some God-forsaken hole in West Africa, fiercely hot, exhausted, mildly feverish, and oppressed by the pointlessness of being so utterly outside his own set of values and identities. The Africans seem to him like so many teeming ants and he hangs his head in genuine despair.

In the final, short scene, Francesca is in her lovely house in Blue Street, surrounded by her lovely belongings, when she receives a telegram saying Comus has died of illness. Everything turns to ashes. She would give all her wretched belongings just for him to walk through the door. The rest of her life will be misery and anguish.

Despair

Bleak, isn’t it? It leaves a real taste, not of mere unhappiness, but of powerful despair in the mouth. Suddenly the text felt like an echo of Joseph Conrad’s stories about white men who go to pieces in the Tropics and a harbinger of Graham Greene’s despairing novel, The Heart of the Matter. Comus’s utter abandonment reminded me of the end of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Black Mischief. In fact maybe it fits into the tidy little tradition of English fiction describing how horrible a posting to the colonies was. (Would Orwell’s Burmese Days be included?)

Room for psychology

What’s interesting about Saki’s first novel is he has taken advantage of the extra legroom provided by the form to write in a far more leisurely, expansive and descriptive style than he allowed himself in his short stories.

All of chapter 1 is devoted to a thorough description of Francesca’s home, its furnishings, how they match her personality, and then a leisurely tiffin of tea and cucumber sandwiches with her brother, Henry. Normally, his short stories are cut back to the bone, sometimes barely more than short scenes or snippets of dialogue. Some of the stories in Chronicles of Clovis contained longer descriptions, especially of the countryside. In this novel Saki is able to develop that side of his writing.

Something else happens as a result of the extra legroom, which is that it becomes considerably less funny. If you’re writing a dialogue between two characters whose sole purpose is to set up a series of one-liners, nothing hinders the quest for comedy. If you’re essaying a long paragraph describing the interior of a middle-class woman’s home, well, there’s scope from some dry remarks, but it would be self-defeating to try and do it all in a series of quips. The prose, by virtue of aiming to be descriptive, must be flatter. Not without Saki’s characteristic droll, ironic inflection. But without the quotable gags.

Same goes for description of character. Here’s a typical description of young Comus:

Gaiety and good-looks had carried Comus successfully and, on the whole, pleasantly, through schooldays and a recurring succession of holidays; the same desirable assets were still at his service to advance him along his road, but it was a disconcerting experience to find that they could not be relied on to go all distances at all times. In an animal world, and a fiercely competitive animal world at that, something more was needed than the decorative abandon of the field lily, and it was just that something more which Comus seemed unable or unwilling to provide on his own account; it was just the lack of that something more which left him sulking with Fate over the numerous breakdowns and stumbling-blocks that held him up on what he expected to be a triumphal or, at any rate, unimpeded progress.

And a comic description of the errant Comus:

In seventeen years and some odd months Francesca had had ample opportunity for forming an opinion concerning her son’s characteristics. The spirit of mirthfulness which one associates with the name certainly ran riot in the boy, but it was a twisted wayward sort of mirth of which Francesca herself could seldom see the humorous side.

The boy was one of those untameable young lords of misrule that frolic and chafe themselves through nursery and preparatory and public-school days with the utmost allowance of storm and dust and dislocation and the least possible amount of collar-work, and come somehow with a laugh through a series of catastrophes that has reduced everyone else concerned to tears or Cassandra-like forebodings. Sometimes they sober down in after-life and become uninteresting, forgetting that they were ever lords of anything; sometimes Fate plays royally into their hands, and they do great things in a spacious manner, and are thanked by Parliaments and the Press and acclaimed by gala-day crowds. But in most cases their tragedy begins when they leave school and turn themselves loose in a world that has grown too civilised and too crowded and too empty to have any place for them. And they are very many.

As you can see, that description is not only longer than we’re used to from the short stories, but also more serious. Almost a requiem for the generations of boys turned out by Britain’s public schools, who are heroes and stars at school and quite unprepared for the long disappointment of real life, a querulous note found throughout early and mid-20th century English literature.

Detailed plot synopsis

Chapter 1

Introducing Francesca Bassington and her beloved house in Blue Street, W. filled with her beloved possessions, but how the whole thing hangs be a thread because she only has the house

Chapter 2

At their public school, young Comus and colleagues thrash Lancelot Chetrof, young brother of the heiress Francesca was hoping Comus could be set up to marry.

Chapter 3

Francesca Bassington attends a high society party given by her friend Serena Golackly, and spies up and coming star, Courtenay Youghal:

a political spur-winner who seemed absurdly youthful to a generation that had never heard of Pitt. It was Youghal’s ambition—or perhaps his hobby—to infuse into the greyness of modern political life some of the colour of Disraelian dandyism, tempered with the correctness of Anglo-Saxon taste, and supplemented by the flashes of wit that were inherent from the Celtic strain in him…

She spies a politicians who has just been made governor of a Caribbean island and engages him in conversation:

Sir Julian Jull had been a member of a House of Commons distinguished for its high standard of well-informed mediocrity, and had harmonised so thoroughly with his surroundings that the most attentive observer of Parliamentary proceedings could scarcely have told even on which side of the House he sat. A baronetcy bestowed on him by the Party in power had at least removed that doubt; some weeks later he had been made Governor of some West Indian dependency, whether as a reward for having accepted the baronetcy, or as an application of a theory that West Indian islands get the Governors they deserve, it would have been hard to say. To Sir Julian the appointment was, doubtless, one of some importance; during the span of his Governorship the island might possibly be visited by a member of the Royal Family, or at the least by an earthquake, and in either case his name would get into the papers.

Her plan is to get to know him over several meetings and slowly plant the seed of the idea that her son, Comus, would make a wonderful personal secretary in his new position. Next morning this careful scheme is wrecked when, next morning at breakfast, she sees her son has written a witty letter to the Times disinterring some old speeches of Jull’s in which he is ignorant and rude about the West Indies. Once again, Comus has scuppered Francesca’s best-laid plans!

Chapter 4

A wall of ice slowly grows between the mother, trying her damnedest to get Comus a good position in life, and her son who seems hell-bent on wrecking everything. The are both invited to dinner at the home of the ageing Lady Caroline Benaresq:

She came of a family whose individual members went through life, from the nursery to the grave, with as much tact and consideration as a cactus-hedge might show in going through a crowded bathing tent.

And:

Lady Caroline was a professed Socialist in politics, chiefly, it was believed, because she was thus enabled to disagree with most of the Liberals and Conservatives, and all the Socialists of the day. She did not permit her Socialism, however, to penetrate below stairs; her cook and butler had every encouragement to be Individualists.

Hard not to love Saki’s permanent tone of wit and irony bordering on the rude. Anyway,

Chapter 5

Introduces us to the fact that, when he was 16, Courtenay Youghal was seduced by an older woman ‘some four or five years his senior’, Molly McQuade. Since then they have maintained a flirtatious friendship. Now they are meeting in their familiar trysting place of the London Zoo, where Youghal delicately breaks the news that he is planning to get married (to Elaine de Frey). They are both people of the world now, and Molly is relieved to hear the lady has money. Saddened that this phase of their relationship is coming to an end but she begs him to come visit her and her husband in the country for hunting once he’s bedded in to the new marriage. It is nowhere indicated that this is a sexual relationship, maybe we are meant to be sophisticated enough to take this as read.

Chapter 6

Elaine de Frey sits in her stately garden and lets her two suitors, the up and coming politician Courtenay Youghal and the spoilt schoolboy Comus Bassington, spar wittily for her affections. Things crystallise when Comus pettishly takes the silver bread and butter tray down to the lake to feed the swans and then refuses to give it back because he wants it, the spoilt schoolboy.

Chapter 7

In Bond Street Francesca bumps into the tiresome Merla Blathlington before shaking her off and continuing to a bridge party at Serena Golackly’s, where there is gossip and catty competition, not least with Ada Spelvexit, a tiresome do-gooder among the poor (‘Hostesses regarded her philosophically as a form of social measles which everyone had to have once’) and Lady Caroline Benaresq, an ageing Socialist and demon bridge player.

The gossip turns towards the up and coming politician Courtenay Youghal and the women speculate who would make a good wife for him when they are joined by dapper George St. Michael who tells then Youghal is pairing off with the fabulously rich Elaine de Frey

Chapter 8

Out riding in the country, Elaine is forced out of the main road because a circus is passing by and is astonished when the man who greets her turns out to be the once-famous adventurer and traveller, Tom Keriway, who was struck down by illness and retired to an obscure farm. And here he is. It is a beautifully kept place but Keriway reveals it is the seat of all kinds of Darwinian struggles and can’t conceal that he is bitterly unhappy. The countryside often brings out the really bestial (wild animals eating children) and tragic in Saki, as in the Hardyesque short story, The Hounds of Fate.

Chapter 9

Late June in Hyde Park. Courtenay Youghal is riding his ‘handsome plum-roan gelding Anne de Joyeuse’ up and down. He is buttonholed by Lady Veula Croot and they have a sly political duel, being of opposite parties, before being interrupted by a dimwit named Ernest Klopstock.

Not far away Elaine de Frey and Comus Bassington are sitting on deckchairs. She likes him but is getting bored by his selfishness and he oversteps the bounds when he asks her to lend him £5, partly to pay a £2 gambling debt. Elaine agrees but gets up rapidly and says she is leaving, for Comus not to accompany her. It is a snub.

She bumps into Courtenay and insists he takes her to luncheon, which he does, at the Corridor, with its fatherly maitre d’ who discreetly asks Courtenay whether he is engaged to the young lady. ‘Tell him yes,’ said Elaine, on impulse.

Chapter 10

At the Rutland Galleries for an exhibition of Mervyn Quentock’s collection of Society portraits. Comus regards Quentock’s portrait of his mother and sees in it an expression he hasn’t seen for years, now that he permanently irritates and mortifies her. It inspires him to be nicer and above all fulfil his mother’s plan to marry Elaine de Grey. Amid other gossip a little flurry is caused over by the doors when Courtenay arrives. Pressing closer Comus overhears others gossiping the news that Courtenay and Elaine are now engaged.

Chapter 11

After lunch with Courtenay, Elaine returns to the house in Manchester Square where she is staying with an aunt, and reflects on her decision to accept Courtenay. She feels ‘an unusual but quite overmastering hankering to visit her cousin Suzette Brankley’ who has also recently announced her engagement. She pops round the two women bitchily try to outdo each other, Elaine winning and damping her cousin’s mood, specially when her young man appears, the boring Egbert, who speaks pompously to the visible embarrassment of Suzette and her mother, who is also present.

All this time Elaine had been pondering a long and soulful letter to Comus explaining her reasons, but on returning to her aunt’s place she finds a message from him has been delivered briskly acknowledging the news and returning the fiver she’d lent him, along with the notorious bread-and-butter dish which caused the big argument in chapter 6.

Reading the letter again and again Elaine could come to no decision as to whether this was merely a courageous gibe at defeat, or whether it represented the real value that Comus set on the thing that he had lost.

Chapter 12

Francesca is desperate to know the latest about Comus and Elaine but fritters the morning away with a few female friends wittering endless gossip. And then a walk in the Park after lunch leads to her bumping into the dreaded Merla Blathington, who witters on about chickens, and then George St. Michael arrives who in a few swift words confirms Francesca’s worst fears: Comus has blown it with Elaine.

Comus himself turns up and they have an argument. Having failed to bag an heiress, Francesca can see nothing for it but for Comus to disappear off to some colony. Her brother Henry told her the other day he can get Comus a little job in West Africa. Comus says they needn’t be that drastic, he can get a job in England, at, say, a brewery. But Francesca knows that remaining in England will mean Comus is always vulnerable to the lure of the West End, of racing and gambling and sponging off her till she dies. No. West Africa it must be.

Chapter 13

That evening Comus goes to the theatre which is an opportunity for Saki to satirise the upper class types one met there in the Edwardian era, lords and ladies, an archdeacon, the ageing gossip Lady Caroline Benaresq (who is a recurring character throughout the book, as are Serena Golackly and Lady Veula), the authoress of ‘The Woman who wished it was Wednesday’ (is that a jokey reference to G.K. Chesteron’s novel, The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)?) with much chat about the church and politics. It is comically taken for granted that the play is an irritating intrusion into the true function of theatre which is to allow upper-middle-class people to meet and gossip and display themselves.

Everyone is there, but Comus sits through it all in a daze of misery, knowing that he is seeing it for the last time before being consigned to the Dark Continent. Lady Veula is the only person who acknowledges him, with her lovely smile and sad eyes.

Chapter 14

Francesca hosts a farewell dinner party for Comus. It is not a happy affair and is dominated by two show-off men, Henry Greech MP, her brother, and Stephen Thorle, brought by Serena Golackly because he is alleged to ‘know all about’ tropical Africa, but turns out to have loud opinions about everything. Lady Veula is present again, and shakes Comus’s hand goodbye. The mood is bleak, Francesca spills her champagne when she tries to make a toast, she can’t wait till everybody leaves. Comus adjusts his toilette and heads out for a night on the Town for one last time.

Chapter 15

Elaine has married Courtenay. They are on their honeymoon in Vienna, staying at the Speise Staal. Elaine is disillusioned and bored. At lunch she is irritated by three Germans talking endlessly about food, and the even worse party of Americans comparing everything unfavourably to the fabulous cherry pie they make back home. Two of Elaine’s extensive collection of aunts are staying at the hotel, a younger blameless one, and the older, shrewder Mrs. Goldbrook. They act as chorus to her obvious unhappiness.

Courtenay has arranged for them to go to a masquerade ball that night. Courtenay has a wonderful time dressed as harlequin, but Elaine is bored, ending up chatting inconsequentially with a Russian who a) tiresomely compares her to the same Leonardo painting that everyone does b) explains that Russians like culture so much because it is an escape from their real life, which is grim. (Interesting point coming from Saki who had been a foreign correspondent in Russia and, indeed, written a book about Russian history.)

The next day the aunts hear the two newly-weds sharply diverging accounts of the night before and conclude that Elaine is going to be unhappy.

Chapter 16

Cut to Comus in blisteringly hot West Africa where he is profoundly depressed by the sense that Africans are like ants and their life is the life of the teeming ant nest, going on with endless repetition, no variation, no progress, and no meaning.

The procession of water-fetchers had formed itself in a long chattering line that stretched river-wards. Comus wondered how many tens of thousands of times that procession had been formed since first the village came into existence. They had been doing it while he was playing in the cricket-fields at school, while he was spending Christmas holidays in Paris, while he was going his careless round of theatres, dances, suppers and card-parties, just as they were doing it now; they would be doing it when there was no one alive who remembered Comus Bassington. This thought recurred again and again with painful persistence, a morbid growth arising in part from his loneliness.

And:

Here a man simply made a unit in an unnumbered population, an inconsequent dot in a loosely-compiled deathroll. Even his own position as a white man exalted conspicuously above a horde of black natives did not save Comus from the depressing sense of nothingness which his first experience of fever had thrown over him. He was a lost, soulless body in this great uncaring land; if he died another would take his place, his few effects would be inventoried and sent down to the coast, someone else would finish off any tea or whisky that he left behind—that would be all.

And:

He would pass presently out of the village and his bearers’ feet would leave their indentations in the dust; that would be his most permanent memorial in this little oasis of teeming life. And that other life, in which he once moved with such confident sense of his own necessary participation in it, how completely he had passed out of it. Amid all its laughing throngs, its card parties and race-meetings and country-house gatherings, he was just a mere name, remembered or forgotten, Comus Bassington, the boy who went away.

He dreams of London where life had a meaning, where he had a place in it, where people had souls and complex personalities and purpose. Now he knows he has just become a dwindling memory, ‘Comus Bassington, the boy who went away’. He watches some native boys playing, fighting and chasing each other, then joined by some girls. He can never take part in their life, he is exiled forever. He puts his head in  his hands and sobs.

Chapter 17

A few days before Christmas Francesca receives a telegram saying Comus is severely ill. Then another one saying he is worse. She goes out for a walk round St James’s Park and dwells on her relationship with her son, all the false turnings and arguments right up to the ill-fated farewell party.

She returns home to the telegram waiting in the hall and takes it into her drawing room and, now, she hates every article in it because dashing, laughing, mocking Comus is there no more. She realises she hates it all, would give it all if only her beloved son would walk through the door.

Who does walk through the door is her irritating brother, Henry, bearing the ‘bad news’ that the big painting she’s so fond of is not in fact by the well-known artist Van der Meulen but is a good copy. He notices the anguish in her eyes and pats her hand and tells her not to be downhearted. Francesca clutches the telegram tighter in her hand in her anguish and begs for her brother’s inconsequential consolation to end.

It is an image of real, genuine, tormented anguish and a very dark, grim and upsetting note to end this light, mocking novel on.

Themes

In the middle part of the novel it is about a woman who has to decide between two lovers, a very old plot. And basing a novel on the theme of making a good marriage or marrying for money is as old as the genre, if we take the first English novel to be Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740) by Samuel Richardson.

Mother-son relationship

It is a prolonged and sometimes very insightful meditation on the intensity, the loves and hate, the Freudian ambivalence inherent in the mother-son relationship.

London high life

Plenty of scenes show off Saki’s knowledge of London high life – a gallery opening, first night at the theatre, riding in Hyde Park, dinner parties and so on, all conveyed with effortless insider knowledge, and generously spiced with malice and gossip which seemed to be the upper class’s main occupation.

Politics

Hector Munro’s first real job was writing political sketches which blossomed into a full-length satire on Westminster Alice in Westminster. This gives his mockery of British politics real authority.

It is striking to see how many of our political concerns, in 2021, were thoroughly understood and shared by the bien-pensant liberals of 1911. The aim of levelling up and increasing equality and being ‘for the many never’ goes out of fashion. It is a permanent interest of a steady proportion of the educated classes. Munro mocks and satirises gabby, well-meaning intellectuals, as is the wont of authors from his class and education.

Henry Greech had made an end of biting small sandwiches, and settled down like a dust-storm refreshed, to discuss one of the fashionably prevalent topics of the moment, the prevention of destitution.

Ah destitution, how ghastly it must be!

‘Talk is helpful, talk is needful,’ the young man was saying, ‘but what we have got to do is to lift the subject out of the furrow of indisciplined talk and place it on the threshing-floor of practical discussion.’ The young woman took advantage of the rhetorical full-stop to dash in with the remark which was already marshalled on the tip of her tongue. ‘In emancipating the serfs of poverty we must be careful to avoid the mistakes which Russian bureaucracy stumbled into when liberating the serfs of the soil.’

It’s the same kind of satire of high-minded ‘socialists’ which you find in John Buchan’s third Richard Hannay novel, Mr Standfast, which opens with extended satire on vegetarian, sandal-wearing socialists; or, later, in many passages of Aldous Huxley’s 1920s satires.

Christianity

As in all his stories, Christianity is presented as a joke, an affair of doddery old churchmen whose values the entire society pays ritual obeisance to but utterly ignores.

‘The dear Archdeacon is getting so absent-minded. He read a list of box-holders for the opera as the First Lesson the other Sunday, instead of the families and lots of the tribes of Israel that entered Canaan. Fortunately no one noticed the mistake.’

The British Empire

Saki has a pretty negative view of the British Empire.

What the woke and anti-racist and progressive commentators of our time (2021) tend to forget in their hurry to condemn all British history for its imperialism and racism is that for a lot of the time, a lot of people deprecated the Empire. The British were the first nation to ban the slave trade and then had the navy to enforce a very effective international ban on slave trading. Paradoxically, the two nations which were the last to ban slavery, Cuba and Brazil, are regularly held up as beacons of cool multiculturalism, while the earliest nation to ban it,m Britain, is held up for condemnation.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there were very vocal opponents of the British Empire – the entire Liberal Party in the 19th century, and most of the Labour Party in the 20th. For many educated people, the British Empire was a scandal and an embarrassment, as were the gung-ho public school types who went off to run it.

Whereas when the French tried to give Algeria independence in the 1950s it nearly triggered civil war, several coup and assassination attempts, Britain granted independence to India with almost no domestic opposition, and went on to grant independence to its African and Caribbean colonies with barely any comment.

Insofar as the entire novel ends with its protagonist packed off to a colonial hell-hole where he dies in utter misery, it ends with a blazing symbol of the futility and inappropriateness of ’empire’ and this retrospectively highlights the anti-imperial comments which run through the novel.

‘Courtenay Youghal said it in the House last night. Didn’t you read the debate? He was really rather in form. I disagree entirely with his point of view, of course, but some of the things he says have just enough truth behind them to redeem them from being merely smart; for instance, his summing up of the Government’s attitude towards our embarrassing Colonial Empire in the wistful phrase “happy is the country that has no geography”.’

‘West Africa,’ said Comus, reflectively; ‘it’s a sort of modern substitute for the old-fashioned oubliette, a convenient depository for tiresome people. Dear Uncle Henry may talk lugubriously about the burden of Empire, but he evidently recognises its uses as a refuse consumer.’

There was nothing individuals like Francesca or Comus could do to alter the geo-political realities of their day, but they didn’t approve of the empire. Comus and Courtenay both think it’s an embarrassing joke.


Related links

Saki’s works

The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard (1987)

The sutures of my skull were opening, letting the cool wind into the chambers of my brain. I stared up at the cloudless, cyanide sky, like the domed roof of some deep psychosis. (p.275)

This is a poor book. It is long, packed with detail, has an exotic setting, a reliably demented protagonist on a mad, quixotic quest – and yet it feels like a shadow of Ballard’s earlier works.

The Day of Creation shows the peculiar thing that happened to Ballard’s writing after he had revealed the source of his strange delirious worldview by describing his boyhood in a Japanese internment camp during World War Two in Empire of the Sun. It was like cutting off Samson’s hair. Overnight the neuroses which had enmeshed Ballard’s fiction, were freed and disappeared. The weird alchemy which held together Ballard’s first ten or so classic novels, and nearly a hundred short stories of obsession and psychological collapse, didn’t exactly disappear but somehow, magically, lost their genuinely disturbing power.

One symptom of this is that Ballard’s novels got longer. The Atrocity Exhibition barely stretches to 110 pages but I think it’s his best book. Crash, 171 pages, Concrete Island 126 pages, High Rise 140 – he was best in short, extremely concentrated, bursts.

By contrast The Day of Creation is a bloated 287 pages long and has lost its reason for existence long before the end.

The plot – part one

The story is told in the first person by Doctor John Mallory (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor). Having been born and raised in British Hong Kong, Mallory didn’t fit in at medical school in Cambridge or in England more generally, and so took up jobs with aid agencies, ending up working for the World Health Organisation.

A series of overseas assignments ends with one bringing him to the dead end town of Port-la-Nouvelle somewhere in the heart of Africa, between Chad and Sudan.

I found the opening chapters of the book deeply confusing. It took me a while to understand that it opens with Mallory being forced to his knees by a soldiers from a rebel group led by skinny, angry rebel leader, General Harare, once a dental student, now afflicted with boils and bad teeth, whose guerrillas periodically invade what is left of Port-la-Nouvelle, do a little gentle looting and return to the forest.

Specifically, he finds himself on the wrong end of a rifle held by a 12-year-old rebel girl who probably has a tale of terrible suffering behind her but when Mallory moves to take the rifle off her, she pulls the trigger. Luckily there’s a duff cartridge in the chamber so the gun doesn’t fire. He seizes the rifle and throws it away.

We learn that all this is being photographed by a young Japanese woman photographer, Miss Matsuoka, a type of the ambitious and amoral photojournalist. About fifteen minutes later the rebels have been fled as the town’s official army force arrives led by the ‘huge and clumsy’, 6-foot (p.28) Captain Kagwa and the situation sort of returns to normal.

‘Normal’ is that Mallory has been here in this empty town for the best part of six months, living in a scruffy trailer and, by his own admission, hitting the whiskey bottle at breakfast and carrying on drinking all day (p.72).

He had a brief affair with one of the only other white people in the locality, Nora Warrender. She kept a little sanctuary for wild animals with her husband till her husband was shot dead by the rebels. Mallory caught her on the rebound and they slept together for a few days until Mallory realised she had absolutely no interest in him whatsoever.

What seems like half an hour after the traumatic encounter with the rebels, a light airplane flies in and disgorges none other than Professor Sangar, sometime biologist-turned-television documentary maker, who has flown in on some cock-and-bull mercy mission with a plane full of rice, an assistant and a camera crew for whom he can pose as saviour.

Except that, as the deeply antagonistic Mallory who takes an instant dislike to the preening fool bluntly points out to him: a) the locals don’t eat rice, at all, their stock food is manioc, and b) there’s no locals here, anyway; they’ve all long ago fled the rebel guerrillas.

Sangar is actually laconically laid back about all this but is accompanied by an extremely tense and jumpy assistant, an Indian named Mr Pal who takes umbrage at every one of Mallory’s sarcastic quips.

All this is presumably intended to be satire on TV bullshit artists, particularly scientists-turned-TV gurus (remember that the car-sex-obsessed lead figure of Crash is a once-reputable scientist-turned-TV presenter). But not only is it crude satire, but it feels very clumsily deployed.

In fact the whole opening thirty or forty pages felt deeply clumsy, introducing characters pell-mell in the midst of events which are so badly described I didn’t understand what was going on.

What is the book about?

In a similar manner, it took me some while to understand the central plot of the book, in fact I only actually understood it from the blurb on the back:

Mallory has remained in Port-la-Nouvelle, despite having no patients to speak of (they’ve all run off to avoid the rebels) because he has developed the entirely irrational, quixotic and obsessive idea of rewatering this dry, arid part of central Africa.

The Port has jetties and quays which stretch out into Lake Kotto but this is bone dry, having dried up two years earlier, and whose bottom is not just dry but covered in parched dust.

Similarly, the one-time river which flowed into it is an arid ditch. Mallory has been using the small funds given to him by the WHO to pay for the drilling of a series of wells across the lake bottom, driven by a mad fantasy of a third river Nile to fertilise this whole region.

What happens next I found incomprehensible in every way. Mere pages after the rebels have left, and way before we have really understood and processed the depths of Mallory’s quest, and entirely by accident, a bulldozer which is meant to be extending the town’s small runway, lifts the immense root of a rotted old oak tree out of the sand at the end of the runway and… a trickle of water emerges. A trickle which turns into a stream, and then a good solid flow of water.

I didn’t really understand how such a flood of water comes from one dislodged tree root and I struggled to understand what happens next: which is that the source of this water appears to move, to shift location from coming out of one small scooped hole, and turns into a flood which moves further and further back into the jungle. As well as flowing downstream to begin to refill the barren lake, the source moves backwards, upstream. We find Mallory wading miles into the jungle to try and find the ever-receding source.

In some mystical way the accidental breaking open of a small spring changes morphs into a mighty river whose source is deep in the jungle, and the river becomes so mighty that, as the days go by, it gets bigger and bigger, it refills Lake Kotto, so that Port-la-Nouvelle’s piers and jetties are once more lapped by water and the level rises so high that it starts to threaten the runway and the lower parts of the town with inundantion.

But here’s the thing which I found genuinely incomprehensible: because the water didn’t come from the wells he’s sunk – and despite the fact that the river is doing just what he wanted it to, namely rewatering the region – Mallory takes against it and declares the river his enemy.

As futilely as he once drilled wells in a bone dry lake-bed, now he futilely tries to block, dam and reroute the river. It’s become Him against The River. I didn’t understand this, follow it or believe it, but it becomes the core of the remaining two hundred or so pages.

Ballard loses it

Now, I have faithfully accompanied Ballard as he described the manias of obsessed protagonists who feel compelled to revisit the derelict gantries of Cape Kennedy, or live in hotels in abandoned resorts, or go to die on the derelict beaches of nuclear testing sites, or set off south towards the radioactive wastelands and — I understood all of them.

Ballard had the gift of taking you inside the heads of each of his deranged protagonists to the unnerving extent that you began to understand their obsessions and visions.

But not in this book. The basic obsession is overthrown in the first thirty pages. Mallory’s abrupt taking against the river and declaring it The Enemy seems utterly irrational and unnecessary. His alienated relations with Captain Kagwa or the worn widow-woman Nora Warrender are, on paper, right out of the standard Ballard handbook for the detached, alienated relationships between the handful of characters which his books normally describe. But somehow, eerily, without any of the real psychological punch which all his previous novels conveyed.

Lacking the strange and uncanny setting of so many of his earlier stories, the unnamed African location comes over as strangely dull and boring. Ballard’s described tropical jungle before. Compare and contrast Day of Creation with the opening scenes of The Crystal World which are dazzling, or the just-as-good opening pages of the brilliant short story A Question of Re-Entry.

Those stories had some pretty cheesy, clichéd elements (like the globetrotting media star who’s turned his back on fame to live with a primitive tribe in the Amazon rainforest who is at the heart of Re-Entry). But they were carried by the fierceness of vision, the charge of Ballard’s imagination, and also the sentence-by-sentence brilliance of Ballard’s language.

But overnight his gift with the English language seems to have abandoned him, and the force that drives his earlier fictions – the powerful combination of intense scenario with crisp but somehow visionary prose – has evaporated. Instead the book is a collection of mannerisms. Whatever ‘it’ is, Ballard had lost it.

The plot – part two

The first effect of Mallory’s ill-fated attempts to dam and reroute the river (why?) is that the half-built dam made of logs and empty oil drums suddenly gives way. Mallory himself is caught by the flood and tumbled down to the bottom of the gravelly torrent, is nearly drowned and only just rescued up by Kagwan’s soldiers to spend the next few weeks recuperating at Nora Warrender’s refuge for rare animals, where he lives in uneasy company with her group of feminist black women.

And where he learns that the collapsing dam made of oil drums and logs had caught up the Japanese snapper Miss Matsuoka and killed her. This seems to have no impact on anyone at all, least of all the reader.

After all this confused motives and off plotting, it’s only around page 100 that the book finally settles into a groove. Recovered from his near-drowning, Mallory decides to steal the knackered old ferry, the Salammbo, which has just arrived at the newly navigable quayside of Port-la-Nouvelle, and to use it to follow the river to its source. I still don’t understand why he wants to do this, but it is at least a comprehensible narrative device: the quest, the odyssey.

The 12-year-old girl who tried to shoot him, then ran off into then jungle, has emerged in recent days as a kind of damaged orphan and built herself a home-made coracle made from plastic wrapped over a metal frame. She’s paddling around in the river in the darkness on the night when Mallory wades out into the river under the noses of a couple of Captain Kwanga’s half-asleep guards, and stealthily unties the front and rear mooring ropes.

As the boat slowly starts to drift away from the quay, the soldiers realise what’s up and start shouting, one of them clambers down into the shallow river and bangs with his rifle butt on the steamer’s sides. But Mallory manages to ignite the starter motor, then get the big diesel motor engaged and, as the Salammbo heaves about and begins to head upstream into the magic river, two things happen: the soldiers start shooting at it, and the girl paddles enthusiastically close to the steamer but then loses control and, just as her coracle is crushed under its heavy progress, Mallory pulls her to safety, then returns to the helm.

And so they set off up this fanciful African river, this unlikely pair, Mallory the shiftless doctor, a heavy drinker crushed by a sense of failure and inadequacy, who has entered into an irrationally intense love-hate relationship with the river, and the girl whose name, we learn, is Noon, whose black face bears networks of scars she’s picked up in an obviously abused childhood and who, as a result, Mallory thinks suffers from mutism. She is dumb.

It is a journey or metaphysical quest up a river in Africa undertaken by a man named Mallory, just as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a metaphysical quest up a river in Africa undertaken by a man named Marlow. Hence the Heart of Darkness-style illustration on the first edition of the book. But unfortunately, Conrad’s novel is a timeless classic, whereas this novel is a confused mess.

Cover of the first edition of The Day of Creation showing the old steamboat Salammbo which Mallory steals

The steamer had been operating as a ferry. It is carrying on its deck a black Mercedes limousine, ordered by Captain Kwanga who has grand visions of himself rising to become governor of a province which is newly enriched by the new river flowing through it. For the next hundred pages or so Kwanga’s repeated attempts to recapture the Salammbo are motivated by angry wish to get hold of his stolen limo.

Things happen. Noon turns out to be a handy pilot, warming Mallory about sandbanks and blockages ahead, as they chug forward under the protection of the overarching tropical canopy. There’s a bag of rice in the boat, which Mallory boils a ration of each day, and Noon turns out to be a dab hand at jumping into the river and spearing fish on a spear she’s made from a sharp leaf. Nonetheless, quite quickly Mallory is feeling feverish. He hadn’t been eating properly to begin with, had been drinking heavily, and now is not eating enough. This combined with his weakness from his near-death experience when he was half-drowned when the ramshackle dam collapsed fifty pages earlier, all means that he is in very poor shape, and quickly becomes feverish.

And THIS, you realise, is the place Ballard wanted to get to: the first half of the book often felt clumsy and rushed because this is the point, the core, the aim, the focus of the narrative, possibly the image Ballard began with: the image of a half-mad, obsessed, feverish white man struggling to steer a decrepit steamer up a mysterious river in the heart of Africa, helped only by a dumb-mute African girl. Possibly this is the key image you’re meant to take away from the novel, and it is weird and intense, if with a rather heavy sense of déjà vu.

Captain Kagwa comes chasing him in a military helicopter which, to being with, strafes the steamer with machine guns. The second time they return, the helicopter is equipped with pontoons which means they can land on the water, and discover that Mallory has run aground on the half-submerged equipment of a quarry which the river has flooded. Thus Kagwa can warily clamber out along the submerged metal to within hailing distance of the bridge.

At that point Kagwa lets off a pistol shot which misses Mallory although a ricochet cuts part of his scalp. Mallory lifts the rusty old Lee-Enfield rifle which originally belonged to Noon (the one she nearly shot him with) and shoots, not Kagwa, but one of the helicopter’s landing pontoons which bursts and starts to deflate so that the helicopter almost immediately starts to lapse into the water. The pilot shouts at Kagwa who clambers his way back to it and just about manages to climb in as the chopper rises into the sky.

Exhausted, and bleeding from his head, Mallory collapses. He’d found a deckchair from somewhere and now Noon resourcefully rigs up a sun canopy over it. In this deckchair Mallory lapses into the classic Ballardian mental state of fever dreams, delirium, hallucination and driving obsession. He must get to the source of the river (whether to block it for good or rechannel it into the desert to make the Sahara bloom, is unclear and increasingly inconsequential).

There I sat like a totem, propped in the bows of this strange ship piloted by a child on its journey towards the sun. (p.139)

(This, incidentally, reminds the hard-core Ballard fan of the scene in The Drowned World where the central figure, Dr Robert Kerans, is captured by the crew of a pirate ship and tied to an old chair placed on a table and worshipped as a tribal god.)

I didn’t mention something which happened earlier. Irrationally convinced that it was he who created the river (although we saw that it arose by sheer accident when a bulldozer clearing the huge stump of a dead oak tree at the end of the town’s runway unwittingly releasing an underground stream), Mallory is not surprised when Sangar laconically informs him that rivers need to be registered with the authorities and with national geographic societies etc, and so he – Sangar – has used his radio to contact world geographical societies and magnanimously named the river – the Mallory.

This seemed improbable and silly at the time, and becomes more and more silly as the book progresses. But then again, the book’s intention is not ‘realistic’, but entirely programmatic. Contriving to get the river named after him allows Mallory to hallucinate that the river is his alter-ego, his other self, an ally and an opponent, as he enters the increasingly fevered state.

After our escape from Captain Kagwa I was aware that a duel was taking place between myself and the Mallory (p.139)

This sounds intriguing, if pretty contrived, but repetition soon drains it of meaning and brings out its silliness.

Already I had begun to resent the river, and realised that in the Mallory I had created a dangerous rival. (p.143)

I needed to destroy the Mallory, but at the same time I wanted to enlarge it… (p.146)

During his numerous trips to the engine room to adjust and fix the motor, Mallory has picked up an elaborate set of oil streaks across his increasingly thin and wasted body, not to mention rust and paint marks and blood stains from the wound in his head. When Noon looks at him, Mallory realises that he is turning into a savage. Heart of Darkness all over again.

And then they bump into Sangar the documentary film-maker and his sidekick, Mr Pal again. The pair are cruising the other way down the River Mallory (with the current) in a long ancient launch, loaded, obscurely with defunct television monitors, and Sangar greets Mallory in his sly, laconic way. The ferry collides with their overloaded launch and Mallory has to help the pair aboard with as much of their equipment as they can save before the launch sinks. He discovers that both Sangar and Mr Pal are as emaciated and malnourished as he is.

Suddenly I realised that the entire dynamic of the story is from Waiting For Godot. In part one of Waiting For Godot we are introduced to a handful of characters engaged in absurd projects, led by the two tramps Vladimir and Estragon. But the play is in two parts, and part two opens to reveal the same handful of characters, but this time in a significantly advanced state of decay. Same here: Sangar and Mr Pal are in almost as bad shape as Mallory, both have lost lots of weight and have running sores.

  • With its swollen eyelids and fungal skin infection, [Mr Pal]’s youthful face resembled that of a starved apprentice in a backstreet tannery. (p.158)

And I thought again of Godot when I read this sentence, right at the end of the book when a weakened Mallory tries to help injured Sangar to his feet amid the mud and detritus of the burst barrage:

Together we tottered in the shifting earth, trying to find our footing in the sliding mud, two tramps dancing on a garbage hill. (p.262)

Surely that is a conscious decision to reference Godot which is about two utterly destitute tramps.

More than that, their intention of making some kind of ‘documentary’ about Mallory and his quixotic quest, has also degraded. They don’t have batteries for their equipment. No lights, no tapes. They do appear to actually film sequences of Mallory and the girl, but it appears hopelessly random.

Ballard’s intention is obviously to say something important about the TV Age. He has his illiterate, mute freedom-fighter girl-child, Noon, become entranced with Sangar’s camera equipment and, finding herself caught on tape by Mr Pal, she begins to practice posing for the camera. Ballard editorialises that she has leapt from the Stone Age to the late 20th century in a few days, bypassing language on the way (p.160)

In these passages about the decrepit TV presenter and his desperately ill assistant (who ends up dying of malnutrition-caused infections) you get the strong sense that it is probably more interesting to read Ballard’s interviews about the TV age and the other subjects touched on in the book, than these rather clumsily fictionalised ‘ideas’.

In another surreal touch (one of many consciously surreal touches with which the book is stuffed) Sangar and Pil’s equipment – cameras and tapes and monitors and mixing desks – which Mallory brought aboard the steamer from their sinking launch, contains tapes of what appear to be radio programs about Africa. These are of a jokey Marxist provenance so that the words ‘neo-colonial’ and ’empire’ are liberally thrown around. The satirical-surreal aspect is that the mute damaged black girl, Noon, is fascinated by the tapes, and spends hours inside the limousine playing them over and over on the car’s expensive sound system. Damaged, mute African girl plays expensive tapes of Western lecturers sounding off about neo-colonialism. That rustling sound you can hear is a thousand doctorates about Ballard and neo-colonialism being finalised for submission to their Cultural Studies tutors.

Sangar and Pal both go drastically downhill as the steamer putters north. Pal slips into a delirious fever and eventually dies. Sangar is covered in sores and eventually tries to attack Mallory, who pushes him overboard into the river, before passing out.

Mallory wakes up in a bed surrounded by bare bosoms. Slowly he realises he has been ‘rescued’ from the Salammbo by none other than Nora Wallender, now with short cropped hair, and leader of a gang of four tough, possibly vengeful black women.

He has woken up aboard the Diana, ‘a bordello boat, the white ship of the widows’ – previously a floating brothel to service government soldiers, hence the way its bedrooms or ‘cubicles’ are covered with rococo paintings of topless nymphs cavorting in a fantasy French countryside.

He remains there for three or four days, fantasising about taking control of the boat and captaining these black Amazons, only to discover he is barely strong enough to stand up, and any of the women can just nudge him and he collapses. He realises some of the women go ashore, not only to stalk and shoot birds to cook and eat, but he watches them stalk and shoot a male soldier. Maybe they’re taking their revenge on all the men who ever fucked them.

Suddenly one day the Diana starts sinking. The women think it’s holed, but Mallory realises the level of the river is falling. While the women try to identify the leak, Mallory grabs Noon’s arm, they jump into the river and make it back to the Salammbo.

One week later they arrive at the place where passage of the river becomes impossible because of cataracts. Not only that, but local farmers have dammed one wing of the river with an extensive barrage and siphoned the water off into an extensive system of irrigation channels. ‘His’ river has turned the desert green again.

He is promptly arrested by General Harare and brought to him at the ruined infirmary of the abandoned French airfield at Bonneville. All of the scenes with either Captain Kagwa or General Harare are tripe. Ballard’s ear for dialogue was always poor, and the ‘conversations’ between these characters are a mix of raw ‘ideas’ and show-off sentences – ‘They have water now, doctor, their precious see-through gold’ – with very little concern for notions of character or psychology. They all sound the same.

The plot becomes even less rational than before. Close up Mallory can see that the water from the makeshift-dammed river has been used very badly; the nomad farmers simply don’t know how to manage water. Thus most of it is polluted with human faeces, and mixed with engine oil so it ends up polluting not nurturing their crops, while the nomads continue to live on hovels assembled from the detritus of the abandoned French air base, sheets of asbestos and the like.

Similarly, having been more or less co-opted into General Harare’s ragtag crew, Mallory suggests that they completely dam the Mallory, dry it up and so prevent Harare’s enemy, Captain Kagwa advancing up the river with his boats.

Harare agrees and so Mallory rams the Salammbo into place on the cascades between the river bank and a central island, thus creating a caisson around which the native women can build a dam across the second branch of the Mallory, damming it for good and drying up the river course all the way back down to Port-la-Nouvelle. The barrage is an impressive collection of post-industrial detritus:

Less than a month later the barrage across the river was complete, and the Salammbo, which had carried us so untiringly from Port-la-Nouvelle, sat in its last anchorage, surrounded by a refuse tip of freezers and enamel stoves, water coolers, aircraft tail-planes and radio antennae, together forming a terminal moraine of modern technology.

Ballard-land! Like the ziggurats of abandoned washing machines or televisions erected around the The Unreal City.

Mallory gets used to life in Harare’s crew. They let him continue sleeping in the wrecked bridge of the Salammbo, while he treats Harare’s sick soldiers with ineffectual medicine. Everyone is suffering fevers brought on by the foetid, malarial waters of the River Mallory, which have been diverted into a thousand blocked, unflowing, brackish irrigation channels, breeding grounds for mosquitoes and infectious diseases.

There is some kind of satirical irony going on here – that Mallory’s intention had been to ‘turn the Sahara green again’ but the reality turns out to be a poisonous fiasco. Is he telling us it is pointless digging wells and irrigating the Third World?

Meanwhile, the Diana, the brothel ship, which Mallory and Noon had escaped from a few chapters earlier, shows up and moors next to the barrage built around the Salammbo. Nora Warrender and her crew of four black widows quickly recruit young widows from the surrounding nomad villages, rig up the ship’s lights to a generator, open a bar and it’s business as usual, with groups of soldiers rowing out to the ship to drink beer and then be taken below by the sometimes teenage whores, to be serviced.

Ballard, as usual alert to surreal possibilities, has his almost-blind and malnourished TV presenter Sangar rig up a basic closed-circuit TV network playing into a TV monitor set up in the bar, so the drunken sailors can watch themselves getting drunk. Sangar sits out of the way of the violent drunks, leaning his head against a cage of marmosets, these fierce creatures chatting away as if describing to Sangar a seen he can no longer see with his own eyes.

In a deep fever, staggering with hunger, Mallory finds himself stumbling belowdecks on the Diana, waking to find a very young whore dressed in flashy clothes wiping his feverish brow, who he then only half-remembers touching up, pushing back onto the sweat and semen-stained mattress, and fucking. He drifts back to sleep. Later, the presence of her ancient Lee-Enfield rifle clinches the fact that this was Noon.

I know Ballard’s books are meant to be transgressive in all kinds of ways, but – personally – I didn’t like the way the central character is described increasingly lusting after Noon’s barely pubescent body, noticing her budding breasts etc, as the journey progresses.

And now this ritual deflowering. It’s not so much that it’s a pedophilic scene, as that it’s just so horribly inevitable: hairy, sweaty, deranged middle-aged man is put into forced proximity with a 12-year-old girl who keeps stripping off to go fishing in the river and… It seems so hairily, sweatily inevitable that he’ll end up fucking her. How much more interesting if they had kept up a strange adult-damaged child relationship right to the end.

I felt soiled by this scene.

Next thing that happens is Captain Kagwa’s gunships and helicopter arrive, having fought their way steadily upstream despite the river being dammed up. They make a heavily armed attack on the Diana and in doing so destroy the barrage, unleashing a tidal waves which sweeps down into the pool below it, sweeping away all Kagwa and Harare’s fighting men.

The next chapter starts with Mallory surveying the devastation. On the one hand this is an impressive scene; on the other, Mallory subjects it to the same rubbish, cheapjack psychology which underpins the entire narrative, the notion that Mallory somehow ‘created’ the river, has been engaged in a duel with it, and has finally ‘destroyed’ it, although not before it poisoned and infected a host of nomads who dammed it up and are now dropping like flies due to malaria.

‘You poisoned her, Mallory, with your sick river, like all these desert people. They’re sick with your dream…’ (p.263)

He sets out in search of Noon (as he has done plenty of times before), kicking the decrepit Sangar out of the way after having a typically stagey dialogue with him about who’s to blame for this disaster, ‘It’s all your fault etc’.

Mallory climbs the muddy, rubbish-strewn river bank up to the (by now) heavily battered limousine parked on the bank of the now empty, slimy river. Sure enough Noon is inside, sick and ill. Mallory is just trying to reassure her when Kagwa’s helicopter clatters into the clearing (yet again). It lands with the same old French pilot handling a carbine and watching as Captain Kagwa gets out and walks towards the limo, unbuttoning his holster.

At that moment Noon pushes her hand into Mallory’s hand. She is clutching some bit of metal which, he suddenly realises, is a bullet. For the entire length of this humungous narrative she has guarded this, the third and final of her bullets. In a typically salacious detail, Noon forces Mallory’s nails into her nipple ‘to give him courage’.

Mallory puts the bullet into the breech, cocks the bolt and, as Kagwa walks towards them coolly taking his gun from his holster, Mallory shoots him through the head.

That kind of blunt assassination reminds me of similar moments in previous fictions, particularly when the protagonist of The Drought simply rises to his feet and shoots dead the man who’d been preventing his people get to the beach.

Anyway, so that’s General Harare and Captain Kagwa dead. Mallory goes to check on Sangar but when he gets back to the limo, Noon has gone. Again.

Cut to a few days later and Mallory has rigged up a kind of raft with an outboard motor and has headed up over the cataracts, into the upper river, looking for Noon (again). He’s brought Sanger along with him. He was about to abandon him by the wrecked barrage, but suddenly saw Nora Warrender and the widow whores watching him (like a Greek chorus) and was shamed into bringing Sanger along, clutching his (by now) utterly broken and ruined cine-camera.

(This demented character clinging on to a cine-camera which is broken beyond repair but has become a psychological talisman is a direct copy of Wilder, the TV documentary maker who sets off to climb the massive luxury apartment building in High Rise, at first to make a documentary about the occupants, but by the end he has forgotten the point of his quest, and the gutted camera is just one among many trinkets and talismans he has picked up in his increasingly psychotic odyssey.)

Mallory and Sangar now enter a primeval zone of hard rocks and lizards. In case we hadn’t realised it, Ballard rams home the symbolism that the journey up the river is also a journey back in time, or at least time zones. They keep glimpsing Noon in her metal skiff, just half a mile ahead then disappearing round a bend in the narrowing river.

Finally they arrive at a ‘When dinosaurs ruled the earth’ landscape of volcanic rock and trilobite fossils where the water smells of sulphur and hot springs and the Mallory opens out into a huge ‘primeval lake… the original mud world’.

Here Mallory repeats the rather forlorn attempt to explain how the river came about: some tectonic shift fractured the bed of a huge primeval lake and created an underground river which the soldier in his bulldozer released when he dug up the giant tree root way back at the start of the novel; and then, in the bit that doesn’t make any sense, the river somehow went overground, creating an actual surface river; and that’s the river which the narrator, with breath-taking irrationality, is convinced that ‘he created’ (p.279).

I never really understood or bought into this basic premise of the book, which is why I remained outside its imaginative forcefield.

Finally, exhausted beyond endurance, the reader arrives at the final pages, in which Mallory clambers out of the river into the warm sulphur mud banks and wades through these towards the last of several pools above which rises the source of the damn river. It narrows, three feet wide, two feet wide, then only a hand’s-width wide. Mallory kneels by its silvery presence amid the hot sand, trying to cradle it, to separate it from the silver sand and then:

The Mallory died in my arms.

We are now so far beyond narrative logic that we are in a Surrealist painting: a mad doctor kneels at the source of a mythical African river cradling it as it dies in his arms.

Looking up he scans around for Noon and sees her in the distance, turning to look back at him, with the body and face of a woman his own age. Surrealism. Drugs. Hallucination. And then, of course, she vanishes without a trace.

He kicks the walls of some pools which are drying out, makes them puddle together and push Noon’s abandoned skiff into a further pool, he lets himself slip and be carried down back towards the raft where Sanger is still desperately clinging with his smashed cine-camera, and both of them, too weak to move, let the raft slowly set off on its last journey to the sea.

Epilogue

Two years later. The river has long disappeared and Lake Katto and Port-la-Nouvelle have returned to their former dusty barrenness. It took three weeks for Sanger and Mallory’s raft to drift back the full length of the river, and then for them to be picked up police and taken to hospital. During his long recovery, Sanger disclaimed all knowledge of Mallory.

Did Mallory dream the whole thing? Above all, did he dream Noon? Did such a girl ever exist, or was she an entirely fictional justification for his psychotic quest to go to the source of the river?

The events definitely happened. He’s been flown by government helicopters up the dry bed of the river and seen the Salammbo still embedded in the ruined barrage. But of Captain Kagwa and General Harare and their men, and Nora Warrender and her vengeful widow women, no trace has ever been found.

Mallory has got another job working for WHO 30 miles away to the south-west. But every weekend Mallory drives back to this dusty town, and scours the footprints left in the dry mud along the river bank. He swears he has seen the distinctive footprints of his dream girl-woman.

Sooner or later she will reappear, and I am certain that when she comes the Mallory will return, and once again run the waters of its dream across the dust of a waiting heart. (p.287)


Ballardian clichés

Antagonists Ballard characters, even as they go slowly mad, always need an antagonist. In some ways his stories are like narratives stripped down to the basic bare-bone structure:

Protagonist sets out on Quest; has one loyal Helper; two or three peripheral characters; and is pitched against an Antagonist, who dogs his steps and blocks his path.

In this book the Antagonist is Captain Kwanga, and this explains the surreal detail of the captain’s Mercedes limousine being trapped aboard the steamer Mallory has stolen. It gives a sort of rational pretext for what is really a far deeper narrative structure which Ballard wants to construct (and which, by this stage, the regular Ballard reader may well be a bit bored with).

Calm The other characters are always telling Mallory to calm down and not get so carried away, there are continual references by everyone to his unhealthy obsessions.

I totally understand how these references are designed to portray Mallory as a deeply unreliable narrator, and how it justifies Ballard’s intention to make Mallory’s obsession with the river so utterly irrational. My complaint is that, in the half dozen or so narratives preceding Creation, Ballard had used just the exact same technique and precisely the same word, so that the narrator of Hello America or Empire of the Sun is repeatedly told by the other characters to calm down. I get it. He is using a tried and tested technique. Except that in the other books, it works. Here it just feels like going through the motions:

  • Calming myself, I stood and watched Captain Kagwa climb the gangplank

Dreams All-too-easily the word ‘dream’ slips off the end of Ballard’s pen, to describe the protagonist’s hopes, ideas and intentions. Everything becomes a dream. The whole location and situation becomes a dream.

  • When I returned to the launch Sangar and Mr Pal were still sitting together against the engine-locker, two Alice-like figures stranded in this backwater of the wrong dream. (p.156)
  • I knew now why I liked her to bathe naked in the river, to immerse herself in that larger dream that sustained our journey. (p.169)
  • ‘You’re still obsessed with this absurd dream? To reach the source of the river?’ (p.174)
  • An immense white dream flows silently across the land, spreading over the drained surface of the lake. (p.284)

Fever The narrator quickly gets a fever as most Ballard characters do. Then, up at the barrage, the rancid waters of the dammed Mallory ensure that everyone gets a fever. The word ‘fever’ or ‘feverish’ appears on every page. The idea and the word ‘fever’ are essential and utterly predictable elements in Ballardland.

Illness In pretty much all his core stories, Ballard characters become ill and quickly deteriorate to advanced stages of malnutrition and illness. It’s where Ballard like to have his characters.

  • Exposure sores covered my face and forehead, flourishing in my beard like fungi in a damp meadow. (p.172)
  • Sangar’s face was covered by the brim of his wide straw hat, but I could see that his lips and cheekbones were pocked with insect bites that had festered for weeks, his neck inflamed by a sun-induced viral response. (p.173)

Put bluntly, Ballard has to move his protagonists as quickly as possible into a condition of almost complete collapse in order to justify his prose style, which is one of almost continual fever dreams and hallucinations.

The plots are not sequences of meaningful events in the traditional sense, but scenarios concocted to position his characters into situations where they can experience Ballard’s intense, weird and visionary psychological states.

There were unstated bonds between myself and this antique vessel. The metal debris in which it was embedded set up a constant wailing and groaning, and in my fever I almost believed that I was embarked on an even stranger voyage across the garbage pits of the planet. (p.235)

Ballard’s imagination is a non-stop fountain of weird sentences like that, but the rest of his creative mind sometimes struggles to concoct the ‘plots’ or situations which can justify them.

Motives Ballard characters are always unsure of their own motives and everyone else’s motives. In pre-Empire books this creates an unsettling ambience of uncertainty and human alienation. It makes all the human relationships ‘ambiguous’ and fractious. In the post-Empire books it is just part of his schtick.

  • I was wary of revealing myself to this likeable but sly opportunist, particularly as I was still unsure of my own motives. (p.157)

Naked Nakedness has become an increasingly prominent aspect of these later stories. It’s a very prominent feature of The Unlimited Dream Company that the protagonist early on strips off and from then on dares the inhabitants of Shepperton to look at him and acknowledge it. It’s an important part of the apparition of ‘President Manson’ in Hello America that he is naked, sitting naked in an old wicker chair in front of a huge array of TV monitors so that Ballard gets to describe the images projected from the screens flickering across his pale, fat naked body.

And here, in this book, it’s an important element that soon after he’s stolen the steamer, Mallory strips off, partly to be naked with all the continual sense of sexual arousal that implies, partly so that his body can display the increasingly complicated matrix of diesel oil smears, rust from old machinery, paint from the peeling ship’s hull and bloodstains, a coded indication of his decay.

It is typical that it is only after three or four days aboard the Diana and mingling with its female crew, that Mallory realises he has been naked all along. Neither he nor any of the women have noticed or commented on it. It’s as if Ballard is mounting a sustained campaign to get his readers to relax about being naked. Like every other aspect of his liberal 1960s treatment of human sexuality, this seems terribly naive and dated now, now we are in the grip of a new Victorianism which is reviving fear and revulsion at male sexuality.

Physical collapse In Empire of the Sun the extreme physical deterioration of the characters was explained by their situation i.e. years of slowly starving on minimum rations from their Japanese gaolers which, in the last months of captivity, dwindled almost to nothing.

So it’s all-too-easy to believe in the bone-thin characters, wasted and exhausted, covered in festering sores and with bleeding gums, who stagger through that narrative. In this book, however, all Mallory or Sangar would have to do it contact the outside world and a World Health Organisation plane would fly in all the money and food they wanted. Thus the malnutrition to which Ballard submits both Mallory and Sangar seems utterly wilful and contrived and unnecessary and therefore silly, therefore a bit insulting to the memory of the genuinely starved characters in Empire.

Audiobook

Credit

The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard was published by Victor Gollancz in 1987. References are to the 1993 Flamingo paperback edition.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard (1964)

Ballard wrote over a hundred short stories. Nowadays they’re gathered in the two massive volumes of Collected Short Stories, but they were originally published in various science fiction magazines and then brought together into occasional book collections, of which about nine were published in the 1960s alone (although the situation is confused because 1. there are UK and US editions of most of the collections, each with slightly different contents, and 2. these occasional collections didn’t gather the stories in chronological order, but more randomly).

The Terminal Beach is often cited as the best single collection of Ballard’s short stories, and marked a commercial and critical breakthrough. I bought a paperback copy in 1973 and some of the stories in it have haunted me ever since. The UK edition contains the following stories:

  • A Question of Re-entry (1963)
  • The Drowned Giant (1964)
  • End-Game (1963)
  • The Illuminated Man (1964)
  • The Reptile Enclosure (1963)
  • The Delta at Sunset
  • The Terminal Beach (1964)
  • Deep End (1961)
  • The Volcano Dances
  • Billennium
  • The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon
  • The Lost Leonardo (1964)

A Question of Re-entry (1963)

This is a wonderfully slow, lazy, atmospheric evocation of the steamy, dank, rotting atmosphere of the Amazon jungle, which is a sensual pleasure to read and reread, and which has justifiably drawn comparisons with Joseph Conrad’s early stories of isolated white men going to seed in the tropics.

A strange atmosphere of emptiness hung over the inland lagoon, a flat pall of dead air that in a curious way was as menacing as any overt signs of hostility, as if the crudity and violence of all the Amazonian jungles met here in a momentary balance which some untoward movement might upset, unleashing appalling forces. Way in the distance, down-shore, the great trees leaned like corpses into the glazed air, and the haze over the water embalmed the jungle and the late afternoon in an uneasy stillness… (p.15)

The tale is set in the near future. Lieutenant Connolly works for the Space Department, Reclamation Division of the United Nations. Five years earlier a space capsule, the Goliath 7, carrying astronaut Captain Francis Spender returning from a moon mission, lost contact with mission control and is estimated to have crashed somewhere in the vast Amazon jungle. Hundreds of UN inspectors have been deployed to try and locate the lost capsule which was equipped with radio and sonar beacons. Connolly spent some time working at Lake Maracaibo on the dredging project there. Now he’s been redeployed to go deep into the jungle and contact native tribes to find out if any of them have seen anything.

The story opens with rich descriptions of the rotting swamps of the Amazon tributary Connolly is puttering up in a patrol launch skippered by Captain Pereira of the Native Protection Missions. They are heading up to the squalid camp of the Nambikwara tribe. This – it just so happens – is where a 40-something high-profile white man, Ryker, the former journalist and ‘man of action’ (sounds a bit like Ernest Hemingway) decided to flee when he got sick of Western civilisation.

Thus the scene is set for Connolly to arrive at the scrappy squalid camp of ‘the Nambis’ and find Ryker a tall, imposing, cynical and mysterious man. Why was he so insistent that Pereira bring him a clock, of all things, from faraway civilisation? Why was the tribe’s one-time medicine man dislodged from his position, and how does Ryker maintain his hold over the natives?

Briefly, it turns out that Ryker has a set of NASA tables which show the orbiting times of massive new ECHO satellite which periodically crosses the sky as a bright stars in the sky. That’s why he needs an accurate clock – in order to predict the arrival of the stars; just before it appear, Ryker leads the tribe off on whooping hollaring jaunts into the forest. It is much stronger juju than the old medicine man could ever manage. (Incidentally, glancing at the tables Connolly notes ‘today’s’ date, March 17 1978 – must have seemed a long way in the future when Ballard wrote this story.)

That’s Connolly’s first discovery. His second is when the shy, ill stunted son of the rejected witch doctor makes a swap with him, Connolly’s watch for some kind of shiny orb he’s holding. On close examination it turns out to be the lunar altimeter of the Goliath 7, crudely prised out of its control panel.

So the space capsule did land somewhere near by! Disgusted, Connolly shows the altimeter to Pereira and lets the captain deal with Ryker. He comes back to say Ryker admits it all. Spender was still alive when they pulled him out of the capsule, but didn’t last long, but making it clear that he didn’t intervene to save him.

The story ends with Pereira explaining that a man who fell to earth in a shiny capsule would have been greeted as a god by the Nambis, confirming all their beliefs in cargo cults, and… the Nambikwara eat their gods!

Thus the story brings together a number of Ballard’s early obsessions in a winning combination: the journey up a tropical river; a (sort of) scientist protagonist; the image of dead astronauts trapped in their burning capsules; the eeriness of the entire space programme itself seen for the first time by Connolly as not reflecting a healthy urge to explore but rather a projection of the inner neuroses of the technocratic West; and the central but obscure important of time… the scientifically accurate time needed to predict the capsules’ orbits overlaying or superimposed on the native tribe’s complete lack of time awareness, and behind it all the image of outer space itself which, at one point, Connolly poetically speculates, might itself be a vast unconscious symbol of time and eternity.

The Drowned Giant (1964)

A pessimistic fable or fairy tale.

A giant is washed up on the beach. Over the succeeding days and weeks the unnamed narrator visits and revisits the beach and watches the amazement of the huge crowds soon give away to bored vandalism, then the dismemberment of the huge body to be used for fertiliser and the enormous bones re-used as archways into scrap yards or even houses.

End-Game (1963)

In what seems to be a communist east European country, a discredited member of the Politburo – Constantin – has been tried, found guilty, and is now confined to a villa with his executioner – Malek – with whom he plays chess and has tantalising conversations, as he tries to find out… when he is scheduled to be executed. It’s quite a long story as Constantin pathetically persuades himself that Malek understands, or can be made to understand that he, Constantin, is in fact innocent, that the circumstances of the trial were invalid etc etc.

This is the kind of story which undermines any claim that Ballard is a world class literary writer because, although made up of familiar tropes and settings it is, ultimately, neither as clever nor as subtle as Ballard wants his readers to think it is.

The Illuminated Man (1964)

The visionary short story which he quickly turned into the full-blown ‘novel’, The Crystal World, this is an extraordinarily vivid account of a trip by journalists up the river Opotoka into the Florida Everglades, to the quickly emptying town of Maynard, to see for themselves the new phenomenon whereby the natural world is becoming crystallised. Told in retrospect by the narrator (one James B———) who says that ‘now’, a few months later, as he recuperates in Puerto Rico, the entire Florida peninsula has been abandoned and three million people displaced i.e. the phenomenon is spreading and will, in time, possibly make the entire planet uninhabitable.

If there’s any plot it’s that, as a wave of new crystallisation breaks over the forest B—– gets separated from the soldiers who took him into the danger zone and then quickly lost becoming a) caught up in a weird feud between the local chief of police, Captain Shelley, who has abducted the unhappy wife of an architect who’s gone round the bend, Marquand, with the result that they are creeping up on each other and taking potshots, either in the ruined city of Maynard or in the remote crystallising summer house where Shelley has spirited away young and sickly Mrs Marquand, first name Emerelda.

And b) having fallen asleep and become half crystallised, B—– runs for hours, maybe days, because movement is the only thing which holds back the crystallising process, until he comes across a clearing in the crystal forest, location of a church and of the Reverend Thomas, who continues to play his organ even as the jungle around crystallises, its canopy overhead forming a vast lattice of glass, with narrower and narrower alleys of escape. With this visionary man B—– stays as long as a week until it is clear the forest is going to swamp them at which point he thrusts the huge jewel-encrusted altar cross into B——‘s arms and pushes him out into the crystal forest, protected by the jewels, to blunder towards the frozen river and make his way slowly through the weirdly bejewelled landscape, finally emerging into reality, the army, and hospital.

But writing now, some months later in Puerto Rico, he finds reality bland and boring. And tells us that he knows he is fated, doomed and destined to return to the forest, at the earliest possible opportunity, in order to find his destiny among the jewelled tropical forest.

This story exemplifies Ballard’s ability to imagine something unlike anyone else, to root it in the workaday world of the present day, to give rein to his extraordinarily lush and purple prose and yet, at the same time, to be somehow completely unconvincing at a human level about any of the characters.

The Reptile Enclosure (1963)

Ballard creates an over-intellectual, frustratedly verbose academic, Roger Pelham, who has taken his dim unintellectual wife to the beach which is packed out, with spotty bodies and blaring transistor radios. A report on the radio that a new satellite is being launched from Cape Canaverel prompts him to half-heartedly try to explain the theory of a colleague of his, Sherrington, that orbiting satellites emit infrared light which our unconscious minds can detect – and that the colleague, Sherrington, thinks it might trigger innate releasing mechanisms or IRMs. And that there might be connections with mass graves of Cro-Magnon Man which have been found under what were in his day lakes.

He’s still trying to explain it when a strange mood comes over the beach, silence descends, people begin to stand, some walk down to the sea and form an orderly line along the surfline, Pelham seems to be the only one not affected as people in the cafe where they’re sitting lurch to their feet and make their way to the shore. Pelham calculates that the new satellite is in fact orbiting right over them and… at that moment the lines of silent zombie people begin to walk quietly into the sea.

This is a shilling shocker, short and sharp and lurid, and all the better for it.

The Delta at Sunset (1964)

Charles Gifford is the senior archaeologist leading a small archaeological expedition to a ruined Toltec site presumably somewhere in Central America. He is accompanied by his long-suffering wife, Louise, and  a young academic assistant, Dr Richard Lowry, and a number of native Indian bearers and servants.

A few weeks earlier Gifford had some kind of bad accident at the excavation site which crushed his ankle. Now he is confined to a kind of stretcher-chair (p.127) with the sheets propped up so as not to touch his bandaged ankle. The ankle is starting to smell (presumably gangrene) and Gifford – not a nice man to begin with – has become deliberately provoking and vicious to Louise and Lowry alike, passing in and out of increasingly intense fevers, with dreams and visions.

Above all he is obsessed with the great mass of writhing snakes which emerges out into the dried-up delta they can see from their camp on a bluff. Every night they come out at the same time and wriggle and writhe across the dry mud flats

The story drops heavy hints about time – pondering the inscrutable faces of the native Indians, Gifford reflects that they are more in tune with the millennial-old forest than the average American with their obsessive time-consciousness, trying to cram ‘significant’ experiences into their lives.

At one point he turns lyrical about the snakes writhing down in the delta, speculating that they must carry in their DNA ancestral memories of ‘a coded internal landscape, a picture of the Paleocene’. As he sinks into fever he conceives of the delta as a zone of timelessness, where all time co-exists, and hallucinate the Toltec ruins reverting to some primeval level, being reassimilated into the jungle as they’re covered with moss and creepers.

So the reader is fairly prepared for the bombshell at the climax of the story when, listening yet again to her husband’s feverish descriptions of the snakes, Louise bursts out in exasperation that there are no snakes – the dry delta is bare as a bone!

So the obvious question is, Is Gifford feverishly hallucinating? Or is he he having a genuine experience and, psychologically, travelling back in time to the Paleocene era? Exactly as in the 1963 story Now Wakes The Sea when a white collar American, recovering from an illness, begins to hallucinate the deep ocean of the Triassic Era is washing over his suburb although it is a thousand miles from the nearest sea.

(Although it’s titled ‘The Delta’ Gifford increasingly visualises it as a beach, or beaches, ‘the white beaches of the delta’, and the last words describe ‘the snakes on the beaches‘. Beaches,Ballard’s primal location.)

The Terminal Beach (1964)

Traven used to be a military pilot. Then his wife and six-year-old son were killed in a car crash. He’s spent six months travelling across the Pacific and on the last leg borrowed a boat from an Australia which has now finally brought him to the abandoned island of Eniwetok where the Americans carried out their atom bomb tests.

The small atoll is littered with rows of concrete bunkers, a network of concrete blocks, sunken lakes, figures of mannequins left out exposed to the blast and half melted. In this psychic zero zone he intends to stay and starve and die. He forages for the emergency rations left in the wrecks of the Superfortress bombers. There’s a strip of shops and bars where the Americans used to do R&R. Everything is abandoned. No people are there.

In a premonition of the technique of The Atrocity Exhibition the text is divided into short passages of a few paragraphs each with a heading, such as The Corpses, the Blocks, The Terminal Bunker. He is seeking to escape from time. Time ceases to be linear. Time becomes quantised, passing in sudden discrete jumps. His wife and son appear to him, standing perfectly still and expressionless. He makes a bed out of dried-up American magazines from the derelict shops. One of them has a photo of a six-year-old girl in it and he cuts it out and pastes it to the wall of the squalid concrete bunker where he sleeps as time disintegrates.

A pair of biologists arrive on the island in a light aircraft. They have a temporary office and lab there where they carry out tests on the irradiated fauna. the old biologist, Osbourne, is tetchy with Traven for nicking their food. The young woman assistant (and pilot) sympathises with him when she hears about his dead wife and son. She warns him a naval party has been sent to catch and repatriate him. Traven easily eludes them and they give up, get drunk, and detonate one of the old petrol dumps.

At the ‘climax’ of the story Traven comes across the mummified corpse of a dead Japanese and after holding a Sam Beckett-style conversation with the dead man, hauls it on a makeshift sledge back to his bunker and ties it to a chair where it sits in the moonlight like a tutelary deity.

Deep End (1961)

Earth is populated by the elderly, at least those who haven’t yet died from its terminal pollution. Holliday, aged 22, is one of the few people left under the age of 50, everyone else has migrated to the colonies on Mars. The story is set in an abandoned seaside resort with its characteristically empty hotels. Holliday is holed up in the penthouse room of an abandoned hotel but he knows the foundations are rotting and it’s sinking and also the sand is drifting up against it; soon he’ll have to move (very like Paul Bridgman, the protagonist of the 1962 story, The Cage of Sand, who is holed up in a ruined hotel in a deserted holiday resort which is buried by slowly drifting Martian sand, but has to keep moving on.)

An emigration officer, Buller, is making his last rounds of Earth’s few remaining occupied places, and is encouraging Holliday to leave the planet. The oceans have long retreated, consumed by mining processes that generated oxygen to terraform the colonised planets, leaving a residue of hydrogen which makes the former continents uninhabitable. Only in the former ocean depths can the last few humans survive (p.171).

Thus the old Atlantic Ocean has now shrunk to a remnant named Lake Atlantic, ten miles long and one mile wide, and thus it is that Holliday walks across what was once the ocean floor looking up at the hills which were once the Bahama islands. He feels some obscure compulsion to remain behind and ‘keep watch over a forgotten earth’.

The huge launching platforms on which people transferred to the long-haul ships to Mars are mostly abandoned and hundreds of them are due to fall back into the atmosphere and to earth. Only two are left functional. It’s now or never if he wants to leave.

As he chats to Granger in the Bar Neptune a launching platform crashes nearby and they decide to go and see it. It’s smashed into one of the pools close to Lake Atlantic. The mere fact of being drained holds a powerful psychological hold on Ballard’s imagination – puddles and pools where lakes and seas had been recur again and again, as in the drained lake at the start of The Drought.

It was here that Holliday and Granger discovered the fish, a two-foot-long dogfish (it’s handy that Granger used to be a marine biologist with a memory of thirty years back, when the oceans had only been half drained). It’s flopping as the water in its shallow lake drains away (water is always draining away) and so Holliday work hard for a couple of hours not only to shore the leaks but use their car to press the mud in closer to raise the water level to two feet deep so the fish can cruise around in style.

Tired and dirty, they drive back to the town, take showers, have a rest. Holliday is inspired, now, to stay on earth, he has something to live for, the fish is a symbol of the new life that can be created here. Which makes it all the more crushing when they drive back out to the ruined space platform and the pond the next morning and find three of the town’s remaining teenagers (due to leave on the last spaceship out of town) have kicked breaches in the wall, emptied the pond of its water (water is always draining away) and amused themselves by stoning the dogfish to death.

Holliday had that very morning told Bullen he was not leaving on the last ships from earth, but was staying to guard its wildlife and its future, and now… Such is Homo sapiensHomo interfector more like.

The Volcano Dances (1964)

A short short story, only 6 pages long. Charles Vandervell has rented a house on the side of a smouldering volcano, which he shares with his girlfriend Miss Gloria Watson. At night the fires illuminate the sky, during the day he pays a ragged shaman – the ‘devil sticks man – who lives in caves across the road to dance to keep the volcano’s might at bay. For a reason we never find out, Vandervell is obsessed that a friend or acquaintance or colleague named Springman has been here, and he asks the estate manager who comes to tell him to leave and the car hire men who come to reclaim the rented car, whether they’ve seen him.

Over the course of a few days Vandervell refuses all the pleas for him to leave, obsessing about this Springman, while the volcano becomes more and more active. One afternoon Gloria wakes to find him gone – up into the cone? She waits till five, then takes the cash from his jacket and drives down the mountain.

Billennium (1961)

In the future the world is horribly overcrowded. Not a square foot of countryside remains, it is all factory farming, while every metre of space in every building in the vast sprawling cities is carefully measured and allotted out. Ward and Rossiter club together to rent a poky little one room apartment when they make an amazing discovery – they can get access to a long-sealed-off whole attic space!

At first they frolic in the kind of open space no-one anywhere on the planet enjoys any more. Then one of the girls they fancy asks if she can move in, so they say yes and the two girls move in and they set up a partition. The girls would feel more comfortable if Judith’s aunt could move in, too, as a sort of chaperone. Which she does.

Then they learn that Helen’s mother is ill and Helen would really like her to move in, too, so she can look after her. Then Helen’s father. All of them wanting partitions. At which point, right at the end of the story, Ward realises they now have less room per person than people renting the same space downstairs.

The moral of the story – that wherever people go and whatever they do, they will, through a hopeless, helpless kind of logic, screw up, poison and wreck whatever good they have – has stuck with me for the last forty years.

The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon (1964)

The Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci

A Gothic horror. After a minor eye injury became infected, Richard Maitland required surgery and bandages over his eyes for a month. His wife Judith accompanies him to his mother’s house high on the banks of a river estuary leading down to the sea. Blindfolded, he is plagued by the sound of the thousands of gulls but even more by an increasingly urgent vision, of a walled house high on cliffs, which reminds him of the mysterious grotto behind the Virgin in the Leonardo painting. In his daydream he enters the caves at the foot of the cliffs and climbs stairs up through the eerie caverns, towards a tall, green-robed figure… the lamia.

Over the next few days he reverts to this image, he can’t wait for his wife to stop fussing so he can return to it again and again, exploring the blue grottos down by the surf-wracked cliffs, and taking his time walking up those steps to confront that face.

When Dr Phillips tells him his bandages can come off in a few days and shoves a pencil flashlight in his face, it takes Maitland a few days to recover from the all-blotting daylight and retreat back into the blue grottos which emerge from the utter darkness of the blind.

And thus it is, that utterly transfixed by the power of the grottos and their Lady, when Dr Phillips finally removes the bandages and leaves Maitland with only a pair of sunglasses to protect his eyes… next morning Maitland makes a tour of his mother’s garden, looks out over the river and the cliffs opposite and thinks how utterly dull and flat it is and so… in a sudden movement which synchronises or is triggered by the sudden eruption into the air of the thousands of gull, in an impulsive move he blinds himself and his wife hears his exultant yell of pain and triumph.

The story is short and has a powerful if, somehow, predictable arc. Ballard’s achievement is to make you believe it, which rests on the haunting power he manages to pack into the descriptions of the blue caves. There’s plot alright in these early stories but Ballard’s ability at description which captures a mood is also vital.

The Lost Leonardo (1964)

This is an oddity, a detective story told in the calm, bachelor tones of Dr Watson writing up one of Sherlock Holmes’s cases. Reminds you how utterly staid and jolly decent Ballard was, and how the decency of most of his characters is so tremendously at odds with the deranged situations and psychic states they find (or put) themselves in.

A priceless painting by Leonardo is stolen from the Louvre. The narrator, Charles, a director at Northeby’s auction house (barely disguised parody of Sothebys) flies over to Paris to meet a French gallery owning friend. Over the coming weeks the friend, George de Stael, assembles the evidence for a mind-blowing suggestion: that the Leonardo is just the latest in a long line of depictions of the crucifixion which have been stolen over the past two hundred years, and in every case tampered with in a small way – the face of Ahasuerus, the Jew who allegedly insulted Jesus as he carried the cross towards Calvary, and who was as a result condemned to wander the earth forever – the Wandering Jew – well, this figure’s faces has been altered to appear more saintly, mild and compassionate.

Is it possible, George suggests, that Europe’s great paintings have been systematically stolen and the face repainted by the Wandering Jew himself, Ahasuerus, in a desperate bid to curry favour with He Who he Insulted.

Then comes a telegram from Georg saying he’s spotted their man at an auction in Paris and Charles flies over in a hurry, and the pair give chase to the man who is now calling himself Count Enrique Daneliwicz, but who stays one step ahead of them, fleeing Paris for Spain and then emptying and abandoning the rented villa just before they get there, our dashing heroes just catching sight of him as their cars pass in the narrow lane to the villa, Ballard giving us an impressive description of this aged, weathered and despairing figure, dressed smartly in a pinstriped suit, a man who saw the Messiah in the flesh and has suffered for it for nearly 2,000 years.

A clever, eerie yarn but insofar as the narrator is a perfectly sane, balanced, successful man of the world, entirely unlike the characteristic Ballard protagonist who is usually going to pieces in a world overcome with decay.

As a collection, though, it’s an impressive display of range and styles and voices, and contains four or five really timeless, hard-core Ballard classics.


Urban or exotic?

Ballard is often hailed as the poet laureate of a certain kind of urban alienation, yet a glance through these stories suggest he was almost the opposite of urban: virtually all of them are set in deeply exotic, non-urban locations. The only one actively set in London, he Lost Leonardo, is by far the most conservative in tone and subject:

  • A Question of Re-entry – Amazon jungle – RIVER
  • The Drowned Giant – unknown beach near a city – SEA
  • End-Game – East European villa – COUNTRY
  • The Illuminated Man – the Florida Everglades – RIVER
  • The Reptile Enclosure – a seaside resort – SEA
  • The Delta at Sunset – Central America – DRIED RIVER
  • The Terminal Beach – a Pacific island – SEA
  • Deep End – dried-up SEA
  • The Volcano Dances – Mexico – a VOLCANO
  • Billennium – a futuristic city – CITY
  • The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon – country house overlooking an estuary leading to the SEA
  • The Lost Leonardo – LONDON/PARIS/SPAIN

The Drowned World is set in a world overcome by sea. The Drought follows its desperate characters to the sea. Arguably Ballard is more the poet laureate of The Beach than of the City.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a breathless novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds, an the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces the catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same shape, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced his is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions including the new that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prison at the gaol where Starbuck serves a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s
1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians – ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast, arid desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself President Manson, has revived an old nuclear power station in order to light up Las Vegas, and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed

My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl (1979)

‘Is this exactly what happened?’ Sir Charles asked me.
‘Every word of it, sir, is the gospel truth,’ I lied. (p.45)

Apart from his well-known children’s novels, Dahl also wrote movie screenplays, TV scripts, and some fifty-four short stories for adults which appeared in various magazines throughout his career, the first in 1942, the last in 1988. It was these which formed the basis of the Tales of the Unexpected TV series I watched as a teenager in the 1970s.

My Uncle Oswald is his only full-length novel for adults, sort of. The fictional character of Oswald Hendryks Cornelius is described as:

‘the connoisseur, the bon vivant, the collector of spiders, scorpions and walking sticks, the lover of opera, the expert on Chinese porcelain, the seducer of women, and without much doubt, the greatest fornicator of all time.’

He first appeared in two short stories, The Visitor and Bitch, first published in Playboy magazine and published in book form in the 1974 collection Switch Bitch, which I’ve reviewed.

It’s no surprise that Uncle Oswald eventually had a novel devoted to him, indeed it’s a surprise it took so long, he is such a garish, larger-than-life and transgressively monstrous creation.

As ‘the greatest fornicator of all time’, by the age of seventeen he’s already ‘had’ some fifty English lovelies, and goes to stay in Paris, where he swives nubile French daughters (Madamoiselle Nicole), the wife of the British ambassador (Lady Makepiece) and an energetic Turkish gentlelady.

After you adjust to the bantering tone about sexual conquests and the deliberately obscene subject matter, you begin to realise that arguably the real appeal of the book is the deliberately dated and nostalgic setting. The nameless narrator claims to be quoting verbatim from scandalous Uncle Oswald’s multi-volume diaries, specifically Volume XX, written in the 1938 when Oswald was 43 years old and much of the texture of the book is filled with young Oswald’s appreciation for fine wine, gourmet meals, and very early motor cars.

Thus the opening sequence is set as long ago as 1912, during the pre-Great War imperial heyday, when a chap could still travel the world flourishing his big British passport.

1. The Sudanese Blister Beetle aphrodisiac (1912)

The first story tells how Uncle Oswald made his fortune by learning, from a disreputable relation of his, about the most powerful aphrodisiac in the world made from the ground shells of the Sudanese Blister Beetle. Inspired, he sets off himself to the Sudan where he does a deal with the head porter at his hotel to get a few bags full of the precious powder, and brings it back to Paris.

Here he is staying with friends of his posh father (William Cornelius, member of the Diplomatic Service) and sets up a little chemistry lab in the rooms he’s been allotted, and proceeds to produce home-made aphrodisiac pills which, with an eye for marketing, he describes as products of a certain Professor Yousoupoff’s secret formula (foreign names impress the gullible).

Put in summary form like this, you can see that – although the theme is supposedly pornographic, as Oswald couples with women tall and short, foreign and British – in fact the basic ideas and the childish way they’re described (‘the greatest fornicator in the world’, ‘the most powerful aphrodisiac known to man’) are closely related to his children’s books (Danny the Champion of the World, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), and so is the often funny and deliberately ludicrous way he describes his umpteen couplings:

‘Were you ever a gym teacher?’ I asked her.
‘Shut up and concentrate,’ she said, rolling me around like a lump of puff pastry. (p.34)

Also played for laughs is the conceit that Oswald is subject to vivid hallucinations while he is on the job – thus the second time he swives the nubile 19-year-old daughter of his hosts in Paris, we are treated to an extended and deliberately comic comparison of the whole thing to a medieval tournament, in which he appears as a knight in armour with an unusually long, firm lance and goes about his business to the enthusiastic cheers of the crowd – ‘Thrust away, Sir Oswald! Thrust away!’ (p.27)

There is also a good deal of humour at the expense of national stereotypes, especially in the dinner he gets invited to at the British Ambassador’s residence in Paris, attended by ambassadors from Germany, Russia, Japan, Peru, Bulgaria and so on, each a lively cartoon version of their national stereotype from the short, ultra-polite Japanese to the gruff German with his thick accent. It is to this assembly of bemedalled men that Oswald first explains the nature of the powerful aphrodisiac he has discovered.

The little Mexican clapped his hands together hard and cried out, ‘That is exactly how I wish to go when I die! From too much women!’
‘From too much goats and donkeys iss more likely in Mexico,’ the German ambassador snorted. (p.43)

When we are told (a bit later on) that a sexy young woman student he embroils in his schemes is named Yasmin Howcomely (p.90) we remember that Dahl worked on two movie adaptation of Ian Fleming novels – You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (the female lead of which is named Truly Scrumptious). And these connections made me see the gruff and candid German ambassador in this scene being played by the fabulous Gert Fröbe, who plays Goldfinger in the film of the same name, and the cartoon dictator, Baron Bomburst, in Chitty Chitty

Anyway, Oswald manages to enchant these rich VIPs with visions of the staying power afforded by his aphrodisiac pills and (very cannily) gives them each a free sample presented on a puff of cotton wool in a stylish little jewellery box. Soon they are coming back for more and he sells them for an outrageous amount (1,000 Francs) to the national ambassadors and, by word of mouth, to their fellow countrymen who come flocking.

So that’s how wicked Uncle Oswald made his first fortune.

2. The freezing sperm scam (1919)

The Great War comes, Oswald serves his country and ends the war as a captain with a Military Cross. He goes up to Cambridge and studies Chemistry with a brilliant if rather shabby tutor, A.R. Woresley, whose moustache is coloured yellow by his pipe.

One evening, over a fine bottle of port (Oswald who is, as you might expect, a confident connoisseur of wines and spirits) Woresley tells him a cock and bull story about how he has carried out extensive experiments and perfected a method for freezing sperm, specifically bull sperm.

This is the pretext for a grotesque story about the tutor and his brother stealing the sperm of the prize bull of his brothers neighbouring farm, by taking along an in-heat cow one night, smuggling it into the field with the bull and, as the bull gets and erection and goes to cover the cow, instead manhandling his pizzle into a fake rubber cow vagina, which then captures the bull’s ejaculate, with the tutor then getting onto his pushbike to wobble off along country lanes carrying a bag with a fake cow vagina full of bull semen back to the lab they’ve rigged up at his brother’s farm complete with liquid nitrogen to freeze the semen.

(In case it wasn’t obvious before, this story makes you realise the book is not intended as pornography, even soft pornography, but is instead a Rabelaisian satire on the whole preposterous subject of sex and its indignities and absurdities.)

Student Oswald goes home and lies in bed at night pondering the implications of his tutor’s experiment and realising… there is a fortune to be made selling the frozen semen of Great Men and Geniuses to women who want to be the mothers of the children of Great Men.

He recruits a lively young filly from Girton – the half-Persian Yasmin Howcomely mentioned above – who is sex incarnate.

The plan is for her to seduce the great and the good, writers and discoverers and scientists, with a sideline in the kings of Europe – slipping them each a dose of beetle powder, then clapping a sturdy rubber johnny over their manhoods as they attain rutting speed, in which the precious spermatazoa can be collected, before she makes her excuses and dashes back to Uncle Oswald who’ll be somewhere with the liquid nitrogen ready to pack and store the precious fluid.

What could possibly go wrong with such a hare-brained scheme?

The tutor thinks it can’t possibly work, at which point Oswald – who loves a challenge – makes Woresley his first conquest, sending Yasmin to him, getting him to sign a form for her (supposed) autograph book, and then to eat a chocolate with the fateful beetle powder in it. From his concealed position Oswald watches while stuffy, staid old Woresely is transformed into a virile stud and ravishes young Yasmin, who manages to collect a rubber johnny full of his sperm. Next day Oswald brandishes a container of the sperm and his signature in the tutor’s face. QED. Theory proved.

So they form a team and draw up a hit list of the Great Men of the age (an interesting list in itself). When it comes to the royals, Oswald reveals that he has faked introductory letters from King George V to all the crowned heads of Europe introducing Yasmin as an aristocratic lady in need of a private audience about a sensitive matter.

Imagine a particularly bawdy, not to say crude pantomime, and you have the spirit of the thing. The whole world of the arts and sciences is reviewed not in terms of achievement, but their potential spunk donations. The only snag is that the list of Great Men to be despunked includes some rather elderly ones that they worry might have a heart attack during the process.

‘Now see here, Cornelius,’ A.R. Woresley said. ‘I won’t be a party to the murder of Mr Renoir or Mr Manet. I don’t want blood on my hands.’
‘You’ll have a lot of valuable sperm on your hands and that’s all,’ I said. ‘Leave it to us.’ (p.115)

Woresley will remain Cambridge, doing his day job but also setting up the permanent sperm bank, while Oswald and Howcomely tour Europe collecting the sperm of Great Men!

So they set off on a grand tour of Europe and the first king to be milked is King Alfonso of Spain who, we discover (in this scandalous fiction at any rate), has a clockwork sofa which moves up and down and so does all the hard work for him while he remains more or less motionless ‘as befits a king’. Yasmin bounces out of the palace a few hours later with a johnny full of royal sperm and Oswald motors her back to the hotel where he’s set up a small lab to mix it with preservative, and then freeze it in liquid nitrogen.

And that sets the pattern for the following fifty or so pages. Next up is 76-year-old Renoir who is confined to a wheelchair, but still manages to deliver the goods and who leaves Yasmin in raptures about his greatness.

Followed by: Monet, Stravinsky, Picasso, Matisse, Proust (for whom Yasmin dresses like and pretends to be a boy, the seduction treated like a Whitehall farce), Nijinsky, Joyce, and then Puccini in his Italian villa – in the moonlight by the lake where Oswald prepares Yasmin by teaching her one of the maestro’s favourite arias. Thus when she starts singing it outside his window, Puccini is smitten, and swiftly has his way with her, but is charming and amusing and courteous.

Compare and contrast with Sigmund Freud, who admits this troubled young lady to his consulting rooms who promptly gives him a chocolate (laced with the aphrodisiac), the whole encounter a broad satire on Freud (who Dahl obviously despises).

And so on. It might have seemed a funny idea at the time but this litany of encounters with famous men soon pales, not least because the pattern is the same time – Yasmin introduces herself, offers them a chocolate spiked with beetle dust and precisely 9 minutes later they are stricken with untamable lust, she pops a rubber johnny over their member, then lets herself be ravished, then finds some way to extricate herself (sometimes being forced to use a hatpin to jolt the man off her) before rushing outside to hand the johnny full of Great Man sperm over to Oswald, who motors them both back to his hotel room where he mixes it with a preservative, secretes it into tooth-pick thin straws (a convenient way of dividing up the sperm), then pops these into the cabinet of liquid nitrogen.

In Berlin they harvest Albert Einstein – the only one of the victims to smell a rat – and then worthy-but-dull Thomas Mann, before returning to Cambridge to deposit the straws of frozen semen at the master vat kept by Dr Woresley. And then an English tour taking in Joseph Conrad, H.G. Wells, Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle and an extended passage satirising pompous, opinionated, dray-as-dust vegetarian George Bernard Shaw.

I suppose a lot of the pleasure of the book is meant to come from a) the outrageousness of the central premise, compounded by b) satirical portraits of various great men, plus c) the comic vulgarity of the actual sexual descriptions, which often sound like a grown-up children’s story. Of the encounter with George Bernard Shaw:

‘There’s only one way when they get violent,’ Yasmin said. ‘I grabbed hold of his snozzberry and hung on to it like grim death and gave it a twist or two to make him hold still.’
‘Ow.’
‘Very effective.’
‘I’ll bet it is.’
‘You can lead them around anywhere you want like that.’
‘I’m sure.’
‘It’s like putting a twitch on a horse.’ (p.182)

In the book’s closing passages Oswald and Yasmin embark on another European tour, milking the kings of Belgium, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Denmark, Sweden but are finally brought up short with the king of Norway (the country of Dahl’s parents). For here Yasmin makes her first mistake and is merrily badmouthing the King of England and even pointing out the queen’s lovers, all on the basis that the beetle powder will kick in and transform the king when… the beetle powder kicks in on her. She has taken the wrong chocolate! She tries to jump on king Haakon and ravish him but he has his guard throw her out, where she reports all to Oswald and they decide to make a quick getaway to Sweden and so back to Cambridge.

And here the partnership falls apart. Yasmin has had enough, and who can blame her. Oswald wants to press on to America – Henry Ford, Edison, Alexander Graham Bell – but Yasmin insists on a month long break and says she’s going to stay with an uncle in Scotland.

They agree to reconvene in a month’s time and Oswald buys tickets on the Mauretania to sail to the States. Then he goes on a massive bender in London, bedding a different member of the aristocracy every night. Until a terrible day. He is dallying in the bath with a duchess who decides she’s had enough and wants to go home. Oswald is unwisely rude to her and she – having got out the bath, dried and got dressed – contrives to lean over the bath and play with his parts while secretly removing the bath plug. Result: there is a sudden tremendous suction of water and Oswald’s goolies are sucked down the hole. His screams of agony can be heard all across Mayfair! Which leads him to warn us against aristocratic women or, as he puts it in a long-cherished motto:

Ladies with titles
Will go for your vitals

It takes weeks to recover and he is still hobbling with swollen privates when he arrives back in Cambridge at old Woresley’s house to discover a note pinned to the door. They’ve scarpered! Yasmin has married Worsely! And they’ve done a bunk with all the Great Men sperm. All except Proust that is, who Yasmin didn’t take to at all.

Oswald goes mad and trashes Woresley’s house, demolishing every single piece of furniture. Then conceives his final plan. On the last page of the book he tells us how he finally made his fortune. He goes back out to Sudan and buys up the entire area where the rare Blister beetle breeds, sets up plantations with native labour and builds a refining factory in Khartoum. He establishes secret sales operations in the world’s leading cities (New York, London, Paris etc)

There is some last-minute throwaway satire on generals, for Oswald discovers that retired generals are his best sales agents. Why? Because there are retired generals in every country; they are efficient; they are unscrupulous; they are brave; they have little regard for human life; and they are not intelligent enough to cheat him.

If you add this to the page or so satirising aristocratic ladies a few pages earlier, it confirms your sense that, although the theme of the book is sex, its real purpose is to be a scattergun, blunderbus satire against all respectable values, people and institutions.

Kings, queens, aristocrats, inventors, Oxbridge dons, men and women all come in for Uncle Oswald’s robust, take-no-prisoners attitude. It is a bracing and hilarious read and like many an older satire, if the narrative structure, if the ‘plot’, feels patched together and made up as he goes along, that, too, is part of the satirical intent.

If the reader was expecting anything remotely serious or dignified or carefully planned, then the joke is on us, too.

Credit

My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl was published by Michael Joseph Ltd in 1979. All references are to the 1980 Penguin paperback edition.


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The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton (1904)

In his prime, between 1910 and into the 1930s, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was a hugely successful ‘writer, poet, philosopher, dramatist, journalist, orator, lay theologian, biographer, and literary and art critic’.

He wrote a vast amount of essays, reviews, columns, articles and literary criticism – notably helping a revival of interest in Dickens with his 1906 biography of the great man – and also wrote extensively about religion, leading up to his own conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1922.

Probably Chesterton’s most enduring legacy is the 53 Father Brown detective stories published between 1910 and 1936, which are regularly dramatised for TV or radio. His next most famous works are probably the novels The Man Who Was Thursday, and The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

Edwardian humour

The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a comic novel, full of satire and high spirits, not all of which are easily understandable. Some of the incidental humour is pretty laboured and dated.

For example, book three (of five) opens with an extended satire on the kind of poetry published around 1904 and the kind of criticism it received, in the form of an extended joke about a volume of poetry, Hymns on the Hill. This fictional book of poetry is described as being reviewed by the king, no less, who uses the pseudonym ‘Thunderbolt’ and is described as being a member of the so-called ‘Hammock’ school of criticism. This ‘hammock’ school of criticism gets its name because so many of their reviews start by referring to the great pleasure the book brought the reviewer as he lazed in his hammock on a seasonal summer’s afternoon.

I understand how this is a gentle satire on the state of literary criticism circa 1904, and it is sort of funny, in its way, but it requires a bit of effort to cast your mind back to that kind of era and worldview.

Similarly, book one opens with a chapter satirising the fashion for ‘prophecies of the future’ which were so popular in Chesterton’s day and which is obviously designed to skewer not only H.G. Wells – by then the leader of a whole school of scientific prophecy – but all the other prophets of socialism and pacifism and vegetarianism and so on which proliferated at the turn of the century. Chesterton mocks them all by describing their prophetic predictions, and then extending them to ludicrous extremes.

Then, having itemised all the individual prophets and their foibles, Chesterton demolishes the lot with one grand fictional gesture. Which is to make this novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, another grand social prophecy, to set it in the far distant remote year of 1984, and then to assert the simple fact that, contrary to all the predictions of all the so-called prophets… nothing whatsoever has changed!

All the great catastrophes and collapses and social revolutions predicted by the prophets… have failed to transpire.

For, as Chesterton writes, with a broad smile on his face, the people – the uneducated, uninterested masses – have listened to the Great Prophets, have read their books and articles and… ignored them, and just got on with their lives.

They have played the traditional game which Chesterton puckishly names ‘Cheat the Prophet’, with the result that:

When the curtain goes up on this story, eighty years after the present date, London is almost exactly like what it is now.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill

In fact the England of 1984 is a despotism but in the nicest possible way. Democracy has faded into the rule of one man, a titular ‘king’, overseeing committees of efficient civil servants. But there have been no devastating wars, society carries on much as it always has, chaps still wear frock coats and top hats, ladies wear elaborate Victorian dresses with corsets and bustles, horse-drawn hansom cabs rumble through the streets. The only change that concerns us is that the ruler of the country, the so-called ‘king’, is chosen at random, from a long list of eligible citizens.

In the first couple of pages we are introduced to a trio of young men – the Honourable James Barker (‘one of the most powerful officials in the English Government’), Wilfrid Lambert (a ‘youth with a nose which appears to impoverish the rest of his face’, ‘a fool’) and their short friend Auberon Quin, who:

had an appearance compounded of a baby and an owl. His round head, round eyes, seemed to have been designed by nature playfully with a pair of compasses.

Some of the early incidents, before the story really gets going and taking up several chapters – are offputtingly inexplicable. In one they bump into the exiled President of Nicaragua in Whitehall, and watch as he goes to mad extremes to recreate the flag of his lost country – first sourcing the colour yellow by tearing a rip in an advertising hoarding for Coleman’s mustard, then the colour red by plunging a knife into his own hand and staining a handkerchief red. After spouting much inconsequential Latin fieriness, the ex-President walks proudly off into the night never to be met again. I found this scene incomprehensible.

Quin, Lambert and Barker are strolling through Kensington Gardens one fine day, Quin infuriating the other two with his latest tom-fool idea which is that the secret of humour is telling elaborate stories which don’t have a point. He is just sticking his head between his legs and making a cow noise when… two equerries walk up and announce that the new King of England, picked by random lot is…. Quin! He will be King Auberon!

While the other two go pale with horror, Quin preens and plumes himself and struts around.He wanders up into Notting Hill, where a serious little boy wearing a toy knight in armour costume, prods him in the tummy with a wooden sword, whereat Quin very seriously tells the young man he must defend his home turf, the Hill of Notting, with all his strength and honour, before strolling off dispensing similar ‘advice’ to puzzled passersby.

But this brief encounter with the little boy sets Quin thinking. What if he used his power to make the rulers of all of London’s boroughs wear medieval armour and halberds and…? And so when his friend Barker visits ‘his majesty’ a few days later, he finds Quin on the floor surrounded by poster paints, playfully sketching out new coats of arms and coloured standards for each of the 32 London boroughs.

The King was happy all that morning with his cardboard and his paint-box. He was engaged in designing the uniforms and coats-of-arms for the various municipalities of London. They gave him deep and no inconsiderable thought. He felt the responsibility. (Book 2, chapter 2)

As the last sentence indicates, the whole thing is told with an amused, tongue-in-cheek drollery.

Ten years later

Cut to ten years later: Quin is still King Auberon and still the joker. the 32 London boroughs really have become self-governing fiefdoms and all their officials forced to wear the ridiculous cod-medieval outfits Quin has designed for them.

One day a building developer (‘Mr Buck, the abrupt North Kensington magnate’) comes to complain about delays in getting a new road and housing development which he is managing. It is intended to go from Hammersmith up through Notting Hill and beyond but the rulers of Notting Hill are being obstructive. Soon he is joined by the Provosts of West Kensington and so on – all dressed in the ceremonial costumes which Quin still childishly insists they all wear, announced by medieval pages and so on.

They’re all complaining to Quin about the hold-ups and delays blocking the project, and the costs and the overheads and profit margins, when a remarkable thing happens — the Provost of Notting Hill arrives and, at a stroke, reveals that he takes all Quin’s nonsense about medieval pageantry perfectly seriously!

He speaks medieval phraseology as if he means it. He says ‘my liege’ and ‘my honour’ and waves his doughty sword and generally takes Quin’s silly joke at face value.

‘I bring homage to my King. I bring him the only thing I have – my sword.’
And with a great gesture he flung it down on the ground, and knelt on one knee behind it.
There was a dead silence.
‘I beg your pardon,’ said the King, blankly.

Stunned, Quin looks closer and realises this chap is none other than the little boy who prodded him in the tummy with a toy sword ten years earlier. His name is Adam Wayne and now, aged 19, he announces that he is prepared to defend the Hill of Notting to the death! Well, well.

The novel then tells us something about Adam Wayne’s character. Never having been out of London – or even Notting Hill – he is a genuine modernist, in the sense that he finds poetic beauty in the urban landscape, finds fairyland in railings and gas lamps and hansom cabs, and in the silhouette of terraced houses against the night sky. (This is, again, satire on what Chesterton takes to be the absurd pretentiousness of modernist poets and writers.)

Above all Wayne takes absolutely seriously the notion that Notting Hill is a precious land, worthy of his patriotism, worthy of defending.

In a comic sequence we are shown Wayne canvassing opinion among the shop-keepers on Notting Hill, visiting a grocer’s, a chemist’s, a barber’s, an old curiosity shop and a toy-shop. The comic premise is simple: Wayne enters each shop and speaks the 15th-century register of patriotism and heroism and defending the Hill – and the (generally) short, round, balding shop-keepers are comically nonplussed.

(It’s interesting to learn just how long short, irascible shopkeepers have been a reliable staple of English humour – from H.G. Wells’s numerous retailers [I’ve just read about Bert Smallways, keeper of a bicycle hire shop in The War In The Air] to Jones the butcher in Dad’s Army and Arkwright in Open All Hours, the blustering, bumbling shopkeeper is a comic staple.)

Anyway, Wayne meets with predictable, and comic, incomprehension until he comes to the sweet and toy shop of Mr Turnbull, who stuns him by revealing that, in his spare time, he plays wargames with his lead soldiers and – has even built a model of Notting Hill which he uses to play wargames!

What a find! A man after Wayne’s own heart!

The Pump Street fight

Anyway, the Provosts of the boroughs affected by Wayne’s refusal to let the new road development cut up through Notting Hill put their case before King Auberon for his approval. Specifically the plans call for the demolition of a few buildings in Pump Street. Wayne says no. Led by Buck, the businessmen offer Wayne three times the properties’ value. But Wayne refuses point blank to see any part of his kingdom despoiled, and leaves the meeting.

At which point Buck and the other speculators say they will simply send men in to knock down the buildings, halbardiers from each of the allied boroughs, Wayne or no Wayne – and the king sadly acquiesces. He had intended to create fun, frivolity and fantasy, and now it’s all got a little out of hand.

The king has only just moved on to begin a champagne dinner, arranged by servants in Kensington Gardens, when things really do get out of hand.

He hears the sound of shouting, footsteps running closer, and then – to his and his courtiers’ astonishment – wounded halberdiers come running and stumbling from Notting Hill, beating down a flimsy wall which separates Kensington Gardens from the public thoroughfare and then, in the gap, appears a god-like figure, blazoned with light – it is Adam Wayne, General of the army of Notting Hill!

A dazed Barker (one of Quin’s friends who we met back at the start of the book), who had been involved in the battle, stumbles south to High Street Kensington where he bumps into the entrepreneur Buck closing up his shop, and tells him what has happened.

Buck is immediately on his mettle, rallies the Provosts of all the nearby London boroughs, quickly assembles a few hundred soldiers from each of them, and leads them on a march converging on Pump Street, which has now become the symbolic epicentre of the war.

But the Notting Hillers take control of the nearby gasworks and turn off the gas supply to the streetlamps, plunging all the roads into darkness. Intimately familiar with their home turf, the Hillers launch devastating attacks, genuinely hurting, maiming and killing their opponents.

Chesterton manages to gloss over the seriousness of injury and death, instead inserting writing a funny chapter where King Auberon storms into the offices of his favourite newspaper, The Court Journal. Here he terrorises the editor into giving him huge placards to write incendiary headlines on, and then sets about concocting an entirely fictional description of the battle – in the manner of a modern newspaper – presumably this is all satire on journalism and newspapers’ readiness simply to invent the stuff they print – when real eye witnesses to the fighting, Barker and Buck, stumble into the offices.

Immediately the whimsical king nominates himself Foreign Correspondent to the paper and sets off ‘for the front’, in his usual, comically histrionic style:

‘I have an idea,’ he said. ‘I will be an eye-witness. I will write you such letters from the Front as will be more gorgeous than the real thing. Give me my coat, Paladium. I entered this room a mere King of England. I leave it, Special War Correspondent of the Court Journal. It is useless to stop me, Pally; it is vain to cling to my knees, Buck; it is hopeless, Barker, to weep upon my neck. “When duty calls”… the remainder of the sentiment escapes me.’

There follows an increasingly complex description of the various battles now being fought across the borough, which climax with man-to-man fighting around the waterworks on Campden Hill.

Meanwhile Buck has sent for reinforcements from the further-flung London boroughs, who have all promptly sent a few hundred men each. He now has a substantial force at his disposal. During a lull in the battle Buck sends an emissary to Wayne pointing out that they now outnumber the Notting Hillers by ten to one. In the manner of confident business men he makes a bet with the king that Wayne will promptly surrender. The king suspects not.

And is proved correct when an emissary from Wayne arrives, arrayed in full medieval gear, and blandly asks the assembled army of the boroughs to surrender.

Buck and his entourage burst out laughing, what a preposterous idea. But the emissary goes on to point out that Wayne has secured Campden Hill reservoir and, if a surrender is not given in ten minutes, will open it, flooding and drowning the entire army which is standing in the valley below.

Astonished, Buck realises they will have to surrender. The mischievous king is delighted with this turn of events. And so the Empire of Notting Hill commences.

The last battle

Now the novel cuts to twenty years later. Notting Hill is an empire to which the other London boroughs pay obeisance. It is entered via nine huge, elaborately carved gateways on which are depicted events from the battle for Independence.

King Auberon is walking its quiet and amazingly prosperous streets. He notes how the five shopkeepers who Wayne visited all those years ago now rule over colourful emporia and use the elaborate diction of medieval merchants. In fact Wayne’s victory is not so much a military conquest of the rest of the London as the discovery that everyone turned out to want to live a life of medieval colour and romance, to want more than the simple Edwardian money-grubbing. Dressing and speaking as medieval burghers and courtiers turns out to be surprisingly liberating.

The king bumps into Barker, who begins explaining that the men of Kensington sometimes get exasperated by the Notting Hillers’ lordliness when… the lights abruptly go out. A local inhabitant tells our puzzled protagonists that this happens every year on the anniversary of the Great Battle. Then the Hillers start singing a martial song of victory — and this pushes the ever-touchy Barker over the edge. He grabs a sword, yells ‘South Kensington’ and leaps at passing revellers. Some of the other passersby turn out to be from other London boroughs, and join in. From nowhere appears Buck, leader of the allied boroughs in the earlier war and so soon there is a massive battle taking place… again.

And these final pages are odd, strange and puzzling. One of the reasons I read older books is because they come from a foreign country, where lots if not most of the assumptions are different – about society, class, technology, gender, race, about language itself – and you find yourself being brought up dead on every page by words, expressions, ideas, things taken for granted by the author and their Edwardian readers which we, a hundred years later, find outlandish or inexplicable – all of which force the modern reader to stop and rethink their prejudices, values and opinions.

I find this approach much more challenging than reading modern fiction, which mostly just confirms our current liberal pieties. It is more bracing to be challenged.

In these last passages the reader is really challenged.

Chesterton descends into a kind of romantic fugue state, the battle becomes a vision of romantic fighting from the period of King Arthur, all swords and halberds, and quickly relinquishes all contact with reality.

At the climax of the battle Wayne stands with his back against a huge old oak tree, symbolic of deep English character. Repeated waves of attackers can’t separate him from it until, in finally pulling him from it, they only manage in pulling the whole tree up by its roots, which promptly falls onto the crowd of soldiers killing all of them.

This is obviously a hugely symbolic moment but… symbolic of what, exactly?

I read in the introduction to the book that Chesterton was criticised, then and now, for glorifying war, for thinking of war as a redeeming cleansing activity. For example, critics quote King Auberon musing as he walks round the empire of Notting Hill:

‘Old Wayne was right in a way,’ commented the King. ‘The sword does make things beautiful.’

But the use of the word ‘sword’ immediately reveals that Chesterton is not really thinking about war as such. The book was written in the aftermath of the Boer War with its barbed wire, concentration camps and machine guns which had very much dominated British culture. No fool glamorises that kind of war. The key is given by the king’s very next remark:

‘It has made the whole world romantic…’

The book doesn’t glamorise war, it praises the life-enhancing qualities of medieval romance – while at the same time richly satirising it. The book tries to have its cake and eat it. Right up until the end, when something much stranger happens.

This strangeness reaches a new height in the very last chapter – titled ‘Two Voices’ – when out of the ruins and grim silence at the end of the last battle, from out of the darkness of the night amid the landscape ruined with corpses, arise two voices.

I’ve read the chapter twice but still don’t really understand what they’re saying. It seems to be a sort of conservative hymn to the notion of undying, unchanging values.

‘If all things are always the same, it is because they are always heroic. If all things are always the same, it is because they are always new. To each man one soul only is given; to each soul only is given a little power – the power at some moments to outgrow and swallow up the stars. If age after age that power comes upon men, whatever gives it to them is great. Whatever makes men feel old is mean – an empire or a skin-flint shop. Whatever makes men feel young is great – a great war or a love-story.

‘And in the darkest of the books of God there is written a truth that is also a riddle. It is of the new things that men tire – of fashions and proposals and improvements and change. It is the old things that startle and intoxicate. It is the old things that are young. There is no sceptic who does not feel that many have doubted before. There is no rich and fickle man who does not feel that all his novelties are ancient.

‘There is no worshipper of change who does not feel upon his neck the vast weight of the weariness of the universe. But we who do the old things are fed by nature with a perpetual infancy. No man who is in love thinks that any one has been in love before. No woman who has a child thinks that there have been such things as children. No people that fight for their own city are haunted with the burden of the broken empires. Yes, O dark voice, the world is always the same, for it is always unexpected.’

The text then takes on a theological tone. Suppose he is God, says one voice, and he made the whole universe as a joke, as a jeu d’esprit, knocked it off for his own amusement and then forgot about it.

At which point dawn begins to lighten the eastern sky (with rather crashing symbolism) and one of the two voices is revealed as that of King Auberon and the other, that of Wayne.

‘Wayne,’ says the king, ‘it was all a joke. I meant it as a joke.’ ‘Then that makes it all the more real,’ says Wayne.

All criticism of Chesterton sooner or later mentions his fondness for paradoxes, for the unexpected, for reversals. And that’s what happens here. Somehow, the very fact that the entire premise of the story was one man’s childish joke — makes its unintended consequences all the more profound and serious.

Wayne says it doesn’t matter what motivated Auberon: all that matters is that the two of them – the two poles of human nature – the over-satirical and the over-earnest – came together to restore humanity to the poetic way of life, vision and diction which it deserves.

It isn’t war as such: it is the romance of human life which Chesterton is asserting, in this strange visionary conclusion to what had been, up until these last few pages, a fairly easy-to-assimilate satire.

‘I know of something that will alter that antagonism, something that is outside us, something that you and I have all our lives perhaps taken too little account of. The equal and eternal human being will alter that antagonism, for the human being sees no real antagonism between laughter and respect, the human being, the common man, whom mere geniuses like you and me can only worship like a god.

‘When dark and dreary days come, you and I are necessary, the pure fanatic, the pure satirist. We have between us remedied a great wrong. We have lifted the modern cities into that poetry which every one who knows mankind knows to be immeasurably more common than the commonplace.

‘But in healthy people there is no war between us. We are but the two lobes of the brain of a ploughman. Laughter and love are everywhere. The cathedrals, built in the ages that loved God, are full of blasphemous grotesques. The mother laughs continually at the child, the lover laughs continually at the lover, the wife at the husband, the friend at the friend.

‘Auberon Quin, we have been too long separated; let us go out together. You have a halberd and I a sword, let us start our wanderings over the world. For we are its two essentials. Come, it is already day.’

In the blank white light Auberon hesitated a moment. Then he made the formal salute with his halberd, and they went away together into the unknown world.

As I say, I read older books because they are so often challenging, not because of their plots or characters, but because of ideological or political or theological or cultural assumptions which underly them are so often hard to understand or sympathise with. Making the effort to do so, in my opinion, whether you agree with them or not (indeed, whether you completely understand them or not) expands your mind.

Better than TV. Better than movies. Better than drugs.


A hint of modernism

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

Thus T.S. Eliot wrote in The Waste Land, published in 1922 but much of it written much earlier. Accidie and world-weariness were clearly common feelings among Edwardian writers – passages in Conrad and Wells spring to mind – and I was struck how vivid and forceful the same feeling appears in Chesterton.

He is eloquent on the sheer oppressive boredom of London’s long, blank streets. Adam Wayne is a figure of fun, but in his innocence he often speaks truth:

‘I sometimes wondered how many other people felt the oppression of this union between quietude and terror. I see blank well-ordered streets and men in black moving about inoffensively, sullenly. It goes on day after day, day after day, and nothing happens; but to me it is like a dream from which I might wake screaming. To me the straightness of our life is the straightness of a thin cord stretched tight. Its stillness is terrible. It might snap with a noise like thunder.’

Maybe it was Tennyson who introduced this mood of specifically urban despair into English poetry. Here’s a lyric from his long, desolate poem In Memoriam, commemorating his best friend who died young.

Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp’d no more –
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

Dickens knew that long bald street, and so did Chesterton.

The blank white morning had only just begun to break over the blank London buildings when Wayne and Turnbull were to be found seated in the cheerless and unswept shop.

Blankness upon blankness. And:

‘I have walked along a street with the best cigar in the cosmos in my mouth, and more Burgundy inside me than you ever saw in your life, and longed that the lamp-post would turn into an elephant to save me from the hell of blank existence.’

So although most of the book bubbles with (sometimes incomprehensible) satire and good humour, and then metamorphoses into a hymn to medievalism – nonetheless, not far from the surface and bubbling up in random locations, is Chesterton’s awareness of the bleak boredom of city life.


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