THE CATASTROPHIST

“This story is about failure.”

This is what is written at the end of the introduction to this novel. It is a novel written by an author about an author. The author in the novel travels to colonial Congo to be with his Italian lover, the journalist Inès.

The story is set in the final days of the colonial era and the first of the days of independence. A times of rapid changes and uncertainties. Uncertain for the local populations and the foreign populations, especially the Belgian settlers and colonial workers. Also the intelligence services of western countries are trying to find their feet in this vast changing situation. Whom to support ? Whom to trust?

I found three strands in this story. (1) the love story between James and Inès, a relationship strained by distance in a physical sense, but also a distance in their views on the attitude of a writer / journalist to its work.  (2) the history of the final days of the colonial era, we see the familiar faces of the protagonists of this era (Lumumba, Mobutu, Kasavubu, Tchombe). We encounter the struggle to overcome ethnic divisions or to exploit these divisions. We see at the background the two main political systems of the day (capitalism and communism). What will be the course of the new country? (3) the attitude of a writer to its subject. James tries to keep his distance to the developments in Congo. He wants to be a detached journalist who reports on the heady days. Inès on the other hand gets involved, she is a journalist (with communist leanings) who wants to participate in the struggle for independence. She gets emotionally and sexually involved with the struggle. This creates a dangerous situation for her.

In the last part of the book we jump to Italy in the year 1969. James has a small writer’s hideout in the northern mountains. Inès is not with him (she is at another battlefield to report), but she is not out of his mind. Is he the man that has been sidelined? Or is he the man that wants to be involved? Has his story been a story about failure? Has the story of Congo been a story of failure? Has his loving relationship with the attached Inès been a failure?

It was a good read.

Ronan Bennett – The catastrophist – 1998

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