'Catastrophist' -- Africa sans Africans


"The Catastrophist," by Ronan Bennett. Simon & Schuster. 332 pages. $24.

There is so much to like about "The Catastrophist," Ronan Bennett's novel set in the turbulence of the Congo as that massive central African country contemplated then realized independence 40 years ago.

Essentially, this is a classic love triangle among James Gillespie, a dispassionate English writer, Ines Sabiani, a passionate Italian journalist, and the revolution that engulfs them.

But in Bennett's skillful hands, it becomes a combination political thriller, adventure tale and love story. Using the sharp edges of his setting to help define a nicely drawn set of characters, Bennett keeps the pages turning as he reveals not only what happens to Gillespie and Ines, but also the fate of Patrice Lumumba, something most readers probably will not remember.

He throws in an impressive intellectual layer that adds meaning not pretense, and a post-modern dimension as ultimately the novel becomes a meditation on itself and the responsibility of a writer.

And Bennett even manages to write intelligently explicit sex scenes that are not in the least gratuitous as they help explain the passions that drive his characters.

Unfortunately, a simple but fatal flaw runs through this body of admirable work -- though he sets his novel in Africa, every character that Bennett asks you to care about is European.

In going back to 1959 for his setting, Bennett, a Northern Ireland native who lives in London, seems to want to join an earlier generation of writers. But when Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Isak Dineson, Elspeth Huxley and others wrote of Africa, the colonial life was still exotic and unexamined.

In 1999, that is no longer the case. It is -- or should be -- unacceptable to turn the lives of the vast majority of a country into a background for characters who come in another color.

What makes this particularly disappointing is that fiction can help a concerned but distant audience understand a confused situation. V.S. Naipul's "A Bend in the River" explains the the transition from colonial to independent rule in Africa with trenchant insight. Nadine Gordimer and, earlier, Alan Paton brought South Africa's cruel dilemmas to life.

If Bennett had let us get to know some African characters, their dreams and hopes, fears and anger on the eve of independence, "The Catastrophist" could have provided context for the current troubles in the Congo, once again wracked by rebellion.

But everything involving the lives of black Africans remains in the background. "The Catastrophist's" one black character is merely a lightly sketched personification of the revolution so Ines' passion for the cause includes a sexual rival for Gillespie.

Bennett is content with a few didactic passages on Belgian rule, a bit about the new contenders for power and their western backers and then it's back to Gillespie's tortured tropical bedroom.

The action -- and thinking -- there is compelling, but there's something going on outside and you don't know what it is.

Michael Hill, who joined the staff of The Evening Sun in 1973, spent three and a half years in Africa as this newspaper's correspondent. He currently covers higher education.

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