The Catastrophist
Ronan Bennett
Simon and Schuster, $24

In their secret hearts, Western writers sometimes feel a pang at the thought of Joseph Conrad. Not because of his prose, though that’s admirable enough. It’s his material that makes contemporary novelists yearn for something beyond the suburbs and cityscapes of this postcolonial moment. One can hate the imperial enterprise and still hunger after its imaginative terrain.

Lately, instead of retreating into domestic and homegrown subjects, a few writers have launched new expeditions into old Conradian territory: Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, about an American missionary family in the Belgian Congo in 1959, Giles Fodden’s The Last King of Scotland, about a Scottish doctor in Idi Amin’s Uganda in the 1970s, and now Ronan Bennett’sThe Catastrophist, also set in the Belgian Congo on the eve of independence. (The London-based Bennett has two previous novels and a memoir to his name.)

James Gillespie, first-person narrator of The Catastrophist, really has no business being in Leopoldville, capital of the Congo, in November 1959. An Irish-born novelist who’s anglicized away all traces of his birth, James has come to Leopoldville to be with his lover, Ines Sabiani, correspondent for the Italian communist newspaper L’Unita.

Ines, never one for personal or professional fastidiousness, does not pretend to journalistic objectivity. She’s already thrown her lot in with the independence movement led by Patrice Lumumba, who will become the country’s first elected prime minister and (after Mobutu takes power at the end of the novel) its most famous martyr. Ines’s fierce devotion to the cause is both catnip and torment to James, who has made a career out of not giving a toss. "I was an advocate of nothing, precisely nothing," he says. "I’m a writer and I see all sides. I work in words, I am a worker in words and these words cannot be made to work for others, they are not the slaves of party or position."

At least James catches fire in bed. About everything else he’s cold as ice, which isn’t very much fun for the reader or for Ines. She hurls this at him: "And you say that Dante wrote that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crisis maintain their neutrality." To which James replies: "Where is this great moral crisis? I see ambition, I see corruption, I see squalor, I see intrigue and vanity and self-promotion. Where is the moral crisis?"

Is he being ironic? Crisis rumbles through the streets, erupts at political rallies, in police crackdowns and the people’s cries of Depanda! ("Independence!"). True neutrality is impossible as well as unconscionable; the turmoil invades everything. At a genteel riverside party, colonists play tennis, enjoy cool drinks brought on trays by black houseboys, and make derogatory comments about the natives. Then, across the river, shooting erupts. James dispassionately records the scene: "I look around at the faces of the guests. It is strange but there is no trace of emotion. People are being shot and there is no visible reaction. But then … why should there be? This is a garden party, after all. There is the tennis and the croquet lawn and the children … and all the innocence and play this implies. Shots have been fired, but injury and death in this arrangement still seem incongruous, mistimed. No one–least of all I–can be sure of our connection with the fuzzy events across the wide river."

If this were a Conrad tale, the political explosions around James would set off one inside him, blasting open his moral sense, blowing apart his objectivity. But Bennett’s not interested in heroic transformation, and the bad things that happen in The Catastrophist are simultaneously hideous–prison tortures, tribal slaughters–and banal. Ines calls James a "catastrophist," someone who believes that "nothing can be fixed, it is always the end." But even that elevates him beyond his merits. As he witnesses Lumumba being carted off to meet his fate, James thinks about the Congo and "the low comedy of its calamities." Narcissism confronts history and sees only itself: "I am here through accident, default, chance, caprice, stupidity, bad judgment…. Our failure is not surprising."

"Our" failure: Everybody fails in The Catastrophist. The Congolese succumb to tribalism and corruption, while even the best, like Lumumba, are defeated by blind faith and bad luck as much as by the powers ranged against them. The colonists are racist or apathetic or both. Other foreigners, like a decent British doctor who befriends James, make a virtue of denial. Creepiest of all is Mark Stipe, a morally ugly American who may or may not be CIA. It’s symptomatic of James’s moral state that he considers the Machiavellian Stipe his one true friend in Leopoldville.

History sweeps up everything, even an observer who wants no part of it; so James is at last drawn into events. He helps Auguste, one of Lumumba’s lieutenants, elude the authorities, who try to beat the fugitive’s whereabouts out of him in prison. They fail. James has every reason to dislike Auguste, who is now Ines’s lover. Why doesn’t he give up his rival? "I cannot decide whether I have been heroic or silly. I can be stubborn and resentful and sometimes buoyant, hard to wear down. But that’s not why I did not tell them what they wanted to know in the Central Prison. I did not betray Auguste because if I had I would have lost her. And because I kept silent I will lose her forever. I should know better. This is the stuff of farce, not tragedy. I can see myself on the stage, and I am laughing."

Farce, not tragedy: There’s the distance between Conrad’s territory and Bennett’s, between the sacrificial heroism of a Lord Jim and the paralytic self-absorption of a James Gillespie, whose tragedy is that he can’t experience one. He stands alone and apart, the ultimate postcolonial creature, terminally self-absorbed. "This is a story of failure," James tells us, and by the end of this bleak novel there is no choice but to believe him.