The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett – a review
He raises a finger and points to something approaching from the same direction we have come. The road is shimmering with mirages. The ocean of yellow elephant grass around the village is limitless and still. I shade my eyes and see an open-topped limousine in which a man stands as though in a chariot. He is dressed in what looks to be black tie and tails, over which is draped a leopard skin. As he comes closer I see he is wearing white gloves. He has a sergeant-major’s swagger stick tucked under his arm and he wears dark glasses. A huge black umbrella held aloft by a tall servant protects him from the sun. Behind the cruising limousine are perhaps thirty or forty followers, armed with spears, machetes, bows and arrows, and stone-age clubs and axes.
The villagers come out from their huts and converge in the open space around the water pump.
“What the hell is going on?” Stipe asks.
“It’s an election meeting,” Cleophas explains. “This gentleman is the MNC candidate. He has come to ask for our votes.”
“It’s not how they do it in my country,” Stipe says.
“Isn’t it?” Auguste asks.
He and Stipe regard each other for a moment.
“Maybe he has a point, Mark,” I say reasonably. “It’s not as if you don’t have political razzmatazz in America.”
In 1959 James Gillespie, an Irishman, goes to the Congo in pursuit of his beautiful Italian lover, Inès. Unlike her, Gillespie has no interest in the Congo’s fight for independence. He is only there because of his obsession with the woman.
And the two of them together give us quite different views of the same situation. James sees only ambition, corruption, squalor, intrigue, vanity and self-promotion. Inès witnesses a huge moral crisis.
Ultimately, everyone in the novel fails. Ostensibly the territory of Conrad or Graham Greene, The Catastrophist is essentially a post-colonial look at colonialism. The Belgians should not have been there in the first place, their interference and corrupting influences eventually rise up to consume them in the battles of independence and the squalid rush for power in the aftermath. Anyone associated with the debacle, however tendentiously, is marked and doomed.
This is Ronan Bennett’s third novel, published by Headline in 1998 and shortlisted for the Whitbread prize. Bennett was a member of the IRA in Belfast in his youth and later given a life sentence for his part in a bank robbery. The sentence was overturned on appeal. I enjoyed this book, although the whinging tone of the narrator wore me down from time to time.