I’d read and really liked a later novel by Ronan Bennett called Havoc in Its Third Year, so I was quite excited about reading one of his earlier works, The Catastrophist. The plot is fairly simple: an Anglicized Irish novelist named James Gillespie follows his quondam girlfriend Ines Sabbiani, an Italian Communist journalist, to the Belgian Congo in 1959, just before independence. Gillespie’s induction into the complex world of Congolese politics and the ill-fated tenure of Patrice Lumumba as Congo’s elected Prime Minister is a harsh one but he stays because of his nigh-obsessive love for Ines (and is provoked into a singular act of courage because of that love.)
Bennett’s description of the politics and the atmosphere of suspicion and betrayal is superb, and he’s a very good writer in general, but this novel was fatally flawed by the character of Ines. First of all, she’s incredibly annoying; complete moral certitude in a fictional character that is not only never changed but is ultimately endorsed by the author and the other characters is something I always find annoying, and Ines is a true-believing Communist (the daughter of a partisan etc., etc.) who never, for one single moment, expresses any doubt in her chosen ideology. I’m sure people like her existed (I know they did!) but it still grates on me that in 1959-1960 Ines can be so sure that Communism is the only path for Africa. (OK, I know this is before the secret XX Party Congress where Khruschev talked about Stalin, but jeebus, the Soviets invaded Hungary in 1956, so any thinking person had to be a little shaken in their belief in the equation of Marxism and freedom.) Secondly, I hate that Lumumba has to be given some kind of white woman “muse”; we mercifully never actually see Lumumba interact with Ines, but she’s quite clearly the person who goads Auguste (a fictional native Congolese character) into political action, because apparently, he needed to have some Italian lady come tell him what he should be doing with his life. Thirdly, and perhaps most unforgiveably, Ines, annoying as she is, never rings true as a real character – she always seems to be half the product of Gillespie’s (or the writer’s) imagination, what with being always (ahem, how shall I say this tastefully?) primed and ready for the sexy times and never having to worry about getting pregnant and beautiful even though she’s losing her hair and yadda yadda. Therefore, I never bought into Gillespie’s consuming love for Ines, which basically made all of of his actions in the novel not ring true either. Oh well!
(Incidentally, Bennett has written a number of screenplays, most recently that of “Public Enemies” – so I guess I do generally like his writing! Just not Ines!)
(Read on February 11, 2010)