Set in the Belgian Congo during the deepening independence crisis of 1959, The Catastrophist is really three novels in one: a passionate love story, a gripping thriller, and a fascinating tale of African history and politics. Bennett’s hero is a writer, James Gillespie, who travels to the Congo in pursuit of his Italian lover InŠs, who has gone there as a journalist to cover the independence movement. She is obsessed with the politics; he is obsessed with her. Gillespie is confident of his ability to rekindle the flames of passion with InŠs, but it soon becomes clear there’s a rival for her affections. InŠs’s true love is not a man but a cause – the Congolese quest for independence and – as she sees it – moral justice, personified in the magnetic figure of Patrice Lumumba, leader of the independence struggle.
As InŠs becomes more and more involved in this swirling, violent cauldron, the normally reserved Gillespie finds himself drawn into her wake. The Congo simmers in an atmosphere of latent violence as shootings break out in streets. Against his better judgment, the reader suspects, Gillespie falls in with a cast of dubious characters: shady American Stipe, whose knowledge of local political developments seems suspiciously comprehensive, and fat-cat colonialist Houthoofd, who’s confident that Lumumba’s quest his doomed. Can Gillespie’s all-consuming love for InŠs ever be reconciled with her burning need to find true purpose for her life in this volatile and menacing arena?
Bennett’s prose style has been compared to Graham Greene’s, on the surface spare and lean but in effect deeply moving, by turns harrowing. Take Gillespie’s fond recollection of the early days of his affair with InŠs, for instance:
What gives her the right to be like this, so sublimely unselfconscious?… Her figure, in unclothed harshness, is angular and bony. I don’t know, even after two years, what she thinks of her own shape or appearance… Soon after she moved to be with me in London we went to see Love in the Afternoon. Walking home that night, she judged the film pretty slight but at least it had Audrey Hepburn.
`She looks like me,’ she had remarked matter-of-factly.
She glanced up at me to see how I had taken this.
`Yes,’ she said with a little more emphasis, `she is very like me.’
…I could not think of it as vanity; it was too innocent for that.”
From page one, the reader is struck by Bennett’s rare ability to paint a complex political landscape in broad strokes, yet handle the finer brushstrokes of his characters’ personal odysseys with piercing accuracy. His forensic analysis of the fault lines that seam even the most passionate of relationships is reminiscent of Ian McEwan’s writing craft, even if Bennett can’t quite match the aura of darkness and horror that infuses McEwan’s stories.
The explanation can be found in Bennett’s extraordinary background. As a young Catholic from Northern Ireland, the writer spent several years in and out of jails, wrongly charged with sundry political crimes. His venture into fiction came only after he’d completed his doctoral studies in history.
Bennett ends the prologue to The Catastrophist with the phrase, “This is a story of failure.” He’s right. It is about failure, of political visions or personal dreams. But the novel itself, in concept and execution, is a magnificent success. Seek it out for an intimate, enthralling and thought-provoking read.