cover image The Catastrophist

The Catastrophist

Ronan Bennett. Simon & Schuster, $24 (336pp) ISBN 978-0-684-86334-4

An Irish novelist finds himself trapped in an African colony's struggle for independence in this sophisticated and resonant political novel from the Whitbread Prize-shortlisted, Belfast-bred Bennett. In 1959, middle-aged writer James Gillespie travels to the Belgian Congo to join his young Italian girlfriend, In s Sabiani, an idealistic journalist covering Patrice Lumumba's revolution for a Communist daily. In a colony swiftly on its way to nationhood, every action seems political. But narrator James clings to his ideal of artistic detachment, which drives a wedge between him and the engag In s. While James makes friends with U.S. attach Mark Stipe, a stocky swaggerer who may be working for the CIA, In s takes an African boyfriend, Auguste, Stipe's former houseboy and now Lumumba's right-hand man. Amid the tumult and intrigue of decolonization, James is forced to choose: will he cling to his ideology as a neutral observer, or help In s and Auguste when they need him? Bennett's laconic style suits his cautious narrator precisely, recording his reluctant engagement with the Africans' cause. With deft strokes, Bennett shows how U.S. and Belgian interests, fearing Lumumba's Communist sympathies, quickly undermined his government, helping to power his rival Mobutu, who proved a bloodthirsty tyrant. This U.S. debut is Bennett's fourth book in Britain, where he's often (and rightly) compared to Graham Greene, praised both for his awareness of Third World politics and for his tactile sex scenes. Readers expecting a straight-up thriller may flip impatiently past flashbacks to Northern Ireland, meditative passages and references to Empson and Flaubert. But those seeking a well-made hybrid in Greene's mode--built of irony and commitment, political theory and garish violence, erotic charge and historical fact--will find Bennett a writer who can shock, please, inspire, disturb and finally satisfy. (Sept.) FYI: Before he was 20, Bennett was arrested as an IRA activist (though he was not a member) and convicted of murder and armed robbery, but released when his conviction was overturned. Later, living in England, he was arrested on a charge of conspiracy and served time while awaiting trial, where he was acquitted. Upon his release, he studied history at King's College, where he received a Ph.D. He is now a journalist in London.