The Catastrophist

by Ronan Bennett

Not until the last quarter of this novel did I feel it take off and could I emotionally engage with it. Then it actually did have the feel of Greeneland  – a displaced self-obsessive writer, his doomed love affair, the political backdrop of a foreign country in civil war, a Manichean American spy and a host of other exotic characters living the high life amidst poverty and conflict.

Up until then I had three problems with the book. One, I am not a great fan of first person narratives, which I find restrictive. Nor of first person narratives delivered in present tense continuous. Two, because Ronan, a personal friend, gives to the narrator, James Gillespie, a family background quite similar to Ronan’s own, I kept thinking of Gillespie as being Ronan – which isn’t the case, even though they are both in their early forties! And, three, as a former broken-hearted, self-pitying, reformed romantic, I wanted to give Gillespie a good shoeing and tell him to get out of there, and that any woman who was the cause of such intense anguish and pain wasn’t worth it!

These criticisms apart, Ronan’s third novel confirms him as a master of prose, and there are many fine passages of writing, particularly as we follow Gillespie’s striving to be honest with himself, examining his past cruelties and coldness, his lack of personal conviction.

The story is set in the Congo between 1959-61 during the struggle for independence. The Belgians are leaving, but they and other western powers are manipulating the situation to preserve their interests. The democratically-elected prime minister, the Pan Africanist Patrice Lumumba, whose movement, the MNC, was the only major party that had a truly national base, is holed up in his UN-guarded villa in Leopoldville (Kinshasa). He attempts to escape, and is captured (and is later murdered).

Into this situation arrives London-domiciled, Belfast-born writer, Gillespie, to save his relationship with this Italian journalist girlfriend, the gregarious Inez, thirteen years his junior, a woman who cannot have children. Inez, daughter of a partisan war hero, has ‘gone native’, so to speak, and has used her journalism to promote Lumumba and the cause of independence. She says her life can never be the same again. Gillespie is a political cynic, which has its strengths, but he is desperately in love, and this love enervates him. Despite his cynicism he feels – ironically – proud of Inez and what she is doing and protective of her. However, he is unmoved by and has no time for nationalism: “When has involvement with a cause – any cause – ever been good for a writer?” he asks himself. Later, he is to face various dilemmas – whether to help a fugitive idealist who has personally affronted him, whether to take sides, or whether – in the face of death and torture – it is his duty to take part in history or record it (after Ruskin’s injunction: ‘Does a man die at your feet, your business it not to help him, but to note the colour of his lips.’).

Gallagher, who once studied history, knows that the politics of idealism and the cause go hand in hand with disillusionment, and so he bides his time, waits for Inez to flip back to her former self, and smoulders in his suffering. Her devotion to the cause of independence forces him to continually reflect on the value of his own life and work, but he remains loyal to his conviction that words can never be ‘the slaves to party or position’. When Inez is away for increasingly long periods he gets on with writing his novel about a man who is convinced that only by finding the father he never knew will he discover the clues to his own identity. Gallagher, it turns out, is a damaged, complex man, and the legacy of his father’s desertion of the family when he was a child has been to harden him and leave him in doubt about his own emotional authenticity. He comes to admit: “I have never had a single genuine concern – real, heartfelt – for another human being. I have never been honest.” That was, of course, until Inez came along, and that’s why he fights so hard for her.

‘The Catastrophist’ (Inez’s word for Gallagher, meaning that for him every problem, no matter how small, represents a crisis) is peopled with exotic characters, like the American embassy official, Mark Stipe, really a CIA agent, who is on first-name terms with Lumumba; the Lebanese Zoubir Smail, a communist diamond merchant and supporter of the MNC; and the sexy Madeliene in whose arms Gallagher takes some comfort.

Temporarily liberated by a big bust-up with Inez, Gallagher begins writing some mordant journalism, initially influenced by Stipe who is actually manipulating him. Violent scenes provide Gallagher with “a store of narrative and emotional fat… to live off for a long time to come.” In a burst of energy he rewrites his novel and declares that he will have the last word. But he can never get away from his love for Inez which haunts and permeates every page of the book. About his journalism, and in reference to Stipe, Inez tells him that “truth and accuracy are not always the point. They can be made to serve particular interests just as lies can.”

Living alone in the mountains of northern Italy he is thinking about Inez and her causes about ten years after the events, when his friend Alan calls his attention to the images on TV. Conflict has broken out in Derry and Belfast. Another war, another cause. Alan asks him to consider writing about it. “No,” he replies. “I don’t think so. It’s not for me.”

And that thought takes him back to the Sankuru river, and that day alongside Inez when he witnessed Lumumba escaping, before hesitating, turning back and giving himself up to certain torture and death. Who deserves life and love more? The person of conviction, action and sacrifice whose motives can also be put down to ego? Or the writer, that other predator of the human condition, windbag without responsibility, whose faith in the pre-eminence of the word will inevitably put lyrics before love?