Perhaps it takes a writer with Ronan Bennett's peculiar personal history to write so compelling a novel about the place where politics and art intersect. By the time he was 23, Bennett, an Irish Catholic from Northern Ireland, had already spent five years in and out of various jails, charged with politically motivated crimes he'd never committed. He then traded in prison walls for the rarified halls of academia, studying for a Ph.D. in history before embarking on a new career as a fiction writer. Though at first The Catastrophist, set in the Congo during its bid for independence from Belgium, may seem a far cry from Belfast in the '70s, Bennett uses his hard-won wisdom to examine the role of the artist in a political conflict.
James Gillespie, a disillusioned Irish historian turned novelist, has arrived in the Congo on the eve of independence, hoping to reunite with his Italian lover, Ines. The two had once been passionately involved in Europe, but Ines's job as a journalist took her to the Congo, where her Communist leanings have kept her. Ines is an enthusiastic supporter of Patrice Lumumba, and her journalism reflects her bias. Gillespie, on the other hand, has a novelist's broader view, and his ability to see all facets of the issue simultaneously keeps him from choosing sides and drives a wedge between him and Ines. As she becomes more involved with Lumumba and his followers, he is befriended by an American CIA agent whom Ines suspects of being an enemy. When the political situation heats up, she puts herself increasingly in harm's way until, at last, Gillespie must put his own life on the line to save hers. Bennett does a stellar job of recreating the complicated web of political intrigue and shifting alliances at play in the Congo in 1959, but he really shines when exploring how personal relationships unravel under the strain of ideology. As Ines tells Gillespie shortly before she leaves him, his ability to see all points of view is a privilege few people can afford: "When you are on history's losing side, when you are poor and cursed to eat bread, to accept your enemy's point of view is to accept starvation and slavery." The Catastrophist is a love story, a historical novel, a troubling reflection on Africa's ongoing political upheaval. --Alix Wilber [via]