Tim Butcher’s first book, Blood River – A Journey To Africa’s Broken Heart, has just been selected as a Richard & Judy Book Club choice. It uses his expedition across the Congo to tell the region’s turbulent history. He has worked for The Daily Telegraph since 1991 specialising in reporting on awkward places at awkward times. He currently works as the paper’s Middle East correspondent based in Jerusalem.
Few rivers have inspired writers more than the Congo. Here’s my pick of ten titles with Africa’s mightiest river running through them.
1. Through The Dark Continent, Henry Morton Stanley (1878)
Stanley’s charting of the Congo was the high-water mark of 19th century African exploration. It took three years and cost the lives of hundreds of tribesmen slaughtered by Stanley’s heavily-armed bearers. All his white companions died. But it fired the starting gun for the Scramble for Africa, luring the European powers to claim the continent’s interior after centuries of nibbling round its edges. Like its author, this book, written in two volumes as a package with newspaper sponsors, is not trammelled by modesty.
2. Five Years With The Congo Cannibals, Herbert Ward (1890)
A more convincing account of the turbulent start to Congo colonialism. Ward was one of the foot soldiers hired by Stanley when he returned to claim the vast river basin, employed by the Belgian king, Leopold II. Ward learnt river languages to fluency, survived paddling thousands of miles up and down disease-ridden reaches and managed to retain some sense of humility throughout.
3. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (1899)
What Conrad saw on the Congo in 1890 while serving briefly as a steamboat skipper burnt in his soul for eight years until, in a few hectic months, he ran off this most haunting of novellas. Is it a racist attack on the savagery of black Africa? Or, maybe, a lament for the evil that bursts from all of us when our moral compass starts to spin?
4. Remote People, by Evelyn Waugh (1931)
Waugh had a successful money-earning strategy for travel. He would knock off a travel book to pay the bills and then use the journey to create fiction to earn acclaim. You’ve heard of Black Mischief and Scoop born of his African adventures but this is the more prosaic account written for the travel market. He clearly hated his time in the Congo, squabbling with a riverboat captain who marooned him upriver, described in a chapter called Second Nightmare.
5. A Burnt-Out Case, by Graham Greene (1961)
Where would a troubled novelist go for solitude in the 1950s? A leper colony halfway up the Congo near the town of Mbandaka was Greene’s choice and the resulting fiction tells of a troubled individual – this time an architect – seeking time away from life’s pressures by escaping to a remote medical station. When I visited the ruins of Mbandaka a few years back, no trace was left of its once famous medical centre, the missionary nurses or the writer.
6. African Trio, Georges Simenon, (1979)
The Belgian author is best known for creating the detective Maigret, but he turned his pen to satire with devastating effect in these short stories, attacking the pettifogging bureaucrats who kept the crumbling colonial edifice of the Belgian Congo going. His contempt is clear for the white men who insisted on wearing stiff collars and ties to dinner in remote jungle clearings.
7. The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver (1998)
Magical, multi-voiced account of a family’s spiralling doom at a remote mission station in the Congo around the time of independence in 1960. Narrated in turns by the mother and the daughters, it captures the singsong sound of Lingala, the language of the lower river, and the jungle’s hidden terrors. The day the ant column comes, consuming all before it, forcing the villagers to decide what – and whom – they can leave behind is unforgettable.
8. The Catastrophist, Ronan Bennett (1998)
A sexy, moody novel set around a defining moment in modern African history; the 1961 death of Patrice Lumumba, the man many Congolese view as their Nelson Mandela. Unlike the South African leader, Lumumba was not jailed but murdered. He was half beaten to death before being shot against a termite mound, buried, disinterred and dissolved in barrels of mining acid. Washington’s fingerprints were all over a political assassination that condemned the Congo to decades of dictatorship.
9. The African Dream – The Diaries of the Revolutionary War in the Congo, Che Guevara (2000)
Written in the mid-1960s but only published recently, this book reminds us of the heady days when lefties acted on their belief that revolution was to be exported. Guevara found himself fighting against white mercenaries in the eastern badlands of the Congo. Four decades later, and the fighting has still not really stopped.
10. A Bend In The River, VS Naipaul (1979)
A novel about identity, fear, tribalism and much more. It captures perfectly the folly of the large white colonial city of Stanleyville, built as far up the Congo as ferries could ply at the foot of some daunting cataracts. But it also captures the even greater folly of post-independence era where an African dictator vainly tries to stop the city being swallowed by the advancing jungle.
Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/jan/21/top10s.congo