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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Catastrophist

Ronan Bennett

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To purchase The Catastrophist

Title: The Catastrophist
Author: Ronan Bennett
Genre: Novel
Written: 1998
Length: 332 pages
Availability: The Catastrophist - US
The Catastrophist - UK
The Catastrophist - Canada
Über den dunklen Fluß - Deutschland
  • Shortlisted for the 1998 Whitbread Prize

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Our Assessment:

B : ambitious if not completely successful novel about politics and writing, action and observation, largely set in the Congo in 1959 and 1960.

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph A- 18/7/1998 Edward Smith
The Economist A 12/9/1998 .
The Guardian B+ 4/7/1998 Giles Foden
The Independent . 16/4/1999 Emma Hagestadt
London Rev. of Books . 20/8/1998 Mark Hudson
New Statesman B 28/8/1998 Sousa Jamba
The NY Times A 13/9/1999 C. Lehmann-Haupt
The NY Times Book Rev. B 3/10/1999 Rand Richards Cooper
The New Yorker . 4/10/1999 .
San Francisco Chronicle A 7/11/1999 Tony Mastrogiorgio
The Spectator A 5/9/1998 Andro Linklater
The Times A 27/6/1998 Mary Loudon
TLS B+ 10/7/1998 Michael Kerrigan
The Washington Post A- 3/10/1999 Claire Messud

  Review Consensus:

  Enthusiastic. Most have some reservations, but excuse them, liking the big picture.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ronan Bennett writes intensely, at times a little like a young Brian Moore. He is not afraid of trying to make his characters seem real, nor does he hide behind empty irony and witticisms. Occasionally, he could leave his prose a little more lightly sketched. He writes well, for example, about the psychology of sexual obsession, but he should trust the reader to fill in the details." - Edward Smith, Daily Telegraph

  • "Mr Bennett builds the moral choices balanced precariously on doubt and entwined with ambiguity. The climaxes are chilling; understated, focussed tightly, and infused with irony." - The Economist

  • "Bennett's novel, his third, touches on important themes - the role of writers in political causes, the nature of love and loyalty, the corruption of power - without ever fully developing any of them. The ethnic rivalries that are now threatening the very existence of the Congo are hinted at, too. Yet I was left feeling short-changed. The Catastrophist, as with so many works set in the Congo, fails to animate the resilience and spirit of the Congolese themselves." - Sousa Jamba, New Statesman

  • "(I)n The Catastrophist Mr. Bennett has written a political novel with many shots going off but with every sound in tune." - Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, The New York Times

  • "It isn't easy to be this clearly schematic in a novel -- writing to a thesis, as Graham Greene once called it -- without making the characters feel tailored to fit. What success Bennett has in rising to to the challenge lies in the vibrant complexities of Inès." - Rand Richards Cooper, The New York Times Book Review

  • "For those new to Bennett, The Catastrophist reveals a major talent and a first-rate mind. It is almost a relief to rediscover how good a novel like this can be." - Tony Mastrogiorgio, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "As the portrait of a self-regarding, self-deceiving egotist, the narrator of The Catastrophist is a masterpiece, and there is a psychological aptness in the emotional sterility of his final loneliness. There are some false notes - when brutality eventually catches up with Gillespie, he reacts with untypical heroism, and he finds unbelievable catharsis in a mob which might have stepped from the posters of socialist realism - yet in its moral range, characterisation, and narrative excitement, Bennett has written not only an outstanding novel, but one that will see him measured against the best of his contemporaries." - Andro Linklater, The Spectator

  • "The Catastrophist is a mighty achievement. It has vision, imagination and gravitas. It does what only great novels do: it rises above itself; its themes transcend its narrative. The hero is immature, but the author is wise." - Mary Loudon, The Times

  • "Bennett's novel is both original and illuminating in the way it "reaches over" the Northern Ireland problem to come at it freshly from the other chronological side, but it pays a price in the vague yet inescapable sense the reader always has of anachronistic sensibilities being in play." - Michael Kerrigan, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(E)ngrossing and impressive (.....) Bennett's prose, by turns lush and abrupt, captures both the physicality of the Congo and the growing tension of Gillespie's situation. (...) Less convincing is Bennett's construction of the reasons behind Gillespie's human shortcomings." - Claire Messud, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Ronan Bennett sets his novel in the recent past, centering it in the Belgian Congo as that country is thrust into independence. It is an interesting setting and time, a battleground of conflicting ideologies. The colonial Belgians are on their way out, before they even realize it. Foreign powers vie for influence -- in this novel the US does so visibly, the Soviet Union in the background. Charismatic native son Patrice Lumumba is ready to lead a nation, but his compromises may not allow him to do so. And the shadowy figure of Mobutu emerges ultimately into the light as the book leads to its inevitable historic outcome.
       The similarity to Bennett's native Northern Ireland is striking, and as the author was a well-known political activist one might imagine he planned to use the Congo entirely as allegory. His narrator, James Gillespie, seems a Bennett stand-in -- Irish (and unimpressed with national labels), historian turned novelist. But Bennett does not opt for the completely obvious, and this does not become the tragic story of Paddy Lumumba. We're not sure if the decision was the correct one.
       James Gillespie falls in love with Inès, an Italian reporter for the communist newspaper, L'Unità. He follows her to Léopoldville in 1959. Things have not quite come to a head in the Belgian colony, but unrest is in the air. An American, Stipe, an obvious CIA operative, tips Gillespie off that independence is much closer than everyone thinks. Stipe has his reasons for spreading this information; Gillespie is hardly concerned with the CIA man's motives and runs with the story, with fair success.
       Inès has other ideas about journalism, and she generally finds herself part of the story as much as covering it. The situation around them rapidly deteriorates, with Inès getting involved (and getting annoyed at Gillespie for his detached attitude).
       Bennett offers a small cross-section of Congo society for the thrust of his story. Among the more significant characters is a successful young black man, Auguste, who is Stipe's driver. CIA man Stipe seems, at the beginning, to have successfully indoctrinated him (Auguste wants to become a Park Avenue lawyer with six secretaries), but Auguste falls under the sway of Patrice Lumumba, the charismatic leader of the fight for independence. The transition is believable (especially since Stipe, while seductive, is also a caricature of the too good to be believed (and trusted) American), but not fully convincing -- i.e. Bennett fails to show why Auguste is so easily turned. A Lumumba follower, Auguste then gets closer to Inès -- another jump that, while plausible, seems a bit too convenient.
       As the political situation deteriorates so does the affair between Inès and Gillespie. The book jumps ahead from the fall of 1959 to the fall of 1960. Mobutu Sese Seko has usurped power, Lumumba, the elected head of state, is on the run. Inès is still in the thick of things. Gillespie is still in the country, working on a novel, ignoring, as much as possible, the events around him. Betrayed in love he is still passionate about Inès, and events and circumstances lead him to do something that might be considered heroic. The outcome is familiar -- Lumumba's assassination, the beginning of Mobutu's nearly fourty year dictatorship (strongly supported, for almost its entire duration, by the government of the United States). A coda finds Gillespie reflecting on events ten years later.
       Gillespie and Inès are an odd couple. Passionately in love, at least for a time, they seem particularly ill-matched. Inès believes in politics, Gillespie obviously does not. Given her later romantic involvement it is unclear why she would ever have fallen for Gillespie. They are apparently good in bed together, but Bennett avoids claiming that as the basis of their relationship. Central to the novel, from beginning to end, it is not a convincing love. Gillespie's obsession seems plausible, but he fails to act on it. Gillespie's unwillingness to commit -- to anything -- stands firmly in the way of his committing to Inès. It may be an interesting point for a novelist to make; it is also a very annoying (and, again, not wholly convincing) character flaw.
       They do make an interesting (if simplistic) contrast, Inès all action and involvement, while Gillespie is the ultimate in detached observers (until his overwhelming love leads him to act). Bennett milks the writer as observer idea a bit too much, leading to elegiac, self-righteous pronouncements such as:

(...) I'm a writer and I see all sides. I work in words and these words cannot be made to work for others, they are not the slaves of party or position. Maybe you look down on it, maybe you and your bitter comrades think it's precious, but the writer's words are their own justification. They have to be if they are to be true, if they are to count for something.
       Authorial pomposity is hard to pull off, and Bennett certainly doesn't, in one of the major failings of the book. Gillespie, the catastrophist of the title, is not quite everything Bennett wants to turn him into. Inès explains the term: "If you are catastrofista no problem is small. Nothing can be fixed." While the label fits Gillespie to a certain extent (no problem is small) he does, in his inept way, seem to be trying to fix them.
       Like much of the action, almost all the characters are painted too black and white. From the overeducated naif Auguste to the prototypical one-dimensional CIA man Stipe none of the central figures are particularly believable.
       Only in his dialogue (which makes up a great deal of the fast-paced book) does Bennett sound convincing. He has a good ear for dialogue, in marked contrast to the passages when Gillespie gets introspective.
       Bennett also chooses to keep most of the actual events of the time in the background, simply skipping over the time of greatest turmoil and merely sketching most of the rest. When there are dramatic scenes -- a jungle ambush, the terror in the city -- they are not particularly evocative. There is some sense of the drama going on around him, but with Gillespie always able return to his novel practically unaffected by any events (except for his separation from Inès, about which he whines interminably) it is difficult to appreciate the turmoil and terror of the times. There are several times when his life hangs in the balance, including when he is arrested, but none of these convince. Perhaps the best evocation of that time comes in a small aside, as he describes how he came to own a Mercedes.
       Bennett hardly tackles Lumumba (or Mobutu), which is acceptable, but he should have done a better job of getting the Congo into the book. Perhaps Bennett's intention was an Irish allegory, or perhaps a very generalized one for all the spots on earth that have been torn asunder as was the Congo in 1960 -- but the book also fails to convince as this. Certainly, Bennett fails to explain much about the unique situation in the Congo. (Poor Lumumba just can't get his story told straight anywhere.)
       Bennett does not write badly, though we disagree with the tone he has chosen for most of the book. He does a fair number of things well, and the book reads quite well -- with the exception of a few passages. He gets carried away -- "Her stomach is boiling, her eyes are yellow-clouded and her blood dreams," he writes of the malarial Inès -- but most of the excesses can be endured. The end, set long after the fact, is not entirely satisfactory but a reasonable way out.
       A decent book, it could have been much more.

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The Catastrophist: Reviews: Ronan Bennett: Other books by Ronan Bennett under review: Other books under review that may be of interest:

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About the Author:

       (Northern) Irish author Ronan Bennett was born in 1956. Incarcerated for political activities in his youth he went on to study History at King's College. He has written several screenplays and novels and a prize-winning memoir. He currently lives in London.

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