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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Pandora in the Congo

Albert Sánchez Piñol

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To purchase Pandora in the Congo

Title: Pandora in the Congo
Author: Albert Sánchez Piñol
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 592 pages
Original in: Catalan
Availability: Pandora in the Congo - US
Pandora en el Congo - US (Spanish)
Pandora in the Congo - UK
Pandora in the Congo - Canada
Pandora in the Congo - India
Pandore au Congo - France
Pandora im Kongo - Deutschland
Congo inferno verde - Italia
Pandora en el Congo - España (Español)
Pandora al Congo - España (Catalán)
  • Catalan title: Pandora al Congo
  • Translated by Mara Faye Lethem

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Our Assessment:

B : decent adventure, and some decent twists

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . 4-5/2009 Thomas Israel Hopkins
FAZ . 13/11/2007 Alexander Müller
The Guardian . 26/4/2008 Giles Foden
The Independent A- 16/5/2008 Michael Eaude
Independent on Sunday . 27/4/2008 Christian House
The NY Times Book Rev. . 31/5/2009 Joseph Salvatore
El País . 29/10/2005 Javier Goñi
The Times . 1/5/2008 Kate Saunders
TLS . 9/5/2008 Roz Kaveney
Die Welt . 25/9/2007 Elmar Krekeler
Die Zeit . 4/10/2007 Ulrich Baron

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, with many finding it very enjoyable, others that it wallows to much in the derivative

  From the Reviews:
  • "Sánchez Piñol, a Spanish anthropologist and the author of the novel Cold Skin (2005), has created a metafictional genre mash-up that offers not-infrequent lowbrow thrills. But his love of aphorisms grows tiresome regardless of how much fun he’s having ventriloquizing a genre hack" - Thomas Israel Hopkins, Bookforum

  • "So spannend und humorvoll Sánchez Piñol zu erzählen versteht, allzu freimütig bedient er sich bei den Klassikern des Abenteuer-, Horror- oder Science-Fiction-Genres. Wenn er seine zuweilen drastische und pathetische Anverwandlung dieser Vorbilder ad absurdum führt und die verschachtelte Roman-im-Roman-Konstruktion seines eigenen Schaffens ironisch bricht, ist man bald vom postmodernen Spiel ermüdet." - Alexander Müller, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "The satisfactions come largely from the genre-busting aspects of the expedition narrative. At first it is a traditional mise en abyme in the jungle, based loosely on the experiences of Stanley's last expedition but also parodying Heart of Darkness, Haggard and Henty. It then turns into a science fiction romp, parodying Wells and Verne. But perhaps parody is the wrong word for this type of generic reabsorption: what Sánchez Piñol does is more enlivening than that. (...) Pandora in the Congo marks Sánchez Piñol's emergence as a significant European writer." - Giles Foden, The Guardian

  • "This is a fantastic story in the style of Jules Verne, but less innocently told. Sánchez Piñol daringly mixes genres. Pandora in the Congo is both adventure novel and anti-imperialist satire splashed with dark humour. (...) Interest flags in the middle, but the end is as good and surprising as the lively beginning. Sánchez Piñol's originality lies in his themes and excellently structured plot, not in any linguistic fireworks. This is an impressive and most unusual novel." - Michael Eaude, The Independent

  • "There is a contemporary intelligence at play in this writing. To a bouillabaisse of H Rider Haggard Piñol adds a dash of Dave Eggers. (...) Readers leave this book equally dizzy, unsure whether this was a tale of derring-do, an indictment of Empire's sins or a cunning commentary on authorial deceit. A literary dynamite charge, it's raucous and leaves everything shaken up." - Christian House, Independent on Sunday

  • "(A) deliciously well-imagined book, and a zany pleasure." - Joseph Salvatore, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Pandora en el Congo es una extraordinaria novela de género, con valores literarios los mínimos; una magnífica novela de aventuras, con complicaciones literarias las justas, que se lee como quien se regala un vaso de agua fresca en un día de calor." - Javier Goñi, El País

  • "Here's a wonderful oddity -- an adventure yarn that could stand alongside the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs" - Kate Saunders, The Times

  • "In the end, this is a story of disillusion. (...) One of the strength's of Piñol's novel is that it lets us know the worst, and yet we can stilll value the morally ambiguous product of Tommy's idealism, talent and unselfish love. " - Roz Kaveney, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Albert Sanchez Pinol ist ein gefährlicher Bursche. Einer, dem nicht von hier bis um die Ecke zu trauen ist. Er ist ein Virtuose der Verführung, ein Virtuose der Erzähltöne. Einer, der sich nicht dabei erwischen lässt, dass er sein Denken, seine Literatur an den Effekt verrät, obwohl er alle nur denkbaren literarischen Effekte drauf hat. Calvino, Conrad, Borges und Jules Verne steckt er in seinen Literaturmixer, packt Merkwürdigkeiten wie eine garstige, schildlose Schildkröte namens Marie-Antoinette mit hinein, gibt Geschichtsskizzen und Gerichtsthrillerelemente, philosophische Exkurse und Landsererzählungen dazu, würzt mit ordentlich Literaturtheorie und schmeckt das Ganze mit literweise Blut ab. Das ist klug, das macht einen Höllenspaß. Davon will man, wie von einer Geisterbahn, gleich mehr haben." - Elmar Krekeler, Die Welt

  • "Pandora im Kongo ist ein Buch über die Leidenschaften und Begierden des Lesens, die aus beschriebenem Papier Geschichten hervorwachsen lassen, die jeder Mensch für sich selbst und auf eigene Weise erlebt. Albert Sánchez Piñol appelliert dabei an unsere niederen Lese-Instinkte. Er erzählt jenen Schundroman, den wir schon immer lesen wollten, und enthüllt zugleich das subtile Spiel von Fantasie und Identifikation, das Leser zu Koautoren macht, die dem Verfasser bisweilen gern die Regie abnehmen würden, um der Handlung die ersehnte Richtung zu geben." - Ulrich Baron, Die Zeit

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:

       Pandora in the Congo is narrated by Thomas 'Tommy' Thomson, writing what he says is the same book yet again -- some sixty years after he first wrote it. It's a bit different this time, as he writes the story behind (and around) the story as well, but still .....
       Thomson grew up in an orphanage, so well-liked there that they let him stay another four years after they were supposed to send him out into the wild world at fifteen. He developed a love of reading there, and the ambition to become a writer. When he left the orphanage he moved into Mrs. Pinkerton's boarding house, set to embark on his writing career, his most prized possession his typewriter. And one early opportunity comes his way when a writer offers him a gig helping to churn out the books in the 'Doctor Flag'-series.
       For twenty years three Doctor Flag titles, each eighty pages long, appeared each week. Doctor Flag didn't write them, of course, he had a ghost-writer -- and in 1914 the then nineteen-year-old Thomson becomes the ghost to the ghost (and, it turns out, not even quite that ...). It wasn't great money, but it was an opportunity, and though Thomson was being taken advantage of (even if he didn't know how much ...) he was at least writing.
       For his first project he gets the outline to a novel to be called 'Pandora in the Congo'. He's told to stick to the script, wildly improbable and unrealistic though it is (just like all the Doctor Flag books), and despite some reservations he does as he's told.
       This particular meal ticket only lasts so long -- but there's someone who is impressed by Thomson's work, the lawyer Edward Norton. And Norton has a proposition for the newly unemployed would-be author, a different kind of ghost-writing. Norton has a client named Marcus Garvey who is to be tried for the murder of two young noblemen, Richard and William Craver, while serving them on an expedition to the Congo. Garvey is to tell his side of the story to Thomson, who is then to write it in book form. Thomson doesn't understand what good it will do, but Norton says he's run out of other ideas and hopes that something might come of it.
       The money is better than what he got for the Doctor Flag novels, so Thomson takes the job. Garvey is locked up until his trial, and he's only allowed to receive visitors occasionally, so it takes quite a while for Thomson to get the whole story. And in this version he also describes some of what happened in his own life in that period, from life at the boarding house to, eventually, his getting called up to fight in World War I (which helps delay the trial itself for years), so everything drags on for quite a while.
       Garvey's story is a pretty sensational one. From lowly helper on the family estate, he gets roped into joining the spoiled and crude brothers on their grand African adventure. They head into darkest Congo, searching for gold, and Garvey tells a horror-story of their exploitation of the natives along the way -- first chaining them together to carry the supplies deep into the jungle (and replacing those who die off with those they grab in the villages they pass through), then forcing them to dig a hole in the ground that becomes their goldmine, and in which their slave-labourers are kept, like in a cage. There is gold here, but soon there are also odd sounds to be heard down there .....
       As in Cold Skin, Sánchez Piñol has a thing for otherworldly creatures. Here they are 'tectons', tall, pale not-quite-human creatures who come up through tunnels in the ground. One of the Africans on the expedition tells Garvey that it's exactly like what his grand-father said about the whites: first they send the missionaries, who threaten them with hell, then come the thieving traders, and finally come the soldiers -- and it looks like it's much the same with the tectons.
       There is, however, also a love interest: Amgam, one of the tectons they capture and whom Garvey falls for -- but who one of the brothers takes (and closely watches) as his own property.
       Despite the threat of the tectons, the brothers are blinded by the thought of the great riches they are mining daily, and they refuse to give up the place -- even after their labourers flee. The tectons, on the other hand, keep coming back for more, and it comes to some serious confrontations. Ultimately, Garvey is the only survivor .....
       The book Thomson writes is an heroic tale; when it's published it also serves its purpose in helping at Garvey's trial. But Thomson has a few doubts and concerns. There's that tall, veiled woman he sees waiting to visit the jail, for example .....
       Thomson (and the reader) know he's being manipulated -- the question is, of course, to what extent. Sánchez Piñol has some fun with this, but it's not quite as much fun as one might have hoped for.
       Classic adventure yarn and metafictional game -- Sánchez Piñol aims high but only makes it halfway there. The adventure story is decent but not exceptional enough by itself (and it does get fairly drawn out). The local and more domestic parts are often even rougher -- Mr. MacMahon's farting at the boarding house and Mrs Pinkerton's shell-less turtle, Marie Antoinette, both seem fairly desperate attempts to add some humour and colour, and they're far from the only examples. Sánchez Piñol tries hard, but he doesn't seem to have the right feel for this specifically English kind of tale of colonial adventure of that time -- it's close, but simply not right.
       The final twists and explanations are clever enough in the abstract, but as told come across as a bit of a let down, especially since it's taken so long to get there. Indeed, the whole novel (and the many good ideas behind it -- from the social commentary and allegories to the take on both reading and writing) do better in summary form than in what Sánchez Piñol does with them. Not that it's a bad read, it's just not nearly as fun (or exciting) as it should be .

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Pandora in the Congo: Reviews: Other books by Albert Sánchez Piñol under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Catalan author Albert Sánchez Piñol was born in 1965.

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© 2008-2014 the complete review

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