Ask the Author: Tim Butcher

“Any questions? Observations? Thoughts you'd like to share?” Tim Butcher

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Tim Butcher As President Abraham Lincoln famously said: `I’ve learned not to believe everything I see on the internet’. The city of Kinshasa functions, as it did when I travelled through for the Blood River journey in 2004. Not sure how many tourists visit but the urban population grows every year. Public services are bumpy (barely functional criminal justice system, poker-like taxation system of receiving claims and then bidding them down, a health system where hospitals have locked patients in wards until their bill is paid, etc) but ATM machines work, your cellphone will ring and the internet looks as anywhere else in the global village.
Yet I refer to the city’s `illusion of normalcy’. A visitor can reasonably believe that the country must function well enough if the capital does, only to be disappointed. River travel is unreliable, the road network parlous and the rule of law fragile. The world’s second biggest (and getting bigger) ebola outbreak currently in the east of the country has not been contained because of central government’s failure to provide a base modicum of control.
The country remains as magnificent as ever, the people as richly talented. Yet sadly the triumph of disappointment over potential still prevails. I meet Congolese every day in Cape Town and this remains their commonly-held view.
Tim Butcher Thank you Len. This one is proving a tricky one to land – the wrestle continues. Early next year, I hope….best, TimB
Tim Butcher Hi Alan – I await with great interest the royalty cheque from Sarajevo Tourism. Next book takes me all from South Africa (the Cederberg mountains to be exact) via Ethiopia to India, Myanmar through the Americas to the shore of Lake Geneva. An odd route, I concede, but a historically rich one. My previous books have taken me down the Congo (Blood River) and through the rainforest of Liberia (Chasing the Devil). Happy Reading, TimB

Tim Butcher Tim, as a Librarian, I am still recommending your book "The Trigger.." and just had someone come back and say she loved it! I am anxiously awaiting your next book. When will it be published?

In Africa we have a tradition of `praise singers’, those who walk before warming up the crowd and telling them of the virtues of the person about to appear. It tends to be for chiefs and such luminaries but this author will gratefully accept your `praise singing’. Thank you for the support.

I am wrestling with my current book, a personal account of nationhood and an exploration of patriotism and chauvinism. The League of Nations is about to mark its centenary and that date has inspired me to unravel how the nation came to dominate our thinking space, our political discourse, our whole sense of identity.

I have two other books already published which you might mention to your inquirer: Blood River and Chasing the Devil.

With thanks and best wishes, TimB

Tim Butcher All good, Wilhelm. Struggling with the new book – a common enough curse for most authors, I fear. Best, TimB
Tim Butcher Dear Andrew

You ask a good question. The space you mention (early writing on Africa) is dominated by outsiders, non-African voices. Printing and publishing emerged elsewhere so while the oral tradition of story telling and historical recording is as strong in Africa as anywhere in the world, written accounts in the early days, at least, are almost all written by foreigners.

The early European explorers tended to be a vain lot, so powerful no editor would dare gainsay them, so the written accounts by the Burtons/Spekes/Stanleys/Livingstones/Parks/DeBrazzas are interesting enough as historical sources but too flabby and egotistical to make for great reading. Perhaps the best book I know on the early exploration of the continent, that is to say white exploration, is a modern account that cleverly edits Mungo Park and explains how reaching across the Sahara from Europe was the key. It is The Gates of Africa by Anthony Sattin.

As you can tell, I am biased towards the Congo. I find it the place where the greatest hopes for the future development of Africa were raised, only for reality to plunge the darkest depths. Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, bears re-reading, not least because it is more about how we all have the devil in us, white, black, old, young etc.

Thomas Packenham’s great work The Scramble for Africa tells how the entire continent was divided up by white outsiders in a few crazy decades at the end of the 19th century, with all the consequences that followed from that. And Adam Hochschild zooms in on the Congo in particular in his fantastic history, King Leopold’s Ghost, to give an account of the Congo that will a long time in being bettered.

Over the last century there have been wonderful snapshot books that tell particular stories set in Africa but with wider value. A ship wrecked in the 18th century on the remote coast of what we now call South Africa led to the passengers and crew facing a stark choice: learn to live with the locals or run from them: The Caliban Shore by Stephen Taylor tells the story of what happened next.

Cry The Beloved Country by Alan Paton captures the dehumanising and deracinating process of apartheid/white minority rule that caused so much damage. It is his masterpiece.

And there are no end of powerful books, often scarcely-concealed memoir, that capture the white guilt and white cruelty of colonial rule. The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing stands out for me, as does Alex Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight.

I have already gone on to far. Yet I could go further…..I hope this offers some help. TimB
Tim Butcher Cheers Adrian - delighted to make it onto the list, among some pretty rich company, Durrell, Dallaire and Dervla et al.
Tim Butcher Snakes in the Congo, scorpions in Liberia. Those were threats I could deal with. Rebel gunmen were a lot more unpredictable!
Tim Butcher Well I thought of the 1918 endgame and the reckoning. I thought of Gavrilo Princip who died a few months before the Armistice was signed, trying to think how he would have felt for being the unintentional cause of world war. And I thought of those who did not quite beat the whistle, solders like Wilfred Owen who died in the last days just before the guns fell silent. And I thought of how little our leaders today consider 1914-18 beyond the theatrics: the poppies, the wreath-laying, the bump in the throat quietness when the bugle sounds and people morph their nationalism into patriotism. And I went to bed worried that we shape shift history at our peril and those in power today in Asia, Europe and America are peril incarnate.
Tim Butcher Commando by Denys Reitz, Boer War diary, great sense of Afrikaner mindset.
Cry Beloved Country by Alan Paton, the rot of apartheid sets in
Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela, ghost-written but accurate
Country of My Skull by Antjie Krog, post-apartheid rehab
Any novels by Deon Meyer, thrilling thrillers au courant, crash-bang-wallop
Tim Butcher Thanks for the suggestion Ger. It's a book I have long been aware of but for some reason or other it slipped through the net. A quick online look at the synopsis recalls a novel by an Irish author set in the chaos of the Congo: journalist follows aid worker girlfriend to Kinshasa as Lumumba is brought down. I loved that one (Ronan Bennet's The Catastrophist) so will put right my omission of the Courtemanche novel. Thanks for the suggestion. TimB
Tim Butcher Michele – thank you for your approach. I am delighted you are enjoying Blood River. The field is wide for African memoir. Some of my favourites include Cutting for Stone (Ethiopia) by Abraham Verghese which, a bit like the eternally fabulous Poisonwood Bible is a biographically-rooted work of fiction: The Dust Diaries by Owen Sheers (Zimbabwe) and The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper (Liberia). At risk of appearing tacky, might I mention another of my books, Chasing the Devil, which again weaves travel with history, this time through Sierra Leone and Liberia. Happy Reading, TimB
Tim Butcher Julie – thanks for your note. No current plans for a return although I keep in touch with the wonderful Johnson Boie, our guide from 2009 who walked every step of the way of the journey. He remains up in Lofa but often gets down to the coast. As for Ganta, I remember those soft mornings so well, the smell of the fresh baguettes in town made by the Guinean baker. I have some letters from Winifred Harley in the 1930s that might amuse you, the founder of the Methodist Mission and Hospital that developed into the town of Ganta. Send me your email address using the GoodReads message system perhaps and I will happily email you scans if it would be of interest.
Best, TimB

Tim Butcher Thank you for your interest and question: Edwardian era Sarajevo was a time of rumbling trouble for the colonial occupier, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Gavro was a bookish young man. We know that from the collection of named/inscribed books he left behind, so when not in class we can be sure he spent time reading. He was also part of the `kavana kulture’, young people (male mostly) who met in kavana (coffee shops). In Sarajevo the coffee shops reflected reality so you had western ones (Austro-Hungarian influence, possibly ethnic Croatian owners, maybe colonial immigrants), eastern ones (run by ethnic Serbs) and Turkish ones (owned by local Muslims influenced by the long but recently replaced Ottoman occupation).
These coffee shops were the internet chat rooms of the time, places where angry young men could plot and vent and dream, all the time sitting around a thimbleful of thick local coffee. We know Gavro spent time in several. Indeed, the family of one of his friend’s owned one. I found advertising flyers for the Best Home Made, Real Coffee, that sort of thing.
We know he hung around with those grumbling about Austro-Hungarian rule, the Young Bosnians. Some of them were militant, others more moderate. One of their campaigns was to deface German script on the windows of businesses, coffee shops (again coffee shops) etc when it used Gothic font. Harmless enough but a building block on the way to full blown violence.
So Gavro, far from home, his older brother out of town and not able to rein him in, steadily becomes more and more militant during this time. Can we say which coffee shop cabal pushed him to his final act? No. Which activity (for example the hill walking where he wrote terrible poetry about the might of nature). No. But we can say it was part of a transformative continuum that took a village boy with a talent for words and turned him into history’s must destructive assassin.
Tim Butcher He woke and realised it had not been a nightmare. Boris really did run the country.
Tim Butcher You asking the classic counterfactual question, one that probes the importance of the context of 1914 rather than the specifics of the assassination. In short, was WWI inevitable? Many historians, buoyed by 20:20 retrospective vision say, yes it would have. They argue the conditions (creaking empires armed to the teeth, clinging to an old imperial world order and anxious to establish once and for all which empire is top dog) made war inevitable.
I am not so sure. For decades after 1945 the conditions were there for global conflict. We call it the Cold War or its localised proxies, and the same acute rivalry, distrust and conceit of 1914 were there alive and well. But there was never a spark that took. The conditions were ripe but the opportunity never came about.
In 1914 the conditions were ripe and an opportunity came about when Princip fired his gun. Events bestow on Princip's two shots a sobering epitaph: the shots that led to more bloodshed than any in all time.
Historians love to frame events, to explain them, to deconstruct causal linkages. Sometimes historians need to remember a bit of humility and concede that sometimes x has an impact, on other occasions x does not.
Tim Butcher I got back to Kinshasa by car and flew out from there. The airport in Kinshasa is the biggest in the country and back in 2004 South African Airways had scheduled flights out. Getting from Boma back to Kinshasa was easier said than done. I shared in the book my low opinion of the `guide' who escorted me to Boma, asking for money at every turn and generally playing up to the worst stereotype of African scam artist. The vehicle he had procured broke down in a number of ways on the route back. The brakes locked. Then they unlocked but did not work. The driver tried to cannibalise some meaningful brake disc material by pinching a disc from another car and then snapping off its edges until it `fit' onto our wheel. Then the battery went. We ended up having to overnight in a small hotel along with 4,000 of the noisiest, hungriest mosquitoes I have ever encountered. And all the time there were checkpoints where a foreigner was expected to produce an Ordre de Mission (purpose of visit) document signed by the internal security agency of DRC. It was not a journey I look back on with fondness.
Tim Butcher In theory books are easy to trace so for an author it should not matter where real books are bought: each sale should come through as a royalty. The biggest bookshop in London, a small independent in the Welsh hills, an online store such as Amazon. If a book is sold the arrangement is the author receives a percentage of that sale price, typically 12 per cent although it varies from publishing contract to publishing contract.
Things got a bit sticky for a while with e-books. In the end the publishers and the big online distributors (basically Amazon) agreed to keep good records and pay the author a royalty of about 30 per cent. Again, this can vary from publishing contract to publishing contract but the point is it makes more money for the author. Why? Because Amazon was forced to concede it bore none of the costs traditionally associated with the production of a real book: no printing costs, storage, distribution etc. So it could make the same money and still leave more to be passed onto the author.
So if you are going to buy a real book, it matters not to the author where you buy it. But if you are neutral between buying a real book or a virtual book, then it makes more for the author if you buy it virtually.
All of this breaks down of course if publishers/booksellers do not keep good records. The publishing industry is littered with the bones of authors to whom royalties were never passed because of some glitch or some skulduggery. Authors are in an invidiously weak position of not being able to meaningfully check booksale figures so the whole thing relies on trust. My UK publishers have always been convincingly accurate in their records and payments, not so some of my foreign pubishers. You end up wondering how shameless a publisher must be to retain (steal?) money owed to an author, smug in the knowledge they will never be held to account.

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Tim Butcher I look forward to your feedback. Best, TimB
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Tim Butcher Thank you for reaching out. My aim us to use a journey, something we call identify with, to unlock challenging issues. Those issues might be cruel as on the Congo, or opaque as in the origins of WWI or unsettling as in spiritualism in Africa. But they are all fascinating and a journey is my best way to unravel them.

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