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The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett
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Jun 24, 2009

it was amazing

is December, 1960. The Belgian Congo is on the verge of independence. James Gillispie, a journalist and minor novelist, is in Leopoldville planning to reunite with his lover, Inez. James is Irish and she is Italian. They had an affair in Ireland and London, his normal home.

The novel is an exotic foreign land politically based thriller and a story of unrequited love. Shortly after James reunites with Inez he meets Stipe, an intelligent, well-read American who works in a non-defined job at the U. S. Embassy. Still later James is introduced to Auguste, Stipe's driver. Auguste, a Congolese, is well educated and bears a card entitling him to privileges only enjoyed be whites including the right to eat in white restaurants.

James and Inez attend a party hosted by a wealthy Belgian where they witness the Belgium Army's murder of several Congolese independence demonstrators. They are horrified, but as both are reporters, they realize they must write about and report what they saw. Independence and the love story unfold from the massacre.

Both reporters have different relations with Patrice Lumumba, the short-lived Congolese prime minister following independence. James earnestly believes journalists should only report what they see and hear. Inez is a dedicated European liberal, perhaps a communist, and slants her stories to fit her political beliefs. Also, she becomes personally involved with the people she is writing about. These professional and personal differences lead to their estrangement. During an argument Inez calls James a catastrophist, Italian for someone who is totally objective, does not become involved and has no passion.

Independence quickly sinks into civil war. James and Inez are separated. Stipe and Auguste have hugely different agendas. The story ends several years later in a small Italian village where James now resides to write, but actually to unsuccessfully try to reconcile his beliefs and love for Inez an impossible undertaking.

Bennet was born in 1956 and raised in Belfast. After earning a doctorate in history, he turned to journalism. He has written several screenplays. The Catastrophist was chosen as a best book by the LAT in 1999.
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