Book review: Pandora In The Congo by Albert Sanchez Pinol


the cover of the book

If this was as good as it could potentially have been, plus featured a giant walking robot, then Pinol would be my new favourite author.

The cover

A superb evocation of the British Boy's Own Ripping Yarns style. Arts & Crafts-ish text and bordering, a linotype-ish illustration of a crazed man emerging from the jungle, a giant pair of diamonds in his hand. Completing the effect, it's all gorgeously embossed and tastefully foiled onto cloth-textured card, a dark and noble green. Nice.

The plot

Our narrator, and hero of plot thread one, lives in gloomy old T.O.C. London. He's an aspiring writer who's just discovered that the man he was ghost-writing pulpy colonial trash for was in fact only the second in a chain of ghost writers, each employed by someone a bit less desperate than themselves. When he's offered a unique writing job by a lawyer, it's very convenient indeed. The lawyer wants him to visit a man in prison named Marcus Garvey. Garvey is awaiting execution for the murder of two aristocratic brothers on an expedition into the Congo. The lawyer, representing Marcus, holds out hope for his release, and is hoping a novelisation of the expedition can swing public consensus to the prisoner's side. Thus, the small, dark Marcus' tale of the trek into darkest Africa becomes plot thread two, with himself as hero and the flint-hearted upper class brothers as the evil he must defeat. Then it gets quite weird.

The good

If you're anything like me, this is a pretty tasty setup. Come on - a condemned man, the only survivor of a murderous catastrophe, who can only save himself by selling his fantastical story to a starving pulp-fiction writer? An exhibition into the steaming heart of unexplored jungle, headed by a pair of gold-crazed sociopathic white-boys who treat darkies like pit ponies at best and quickly start losing their shit in the green hell of the Congo. The story structure and setting owe somewhat to Conrad's Heart of Darkness, plus of course the Boy's Own pulp adventures referenced in the cover. Strangely, at least to me, Pinol is Catalonian - the English edition is translated from the Catalan original. The reason I find this odd is that this book, from the cover on in, swathes itself in the England of Empire - grand old houses, colonial outposts, Ripping Yarns in steamy jungles, class conflict, the glistening cobbles of foggy Londonne Townnneee. Which means that Pinol must love the flavour of all that stuff as much as he wants his audience to, and I respect that. The fact that I happen to share his love couldn't put me onto a better path to loving the book, really.

I should concede that this is another title I was inclined towards by the TV show First Tuesday Book Club. PARTIAL SPOILER WARNING PARTIAL SPOILER WARNING EG REVEALS SOMETHING THAT HAPPENS HALFWAY THROUGH THE BOOK BUT YOU COULD PROBABLY DEDUCE FROM THE BLURB. This episode happened to feature guest reader Richard E. Grant. After briefly lauding the Englishness of the book's beginning, Grant began to whinge about the appearance midway through the book of an alien race (called Tectons), stating, in that style of cod-modest, utterly affected self-deprecatory cynicism which has put Hugh Grant's face on so many dartboards, that the instant the first Tecton appeared he lost interest. This kind of disdain for anything supernatural and/or fantastical, fashionably expressed by everyone from Stephen Fry to Billy Connolly, we note, only ever applies to things that the expresser happens not to enjoy at a personal level and/or (but usually and) feels safe in criticising to their audience. Nobody, oddly, takes the piss out of Mary Shelley for turning a dream about her dead child's reanimation into a science fiction novel about a mad professor who stitches together corpses and brings them back to life with lightning. Nobody mocks Tolkein for inventing an entire fucking genre of heroic fantasy adventure - although they probably would've, one feels, at the time, based on the fact that they feel quite safe doing it to his contemporaries today. Likewise, critical rationalisations are jerry-rigged for anything which happens to engage the critic's personal tastes (e.g. Harry Potter for Stephen Fry, any old local ghost-story cobblers for Billy Connolly). Thus, one is forced to conclude, that when the Grants of the world criticise a writer for asking us to imagine things beyond the everyday, what they're really saying is, simply, "I'm scared that people will think of me as a nerd." As we all know, anybody who truly reads books based on what other people will think about them is a cock, thus Grant is a cock, thus, if he dislikes a book, I should probably check it out. Such was my thinking when I reserved the title at the library. (I also admit to being intrigued by Marieke Hardy's feminist irritation at the passivity - sexual and otherwise - of the female Tecton character. It seemed strange that a young male writer would include such a character in a modern novel...)

COMPLETE SPOILER WARNING YOU DON'T WANT TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW IF YOU'RE PLANNING TO READ THE BOOK. EXCEPT MAYBE THE LAST PARAGRAPH, THAT SHOULD BE SAFE.

What you discover at the book's conclusion, however, is that not only are both Marieke and Grant's attitudes misguided and misleading to potential readers (which is not a great argument for the TV show, frankly), but that the characters and situations they're talking about are completely fucking imaginary. Thus, the alien ideal of womanhood is not simply passive in certain situations due to Pinol's skill at beautifully evoking an alien intelligence leap years beyond ours and at keeping this frustrating yet beautiful sense of otherness alive and calm while the humans around it pop each other off like monkeys with machine guns, but to create, for the writer from the outer plot, a romantic muse who turns out to have been casually invented by a lawyer, thus enabling Pinol to ask questions about why the internal and external factors which decide why we fall in love in the first place. Being aware of all this and complaining about the fact that an imaginary alien chick is a bit too happy to be used as a pretend sex object in a scenario which never took place outside the mind of a lawyer seems like the height of pyrrhic feminist prickliness, frankly, and no more sensible than Grant's "argument" that it's silly for a fiction novel to contain fictional elements inside a passage later revealed as fiction within book's own reality. YOU DICKHEADS.

Even the dickheads, however, conceded that the story-within-a-story structure was unusual, clever and well implemented. I always like being addressed by a character in a conversational sense, and it's also a fun idea to have said narrator be the most emotionally vulnerable and naòve person in the whole book, yet the one who seeks to write the tale at its heart. The revelation at the book's end, too, is effectively delivered (all the more so if, like me, you're not a good twist-guesser) - our humble writer's instincts for narrative help him spot inconsistencies and holes in Garvey's story, but the extent to which he's being lied to is a puzzle that takes him half the book to figure out, which felt very real to me - it's often much easier to believe we're being partly misled than completely hosed.

This is a quality work of the imagination. It evokes, with a freshness attributable to Pinol's unfamiliarity with English language clichÄ, some pretty impressive vistas - underground cities, the unexplored heart of the Congo, a house in a nest in the biggest tree on Earth, frozen oceans of stone lit by red suns. All these things are given relevance beyond beauty by Pinol's relation of them, physically and mentally, to the humans inside them - doubly so, in fact, after the book's climactic revelation. The prose, likewise, is always grounded in the humanity it describes, yet is capable of moments of astounding freshness and light. Credit must also go to the translator for this, I suppose, but it is nonetheless quite something to read a book so thorough in its embrace of a long-dead period atmosphere, yet frequently transcendent of it through sheer quality of writing and invention.

The bad

The novelty of the language - especially in terms of metaphor and analogy - mentioned above is a double-edged sword. Pinol (and his translator) succeed more often than they fail, but there are a few mystifying comparisons, their effect on the reader something akin to Texan wisdom e.g. Cooking a chicken's goose doesn't mean you can't spank a turkey, and so on. There are also occasional moments where Pinol's inexperience as a writer is in evidence, language barrier or not. He has problems conveying time, distance, and spatial relationships. You could, being generous, put this down to the fact that the strangest parts of the story are, technically, the imaginings of a lawyer, expressed and embellished by a natural actor and put to paper by a pulp fiction writer. It is true that the earliest parts of the story (e.g. the bits that actually happened - Marcus's trek through the Congo's green hell with his increasingly desperate employers and a queue of negro slaves, gruesomely replaced when they die of exhaustion) have an impressive solidity - Pinol dismisses extended descriptions of the jungle with a quick quotation, yet manages to convey its sweating, seething awfulness on every page, often simply through how it causes the people inside it to act. Atmospheric description through character - not easy. It is also true that, while Garvey/Pinol sell the aliens and their underground home well enough to make them as real as the humans around them, when the story-within-a-story reaches the peak of its fantastical (or allegorical, as I was suspecting at this point) nature, with Garvey and the sexy Tecton making love in a nest at the top of the world's tallest tree for weeks, even the characters in the outer story have their doubts.

Pandora in the Congo claims, near the end, to be ultimately about this question: Do we fall in love because we discover the embodiment of our desires, or do we embody our desires in a physical form because we want to fall in love? Personally, I have no problem with a book spelling out its purpose so bluntly, but I found myself thinking: IS this really what the book I just read was about? It's not enough to just SAY it, you've got to back it up for 300 pages first. In the end, I think this statement of intent works better as a slightly melodramatic example of what the book is about - to me, that would be the simpler idea of the contrast between what we wish was real, and what we wish wasn't real. This leads naturally into the question of what we want from fiction, and that leads straight into this book, along two cleverly sculpted plotlines, and out the other side to the First Tuesday Book Club, where the disdain of two reviewers tellingly reveals their own replies to the question.

You could argue that this argument excuses Pinol from having to create anything even half-way believable, allowing him to splurge his allegories and metaphors all over the place regardless of realism or attention to detail, and there were one or two moments where this felt like a possibility - I thought the big tree was totally gay on whatever level it was intended, for instance - but I honestly suspect that if you re-read this you would find Pinol's intent was backed up by ability more often than not.

This isn't perfect, as I'm saying. I was secretly hoping for more out of the Tectons - narratively suitable as it may be, the ending revelation is going to feel anticlimactic to a lot of readers. Pinol's (or Garvey's, if you're feeling generous) indifference toward things like space and distance in certain places means the prose can frustrate exactly when it's supposed to be inspiring awe, and there are a few head-scratching similes. It is also possible, I admit, that I was spurred on in my appreciation of the book by a wholly subjective desire to slap Richard E. Grant right in his grin-mace. In the end, despite not being a true genre novel, this will come down to reader taste. As I said, the exact description given disdainfully by reviewers positively invited me to read it, but that could easily happen in reverse also. If it sounds intriguing, check it out, just don't expect anything normal out of this one. And if you like David Mitchell and the Raw Shark Texts as much as I do, keep an eye on this Pinol dude, cos he's going places.

What I learnt

That this is only Pinol's second novel, but I shall seek his first with vigour.

That it really shits me when people snark about being asked to use their imagination. If you can't suspend disbelief any more, you should feel GUILTY AND SAD, not pompously proud.

That, if I'm listening to a book review and somehow convince myself that the book is going to deliver, at some point, a giant walking robot, and the book doesn't actually happen to do that, I will still feel childishly disappointed.



In short

Title: Pandora In The Congo
Author: Albert Sanchez Pinol
Publisher: Canongate U.S.
ISBN: 978-1847671875
Year published: 2009
Pages: 448
Genre(s): Sci fi, Contemporary literature