The Catastrophist
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The Catastrophist

By (author) Ronan Bennett

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Gillespie, an Irishman, goes to the Congo in 1959 in pursuit of his beautiful lover Ines, a passionate Italian journalist. Unlike her, Gillespie has no interest in the deepening independence crisis, nor in the charismatic leader, Patrice Lumumba. He has other business: this is his last chance to make love work for him.

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  • Paperback | 320 pages
  • 147.32 x 226.06 x 20.32mm | 340.19g
  • 16 Jan 1999
  • Headline Publishing Group
  • HEADLINE REVIEW
  • London
  • English
  • 0747260338
  • 9780747260332
  • 191,512

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Author Information

Ronan Bennett was born and brought up in Belfast. He is the author of The Second Prison (which was shortlisted for the Irish Times/Aer Lingus prize) and Overthrown by Strangers. He has written screenplays for film and television, including the acclaimed Face, directed by Antionia Bird, and is currently working on an adaptation of Seamus Deane's Booker shortlisted Reading in the Dark.

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Review quote

A mighty achievement... vision, imagination and gravitas Times The Catastrophist Ronan Bennett - coverage to date 'Bennett's writing is as lush and sensual as ripe mangoes. His characters are complex and sympathetic. The tone, which is perfectly pitched, and the exotic setting collude to evoke an era of colonial decadence' Financial Times 13th/14th June A writer to watch, a genuine and gifted novelist Cole Moreton, Independent As lush and sensual as ripe mangoes Financial Times 'The finding of a voice and what one says with it is central to The Catastrophist... Along with its politics The Catastrophist is an intensely erotic novel' Linda Grant Guardian, Wednesday 17th June 'Bennett is a writer to watch, a genuine and gifted novelist' Independent, Saturday 27th June I have not read such a good thriller in years Ian Thomson, Evening Standard Compelling... the power of this fine novel lies in its detached subtlety... a memorable book with a ring of deeply felt authenticity Hugo Hamilton, Sunday Tribune 'Bennett's knuckle-hard prose gives the region the clarity of a punch to the solar plexus. His Congans, far from being passive mutes, are both the rhetorical and satirical equals of the Belgians whose drinks trolleys they cart and whose floors they scrub. Conrad felt they existed outside of history - Bennett shows them engaged in transforming it.' The Literary Review, July 1998 'Despite the African setting, The Catastrophist was obviously intended to explore some of the tensions and motivations in all similar conflicts - including Northern Ireland. Gillespie twice refuses invitations to write about what's going on in his homeland, and Bennett believes there has been a similar failure of nerve among writers of his own generation. "Most of the stuff that has been done about the North is grounded in the politics of compassion for the victims. I'm not saying there's no place for that, but fiction has been so affected by, overwhelmed by the death, the squalor, the sheer awfulness of it all, that it can't actually go beyond that, and ask, 'Why did this happen? Who are these characters? Why are they doing it?"' Cole Moreton, Independent on Sunday, 28th June '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 27th June 'This is a historical novel as well as a love story. But with the news from Congo continuing in the same vein nearly 40 years later, it has a lively currency... Like Muldoon, Bennett has gained a great deal by looking at political strife and engagement from a faraway place, from an oblique angle. To quote that poet's verse about Auden and Yeats, it may be the case that "history's a twisted root/ with art its small, translucent fruit/ and never the other way round" - but the fruit is beautiful and we see the branch better for looking through it' Giles Foden, The Guardian 4th July 'This is a very well-written and well-researched novel by a writer who is able to maintain a tense and gripping atmosphere of political intrigue and erotic passion' Harry Ritchie, Mail on Sunday 5 July 'The traditional understatement of William Trevor and John McGahern endures, and nowhere more obviously than in the work of Belfast born novelist, Ronan Bennett...evoke[s] a similar atmosphere and reflective tone to that of the American, Robert Stone. Eileen Battersby, Irish Times 7 July 'An enthralling and thought-provoking book, presenting crucial questions of historical and political responsibility' Times Literary Supplement, 9 July 'Take[s] the reader into one of the most exciting and tragic places on the earth' Herald 9 July 1998 'Immensely promising... has been compared to some of Graham Greene's finest efforts, and I'm not going to argue with that' Daily Mirror 10 July 1998 'A welcome reminder that it is still possible to write clearly, coherently and movingly... a great achievement, an impressive testament to the appeal of strong narrative and sympathetic characterisation' Edward Smith Sunday Telegraph 12 July 'The book comes spotted with puffs suggesting that Ronan Bennett is the millennial Graham Greene, and for once they do not exaggerate... Bennett writes with the same brilliance, the same remarkably effective eroticism' Sean McMahon, Irish IndependenThe Catastrophist Ronan Bennett - coverage to date 'Bennett's writing is as lush and sensual as ripe mangoes. His characters are complex and sympathetic. The tone, which is perfectly pitched, and the exotic setting collude to evoke an era of colonial decadence' Financial Times 13th/14th June 'The finding of a voice and what one says with it is central to The Catastrophist... Along with its politics The Catastrophist is an intensely erotic novel' Linda Grant Guardian, Wednesday 17th June 'Bennett is a writer to watch, a genuine and gifted novelist' Independent, Saturday 27th June 'Bennett's knuckle-hard prose gives the region the clarity of a punch to the solar plexus. His Congans, far from being passive mutes, are both the rhetorical and satirical equals of the Belgians whose drinks trolleys they cart and whose floors they scrub. Conrad felt they existed outside of history - Bennett shows them engaged in transforming it.' The Literary Review, July 1998 'Despite the African setting, The Catastrophist was obviously intended to explore some of the tensions and motivations in all similar conflicts - including Northern Ireland. Gillespie twice refuses invitations to write about what's going on in his homeland, and Bennett believes there has been a similar failure of nerve among writers of his own generation. "Most of the stuff that has been done about the North is grounded in the politics of compassion for the victims. I'm not saying there's no place for that, but fiction has been so affected by, overwhelmed by the death, the squalor, the sheer awfulness of it all, that it can't actually go beyond that, and ask, 'Why did this happen? Who are these characters? Why are they doing it?"' Cole Moreton, Independent on Sunday, 28th June '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 27th June 'This is a historical novel as well as a love story. But with the news from Congo continuing in the same vein nearly 40 years later, it has a lively currency... Like Muldoon, Bennett has gained a great deal by looking at political strife and engagement from a faraway place, from an oblique angle. To quote that poet's verse about Auden and Yeats, it may be the case that "history's a twisted root/ with art its small, translucent fruit/ and never the other way round" - but the fruit is beautiful and we see the branch better for looking through it' Giles Foden, The Guardian 4th July 'This is a very well-written and well-researched novel by a writer who is able to maintain a tense and gripping atmosphere of political intrigue and erotic passion' Harry Ritchie, Mail on Sunday 5 July 'The traditional understatement of William Trevor and John McGahern endures, and nowhere more obviously than in the work of Belfast born novelist, Ronan Bennett...evoke[s] a similar atmosphere and reflective tone to that of the American, Robert Stone. Eileen Battersby, Irish Times 7 July 'An enthralling and thought-provoking book, presenting crucial questions of historical and political responsibility' Times Literary Supplement, 9 July 'Take[s] the reader into one of the most exciting and tragic places on the earth' Herald 9 July 1998 'Immensely promising... has been compared to some of Graham Greene's finest efforts, and I'm not going to argue with that' Daily Mirror 10 July 1998 'A welcome reminder that it is still possible to write clearly, coherently and movingly... a great achievement, an impressive testament to the appeal of strong narrative and sympathetic characterisation' Edward Smith Sunday Telegraph 12 July 'The book comes spotted with puffs suggesting that Ronan Bennett is the millennial Graham Greene, and for once they do not exaggerate... Bennett writes with the same brilliance, the same remarkably effective eroticism' Sean McMahon, Irish IndependenThe Catastrophist Ronan Bennett - coverage to date 'Bennett's writing is as lush and sensual as ripe mangoes. His characters are complex and sympathetic. The tone, which is perfectly pitched, and the exotic setting collude to evoke an era of colonial decadence' Financial Times 13th/14th June 'The finding of a voice and what one says with it is central to The Catastrophist... Along with its politics The Catastrophist is an intensely erotic novel' Linda Grant Guardian, Wednesday 17th June 'Bennett is a writer to watch, a genuine and gifted novelist' Independent, Saturday 27th June 'Bennett's knuckle-hard prose gives the region the clarity of a punch to the solar plexus. His Congans, far from being passive mutes, are both the rhetorical and satirical equals of the Belgians whose drinks trolleys they cart and whose floors they scrub. Conrad felt they existed outside of history - Bennett shows them engaged in transforming it.' The Literary Review, July 1998 'Despite the African setting, The Catastrophist was obviously intended to explore some of the tensions and motivations in all similar conflicts - including Northern Ireland. Gillespie twice refuses invitations to write about what's going on in his homeland, and Bennett believes there has been a similar failure of nerve among writers of his own generation. "Most of the stuff that has been done about the North is grounded in the politics of compassion for the victims. I'm not saying there's no place for that, but fiction has been so affected by, overwhelmed by the death, the squalor, the sheer awfulness of it all, that it can't actually go beyond that, and ask, 'Why did this happen? Who are these characters? Why are they doing it?"' Cole Moreton, Independent on Sunday, 28th June '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 27th June 'This is a historical novel as well as a love story. But with the news from Congo continuing in the same vein nearly 40 years later, it has a lively currency... Like Muldoon, Bennett has gained a great deal by looking at political strife and engagement from a faraway place, from an oblique angle. To quote that poet's verse about Auden and Yeats, it may be the case that "history's a twisted root/ with art its small, translucent fruit/ and never the other way round" - but the fruit is beautiful and we see the branch better for looking through it' Giles Foden, The Guardian 4th July 'This is a very well-written and well-researched novel by a writer who is able to maintain a tense and gripping atmosphere of political intrigue and erotic passion' Harry Ritchie, Mail on Sunday 5 July 'The traditional understatement of William Trevor and John McGahern endures, and nowhere more obviously than in the work of Belfast born novelist, Ronan Bennett...evoke[s] a similar atmosphere and reflective tone to that of the American, Robert Stone. Eileen Battersby, Irish Times 7 July 'An enthralling and thought-provoking book, presenting crucial questions of historical and political responsibility' Times Literary Supplement, 9 July 'Take[s] the reader into one of the most exciting and tragic places on the earth' Herald 9 July 1998 'Immensely promising... has been compared to some of Graham Greene's finest efforts, and I'm not going to argue with that' Daily Mirror 10 July 1998 'A welcome reminder that it is still possible to write clearly, coherently and movingly... a great achievement, an impressive testament to the appeal of strong narrative and sympathetic characterisation' Edward Smith Sunday Telegraph 12 July 'The book comes spotted with puffs suggesting that Ronan Bennett is the millennial Graham Greene, and for once they do not exaggerate... Bennett writes with the same brilliance, the same remarkably effective eroticism' Sean McMahon, Irish IndependenThe Catastrophist Ronan Bennett - coverage to date 'Bennett's writing is as lush and sensual as ripe mangoes. His characters are complex and sympathetic. The tone, which is perfectly pitched, and the exotic setting collude to evoke an era of colonial decadence' Financial Times 13th/14th June 'The finding of a voice and what one says with it is central to The Catastrophist... Along with its politics The Catastrophist is an intensely erotic novel' Linda Grant Guardian, Wednesday 17th June 'Bennett is a writer to watch, a genuine and gifted novelist' Independent, Saturday 27th June 'Bennett's knuckle-hard prose gives the region the clarity of a punch to the solar plexus. His Congans, far from being passive mutes, are both the rhetorical and satirical equals of the Belgians whose drinks trolleys they cart and whose floors they scrub. Conrad felt they existed outside of history - Bennett shows them engaged in transforming it.' The Literary Review, July 1998 'Despite the African setting, The Catastrophist was obviously intended to explore some of the tensions and motivations in all similar conflicts - including Northern Ireland. Gillespie twice refuses invitations to write about what's going on in his homeland, and Bennett believes there has been a similar failure of nerve among writers of his own generation. "Most of the stuff that has been done about the North is grounded in the politics of compassion for the victims. I'm not saying there's no place for that, but fiction has been so affected by, overwhelmed by the death, the squalor, the sheer awfulness of it all, that it can't actually go beyond that, and ask, 'Why did this happen? Who are these characters? Why are they doing it?"' Cole Moreton, Independent on Sunday, 28th June '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 27th June 'This is a historical novel as well as a love story. But with the news from Congo continuing in the same vein nearly 40 years later, it has a lively currency... Like Muldoon, Bennett has gained a great deal by looking at political strife and engagement from a faraway place, from an oblique angle. To quote that poet's verse about Auden and Yeats, it may be the case that "history's a twisted root/ with art its small, translucent fruit/ and never the other way round" - but the fruit is beautiful and we see the branch better for looking through it' Giles Foden, The Guardian 4th July 'This is a very well-written and well

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Review text

Irish writer Bennett's third novel but first US publication: a despairing but acute examination of a souring love affair and its ambiguous effect on certain nefarious characters pushing the Belgian Congo toward independence. Dour, alienated Irish novelist James Gillespie comes to the Belgian Congo in 1959 to renew affections with his Italian lover Ines, an idealistic reporter for an Italian Communist journal who has been apart from him long enough for Gillespie to sense that there may be another taking his place. At first Gillespie is content to follow Ines as she flits happily from boozy white-upperclass cocktail parties to the stinking, grimly impoverished black quarter of Leopoldville. Careless of quotes, facts, on-site research and anything else that would jeopardize her one-sided reportage of Belgian exploitation, Ines drifts ever closer to the camp of independence advocate Patrice Lumumba, the same man favored by easy-going American diplomatic attache, Mark Stipe. Though Ines warns Gillespie that Stipe is a CIA agent, Gillespie, after being flattered that Stipe may have actually read one of his novels, lets the agent feed him information that the novelist incorporates into a series of unnaturally prescient magazine articles about the independence movements. These bring Gillespie a small degree of money and fame, but they alienate Ines, sending Gillespie into bouts of dark depression. She mocks him as a catastrophist(a person for whom every change is an absolute disaster) and takes up with Stipe's African chauffeur, Auguste, a Lumumba supporter far wiser than he seems; then eventually, when Lumumba flirts with Communism, she dumps Stipe altogether. Gillespie beds the blase wife of a Belgian industrialist, pines for Ines, but finishes his novel - when Ines appears suddenly on his doorstep asking that he help smuggle her, Auguste, and Lumumba out of the country. A relentlessly downbeat portrait of the artist as a whiney, self-pitying failure. Lightened with spicy sex scenes and absurdist accounts of colonialism at the edge of extinction. (Kirkus Reviews)

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