A dangerous and self-indulgent journey up and down the Congo River: thankfully, travel-writer Tayler (Siberian Dawn, 1999) comes in the end to understand it as such.
Feeling a peckishness of the spirit for all the tried-and-true reasons—his job a corporate trap, his writing going nowhere, the need for a “defining achievement” at a “decisive moment,” the fact that at his age Christ had already died—Tayler decides to hit the road. V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River struck the spark, and Stanley’s 1870 expedition fanned it into a blaze: He would travel the Congo (Zaire at the time of his 1995 trip) River from Kinshasa to Kisangani, 1,100 miles in a pirogue. That ought to blow the gunk out of his carburetor, particularly since he knows that Mobutu’s Zaire was one corrupt, murderous, uncomfortable—but impossibly romantic—place. The barge trip up the river to Kisangani drives home the discomfort and corruption, and the shroud of suspicion that rests on any white traveler to those parts—the whites are assumed to be after something, from diamonds to you-don’t-want-to-know—but erases any romantic notions. Tayler isn’t much of a place portraitist (“the sun died a vivid death in a violet sky”), but he does an ample job of conveying the dread of a nation still on its knees from the army looting sprees of 1991 and 1993. The “heat and crowd and hassle” of the barge trip is more than matched by the terror of the downriver paddle in the pirogue. Out of a land of parrots and butterflies would come strangers, saying to Tayler and his guide: “Ah, you have a gun. You win! We would have robbed and killed you both, and who would have ever known!” Ultimately, he realizes he is endangering not just his own life, but the lives of others in his company, and that the trip proves little but how scared one can become.
A voyage fit only for lunatics. In terms of achievement, Tayler could as easily have played Russian roulette.