A somber, eye-opening journey into the definitive heart of darkness.
Joseph Conrad is the tutelary spirit of this work by Daily Telegraph correspondent Butcher, who for years “had stared at maps dominated by the Congo River, a silver-bladed sickle, its handle anchored on the coasts, its tip buried deep in the equatorial forest” and, emphatically without the approval of his newspaper employer, decided to travel the 3,000-odd-mile length of the river. Conrad may be the spirit, but the book’s more literal guide is the 19th-century adventurer Henry Stanley, as miscreant an imperialist as ever there was. Half a century ago, Butcher’s mother made the voyage down the Congo, but that was before the country had disintegrated into postcolonial civil war and what Butcher, quoting her, refers to as “a great deal of ‘beastliness.’ ” An ardent student of history and culture, Butcher could find no single expert, before undertaking his voyage, who could make sense of the entire country. After his trip, so eloquently described here, he may be the only Western journalist with such a handle on that vast region. His book is of tremendous use to geographers, development specialists and humanitarian aid workers, as well as armchair travelers. One thing he turns up almost immediately is the impossibility of domestic harmony in a land where local government is impossible. As one of his interlocutors, a town mayor, says, “I can pay no civil servants because I have no money and there is no bank or post office where money could be received, and we have no civil servants because all the schools and hospitals and everything do not work.” Nonetheless, Butcher finds a few rays of hope even in a place where, by his reckoning, about 1,200 lives a day are lost in a civil war that the international community seems to consider “a lost cause without hope of ever being put right.”
A brilliant account of a broken land, one that certainly deserves the attention this excellent book brings.