Thursday, February 17, 2011

Blood River, Journey down the Congo - Book Review

Five Stars
My brother knows that I enjoy reading history and adventure books (almost exclusively), so he passed this fascinating book on to me last year. He had met the author Tim Butcher, through their everyday circles in the MidEast. During one passing, Tim tells him that he had recently traveled through the Congo and just had a book published about it. The book was Blood River, A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart, and it is one helluva story retracing the first western exploration of the mighty river, and an accounting of the decline of a nation into anarchy and tribalism. Running through it all is the dark hulking expanse of the Congo River, nearly unchanged from the awestruck imagery of Heart of Darkness some 125 years after Conrad traveled the river as a riverboat captain.

Before becoming The London Daily Telegraph's MidEast Correspondent, Butcher served in the same capacity as the paper's African Correspondent. This position held prestige and history, first occupied by Lord Henry Stanley in the 19th century, the same man who became hero and legend (and infamous) for his explorations through central Africa and the first charting of the great Congo River from its source. Butcher's plan was to re-trace Stanley's journey, partly because he felt tied to the man from their shared positions at the Daily Telegraph, and partly it seems, because it appeared to be an impossible task. Three years of detailed research, carefully cultivated relationships with rebel leaders and UN peacekeepers, dozens of letters to government bureaus to secure the correct papers, and a shit-ton of bravery and blind courage and the man set out from an airfield in South Africa to make it happen.

Lord Stanley - Photo by Getty Images
What follows is a detailed account of travel through the interior of a central African nation with no roads or transportation systems, no rule of law, certainly no outsiders except for all-in British journalists, and almost no sense that the 21st century has penetrated through the jungle canopy in to the eastern Congo. The most startling theme in the book is that time runs backward in the Congo, at least east of Brazzaville. Elders tell stories to their grandchildren of how they used to attend schools and ride in cars, and the children think it's fantasy. Roads, cities, and civilization all steadily recede back into the jungle in a process of de-evolution, towards a resemblance of how things may have been when Stanley first passed through. How Butcher planned his trip and made it through to the finish is really quite remarkable. Unlike a feat like scaling Everest, it occurred to my brother and I that there are probably only a handful of people alive familiar enough with the dangers of that area that could have pulled off a trek along the length of the Congo - Tim is one of them, and he had the nerve to make an attempt, and then he wrote it down in a book so we could go with him.

The author
In 2008, the book became a London Times best seller and was short listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction writing. I was fortunate enough to talk briefly with Tim by email and pass along some questions about the book, which he kindly answered. The following were Tim's responses:

Me: [Tim], You've been embedded in war zones and other chaotic locations in the world. How would you compare the danger and darkness and overwhelming despair of your travel along the Congo in Blood River to your experiences in these other foreboding places of the world?

Tim: The Congo was more terrifying on two levels. First, I was all alone. I had worked as a war correspondent for years reporting on pretty much every major conflict since Gulf War Mk I. But I had always had the support of a newspaper behind me (the Daily Telegraph from London) and invariably a bunch of similarly-minded colleagues. Going to the Congo was different because the paper cut me adrift, regarding the journey as too dangerous to support, and the world's press has long since given up on reporting the Congo. Second, the scale of the Congo is so daunting. It is so physically large and structurally dysfunctional that there were long periods where I was simply unreachable. Knowing that nobody can come rescue you makes for a very pure form of travel.

MeThe magnitude of your trip down the Congo almost seems like it would re-wire a man's brain in some way. Do you ever find yourself doing mundane things in the grocery store and have your mind wander to the darkness of that river or to thoughts of entire cities eroding back into the jungle?

Tim: Reconnecting with normality after the trip was tricky. I felt like a deep sea diver undergoing decompression after flying out of the Congo as I walked along roads with tarmac on them, saw shops not just with stock in their windows but with windows and fingered money in my pocket that could actually be used to buy things. None of these perfectly normal things were possible for large parts of the Congo trip. But the real power of the Congo is in its portent, the sense of brooding menace not so much in front of your eyes but beyond the horizon, in your imaginings. That is why Joseph Conrad's 19th Century novel, Heart of Darkness, is such a masterpiece, not because it describes something he actually witnessed in the Congo but because, by touching on this extraordinary part of Africa, he identified how your moral compass can spin out of control and you can find yourself projecting, imagining, even doing, evil.

Me: In your most recent book [Chasing the Devil], you've retraced Graham Greene's explorations in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Not having read this book yet myself, did you find this second tenuous journey much easier than the first? Was it easier to commit to the uncertainty of it all having been first to the Congo?

Tim: My relationship with the Congo is close to an obsession. It is what drove me on for three years of brooding, plotting and preparation when all around me said it was impossible. For the second journey to Liberia I was, as your question rightly implies, worried that my motivation might not be so powerful, so pure even. But as you will see, the Liberia trip was born of powerful forces – two friends were killed in West Africa when we were working there and in Liberia the regime of the warlord leader, Charles Taylor, put a death threat on me. So in short I had demons that needed dealing with in Liberia.

While I am proud of Blood River, I am also enormously proud of the Liberia book, Chasing the Devil (which incidentally is being published in the United States later this year) but for slightly different reasons. The Congo trip was more psychologically challenging but the Liberian challenge was, if anything, more physical. Liberia is still not an entirely safe place for foreigners to travel but the fact that I walked 350 miles through the jungle meant it got at my body more than it did my mind.

Me: I know that after/during the publishing of Blood River, you were asked by your editors to review an adventurous running book yet to be published, Born to Run by Chris McDougall. The book has gone on to be widely read in the States and spurred the current barefoot running movement. Do you run? Did you have any insight at the time that the book would be successful and garner such influence?  

Tim: I used to say I am a runner but today a franker description would perhaps be that I am a waddler. Born To Run is a wonderfully inclusive book because it's all about escape, an escape we can all achieve. You don't need to be a fleet-footed, aloe-chewing Mexican (although Chris's dealings with these legendary Mexicans is truly amazing) to enjoy the release of running. To escape, not to race, is the key. By escaping from your comfort zone you learn things about yourself and that can be done just as much by running round the block where you live as it can by running 100 miles in the Mexican desert. And I loved Chris's honesty – he describes himself as too hefty and tall to ever be a natural racer – and his views of running barefoot really connected with me. On my various walks/hikes/adventures in Africa, my expensive footwear often left me hobbling along behind the barefooted locals. Now, on Chris's advice, I am to be seen waddling around the hilly peninsular of Cape Town in the next best thing to bare feet, Five Fingers footwear produced by Vibram. If Chris has become a sort of Forrest Gump inspiration for barefoot runners then I am thrilled for him.

Me: Lastly, your trip through the Congo was clearly very personal and motivated by what can be described as an obsessive nature. Has it been difficult to disassociate the personal meaning from your experience with the professional metrics of book sales and the acceptance of the book in popular circles? In the end, would you say that the personal and professional components of this adventure have complemented each other? 

Tim: J D Salinger famously observed that the only bad thing about writing is that you get read. I guess if you sell 30 million copies of one book you can afford to be so aloof. As there is no danger of my book sales reaching 30 million, I am a bit more willing to accept the corollary of publishing a book, i.e. that people will read your work, criticism will be voiced, sales performance will be scrutinized etc. For me, a book is an intensely personal thing, a sharing of fears, ambitions, achievements, weaknesses and so much more. But the key thing is that it is something I am willing to share. My greatest source of pride is that I have been able to convey a sense of my passion for an extraordinary part of the world, the Congo, scene of one of this planet's great human dramas. I make no claim to having solved the Congo's ills but that fact that a few more people are aware of it through my book than might otherwise have been the case is an interface between private and public that I am happy to live with.

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  1. Nice KB. Your brother still overseas I take it? I will take Congo forever off my vacation list.

  2. Thanks for the post Kevin. You may not know it, but I was born and lived 18 years in Congo. I will read the book. Max M

  3. Great review bro. This was an absolute fascinating book by someone that has caljones bigger than anyone I know to take on this adventure. I still vividly remember sitting in the coffee shop while he was telling me his plans for Liberia and Sierra Leone. He had the smile, excitement and face of a 10 year old, and I probably had a face of pure terror, shock and awe.

    This is a must read.


  4. Sean is still overseas. He had his reprieve in hand only to see civil uprising in...Egypt! We'll count that as a win.

    Max, I remember you telling me a story once of a childhood memories of volcanoes on the horizon in a bright orange Congo sunrise. You'll like this book since it summarizes many of the economically driven problems of the eastern 2/3rds of the country, notably lots of natural resources, lots of guys with AK-47s and personal armies, and a weak national government.

    Bro, this was a great book. I was anxious reading it because of all the unimaginable things that could happen on the next page of the book. The guy has balls and I told him so. When Tim told me he'd just written a follow-up about a trek through Sierra Leone I had to ask him if he was quite well. I'm sure you meet many interesting people over there but Tim has to be one in a million. See you soon? Hope the sweeping changes over there right now are for the better, and good job on making it all happen.

  5. Just ordered it on Amazon. Can't wait to read it.

  6. That volcano was the Nyiragongo. Its lava burried the house we had in Goma, province of Kivu.

    I spent most of my childhood in the South in Lubumbashi, Katanga province (renamed Shaba under Mobutu). Even though I left the country in 1985, the economy was just getting worse and worse. I lived in Kinshasa for about a year and half, before moving to Switzerland. People used to say in lingala "Mboka ebebi, ba mindele ba zonga", meaning "The country is ruined, let the Whites come back".

    I 've read the book over the weekend using a Kindle app on the Ipad. I recently watched "Blood in the Mobile", a documentary explaining how minerals essential to electronics (mostly mobile phones) extracted from the Eastern Congo finance the militia and keep the war going on. Very sad. Max M

  7. Max, thanks for an additional first person perspective on the DNC. You are a fast reader. I didn't know that volcano actually took your family house - good Lord. I'll check out Blood in the Mobile. -KB

  8. Consultant Ninja in the house. The Ninja may or may not be responsible for founding the startup linked to on the sidebar above. It's hard to determine because shifty-ass ninjas are skilled at the art of deception. I think you'll enjoy this book Ninja, its bold and sinister subject matter will appeal to your nature.



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