- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 3, 2002

Robert Edric has written a novel in which the protagonist is place rather than the people set it in it. And what a place it is. The year is 1897 the Englishmen in the book are conscious of a new century approaching and the locale is the Ukassa Falls Concessionary Station in the Congo Free State. The station is located on a broad and winding river, which together with the torrential rains, rules. Capt. James Frasier, who tells the story, is about to make an early-morning crossing of the river to where the Belgians have their larger and more prosperous setup.
"I studied the river as I went, reassuring myself that I understood the vague calculations I was making. In truth, whether the water was high or low, fast or barely moving. I frequently walked to the same low promontory where the same old boatman was waiting.
"I passed several others asleep in their vessels. Some had their wives and children alongside them, all sleeping in the river mud and against the banks, all seeming more animal than human in that half-light."
The Congo was the nadir of European imperialism (Adam Hochschild related the history afresh four years ago in his "King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terrorism, and Heroism in Colonial Africa").
Leopold of Belgium got hold of the territory in the name of humanitarianism. Companies were formed to exploit its natural resources, one being the Anglo-Belgian Rubber Co., which could have been the establishment, with its imposing headquarters in Knightsbridge, where Frasier and Nicholas Frere, the two young men in the novel, first meet while being interviewed for their African jobs. Or the Ukassa Falls station could be one of the smaller concessions that sprang up later.
The Congo's sorry story in the 19th century is that when trading in rubber proved less profitable than the old business of slaves and ivory, the indigenous peoples were taken away from farming their land and forcibly put to work bringing in the rubber and mining for precious metals. This was not slavery in the technical sense, but if one shirked one's assigned rubber-related toil, amputated hands could result.
The English official Roger Casement tried to do something about it, and his 1904 Congo report had some effect on Belgian governance there. But ultimately, Casement's Congolese humanitarian efforts were no more successful than a decade later in Ireland, where they got him hung for his trouble.
Mr. Edric's novel, "The Book of the Heathen," implicitly poses the question of who the heathen actually were, them or us. The scale of that question lifts his tale no post-colonial tract, nothing like that into a larger, more universal context, just as Joseph Conrad's 1902 long story "Heart of Darkness" lent itself to Francis Ford Coppola's film "Apocalypse Now" 77 years later.
Like those two works their impact on the Western imagination was not any matter of chance Mr. Edric is writing about evil, out there in society, yes, but at bottom in the individual mind. Our Washington sniper fits the pattern in a way, but he is a crude fellow. Mr. Edric's pages are concerned with the capacity for perversity and savagery in highly cultivated minds when set down in the right locale.
Frasier, the station's mapmaker, has been in post for three years. His dawn river crossing, timed to avoid running into colleagues and in particular Bone, the station's provost sergeant, is to visit Frere, who is confined in the Belgians' jail, accused of killing a Congolese girl, a child.
Both Frere and Frasier are published scholars in their fields natural history in the former's case, and both came out from England in hope of achieving fine ends and being part of a noble enterprise. In the wake of meeting in Knightsbridge, they promptly became friends, Frere forming a romantic attachment to Caroline, one of Frasier's sisters.
Now, after three years of the trading station's isolation and vulgarizing ways, Frasier and Frere remain close, something not lost on their colleagues. These are Cornelius van Klees, who has been in the Congo for 40 years and at the Ukassa station for 20 of them. He is chief quartermaster and, as the novel goes along, the most sympathetic toward Frere in his predicament.
Cornelius had a Congolese "wife" he called her Evangeline who bore him a daughter, named Magdalene by Father Klein, vindictive director of the Jesuit mission at Kirasi. Klein sent the "wife" away, and the child died. The consequence is a lasting animus, but also perverse attachment, between Cornelius and the priest. Klein goes everywhere accompanied by two nuns, Perpetua and Felicity, and numerous additional women, members of his congregation.
Others of the officer class serving at the Ukassa station are Fletcher, an agreeable if tough customer, and Abbot, the chief clerk. Abbot is the kind of man as worm anyone who has served in the armed forces will recognize him who distances himself from his peers in the mess, affects authority over them when he sees the chance, and curries favor with superiors in the hope of getting ahead in the service.
The one black Congolese character of any significance is a young cripple, who has attached himself to the old boatman carrying Frasier across the river. As time goes by the stunted "boy" attaches himself to Frasier and Frere, for whom his grasp of the English language, knowledge of local goings-on and loyalty are valuable resources.
The jail in which Frere is being held is close and claustrophobic, Frere and one or two Congolese being the only prisoners. The British want Frere back, but the Belgian authorities in Stanleyville may have other ideas. Then there is Hammad, a tycoon living in great opulence. His tentacles reach everywhere, and changing European politics are not without interest for him. He is easy to underestimate.
During their time in Africa, Frasier and Frere have made a couple of daring journeys together, each of several days' duration, looking for a new lake in one instance, and for flora and fauna every time out. These trips safely behind them the word "safely" is warranted on account of the warring tribes, some feared for their cannibalism, who are burning each others' villages and butchering the inhabitants.
More recently, Frere took off on an exploratory venture alone. Knowing his solitary ways, comrades let a couple of weeks go by without particularly missing him. But as time went on, word seeped downriver of Frere's encounter, while ill and feverish, with Aruwimi tribesmen, and of his rescue by a native feather-trader who handed him over to the Belgians.
In the days and weeks following, various and contradictory versions of Frere's crime came back down the river to the increasingly alarmed staff at the Ukassa station. Whatever the truth of the matter, it was clear that this brilliant child of the English establishment was in a lot of trouble.
A company delegation sent to investigate turns out to consist of one man, who announces himself as Granville Beaufoy Montague Nash. He seems, initially, a combination of fop and implacable inquisitor, but before the story is done Nash has established himself, within his limits, as one of the novel's more engaging players.
The most engaging of them is Frere, as it should be. But even he is no great character study. When he says, "it has always been the abnormalities and not the divinities of men that have fascinated me," we recognize the type, we know the sort. But we never find out why the Congo the novel's actual protagonist, it has been suggested had such effect on him, while merely coarsening others around him. We never learn: Why Frere?
It is a familiar problem, and for more than novelists. In the case of Mr. Edric's book, a certain dodging of the issue, a failure to venture more profoundly into the life of the mind, keeps his story near the ground. But he tells a good tale, consistent throughout in its sombre mood, about a dark, dark place. The culmination of the drama will appall and chill, I promise.
THE BOOK OF THE HEATHEN
By Robert Edric
Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Press, $24.95, 352 pages

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