THE CATASTROPHIST

By Ronan Bennett

Simon & Schuster. 332 pp. $24

Reviewed by Claire Messud

There is, it would seem, a vogue for the Congo: In the past year, that country has inspired several fine books, from Adam Hochschild's colonial history King Leopold's Ghost to Barbara Kingsolver's acclaimed fiction The Poisonwood Bible and now the Irish writer Ronan Bennett's third novel, The Catastrophist. While Kingsolver's book was set largely in the time before the country's independence, Bennett's novel straddles that eloquently fraught time between November 1959 and December 1960, when so much was hoped for and so much lost; and while Kingsolver's novel dealt with an American missionary family in a remote Congolese village, Bennett's is set in the fray of Leopoldville itself, amid the intricate and brutal intrigues of nation-building.

The Congo -- which was renamed Zaire by its long-lived despotic ruler, Mobutu Sese Seko, and recently reverted to its earlier name upon his death -- was, like many African colonial countries, a destination for adventurers and mercenaries, entrepreneurs and idealists. A finely sketched variety of such characters peoples Bennett's engrossing and impressive book, but its protagonist is the unlikely James Gillespie, an apolitical, ironic and generally reticent novelist, whose presence in Leopoldville is attributable not to any thirst for excitement or glory, but to love.

Gillespie, an Irishman settled in London, traipses out to the tropics to join his girlfriend, Ines Sabiani, a firebrand journalist writing for the Italian communist newspaper L'Unita, because he senses that the cause of Congolese independence represents a threat to their relationship. Thirteen years his junior, Inex is everything that Gillespie is not: "Her language has always been unconditional and absolute. Nothing-everything; never-always; worst-best-brilliant -- lots of brilliants. I was brilliant once," he muses early on. But he has lost his luster. Patrice Lumumba, the doomed nationalist leader and foremost candidate to lead an independent Congo, is Ines's latest inspiration and the focus of her impassioned journalistic campaign.

The detached Gillespie disapproves of Ines's approach to her work, even as her fire continues to draw him: "She is moved by things that cannot be described, that are only half glimpsed, and when she writes -- is this allowable in a journalist? -- it is not primarily to inform her audience, but to touch them. I object to this; I find it embarrassing, unprofessional." Gillespie's credo, on the other hand, is that "what is real to me is what can be seen; I understand above all else the evidence of the eyes." Even of his fiction he says, "Whenever I try for emotion, anger, fire, the effects seem false."

When Gillespie falls in with a CIA operative named Mark Stipe, who flatters his ego and feeds him information, he embarks upon a freelance journalism career of his own, and in so doing seals the fate of his relationship with Ines. Bennett pens a devastating portrait of a man whose self-knowledge is less astute than he assumes, and whose complacent belief that it is possible to remain an observer, relying on "the evidence of the eyes," will be sorely tested. As events, both personal and political, spiral ever further out of control, Gillespie comes to realize that Stipe is, as Ines has warned, no true friend; and that when everyone else has taken sides, it is suddenly impossible to be neutral. He rails, late in the game, against Ines: "I felt angry with her for getting involved in the unnecessary melodrama of all this. Let these people get on with their bloody feuds. Both sides are as bad as each other. What's it got to do with us?" But she, whose physical passion follows her political passion, has taken as her lover Auguste,a Lumumbist and Stipe's former driver; and so the "melodrama" is not at all "unnecessary" to her.

Bennett's prose, by turns lush and abrupt, captures both the physicality of the Congo and the growing tension of Gillespie's situation. The disintegrating milieu of colonial Leopoldville is admirably depicted through the array of minor characters -- the Lebanese diamond merchant Zoubir Smail; the wealthy and powerful Bernard Houthhoofd and his hostile mistress, Madeleine; the doctor, Roger, "one of those reserved Englishmen whom it is easy to like and impossible to know." Gillespie, trapped in his emotional limbo, is an ideal foil for the embattled idealism of Auguste and Ines, and for the ever-emerging cynicism of the sinister Stipe.

Less convincing is Bennett's construction of the reasons behind Gillespie's human shortcomings. A hurried flashback section entitled "Ireland and England" provides a portrait of a weak and absent father, whose failings in Gillespie's youth, we are to believe, marked him so profoundly that he resorted to ironic detachment as a way of life, and relinquished any sense of Irishness in favor of English assimilation. Similarly, in Ines's inability to bear children, the novel throws up a simple and rather too reductive catalyst for the initial rift between her and Gillespie.

When Gillespie tells us his story of the Congo, however, and of the people whose lives are entwined there with his own, and of their experiences and tragedies, The Catastrophist crackles with genuine life. While he insists from the outset that "This is a story of failure" -- the failure of love, of justice, of freedom, of hope -- it is, as a story, quite the opposite.

Claire Messud's second novel, "The Last Life," was recently published.