THE BOOK OF THE HEATHEN

By Robert Edric

St. Martin's. 352 pp. $24.95

King Leopold of Belgium declared himself sovereign of the Congo Free State in 1885, seizing control of an African region comprising roughly 1 million square miles -- and all its native inhabitants. He did so in the guise of philanthropy, pledging to "civilize" the Africans and end the Arab slave trade. As many writers and historians have shown, Leopold's bloody reign over the Congo was anything but philanthropic. Slave labor continued, along with torture, mutilation, massacre and widespread exploitation of the area's natural resources. The native population, estimated at 20 million to 30 million in 1908, was down to 8.5 million by 1911. Robert Edric's novel begins after the Belgians have secured their territories by way of various treaties and as English interest in the area is winding down.

The novel's English narrator, James Charles Russel Frasier, works at Ukassa Falls, at a trading station that is far from thriving. Unlike the prosperous Belgian enterprises nearby, the operations of "the Company" are foundering. Steamers and canoes laden with the plunder of empire routinely float past the station's dilapidated docks without so much as a wave or the friendly blast of a horn. There are rumors that the Company plans to give up and shut everything down. One of Frasier's colleagues laments the waning days of their African adventure. "Once it was all a game," he says, "a board upon which to play, but all that has gone." Frasier, the Company's mapmaker and an earnest soul, is more concerned with immeasurable losses. "The great enterprise upon which I and the others here were once embarked has collapsed and left us barely recognizable as the men we once were," he observes.

As might be expected, allusions to "Heart of Darkness" are plenty. Like Joseph Conrad, Edric aims to reveal the ways in which an untamed environment and unfettered power can combine to awaken a man's innate capacity for corruption and brutality. Edric's story unfolds in 1897, just seven years after Conrad worked on a steamer on the Congo River and about the same time that members of the British Parliament began to express concern for the abused natives of the Congo.

The man who seems most likely to succumb to the hypnotic call of the wild is Nicholas Frere, Frasier's colleague and closest friend at the station. Going a step further than Conrad's Marlow, who admitted feeling a "remote kinship" with the "wild and passionate uproar" of the natives, Frere concedes that "it has always been the abnormalities and not the divinities of men that have fascinated me." Intrigued by rumors of cannibalism and other grotesque customs allegedly practiced in the nearby forest, he has frequently wandered off on unauthorized jaunts, hoping to witness such rituals firsthand.

Edric sets Frasier up as Frere's innocent opposite. Although he is a veteran of military campaigns in India and Egypt, Frasier somehow emerged from those battles with his naivete intact. According to his friend, Frasier is "wont to see the best in men, and on occasion to turn side-on to the truth." This tendency presents difficulties when Frere turns up in Belgian custody after an unexplained absence of 51 days. He has been charged with the murder of a native girl and appears uninterested in mounting a defense.

While Frasier tries to find out what really happened, Edric provides a glimpse of life in colonial Congo. He lacks Conrad's felicitous phrases and evocative descriptions, and his plot is irregularly paced, often meandering from side to side instead of moving relentlessly ahead. He has peopled the station with various types that often seem more symbol than character. These include a manipulative accountant and a forlorn quartermaster ruined by his doomed love for a native woman. His most noteworthy creation is Klein, a deranged missionary who has given in to his worst impulses. Apparently filled with an inexplicable hatred of Frasier and all his colleagues, Klein bursts forth occasionally to hurl taunts and curses. Like Kurtz, the crazed company agent in "Heart of Darkness," he seems to lack "restraint in the gratification of his various lusts" and has his own "wild crowd of obedient worshippers."

The atrocities that occurred during this period are well documented, but Edric touches upon them only from odd angles, rarely confronting them head-on. African men, women and children were regularly beaten with chicottes, razor-sharp whips made from hippopotamus hide, and suffered the amputation of their arms, noses, ears or legs. But in Edric's novel, participation in savage debaucheries is mostly limited to the natives, who but for an intermittent glimmer of cunning seldom come across as credible, capable human beings. Conrad, too, sometimes portrayed blacks as inseparable from the landscape, as living, breathing appendages of "the Earth [that] seemed unearthly," but he seemed to do so as a way of commenting on the skewed perspective that results from imperialism. Edric's irony is not so easily recognized.

When Frere finally reveals his role in the girl's death, the payoff is far from illuminating. Readers will likely feel as lost as Frasier does at the novel's end, when we encounter him standing near the edge of the river, staring forlornly into "utter and impenetrable darkness."