Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Book Review 2015 #4 - Michael Crichton's Congo

Congo by Michael Crichton
Published by: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: 1980
Format: Paperback, 316 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Earth Resources Technology Services Inc. has a contract in the Congo to find a source of blue diamonds that can be used as a power source. They are fighting against a consortium of Japanese, Dutch, and German corporations so time is of the essence. When the first team is attacked and killed, possibly by gorillas, Karen Ross, despite her youth, begs to lead the follow-up expedition to not only find the diamonds but find out what really killed the first team. She wins over her boss's objections and also gets him to agree to something a little unconventional. ERTS funds Project Amy, which is a research endeavor by Doctor Peter Elliot to teach a Gorilla, Amy, ASL. She has always been an amazing student until recently when she has started to have nightmares. Nightmares of a place that just happens to be where the ERTS expedition met their fate. Ross has a feeling that Amy is the key to figuring out what happened in the Congo and to beating the consortium. But the location might be the biggest mystery of all. What really happened in the lost city of Zinj all those years ago and what will happen when they reach it?

When my Crichton obsession began in earnest Congo was the elusive Crichton book that I wanted to read more than any other. The only problem was I couldn't find a copy! In the back of one of my other Crichton books I had read a description and seen a grainy image of the cover and I knew deep in my bones that this would be the best book he'd ever written. I JUST KNEW IT! I looked everywhere to find a copy. I trolled the few bookstores in town, all to no avail. Every new town I went to I looked for it in any store that sold books, including drugstores and grocery stores, growing more and more frustrated. Why did my go-to bookstore in Door County have every Crichton book BUT Congo? Then one day, I saw it. Hilldale is a small shopping mall near my house that we went to mainly for groceries and shoes. They had a Walgreen's half way between the two stores. I was wandering the magazine aisle waiting for my mom to finish whatever it was she had come to do and there, on the bottom rack, was Congo. I couldn't believe that after all my searching I had found it in our local drugstore! I spent some time admiring the cover, imagining the story that the inside would tell, and then I dove in, and it was everything I had hoped for.

Of all the books I've picked up to re-read for my Crichton Celebration, this was the one I was most looking forward to. But I knew it had to be at just the right time. Firstly, and most importantly, I had to have a stretch of time where I could read uninterrupted. Once this book was started I knew I wouldn't be able to set it down again. Secondly the atmosphere had to be just right. It wouldn't feel right driving into this book when the view outside my window showed barren trees and a winter bleak landscape. Spring has finally come to Wisconsin and with it green has returned to the world. If I angled myself just right in my reading chair all I could see was verdant green and I could imagine being trapped under the humid canopy of the Congo. The weather played along with my reading plans bringing high humid and torrential rains and as night fell the colors outside my window mimicked the cover of my book and I felt chills. All these years later the mystery was still waiting between the covers for me. I devoured this book at a rapacious speed and sat back fully satisfied with a Crichton book for the first time in a long time.

Even as an over eager teenager Africa held me in it's spell. Growing up my parents ran an art galley and the artist we represented spent many years in Africa and his tales recounted by my father would enrapture me, as long as they weren't about mummies trying to kill me, a perennial favorite of my father's. When I went off to college I took a vast assortment of classes for no other reason then because they looked interesting. One class I was enrolled in was an African History class. While I would eventually drop this class due to an unconscientious TA who looked like Eric Stoltz and lazy teaching, I read a fascinating book on the Congo called King Leopold's Ghost. Sign number one I really didn't belong in that class is I was the only one who enjoyed the book because of it's insights. This book combined with my recent reading of Nelson Mandela's "Autobiography" gave me further insight on this reading of Congo. These two books led to a deeper understanding of the political strife in the book. The fact that the Chinese are a large presence in the book might shock some and was originally overlooked by me, but it's important because they viewed Africa as a place where revolts could lead to emerging countries using Communist ideals in setting up their governments. They helped Mandela's cause strongly, something I don't think many people are aware of.

But it wasn't just a greater sense of the current political strife in 1979 but the precedence of previous conflicts that I was made aware of. Congo is very much an adventure story the likes of which H. Rider Haggard would have written. When Haggard was writing the African continent was just being opened up and explored, and therefore being fought over and divided up by the various European Empires. No one at that time thought of Africa as anything but a big piece of land to be divvied up like a game of Risk. Flash forward a hundred years and it is still happening, but with different players and a faster timeline. The Japanese, the Dutch, and the Germans are trying to outpace the Americans for diamonds. The parallels are uncanny but Crichton doesn't beat us over the head with a stick. When I read this in high school I saw what I wanted to and read a rollicking good adventure. While the adventure is still there, to the older and hopefully wiser person I now am I see that Congo is showing a rape of a continent, mimicking what has been happening for centuries, but at a startlingly rapid rate.

To take this discussion even further, do we think that Africa would be in this state of political upheaval with wars and disease if not for what other countries have been doing for hundreds of years? The number one thing I learned from Mandela's book is that Afrikaners have historically been jackasses. These are people who are descended from Dutch settlers and Apartheid, that was all them. Outsiders destroying Africa. Raping and pillaging, taking diamonds and gold and slaves. Also, encouraging insurrection, handing out guns to every rebel who asks for one. I'm sure if we tried we could fuck up this country even more, but seriously, hasn't the rest of the world done enough? Deforestation, destruction of species, millions dead. I think that's enough. Crichton is able to show how truly horrible our actions are with what Ross does with one small explosion. She is so intent on finding the diamonds she was sent to Africa to find that she inadvertently starts a volcanic eruption that destroys a lost city that has survived for hundreds and hundreds of years right next to that volcano. But more then that she destroys the deadly, but new species of Gorillas! With one move she takes their cultural past, their resources, their wildlife, and their ecosystem. Seriously, how are we to survive with idiots like this in the world, and yes, Ross seriously reminded me of someone I know.

Re-reading so many Crichton books back to back you really start to see the similarities, especially between Jurassic Park and Congo, which both involve intelligent animals that are underestimated and people die because of this. But Congo succeeds on so many more levels then Jurassic Park, even if the Grey Gorillas of Zinj are basically Velociraptor prototypes. The reason Congo works is that it does a better job of keeping the suspense and drawing it right out until the last minute. At the beginning you get a hint of the danger in the Congo to come but it's not till the book is 2/3rds done that they actually make it to the camp site where their co-workers died. Yes, there are plenty of other, more mundane dangers, but they are just place holders for the real dangers, the Gorillas. But the Gorillas are more successful as villains because we have another ape to compare them to in Amy. Damn, I love Amy. Not just her personality, but the form of science she represents with being taught ASL and the deep connection this forms between her and Peter. In the end, nothing mattered except Amy getting a happily ever after, everything else was just extra.


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