on 30 November 2012
Like many people, I kind of 'knew' the Congo: Heart of Darkness, and the horrors of the Belgian Congo, right? What I hadn't realised was what a mess it still was, and to get a sense of the scale of the potential and the waste. I'm not a big fan of travel writing, and this suffers from some of the usual cliches and ticks of the genre: the fact that a lot of travel is essential dull (how much more can you say about travelling huge distances by canoe/motorbike?), punctuated by humbling moments of epiphany. What saves this book is the history that interweaves the travel, the context, and the sense of perspective it gives. I hadn't realised that the Congo itself was so unnavigable at the moment: this made me aware of the shocking chaos - which can only get worse before it gets better, with the recent news...
on 25 September 2015
Three stars is in response to the overwhelming positive reception of this book as much as it is of the quality of it.
As a preparatory travel guide of the Congo this is quite an informative read. Indeed, the primary asset of this book is the tonal information.
Tim Butcher's writing style is generally mechanical and I found that his feigning-passion to be flair's antithesis. This would not be a criticism if I were commenting on a newspaper article -- where I would appreciate objective observation. But in the case of Blood River I felt disappointingly underwhelmed. For here is an account of a man who -- against all odds -- traversed one of the world's most precarious rivers and yet was seemingly only moved superficially; his physical journey had not stirred a comparable inner-journey, or if it had he refrained from sharing it in the book. Perhaps this lack of personal revelation is due to Tim Butcher's trip intentionally being an imitation of Henry Morton Stanley's 1880s expedition.
...as I'm writing this review I'm wondering if I'm being overly critical...but, no...the number of times he goes into trivial details of how he got official permissions and visas and the like, and the triviality of his sanitation etc but never properly raised-up the spirit of the common Congolese people is demonstration enough of the state of mind that accents this book...the clue is in the title, I suppose.
on 16 March 2008
As a fan of writers like Jonathan Raban and Simon Winchester, who weave historical narrative into their own personal quests and journeys, I sent for Blood River after catching the tail end of a radio interview in which Tim Butcher described the various strands which run in parallel through his book.
I found it a compelling and satisfying read. There is the central account of the author's apparently impulsive decision to travel, against all advice, through the Republic of Congo in the first place, while it is in an on/off state of civil war; the lives of the equally intrepid Victorian adventurers who went before him; and as backdrop, the grindingly bleak and heartbreaking history of colonial, post colonial and present-day Congo. Three stories for the price of one - four if you count the heavy-hearted journey through the Congo in the late 1950's, after disappointment in love, of the author's mother.
Butcher's prose style, as you'd expect from a seasoned journalist, is crisp, economical and forward-flowing; but he is not afraid to share his vulnerabilities and his (abundantly justified) fear of what might easily have lain ahead at any point on the journey - `objective dangers', as he calls them, over which he had little control. I warmed to him for that, and for his empathy towards the ordinary Congolese he encounters: for me, they are the heroes of the story, helpless victims of an endless cycle of exploitation, violence and political bankruptcy.
Blood River is a gripping story well told; but beyond that, unlike some have-the-adventure-to-write-the-book yarns, it is highly relevant and by rights should tweak the conscience of those of us in the developed world who looked the other way.
on 1 January 2014
I very much liked the style of the book, mixing historical facts, cultural observation and social commentary with the author's personal experience and emotional reactions to what he experienced on his mammoth task. It is very well written, not at all patronising or superior, and expert without being alienating.
on 25 September 2013
This book is about Tim Butcher's daring 2500 kilometre trip westward down the Congo in 2004, retracing Stanley's epic journey in 1874-1876. One might call it foolhardy, but I was inspired by his willingness to risk everything, viewed against our Western safety and aversion to danger. Without repeating details covered in other reviews, I found the book well constructed, with a journalist's precision, juxtaposing the day's events against Stanley's adventures, the backdrop of colonial exploitation, and poignant mentions of his mother's time in the Congo. The book also rings true for me personally,growing up ten miles form the Congo border, and witnessing the flow of white refugees in 1960, and the fear and dread of collapse.
I entitle my review "apocalypse" because that's what it has been for the Congo, and Butcher amply brings this out in his description of villages with no vestiges of Western products, the discovery of a railway line reclaimed by the forest, redolent of Planet of the Apes, and disappeared highways. You are back with elemental man, exploited by those in power under a cynical government, rampant corruption, and within this, a range of responses, from tribesmen making macabre thoat cutting gestures, to human kindness and honour. Butcher's reportage is powerful and real,he describes his fears, and his respect and care for individual Africans.
The carnage, the biggest war measured in deaths since World War 2,(given scant attention by the world at large, begs for explanation, and Butcher does not shirk this; savage colonial expoitation, cynical manipilation by the USA and Belgium after independence leading to the murder of Lumumba,a kleptocracy under Mobuto with the support of Western mining interests,invasion and exploitation by local African countries. I agree with Butcher when he speaks of "sovereignty" taken from African people by colonialists, and that this needs to be returned, through democracy and respect. I do not fully agree with his emphasis when he extends his conclusions about the Congo to the rest of Africa, wondering how Malaysia has done well while "the people of Africa have not been capable of working together to reign in the excesses of dictators". I think we would need a more careful analysis of this, including the fact that most African states were patched together with disparate peoples, and conversely the hopeful sighs that democracy and economic activity in Africa are both growing.
An excellent book by a brave man.
on 5 August 2013
Whilst perhaps unsure about the validity of Butcher's motives to visit the Congo, this is still an entertaining introduction to the problems of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the wider Central Africa region.
The breadth of travel within the Congo by Butcher, retracing Stanley's footsteps, enables him to seamlessly merge the fascinating and often brutal history of the region through which he is passing with his own observations. This, coupled with the nature of the place he is visiting, makes the book a very interesting, if not riveting, account of his adventures.
However, far too much of the book is wasted on Butcher pondering over his own thoughts, though given that he describes the trip as 'ordeal travel', this is perhaps understandable.
This by no means a light-hearted read, and I believe Butcher's time as a journalist may have created a slightly forced writing style that errs on the side of overly-analytical as opposed to entertaining, but then again, it could be argued that this is perfect for the subject matter- the greatest untamed land in the world.
His comments about the wildlife he saw (or rather didn't see) is a great insight into the bush-meat trade and ecological issues faced by the Congo basin, however more detail on this would have rounded off an excellent book.
Ultimately, however, this is a very good book about a sensitive area of the world that never sways of its course. As an introduction to the Congo it is invaluable, and the conclusion is superb, illustrating perfectly the issues faced by the Congo.
A worthy and excellent read, authored by a brave man.
on 4 July 2010
I visited the DRC six times between 2001-2004, half my visits were to the rebel held east. I didn't spend the night out of town, except for a few days on the island of Idjwi in Lake Kivu. Rebel activity, robbery, and murder were too high a risk.
Tim Butcher spends several weeks in very dangerous country in eastern DRC in 2004, he travels pillion on a motor bike, by UN boat, dugout canoe.... The book has a good brief history of the Congo as the journey progresses, and also gives an insight into the parlous state of the country nowadays. Well written, exciting, bleak, witty and full of nice portraits of Congolese he meets- and who help him make the journey possible.
I didn't like the sound of this book at first, thinking it was an example of macho adventure tourism but I am pleased to say that I was mistaken.
It's true that the author at the outset is driven by a seemingly hubristic ambition: to be the first man (or white man at any rate) to traverse the length of the Congo River since the Victorian explorer Henry Morton Stanley's 1876-77 expedition, which sounds like the sort of thing only a egomaniac with a death wish would undertake. But Butcher is a sober character who carefully assessed and measured the risks beforehand. He could not ultimately have accomplished his feat without the assistance of Congolese on the ground and he accords them the credit due. The snide uttered by one reviewer that the author used dollars the way Stanley used brute force to secure compliance from the locals is ridiculous. Apart from the fact that the author never carried any weapons during the trip, the remark omits to mention that his motorcycle drivers who assisted the author with the first leg refused payment, out of professional pride. Otherwise he did what all journalists do if they want to get close to the ground, using local guides and fixers, entirely legitimate means to go about their trade. There is nothing amiss about that.
By Butcher's own admission, this was an example of ordeal rather than adventure travel but the details of the hardship he experienced are not overdone. They offer you a vivid sense of what it was actually like to do the trip. We don't just get a lucid impression of the hardships of the journey but also the land in which he travels and of the people he meets there. The DRC is the heart of Africa and the Congo River is at the heart of the DRC. And what the river could do for the DRC - stimulating trade commerce and wealth creation - the rest of the DRC could likewise do for Africa. The DRC however is not the beating heart of Africa because the river is the DRC's lifeless heart. This is more than just figurative. Much of the fauna along the river's route has been killed and eaten by desperate locals. There is an eerie silence along the many tracks and paths near the river on which humans travel.
What the author discovers along his travels on the river is the baleful legacy of decades of colonialism, followed by the misrule of corrupt, violent and rapacious local elites since independence in 1960, with the interference of outsiders thrown in for good measure. The author writes, on discovering a railway track that has almost been engulfed by the jungle, that he realised that he was travelling in a country with more of a past than a future, `a place where the hands of the clock spin not forwards, but backwards' (p. 249). The DRC is in free fall to year zero.
There is no light pollution among the Congolese villages. No coke cans or plastic bags litter the banks of the Congo's shore. But this is no idyll. Life is not just hard but hellish. It is hellish not because of the lack of basic facilities but the absence of a proper functioning state. This is what anarchy looks like. Not so much the war of all against all but the war of the strong against the weak, a one-sided conflict if there ever was one. The DRC is for all intents and purposes a country in name only. It is an arena for various warlords and strongmen and their armed retinues to kill, rob and loot. Not only are the people of Congo helpless before their own predatory compatriots, they are also helpless to withstand the assaults of neighboring countries. Until the underlying problems of a lack of accountability and the rule of law are resolved, no amount of money can solve the country's problems. This does not mean that the human spirit is extinguished in the DRC. He salutes the numerous examples of people he meets who have to undertake extraordinary feats just to survive. But they cannot thrive in such circumstances. Those in rich countries who gripe about government ought to read this book and see what the alternative looks like.
But why have such institutions failed to take root? Colonialism cannot be the full answer. It is true that Congo suffered particularly badly from an especially rapacious form of colonial asset stripping in the first decades of Belgian rule. Perhaps 3 million died in conditions of slave labour during the time the then Congo was the personal property of King Leopold. But Asian nations such as South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, India, Malaysia and Vietnam have managed to thrive or at least progress in the decades since throwing off colonial rule. But Africa by and large has regressed.
This is a disturbing truth for which there is no easy answer - it is in part the essence of the mystery that is the dark heart of the continent. Butcher offers no easy answers either but this book, combining travelogue with political and social analysis, is to be commended for bringing the reality of tens of millions of Congolese to the attention of a broad readership, a reality that we in the West, at least in part, have helped to create.
on 29 October 2010
for anyone with a passing interest in Africa and its mistreatment over the centuries by the European powers...and if anyone asks why this is relevant one might argue that today's issues around Imperialism stem from history repeating itself. My interest in Imperialist History was first piqued when I was doing my MA. My focus then was South Africa and the Boer War, until I picked up a copy of Africa and the Victorians to get more information on more topics...
Oh, a second reason why it might be relevant. It is very easy to construct an argument that the Imperial policies of European countries pretty much led to World War 1 (I would certainly argue it)...maybe the millions of dead in that conflict might wonder why it was relevant..
On to the book - which even without the appalling history of Congo would be amazing in its own right - Butcher (who has a HUGE pair clearly) decides to recreate the journey of Stanley down the Congo river. This, not exactly safe or easy feat, forms the backdrop to the exploration of the history of the Congo and the legacy of the white man.......It is not an easy read and may well invoke feelings of inarticulate rage in the reader (it did in me), but it is a stunning piece of work and deserves to be seared into the mind of people in the 21st Century.
on 29 August 2015
A very depressing book - would we expect anything else? - which really boils down to a list of encounters with mosquitoes, mud, and a people curiously obsessed with money in a place where paper currency has lost its meaning. There is very little here that doesn't reinforce the stereotype of Africa as a hopeless continent mired in violence, corruption, and bureaucratic foolishness.
While the author seems to draw comfort from the fact that many - even most - of the Congolese he meets are honest, decent people, I find this makes the whole story even more unpleasant. The majority silently accept their lot, and develop a kind of twilight-zone life that revolves around the certain knowledge of criminals stealing and killing at regular intervals.
The book left me with a sense of general anger: the immense amounts of aid money sloshing into Africa might profitably pay for a million-strong police force, staffed by honest and capable men. This is the one thing this benighted place desperately needs, so that the ordinary village-dweller can know for sure that the trees or vegetables he plants today will not be torn up tomorrow by feral humans tomorrow, or that the money he earns from them will not be leached away by idle authority figures.