There’s something irresistible about the deep-green, gold embossed and unashamedly naked (no dust-jacket) cover with its ghost-white hero gasping from a black jungle, cartoon rips in his clothing and literally gleaming (if you wiggle it a little under a light) jewels in his outstretched hand. It may not be quite in the class of Michael Chabon’s Gentleman of the Road – which has a yellowing map inside and an illustration for every chapter – but there is a similar expectation of pulp thrills accompanied with post-modern knowing, a guilty pleasure which still allows the reader to feel clever.
The first example of this knowingness is the choice of narrator, Thomas Thomson, a writer whose career begins when he is given the chance to ghost write for Doctor Luthor Flag – who, of course, specialises in pulp adventures set in Africa. Thomson is given an outline from which he writes – not from Flag himself, but from Frank Strub, another of Flag’s ghost writers. When Strub dies, Thomson discovers that the outlines were reaching him via another two ghost writers (also newly deceased – a coincidence that seems like the beginning of a mystery but is never explained). An attempt to speak to Flag directly at the funeral misfires, but it is there that he meets Edward Norton, a lawyer who wishes him to write the story of his client, Marcus Garvey, who is currently awaiting trial for the murder of Richard and William Craver in the Congo in 1912. Norton hopes that by fictionalising Garvey’s version of events (the modern equivalent would be a televised docu-drama) he can save him:
“It’s not looking good for him….The evidence points to him. And worst of all, the victims weren’t just any two ordinary men. They were the sons of the Duke of Craver.”
Thomson visits Garvey in prison and, from what he tells him, builds a narrative that crosses genres from jungle adventure to science fiction when, at the same time as discovering gold, the Cravers also come upon an underground race, the Tectons. The Tectons are basically human, but with some differences:
“He had a skull a bit more pointy than ours, like the mummies in Peru….His face was full of angles and corners, bringing to mind a chiselled diamond.”
They also have six fingers on each hand. Initially only one Tecton appears, and the brothers respond by treating him as an African: they remove his clothing and tie him up. The first Tecton escapes, but soon a second appears, a woman, Amgam, only to meet similar treatment, though this time she is tied up in William’s tent, presumably to be raped. Eventually, of course, more Tectons appear and attack the camp. These Tectons come to take what they can, regardless of the cost:
“Human life didn’t exist for those Tectons….They saw only objects.”
When they find an African tied up as a punishment, they pull of his fingers and toes with pliers. The parallels between the Tectons and the European colonist are made explicit:
“The white men always do the same thing. First the missionaries arrive and threaten hell. Then, the merchants come and steal everything. Then, the soldiers.”
The brothers manage to fight off the unarmed merchants but they now await the soldiers. They cannot leave because their greed for gold, and arrogance, prevents them.
Pinol reminds us throughout that we are not simply reading Garvey’s story, but Thomson’s recollections of writing that story. There are in fact three novels called Pandora in the Congo: the one Thomson wrote for Doctor Flag, the one that tells of Garvey’s adventures, and the one we are reading. In that, Thomson himself is a fully rounded character, and we also find a layer of comedy created by his landlady and her Welsh lodger, and his editor at the Times of Britain. The intervention of the First World War also throws up interesting parallels:
“Their masks had enormous round glass eyes. The helmets and the masks covered their heads and turned them into creatures closer to insects than humans. They could have been Martians as easily as Germans.”
Here we see one of the novel’s main concerns: how quick we are to believe in the otherness of the enemy, or in the enmity of the other. It is Thomson’s belief in the Tectons that influences the public’s belief, and he is convinced to he point that he believes himself to be in love with Amgam.
Unlike the novel that Thomson writes, this will not change the world, or even the fate of one individual. However, it is great fun, everything has a rational explanation (to a point), and it may provoke a thought or two along the way.