Apocalypse now and then

<i>The Book of the Heathen</i> by Robert Edric (Anchor, &pound;9.99, 351pp)
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The Independent Culture

James Charles Russell Frasier, scion of an illustrious family, wounded war veteran, dispossessed of familiar history and geography, is employed as a map-maker and technical advisor to the Company's enterprises. The year is 1897, the place a quarry in the Belgian Congo. The project in which he and his companions are engaged - the provision of ballast for a railway line - has foundered, giving way to a search for gold, iron and emeralds, facilitated by "unending and cheap" labour.

James Charles Russell Frasier, scion of an illustrious family, wounded war veteran, dispossessed of familiar history and geography, is employed as a map-maker and technical advisor to the Company's enterprises. The year is 1897, the place a quarry in the Belgian Congo. The project in which he and his companions are engaged - the provision of ballast for a railway line - has foundered, giving way to a search for gold, iron and emeralds, facilitated by "unending and cheap" labour.

But The Book of the Heathen isn't Frasier's story. Through the drama of greed, lust for power and human failings he narrates, Frasier divulges little about his past beyond his impressive CV, remaining an observer, until, at the brutal climax, he is finally forced into action. The story he tells in fragments is, in fact, that of the more intrepid and obsessive Nicholas Frere - his great friend and his sister's admirer. With Frere he embarked on this "great enterprise" which, they soon discover, is devoted to "unstoppable profit".

Frere and Frasier take off on forbidden journeys which Frasier painstakingly maps, while Frere's abiding preoccupations guide them. Ostensibly pursuing anthropological artefacts, Frere is really in search of the grisliest ceremony of all: a cannibal feast, in which, if necessary, he confesses he is willing to participate.

Most of this happens before the novel starts. As Frasier begins his intricately patterned reconstruction of events - veering between England and Africa, past and present - Frere is waiting in jail to be tried for the murder of a young "native" girl. His reasons are desultory but they seem to be connected to his fascination with tribal cannibalism. Frasier believes in Frere's innocence; Frere doesn't deny his crime, but there is, in his refusals to speak and his discontinuous account of his journey, an ambivalence that fuels Frasier's convictions and his desire for redemptive justice.

We learn that Frere's real involvement in the killing demands of him a moral complexity that Frasier, his champion, has never imagined. Frere, cold, detached, willing to admit his complicity in more than one ambiguous undertaking, perceives Frasier as the Victorian liberal who always sees the best in men. Yet, through the events that lead to his trial, Frere depends on Frasier's friendship and faith to help him face his accusers.

One of Robert Edric's achievements in a precise and compelling (though somewhat overlong) novel is to maintain a relentless hold on the reader's interest, even as evidence of Frere's "guilt" piles up. He marshalls a number of devices to serve suspense, most important the lost pages of one of Frere's journals, which contains his own version of events. But the conclusion comes with an unexpected impact, all the more shocking for the impassivity of Frere's first-person account.

The Book of the Heathen is a difficult novel to summarise. It is, on one level, reminiscent of the events in the 19th-century Congo that inspired Simon Gray's 1978 play The Rear Column. And it restages many of the concerns - colonial military and economic exploitation - of Conrad's century-old Heart of Darkness.

Edric deploys a host of minor players to voice various aspects of the "great enterprise". There's Hammad, the vaguely Arab slave trader, whom the Belgian authorities humour and encourage, and other stock caricatures from Imperial fictions; Klein (whose name and presence remind us of Conrad's Kurtz); a priest with a bizarre sense of religion and a harem of African "nuns" who is, in his own way, as barbaric as Hammad; and Senior Quartermaster Cornelius, in search of his lost African wife and daughter.

But the novel isn't just a modish reworking of Conrad. On another, more subversive level, it's a fable about versions of truth and moral responsibility. It uncovers, without attempting to romanticise, the primitive nature of jungle rituals and the savage complicity of "civilised" enterprises in upholding the very forms of exploitation that, in the name of progress, they decry. It also belongs to a very British tradition: the mapping of non-Europe as a nightmare world in which the European psyche confronts its own dark madness. The natives are merely blots on the landscape.

Aamer Hussein's 'This Other Salt' is published by Saqi Books

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