Pandora in the Congo, by Albert Sánchez Piñol, trans. Mara Faye Lethem

A book of dangerous boys

Michael Eaude
Friday 16 May 2008 00:00 BST

Albert Sánchez Piñol's second novel is an action-packed adventure story in the best Rider Haggard tradition. It is also a parody of such novels and a sophisticated reflection on the imaginative power of literature. More complex than Cold Skin, the Catalan author's novel of terror on an Antarctic island, it shares a nightmarish closed space where the protagonists face the attacks of non-human assailants. What they really face is their own fear.

Here the closed space is a clearing in remotest jungle where the aristocratic Craver brothers, fleeing disgrace in England, seek their fortunes in a gold mine. As the mine deepens, first a strange half-human woman they call Amgam emerges, and is at once enslaved as a sexual object by the Cravers. Then masses of Tectons, as they name the underground creatures, pour out of tunnels to attack them. Only Marcus, the gypsy servant, gets out of the jungle to tell the story.

Marcus (on the testimony of Roger Casement – one of several excellent minor characters) is accused of murdering the Cravers and imprisoned in London. Tommy Thomson, a ghost-writer with literary aspirations, is hired by his lawyer to interview Marcus and, by writing his incredible story, save him from the gallows.

This is a fantastic story in the style of Jules Verne, but less innocently told. Sánchez Piñol daringly mixes genres. Pandora in the Congo is both adventure novel and anti-imperialist satire splashed with dark humour. It is a detective novel, too, in which Tommy is digging for the truth. And it is a meta-literary game of mirrors, with several characters offering various views of what really happened in the Congo. It is also an exploration of the heart of darkness, in which the dark heart lies in the adventurers from England.

As the novel shifts in focus, Tommy and First World War London move to the fore. Tommy lives the adventure story so intensely, he falls in love with the fictional Amgam. He is seduced by literature. Real hell and love are closer to home, on the Western Front and in his richly comic boarding-house.

Interest flags in the middle, but the end is as good and surprising as the lively beginning. Sánchez Piñol's originality lies in his themes and excellently structured plot, not in any linguistic fireworks. This is an impressive and most unusual novel.

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