Pandora in the Congo, By Albert Sánchez Piñoltrs Mara Faye Lethem

'Boys' Own' meets Dave Eggers in this dizzying, moustachioed yarn

Reviewed,Christian House
Sunday 27 April 2008 00:00 BST

It's no surprise that in these confused metro-sexual times a resistant force should be celebrating the kind of manly yarns mastered by Victorian and Edwardian popular novelists. The fatalistic trajectories of military endeavours and grand expeditions have gripped a new brace of writers. The late, lamented George MacDonald Fraser may have headed off to the great barracks in the sky but plenty, from Mark Gatiss to James Delingpole, have picked up the regimental colours and stood their ground. It's back to the days of mutton-chop whiskers and billiard-room brawls, when men were men and women learnt needlepoint.

Front of ranks is Albert Sánchez Piñol whose wonderfully spooky debut novel Cold Skin was an icy tour de force. For his follow up, Pandora in the Congo, he shifts his focus from the Antarctic wastelands to the jungles of central Africa; the action playing out as the world caves in to the madness of the Great War.

Marcus Garvey (not the Marcus Garvey, Piñol likes to play around with famous names) is the half-Balkan, half-English manservant attending William and Richard Craver. The Cravers are the spoilt, malevolent offspring of one of the army's greatest heroes. They aimlessly lounge in the shadow of their father's fame until William, the cleverer and more callous of the pair, devises a plan to mine the undiscovered depths of the Congo. Marcus is cajoled into helping them through the inner capillaries of the heart of darkness, all the way "to a latitude empty of men".

The author succeeds in detailing an environment oppressive enough to disintegrate body and soul. "Imagine a surface as large as England, France and Spain put together. Now imagine that entire surface covered with trees between 20 and 200 feet high. And below the trees, nothing." Unfortunately, there is something out there. A whole breed of something, underfoot and unhappy at having Craver's slaves dig up its territory.

What follows illustrates how a blend of goodness, evil, bravery and cowardice runs through all humanity like a seam of gold: glittering, natural and with the propensity for both salvation and damnation. The suspense and revolver-blasting battles are all perfectly handled. However, Piñol has further ambitions with this book. Marcus's story is told through Tommy Thomson, a ghost-writer taking down the testimony of the unfortunate servant as he awaits trial for the murder of both Cravers and the telling of the tale is as important as the result. There is a contemporary intelligence at play in this writing. To a bouillabaisse of H Rider Haggard Piñol adds a dash of Dave Eggers.

Tommy is told that this is "one of those stories that makes us doubt everything". Readers leave this book equally dizzy, unsure whether this was a tale of derring-do, an indictment of Empire's sins or a cunning commentary on authorial deceit. A literary dynamite charge, it's raucous and leaves everything shaken up.

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