Ronan Bennett takes us to the Belgian Congo during the struggle for independence in 1959. His present tense, first person narrative about James, the bemused lover, and Ines, the object of his pursuit, draws dark lines of detail and fills in with splashes of color. Both characters are writers: James is apolitical and Ines is passionately involved.
Keeping the main narrative in present tense, Bennett explores flashbacks in simple past. He uses experimental language, torquing the words for new meanings: She exists me.
James and Ines are at a garden party when, across the river, whites retaliate for a stone-throwing riot. Bullets fell several insurgents as the colonials continue their tennis match, their black servants equally indifferent. James sees a corpse floating in the river among the water hyacinths. Black soldiers throw in several more bodies. Waterskiers cruise by for a better look. James senses he is losing Ines to her ideals. “But I will not give up. . . .When disillusion sets in I will still be here for her.”
Bennett stacks up all the characters and conflicts, and then he knocks them tumbling in a climax. His fatalist of the title walks a tightrope between life and death. A clown can become a hero, and a leader a martyr. Today when the president of the Congo is rumored to have been assassinated, this troubled African nation still struggles to find a leader.