Thursday, July 27

Facing the Congo:
A Modern-Day Journey into the Heart of Darkness

It's funny that Bryan just completed Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, for I have just finished Jeffrey Tayler's Facing the Congo. Bryson's book is about his attempt to hike the 2,100 miles of Appalachian Trail between Georgia and Maine, while Tayler's book chronicles his attempt to become the first man since Henry Stanley in the mid-19th century to travel the length of the Congo River between Kinsangani and Kinshasa.

In some ways Tayler is the anti-Bryson, filling his prose with sober, severe language and almost never even cracking a smile. On the other hand, Bryson doesn't make trips that force him to be confronted with Mobutu's treacherous military men, the threat (real or imagined) of cannibals, or the dangerous desperation of otherwise decent people.

One wonders whether Tayler would have even made it safely from Brazzaville to his boat journey's starting point in Kinsangani had he not mysteriously won the admiration and assistance of one of Mobutu's colonels. The Colonel, a corrupt fellow like any other of Mobutu's officers, asks for nothing in exchange for providing Tayler with safe passage on his barge. It seems as though the Colonel is amused by Tayler's presence, not only because he is about to embark on an insane quest, but because he is a white man whose aim does not include the economic pillaging of the Congolese.

Though Tayler was not traveling along the Congo to exploit the riches of its natural resources, as I read the book I could not help but think there was still something rather off-putting about an American writer making this superfluous voyage through a country ravaged by colonialism, civil war, Mobutu, starvation, malaria and the continued crippling economic effects of the white world's exploitation. At one point during a particularly hopeless portion of the trip, Tayler acknowledges my concern: "I found myself stung by my failure and trying to deny what I would later come to see as obvious: that I had exploited Zaire as a playground on which to solve my own rich-boy existential dilemma."

Issues of propriety aside, the book is well written and contains several passages that rank amongst the most gripping I've ever read. I recommend this book, and not just to fans of travel literature. Tayler does a decent job of outlining some of the issues facing Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) during the late 90's, but I think he falls short when he is so focused on the completion of his journey that he fails to develop a strong relationship with his African traveling partners. But, given the stress of his trip, it's hard to be too critical of the man's social skills, and perhaps I should only praise him for making it home alive--no matter how frivolous his journey was.

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