Pandora in the Congo

Pandora in the Congo BY Albert Sanchez Pinol. Canongate U.S.. Paperback, 448 pages. $15.

The cover of Pandora in the Congo

Marcus Garvey is not Marcus Garvey. That is, Albert Sánchez Piñol’s Marcus Garvey—half-Balkan servant to two well-heeled, good-for-nothing British brothers and African explorers—resembles the Jamaican black nationalist in name only. The Garvey of Pandora in the Congo is thrown into a London prison just before the Great War, accused of murdering the brothers during their Congolese adventure. His lawyer, Edward Norton, bears no relation to the Fight Club actor. The novel’s narrator, Tommy Thomson, has nothing to do with 2008 presidential candidate Tommy Thompson or with either of Tintin’s detectives. He has been hired by Norton to write a novel based on Garvey’s story of what really happened in Africa, in the hope that such a project might garner so much public attention that Garvey will be freed.

The bulk of Pandora in the Congo is the King Solomon’s Mines–esque adventure of the novel-within-the-novel: the saga of Garvey, the brothers, and scores of exploited or murdered Africans; a gold mine; a journey to the center of the earth; and a strange civilization of tall, pale, combative humanoid underground dwellers. Thomson’s book becomes a best seller, and Garvey, though actually guilty, is released. Thomson, narrating all this sixty years later, remains plagued with doubt and regret: How could he have let himself be duped?

Sánchez Piñol, a Spanish anthropologist and the author of the novel Cold Skin (2005), has created a metafictional genre mash-up that offers not-infrequent lowbrow thrills. But his love of aphorisms grows tiresome regardless of how much fun he’s having ventriloquizing a genre hack: “Letters eventually arrive at their destination, and men to their destiny.” “Hate, like laughter, makes less noise the deeper it is.” The author also sometimes glosses over difficult scene descriptions. The aftermath of a stick of dynamite thrown into a gathering of African villagers is reduced to seven words: “Arms and legs flew. Shouts and moans.” These abbreviated descriptions, coupled with his penchant for grandiose maxims (“One only needs two things in order to kill: the ability and the desire”), drag the adventure down.

It’s also difficult to pay attention when this odd reverse shell game (Marcus Garvey? Really?) plays out on every page. If the borrowed names are being used purposefully, their meanings are ambiguous. Some British reviewers have judged the novel to be postmodern, satiric, and anti-imperialist, but the Garvey/not-Garvey gimmick is more like listening to a protracted joke told by the bastard offspring of Jules Verne and the Eric Idle character Mr. Smoke-Too-Much. It’s not funny. It is, rather, sort of maddening. If I’ve completely missed something clever here, I’d be delighted to learn what it is. In the meantime, I’ll be busy rereading Tintin.