Monday, June 8, 2015

The Real Monsters

"What is the cause of man's inhumanity to man? Desensitization. The numbness of the perpetrator. Whether an activity produces pleasure, pain, discomfort, guilt, joy, triumph-- before too long the soul grows tired and stops feeling. It doesn't take long. Not too long at all, and then man becomes the devil, he laughs at his former scruples, he enslaves and tortures without compunction." 

As far as I know it all starts with Joseph Conrad, Africa forever and ever being contemplated as a heart of darkness. Its territory might be well mapped and colonialism finished and slavery (mostly) eradicated, in literature, at least, Africa continues to be represented as a kind of Wild West where adventurers, knaves, and plunderers thrive in the absence of law, order, and justice. Once it was human chattel, then precious metals like gold and diamonds, and lately, it is petroleum and other energy sources sought after by unscrupulous Chinese and terrorists. The great powers have long thrived treating Africans as pawns in the chessboard of diplomacy, not caring so much when pawns get knocked off or their land exploited or destroyed. Often in these stories our hero is the anti-sort, neither heroic nor monstrous, but with some compromised morals being tested by greed, mayhem, and slaughter.
Some of the better books I've read in this motif are Norman Rush's Mating and Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter. Denis Johnson's The Laughing Monsters will not be among my favorites. It's about a 30-something adventurer, Roland Nair, who comes to Freetown, Sierra Leone to meet a friend named Michael Adriko, an African who had served in various African armies as well as American military units. Nair works for the N.I.I.A., the Nato Intelligence Interoperability Architecture, which sounds more bureaucratic than mercenary. Like any rough type making do in hell, he gets sloshed and cavorts with prostitutes. Adriko is on his fifth fiancĂ©e, Davidia, a black American beauty whose dad happens to be Adriko's commanding officer from the base he's gone AWOL from. Anyway, Adriko has some get-rich-quick information that's not forthcoming, stringing along an increasingly frustrated Nair, who has his own game going with some info on a US fiber optics cache location that he might or might not sell to an Arab named Hamid, who is probably not one of the good guys.

Speaking of good guys, Nair isn't one of them. He might be our voice in the novel, but there is nothing redeeming about him. He isn't charming, compassionate, sympathetic-- although that might be purposeful, as the true hero might be Michael Adriko, who is mysterious, charming, wily, and though he might be as corrupt or self-serving as Nair, he is, at least, a little bit likable. But corruption wears many faces and an epigrammatic con artist is still a crook. Adriko leads both Nair and Davidia on in a ruse to get them from Sierra Leone to the hinterlands of the Uganda-Congo border to meet his clan (Congo: now we're in genuine Heart of Darkness territory). There are other evil dudes fishing for money in the pot, leading to conflicts, shootouts, getaways-- Adriko runs over an African peasant on a hilltop road, blaming her for not watching the road more carefully. What's another life in Africa, even to an educated African?

Denis Johnson makes the point that this story centers on the shadowy world of post-9/11 scheming: "We talk about how the world has changed since the Twin Towers went down. I think you could easily say the part that's changed the most is the world of intelligence, security, and defense. The world powers are dumping their coffers into an expanded version of the old Great Game. The money's simply without limit, and plenty of it goes for snitching and spying. In that field, there's no recession." But there have always been types like Nair and Adriko, self-serving buccaneers with no loyalties and many frenemies.

Things get pretty messy and ugly in The Laughing Monsters (the title refers to some terrible mountains in remote Congo). Nair and Adriko are captured, interrogated, and then left to die in the jungle, where the novel gets really bizarre, into something so horrific that it seems more waking nightmare than a fight for survival. They end up in a village run by an obese witch-queen named La Dolce, who wears "a buzz-cut Afro on her hippopotamus head, eyes leaping from the sockets and eyelids like birds' beaks closing over them-- her mouth is tiny and round, but it opens to shocking hugeness, displaying many square white teeth." The groundwater is toxic, the peasants are starving, old men have no teeth, children are emaciated and dying and La Dolce is pronouncing this or that drivel while Adriko brandishes a machete and Nair pens sloppy letters to Davidia and an ex-girlfriend. By now, most readers will hardly care whether Nair and Adriko survive yet another quagmire and the climax thus feels more incoherent than terrifying. If I were to tell you (disappointingly) that the ending is a happy one, what would you think I mean? 

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