Congolese rebel militia in 2012. Photo: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty
Show Hide image

Journey into fear: Denis Johnson's violent vision of Africa is hollow - and false

The Laughing Monsters has no tension - this is a sour, overwrought novel which fills a continent with cheap laughs and cardboard villians.

The Laughing Monsters
Denis Johnson
Harvill Secker, 228pp, £12.99

Take Graham Greene at his most world-weary or Evelyn Waugh at the extremes of his cackling wickedness – and they still come across as more hopeful than Denis Johnson in his new novel, The Laughing Monsters. This is the latest work by an American novelist acclaimed for ecstatic, lyrically violent stories about crazed men and women in crazy situations (as with his best-known works, the short-story collection Jesus’ Son and the National Book Award-winning Vietnam war epic Tree of Smoke). In The Laughing Monsters, Johnson recalls Greene’s Heart of the Matter and Waugh’s Scoop. He has written a novel that treats calamities, chaos and absurdity
as the baseline of life in Africa, as experienced by various westerners moving through the continent.

Within this tumult, Greene and Waugh could at least identify characters motivated by good intentions, or hapless characters worthy of pity, or sinister characters who were still capable of some kindness and mercy. Johnson, however, focuses fully on those whose basic and governing nihilism is relieved only by their lust for money, power and sex, which feed the empty beast all the more. If nothing else, The Laughing Monsters is a perfectly titled book.

Narrated with an unstinting swagger by Roland Nair – a half-Scandinavian, half-American intelligence agent and military contractor for hire – the novel follows his dangerous involvement in murky dealings in Sierra Leone, Uganda, Congo and elsewhere. In every instance, Nair both collaborates with and conducts surveillance on a fellow agent and contractor, a young African man named Michael Adriko. The two men know each other from intersecting stints with Nato and the US forces in Afghanistan, years earlier.

After they are reunited in Africa, Adriko approaches Nair with a cynical offer, based on the former’s confident view that contemporary Africa is a combustible mash-up of western military and local interests. In other words, it’s a place ripe for canny mercenaries to get decadent quick. And so Adriko promises Nair that if he helps him with a black-market uranium deal involving Israeli agents, Nair will be rewarded with far more than filthy lucre alone:

“You’ll live like a king. A compound by the beach. Fifty men with AKs to guard you. The villagers come to you for everything. They bring their daughters, twelve years old – virgins, Nair, no Aids from these girls. You’ll have a new one every night. Five hundred men in your militia. You know you want it . . . All just for you, Nair! We want it. That’s what we want. And you know it’s here. There’s no place else on earth where we can have it.”

Beyond his shrugging interest in Adriko’s promised payout, which is in keeping with his shrugging penchant for hard drink and for picking up mechanically alluring prostitutes by the poolside of Freetown hotels, Nair reasons that working with Adriko will allow him to report on Adriko’s activities to the Nato intelligence office for which he is currently freelancing. We learn that the office co-operates with US military intelligence in Africa, which in turn has an interest in Adriko, not least because he ran away with a US military base commander’s daughter. Beautiful and blithe, this woman catches Nair’s eye as well, even though he conducts an email romance with a Nato co-worker based in Amsterdam throughout the book. Adriko plans to wed her in an elaborate ceremony in his Ugandan village, with Nair invited to attend – that is, after the deal goes down.

If this sounds convoluted, wait until the deal goes bad: gunfire and bloodshed ensue; Nair, Adriko and Adriko’s fiancée abscond and are captured by the Congolese military, who imprison them in an open-air facility that is full of local men and women detained under any number of sketchy charges. Nair gets out, following some
mutual interrogation with visiting US military officials.

From them, he receives a renewed order to spy on Adriko (who has sweet-talked his way out of the prison), only then to get mixed up with a clownishly tyrannical village matriarch, some unflappable Christian missionaries and anonymous NGO workers in extremely clean SUVs. Eventually, Nair has a more direct confrontation with Adriko, who is now completely unhinged and wielding a machete, which only gives way to more bedlam and still more bedlam after that.

Beyond the picaresque pandemonium of its action, the book is full of spy and tech jargon and obscure references to people, places and events from Nair’s and Adriko’s past and parallel lives outside this African misadventure. It’s all a mess: both Africa as the novel conjures it and the novel itself. No doubt a case can be made that the telling of this tale has to be like this in order to be true to the place and the people it reveals. There’s a grad-student profundity to that possibility but little more than that.

Some relief can be found from the novel’s muddle, here and there, in the sort of brilliantly strange and beguiling prose pictures that Johnson has long been known for. Nair tells us that following a sudden storm that drowned out the noise of the teeming life outside his hotel room, “The creatures had resumed, the bugs that chimed like porcelain, frogs that belched like drunkards, and now more frogs, snorting like pigs.” And, in the middle of another storm, Nair describes how: “Michael and I stood under the awning of a cycle shop, trying to carve a plan out of the rain.”

But it is neither here nor there whether the plan works out or not. In thought, word and deed, Nair tells us that nothing really matters, in a place such as Africa, except staying alive if you’re native and staying alive and getting rich and powerful if you’re a foreigner.

In Johnson’s better books, never mind Waugh’s and Greene’s, characters too much given to romantic nihilism are matched – and, now and then, bested – by those who are capable of opposing views and more humane motives. There is no comparable clash or tension to be found in this sour, overwrought novel, which ends with Nair getting out of the latest fix, ready for the next chance of gaining power and money: opportunities that abound in an Africa full of cheap laughter and cardboard monsters.

Randy Boyagoda’s novels include “Beggar’s Feast” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 06 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Islamic is Islamic State?

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Standing up to China’s censors: an attempt to delete history backfires

For years now, the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square.

At the time, the massacre in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing on the night of 3 June 1989 was the worst thing I’d ever seen. In front of the Beijing Hotel, where my camera team and I took refuge after we’d escaped from the square itself, I counted 40 people killed or wounded by soldiers of the Chinese army. A photographer who was standing on the next balcony to ours was shot dead when the gunner of a passing tank casually sprayed the hotel with machine-gun bullets.

During the previous three weeks I had spent almost every day in the square, making friends with dozens of students who were demonstrating there. How many of them were killed that night I have never been able to find out. It’s not the kind of thing you can easily forgive or forget. 

For years now the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square that night. This may or may not be literally true, though I saw for myself the bullet-scars on the stone steps of the monument in the middle of the square before they were repaired, so it probably isn’t. But this is just playing with words; the real killing fields were the avenues leading away from Tiananmen Square, such as Chang’an Avenue, which runs past the Beijing Hotel. The implication of the official line is that the massacre was simply invented by the western media. Fake news. Sad.

Tiananmen paralysed China for an entire month, and damaged its relations with the outside world for years. Even today, more than a quarter-century later, it retains its intense toxicity. A Chinese newspaper journalist I know got into trouble for referring to it as a “tragedy”; if you have to refer to it, you must call it simply “the Tiananmen events” – but it’s better not to mention it at all.

It was bad enough in what now seems with hindsight like the liberal, benevolent reign of Hu Jintao. Since 2012, when Xi Jinping came to power and introduced an increasingly ferocious crackdown on dissent, every official throughout the vast Chinese system is aware of the urgent need to keep away from sensitive subjects: not just Tiananmen, but the Cultural Revolution, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Which is how, earlier this month, a Chinese import agency came into conflict with the oldest publishing house anywhere, over the world’s best and most respected journal of Chinese studies. The China Quarterly, double-blind and peer-reviewed, is owned by the School of Oriental and African Studies, but Cambridge University Press publishes it. The Quarterly’s website of course carries many articles on just these subjects. The import agency suddenly ordered CUP to take down all 315 of them, some dating back to the 1960s, from its website within China; if it didn’t happen, the Chinese said, they would be forced to close the entire website down.

CUP fell over itself to obey, in order, it said, “to ensure that other academic and educational materials we publish remain available to researchers and educators in this market”. Which, as a defence of freedom of speech, isn’t quite up there with John Milton, himself a Cambridge alumnus, in Areopagitica:  “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

The China Quarterly’s admirable editor, Tim Pringle, in the quiet but steely way that befits a scholar under pressure, allowed it to be known what CUP had done, and dozens of outraged scholars and others yelled about it as loudly as Twitter and Facebook would allow. The China Quarterly’s first editor, Roderick MacFarquhar, nowadays a sprightly octogenarian who teaches at Harvard, weighed in angrily on behalf of the organ whose high reputation he had helped to create, and some rough words were used about academic publishers who did the work of an autocracy’s censors for them.

To do it credit, CUP listened and realised what irreparable damage they were doing to the China Quarterly; and it announced on Monday that it was reinstating all the articles.

Pringle couldn’t resist a bit of high-minded reproof:  “Access to published materials of the highest quality is a core component of scholarly research,” he wrote. “It is not the role of respected global publishing houses such as CUP to hinder such access.” And he added:  “Our publication criteria will not change: scientific rigour and the contribution to knowledge about China.” Milton would have been proud of him.

Does any of this really matter? Well, it’s a useful object-lesson in how to approach China. Personally, I don’t think Xi Jinping and his friends, as they splash around in the lakes and swimming pools of Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party retreat beside the Forbidden City, will have known or heard anything about it. In spite of its refusal to admit the dreadfulness of the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacre, China isn’t really just an Orwellian society where officials labour away destroying or rewriting the files of the past. No doubt the party would like to, but it simply isn’t a shot on the board in the modern world.

You just have to turn to Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. After CUP decided to reverse its self-censoring operation, hundreds of brave souls in China took to the internet to greet the news with pleasure and relief. Some had the courage to put their names to their comments: “It is a triumph of morality,” wrote Zhang Lifan, a Beijing historian. Another historian, Sun Peidong, praised the international chorus of disapproval that had brought about CUP’s change of heart. Someone else, unnamed, wrote “Cambridge University has backbone.”

Even in the days of clampdown and repression, you can just about get away with saying this kind of thing; though within hours some government job’s-worth had deleted the entire discussion from Weibo. But right across China decent, honourable people who believe in telling the truth now know CUP and Cambridge University haven’t, after all, sold the pass.

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia