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Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart
Synopses & Reviews
A compulsively readable account of a journey to the Congo — a country virtually inaccessible to the outside world — vividly told by a daring and adventurous journalist.
Ever since Stanley first charted its mighty river in the 1870s, the Congo has epitomized the dark and turbulent history of a failed continent. However, its troubles only served to increase the interest of Daily Telegraph correspondent Tim Butcher, who was sent to cover Africa in 2000. Before long he became obsessed with the idea of recreating Stanley's original expedition — but travelling alone.
Despite warnings Butcher spent years poring over colonial-era maps and wooing rebel leaders before making his will and venturing to the Congo's eastern border. He passed through once thriving cities of this country and saw the marks left behind by years of abuse and misrule. Almost, 2,500 harrowing miles later, he reached the Atlantic Ocean, a thinner and a wiser man.
Butcher's journey was a remarkable feat. But the story of the Congo, vividly told in Blood River, is more remarkable still.
From the Hardcover edition.
"'For me terror manifests itself through clear physical symptoms, an ache that grows behind my knees and a choking dryness in my throat,' writes British journalist Butcher in the preface of this devastating yet strangely exhilarating account of his six-week ordeal retracing the steps of 19th-century explorer H.M. Stanley's Victorian-era travels through the present-day hell that is the Republic of Congo. Setting out into the war-torn, disease-infested backcountry of Congo in 2000 against the wishes of just about everyone in his life — family, friends, editors and a wild assortment of government officials (the corrupt and the more corrupt) — Butcher quickly finds more horror than he'd previously experienced in his 10 years as a war correspondent ('With my own eyes I had peered into a hidden African world where human bones too numerous to bury were left lying on the ground'). His tale is chock-a-block with gruesome details about the brutal Belgian rule of the late 19th century as well as the casual disregard for life on the contemporary scene. Part travelogue, part straight-forward reportage, Butcher's story is a full-throated lament for large-scale human potential wasted with no reasonable end in sight." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Even seasoned war correspondents balk at the thought of being sent to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Few places offer such a smorgasbord of danger: rape, massacre, genocide, cannibalism. War ravages eastern Congo, and only the most hard-core aid organizations operate in the interior. This grim setting is the backdrop for British journalist Tim Butcher's travelogue cum history,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) "Blood River." Ostensibly, Butcher traveled to the Congo to retrace the route of explorer Henry Stanley, the first Westerner to chart the Congo River, in 1877. "I wanted to do ... something that had not been done for decades," he explains, "to draw together the Congo's fractious whole by traveling Stanley's 3,000-kilometer route from one side to the other." Yet "Blood River" is less an adventure tale than a journalistic investigation of what has gone wrong in the Congo, and why. "Congo stands as a totem for the failed continent of Africa," writes Butcher, a correspondent for London's Daily Telegraph. "It has more potential than any other African nation. ... But it is exactly this sense of what might be that makes the Congo's failure all the more acute." Butcher's trip was treacherous, though he enlisted aid workers and missionaries to help him. Along the way, he encountered ragtag villages where starving locals had fled from marauding militias; bleached bones littered the jungle. People constantly warned him not to continue. "This is a terrible place where terrible things happen," a Congolese priest told him upon his arrival in the decrepit, war-torn town of Ubundu. Yet Butcher plodded on, and the only violence that befell him was an attack by army ants. As he recounts the journey, Butcher takes on the role of archaeologist, sifting through Congo's shady present to unearth vestiges of the nation's former promise. In 1885, Belgian's King Leopold II declared himself owner of nearly a million square miles in central Africa. The Belgians quickly exploited the region's natural resources, particularly rubber, using the natives as forced laborers to create one of Africa's wealthiest colonies. After the Congo gained independence in 1960, corruption and despotism sent it reeling into a civil war that took more than 5 million lives — the worst toll in an armed conflict since World War II. Butcher's discoveries paint a poignant picture of Congo's lost hope and prosperity: "I took a few steps and felt my right boot clunk into something unnaturally hard and angular on the floor. I dug my heel into the leaf mulch and felt it again. Scraping down through the detritus, I slowly cleared away enough soil to get a good look. It was a cast-iron railway sleeper, perfectly preserved and still connected to a piece of track." Butcher constantly juxtaposes present and past realities, giving his narrative the surreal feel of time travel. His journey is complemented by quotations from Stanley's travel narrative, "Through the Dark Continent," published in 1878, and by numerous interviews he conducted with local people, including Congolese mayors and Greek expats. Butcher's breadth of knowledge is both impressive and eclectic. We learn the technique of making cassava flour and the origins of Congolese Primus beer. What we don't learn about, however, is Butcher's own, inner experience. "The reader of a good travel book is entitled not only to an exterior voyage ... but to an interior, a sentimental, or temperamental voyage," wrote travel writer and novelist Norman Douglas. "Blood River" succeeds admirably as reportage, but not as essay. If the author comes to any personal revelations by the end of his grueling trip, we're not privy to them; the result is disappointingly one-dimensional. Readers must decide what they want from a travel book, and whether this one's thorough interweaving of history, geography and politics makes up for its lack of introspection. Kira Salak is the author of the novel "The White Mary" and the nonfiction travel book "The Cruelest Journey: 600 Miles to Timbuktu." Reviewed by Kira Salak, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
Published to rave reviews in the United Kingdom and named a Richard & Judy Book Club selection—the only work of nonfiction on the 2008 list—Blood River is the harrowing and audacious story of Tim Butcher's journey in the Congo and his retracing of renowned explorer H. M. Stanley's famous 1874 expedition in which he mapped the Congo River. When Daily Telegraph correspondent Tim Butcher was sent to Africa in 2000 he quickly became obsessed with the legendary Congo River and the idea of re-creating Stanley's legendary journey along the three-thousand-mile waterway. Despite warnings that his plan was suicidal, Butcher set out for the Congo's eastern border with just a rucksack and a few thousand dollars hidden in his boots. Making his way in an assortment of vehicles, including a motorbike and a dugout canoe, helped along by a cast of characters from UN aid workers to a pygmy-rights advocate, he followed in the footsteps of the great Victorian adventurers. An utterly absorbing narrative that chronicles Tim Butcher's forty-four-day journey along the Congo River, Blood River is an unforgettable story of exploration and survival.
"Blood River" offers a compulsively readable account of a journey to the Congo--a country virtually inaccessible to the outside world--vividly told by a daring and adventurous journalist.
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