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Facing the Congo: A Modern-Day Journey into the Heart of Darkness    by Jeffrey Tayler order for
Facing the Congo
by Jeffrey Tayler
Order:  USA  Can
Three Rivers, 2001 (2000)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Facing the Congo shares with many of the classics of travel literature a remote and inaccessible destination beyond the reach of most, if not all, of its readers. This, in combination with the author's honesty about his motivations and conclusions, makes for an intriguing read. Before his Congo journey, Jeffrey Tayler was a resident of Russia, and already a seasoned traveller. In his thirties, he appears to have felt the need to take on a significant challenge, while still asking himself 'Why not admit, for the first time, that life can be a joy where I am? Why search more, go farther?'

Tayler chose to retrace part of Stanley's route downriver on the Congo, via a solo descent in pirogues (dugout canoes) on its longest navigable stretch from Kisngani to Zaire's capital Kinshasa. In his prologue to the trip, he includes some recent history of the country, impoverished by its dictator Mobutu and his cronies. Despite continuous warnings of the dangers from uncontrolled (and often unpaid) soldiers, banditry, and even cannibals, Tayler goes ahead with the trip, while sharing his natural trepidation with the reader. He travels upriver, with help from a Colonel close to Mobutu, on the Colonel's barge, and also gains a 'lettre de recommandation' from the government to assist him on his journey.

The author hires a guide, Desi, and they set out early and secretly to avoid being followed and murdered for the largesse of supplies that must be carried for the trip, a fortune to local villagers. There are dangers from thunderstorms, snakes, crocodiles and predatory humans. The continual buzzing and biting insects sound highly unpleasant. A soldier with a functional gun (as opposed to Desi's which does not work) is added to the entourage along the way. Conditions are rough but the scenery sounds spectacular ... 'The sunsets in particular have no equal elsewhere on the planet: in their sudden meltdown of molten hues, in their drama and G6tterdamerung magnificence, they conjure up ancient feelings ...'.

It's an impressive journey, even though travel by pirogue is abandoned part way due to Desi's illness. The author's lack of connection with the locals is a little disappointing, though perhaps it is a natural incomprehension with such a gulf in background and in future potential between a Westerner and a Zairean. And you have to respect Jeffrey Tayler's conclusion that his 'drama of self-actualization proved obscenely trivial beside the suffering of the Zaireans and the injustices of their past.' Overall, Facing the Congo is a gripping and gruelling travel adventure.

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