Jeffrey Tayler: Facing the Congo

Jeffrey Tayler
Facing the Congo
Ruminator Books

FOR TAYLER, AN American expatriate and writer suffering from an admitted existential crisis, serving in the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan and then living in Russia wasn't enough. So in the spring of 1995, he set out to calm his wanderlust by embarking on an excruciating journey: tracing the route taken down the Congo River by British colonialist Lord Stanley in the 19th Century.

Actually navigating the more than 1,000-mile trip by small boat from Kisangani to Kinshasa is no small chore. The unrelenting heat and fierce thunderstorms are eclipsed only by the fear of possible death at the hands of tribal pirates. And that's only one of Tayler's problems. From the time he first lands in Brazzaville, the capital of then-Zaire's eastern neighbor, he encounters the worst of the post-colonial Third World: extreme poverty, corrupt government, and warlike marauders. Tayler effectively chronicles all three. His descriptions of his ride out to Kisangani on a boat owned by a high-ranking colonel who becomes Tayler's patron capture the trip's mass disorganization and chaos. As the tropical winds "shower" termites, beetles, and dragonflies on the boat, passengers shower Tayler himself with requests for beer, food, and money.

Despite the harshness of his surroundings, Tayler is not immune to their beauty. His skill at travel writing, which he previously used to chronicle his sojourn across Russia in Siberian Dreams, is on display as he describes the frightening beauty of the tropical climate. And to his credit, Tayler is aware--theoretically, at least--of the advantages he enjoys as a white person from the West. But he's unable to apply such knowledge to his own relationship with Desi, the guide he employs to take him down the river. Tayler hires Desi because of his knowledge of the route, his ability to speak French, and his integrity. But once the trip starts, problems ensue. Tayler is annoyed that Desi wants him to believe in Jesus and doesn't seem to have the same dedication to the trip that his employer does.

Tayler's weakness at self-reflection is ultimately the book's greatest weakness as well. All the locals Tayler meets on his journey, the colonel and Desi included, believe he is either a merchant out on a diamond grab or a Christian missionary looking to spread the word. Without further explanation of what prompted Tayler's journey of meaning, or what he got out of it, those reasons would have made more sense.

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