Congo – By Michael Crichton

Rating:

A young geotechnical field supervisor, a primatologist and a mercenary undertake a journey of a lifetime, one that they might end up paying with their lives.

An expedition to find Type II blue diamonds amidst the ruins of the ancient city of Zinj in the Congo rainforest meets a gruesome end with the camp destroyed and the geologists killed. Back in Houston, Karen Ross, the project supervisor along with the rest of her technical team watch the video transmission relaying the remnants of the camp, crushed bodies, and curiously, an unexplainable blurry moving image of what appears to be a large bulky man-shaped entity with an awkward gait. Further analysis throws up the image of a gorilla as the most likely match. This prompts her to reach out to Peter Elliot, a primatologist for help.

Peter Elliot’s most talked about work in research circles is his breakthrough with Amy, a gorilla capable of communicating with humans by means of sign language, combining signs for 620 words effectively. When Amy starts acting moody because of disturbing dreams, “Project Amy” is put in jeopardy. The project team coax her to communicate her dreams to them by finger painting. Amy produces an image bearing a resemblance to the Zinj architecture.

Peter and Karen, accompanied by Amy and led by Munro, a Congo mercenary and his team of porters, set out to seek answers deep in the Congo wilderness.

In Congo, Crichton does an amazing job of describing the unforgiving nature of its vast and unexplored forest terrains.  The obstacles faced by the team takes turns that are both real and fantastical, and even absurd – encountering pygmies, dodging the war between cannibals and the army, hailstorms and volcanic eruptions, climbing steep mountains, navigating through narrow gorges,  ducking wild hippos and finally arming themselves against an unknown threat that took the lives of the previous team. They are also racing against time to beat a consortium of Japanese and other countries that are after the same diamond deposits. With so much happening at every turn, after a point I stopped thinking about whether the outcome of their expedition is going to be successful or not and just sat back and enjoyed reading about their journey.

This story is set in 1970s when there were huge inventions and advancements made in the field of remote sensing and image and data processing. The terms used and their meaning is pretty familiar now and don’t really need detailed explanations. But this book is filled with nuggets about technology which some might find unnecessary. I didn’t mind it much, but I preferred reading the other bits of ancient history related to Congo, and also primate history related to their habits and behaviour. It is easy to see that Crichton relished the research work needed to explain them in this book. Reading about all that was interesting, but at times I was irritated with some old piece of history or explanation brought up suddenly. I mean, it is kind of weird when one moment you are describing about facing or fighting.. say gorges or cannibals.. and then suddenly you have to read long explanations about their origins.

Coming to the characters, Crichton doesn’t really invest much in making their interpersonal interactions stand out as such. Their conversations are pretty dry and most of it about their work. Sometimes it feels like, it is for us readers’ benefit, to explain everything to us. I guess what I am trying to say is, it doesn’t have much humour or witty repartees. The author does marginally better in establishing their individual personalities though. Ross is driven to the point of being obsessed. Elliot is your “typical” academic, comfortable in a lab setup but a bit out of sorts in the real world. Munro is this tough guide who doesn’t get flustered much by anything.  However, my favourite one has to be Amy who really livened up the pages a lot of times. The relationship between Elliot and Amy was just so sweet! Almost like a parent and child.

After all the thrills throughout the book, I probably expected a lot more in the end.  It felt like Crichton packed in everything he could think of that could go wrong, but ran out of steam in the end. And couldn’t pull out a rabbit from the hat.  Yet it was a great read. He does a good job of mixing facts with fiction and nothing really seems completely implausible. The world that he describes lingers on in your mind even after your have finished the book.

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