Alas I wish I could place this blog in the travel category, but for today it belongs in the literature category. I was in my local book store, perusing the cheap paperback section (a favorite past-time of mine), and came across “Congo” by Michael Crichton. I had heard of Crichton from someone in my book club, but otherwise I didn’t know the name. Coincidentally, a couple days before hitting the bookstore, I had been glued to an episode of the Joe Rogan podcast in which his guest had travelled to the Congo and was explaining how beautiful but dangerous his exploration was, so I decided while standing in front of the discount rack that I would give this book a shot. While my books were being checked out at the counter, the cashier said “oooo Crichton. I love his stuff.” I thought I had a real winner, still not knowing how significant his name is to popular culture. Now this next sentence may shock you. Up to this point I had not seen any of the movies in the Jurassic Park series. For the other 1% of you like me, you might be thinking “wait what does Jurassic Park have to do with any of this?” Well my fellow under-the-rock dwellers, Michael Crichton is the author of “Jurassic Park” and “The Lost World” novels that inspired the movies. I did not learn this until I finished reading “Congo” and went on Goodreads to find other books by Crichton, and then thought “so you’re telling me these dinosaurs started in books?!?” I have since watched both of those movies and now have a legit dino obsession. I will have to write about that later. Back to the deep jungles of Africa.
The novel “Congo” is a story about a group of geologists working for a technology firm who travel to the deep forests of the Congo looking for a rare type of diamond that are highly useful as semiconductors. The first expedition mysteriously disappears which prompts a second expedition, armed with a secret weapon that can help them find the diamonds as well as figure out what may have happened to the first expedition. They also employ this additional help as there are other countries that are in a race with them to get their hands on these technological money makers. This secret weapon is a gorilla named Amy who knows sign language and can communicate with her handler and trainer, Peter Elliot. Based on video footage they have from the first expedition before they were taken out, there is thought that there may be dangers in the forest Amy can help detect. As with any action-type fiction, there are plenty of incidents that happen along the way that thwart the team’s plans and make improvisation key to continuing their mission. However Crichton does a great job keeping you on the edge of your seat with thoroughly explained action rather than just throwing random things at you that don’t make sense or suspend belief a bit too much. He does still let your imagination play, don’t worry.
The thing I like most about “Congo” as well as Crichton’s other books I have read, is that he does a great job creating characters that are interesting that you want to know more about even with all of the larger than life action that may be going on around them. My favorite character of course was Amy because she is so complex of a creature, yet since her speech is so simplified as she has only learned around 600 words. I know only 600, insert eyeroll, gosh why can’t she learn more. Which leads me to my first favorite quote from the book. I am such a sucker for quotes.
“Apes and baboons…can speak but will not for fear they should be employed and set to work.”
I mean this is what happened to Amy after-all right? It makes me wonder if Amy actually knows way more than any of the brains of the operation, but doesn’t let on for she doesn’t want to have to do too much. Follow-up short story perhaps? Working title: The Ape Who Knew What’s Up.
I also enjoyed the character Peter Elliot, Amy’s trainer, and by all accounts, who Amy sees as a father figure and mentor. They have a mutual respect for each other that is so unique and interesting to see unfold as Amy gets scared at points during the expedition and when Amy finds strength and confidence when encountering other gorillas in the jungle.
The other characters, human and otherwise, definitely have some interesting moments and give a different voice for those that call the wilderness their home, and women who do not behave as some may think women should. Now that I am thinking about it, Crichton seems to have many strong and intelligent female characters included in his work which is pretty rad. Crichton also seems to appreciate the power of the natural world which I am always a fan of as a I am a bit of a tree-hugger myself (literally I love hugging trees and plants). I remember reading the following quote and thinking “oh yeah take that, ya silly humans!”
“The apes have learned to talk to us, but we have never learned to talk to them. Who, then, should be judged the greater intellect?”
In keeping with the Congo theme of 2021, while at the Musical Instrument Museum in northern Phoenix with my niece, we discovered they had a special exhibit full of instruments and masks from the various tribes of the Democratic Republic of Congo, most from the 19th and early 20th centuries, but some dating back as early as the 18th century. They were beautiful not only from a visual sense, but also beautiful in what the masks and music created by the instruments represented, as well as the ingenuity needed to create them. The performances done with them were used in protective ways to frighten or appease, spiritual ways to honor, bless or purify, and also used to celebrate, initiate or entertain others in the tribe. Some were for those in power, others were for the common man, and others were for nature. The spectrum, as you can see, is quite large which is why they played such a vital role in the tribal communities. As the Chokwe-Lunda people say:
“A mask is coming who wants a drum to be played.”
As you can imagine, after reading a book about the mysteries of the Congo, and then seeing the beautiful art and culture of the region and its people, it has taken all of my strength not to book a trip. One day hopefully there will be a follow-up blog that will land itself in the travel section, and I can’t wait to share that adventure.
For more information about the Musical Instrument Museum, click here. The Congo: Masks and Music exhibit will run through September 2021. I would suggest giving yourself an hour to really look and read about all of the various items in the exhibit.