There must be people who can read Jean Rolin’s The Explosion of the Radiator Hose and find it politically, historically, and culturally informative. These people must already know a good deal about the bloody wars in Central Africa in the 20th century, the immigrant experience in France, and/or the bureaucratic sinkholes of the international shipping industry. But I don’t know about those things. I have to imagine them. So I see The Explosion of the Radiator Hose—a supposedly factual account—as fiction.
The radiator hose explodes in the first sentence, in medias res, blasting the rest of the novel (let’s call it a novel) outward in bits and shards. In the present shard, Jean Rolin is transporting a used car from Paris to Kinshasa, where it will be turned into a taxi cab. Rolin’s motive is awfully noble: a friend of his, a French immigrant from Zaire, is too sick to make this journey himself, but the income from a taxi in Kinshasa will pay for the friend’s children to attend college. Rolin doesn’t dwell on his reasons. He’s more interested in the technical requirements of the voyage, the adrenaline rush of crossing international borders under dodgy pretenses, and the fact that Joseph Conrad made the same journey 115 years before, on the trip that he fictionalized as Heart of Darkness.
In the best essayistic tradition, Rolin shifts easily between thinking about his journey, thinking about Conrad’s journey, and thinking about what his favorite authors—Proust, whose magnum opus Rolin is reading aboard the ship, and Sebald—would say about all of this. Like John McPhee, Rolin writes absorbingly about complex human industries, and like Tom McCarthy he seems to believe that our society’s cognitive and technological systems define us more than our individual personalities and struggles do. It’s thick reading at times, but Rolin earns our attention in each paragraph with careful forethought and verbal accuracy.
In other shards of text, Rolin mentions the series of bloody coups and civil wars that have torn apart the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) in recent years. I found his high level of specificity off-putting at first. Without knowing the region’s history it’s hard to grasp the full implications of a passage like this.
By the terms of the Pretoria Agreement, signed in December 2002, instituting a “transitional government” in Kinshasa, in the expectation of hypothetical elections, Joseph Kabila (Junior) was confirmed as President of the Republic, with Jean-Pierre Bemba as one of the four vice presidents. This promotion failed to silence the accusations of war crimes leveled against his movement, involving (to take just one example) atrocities carried out against the Pygmies in the Ituri River basin. In this region, elements of the MLC are suspected not only of having massacred the Pygmies, but of carrying out acts of cannibalism on some of their victims.
To counter these accusations, Jean-Pierre Bemba organized an exhibition of nine Pygmies in September 2004, on the stage of the Grand Hotel in Kinshasa, “dressed,” said a news agency dispatch, “in new suits that the tailor had not had time to adjust to their size.”
The Pygmies of Mambasa,” the dispatch went on (this same phrase was also its title), “declared that they had not been eaten.”
On the other hand, this is elegantly and densely written (even after being translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie), as intricate and combustible as an action movie, with all the intrigue and expansiveness of a fantasy saga. The tension between believing this book, and pretending it’s fiction in order to process it, is a thrill that Rolin should be proud to provide. It refreshes the obscurity and absurdity of human history.