The connection that a reader forges with a first-person narrator varies tremendously from book to book, depending on the degree of intimacy or detachment elicited, on how convincing or charming or grating we find the voice, on how seduced, manipulated, or outraged we find ourselves. Sometimes, all too infrequently, the experience so entrances, it’s as if we’re simply in the company of a preternaturally witty and articulate person chattering away, which is how I felt reading The Explosion of the Radiator Hose by French author Jean Rolin: like I was sitting in the smoky bar of a hotel in some far-flung and vaguely lawless country, listening to Rolin—who’s drunk but sharp, world weary, and fabulously indiscreet—as he tells the most amusing and erudite shaggy dog story I’ve ever heard.
Ostensibly a travelogue that I assume has been partially fictionalized/embellished, The Explosion of the Radiator Hose (published by Dalkey Archive) chronicles Rolin’s attempt to transport a clapped-out Audi from France to the Congo, as a favor to a Congolese friend, Foudron. The plan is that the car will become a taxi in Kinshasa, thus providing income to Foudron’s wife and children who live there. But first, Rolin must negotiate the multiple challenges, obstacles, and legal gray areas associated with supervising the safe journey of a car on cargo ships with stops in France, Belgium, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo itself.
The tale opens when Rolin and the Audi, both still more or less in one piece, have arrived in the Congo and he has rendezvoused with Foudron’s two local contacts, Patrice and Nsele. But no sooner are they finally on their way to Kinshasa that the car’s radiator hose, yes, explodes, and the group is stranded miles from the nearest village, vulnerable to snakes, mosquitoes, and the whims of passing soldiers who, apparently, “only murdered civilians on very rare occasions.” Then, in a series of looping digressions, the narrative unveils each chaotic stage of the vehicle-export scheme following its genesis in Paris, touches on Rolin’s teenage years as a diplomat’s son in the Congo, and hints at a colorful past in which “nebulous” projects involving “dubious” locales and characters have led many to suspect that our man is a spy. “I have even,” he muses, “on occasion, out of sheer vanity, imagined that I may indeed, at other times, have worked unawares, in all innocence, for the secret service.”
Tightly executed, unwaveringly gripping, and laugh-out-loud funny, each short chapter is packed with literary allusions—to Sebald, Proust, and Conrad, whose own Congo adventures and those in Heart of Darkness haunt Rolin’s story—and wryly wise reflections on the byzantine and tumultuous political history of Central Africa. Recalling a time in the early 1960s when a revolutionary uprising in Brazzaville, on the other side of the river to Kinshasa, brought an assassination-doomed figure named Alphonse Massemba-Debat to power, Rolin remarks that the man’s TV speeches were imbued with “an almost conversational tone, even the occasional touch of humor, giving an added poignancy to the invariably anxious, sorrowful expression on his long face, that of a black Humphrey Bogart presiding over the fortunes of a momentarily socialist African republic, destined, as he had probably foreseen, to a dark and miserable fate.”
Such a knack for acutely evoking a person’s demeanor in a sentence or two is one of the book’s many pleasures: a couple selling car insurance “exuded an impression of agreeable, almost humanitarian dishonesty”; a “circumspect” Ukrainian ship lieutenant “brought the same care and attention to the dismantling of a French press as he might to the defusing of a powerful weapon”; a Congolese army major’s “silence, svelte form, and impassive face were entirely compatible with an inclination to underground activities.” In general, Rolin’s prose is unusually precise and complex, with sentences that are very long and multi-clausal but never hard to follow. The book’s talented translator, Louise Rogers Lalaurie, said in an interview: “I tried hard to match Rolin’s register and clause sequences, and to preserve the flow of the original sentences. But while French grammar is very robust and can hold things together over many lines, English has a tendency to come apart in your hands if you over-stretch it! I did re-order the clauses very occasionally, for readability, and to keep things “up together.””
Lalaurie also reveals that Rolin, who has won prizes for his journalism and essays and was awarded the 1996 Prix Médicis for his novel L’organisation, has a long untranslated backlist, including his most recent book, Un chien mort après lui, “a themed compendium of travels and encounters with stray dogs.” According to this French reviewer, Un chien mort après lui features Rolin's sojourns to Cairo, Baltimore, Haiti, and Beirut, among other places, and is “at once shocking and carried by a magnificent humor—humor among the ruins.” If there’s a book I’d rather read right now, I can’t think what it is.