Scientists are supposed to be dispassionate investigators of pure knowledge, so it’s both instructive and comical to find them in the news, feuding, lying, and competing over discoveries like congressmen squabbling over an appropriation. Scientists are, after all, only human, and the same goes for chimpanzees — this is the theme of William Boyd’s brilliant new novel, which mixes an offhand pessimism of the Graham Greene variety with a plucky heroine who would do pretty well in a thick, bawdy Fielding or Thackeray novel. Boyd, who was born in British colonial Africa in 1952, has already written two fine darkly comic novels with African settings, A Good Man in Africa and An Ice Cream War. This latest one, Brazzaville Beach is a highly acclaimed bestseller in England and takes place in a civil war-ravaged country resembling Angola, where Hope Clearwater, a young British scientist, is part of an international team studying the behavior of wild chimpanzees.
The director of the project is Eugene Mallabar, an academic celebrity and the acclaimed author of books on chimps, who is about to publish a new volume that will sum it all up. Strange things begin to happen when Hope observes her usually gentle, droll chimps abruptly engaging in cannibalism, organized aggression, deliberate cruelty, and other remarkably human acts. If published, her observations would undermine Mallabar’s assumptions, books, and reputation. He accuses her of fabricating her accounts. Her tent mysteriously goes up in flames, destroying her field notes. A dislodged rock narrowly misses her while she is out following a bellicose band of chimps. The other scientists freezer her out, except for the one who wants to sleep with her. When she finally lures Mallabar into the field, forcing him to witness several chimps stomping a rival to death, he seems inspired by their example. And when Hope flees the camp she gets caught up in the civil war.
The African story, which includes vivid evocations of the chimps, is combined in alternating chapters with Hope’s earlier life in England, centered on her doomed marriage to a mercurial, increasingly obsessed mathematician. At times, the cross-cutting technique leaves the reader restlessly hanging, but the main effect is to increase the considerable suspense of both superbly told stories and to create thematic echoes between them. John Clearwater’s specialty as a mathematician is turbulence theory, the attempt to find equations that map the patterns of weather systems, eddying streams, and other apparently chaotic natural phenomena. One branch of turbulence theory is catastrophe theory. It fits Hope’s hopeless marriage like a glove. It fits life like a metaphor. The chimps fit the scientists, and the scientists fit the rest of us, like a microcosm. And with the microcosm comes a moral: Rigorous knowledge has its limits, and the pursuit of it may keep us from the elusive, unprovable knowledge about ourselves that ultimately matters the most. A-