The opening sequence of J.G. Ballard's The Crystal World, in which Dr. Edward Sanders begins his journey through Cameroon to visit his friends, Max and Elizabeth Clair, is reminiscent of Graham Greene's Journey Without Maps or the film "The African Queen." Ballard does a wonderful job of portraying a Cameroon which is still inhabited by a relatively large number of European colonizers, although his characters have a tendency to be more altruistic. Sanders runs a leper colony while the Clairs have set up a clinic in the interior of Cameroon.
The characters who aren't altruistic are somewhat shady. Sanders gets involved with the gun-toting Ventress while still on the first leg of his journey and later meets the mine-owner, Thorensen. Although Sanders talks with each man individually, neither really reveal anything of this history, although it becomes clear that their destinies are tied to each other. Similarly, Father Balthus, a priest who is questioning his beliefs, is seen more as a shadowy figure than as an individual. Part of this shadiness is Sanders apparent inability to firmly connect with any of the characters he comes into contact with, including Louise Peret, the American journalist with whom he has an affair, and the Clairs, who are such good friends he will brave the rigors of travel to see them.
As the first leg of his journey ends, Sanders begins to suspect that all is not right at Mont Royal, where the Clairs have their clinic. During his brief stay in Port Matarre, Sanders sees some exquisite crystal work which seems to have come from the interior, near Mont Royal. The appearance in the harbor of a man whose body has been crystalized confirms that something strange is going on and Sanders, along with Louise, begin their journey to Mont Royal, he to see his friends, she to find out what happened to her colleagues.
The second part of the novel takes place once Sanders has arrived in Mont Royal. By now he knows the secret, that the jungle is turning everything in it to crystal. This change effects organic and inorganic objects equally, and a thin crystaline shell covers the river. Neither Sanders nor Ballard seem to be particularly interested in what is causing the crystalization, although Ballard does create an esoteric explanation which does not seem particularly likely.
Although Sanders is the thread that ties everyone's stories together in Mont Royal, he actually seems to have little sustained interaction with any of the other characters. Instead, he spends enough time with each of them to heighten the air of mystery about them without shedding any light on their histories, motives or the strange occurences in the jungle. It is of note that the most interesting character Sanders deals with, who gives him the most information, is one of the most minor characters in the novel, Kwanga.
While Ballard manages to evoke the setting of colonial Africa, his story and the characters are not particularly compelling. The Crystal World is definitely a novel written in the 1960s, and although the drug culture is not explicit in the novel, the book does have an hallucinatory quality which evokes the use of drugs. If the reader is looking for plot or character, The Crystal World falls short. If the goal is to find evocative prose and a strong sense of locale, then The Crystal World is a novel to look for.
Steven H Silver