As I read Mimi and Toutou’s Big Adventure: The Bizarre Battle of Lake Tanganyika by Giles Foden, I thought of how it could be made into a darkly comic movie. It has all the necessary elements. The central character in the story is Geoffrey Basil Spicer-Simson, a British naval officer who had been confined to a desk job after several disastrous assignments in England, Gambia, and China; he was adept at sinking and beaching ships under his command. No one really wanted to associate with him, for he was a ridiculous braggart; he was always claiming great acts of heroism that listeners could not possibly believe. He also told terrible jokes and broke into song, singing off-key. When the First World War began, the Royal Navy sent him on a seemingly impossible task in a remote region of Africa. Maybe he would not return.
The task was to transport two forty-foot wooden motor boats from London to Cape Town, South Africa and from there across the continent to Lake Tanganyika. When the Navy would not let Spicer-Simson name the boats Cat and Dog, he submitted Mimi and Toutou, which the Navy accepted, not knowing they meant “meow” and “bow-wow” in French. The train from Cape Town would only carry the boats part of the way to the destination; Spicer-Simson and his men would have to drag the boats through a jungle and over some mountains! Moviegoers will think of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, of course. Once the boats arrived, the assignment was to sink a German ship five times their size that was controlling the lake. What the Royal Navy did not know was the German Navy had a ship twenty times their size on Lake Tanganyika as well.
Spicer-Simson’s behavior alternates from sensible to bizarre. No one can read his semaphore; he designs himself a skirt to wear in the heat; he enjoys showing his snake tattoos to the local Holo Holo people. If John Cleese were not so old, he would be the perfect cast. Also on the trip are the patient Dr. Hother McCormick Hanschell and the loyal, clever transport officer Lieutenant Wainwright, who is the real genius behind the transport operation. There would be many good roles for actors in a movie version of Mimi and Toutou’s Big Adventure. Even the title sounds good.
I should state before I go any further, that this is nonfiction. This is not comic novel.
The story has some disturbingly tragic elements. The English, Belgians, and Germans have no qualms about forcing the local tribes to haul their boats and build their ports and forts; many of the Africans were beaten into compliance. Many of the soldiers contract diseases, tropical and venereal, and when the navies finally do battle, some sailors die grizzly deaths. Mimi and Toutou’s Big Adventure would probably be rated R if the book were closely followed.
The concluding chapters of the book tell follow-up stories. One is about the making of The African Queen with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, a story inspired by a part of the Mimi and Toutou story. The final chapter tells about the author’s fact finding trip to Lake Tanganyika; he found one of the German boats is still in service, carrying thousands of local people and their livestock around the lake.
Until the movie is made, you will have to read the book.
Foden, Giles. Mimi and Toutou’s Big Adventure: The Bizarre Battle of Lake Tanganyika. New York: Knopf, 2005. ISBN 1400041570