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A Landscape of Broken Dreams - Congolese novelist Emmanuel Dongala limns the tragic political biography of his homeland, a nation conceived in hope but nurtured (thanks to the treachery of its leaders) into hopelessness.

Okey Ndibe is the author of the novel Arrows of Rain (Heinemann, 2000). An editorial writer at the Hartford Courant, he is at work on a second novel, Native Tongues.

In reading the work of Emmanuel Dongala, one is compelled to consider the fraught question of the Congolese novelist's relation to the tragic strains of his history. A writer with an established reputation in Francophone Africa and a rising profile in France, Dongala is only recently reaching an English audience. The translations of two of his three novels, the highly mythological The Fire of Origins and Little Boys Come From the Stars, with its sardonic and sometimes savage depiction of a postcolonial African state fumbling its way from one disaster to another, are revealing and damning. Each book is executed with a certain awareness of the motions of world events, infused with an admirable command of African history. The author's flair for interbraiding magic and ordinary events in his plots is considerable.

Though Dongala is primarily French-speaking (and writing), his novels have benefited from his obvious immersion in the oral storytelling tradition as well as his exposure to American literature. His work is strongest at those moments when he manages to write with verve and strike a judicious balance between action and introspective vignettes. Conversely, the most uneven (and therefore least engaging) sections in his novels occur when he gets carried away with abstract ideas.

One such vulnerable moment can be found in a too-long disquisition on water in a section of Little Boys. Such reflective digressions, often described as ratiocination, are common fare--and often prized--in French fiction. Even so, the ideas in a novel are often best worked out through the interplay of dramatic events. If one of Dongala's major flaws as a writer lies in an occasional indulgence in the exposition of abstract ideas, it ought to be said in his defense that he is far from making a habit of this compulsion. In fact, what appears clear from Little Boys, when it is contrasted with The Fire of Origins, is that he is already weaning himself away from expository and essayistic flourishes, instead focusing on imbuing his fiction with dramatic tension. That bodes well for the career of a writer who, it is obvious, has a lot of stories to tell.

One hazard of being an African fiction writer is to be confronted with a reality so obdurately surreal and unrelentingly fantastic and strange--often, indeed, quite defiant of logic--that the very act of writing can seem either pointless or else particularly urgent. Imagine, for example, the impossible odds against a novelist who sets out to make sense of Rwanda's 1994 genocide, in which ethnic Hutus massacred an estimated 800,000 Tutsis (and some of their Hutu protectors). Or one who seeks to do a fictional treatment of Sierra Leone's ten-year-old civil war, marked by the debauched glee with which rebels of the Revolutionary United Front have hacked off the limbs of thousands of civilians, including infants. Or a writer determined to distill a coherent narrative out of Africa's farcical cast of characters, men with names like Mobutu Sese Seko, Idi Amin Dada, Macias Nguema, Emperor Jean Bedel-Bokassa, Sani Abacha, or even Foday Sankoh--who, until his arrest late last year, was the guardian spirit of the murderous rebels in Sierra Leone.

Clearly, the task for such a writer is to find a way to hold the anger sufficiently at bay, the better to ensure that the story he has to tell is not overwhelmed by sheer outrage or undermined by the sense that his lone choice is to merely discharge a stenographic function, one inferior to the journalist's trade. It is a challenge to which many would-be African writers fail to rise, sometimes because it demands so much intellectual discernment and familiarity with history, to say nothing of a proper appreciation of fiction's transformative power. Some writers surrender to despair and lapse into silence. In the name of moral outrage, others convey a preachy, moralizing and drably didactic accent. Yet others, anxious to satirize the awfulness that swamps their lives, end up offering caricatures or puerile parodies.

The point, quite simply, is that the African writer is often heir to a tableau of events and experiences vastly stranger than fiction. This circumstance constitutes a veritable test of the writer's mettle. Does he become a mere transcriber of the quotidian absurdity that makes his life--and that of his fellows--seemingly misshapen and impossible? Does the writer escape into fantasy, dredging up phantasms that are meant to deflect and mask the harshness of what cannot be faced?

A tempting choice is to take the route patented by V.S. Naipaul, the Caribbean novelist turned English aristocratic bluff: to dip one's pen in vitriol and tear into one's society with a mixture of self-righteous contempt, smug platitudes, and cheap shots. In the opening sentence of A Bend in the River, a novel he modeled on Mobutu's Zaire (since renamed Democratic Republic of the Congo), Naipaul unapologetically purveys an exasperating taxonomy: "The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it." Nor does Naipaul feel any desire to keep his reader in suspense concerning the identity of the accursed with no place in the scheme of things. He makes it clear that he is referring to Africans, specifically black Africans. In fact, much of the novel is taken up by passages portraying these beings in all their gory splendor and contemptible moral and physical unattractiveness.

As Dongala demonstrates in his own novels, Naipaul's dismissiveness and Olympian condescension are neither inevitable, intelligent, nor helpful. The Congolese writer clearly understands that the tragic ambience of his history calls not for mockery and scorn but a far more complex and fastidious response--and, often, an ironic sensibility. Like such African writers as Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Dongala recognizes that the continent's travails are not peculiar but facets of the broad tapestry of human predicament. The sound African writer may feel his humanistic vision affronted by the grave reality of daily life in his nation, but he never reaches (as Naipaul would) for a vengeful metaphor.

Writer in exile

Few authors have been as intensely tested by the crisis of Africa as Emmanuel Dongala. In 1997, a number of American writers and intellectuals, including Philip Roth, William Styron, and Leon Botstein, enlisted the help of the likes of Sen. Edward Kennedy and former Massachusetts First Lady Susan Weld to literally pull Dongala and his family out of the rubble of a civil war that had turned the Congo into hell on earth. As the war raged, more than 120,000 Congolese fled into the equatorial forest for safety. In six months of fighting, more than 10,000 Congolese perished, including Dongala's brother-in-law as well as many friends. In the chaos and disarray of the war's first days, his daughter, Nora, then fourteen, was mistakenly evacuated to Chad along with French citizens.

Dongala, who now teaches at Simon's Rock College in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, holds science degrees from Oberlin College and Rutgers as well as Ph.D.s in chemistry from two universities in France. Before the war that left his homeland ungovernable and uninhabitable, he was serving as a professor of chemistry and dean of Brazzaville University. Given the privations and grief he has endured at the hands of marauders who presume to know how their society must be ordered (and then seek to impose themselves by the power of the gun), his fiction might be expected to bristle with bitterness and recrimination.

That is by no means the case. Rather than give the impression of venting a deeply ingrained animus, his novels evince the clear-eyed illumination of a writer determined not to permit anger to overwhelm his art. This should not suggest that Dongala flinches from the desolate landscape and problematic material that his history, his story, have presented him. He has faced his challenge squarely, emerging with a fictional vision that combines piquancy with a zestfully upbeat spirit.

On the strength of his two books that have made it into English translation, Dongala has left us in no doubt that he is neither disposed to take the escapist path nor to offer a facsimile of predictable details. His writing--three of his novels are available in French, along with a collection of short stories--is critically acclaimed in France, where he has won literary prizes. As his work becomes more widely read in English, American readers should find themselves in the debt of this gifted writer.

The Fire of Origins impresses both with its breadth--the writer attempts, with remarkable success, to press the epochs of Africa's historical experience into one continuous narrative grid--and the iconoclastic sentience and revolutionary panache of its hero, Nganga Mankunku. His life hardly starts propitiously: Born on a banana plantation, his mother unattended in the delivery by any human, Mankunku is stigmatized as an unnatural child and baited as a destructive element. He nevertheless transcends tremendous odds to claim his destiny as a great healer, blacksmith, warrior, and quester after liberating knowledge. This restless aspect of his personality places him in conflict with his uncle and (once) mentor, the amoral Bizenga, who hopes to achieve the royal throne. But when Europe intrudes as a colonial power, Mankunku--which means destroyer--finds his life turned upside down. When his father and mother are mutilated by agents of the European power, he is propelled to act with bloody rage to avenge his parents.

After slaying his uncle, a conniver with white power, the hero discovers that he must flee his village and become an exile. The transition necessitates a kind of rebirth, a changing of name from Mankunku to Massini Mupepe. Despite the pain of uprooting himself from his natal soil, he very soon discovers new vistas in the nascent world implanted by conquering Europeans. Besides, he also acquires a larger stage from which to participate in the titanic battles against the forces that have destroyed his world. His involvement in the struggle is singular, and the personal price he pays is enormous.

The costs of colonialism

In that they both are preoccupied with power and the dramatic collision between the African and European worlds, the novels can be said to converge. Yet they lead highly individual narrative lives and are defined, ultimately, by their contrasts. Dongala is the sort of novelist who thrives on large thematic canvases, a trait that is clearly displayed in the two books but in ways that are tellingly different. In The Fire of Origins, for example, we are most impressed by the wide historical arc that he invokes. The novel's actions begin just before Europe's entrance, at a time when the augury of that profound event is very much in the air.

The foretelling of the white man's arrival comes in a dream that Lukeni, an old, enfeebled seer and savant, shares with Mankunku. Lukeni, a spiritual guide to the clairvoyant but sometimes recklessly callow Mankunku, speaks of seeing "living cadavers, their faces white as the Moon, with a strange hairiness only found in the land of shadows, arrive from under the sea in the bellies of great whales. But this is what frightened me: they scattered over our lands like a cloud of crickets, they marched over the tombs of the ancestors, destroyed their offering cups, pillaged our goods."

That dreadful premonition--Lukeni dies shortly after describing his vision--is borne out by the upheaval wrought by Europe. Through carefully orchestrated dramatic events, Dongala describes the awful violence and insidious guile with which Europe descended on Africa, grabbing territories and people, arbitrarily conjuring up new cartographies and communities. In the same vein, he also calculates the costs of colonialism: the enslavement of the Africans, their reduction to serfdom on their own land, their cultural disinheritance, their economic dispossession, the virtual banishment of their gods, the denial of their humanity, and their denigration by Europe's ethnocentric scholars, culminating in such assertions as "the rights of man do not apply to Negroes" and "the Gospel says that we are all brothers, that is certainly true, but the African is our little brother."

Dongala's evocation of this bleak historical landscape brings Lukeni's grim vision into stark relief. It enables us to realize that the old man's eschatological metaphor was not formulated lightly. The last word does not belong to the white man, however. A narrative of resistance exists side by side with the script of oppression, the one force countering the other, providing the novel's dialectic tension. The thousands of Africans conscripted to fight against Hitler (a war, in other words, in which the logic of Europe's doctrine of racial superiority comes to haunt Europe) return with a subversive sense of the white man. After seeing him up close and sleeping with white prostitutes, these African veterans are far less susceptible to white claims to moral astuteness.

In the end, the Africans regain political autonomy, or what in certain circles is derided as flag independence--the formal proclamation of indigenous control, with the so-called sovereign nation still tethered to the erstwhile colonial power, which then continues to dictate the terms of the game. If The Fire of Origins begins with Africa on the cusp of European subjugation, it ends during the incipient period of the now-independent nation's exploration of national selfhood. Alas, it is a groping, dispiriting journey, marred by the native political elite's obsession with the plumes of political office, its preference for hollow declamations, a desperation for power that is disjoined from any beneficient social vision. It is true that Africans touting themselves as revolutionaries now run things, but the nation is still everywhere ensnared by corruption and the abbreviation of liberty.

The most recent novel, Little Boys Come From the Stars, is more confidently realized. It strikes deeply at the heart of Africa's postcolonial experience, epitomized by corruption, violence, the aggrandizement of the ruling class, the elite's facile ideological posturing, and the deepening impoverishment of the populace. (The second novel is also, I suspect, the more fluidly translated of the two.) Though narrower in scope and less ambitious in conception than The Fire of Origins, this book has in its favor a more charged, intimate, and earthy animation of some themes adumbrated in the earlier work. In it, Dongala rains his attention on the desultory dividends of independence, illuminating the disillusion produced by the gap between his nation's high dreams and paltry harvest. The book is unflinching in its portrayal of the malaise and unsparing in its depiction of the political operatives responsible.

Born under a red star

Much like Mankunku, the narrator of Little Boys comes into the world in a quasi-mysterious way and begins life as something of an outsider. Indeed, as he states at the beginning of the novel, "I was almost never born." Michel (for that's the narrator's name) or Matapari (his nickname, denoting a problem child) was born two whole days after his mother's return from a hospital where she delivered twins. What's even more enigmatic, the child tumbles into the world on August 15, 1980, a day that coincided with two anniversaries: the twentieth year of the nation's independence and the anniversary, as the narrator notes, "of the day that one of these military men ... set up a 'revolutionary' system based on something called scientific socialism." Now the country is firmly under the rubric of communism, with a "star, hammer, and hoe" incorporated as de rigueur emblems of the state. It is in the throes of a people's revolution, a movement obsessed with red: "So it was the twentieth red anniversary that was being celebrated, when I, a forgotten child, was struggling heroically to leave my mother's belly."

The narrator's birth is so strange and portentous that it provokes a fierce religious competition between a Catholic priest, a representative of Islam, and an animist healer over who among them possesses the most efficacious formula for exorcising the evil birth. But the baby proves more than able to hold his own against this three- pronged ecclesiastical assault, a sturdiness and stubbornness that will become more evident as he matures and begins to observe the tragic trajectory of his nation's experience.

The sectarian fray over this supposedly haunted child prefigures a larger dislocation in the life of the nation whose birthday he ominously shares. Whatever nemesis grips Matapari's life must be understood as mirroring the maleficent forces that threaten the nation. Through the narrator's introspections and observations, the reader comes to terms with the fact of a cataclysmic rupture: the heady dreams and high expectancy that attended independence have been thoroughly betrayed. In the fictional nation, which is never named but is recognizably the Congo, optimism is dead, hope is on the retreat, and the only commodities still in abundance are cynicism, hypocrisy, and greed. Matapari draws us deeper into the ironic interstices of the narrative, forcing us to see a nation in disarray, a people who, while consumed by an enormous ennui, nevertheless go through false motions of adulation for their misbegotten leader, alias "Supreme Guide, Man of the Masses, the Man of Concrete Action, the Popular Leader, Peacemaker, Friend of the Youth, the People's Man, the Providential Guide, the Founding President, the Man-Always-Proven-Right-by-History."

As the story takes this improbable turn, the reader realizes that he has been lured into a Kafkaesque universe, a terrain in which language is emptied of meaning, in which, above all, the moral perspective, endangered to begin with, is now altogether banished. Part of what sustains the novel's power is the fact that it affords the reader two lenses from which to view the unfolding events. There is, on the one hand, the narrator's description of the sad progression of events in a nation under the spell of a megalomaniacal tyrant. On the other, the narrator's closeness to the events--in fact his direct and vicarious participation in them--permits him, at suitable junctures, to zoom closer.

Matapari's maternal relative, a roguish liar and lecher named Uncle Boula Boula, is at the center of the novel's major political tensions. Sans principles and incapable of acting out of any form of moral conviction, Boula Boula is the sort of character bound to succeed in the nation. A raconteur with an endless facility for self-invention, he understands that the party rewards those like himself, men with neither faith nor principles who are versed in the art of sycophancy, servility, and obsequiousness. When he gets the opportunity, he regales a visiting dignitary with yarns about his vast education in Marxism- Leninism and his loyalty to the party--and, especially, its leader. Duped by these unctuous exaggerations, embellishments, and outright falsehoods, the luminary arranges for Boula Boula's elevation to the sanctum sanctorum of the party machinery.

Once ensconced in power, this enterprising toady marshals even more impressive qualities of guile and treacherous betrayal of fellow "comrades" to amass a stupendous fortune and ingratiate himself further with the one repository of power in the nation. He denounces imperfect worshipers of the nation's sole human god, oversees the jailing of dissidents, and hoarsely leads the choir of praise singers at the leader's feet. His efforts pay off handsomely: he is promoted to the position of No. 2 man in the pecking order.

But as is borne out in the factual experience of a number of second fiddles in Africa, to be designated second in command--and, by implication, heir--is a perilous fate. No political god wants to be dethroned, or even to contemplate the possibility of mortality or dispensability. Stories abound of African leaders who named their successors and then, with baffling alacrity, set about disgracing the men they anointed. Those appointed become presumptive foes and bogies, men in whose hearts some unspeakable evil plot is suspected to lurk. Familiar with the inebriant potency of political power, dictators can hardly be blamed for their swirling suspicion of their handpicked successors, or for projecting their darkest lusts and fantasies on the most professedly loyal minions and courtiers. To be in a position to wield supreme political authority is, in the mind of dictators and their would-be successors, the only prize that counts.

To describe the dictator as a god is no idle fancy. In fact, the idea of the ruler's apotheosis is one of the novel's most poignant images. One of Boula Boula's most farcical projects is to raise funds for an unsual project: a giant bust of the ruler, to be made of gold-plated fiberglass, is to be hoisted into space aboard a European or American spaceship. Elsewhere in the novel, the dictator's operatives contrive a rain of candies into the outstretched hands of young supplicants--to instill the lesson that the nation's "Supreme Guide" is a god who answers prayers instantly and abundantly.

In his turn, although rather belatedly, Boula Boula grasps the harsh lesson that power's glory is terribly fleeting. Arrested and charged with plotting a coup d'etat to unseat the resident deity, he becomes acquainted with the treacherous terrain of power: its fervid paranoia, its driven need to consume its own inner circle, like a snake gorging on its own tail. Even so, Boula Boula remains impervious to the imperative of moral response and crowns his own humiliation by turning into a fawning, mawkishly contrite confessor. In the eyes of the fifteen-year-old Matapari, his uncle's effete admission of guilt and plea for the "Great Leader's" fatherly mercy and forgiveness mark him as a plotter for power. Yet his self-denigration fails to secure his acquittal, or even a commutation of his capital punishment.

Readers might fear that the landscape of Little Boys is denuded of any redeeming moral sagacity, but that conclusion would be misconceived. True, it is evil that is writ large. In some respects, the novel is a nightmarish canvas in which the vilest of men spout Marxism and denounce imperialism but continue to haunt the capitalist capitals of New York, London, and Paris for haute couture, automobiles, and wines. Even so, Dongala takes care to insinuate a countervailing vision, represented in the novel by Matapari's parents. His father, a respected teacher, pours scorn on Boula Boula's blandishments and spearheads a campaign to introduce fuller freedom in the country. When he is arrested for questioning the status quo, the community rises in protest, setting the stage for a decisive confrontation with the duplicitous arrogators of power. There is also Matapari's mother, a petty trader and ardent Christian convert, whose intrepid crusade for the freedom of her loved ones embodies some of the novel's moving moments.

As often happens in Africa (and elsewhere), the victory over the repressive regime turns out incomplete, if not a dud. Released from detention and saved from a certain death, Boula Boula commences yet another self-revision, fiercely proclaiming himself a hero of the insurrection, carting away credit for the repressive regime's fall. The new political leaders set their eyes, as did the discredited rulers, on personal gain.

There is a disturbing verisimilitude to this book, a sense, as one reads it, of being made privy to some harsh secrets of an African nation's painful history. Beyond its immediate setting--Dongala's Congo Republic--Little Boys manages to resonate with the despairing drama taking place elsewhere in Africa. It is impossible to read this book without thinking of Somalia's tragedy or Rwanda's genocidal horror. One thinks of Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's undisguised determination to retain power at all costs, even at the risk of nudging Zimbabwe into anarchy, or of the legendary rapaciousness of Nigeria's generals, a phenomenon that moved the novelist Chinua Achebe to marvel at the resourcefulness with which his country's leaders snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Part of Dongala's power derives from the aplomb with which he writes, the breadth of the narrative ground he covers, and the fashion in which he has cemented a wide fictive territory with a confident mastery of history.n
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Publication:World and I
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2001
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