Since Joseph Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness in 1899, the country which is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been the subject of many novels, stories and reports. Authors such as André Gide, Graham Greene, Ryszard Kapuściński, Norman Mailer and V.S. Naipaul have written about it, not to mention historians such as Gérard Prunier, Adam Hochschild and Michela Wrong.
It seems clear, however, that David Van Reybrouck was not scared by possible comparisons when he wrote Congo, the epic history of a people. Eventually the book, first published in Dutch, enjoyed success in countries like France, the United Kingdom and Italy: a rather unexpected outcome, since Van Reybrouck is not primarily a historian, but a playwright, poet, novelist and journalist.
Its author’s peculiar background, however, might well have been one of the reasons for the success of the book, which is elegantly written and contains some really unforgettable images and characters. As for the first point, it is hard to find the most notable example: is it the description of the approaching shore in the opening lines of the first chapter? Or the failed rocket launch which Van Reybrouck sees as an iconic representation of Mobutu’s regime? Or the scene featuring Mobutu himself and Patrice Lumumba on a scooter in early 1959 (“They ride together in the muggy afternoon air … Two years later, one of them will help to murder the other”)? When coming to the witnesses the author interviewed, however, there is no possible option but Etienne Nkasi, an old Congolese Van Reybrouck met in Kinshasa and who claimed to be born in 1882, thus being 126 years old at the time of the interview. Although ultimately unverifiable, the claim will turn out to be at least plausible and Nkasi will become an invaluable source of information for the writer.
A fascinating style and interesting individual stories alone, nevertheless, would not have made a good book, but Congo is also a well-documented piece of research, as shown by its 82 (out of 639) pages of notes, sources and index. Moreover, the relevance given to figures such as Nkasi, Alphonsine Mpiaka (the first Congolese woman paratrooper ever, trained by the Israelis) and many others, is part of a more comprehensive effort, well expressed by the subtitle of the book: “the epic history of a people”. Reybrouck, in fact, wants to give an account of one and a half centuries, taking as much as is possible the point of view of those who are most frequently forgotten by historians: the common people. That is why, during 10 trips to the country, he interviewed more than 500 people, also relying on some family memoirs (his father worked in the country as a railway engineer in the 1960’s) to write a book that, as has been widely said, reads like a novel while being as rigorous as an academic essay.
After making a few references to Congolese prehistory and to the first European expeditions in the area, van Reybrouck’s account becomes more detailed when coming to King Leopold II of Belgium’s efforts to secure a chunk of Africa as a personal dominion. The Congo Free State years are dealt with extensively, without sparing the most distressing details of the brutal way in which the Belgians dealt with the local population, concerning in particular the exploitation of Congolese rubber. The author adopts the same approach when writing about the years of the official colonial rule, the first and second World War, Lumumba and the struggle for independence, the Mobutu regime and its end, the two Congolese conflicts and – finally – the growing role China played in the country in recent years.
Even in the last pages, in which the author describes his trip to the Far East to meet the Congolese traders working in Guangzhou, the book never loses its unique, vivid style which makes it a worthwhile read even when Van Reybrouck’s theses become more questionable. This is the case of his view of Lumumba, seen as little more than a demagogue deemed to fail because of his errors, even if the responsibilities of the Belgians, the CIA, white mercenaries and Western-backed secessionists in Kasai and Katanga in his death are duly acknowledged. Leaving aside the author’s personal opinions on single events and individuals, however, it is impossible to disagree with Congo’s main thesis: the country is more than the “world’s storehouse”: it has “played a crucially important role in the tentative definition of an international world order” and will probably continue doing so for many years to come. Understanding its past, thus, is a necessity and van Reybrouck’s book is at least a good starting point for this. (D.M.)
David Van Reybrouck, Congo.The Epic History of a People, HarperCollins Publishers. New York, 2014, 639 pp.