A World Atop the Ruins

Buffoons on the ground, dictators in space: Emmanuel Dongala and the tragicomedy of Congo

Following the overthrow of President Pascal Lissouba in 1997, civil war raged between Lissouba's loyalists and supporters of the former military ruler, Denis Sassou Nguesso. The war ended in 2000, when Sassou's "Cobra" militia defeated Lissouba's troops, Lissouba fled to the U.K., and Sassou re-declared himself president. Though Sassou recently sponsored a series of internal peace talks, such olive-branch maneuvers are hampered by the fact that Lissouba has been sentenced to death in absentia and a Congolese human-rights group has discovered a mass grave just south of the capital.

Dongala himself is safe from the bloodletting. Shortly after the civil war broke out, a coalition of American writers and politicians (including Philip Roth, William Styron, and Sen. Edward Kennedy) helped pluck him from the chaos and place him at Simon's Rock College in Connecticut, where Dongala currently teaches chemistry and African literature. (France, which had awarded him the rank of Chevalier des Arts et Lettres, declined to provide him a visa.) But before escaping, the author endured the kind of horrors most Americans know only from ten-second news clips--bombings, starvation, the summary execution of friends. Not stuff that is easily spun into humor of any stripe.

Near the end of Little Boys, while watching his country's first democratic National Convention, Matapari declares, "I wanted to see how one rebuilt a new world atop the ruins of a dictatorial regime, a new world in which there would be no more torture, rape, theft, or political murder. I wanted to understand what freedom and justice meant." Neither Matapari nor Mankunku ever reach that understanding, and as I closed the book, I wondered whether Dongala will reach it either.

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