It's hard to think of a contemporary American novelist who cares about the fate of his country as much as the Congolese author Emmanuel Dongala seems to care about his. In most American fiction, politics is little more than a backdrop for character action, and authors seem more concerned with psychological drama than with national destiny. Dongala is weighted the other way. Though his characters are engaging enough, they function as archetypes. What keeps the reader flipping pages, and, I suspect, what keeps the author writing, is a driving preoccupation with the fortune of a place that has endured colonialism, communism, and show democracy. What, I found myself asking, could possibly happen to this country next?
The African nation in question remains unnamed in Dongala's novels, but its history closely parallels that of his native Republic of Congo. Born in 1941, Dongala was 19 years old when his homeland won independence from French colonial rule. He was 27 when scientific socialism emerged, and 50 when the corruptions of communism yielded to the corruptions of democracy. Last year, in an interview with the Boston Globe Magazine, Dongala stated that he was moved to take up writing when he saw so much of Africa succumb to the predations of political greed. "It's my job as a writer to tell this story," he explained, and a look at his two novels released this spring confirms that the author's strongest impulse is that of the distraught chronicler.
Originally published in France in 1987, The Fire of Origins (Lawrence Hill Books) begins before the first Frenchmen appeared in the Congo and ends some 70 years later when what Dongala calls "a modern State, with its arms, its laws and the apparatus of its Party" holds the country in communism. Each chapter recounts a different phase in the nation's history: the brutal rise of the rubber and railroad industries; the natives' forced participation in WWII; the development of an African resistance movement; the founding of a fragile democracy and the submission to totalitarianism. Our guide through these cataclysmic events is one Mandala Mambou Mankunku Maximilian Massini Mupepe, a sort of African Zelig who seems to acquire a new name at every stage of his life. Dongala loves scientists (he himself holds two doctorates in chemistry), and his heroes are all inquisitive autodidacts. Mankunku is no exception. Born in an isolated banana forest and set apart from the other villagers by his green eyes, Mankunku learns everything he can (hunting, blacksmithing, tribal medicine) before the appearance of French colonialism thrusts him into a life as an industrial laborer and railway engineer.
In the hands of a more doctrinaire ideological writer, such a novel could quickly devolve into a series of set pieces designed to prove how White Men have destroyed Innocent Africa. Dongala, however, rejects any neat formulas, and his structure undercuts any tendency toward romanticism or nostalgia. Even before the Frenchmen arrive, Mankunku's independent thinking butts up against the rigid hierarchy of his village. There are wars and power struggles long before the laying of the first railroad track. One of Dongala's main points is that African collaborators are almost as much to blame for the continent's devastation as Europeans are, and he reserves special venom for these traitors. The only murder that the novel seems to sanction is that of Mankunku's uncle Bizenga, a swaggering tribal chief who sells his entire village into indentured servitude.
Like The Fire of Origins, Dongala's most recent novel, Little Boys Come from the Stars (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), operates on two levels, as the critical history of a nation and as the story of a man's quest for knowledge. But if the structure underlying the two works is the same, their styles diverge widely. Where Fire booms its points through the voice of an oracular, third-person narrator, Little Boyssneaks them in through the befuddled vision of a perplexed adolescent. The book's hilariously naive narrator, 15-year-old Matapari, is a modern child who enjoys music videos and Japanese comic books. As he recounts his life to date, we get a vision of his country's progress that is both mordantly satirical and rife with the kind of political absurdity found in the fiction of Russian Victor Pelevin.
The main generator of these follies is Matapari's Uncle Boula Boula, a communist ladder-climber who combines the moral integrity of Rambo with the shrewd eloquence of the best spin doctor. As the right-hand man of the Party's Providential Guide, Boula Boula engineers a cheerful parade of unemployed citizens and the lucrative construction of an enormous stadium that will be used only once. His best idea: a mandatory subscription that requires all citizens to donate money for a project to launch a giant, gold-plated bust of the national dictator into orbit, so that every child in the nation can "point to it and say: 'Our Supreme Guide watches over us!'"
Beneath the gags, however, lingers the weight of real outrage and despair--so much so that I wonder if Dongala will be able to muster the same side-splitting levity in his next novel. Since the French publication of Little Boys Come from the Stars, the Republic of Congo has suffered another political seizure.
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.