Magazine article The Spectator

Paving the Road to Hell

Magazine article The Spectator

Paving the Road to Hell

Article excerpt

When presented with a 639-page doorstopper which includes 82 pages of closelywritten sources, notes and index, most of us feel a bit like a patient about to swallow a strong dose of antibiotics: 'This isn't going to be pleasant, but it'll be good for me.' First published in Dutch in 2010, translated into French and German, and only now coming out in English, Congo arrives trailing prizes and praise. And yet I quailed.

What I hadn't realised was that David Van Reybrouck, who spent a decade on this extraordinary work, is not primarily a historian. He is a playwright, poet and novelist and, if this translation by Sam Garrett is anything to go by, has a beautiful feel for language (I loved the description of the soilladen Congo river as 'rusty broth'). After a rather slow start, his eye for the arresting human detail, combined with a wry appreciation for a peculiarly Congolese form of gumption, keeps you powering through this panoramic survey of 150 turbulent years.

The story of how King Leopold II carved a colony the size of Western Europe from a Central African river basin, milking it of ivory and rubber before handing it to the Belgian state, which granted hasty independence and paved the way for Lumumba, Mobutu and Kabila pere et fils, has been told before.

If it feels fresh in these pages it is largely thanks to Van Reybrouck's decision to seek out rarely heard first-hand testimony.

It's an approach fraught with risk, as he acknowledges. Memories shift. In closeknit communities, what happened to a distant cousin blurs easily into what happened to you. But Van Reybrouk does his best to buffer his on-the-ground perspectives with documented facts - hence those 82 pages of notes - and the resulting foot soldier's view of great events feels both intimate and immediate.

So we get Papa Nkasi, so old he met the turn-of-the-century prophet Simon Kimbangu; Andre Kitadi, a wireless operator in the Force Publique who spent three months in 1943 trucking from Lagos to Cairo as part of the Allied war effort, and Alphonsine Mpiaka, the first Congolese female paratrooper, trained to parachute by the Israelis.

Congo is not imbued with the blazing anger of some histories of the country, and that comes as a relief. The American writer Adam Hochschild covered that ground so thoroughly in King Leopold's Ghost, which tracked E.D. Morel and Roger Casement's 19th-century campaign to halt the atrocities used to extract booty, there is little to add. …

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