Magazine article Tikkun

Unmasking the African Kurtz: In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz - Living on the Brink of Disaster in the Congo

Magazine article Tikkun

Unmasking the African Kurtz: In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz - Living on the Brink of Disaster in the Congo

Article excerpt

Unmasking the African Kurtz: In The Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz--Living on the Brink of Disaster in The Congo

Mark Jacobson, currently a contributing editor at New York Magazine, is the author of two novels: Gojiro and Everyone and No One.

When Heart of Darkness was first published in three installments in the February, March, and April 1899 issues of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine it is unlikely that even the great Conrad could have guessed that his slim 120-page novella would become the dominant historical/moral narrative of the upcoming century, a tale so preternaturally resonant with the brutal times as to become a modern myth. No work of art seems to have captured the nightmare spirit of the twentieth century quite so dead-on. Nor has any single fictional character cast such a frightening shadow (outside of Dracula, who casts no shadow) as Kurtz, the man who embodied "the horror...the horror." The Kurtz saga has proven so universal, so transportable--with people like Marlon Brando playing a Vietnamese/Cambodian version of the madman in the forest--that it is often forgotten that Conrad was writing about a specific place, the Congo, and time, the beginnings of the Belgian colonial presence, as witnessed by the author himself while travelling upriver in 1890.

Michela Wrong, a former BBC and Reuters reporter, attempts to remind us of these specifics in her new book, In The Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz--Living on the Brink of Disaster in The Congo. Essentially an on-the-ground account of the demise of the fabulously corrupt reign of Mobutu Sese Seko, who came to power in the aftermath of Congolese independence in 1960, Wrong's book also serves as a vessel in which to contemplate both the endurance of the Kurtz myth and some of its more controversial applications.

Mobutu is the centerpiece here, and rightly so. A man who purloined billions of dollars from his country's treasury, sending money and gold to Swiss banks while his potentially wealthy nation fell apart, Mobutu wore leopard-skin hats, built vast palaces, and appeared on television riding a cushion of clouds. None of the so-called Big Men of Africa--the first generation of leaders following the colonial period--compared to Mobutu as a Cold War favorite of the United States. Ronald Reagan often greeted him at the White House; George Bush called him "one of our most valued friends." He presided over the famous "Rumble in the Jungle" boxing match in 1974, prompting even Muhammad Ali, the Greatest, to sing his praises. "What a country," Ali marveled, watching a black pilot while travelling on a Zairian airplane. "Here, black men fly planes. That Mobutu got something going."

Calling himself "The Guide," "The Father of the Nation," "The Helmsman," "The Messiah," Mobutu married a woman who called herself Marie Antoinette. He also changed the name of the country itself, replacing "Congo," a term suffused with mysticism to the white world, with the Africanized "Zaire." By invoking the heritage of the timeless past, Mobutu intended to instill pride in the people and wipe away what he called the "stain of colonial masters." But Zaire turned out to be short-lived. By 1997, Mobutu--exiled to dusty Morocco and ill with cancer--was overthrown by the forces of career rebel Laurent Kabila. The name of the country was changed back to the Republic of the Congo, which, most pointed out, had been derived from the pre-colonial "Kingdom of Kongo" to begin with.

If, as most agree, the rapacious Belgian King Leopold, so hungry for colonies to aggrandize his little European home, was truly the Kurtz of the Congo, then Mobutu was the Kurtz of Zaire. Kleptocrats both, they stole as much as they could before they could steal no more. With the state of things in the former Zaire there may well be more Kurtzes to come. But as Wrong intimates in this chronicle of her six years in central Africa, the Kurtzian figure is a dangerous catchall. Pure evil is never exactly pure. What happened in Zaire/Congo is something more messy than mystical, less archly dramatic, and, in the end, a lot sadder. …

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