A Landscape of Broken Dreams - Congolese Novelist Emmanuel Dongala Limns the Tragic Political Biography of His Homeland, a Nation Conceived in Hope but Nurtured (Thanks to the Treachery of Its Leaders) into Hopelessness

By Ndibe, Okey | The World and I, August 2001 | Go to article overview

A Landscape of Broken Dreams - Congolese Novelist Emmanuel Dongala Limns the Tragic Political Biography of His Homeland, a Nation Conceived in Hope but Nurtured (Thanks to the Treachery of Its Leaders) into Hopelessness


Ndibe, Okey, The World and I


Okey Ndibe is the author of the novel Arrows of Rain (Heinemann, 2000). An editorial writer at the Hartford Courant, he is at work on a second novel, Native Tongues.

In reading the work of Emmanuel Dongala, one is compelled to consider the fraught question of the Congolese novelist's relation to the tragic strains of his history. A writer with an established reputation in Francophone Africa and a rising profile in France, Dongala is only recently reaching an English audience. The translations of two of his three novels, the highly mythological The Fire of Origins and Little Boys Come From the Stars, with its sardonic and sometimes savage depiction of a postcolonial African state fumbling its way from one disaster to another, are revealing and damning. Each book is executed with a certain awareness of the motions of world events, infused with an admirable command of African history. The author's flair for interbraiding magic and ordinary events in his plots is considerable.

Though Dongala is primarily French-speaking (and writing), his novels have benefited from his obvious immersion in the oral storytelling tradition as well as his exposure to American literature. His work is strongest at those moments when he manages to write with verve and strike a judicious balance between action and introspective vignettes. Conversely, the most uneven (and therefore least engaging) sections in his novels occur when he gets carried away with abstract ideas.

One such vulnerable moment can be found in a too-long disquisition on water in a section of Little Boys. Such reflective digressions, often described as ratiocination, are common fare--and often prized--in French fiction. Even so, the ideas in a novel are often best worked out through the interplay of dramatic events. If one of Dongala's major flaws as a writer lies in an occasional indulgence in the exposition of abstract ideas, it ought to be said in his defense that he is far from making a habit of this compulsion. In fact, what appears clear from Little Boys, when it is contrasted with The Fire of Origins, is that he is already weaning himself away from expository and essayistic flourishes, instead focusing on imbuing his fiction with dramatic tension. That bodes well for the career of a writer who, it is obvious, has a lot of stories to tell.

One hazard of being an African fiction writer is to be confronted with a reality so obdurately surreal and unrelentingly fantastic and strange--often, indeed, quite defiant of logic--that the very act of writing can seem either pointless or else particularly urgent. Imagine, for example, the impossible odds against a novelist who sets out to make sense of Rwanda's 1994 genocide, in which ethnic Hutus massacred an estimated 800,000 Tutsis (and some of their Hutu protectors). Or one who seeks to do a fictional treatment of Sierra Leone's ten-year-old civil war, marked by the debauched glee with which rebels of the Revolutionary United Front have hacked off the limbs of thousands of civilians, including infants. Or a writer determined to distill a coherent narrative out of Africa's farcical cast of characters, men with names like Mobutu Sese Seko, Idi Amin Dada, Macias Nguema, Emperor Jean Bedel-Bokassa, Sani Abacha, or even Foday Sankoh--who, until his arrest late last year, was the guardian spirit of the murderous rebels in Sierra Leone.

Clearly, the task for such a writer is to find a way to hold the anger sufficiently at bay, the better to ensure that the story he has to tell is not overwhelmed by sheer outrage or undermined by the sense that his lone choice is to merely discharge a stenographic function, one inferior to the journalist's trade. It is a challenge to which many would-be African writers fail to rise, sometimes because it demands so much intellectual discernment and familiarity with history, to say nothing of a proper appreciation of fiction's transformative power. Some writers surrender to despair and lapse into silence. …

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