In The Footsteps of Mr Kurz by Michela Wrong (2000)

Comparing Michela Wrong and David van Reybrouck

David van Reybrouck’s account of Congo’s modern history is basically an orthodox chronological account and political analysis interspersed with interviews with the many veterans and eye witnesses he has tracked down and spoken with at length.

Wrong’s account feels completely different, less chronological or, indeed, logical, more thematic. Instead of historical analysis, she brilliantly conveys what it felt like to live in Zaire under Mobutu as she sets about systematically exploring and describing different aspects of Zaire society and culture. Her vividness of approach is demonstrated by the way the book opens with the fall of Mobutu in 1997, going light on political analysis and strong on vivid descriptions of what it felt like to live in a crumbling, corrupt third world country.

Chapter one dwells on the role played in so many African states by key international hotels in their capitals, in Rwanda the Mille Collines, in Zimbabwe the Meikles, in Ethiopia the Hilton, in Uganda the Nile, hotels where presidents mingle with mercenaries, dodgy diamond deals are struck between smartly dressed middlemen, security goons lurked in the background muttering into their lapel mics, and the corridors were cruised by the most expensive hookers in town. And how it felt to be one among the pack of foreign correspondents living in Kinshasa’s Intercontinental Hotel as rumours swirled, troop carriers arrived, the president’s son turned up with a pack of soldiers furiously trying to track down the men who betrayed his father. And then suddenly, overnight, all the military figures switched to wearing tracksuits and casual wear in anticipation of the arrival of the rebel troops.

That’s the kind of picture painting and atmosphere Wrong is ace and conjuring up. How a country’s decline can be measured by the way the expensive carpeting in its hotels starts to smell of mildew, the lifts stop working, the blue paint on the bottom of pools comes off on the swimmers’ feet. Van Reybrouck takes an essentially academic approach spiced with extensive interviews. He is a historian whereas Wrong is a journalist, with a telling eye for detail and snappy one-line quotes.

Obviously, in this 314-page book she tells us an awful lot about the origins, rise and fall of the Mobutu dictatorship which lasted from 1965 to 1997, but it is the fantastically evocative way she conveys what it felt like that makes this book such a classic.

Van Reybrouck gives a detailed explanation of the ethnic tensions in eastern Congo which were exacerbated by the Rwandan genocide and then the constellation of political forces which led the Rwandan and Ugandan presidents to decide to invade eastern Congo and create a military coalition (the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, the AFDL) and select as its leader the long-time Maoist guerrilla leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila. This is to the good. His account is worth reading and rereading.

But Wrong tells you what it felt like to be in Kinshasa as the rebel army drew ever closer. The panic among Mobutu’s cronies, the so-called mouvanciers up in their gated mansions in the smart Binza district, the rush by the city’s moneyed classes to get visas for foreign destinations, the way the various western embassies practised evacuating their staff across the river Congo to Brazzaville, capital of the once-French colony the Republic of Congo which was unaffected by Mobutu’s fall.

Van Reybrouck gives you high-level analysis, Wrong gives you the sweat and the fear, the paranoia. She tells us everyone knew the game was up when the grizzled old piano player who’d been playing cocktail jazz in the bar of the Intercontinental for as long as anyone could remember one day disappeared.

She describes how the shopkeepers and population prepared for the mass looting which always accompanies regime change, and passes on the advice of an old hand that it’s best to select in advance one and only one item you want to loot and, once the anarchy begins, focus on getting that and only that. Wrong selects a $1,000 leather jacket for when the great pillaging begins.

She describes the way rumours are spread by ‘Radio Trottoir’, Pavement Radio i.e. word on the street. She conveys the mad, feverish atmosphere of a city about to be taken by rebel forces (p.27).

Another difference is that van Reybrouck sees the history of Congo as a tragedy, or series of tragedies, and he affects the reader with his sense of high seriousness. Wrong, on the other hand, has a lively sense of humour and an eye for the absurd detail. She finds almost everything about Zaire farcical, but then she appears to find all of Africa farcical and hopeless.

As for rebuilding the impression given by the scaffolding and myriad work sites dotted around Kinshasa is misleading. The work has never been completed, the scaffolding will probably never be removed. Like the defunct street lamps lining Nairobi’s roads, the tower blocks of Freetown, the faded boardings across Africa which advertise trips to destinations no travel company today services, it recalls another era, when a continent believed its natural trajectory pointed up instead of down. (p.20)

As this quote indicates, another difference is that whereas van Reybrouck’s account is focused with laser-like precision on the history of just the Congo, Wrong’s anecdotes and comparisons freely reference the many other African countries she’s visited and worked in as a foreign correspondent. There’s a lot more international comparison and perspective. Wrong visits places around Congo but also Brussels to interview historians, to visit the Congolese quarter, and Switzerland to track down some of Mobutu’s luxury properties.

And whereas van Reybrouck is optimistic, on the side of Congo’s bloodied but resilient people, Wrong is both more humorous and more pessimistic. According to her, the story is the same all across Africa, one of unstoppable decline and fall.

Talking to the melancholic Colonel, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the sense of tragic waste, of crippled potential that so often sweeps over one in Africa. (p.178)

In Ronan Bennett’s novel The Catastrophist the Belgian colonials who describe the Congolese as ‘children’ who need order, discipline and control and will make a horlicks of their country if granted independence are condemned as racist bigots – so you must never say anything like that. However, Wrong’s book freely refers to African politics as farcical, its politicians as clowns, and that, apparently, wins prizes.

At times, too many times, politics on Congo resembled one of those hysterical farces in which policemen with floppy truncheons and red noses bounce from one outraged prima donna to another. ‘I’m the head of state. Arrest that man!’ ‘No, I’M the head of state. That man is an imposter. Arrrest him!’ (p.66)

So it’s OK to mock Africans as long as you use the correct phraseology and attitude. Calling them children is a no-no; calling their countries farcical, absurd, ludicrous, surreal, Alice in Wonderland – that’s fine.

And perfectly acceptable to be tired and bored of the absurdity of Africa’s rulers, the comical proliferation of rebels and freedom fighters and guerrilla movements, the bleak iteration of yet another massacre or round of ethnic cleansing somewhere on this blighted continent, like the western media’s news producers and sub-editors ‘shaking their heads over yet another unfathomable African crisis’ (p.7). Africa is for Wrong, ‘a disturbing continent’, ‘Africa, a continent that has never disappointed in its capacity to disappoint’, whose countries brim with ‘anarchy and absurdity’ (p.10).

When the AFDL’s representatives started calling the BBC office in Nairobi in late 1996, claiming they would march all the way to Kinshasa, journalists dismissed them with a weary shrug as yet another unknown guerrilla movement, the length of its constituent acronyms only rivalled by its obscurity, making wild plans and farcical claims. Africa is full of them: they surface, splinter into factions – yet more acronyms – only to disappear with equal suddenness. (p.245)

Several times she mentions Liberia’s drugged freedom fighter who wore wedding dressed and pink lipstick as they mowed down innocent civilians and gang-raped the women. She describes the teenage  FAZ recruits preparing to defend Kinshasa who were so drunk they could barely lift their grenade launchers. When the AFDL rebel soldiers arrive they turn out to be mostly teenagers wearing flip-flops or no shoes at all. Kabila promised to relinquish power once he’d overthrown Mobutu but of course does nothing of the sort. In turn Kabila was himself assassinated (in 2001), replaced by a family member even more corrupt and the whole of East Congo engulfed in a huge, often incomprehensible and seemingly endless war. Farce and tragedy.

The Latin Quarter hit, ‘I’m hearing only bad news from Radio Africa‘ seems as true when Wrong was writing in 2000 or now, in 2021, as when it was released in 1984.

Chapter by chapter

Introduction

Wrong arrived in Zaire as a foreign correspondent in 1994, found her way around, did features on Mobutu and his corrupt circle, the prostration of the economy (‘a country reverting to the Iron Age’, p.31) the uselessness of the army, the universal vibe of fear and poverty. Less than three years later, in autumn 1996, the AFDL seized eastern Congo and began its systematic assault on the country, seizing the mining centre of Lubumbashi in the south while other forces marched on the capital Kinshasa in the west. Wrong is perfectly placed to report on the paranoia of the last days, to fly out to the hot spots, to interview soldiers, shopkeepers, street traders, as well as army officers and government spokesmen.

So the introduction gives us tasters, snapshots: Wrong flying to the pretty lakeside town of Goma which was pillaged by its own inhabitants when the occupying army left. Wrong wandering through the rooms of Mobutu’s legendary palace at Gbadolite, now ruined and looted, the five black Mercedes, the Ming vases.

And she explains the title which is a quote from Joseph Conrad’s classic novella Heart of Darkness about the madness and barbarism he, personally, encountered, in the Congo Free State in 1890, epitomised by the fictional character of Mr Kurz, the high-minded exponent of civilisation who is sent to man an ivory station up the Congo, far from civilisation, and decays and degrades to become an epitome of barbarism and nihilism. Wrong sees herself literally following in Kurz’s footsteps as she explores all aspects of the absurd rule of Mobutu in the mid-90s, then watches his regime collapse in ruins.

Chapter 1

Plunges us into the endgame with a wonderfully evocative description of the atmosphere in Kinshasa and the Intercontinental Hotel where all the foreign correspondents stayed, during the last few days in 1997 October 1997 before Laurent Kabila’s AFDL took the city and Mobutu and his cronies were forced to flee. Snapshots of a city under siege, with brief explanations of Mobutu’s rule, the character of the AFDL and its leader Kabila, their determination to clean up the pigsty and abolish corruption.

Chapter 2

Gives a brisk but effective summary of Stanley’s exploration of the Congo (with backstory about Stanley’s biography) and King Leopold’s disgustingly barbaric regime of cruelty and exploitation, which he called the Congo Free State, 1885 to 1908 (with backstory explaining why Belgium was a relatively new country – founded in 1830 – and its king wanted a colony so as to be taken seriously by the big boys.)

In Brussels she visits the Belgian scholar Jules Marchal, once a whip-wielding colon himself, who has devoted his life to editing and publishing definitive records of the Congo Free State. She visits the Royal Museum for Central Africa and is shocked by the complete absence of references to the atrocities the Belgians carried out there, and to learn that Belgian colonial history is not taught in Belgian schools (p.55).

She takes a tour of buildings by the noted Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta, before pointing out that all the raw materials crafted into these beautiful buildings – the hardwood, onyx, marble, and copper – all came directly from the forced labour of Congolese blacks. Horta was rewarded for his services to Belgian architecture with a barony.

She describes how many of the Free State’s exploitative practices continued after the colony was handed over to Belgian government rule in 1908, including forced labour and use of the dreaded chicotte, the whip made of dried hippopotamus hide. It was only after the Second World War that Congo became less brutally exploitative and a tiny black middle class began to emerge, but if anything the colour bar or informal apartheid against this new breed of évolués or ‘evolved’ blacks grew worse.

Which moves into a description of the appearance, sights and sounds and mentality of the Congolese quarter in Brussels. She ends by making a strong case that Leopold’s atrocities, many of which continued under Belgian colonial rule, acculturated an entire region for 85 long years to abject humiliation, subservience, black market, illegal operations and corruption. Prepared the way, in other words, for just such a dictator as Mobutu.

No malevolent witch doctor could have devised a better preparation for the coming of a second Great Dictator. (p.57)

Chapter 3

Interview with Larry Devlin, the long-retired former CIA station chief in Kinshasa, who emphasises that Wrong only saw the regime at its bitter, pitiful end. She never knew the young, vibrant, charismatic Mobutu or knew the situation of anarchy between elected politicians which his 1965 coup rescued the country from (p.61).

She makes clearer than van Reybrouck or Bennett that Lumumba had actively invited the Soviets to give arms and advisers to crush the secessions. Devlin thinks Lumumba was never a communist, but he was naive. He thought he could invite in thousands of communist advisers at no cost. Devlin says he’d seen that happen in Eastern Europe after the war: your country falls to a communist coup and then Moscow is in charge. So Mobutu’s first coup of September 1960 was not just to bring political peace but to keep the Congo out of Soviet hands – and it worked. Soviet bloc personnel were given 48 hours to leave the country (p.67).

His account emphasises not just that, when the UN and US were slow to respond, Lumumba turned to the Soviets to supply him with arms and strategic advice to put down the secession of two major provinces – but that people of Devlin’s generation had seen this happen before. This was how the Soviets effected their coups in Poland and Czechoslovakia. This is how they established their tyrannies, by taking control of the army and placing personnel in key administrative and political positions. It had never been done in Africa before, but the Americans weren’t about to sit back and watch the Soviets make the experiment. So that’s why the Americans, backed by his political enemies within the country, decided he had to be eliminated. President Eisenhower personally approved CIA plans to assassinate Lumumba (p.77).

Then she backs up to give us the hasty run-up to independence from Belgium in June 1960, the army mutinying for better pay and promotion within days, triggering a mass exodus of the Belgian administrators and technicians who kept the country running, the political rivalry between ‘lethargic’ President Kasavubu (p.66) and passionate Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and how the deadlock between them was broken by young Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, previously Lumumba’s personal secretary, who Lumumba himself had put in charge of the army and who, very bravely, faced down the army mutiny and restored order. Mobutu was encouraged then and ever afterwards by America.

A detailed look at the boyhood and young manhood of Joseph Mobutu from the Ngbani tribe, one of the smaller of Congo’s 250 ethnic groups, emphasising his brightness, reasonableness and extraordinary charisma; educated by Belgian priests, expelled for being a trouble-maker, a few years in the Force Publique rising to rank of sergeant, then contributing (anonymous) articles to new magazines set up for the Congolese, before he committed to becoming a journalist and then came to the attention of Lumumba who was looking for a secretary (pages 68 to 76). Devlin, the CIA man explains how Mobutu was really the best man available when he staged his 1965 coup.

Soon after the 1965 coup Devlin was posted to Vietnam. When he returned to Zaire in 1974 he found a drastically changed man and country. Surrounded by yes men, drinking pink champagne in his palaces, Mobutu was ‘already round the bend’ (p.82).

Chapter 4 Economics

In the immediate aftermath of the coup there were hangings, a new secret police was set up and so on. But the fundamental fact about Mobutu’s regime was he was an economic illiterate. Therefore his sole economic policy was to loot and plunder his country’s natural resources (when the going was good in the late 60s and early 70s) and then creaming the top off huge loans from the World bank and aid agencies. In other words, he didn’t know how to create or run a modern economy. He built a few high-profle white elephants, like the Inga dam, but when the builders left Zaire had no technicians to run it and there was never any coherent plan to create the infrastructure to distribute the electricity to where it was needed. Thus Congo has the greatest hydro-electric potential in the world in the shape of its huge and mighty river – and yet is a country whose cities suffer continual power cuts and outages.

He took up the creed of Pan-Africanism pioneered by Kwame Nkrumah, first Prime Minister of Ghana (who made himself president for life in 1964 and was overthrown by a military coup in 1966 supported by the CIA).

Mobutu promulgated his policies of authenticité, forcing everyone in the country to drop their European Christian names and adopt African names, renaming the state Zaire, renaming Leopoldville Kinshasa and Elizabethville Lubumbashi. He forced everyone to stop wearing European suits and mini skirts and adopt traditional African dress (p.90). He persuaded promoters to hold Miss World and the Ali-Foreman boxing match in Zaire (described in detail in van Reybrouck’s book).

In other words, he demonstrated how facile it is to address ‘cultural’ issues, fuss over ‘identity’ and language and culture. Meanwhile, in the absence of an economic or development plan, the economy tanked and the infrastructure rotted. The first years of his rule were bolstered by the high prices for Zaire’s raw materials created by the Vietnam war, but the end of the war in 1974 combined with the oil crisis to plunge Zaire into an economic hole it never crawled beck out of (p.94).

In 1973 he launched ‘Zaireanisation’ i.e. all foreign held businesses were confiscated by the state with a view to handing them over to ‘the people’ (p.92). The only problem was that ‘the people’ turned out, as when Robert Mugabe did the same thing 20 years later in Zimbabwe, to consist entirely of cronies and clients of Mobutu, who needed to be paid off or kept onside. None of them had a clue how to manage anything and ran businesses large and small into the ground, selling off the assets, living high off the proceeds, then needing further bribes or corruption money when they ran dry. $1 billion of assets were confiscated then squandered. It was gangster economics, ‘Alice in Wonderland finances’ (p.124).

And run on a massive system of cronyism. Mobutu needed so much money because he had to distribute gifts to all his important stakeholders in the manner of a traditional chieftain. Mobutu bought properties for himself around Europe, but he encouraged a system where hundreds of thousands of people scrabbled into the state administration, into the army or civil service, and then used their positions to embezzle, steal, demand bribes and generally be as corrupt as possible. By the mid-1990s Zaire had 600,000 people on the state payroll, doing jobs the World Bank calculated could be done by 50,000 (p.97).

The ambassador to Japan, Cleophas Kamitatu, simply sold the Zairian embassy and pocketed the proceeds. France sold Zaire a fleet of Mirage jets and ten years later, Defence Ministry officials simply sold them and kept the money (p.256). Ministers allotted themselves huge monthly salaries, lavish per diems, and insisted on having two of the very latest Mercedes, and their example was copied all the way down through their ministries, in state-run businesses and onto the street. Everyone stole everything they could, all the time. That’s what a kleptocracy is.

Chapter 5 Congo’s ruined mineral industries

Wrong flies to Katanga to report how nationalisation, corruption and utter mismanagement ran Congo’s mineral industries into the ground, beginning with astonishing stats about the country’s mineral huge wealth, then on to how Mobutu nationalised the Belgian mining corporation, Union Minière, consolidating it into the state-run company Gécamines. Sounds good, doesn’t it, one in the eye for the old imperial power, claiming the nation’s resources for the nation.

Except the nation never saw any of the profits. By 1978 the central bank had ordered Gécamines to transfer its entire annual profit of $500 million directly into a presidential bank account. By 1980 American researchers discovered that company officials were stealing $240 million  a year from Gécamines. Not only stole but smuggled, with huge amounts of diamonds, gold and other precious metals never reaching the books because they were stolen and smuggled abroad. In such an environment, nobody at any level gave a damn about investing in the company, in its stock and infrastructure, and so everything the Belgians had bequeathed the Congolese slowly rotted, decayed, was stolen, till the entire plants were rusting skeletons.

Wrong tours these sites giving us eerie descriptions of entire towns full of abandoned workings, derelict factories, rusting railways. That’s what she means when she described the entire country as slipping back into the Iron Age.

Wrong testifies to the decrepitude of the Shituri plant, describes the white elephant of Inga dam project built solely so Kinshasa kept control over Katanga. Pays an extended visit to the diamond town of Mbuji Mayi in the neighbouring province of Kasai, and interviews traders who explain the deep-seated corruption at every level of the diamond trade and ‘controlled’ by the Societe Miniere de Bakwanga (MIBA). She interviews its long-standing government representative, Jonas Mukamba (p.118) who paid Mobutu a hefty slice of the profits and in exchange was allowed to run Mbuji Mayi as he liked.

Eventually the infrastructure of Mbuji Mayi crumbled and collapsed, as had the mining infrastructure of Katanga. World mineral prices slumped but also, what was being produced was now being almost entirely smuggled. The rake-off from official trade collapsed because official trade collapsed. As the 90s progressed Mobutu lost his power of patronage.

She visits the central bank and the alleyway behind it jokingly referred to as Wall Street because it’s lined with unofficial street money changers. As Mobutu borrowed more and more from abroad and printed more money inflation soared and the currency collapsed. Wheelbarrows full of notes. A 500,000 zaire (the currency) note was printed to general resignation. Printing money led to mind-boggling inflation 9,800% and printing of the 500,000 zaire note. Mobutu had presided over the utter ruination of the economy.

Chapter 6

The collapse in Kinshasa epitomised by 1960s high-rise ministries without functioning lifts. The collapse of public phone system which was replaced by mobile networks, Telecel, for the wealthy. The collapse of the health system exemplified by Mama Yemo hospital which employs guards to prevent patients leaving without paying their bills.

Wrong pays a visit to Kinshasa’s small nuclear reactor, built on sandy soil liable to landslips, hit by a rocket during Kabila’s takeover of power, which had no security at all on the day she visited, and where one or two nuclear rods have recently gone missing.

Chapter 7

An explanation of ‘Article 15’, which is, apparently, the much-quoted ironic dictum by which most Congolese live their lives.

When the province of Kasai seceded soon after independence, it published a 14-article constitution. So many ethnic Luba people returned to the region expecting to become rich that the exasperated secessionist ruler made a speech in which he referred to a fictional, hypothetical 15th article of the constitution, which basically said, in French, ‘Débrouillez-vous!’ meaning ‘get on with it’, ‘figure it out yourself’, ‘deal with it’ or ‘improvise’. Since 1960 has become a universal expression throughout the country to explain ‘the surreal alternative systems invented by ordinary Zaireans to cope with the anarchy’ (p.11) they find themselves living in.

And so Wrong gives an overview of the hundred and one street professions of a people struggling to live in an economy with no jobs and no wages. Wrong gives an extended description of the Mutual Benefit Society run by the disabled street people of Ngobila Beach and the tiny loopholes in the law they exploit to smuggle and sell items.

She meets a fervent Kimbanguist, the religion described by van Reybrouck. Van Reybrouck’s account of Kimbanguism is much more thorough, lucid and logical, but Wrong’s is an in-your-face explanation via one particular believer, Charles, a Zairian who combines high moral principles (‘we are never naked’) with the profession of ‘protocol’ or fixer of bribes at Kinshasa’s notorious N’Djili International Airport.

Chapter 8

Le Sape, Congo’s equivalent of Mods, snappily dressed proles. The origin and purpose of the Society of Ambiencers and Persons of Elegance (SAPE), as explained to Wrong by self-styled ‘Colonel’ Jagger (p.176) as a protest against poverty and the drabness of the constricting African authenticité style demanded by Mobutu.

Then she gives a portrait of the ex-pat community of European idealists and chancers and romantics who came out in the 1950s or 60s and stayed on past independence and into the Mobutu years. This focuses on the example of Daniel Thomas a French construction worker who has repeatedly tried to start small farming businesses only to be repeatedly looted and ruined by his neighbours, and now all of his money is tied up in a farm he can’t sell and who has lost all hope. His wife is exhausted and disillusioned and wants to leave this sick land but they are stuck.

Chapter 9

Wrong details the vast sums loaned or given to Zaire over the years by international banks and especially the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. She interviews insiders who explain that during the 1960s, 70s and 80s very few conditions were attached to vast loans which, predictably, disappeared straight into the bank accounts of Mobutu and cronies.

Chapter 10

Details of the vast palace Mobutu had built for himself at Gbadolite in the jungle in the north of the country, right on the border with Central African Republic. It’s said to have cost $100 million, with an airstrip big enough for Concorde to land on. Musical fountains, ornamental lakes, model farm, gilt, marble. This is what a lot of Western aid paid for. Eventually it came to seem too big and imposing so… he had another one built a few miles away at Kwale, with an olympic size swimming pool,

The story of Pierre Janssen who married Mobutu’s daughter, Yaki, on 4 July 1992, and so became the only white person in Mobutu’s inner circle and a few years later revealed all in a kiss-and-tell memoir. The Moules flown in from Belgium, huge bouquets of flowers flown in from Amsterdam, cakes flown in from Paris along couturiers and barbers.

The weirdness that after his first wife, Marie Antoinette, generally reckoned to be a restraining influence on him, died in 1977, he married his mistress Bobi Ladawa, and took as a new mistress…her twin sister, Kossia. They socialised together, were seen together. Wrong speculates that there might have been a voodoo, animistic belief that the twins would ward of the nagging spirit of his first wife, for twins are regarded in Africa as having totemic powers (p.223).

Chapter 11

A brisk account of the Rwandan genocide which is in a hurry to explain the longer and more significant consequence, which was the creation of vast camps for Hutu refugees just across the borders in Zaire and how these camps, supported by huge amounts of foreign aid, were reorganised by the thuggish Hutu genocidaires who set about planning their revenge attack on Rwanda. By 1995 there were some 82,000 thriving enterprises in the camps which had become mini-towns (p.239), no surprise when you consider that the UNHCR and aid organisations had pumped at least $336 million into them, more than the Kinshasa government’s total annual operating budget.

In early 1996 the Hutu leadership undertook a mission to ethnically cleanse the North Kivu region of its ethnic Tutsis, massacring those it could find, forcing the rest to flee. In late 1996 it was south Kivu’s turn to be cleansed. The local Tutsis, known as the Banyamulenge had watched the Hutus slowly take control of the region, launch revenge raids into Rwanda, and had called on the UN and Kinshasa to neutralise the Hutu genocidaires but the UN did nothing and Mobutu gave them tacit support.

Which is why in October 1996 four rebel groups, with the backing of the Rwandan and Ugandan governments formed the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL) and took the fight to the Hutus, forcing the genocidal Interahamwe to flee west and majority of the refugees to traipse back into Rwanda.

Chapter 12

The main thing about the so-called First Congo War is there was hardly any fighting. The Zairian army, the Forces Armées Zairoises, the FAZ, was a joke and ran away at the first threat of conflict. The only violence came from the FAZ as they looted, burned and raped their way through the villages en route back to Kinshasa. There were a few set-piece battles but for most of the AFDL forces the war consisted of a very long march through jungle, sometimes using Zaire’s decaying roads, mostly using the jungle paths which have replaced tarmacked roads in many areas.

Wrong interviews Honoré Ngbanda Nzambo Ko Arumba, for five years the feared head of Zaire’s security service who explains why the FAZ was so useless. It all stems from Mobutu’s basic management technique which was to keep the army divided between different factions, to create a series if confusingly titled security and military units, to have a multitude of generals and security ministers and to keep them all guessing. To set them in deliberate rivalry, to give them contradictory orders, to create permanent confusion, suspicion and paranoia. Why? Simples: to prevent any single person or unit from becoming a centre of real power and so a threat to his rule.

Also, most of these units were kept down in Bas Congo, close to Kinshasa. Zaire had almost no border guards or forces. Why? Because the army was not designed to fight other countries or protect the country’s security; it was an internal security machine whose sole raison d’etre was protecting the president.

Another reason was simple corruption. The many generals and senior ranks Mobutu created, solely with a view to placating the numerous tribes and/or keeping prominent figures onside, to a man practiced various forms of corruption and graft, the simplest of which was to take the soldiers’ pay for themselves. Which explains why soldiers went without any pay at all for months on end, sometimes half a year. Which was the central reason why they mutinied and not only mutinied but went on great rampages of looting; they were claiming their back pay, taking what they though society owed them. That was the root cause of the two great Pillagings of 1991 and 1993.

And then there was greed raised to the level of comic farce. Most officers or army administrators had been selling off stock for cash for years. Thus the FAZ had out of date East European guns, the wrong ammo for their guns. Initially army commanders in Kivu sold the best of their munitions to the AFDL for a quick profit, arms and ammo the AFDL then turned back on the FAZ, who turned and ran.

Lastly, the neighbouring countries turned against Mobutu. Rwanda and Uganda were the AFDL’s main backers, but the Angolan government had for decades resented Mobutu’s support for the UNITA rebels and took the opportunity to send forces into Zaire to crush their base camps. Zambia co-operated by letting the AFDL cross its land to reach the south. Zimbabwe and Eritrea sent the rebels modern arms and Tanzania turned a blind eye to rebel bases on its territory.

By March 1997 the AFDL had taken Kisangani, next came Mbuji Mayi, then Lubumbashi, capital of the mining region in the south. It took just seven months from the launch of their campaign till the first AFDL troops arrived outside Kinshasa prompting the atmosphere of paranoid panic Wrong describes in the first chapter of this book.

Chapter 13

As so often happens with tyrants, Mobutu’s overthrow coincided with his final fatal illness. It’s as if their imminent fall from power triggers a collapse in their bodies. King Leopold II lasted barely a year after he handed the Congo Free State over to the Belgian government (February 1908) and in an eerily parallel way, the AFDL’s seven-month advance on Kinshasa coincided with 66-year-old Mobutu’s diagnosis with prostate cancer.

As the rebel forces relentlessly advanced westwards, Mobutu was in and out of the most expensive private clinics in the world in Switzerland. Thus his personal intervention and decision making was almost entirely absent during the crucial months. When he returned to his capital in March 1997, he could barely walk and had to be supported from the plane.

On 16 May 1997, following failed peace talks chaired by President of South Africa Nelson Mandela, Mobutu fled into exile and Kabila’s forces proclaimed victory. Mobutu died in exile in Morocco 3 and a half months later, 7 September 1997.

This is where Wrong places a fascinating interview with Mobutu’s son by his second wife Bobi Ladawa, Nzanga Mobutu. He mourns his father and insists he loved his family and loved his country. Wrong gives her account of the very last few days, especially negotiation with the Americans who tried to broker a deal with Kabila, partly through Nzanga’s eyes, partly through the account of US ambassador Daniel Simpson who took part in the actual discussions, and Bill Richardson, the troubleshooter US President Bill Clinton handed the tricky task of persuading Mobutu to relinquish power and tell his troops not to fight the AFDL as it entered Kinshasa, a confrontation which would have led to a bloodbath, anarchy and another Great Pillaging (p.271).

What comes over is the absolute centrality of the Americans as power brokers in the situation, but the refusal of a very sick Mobutu to formally abdicate and of Kabila to make any concessions. Right at the last his generals abandoned him. The knackered Russian Ilyushin jet Mobutu and his close family flew out of Kinshasa to Gbadolite in was peppered with machine gun fire by his very pissed-off personal guard, the Division Spéciale Présidentielle (DSP) who he was abandoning to their fates (p.279).

Chapter 14 Ill-gotten gains

A few months after Kabila took power, he set up the quaintly named Office of Ill Gotten Gains (OBMA) to identify Mobutu’s looted assets, including his multiple properties abroad (p.286). Wrong meets the first director of OBMA, former nightclub owner turned rebel soldier Jean-Baptise Mulemba lists and visits some. Three years after his fall, Wrong visits his large Swiss mansion at Les Miguettes, now falling into neglect.

Epilogue

The epilogue reminds us that this book was published in 2000, when Congo was still in the toils of what became known as the Second Congo War and Kabila was still president. She was not to know Kabila would be assassinated in 2001 and the war drag on for years.

Wrong shows us the dispiriting process whereby the initial high hopes about him and his crusade to undo corruption soon faded, as he found himself having to resort to all Mobutu’s old techniques for trying to hold his wartorn country together, namely creaming money off foreign loans, the mining companies, and even introducing tougher taxes on ordinary Congolese, in order to keep the regional governors and all manner of fractious stakeholders onboard.

Anyway, as Wrong’s book went to press in 2000 it ends with a survey of the many depressing tokens which indicated that Kabila was falling into Mobutu’s old ways, only without the dictator’s charisma or shrewdness. Blunter. Cruder. She calls Kabila a ‘thug’ (p.300).

And she ends with an assessment of whether Mobutu’s missing billions will ever be recovered. The short answer is No, for the simple reason that they don’t exist. All the evidence is that millions went through his hands but en route to the key stakeholders, political rivals, regional warlords, he needed to pay to follow him.

At a deep structural level, the corruption and gangster economy run by Mobutu and then Kabila may be the only way to keep such a huge country, divided into starkly different regions, populated by some 250 different ethnic groups, together.

God, what a thought. The population of Congo in the 1920s when the first estimates about how many died during Leopold’s rule, was said to be 10 million. By the date of independence 1960 described in Ronan Bennett’s novel The Catastrophist it had only risen to 15 million or so. When Wrong’s book went to press in 2000 she gives Congo’s population as 45 million. And now, in 2021? It is 90 million! Good grief. What future for a ruined country overrun by its own exploding population?

France

The French come out of this account, as usual, as scumbags. France was ‘Mobutu’s most faithful Western friend’ (p.287), ‘always the most loyal’ of his Western supporters (p.258). From the 1960s Zaire came to be regarded by the French government as part of its ‘chasse gardée’:

that ‘private hunting ground’ of African allies whose existence allowed France to punch above its weight in the international arena. (p.196)

The French believed they understood the African psyche better than the Anglo-Saxon British or Americans. They clung on to belief in their mission civilisatrice despite their not-too-impressive record in Vietnam and Algeria. Since the 1960s the French government has promoted la francophonie “the global community of French-speaking peoples, comprising a network of private and public organizations promoting equal ties among countries where French people or France played a significant historical role, culturally, militarily, or politically.” (Wikipedia)

The practical upshot of this high-sounding policy was that the French government promised Mobutu their undying support, no matter how corrupt and evil he became. The French government funded schools and media – so long as they promoted the French language. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, French president from 1974 to 1981, was a great friend of African dictators and secured them many loans which just happened to coincide with a building firm run by Valery’s cousin winning quite a few contracts to build Zairean ministries and bank buildings and so on (p.131). Very handy.

It meant military aid, too. When rebels invaded Shaba from Angola, France parachuted legionnaires in to fight them. During the First Pillaging of 1991 France flew in troops to police the streets.

After his downfall, when the OBMA set out to track down the billions of dollars Mobutu had sequestered abroad, the lack of co-operation from the French government stood out.

Confronted with the AFDL’s legal and moral crusade, the silence from France, Mobutu’s most faithful Western friend, was deafening. (p.287)

But France’s standout achievement in the region was to protect the Hutu instigators of the great genocide of Rwanda. This is a hugely controversial subject, which I’ll cover in reviews of specifically about the Rwanda genocide, but in brief: the French government supported the Hutu government. The French president was personal friends with the Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana, so when his plane was shot down and the Hutu government went into panic mode, the French government’s first response was to support them and to carry on supporting them even as they carried out the 100-day genocide. When the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front invaded Rwanda to put an end to the genocide, France continued to support the Hutus and helped the genocidaires escape, along with millions of other Hutu refugees into eastern Congo, where they continued to support them, even after the evidence was long in the public domain that they had just carried out the worst genocide since the Holocaust.

Because for the French government, all that matters is the glory of France, the prestige of France, the strength of the Francophonie. Morality, justice, human rights, all come a poor second to France’s unwavering commitment to its own magnificence.

Hence France’s unwavering support for the evil kleptocratic dictator Mobutu right up till his last days; hence France’s support of the Hutu government, even after it became clear they were carrying out a genocide. A guilt France has taken a long time to face up to, has finally admitted, albeit hedged with reservations and caveats.

Repeated stories

Stories, gossip and educational facts are learned through repetition. Wrong repeats the description of big statue of Henry Morton Stanley, long ago torn down and lying rusting outside a warehouse in Kinshasa. Several times she refers to the two great Pillagings of 1991 and 1993.

She repeats the story about the Congo’s store of uranium dug from the mines of Shinkolobwe being sent by a foresightful colonial administrator to New York where it was discovered by scientists from the Manhattan Project and refined to become the core of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima (p.140).

Her chapter about King Leopold’s rape of Congo under hypocritical claims of freeing it from slavery and barbarism repeats much of the material I’ve read in Hochschild and van Reybrouck. She repeats Hochschild’s mentions of Congolese historian Isidore Ndaywel e Nziem’s estimate that 13 million died or fled the region during Leopold’s rule.

Van Reybrouck thought the tragic story of Lumumba betrayed by his secretary and friend Mobutu was like a Shakespearian tragedy. Wrong thinks it is Biblical like Cain and Abel, two beloved brothers who end up betraying each other. It certainly haunts the imagination of novelists and historians and commentators in a way the later, long rule of Mobutu rarely did, and the rule of Laurent Kabila not at all.

Credit

In The Footsteps of Mr Kurz by Michela Wrong was published by Fourth Estate in 2000. All references are to the 2001 paperback edition.


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett (1997)

Everything since independence has been a sick joke. (p.206)

The Catastrophist slowly builds into a gripping novel on the strength of Bennett’s powerful evocation of its historical setting, the Belgian Congo in the fraught months leading up to and following its independence on 30 June 1960, and in particular what David van Reybrouck calls the Shakespearian tragedy surrounding the murder of its first elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, in January 1961.

However, front and centre of the novel is the story of the narrator’s doomed love affair with a passionately political woman 13 years his junior which gives rise to numerous passages of purple prose and florid digressions on the nature of love which I found almost impossible to read.

Let’s deal with some of the negatives first, before getting onto the muscular strength of the positives.

A novel about a novelist

There are a number of reasons to dislike this novel. For a start it’s a novel told in the first person about a novelist who’s struggling to write a novel (p.12) and spends an inordinate amount of time worrying about the special problems of being a writer, about being so concerned about finding the right words that he is too self conscious to really live, to give himself to the world, to commit… and so on and so on – a subject so hackneyed and tiresome that several times I nearly gave up reading the book.

My third eye, my writer’s eye, monitors every word and gesture. It makes me fearful of my own censure. I can only hold back. (p.108)

Because he is so obsessed with his status and role as a ‘writer’ he feels like an ‘outsider’, like a permanently alienated observer of everything going on around him, and makes sure we know it by continually repeating the fact:

  • I am surrounded – always – by my own distance. (p.10)
  • I am the trained observer…
  • I am not truly part of this…
  • I move away to stand alone, apart, removed from the people…
  • …my ever-evasive presence…
  • [I am] the habitual onlooker… (p.49)
  • I have spent too much time in the cheerless solitude of my own ego.
  • Is this all I have ever been? A selfish, egotistical watcher? (p.268)

It feels like a very lived-in, worn-out, stereotyped character and attitude for a writer, for a fiction.

And my words, what worth have they? From my youth I have lived with disguises and…I have forgotten what my real words are. I have lived disguised from myself, in permanent doubt of my emotional authenticity; and since I am never alone with myself, since I am always watching the character playing my part in the scene, there is no possibility of spontaneity. (p.129)

Accompanying this tremendously narcissistic self-consciousness goes a self-consciously ‘poetic’ style, but of a particularly ‘modern’ variety. During the 1980s the ever-more popular creative writing courses spread the gospel of cutting back on style, removing adjectives, keeping it simple, understating feeling and description in order to produce a taut, clear, plain prose which, however, gives the impression of being charged with suppressed feeling. Less is more. Or at least that’s the intention.

When it doesn’t work, however, it comes over as just plain and boring, particularly if the author turns out not to have much to say, or lacks a real feel for the language. I’m afraid this is how Bennett reads to me:

I go down to the crowd and find myself next to Madeleine. The water-skiers weave and circle, a pied kingfisher hovers twenty feet above the water. There are men in military uniform on the far bank. (p.41)

I wake when she gets up to the bathroom. She urinates, then pads sleepily flat-footed back to bed. She yawns and lets out a small noise as she stretches. She breathes deeply, settling again under the sheet. (p.27)

There is a woman in London. Her name is Margaret. I am not proud of this. (p.49)

I pull out a chair for Madeleine. She takes up her things and comes over. She orders orange juice, coffee, toast and scrambled eggs. She leans back in her chair and crosses her tanned legs. She is wearing a black one-piece swimsuit under her robe. She draws on her cigarette and exhales a jet of smoke. I can’t see her eyes behind the shades. (p.77)

It’s not just that it’s pedestrian, it’s that it’s pedestrian with pretensions to be the kind of taut, understated, reined-in style which secretly conceals profound passion, which I described above as being the regulation, modern, creative-writing class style. It’s the pretentiousness of its deliberate flatness which I find irritating.

But just so we know he doesn’t always have to write this flatly, Bennett jazzes up his basic plain style with 1. occasional flashy metaphors and 2. with turns of phrase which are intended, I think, to come over as sensitive and perceptive, particularly when describing the ‘doomed’ love affair which is the central subject of the novel. 1. Here’s a few examples of his sudden flashes of metaphor:

The pitted sponge of jungle gives way to scrub and sand. The sun is red in the east. (p.9)

Jungle does not look like a sponge. Sponges are sandy colour. Jungle is a thousand shades of green. See what I mean by the deliberate understatement in fact concealing the wish to be taken as poetic.

I might have begun to resent my exclusion from the ribbons of her laughter had I not enjoyed seeing again her social display. (p.23)

‘Ribbons of her laughter’ feels like it is written to impress and it ought to impress but… I’m not impressed. In a way the numb, dumb, plain style is deployed precisely so as to be a background to occasional fireworks but I find Bennett’s fireworks too self-consciously presented for our admiration.

There was a piercing veer to the December wind… (p.72)

2. Here’s some examples of the turns of phrase which are meant to indicate what a sensitive, perceptive soul the writer is, how alert to the subtleties of human relationships, in other words a continuation of his self-pitying sense of his own specialness as a writer, an outsider, a ‘trained observer’.

She is not an early riser, but this morning is different. The air tastes of imminence, there are patterns to the clouds and she can see things. I sit on the bed, silent, feet on the floor. (p.29)

‘The air tastes of imminence.’ There are many phrases like this, rising from the numb, dumb, basic style to signpost the author’s sensitivity to mood and impression. Most of them occur around the subject of his doomed love for passionate, small, sensitive Inès.

Our disagreements are fundamental, our minds dispar, but I live in our differences: my blankness draws on her vitality. She exists me. (p.74)

This type of linguistic deformation wins prizes, literally and is clever and locally effective i.e it gives the reader a frisson of poetic pleasure. But I couldn’t help feeling it wouldn’t be necessary to use rare words or deform syntax like this if he had a more natural ability to express himself with words’ usual meanings and syntax. Instead, moments like this seem designed to show off his special sensitivity, the same sensitivity which condemns him to always be standing apart, at a distance from everyone else. ‘I am not truly part of this’. ‘I move away to stand alone, apart.’ Oh, the poor sweet sensitive soul!

Older man in love with passionate, idealistic, younger woman

It is 1959. James Gillespie is an Irishman living in London. He is a writer. He writes novels.

‘Zoubir tells me you’re a writer,’ de Scheut says. ‘What do you write?’
‘Novels,’ I say.

He has been having an affair with a passionate Italian journalist thirteen year his junior, Inès Sabiani (p.39). (When I was a schoolboy and student I ‘went out’ with girls. It was only at university that the public schoolgirls I met introduced me to the bourgeois domain where people ‘have affairs’, a phrase designed to make hoity-toity people’s lives sound so much more interesting and classy than yours or mine. The way Bennett describes James and Inès’s affair is a good example of the way people in novels often live on a more exalted plane than the humble likes of you and I. Indeed, part of the appeal of this kind of prize-winning novel for its Sunday supplement-reading audience is precisely the way it makes its readers’ lives feel more cosmopolitan, exciting, refined and sensitive.)

The daughter of a communist partisan (p.158), Inès is herself a communist, a passionate, fiery, committed idealist. (Of course she is. Why does this feel so tired and obvious and predictable?) James, her older lover, senses that he is losing her and pines like a puppy to restore their former intimacy. (Of course he does. It feels like I’ve read this tiresome story hundreds of times.)

Why did I react so acerbically? The answer is not hard to find. I am being squeezed out of her orbit. I have come a thousand miles to pin her down, but I see there is no chance of that in these crowded, coursing times. I am bitter. There is no place for me. (p.47)

Inès is a journalist and has been sent to the Belgian Congo to write magazine pieces about the countdown the growing political unrest and calls for independence. The main narrative opens as James flies in to Léopoldville airport, takes a taxi into town and is reunited with his passionate Italian lover. He immediately realises she has become passionately, idealistically committed to the cause of independence and, in particular, to the person of the charismatic Congolese politician, Patrice Lumumba. James is losing her to The Cause.

I look at her with the whole fetch of her story behind my eyes, but she will not yield, she will not soften. Why is she being like this? She used to love me. (p.91)

I wanted to give him a sharp smack and tell him to grow up.

James moves into Inès’s hotel room, they have sex, lie around naked, he watches her pee, they have baths, showers, get dressed, go to parties and receptions. But their former intimacy is somehow lacking and James is puzzled, hurt, frustrated and worries how to restore it. A wall separates them. But then, he realises they are completely different personality types. He is a realist, she is an idealist.

What is real to me is what can be seen; I understand above all else the evidence of the eyes. She is moved by things that cannot be described, that are only half-glimpsed, and when she writes… it is  not primarily to inform her audience, but to touch them. (p.47)

Inès is chronically late for everything, she has no sense of direction, she comically mangles English words and phrases (p.90). It’s almost as if Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus 🙂

His beloved is so special

Oh, but she is so special, this Inès, and inspires the narrator to special feelings about her specialness and his specialness.

She divides me. Her words divide me. Her language refuses the disciplines of the eye, of history, of the world as it is. Her imagination turns on symbol and myth. She lives in the rush of all-embracing sympathy, and sometimes, listening to her song, my lulled motions slip their noose and follow in the blind career of her allegiance… (p.45)

The prose does this, turns to mush, every time he thinks and writes about his beloved, turns into extended dithyrambs to Inès’ passion and intelligence and insight and way with words and commitment. She is small and fragile. She has small breasts. She has a ‘small, slight’ body (p.72), she is light as a feather (p.117), she has a little bottom (p.131). She is ‘small and trembling’ (p.224). She has a tiny hand (p.69), a tiny fist (p.116) just like Mimì in La bohème but her eyes are big and shining. Life is too hard for such a sensitive soul.

All this is contrasted with James’s stolid, pedestrian practicality. He is self consciously ‘older, wry and amused’ by her idealism, by her political passions (p.70). They first met in Ireland where she had come to do interviews and become passionately, naively excited about the IRA and their campaign for  Irish unification. James tells us he will bide his time before filling her in about the complicated realities of a divided Ireland. He thinks she lives in a simplistic world of good and bad, and feels his lack of commitment, his wry amusement at all types of political passion, is sadly superior.

This is the binary opposition they present in Congo: she young, idealistic and passionate about the cause of independence, increasingly and dangerously involved with the key people; he, older, disillusioned, sardonically superior to political engagement, incapable of any commitment, permanently standing to one side.

James’s sentimental worship of Inès, the committed journalist and passionate woman of the people, closely resembles the sentimental worship of his caring, altruistic wife, Tessa, by the older, jaded protagonist of John le Carré’s novel, The Constant Gardener. In both novels the attitude seems to me sentimental, maudlin, patronising and, arguably, sexist.

The Graham Greene paradigm

As to the setting, well, that is genuinely interesting. Not many anglophone novelists have written about the Congo except, of course, Graham Greene, in his gloomy 1960 novel A Burnt-Out Case. About ten of the many fulsome blurbs on The Catastrophist‘s cover compare Bennett to Greene. He must have gotten heartily sick of the comparison.

But what I find most Greeneian about The Catastrophist is not the ‘exotic’ setting but the extreme predictability about almost every aspect of the story. Jaded older man in love is with vivacious younger woman. Frank descriptions of love making undermined by sadness that he is losing her. These are straight out of Greene’s book-length account of a doomed romance in The End of The Affair (1951) and of the doomed romance in The Quiet American (1955).

A few chapters into the narrative Inès takes James to a swanky reception/garden party hosted by one of the most influential local Europeans, Bernard Houthhoofd (p.35). Here James meets a selection of European colonialists, colons to use the French word, who are straight out of central casting, the kind of chorus of secondary characters which seem super-familiar from Graham Greene’s later works, and from all novels of this type.

  • There is the rich host himself, sleek and unperturbed.
  • There is the snobby or arrogant or ignorant middle-class white woman, Madeleine, who thinks all natives or indigènes (as the French-speaking Belgians call them) are ghastly, they are children, they need a strong leader, they are nowhere near ready for independence etc (p.79).
  • There is the decent businessman, de Scheut, who is worried for the safety of his children in these dangerous times.
  • There is Zoubir Smail, a Lebanese-born diamond merchant (p.268).
  • There’s Roger who is, alas, not the lodger but the thoroughly decent English doctor.
  • There’s a journalist, Grant, the epitome of the English public schoolboy with his height, condescension and floppy haircut (p.113).
  • And there is the crop-haired, big-headed American, Mark Stipe (p.39) who may or may not be working for the CIA.

Could it possibly be more like a Graham Greene novel with a cast almost as stereotyped as an Agatha Christie novel? Or like his heir, John le Carré, with his descriptions of privileged ex-pat communities in places like Hong Kong (The Honourable Schoolboy) and Nigeria (The Constant Gardener).

The whole thing feels programmatic and predictable.

Symbolism

The garden party is a good example of another aspect of the novel which is that, although completely realist in style and conception, Bennett is careful to give his scenes symbolic resonance. Thus the garden party at Houthhoofd’s place doesn’t take place in Léopoldville, capital of the Congo (the city which, six years later, Mobutu would rename Kinshasa) but on the other side of the river, in the French colony of Congo (south of the river was the Belgian Congo, north of the river was the French Congo).

The point being that when all the guests become aware of a disturbance back on the Belgian side, some kind of protest which turns into a riot and then the police opening fire on the crowd, they observe all this at a great distance, only barely perceivable through a pair of binoculars one guest happens to have on him. It is a symbol, you see, of the great distance which separated the pampered lives of the European colons from the harsh lives of the locals.

This and various other moments in or aspects of the book feel as if they’ve been written with the Brodie’s Notes summary in mind, with events and characters written to order to fit into sections called Themes, Character, Symbolism, Treatment and so on, ready for classrooms full of bored GCSE students to copy out. All the way through, I had the sensation that I’d read this book before, because the plot, incidental events and many of its perceptions about love and politics feel not only familiar, but so schematic.

In its final quarter The Catastrophist develops into quite a gripping narrative but never shakes the feeling that it has been painted by numbers, written to order, according to a checklist of themes and ideas and insights which had to be included and checked off.

(The riot isn’t a random occurrence. Bennett is describing the protest march which turned into a massacre which led the Belgian authorities to set up a commission of enquiry – which predictably exonerated the police – but was important because it led directly Lumumba’s arrest and imprisonment for alleged incitement in November 1959.)

Sex in the bourgeois novel

Sex is everywhere in the bourgeois novel. One of the main reasons for reading middle-class novels is the sensitive, caring way in which elaborate, imaginative sex between uninhibited and physically perfect partners routinely occurs. Which is all rather unlike ‘real life’ in which my own experience, the experience of everyone I’ve ever slept with or talked to about sex, everything I’ve heard from the women in my life, from feminists, from advice columns, and newspaper articles and surveys, suggest otherwise. In the real world people struggle in all kinds of ways with their sexuality, not least the fact that people are often too ill, sick, tired, drunk or physically incapacitated to feel horny. Most women have periods, some very painful, which preclude sex for a substantial percentage of the time. According to the most thorough research, about 1 in 5 people have some kind of sexually transmitted disease. In other words, sex in the real world is often physically, psychologically and emotionally difficult and messy.

Whereas the way the male protagonists of novels by Graham Greene or David Lodge or Howard Jacobson or Alan Furst (the most eminent literary shaggers I can think of) or, in this case, Ronan Bennett, can barely exchange a few words with a woman before they’re between the sheets having athletic, imaginative sex with women who are physically perfect and have deep, rewarding orgasms. It’s hard not to conclude that this is the wildest male fantasy but at the same time one of the central appeals of the modern novel. Respectable sex. Wonderful and caring sex. The kind of sex we’d all like to have but mostly don’t.

The narrator tells us that Inès climaxes quickly and easily (p.131). Well, that’s handy. And also that Inès prefers to slow love-making right down, hold her partner in position above her, and then rub her clitoris against his penis until she achieves orgasm with short quiet yelps. Once she has climaxed, penetrative lovemaking can continue until the man climaxes inside her (p.72). Well, I’m glad that’s settled, then.

Setting – the Belgian Congo at independence

Anyway, to focus on the actual setting for a moment: the novel is set in the Belgian Congo in late 1959 and covers the period of the runup to independence on 30 June 1960 and then the 6 months of political and social turmoil which followed and led up to the kidnap and murder of the country’s first Prime Minister, the fiery speechmaker and anti-colonial activist Patrice Lumumba.

Bennett deploys a series of scenes designed to capture the tense atmosphere of the time and place. It’s an early example of Bennett’s realist/symbolical approach when he’s barely touched down and is being driven into town, when the car is hit by a stone thrown by an unseen attacker. It is a first tiny warning of  the resentment felt by blacks to privileged whites, an indicator of the violence latent in the situation. Later he and other guests emerge from a restaurant and see a menacing crowd of blacks at the edge of the white, colonial part of town, who escalate from chanting to throwing stones and then into a full-blown attack on shops and cars. Then there is the garden party scene I’ve described, where the guests witness a riot across the river and some of them spy, through the binoculars, the police throwing bodies of the protesters they’ve shot into the river.

Back in their hotel room after the party/riot Inès punches out an angry impassioned description of the protest/massacre on her typewriter to send to her communist magazine, L’Unità.

The American CIA character, Mark Stipe, steadily grows in importance, until he is nearly as central as the  American character, Alden Pyle, in Greene’s Quiet American. Having him work for some, initially unnamed, US government agency means he can quickly brief the narrator on the Real Situation, or at least as the Americans see it. Stipe lets James read their files about the general economic situation (Congo relies entirely on the raw resources mined by the Union Minière) and the leading political figures – Patrice Lumumba head of the MNC political party; Joseph Kasavubu, head of the Alliance des Bakongo (ABAKO) and chief of the Bakongo people; Antoine Gizenga, leader of the Parti Solidiare Africain.

Early on Stipe bumps into James in a bar and surprises him by taking him to see Lumumba’s (boring, ordinary) suburban house, but then driving on to a dingier part of town, where he locates a safe house, owned by one Mungul, where it turns out that Lumumba is actually hiding. Stipe briefly introduces James to Lumumba, before disappearing into another room for a private convo.

In other words, Stipe plays the role of Exposition, feeding the narrator all the important facts about the political situation so that he (and the reader) can quickly get up to speed.

But he also plays another important role, that of binary opposite to idealistic Inès. Stipe is the slangy, cynical, seen-it-all realist. After talking to him, James feels he knows what is really going on, and this makes him feel superior when he goes back to the apartment and talks to Inès who is all fired up about Freedom and Justice. With our Brodie’s Notes hat on, we could say the novel asks the question: who is right? Cynical Stipe or idealistic Inès? Which side should jaded old James commit to?

(This points to another way in which the conventional modern novel flatters its readers: it makes us feel we understand what’s going on. It makes us feel clever, in the know, well-connected whereas, in my experience of political journalism, no-one knows what’s going on. As the subsequent history of the Congo amply demonstrates…Novels which present neat moral dilemmas like this are almost by definition unrealistic, because most of us live our entire lives without being faced with really stark choices.)

Stipe and Lumumba share a driver/fixer named Auguste Kilundu (p.252). He is one of the rare African voices in the novel. Through him Bennett displays a lot of background information, namely about the évolués, the tiny educated elite which emerged in the last decade of Belgian rule. In 1952 the colonial administration introduced the carte d’immatriculation which granted blacks who held it full legal equality with Europeans. It required a detailed assessment of the candidate’s level of ‘civilisation’ by an investigating commission who even visited their homes to make sure the toilet and the cutlery were clean.

Bennett makes this character, Auguste, the proud possessor of a carte d’immatriculation and another vehicle for factual exposition for he can explain to the all-unknowing narrator the tribal backgrounds and rivalries of the main Congolese politicians. Having handily given us all this exposition, Auguste is then depicted as an enthusiastic supporter of Lumumba’s MNC party which aims to supersede tribalism and create a post-tribal modern nation (pages 85 to 88).

The plot

Part one: Léopoldville, November 1959

Middle-aged, Northern Irish novelist James Gillespie flies into the Belgian Congo in November 1959 to be with his lover, Italian communist journalist, Inès Sabiani. He quickly finds himself drawn into the drama surrounding the run-up to Congo’s hurried independence, forced along by growing unrest and rivalry between native politicians, with a small cast of characters European and Congolese giving differing perspectives on the main events. Central to these is the American government agent Mark Stipe.

James witnesses riots. He sees little everyday scenes of racial antagonism, the daily contempt of the colons for the blacks they insultingly call macaques or ‘monkeys’. He writes articles for the British press about the growing calls for independence and, as a rersult, is spat on and punched in restaurants by infuriated colons. His little cohort of liberal Belgians and ex-pat British friends support him. He grows increasingly estranged from Inès who is out till all hours following up stories, befriending the locals, getting the lowdown and then punching out angry articles on her typewriter for L’Unità. They both watch Lumumba being arrested by the nervous colonial police in front of a crowd of angry blacks following the October riot.

The narrative then skips a few months to the opening of the Belgo-Congolese Round Table Conference which commenced on 20 January 1960. Then skips to 27 February, the date on which the conference announced that full independence would be granted on 30 June 1960. They go out to watch a black freedom march but Inès helps turn it into a riot by walking arm in arm with Lumumba’s évolué driver, Auguste. The sight of a white woman walking with a black man prompts bigoted colons to wade into the crowd and abuse her, and to drag Auguste off and give him a beating. James wades in to protect Inès and has a brief punch-up with a big whitey, before managing to take her out of the mob, though he can do nothing to save Auguste who is beaten to the ground by a furious white mob.

For a period following the riot, Inès is ill, confined to bed, vomiting and losing weight. James is quietly pleased about this as she is restricted to contact with him, ceases her political activities and gives him hope their love will be rekindled. They hadn’t been sleeping together but now, on one occasion, they have sensitive soulful sex of the kind found in sensitive novels about sensitive people designed to thrill sensitive readers.

James and Inès attend an MNC rally in the Matongé stadium in the build-up to the pre-independence elections (held in May 1960). Stipe invites James to go on a long road trip with him and Auguste to the province of Katanga in the south-east. On the journey Stipe shares a lot about his personal life (unhappily married) and motivation.

On the journey it also becomes clear that Auguste is changing and is no longer so sheepish and submissive. Inès has told James that Auguste has not only joined Lumumba’s MNC but been appointed to a senior position. James is surprised; he thought him an amiable simpleton. On the road trip Stipe loses his temper with Auguste because, he admits, he doesn’t want him cosying up to Lumumba and getting hurt. En route they come across abandoned burned villages. The Baluba and Lulua tribes are fighting, a foreshadowing of the huge tribal divisions and ethnic cleansing which were to bedevil the independent Congo.

They meet with Bernard Houthhoofd at his beautiful property in Katanga. Bennett gives us facts and figures about Katanga’s stupefying mineral wealth. Over dinner Stipe and Houthhoofd list Lumumba’s failings: he smokes dope, he screws around, but chief among them is that he is taking money from the Soviets. A senior official from the MNC, the vice-chairman Victor Nekanda, is at this dinner and promises to betray Lumumba and set up a rival party, a symbol of the kind of two-faced African politician, all-too-ready to sell out to Western, particularly, American backers.

On the long drive back from Katanga to the capital they come to a village where they had stopped on  the outward journey, and find it burned to the ground in tribal violence, every inhabitant killed, many chopped up. They discover that the kindly schoolteacher who had helped them has been not only murdered but his penis cut off (p.175). Premonitions of the future which independence will bring.

On his return to Léopoldville (abbreviated by all the colons to Leo) James has a blazing row with Inès, throwing all the accusations he heard about Lumumba in her face (dope fiend, adulterer, commie stooge). She replies accusing him of lacking heart, compassion and morality and being the dupe of the exploiting colonial regime and its American replacement.

She also accuses him of denying himself and his true nature and for the first time we learn that James’s real name is actually Seamus and he that he has taken an exaggeratedly English name and speaks with an exaggerated English accent because he is on the run from his own past in Ulster, particularly his violent father who beat his mother. Aha. This family background explains why James sees the worst in everyone. Explains why he can’t afford to hope – it’s too painful, he (and his mum) were let down by his violent father too many times.

This blazing row signals the final collapse of their relationship. Inès moves out and James descends into drunken, middle-aged man, psycho hell. He drinks, he loses weight. Stipe and de Scheut take him for meals, offer to have him come stay. Just before the elections in May 1960 he can’t bear to stay in the empty apartment, moves to a rented room, writes Inès a letter begging forgiveness. Grow up, man.

Part two: Ireland and England

Part two leaps back in time to be a brief memoir about James’s aka Seamus’s Irish family – his father, William, a good-looking English graduate who swept his optimistic Catholic mother, Nuala, off her feet, and slowly turned into a maudlin, wife-beating drunk. Seamus serves in the army in the Second World War, goes to university, moves to London to complete a PhD about 17th century England. The narrative dwells on the unhappiness of his parents’ own upbringings and then the humiliations and unhappiness they brought to their own marriage. It is grim, depressing reading, conveyed in Bennett’s plainest, starkest prose.

One day, budding academic James picks up a novel in a second hand shop in London, starts reading, can’t stop, reads more, buys more novels, reads obsessively and decides to become a writer, abandons his PhD, meets a young publisher who encourages him, blah blah.

A novelist writing a novel about a novelist writing about how he became a novelist. Could anything be more boring? All painfully earnest, serious, sensitive, not one bloody joke.

Obviously, the purpose of this brief digression is to shed light on the narrator’s psychology and why he fell so hard for Inès and why he was so devastated when she permanently dumped him after their big argument. Those with an interest in unhappy Irish childhoods will love this section, but I was relieved to find it mercifully short, pages 187 to 202.

Part three: Léopoldville, November 1960

I.e. the Irish digression allows the narrative to leap six months forwards from May 1960 when we left it. It is now five months after independence was achieved (on 30 June 1960), after five months of chaos, army mutinies, riots, regional secessions, ethnic cleansing, economic collapse, all of which have led up to the first of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu’s coups, on 14 September.

The narration resumes five weeks after Mobutu’s coup. (It is important to be aware that Mobutu had himself been appointed the new Congo Army’s chief of staff by Lumumba himself and, when the troops mutinied 4 days after independence, he had been charged with dealing with the mutiny and then the series of nationwide crises which followed in quick succession. So Lumumba put his friend and former secretary into the position which he then used to overthrow, imprison and, ultimately, murder his old boss.)

As the chaos unfolded everyone told James to flee the country, as 30,000 Belgians did after the army mutiny and riots of July, but he stayed on and heard Mobutu declare his coup in September and arrest Lumumba.

Now the narrative follows James as he dines with Stipe, the American ambassador and other furtive Yanks, presumably CIA, who now dismiss Lumumba as a commie bastard. The historical reason for this is that Lumumba asked the UN for help putting down the secessionist movements in Katanga and Kasai and, when they sent a few peacekeepers but said they wouldn’t directly intervene, a panic-stricken Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union which immediately gave him guns and lorries and planes i.e. he wasn’t himself a communist, he was taking help from whoever offered it.

The conflict came to a head on the 14 September when the new nation had the surreal experience of hearing President Kasavubu on the radio sacking Lumumba as Prime Minister, followed an hour later by Prime Mininster Lumumba sacking President Kasavubu. It was this absurd political stalemate which Mobutu found himself called on to resolve. Hence he stepped in himself to take control and then, under pressure from the Belgians but especially the Americans, to place his former friend and boss under house arrest.

Knowing his days were numbered, Lumumba begged for UN protection, so – in the present which the novel is describing – his house is now surrounded by blue helmets, themselves surrounded by Congo Army forces. If the UN leaves, everyone knows Lumumba will be murdered, in much the way his followers are now being rounded up and liquidated.

Because this kind of schematic novel always reflects political events in personal events, it is no great surprise, in fact it feels utterly inevitable, when Stipe tells James that his lady love, Inès, is now ‘having an affair with’ Auguste, Stipe’s former chauffeur and friend, who has apparently risen to heights in Lumumba’s MNC having spent a month being indoctrinated in communist Czechoslovakia.

Right from the start of the novel we’ve been aware of James’s attraction to the solid, big-breasted, bigoted colon Madeleine. Now we learn that, on the rebound from Inès, James is fucking her shamelessly, alone in her big house, regularly. ‘Fuck’ is the operative word because Madeline enjoys BDSM and eggs James on to be rougher, harder, swear, shout abuse, slap her. Obviously he enjoys it at the time but later broods, despises himself and wishes he had Inès back.

The difference between the cruel sex with Madeleine and the sensual sex with Inès is as schematic as everything else in the novel and obviously signals the transition from the pre-independence spirit of optimism and the post-independence spirit of cynicism and violence.

Something happens half way through this final long section: the novel begins to morph into a thriller. Out of the blue Inès makes James’s deepest wish come true and contacts him… but not to beg forgiveness and say how much she loves him, but to turn up on his doorstep, collapsing from malaria and begging him to go fetch Auguste from the village outside Léopoldville where he’s hiding and bring him back into town so he can catch a secret flight from the airport which has been arranged by Egypt’s President Nasser to evacuate all MNC members (p.225).

So in the final 40 or so pages the novel turns into a thriller very much in the John le Carré vein, with fat bumbling, self-absorbed novelist suddenly finding himself in serious trouble with the authorities and forced to demonstrate something like heroism.

The tension is racked up for all it’s worth. Calling bland, imperturbable English doctor Roger to come and tend to Inès, James drives out to the village and finds Auguste, alright. He is disgusted when Auguste asks him to help him pack up his and Inès’s belongings from the room in the shanty house which they have obviously been sharing, where Auguste has been screwing her. James stares at the bed, his head full of queasy imaginings.

James hides Auguste in the boot as he drives back into town. He stops at Leo’s main hotel to phone Roger the doctor who is tending to Inès. It is in the hotel immediately after the call, that James is confronted by Stipe who for the first time is not friendly. He asks James twice if he knows where Auguste and both times James lies. Stipe knows James is lying but can’t prove it. James knows Stipe knows and becomes painfully self-conscious about every reply, wondering if his smile is too fake, if Stipe can see the sweat trickling down his brow. Stipe tells him he is being a fool, he is in way over his head, then says a contemptuous goodbye.

James walks back out the hotel to his car realising it’s too dangerous to take Auguste to his own apartment, which is probably being watched. He has a brainwave – Madeline! No-one would suspect the bigoted colon Madeleine of having anything to do with MNC freedom fighters (so Madeleine serves two narrative functions; symbolic dirty sex, and owner of safe house).

So James drives Auguste to Madeleine’s nice town house and, from there, phones his own flat and asks Roger to bring Inès there too. No-one will think of looking for them there. They’ll be safe till the plane arrives. Roger arrives with Inès. Good. Everyone is safe.

So, promising to return and take them to the airport, James drives back to his own house. And sure enough is greeted by a platoon of soldiers. He’s barely begun to protest his innocence before the captain in charge simply borrows a rifle from one of his men and hits James very hard in the side of his head with the rifle butt, kicking him in the guts on the way down, punching and slapping him till he vomits and wets himself. Stipe was right. He’s in way over his head.

He is thrown into the back of an army lorry, kicked and punched more, then dragged into a prison courtyard, along corridors and thrown into a pitch black cell, where he passes out.

He is woken and dragged to an interrogation room where he is presented with the corpse of Zoubir Smail, the Lebanese-born diamond merchant he met at Houthhoofd’s garden party. Smail has been beaten so that every inch of his body is covered with bruises and his testicles swollen up like cricket balls where they have been battered.

James is still reeling from this when the door opens and in comes Stipe, smooth as silk, to interrogate him. There’s no rough stuff, but Stipe psychologically batters him by describing in detail how Auguste fucks Inès, what a big dick he has, how Auguste once confided in Stipe once that he likes sodomy. Stipe forces James to imagine the sounds Inès must make when Auguste takes her from behind. It works. James is overcome with fury and jealousy but he repeatedly refuses to admit he knows where Auguste is. Not for Auguste’s sake, not for the damn ’cause’ – because he thinks being tight-lipped it will help him keep Inès.

Then, as abruptly as he was arrested, they release him, black soldiers dragging him along another corridor to a door, opening it and pushing him out into the street. Simple as that.

James staggers out into the sunlight and there’s Stipe waiting in a swish American car, offering him a friendly lift home, bizarre, surreal. But also telling him, in a friendly way, that he has three days to pack his stuff and leave the country. He apologises for subjecting him to the ordeal, but he was just doing his job.

Then, in the final chapter of this section, the narrative cuts to the scene the novel opened with. We learn that James was able to drive back to Madeleine’s, collect Inès and Auguste and drive them to the airport where they meet up with Lumumba and his people. Except no plane arrived from Egypt. Nothing. So the little convoy of MNC officials go int a huddle and decide to drive east, into the heart of the country, towards Lumumba’s native region where he will be able to raise a population loyal to him.

So they drive and drive, Auguste, Inés, James, Lumumba in a different car with his wife Pauline and young son Roland. But James is appalled at the way they dilly-dally at every village they come to, stopping to chat to the village elders, Lumumba unable to pass by opportunities to press the flesh and spread his charisma.

With the result that, as they arrive at the ferry crossing of the river Sankuru, Mobutu’s pursuing forces catch up with them, a detachment of soldiers and a tracker plane. Lumumba had successfully crossed the river with key followers, including Auguste, but leaving Pauline and Roland to catch it after it returns. But now the soldiers have grabbed her and his son. Everyone watches the figure on the other side of the river, will he disappear into the jungle or… then they see him step back onto the ferry and bid the ferryman steer it back over towards the soldiers. His wife shouts at him not to do it, Inès is in floods of tears, James is appalled.

And sure enough, the moment he steps off the ferry he is surrounded by soldiers who start to beat and punch him. The reader knows this is the start of the calvary which will lead, eventually, to one of Africa’s brightest, most charismatic leaders being flown to the remote city of Elizabethville, taken out into some god-forsaken field, beaten, punched and then executed his body thrown into a well.

James and Inès are released and make it back to Leo, where they immediately pack their things and take the ferry across the river to the freedom and sanity of the French Congo. Here they set up house together and live happily for weeks. Inès even deigns to have sex with poor, pitiful James.

But then one day she gets an AP wire that Lumumba has been murdered (17 January 1961). Mobutu had sent him to Katanga, allegedly for his own safety, but well aware he’d be done in. The official story is that Lumumba was set upon and massacred by villagers in revenge for the killing of their people by Lumumba’s tribe. But everyone knows the murder was committed by the authorities.

The final Congo scene is of Lumumba’s widow leaving the Regina hotel where she had gone to ask for her husband’s body back and walking down a central Boulevard Albert I with her hair shorn and topless, the traditional Congolese garb of mourning, and slowly the city’s civilians stop their work to join her.

James finds himself and Inès caught up in the crowd and then Inès lets go his hand and is swept away. It is another totally realistic but heavily symbolic moment, for the crowd is chanting Freedom and Independence and so it is perfect that Inès the idealist is carried away with it, becomes one with it – while James finds himself confronted by Stipe, furious that he lied to him, who punches him, hard, knocking him to the ground, where various members of the crowd stumble over him and he is in danger of being trampled. Always the clumsy stumbling outsider.

Until at the last moment he is lifted to his feet and dusted off by Charles, the reticent black servant who tended the house he had been renting in Leo. And with his symbolic separation from the love of his life, his near trampling by the Forces of Freedom, his beating up by the forces of capitalist America, and his rescue by one act of unprompted black kindness, the main narrative of the novel ends.

Part four: Bardonnecchia, August 1969

There is a seven page coda. It is 8 years later. James lives in Italy. He spends summer in this remote village up near the French border. In the evenings he dines at the Gaucho restaurant. The atmosphere is relaxed and the food is excellent. Of course it is. He knows the waiter and the owner and the pizza chef and the owner of the little bookshop on the other side of the railway line. Of course he does. Late in the evening he sits on chatting to some or all of them. In the absence of Inès his prose is back to its flat dulness.

This year Alan has come out to join me for a week. His reputation as a publisher has grown in tandem with mine as a writer. It is a moot point who has done more for whom. (p.306)

I help him aboard with his luggage and we shake hands. Alan has his ambitions, he can sometimes be pompous, but he is a good man. I am sad that he is going. (p.311)

Dead prose.

He tells us his most successful novel to date was the one about a middle-aged sex-mad novelist and his doomed affair for a passionately little Italian woman who climaxes easily. In other words, the one we’ve just read. A novel featuring a novelist describing how he wrote a novel describing the events he’s just described to us in his novel! How thrillingly post-modern! Or dull and obvious, depending on taste.

James is still obsessed by Inès. With wild improbability he hears her name mentioned by someone in the restaurant, asks about her and discovers she is now one of Italy’s premier foreign correspondents, writing angry despatches from Vietnam. People in novels like this are always eminent, successful, have passionate sex, know the right people, are at the heart of events.

Every morning he waits for the post but there has never been any letter from her. He is a sad sack. Why 1969? So Bennett can set this coda against the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland. His mother and sister have joined the marchers for civil rights. Young men are throwing bricks and bottles at British soldiers. We know now this was to lead to 29 years of bloodshed, strife, murders, bombings and lawlessness. The world is not as we want it to be. What we want to happen, doesn’t. Marches for independence, marches for freedom have a tendency to end not just in bloodshed, but decades of bloodshed.

The novel ends on a note for the sensitive. The sad narrator knows he will now never see Inès again. I know. Tragedy. Cataclysm. After waving Alan off on the train back to London he takes a walk up the hill to be soulful and solitary. Inèes told him she could always be found among the marchers for freedom and justice. But he is trapped in his own disbelief:

She encouraged me, beckoned me forward. She promised that was where I’d find her. But I could never join her there. I was always too much a watcher, too much l’homme-plume; I was divided, unbelieving. My preference is the writer’s preference, for the margins, for the avoidance of agglomerations and ranks. I failed to find her and I know this failure will mark the rest of my life. (p.312)

I can imagine some readers bursting into tears at this sad and sensitive conclusion, but as I’ve given ample evidence, I found this entire ‘sensitive writer’ schtick clichéd, tiresome, self-centred, hackneyed, old and boring.

Bennett has taken the extraordinary history of the Congo and turned it into a schematic matrix of binary characters and simplistic symbols. Active v passive; male v female; idealistic v cynical; radical v reactionary. The Catastrophist is a good example of why I struggle to read contemporary novels; not because they’re about contemporary society so much as because they tend to wear their sensitive, soulful credentials on their sleeves and humble-brag about their bien-pensant, liberal, woke attitude.

And in doing so miss the dirty, uncomfortable, messy complexities of actual life and politics which don’t fit into any categories, whose ironic reversals defy neat pigeon-holing and clever symbolism.

The catastrophist

is James. It’s another example of Inès’ shaky grasp of English. She says there’s an Italian word, catastrofista which perfectly suits James, and they agree that ‘catastrophist’ is probably the nearest translation into English. Anyway, a ‘catastrophist’ always sees the dark side and thinks nothing can be fixed and uses this pessimism as an excuse for never trying to improve the world, to achieve justice and equality. That’s what she thinks James is.

‘If you are catastrofista no problem is small. Nothing can be fixed, it is always the end.’ (p.131)

And maybe he is. Who cares.

Thoughts

The Catastrophist is a slick well-made production which wears its bien-pensant, sensitive heart on its sleeve. By dint of repetition we come to believe (sort of) in old, disillusioned James aka Seumus and his forlorn love for passionate little (the adjective is used again and again) Inès.

The issues surrounding Congo independence are skilfully woven into the narrative, the mounting sense of crisis is cleverly conveyed through the escalation of incidents which start with a stone being thrown at his car, mount through minor riots to the hefty peace rally massacre, on to the horrifying scene of tribal massacre in Kisai, a litany of violence which, I suppose, climaxes with James being beaten up in the interrogation room and being confronted with the tortured corpse of someone he actually knows (Smail).

The thematic or character structure of the novel is howlingly obvious: Inès is on the side of the angels, the optimists, the independence parties, the clamourers for freedom and justice. James is very obviously the half-hearted cynic who tags along with her for the sake of his forlorn passion.

But it is the steely, hard, disdainful colon Madeleine who won my sympathy. During an early attempt to seduce James, as part of their sparring dialogue, she says if the Congolese ever win independence it will be a catastrophe. And it was. Sometimes the right-wing, racist, colonial bigots who are caricatured and mocked in the liberal press, liberal novels and liberal arts world – sometimes they were actually right.

For me, personally, reading this novel was useful because it repeated many of the key facts surrounding Congo independence from a different angle, and so amounted to a kind of revision, making key players and events that bit more memorable. For example, Bennett confirms David van Reybrouck’s comment about the sudden explosion of political parties in the run-up to the independence elections, their overnight emergence and febrile making and breaking of alliances. And echoes van Reybrouck’s list of the common people’s illusions about independence. He has a good scene where an MNC candidate addresses a remote village and promises that, at independence, they will all be given big houses and the wives of the whites; that they will find money growing in their fields instead of manioc; that their dead relatives will rise from their graves (p.164).

So I enjoyed everything about the background research and a lot of the way Bennett successfully dramatises events of the period. You really believe you’re there. That aspect is a great achievement. The love affair between self-consciously writerly older writer and passionate young idealistic woman bored me to death.

Since the events depicted in the book, Congo underwent the 30-year dictatorship of Mobutu, more massacres and ethnic cleansing until the Rwandan genocide spilled out into the first and second Congo wars, the overthrow of Mobutu, the incompetent rule of Laurent Kabila and his assassination, followed by more years of chaos until recent elections promised some sort of stability. But the population of Congo at independence, when this novel was set, was 14 million. Today, 2021, it is 90 million and the median age is 19. The place and its people look condemned to crushing poverty for the foreseeable future.

The Catastrophist‘s imagining of the mood and events of the period it depicts are powerful and convincing. But in the larger perspective it seems like a white man’s fantasy about a period which is now ancient history to the majority of the country, and whose maudlin self-pitying narrator is almost an insult to the terrible tribulations the country’s population endured and continue to face.

Credit

The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett was published by REVIEW in 1998. All references are to the 1999 paperback edition.


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

Congolese soldiers in the world wars

Congo: The Epic History of a People by David Van Reybrouck is a wonderland of a book. The accounts he gives of the involvement of Congolese soldiers in the two world wars are so remarkable and so little known that it’s worth recording them in a standalone blog post.

In his characteristic style, van Reybrouck interweaves traditional, factual history with first-hand, eye-witness memories by veterans or the families of veterans, which add colour and human scale to such huge abstract events.

First World War (pages 129 to 139)

Congo as a buffer state

At the Congress of Vienna in 1815 Belgium itself was conceived as a sort of buffer state between the powers, between France and Prussia. In a similar way, at the Berlin Conference of 1885, King Leopold  persuaded the powers that his seizure of this huge chunk of Africa would serve as a sort of buffer between territory controlled by the old rivals Britain and France in west Africa and the territory claimed in east Africa by the new kid on the block, Germany.

The final agreement of colonial borders in Africa meant that Congo shared a 430-mile-long border with German East Africa. Given that the Germans owned Cameroon to the north-west of Congo, it made sense for them to ponder seizing a corridor through the Belgian colony in order to link German East and West Africa. In fact, just before war broke out, the German foreign office actually approached the British with the suggestion of dividing Congo between them, which the British wisely rejected.

Germany attacks

After war broke out in Europe in August 1914, the colonial authorities expected Congo to remain neutral, which it did for all of 11 days, until Germany attacked. A steamship crossed Lake Tanganyika from the German side and shelled the Congo port of Mokolubu, sinking some canoes, then German soldiers landed and cut the telephone wire. A week later the Germans attacked the lakeside port of Lukuga, too.

Main battle zones

Because of the lack of roads and infrastructure, the First World War in Africa wasn’t fought along huge fronts, as in Europe, but was a matter of seizing strategic points and roads. Congolese forces ended up fighting on three fronts, Cameroon, Rhodesia and East Africa.

1. In 1914 a handful of Belgian officers and 600 Congolese troops were sent to help the British in the battle for Cameroon where German resistance to British, French and Belgian colonial units finally ended in March 1916.

2. By mid-1915 South African troops had secured the surrender of German South-West Africa but German forces threatened Rhodesia and so the Belgian government in exile (in Le Havre) ordered seven Belgian and 283 Congolese soldiers to help the British defend it.

Battle of the lakes

3. But the most intense Congo-German engagement was in the East. Here the border between Congo and German East Africa had only been finalised as late as 1910. In 1915 German forces led by Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck made repeated attempts to move into Kivu district (to the west of Lake Kivu, which formed part of the border between Belgian and German territory), with a view to pushing on north to seize the Kilo-Moto gold mines of the Ituri rain forest.

The Germans took initial control of lakes Kivu and Tanganyika which they patrolled with armed steamships. In reply the Allies i.e. the British, organised the transport of steamships broken up into parts all the way up the Congo and then across land to the lakes. They also sent four aquaplanes, which undertook a campaign to bomb and sink the German ships.

The Tabora campaign

Meanwhile, a large infantry force of 15,000 soldiers was assembled on the east Congo border under Force Publique commander, General Charles Tombeur. An important fact to remember is that, in the absence of decent roads, almost all the materiel needed for these campaigns had to be carried by porters, just as in Victorian times. It’s estimated that for every soldier who went into battle there were seven porters. In total, throughout the war years, it’s estimated that some 260,000 native porters were recruited or dragooned, out of a total population of less than ten million. This disruption had a negative impact on local economies and food production, but the conditions of the porters weren’t much better, with all experiencing inadequate food, shelter and little drinking water. As usual in every conflict, disease became rife and about one in ten of the porters died on active service, a total of some 26,000, compared to 2,000 soldiers.

As to the campaign itself, in March 1916 General Tombeur led his army across the border into Rwanda and seized the capital, Kigali, on 6 May. They then marched the 370 miles south-east to Tabora, which had been a key staging post for the explorers of the 1870s and 1880s and was now the nexus of German administration. It was the largest engagement of the campaign. Tombeur’s forces joined with another army which had marched from Lake Tanganyika and, after ten days and nights of intense fighting, Tabora fell to the Belgian-Congo forces on 19 September 1916. The Belgian flag was raised in the town centre amid widespread celebrations.

In 1917 Tabora was used as a staging post for a campaign to capture Mahenge, 300 miles to the south, but the battle of Tabora was the one which went down in colonial memory. Tombeur was given a peerage and songs were written about his famous victory.

Interview with Martin Kabuya

Typical of van Reybrouck’s method of humanising history, he tracks down an army veteran, Martin Kabuya, whose grandfather fought in the Tabora campaign and, he claims, provided cover for the soldier who raised the Belgian flag in the  conquered town square (p.135). And then talks to Hélène Nzimbu Diluzeti, 94-year-old widow of Thomas Masamba Lumoso, a Great War veteran who served in the TSF or telégraphie sans fils (i.e. wireless) section from 9 August 1914 to 5 October 1918, so for only a weeks short of the entire duration of the war (pages 135 to 137).

Here’s the map van Reybrouck provides. You can see the black arrows indicating movement of Congolese forces through the two small unnamed states of Rwanda and Burundi towards Tabora in what is now called Tanzania but was then German East Africa. On the top left of the map you can see the borders of Cameroon and understand how German strategists, at one point, might have fantasised about annexing northern Congo in order to for a corridor of German colonial territory from Tanzania through north Congo and joining up with Cameroon. One of many colonial pipe dreams.

images

The Congolese in Belgium

Not many Congolese soldiers had time to be transported to Belgium before it fell to the Germans’ swift advance in August 1914. Van Reybrouck tells us the stories of two of them, Albert Kudjabo and Paul Panda Farnana, members of the Congolese Volunteer Corps. They were among the tens of thousands deployed to defend the Belgian city of Namur but the Germans swiftly captured it and these two Africans who spent the next four years in various prisoner of war camps. Among transfers between camps, forced labour and various humiliations, they were interviewed by the Royal Prussian Phonographic Committee which recorded Kudjabo singing traditional songs. The recordings survive to this day (p.138).

Van Reybrouck returns to the two POWs on page 178 to describe their chagrin and anger when they were finally repatriated to from Germany to Belgium only to read commentators in the press saying the likes of them should be packed off as soon as possible back to the land of bananas (p.178). They had fought side by side with their Belgian brothers to protect the motherland. Where was the gratitude? It left a legacy of bitterness.

Paul Panda Farnana

We know a lot about Farnana in particular because he played a central role in founding the Union Congolaise in August 1919, an organisation set up to assist ‘the moral and intellectual development of the Congolese race’. The Union called for greater involvement of the natives in the colonial administration and opened branches across Belgium.

In December 1920 Farnana addressed the first National Colonial Congress in Brussels and then took part in the second Pan-African Congress organised by American civil rights activist W.E.B du Bois. In 1929 Farnana returned to Congo and settled in his native village, but died there, unmarried and childless in 1932. He is often considered the first Congolese intellectual, but his was a very isolated voice. It would take another world war and decades of simmering discontent before real change could be affected.

Consequences of the Great War

After Germany’s defeat its African colonies were parcelled out to the allies. England took German East Africa which was renamed Tanganyika (and then Tanzania, on independence in 1961). Belgium was handed the two small states on the eastern borders of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.

Earlier in the book van Reybrouck described the process whereby colonial administrators defined and helped to create tribal identities. Originally much more fluid and overlapping, these names and categories hardened when the authorities issued identity cards on which every Congolese had to match themselves to a limited list of bureaucratic tribal ‘identities’.

When they took over Rwanda, the Belgian authorities applied the same technique, insisting that the previously fluid and heterogenous Rwandans define themselves as one of three categories, Tutsi, Hutu or Twas (pygmy), an enforced European categorisation which was to bitterly divide the country and lead, ultimately, to the calamitous Rwandan genocide of 1994.

Although the war disrupted societies and led to significant native casualties in the eastern part of the country, the mining regions such as Katanga experienced an economic boom and huge explosion of jobs which increased urbanisation. But after the war there was a sudden drop in demand which led to layoffs, unrest and strikes.

Second World War (pages 182 to 189)

And then it happened all over again, except on a bigger scale, in 1940. In 18 days the German army rolled through Belgium as part of its conquest of France, Belgium was defeated and occupied. While the Belgian government fled to England, King Leopold III was taken prisoner to Germany. For a while there was uncertainty in the colony about which way it would jump – support the victorious Nazis or align with the humiliated government in exile? The decision was taken by the man on the scene, Governor General Pierre Ryckmans who to his great credit decided the Belgian Congo would align with the allies and fight fascism.

Ethiopia

Mussolini had invaded Haile Selassie’s Abyssinia in 1935. In 1940 Churchill sent troops from British Kenya into Ethiopia to neutralise the Italian threat. Starting in February 1941 the Brits were reinforced by the eleventh battalion of the Congo Force Publique. This consisted of 3,000 Congolese soldiers and 2,000 bearers.

They drove across British-controlled Sudan in blistering heat but had to manage the mountainous west of Ethiopia mostly on foot. From scorching heat it started to rain and the troops found themselves mired in mud. The Congolese took the small towns of Asosa and Gambela but faced a stiffer challenge at the fortified garrison town of Saio. After heavy shelling, on 8 June 1941, the town surrendered. Congo forces took nine Italian generals including the commander of all Italian forces in East Africa, 370 Italian officers, 2,574 noncoms and 1,533 native soldiers, along with a huge amount of munitions and equipment.

Van Reybrouck makes the droll point that the expulsion of the Italians (who had only held Ethiopia for 6 years) allowed the return of the emperor Haile Selassie, which gave renewed vigour to the small sect of Rastafarians in faraway Jamaica who had started worshipping the emperor as a deity during the 1930s. Thus Congolese soldiers helped in creating the spiritual side of reggae!

What Tabora had been in World War One, Saio was in World War Two, a resounding victory for African troops. More than that, for the first time in history an African nation had been liberated by African troops (p.185).

Nigeria

Van Reybrouck interviews Congo veterans who fought in the campaign, Louis Ngumbi and André Kitadi. He takes a path through the complicated wartime events in north Africa through the career of Kitadi. Having routed the Italians in the East, the focus switched to West Africa. Kitadi was a radio operator in the Congo army. In autumn 1942 he was shipped up to Nigeria and trained for 6 months in readiness to take Dahomey (modern Benin) from the Vichy French. However during the training period, Dahomey switched to General de Gaulle’s Free French and so the focus now switched to Libya where German forces under Rommel were based and repeatedly threatened to invade Egypt.

Kitadi and the other Congolese soldiers travelled across the desert of Chad (a French colony run by a black governor allied to de Gaulle). Van Reybrouck dovetails Kitadi’s story with that of Martin Kabuya, another radio operator in the Force Publique, who had also been shipped to Nigeria, but now found himself sent by sea right around Africa and up through the Suez Canal.

Egypt

Kitadi spent a year in a camp outside Alexandria. There were lots of Italian prisoners of war, kept in barbed wire POW camps. The Arabs stole everything. Kabuya was stationed at Camp Geneva near the Suez Canal, intercepting enemy Morse code messages. Once he was attacked by a big SS man who he stabbed in the gut with a bayonet and killed.

Palestine

When fighting in Europe ended, both men stayed in the army and were moved to Palestine to help with the new British mandate there (p.188).

The paradox of scale

Paradoxically, although the scale and reach of the Second World War was dramatically larger than the first, the involvement of Congolese was significantly smaller for the simple reason that the army no longer needed bearers and porters – they had trucks and lorries. So the number of Congolese directly involved in the war was nothing like the 260,000 Congolese porters dragooned into service in 1914-18, with the results that casualties were correspondingly much smaller.

The odyssey of Libert Otenga

The strength of van Reybrouck’s approach is demonstrated by the story of Libert Otenga. Otenga joined a mobile medical unit of Belgian doctors and Congolese medics.

The Belgian field hospital became known as the tenth BCCS, the tenth Belgian Congo Casualty Clearing Station. It had two operating tents and a radio tent. In the other tents there were beds for thirty patients and stretchers for two hundred more. During the war, the unit treated seven thousand wounded men and thirty thousand who had fallen ill. Even at the peak of its activities it consisted of only twenty-three Belgians, including seven doctors, and three hundred Congolese. Libert Otenga was one of them.

Van Reybrouck tracks down an ageing Otenga in Kinshasa to hear his story. First the medical unit was sent to Somalia. Then they went with British-Belgian troops to Madagascar, where they tended German prisoners of war. After Madagascar, the unit went by ship to Ceylon, where the medical unit was reorganised, and then on to India, to the Ganges delta in modern Bangladesh, a long way up the river Brahmaputra and then overland to the border with Burma, a British colony which the Japanese had captured in 1942. This was their longest posting, they treated soldiers and civilians, they had an air ambulance at their disposal. As van Reybrouck remarks:

The fact that Congolese paramedics cared for Burmese civilians and British soldiers in the Asian jungle is a completely unknown chapter in colonial history, and one that will soon vanish altogether. (p.189)

The travels of Congolese forces during the Second World War

images

Congo and the atom bomb

The uranium in the Big Boy bomb dropped on Hiroshima contained uranium mined in the mineral-rich Katanga province of Congo (p. 190).

Edgar Sengier, then managing director of Union Minière, saw to it that Congo’s uranium reserves did not fall into the wrong hands. Shinkolobwe had the world’s largest confirmed deposit of uranium. When the Nazi threat intensified just before the war, he had had 1,250 metric tons (1,375 U.S. tons) of uranium shipped to New York, then flooded his mines. Only a tiny stock still present in Belgium ever fell into German hands. (p.190)

The Cold War

During the war the Congo had come to America’s attention as an important source of raw materials for war goods. By 1942 the Japanese had captured most of the Far East, so new sources were needed. the Congo turned out to be a vital source of metals like copper, wolfram, tin and zinc, and of vegetable products such as rubber, copal, cotton, quinine, palm oil for soap and, surprisingly, use in the vital steel industry. (p.191)

This was before the scientists of the Manhattan Project discovered how to make an atom bomb at which point uranium became a vital resource of strategic significance. All this explains America’s interest in the Congo in the 15 years after the war, and then its intense involvement in the events surrounding independence and its support of the dictator Mobutu through the entire Cold War period.

Conclusion

One way of seeing these events are as colourful sidelights on the two world wars and then the low level capitalist-communist antagonism which followed and van Reybrouck’s focus on individual experiences helps the reader understand how all our lives are determined and shaped by vast impersonal historic forces.

Another way of looking at it, is to reflect that from the moment it was first mapped and explored by Stanley in the late 1870s, the second largest country in Africa has never been free of interference, control and exploitation by Europe and America.

Credit

Congo: the epic history of a people by David Van Reybrouck was published in Dutch by De Bezige Bij in 2010. All references are to the paperback version of the English translation by Sam Garrett, published by Fourth Estate in 2015.

Surprisingly for a contemporary book, Congo: The Epic History of a People is available online in its entirety.


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

Congo: the epic history of a people by David Van Reybrouck (2010)

In Africa an archaic social organisation collides with the supremacy of a technical civilisation that causes the former to fall apart without replacing it…simply by being ourselves , we destroy traditions that were sometimes hard but venerable, and we offer as a replacement only white trousers and dark glasses, in addition to a little knowledge and a vast longing.
(from the diary of Vladimir Drachoussoff, a Russo-Belgian agriculture engineer in the 1940s)

Kimbanguism

Simon Kimbangu was born the son of a traditional Congolese healer in 1899. Taken in by British Baptist missionaries, he became a catechist i.e. highly instructed in the faith, before, in 1921, having a revelation that he himself had miraculous powers, given directly by Jesus Christ. Simon healed a dying woman (named Kintondo, p.146) and stories about his healing powers spread like wildfire, that he healed the deaf and blind, that he even raised a woman from the dead. From all over the region people abandoned their fields and markets and flocked to behold the saviour.

The authorities in the shape of district commissioner Léon Morel quickly became alarmed, van Reybrouck saying the Protestant missionaries (who had trained Simon) took a moderate and sympathetic view of his teachings, but the Catholics lined up with the colonial authorities to find Kimbangu a threat to order and conformity (p.149).

Kimbagu was arrested and put through a show trial, without the benefit of a defence lawyer. Van Reybrouck gives us extensive quotes from the transcript of the trial and points out its similarities to the trial of Jesus Christ, another religious zealot shopped by the religious establishment who the prosecuting authorities found difficult to convict of any particular crime. The part of Pilate was played by commander Amadeo De Rossi (p.149). The result was a foregone conclusion and Kimbagu was sentenced to death when, to everyone’s surprise, he was given a personal reprieve by the Belgian monarch, King Albert, the sentence commuted to life imprisonment, and he did indeed spend the rest of his life in a Belgian prison, most of it in solitary confinement, 30 years in a small cell, longer than Nelson Mandela.

The authorities tries to suppress Kimbagu’s followers, arresting them, sending them to remote parts of the Congo, outlawing his sect, sending his chief followers to camps fenced with barbed wire where they were subjected to forced labour, as many as one in five dying in the process (p.152). But this policy had the perverse result of spreading the faith throughout the country, with witnesses appearing all over to testify to miracles and healings performed by the imprisoned master. The result is that Kimbaguism has become a solidly established religion, a spinoff from Christianity in the style of the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons. Today around 10% of the population of the Congo are followers, with devotees and churches established in many other countries.

Van Reybrouck not only devotes an extended passage to Kimbagu’s biography and trial but makes a personal pilgrimage to what has become the Kimbanguists’ holy city, Nkamba, where he describes the peaceful atmosphere, and then interviews a leading figure in the church, Papa Wanzungasa, one hundred years old and still going strong. Indeed Kimbanguism is now a recognised religion. Some 10% of the population of Congo are followers. Papa Wanzungasa tells van Raybrouck about the early days of the movement, and describes how his own family members were forced to convert to Catholicism or sent to labour camps in the 20s and 30s, how the true believers held secret conventicles in the jungle, using coded messages to rendezvous at safe spots like the early Christians meeting underground in ancient Rome (p.153).

Van Reybrouck broadens the story out to place the Kimbanguists in context among a number of other charismatic religions which broke out in the Congo between the wars: Ngunzism, a spinoff from Kimbanguism which was overtly anti-colonial; Mpadism, founded by Simon-Pierre Mpadi, whose followers engaged in ecstatic dances; Matswanism, founded by First World War veteran André Matdwa; the Kitawala, the name a corruption of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ magazine, the Watchtower; and many more.

And then van Reybrouck gives a brilliant sociological explanation for all this, explaining that the new charismatic sects arose in precisely the parts of Congo where traditional life and beliefs had been most disrupted by European intervention, Kimbanguism in the coastal region of Bas (or Lower) Congo, the Kitawala (which grew to become the second largest indigenous religion after Kimbanguism), in the highly developed mining region of Katanga, in the far south-east of the country.

In all instances, then, it was a response to the disruption or destruction of the old tribal beliefs and social systems, their very imperfect replacement by zealous but thin Christianity, and maybe most important of all, to the simple fact that most Congolese, after half a century of promises, remained second rate citizens in their own country, most of them caught up in conditions of semi-forced labour to vast European mining and agricultural businesses, which ruthlessly exploited them and their entire families, uprooting villages, relocating entire populations, with no hope of any end in sight.

All these charismatic native religions offered hope to their adherents that a new and better life, one the colonial authorities had completely failed to deliver, was at hand. The Tupelepele (meaning the Floaters) followed Matemu a Kelenge (known to his followers as Mundele Funji, or ‘White Storm’) who hoped for a return to the time of the ancestors who would restore balance and prosperity for all. Its followers threw their identity papers, tax receipts, bank notes and all the other symbols of the European capitalist system which had ensnared them into the river in anticipation of a Great Liberation (p.162).

David Van Reybrouck’s history of the Congo is a brilliant and stunning achievement, a history like no other, and his extended treatment of Kimbanguism (pages 142 to 154) exemplifies many of its many strong points.

1. Van Reybrouck is not British

Van Reybrouck is not British. Much of the writing about the nineteenth century explorers is by British chaps about British chaps and, despite its best intentions, can’t help falling back into the gravitational pull of admiration for the plucky epic exploits of someone like Livingstone or Burton or Stanley. Van Reybrouck is completely clean of all this cricket and tiffin cultural baggage. He is Belgian. It’s quite a relief to read a book about colonial Africa in which the British are barely mentioned. In this book the European power which takes centre stage are the Belgians, their kings, parliaments and civil service, with walk-on parts for the French, Germans and Portuguese.

(I was pleased to read the first hand account of a Congolese who fought in the Second World War describing his initial transfer to British-run Nigeria where he found that local Africans were treated hugely better than they were in the Congo – properly fed, treated with respect, and he was amazed to discover that black Africans held senior posts in the Nigerian army, something still unthinkable in the segregated Belgian Congo of the 1940s).

2. Van Reybrouck is not a historian

Van Reybrouck is not a historian, at least not by training. He trained as an archaeologist and his first publication was of his doctoral dissertation, From Primitives to Primates. A history of ethnographic and primatological analogies in the study of prehistory, in 2010. Since then he has gone on to write historical fiction, literary non-fiction, novels, poetry and plays, but somehow this archaeological background helps or might explain why his book feels open to a far wider range of influences and sources than a more narrow and conventional history by a professional historian would.

For example, it explains the brilliant and illuminating passage in the Introduction where he imagines five slides, each depicting the life of a 12-year-old boy in the Congo at widely separated moments of time, namely:

  1. 90,000 years ago on the shore of Lake Edward (the time and place where the bones of a group of prehistoric humans have indeed been found)
  2. a Pygmy boy in the rainforest two and a half thousand years before Christ
  3. AD 500 as the slow spread of agriculture (specifically, the fast growing ‘new’ crop, the plaintain) as well as basic iron tools arrive at the village where our 12-year-old lives
  4. 1560, when the 12-year-old lives in a society where small isolated villages have given way to clans of villages, themselves building up, especially on the savannah, into complex societies which can be called kingdoms, like those of the Kongo, the Lunda, the Luba and the Kuba
  5. 1780, when there’s a fair chance our village 12-year-old will have been trafficked by enemy tribes down to the coast and bought by European slavers who ship him off under terrible conditions to Brazil, the Caribbean or the American South

So by just page 23 van Reybrouck has already given us a breath-taking sense of the historical and geographic scope of his account, that it will be a wide-ranging and, above all, beautifully imaginative and creative history.

3. Van Reybrouck is interested in byways

A conventional historian might mention the rise of charismatic sects and religious leaders in the 1920s and 30s as a result of the ongoing deracination of the Congolese population, but it is distinctive of van Reybrouck that he finds the story or angle which brings such a theoretical topic to vivid life. He not only gives us transcripts of the trial of Simon Kimbangu but then travels to the Kimbanguists’ holy city to interview leading adherents for himself.

What I’m driving at is that van Reybrouck’s account not only covers the conventional history and dates and events, but turns over all kinds of odds and ends and details and fragments and insights which bring the country, the Congo, and its people, really vividly to life.

He stumbles across the huge statue of Stanley which used to dominate the main square in Leopoldville, now taken down and dumped inside one of Stanley’s own early steamers in a junk yard in Kinshasa (p.99).

He explains the origins of the pop music and jazz which took Kinshasa by storm between the wars, and its mix of African languages and American jazz with the (rather surprising) importation of Cuban rhythms and sounds to create what is called Congo rumba. He tells us about Camille Feruzi, the great accordion virtuoso of Congolese music, and Wendo Kolosoyi whose guitar playing laid the basis of Congo rumba ‘the most influential musical style in the sub-Saharan Africa of the twentieth century’ (p.168). African Jazz ‘the most popular band in the Congo on the 1950s’ led by Joseph Kabasele.

He mentions the godfather of Congolese literature, Paul Lomami-Tshibamba, who published elegant essays immediately after the Second World War questioning colonialism and was arrested and beaten in prison for his trouble before fleeing into exile in the (French-controlled) Republic of Congo, across the river (p.170). I immediately went looking for his first novel, Ngando, and am very irked to discover it has never been translated into English.

His book is studded with scores of other facts and byways and insights about Congo and its social and cultural and musical and artistic and social life which combine to build up a much more vivid and colourful portrait of the country than any purely ‘historical’ account could do.

4. Van Reybrouck has carried our many interviews

Van Reybrouck makes the commonly made observation that so many histories of Africa omit the voices of actual Africans – the difference is that he has done something about it. From his first trip to Congo in 2003, van Reybrouck sought out and interviewed the oldest people he could find, eye witnesses who saw at first hand the events they describe, or had them from parents or grandparents.

It is typical of van Reybrouck that he travelled to the Kimbanguist holy city to see for himself. Historians working from colonial records in libraries and archives don’t do that. Van Reybrouck combines history with the vivid sense of journey and place of a good travel writer. And then, the qualities of a good journalist who knows how to make an interviewee at ease and extract the good stuff from a wide range of old timers.

So there are two types of Congolese testimony, written and oral.

a) People van Reybrouck spoke to

One had informants who had seen a lot but had little to say, and one had informants who had little to say but talked a lot anyway. (p.220)

‘Étienne’ Nkasi (introduced page 6), over a hundred years old, who remembered the name of Stanley as a living presence, who knew Simon Kimbangu when he was a boy, who remembered the building of the first railway from Matadi to Stanley Pool, and much more. His story weaves in and out of the main narrative so he appears on page 117, witnessing the early development of Kinshasa.

Victor Masundi (introduced page 75), aged 87 and blind, grew up in the Scheutist mission in Boma, and Camille Mananga (page 76) aged 73 recounted his grandfather’s memories of first being taken into a Christian mission.

Colonel Eugène Yoka, a former air force colonel, tells van Reybrouck about his father who had been a soldier who served in World War 1, and that his grandfather, a Bangal tribesman from Équateur province, had been one of the first recruits to the Force Publique (p.77).

Albert Kudjabo and Paul Panda Farnana, two Congolese who volunteered to fight in the Great War to defend the ‘motherland’ Belgium and were promptly captured by the Germans and spent four long years in a prisoner of war camp. Liberated after the war, Farnana lived for a while in Brussels where he eloquently made the case for the Congolese being treated as adults in their own country (pages 138 and 178).

André Kitardi, veteran of the First World War (pp.129 onwards) and again on pages 185 and 199 where he ends up serving in Palestine. Libert Otenga, the Congolese medic who was transported north into Egypt, then the Middle East, to India and ended up serving in Burma (p.188). Louis Ngumbi who fought for the Allies during World War Two (p.185).

Martin Kabuya, 92, whose grandfather took part in the Sudan campaign, who enrolled in the Congo army, describes his rgandfather’s experiences in the Great War (p.135) and his own role as a Morse code operator in the Second War (p.187).

Hélène Nzimbu Diluzeti, mother of Colonel Yoka, 94-year-old widow of Thomas Masamba Lumoso, a Great War veteran who served for only a few weeks short of the entire duration of the war (pp.135 onwards).

Père Henri de  la Kéthulle de Ryhove, a Jesuit missionary in his 80s, nephew of the most famous Belgian missionary to the Congo, Raphaël de la Kéthulle who shares memories of his famous uncle who, alongside schools, built soccer stadiums, swimming pools and the huge Stade Roi Baudouin (pages 172 to 175).

Longin Ngwadi, aged 80 when van Reybrouck speaks to him in Kikwit, largest city of Kwilu Province, in the southwestern part of Congo, born in 1928, baptised by Jesuits, who wanted to become a priest but was rejected by the church hierarchy, so drifted to Kinshasa like so many young men in the 1930s and went on to become one of the first black professional footballers (pages 207 to 211).

Sister Apolline, also 80, a mixed race Congolese nun who started her career as a schoolteacher (p.211). Victoria Ndjoli, the first Congolese woman to get a driving licence (p.212).

Jamais Kolonga subject of a famous Congo rumba song, who’d had a long and varied life, who worked on the docks at Kinshasa as a young man, how his grandfather was converted to Catholicism and sent away two of his three wives, how his father was sent to Catholic school, taught to read and write and got a job with the Belgian company Otraco as manager of the housing district for the native workers, inspected their homes, made speeches to visiting directors and dignitaries and, once, even the king! Appointed to the Otraco works council and then the local council he was one of the first Congolese to have even a slight say in the administration (p.222). Jamais was born in 1935. At home he spoke French with his father, Kikongo with his mother, and Lingala with everyone else (p.223). Jamais went to work for Otraco in 1953 (pages 219 to 224).

b) Written texts recording African testimony and voices

Disasi Makuli (introduced page 29) was born in the early 1870s, son of tribalpeople, grew up in the tribal world and, aged ten, first heard rumours of outsiders raiding into their territory, who they nicknamed the Batambatamba, meaning the slave traders (p.41). Disasi was kidnapped by a gang led by the famous slave trader Tippu Tip. Then he is purchased by Stanley and set free, handed over to the case of the Englishman Anthony Swinburne who managed the small early settlement at Leopoldville. When Swinburne died he aged just 30 in 1889, Disasi found a new home with the British Baptist missionary Anthony Grenfell (p.68). In 1902 he set up one of the first black-run missions in Congo, at Yalemba (p.71). He witnessed at first hand atrocities caused by the Red Rubber Terror (p.89) and had many more adventures before dictating his life story to one of his sons before his death in 1941.

In 1895 a young man named Butungu left for England with a Baptist missionary, John Weeks. A year later he returned home with tall tales of sailing ships and salt water and the miracles he’d seen in London and wrote his stories down in Boloki. ‘It is the only known text by a Congolese from the nineteenth century’ (p.65).

Testimony recorded in official reports about the rubber terror: for example given by Eluo, a man from Esanga, about red rubber atrocities (p.89).

The long and colourful life of Lutunu, born at the end of the nineteenth century, as recorded by Belgian artist Jeanne Maquiet-Tombeau (The Life of the Congolese Chief Lutunu, 1952), given as a slave by chief Makitu to Stanley (p.102).

The memories of Joseph Njoli, a man from Équateur province, as recorded by a missionary and describing the imposition of the heavy tax burden on native workers levied from after the Great War (p.128).

Excerpts from the articles of Paul Lomami-Tshibamba (pages 170 and 216). An editorial from one of the colony’s most popular papers, L’Avenir Colonial (p.177).

The memoirs of André Yav, who worked all his life as a ‘boy’ in Elizabethville and wrote his recollections in the 1960s (p.123). He is quoted remembering the big miners strike during the war, which was violently suppressed by the authorities in December 1941 and the long and bitter legacy it left (p.192).

The wonderfully insightful diaries of wartime Congo kept by Vladi Souchard, pen name of Vladimir Drachoussoff, ‘a young Belgian agricultural engineer of Russian extraction’, pages 194 to 199.

Chapters

The quickest way to convey the structure of the book is to list its chapters. Each one has a ‘colourful’ title, such as a quote, and then a factual sub-title indicating the period covered. Here are the factual sub-titles and dates covered:

  1. Central Africa draws the attention of the East and West 1870 to 1885
  2. Congo under Leopold II 1885 to 1908
  3. The early years of the colonial regime 1908 to 1921
  4. Growing unrest and mutual suspicion in peacetime 1921 to 1940
  5. The war and the deceptive calm that followed 1940 to 1955
  6. A belated colonisation, a sudden independence 1955 to 1960
  7. [Assassination of Patrice Lumumba 1960]
  8. The turbulent years of the first republic 1960 to 1965
  9. Mobutu gets down to business 1965 to 1975
  10. A marshal’s madness 1975 to 1990
  11. Democratic opposition and military confrontation 1990 to 1997
  12. The Great War of Africa 1997 to 2002
  13. New players in a wasted land 2002 to 2006
  14. Hope and despair in a newborn democracy 2006 to 2010

Between the wars

All the books I’ve read recently were about the Victorian explorers of central Africa and ended around 1910 with the death of King Leopold and his handing over the Congo to the Belgian state to become a proper colony. It’s the period after that which interests me, from the Edwardians to independence and van Reybrouck’s does a wonderful job of explaining that period, both in terms of conventional history, but also with his extensive use of individual biographies, memories, interviews and anecdotes.

The period saw the real entrenchment of colonialism but also the development and changing phases of that colonialism. Much happened but the key strands were:

Incorporation into global capitalist economy

In the 1890s the economy was a barter one. Even King Leopold’s rapacious Force Publique in effect bartered for rubber or paid forced labour exclusively with rations. The period through and after the First World War saw the introduction of money, Congo was incorporated into the global capitalist economy, with the introduction of contracts and wages (pages 127 and 157).

The budding industrialisation of Congo led not only to an initial form of urbanisation and proletarianisation, but also to a far-reaching process of monetisation. (p.127)

And once you have money i.e. once you have transitioned a population from barter and traditional forms of exchange, to money, the state can control huge aspects of life, starting with contracts for wages, all kinds of laws about commercial dealings. Previously individuals worked out their own forms of exchange; now the state intervened in everything. Most of all, the state can now introduce and collect taxes. Taxes for what? Why, to pay for the state.

These economic, trade, financial practices had been introduced across Europe over centuries (think of the evolution of money and banking) and so, like the frog in the slowly heating up saucepan, everyone in the West had not only got used to them but regarded them as ‘natural’.

It’s only when you see all these instruments of state and social control being imposed on a completely virgin society that you realise how exploitative and controlling they were.

Industrialisation and proletarianisation

Industralisation and ‘development’ all sound fine until you realise their inevitable concomitant, which is the creation of a proletariat. Again, since many of the workers in the new factories or in the huge mines being created in the east of the country or on the vast new plantations growing coffee, cotton, tobacco and other export crops were only one generation removed from illiterate tribal villagers living on subsistence agriculture, the process was all the more dramatic and defined (p.125).

Between 1908 and 1921…Congo experienced its first wave of industrialisation, thereby prompting the proletarianisation of its inhabitants. (p.125)

You can see why Marxist ideology gained such traction in the developing world or Third World as it came up to independence. In Europe and America capitalism had developed a very large middle and lower middle class which benefited from it, which enjoyed a standard of living to which the more skilled workers aspired. These acted as a kind of social ballast, meaning that the industrial proletariat or working class, whatever you call it, even at their most radicalised, were never in a majority, never had the potential to overthrow the state.

Whereas in most countries coming up to independence, the clear majority of the population was treated as second class citizens and the great majority of them exploited by European employers and screwed for ever higher taxes by a state biased entirely to protecting Europeans and maximising their wealth.

When you add in the race aspect, the notion that whites exploited blacks, so that when the whites were overthrown and blacks were in power, paradise would come – and you have a very heady mix of ideas and ideologies and hopes.

Population explosion

Schools, hospitals, better nutrition, a more varied diet and medical advances such as inoculation against the worst tropical diseases, meant that the 1930s and 40s saw a population explosion (p.164). This took a very particular form, namely the explosive growth of cities. Word spread there were jobs, decent housing, money and all the excitements of modern urban life just a hundred miles from the traditional village where you lived. The village denoted crushing poverty, a corrupt chieftain and wizened elders who married all the young women. Farming was back breaking work and the crops grown were specified by the state according to unknown plans or you might be dragooned into one of the mandatory road building schemes.

So you upped sticks and hitched to the city to take your chances. Between 1920 and 1940 the population of Kinshasa doubled to 50,000. (Remember that Stanley founded it from nothing and named it Léopoldville just 40 years earlier, in 1881.) Elizabethville (named after the wife of King Albert of Belgium), centre of the mining industry in the south-east of the country, double in size between 1923 and 1929, from 16,000 to 23,000. Huge investments in the 1920s in both the mining industry and in transport infrastructure  led to Katanga province becoming one of the world’s major copper ore producers.

In 1919 the big Union Minière de Haut-Katanga corporation based in Katanga employed 8,500 workers; by 1928 it was 17,000. In 1920 there were 123,000 salaried black in the country; in 1929 there were 450,000 (p.127). By 1945, what with the huge demand for metals and foodstuffs generated by the war, the number of payrolled workers had risen to 800,000, possibly as many as 1 million (p.191).

Van Reybrouck uses the decision of Union Minière to allow workers to bring their wives to the workers’ accommodation as a symbolic moment when many black employees stopped being transitory single men on short term contracts and began to become families with careers. Black men acquired the skills required by a modern urban economy, carpenters, masons, woodworkers, as well as white collar roles such as nurses, clerks, warehouse foremen. And bar and music hall owners and the new jazz musicians who played in them. In the late 1930s the first pensions were introduced by some of the corporations. It was during the 30s, 40s and 50s that a Congolese society was created. The Boy Scouts were introduced. Football. Music.

Repression

As the colonial state extended its grasp out across all regions of the country, it faced two kinds of revolt: one the old traditional, rural one from the country and the other a new, urban one, fomented by workers and unions. This explains why ‘almost all the prisons in Congo were built between 1930 and 1935 (p.160).

When a young Belgian named Maximilien Balot, visiting a village in Pende country to collect taxes, mishandled the situation, was murdered and his body hacked to pieces, the colonial government sent in soldiers who killed at least 400 natives, probably more (p.163).

Elsewhere, strikes among mine workers or dockers were put down with force, although actual unions weren’t very active. Most were set up by the white employers and so were another symbol of repression rather than vehicles of protest and negotiation. As late as 1955, of about 1.2 million Congolese on payrolls, only 6,160 belonged to a union (p.214).

What is an évolué?

Against this background of industrialisation and modernisation, the rapid growth of urban centres with all the features of urban life i.e. modern jobs, modern accommodation, electricity, telephones and entertainment in the form of clubs and bars and cinemas, it’s no surprise that an educated black bourgeoisie emerged. The Belgian authorities used the French term ‘évolué’ meaning, literally, people who had evolved from their primitive illiterate tribal culture to become well educated, assimilated urbanites, people who dressed, walked and talked like Europeans.

An évolué had benefited from post-primary school education, had a good income, was serious about his work, monogamous (polygamy was one of the great indicators of the tribal mindset), dressed, walked and talked in the European manner. He was proud of owning Western consumer goods like a bicycle or record player (p.215).

Like any other class rising up into one above, they were very conscious of their new status and formed groups, clubs and circles to protect it. They read and they wrote. The first Congolese writers come from this caste such as Paul Lomami-Tshibamba. But they were in the classic piggy-in-the-middle position. After the Second World War they wrote the first tentative essays about greater equality and autonomy for blacks but deep down they wanted to live like whites and be treated like whites. The irony was that, after the war, more white women came and settled in the Congo, a new white middle class came into being, more consumer orientated, with big villas and chauffeur-driven cars and children at private school.

And at exactly the historic moment when a new black middle class and intelligentsia reached out to them, van Reybrouck portrays white bourgeoisie as withdrawing into its gated communities and enforcing a new, more unbreakable colour bar. If a white journalist took a black colleague into a European bar, conversation stopped. Trains were segregated into black and white. If a black man dived into a swimming pool at a European club, the whites got out (p.216).

They had done everything asked of them, but still the évolués were treated as second class citizens. Van Reybrouck quotes a plaintive petition from the évolués of the small town of Lulabourg, who describe themselves as ‘a new social class…which constitutes a new sort of native middle class’ and concludes plaintively: ‘It is painful to be received as a savage, when one is full of good will’ (p.217).

The authorities made what, in retrospect seem like pitiful attempts to mollify these pleas. In 1948 they declared the évolués could apply for a ‘certificate of civil merit’. Holders of this grand certificate would no longer be administered corporal punishment and, if charged with an offence, be tried before a European judge. They had access to white wards in hospitals and were allowed to walk through white neighbourhoods after 6pm (!).

Unsurprisingly this was met with resentment and so the authorities introduced the carte d’immatriculation in 1952 which gave the évolué exactly the same civil rights as Europeans, most notably the ability to send their children to European schools. However, in order to qualify you had to submit to a humiliating inspection of your home life, which scrutinised every aspect of your home from the sleeping arrangements right down to the state of the cutlery and the kitchen.

Very few évolués volunteered to undergo this humiliation and even fewer passed the stringent criteria with the result that, in 1958, from a population of 14 million, only 1,557 civil merits were handed out and only 217 registration cards (p.219).

All of which explains why so many of the early leaders of the African nationalist parties in the Belgian Congo were members of the frustrated évolué class.

A succession of raw materials

Congo was victim of a kind of ironic curse: the conquering Europeans discovered the country possessed a whole series of raw materials which brought the exploiting whites vast wealth but very little benefit and a lot of forced labour and misery for the native population. Van Reybrouck points out these raw materials formed a kind of relay race: just as one material ran dry or ceased to be needed by Western countries, another took its place (p.119).

Thus ivory was the commodity which attracted traders to Congo in the 1870s and 80s. But just as supplies of ivory were being exhausted in the 1890s, there was a sudden explosion of demand for rubber sparked by the invention of pneumatic tyres for bicycles and cars and Congo turned out to be home to millions of wild rubber vines, which the population was terrorised into milking throughout the 1890s and 1900s.

Then the rubber boom collapsed because so many rubber tree plantations were opening in the Far East. In 1901 rubber had accounted for 87% of Congo’s exports, by 1928 just 1% (p.119). But just as the bottom fell out of the rubber market, Congo was discovered to be one of the world’s great sources of precious metals and minerals, chiefly copper, which underwent an explosion of demand during the First World War.

The British and American shells fired at Passendale, Ypres, Verdun and on the Somme had brass casings made from 75% copper mined in the east Congo region of Katanga. The bullet shells were made of nickel, which is 80% copper (p.137). There was steady demand between the wars, and then another huge spike 1939 to 1945.

And then, just when demand for copper dropped following WW2, its extensive supplies of uranium made Congo’s mines out east of permanent interest to the Americans (p.191). And when demand for this fell with the end of the Cold War in 1990, a new demand was opened up with the spread of personal computers and then mobile phones, which require cobalt and other rare metals which are found in the eastern part of the country.

Conclusion

My reading of Eric Hobsbawm’s history of the industrial revolution and the age of capital is that the industrial revolution was a kind of catastrophe. Contemporaries marvelled at the power and size of the new machines, especially the new railway engines unleashed on the world in the 1840s, but were puzzled and horrified at how such incredible ingenuity and engineering prowess seemed to make a large part of the population poorer than it had been before, the puzzle Karl Marx set out to solve and which his devotee Hobsbawm echoed 100 years later.

Nobody knew then what we know now about the cyclical nature of capitalist boom and bust, about successive waves of technological, consumer and marketing innovation. After the second industrial revolution provided a cornucopia of new inventions into the 1870s and 80s it was possible to believe that the new sciences of economics and sociology would guide society towards a technological utopia.

What is quite obvious is that nobody at the time understood the forces driving Western societies and the entire world forward with such relentless energy to a series of disasters: from the prolonged depression of the 1870s and 1880s which nobody understood, through to the gathering rivalries of the 1900s which led to the unprecedented cataclysm of the Great War and then to the thirty years of chaos which followed – the instability in Europe, America and Asia crystallised by the collapse of the entire financial system in 1929 followed by the rise of totalitarian regimes in Europe and Asia which ten stricken years later plunged the world into an even greater cataclysm.

My point is that Stanley and Leopold and the sadists in the Force Publique and then much of the colonial administration and the white Belgian masters certainly made countless mistakes, indulged in lies, extortion, torture and murder, or the relentless humiliation of colonial racism. And I’m not suggesting we ‘forgive’ them or let them off the hook. But at the same time this epic account, for me, brings out how humans in all areas, at all levels of society, don’t really know what’s going on. How could we? We can’t see the future from whose perspective the general trends of things even begin to make some sort of sense.

Who today can really predict the long-term impact of the digital revolution, of COVID-19 or global warming? After all the colour and vibrancy of van Reybrouck’s brilliant account I was left with a profound sense of humanity’s helplessness, a blinkered inability to understand the situation or manage ourselves which the next sections of the book – about the rush to independence, followed by civil war, military coups, corrupt dictatorship, political chaos, catastrophic war and social collapse are not, I suspect, going to do anything to disabuse me of.

Credit

Congo: the epic history of a people by David Van Reybrouck was published in Dutch by De Bezige Bij in 2010. All references are to the paperback version of the English translation by Sam Garrett, published by Fourth Estate in 2015.


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