DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO (***)

Koli Jean Bofane — Congo Inc: Bismarck’s Testament (2014)

This magnificent piece of 21st century world literature has finally been translated into English. I have loved it ever since I randomly came across a French copy in a Berlin library.

What it’s about: How do you write about a country as big as Europe, ravaged by decades of war that have taken six million lives? With cold, mocking irony, and an instinct for the ridiculous that alone can do justice to so many injustices.

A kaleidoscopic, wild ride across a society in the midst of upheaval: beset by terrible war but full of vim; suffering the legacy of colonialism, but also the country that gave the world the uranium that made the first atomic bomb—a society starting to write its own story after a century of colonial domination and postcolonial intervention.

The central figure is a short pygmy, Isookanga, who decides to “get into globalization”, leaves the jungle the seek modernity in the capital Kinshasa. We find him in superdry jeans and a Snoop Dog t-shirt at the beginning, desperate to leave his remote jungle community for a 21st century world where “people at least talk about networks or the absence of networks, USB keys, compatible interfaces”. He spends the book engaged in a “globalization” role-playing war game online called Raging Trade using a laptop he steals from a young doe-eyed anthropologist, in which he competes for natural resources with opponents like Mass Graves Petroleum and Skull and Bones Mining Fields. He justifies stealing the laptop as “a repayment of the colonial debt”. When his village elder comes to the city to find him, he lambasts his old ways:

You don’t know how to communicate. You’ll never be on Twitter.”

The story quickly expands to draw in new characters, teenage street gangs, their leader, a girl who we meet frenetic escape through the jungle to escape war lords, war lords who dream of clearing the jungle with napalm to clear the way for mining (“they call it lungs, how are you supposed to breath in a place like that, the trees suffocate everything.”), church groups with shell companies, corrupt UN soldiers, and Chinese entrepreneurs (with whom Isookanga goes into business selling heavily branded cold water). At the heart of the interweaving stories lie war crimes in Eastern DRC whose dark role in the characters lives slowly unravel throughout the book.

It is a book where the colonial legacy is not the dominant theme, but an ever present ingredient in people’s choices and interaction. In one scene Isookanga meets the Belgian anthropologist again, who sleeps with him out of colonial guilt, feeling every act like a recompense for a historical crime:

Every shake of her sensitive stomach reverberated like the salvos of savage neocolonialism: like the diktats of the IMF, like UN resolutions, like a new edition of Tintin in Congolike the Dakar speech of an uninformed French president, like racist words spread on the twittersphere.”

The conflict minerals that are Congo’s curse are also a strongly felt presence. In another scene, the girl who fled Kivu is turned sex worker for a Lithuanian UN soldier, who after sleeping with her sits down to eat the meal she has cooked, devouring not just her innocence but the very essence of a country divided up for its spoils — Congo Inc:

He savoured every bite, savouring every flavor, absorbing them, forging images in his mind: protides, lipids, salts, oligo elements, iron, aluminum, tantalite, magnesium, germanium, cobalt, copper, uranium bauxite…”

Or, more directly as the war lord puts it:

“Is it with tree trunks that you make powerful computers, iPhones and missiles? We need copper, steel, cobalt, coltan.”

The definitive book from DRC? Koli Jean Bofane captures the many tragedies of the country, remembering the colonial legacy without making it the sole driver at the expense of the agency of today’s actors.

Why you should read this: This is my favourite book of the 21st century.

When I worked in Berlin, some colleagues came from several African countries for a meeting. When asked what sights they would see with their free time, they said nothing to do with the Second World War or the Cold War. Instead they wanted to see the place where the 1884 Berlin conference took place the conference were European powers divided Africa.

The 1884 Berlin conference where European powers divided a continent among themselves— forgotten in Europe but one of the most important, and damaging, moments of African, and in particular Congolese, history.

That is the legacy of Bismark the title refers to. That building doesn’t exist any more and the spot is marked with a tiny plaque, fitting for a moment in history forgotten in Europe but which still haunts Africa today. (Ironically, I randomly discovered this book in a Berlin library — otherwise I would never have heard of it either). Like the legacy of the meeting that happened in that now destroyed building, the legacy of colonialism subtly wafts through the story, without being overpowering.

But the story is dominated not by this history but by the characters, for whom the author has great sympathy and the toxic historical legacy they have to carry, as he tells us in the last lines:

In an environment tainted by lethal waves of uranium, cobalt, tantalum, what can we expect from individuals passed through this mixer, evolving in a context of a last generation nuclear reactor? Permanent radiation doesn’t bring innocence, it leads to rage. Too bad for those sensitive souls if the place of concentration and fission is Kinshasa, laboratory of the future, and incidentally, capital of the nebulous, Congo Inc.”

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