Congo: The Epic History of a Peopleby David Van Reybrouck
From the beginnings of the slave trade through colonization, the struggle for independence, Mobutu's brutal three decades of rule, and the civil war that has raged from 1996 to the present day, Congo: The Epic History of a People traces the history of one of the most devastated nations in the world. Esteemed scholar David Van Reybrouck balances/b>
From the beginnings of the slave trade through colonization, the struggle for independence, Mobutu's brutal three decades of rule, and the civil war that has raged from 1996 to the present day, Congo: The Epic History of a People traces the history of one of the most devastated nations in the world. Esteemed scholar David Van Reybrouck balances hundreds of interviews with a diverse range of Congolese with meticulous historical research to construct a multidimensional portrait of a nation and its people.
Epic in scope yet eminently readable, both penetrating and deeply moving, Congo—a finalist for the Cundill Prize—takes a deeply humane approach to political history, focusing squarely on the Congolese perspective, and returns a nation's history to its people.
Belgian author Van Reybrouck begins this prolonged tale of woe with the first arrival of Europeans in this central African land, whose imperialistic intention toward its inhabitants was to “free them from the wolf trap of prehistoric listlessness.” His ensuing history relates the Congo’s Christianization by Portuguese Jesuits, Italian Capuchins, and eventually Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as the role played by foreign foodstuffs—such as Mexican corn and Brazilian manioc—in everyday Congolese life. Addressing the historical complexities of slavery, Van Reybrouck avers that, to many Congolese, “lavery was not being subjugated, it was being separated, from home.” The narrative also portrays larger-than-life personages, including charismatic prophet Simon Kimbangu and long-reigning dictator Joseph Mobutu. While the Congolese adapted over time to the European lifestyle, many eventually wished “to be civilized Congolese, not ‘Europeans with a black skin.’ ” The prospect of independence from Belgium in June of 1960 held out hope for the nation, but “the breakneck emancipation of Congo was a tragedy that could only end in disaster.” Van Reybrouck’s extensive account reveals the depth and breadth of exploitation, particularly under Belgian colonial rule, and how Congo’s story is one fraught with the toxic cycle of “desire, frustration, revenge.” (Apr.)
This sprawling history describes the country throughout three eras: the precolonial Congo Free State privately controlled by Leopold II of Belgium, the colonial Belgian Congo, and the postindependence Democratic Republic of the Congo. Included are numerous interviews that aim to provide a "bottom-up" view of the country. These interviews, intertwined with historical sources, lead to a somewhat muddled presentation of the colonial period but successfully describe contemporary times. Van Reybrouck, a Belgian historian, frequently resorts to creative nonfiction as he imagines the responses of the Congolese to Europeans. He criticizes the starkness of Adam Hochschild's best seller King Leopold's Ghost, a recounting of the exploitation of the country by Leopold, and instead aims for "nuance" in his portrayal. While briefly mentioning the extreme violence imposed by colonial policies, the author's scrupulous attempts at subtlety fail to provide specifics, and he avoids a discussion of the death toll, simply saying that it is "impossible" to know. VERDICT Despite these problems, the distinct scope and conversational style will appeal to the general reader of historical works. The postindependence narrative is engaging and untangles the events behind recent civil wars.—Sue Giffard, Ethical Culture Fieldston Sch., New York
Sprawling portrait of a land that, by Belgian writer van Reybrouck's account, has been at the center of world history as well as a continent. The subtitle is a touch off, for as the author notes, Congo is home to hundreds of peoples, even if there is "great linguistic and cultural homogeneity" owing to the dominance of Bantu-speaking tribes. About 10 percent of all Africa falls within its borders, as well as most of the 2,900-mile-long river that gives it its name. It has been independent of Belgian colonialism for half a century—longer, observes the author, than most of its people have been alive. Still, van Reybrouck turns up some old-timers (one claiming to have been born in the 19th century) to frame his long story of the land's development, one that hinges on generations of trade along the river. Since independence, the country has fallen into disrepair born of political discord and official corruption. The country's four major cities are no longer connected by road, of which Congo possesses only 600-odd asphalt miles; as a rule of thumb, "a journey that took one hour during the colonial period now corresponds to a full day's travel." Yet this is no paean to past colonial splendor; van Reybrouck well recognizes the murderous policies of Belgium's King Leopold, and he sees some hope for stability emerging from conditions that otherwise have served as a recipe for a failed state. The causes for the decline have been many, but as the author notes, the country had to endure in just the first six months of independence a flight of the European colonials, an invasion by the Belgian army, a military mutiny, a coup d'êtat, widespread secession and a protracted hot season in the long Cold War. Though the book is overlong, van Reybrouck makes a good case for the importance of Congo to world history and its ongoing centrality in a time of resurgent economic colonialism, this time on the part of China.
- HarperCollins Publishers
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- 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.50(d)
Meet the Author
David Van Reybrouck is an award-winning author, acclaimed playwright, reporter, and poet who holds a doctorate from Leiden University. He has traveled extensively throughout Africa and has been actively involved in organizing literary workshops for young Congolese writers. He lives in Brussels.
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Fascinating story, well described as it is a very complicated History