Congo: The Epic History of a People

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Overview

The gripping saga of one of the world's most devastated countries

The Democratic Republic of Congo currently ranks among the world's most failed nation-states, second only to war-torn Somalia. David Van Reybrouck's Congo: The Epic History of a People traces the history of this devastated nation from the beginnings of the slave trade through the arrival of Sir Henry Morton Stanley, the ivory and rubber booms, colonization, the struggle for independence, and the three decades of ...

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Congo: The Epic History of a People

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Overview

The gripping saga of one of the world's most devastated countries

The Democratic Republic of Congo currently ranks among the world's most failed nation-states, second only to war-torn Somalia. David Van Reybrouck's Congo: The Epic History of a People traces the history of this devastated nation from the beginnings of the slave trade through the arrival of Sir Henry Morton Stanley, the ivory and rubber booms, colonization, the struggle for independence, and the three decades of Mobutu's brutal rule. Van Reybrouck also examines the civil war—the world's deadliest conflict since the Second World War. Still raging today after seventeen years, the Congolese war is driven, in part, by the demand for the rare-earth minerals required to make cell phones.

Van Reybrouck has balanced hundreds of interviews with meticulous historical research to construct a many-dimensional portrait of the rich and convoluted history of Congo. Taking pains to seek out the Congolese perspective on the country's history, Van Reybrouck creates a panoramic canvas wherein the child soldiers whom he encounters in the eastern rebel territories talk candidly about their choices and misfortunes, and where elderly Congolese—some of them more than one hundred years old—reminisce about their lives in a country where the average life expectancy has dropped to forty-five.

Vast in scope yet eminently readable, both penetrating and deeply moving, Congo does for Africa what Robert Hughes's masterful and novelistic The Fatal Shore did for Australia. Van Reybrouck takes a deeply humane approach to political history, focusing squarely on the Congolese perspective and returning a nation's history to its people. Published to rave reviews in Belgium and the Netherlands in 2010, Congo has now been gracefully translated by the exceptional Sam Garrett, most recently the translator of Herman Koch's bestselling The Dinner.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - J. M. Ledgard
Van Reybrouck…spent years working on this overview of the Congolese people. Its translation from Dutch, by Sam Garrett, is a piece of luck for English-speaking readers. This is a magnificent account, intimately researched, and relevant for anyone interested in how the recent past may inform our near future…Van Reybrouck's bibliography alone is worth the cover price. But what distinguishes the book is its clearheadedness. He patiently reminds us that Congo will always be a case apart because of its wealth…Washington think tanks are obsessed with Afghanistan, that other plummeting state, but Afghanistan looks like a distraction in planetary terms compared with what Congo is and what it becomes, what is kept alive there and what is dug up there.
Publishers Weekly
12/09/2013
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.)
Library Journal
11/01/2013
Ranging from trade in slaves to trade in ivory, rubber, and minerals, from the horrors of King Leopold II's regime, the battle for independence, and Mobutu rule to the current civil war, Brussels-based reporter/playwright/poet van Reybrouck offers a history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo that has become an international best seller. Important points: the country's extraordinary resources have often led to exploitation, hurting rather than help the people; and China is an important new presence on the Congo's playing field.
Kirkus Reviews
2014-02-20
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.
Washington Post
“A vivid panorama of one of the most tormented lands in the world… A valuable addition to the rich literature that Congo has inspired.”
ThinkAfricaPress.com
“[A] detailed and well-researched biography, thoroughly rooted in the lived experience of the Congolese… It is clear that the author is not your typical historian dryly publishing his findings, but a literary artist with a pen almost as sharp as Lumumba’s tongue.”
New York Times Book Review
“This is a magnificent account, intimately researched, and relevant for anyone interested in how the recent past may inform our near future… Van Reybrouck’s bibliography alone is worth the cover price. But what distinguishes the book is its clearheadedness.”
Foreign Affairs
“Van Reybrouck’s carefully researched and elegantly written book takes in the reader with compelling portraits of ordinary people that enrich what would otherwise be a fairly conventional historical narrative.”
The Christian Science Monitor
“A magnificent, epic look at the history of the region… A monumental contribution to the annals of Congo scholarship.”
Booklist
“... a compelling mixture of literary and oral history that delivers an authentic story of how European colonialism, African resistance, and the endless exploitation of natural resources affected the lives of the Congolese.”
NRC Handelsblad
“a monumental history . . . more exciting than any novel.”
Humo
“An unbelievable tour de force.”
VPRO Radio
“An absolute masterpiece!”
Trouw
“Breathtaking.”
Mahmood Mamdani
“If you are looking to read one book on Congo this year, this is it. David Van Reybrouck combines deep historical investigation with extensive ethnography. The result is an illuminating narrative.”
V.Y.M. Mudimbe
“A well-documented and passionate narrative which reads like a novel. [..] As an eye, a judge, and a witness, a talented writer testifies.”
Michela Wrong
“Congo is a remarkable piece of work. Van Reybrouck [keeps] a panoramic history of a vast and complex nation accessible, intimate and particular.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780062200112
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/25/2014
  • Pages: 656
  • Sales rank: 90,493
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.90 (d)

Meet the Author

David Van Reybrouck is an award-winning author and an 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 in Kinshasa and Goma. He lives in Brussels.

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 4, 2014

    highly recommended

    Fascinating story, well described as it is a very complicated History

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