Little Boys Come from the Stars

Little Boys Come from the Stars

by Emmanuel Dongala

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The peculiar and moving story of a Congolese boy's coming-of-age amid the political strife of postcolonial Congo

"It is even said-but I admit that it's difficult to believe, even though I got this from my uncle-that when Papa was born, you couldn't follow the World Cup or the Olympics live and that Coca-Cola had yet to spread the selling of soft drinks


The peculiar and moving story of a Congolese boy's coming-of-age amid the political strife of postcolonial Congo

"It is even said-but I admit that it's difficult to believe, even though I got this from my uncle-that when Papa was born, you couldn't follow the World Cup or the Olympics live and that Coca-Cola had yet to spread the selling of soft drinks to our village. Michael Jackson had yet to become famous . . . If all this was really true, I wonder how men managed to fill up the twenty-four hours of the day, three hundred sixty-five days a year."

His nickname is Matapari, which means "trouble." He is an African child of the '90s-brilliant, mischievous, postcolonial, postmodern-caught in the crossfire of a chaotically liberated African country. Matapari grows up in a world of talking drums, the Internet, and satellite TV, a world of dictators who remake themselves as democrats overnight. His uncle is a stooge for the dictator; his father is a scholarly recluse obsessed with proving that blacks played key roles in Western history. Matapari is a young man in the middle-but the shrewdness and wit with which he tells his often riotously funny story set him apart from his relatives and countrymen. Emmanuel Dongala uses the ingenious viewpoint of a child to show up the telltale world of adults-and to show how one preserves one's independence in a corrupt and violent society.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
As far as the 14-year-old hero of this delightful, satirical African novel is concerned, his small Congolese town is the center of the universe. Precocious and mischievous Matapari--a nickname that means "problem child"--comes of age in a time of tumultuous change, witnessing the uneven results of governmental programs (rigged agricultural fairs, ceremonies and speeches) as well as experiencing the joys of childhood and adolescence (Coca-Cola, his first crush). Young Matapari's father, the village teacher, is a distracted man more interested in reading scholarly journals than in day-to-day issues; his mother's brother, Uncle Boula Boula, is a Party flack who rises through the ranks in the postcolonial years. Matapari's often hilarious first-person narrative affords an honest look at the maneuverings and corruption of adults--revealed particularly through their conversations with children. About halfway through, the book veers onto an extended political track, when the government erupts into turmoil: Boula Boula is arrested and subjected to a lengthy sham trial, and Matapari's father leads an uprising for democracy. A wiser Matapari begins to understand the contradictions of the adult world when new, "democratic" candidates campaign in his town. Though Dongala sometimes wedges historical information and family asides into improbable spots, Matapari is an independent, intelligent and enterprising guide who effectively links a country's coming-of-age with his own. His keen and comic voice is refreshing and will appeal to readers interested in a youthful and contemporary African point of view. (Mar.) Forecast: Dongala, a distinguished novelist from the Congo Republic, was evacuated from his war-torn native country and settled in the U.S. with the help of an international group of writers, including Philip Roth. His dramatic history and the dynamism of this novel should garner lively review attention. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Along with The Fire of Origins, recently published by Lawrence Hill, this novel marks the English-language debut of Congolese writer Dongala. Set against the tumultuous political activity of the Congo Republic over the past 20 years, the story describes the coming of age of a boy named Michel, whose nickname, Matapari, literally means "trouble." Over the course of the loosely structured narrative, we watch Matapari and his country undergo the growing pains of independence while we are also made privy to Dongala's satirical take on the ambition, corruption, violence, and downright idiocy of politics and politicians. This is familiar territory, however. In the tradition of Grass and Rushdie--particularly Midnight's Children, to which this bears a conspicuous resemblance--Dongala aims to swallow and then encapsulate the recent history of his beleaguered nation in the life of a young boy. Yet aside from a few brief moments of lyricism and humor, the writing is dull and the plot not that compelling. In addition, the overly pronounced political criticism may seem patronizing to some readers. Recommended only for African literature collections. [Formerly dean of Brazzaville University in the Congo Republic, Dongala fled his country in 1997 and currently lives and teaches in Massachusetts.--Ed.]--Heath Madom, "Library Journal" Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The transformation of a "continent of sorcerers and fetish makers" into a modern culture is paralleled by the growth to young manhood of a delightful protagonist: a glorious 1998 novel by the native Congolese author (now American citizen) of The Fire of Origins (2000). In a deadpan opening that slyly mocks the pop grandiosity of Rushdie's Midnight's Children, Michel (a.k.a. "Matapari," which means, roughly, "trouble") describes his remarkable birth as an unnoticed triplet who emerged from his mother's womb a day later than his elder twin brothers on the 20th anniversary of his unnamed country's independence. Matapari grows up intellectually curious under the benign influence of his scholarly father, a gentle skeptic; as a would-be "tough guy" inspired by films and TV ("dreaming of being Rambo or Mad Max"); as a well-meaning idealist attracted by both the world of political influence and by the wealth courted by his scheming uncle Boula Boula (a wonderful braggart and trickster who might have stepped out of one of V.S. Naipaul's early novels); and as a devout student of "the books of man and the book of the universe" who's urged on Matapari by his beloved Grandfather. This unfailingly lively and charming tale, filled with boisterous comic episodes, deepens appreciably as it proceeds, when the machineries of "democratization" lead inexorably to violence in the streets, political imprisonment, persecution, and to Matapari's realization that the promises of discovery and healing contained in the texts his father worships will always be interrupted and subverted by men who pursue earthly agendas rather than "the stars." Dongala ends it all memorably, as Matapari'sfamilykeeps a solemn vigil during Grandfather's final illness. A brilliant, many-colored work, and a stunning companion piece to the rather different The Fire of Origins. Dongala may be the most accomplished novelist from Africa since Chinua Achebe.

From the Publisher
“Affecting…in the tradition of post-colonial novels like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.”–The New York Times Book Review

“A whimsical, indeed hilarious satire out of Africa’s decidedly unfunny post-independence woes.”–Los Angeles Times

“Dongala reaches widely and grandly…[and] manages to balance both hope and anger.”–Detroit Free Press

“A funny, touching novel that offers a child’s perspective on power and politics.” –Chicago Tribune

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Little Boys Come From the Stars

A Novel

By Emmanuel Dongala, Joël Réjouis, Val Vinokurov

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1998 Le Serpent à Plumes
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-70805-4


I was almost never born.

I almost never got to chase after a ray of light trying to catch it, almost never discovered those strange regions where dreams come to life and play before scampering along to sleeping minds. I almost never felt Aledia's breast behind the lantana bushes that scratched us as we passed. Honestly, I was almost never born. Maman left the hospital with me still in her womb.

She always swore up and down that she didn't do it on purpose, forever repeating in her meek voice: How could I have imagined, Matapari my son, that, after the twins came out of my belly, there was a third child tucked away somewhere in there, in the depths of my gut? The doctor was the first to ask Maman to leave her hospital bed and go home, and Mama Kossa the midwife assured her that it was all over and that she could go; then Papa, at once proud and worried about having brought twins into the world (troublesome children, hard to raise), had also rushed her back home. That's how she went home, forgetting me in her belly.

From what my uncle Boula Boula told me, it was only two whole days later, while sitting on a bamboo stool washing the twins' diapers, that Maman felt pains strangely similar to the ones she'd felt during labor. She ignored them as much and as long as she could, thinking it was a passing post-birth thing; she had no experience in these matters since this had been her first time giving birth. She left the diapers alone and lay down on the foam pad she had set over a mat on the living room floor. Nothing doing, she was still hurting. No doubt about it, these were the contractions of a delivery—though it seemed impossible. By the ancestors' memory, no one ever heard of a woman carrying more than two children. In a panic, she called for Mama Kossa, the official village midwife.

Mama Kossa arrived lively as ever, always in a hurry as if chased by the spirit of an ancestor who had died abruptly, displacing behind her huge volumes of air, which, momentarily imprisoned in the vast folds of her boubou, then escaped in big violent gusts worthy of a Category 5 tropical storm. And yet, like the eye of the storm, her face always stayed calm and serene with its jet black eyes whose shiny depths scared off owls, drove sorcerers to suicide, and protected newborns. She brought that mystical pouch she always had whenever she visited a woman about to give birth, a bag that contained everything: herbs, medicinal plants, liniments, disposable syringes, vials, powders, and even antibiotics, since she practiced both traditional and modern medicine. She knew how to prepare potions to drive off evil spirits, just as she knew how to set up an IV drip. On top of her indisputable knowledge, Mama Kossa had a certain prestige in the eyes of the locals that the other midwives didn't, because she came from far away. No one knew where exactly. She had settled here twenty or thirty years ago, and many thought she was from Oubangui-Chari, from one of those tribes along a northern branch of one of the tributaries of the mighty Congo, from one of those tribes that had mastered forces our people here had no idea about, tribes that had nothing to learn even from the Pygmies. And since no one knew exactly which tribe she came from, local sorcerers and fetish makers feared her, and woe to the evil eye that dared go after a child delivered by Mama Kossa!

And so she came like a whirlwind. She knelt, wiped Maman's sweaty forehead, and gave her a probing look. I have pains, Maman said, moaning. I feel like I'm going to give birth again. Nonsense, Mama Kossa firmly replied. Have you ever seen a woman carry three, four children like a litter of pups? But Maman continued to protest forcefully and writhe in pain. Suddenly, Mama Kossa thought again, felt Maman's lower abdomen, then brought her hand just above the belly button, spread her palm, and began to concentrate. At that moment, I must have given a nice kick to make my presence felt, because according to witnesses (since I was still tucked away in the folds of my mother's womb), Mama Kossa's legendary calm face became a hurricane: Incredible! ... she's going into labor ... Never saw such a thing ... Holà Maria, run quick, fetch wood, and make a big fire to heat up a big bucket of water ... Mabiala, you run to the hospital, go tell the doctor that the teacher's wife is having a third child ... No no, he won't believe you, he'll send you packing, tell him instead that Mama Kossa is with a woman whose water's broken and who may give birth on the road if we go to the hospital ... She was digging in her bag as she was talking, pulling out compresses, flasks, needles. Yengo, run and get her husband, quick, tell him that his wife, the mother of his twins, needs her husband straightaway.

You have to figure luck was not on my side, because I had picked the wrong day to set my eyes on this world. It was the fifteenth of August: not only was this date important in itself as our national holiday, but it was August 15, 1980, the twentieth anniversary of our Independence, which made the holiday more than exceptional.

It was my uncle who helped me understand the importance of this day of rejoicing in a country where everything was an excuse to party. He explained to me that our country had once been occupied by white people, who had arrived here by accident on ships whose sails had been pushed by the tropical winds toward the African coast. The white people then began systematically scouring our coastland and even our inland regions, stealing people and selling them as slaves; that's why there are blacks in the United States today, and why Cassius Clay, alias Muhammad Ali, was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and not in Poto-Poto, a neighborhood in Brazzaville. Then there were missionaries who came to chase our ancestors out of their graves, out of the groves and rivers, and out of the huts they inhabited, to replace them with Jesus Christ, the Bible, and the cross; and the armed men who came along with them and installed themselves. In these parts, they were French. They ruled over us, ran the country, exploited us, taught us their language, sent us to their schools, and gave us new ancestors called Gauls. That's why we still speak French, love French food, and still like to spend our vacations in France, even if these days it is easier to get a visa to the moon than to that country.

These French so exploited us that twenty years ago we revolted against this exploitation called colonialism and became independent, that is, masters of our destiny. But since we couldn't get rid of everything they'd brought with them, things we'd lived with for a century, we made our ancestors come back while keeping Jesus, the Bible, and the cross; we kept their language along with ours, as well as their clothing, red wine, Brie, and baguettes. It was as if we were reborn from two roots.

Unfortunately, the three or four leaders who took over from the French kept obeying these same French and other whites, having sold out to what my uncle called imperialism and neocolonialism. That's why the young military men overthrew these leaders in a series of coups d'etat, killed them off, and took over. But these army men weren't any better, and so other army men plotted and overthrew them, and so on and so forth, until this day of my unexpected birth on the twentieth anniversary of the day that one of these military men (again, according to my uncle, who told me all these things) set up a "revolutionary" system based on something called scientific socialism, with Uncle Boula Boula serving for a time as one of its most important officials. He didn't tell me what that meant exactly but explained enough to indicate that this was something completely new, a definitive break with slavery, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism. They changed our country's name, anthem, and flag, and our models became countries called Communist. A star, hammer, and hoe were put on the flag turned crimson. "People's" was added to the name of every state institution, including the National Library. Folks couldn't pray, read, sing, think, or travel without the prior approval of the Chief of State, by virtue of the surveillance agencies he controlled. In short, red became the new fetish: people were to die for the red flag, one had to be red in order to be thought competent at work; the national soccer team, as well as the public squares and high schools, were afflicted with red.

So it was the twentieth red anniversary that was being celebrated, when I, a forgotten child, was struggling heroically to leave my mother's belly.

Our house, it must be said, was pretty far from the official district buildings, especially the town hall, where the festivities took place, so Yengo arrived there out of breath, his feet dirty and a bit swollen, since he'd chosen to run off without his plastic sandals. Although there was a huge crowd, Papa wasn't hard to find.

He was standing on a carpeted platform reading an important message. Now that I'm fifteen and telling you the story of my birthday the way Uncle Boula Boula told it, you can't imagine the importance a teacher had in the village back then; he was second only to the chief of police, who was the political red eyes and ears of the government. But as for competence, knowledge, prestige—these things belonged to the teacher. My father even told me that his father still remembered the name of his first elementary school teacher. That's why my father stood on this red platform decorated with the portrait of the President wearing his captain's stripes. My father, tie tightly knotted, in dark jacket and pants, surrounded by dignitaries, was reading the opening speech. Yengo didn't know how to proceed: how was he to get through this crowd, and then how was he supposed to convince the people in charge of protocol that he had an important message to deliver to this no less important teacher?

Luckily, Uncle Boula Boula appeared as if by magic next to Yengo. He wondered why this poor boy was in such a state. After talking to the boy, he realized it was an emergency and made his way toward Papa, who had just finished his speech and was bowing his head before the applause. Uncle Boula Boula, sensing the time was right, began whispering in the right ear of my father's bowed head: everyone saw Papa's eyes open wide in astonishment, and then he collapsed little by little, in slow motion, as in a movie or an instant replay, his hands grabbing at the portrait of the Captain on the way down. The crowd kept clapping as he tumbled and as the heavy ebony frame that held the presidential portrait fell on his skull with a thud. So Papa fainted, knocked out cold by the Chief of State and maybe somewhat by the news of my birth.


I was already born, wiped, washed, and wrapped when Papa hopped off the back of Mr. Konaté's truck, which typically carried sacks of cassava, planting stock, chickens, lambs, and sometimes pigs, but never human passengers. But for such an emergency—his wife had brought three children into the world at once—Papa had to be present as soon as possible no matter the means of transportation. Though he was incontestably the most educated man in the village, he was not the most powerful; anyway, wasn't it easier for a politician to get a state funeral than a scholar? All Papa's intelligence and scientific know-how weren't enough to get open the police chiefs car, covered in the colors of state and driven by a chauffeur wearing a soldier's cap and epaulets. The only other car in running condition belonged to the medical assistant, who played at general practitioner and whom everyone called doctor, a car that, ever since the automakers did away with cranks, refused to start without a great push from two or three men. Still and yet contrary to what Mama Kossa used to say, the ancients were partly on my side that day, because at that very delicate moment when my father needed a ride to get to his wife, the West African merchant's truck suddenly came roaring along—the very same truck that ran almost exclusively during the dry season, when the roads weren't too swampy, the same truck that would cover you with sand and laterite dust as it passed.

Mr. Konaté knew only one holiday, which came at the end of Ramadan: Aid El Fitr, the day of Abraham's sacrifice, a holiday we called Tabaski. Mr. Konaté would park all his trucks, close up his shops and bars, and put on a great feast for all his employees, even though some embraced Islam only for the sake of that particular holiday. Mr. Konaté was a Muslim because, so I was told, it was the Arabs who, in their frantic race against the whites, arrived first in his part of Africa, where they enslaved and colonized. That is why we find blacks in the Gulf emirates and why in Algeria some think that blacks are still slaves. Truth be told, many people converted only to become rich like Mr. Konaté and had changed their names to Ibrahima, Mamadou, or Djibril. Since his riches enabled him to go to Mecca each year, rumor had it that he was an imam and was as powerful as the Ayatollah Khomeini.

My uncle, a practical man, stood on the side of the road that ran across the village; he could tell there was a truck approaching by the red fog of the laterite dust that hung over the distant plains. With an air of authority, he stepped into the middle of the road: the truck braked so suddenly that it lurched like an elephant, and had my uncle not thrown himself in the ditch by the road (forgetting his dignity and ceremonial attire), he would have been squashed by this crazed machine. As it bounced and settled back onto four wheels, the truck launched two bunches of bananas, three chickens, and a pig, much to the delight of the children, who proceeded to chase the animals after snatching up a few ripe bananas, thinking it was all part of the festivities.

Before the dust had settled, an angry man stepped out of the cab, vociferating, fists in the air, coming toward my uncle, who had already gotten back on his feet, his beautiful white suit as well as his hair, lashes, and eyebrows covered in a rusty laterite dust, a hue typical of our soil during the dry season. The man caught on quickly, for as soon as he saw my uncle's hunched ex-boxer torso, he relaxed his fists, faked a resigned smile, and said: "Be careful, sir, it's dangerous to stand in the middle of the road like that."

Everyone instantly recognized the man: it was Mr. Konaté himself, dressed on this day of my birth in a suit as grotesque as we Central Africans imagined them to be in West Africa. A big, blue, well-embroidered cotton robe; some beige slippers; a skullcap on his head; and a little talisman in a small leather bag around his neck. But now the new accessory was a bump on his forehead caused by a violent encounter with the dashboard.

"Konaté! Your head's all swollen!"

"Boula Boula! So you're the one I almost ran over, wallai?"

"No time to talk, Konaté. The school principal's wife just gave birth to a third child. Such a thing is so strange that he must go to her straightaway."

"Three children? He's got three children? By Allah, what's so strange about that? I have twelve children myself, and my third wife—I married her three months ago—is pregnant already."

"No, not three children, a third child, dammit!"

"So if he's had a third child, add it up, he's got three children!"

"Enough, you can't understand, you're a Muslim."

Meanwhile my papa headed toward the truck in a haze, led by Yengo, who wanted to install him in the front cab in a manner proper to his station, but feeling a bit woozy, Papa insisted on lying down. Mr. Konaté, who also knew him—for who at that time did not know my papa, the village schoolmaster who had replaced the whites and was teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic to all the little children?—obliged. The vehicle's flatbed was lowered to unload two bags of grated ret manioc (still oozing), three bunches of bananas, and a goat: that made enough room for my papa to lie down and have Yengo sit next to him. Uncle Boula Boula squeezed into the cab with Mr. Konaté and the driver, and the truck took off, leaving the police prefect and the other notables to their speeches and festivities.


Excerpted from Little Boys Come From the Stars by Emmanuel Dongala, Joël Réjouis, Val Vinokurov. Copyright © 1998 Le Serpent à Plumes. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Emmanuel Dongala, a novelist and scientist, was a lifelong resident of Brazzaville, capital of the Congo Republic (formerly French Congo), until leaving the country during its civil war in 1997. He teaches at Simon's Rock of Bard College and lives in Western Massachusetts.

Emmanuel Dongala was a resident from birth of Brazzaville, capital of the Congo Republic (formerly French Congo), until he left the country in 1997 during its civil war. He teaches at Simon's Rock College of Bard and lives in western Massachusetts.

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