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Thursday, 18 January, 2001, 15:58 GMT
DR Congo's literary past
Congolese river
Naipaul's A Bend In The River is his bestselling work
The news of the reported shooting of Laurent Kabila in the Democratic Republic of Congo will have been greeted by many as another story about a distant country of which we know nothing.

But the average Briton probably knows a lot more about the DR Congo than he or she realises.

For example, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, though not even set in Africa, is in effect the adaptation of a book that launched western perceptions of the Congo - Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Mobutu Sese Seko
Mobutu Sese Seko ruled Zaire for 32 years
That book tells the chilling story of a young man who is sent to the Belgian Congo to find a representative of his company called Kurtz.

He discovers that Kurtz has not only gone to bad, but is evil incarnate.

Anarchic

Heavy though it is with Victorian racism, the horror Heart of Darkness described was all too real.

Conrad had seen first-hand the scale of the greed, hypocrisy of ivory-rich Congo Free State, created by Belgium's King Leopold II.

It was the beginning of this vast country being seen, maybe unfairly, as a symbol for somewhere anarchic.

Kinshasa
The Catastrophist is set in Kinshasa, formerly Leopoldville
Adam Hochschild's passionate 1999 book, King Leopold's Ghost, chronicles the history behind Heart of Darkness.

Hochschild outlines the involvement of people like Conrad and the pioneering journalist ED Morel in the Congo.

Morel was an agent for a Liverpool shipping firm. He made the connection between the vast quantities of ivory and wild rubber coming into Antwerp from the Congo and the consignments of guns and ammunition going out.

He describes in meticulous detail the horrors that were perpetrated by the emissaries of King Leopold, who used the Congo as his personal fief.

'Sin of youth'

The Congo also featured in Biggles, as the country where only the brave dare to venture.

Belgian writer Herge's Tintin adventures in the country were full of racist caricatures that Herge later called "a sin of youth".


My books were full of the Belgian bourgeois mentality of the time

Tintin author Herge

He told The Guardian in 1999 that: "All I knew about the country was what people said at the time.

"I admit that my early books were typical of the Belgian bourgeois mentality of the time."

A more up to date account of DR Congo after Belgium withdrew is VS Naipaul's classic The Bend In The River.

The story is set in the city of Stanleyville, now known as Kisangani, which was named for the Welsh-American explorer-journalist Henry Morton Stanley.

Naipaul describes the desolation of the place, the burned-out suburbs and the destroyed towns.

This is the account, albeit fictional, that rings true with the experience of journalist and writer Michaela Wrong.


People use sureal methods to survive when normal rules collapse

Writer Michaela Wrong

Wrong recently published In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz - a non-fiction account of the years after the charismatic independence leader Patrice Lumumba was murdered and Mobutu came to power.

She said: "It's a country where people use surreal methods to survive when normal rules collapse."

In her book she describes Mobutu's extravagant regime complete with gold plated taps and pink champagne, juxtaposed with the dire poverty and bizarre means ordinary Congolese people use in order to survive.

Fact or fiction?

More recently two books have revisited 1961, and the death of Patrice Lumumba.

Belfast born Ronan Bennett's novel The Catastrophist features an Anglo-Irish writer who travels to the Congo to rekindle a love affair with his journalist lover, but gets caught up in the battle for Congolese independence.

DR Congo bibliography: fiction
Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
A Bend in the River - VS Naipaul
The Catastrophist - Ronan Bennett
The Poisonwood Bible - Barbara Kingsolver

Bennett describes the struggling local political elite, uneducated but dignified.

His account of CIA involvement with the death of Lumumba blurs the line between fact and fiction satisfyingly.

But the book that most recently captured the public imagination about The Congo is the bestseller The Poisonwood Bible by American writer Barbara Kingsolver.

It has been described as "Heart of Darkness in reverse" and is the story of a white Baptist missionary family who bring the darkness with them to Africa in the late 50s and 60s.

DR Congo bibliography: non-fiction
King Leopold's Ghost - Adam Hochschild
In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz - Michaela Wrong
The King Incorporated - Neal Ascherson
They baffle their poverty-stricken neighbours with their cake-mixes and mirrors. Lumumba features in this book, as does the involvement of white foreigners in his murder.

The daughter who marries an educated Congolese and makes a stand for Congolese independence strikes a positive note.

But she ends up in Angola, waiting for a better time for The Congo.

That time has still not come.

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See also:

17 Jan 01 | Africa
Confusion over Kabila's fate
17 Jan 01 | Africa
Why Congo matters
16 Jan 01 | Africa
DR Congo's troubled history
17 Jan 01 | Africa
Profile: Laurent Kabila
18 Jan 01 | Africa
Congo dominates summit
16 Sep 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
Welcome to DR Congo
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