The history of a beleaguered African nation is encapsulated in this moving allegorical novel (originally published in French in 1987), by a Congolese author who now teaches at Bard College.
In a vigorous flexible style that’s partly expository, partly the implied voice of an oral storyteller, Dongala relates the life history of Mandala Mankunku, a man born apart from his village (Lubituku) and thereafter considered only half-human: “a man without beginning or end, condemned to wander eternally on the earth.” Mankunku becomes a “great hunter,” as well as an accomplished blacksmith (his father’s trade), sculptor, and healer—bent on mastering “the power hidden beneath the surface of each thing, . . . to harness it for the good of humankind.” He’s also a “destroyer” committed to opposing the abuses of authorities—such as his uncle Bizenga, the village’s sorcerer and chieftain (and betrayer), and the succession of British and European “foreign invaders” who exploit the Africans’ labor, disrespect the reverent balance they maintain with the natural world (a scene in which a white hunter indiscriminately slaughters numerous jungle animals is especially potent), and transform the landscape irrevocably. Mankunku forsakes Lubituku for “the city,” finds work as a railroad laborer and locomotive engineer, challenges colonial oppressors, is pronounced “reactionary” when Communist revolutionaries succeed them, marries a “city woman” and fathers a “monster” (i.e., albino) child – and, in old age, returns to the site of his birth, seeking reunion with all his people have lost. A remarkable amount of felt life, as well as representative historical fact, is subtly woven into Dongala’s narrative, which is further enlivened by a descriptive lushness that has the thematic amplitude, verbal dignity, and suggestive force of creation myth (e.g., a sighting of “the great river, slow, majestic, its great sleeping obsidian skin shimmering with scales composed of a thousand little suns”).
A great African novel. Not to be missed.