Emmanuel Dongala is a man who has lost more than can easily be described. First, there are the people: acquaintances, friends, family killed in the Republic of Congo's brutal civil war. Then there are the things: books, paintings, photographs, letters, all lost when he and his family abandoned the Republic for the United States. There is the status: once the academic dean of a university in a country where he was widely considered one of the most important writers alive, today, Dongala, 63, is a professor at a small college in the Berkshires, where most people probably couldn't locate his homeland on a map.
Yet for all his losses, it is rare to get through more than five minutes of conversation with him without hearing the sound of his laugh. His new novel, Johnny Mad Dog, just out from FSG, is testament to his deft handling of human horror.
Born in 1941, Dongala has witnessed the Republic of Congo's experiments with several of the 20th-century's most benighted forms of government: French colonialism, Marxist autocracy, corrupt democracy. It was his ability to satirize this history—to take it seriously even as he turned it into a joke—that made his last novel, Little Boys Come From the Stars (FSG, 2001), so thrilling. Told from the point of view of a gullible boy named Matapari, Little Boys ended with an election in which a professor promises to transform pineapples into fuel while an opponent counters with carnival tricks involving doves.
In real life, the professor—Pascal Lissouba—won. But in 1997, five years after he was elected, Lissouba was chased from the capital city of Brazzaville by the man he had defeated, Colonel Denis Sassou-Nguesso, and thus began a chaotic civil war that murdered some 10,000 people and sent another 120,000 rushing into the Congo's equatorial forests. There, the refugees hoped, civilians could escape the militias' lootings, rapes and executions. They were wrong.
Among the safety-seekers was Dongala's family, which left Brazzaville for Pointe Noire, where they shared a house with 30 other people. The food was so scarce at times that the men and women would eat on alternate days.
"We lost everything," Dongala explained to PW. "I saw somebody killed because she didn't have a hundred [Congolese] francs. Do you know what hundred francs is? Twenty-five cents. It's just, just—you are shocked."
One of the things that most stunned him was the age of the perpetrators. They could have been Matapari's afterschool buddies; so many of them were teenage boys.
"One day you wake up and you see all these kids with guns. Sometimes the guns are taller than they are," Dongala said. "And you say, where do they come from? I mean, they have no parents? What kind of society brings up kids like that?"
That's the question Dongala set out to answer once he and his family had escaped to Simon's Rock College (thanks in part to the efforts of Philip Roth). Again, the award-winning author adopted the voice of a young boy, but this time the boy was the member of a militia group called the Death Dealers and his most reliable method for impressing his friends was dismantling and reassembling a Kalashnikov.
War Between Pages
Originally published in France in 2002, Johnny Mad Dog is actually one of a cluster of recent novels about child soldiers in Africa. Others, reports UCLA professor Dominic Thomas, who specializes in the region, include Ahmadou Kourouma's Allah Is Not Obliged, Ken Saro-Wiwa's Sozaboy and Abdourahman Waberi's Transit, which hasn't been translated into English. The problem of child soldiers appears to affect African writers as deeply as 9/11 has affected American ones. Their existence calls into question the assumptions of a country's entire culture, and the damage they have wreaked continues to affect the social structures of Brazzaville.
"There are programs to reinsert these kids into society [now that the civil war is over]," Dongala said, "but I think it's so difficult. Many of these kids have become bandits, because once the guns are out it's very hard to take them back."
Dongala himself said that it would have been impossible for him to write Johnny Mad Dog if he hadn't left the Congo. The civil war was still boiling when he started the novel. And then there was the danger of being too partisan: "There were no good sides in this war," he explained. "But I come from somewhere, from a village, from an ethnic group."
Yet Dongala's success in restraining his bias has been under-appreciated by some of the American press. Though the novel has already garnered rave reviews in Spain and France, where Dongala was declared a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in 1989, Kirkuscriticized what it called Johnny Mad Dog's "simplistic contrast of innocence with rampant amorality." At issue is the striking difference between Johnny Mad Dog's two 15-year-old narrators, Laokolé and Johnny. The first, a refugee who scrambles around the capital and the forest looking for safety, exudes a warmth and intelligence that mirrors Dongala's own. The second gets high, rapes, kills and loots without conscience.
Yet in the fictional portrayal of a real war in which leaders have manipulated tribal affinities to their own ends, it's more pertinent to notice that Dongala has made members of both ethnic groups killers and victims. He has constructed loving relationships that ignore ethnic lines, and rivalries among people of the same tribe. Even his names for the two groups—Mayi-Dogos and Dogo-Mayis—mock the difference between them.
And Dongala defends his depiction by pointing out that, in a civil war, stark contrasts can be accurate. "Then it's clear," he says. "There is one side who's killing and the other side who's running away. Not everybody kills."
Dongala nonetheless planted similarities between Johnny and Laokolé to show that "depending where you come from, how your family structure was, you can turn out differently." They both share a thirst for knowledge, for example, but whereas Laokolé's family sends her to high school, Johnny's poverty forces him out after second grade. His truncated education leaves him with a two-fold weakness: a susceptibility to the rhetoric of political "intellectuals" and a frustrated desire for recognition, both of which are manipulated by the "professor" who first puts a gun in his hands.
What He Calls Home
Dongala and his wife, Pauline, were hiding in the forest when they first heard that there was a U.S. visa waiting for him in Kinshasa. They had just emerged to buy a little food in a village when a colonel who was fleeing his defeated army in Brazzaville stopped to tell Dongala that a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend had said that they were looking for him at the American embassy. At first, they barely believed the news. There were so many rumors circulating through the war's chaos; this seemed just another one. So it was a few days before Pauline advised Dongala to make the long, dangerous journey to see if the colonel had spoken the truth. She told him, "We have nothing to lose."
Now they are grateful for what they have gained: steady jobs at Simon's Rock, a community of supportive friends and colleagues in Connecticut, a modest home in campus housing, a life in peace with their two daughters, a Guggenheim fellowship to support his writing. A few years ago, Dongala told a Boston Globe reporter that when the fighting in Brazzaville ended, he would go back. It's over now, and he has returned to visit. But when PW asked if he thought he might move there again, Dongala hesitated to answer. The last time he went back to Brazzaville, he said, there were still bullets in some of the buildings. The entire university had only four or five computers, and these were kept in a locked room. Many of his old friends had moved to Europe. The Brazzaville he loved is gone.