sometimes witty book reviews
Year of publication: 2010
Found: Under the Christmas tree
Pages/read time: 639, three weeks
As a white woman born, bred and living in Australia, the history of African nations, let alone the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is not something given much emphasis in one’s education or day-to-day living. Until stumbling across this book in my local bookshop and putting it on my Christmas wish-list, I had a very basic understanding of West African history and even then, only from studying the atrocities of the slave trade. I can now say that Van Reybrouck’s Congo: The Epic History of a People is one of the best places to start (but not end, he is after all, still a Western scholar giving a respectful but still single perspective of a history in a single volume).
The period of between 1960 and 1965 is known today as the First Republic, but at the time it seemed more like the Last Judgement. The country fell apart, was confronted by civil war, ethnic pogroms, two coup d’etat, three uprisings, and six government leaders … two – or perhaps even three – of whom were murdered[.] The death toll among the Congolese population itself during this period was too high for meaningful estimates.
This text is a compelling account of David van Reybrouck’s historical research. Over a decade in the making, Congo is one man’s interpretation of this region’s fraught and fascinating history. The primary sources are an ecclectic yet thorough reputable combination of archival research, press analysis, archaeological artifacts, hundreds of hours of interviews and extensive reviews of secondary literature. My little researcher heart was very happy. At the same time, however, Van Reybrouck does keep the narrative flow moving, confidently guiding the Congo-history-novice through the major events of this nation’s history. As stated in the book’s blurb, Van Reybrouck has gone to great lengths to ‘take a deeply human approach to [this] political history’ and always attempts to ‘focus squarely on the Congolese perspective’ in an effort ensure that this is the Congolese’ own history and as much as possible, not a Western account of it. As a twenty-first century, male, white researcher from Brussels, there is obviously bound to be some bias and judgement that cannot be avoided, which Van Reybrouck duly acknowledges.
An excellent grounding in Congolese history can be found in this work. The English translation by Sam Garrett tries to retain Van Reybrouck’s fluid, almost conversational style as much as possible. Literal translation is sometimes a problem, and the use of dialogue-like passages can at first seem un-scholarly but the hundred or so pages of references do much to put one’s academic scruples at rest as does the considerable number of direct press and interview quotes. A incredibly detailed and fulfilling read written with great respect for the people of the nation of the Congo.
Reading suggestion: Watch this video, this video and this video to get your head around the geography before you begin. I did not. It would have helped.