To an average American, even one attempting to be well informed, the history of the Congo is a giant Rubik’s cube of constantly shifting leaders and laws, none of them lasting. The chaos is always set against a background of widespread poverty, big numbers --- millions dead, thousands raped and maimed -–- and corruption so ingrained, the author of this scarifying book states, that theft has become a kind of expression of basic rights amongst the poorest and the richest.
Anjan Sundaram was a Yale student who decided to throw everything over; he “broke with America. Congo consumed me.” His bold vision quest gradually became a grisly rite of passage, as he penetrated further into the modern “heart of darkness.” Barely recovered from a war that killed a massive five million people, Congo was, he found, only civilized in small isolated pockets. For the majority of his time, he lived with local people whose need for his favors became an almost overwhelming burden, and traveled into places few journalists go. While the mainstream correspondents were given the cushy jobs (trips to see the gorilla), the lowly but ever persistent stringer was talking to a tribe of Pygmies who had naively traded their ancestral land for soap and salt: “the chief was certain the loggers could never wipe out the forest --- ‘Just look,’ he said, ‘it goes on forever.’”
"As he inevitably will be compared to V.S. Naipaul, it’s fair to say that Sundaram has a way with words and the objective stance that make such a writer."
Sundaram finds people in the countryside working 15 hours a day to earn just enough money to eat beans. In the wake of recent elections, when warring factions roamed and pillaged, and gunfire was simply part of the daily reality, Sundaram found himself holed up in a factory in the middle of Kinshasa --- the last reporter left standing, it seemed.
As he inevitably will be compared to V.S. Naipaul, it’s fair to say that Sundaram has a way with words and the objective stance that make such a writer. Already an award-winning journalist, his insights are those of a stranger in a strange land, though as an Indian he shares some piece of the Congo’s insane history. He sanguinely observes that the only people who mistreated the Congolese worse than the Indians residing there were the Congolese themselves. But he also reminds us of the horrific abuses of the Belgian colonial era, during which about half the population was obliterated, and the common punishment for low production in the rubber plantation was the slicing off of limbs. Then came the modern era, the brief prominence of the newly named Zaire and its leader Mobutu with his boundless repression and corruption.
The Congo story is among the goriest in African history. Yet Sundaram can say, “In miserable places I would find the most exuberant joie… I felt the Congolese in their delirium truly forgot their misery.” It is his skill that brings this contrast to our attention: evanescent sparks in a gruesome sea of blood.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on February 7, 2014