Translated by Dominic Thomas
(Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2017)
A fun fact I didn’t know before experiencing the short stories of Emmanuel Dongala: there are two Congos, with the two capital cities, Brazzaville and Kinshasa, directly across the Congo River from each other. Of course, there’s the larger former Belgian colony Joseph Campbell made famous in the English-speaking world, and then there’s the smaller former French colony to the north. In 1960 both European powers gave up their claims, leaving vacuums into which new geopolitical forces collided with what was left of the former autonomous local cultures, which, as Dongala shows us in Jazz and Palm Wine, created such a clatter it was hard to hear the beat of the human heart and the quieter counterpoint melody of hope.
In all of Dongala’s stories the struggle for national identity and the associated ‘isms’ – totalitarianism, racism, tribalism – threaten the human spirit, and he makes it clear that no countervailing system of culture or faith can be used to articulate purpose in the destruction of an individual. Hope is present but subtle – in the silence between notes, in the liminal moments of a day, like the one captured in the first story of the collection, “The Astonishing and Dialectical Downfall of Comrade Kali Tchikati,” when day turns to night: “the inchoate and fugitive hours when the daylight begins to fade and darkness gradually spreads its cloak…intervals of time…hinting at the proximity of those forces that filled the African nights!” Dongala makes us aware these intervals will end, and when they do we will again have to confront the human potential for cruelty, with an acute sense of sardonic irony as our best and often only coping mechanism.
In a totalitarian system there is no reality outside of the facts it insists upon, and if you deny them too loudly you won’t exist. The stories of Jazz and Palm Wine build toward a stark expression of this truth, becoming especially poignant in the three middle stories – “Old Likibi’s Trial,” “The Man,” and “The Ceremony” – which all speak to how the only purpose of dictatorship is to maintain and impose power. “The Man” is a nice example of how Dongala uses his signature narrative technique of relying upon reincorporation and juxtaposition rather than suspense to create forward momentum. In the story’s frantic exposition —“No, this time he wouldn’t get away!” — government soldiers scour the hinterland and the neighborhoods in the capital for the individual who, against impossible odds, assassinated “the nation’s founding father, the enlightened guide, savior, the great helmsman, president-for-life, commander in chief of the armed forces and beloved father of the people.” The commander at random picks this same individual out of a village to be the innocent hostage sacrificed to encourage cooperation, proof to the village chief of the national government’s power. Rather than coming off as a convenient narrative trick, the irony underscores the cruelties of despotic rule and portrays martyrdom as a romantic illusion; for the people, the removal of one “un-killable and immortal” dictator merely means another will take his place.
The final three stories show the influence of America on Dongala, and given the consistent wry sensibility of his fiction, it is not surprising he would both appreciate the hopefulness that America represents and be critical of its failure to live up to that promise, which is especially poignant and painful in the final story, “A Love Supreme.” The story eulogizes Coltrane, one of the greatest contributors to jazz, perhaps the most famous of the cultural gifts that resulted from the fusion of African and American cultures. The story’s subtitle “IN MEMORIAM J.C. 1926-1967” acknowledges the struggles that contributed to this bright light burning out too soon – but not as premature as the twelve-year old black boy who “has just been killed by a white police officer, who was claiming before a hostile crowd of black bystanders that he’d acted in self defense.” This dissonant note in the story’s denouement challenges the clarity of the reductive wisdom the narrator arrives at through meditating on Coltrane’s genius: “And what if the meaning of life was life itself, and that the most important thing was just to live it?” The question ultimately comes across as a lament. After all, how many are able to experience even a few moments of exquisite transcendence? That boy never had his chance.
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Trevor Payne teaches English at Radnor High School in suburban Philadelphia.