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It goes without saying that colonialism has far-reaching, perhaps never-ending impacts. But it also goes without saying that its patrons and indeed, champions, have tried to make us see its upsides. Encourage the letting go of the past in the perceived hope of a better future. But can we forget? Should we? Can our bodies and souls forget over time the weight that our ancestors’ backs carried? That seems to be the question that Blaise Ndala’s In the Belly of the Congo, translated into English from French by Amy B. Reid, seeks to answer.
The story takes place across two timelines, both connected by the 1958 World Fair held in Brussels during which, in trying and failing to portray itself as a forward-thinking nation, Belgium had presented a mock village, where Congolese people were displayed. The reader is introduced to Princess Tshala Nyota, (daughter of King Kena Kwete III of the Kuba Kingdom in Congo) who subsequently dies, and the first timeline in 1958, follows her as she recounts her life to her niece – a life fueled by passion and spontaneity that resulted in her fleeing Congo for Belgium after falling in love with René Comhaire, a Belgian businessman. The second timeline tells the story of Princess Tshala’s niece, Nyota Kwete, who returns to Congo in 2005 where she visits her grandfather, King Kwete, in hospital. Nyota then tries to uncover the events that led to her aunt’s disappearance. Throughout the novel, colonialism is the thing that we can never forget, no matter how much its benefactors attempt to water it down. It is the thing that hangs around our necks, very much for worse, long after its inception.
Before the actual story even starts, however, the author offers a chronological overview of the former Belgian Congo. Outlined in extreme detail from as far back as 1885 until 2005, is the formation and subsequent crumbling of what once was Leopold’s Congo by people, referred to as “agitators dreaming of self-determination”. This immediately sets the tone of the book and provides some much-needed historical context making it clear that the colonizers and invaders, will get little sympathy. Here they are “occupiers”, soon to be driven out by the inimitable Patrice Lumumba – who actually appears as a character in the book – a clever way of including a history lesson in fiction. His are “words of hope. Words of fire [meant] to ignite the coals beneath these occupiers’ rags. Words of liberation, greater than thunder.” This is a story about retracing one’s past and learning how the big things affect us on a personal level, even centuries after they occur.
The beginning of the book is arguably the most riveting part. It starts off in 1950’s Belgium, where talks are being held regarding the fair and the preparations that are being put in place to make sure it is successful. At the helm of affairs of course is René Comhaire. From here, we are transported to mid-1940’s Congo, where Princess Tshala, running away from betrothals and commitments par for the course for a crown princess, convinces her parents to send her to school at a convent. Here she meets René and their worlds collide and their souls merge. A forbidden love. They enjoy the kind of “happiness [that is] faceless, because it doesn’t want to be recognized by those it leaves on the sidelines.” This happiness is short-lived when the Princess and this sordid love affair are discovered by her people. What ensues is chaos and to avoid the wrath of the King, her father, Tshala flees with René’s help to Belgium. How was she to know this would be the final nail in her coffin?
The latter part of the book where Tshala’s niece Nyota returns to Belgium continues in the narrative style but falls flat in comparison. While in the first part, readers are spectators to an aunt recounting an exciting, albeit abruptly ended, life to her niece, the second consists mainly of Nyota telling readers, (rather than showing them) how she discovers her aunt and her heritage. There is also little to no reference to her personal life or the inner workings of her mind – one that undoubtedly would have a lot going on inside it. Ultimately, this makes for slow reading that drags. The possibility of getting bored is far too high and when compared to the first part of the book, where one does not feel like they are in a lecture, the second section feels too much like a history lesson. There are long portions where it feels like everything and nothing is being said. Yes, this is what happened, but how did it affect our characters? Beyond, of course, learning about history, why are we, as readers meant to care? It is difficult to connect with the characters. One could chalk this up to the fact that a lot of the book leans into long, winding sentences, often utilizing a lyrical yet impersonal style of writing that includes many anecdotes and analogies. This is perhaps a consequence of it having been originally written in another language where there is a tendency, at times, for meaning and literary flair to get lost. It appears to be what happens here.
That said, this is an important and indeed, necessary book. The history of the Congo is one that is extremely underexplored and the fact that his book was inspired by the very real African village that was displayed in 1958 – less than one hundred years ago – is worthy of note. A lot of the Congo’s story – maybe due to the sheer atrocity of it is swept under the rug. It is rarely spoken about, is often overlooked, yet it is absolutely one that needs to be told, to be given the opportunity to take up space in the history books, not only for its own sake, but also to educate. What are we without our history?
Towards the end of the novel, readers see Nyota reunited with her grandfather, King Kwete and he emphasizes how pleased he is that she has returned to learn about where she comes from: “It’s not the wounds they inflict upon each other that matter the most once time finally lifts the veil from our illusions. What matters…is that the children who come after learn to build a less repugnant world than the one they inherited”. A word for all who will listen.
by Blaise Ndala
Translated by Amy B. Reid
Other Press, 432 pages
Anna-Maria Poku is a writer and book blogger/reviewer. She writes on love, life and everything in between and runs a blog on Instagram, annasreads, where she reads and publishes book reviews.
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