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Category Archive for 'Democratic Republic of Congo'

Author Bernardo Atxaga, whose previous works have been set in his native Basque country in Spain, provides only basic information about the rule of King Leopold II and Belgium’s Force Publique in the Congo in 1903. Spending little time on the grand scale of the atrocities this group committed historically against the native population, he focuses instead on the behavior of the individual officers of one small garrison in Yangambi as they conduct their daily lives. This creates a unique narrative in which the author explores what happens when there are, essentially, no limits on what individuals may do to keep themselves entertained – life is truly a “jungle.” By creating Chrysostrome Liege, a young soldier who is both naïve and timid, Atxaga also creates scenes in which Chrysostrome’s reactions set the behaviors of the others into sharp relief. He has no sense of being part of the group and no apparent need to become part of it, and since he also has no feeling for irony or absurdity, even in circumstances in which the ironies and absurdities are patently obvious, the reader is alternately horrified by some of the officers’ activities and somewhat nonplussed by Chrysostrome’s apparent attitude of being above it all. As one of the officers notes, “I’ve no idea whether he’ll be a good soldier or a bad one, but he’ll certainly be a miserable one. As miserable as a mandrill.”

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Mario Vargas Llosa opens this fictionalized biography of Roger Casement as Casement’s awaits a decision on his application for clemency from a death sentence. As he reconstructs Casement’s life as a reformer and advocate for benighted native populations being exploited by various countries and corporations, he returns again and again to Casement throughout the novel as he rethinks every aspect of his life. Casement concludes, in most cases, that he acted honorably – or tried to. An advocate for indigenous populations exploited by governments and corporations, Casement has revealed the horrors of the Congo under the rule of Leopold II, and of Amazonia at the turn of the century, when a Peruvian entrepreneur controls vast quantities of land over which he had total control. His rubber company has many London investors. Ultimately, Casement believes that the Irish who are being ruled by the British have similar problems to indigenous populations, and he acts against the British and must face the consequences.

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It is 1897, and a motley group of British functionaries is running a concessionary station, only marginally successful, in Ukassa Falls in the Congo Free State, trading and exploring, mapping new areas of the country for further exploration, and using natives to strip minerals from quarries. Individually, however, their primary mission is protecting themselves and their jobs, while keeping an eye on a more lucrative Belgian enterprise across the river and on the slave-trader Hammad, who fancies himself the potential emperor of a future, native-run country. When gunfire signals the arrival of an unexpected visitor, Capt. James Frasier hopes it means the return to British jurisdiction of his friend, Nicholas Frere, who, missing for 51 days in the wilderness, is now in Belgian custody, awaiting trial for killing a native child.

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