Sublime, monumental and masterful
Like many Belgians of his generation, David Van Reybrouck knew Congo from stories of the old days: his own father worked there in the 1960s. However, he only came to understand how the history of that country really worked as he carried out his research for this monumental book about the former colony in the heart of Africa. He focused on the lives of its inhabitants, interviewing over 500 people. The result is an amalgam of testimonies that presents a new picture of how the people of Congo suffered so much and yet remained unchanged.
One of the most colourful figures interviewed by Van Reybrouck appears on the cover of the book: Etienne Nkasi, a man who claimed to have been born in 1882 and was able to remember all kinds of details about the late nineteenth century.
The story that Van Reybrouck tells about the “failed state” of Congo starts with the Belgian King Leopold II, who, having founded a few stations along the river, was allocated a vast area of land at the 1884 Berlin Conference, more or less by chance. He named this land the Congo Free State. Fusing tribal territories in a way that completely disregarded the existing situation resulted in immediate problems. Even now, there are over four hundred ethnic groups in Congo, each with its own traditions and language or dialect. Van Reybrouck shines a spotlight on this state’s history in an account that is both convincing and compelling.