The Democratic Republic of Congo is a land of extremes. It is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of natural resources, but one of the poorest when it comes to human development. Its rule by the Belgian King Leopold II is known as one of cruelest episodes of colonialism. The civil war that started in 1996, one of the deadliest in recent times. With Congo: The Epic History of a People (English translation by Sam Garrett, 639 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers, April 2014) the Belgian historian, archeologist, poet, playwright and non-fiction author David Van Reybrouck wrote the first full history of the country Joseph Conrad referred to as “the heart of darkness”. Starting with fishermen’s villages of prehistoric times, over the slave traders, the arrival of Stanley, the colonisation, to independence, the 32 years of rule by Mobutu, the wars and the turbulent eastern border of today. As no other, Van Reybrouck understands that the history of Congo is in the first place the history of the Congolese people. He gives the floor to rebel leaders, hawkers, child soldiers and pop stars. Through their vivid recollections, he traces back the minor and major events that shaped the country.
Van Reybrouck being a relative newcomer on the crowded scene of Belgian “Congo experts”, a few of the more established specialists were quick to shoot with criticism when the book first came out in its original Dutch language edition. According to some, Van Reybrouck underestimates for example Leopold II’s personal responsibility for the atrocities committed in “his” Congo Free State. Van Reybrouck is accused of minimizing the Belgian government’s involvement in the murder of the post-independence Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. Van Reybrouck has also been blamed for giving too much space to the stories of the ordinary Congolese, as their narrative is not truly scientific. However, any writing on Congo’s past will unavoidably resuscitate such decades old debates. As for the many interviews with everyday citizens, they prove to be a major force of the book, turning abstract history into real life events. Van Reybrouck’s opus – crowned with a plethora of prestigious European literary prices – is as captivating as the best fiction writing. The reader is pulled in into the dazzling history of the DRC. The author’s love for this amazing land speaks on every page. Congo: The Epic History of a People takes you on a journey through the centuries that is as heartbreaking as it is heartwarming.