The national radio of the Republic of Congo– Voice of the Congolese Revolution– on Saturday afternoon announced to the entire country that the Comrade President Marien Ngouabi had been murdered the day before at 14:30 hours. In Pointe-Noir, our narrator, middle school pupil Michel, brings himself to tears because the news of the Comrade’s death has affected his mother Pauline’s business caused the death of his uncle Captain Kimbouala-Nkaya, and led to the disappearance of his obedient dog, Mboua Mabé. Readers are entranced by Michel’s ‘daydreams’ of events that preceded this death and the uncertainties that follow.
Alain Mabanckou’s The Death of Comrade President presents a brilliant fictional montage of the political strife and ethnic tensions in the Republic of Congo, hitherto concealed by a veil of confusion among its citizens. Ripped apart following the assassination of the comrade, the vestiges of this veil reveal the ethnicity-based prejudices between the Northerners and Southerners and the political implications of the volatile state of each faction. Mabanckou adopts a pseudo-historical fiction approach to recount the political tumults in the Republic of Congo and contextualises the Congolese case within a long history of ethnicity-related coup d’états and hostilities on the African continent in the post-independence era.
Mabanckou’s writing style, which employs humour and flashbacks, allows for an unstudied presentation of the political dimensions of the novel which otherwise could have been too serious and heavy for readers. He also uses long run-on sentences, which are reflective of his choice of a child narrator, whose thoughts could be described as disjointed on account of his youth and naivité. The adoption of a child narrator, I would argue, is what gives the novel its simple diction, which invariably aids in the readers’ appreciation of the steady pace of both the character and plot development, as well as the exposition of the various themes in the novel.
One of such thematic issues raised in the novel, which I am drawn to as a historian, would be the politics of the Cold War, which were pervasive even on the African continent in the second half of the 20th century. Albeit lightly discussed, Mabanckou does an exceptional job at providing insights into this aspect of Africa’s relations with the East and the West, a seldomly-captured aspect of the continent’s history in literary spheres. For the lover of facts and the history buff, this would make a wonderful alternative to a steady academic piece of work for reference on the topic, and, perhaps even more importantly, on how proxy nations were created on the continent during the Cold War. But this is not to say that novel would not grow on regular readers – quite the contrary. The novel pays as much attention to other aspects of the Congolese experience in the post-independent era, and to a large extent that of many other countries on the African continent, through an array of similarly captivating themes. Issues of culture, classism, child delinquency, and the politics of polygamous marriages are some of the all-too-familiar themes espoused in the novel that render it relatable along many lines.
Summarily, The Death of Comrade President is that page-turner that takes you down a series of political memory lanes on the African continent and gives you an appreciation of life in post-independent Congo, albeit from a fictional lens, all the while presenting you with humour-filled suspense from start to finish.
*Thank you to Serpent’s Tail for the free copy.