In The Fire of Origins, translated from the French by Lillian Corti and published in 2001, the Congolese writer Emmanuel Dongala has produced not so much a novel as a national creation myth. His hero, Mandala Mankunku (who has several other names in the course of the story) is an outsize figure whose life seems to “beat in the same rhythm as the country.” Mankunku’s exploits and failures span the history of the two Congos, especially Congo-Brazzaville, from traditional village life through colonialism, the brutalities of the rubber trade and of the forced-labor construction of a railroad to the coast, World War II, national independence, and beyond.
Like any good epic hero, Mankunku is born in ambiguous circumstances, his identity and even his mortality open to question. His mother gives birth to him alone in a deserted banana plantation, wraps him in a banana leaf, and plants a frond in the ground to mark the occasion. Because there are no witnesses, others question whether he was ever really born and therefore whether he will ever die.
Mankunku shows early signs of being one of those annoying people who do everything well. Though his father is a blacksmith, he rejects that profession and learns from his uncle to become a great hunter who can kill “a lion as easily as a hare, an elephant as easily as a mouse.” Quickly dissatisfied by this role, he becomes a blacksmith after all, and masters the craft almost at once. “How adept he was! One would have thought that all the experience accumulated in this art since the days of his most remote ancestor was flowing into his fingers.” He becomes a master sculptor as well, but is still dissatisfied: not so much because he cannot find his niche but because he wants to do everything in a society “where each individual has a role to play.”
Mankunku turns to another uncle, Bizenga the sorceror, and quickly learns everything he knows about the art of healing. He also discovers the boundary between Bizenga’s real knowledge and his quackery. Before long Mankunku is experimenting with roots and herbs, discovering new medicines, and finding that he can cure patients with his remedies alone, without calling on the help of the ancestors. With the arrival of the first European invaders, Mankunku is drawn into the role of military resistance leader, and in later years he accommodates himself enough to the new regime to become the country’s first “native” train conductor.
Like other epic heroes, Mankunku is a misfit in his own society, even a “destroyer.” Though his conscious struggle is against the white colonialists, his great talents and great restlessness cause him to master his own people’s traditions only to undermine them. Yet it may be, as his wise old mentor Lukeni says, that undermining the old ways is a necessary step for a people who have become too hidebound and conservative. Emmanuel Dongala seems to suggest that Mankunku represents a way forward for Africa that the continent never had a chance to take — a way that might have helped Africans resist colonialism more effectively. Unhappily, though, the closer he comes to the world of the white man, the more he loses his direction, and he can find no real place in the world of the corrupt “revolutionaries” that follows independence.
Among the risks of writing a modern-day myth are making the scenery and action too general and the hero too perfect. Dongala never falls into this trap. In a sense, he does the opposite: by condensing the history of the Congo into the life of one man, he makes it almost unbearably specific and personal. The Congolese countryside, with its weaver birds and “acrobatic thrushes,” the great river that passes through it, and the shimmering colors of the lantana blossoms, could not be more sensually described. When the first white man arrives in Mankunku’s village, he is a very specific white man, “red as a cock’s comb,” wearing a “white long-sleeved shirt buttoned up to the neck with two fat side pockets stuffed with God knows what” and carrying strong drink in a “strange gourd made out of glass.” And when the colonists’ African mercenaries confront Mankunku’s mother and his blacksmith father, the resulting tragedy stands for a thousand others. If The Fire of Origins ends on a dispiriting note, this has more to do with history itself than with any lack of skill in the telling.