In Jazz and Palm Wine, Emmanuel Dongala's Stories Speak of Politics, Revolution and Aliens
To read Emmanuel Dongala’s Jazz and Palm Wine, now, feels like opening a time capsule from another era. First published in French in 1982, this newly translated (by Dominic Thomas) short story collection comes to us across thirty-five years. In the early 1980s, the Cold War was especially hot in Africa: the Republic of the Congo—to which Dongala had recently returned in the late seventies after his studies in the US and France —was then a Marxist-Leninist “People’s Republic,” firmly aligned with the Eastern bloc and officially devoted to scientific socialism. As in other states across Africa, elites seized control of an officially revolutionary politics—or became elites, when the revolutionary vanguard found itself transformed into the state establishment—which lead to predictably confusing and contradictory politics. In Dongala’s stories like “The Astonishing and Dialectical Downfall of Comrade Kale Tchikati,” we find men who thought they could ride the whirlwind, coming undone by the incoherence of their efforts; in “A Day in the Life of Augustine Amaya,” we see the forgotten workers, the market women and petty traders, who are left behind by what was declared to be a dictatorship of the proletariat.
Dongala emphasizes the confusing babble of auto-cannibalizing politics, a historical frame moving so fast and far that its subjects have been left stranded. As in the work of younger writers like (fellow Congolese) Alain Mabanckou, or Ondjaki, from neighboring Angola, whose novels Tomorrow I'll Be Twenty and Good Morning, Comrades, respectively, are fictionalized versions of their own childhoods growing up in officially Marxist-Leninist states, Dongala’s protagonists tend to be lost and confused. As they struggle to master a political discourse, they are instead consumed by it. It has—as Dongala portrays it—become a creaky combination of a Rube Goldberg machine and Möbius strip, feeding its workers into its own mouth. In “The Ceremony,” for instance, a well-meaning and ideologically correct bodyguard finds himself first convicted and then exonerated of an assassination attempt that, as it turns out, never even occurred.
For most of the collection, the corruption, political repression, and social dysfunction of the period take center stage: struggling market women, rural farmers fighting for justice, and a variety of confused comrades exploiting (or surviving) the contradictions of a postcolonial one-party state. From earnest social realism to satire to open farce, Dongala’s portraits of a society in the midst of a radical transition are vivid and cutting—and unlike many dissident writers of that era, Dongala’s stories are explicitly set in the country he was living in. This meant that the collection was censored when it was first published in the Republic of the Congo, and couldn’t be publicly sold there until 1992, when the one-party state officially gave way to multi-party democracy. But if the collection feels “historical,” it’s not because the moment, which these stories document, has passed. Indeed, then-president Denis Sassou Nguesso is once again president of the Republic of the Congo. Instead, to call these stories historical is an index to the ways their bite and charge remain: These are stories about history, about the flux and violence of a world in upheaval: not only are the wounds and memories of French colonial rule and of the struggle for independence still fresh, but the future feels as close as the past.
These are stories about history, about the flux and violence of a world in upheaval: not only are the wounds and memories of French colonial rule and of the struggle for independence still fresh, but the future feels as close as the past.
Compared to the fast-moving cataclysms of the long cold war that animate these stories, so much of contemporary literature can feel like it was written in a world after history has ended. And so, part of what makes Donagala’s writing feel refreshing is the way Dongala’s protagonists dream of the utopian world-to-come; if it eludes them in the present, it is somehow all the more present for its disappointing absence. This sense of revolutionary historicity is worth lingering with. For all their bitter disillusionment with the reality of what “scientific socialism” had become by the 1980s—as so many one-time freedom fighters became despots while other heroes became martyrs—Dongala’s stories are rooted in a global struggle for independence and liberation, freedom dreams that made another world seem not just possible, but pressing, necessary, and inevitable. The deep pathos and tragedy of these stories is the swelling undercurrent of belief that animates them, a faith in the future still just around the corner: if the satire of a story like “The Astonishing and Dialectical Downfall of Comrade Kale Tchikati” is cynical—as a true believer in scientific socialism finds himself consulting the dark arts—it’s a cynicism born of fervent belief, a thread that run through the collection as a whole.
In this sense, the comparison with Alain Mabanckou is particularly useful. Mabanckou was about fifteen years old when Jazz and Palm Wine was first published; he never knew the Congo of French colonial rule. He’s since become one of the most well-known African writers in the world, already awarded the Prix de l’Académie for lifetime achievement by the Académie Française in 2012, and dubbed the “prince of the absurd” and “Africa’s Samuel Beckett” by outlets like The Economist; a relatively well-known figure in French letters for some time, the last half-decade or so has seen his novels, memoirs, and essays translated into English, and he is a professor at UCLA.
In the last few years, Mabanckou has increasingly focused his writing on precisely the period in his life which we find rendered so vividly in Dongala’s Jazz and Palm Wine, the decades in which the Soviet-aligned Marxist-Leninist state ruled the hearts and minds of the Congolese people by force, by propaganda, and by default. Though Mabanckou’s early novels are shaggy-dog stories about magical porcupines, hard-luck serial killers, storytelling dandies, and drunkards of every description, he returned to the Congo in 2015, for the first time since his early twenties, and the first time since the Cold War ended. His last three books have turned towards the world of his childhood, memoiristic novels set in the coastal city of Pointe-Noire, where, in half-remembered, half-invented pastiches of nostalgia and bitterness, he skirts the boundaries of memoir and fiction.
Mabanckou’s “Pointe-Noire” trilogy can feel like an effort to return to that historical past, through imagination: Black Moses and Tomorrow I'll Be Twenty are novels that feel like memoirs, rambling first-person accounts of well-embellished lives, even within the fictions they are. And while The Lights of Pointe-Noire is his most solemn and melancholy work, moving and earnest, it’s still a memoir written by a novelist who cares, above all, about the power of a good story. The first lines could break your heart: “For a long time I let people think my mother was still alive. I'm going to make a big effort, now, to set the record straight...” but it isn’t long before Mabanckou is back in his literary comfort zone, channeling the polyphonic voices of the Congolese streets.
Reading Dongala helped me put my finger on what I sometimes miss in Mabanckou’s work: a sense of History with a capital-H. Mabanckou writes characters with a frenetic vividness that Dongala’s work rarely matches, even if Dongala shares a fondness for half-drunken raconteurs. But I’ve long felt that Mabanckou’s work would be ideally adapted as a series of graphic novels: spectacular, flashy, and colorful in the best sense, his characters brim over with life and humor and pathos. But they can also feel like powerful caricatures; what Laura Wetherington calls his “cinematic attention” can feel a bit two-dimensional if you pull back for a broader perspective. This is not a flaw, exactly, just the limit point engrained in his style; explosive, propulsive, and fecund, his characters live and love against a background of a world whose history feels static and stuck. And perhaps that’s an accurate representation of the historical moment in which they originate. But if Dongala’s characters sometimes feel a bit more mundane, it’s because they are tools in a more old-fashioned style of social realism. Where Mabanckou loves characters—and where his genius is in making cartoons and caricatures come to life—it’s a broad-lensed social focus that makes Dongala comparatively uninterested in individuals. His characters tend to function as types and exemplars, explorations of ideology and of the consequences of ideologically driven politics.
One advantage of child narrators is that they see the world directly, in all its freshness and presence (and two of Dongala’s subsequent novels—Johnny Mad-Dog (1998) and Little Boys Come From the Stars (2002)—feature child narrators). But their blind spot might be the world they weren’t yet born to have perceived, or to remember. The semi-autobiographical version of Mabanckou that narrates Tomorrow I'll Be Twenty, for example, simply doesn’t have access to the national memories that animate Dongala’s writing in the 1970s. When Comrade Kali Tchikati tells his story, in exactly the kind of Pointe-Noire watering hole so beloved of Mabanckou’s narrators, he and his interlocutors share memories of the decades that preceded the present, when a world of empires was shaken off its foundations with its future yet to be written. It gives their sense of the future an explosive edge that cuts through the gloominess of the present. It reminds you that history never stops moving forward.
Most of all, however, what saves Dongala’s work from being a true time-capsule are the last three stories in the collection: a work of Afro-futurism that almost defies description, and a pair of essayistic and semi-autobiographical stories set in the United States, in the 1970s. They pull the reader back with them to a time when Dongala was a young student in New York City, a time when a global Pan-African revolution could seem less like an ideal or ambition than a plain fact. This is not to say they are optimistic, of course. The final story is haunted by the death of John Coltrane, and by the loss of a kind of revolutionary poetics that he comes to symbolize in the protagonist’s memory: “A Love Supreme” functions, in this way, as an epitaph for “those turbulent years of the 60s…when we talked of the liberation of the black man, of stopping the exploitation of man by man.” But is that dream still alive? Has J.C. died, only to rise again?
Dongala is at least ambivalent. The title story is a crafty cover version of Amiri Baraka’s “Answers in Progress”; in Baraka’s version, aliens arrive on earth only to find a general, and apparently successful, Pan-African revolution sweeping away white supremacy. The aliens, it turns out, are just looking for new jazz records, but there’s no question where their sympathies lie: amidst the smoldering rubble of what used to be Newark, they discuss where jazz has gone since Art Blakey. What is free jazz? What is liberation? But in Dongala’s version, new invaders are not so different than the old: the aliens arrive in search of Afro-aesthetics—loving jazz and palm wine—but they arrive in Brazzaville, and they conquer and colonize more or less exactly as did the white imperialists before them. An empire built on jazz is still an empire.
in Dongala’s version, new invaders are not so different than the old: the aliens arrive in search of Afro-aesthetics—loving jazz and palm wine—but they arrive in Brazzaville, and they conquer and colonize more or less exactly as did the white imperialists before them. An empire built on jazz is still an empire.
Until, that is, the revolution arrives in the person of Sun-Ra. For all its disillusionment with post-independence politics, and with the prospects of jazz as the soundtrack and engine of revolutionary politics, there is a persistent core to these stories, a thrumming bass line that never stops beating. This may not be the revolution, not this track. But maybe the next one. So let’s turn the record over, and find out…
Cover image Défilé de modes by Pierre Bodo, 2006 - Pigozzi Collection 2014 - Contemporary African Art Collection