Boyd Tonkin: Beside the Congo too, a festival can flower. But is it just window-dressing?

A Week in Books

Atop his cherry-red brogues, orange plus-fours end in scarlet knee-bands. The lime-green jacket carries sky-blue piping, with the ensemble finished off by a bow-tie of deepest azure. A Bertie Wooster of equatorial Africa, as dressed by Galliano or McQueen, "Le Créature" poses on his scooter, next to a lane that leads to the green banks of the mighty Congo. Far away, on the river's other side, loom the skyscrapers of Kinshasa.

It's Sunday evening in Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of Congo (the former French colony, in sharp contrast to the vast ex-Belgian "Democratic Republic" on the opposite bank), and the local sapeurs show off their finery. Followers of the "Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes d'Élégance", or SAPE, these dandies thrive in Bacongo - a run-down, crowded quarter of an otherwise leafy and laid-back city. However, I came to Brazzaville not to meet sapeurs - splendid as they are - but for the Republic of Congo's first steps on the festival catwalk.

"Etonnants Voyageurs", the Saint-Malo festival now linked to Edinburgh in a global chain of literary summits, has since 2001 branched out into overseas ventures - especially in French-speaking Africa. The Brazzaville programme, with around 70 writers and other artists, came about thanks to a partnership between Michel Le Bris - founder of Etonnants Voyageurs - and the gifted and charismatic Congo-born writer Alain Mabanckou. The festival took as its keynote "L'Afrique qui vient": roughly, Africa Rising. And rise it did, with high-quality debates that forged a rare bridge between literary stars of the English-speaking continent (such as Helon Habila, Andre Brink and Abdulrazak Gurnah) and their Francophone peers, including Togo's Sami Tchak and, from Congo, Emmanuel Dongala and the inspiring Mabanckou. But is such a fiesta in a poor sub-Saharan country - albeit one with a fine literary record, and above-average human-development scores for the area - mere window-dressing? Did I witness an arty equivalent of the sapeur's fancy stroll past tumbledown shacks?

Congolese novelist Henri Lopes has not only written some of the defining fictions of modern Africa, such as his landmark satire from 1982 about the archetypal dictator: Le Pleurer-rire. In the mid-1970s he was prime minister; now he serves as ambassador in Paris. Lopes told me that "In Congo, we currently have a lot of revenue from oil. We'd like to invest that to prepare for the post-oil era: not only in infrastructure, but in education, health - and culture. Culture is one of the prerequisites of development." But why has this tiny population (4.5 million) bred so many writers? French-inspired colonial-era education for a talented elite - les évolués - had much to do with it. Over in Belgian Congo, Africans were forbidden to attend secondary school. Still, even Lopes can't give a full explanation: "I think that we're in the field of mystery".

A festival flourishes if it can generate controversy as well as celebration. We saw that as well. In the opening ceremony, a young writer called Moutsara seized the mike before the minister of culture's welcome. Citing Victor Hugo ("the writer precedes the politician"), she slammed government inaction over the plight of 400 families made homeless when the Congo flooded in December. Her unscheduled coup did put the relation between culture and justice squarely on the menu. Participants tucked into it with relish. Many authors affirmed that a strong African literature can offer not a dandyish escape from reality but - without any concessions to propaganda - the means to imagine its transformation. For the Senegalese novelist Felwine Sarr, "The first capacity to develop is confidence in ourselves - to restore our image in the mirror." In Brazzaville, the Etonnants Voyageurs festival did just that - in a style that even the most elegant sapeur might respect.

A Southern saunter to novel number three

In her unhurried Mississippi style, Donna Tartt publishes one memorable novel every decade. The Secret History appeared in 1992; The Little Friend in 2002. Stretching the timetable, Tartt's new book, The Goldfinch, will arrive this October. Tartt was a protégée of the legendary editor-novelist Willie Morris at the "Ole Miss" Oxford campus of the University of Mississippi. He had an eye. An Ole Miss law student once sat in on writing classes. Morris saw fit to encourage him. The curious lawyer's name? John Grisham.

Dave and Ed's bandwagon of lies

Sometimes, after a trip to a far country, you come back and see your own a little more clearly. And the face revealed by the factitious, theatrical "row" over Hilary Mantel's so-called attack on the Duchess of Cambridge is not a pretty one. That rabble-rousing right-wing newspapers should so grotesquely distort Mantel's nuanced, indeed sympathetic, treatise on the plight of the media monarchy will surprise no one. But the fatuous and craven decision by both David Cameron ("completely misguided") and Ed Miliband ("pretty offensive") to back up blatant falsehood in search of a populist soundbite is simply pathetic. This dismal duo of philistine, clueless bottom-feeders have never said and could never say a single true or interesting word about any literature. Instead, they join a bandwagon of lies. Both pitiable opportunists should apologise to Mantel at once.

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee