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
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape