Fourth Estate, £25. Order at £20 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

Congo: The Epic History of a People by David van Reybrouck, book review

This ambitious history of the Congo tells a story of ravishment – and dark comedy

Like "genius" or "masterpiece", "epic" is a word that has suffered semantic inflation at the hands of over-eager book reviewers. But the Congo is a country that merits the word in all its original grandeur; epic landscapes, epic rivers, epic greed, epic suffering and epic history too.

Such is the baffling size and complexity of the place that David van Reybrouck's new history, with its 550 pages of wide sweep and riveting detail, could be seen as a short story. It certainly possesses the economy and deftness of the best short stories and avoids the bloat of your average history book.

Van Reybrouck begins his account in 1874 with whispers deep in the jungle about the sighting of "a man, white from head to toe, like an albino". He ends it in 2010 with two peroxide blonde Congolese women returning from a trading expedition to the Chinese city of Guangzhou, the labels of their brand new clothes flapping in the kerosene-scented air. In between, he tells an epic tale of ravishment, in which the motifs of greed, exploitation and violence remain fairly constant, as do their opposites: faith, courage, humour and music. The names and the raw materials change: Emperor Leopold II, King Baudouin, Lumumba, Mobutu, Kabila père et fils, ivory, rubber, palm oil, diamonds, copper and coltan. Tiny traces of the latter can be found in almost every smartphone, laptop, Xbox or sleek toy of modern civilisation you might care to mention. The fact that the world has electrified and digitalised itself thanks to the riches of the Congo, while the country remains one of the poorest on Earth, is the kind of irony that gets Van Reybrouck's considerable literary juices flowing.

His father Dirk worked as an electrician on the railway line that linked the mineral-rich province of Katanga with the Angolan coast in the 1960s and the Congo inveigled itself into Van Reybrouck's blood as a child and populated his dreams, just as it did with millions of his fellow countrymen. His love for the country runs through the book, breaking through the horror and regret in passages about music or forgotten heroism. It's in the plea that appears in the last few pages for us not to mistake "this wondrously beautiful country" for one big cash-and-carry for crops and minerals but to see it as place that has "helped to determine and form the history of the world".

More importantly, Van Reybrouck chooses to tell this story from "the bottom up", to coin his own phrase. The majority of the book comprises the testimony of ordinary Congolese, dramatised by the dazzling powers of Van Reybrouck's imagination. The 128-year old Nkasi who was alive when the first white traders and missionaries trudged into that immense forest, Jamais Kolonga the man who dared to ask a white woman for a dance, Zizi Kabongo the cameraman who captured Muhammad Ali and George Foreman's 'Rumble in the Jungle', Ruffin the child soldier, Masika Katsua the rape-victim… These, and more like them, tell their country's story. A few "good" Belgians also contribute, most memorably the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko's personal tailor Alfons Mertens, who describes his former employer as "a nice person".

Van Reybrouck swoops and glides through their dark comedy with the poetic agility of an Orson Welles. Personal stories, memory and philosophy are intercut with breathless factual narrative, as precise as Morse code. He throws a clear light on the horrific conflicts of the late 1990s and early 2000s in eastern Congo, which are to recent African history what the Higgs boson is to particle physics, in other words, mysteries almost impossible for a layman to understand.

The angel is in the detail strewn in great abundance throughout the narrative. We learn for example that "Belgian colonialism contributed to the spiritual dimension of reggae" by helping to return Ethiopia to Haile Selassie in 1941, and that Mobutu's pathetic attempt to launch Africa's first ever space rocket in 1978 produced only a "parabola of soot". The research, the devotion, the inventiveness in Van Reybrouck's writing are a gift to everyone, not just fans of African history. This book not only deserves the description "epic", in its true sense, but the term "masterpiece" as well.

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before