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

A Week in Books

Boyd Tonkin
Friday 22 February 2013 20:00
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Inspiration by the river : Alain Mabanckou
Inspiration by the river : Alain Mabanckou

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.

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