Friday, October 13, 2006

Emmanuel Dongala's "Johnny Mad Dog"

Ray Taras, professor of politics at Tulane University and director of its World Literature program for the past three years, wrote this wonderful review of Emmanuel Dongala's Johnny Mad Dog (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005) for the blog:
For those who really do believe that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, Congolese novelist Emmanuel Dongala offers plenty of grist for the mill. The parallel lives of two sixteen year olds, Johnny Mad Dog and Laokolé, juxtapose his random acts of violence with her random acts of kindness. They are hunters and gatherers—he thinking nothing of hunting down and killing women, children, and the hated ethnic other—the Mayi-Dogo; she gathering her little brother, amputee mother, and an orphan child to her bosom. Johnny Mad Dog carries out violence for the cause of the democracy that his political clique—really an ethnic group called the Dogo-Mayi—will begin to build when the killing is complete. Laokolé identifies with no ideological or ethnic group but establishes a relationship with Western women in her country working for the United Nations, Red Cross, and global media companies.

The novelist’s twist to this characterization is that readers quickly become aware of Mad Dog’s fundamental immaturity and naiveté about the world. He is no match for Laokolé’s maturity and her sense of right and wrong. It comes as no surprise that at the end she also bests him physically—kicking him in the testicles until he is dead.

Maybe Dongala has captured a universal truth. Dirty, low-intensity warfare around the world is carried out primarily by adolescent, uneducated, unemployed males recruited from rural areas. For over a decade, Central Africa has been an area of particularly horrifying killing and destruction; it is entirely appropriate for Dongala to horrify us with a graphic account of one such imagined conflict in this region. The author spent much of his life in the “other” Congo—Brazzaville—where internal conflicts were as commonplace as in Zaire but which was not to become the site of “Africa’s first world war,” as happened in the renamed, post-Mobutu Democratic Republic of Congo.

Setting the two Congos aside, it takes little imagination to realize that ruthless politicians in Asia, Europe, and the Western hemisphere have used ethnic hatreds and—yes--the call for democracy to recruit large armies of mainly gullible boy-children to fight the wars they declare. The nicknames given by Mad Dog’s unit to neighborhoods, groups, and commanders are global ones: Kandahar, Chechens, Milosevic, Savimbi, General Giap.

Western citizens living in such conflict zones always have an escape route, Dongala emphasizes. When the battle lines get too close to the compounds where Westerners live, evacuation--not peacekeeping--becomes their top priority:

“We’re European citizens—some of us are even Americans. So show us some consideration! We’re not begging for food like those people over there—because this food, this aid, comes from our own countries! It’s been paid for by taxes on our citizens! So when I say that we’ve got priority, we indeed have priority” (p. 151).

In fact, we soon learn that Western environmentalists give priority to saving gorillas—an endangered species—over rescuing a lost Laokolé.

Plausability is very much the central issue in Johnny Mad Dog. Even in the most tortured nation on earth, how often is a dumb sixteen-year-old kid presented with an opportunity structure allowing him to rape the country’s most glamorous female television anchor?

But how about plausability in Dongala’s own biography? After critical acclaim in France for his first novels, he attracted the attention of the doyens of American literature—Philip Roth and William Styron—who helped him get a job at a small college in Massachusetts. As a chemistry professor. In an earlier incarnation, in the 1960s, Dongala had been a chemistry major at Oberlin--this after he had lived in Greenwich Village, gone to clubs to see John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk play, and met Malcolm X in person. No Bob Dylan encounter, to be sure.

How many boys from Topeka, Kansas—or for that matter Hope, Arkansas--never mind a village in the Central African Republic (Dongala’s birthplace) have experienced such a career trajectory? Is he an improbable member of the beat generation? Is he really an outsider to American society, given that he claims President Clinton himself intervened in the late 1990s to get his daughter out of Brazzaville and into the U.S.? Or is it that, like that of another foreigner in New York in the 1960s—Jerzy Kosinski—Dongala’s incredible story leaves us doubting our own scepticism?

So we now know where men and women come from. If we want to learn where kids come from, Dongala’s earlier novel, Little Boys Come from the Stars, is an excellent starting point.
Many thanks to Ray for the excellent review.

Click here to read his review of Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide.

--Marshal Zeringue