Echoes of a suppressed past, subtle but highly charged writing, and random chance weave throughout the stories within stories that make up Blaise Ndala’s marvellous “In the Belly of the Congo.” It’s not once, after all, but twice that misplaced kicks change the direction of lives and events in his third novel, and first to be translated from French into English.
Most of those stories are told by the living, but one — the tale that stitches together all the others — is told by a dead woman, literally from her grave. And then there are the stories, less intricate but just as compelling, especially for Canadians, that Ndala tells about his book.
The award-winning Congolese-Canadian writer left his homeland for Belgium in 2003, one of several keystone years in the multi-generational world of “Belly,” for an advanced degree in human rights law. There, in Congo’s former colonial occupier, Ndala, 50, recalled in an interview, he learned what he had never been taught in school. “The remains of people killed in the Congo a century ago, and brought back to museums because at that time you could study to see if African people are part of humanity, they’re still in Belgium, in their universities, in their laboratories.”
The novelistic seed planted by that awareness sank deeper roots after Ndala immigrated to Canada in 2007 and watched, astonished, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission brought to the surface equally buried stories about residential schools. “I knew very little about the colonial story in Canada, nothing about the schools and how children were treated,” he said. “I was really shocked about the similarities with the cultural genocide we faced in the Congo, and with how the majority of Canadians were ignorant because so much had been hidden, as our past had been hidden from us. It made me aware that we — the colonized — better take up our pens.”
That is the central theme of Ndala’s novel, the need to tell your own story, in your own voice. Outsiders had done so, at least to their own satisfaction, the author continues, as he openly raised what “In the Belly of the Congo’s” title quietly references: Joseph Conrad’s famous 1899 novella “Heart of Darkness,” which excoriated Belgian colonialism for Western audiences.
“Let’s say Conrad was a good guy,” said a courteous Ndala, who is clearly not convinced himself. “He still wrote entirely from a white perspective. Not one single Congolese is even named in his book. They don’t speak, they don’t really exist, they’re just material for a narrative project.”
That’s not something that can be said about the Belgians in Ndala’s novel, let alone the Africans. It opens in Brussels in early 1958, in the race to finish preparations for a World’s Fair as iconic in Belgian history as Expo 67 is in Canada’s.
Princess Tshala Nyota, soon to be scrubbed entirely from the historical record, is there. The 19-year-old daughter of King Kena Kwete III of the Kuba people is forcibly ensconced among the 11 “inhabitants” on display in the fair’s Congolese village. It’s only two years before independence would arrive, but Belgium is still trying to show the world how its “civilizing mission” has created a happy, model colony in Africa.
Forty-five years later it’s 2003 and, like Ndala, the princess’s niece Nyota Kwete comes to Belgium to attend university. She also has another mission at her father’s urging: finding out what happened to his sister so long ago. Nyota mixes with a Congolese diaspora more educated and prosperous than the one her aunt knew, but just as affected by racism and colonial-era misogyny. And she meets — through one of those misplaced kicks — a white Belgium scholar, born in 1958 and haunted by his own ghosts. Together, aided by other intrusions of pure chance, they find Tshala Nyota’s grave, and the princess tells her story.
She begins it in the mythic past of her family and her people, before switching to an often gritty real-life account. As a student at a Catholic school run by nuns, Tshala begins a passionate affair with a Belgian colonial administrator, which her enraged father eventually learns about. Justifiably fearing for her life, she ends up in a Léopoldville — now — roiling with pre-independence turmoil and hope. In a crucial party scene, Tshala encounters monumental figures from the Congo’s near future: musician Wendo Kolosoy, future dictator Joseph Mobutu and the man Mobutu would soon betray, Patrice Lumumba, independent Congo’s first leader. She dances with Lumumba, who passes her a note bearing his office address.
Later, locked in a room during her last hours in her own country before being forced into a Brussels-bound airplane, Tshala finds the address in her pocket, looks at it and shrugs — she hadn’t liked Lumumba’s cologne. It’s a finely crafted moment, arrestingly conveying Ndala’s regret over a choice not made, a road not taken and lives not lived — Lumumba too would soon be dead, murdered by Belgian and CIA-backed rebels — in an extraordinary novel that offers eloquent voice to the silenced.
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