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No Fist Is Big Enough to Hide the Sky

LITTLE BOYS COME FROM THE STARS A Novel; By Emmanuel Dongala, Translated from the French by Jol Rejouis and Val Vinokurov; Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 246 pp., $22

March 18, 2001|SUSIE LINFIELD | Susie Linfield is a contributing writer to Book Review. She teaches in the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University

The little boy of Emmanuel Dongala's lyrical, sly third novel is named Michel but, because of his strange and difficult birth, he is called Matapari, which means "problem child." 'Little Boys Come From the Stars" is set in contemporary Republic of Congo (Dongala's homeland), the tiny country with large problems that abuts the other, bigger, more notorious Congo formerly known as Zaire. Both Congos have suffered at the hands of their brutal colonial masters, and at the hands of their brutal postcolonial masters. Theirs is a tragic history, yet Dongala, a chemistry professor and former university dean, has created a whimsical, indeed hilarious satire out of Africa's decid-edly unfunny post-independence woes.

Matapari lives in a small village that encompasses dizzying contradictions. It is a world of Nikes, music videos, Coca-Cola and palm wine; Rambo, James Bond and Patrice Lumumba are all embraced as heroes. Catholicism, animism and secularism coexist-if not always easily-and the midwife knew "how to prepare potions to drive off evil spirits, just as she knew how to set up an IV drip." Matapari's house has a tin roof, brick walls, several rooms and an outdoor latrine; though his family often eats only one meal a day, they own a television and a VCR. This is a country where anything is "an excuse to party," a fertile land where food is imported, a former French colony where colonialism is hated but "we ... still like to spend our vacations in France, even if these days it is easier to get a visa to the moon." Matapari, who enters adolescence as he narrates his story, muses, "We kept their language along with ours, as well as their clothing, red wine, Brie, and baguettes. It was as if we were reborn from two roots."

It is among the men of Matapari's family that the real fault lines exist. His grandfather was a proud, courteous teacher (he signed letters to the colonial authorities, "Yours bitterly and respectfully') who is steeped in the values of the Enlightenment; though he bravely opposed the Church and the colonizers, he is now reviled as a reactionary. Matapari's father is also a schoolteacher, a rationalist, a democrat and a lover of Russian literature; he refers to the country's rulers as "that nice kabob of dictators" and believes that education is Africa's only hope. (Papa spends much of his time studying Fermat's last theorem.) But Matapari's energetically amoral Uncle Boula Boula, who tells Matapari many of the stories that the boy relates to us, sees every U-turn in the country's volatile political life as an opportunity for personal enrichment. When the country (which Dongala never directly names) abruptly shifts from "independence" to "revolution," Boula Boula immediately acquires the most sought-after credential: a doctorate in "agitation and propaganda" from East Germany. He acquires a number of other revolutionary accoutrements, too, including a beautiful (married) girlfriend who lightens her skin and a fleet of Mercedeses that he color-coordinates with his suits. Indeed, Boula Boula adapts to the new order so adroitly that he zips into the No. 2 spot on the Central Committee, despite Matapari's father's prescient warning that "in Africa the most dangerous political position is number two."

Dongala is at his sharpest in depicting the greed, corruption, stupidity and sheer folly of this phony revolution. There is "Operation Knock Out," in which millions of aid dollars meant to fight a cholera epidemic land in the pockets of the health minister, who huffily invokes "the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of an independent state" to justify his theft. There is the "great revolutionary campaign [to] convert all the Pygmies of the equatorial forest to Marxism-Leninism." There is the grandiose, exorbitantly expensive stadium that is built-then almost immediately abandoned-outside Matapari's village, for which the lush, magical forest is destroyed. ('Come attend the massacre," Matapari's father tells his students as the tree-killing begins.) And always, everywhere, there is the suffocating personality cult of the leader: the president as Supreme and Providential Guide, Man of Concrete Action, Peacemaker, Friend of the Youth, Man-Always-Proven-Right-by-History .... "I'm sure I'm forgetting some," Matapari admits, "but I promise to note them each time they come to mind."

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