"Even if we looted them a thousand times, they would always manage to hang onto something," marvels the eponymous soldier of the refugees fleeing rival militias in the novel "Johnny Mad Dog," a horrifying exploration of inhumanity set against the brutal civil strife in Central Africa's Republic of Congo -- a war from which author Emmanuel Dongala and his family fled in 1997. Yet that single line holds all of Dongala's unique optimism.
Considering that Dongala, a scientist, has been writing some of the most innovative fiction from Africa, including what is perhaps that continent's first science-fiction story, "Jazz and Palm Wine," in which John Coltrane and palm wine are used to repel an alien attack, it is a shame he is not better known. His satiric wit, not uncommon to Francophone African writers such as the late Mongo Beti, is reminiscent of Mark Twain by way of Voltaire. This acerbic, funny and very human sensibility is brought to bear in Dongala's new novel, excellently translated from the French by Maria Louise Ascher. It is told through the eyes of Johnny and Laokole, whose stories are interlaced. Laokole is a 16-year-old girl who leads her family to safety, a task complicated by a crippled mother and a lost younger brother. Johnny is a teenage militiaman who loses more and more of his humanity, even as Laokole gains more of hers while losing everyone she loves.
Dongala expands upon the bildungsroman genre of his earlier novel, "Little Boys Come From the Stars," to chart the development of his characters' country and their society's morality. In this way, as in Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," there is so much more at stake for each character than just personal redemption. And like Twain and South African Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee, Dongala remains firm in his belief that the line between darkness and light is the measure of our humanity.
The novel opens with Laokole preparing a wheelbarrow after militia general Giap announces a 48-hour period of looting. We later learn that the wheelbarrow is meant to transport her crippled mother, not for looting. But Dongala plays with misdirection to great effect, slowly revealing what is tender and human in these difficult moments. Before fleeing, Laokole buries her family's most cherished possessions in the backyard for when the war is over, symbolically burying an old life. We realize that she, Johnny and the others enmeshed in this war have only what they can gather on this quest, materially and spiritually.
With each kill and violent incident, Johnny searches for a moniker that best reflects his growing sense of deadly glamour, settling upon "Mad Dog." In this way, Johnny descends from a wide-eyed ethnic-supremacist idealist to a senseless killer who inflicts death (including shooting defenseless children in the throat) when he feels that his developing masculinity and his urge to be the alpha dog are challenged.
The difference between Johnny and Laokole is that she has a check, and a sort of mirror, on her actions and her self: the need to care for and protect her mother, to find her brother. Once she even watches herself on a TV broadcast standing before an approaching tank, rooted by terror until someone pulls her out of the way, and in retrospect shouts at herself to move. Johnny has no mirror; when he displays introspection, it is so warped we feel bad for him.
In one instance, he and other fighters under Giap raid a radio station. Johnny kills several engineers, then rapes and shoots a news anchorwoman. When he emerges, he sees his friend Gator challenging Giap, who shoots Gator. As he stares at his dead friend, Johnny thinks: "You don't kill someone's friend like that. Really, people are awful. They have no heart." This is so deftly done that you laugh, and in that moment surrender any spectator status you might have. Your own soul is now at risk as you read this novel, and that is both exhilarating and terrifying.
Yet "Johnny Mad Dog" remains a human story, full of tender moments, as when Laokole worries about her menstrual period or she and another girl explore their bodies in a forest stream. Dongala extends his satire even to the names the militias choose (Chuck Norris, Exocet, Piston) and the name given their enemies: Chechens. Western influence is further satirized and implicated, although never blamed, in the war. There are rescue efforts to save gorillas but not humans; during a cease-fire, U.N. soldiers stand by helplessly and the French government provides thousands of gallons of lime and shovels to help dispose of the dead.
Always the story stays with the teenagers, both of whom had big dreams: Johnny to be an intellectual, Laokole to be an architect like her dead father. When her mother is crushed under a falling wall and Johnny is beaten with a Bible, we realize that in some situations, dreams and hope can be a crushing weight. At times, the novel seems overdone and overtly literal (the author or translator?), at turns overwhelming, heartbreaking, funny and with an ironic edge that draws blood.
Dongala, now a teacher at Simon's Rock College of Bard in Massachusetts, has written a novel about war like few others. He has lived through it to bring us these pages of awe and illumination. One of his characters says: "I have forgotten what salt tastes like." Lest you forget, read this book. *