In Congo brutality seems to be everywhere: history, war, politics; in the landscape and the poverty and the desperate chug of locals’ day-to-day lives. It’s difficult to know whether this vision is about the country itself, or the way foreigners have chosen, since Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” to imagine it.
In his first book, Bryan Mealer sets himself the impossible task of giving us a different choice. On assignment for news agencies, and then as an independent adventurer ferrying the Congo River and riding its repaired rails, he tries to find the Congo we haven’t seen. In All Things Must Fight to Live, he opts, rather bravely, to chronicle his failure.
His determination takes him to a small town in eastern Congo beset with ethnic violence emblematic of Congo’s larger war and, later, to the streets of Kinshasa. There death is so routine that he and a colleague make a pact: “ ‘If you wait, I’ll wait,’ we’d say, just to finish our food like normal people ... repeat[ing] our sacred news-grunt mantra: ‘If we don’t file, it doesn’t exist.’ ”
Mealer is sensitive to this and other powers of being a white foreigner, and he’s unashamed of sharing those moments in which he misunderstands that power. When random killings become a nighttime norm in Kinshasa, Mealer’s housekeeper asks for an advance to buy a television.
“I refused again and again, hating the idea of his family not eating for weeks because Kasango wanted to watch TV.”
Only later did he learn that Kasango’s daughter hiked two miles each night to watch TV at a friend’s. “Buying the television was Kasango’s way of keeping her safe at home.”
War-correspondent memoirs rely heavily on heroic storytelling tropes; Mealer’s willingness to depart from that standard and to self-deprecate, to fear, to appear helpless or just flat-out wrong, puts him clearly on the side of the people he’s writing about.
Though it’s hardly a criticism to be leveled by anyone who hasn’t worked, as Mealer has, in the literal crossfire, it somehow disappoints that we hardly get as close to the Congolese as we do to him. For example, Mealer explains the complicated politics and history of the country as it rumbles toward its first democratic elections.
But we never hear Congolese citizens telling us what they think their vote might mean for their country.
Even expats who aren’t intimately involved in the action of the moment are overlooked.
When Mealer and his photographer are trapped by election-day violence in a building in Kinshasa, the photographer’s wife calls repeatedly over several days, each time reporting the worsening of the violence near their home.
After the last call, Mealer writes, “He was thinking what we were all thinking. Tonight the gunboys would get drunk and go marauding through the neighborhood ... just as we’d always written about.”
But he never tells us whether she survived the siege or how (we infer her survival from the epilogue) – an oversight which makes raising the specter of rape seem somehow cruel.
If the nature of his work limits the kinds of story he might tell, Mealer’s talent for detail, deftly rendered, lifts his material toward the sublime. Gun battles and city sackings can sound blearily similar, but Mealer slips in images that surprise: “Everywhere you looked,” he writes of one battle-scarred town, “there were empty sandals.”
These are the true gems of Mealer’s book, the moments when he reaches over the razor wire and through the clichés to offer a way of imagining Congo’s tragedy that can only come from someone who’s thrown himself so thoroughly into the place: “So much copper was bulging under the surface in Katanga that the earth actually glowed from space.”
Later, on his train trip through the countryside, he recalls that families were “laid to rest without ceremony in hand-dug graves along the trail, and the dead who are buried like this do not glow like the fields of copper.”
One wishes for more of this, even if it means less of Mealer and the expat circles that surround his work. Then again, this may be precisely the point.
For more than a hundred years, Congo has been the object of white outsiders: first the Belgians, then the United Nations, and always the countless foreign diplomats or aid workers or reporters trying to make sense of it all. “People are now saying ... ‘Bring back the white man because we can’t do it ourselves,’” Fabien Mutomb, a local leader, tells Mealer.
His book suggests the white man can’t, either. From the bungled UN interventions he witnesses to his own failures as a reporter and an adventurer, Mealer chronicles the defeat of the well-intentioned, and the loss of the optimism which took him there in the first place.
“There is no more dream in this country, no more ambition,” Mutomb tells him. “The dream is dead.”