NOT TO BE MISSED
"Déroutes", a novel by Laure LUGON ZUGRAVU
Genève: Editions faim de siècle & cousu mouche, 2011. (172p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
Déroutes [Rout] is a witty and yet resolute indictment of humanitarian aid, trade and diplomacy in Africa. It blends to good effect romance, sex, the quagmire of Congo's foreign exploitation, the uncertain outcomes of investigative journalism and the dark shadows of deceit and corruption. The book begins in Kinshasa where a motley collection of lost souls and local profiteers embroiled in an inextricable politico-economic imbroglio have been invited to the French Embassy. It is there that Giulia, a thirty-something freelance journalist, who usually tries to keep things in perspective, falls madly in love with war correspondent Gaétan and agrees to help him with a risky investigation.
The passionate but short-lived relationship between Giulia and Gaétan provides the main thread of the novel, and Gaétan's pursuit of journalistic fame gives the author an opportunity to evoke issues of importance: Cocktail parties expose the vacuity of the attendees' personal and professional pursuits; Giulia and Gaétan's endless quest for sellable news items reveals press-reporting's bias and flaws; and a trip to a distant province gives the narrator the opportunity to denounce the shameless enslavement of local children, political assassinations, cover-ups, massacres of civilians, misappropriation of food aid, and the abhorrent activities of mercenaries and militia-men paid by foreign companies to protect their dirty business.
Many ills are destroying the region, but it is not so much the endless string of misdeeds that irks the author; rather it is people's cynicism and lack of empathy vis-à-vis human distress and misery. Gaétan's cold and self-centred hard-headedness lurking behind his phoney interest in others is a case in point. As he learns that a party of Chinese businessmen have just been massacred by armed bandits in the Kasaï province, he soon reveals his true persona: instead of lamenting the gruesome execution of innocent civilians, he just rejoices at the journalistic value of the report, saying: "Great. Now I have a grip on the news" (p.65). No compassion for the victims and their families. Just indifference to their plight and a total disregard for the human consequences of the crime. Similarly, when he stumbles on a bunch of young children digging for diamonds under the rough watch of militia-men, he does not care about their predicament. He is first and foremost interested in shooting pictures he will be able sell. The following extract captures well this pathetic lack of empathy:
"The sun was low on the horizon, the sky receding, orangey, the light perfect. Within an hour, all he needed to do had been done. Children had slowly climbed back to the surface from the depth of the mine, covered with dust. They were now moving towards a wrought iron trough full of brackish water, like tired cattle. Gaétan focused the camera on a child's head; a human beast against the impudent beauty of the African savannah that could be seen in the background. This picture, enhanced by the slight haze produced by airborne dust was a very good one. And with no transition, his thoughts went back to Giulia, her warm body [...] She was walking up and down the dusty road, holding her backpack, unreal in this brutal setting. He turned his camera toward her and took the shot when her eyes crossed his, blurred with a feeling of helplessness, anguish and desire. For a brief moment, he envied the young woman's capability to be moved and indignant. Next to him, a small boy collapsed in the dust, frothing at the mouth. He skirted around the motionless body and felt a stong urge to make love to her" (pp.66-68).
Gaétan's self-centredness and callousness is no exception in a world dominated by warfare, concealment and the disinformation peddled by kafkaesque organisations and ministries. Just about every character of the novel has retreated behind an armour of indifference, and their disillusionment is expressed under various guises. For British Mike Miller, the regional director of the World Food Programme, it translates as a complete lack of emotion and interest in others. "Any corner of the planet is as good as another, he thinks; misery is equal to itself everywhere, colleages are the same and expatriates are ventilating the same nasty gossip during their bashes, irrespective whether they are posted in the north, the south or right on the Tropic of Cancer" (pp.24-25). Thus, he is neither disappointed nor enthusiatic about the idea of relocating to Nairobi when it arises, even if the prospect of "escaping the rancid smell of an inoperative Françafrique outdone by the Chinese" (p.25) is rather pleasant: and the opportunity to retreat into "some out-dated British Club endlessly perpetuating the funeral of colonialism" (p.25) is equaly appealing to him.
In contrast to Mike Miller's placidity, the French chargé d'affaires, Renaud Vannier, is a nasty bully who takes pleasure in humiliating others. His withering comments about Giulia and many other acquaintances well justify the scornful evaluation of the man by Blandine, the embassy's cleaner: "parasitic ambition, quick to discriminate, ferocious pragmatism and disdain for thin-skinned people" (p.29). She could have added to her list depraved sexuality, racism, misogyny and corruption. Nothing but the worst can be expected of him and, of course, his shady deals with local ministers matches his reputation as an irredeemable villain with no conscience.
Others find more benign means of evasion of their depressing inability to address the core issues tearing away at the country, but they all demonstrate the rout of foreing intervention in African affairs and development. The author spares no one, neither the greenies who put the environment ahead of people, nor the large corporations that put profit as their first priority. Beyond individual shortcomings, it is the whole approach to people empowerment, participation, relationships and sharing that is at fault and in need of a complete overhaul. Change will not come from Europe, the author suggests; nor from corrupted African elites, but from new players such as the fictitious African millionaire, Robert Aban, who cares about people, takes on his responsibility and lays the foundation of new relationships between Africa and the rest of the world.
Characters such as Robert Aban, Mike Miller, Renaud Vannier and many others serve the narration nicely, as they well illustrate a wide range of temperaments and attitudes. However, what makes their doings especially interesting is the fact that the narrator is looking beyond their intercourse with Africa, and explains their behaviour in the context of past as well as present circumstances: Miller's mother's stiff upper lip and loveless childhood, Vannier's memory of driving under the influence and killing his child, Igor's escape from a brutal father to become a mercenary, Joyce Wagram's reaction against her mega-rich father and spurious unpretentiousness, Guilia's reminiscence of the arduous exile of her mother who was a poor laundress, and Gaétan's recollection of the "manly epics" (p.119) told by his father, who fought in Algeria and Korea, are but some of the baggage these individuals took with them, albeit unconsciously, to Africa.
No one can escape the tyranny of the past and the forlorn hopes of the present, but in contrast to her acqaintances, Guilia keeps looking beyond the horizon in spite of the chaos surrounding her and her recurrent doubts about the meaning of life. Even while confronted by the most unlikely soul-mates, she looks for the "fault in the armour that leads to the soul" (p.12). Yet, reaching people's innermost thoughts is rarely possible, therefore "she had learned an art of life that consisted in accepting both dream as part of reality and absence as a self-sufficient concept unrelated to a missing presence" (p.17). Useful in sheltering her from the contingencies of "real" life and disappointment with men, her flights of fancy enable her to dream of the best, while invariably being presented with the worst. And like those who avoid revisiting their past in the light of new facts and figures, she keeps her secret-garden well enclosed, full of secrets, words, souvenirs and sentimental relics, including the titles of the books she refrained from reading in order to preserve the great delight of imagining the story told between the covers. It is also in this other-worldly province of her soul that she keeps not only her childhood dreams, but also all the hopes that allow her to give meaning to her existence.
In addition to a well developed characterisation and a clever design of the plot that keeps readers interested from beginning to end, one of the most striking features of the novel is certainly the author's witty and incisive writing style: one that plays with the reader's contradictory feelings and often leaves them with an hollow laugh. A random few lines describing American Joyce Wagram provide a nice example of the narrator's derisive and irreverent style: "Stranded in the Democratic Republic of Congo after months of travel by public transport in the company of a few shepherds who had grown bored with evangelising goats in the highlands of France's Grands Causses, she found, instead of Noble savages holding the key to world's salvation, poor people and that really was their only merit who would have sold their soul to the devil for a car or a mobile phone. Hence her disdain for the poor that matched her contempt for the wealthy she so stronly despised" (p.38).
Countless narratives highlight the shortcomings of humanitarian aid, trade and diplomacy in Africa, but few manage to give such an entertaining and yet direct and perceptive take on an otherwise monumental failure of our time. A book to read.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities