In 1975, the celebrated Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe shook the world of English literature with a declaration: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is irredeemably racist. Granted, the 1899 work condemns colonial violence in the Congo Free State, then under the control of King Leopold II of Belgium. But according to Achebe, Conrad portrays Africans as a frenzied mob and the continent “as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity.” To demonstrate the corrupting effects of colonialism on Europeans, the Polish English author reduces Black people to symbols of primitivism.
At the time, Achebe’s critique was met with ambivalence. These days, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness ” reads as an antecedent to widespread conversations about cultural appropriation and the politics of representation. One could say an uneasy truce emerged in academia. Though Achebe was not successful in “cancelling” Heart of Darkness, he shifted the way the book is taught; his essay is often included in critical editions of the novella. And the Nigerian’s own take on the colonial encounter, the 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, has achieved comparable renown. Indeed, the two books’ contrasting perspectives pair well on a university syllabus. Conrad follows European travellers to remote jungle outposts where they go insane; Achebe tells the story of an Igbo man driven to suicide as British missionaries and colonial officials dismantle his society.
Recently, something like this Conrad-Achebe match‑up has taken place, in closer to real time, in French Canadian publishing. Two years ago, Paul Kawczak published his first novel, Ténèbre (Darkness), a book so indebted to Conrad that the dead author appears as a character. Kawczak’s return to the horrors of Belgian colonization was a critical hit on both sides of the Atlantic, winning Quebec’s Prix des libraires, among several other prizes. Then 2021 saw the release of Blaise Ndala’s third novel, Dans le ventre du Congo (In the belly of the Congo), which details the life of a Congolese princess placed in a human zoo at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. His book won prizes in Switzerland and Côte d’Ivoire and made the short list for the Prix des cinq continents. Originally from France, Kawczak now resides 200 kilometres north of Quebec City, in Chicoutimi. Ndala’s life has taken him from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Haiti, Belgium, and now Ottawa.
While Achebe denounced his literary predecessor, Kawczak and Ndala are collaborators. Ndala acted as a consultant for Kawczak, who went on to profile Ndala in Lettres québécoises. Reading their work side by side suggests that representations of colonialism are still intimately linked to who is representing it. Kawczak’s novel focuses above all on European atrocities. It is stylistically compelling but macabre, with a plot that revolves around the dissection of human bodies as an allegory for the mutilation of Africa. Ndala, meanwhile, adopts the perspective of two young Kuba women and evokes a longer sense of the region’s history. Perhaps surprisingly, the Congolese Canadian writer is far more generous in his vision. Moving beyond the depravity of the colonial project, he turns toward what kind of future Belgium and the Congo might negotiate together.
Even by nineteenth-century standards, the exploitation of the Congo was brutal. Following the Berlin Conference of 1884–85, which divided the African continent among European powers, what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo was designated the personal property of King Leopold II. The so‑called Congo Free State was run as a for-profit enterprise to extract rubber and ivory, and its labour regimes were built on enslavement and fear. Famously, officials required the severed right hands of corpses as evidence of military operations. In King Leopold’s Ghost, the 1998 historical account that ignited a reckoning with these events, Adam Hochschild estimated that the Congo lost half of its population, a full ten million people, between 1880 and 1920.
Kawczak approaches these horrors through the story of Pierre Claes, a young geographer assigned by the Belgian king to pin down the official border of his possessions. Claes journeys inland alongside the Chinese tattoo artist Xi Xiao, who specializes in a particular form of ritual execution: he can “strip a man of a majority of his organs while keeping him alive and awake.” The parallel is clear. Claes mutilates African territory and in turn will ask Xi Xiao to mutilate him, a broad allegory for how colonizers voluntarily destroy their human integrity.
The novel’s violence is framed as erotic and excessive, with mystical overtones that call to mind the French theorist Georges Bataille. Xi Xiao’s execution procedure can thus lead to orgasm, and the colonial encounter is sexualized as “a whole bourgeois civilization, male and sick,” that “expends itself with eroticism and violence in a fantasy of primitive, female land, a new black Eve to rape in the sleepless night.”
Sadomasochism and perversion are everywhere. The depiction of the German explorer Hermann von Wissmann, for example, includes rumours that he is a serial rapist who fornicates with his monkey. Characters also repeatedly throw up, whether due to heat, disease, inebriation, or disgust. This detail evokes Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection, which frames vomit as a response to the collapse of meaning when boundaries between self and another are blurred. In short, Kawczak has a doctorate in literature, and he’s not afraid to show it.
Ténèbre ’s psychoanalytic leanings coexist with calls for a representational politics. The prologue contains the advisory that “the following story is not that of African victims of colonization. That belongs to their survivors.” Instead, Kawczak is concerned with the “suicide” of his protagonist and of European civilization. This approach evokes Achebe’s criticism of Heart of Darkness : Is this twenty-first-century novel also “reducing Africa to the role of props for the break‑up of one petty European mind”?
Of course, Kawczak disputes the outright dismissal of Conrad. The Victorian author has a cameo in Ténèbre, in which he is described as “one of the rare Whites, in the Congo, who had real consideration for the Blacks.” And other writers, like J. M. Coetzee, have won acclaim for dissecting colonial attitudes from the inside. Coetzee’s work often frames the perspective of the colonized as opaque or inaccessible; the final passage of Foe, for instance, features an enslaved character with his tongue cut out — a commentary on the reproduction of silences in the novel itself.
Kawczak is similarly self-reflexive, if less subtle. His third-person narrator openly labels Pierre Claes a racist and notes that the past of certain figures, like Xi Xiao, must remain a mystery. But he also fleshes out some of his Congolese characters, particularly Mpanzu, the steamship’s mechanic. An internal exile, Mpanzu has broken with his community and is “eager to cover himself with as many foreign markings as possible.” He collects tattoos from every group he encounters, in a likely parallel to Queequeg, from Moby-Dick. But where Herman Melville’s whalers model a certain cosmopolitan brotherhood, Kawczak depicts the Congo as a regime of racialized terror. No Africans can earn their safety, and Mpanzu is crushed at the drunken whims of colonial officials. These ventures into the perspective of the colonized are ultimately more effective than the emphasis on Xi Xiao’s inscrutability. Even if Ténèbre focuses on Europeans, it takes pains to indicate that there is a complex world beyond their perception.
Dans le ventre du Congo likewise touches on episodes of violent repression, including “indiscriminate massacres” and piles of severed hands. The majority of Ndala’s novel, however, is divided between narrative strands in the 1950s and in the early 2000s. It consequently features far less gore and even a decent dose of romance. After falling in love with a Belgian official, the Kuba princess Tshala is forced into exile. She arrives in Leopoldville, where Ndala provides a sumptuous portrait of a society on the brink of change.
In a city still divided between Belgian and African neighbourhoods, Tshala rubs shoulders with the rumba musician Wendo Kolosoy and the charismatic Patrice Lumumba, who would lead the Congo to independence in 1960 and be assassinated in 1961. The cultural complexity suggested by Kawczak is explored in depth here, with frequent digressions into the histories of Congolese kingdoms and disputes between ethnic groups. Refreshingly, Ndala also departs from the patriarchal perspectives of writers like Achebe, as his narrator highlights the power that royal women once exercised among the Kuba and the machinations that saw them sidelined.
At the core of the novel is the Congolese Village erected during Expo 58, where Tshala is eventually put on display. This human zoo is designed to show “the long path that Belgium has made its natives take, from the darkness of Kurtz’s epoch to the contemporary era.” A monument to colonial condescension, the village transforms its inhabitants into a dehumanized spectacle, as they are pelted with bananas and bribed to show their genitals. Even Tshala’s insistence on singing in Latin — a result of her convent school education and a refusal of her role as a tribal Other — is co-opted by organizers who frame her as “the face of that black woman who had stripped herself of the dark soul transmitted by centuries of animism to be reborn in the baptism of the Holy Spirit.”
Expo 58’s zoo would be the last of its kind, but Ndala suggests that such affairs are not just relics of the past. The part of the novel set in Brussels in the 2000s has a certain “Afropolitan” tone: Tshala’s niece Nyota arrives with plans to study at a Belgian university, and she proves both international and intellectual as she critiques theatrical performances and mixes with lawyers and professors. Nevertheless, she faces objectification similar to her aunt’s experience when she staffs a luxury car show and a pair of old men assume she is a sex worker. In a more sustained parallel, Nyota begins dating a star soccer player who is subjected to chants of “Monkey! Monkey!” during a match. Parts of this section are plodding, and Nyota’s rapid coupling with a professional athlete strains belief. Still, Ndala’s point about the ambiguity of Black celebrity in Europe is well-taken. When a majority white audience turns hostile, the grotesque history of the human menagerie is never far away.
Yet Ndala is also invested in ethical complexity, and he is quick to criticize Congolese society as well. When Tshala leads efforts to protest the Congolese Village, her efforts are undermined by sexism and cultural divisions among her compatriots. Elsewhere, in reference to a pre-colonial law that allowed for castration, she comments, “Saying that we waited for the Whites to invent the despicable would be to piss on one hundred and twenty-one generations of memory keepers.” Meanwhile, the European characters appear deliberately varied to avoid evil caricatures. Thus, Mark De Groof, an exploitative dealer in traditional masks, finds his Flemish double in Jeff the African, a professor who defends refugees and fights against racism.
It would be too much to describe Dans le ventre du Congo as optimistic. Next to the unrelenting horrors of Ténèbre, though, Ndala holds out some hope for human connections and interracial alliances. His final chapter gestures toward the possibility that past abuses may be forgiven and that present kindness is the most important step forward. Arguably, Ndala has more latitude in such matters than white writers like Kawczak. Given the depth of his ties to Africa and his own positioning as a Canadian Congolese writer, he can produce a nuanced account of colonial dynamics without the risk of seeming to be an apologist.
For Canadian letters, the appearance of both books is a positive sign. Controversy erupted this past April when the French jury for the Prix littéraire France-Québec nominated two obscure texts on New France, complete with canoes on their covers. Commentators saw the move as a condescending search for Québécois folklore. The reception of Kawczak and Ndala, by contrast, demonstrates the internationalism of the publishing scene. The most celebrated offerings need not revolve around Montreal triplexes or the St. Lawrence River.
More importantly, the back-to-back success of these novels is a reminder that the politics of representation is not a zero-sum game. There is room for more than one perspective on our bookshelves, and those perspectives can complement one another. Kawczak provides an incisive portrait of European cruelty, while Ndala demonstrates African attempts to navigate a hostile world. Almost fifty years after Achebe took on Conrad, we are best served by reading both.