Towards the end of Michela Wrong's highly readable debut, she quotes a military analyst wryly observing that so many mercenaries live to write their memoirs. The same could be said of foreign correspondents. Wrong separates herself from the hack pack by hitting the ground running, to apply a military metaphor, with her absorbing history of the country currently known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Colonised by King Leopold II of Belgium (the only European monarch to personally own an African country), durable foundations for kleptocratic rule paved the way for Mobutu's "authentic" Zaire, the Leopard following Leopold. Clad in his trademark leopardskin toque and Buddy Holly sunglasses (purest African dictator kitsch, thus the ironically tacky cover), Wrong uncovers all the qualities of an autocrat: formidable memory, demagogic charisma, chameleon-like pragmatism, and a disastrous disdain for economics. In one memorable incident, Mobutu agreed a price for a neo-classical French villa, before casually enquiring whether the currency was US dollars or Belgian francs--the 39-fold difference being of no consequence. Tales of hidden Mobutu fortunes are tantalising, but hide a more prosaic truth: the most significant legacy taken up by his rotund ouster, Laurent Kabila, is Mobutuism, exemplified by a strong security force, "divide and rule", and a strangulated economy.
Perhaps more modest of intent than Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost,Wrong's account excels at scrutinising a nation as abundant as the mineral and ore deposits beneath its troubled soil. Gently drawing out testimonies from a former Belgian administrator, a former CIA man, ex-pats, Mobutu'sex-son-in-law, the disabled peddlers of Kinshasa, and the immaculately costumed sapeurs with their Lingala music, her sympathetic manner belies a keen intelligence and sensitivity to environment, whether it's Mama Yemo hospital, with guards to protect against non-paying patients escaping, or a terrifying White Elephant of a nuclear reactor. "In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz" teases out the nuances of a complicated, haunted country in a wonderfully clear, uncluttered manner, while remaining sympathetic to its entrancing, troubled rhythms. --David Vincent
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‘A stylish account of the absurd as well as the tragic.’ Sunday Times
‘This book will become a classic.’ Economist
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