|A Trilogy by Albert Russo
Literary Review By Moshé Liba
Albert Russo is a bilingual multitalented writer, poet, photographer, and a most published author in various countries and languages. Russo does not translate his novels, but rewrites them, adapting them to another language, another culture, other readers.
Africa is the key to the work and to the very being of Albert Russo. He is African by birth was raised in Belgian-ruled Africa and Southern Rhodesia-Zimbabwe, speaking French, English, as well as Kishwahili.
It is my intention to concentrate in this literary review on three of his books, also published in a trilogy: "The Benevolent American in the Heart of Darkness", published by Xlibris, USA. They are: "The Black Ancestor", "Eclipse Over Lake Tanganyika", and:" Mixed Blood", the book to which I dedicate an extensive review. My review of the third book, has been published in the prestigious: Taj Mahal Review, Alahabad, India, 2008.
Albert Russo's new novel in English THE BLACK ANCESTOR is being published by: IMAGO PRESS 3710 East Edison, Tucson AZ 85716-2912, USA - tel. 520-327-0540?- ? (for orders, email: [email protected]).
With the author's permission, I wish to quote some excerpts from the review of the author's French version of THE BLACK ANCESTOR, L'Ancêtre Noire, published by Editions Hors Commerce in Paris in 2005, which appeared in the prestigious magazine World Literature Today.
Let's first start with the story of this first novel. Leodine, the daughter of Astrid, a beautiful Fleming, and of Gregory McNeil - a young and buoyant G.I. whom the latter had met in Northern France during WWII -, grows up in the Belgian Congo with her mother. Her father dies in a plane crash, flying from America to rejoin his family. After a couple of years, Astrid falls in love with Piet Van den Berg, who will move in with them. Leodine is surrounded by the love of her mother and of Piet, whom she now considers as her surrogate father, as well as by the affection of her maternal grandparents and of her uncle Jeff, who is still an adolescent.
One day her uncle will reveal to her that her deceased American father had a black great-grandmother. This news shatters the young Leodine and she becomes obsessed with the fact that she is of mixed blood, although she is so fair that no one could ever guess it. From this moment on, her existence becomes a calvary. It will determine her whole future: she decides never to marry, nor to bear a child- who might be of darker skin than herself.
The only friend she has at school is Yolande, a pretty mulatto girl, half-Portuguese, half-Angolan, to whom she divulges her secret. Later on, Yolande introduces her to her cousin Mario-Tende, a refined and intelligent student who lives at the Cité Indigène, Elisabethville's segregated black township). One afternoon, Leodine's young uncle Jeff, is run over by a truck; she is devastated, and feels she has become an orphan for the second time.
Mario-Tende offers to tutor Leodine in the subjects she finds most difficult, especially math and science. A friendship evolves between the two, inasmuch as her uncle has left a huge void in her heart and that she can't but compare him to Mario-Tende, for the two youngsters, who didn't know each other, were about the same age and were both bright and diligent students. The major difference between them: the one was white and the other is black. Mario-Tende has deep and genuine feelings for the young girl, and one day, very naturally, they make love. Panic-stricken, Leodine opens up to her mother, believing she is pregnant. But she is lucky to realise, when she gets her periods that she is actually not.
After this grave occurrence, Astrid and her family decide to send the young girl away from the Congo. It is thus, that Leodine will go and study in far away Minnesota, where her paternal grandparents live. After college, she joins an Adventist convent, specialized in missionary work. There, she learns that Mario-Tende was killed in Angola, fighting for the independence of his country.
Three decades after she left the Congo, she will return to the continent of her birth and witness the horror wrought in that section of the Great Rift Valley, following the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Keeping the promise to herself, she never marries nor bears any child, but she will adopt a little Mozambican boy and name him ... Mario-Tende.
To sum up what is the message of Albert Russo's Africa as portrayed in this novel: humankind's infinite diversity and, amid such richness, a quest for the deep self, with, concomitantly, the search for love.
Now, to the second novel, ECLIPSE OVER LAKE TANGANYIKA, by Albert Russo, 2000, Domhan Books- USA/UK;
Published in French in the author's own version as ECLIPSE SUR LE LAC TANGANYIKA, Nouvel Athanor, Paris, France;
Published in Holland:SCHEMERING OVER HET TANGANYIKAMEER,Element Uitgevers, Nederlands
This book was nominated for The 2000 International Frankfurt -Book Awards
This novel has the ingredients of an African and a Greek tragedy at once and the author had initially thought of calling it : PRINCES AND GODS.
Albert Russo does not care about local colour. The vegetation, the words in Kiswahili, the places, serve the purpose for a single man's confrontation with a man with the "Creation". Every page shows the author's fascination for the Eden-like land and his sadness of what men made of it.
The story, based on historical events, is set in Rwanda-Urundi, till 1962 under Belgian rule. The action takes place in Buja, the capital overlooking Lake Tanganyika. The time is before Independence. The population is constituted of Tutsi, a minority ruling over the majority of the land: the Hutu. This is the reason for internal pressures, about to explode. Two main factions fight for power: the hard line Prince Ruego, and his pro-western father Mwami the king, and the Hutu.
Here are entering the main characters, African and foreigners, Hutu, Tutsi, Belgians, Greeks, and an American. They all fight for the favours of Damiana, the wife of the Greek merchant Antoniades. So, we meet a Belgian police officer, another Greek, Stavros, owner of the local cinema, Mwami the king himself, and the main actor on this scene-Oswald, a young American paramedic working at the Evangelical mission. From the love affairs of Damiana, the author brings us to the political plots, and to the arrests, the intrigues and the killings.
The main victim becomes none other than the Prince, who is shot by Stavros, who tries to fly away, but, as happens often in Africa, has a car problem on his way to the airport, and is given a lift by none other than his father, the king. The Mwami discovers the plot, and the Hutu conspirators are executed, including the two Greeks. All of a sudden, Oswald, who has come all the way from America, full of humanitarian ideals, is shattered.
As Martin Tucker wrote: Albert Russo is distinguished by his startlingly precise grasp of the historic period of mid-twentieth-century Central Africa. In this sense, his work bears twinship to the work of the Nobel Prize winner V. S. Naipaul's novel "A bend in the River"
And now ,to the third novel Mixed Blood: This is a must-read textbook, I exclaimed after reading the first pages of this fascinating novel. And the more I read, the more I was convinced, as a former Professor in several universities and a former Director of the Israeli School of Diplomats, that Mixed Blood should be in the hands of students of History, of Africa, of Developing Countries and of Diplomacy. Any student interested in the history of Africa at the turn of this continent from colonial times to freedom and independence would greatly benefit from reading this book.
This intense, passionate novel teaches us much about Congo-Leopoldville, the present Congo-Kinshasa, also known as Zaire.
I must confess that I had a problem writing this article. Indeed how do you review a book with whose characters you identify so closely, when turning page after page, you re-live almost identical situations during the period of time the story unravels? When you feel you were there, even more, that you were the author of the book?
Because this novel is so well written, the images are so vivid and the characters so human and realistic, it brought me back to Africa. Indeed, as Deputy Director of International Cooperation, as Ambassador of Israel in eight different African countries, and as Director of the African Department of our Ministry, I was involved with this continent for a period of 18 years.
It all started for me on the 30 June 1960, when Congo-Leopoldville became independent from Belgium. A few days after the festivities, there were troubles and the UNOC, the United Nations Organization in Congo, an international peacekeeping force, was sent there. A doctoral student at the Law Faculty in Paris, working for two years on UNEF, the first ever United Nations Emergency Force (in Sinai), I had to spend two more years to include UNOC in my thesis. How much I needed then a book like Mixed Blood, in order to better understand what was going on in Congo.
My involvement continued with the first official visit of the Congolese President, Kasavubu to Israel, a few years later, bringing with his delegation Justin Bomboko, the only University teacher when Congo became independent (he would have been an "évolué" in the book). What a gap in my knowledge of Congo would have filled then Mixed Blood!
Reading the short biography of the author, I tried to relate the events described in the book to his own life.� He was born and grew up in the Belgian Congo. And though this is a novel, set in a specific time frame, with real historical events, but with fictitious characters, the story rings so true that you feel you have met them.
The front cover of the book - a young African boy whose face is painted half white - is itself an invitation to the continent. You will want to talk with Léo, the young mulatto boy, who is one of the three main characters of the book. Russo brings to the front stage, at that very delicate moment of transition the Congo is going through, and without using any slogans, people made of flesh and blood, whose particular lives capture your attention, while at the same time they revive so many memories to those who know Africa, as in my personal case.
Russo's mastery use of words and of situations - most of them atypical, yet so reachable, you immediately feel involved as a reader - draws you into the story, as if you were a neighbour. You befriend Harry Wilson, the American expatriate whose sexual orientation will be brought to light in a violent manner later in the story, you breathe the same air as his adopted mulatto son, Léo, who feels neither Congolese nor European and as his Congolese surrogate mother, the strong-willed Mama Malkia, the Queen Mother, the daughter of a tribal chief - and though employed in the service of Harry Wilson, she is the one who will take charge of the household. The three of them are intertwined in a destiny tied to that of the Congo itself, as a colony before, and as a state after Independence, each bringing to the story facets common to all human beings as well as their differences which they will have to tackle each in his and her own way.
We hear with delight words and expressions in Kiswahili, hurled by the forceful and inimitable Mama Malkia, the American accent of Harry Wilson when he speaks in French, and the lilting Belgian intonations of the colonial authority. All of this brought me nice memories of the three years of my tenure as Ambassador to Senegal and the many, most interesting encounters with Léopold Sédar Senghor, the then President of Senegal and member of the prestigious Académie Française. Senghor used, both in his poems, writings and speeches, as in our conversations, words and expressions in the various local Senegalese tongues, the way Mama Malkia does in the novel, under the pen of Albert Russo. This is how we come across words such as muntu meupe (white folk), mazimu mingi (real crazy), mtoto (child), nduku (brother or cousin), mubaya (bad or sickness), nyoka (snake), and the much loved Kitoko Léo (beautiful Léo).
At one point, irritated by her patron (boss), Maka Malkia says to him: "Take it or leave it, Monsieur! Then she mumbles: All these whites, they want to teach us their civilization, Ha!" Not only is she the dominant character of the book, but she is also the spirit and soul of Africa.
We accompany Léo to Montessori, the kindergarten led by the Sisters, then to the Collège Saint-Francois, the all-boys Catholic school, where he misses the Sisters. We follow him as he grows up, torn between his two identities, yet showered with the love of Harry and Mama Malkia, and finally as he leaves for the United States, the country of his adoptive father, where he will go to university.
We shall also witness the cruelty of fate, when, after Independence, Harry gets killed by the UNOC soldiers, those who came to ensure the peace, as he goes to the pharmacy to fetch medicine for Mama Malkia.
Those three predominant characters, portrayed by Russo with so much literary talent, do not overshadow the minor ones that form the tapestry of the novel. Some are marginal, but all of them have their distinctive personalities and quirks, yet being at the same time so typical of the white communities who had settled in colonial Africa, whether under Belgian, British, French or Portuguese rule.
We come to know Monsieur Giorgios, the Greek owner of Elisabethville's finest pastry shop and ice-cream parlour; Eric van Pool, the bland Commissaire; Monsieur Rombout, the teacher who tries to convert every non-Christian pupil to Catholicism; Father Vandamme, the feared but equitable religious figure; Ishaya Ben Aharon, the Jewish Sephardic boy and his close-knitted Jewish community; Madame Ben Aharon, his mother who bakes such scrumptious rechicas and speaks ladino; Piet, the red-haired Flemish boy, who, because he only speaks the local Kiswahili language is called, in a derogatory fashion, the white Congolese.
In the masterly oeuvre, which is Mixed Blood, Albert Russo invites us to a long, variegated and human journey back to Africa.
After I finished the book, I went back to its opening pages where I found again Léo's happy- end. Perusing the novel again, I was reminded of my African beginnings, and of my long, rich periods of life and work in so many African countries. Turning page after page of this novel was for me like a journey in memory lane.
Had Mixed Blood been written earlier, I would have recommended it to my students, making it a compulsory reading. Let me say it again: this book is a must-read Text Book for students, researchers, historians, and diplomats!
MIXED BLOOD was reissued in the author's own French version under the title SANG MELE, published by Ginkgo Editeur, Paris, in 2007, and came out in an Italian translation with Coniglio Editore, Rome, in the Summer of 2008, where it includes a Postfazione by Moshé Liba
- Prof. Moshé Liba