Following is my review of The Rebels’ Hour by Lieve Joris, Grove Press, NY, 2008.
This novel about the Congo traces the life of a fictional main character, Assani Zikiya, a Munyamulenge, i.e. a Congolese Tutsi, during the very recent turbulent times in the Congo. The device of telling real history via a composite character, rather than an accurate biography of the man on whom Assani is based, permitted the author to humanize the story as well as to provide broader background on the various conflicts and, most importantly, to comment wryly on real events, problems and people. In sum, through this novel a reader can learn contemporary history and gain insight into the brutality and reality of war and politics in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Without a father, disowned by uncles, Assani grew up a self-reliant loner herding his cows on the high pastures of South Kivu, an area to which his Rwandan Tutsi ancestors had moved a hundred years earlier. A bright lad, he got some schooling, even moving on to university studies in Butare, Rwanda just after the genocide. There the call came. He was needed to return to Congo, to protect the Banyamulenge people, to combat genocidaires and to join the effort to oust Mobutu. Assani became a soldier. Ascetic by nature, he found his métier. He was a good leader, a strict disciplinarian, and ever conscious of the bigger picture. Through his eyes and exploits readers see and better understand the overlapping circles of violence, hatred, politics, tribalism and ambitions that under grid the catastrophe of the modern Congo.
Because of his competence Assani moved upwards in rank and responsibility. After victory, he joined Mzee Kabila in Kinshasa, but fled when the new president turned against the Tutsi. Assani joined the second rebellion and fought for the rebels in the east. After the peace, he returned to Kinshasa and again was caught up in the roiling uncertainty of politics and corruption. Assani became a hard man, but he retained a conscience. He pondered the morality of the times and was especially repulsed by tribalism, of which he was also a victim. As his story progresses Assani repeatedly has to choose – go along or get out – knowing that either choice could be fatal.
As mentioned above this book in novel form is history with a perspective. I suspect that the author herself is represented by at least one, and probably two, of the women characters to whom Assani confides during the course of his journeys.
Apparently the author Lieve Joris, a Belgian journalist, went to the Congo to be a journalist, but decided that this form of reporting better suited the story she wanted to tell. The result is a powerful book, one of the best on the Congo.