Friday, January 18, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "Trying To Be Everything" (on Aimé Césaire's Une Saison Au Congo)

trying to be everything
by Douglas Messerli
Aimé Césaire Une Saison Au Congo, translated by Ralph Manheim as A Season in the Congo (New York: Grove Press, 1968)

Beginning as a beer salesman for Polar beer, Césaire’s dynamic Patrice Lumumba, is a simple man who grows more and more complex with each scene in this Brechtian drama. Through song and framed scenarios of central events in the last two years of his life, the author charts what appears to be a single “season,” a first chance to free the Congo from Belgian rule and to make it a force on the African continent.

       Although the former beer salesman quickly—and in Césaire’s telling, a little too mysteriously—is transformed into a liberating hero, he is still raw at the edges. As he himself tells it, upon the transference of rule from King Basilio to Lumumba, his background, like those of the countrymen is a simple one, having grown up, he insists, as one of the forgottens:

lumumba: As for me, Sire, my thoughts are for those who
                   have been forgotten. We are the people who have
                   been dispossessed, beaten, mutilated; the people whom
                   the conquerors treated as inferiors, in whose faces
                   they spat. A people of kitchen boys, house boys,
                   laundry boys, in short, a people of boys, of yes-bwanas,
                   and anyone who wanted to prove that a man is not
                   necessarily a man could take us as an example.

In what others have warned should a gracious acceptance speech for the change of power, Lumumba uses the occasion to create a kind Whitmanian poetic expression of his identification with his fellow Congolese and with all of repressed Africa. From the very beginning, it seems Lumumba attempted to align himself with everything but the white oppression surrounding his homeland. And in this broad association of himself with everything, his ambition was awe-inspiring—and for the more timid leaders such as Mokutu, frightening:
 Comrades, everything remains to be done, or done over,
      But we shall do it, we will do it over. For Kongo.
 We shall remake the laws, one by one, for Kongo.
 We shall revise all the customs, one by one, for Kongo.
 Uprooting injustice, we will rebuild the old edifice
     piece by piece, from cellar to the attic, for Kongo.
 That which is bowed shall be raised, and that which is
     raised shall be raised higher—for Kongo!
 I demand the union of all.

But it is final statement, “I demand the devotion of every man,” that is perhaps his undoing. A few scenes later, Lumumba, is insisting that his leaders give over their entire lives to the new cause, that they abandon their lives to the recreation of their country. For him, things cannot happen fast enough.

       But that is just the problem. Without careful consideration, he has raised the salary of all government workers, while ignoring the army, which momentarily attempts to overthrow him. His solution, to raise them all in rank, is obviously no solution, weakening the very forces he will need to defend his government.

       If, for Césaire, Lumumba is clearly a hero, he is also naïve in his belief that things might be transformed so quickly and thoroughly. Belgian forces, including the bankers, plot to plunder the economy, taking advantage of a vast populace inexperienced in democracy. As Mokutu tries to explain to him, if he is going to raise his spear in defiance, he must be certain that he will kill “the beast,” the powerful Belgian powers that remain in the country and its allies—which in this case include the United States and the “blind” UN leaders, including the admirable Dag Hammarskjöld. In the rich province of Katanga, forces work to overthrow his government.

      Even more internationally disturbing—at least to Western interests—is Lumumba’s willingness to accept the support of the Soviet Union, a government he saw no better or worse the European and American structures.

       In between these powerful encounters are numerous songs of the ironic and not always friendly Sanza Player, songs of mercenaries, and fearful fretting from Lumumba’s wife Pauline and other women in his life. Although I have not seen a production of this play, it is clearly a work in which the stage must be in constant motion, as each emblematic frieze gives way to the next, events occurring so quickly that it appears that Lumumba had no way to catch his breath. And, in the end, of course, he was trapped in the vast forces he had let loose. In trying to be everything—

                             I will be field, I will be pasture
                             I will be with the Wagenia fisherman
                             I will be with the Kivu drover
                             I will be on the mountain, I will be in the ravine—

Lumumba has rendered himself from a leader to an emblematic martyr for his own cause. Too late, Hammarskjöld comes to perceive that he, himself, has been betrayed, painfully realizing that Matthew Cordelier is a man, in the General Secretary’s perception, who would, like Pilate, have arrested and put to death Christ, making an obvious parallel between the hero of this tale and the Christian myth.

      Msiri and Mokutu kill Lumumba, with the later now leading the country, hypocritically calling upon the country to carry forward in the memory of “Patrice, martyr, athlete, hero.” In reality, the new Congo head, changing the country’s name to Zaire, continued to economically exploit the country’s finances, just as had the Belgians. The short “season” of new possibilities did not allow enough time for Lumumba’s immense dreams to be realized.

Los Angeles, January 18, 2013

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