Though set in the late 1990s in Zaire, the former Belgian Congo, now known as Democratic Republic of the Congo, Frederic Hunter’s new novel, The Uttermost Parts of the Earth, is impressively, disturbingly, contemporary. If ever fiction can inform as effectively as journalism or history, this compelling and politically charged love story, is It. You may want to get out an atlas, though, to follow the horror, as the tribal violence evolves into the Rwandan genocide and bleeds into the equatorial province of Congo.
You may also want to read or re-read Joseph Conrad’s magnificent 1899 exploration of man’s capacity for inhumanity, Heart of Darkness, set in Congo under the colonial regime of King Leopold of Belgium. Hunter references that book, along with others, not least because his American protagonist, a 29-year-old idealistic professor from Boston University, Kwame Johnson, reflects Hunter’s own life. Like Kwame, Hunter was a literature teacher and Foreign Service Officer of the United States Information Service assigned to Congo. But there’s one big difference between character and author. Kwame Johnson is black, his creator is white.
When the story begins Kwame is engaged to Livie, a white upper-class, but he wants to go to Zaire, he tells her, because that’s where his ancestors come from. In America, he confesses, he’s always felt “compromised . . . an outsider, neither African, nor American.” Maybe a diplomatic stint in Zaire would help him realize his identity. And so he goes for what he thinks will be for a short stay.
Once there, he’s befriended early on by a Nigerian doctor, a compassionate but debauched sensualist, who insists that the only way to survive in Congo is a daily dose of sex, drugs and alcohol. He offers Kwame one of his clean (no AIDS) young women, the beautiful, mysterious Madame Van. At first, Kwame refuses but then succumbs and finds himself seriously taken with her, a sophisticated young black woman who also subscribes to local myths and traditions.
Slowly, Kwame comes to feel that the cynical doctor may be right, however, about the irrelevance of Western values, especially those having to do with the promises of revolution and reform. Zaire, the doctor argues, has made “a mess of independence.” What’s more, Americans are perceived as opportunistic, romantic love has no meaning in the heart of darkness, and democracy little chance against the power of the tribe.
A terrible irony emerges: Kwame, who stayed on in the “uttermost part of the earth” because he wanted to discover the uttermost part of his soul, begins to feel as estranged from himself as he was at the beginning of his journey. Meanwhile, the vicious civil war advances. The Americans have fled. Will Kwame and Madame Van make it out?
The Uttermost Parts of the Earth beautifully recreates a land defined by smell, taste, and touch, as it also reverberates as a suspenseful and cautionary tale. A lot to ponder here.