Dancing in the Glory of Monsters – a new best read

As I hinted in my last post, this is more work than it might seem like, putting out a list of 10 favorite books that consists of more than just the title of the book and a link. It certainly involves more effort than I assumed when I set out to do this.

With a few of the books, the sense of excitement over the achievement of the authors, coupled with a deep sense of personal connection (in each case with both the author and the subject) greatly outweighs any of the fuss involved. That was certainly the case for The Invisible Line, Open City, and now with this sixth book, Jason K. Stearns’s Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa.

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Great books written by foreigners about Africa are truly uncommon. The last, by my reckoning, was 2010’s The Teeth May Smile, but the Heart Does Not Forget, by Andrew Rice, which was an exceptionally fine exploration of Ugandan history and of the limits of reconciliation. One need not be fixated on Africa to enjoy and indeed to profit from the reading of Rice’s book. (links to all of the books named here appear below)

Stearns’s Dancing in the Glory of Monsters takes place on a much vaster tableau than this, but the two authors nonetheless share an unfortunately altogether too rare quality among outsiders who write about Africa. Both of their work is built on a foundation of authenticity that can only come from listening to Africans, not as a matter of technique, or much less to check off a box on a to-do list, but rather because they are genuinely interested in knowing what Africans have to say about their own lives and experiences.

Every word of this is the truth, but even here I may not have given sufficient credit. African lives are not a story in their narratives, they are the story.

For Stearns, writing about the Congo in the wake of some of the most horrific violence and destruction the world has seen in recent decades, this commitment can be measured in the thousands of miles he must have traveled across a country as large as Western Europe, reaching towns and villages in seemingly every region.

I covered the first of the Congo’s wars, which brought the fall of Mobutu, and I know firsthand what a poor job WE in the Western media did, getting to the bottom of the story, really covering the action on the ground, understanding the local strategic and geopolitical implications of what was going on. I say we readily if not happily, because I must share some of the blame for this failure myself.

Part of this is down to the sheer size of the country, its lack of roads and other infrastructure, the danger involved, especially at the time, but even taken together, these explanations are not sufficient. The remaining piece of the failure was lamentably due to a lack of sufficient commitment to the story itself by news organizations and by the reporters ourselves. In this business, unfortunately, people measure the risks they are they willing to take in relation to the rewards: how important are the historical stakes, how big is the story, how great are the rewards?

If anything, the second war, and its aftermath in Congo, have been covered far worse, which is to say more lackadaisically and with less regard for big questions, for facts, and especially for history. In cynical moments I am reminded of the way a seemingly never-ending war in Lebanon was once covered, decades ago, as artillery barrages between rival factions, and other outrages, went from front page news to tiny briefs buried on the inside pages.

Stearns’s Dancing in the Glory of Monsters shows the deepest regard for history, and not just in the necessary but too often neglected where Africa is concerned reading-up-on-books sense, although there is evidence of plenty of that. This regard shines through in the persistent way he has talked to the players he can find at every level, in finding where the bodies are buries, quite often literally, in taking the time to hear people’s stories of incredible suffering and survival, and finally, in weaving it all together in an accessible, compelling and lasting piece of writing. Bravo Jason.

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1 thought on “Dancing in the Glory of Monsters – a new best read”

  1. Will look for Jason Stearns’s book and read it. Andrew Rice wrote a truly exceptional book, for all the reasons you mention. I used to wonder how he got the Ugandans to share with him certain stories, to come up with words that were, as in one memorable case, untranslatable. It was after I read more about him, and then some of his other stories from Africa, that I realized he is not a hit-and-run reporter. He wants the facts as much as the truth.

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