Zaire's Legacy Under Belgium and Mobutu
Journalist Sean Kelly's 1993 book, "America's Tyrant: The CIA and Mobutu of Zaire" provides context for the unrest now in Zaire. Thirty years ago, Kelly covered Mobutu's rise to power. Kelly was with the Voice of America for twenty years. Now he teaches at American University in D.C.
Other segments from the episode on April 22, 1997
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: APRIL 22, 1997
Head: Sean Kelly
Sect: News; International
MARTY MOSS-COANE, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Marty Moss-Coane, in for Terry Gross.
In the last six months, the brutal regime of Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko has begun to collapse, hastened by his declining health and by a rebellion led by Laurent Kabila. His rebel forces have captured half of the country.
The United States has had a long and supportive relationship with Mobutu which dates back to the late '50s, just prior to Zaire's independence from Belgium. It was known then as the Belgian Congo.
Shortly after it became an independent country in 1960, it erupted into civil war. The Soviet Union and the United States were drawn into the conflict, making the country a stage during the Cold War.
Sean Kelly was a journalist in Zaire when Mobutu took over the country in 1965. Kelly is the author of "America's Tyrant: The CIA and Mobutu of Zaire." The book is about how the CIA helped Mobutu seize power and control Zaire for more than 30 years. In that time, Mobutu's personal wealth has grown into the billions, while Zaire's economy is in shambles.
Kelly covered Mobutu's move from head of the military to leader of the country for the Voice of America. Kelly says Mobutu seemed unsure of himself when he first appeared in public dressed in full military uniform.
SEAN KELLY, JOURNALIST, AUTHOR OF "AMERICA'S TYRANT: THE CIA AND MOBUTU OF ZAIRE": He was very stiff, and he went over well because he was a figure of considerable power and that translates itself generally into approval in that part of the world. And so, he was certainly accepted. I'm not sure he was ever very dearly loved by the population.
MOSS-COANE: Well, one thing that he wanted to do, and actually did once he assumed power, was to create a kind of authentic African identity, obviously to take back an identity which was destroyed by -- by Belgium over the years that the Congo, now called Zaire, was -- was a colony of Belgium.
Describe for us what this effort was to give Zaire it's own African identity?
KELLY: Well, it started out almost immediately after the coup. He began renaming the -- first of all, the capital, which for years had been named for King Leopold of the Belgians. It was Leopoldville. And he renamed it Kinshasa. Then after the capital had its named changed, he moved to some of the other cities that had obvious colonial names like Albertville and Stanleyville and Elizabethville, and changed them as well.
Then he went even further and insisted that anybody who had a so-called "Christian" name -- a name that would have come from the colonial power, change that. So that all of a sudden, overnight, a lot of name changing went on and people sort of invented names for themselves. He changed his own name, of course, so...
MOSS-COANE: And my understanding of his name -- it translated into "the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake."
Is that a pretty fair translation of what his name meant?
KELLY: Yes. There are some other versions of that as well, but it -- they all amount of a pretty far cry from Joseph Desiree (ph) Mobutu, which was the name he started out with.
MOSS-COANE: Let's backtrack if we can, and -- and talk about the -- the legacy, I guess, of Belgian rule in what was, again, then called the Congo, now called Zaire. The Congo got its independence from Belgium in 1960. And they -- they were a particularly brutal colonial power. Can you describe how they ruled and controlled the Congo?
KELLY: Well, it was unfortunate in many respects that the Congo ever became a Belgian colony. Belgium had no tradition of colonialism like the French or the British or the Portuguese in Africa. They were not a maritime nation or a nation with any history of international commerce like the other colonial powers.
So, when King Leopold moved into the Congo and established himself there, and for many years, of course, the Congo Free State was his personal possession, it started a series of -- as well a policy, if you will -- on ruling, governance, that pretty much stayed with -- characterized Belgian policy, even when it ceased being his private property and became officially a Belgian colony.
It was ruthless. It was done for high profit. And when independence came, it came without an awful lot of preparation of the people who were to become independent.
MOSS-COANE: Well, I was wondering -- when independence came in 1960, was the Congo in any way, shape, or form ready to be a country?
KELLY: Not really. As a matter of fact, just five years previously the Belgian government had a plan for it before it which took -- which contemplated independence for the Congo in 30 years. That 30 years was telescoped to five. The actual decision to give independence was done approximately six months before the event. It was just decided on very short notice to go ahead and get rid of this colony, in which there was a certain amount of turbulence going on.
And also at that time, if you'll recall, the French were having a bit of a problem with one of their colonies, Algeria, and it was causing a lot of difficulty in France. The Belgians did not want to be presented with a similar situation over their colony. So, pretty much, the Congo sort of got dumped; 1960 was the year of independence throughout much of Africa, but the -- most other states were better prepared for it than the Congo.
MOSS-COANE: When did the United States, then, get involved in the domestic policies of the Congo?
KELLY: Well, you could say it was that year just before independence. The -- when the country was still a Belgian colony, the American ambassador in Brussels made a trip out to -- to look the colony over. And he brought with him several people who would later be attached to the first American embassy in Leopoldville.
And he derived some impressions from that trip which were subsequently documented in a book called "The Congo Cables" -- Madeline Kalb's (ph) book, which was one of the first books in the United States that really got into some of the skullduggery that took place in the Congo during that period.
And Madeline Kalb, through using the Freedom of Information office or Freedom of Information Act, was able to get declassified a cable from the American ambassador in Belgium to Washington, urging a policy that would overthrow Lumumba, and create a new government.
So I think, probably, right about the time, or shortly before independence, was when that intervention really began. The United States, at least the people who were representing the United States in Brussels, did not take a very good view of Lumumba. There was considerable concern about him.
MOSS-COANE: Well, the thought was, I guess because he had turned to the Soviet Union in dealing with some of the chaos and rebellion in this country shortly after independence, the thought was that he was a communist. Was he? Lumumba?
KELLY: I don't think so. And Belgians I've talked to don't either. He was a -- he was a nationalist. He was a man who, like many of the Congolese leaders, had been very poorly prepared for the job that he faced. He'd not had much of an education, and he was thrust into this position of leadership. He was trying to hold the country together -- part of it was seceding the most important part, Katanga, now called Shaba province. That was where the money was.
It looked as though the Belgians were supporting that secession. So he thought the Belgians had sold him down the river. He appealed to the United States for help. We turned that appeal over to the United Nations, and then the United Nations moved very slowly, in his view.
So, he wasn't getting help from anybody. The one part of the world that did offer him, or appeared to offer him some help, was the Soviet Union. And they didn't come through in any big way.
MOSS-COANE: What was the CIA-United States involvement in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba?
KELLY: Very difficult to pinpoint, actually. What happened was that Lumumba had been taken prisoner with U.S. help, by Mobutu, and held in prison in an army camp, and then brought out of the camp on the understanding that he was being asked to come back and participate in the formation of a new government. That was the subterfuge that was left -- that was used to get him to accompany several other people on a -- what turned out to be a plane trip to what is now Lubumbashi, where he was turned over to his enemies and killed, probably that day or the next.
The role of the CIA, as best as I can determine, was to facilitate, first his capture; secondly, to -- that the actual deed was done by people who were very close in -- in terms of their relationship with the CIA. The CIA had actually started out to kill him themselves. This was revealed in a Senate investigation that took place in 1975.
Assassins were hired; poisons were sent out. But it became very difficult to carry it off. And the man in charge of the whole thing took the view that it might just be simpler to turn Lumumba over to his enemies.
MOSS-COANE: How did the CIA then come to enlist the help of Mobutu?
KELLY: That goes even back further than the assassination of Lumumba. What happened was that, right after independence, the Army revolted against the officer class. And it was one of the first times in history that an entire army went into revolt against their officers. The officers of the Congolese Army were all Belgian. And the enlisted men decided that they were not getting a fair shake out of independence and that they didn't understand why they had to have Belgian officers.
And so they went into a mutiny that spread itself throughout the Congo. Part of the problem, of course, was that they hadn't been paid. And the United States apparently moved in with -- through the CIA, and guaranteed payment to at least those military personnel in the Leopoldville area -- in Kinshasa -- to assure that stability would -- would hold in that particular area.
Mobutu, having been put in charge of the army at that time, became the logical vehicle for those pay -- to handle those payments. And to his credit, it was really one of the ways in which he developed a constituency for himself. When the mutiny broke out, Lumumba appointed Mobutu to go around -- well, first of all, he made him number two in the army. Number one was just a political appointee. Mobutu had had experience in the army. He'd spent six years as an enlisted man before independence.
He was sent out around the Congo to rally the support of the troops that were involved in the mutiny, and also to get them to vote their candidates for -- to be made officers. So that the first officers in the Congolese Army were those who'd actually been voted into office by the enlisted men.
And, in the course of this, Mobutu developed a constituency in the army that he developed much further later on. And he has always been a sort of man of the army and had the loyalty purchased -- rented -- of soldiers who were the ones put closest to him.
MOSS-COANE: I -- I'm curious how -- how Mobutu was able to take power -- take control of his country.
KELLY: Usually, he did it by getting other people to do his fighting for him. First of all, the United Nations came in and put down the rebellion in Katanga -- Shaba, as it's now known. And then, once that was dealt with, the rebellions elsewhere in the country that broke out in 1964 and 1965, Mobutu was able to enlist the support of the United States and of Belgium, and other allies to come to his aid there.
The United States participated in the training and supply of a group of foreign mercenaries who performed much of the fighting in putting down the rebellion in 1964. We even provided some mercenaries of our own to make sure that the job was done right. We had some Cubans who were left over from the Bay of Pigs who'd come back from Cuba. And we brought them in to actually lead the mercenaries into combat, because they were a very effective fighting force amongst themselves.
MOSS-COANE: Well, I'm curious whether Mobutu had any real political base within his own country, or whether he really was propped up by foreign countries -- foreign governments including our own?
KELLY: That was pretty much the case. We propped up the army. He was in the charge of the army and he got propped up with it. But he made sure that those units loyal to him were the ones that got the best training and the best equipment.
MOSS-COANE: Sean Kelly is our guest today on FRESH AIR. And his book is called "America's Tyrant: The CIA and Mobutu of Zaire." He covered the civil war in Zaire, the Congo as it was known back in the 1960s. He's covered other civil wars around the world as well as a Voice of America correspondent. He's currently a professor at American University.
We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
MOSS-COANE: Our guest is Sean Kelly, and we're talking about Zaire and Mobutu. His book is called "America's Tyrant: The CIA and Mobutu of Zaire."
Zaire is a country enormously rich in things like rubber and coffee and copper and diamonds, very rich in -- in minerals. Was Mobutu, at least in the beginning of his reign in Zaire, able to exploit some of that wealth, not just for himself, but for the people of Zaire? Were there positive changes early on in his government?
KELLY: Not really. The problem was that he let the infrastructure fall apart in the Congo, now Zaire. The roads were not prepared. The system of river transport was allowed to deteriorate. The airports deteriorated.
The Congo had been a very rich country agriculturally, as you point out: rubber, cotton, all of those -- coffee -- all of those things -- plantation-type economy. But all of those products had to be moved to market, and with the infrastructure falling apart, the Congo very quickly turned into just a mineral provider. And that was an area that Mobutu could -- accomplished what he wanted to do, which was skim off a good portion of the minerals that moved out of the Congo, the minerals being principally diamonds, copper, cobalt -- that sort of thing.
So, it didn't have much of a beneficial result for the people, particularly the farmers, the peasants, because it was all directed at the minerals. And, as a consequence, they went, very quickly, back to a sort of subsistence economy.
MOSS-COANE: How much did the end of the Cold War change the U.S. relationship with Mobutu and Zaire?
KELLY: Well, it's changed very dramatically because we no longer have the need for Mobutu that we had periodically over that period of the Cold War. Our last use of him was during the supply of military equipment to Jonas Savimbi in Angola during that civil war, which ended in 1991.
So, there has not been a dramatic instance where -- where Mobutu has been able to be particularly effective. And, since the end of the Angola war, was pretty much the end of the Cold War, that is to say, the end of the Cold War brought out the end of the Angolan war as far as we were concerned, the need for Mobutu has diminished, and -- as has our relationship with him.
We are now, by saying -- by "we," I mean the United States is now paying a lot more attention to the human rights abuses that have taken place over the years. And all of a sudden we've discovered that Mobutu is a crook. And this comes as a, sort of a, great surprise to everybody in Washington, although it's been widely known for decades.
MOSS-COANE: Well, just a couple of years ago, there were -- there was a bloody civil war in Rwanda, neighboring on -- on Zaire. How much did that civil war, you think, loosen Mobutu's grip on power in his own country?
KELLY: Well, Mobutu had largely ignored the eastern part of the country, the eastern part of Zaire for years. He'd, as I said earlier, allowed the infrastructure to rot; the roads to fall apart; and to have -- any governance that was there was minimal.
So, when the troubles broke out in Rwanda and Burundi and began spreading over into Zaire and involving Zairian population of Tutsis who had been resident in Zaire for a long period of time, then, he was in a very poor position to bring that under control.
And Laurent Kabila, the leader of the rebel forces, has taken advantage of that weakness and it has accelerated his ability to move into, as deeply into Zaire as he's been able to do.
MOSS-COANE: What can you tell us about Laurent Kabila? And he is the rebel leader who's fighting Mobutu and -- and calling for Mobutu to step down from power. What do you know about him?
KELLY: Well, he's a man whose been around for a long period of time. As a matter of fact, he was there during the 1964 rebellion in the eastern part of Zaire. He did not occupy a position of prominence at the time, but nonetheless, he was a participant in some of the negotiations that took place during that period.
He was with -- briefly with Che Guevara, the Cuban leader who fought in the Congo for the better part of a year or so in 1965, and then went pretty much into obscurity during the days when Mobutu was really very much in control; and now has emerged as the leader of the rebel forces, and is directly challenging Mobutu and says that, unless Mobutu steps down, he will move on Kinshasa militarily.
MOSS-COANE: What, if anything, do you think the United States owes Zaire because of the CIA relationship with Mobutu?
KELLY: I think we owe quite a bit in terms of a sense of responsibility for what has taken place there. We used the leadership during the Cold War to our advantage. And, sure, we put quite a bit of money in. We "rented" the Congo, as it was, for a period of time, or rented the services of its leadership.
But now that it's falling apart and it -- the people that we dealt with are -- are in the circumstances in which they find themselves, it seems to me that the United States does have a responsibility. And I would hope that we will assume the position of responsibility that is necessary under the circumstances.
MOSS-COANE: Well, Sean Kelly, I thank you very much for joining us today on FRESH AIR.
KELLY: Thank you.
MOSS-COANE: Sean Kelly is a professor at American University, and the author of "America's Tyrant: The CIA and Mobutu of Zaire."
I'm Marty Moss-Coane, and this is FRESH AIR.
Head: Adam Hochschild
Sect: News; International
MARTY MOSS-COANE, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Marty Moss-Coane.
Joseph Conrad's novel, "Heart of Darkness," has been read and dissected in English classes for many decades. It's a rich and complex story about colonialism in Africa, and about the dark corners of the human psyche.
Journalist Adam Hochschild has written a piece in a recent edition of "The New Yorker" in which he reminds readers and scholars that while Conrad's story is fiction, it's most likely based on real events and real people in a region that at the turn of the century was called "The Congo," now Zaire. Conrad had visited and had traveled the Congo in 1890.
Heart of Darkness involves a young man named Marlow who journeys up the Congo River in search of an older man named Kurtz, whose brutal reputation is well known. Marlow has been hired to bring Kurtz out of the jungle. As he approaches Kurtz's compound, he sees odd looking spikes which later turn out to be human heads impaled on sticks.
Adam Hochschild explains what Marlow first thought he saw.
ADAM HOCHSCHILD, JOURNALIST, AUTHOR "MR. KURTZ, I PRESUME" AND "FINDING THE TRAP DOOR: ESSAYS, PORTRAITS, TRAVELS": He's first seeing what he thought were ornamental knobs on top of fence posts in front of Kurtz's house. And then a little bit later, he takes a closer look through his binoculars, and writes -- this is Marlow, the narrator -- writes:
"These round knobs were not ornamental, but symbolic. They were expressive and puzzling, striking and disturbing, food for thought and also for the vultures, if there had been any looking down from the sky, but, at all event, for such ants as were industrious enough to ascend the pole.
"They would have been even more impressive -- these heads on the stakes -- if their faces had not been turned to the house. Only one -- the first I had made out -- was facing my way. I was not so shocked as you may think. The start back I had given was really nothing but a movement of surprise. I had expected to see a knob of wood there, you know.
"I returned, deliberately, to the first I had seen. And there it was -- black, dried, sunken with closed eyelids, a head that seemed to sleep at the top of that pole. And with the shrunken, dry lips showing a narrow white line of teeth, was smiling, too, smiling continuously at some endless and jocose dream of that eternal slumber."
MOSS-COANE: That's such a disturbing, even evil, image.
HOCHSCHILD: Definitely. Definitely. And it's one that we remember very well, not just as readers, but when Francis Ford Coppola moved "Heart of Darkness" to the movie screen, and to Vietnam for "Apocalypse Now," he included some human skulls there as well.
MOSS-COANE: Well, your piece in "The New Yorker" takes this particular scene from the novel and pieces together some history of -- of men from Europe who had come to Africa, I guess, looking for adventure; looking for fortune. And let's talk about some of them.
One of them was a man named Guillaume van Kirkoven (ph). Can you describe for us how he ended up in -- in the Congo?
HOCHSCHILD: Well, at that time, the Congo, as I said, was a private colony. It was not a Belgian colony. It later became the Belgian Congo, but at that time, it was the world's only privately owned colony. It belonged to King Leopold II of Belgium, who was a very greedy and ambitious man, who wanted a colony of his own when his countrymen and women were not particularly interested in having one.
And he went out and hired the explorer Henry Morton Stanley, who staked his claim for him, and he got all the major nations of the world to approve this as belonging to him. In order to subdue the place, and to harvest its riches, which at the time that Conrad was there were mainly ivory, King Leopold set up a private army called the "Force Publique."
And the officers of this private army were largely Belgian, but they came from many other European countries as well, and a few from the United States.
One of the best known of them was this guy named Guillaume van Kirkoven, who was a Belgian; very notorious as a -- as an aggressive and brutal commander, a hot-headed type. He got into a duel with somebody at one point. Someone else has left an account of how he once saw van Kirkoven order 125 prisoners of war shot to death.
And I think that van Kirkoven was one of the models that Conrad had in mind for this reason: We don't know if Conrad ever met van Kirkoven, but I'm certain that Conrad would have heard of him there, because van Kirkoven and some of this soldiers had actually traveled on the same steamboat that Conrad was on some months before. He was probably one of the two or three best-known military officers in the territory.
MOSS-COANE: How do you think "Heart of Darkness" helps us understand what's going on in Zaire today?
KELLY: Well, I think that -- I'd have to take a step back and say that I'm not sure "Heart of Darkness" tells us a huge amount about what's going on in Zaire because "Heart of Darkness" is so much about European characters. There are, in fact, virtually no African characters in the book, which is a criticism that's often made of it, and I think a justifiable one.
But I do think that there is a great deal about the history of that time in general which tells us a lot about what's happening in Zaire today. For example, one of the things that, you know, one has seen a great deal of in the press in recent months, is about how Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator of Zaire, who now, happily, seems to be on his way out, has milked that country dry over the last 30 years.
He's got a private fortune estimated at $4 billion to $5 billion. It's stashed abroad. He's got palatial homes, you know, all over Europe, this big mansion on the French Riviera, where he spent a lot of time in recent months; has a stake in every -- virtually every major private business operating in the territory; named one of the big African lakes after himself.
Every single thing that I've just said about Mobutu, without exception, can be said about King Leopold II, another man who, roughly 100 years ago, also was the dictator of that territory. Leopold also had a stake in every private business operating in the territory. He also named one of the big African lakes after himself. He also amassed a huge fortune, all of it brought back to Europe, and he spent much of his time on the French Riviera in a grand mansion that was only about a dozen miles away from Mobutu's.
MOSS-COANE: Well, I'm thinking about the story that Joseph Conrad tells, and -- and a story that has certainly placed in -- in Zaire. And often the way that the West, I think, talks about Africa, as if it's a continent always facing disaster, always facing famine, always on the brink of -- of some kind of civil war, do you think that's a fair portrait of Africa? I know you've traveled there a lot and you've written about various countries there.
HOCHSCHILD: Well, I think we have to remember that our relationship to Africa as Americans, and particularly as Europeans, has been, you know, historically speaking, basically one of plunder. There was, what's usually called "the scramble for Africa," the period between about 1880 and 1905, 1910 in which the European countries got themselves colonies in Africa.
It's really quite amazing. If you look at a map of Africa around 1880 or so, 80 percent of it was under indigenous rulers. By 1910, there were only two tiny portions, Ethiopia and Liberia, that were not European colonies of one sort or another.
So, in the space of about, you know, of 30 years, the European countries basically divided up this country between them. And they were interested, not really in spreading Christianity and civilization, although there were some missionaries who went there and so on; they were interested in natural resources, in gold, diamonds, ivory, rubber, copper, all sorts of things like that.
And they got them. And they got them in huge quantities. And, in most parts of the continent, in one degree or another, they put people to work as forced labor gathering them.
And, you know, as the colonial era went on, you know, coming to an end around 1955, '60, some elements of the system got better, moderated somewhat. Forced labor was pretty much gone from most colonies by the 1940s, 1950s. But it still was a, sort of, system of plunder.
And since then, we've been sort of surprised that Africa's had so many troubles. But I'm not sure, given that heritage, that we should be surprised.
MOSS-COANE: Adam Hochschild is our guest today on FRESH AIR. We're talking about an article he had in the April 14 edition of "The New Yorker." And it's called "Mr. Kurtz, I Presume." And it's a look at "Heart of Darkness" and a look at Zaire's history.
We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
My guest is Adam Hochschild. His recent "New Yorker" article is about the Congo, now known as Zaire, and how it's the setting for the Joseph Conrad novel "Heart of Darkness."
If you read this novel differently, and you take away the Jungian and the Marxist interpretations and all the other interpretations that have been put on this story, and you read it as a story that's based on true events and real characters, how does this become a different story, do you think?
HOCHSCHILD: Well, I think it becomes a different story first of all because you'll remember that it was set in Africa in a specific country at a specific time. There are all sorts of things you interpret differently. For example, at the beginning of the novel, when Marlow, the narrator, walks -- begins his walk from the coast to the inland river port, where he's going to pick up his steamboat, he notices a group of people who are Africans who have crawled away to die under some trees.
Critics write about this as the "grove of death." And, you know, they make analogies to Greek myths, and are there groves of death in Greek plays, and so on, which perhaps there are.
But we also know something very specific, which is that the ship that Conrad sailed from Europe to the Congo on carried the first ties for a railroad that King Leopold II, the Congo's ruler, was beginning to build around these great rapids that Conrad had to walk around. This was one of the most murderous railroad construction projects in history. Many thousands of workers died during the course of it. They were worked to death. Cars carrying dynamite blew up and killed everybody within range.
It was an extremely murderous construction project. Local oral tradition in the area says that every tie of the railroad track represents one African death, and every telephone pole one European death. Well, these people that Conrad saw and wrote about in "Heart of Darkness" going under the trees to die, these were dying railroad workers.
Farther on, as Marlow, the narrator, continues his walk into the interior, he sees the dead bodies of exhausted porters beside the trail. He sees a body that might have been shot. And we know, if we read the history of that period, that in that very region around the rapids, there were enormous uprisings that were taking place, beginning to take place at the time that Conrad was there, because people were resisting being conscripted as slave labor, essentially.
So, all sorts of things begin to look different to us. And then when we meet somebody like Kurtz in the novel, carving out this bizarre little kingdom of his beside the river, with an African concubine and, you know, chiefs who crawl before him and villagers who -- who do his bidding and so on, we can also begin to find accounts of other people who lived somewhat like that, white men who took advantage of the enormous power that their arms gave them in Africa.
MOSS-COANE: But if we think of this purely as fiction or purely as Joseph Conrad's vivid imagination, are we -- and I guess I mean by that, the West, those countries that came into Africa -- are we getting ourselves off the hook?
HOCHSCHILD: I think we are a little bit. Here's the analogy I would make. This is a book, as I say, very much about a particular time and place. But suppose that -- but when -- when it's been brought to the movie screen, for example, the first time it was filmed, the story was moved to Spain after the civil war and it was called "Heart of the Forest."
The second time it was filmed, Francis Ford Coppola moved the story to Vietnam, and called it "Apocalypse Now," made a very interesting movie. But Africa had dropped out. Only the third time it was brought to the screen in a very little-noticed cable TV movie in 1994, was it set in Africa.
And we would think it very weird if someone made a film, for example, of Elie Wiesel's autobiographical "Night," which is about Auschwitz, but didn't set it at Auschwitz. And we'd think it strange if somebody made a movie of Arthur Kessler's "Darkness at Noon," but didn't set it in Moscow during the purge trials, where it took place. Although there again, the country is not named in the novel, but everybody knows that it's about Moscow during the purge trials.
So, I think there is a kind of evasion. Americans and Europeans don't really want to come to terms with the fact that some pretty awful things happened in Africa during that period of conquest, and particularly this very somber figure of Kurtz, who's really probably the most famous literary villain of the 20th century.
MOSS-COANE: How would you like people to read "Heart of Darkness" if -- if -- if there are these important histories?
HOCHSCHILD: Well, I'd like them to read it with the historical context in mind, to think of this not only as a book which says something about humanity universally, about the darkness of some sort that exists in the hearts of us all, which it does -- and I think the book does speak about that -- but as also being a record of some things that happened in a particular time and place; and to remember that and to not forget it.
It's like asking someone to, if they're reading a novel about the holocaust, to remember that the Jews really were killed by the Nazis. This is not just a novel that you're reading.
You know, in a way it's a peculiar, peculiarly difficult thing to do in reading "Heart of Darkness," to think about this way -- think about the book this way, because one of the paradoxical things about this book is that what may be the greatest anti-imperialist novel in all literature was written by somebody who was an ardent imperialist; and, moreover, who had very traditional Victorian racist attitudes about Africans, who are talked about very contemptuously in the novel.
None of them qualify to say more than a few words, not even words, mostly grunts.
None of them are characters. Conrad was very much a man of his time and place in his racial attitudes. And he also, paradoxically, thought that imperialism, at least when it was British imperialism, was a good thing. And at the time that he was writing "Heart of Darkness," he was an investor in a gold mine in South Africa.
But, despite all that, I really do feel that the portrait of whites given in this book is one of the truest and most accurate such portraits from the colonial period. The Congo at that time attracted a very hard-bitten sort of man from Europe and, in some cases, from the United States to work there. It was like a gold rush. It was like the French Foreign Legion.
It was really the two things combined. It was a place to get rich quick, you know, gathering ivory; it was also a place to enjoy some combat against a poorly-armed foe, to combine the two things. And the type of adventurers who were attracted there then were a pretty unsavory type. And they're summed up in the character of Kurtz, whom I believe is modeled very closely on a number of people Conrad met or heard about while there.
MOSS-COANE: Well, thank you very much, Adam Hochschild for joining us today on FRESH AIR.
HOCHSCHILD: Thanks very much.
MOSS-COANE: Adam Hochschild is a journalist, and his article on Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" is in the April 14 edition of "The New Yorker." He has a new book out later this spring and it's called "Finding the Trap Door: Essays, Portraits, Travels."
Coming up, a poem by Lloyd Schwartz. This is FRESH AIR.
Dateline: Marty Moss-Coane, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Adam Hochschild
High: In his recent article in the New Yorker, "Mr. Kurtz, I Presume," Adam Hochschild considers the colonial history of Zaire, once known as "The Congo," looking for the prototype for Kurtz , the fictional greedy ambitions white man of Joseph Conrad's novel, "Heart of Darkness."
Spec: Africa; Belgium; Colonialism; Congo; Conrad; Europe; International; Literature; Mining; Minerals; Politics; War; Weapons; Zaire
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. First feed transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Adam Hochschild
Head: Lloyd Schwartz
MARTY MOSS-COANE, HOST: Our classical music critic, Lloyd Schwartz, is also a poet. Occasionally, we feature some of his poems.
Today, we have a reading of "Good Night, Gracie," the title poem of his last collection published several years ago.
The poem is in three sections, and is based on actual episodes of the Burns and Allen TV show from the 1950s. The program featured George Burns, Gracie Allen, and their son Ronnie.
LLOYD SCHWARTZ, MUSIC CRITIC, READING FROM POEM "GOOD NIGHT, GRACIE": Good night, Gracie" for Gracie Allen, 1906 to 1964.
Quote: "Almost everything I know today I learned by listening to myself when I was talking about things I didn't understand."
Quote: "Mrs. Burns, I love that zany character of yours."
"So do I, or else I wouldn't have married him."
Quote: "You mean you understand it?"
"Well, of course. When I misunderstand what you say, I always know what you're talking about."
Home very late from a Hollywood party, George and Gracie can hear their phone ringing, but can't find the key to get in. George is vexed and tired, but Gracie is dying to wake Blanche Morton next door and gossip about dancing with Gary Cooper.
"His belt buckle ruined my gardenia."
Soon, the Mortons are locked out. "Gracie, did you close the door?"
"No, but I will."
The locksmith's tools locked in -- will his jealous new wife ever believe this? And the phone never stops. Day breaks, and George breaks in through a window.
"I've got a wonderful idea," he announces. "From now on, we'll leave a door key under the mat."
"But I put one there months ago," Gracie argues. "And we couldn't get in last night."
The telephone again. Whose been trying to get through? "Gracie, who was on the phone?"
Quote: "It's not a matter of whether I'm right or wrong. It's a matter of principle."
Quote: "Men are so deceitful. They look you right in the eye while they're doing things behind your back."
Quote: "Don't rush me. It isn't easy to make up the truth."
Ronnie's dying for a part in a new play, whose famous author is fascinated by Gracie. But the only role still open is intended for a middle-aged actress, sole support of her widowed mother."
"I'm a widow, too," Gracie fibs. "And Ronnie supports me."
Smitten, the playwright invites her to dine in his room.
"My husband died in a shipwreck," she embroiders, "on our honeymoon."
"Lucky you survived."
"Oh, I wasn't there."
In breezes Ronnie, and asks for "Dad." Gracie, thinking fast: "He can never forget his father."
Playwright, bewildered: "But he never knew him."
Gracie, triumphant: "If he knew him, he'd forget him."
Enter the widow Morton with Ronnie's long-lost father to unravel Gracie's tangled web.
Blushing, the playwright offers Ronnie a part. Ronnie's in heaven. Gracie's forgiven. The playwright, like George himself, resigned to applaud her irresistible assassinations.
Quote: "I may not be here long."
"Where are you going?"
"Oh, don't I wish I knew."
Quote: "I didn't think people felt this wonderful when they were going, but, then again, this is the first time I've gone."
Quote: "If you ask me a question and I don't answer, don't be nervous -- just take your hats off."
"How casually we treated Gracie's illness. "Those pills made me feel very secure. I figured we could go on this way year after year. It never entered my mind that anything would change it.
"Then one evening, Gracie had another one of her attacks. I gave her the pill. We held onto each other, but this time it didn't work. When the pain continued, I called Dr. Kennemer (ph) and they rushed Gracie to the hospital. Two hours later, Gracie was gone."
"He's crazy about dancing. His new wife has got to be a very good dancer."
Gracie thinks she's dying, having opened by mistake Harry Von Zell's telegram meant to save George from a weekend, seasick on his sponsor's yacht: "Examined your wife. Condition serious. Urge you do not leave her."
"I'm a very sick woman, but my health is so good, I didn't even know it." She's had three agencies send over their most attractive candidates to replace the late Mrs. Burns.
"Sounds like it won't be easy to fill her shoes."
"What size do you wear?"
"How old was she when she passed on?"
"Well, I'd rather not say. She hasn't passed on far enough for that."
George, however, has already chosen his next wife, who, relieved, reprieved -- would rather George hadn't explained.
"It's such a let down. After this, how can I be gay about an ordinary thing like living?"
MOSS-COANE: Lloyd Schwartz reading the title poem from his collection "Good Night, Gracie" published by the University of Chicago.
Lloyd writes about classical music for FRESH AIR and the Boston Phoenix. He's also professor of English and directs the creative writing program at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.
For Terry Gross, I'm Marty Moss-Coane.
Dateline: Marty Moss-Coane, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Lloyd Schwartz
High: FRESH AIR classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz reads the title poem from his book "Good Night, Gracie."
Spec: Entertainment; Burns and Allen; Literature; Television and Radio
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Lloyd Schwartz
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