There are some titles that seem to tell you everything you need to know about what’s inside a book. In the case of Johnny Mad Dog, a novel by academic Emmanuel Dongala who fled his native Republic of Congo for the US in 1997 during the civil war, I was pretty clear about what to expect: violence, unpleasantness, people being killed in cruel and unusual ways and possibly an incident with a vicious canine, depending on how literal a writer Dongala was. Just as well then that I’m not a great believer in taking things at face value, because if I had done so I might have bypassed this novel and missed out on a whole lot more.
Set during the civil war, the book follows two characters as they struggle to survive and succeed in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. While scholarly Laokolé tries desperately to get herself, her younger brother Fofo and their disabled mother out of the city as looters descend for 48 hours of mayhem, 16-year-old rebel soldier, rapist and looter Johnny Mad Dog battles for supremacy among his peers, never more than moments away from the next senseless confrontation that could end his life. At last, drawn together into the heart of the vacuum as society implodes around them, the teenagers come face to face.
Yes, violence features heavily. There are sickening killings and assaults. There is the child shot by Johnny and his cronies on the roadside and the television star raped in the studio in front of her camera crew in the minutes before she is due to go on air. What stops these episodes from being gratuitous, however, is Dongala’s insight into the processes by which we justify unforgivable actions to ourselves. Tuned into Johnny’s thoughts as he commits these crimes, we hear his paranoid delusions that his victims are somehow from rival factions – or even Chechen spies – and his bizarre conviction that the women he abuses enjoy what he is doing.
Dongala’s ability to inhabit the minds of his characters also gives rise to some unexpected flashes of comedy. We witness the bathos and confusion of the rebels as they try to dream up a nom de guerre for their breakaway faction and find themselves repeatedly suggesting the names of cars and football teams, and the ludicrous exceptions they make to the dictates of their leaders in this land where there is ‘no longer any logic’.
There are some passages of powerfully empathetic writing too. Dongala’s portrait of Laokolé’s struggles, taking in everything from her thwarted desire to study engineering to the shame and discomfort of having to do without sanitary towels amid the crowds fleeing on the roads, is quite extraordinary.
Inevitably for so humane a writer, the targets of the greatest scorn and anger are not the bungling kids perpetrating violence but the organisations and authorities that dehumanise killers and victims alike. Of these, the UN representatives and rich Westerners at the embassy where Laokolé goes to seek shelter come in for the greatest vitriol – although Dongala is careful to include a sympathetic American who tries to rescue Laokolé and so avoids slipping into the same generalisations that make him angry. Perhaps most scathing of all is the scene in which a convoy of UN vehicles sent to rescue the Western nationals knocks down a young Congolese girl begging for a place in the cars and then halts to allow one woman to run back and collect her ‘little one’, which turns out to be a lap-dog.
Dongala’s impatience to relate these intense experiences means that occasionally his plotting can be a little abrupt. The American’s offer of adopting Laokolé, for example, seems to come a bit out of nowhere, although the extremity of the circumstances might excuse it. In addition, a few of Laokolé’s turns of phrase, such as her claim at one point to have been ‘yielding to an atavistic human instinct’, are a little hard to swallow even for a bright and well-educated 16-year-old.
Overall, though, this book delivers a lot more than its fierce title promises. Subtle and surprising, it takes readers by the hand and leads us through the chaos of civil war, finding meaning amidst the madness. A powerful work.
Johnny Mad Dog (Johnny chien méchant) by Emmanuel Dongala, translated from the French by Maria Louise Ascher (Picador, 2005)