Tydskrif vir letterkunde

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The sins of the fathers: The missionary in some modern English novels about the Congo

H Roos


This essay offers a discussion of some novels written in English in which the (Belgian) Congo forms the historical background to the fictional world, and that were published after that country became independent. Works by internationally well-known authors like Graham Greene (A Burnt-out Case, 1961) Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible, 1998), Robert Edric (The Book of the Heathen, 2000) and John le Carré (The Mission Song, 2006), fall under the spotlight, though references are also made to other and earlier relevant works. The texts represent different eras in a history of just more than a hundred years and all of these narratives relate, in a direct or implied manner, the nature and impact of a Christian missionary presence. Whilst genre, story line and narrative tone differ considerably in the individual books, the reader is exposed to a remarkable analogous range of subject matter and theme: amongst others the disappointments of the missionary ideal, the corruptive power of authority and the subservient part played by the female devotees. The plight of the Congo is narrated from a postcolonial point of view, though the story lines indicate that this vast country has always been, and still is, at the mercy of colonial exploitation, in which the missionary set-up played a crucial part. The novels also display a remarkable intertextual relationship through recurring motifs, titles, images and names and thus contribute to that body of work forming a tradition of (English language) Congo literature.

Keywords: Congo literature, English Congo novels, missionaries, postcolonialism.

Tydskrif vir Letterkunde Vol. 46 (1) 2009: pp. 58-78
AJOL African Journals Online