Mistah Kurtz lives on. Joseph Conrad, his creator, attempted to kill him off in the final pages of Heart of Darkness. T S Eliot then spotted him directing horrors in the First World War and ironically echoed Conrad's declaration of death as an epigraph to his poem "The Hollow Men". It was left to a bloated, shaven-headed Marlon Brando to show us what Kurtz looked like in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, in effect the sublime film adaptation of Conrad's book.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, rumours that the monster was still out there, cannibalising the Congo, travelled far. Many found the endless cliches attributable to the cult of Kurtz the ideal vehicle to portray the excesses of the then president of Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, which translates as "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".
Beginning with the Congress of Berlin in 1884-85 and King Leopold II of Belgium's cynical carving-up of central Africa, the story of the Congo is a tragedy in many parts. The Belgians subjugated the Congolese in the most inhumane manner imaginable - and then, one day in 1960, they upped and left a nation state as large and ethnically diverse as western Europe to freewheel itself out of the 20th century. Kinshasa's first premier after independence, Patrice Lumumba, alarmed the Americans and Belgians by courting the Soviet Union. He was toppled and killed within months. By 1965, Joseph-Desire Mobutu, backed by the CIA, was in control.
Michela Wrong's book tracks the 32 years of Mobutu's rule. It is erudite, but the scale and absurdity of many events during those years are such as to inspire dark humour. The author achieves a fine balance.
From the outset, Mobutu was an idealist aiming to "Africanise" the country whose name he changed to Zaire. A great showman, he longed to create an Africa of which Africans could be proud. Who could forget the "Rumble in the Jungle" boxing match that he orchestrated between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman as a display of black African power? By 1973, the economy was growing at an impressive 7 per cent a year. Buoyed by a belief that his "Zaireanisation" programme was behind the boom, Mobutu ordered all white and Asian landowners to turn over their property "to the sons of the country". The land was duly divided up among the president and his avaricious sycophants. The economy collapsed. The following year, a chastened Mobutu invited the landowners to return. They never did. Zaire began an irreversible free fall, becoming the world's foremost kleptocracy. Playing the international agencies like a Stradivarius, Mobutu himself continued to prosper, receiving enormous sums from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the CIA - anyone, in fact, offering a handout. It is the circumstances under which this was allowed to happen that baffle Wrong, a former Reuters correspondent.
The Mobutu who emerges from her book is monstrous, and yet he is, perhaps, a figure who more demands our sympathy than one would ever imagine. After his death, it was rumoured that a fortune of many billions of dollars had been accumulated by the president and stashed in Swiss banks. What happened to that money? Wrong thinks that it never existed; a consummate exhibitionist, Mobutu spent or gave away every penny, vainly courting popularity.
By the end, the African idealist, corrupted by the injected billions of western cash, was a forlorn figure, hidden away in his fantasy palace in the jungle, sipping pink champagne all day long. Shortly after the hasty flight that preceded his ultimate demise, Wrong inspected the remains of one palace that had been looted by his subjects. Among the few items that had survived the plunder was a stock of adult-sized nappies. The all-powerful warrior's bowels had apparently failed in those final days, stripping him of all dignity.
Mobutu's reign was a disaster, but, in retrospect, could it have been anything else? The place described by the Economist as "not a country, but a Zaire-shaped blank on the map" was perhaps preferable to today's Congo-shaped quagmire, which is sucking neighbouring states into an absurd war. Zaire, like Tito's Yugoslavia, did hold together. It brought a shaky stability to an insecure region. This may explain why the money was always there for him until Bill Clinton pulled the plug in the thaw of the post-cold war era.
By the mid-1990s, the "hearts of darkness" cliche brigade were exploiting the genocide in Rwanda and its barbarous overspill into Zaire. The spectre of the immortal Kurtz was ascendant, and the spotlight once again fell on Mobutu. However, the big man's mortality was wickedly exposed by cancer of the prostate at a time when "rebels" were sweeping across the country more or less unopposed. But who was their leader? Well, wasn't there more than a hint of something familiar about Laurent Kabila, a bloated, shaven-headed beast seen slouching towards Kinshasa? Mistah Kurtz: he not dead, after all.
Michael Barrett is a lecturer in biomedical sciences at Glasgow University and formerly at the University of Nairobi