Sunday 3 June 2012

King Leopold's Ghost - history!!

King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild (Houghton Mifflin: 1998) A history of King Leopold II of Belgium's reign in the Congo, and the individuals involved in bringing the truth of his rule to the world's attention.
Most history books tell you stuff you don’t know. Otherwise you really would get bored of them quick. But this, this told me about a major piece of the world story that I had no idea existed.

Sure, I knew about slavery. And I knew about the scramble for Africa, and knew that wasn’t a fun era for the locals. But this, this is something other.

This book isn’t just about the horrific cruelty of an imperialistic regime in a foreign land. It’s about a major worldwide movement against it. It’s about crusaders and explorers whose story exploded out of Africa and on to the world stage in an incredibly loud way. And then along came World War I, and it seems their voices got lost. Largely forgotten.

Maybe it has something to do with the shame of the imperialists, trying to forget a piece of history we’re not too proud of. Or maybe I was just off the day they taught this in school.

I had no idea, not an inkling, of the events in the Congo in the mid to late nineteenth century. I had no idea of the calculated barbarism of King Leopold II of Belgium. I had no idea of the regime he built in the Congo, of the smokescreens he threw up to mask its true nature, and the extraordinary lengths gone to by a few men and women to bring a spotlight to it. I had no idea of the international politics and public outrage that the episode threw up. I had no idea of how much the struggle was stamped into the public consciousness.

If I’m not being clear enough, in short, I was amazed.

The good history books, the really good ones, ordinarily get the cookie-cutter praise that they “read like a novel.” It’s important to take history and relate it in an entertaining way, with plot and drama and structure. Otherwise it won’t get read. And that’s exactly what’s done here.

Hochschild is helped by being given a great cast of characters, and a shocking narrative, but he stitches it together seamlessly. A little repetitive at times, and he dwells in one place for a few seconds too long here and there, but in all, it’s pretty neat and tidy.

It’s not dispassionate - he injects his own values and his own judgements at will. But they’re almost always correct. And they give the book an energy that it would be lacking otherwise.

It’s all left wonderfully open ended as well. It’s history, so there aren’t absolute winners and losers. There’s no neat resolution. Every character is flawed. Which means you put the book down at the end and you’re hungry for more. You want to discuss it and pick at it and understand it from other places.

This is good history. It’s essential history, really. It’s entertaining history. It enlightens. It twists your perspective and your gut and your soul as you read it.

I have to retrain myself here. I loved this. But the GBR scores are about whether I think you’ll love it too. Despite everything, this is still history. It’s slower than fiction. It’s more interrogative. It’s more detailed. And that’s not everyone’s cup of tea.


I clearly have no self control.

We seem to be on a good run GBR scores at the moment (9, then 8, then 7, then 8, now 9) Maybe I’m getting soft. Or maybe books are getting better.

Next week, a visit to Baker Street to see if they can keep up the pace.


Anonymous said...

Mmmm, you have enthused me! I think I will read this, watch this space! M

Anonymous said...

Mmmm, you have enthused me! I think I will read this, watch this space! M

Gav Collins said...

Excellent. If you don't like it, blame Mrs GBR