The River in the Belly by Fiston Mwanza Mujila
translated from the French by J. Bret Maney (2021)
I read The River in the Belly by Fiston Mwanza Mujila back-to-back with with last month’s Stanza Break selection, Upper Volta by Yanko Gonzalez and want to talk about Mwanza Mujila’s book in that context. This feels a little unfair to Mwanza Mujila’s excellent book, but it does allow me to highlight why it’s successful as a project. Both books use African rivers as their centers of gravity to explore the people and landscapes along the river’s course. Different rivers in different regions with different neighboring cultures, but the image at the heart of each remains the same and the differences in approach are striking. Where Upper Volta is a sociological exploration, a writer and speaker in the role of observer, Mwanza Mujila’s speaker is from The Democratic Republic of Congo. As a result, The River in the Belly has none of Gonzalez’s distance from the subject.
Composed of roughly 100 sections using an invented form, the “solitude,” The River in the Belly operates almost as a book-length poem. The solitude form is flexible, and mostly defined by its ability to hold brief observations. Each section is numbered and titled “Solitude X,” though the pieces are sequenced out of order. The book opens with “Solitude 61:”
a river convulses in my belly a confounded malingerer, dirty and immense, mournful and malign, a river in the late stages of dysentery . . .
and ends with “Solitude 87C:”
I swallow my spit since I refuse to feed on the crumbs that fall from your tables— lest eucalyptus and mango trees invade my belly
Throughout the rest of the book between these two sections, which are both quoted in full, the tone shifts drastically from solitude to solitude, sometimes loving and intimate, sometimes crass and berating. The form’s flexibility allows the book to traverse the varied terrains it encounters in the landscape along the Congo River, linguistically, and thematically. “I want to become a river, a meandering river without preface or epilogue,” Mwanza Mujila writes in “Solitude 83,” midway through the book. And, like a river, sometimes the sections move smoothly and swiftly, other times slowly and smoothly, other times over rough rocks or eddying around bends.
Mwanza Mujila’s frequent use of ellipses and the jumbled sequencing of the sections make the book feel like we’re only getting snippets of a much larger body of text. “Solitude 16” reads:
the cracks in the sky splinter my sleep . . . I spend my nights counting stars one, two, forty, seventy-two . . . alone in front of me a frog's fate!
These lines mostly move logically from one to another, but the ellipses could also be read as the redaction of text. Are the cracks in the sky stars? Or something else? Is the frog from the last line the speaker of the poem? If so, is the “frog’s fate” to count the stars? Or is the speaker counting stars with a frog nearby? Regardless, the image is clear: it is night, the sky is clear and there are many stars, and here on the banks of a river is a frog.
Mostly the solitudes are short, single-stanza sections of only a handful of lines with little or no punctuation, like the two quoted above, but others stretch across several pages of prose. The effect recalls Gonzalez’s book, with its many voices rising up and overlapping. Mwanza Mujila’s speaker or speakers are as enigmatic as those in Gonzalez’s, never identifying themselves, and yet where Upper Volta is slippery and difficult to parse, The River in the Belly remains direct. The voice in The River in the Belly feels consistent, even as the tone varies, a single speaker rather than many overlapping. Or perhaps, the tonal shifts do mark different speakers, in which case the form of the solitude acts as a microphone, turning from voice to voice. It may move along quickly or slowly, it may pass move on before the speaker has finished, but we are hearing one voice at a time.
It feels useful to compare The River in the Belly with Upper Volta because both books use African rivers to explore European exploitation and colonization of the African continent. The River in the Belly “was written as part of a multi-disciplinary work of poetry, music, video, and dance performed in Europe in 2019,” which means that, like Gonzalez’s book, it assumes a primarily non-African audience. Its origin as part of a larger work may account for some of the feeling that we’re only being shown snippets of a larger text, though the book confidently stands alone as a unit. The River in the Belly is emotionally engaging and the author’s relationship to the landscape and culture are apparent in a way that Gonzalez’s is not. “Not blood but the Congo River / sloshes in my veins . . .” Mwanza Mujila writes. The River in the Belly can be cutting in its critique and satire of Congolese politics, culture, and history, but it comes from a desire to assert agency when talking about the DRC rather than let others—especially outsiders—dictate how that history is told.
And that agency is perhaps the most striking difference between Gonzalez and Mwanza Mujila’s books. The River in the Belly never reaches for “objectivity” or distance between author and subject. This allows the book to be more emotionally varied and vibrant than Upper Volta, and arguably a more effective way to push back against Western assumptions about the DRC and its people. Near the end of the book, in “Solitude 89,” Mwanza Mujila addresses the non-Congolese audience:
and you expect me to play the tam-tam with wrists you just cuffed forgive me if I laugh are we at the circus on the flying trapeze
The meaning is clear: I am not here to perform your assumptions of me, even though I may be bound.