Emmanuel Dongala

Congolese chemist and novelist Emmanuel Dongala, author of the 2017 historical novel The Bridgetower Sonata, introduced the  May 1 & 8, 2021 Beethoven celebration concerts. The following was written by Larry Wallach, a former colleague of Dongala’s at Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

Emmanuel Dongala was born in the Congo in 1941, and came to the US to earn a BA in Chemistry at Oberlin College, and an MA at Rutgers Univesity before earning a PhD in organic chemistry in France and returning to the Congo to teach and raise a family. He served as professor of chemistry and dean at the Marien Ngouabi University at Brazzaville. In 1997, he and his family were forced to flee to the US during the brutalities of the civil war, which he has described in several of his novels, most notably in “Johnny Mad-Dog,” which received the Cezam Prix Littéraire Inter CE in 2004, has been translated into many languages and was made into a film in a French-Liberian production in 2008.

He became the founder and president of the National Association of Congolese Writers and the Congolese chapter of PEN. He also founded and led the theatre company, Le Théâtre de l’Eclair.

Owing to his friendship with novelist Philip Roth, Emmanuel and his family were helped to escape and repatriate in the US in 1997. Roth was a friend of Leon Botstein and of Simon’s Rock’s dean Bernard Rogers and they helped secure him a teaching position in chemistry. In addition, Emmanuel has taught classes in French language and Francophone African literature both at Bard College at Simon’s Rock and at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson. While on the faculty, he held the Richard B. Fisher Chair in Natural Sciences. His writings are in French, and have been translated into thirteen languages.

In addition to “Johnny, Mad Dog,” his novels include “Un fusil dans la main, un poème dans la poche,” [A gun in the hand, a poem in the pocket], “Photo de groupe au bord de fleuve,” [Photo of a group at the bank of a river], “Little Boys Come from the Stars,” “The Fire of Origin,” and his latest novel, “The Bridgetower Sonata.” His work has been the subject of several critical studies, including “The origins of fiction and the fiction of origins” by Ange Séverin-Malanda. In addition to authoring six novels, he has also a published a collection stories, “Jazz and Palm Wine” (Prix Virilo 2010 – Prix Ahmadou Kourouma 2011), as well as poetry and plays.

Of “The Fire of Origin,” the journal La Suisse has written “A great African novel: inspired yet sober, wide-ranging yet written concisely, purely, without a superfluous word . . . a human history of an entire continent.”

In 1999 Emmanuel Dongala was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and in 2003, he was the winner of the prestigious Fonlon-Nichols Prize 2003 for literary excellence.

In recognition of his literary work, Emmanuel Dongala had been appointed a “Chevalier des Arts et des Lettre” by the French Ministry of Culture. Ironically, despite this high honor, the French government refused Dongala’s application for a visa when he sought asylum for his family.

About 15 or so years ago, Emmanuel mentioned to me that he was interested in writing a fictional treatment of the violinist George Bridgetower. I already knew that he was a music lover, although he had no formal training. Already in 1997, he had joined a class trip I organized to see the opera “The Marriage of Figaro” at the New York State Theater in Lincoln Center. In those days, we had 15 passenger vans at Simon’s Rock which I would drive myself on such trips, which I took with my music history classes every semester. (I don’t do this any more!) On the way back, he sat next to me and told me the hair-raising story of his escape from the Congo, as well as that of his wife and three daughters, who came separately. Understanding the horrors that he had witnessed and from which he escaped, I appreciated all the more his unfailing good humor and humility. He would say things like, “Can you imagine that Hilary Clinton herself had a hand in getting us out? Wow!” I was honored that he had confided this story to me.

A few years later, the subject of this book was mentioned. George Bridgetower was a virtuoso violinist with a Jamaican father and German mother who had been a child prodigy in London and in the Austrian court where the composer Haydn was music-master. His career was promoted and guided by his father, who gets significant attention in Emmanuel’s story. As a young man, George met Beethoven who heard him play (in 1802). Beethoven was excited by the degree of virtuosity George displayed, and decided to compose a sonata for him; not just any sonata, but one of greater length, excitement, drama, and energy than any previous violin and piano work. This turned out to be Sonata no. 9 in A major, op. 47, known today, unfortunately, as “The Kreutzer Sonata.” The reason for that name is another unhappy part of the story.

I was excited about Emmanuel’s plan, which stemmed from his overarching interest in the Black cultural diaspora. For several years I inquired about the status of this project, but nothing was happening yet; there were other books to write.

Eventually, Emmanuel started to take some of my music history classes. He was an incredible role model for the other students, always taking detailed notes in pen on a lined yellow pad and asking great questions; he was never shy about revealing his lack of technical knowledge, which I loved because it made me explain things in lay terms.

After several semesters covering the classic and romantic periods, including the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, I offered to look more deeply into the sonata with him. We had a number of very enjoyable discussion-lunches at Bizen together, and we also went to my studio to listen to and discuss each of the three movements in detail, one get-together per movement. These sessions also helped me to look, listen, and understand more intensively. I marked up the score and guided Emmanuel through it, showing the principal themes, their character, and how they are varied and developed. We immersed ourselves in Beethoven’s norm-breaking language and technique. Although he could not actually read the notes, I think Emmanuel was able to understand the larger shapes and events of this very dramatic work. Years later (March 2019) I performed this work and the conversations about it with Emmanuel were very helpful in relearning it.

Meanwhile, Emmanuel went off to Europe to visit the three main centers of the Bridgetowers’ activities: Paris, London, and Vienna. He dug into archives and unearthed a depth of information about father, son, and their cultural milieus. Emmanuel’s book not only recounts a story, it recreates an era with its biases, predilections, and even its language. He dives fearlessly into the aesthetic issues and musical controversies of the day. We see George’s father as the canny impresario who penetrates the pretensions of the aristocracy and plays into them to advance his son’s career. We also see the physical details of this world, described in its own language: elegant on the surface, snobbish and bigoted beneath.

It has been inspiring for me to be part of this project, to get a glimpse into the workshop of a master writer who seizes upon a subject, and then patiently ascends a long winding path to its completion, acquiring the needed musical and historical tools and soaking in the multi-dimensional cultural world of Europe more than two centuries in the past. It has also given me a chance to befriend a remarkable personality who has experienced and delved into some of the harshest aspects of human behavior, but has never lost his lightness of touch and his wonderful good humor.