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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Johnny Mad Dog

Emmanuel Dongala

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Johnny Mad Dog

Title: Johnny Mad Dog
Author: Emmanuel Dongala
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 320 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Johnny Mad Dog - US
Johnny Mad Dog - UK
Johnny Mad Dog - Canada
Johnny Chien Méchant - Canada
Johnny Chien Méchant - France
  • French title: Johnny Chien Méchant
  • Translated by Maria Louise Ascher

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Our Assessment:

B+ : effective novel showing the human cost of civil war in Africa

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . 4-5/2005 Marcela Valdes
The LA Times A- 5/6/2005 Chris Abani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 10/7/2005 Luisita Lopez Torregrosa
The Washington Post . 20/11/2005 Anderson Tepper
World Literature Today . 7-9/2003 Adele King

  From the Reviews:
  • "Yet, for a book brimming with violence, loss, avarice, and humiliation, Johnny Mad Dog is a surprisingly enjoyable read, largely due to the warmth and intelligence of Laokolés narration. (...) This is a book that yanks back the curtain on a neglected part of the world and allows us to comprehend the horrors its authors has seen firsthand." - Marcela Valdes, Bookforum

  • "At times, the novel seems overdone and overtly literal (the author or translator ?), at turns overwhelming, heartbreaking, funny and with an ironic edge that draws blood. Dongala, now a teacher at Simon's Rock College of Bard in Massachusetts, has written a novel about war like few others. He has lived through it to bring us these pages of awe and illumination." - Chris Abani, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Dongala has written an unrelentingly bleak story, occasionally lightened by Mad Dog's laughable pronouncements, and he grabs us from the start with a language that is rude and raw (Mad Dog) and lyrical (Laokolé's) in Maria Louise Ascher's translation from the author's French." - Luisita Lopez Torregrosa, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Clearly, Dongala is having it both ways -- or several ways -- with his description of this murky war. Not only does he show the terror; he shows the absurdity, the banality, even the cruel humor." - Anderson Tepper, The Washington Post

  • "(A)n exciting story of a few days in a civil war in Congo Brazzaville (.....) Many contrasts are portrayed between Johnny and Laokolé, who are perhaps too clearly representative of evil and good among the youth caught up in the trauma of a civil war. (...) As with Dongala's other writing, Johnny Chien Méchant contains reflections on the political problems of central Africa." - Adele King, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Johnny Mad Dog is set during a civil conflict in a West African country; it's not named (though clearly based on Dongala's native Congo-Brazzaville), but what happens resembles recent conflicts in countries from Rwanda to the former Zaïre to Liberia. The government has been overthrown by insurgents who are moving into the capital, racial-tribal tensions are being fanned.
       Dongala presents the novel from two points of view, recounted in more or less alternating chapters. One perspective is that of Laokolé, a smart sixteen year-old girl, ready to sit for her final exams at school. The other is the Johnny of the title (though it takes him a while to settle on the 'Mad Dog' moniker), a young rebel (the same age as Laokolé) with only a rudimentary education (though he likes to think of himself as an intellectual -- and compared to some of his comrades practically is). Through their very different eyes events are described as they unfold; their paths also cross several times, allowing for some effective overlap.
       The novel begins with Laokolé hearing on the radio that a rebel leader has: "proclaimed a period of looting that was to last forty-eight hours". She knows what to expect from the coming free-for-all: her father was killed last time round -- when it was the government troops that had rampaged. She buries some valuables in the backyard, takes some more with her, and gets her mother -- another victim of the earlier senseless violence who has lost both her legs -- and her younger brother, Fofo, and joins the fleeing masses.
       Johnny, meanwhile, can't wait, the triumphant rebel ready to get his due. So caught up in triumph (though he hardly knows of what -- except that he's on the winning side) and concerned with getting recognition and as much as he can get his hands on, he's fairly oblivious to the human toll around him. The rebel code is a violent one, but more random than rational. Comrades turn on each other over simple matters, and trying to maintain what they perceive as their honour is what's important to them -- but it's all at the schoolyard-teenage level. Except that they have guns, and that there is no semblance of law enforcement in this world.
       Laokolé's odyssey of flight is nightmarish. Her mother can't walk, and has to be pushed in a wheelbarrow, and brother Fofo is soon lost in the crowds. A respite comes when she and many others are able to find sanctuary in a UN compound, but despite some heroic workers there, the organisation is shown as impotent and cowed: eventually the foreigners are evacuated, but the local population is essentially abandoned. A mercenary blow is struck against the rebels -- but only to save the foreigners; not a finger is lifted to do anything to save the locals. Here -- as again later -- Laokolé sees more concern given to an animal (a pet) than any of the humans: the poodle gets saved, her friend gets run over (several times) by the departing trucks. (In fact, Laokolé is the one person given opportunity to flee with the foreigners, but she nobly refuses.)
       Once outside the compound, things go from bad to worse: every temporary refuge, in the city or then in the jungle, becomes a place attacked by the rebels. Johnny and his thugs, meanwhile, are enjoying their rampaging, though even all the rape, robbery, and murder isn't entirely satisfying. Johnny constantly finds himself trying to justify himself, and even he doesn't sound entirely convinced. He knows he has to stay suspicious and vigilant. Politics -- what they're ostensibly fighting about -- don't matter much to him: that much he can see through:

We don't give a damn, because we knew what the politicians in our country were like. Con men, all. They got you drunk with words that were sweeter than fresh palm wine, and just as you let yourself be lulled by the soothing purr of those fine words, they leaped on your back to shinny up the greasy pole they valued so much -- and once they were at the top, rich and well fed, they treated you like shit.
       Being well-off isn't enough to ensure safety: several of the wealthier locals suffer just as badly as the poorest ones. Laokolé encounters many people who are willing to help (and a few who need to be bribed), but best intentions don't help much either: the rebels have no real conscience (though they are a bit superstitious) and can do nothing constructive, only destroy.
       The two story-lines, which cross several times, finally converge at the end, Dongala bringing Laokolé and Johnny together. Good triumphs over evil, in a faltering attempt at a semi-happy and hopeful end -- but even here it's violence that triumphs (not reason, or the human heart), making for a very hollow feel-good ending. (A different outcome would have been more realistic, though hardly comforting -- but given the bleak vision offered in the novel, it's unclear where one could take comfort in this world in any case.)
       Dongala offers a fast-paced and somewhat overfull tour of a typical contemporary African civil conflict, complete with everything from tribal enmity to impotent international organisations to the expected pillaging and violence. It is all a bit much: a grim roll-call of senseless destruction (of lives and values and property), an endless sequence of death and rape. The alternating viewpoints -- and the speed with which events unfold -- leave little time to consider the toll: the next disaster is upon Laokolé before she (and the reader) even have had time to digest the last, which somewhat lessens the impact. But, though a horrific litany, the focus on these young individuals -- both victim and perpetrator -- helps keep the book from just becoming a depressing morass. Johnny isn't sympathetic, but he has a human face, and Dongala presents it well (without excusing him or his actions). Occasionally Dongala does go overboard, notably when Laokolé chances upon a wildlife preservation group in the jungle who are evacuating endangered animals ("We're here to evacuate as many of them as possible, because they're being endangered by this stupid war. The factions are killing even animals -- poor innocent animals !" Laokolé is told; no surprise that they can't help her either), but overall he offers an impressive, awful picture of how easily civilization can collapse. (Dongala nicely contrasts the local successes, the people who have made something of themselves, with the purely destructive elements: the Africa that is laid waste to here is a place of some promise and many individual successes, though often on a very basic level).
       Dongala doesn't write with quite the same artistry as Ahmadou Kourouma, and he tries to do a bit much in this one novel (and is a bit obvious in some of his criticism -- especially of international organisations (though, sadly, his portraits do reflect reality)), but Johnny Mad Dog is fairly successful. He also does quite a good job of keeping up the suspense, which helps drive to book along.

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Johnny Mad Dog: Reviews: Emmanuel Dongala: Other books by Emmanuel Dongala under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Emmanuel Boundzéki Dongala, born in 1941, lived in what is now Congo-Brazzaville until 1997. He is president of the Congolese PEN Centre and currently teaches at Simon's Rock of Bard College in the US.

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