Terzani Prize 2015

On the occasion of the 11th edition of the Vicino/Lontano Festival, the Tiziano Terzani International Literary Prize was awarded to David Van Reybrouck for Congo.

Motivations of the Jury

With the curiosity of an archaeologist and the keen eye of an anthropologist, the scrupulous precision of the historian and the grace and sensibility of a poet, the skills of an investigative journalist and the flair of a gifted storyteller, Van Reybrouck leads the reader on a discovery of a country, a people, a continent.

Ivory, silver, gold and diamonds; coal, tin, copper and rubber; oil, uranium and coltan, the precious metal used in the production of mobile phones and other electronic gadgets, are among the immense riches with which the Congo is blessed yet simultaneously cursed. And then, to add to its pains, there is also slavery. All have played a role in the tragic fate of the Congo, which is perhaps the most exploited country in the world, and not only at the hands of the white man. Its exploitation has come in many guises: First under Belgian colonization, then by multinationals and now by China. Then there is the ongoing conflict between rival ethnic groups, the violence of which threatens mutual slaughter; acts of genocide perpetrated by tyrannical, bloodthirsty regimes or unscrupulous predators; hunger, war, endemic disease, the scourge of AIDS, all contribute to the apocalyptic landscape in which the Congolese continue to live their daily lives. Congo is their story. A chronicle of misery seemingly without end, the strength of Van Reybrouck’s book lies in its telling and the fact that we hear the voices of the witnesses directly. Hundreds of interviewees, some particularly advanced in age, share their personal memories with the author and us readers. With the strength that comes from a truth lived, they recount their personal stories: from the arrival of the white man in a land not his own, to the present time, while all around, shrouded in its mysterious, incomparable beauty, one senses the living, breathing, equatorial jungle that flanks the enormous river that gives the country its name.

Recounted by multiple narrators, and yet sparingly and powerfully told, Congo takes the reader on a journey through past and present, deftly sketching the image of an entire people. And here, in these pages, the country of Congo is not merely the protagonist of the piece but also its narrator, gradually revealing itself in all its battered humanity; a narrator with a choral voice that speaks of and for itself, calling out to those ready and willing to listen to its message. Indeed, Congo also offers itself as an object lesson for those who would define themselves as being particularly socially aware but fail to recognize that they have become immune and too often indifferent to the suffering of others – not only those from distant lands but also those around them, indifferent too to the environmental devastation inflicted upon lands both near and far. And as ethnic, political and religious conflicts deepen, unleashing new acts of human folly, Congo serves as a sober warning, a call for more caution and less haste in our judgments and in our actions.

For these reasons, all of which pay tribute to the powerful insights offered by Congo and the exemplary portrayal of this great country, indeed the entire African continent,  that the Jury decided to award the 2015 International Tiziano Terzani Literary Prize to David Van Reybrouck.

Translation by Amanda Hunter