Theodor Adorno's maxim that "poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric" is at best debatable, at worst absurd and in either case unenforceable. There are events, though, that shouldn't be viewed through an aesthetic lens. In Lisa J. Shannon's second book on violence in the Congo, she and her neighbor Francisca Thelin — a teacher and Congolese expat — visit Thelin's hometown to "raise awareness" of the atrocities committed there by the Lord's Resistance Army. An excerpt:
"A bullet hit a father carrying his three-year-old. It … pierced his daughter's stomach, blowing her intestines out the other side. … They shot a young woman running with her … baby, ripping apart her genitalia."
To examine this quote for literary merit — especially since the "father" and "young woman" were beloved family members — would be a sign of psychosis. Likewise, "Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunmen" is not really a publication, but an alarm, as nerve-racking as a sudden blast on a klaxon, not so much a book as an emergency.
Shannon has been a devoted activist in the struggle for Congolese women's human rights, but this book really belongs to Thelin, whose family members were prominent merchants and landowners in the town of Dungu before the dregs of the neighboring civil war crossed the border. Thelin's reaction to the news of one more relative's violent death is always the same: horror and heartbreak. An intelligent, confident, resilient woman, she has started a school in Dungu and meets each day with the words "hello, lovely," which she is. But when she undertakes a trip home along with Shannon, she's forced repeatedly to confront the unbearable, and it does not get easier with practice. As a reader, and a person, you will want to stick close to her, her perspective, her experience. You'll wish for more of it.
I've no wish to add my voice to what Shannon calls "the snark about white people with a savior complex," but certain elements should not be juxtaposed, even in fiction and certainly not in reportage. William Styron's young alter ego's sexual awakening in "Sophie's Choice" struck many as repulsive when threaded into a Holocaust narrative. Likewise, Shannon's musings on connection vs. career while charting the ups and downs of her emotional life seem almost insanely inappropriate.
Still, this book can't be ignored. It doesn't matter if you read it all; there's only one mandatory page: Page 191, headed "What You Can Do Before Setting This Book Down." It's a list of nonprofits, the first of which secures funding for the school Thelin is trying to rebuild. "For details on how you can help, visit www.minzoto.org."
Emily Carter is a writer in Connecticut and the author of "Glory Goes and Gets Some," published by Coffee House Press.