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Henri Lopes, who mocked African autocrats and served one, dies at 86


At the Paris funeral of Congolese writer Henri Lopes, mourners from literary communities on two continents praised the searing truths of his novels that used fictional strongmen to ridicule political corruption and brutality in Africa.

Also in attendance at the Nov. 14 service was a high-level delegation sent by the Republic of Congo’s president, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, whose autocratic and repressive government Mr. Lopes served in the prominent role as ambassador to France.

The paradox came to define Mr. Lopes and his work over more than five decades: the enigmatic insider who could write mocking parodies of African power and manage to keep both worlds from colliding. That required both literary boldness and, at times, personal acquiescence, said Mr. Lopes, who died Nov. 2 at a hospital in the Paris suburb of Suresnes at 86.

He offered unsparing critiques of post-colonial Africa in books including “Le Pleurer-Rire” in 1982 (published in English as “The Laughing Cry”). Yet Mr. Lopes held back from any major public denunciations of Sassou-Nguesso or deep reflections on his connections to the regime, which has waged widespread abuses including harsh repression of opponents, according to human rights groups.

Sassou-Nguesso first ruled the Republic of Congo — next to the larger Democratic Republic of Congo, the former Zaire — from 1979 to 1992, losing in multiparty elections. He then reclaimed control in 1997 after a brief civil war. Mr. Lopes (pronounced LO-pez) served from 1998 to 2015 in Paris as ambassador, the country’s most important diplomatic post.

Mr. Lopes’s stature as one of Francophone Africa’s literary trailblazers was seen as offering legitimacy to Sassou-Nguesso’s regime even as allegations mounted of human rights abuses and rigged elections. A 2021 State Department report cited “significant human rights issues” linked to Sassou-Nguesso’s rule, including government-ordered killings, torture, stifling free expression and endemic corruption in an oil-rich country where poverty is rampant.

“I could have made excuses for [Sassou-Nguesso], which would not have been credible. Or I could have criticized, even though I had just left his team,” Mr. Lopes explained in an interview with Jeune Afrique magazine after leaving the ambassadorship. “So, I took the risk of saying nothing.”

This was not the first time that Mr. Lopes had to juggle his writerly judgments on African leadership and the realities he witnessed in politics and diplomacy.

In the 1970s, Mr. Lopes served in several top political roles, including prime minister from 1973 to 1975 under president Marien Ngouabi. The Marxist-inspired government of Ngouabi was accused of carrying out systematic crackdowns on dissent and other rights abuses. Ngouabi was assassinated in 1977 by political rivals, touching off vigilante bloodshed and court-ordered executions.

In a 1993 interview, Mr. Lopes offered an oblique reply on how he navigated the apparent contradictions of serving regimes but also condemning heavy-handed rule in his writing. “Which ‘me’ is it?” he told the journal Research in African Literatures. “The public ‘me’? The ‘me’ of my obscure private life or another ‘me’ that remains unexpressed, fantasized and possibly unfulfilled in real life?”

Such layers are embedded in Mr. Lopes’s narratives. His characters shift between local languages, dialects and French. Each switch holds a meaning, he said. The native languages such as Lingala often evoke tribal bonds and shared experience. French — what Mr. Lopes called “this borrowed language that I love” — was the foundation of his stories and represented colonialism and the lingering European cultural force across Francophone Africa.

His debut book in 1971, “Tribaliques” (published in English as “Tribaliks” in 1987) is a collection of eight short stories that throw a caustic glance at West Africa’s European-influenced urban elite, depicted by Mr. Lopes as homegrown colonizers standing in the way of political maturity. “The Laughing Cry,” one of Mr. Lopes’s most-read works, conjures a fictional African country run by a megalomaniacal dictator, Bwakamabé, who sways between crippling paranoia and patronizing delusions, calling himself “Daddy.”

The result is a burlesque of vanity and ruthlessness, with many readers drawing comparisons to rulers such as Uganda’s Idi Amin and the Central African Republic’s Jean-Bedel Bokassa.

“I, I am the father. And you, you are my children,” proclaims the fictional Bwakamabé. “You should give me advice, with frankness. But if you are afraid of my reactions, and you want to spare me, you should shut up respectfully.”

Washington Post reviewer Alan Ryan wrote that Mr. Lopes, who spent his teens and university years in Paris, imbued a “European point of view” in creating Bwakamabé and his realm. “But he still sees them through African eyes,” Ryan added. “Somewhere in the middle, in that conflict of views, is the truth.”

In Mr. Lopes’s 2015 novel “Meridional,” he explored race and cultural identity in ways that reflected his own life. The book’s main character is mixed race, like Mr. Lopes, and struggles over how he fits in as a resident of France.

“Being mixed race didn’t just mark me,” Mr. Lopes told the French magazine Le Point. “It made up my identity, my essential existence.”

Henri Lopes was born on Sept. 12, 1937, in what was then Léopoldville (now Kinshasa) in the Belgian Congo, which is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.

His parents were mixed race, the product of relationships between French and Belgian colonizers and local women, Mr. Lopes wrote in his 2018 memoir, “Il est déjà demain” (“It is Already Tomorrow”).

After his parents divorced, his mother married a French man and moved to Paris, bringing along the 12-year-old Mr. Lopes. He finished his primary education in France and received a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Paris in 1962 and a master’s degree the following year.

He took a teaching position in Brazzaville, capital of the newly independent Republic of Congo, and was later recruited into the government. His posts included justice minister and foreign minister.

In the late 1960s, Mr. Lopes wrote the lyrics to a national anthem used from 1970 to 1991, “Les Trois Glorieuses,” named after a three-day uprising in 1963 that toppled the country’s first president, Fulbert Youlou. The anthem’s second verse begins: If the enemy kills me too early/ Brave comrade, seize my gun.

“I often wonder if, in the end, the accession to national sovereignty was not, the greatest shock, the most total revolution, experienced by [Africans],” Mr. Lopes said in a 2021 interview with the magazine Le Point Afrique.

When Sassou-Nguesso regained power in 1997, Mr. Lopes was in Paris as a deputy director general with the U.N. cultural organization UNESCO. He resigned to accept the ambassador post.

Survivors include his wife, the former Christine Diane, and four children from his first marriage to Nirva Pasbeau.

In the 2002 detective story “Dossier Classé,” Mr. Lopes again raised questions of mixed-race identity that followed him throughout this life. In the story, Mr. Lopes created a journalist, Lazare Mayele, who goes to an imaginary French-speaking country in Africa. The reporter — described as having an African father and French mother — at one point decides he is “sans-identite-fixe,” an outsider in Africa, in Europe and his home in the United States.

“We must not,” Mr. Lopes said, “be afraid to describe ourselves.”

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