Johnny Mad Dog A Novel

Emmanuel Dongala; Translated from the French by Maria Louise Ascher




Trade Paperback

336 Pages



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Set amid the chaos of West Africa's civil wars, Emmanuel Dongala's novel tells the story of two teenagers growing up while rival ethnic groups fight for control of their country.

At age sixteen, Johnny is a member of the Death Dealers, a rebel faction bent on seizing power. Even as he is drawn into the rebels' program of terror, Johnny Mad Dog, as he calls himself, retains his youthful exuberance—searching for girls, good times, and adventure. Sixteen-year-old Laokolé, for her part, dreams of finishing high school and becoming an engineer, but as rogue militias prepare to sack the city, she is forced to leave home with her mother and brother—and then finds herself alone and running from the likes of Johnny.

Acclaimed in France, Johnny Mad Dog is a coming-of-age story. Dongala's use of dual narrators makes the novel a vivid and affecting tale of the struggle to survive—and to retain one's humanity—in terrifying times.


Praise for Johnny Mad Dog

"Terrifying . . . Emmanuel Dongala grabs us from the start with a language that is rude and raw (Mad Dog's) and lyrical (Laokolé's) . . . He continues to vividly re-create his burning piece of earth."—The New York Times Book Review

"Inspired by real events in Dongala's home of Congo-Brazzaville, this book would be an effective addition to a high school English, history, or global issues curriculum, especially supplemented with resources from organizations such as Human Rights Watch and the Office of the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General for Children in Armed Conflict . . . The dual narration of Dongala's novel allows the voices of two younger protagonists to sear the reader . . . The novel has three important messages for American educators. First, it is a worldwide call for attention to children like Johnny who are swept up in the glory of war, and children like Laokolé who are caught in power struggles . . . Johnny Mad Dog breaks the silence on American complicity in fostering ethnic tensions and in inciting young people to war. . . . [and] raises powerful questions for all educators about the consequences of a lack of attention to education in countries torn by conflict."—Harvard Education Review

"The manner in which Dongala juxtaposes these two characters' experiences explains more about these wars than most news stories ever could . . . Dongala's fast-paced, irreverent style makes the novel a memorable, thoroughly enjoyable read."—The Boston Globe

"Not only does [Dongala] show the terror, he shows the absurdity, the banality, even the cruel humor, [and] takes swipes at Western relief workers, UN troops, the international media, and 'political experts' who continue to recycle the same story from Africa's war zones."—Anderson Tepper, The Washington Post Book World

"Stark, blackly comic . . . In Laokolé and Mad Dog, Emmanuel Dongala gives us two equally extraordinary portraits of [his characters' brains]."—Associated Press

"Two teenagers are tested by a civil war in central Africa, a war not unlike the one the author and his family fled in 1997. Dongala's Johnny is a teenage militiaman who had aspired to be an intellectual and now tries to find a moniker that best captures his killing life. Dongala has written a stark, at times curiously humorous exploration of the line between darkness and light."—Los Angeles Times

"Dongala is one of Africa's most exciting and innovative literary voices . . . In his novel Johnny Mad Dog, he has turned his attention to the consequences of the disintegration of the postcolonial state, and to exploring the complicated path toward democratization that has generated civil conflict, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and produced a generation of child soldiers. In turn, these circumstances have triggered a range of human rights violations that Dongala insists must be recorded in order for collective memories to account for a misguided past. As Dongala navigates through the complex landscape of history, what emerges has implications for all us as we endeavor to understand our respective roles and responsibilities as global citizens. Ultimately, Dongala's work also compels us to recognize how fiction can play a role in helping us confront these difficult realities."—Dominic Thomas, Chair of French and Francophone Studies, University of California Los Angeles

"This deft and moving novel by Congolese writer Emmanuel Dongala, set amid West Africa's civil wars, is told through alternating chapters narrated by two different teenagers . . . Dongala lived in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, until he fled the civil war in 1997 and, with the help of fellow novelists—Philip Roth (to whom Johnny Mad Dog is dedicated) and Chinua Achebe—found a teaching position at Simon's Rock College of Bard in Western Massachusetts."—Dorothy Robinson, Metro

"Compelling . . . 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 Laokolé's narration. A young woman who dreams of building 'skyscrapers that will defy gravity and astound my father,' she is Dongala's strongest female character to date. With her, the author seems to move away from the archetypal characterizations of his previous books and toward greater psychological complexity . . . This is a book that yanks back the curtain on a neglected part of the world and allows us to comprehend the horrors its author has seen firsthand."—Marcela Valdes, Bookforum

"Two teenagers are caught up in the melee as rival ethnic factions turn their Congolese city into a bloody battleground in this harrowing novel by Dongala. Laokolé, a bright girl of 16 who dreams of one day becoming an engineer, flees home ahead of the marauding militias. With her younger brother and legless mother (whom she pushes in a wheelbarrow), she struggles not only to stay alive but to sustain her hopes for the future. Alternate chapters give readers the boastful voice of 15-year-old Johnny Mad Dog, a member of the Death Dealers militia, as he patrols the city with his Uzi, looting, raping and killing, eager to prove himself a man. Dongala, a native of the Congo Republic (formerly French Congo), offers an unflinching look at the greed and ignorance that drives fighters like Mad Dog, as well as the fear, desperation and anger of those trapped in the cross fire. Despite occasional wooden dialogue and the rather stagey showdown between the two narrators, Dongala frames some powerful questions: namely, how humans can be so cruel, and conversely, how do they maintain their humanity in the face of unremitting ugliness? As Mad Dog himself half-marvels, half-laments, even if we looted them a thousand times, they would always manage to hang onto something."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Chapter One
General Giap proclaimed a period of looting that was to last forty-eight hours.
Instantly I switched off the radio. I took the hurricane lamp and ran toward our little storage shed, to make sure the wheelbarrow was...

Read the full excerpt


  • Emmanuel Dongala; Translated from the French by Maria Louise Ascher

  • Emmanuel Dongala was a lifelong resident of Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of Congo (formerly French Congo), until he left the country during its civil war in 1997. He teaches at Bard College at Simon's Rock and lives in Western Massachusetts.

    Maria Louise Ascher, translator of this novel from the original French, holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Harvard University and is a senior editor at Harvard University Press.