Henri Lopes, 86, Who Straddled Literature and Politics in Africa, Dies

Henri Lopes, a writer and former prime minister of the Republic of Congo whose pioneering fiction mocked the abuses of African leaders but who later served one of the continent’s most brutal, died on Nov. 2 in the Paris suburb of Suresnes. He was 86.

His death, in a hospital, was announced by the Republic of Congo’s embassy in Paris.

Mr. Lopes’s dual career spanned the formative years of both African nationhood and the continent’s literature. He was richly rewarded in both spheres, with high positions in politics and diplomacy and prestigious literary prizes.

His 1982 novel, “Le Pleurer-Rire” (“The Laughing Cry”), satirizes a brutal and choleric African dictator and is regarded as a foundational work in African literature. His “Tribaliques,” a pugnacious short story collection published in 1971 and much written about since, was an early depiction of the shortcomings of a nascent African society riven by ethnic rivalries.

Mr. Lopes (pronounced LO-pez) finished his career as the Republic of Congo’s ambassador in Paris, retiring in 2015. His country, a former French colony, lies across the Congo River from the much larger Democratic Republic of Congo, once a Belgian possession.

Mr. Lopes’s journey through ministries, ideologies, rulers and literary favor summed up the choice — and the dilemma — faced by African intellectuals in the latter half of the 20th century: Go along with the leadership in power or live precariously.

He went along. He was the Republic of Congo’s second-most-famous citizen, and he never broke with the first, the country’s president, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, who has ruled the country almost continuously — except for a five-year gap after losing an election in 1992 — since 1979.

“The Laughing Cry,” which satirizes a brutal dictator, is regarded as a foundational work in African literature.Credit…via Readers International

In the 1960s and ’70s, with the nation newly independent, the soft-spoken, mild-mannered Mr. Lopes was successively its minister of education, minister of information, minister of justice, foreign minister and chairman of the Revolutionary Court, which tried enemies of the state. He was prime minister from 1973 to 1975, then director of the party newspaper, then finance minister. Along the way he helped write the national anthem.

“We were trying to govern the country, while learning it,” he said in his last interview before his death, in a documentary film by Hassim Tall Boukambou that will be released in January.

When Mr. Sassou-Nguesso, a former army colonel, retook power in 1997 after a civil war, he remembered his old comrade from the Congolese Workers Party. Mr. Lopes was already in Paris, having served as UNESCO’s deputy director general for Africa.

“So Sassou had someone who gave respectability to his regime, and Henri Lopes was able to stay in Paris,” Sekou Camara, who directed a World Bank project in the Republic of Congo and who had known Mr. Lopes since childhood, said in a phone interview.

Afterward though, Mr. Lopes “never had the courage to detach himself from Sassou,” said Andrea Ngombet, the leader of an opposition group in exile, who was once given a gift of books by Mr. Lopes.

“There is always a way of compromising you in these regimes,” he said in an interview, noting Mr. Lopes’s “grand villa” at Suresnes.

For Mr. Lopes’s funeral in Paris on Nov. 14, Mr. Sassou-Nguesso dispatched four ministers from his government, including the prime minister, as part of an entourage of 27.

The “central paradox” of Mr. Lopes’s career was, on the one hand, his lucid view of the dark corners of African politics and, on the other, his benefiting from them, said Brett L. Carter, an expert on the Republic of Congo and an assistant professor at the University of Southern California. “I don’t know how he reconciled that.”

Mr. Ngombet noted that “his and Sassou’s destinies were tied together.”

“He managed to acquire a kind of material ease that was not compatible with his functions,” he said.

Mr. Lopes was appointed ambassador in Paris, the country’s most important diplomatic posting, in 1998. During his tenure, there were numerous human rights abuses in the Republic of Congo, including an infamous massacre at the port of Brazzaville, the capital; rigged elections; the torture and imprisonment of political opponents; and the widely documented corruption of Mr. Sassou-Nguesso.

“I’m describing the Sassou government as a mafia,” said John F. Clark, a professor at Florida International University and author of a book on the Republic of Congo’s history and politics.

The Congressional Research Service wrote in 2019 that “corruption is widespread” in the country, with Mr. Sassou-Nguesso’s family possessing real estate worth tens of millions of dollars in Paris alone, long a subject of investigation by the French authorities. The Republic of Congo, rich in oil, is extremely poor; most of its wealth is concentrated in the presidential palace.

Mr. Lopes never took a position about corruption and other abuses under President Sassou-Nguesso. Even in his 2018 memoir, he had nothing to say about the president after he regained power in 1997. Credit…via JC Lattès

Yet for all his literary celebrity, Mr. Lopes never took a public position against these abuses. His 2018 memoir, “Il est déjà demain(“It is Already Tomorrow”), has nothing at all to say about Mr. Sassou-Nguesso once he regained power.

“I worked with him up until the point that I left the embassy,” Mr. Lopes explained in an interview with Jeune Afrique magazine. “So, I have a duty to hold back,” he said. “I could have made excuses for him, which would not have been credible. Or I could have criticized, even though I had just left his team. So, I took the risk of saying nothing.”

His widow, Christine, said in a telephone interview from Suresnes that Mr. Sassou-Nguesso had been her husband’s “brother, his companion and his friend.”

Before he served the president, Mr. Lopes had been celebrated for his literary accomplishments. He won the Grand Literary Prize of Black Africa in 1972 for “Tribaliques.” And 21 years later he received the coveted Grand Prize of French-speaking Countries, from the ultimate arbiter of the French language, the Académie Française, for the body of his work.

In 1992, in the French newspaper Le Monde, the critic Alain Salles compared Mr. Lopes to Patrick Modiano, a future French Nobel laureate in literature, writing that “the phantoms of colonization and decolonization have replaced those of the Occupation and the Purge” in Mr. Modiano’s fiction set during World War II.

At his death last month, Le Monde wrote that Mr. Lopes had “early on been one of the pioneers of ‘African literature,’ as it was conceived at that time.”

By the time “The Laughing Cry,” considered his most significant novel, was published in 1982, Mr. Lopes was well aware of the disappointments of decolonization, having lived through several coups d’état and the March 1977 assassination of President Marien Ngouabi, under whom he once served. His portrait of the character Bwakamabé, a dictator, in “Laughing Cry” is savage:

“I, I am the father. And you, you are my children,” Bwakamabé says, rejecting the idea of a vote. “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.”

Henri Lopes was born on Sept. 12, 1937, in what was then Léopoldville, later Kinshasa, the capital of what was then the Belgian Congo. His parents, Jean-Marie Lopes, a small landowner, and Micheline Vulturi, were the mixed-race children of Belgian and French colonizers who had fleeting unions with local women, a fact that weighed heavily on the light-skinned Mr. Lopes’s sense of himself, his place in Congolese society and his position in the Sassou-Nguesso government.

“Being mixed race didn’t just mark me; it made up my identity, my essential existence,” he once told an interviewer for the French magazine Le Point. And it left him somewhat alienated. As Professor Clark, of Florida International University, put it: “He’s not in the interior of the mafia. If you’re part of the mafia family, but an outsider, you are never fully trusted.”

Mr. Lopes studied at the Sorbonne — his mother, divorced, had married a Frenchman, who brought the young Henri with him to France — and joined several African student unions. In the mid-1960s, he taught at the École Normale Superieure de l’Afrique Centrale in Brazzaville before being recruited into the government, as was common with young men who had been educated.

In addition to his wife, his second, Mr. Lopes is survived by four children from a previous marriage: his daughters Myriam, Annouk and Laure, and his son, Thomas.

About his long career in politics, Mr. Lopes would often tell interviewers that he had preferred writing. But for many, his political engagement overshadowed his literary achievements.

As Professor Carter, of U.S.C., said, “To the extent to which he put his accomplishments in the service of the regime, many Congolese will never forgive him for that.”