When we had loaded the last mojar [two-wheeled cart], Djamilia, as if she had forgotten everything in the world, watched the twilight for a long time. Over there, beyond the river, somewhere on the edge of the Kazakh steppe, like the mouth of a burning tandyr [earth oven], the evening monsoon sun flamed languidly. It slowly sank behind the horizon, soaking with a burning light some crumbly little clouds in the sky and throwing its last shimmers onto the mauve steppe, whose lower ground was already covered by the blue of precocious gloom. Djamilia watched the setting sun with a soft exultant joy, as if a fairy-tale vision had materialised in front of her. Her face shone with tenderness, her half-open lips softly smiled like a child.
Here is a love triangle (or should that be square?) set during World War II on a collective farm in Kyrgyzstan when it was still part of the USSR. When we meet Djamilia she is a joyous, spirited girl who tells everyone exactly what she thinks and is not overly respectful of her elders. She is the younger wife of the narrator’s brother Sadyk, who has been away in the war since shortly after marrying her and is invalided in a distant town. But he shows little interest in her, relegating her to a mere footnote in his letters. Another soldier comes back to the ail (village) wounded from the war: Danïiar, who is (now, at least) a taciturn loner. The three have to bring grain across the steppes to the nearest railway station in order to keep the soldiers fed. Djamilia and the narrator, Seït, immaturely mock Danïiar, and saddle him with an impossibly enormous bag to carry – which he manages to do without complaining. He thereby wins the heart of Djamilia (and the respect of the narrator, who belatedly discovers that he himself is a little in love with her). When they learn that Sadyk is finally coming home, all three come to the realisation that they will have to leave the ail.
While it’s a slim story (I read it in a day) with a fairly predictable plot, it’s still a lovely little book with some gorgeous natural descriptions which confirmed to me that Kyrgyzstan is one of the places I most want to visit!
My translation was into French, so I’ve used the French transliterations of the names here.
AÏTMATOV, Tchinguiz (1928 – ), Djamilia, translated from Kyrgyz into French by A. Dimitrieva & Louis Aragon, Paris, Denoël, 2001, ISBN 2.207.25236.1
Originally published in Kyrgyz, 1958
Also translated into English (via Russian) by James Riordan as:
AITMATOV, Chingiz, Jamilia, Telegram, 2007
The sun was already declining towards the horizon. All around, the savanna was ending its day. From time to time, we lined up along the verge of the tarmac road at the approach of a vehicle. Our own was parked a few metres from the place where we four were. The guide, a young man – timid or intimidated – seemed under pressure.
I tended to think of Togo as a French colony before independence, having pretty much forgotten that before that it was a German colony. And the German connection runs strongly through this novel. The author himself is a Togolese living in Germany, as is the narrator, Paul A., who is accompanied back to his hometown by two German backpackers, Anne and Katrin, he has met on the way.
The tow Lisahohé, we discover, was originally named by the Germans Lisahöhe (more or less, ‘Lisa’s Hill’), but in one of those linguistic coincidences which sometimes occur, could also mean ‘White House’ in the (unfortunately unnamed) local language.
As a German resident (and citizen), Paul sees his mother country and its people somewhat differently from those who had remained there.
There is a murder mystery here (of the country’s Interior Minister), but I could hardly call the novel a thriller. Paul doesn’t spend much effort (or dialogue) in discovering what really happens, and the murderer confesses gently. Paul’s (and the author’s) real interest is in experiencing the phenomenon of ‘going back, to the places and people of his childhood, and discovering what has changed and what hasn’t. And that should also be your aim to enjoy this book, as I did.
ANANISSOH, Théo (1962 – ), Lisahohé, Mayenne?, Gallimard, Continents Noirs, 2005, ISBN 2-07-0771644
Stomach rumblings tore Nyamuragi straight out of his soliloquy. He is trying to find some way to relieve them, right now. To tell the truth, he doesn’t like it when it is shouting down there, deep down inside of him… that promises some hard hygienic work. And hunger, of course.
Nyamurangi the Mute admits that he had drunk too much water this morning, that’s why it was churning away under his jacket, furiously and chaotically.
Impossible to relax beside the stream; it’s a public place. But his intestines are seething. He has to do it quickly! Where should he go to do it? To relieve himself? If only he was on the other side of the hill, near his own place.
The call of his stomach made itself felt more insistently. His look became more imploring: some place! Just a little one! The urgency of his need deforms his facial features. In a single bound, he flings himself at young Kigeme, just as she was putting the 10 litre can onto her head to carry it home – Kigeme, who sees this constantly silent and solitary man smash into her.
Into the young girl’s memory, images of her friend raped a few weeks ago instantly surge. She had spoken to her about this fixed, flaming look, this furrowed forehead, these hands which are laid onto you without warning, with violence and envy… Her friend had told her her to scream if she was assaulted.
As for her, she is fourteen, twelve years fewer than Nyamuragi. She drops the can from her head, so she can struggle, compulsively pressing her dress to herself, a huddling, fearful, frightened little girl, lost. She struggles, while this is all surging through her head. She resists this imperious grasp pulling her away from the stream to impel her who knows where…
“Ni ibiki?” “What is it?” she asks. She sees the mute holding his crutch, hears the rumbling with gusto…
And suddenly, in the silence of this morning stained by the struggle, the cry goes out, strident, high and stamped with such fright: “Mfasha!” “Help me!”
Not long we had an incident of mob violence in Greece, now here is another lynching in Burundi.
Burundi is in some ways almost a twin of Rwanda, whose situation is much better known. Both were Belgian colonies, had a population divided into Hutu and Tutsi, and Burundi’s language Kirundi is very close to Rwanda’s Kinyarwanda. In fact, the 1994 plane crash that killed Rwanda’s president, marking the start of the genocide there, also killed Burundi’s president and led to similar strife there.
Baho! itself is a ‘Greek tragedy’. A mute shepherd, Nyamuragi, suddenly needs to go to the toilet. He signs (rather graphically) to a young girl, Kigeme, to lead him to the nearest place for him to go. But the society has been so traumatised by violence, both against women (there has been a series of rapes) and in general, that any innocent act risks being misunderstood. The girl cries out for help, and Nyamuragi runs away, which ‘proves’ his guilt in the eyes of the community. A lynch mob follows and captures him. Hauled before a kangaroo court, Nyamuragi ends up condemning himself, or being condemned by language – he wanted to say ‘ego’ (’yes’) but could only pronounce ‘ejo’ (’tomorrow/yesterday’ – interesting that Kirundi uses the same word for both, like Hindi for example, and the Burundians apparently have a similar concept of the circularity of time to the Hindus). He is so traumatised and alienated that he doesn’t care enough to explain himself to others, even if he could, or even to save himself.
The novel well captures the fright of ‘the other’ that can lead to genocide, racism, or at least injustice from misunderstanding or just distancing. Nyamuragi himself has had both his parents massacred when he was 14, and he finally becomes mute (although he never really wanted to speak), having lost all faith in humanity.
It would be nice to be able to say that the men ‘defending’ Kigeme were trying to protect her, but they seem to see the issue as more of a property crime – women being the property. It is actually not a fair world for women – those who speak up are abused by the men.
If there is a glimmer of hope, it is that those in the silent majority may act against the preachers of hate.
The book is sprinkled with bits of Kirundi, which looks like a lovely language – I just wish they were translated! – and some great proverbs.
This is a short but powerful and thought-provoking novel from a small country that has itself gone through so much violence and vitriol. Although the writing is sometimes a bit unpolished, on the whole it is very thought-provoking. At the time I was reading this novel, the ‘Me Too’ movement was big in the news. Since I read it, it has been translated into English. It deserves a much wider readership!
RUGERO, Roland (1986 – ): Baho!, La Roque d’Anthéron, Vents d’ailleurs, 2012, ISBN 978-2-911412-99-8
I died on the evening of the most beautiful day in my life: I died on the evening of my wedding in the Saint-Philippe-&-Saint-Jacques Church. Everyone believed that I had been struck by lightning at the sacramental Yes which had gushed out of my guts. It was said that I had been carried away by the fire of my consent, so powerful and true was it. I was supposed to have been hit by my own bridal thunderbolt.
Now we are in Haiti and in the world of voodoo, which originated in Benin, our last country! In 1938’s Haiti, a young French bride, Hadriana, dies at the very moment of making her marriage vow to Hector Danoze in church. Her death provokes a religious tug-of-war between the ‘enemy brothers’ of the orthodox Catholic church and the adherents of voodoo spiritualism, a microcosm of the religious situation in Haiti as a whole.
There is a forest butterfly, manipulated by a secret society, which poisons virgins and turns them into zombies. It poisoned the lemonade at her wedding. A sorcerer is believed to have taken her corpse out of the cemetery to make use of it.
Will she escape?
The tale is told by Hadriana herself, including her experiences after becoming a zombie! I had always ridiculed tales of zombies, but reading this beautifully written tale from Haiti where they are deeply embedded in religious belief – as with vampires, after reading Mary Shelley’s Dracula – changed my thoughts (to some extent…) Zombies are carefully (almost scientifically) described as people who display all the symptoms of clinical death, but are still able to use their mental faculties. After burial they are raised by a sorcerer to be subjected to forced labour in the fields (zombie-jardin) or an urban workshop (zombie-z’outil).
There is some wonderful writing, such as the lovely description of the butterfly-colourful local buses, tap-taps.
You could take the symbolism further and see Haiti (once the richest place in the Western Hemisphere) as a whole as the beautiful, promising woman who has fallen into zombiedom. On the whole, a lovely, disquieting book.
DEPESTRE, René (1926 – ), Hadriana dans tous mes rêves = Hadriana in all my dreams, Barcelona, Gallimard, 1988, ISBN 978-2-07-038272-9
DEPESTRE, René, Hadriana in All My Dreams, translated by Kaiama L. Glover, NY, Akaschic Books, ISBN 9781617755330
Convinced that all women, even those who seem truly attached to their husbands or determined never to let themselves be dishonoured, can be seduced, that those who remain indifferent to the first manifestations of love by a man, insensible to beauty, to the birth or standing of a would-be lover, deaf to his supplications or to the language of rich presents, would be unable to resist the charm of philtres. Vidaho had successively put everything into play in order to conquer Doguicimi.
When it came time to read my novel from Benin, I was thrown into a slight panic when I realised that what I had bought was not the novel I had chosen, Doguicimi by Paul Hazoumé, but a collection of literary essays on it! The novel itself seemed to be out of print, at least in French. If I was to go reading countries in order, I’d have to wait while I got a copy of the actual novel (or another one). One of the many perils of ordering books online. (Not long before, I had ended up with an Armenian book with the right title, but that turned out to be a collection of short stories, not the novel I wanted). Finally my second-hand copy arrived, covered in obscure pencil notes that I had to erase before I could read it. But I did have my chosen book.
Set in the old kingdom of Dahomey, it tells the story of how the king is so determined to go to war that he ignores the ancestors (whose wishes are transmitted via the ‘devins’ – soothsayers). His advisor Toffa is captured in the resultant debacle and is treated by definition as a traitor. Toffa’s wife is the feisty Doguicimi. Everyone is surprised that she doesn’t get done away with for speaking out, but it turns out Vidaho, the heir to the throne, has become secretly enamored of her and becomes obsessed with getting her, while Doguicimi remains steadfastly loyal to her captive husband at great personal risk till her horrible self-sacrifice. Personally, I found it hard to understand why she was so attached to him considering the way he had treated her! I suppose it is tradition and the need to be respected; perhaps her name (which is explained halfway through to mean something like ‘cite me as an example’ has something to do with it.
The people’s opinions about the Whites, who are starting their encroachment on the region, are fascinating – what the latter see as their strengths, the former see as their weaknesses. There is obviously what we would now call racism from both sides, but it is easy to understand the feeling against outsiders trying to take control of their land. By modern standards, the arrogance of the ruling class, especially, of Dahomey comes off as unpleasant.
It took me a long time to read (510 pages, plus rubbing out time!) but I learnt a fascinating amount about the culture of ancient Dahomey (renamed Benin after independence) from this book. It is a classic of early indigenous African writing and a rare chance to see this time through their eyes.
HAZOUMÉ, Paul (1890 – 1980), Doguicimi, Paris?, Francopoche, 1978, ISBN 978-2706806711
HAZOUMÉ, Paul, Doguicimi: The First Dahomean Novel, translated from French by Richard Bjornson, Washington DC, Three Continents, 1990, ISBN 9780894104060
That happened one especially torrid summer Saturday. The embers of the afternoon had died down. The setting sun, red and immense, sank slowly but inexorably behind the Mountain, in a farewell full of passion and infinite sadness. The entire universe was engulfed in a light of dusty ochre and blood.
Strong-willed, religious Horïa lives alone and isolated with her old black servant Sââd, getting her only consolation by contemplating the view of Lion Mountain above. Her eldest son has gone to an America she can’t begin to imagine, her youngest is off fighting somewhere for who knows what (he is accused of being a terrorist). As she comes to discover, his letters had not been delivered to her for years. But she is about to lose her view of the mountain to a planned tourist centre (the concept of tourism is equally foreign to her). What right do they have? In a scenario familiar to people all round the world (such as the Amazon Indians having their land stolen right now), how do you stop ‘development’ from taking your land and destroying your way of life, when everyone knows that it’s your land, but you have no legal document to prove it according to the interlopers?
In the novel, tourists discover the mountain, and make a film and an illustrated book about it. When the President hears about this, he is ashamed and wants to develop a tourist complex there. Everyone else blames Horïa for hindering prosperity; even the imam avoids her. She is an ‘obstacle to progress’, considered a fool and senile.
Sââd had undergone torture for not wanting to join the Party. Horïa is equanimous and tries to keep to her own life, and concentrates on weaving her qilims, asking him to stay silent. Nevertheless, it all ends in a blaze of violence.
This is a simple but great and passionate novel. It was banned in Tunisia.
TLILI, Mustapha (1937-2017), La montagne du lion, Mesnil-sur-l’Estrée, Gallimard, 1988, ISBN 2-07-071395-4
And then the season we were in let us to keep ourselves apart no longer. In December, everything is flowering and everything smells lovely; everything is young: spring seems to join into summer, and the countryside, long waterlogged, long oppressed by sullen clouds, everywhere takes its revenge, bursts: the sky is never clearer, nor more resplendent: birds sing, they are drunk; joy is everywhere, everywhere it explodes and in every heart it resounds. It was that season, the beautiful season, which swelled my breast, and the tam-tam too, I confess, and the festive air of our walk; it was the beautiful season and everything that it contained – and that it did not contain – that it expanded profusely! – which made me dance with joy.
This was one of the first works of Francophone literature from Africa. It is perhaps not a very deep novel, but I found it a pleasant read. It certainly came as a relief after the last French novel I read, Les Racines du Yucca from Chad – much easier to read and much less boring. In fact it might be a good first novel to read in French for someone learning the language but wanting an adult book. It is based heavily on the author’s own life. It is the fairly ordinary story of a boy growing up in a traditional village, who is sent off to school in the capital Conakry and finally in France (against the opposition of his clinging mother). She was a sorcerer, in a good way – since the crocodile was her totem, she was immune from its attack. His father was a blacksmith. He later regrets not having asked about the local customs during his happy childhood in Guinea, for which he feels deep nostalgia. To tell the truth, nothing really out of the ordinary or exciting happens. What a relief after the tragic stories from Rwanda and South Sudan! Even the colonial situation (Guinea was still under French rule at the time) seems to have barely any influences. Not such an unusual story even in real life, and to tell the truth I’m surprised it’s still considered one of the classics of Francophone African literature, but still I enjoyed it.
LAYE, Camara (1928-1980), L’Enfant Noir, Paris, Plon, 2015, ISBN 978-2-266-17894-5
Translated into English as The Dark Child or The African Child.
Is murder unforgivable because the only person from whom rightful forgiveness could come is no longer there?
In 1994 I went on holiday in South America. I was totally shocked that in the short time I was away, up to a million people were massacred in an intentional genocide in faraway Rwanda. I still suffer a strange feeling of guilt over that.
This novel is the story of two characters struggling to deal with the trauma from that time. The young woman, Isaro, had to flee the country for France after her parents were murdered. She comes up with the ‘modest’ research project of interviewing all the survivors and putting their stories into one book. What she does come up with is a novel, which centres on the other main character, Niko – we don’t find out that he is only her creation until right at the end. Niko is a sociopath and a mute, who has banished himself to a nose-shaped island in a lake, populated by monkeys. While he was not popular, he was a peaceful blacksmith until the day the genocidal army came and he is forced to club to death another man who may – or may not- be his own father, or else both of them will be shot; and he must decide whether to die or become a murderer in a split second. He chooses to kill and to live, and becomes the enthusiastic leader of a band of thugs.
I would have loved to have had the inexplicable explained – that is, why the genocide happened and how apparently normal decent human beings could carry out such heartless brutality on those they had lived with peacefully. I didn’t feel that I did get it. Maybe it’s some disease of collective madness that infects a group. Before we look down on the Rwandans – or Germans – or Turks – or anyone else collectively, we need to remember that few of our countries or peoples haven’t committed injustices to others (certainly my country has); and if as individuals we are sure that we would never commit such atrocities – well, can anyone who hasn’t been guilty of cruelty to a cockroach, for example, ever be certain of that? All of us are guilty if we knew what was happening in a ‘faraway African country’ and didn’t care.
Nowadays, Rwanda is doing quite well economically, and is even very progressive in some respects (banning plastic bags and percentage of women in parliament). An astonishing number of victims have even forgiven their tormentors. It has come at the price of putting a blanket over much of what happened. Nowadays, officially, people can’t call themselves Tutsi or Hutu.
I can’t imagine what it must be like every day to see someone who murdered the whole rest of your family walking the streets. I can’t blame any country for deciding that, when a choice has to be made, reconciliation or at least peace is preferable to justice, but I wish we could have both – not only due process for those who ordered the crimes, but also for the torturers, the people with the machetes, and the bureaucrats.
GATORE, Gilbert (1981 – ),The Past Ahead, translated from French by Marjolijn de Jager, Global African Voices, Bloomington & Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 2012, ISBN 9780253006660
(Originally published as Le passé devant soi, Paris, Editions Phébus, 2008)
Exile is nothing but a series of wanderings; it has no sedentary vocation. It is all very well to celebrate wandering and its enriching virtues, but it is still nothing but a succession of repeated deaths, a slicing up of a fluid lifetime into bits of existence shared between an idyllic and tormented viewpoint, focused towards the country of one’s birth and the impossibility of rooting oneself again in another soil. Exile is a slow death, a life under suspended sentence, a life in waiting.
I have to admit I wasn’t really happy with my choice of novel for Chad. Not that there’s much choice, even in French (in English, maybe none at all). This novel isn’t actually set in Chad, but in Mexico (where the author also lives), so I learnt almost nothing about that Chad from this it, apart from reading between the lines. And I’m afraid the book itself didn’t grab me. It is basically a novel about… writer’s block. I couldn’t help feeling that it could be interesting for other writers, but perhaps not for the general public. Lamko himself seems to be aware of this; but felt compelled to write the novel anyway.
Naturally, the plot doesn’t really go anywhere. The novel’s protagonist is in fact physically allergic to paper – as great a trial for someone who wants to write, as Beethoven’s onset of deafness was to that composer. He is fighting what he calls a ‘war against the paper’.
He has an ambivalent feeling about his own motherland, calling it ‘mon pays de merde que j’adore’.
He goes to a Mayan village for therapeutic reasons, where as an African he is a spectacle for the local schoolkids and has to suffer racist comments. On top of this are the normal tribulations of the writer (at one stage he thinks is recording four hours of his book, but then finds that he hadn’t recorded it after all).
For Lamko, exile means death. The exile does not abandon his country, it abandons him, and those who deliberately exile someone know that they are effectively murdering him.
I found his interminable lists rather annoying – his symptom may be ‘impasse syndrome’, a way of dealing with or merely a result of his writer’s block.
On the recurring theme of the ‘great conversation’ between books, Lamko mentions my Algerian book ‘Nedjma’, and quotes Senegal’s Ousmane (the last book I read!)
Lamko reminded me not to read too much into the writers’ native countries; they are under no obligation to write what might be expected by a European specialist in African literature from someone from an African ‘oral’ culture. The writers may have received a French education, lived overseas, immersed themselves in the literature of many countries. As an aside, I can’t help wondering if Western publishing houses, especially since they publish so few translations from most of the world, may not choose works which reinforce their own and their readers’ stereotypes about these countries, for example the treatment of women in Islamic societies. I can’t know, if a wide selection of books haven’t appeared in a language I can read.
The yucca of the title is a symbol of tenacity (only a root needs to be put back in earth for it to flourish).
LAMKO, Koulsy (1959 – ), Les racines du yucca, Paris, Philippe Rey, 2011, ISBN 9782848761848
In this way the strike established itself in Thiès. An endless strike which was, for many, along the whole length of the line, a time of suffering, but, also for many, a time of reflection. When the smoke finished floating over the savanna, they came to understand that the time had finished, the time of which the old people had spoken to them, the time when Africa was a kitchen garden. It was the machine which now reigned over their country. In stopping its motion over more than fifteen hundred kilometres, they became aware of their power, but also aware of their dependence. In truth, the machine was in the process of making new men of them. It did not belong to them, it was they who belonged to it. In halting it, it taught them this lesson.
This novel is set in three towns along the French-built railway from Dakar (Senegal) to Bamako (Mali). As the interminable 1947 railway strike drags on, the railwaymen and their families suffer intolerably from hunger and thirst and injustices by the colonial authorities, and eventually their destitute women also become more militant. The action takes place in three cities: Dakar and the railway town Thiès (Senegal), and Bamako (Mali).
The workers’ struggle represents the larger struggle for the people to overturn the power relationship with the French colonial administration. In the end, solidarity triumphs. This is not without a terrible cost, to themselves as well. Even their own social order is challenged. Different people have different ways of attempting to deal with the situation and the colonial régime. When a relative becomes a strike-breaker he is put on trial by them, despite being an elder and so traditionally worthy of more respect. Payments for polygamous families also cause conflict. As so often in revolutions and wars, it is the women who become prominent in keeping day-to-day life functioning and in forwarding the struggle (and, it has to be said, are sadly often suppressed back into their former roles afterwards). The high point is their protest march from Thiès to Dakar.
There is the cruel irony that, although there is no water to drink, the authorities use a but water cannon to disperse the protesters (who call themselves ‘God’s Bits of Wood’).
A great study of the price people have had to pay to achieve freedom, and still have to pay to get adequate working conditions.
OUSMANE, Sembene (1923 – 2007), Les Bouts de bois de Dieu, Paris?, Pocket, 2013 (originally published 1960?), ISBN 978-2-266-24581-4
Translated into English as: God’s Bits of Wood (Harlow, Heinemann, 2008, ISBN 9780435909598)