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Book 68: Mali (French) – L’étrange destin de Wangrin = The Fortunes of Wangrin (Amadou Hampâté Bâ)

Among my surprises from this project has sometimes been finding where the countries come in order, when you rank them by population. I must admit to being surprised to see the countries of the Sahel, and nearby, ranked so highly in the population stakes, and fairly close together – we’ve just had Niger and Burkina Faso, here we are in Mali, and Chad and South Sudan will follow shortly. I’ve always thought of these countries as having few people with a poor, if not precarious, environmental existence, but on the contrary they obviously manage to support large populations somehow! And it was a surprise that what I always thought of as wretchedly infertile desert or semi-desert lands have larger populations than the countries round the coast, except for Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast.
Like my book for Uganda, Wangrin is not very nice character, but in this case he does have redeeming qualities (and I found this to be on the whole a far better book). Like the English and Australian outlaws, Robin Hood and Ned Kelly (respectively), his criminality is supposedly directed only against the rich and powerful (including the French colonial authorities). But he does come off as quite nasty, calculating, hypocritical and venal, with his eye always on the main chance. Perhaps most shocking is when he passes through an Eden-like town, is treated with kindness and generosity by the commandant’s interpreter and gatekeeper Romo, decides he wants the latter’s cushy job, and sets about stealing this position for himself (thereby making Romo his greatest enemy, reasonably enough) and sets up his son. As he enriches himself, his morality decreases. He enters into complots then cheats his partners in crime. Even his daughter gets used as a weapon. He is not above conjuring witchcraft against his enemies. His prayer to the spirits reveals the sort of person he wants to be:
“Breathe into me the virtue which permits the chameleon to constantly change its colour according to its surroundings in order to pass unseen.”
He can never feel secure, claiming he even sleeps with his eyes open. Nevertheless, he does have some redeeming qualities, such as his generosity to the poor (which the author emphasises in his Afterword but doesn’t come out in the tale itself – what a strange praise-singing is this novel, where ironically only the hero’s worst qualities usually appear!) It’s as if Bâ himself has been mesmerised by Wangrin, as were his other victims, one is tempted to say like the creature of a snake charmer (if it weren’t for the hero’s ultimate fate!)
He is a world champion networker. He always keeps his promises (unfortunately often of revenge). Although become poor, he dies owing nothing, money or otherwise. On the other hand I must admire him for his linguistic skills, speaking perfect Bambara (his mother tongue), Peul, Dogon, Mossi, Djerma, Hausa and, passably, Baolé and Bété (not to mention French)…
There are some great images, like this one of civil servants fearful of an official inspection:
“When the wild animals are disturbed while feasting on the spoils of the hunt, they pause for a moment and move out of the way until the danger has passed. Then they return to their repast as soon as they no longer feel fear.”
The novel is suffused with the world of the griot (praise-singer), whose qualities include:
“On the other hand, what Kountena’s guitar cords refused to him, his vocal cords and his tongue granted it to him to a large extent. He was a marvellous story-teller, singer, and at the same time an excellent mime.”
It is also full of wonderful proverbs, such as the Peul pearl “If you are led to eat the meat from an animal’s body, at least wait until it is good and fat”, i.e. “If you have to do something below your rank, it should at least be something worth doing.”
The book is also chock-full of fascinating footnotes, from which I learnt a great deal about local life. Considering how much I was reading about Ancient Rome that year, I couldn’t help noticing the similarities between Rome and Mali in their obsession with auguries taken from natural phenomena.
In the end Wangrin falls victim to the prophecy that was made of him, falls from power, is ruined, becomes a drunkard, and falls to an ignominious, stupid death. All in all, a great portrait of a flawed but fascinating character.
Coming back to that Afterword… I’m not sure if Wangrin was originally a real person, but all that I can say to Bâ’s plea that..

“generally, the historical existence of the one who gave himself the surname ‘Wangrin’ is admitted, but it is considered that I must have “romanticised” his life to some extent, even introducing, to spice up the story and give it some sort of symbolic significance, a subtle dose of oral tradition and supernatural events of my own creation.” [my translations]

… this is a perfect description of this great novel. Methinks he doth protest too much…

Amadou Hampâté Bâ (c.1900-1991), L’étrange destin de Wangrin, ou les roueries d’un interprète africain, Paris, 10/18, 1973, 1992, ISBN 978-2-264-01758-1





Book 59: Madagascar (French) – Nour, 1947 (RAHARIMANANA)

Ambahy – Night which tears and lacerates itself at the dawn of lucidities, on some eyelids that close to dreams. It gently pours me into the cold shadow which opens naked on the stones. The sun strips the world and, from modesty, the wind blows in the sands, blinding the eyes. I resume my steps and rush them ceaselessly on in all my wanderings. How slow the shadow is in reaching us… I am already only a dream, a stroke from the times that fray in fantasies. To drift in the shadows that stretch and lengthen.I stumble my breath on stones that obstruct my lungs – spit! Spit!, I stumble my steps on the beach still pregnant with darkness.

                Blood, my blood on the black sand.

[my translation]


Madagascar is where I would have been at the moment – sadly I had to postpone my holiday there until next year due to an outbreak of the plague there! All my best wishes for the safety of everyone there. For as long as I can remember I’ve had a fascination with Madagascar and have wanted to go there. Travelling there via literature proved even more difficult; at the time I started this reading program there were apparently NO novels translated into English. I finally settled on Nour, 1947 by Raharimanana, which was written in French (and HAS been translated into Spanish as Nur, 1947).


This novel is a poetic, mythologised history of the Great Red Island. It is very obvious that the author (who now lives in France) is also a poet, and very often the language is more poetry than prose, though not written in verse, so heavy is the imagery and it can be not easy to tease out the tale. Magic, mythology and history co-inhabit the story. Much of it reads like a dream (sometimes a nightmare).

The title refers to the abortive revolt of 1947 against the French colonialists. Nour is a heroine figure, who meets a tragic end when she is shot by the French, and who was loved by a WWII rifleman. It is a multiple text. Interspersed with the poetic history of the island, the story of Nour and Dziny and the bloodied revolt are diary entries from befuddled missionaries trying to civilise the ‘natives’ in the previous century.

I think of Madagascar as largely peaceful and unified, but that must be a misreading of its history. Going by this story, the red soil must be soaked with blood from inter-tribal struggles (ultimately to unify the island) and the fight against colonialism. While it is part of what is obviously a big African tradition of anticolonial.writing, Raharimanana does not spare his own countrymen either. It is tragic, violent, sometimes gory, and pessimistic. But its language and imagery are overpowering.


Raharimanana (1967 – ), Nour, 1947, Dijon, Motifs, 2008, ISBN 2-84261-403-8



Book 38: Algeria (French) – Nedjma (Kateb YACINE)

Lakhdar has escaped from his cell.

At dawn, his silhouette appears on the landing; everyone lifts their heads, without any great emotion.

Mourad stares at the fugitive.

“Nothing out of the ordinary. You will get caught.”

“They know your name.”

“I don’t have any ID cards.”

“They’ll come and nab you here.”

“That’s enough. Don’t discourage me.”

[my translation]


The first book I ever read in French was “L’Etranger” (“The Stranger/Outsider” by the pied-noir (Frenchman who lived in Algeria) Albert Camus, a rather existentialist novel about another pied-noir who kills another man. My teacher chose it as a fairly easy read, and its shock lives with me to this day. Later I read his “La Peste” (about an outbreak of the plague in Oran.)

But this time I wanted to read something by an Arab Algerian. In a way Nedjma is both a complement and an antidote to L’Etranger. In Camus’ work the Arabs are a mere background effect, like the heat, and if one of them gets shot it seems almost meaningless there, just as today a terrorist couldn’t care less whether he is killing Christians or Muslims. In Yacine’s mythologised story of Algeria, on the other hand, it’s the French who are almost irrelevant.

It’s possible to get a feeling of why the Algerian war for independence was so brutal and callous on both sides. The war seems almost forgotten today but it was a seminal event. France treated Algeria very differently from most of its other colonies – it was to become part of La Métropole, north of the Mediterranean, and its départements were just like those of the mainland; and it was heavily colonised. The struggle for independence was very long and bloody until President De Gaulle shocked the French by giving in and granting freedom.

This major work of Algerian literature is set during the time of the French colony. The novel centres on the métisse (mixed-race woman) Nejma (’Star’), as a symbol of Algeria, and the dangerous lives of the four lovers who revolve around her.

I have to admit that I found the free-form French very difficult. Sometimes a single sentence will run over two pages! I was beginning to despair of my French, but now I feel a bit better after reading my much easier book from Burkina Faso. ‘Nejma’’s circular plotting, ending back at the beginning, also makes it hard to follow – sometimes I felt like a caged animal. (The snappy beginning which I quoted above is not typical!) Even though it was hard work, I know it would well repay reading again, and it is written in beautiful French.


YACINE, Kateb (1929 – 1989), Nedjma, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1996 (originally published 1956), ISBN 978-2-02-028947-4

Book 21: France (French) – Notre Dame de Paris = The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Victor HUGO)



It was a truly wondrous grimace which gleamed at that moment in the circular aperture in the rose window. After all the pentagonal, hexagonal and irregular forms which had followed one another at that window without fulfilling that ideal of grotesqueness which had been foreseen by the excited imaginations by the orgy, nothing more was needed to obtain their suffrage than the grandiose grimace which had just dazzled those gathered there.

[my translation]


Called The Hunchback of Notre Dame in English, although the French title is more appropriate, this is an über-famous historical novel whose hero, or anti-hero, Quasimodo was adopted by the French as a sort of national symbol. But the novel has a second, or maybe first, hero – the magnificent gothic cathedral itself (hence the title in French). You learn a great deal about its eventful history along the way.

This beauty-and-the-beast story is probably too famous to need summarising here. It is wonderfully atmospheric and evocative of its turbulent age. For a story set in a church it seems very anti-clerical, at least the evil archdeacon is… well, very evil, but Hugo shows us great understanding of where he (and the other characters) is coming from. It is surely one of the greatest historical romances ever written. Hugo himself represents a vital turning-point in the history of the novel.

Quasimodo is a sort of living gargoyle, one of those medieval fantasies from the heights of the gothic cathedrals sprung to life. Despite his grotesque form and hopeless quest, his thoughts seemingly twisted like his body, Hugo has immense sympathy for him, so so do we. It’s impossible not to admire how he flies around his shadowy ream like a gibbon in the forest.

Sometimes Hugo gets carried away with his excursions into the history of Notre Dame and medieval Paris so that parts turn almost into essays. You might like to skim over these slow parts, perhaps to come back to them. But Hugo was like an early conservationist or preservationist in his passion for Paris’ heritage and the need to cherish it. And in this passionate work he has added another intricately incised column into French civilisation.


HUGO, Victor (1802 – 1885), Notre-Dame de Paris 1482, Paris, Gallimard, 1966, 1985, ISBN 2-07-036549-2 (originally published 1831)