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