Book 60: Ivory Coast (French) – En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages = Waiting for the wild Beasts to Vote (Ahmadou KOUROUMA)
He had gone back up into the Sahel and the Sahara, his native land, and had gone back to the great tribal wandering. And he had fully recovered. It is only the desert which heals despair. For the desert is endless spaces, the silence of the sand dunes, a night sky enamelled with thousands of stars. An environment which faultlessly saves those who have profoundly lost hope. In the desert, it is possible to cry without fear of making a flood overflow a wadi. Nowhere is nature so favourable for meditation as the desert. That is why all the great prophets were born in the deserts.
This is the story of Koyaga, the eternal president-cum-dictator of the ‘Gulf Coast’. His story is an amalgam, and a peerless sendup, of several dictators – Ivory Coast’s own Houphouët-Boigny, ‘Emperor’ Bokassa of the Central African Republic/Empire, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now Congo DR), Eyadema of Togo. It is narrated mainly by a griot (praise-singer/minstrel/musician/historian/king’s fool) in a deliciously satirical, pseudo-sycophantic way. The great nationalist leader began his career as a stooge of the French colonialists, fighting for them in Indo-China, and when the president of his newly-independent country refuses the returning soldiers their pensions, Koyaga overthrows him. He becomes one of those dictators (like Houphouet-Boigny) who shout their anti-Communism so as to receive massive aid from the West. But with the fall of the Iron Curtain their usefulness to the West is at an end and they are forced to undergo democratic elections – and to re-invent themselves once again.
To European eyes it might seem like a sort of magical realism, yet here the unbelievable comes out as somehow more credible than the evident. For example, instead of the blatant obviousness of Koyaga ‘escaping’ from a prison where he was already permitted to come and go by his friend the prison director, and that he arrived in the capital disguised as a poultry seller (rather than as a white cock) – these are two banal for the legend, which would have magic warfare (and counter-magic from the to-be-assassinated president). For Koyaga is a shape-changer (such as you might find in Norse mythology). And prophecies, as usual, find fulfillment when you try to avoid them.
Kourouma’s novel is the story of Ivory Coast in particular and Africa in general. It is a scathing critique of a continent that has been betrayed by its leaders, who continue to inflict colonialism on their people in another form. Long but rich, it is another classic which I cannot recommend highly enough.
KOUROUMA, Ahmadou (1927-2003), En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages, Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1998, ISBN 978.2.02.041637.5
[English translation: KOUROUMA, Ahmadou, Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote, London, Vintage, 2004, ISBN 9780099283829]
The forest was black and Darko was afraid to enter. The trees, covered from apex to root with dry, sloughing scales, beckoned him with their crackling, stunted branches. The forest floor erupted in a charcoal-colored cloud of dust as the gnarled, ragged tree roots burst from the earth and turned into massive, thrashing limbs. Swaying, the trees began to lumber toward Darko. He wanted to escape, but terror paralyzed him. He opened his mouth to scream but no sound came.
Fairly light-hearted for a murder mystery, but treating its themes with due consideration, this is a very likeable, easy-to-read novel. Yet I found I learnt a great deal about the local culture and ways of thinking from it. A ‘wife of the gods’ (trokosi) is a local girl offered to the local healer/witch doctor in expiation of some supposed transgression. That this is without the poor girl’s consent goes without saying… The not-very-nice witch doctor in this work is one of the prime suspects in the murder of a young woman who had locked horns with him in her anti-AIDS campaign, but did he do it? There are certainly one or two rather extreme AIDS remedies in this book! The hero, Detective Inspector Darko Dawson, who had moved to the capital Accra, digs up dark corners of his own past in this apparently sleepy village. He is a very likeable character, even if he does go off the rails occasionally (and understandably). I suspect this novel will be enjoyed by a much wider circle than just those who read murder mysteries. A totally enjoyable read.
Quartey was raised in Ghana but now lives in the US.
QUARTEY, Kwei, Wife of the Gods, New York, Random House, 2009, ISBN 978-0-8129-7936-7