Conversations

At the heart of the modern African francophone novel
Boniface Mongo-Mboussa
Translated by Elizabeth Senja Spackman

In sub-Saharan African literary history, 1968 is a memorable year. That year, two outstanding novels appeared in quick succession. The first is The Suns of Independence (Les soleils des indépendences), by the Ivoirian author Ahmadou Kourouma; the second by Malian Yambo Ouologuem is translated as Bound to Violence (Le devoir de violence). Both texts introduced a small revolution into the history of the francophone African novel. Long before these books, there was a fairly established tradition of mimicking French literature, which Leopold Sedar Senghor termed the literature "of teachers."

Then came the Ivoirian Ahmadou Kourouma with The Suns of Independence. A novel about ruin, The Suns of Independence is the story of a disenchanted man, Fama Doumbouya, an authentic prince reduced to beggar in post-colonial Africa. Coming from an aristocratic Malinké society, Fama is stripped of his princely authority by French colonial authorities. To get revenge for this affront, he participates in the national liberation movement, with the hope that the future leaders of the country will restore his rights. Independence achieved, Fama receives, under the pretense of thanks, only a party membership card. This gesture angers the prince. The new postcolonial leaders of Africa are in his eyes only bastards as they are illegitimate.

As with Things Fall Apart by Nigerian Chinua Achebe, The Suns of Independence, depicts a world in a state of total decomposition, one which offers neither respite nor opportunity for Fama, who, in turn refuses to adhere to the social codes governing this new postcolonial society. Born into a world of gold, Fama now lives in a world whose violent changes elude him. His wanderings throughout the course of the book show that he is out of place in this new society where former beggars now rule covered in gold, and where kings become beggar-rebels. In this exploded and ass backwards universe, only the narrator, maintaining an ever-cheeky view overlooking the environment and characters, holds the real power: the power of writing, which, through the magic of words gives meaning to words and things, and controls destiny.

What Ahmadou Kourouma writes here is not so much about disillusion engendered by independence, but rather about what I would term ‘Grey Africa’: on the one side, a romantic version of Africa, which satisfies its pre-colonial grandeur through the character of Fama and, on the other, a new sterile Africa, encapsulated by its new leaders, “the bastards.”

 Ahmadou Kourouma tells us that to revel in the glory of pre-colonial Africa is folly, just as believing in an independent and prosperous Africa is a chimera. His idea here it is to show how the whole continent is, at the moment he writes the book, a form of Rimbaud’s drunken boat. This both pertinent and impertinent meditation on the “African stalemate” combined with the original tone makes The Suns of Independence a seminal book. But, more important than this argument, what distinguishes this fine novel in our literary history is its inventive language and original narrative. Unable to write his character in a classical language, Ahmadou Kourouma simulates oral discourse by introducing Malinké syntax into French. This irruption of Malinké phrasing into the language of Molière has baffled more than one French reader. When Ahmadou Kourouma sent the manuscript to Editions du Seuil in Paris, the opinion of the editorial board was unanimous: the author is illiterate. From the novel’s opening words: "It had been a week in the capital that one Konee Ibrahima, of the race Malinké, had ended or, as we say in Malinké: he couldn’t put up with a slight cold...," (“il y avait une semaine qu’avait fini dans la capitale Koné Ibrahima, de race malinké, ou disons-le en malinké : il n’avait pas soutenu un petit rhume…”) the French reader is faced with an unusual syntax. Even if in Malinké one can say easily ‘a dead man, he has ended’, in French, the phrase seems impossible. Only things end (‘finir’); human beings die (mourir). Hence the rejection of the final manuscript.

The novel appeared for the first time through Presses Universitaires de Montreal in Quebec, Canada, where it won the Prix de la Francité, and then gained popularity amongst the small Parisian circle. This led to the embarrassed regrets of Editions du Seuil, who, in a letter written by their director Paul Flamand on April 22, contacted Ahmadou Kourouma with a proposal to buy the book from the Canadians. Ever since, the book’s originality has been unanimously praised by critics and African writers, as shown by the 2004 testimony of Thierno Monénembo in the weekly Jeune Afrique upon Ahmadou Kourouma’s death. Monénembo writes,
“He left us an original and profound body of work that determined the evolution of francophone African literature for thirty five years. The Suns of Independence, his first book, is indeed a seminal work, a landmark for future generations […] Decolonization completed, Africa had nothing to say: literature, this white man’s thing, "these words — to speak like Hampâté Ba — “lying down on the paper," offer nothing. Africa was left to return to music, painting and sculpture, its traditional modes of expression. This is where Ahmadou Kourouma emerges, injecting new blood and breath to reinvigorate the African novel: all those who wrote after owe him something.”

Yambo Ouologuem, the battle of Hernani as seen from Mali

 Alongside The Suns of Independence, Bound to Violence by Malian Yambo Ouologuem is the second novel to break new ground in the field of francophone literature. The novel’s innovative theme deconstructs the Eden-like image of pre-colonial Africa invented by ethnologists and Negritude poets. With this picture, Yambo Ouologuem opposes the image of a continent tainted by the cynicism of slave kings from their first contact with Arab slave traders. As a stylistic innovation, Bound to Violence inaugurates an aesthetic of the grotesque and a practice of inter-textuality. A quick glance at the history of the grotesque, from the discovery (around the end of the fifteenth century) of bizarre ornaments in the basement of Nero’s palace, passing on through the German Romantics to Victor Hugo, illustrates that the criteria of excess and novelty are inseparable from its aesthetic. Which is to say that the grotesque opposes compliance with any sense of propriety and exerts a critical function in the parody and caricature of those venerated genres in vogue. The aesthetic of the grotesque is, from this point of view, an aesthetic of rupture that Yambo Ouologuem successfully achieves in 1968’s African literary field by mixing the epic and the novel, parodying the detective story, conflating ethnology and Third Worldism in their celebration of eternal Africa, and ridiculing the epic songs of the griots and even the famous African tradition.

Hailed upon its release by the Prix Renaudot, the book became the subject of much discussion. Four years after its publication, the Canadian critic Eric Sellin reported the presence in Bound by Violence of several passages from a novel by Andre Schwarz-Barts, The Last of the Just (Le Dernier des Justes), winner of the Prix Goncort (1959). A year later, another anonymous article published in the Times Literary Supplement revealed that Yambo Ouologuem had also taken some passages from It's a Battlefield by Graham Greene. As a consequence of the lack of doubt surrounding Yambo Ouologuem’s plagiarism, the novel’s great originality was simply overshadowed.

By in turn rewriting Koranic suras, the bible, ethnographic tracts, sixteenth century Arab stories, and others, Bound by Violence is a compilation of parodies; pastiches that his critics have not appreciated for their true worth. When tracing the reception of the novel, French critic Bernand Mouralis noted that the critics were divided on the reasons for Yambo Ouologuem’s exceptional audiences. Some praised him for looking without complacency at Africa’s past and appreciated the baroque exuberance of his narration; others criticized him for confirming Europe’s negative image of Africa. By presenting precolonial Africa as a fabric of crime and violence, Yambo Ouologuem had violated a taboo respected by his predecessors in showing that well before the arrival of the Europeans the continent was already a theatre of infamy. This infraction was unpardonable for the African nationalists and Third Worldists who, at the time, still considered Africa as the ideal place for the realization of the dream of socialist revolution.
             
This epic or anti-epic, which tells the story of a black empire called Nakem from 1202 until 1947, remains unprecedented as a project in the history of francophone African novel. Through its ample narrative scope and literary originality, Bound by Violence is the sort of manifesto that can still ignite heated debate.

Towards a conclusion: looking forward

At the end of colonization, French narrative writings ranged from novels of protest (God’s Bits of Wood (Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu) by Sembene Ousmane and Cruel City (Ville Cruelle) by Cameroonian Mongo Beti), historical narratives (Guinean Tam Si Niane’s Soundjiata)to coming-of-age novels (The Ambiguous Adventure (L’aventure ambiguë) by Senegalese Cheikh Hamidou Kane). The publication of Suns of Independence and Bound by Violence fiercely introduced the Sub-Saharan African francophone novel into the heart of literary modernism in the sense meant by Mexican writer Octavio Paz. That is to say "a critical literature. Critical of the world we live in and critical of literature, critical of criticism. And this criticism is always creative. The criticism of language here becomes creation of language.”

What lessons can we draw from the Francophone novel twenty-six years after the publication of The Suns of Independenceand Bound by Violence?The first observation is more of a medical prognosis: the Francophone novel is alive and well. Never before have African novelists been writing so much. The second is one of permanence. Kourouma, whose equivocal relationship with the French language led him to use a mode of expression simulating oral discourse, furthers his exploration in his second novel, Monné, outrages et defits (1990). This time around he approaches the subject more discretely, since there is talk of a meditation on the status of the interpreter (as master of the word) in the colonial relationship. Monné, which is probably Kourouma’s best novel, beautifully complements The Suns of Independence.

But the great literary revelation of the 80s remains Congolese novelist Sony Labou Tansi. His fable La vie et demie (1979) (Life and a Half)Marquez-inspired, written in a violent language with an acute sense of the carnivalesque — is the first text that attacks tropical dictatorships head-on. We find the same theme in the work of his compatriot, Henri Lopes’s Le pleurer-rire (Cry Laughter) (1982), a delectable novel, which combines the simplicity of everyday speech with a scholarly narrative architecture. As the narrator is a novelist himself, he progressively submits the work to a literary friend, which changes the course of the novel. Alongside these two Congolese, it is worth noting a third, the unfairly forgotten Tchicaya U Tam Si. Recognized globally as a poet, Tchicaya U Tam Si is also the author of the fine novel Les méduses (The Jellyfish) (1982), a kind of false thriller told through rumor. While most African novelists have used rumor as a sort of anti-discourse, discrediting the official voice of power, Tchicaya U Tam Si instead turns rumor into a character, one which acts as a valve that the Congolese use to escape the violence of their history. The rumor here is a refuge, a sterile palaver... Here lies, I think, a simultaneously stimulating interrogation of our relationship to words and, especially, an original way of “indigenizing” our novel.

Disappointed by the mediocrity of the self-proclaimed “fathers of nations” and influenced by their own wanderings, the new generation of African novelists enters in literature during the 90s, with suspicion in their mouths. The African writer, says Togolese Kossi Efoui, is not an employee of the Ministry of Tourism, which is one way to discredit the enigmatic invasion of realism into the African novel. For his part, the Djiboutian Abdourahman Waberi declares himself to be an international bastard. This is a generation whose primary concern is to situate themselves in relation to world literature, practicing extensive intertextuality, constructing genealogies through citation, showing the reader how literature comes from literature. It is an interesting literary exercise, even exciting, but the works are not always convincing. If I had to choose from the lot, I would mention two texts. The first Lagon Lagunes (Lagoons Lagoon) (2000) by the French-Senegalese writer, Sylvie Kande. The complex and opaque Lagon Lagune traces the biographical and intellectual journey of the author, merging with historical moments of Africa and its diasporas, all based on a baroque scholarship. A veritable maze, the text celebrates hybridity, the interplay between the masculine and feminine, intertextuality, etc. The second revelation of the new generation of African writers is Ivorian Koffi Kwahulé. Initially recognized as a playwright, he succeeded with his first foray into novel writing with Babyface (2006). Its theme is classic: love in the time of war. The originality here resides in the mise en abyme of the narrative. It is a story built from the diary of a character in the novel, Jérôme, a sort of weekend writer, who throughout the journal describes the passionate love of his wife. This all leads to a game of mirrors between fiction / reality, between diary /third-person narration. Kwambulé alternates between meditation on the art of fiction and pages of poetry, diaries and detective novels, anecdotes and rumors, the myth of the Mami- Wata and historical novels, not to mention the news, all set to a background of jazz.

We can see that this young literature, despite its ambiguities and weaknesses, is remarkably alive. And this dynamism is, I think, one of the highlights of Francophone literature. It remains to integrate it into the school system, because literature, as Roland Barthes so aptly says, is what is taught.

Boniface Mongo- Mboussa is a Congolese-born, Paris-based literary critic. He is the author of Desir D’Afrique. He is also the literary editor of journal Africultures.

Thierno Monénembo, Mille cauris pour Ahmadou Kourouma, Jeune Afrique January 2004

Octavio Paz, Solo for Two Voices. (Solo à deux voix). Interviews with Julian Rios, Ramsay, 1992, p.108

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