My Country, Africa: Autobiography of the Black Pasionaria by Andrée Blouin

I read this for the Read The World challenge as my book from the Central African Republic, which is where Andrée Blouin was born — although she didn’t actually live there for very long.

Her father, Pierre Gerbillat, was a French businessman with a transport company in what was then French Equatorial Africa. He saw Andrée’s mother, Josephine Wouassimba, dancing in a local village and decided he wanted to marry her. Although she was already promised to somebody else, he offered such a large dowry that her parents were persuaded.

He was forty; she was thirteen. And although they were married according to local custom, they were not actually married under French law — not only that, he was already engaged to a Belgian woman, who he married very soon. And after briefly juggling two wives, he left Josephine and sent Andrée to an orphanage for mixed-race children run by nuns in Brazzaville. She was at the orphanage from the age of three until she was seventeen, when she managed to escape, literally by climbing over the wall.

Then she worked as a dressmaker, and had a sequence of relationships with white men, before getting involved in the campaign for independence, first in Guinea and then the Belgian Congo, where she was Chief of Protocol for the newly independent Republic of the Congo for the very brief period before Mobutu overthrew the government and she had to flee the country, and move to France.

So she’s an interesting subject. Although the stuff which is most obviously notable about her — the politics — was not actually the most engaging part of the book, for me. The most powerful section is about severity of the orphanage, and the sheer cruelty of the nuns; and throughout the book the racial dynamics are particularly thought-provoking.

She was a mixed-race child at a time when they were so rare that they were shipped of to special orphanages and coerced to marry each other, to reduce their disruptive impact on society. And it made her even more of an outsider that she was cut off from normal African society for her entire childhood.

Then as an adult, she was a beautiful mixed-race woman who, despite having suffered at the hands of white institutions and individuals, was apparently only drawn to relationships with white men; one of whom she lived with, and had a child with, even though he was so racist that he would not allow her mother into their house.

And I don’t think she makes any comment herself about whether her partial whiteness made it easier or harder for her to be a woman taking a prominent role in the politics of independence, but it must have been relevant one way or another.

So there’s plenty of interesting material here. And it’s well written, for which the credit may go to Jean McKellar, who is credited as a ‘collaborator’; I don’t know exactly what that means in this case. It’s also out of print, though, and unless it sounds like it’s particularly relevant to your interests, I don’t think it’s so amazing that you need to seek it out.

Life and a Half by Sony Labou Tansi

This is my book from the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the Read The World challenge (which was still the Belgian Congo when Sony Lab’ou Tansi was born and was Zaire when he died).

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It is yet another book about dictatorship — a sequence of dictatorships in this case, each as violent and capricious as the one before. From the very first scene, in which a man refuses to die even as his body is hacked into ever smaller pieces in front of his family, it is unremittingly brutal and full of impossible things. It is, um, mythic? symbolic? surreal? I suppose you could call it magical realism, except I don’t think it fits in the realist tradition at all.

As I say, it is about a sequence of dictators, and one of the striking aspects of the book is the sense of violence just spawning more violence. So in the first few chapters it is focussed on a handful of protagonists and it seems like it is about violence, politics and revenge on that personal level. But then they die and the focus moves on to the next generation, but it still seems like a family story; then it moves on again, and again, and everything that seemed specific and personal — all the particular details and motivations — increasingly just seem to be part of the pattern.

It’s dark, poetic and certainly worth reading.

» The photo, of ‘President Mobutu at a parade of the “Corps des Volontaires de la République,” Kinshasa, Zaire, 1967’ was taken by Eliot Elisofon and is from the Smithsonian. I’ve cropped it to fit in the post; I think it’s worth checking out the full version, though.

Shadows of your Black Memory by Donato Ndongo

As part of my ongoing quest to read a book from every country, I picked up Shadows of your Black Memory as a book from Equatorial Guinea. It is a childhood/coming of age novel that sets up the conflict between traditional and western cultures: particularly in this case between traditional religion and Catholicism.

Which, at this point in the exercise, is not a description that fills me with excitement; because nearly all the literature of the post-colonial world seems to be about the conflict between tradition and western culture and/or modernity. Certainly the stuff which makes it into English translation. And it’s also pretty common to tell it as the story of a young person growing up caught between two worlds.

So I didn’t pick it up with much enthusiasm, but actually it’s a really good novel. It is simply very well written: vivid, fresh and engaging.

Here’s one of the Catholic bits:

When I was eight, I knew Father Claret’s catechism by heart, and my favourite book was his Straight and Sure Path to Heaven. The horror of eternal condemnation didn’t allow me to be a child. I didn’t go to the Wele River with Ba any more, I couldn’t learn how to make those bamboo toy cars that I loved so much even though cousin Asumu offered to teach me many times. I didn’t carve arrows to shoot at birds anymore, I didn’t go swimming in the Nganga River with my friend Otunga or my cousins Anton and Mbo. Even today I don’t know how to swim. I didn’t have a hunting dog, and I didn’t know how to make a cage for trapping fish. All this was for other children now, for the ones who weren’t fortunate enough to be touched by the grace of God. What’s the use of all that fun and idleness if in the end your soul is damned forever? Father Claret, the saintly one, asked me this as I read his book, and I had no choice; I had to acknowledge that the most important part of my life was my soul, and to be saved I had to avoid useless amusements, the silly games of my friends, my cousins, the brothers in my tribe. It was shortly before I was nine when I got into the habit of saying Mass from a little altar I made for myself in my room in front of the crucifix Father Ortiz had given me and under the religious things I had on the wall: the Eye-of-God triangle and some prints that were brought to me by my father’s white friends; the Little Prayer Book served as missal. Alone in my room, when no one was looking, when my little brothers succumbed to the midday sun, I got all dressed up in a bed sheet and pretended it was a priest’s chasuble and started to say Mass, in nomine Patris et Filii et Spritus Sancti, and I made the sign of the cross: I, a sinner, confess to Almighty God and the Blessed Mary Ever Virgin, Saint Michael the Archangel, John the Baptist, and to Apostles Peter and Paul and all the saints, and I beat my little breast in contrition, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, and I almost forgot the kyrie eleison kyrie eleison Christe eleison Christe eleison, then the intraito, oremus, and I turned my head ceremoniously; then in silent fervor I genuflected, gloria in excelsis Deo, and I recited it all without knowing what I said in a Latin I learned from listening to Father Ortiz so much.

So, yup, I really enjoyed this one. Well worth picking up. I’d be quite interested in reading the sequel if it was available in English. And I often forget to mention translators, but credit is certainly due in this case, so: the translation is by Michael Ugarte.

» The photo is of a Reliquary Guardian Figure (Eyema-o-Byeri) in the Brooklyn Museum. It is actually from Gabon rather than Equatorial Guinea, but it’s the right ethnic group (Fang).

Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou

Broken Glass is a novel from the Congo (aka the Republic of the Congo aka Congo-Brazzaville; i.e. the smaller of the two Congos, not the one which used to be Zaire). It was translated from French by Helen Stevenson.

It takes the form of the notebook jottings of the customer at a bar called Credit Gone West. Perhaps rather than try to explain:

let’s say the boss of the bar Credit Gone West gave me this notebook to fill, he’s convinced that I – Broken Glass – can turn out a book, because one day, for a laugh, I told him about this famous writer who drank like a fish, and had to be picked up off the the street when he got drunk, which shows you should never joke with the boss, he takes everything literally, when he gave me this notebook he said from the start it was only for him, no one else would read it, and when I asked why he was so set on this notebook, he said he didn’t want Credit Gone West just to vanish one day, and added that people in this country have no sense of the importance of memory, that the days when grandmothers reminisced from their  deathbeds was gone now, this is the age of the written word, that’s all that’s left, the spoken word’s just black smoke, wild cat’s piss, the boss of Credit Gone West doesn’t like ready-made phrases like ‘in Africa, when an old person dies, a library burns‘, every time he hears that worn-out cliché he gets mad, he’ll say ‘depends which old person, don’t talk crap, I only trust what’s written down‘, so I thought I’d jot a few things down here from time to time, just to make him happy, though I’m not sure what I’m saying, I admit I’ve begun to quite enjoy it, I won’t tell him that, though, he’ll get ideas and start to push me to do more and more, and I want to be free to write when I want, when I can, there’s nothing worse than forced labour, I’m not his ghost, I’m writing this for myself as well, that’s why I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes when he reads these pages, I don’t intend to spare him or anyone else, by the time he reads this, though, I’ll no longer be one of his customers, I’ll be dragging my bag of bones about some other place, just slip him the document quietly before I go saying ‘mission accomplished’

That’s the whole of the first chapter; the entire book is written without full stops in this way as long, run-on sentences. Generally it’s a pretty effective device, though at times it can be a bit tiring to read.

The first few chapters tell the stories of other customers at the bar, and then the second half of the book concentrates on Broken Glass’s own life, and how he went from being a school teacher to a drunkard. As the material becomes more personal the tone shifts from comic to melancholy, and the book ended up being more moving than I would have expected after the first couple of chapters.

I heard Mabanckou interviewed on the radio (or a podcast?) and one thing he said was that he didn’t particularly want to write about politics. Well, that’s fine by me. Over the course of reading books from every African country I can see that I’m likely to read an awful lot about civil war and dictatorship, both because that’s a real part of the African experience and because it is the kind of thing that is likely to attract Western publishers; so it’s good to read more personal narratives as well.

Broken Glass is my book from Congo for the Read The World challenge.

» the photo is 032_BIERE NGOK, uploaded to Flickr by & © jmlaurent.