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Posts Tagged ‘Congolese Lit’

Group Photo by the River by Emmanuel Dongala

April 13, 2022 2 comments

Group Photo by the River by Emmanuel Dongala (2010) Original French title: Photo de groupe au bord du fleuve.

Group Photo by the River by Emmanuel Dongala is a book I received through my Kube subscription. It’s the tenth novel by this Congolese writer and chemist. I have to confess that I’d never heard of him before.

Group Photo by the River is set in Brazzaville, in the Republic of Congo. Méréana is a divorcée who raises her two sons and her baby niece Lyra. She’s an orphan because her mother Tamara, Méréana’s sister died of AIDS. Méréana and Tamara were close and Méréana took care of her sister during her illness, causing a rift between her and her husband Tito. He started to go out a lot and when she demanded a condom before sex, he slapped her. She left him and now has to raise the children on her own, with the help of her Auntie Turia.

Méréana was a brilliant student in high school when she got pregnant by Tito and dropped out of school. Now, she’s barely making ends meet and she needs money to go back to school and get a degree in IT . She knows she’ll have a better paying job.

This is how she found herself by the road, breaking rocks to make bags of gravel. She works with a group of women and they sell their bags to middlemen who supply construction contractors. It’s an exhausting job, outside, in the sun and with low selling prices.

One day, they learn that the sale prices that the middlemen have with the construction contractors skyrocketted because a lot of gravel is needed to build the new national airport. The ladies want a part o this profit and decide to stick together and ask for a higher price, even if it means that they won’t sell their bags right away.

The novel is about this fight for a decent income and for a decent life. This group of eight women will get organized to improve their daily life. They choose Méréana as their representative because she’s the most educated of them.

We follow their struggle, their actions and their doubts. Dongala has two goals with this novel: he wants to write a feminist book and an homage to Congolese women and he denounces the corruption of the power in the Republic of Congo and the hypocrisy around grand shows designed to appease international institutions.

This is a country where you can get poisoned for speaking up and imprisoned for nothing. Demonstrations are repressed with guns and real bullets. Méréana goes to a ministry and she berates herself because she forgot to tell someone where she was going. And in this country, you need people know you’ve been to a public office in case you just vanish into thin air and never come back.

Dongala shows us the condition of women in Africa through his characters’ life stories. They include rapes during the civil war, repudiations, expulsions from their home after their husband died, accusations of sorcery and agreement with fetishes and losing their son after the power in place kidnapped and killed them. One of them is a second office, a mistress, and there is an outstanding scene in the book where she’s in a bar at the same time as her lover’s wife and they have a verbal fight over him through karaoke. Brilliant.

Dongala points out the impacts of traditional beliefs and customs on the condition of women. Ignorance and fear of otherworldly creatures pushes villagers to act inhumanly. Family traditions allow brothers and envious sisters-in-law to strip a widow of her home, her business and her belongings. Nothing is done to stop them.

The author depicts husbands and fathers who are violent, unfaithful, lazy and cowards but not all his male characters are that way. Armando the taximan and brother to one of the women of the group provides them with free rides and contributes to their fight. One of ladies explains how her husband who had a fatal illness provided for her after his death by playing on the fear of fetishes. They built a scam to make people believe that she was protected by a powerful fetish and that people should leave her alone. It was his way of taking care of her after his death, she kept their home.

Group Photo by the River is a very attaching novel and Dongala manages to balance the militant side of his book with moving the plot forward and describing the women’s fight. As a reader, you root for Méréana and her friends and hope they will get what they want.

It would make a wonderful film and I truly don’t understand why it is not translated into English. What can I say, that’s another Translation Tragedy.

For another take on this book, see Nathalie’s, at her blog Chez Mark et Marcel. (Mark Twain and Marcel Proust)

Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou

November 5, 2017 16 comments

Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou (2015) Original French title: Petit Piment.

Mabanckou’s novel Black Moses opens like this:

Tout avait débuté à cette époque où, adolescent, je m’interrogeais sur le nom que m’avait attribué Papa Moupelo, le prêtre de l’orphelinat de Loango : Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko. Ce long patronyme signifie en lingala « Rendons grâce à Dieu, le Moïse noir est né sur la terre des ancêtres. », et il est encore gravé sur mon acte de naissance… It all began when I was a teenager, and came to wonder about the name I’d been given by Papa Moupelo, the priest at the orphanage in Loando: Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko. A long name, which in Lingala means ‘Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors’, and is still inscribed on my birth certificate today…

(Translation by Helen Stevenson)

With a name as long as this, a nickname was inevitable, Petit Piment it is in French (Little Pepper), Black Moses in the English translation. The tone of the book is set, the tone of a storyteller who captivates their audience with their tales. How much is true, how much is invented on the spot is debatable. Petit Piment starts the story of his life from his childhood at the orphanage to present time.

Petit Piment has spent all his formative years at the orphanage in Loango, Congo. Papa Moupelo visits the orphans every week until the Marxist revolution hits the country. The orphanage’s director is a fervent admirer of the new president and the orphanage must become a show room for the new power. Exit Papa Moupelo and his mild catechism. Welcome to zealots with the president’s Marxist gospel. Our narrator Petit Piment recalls everyday life at the orphanage with energy and vivid images. The routine, his friends, the staff with a special mention to Niangui who was like a mother to him. As the old staff is progressively replaced by new and obedient staff spewing off Marxist maxims, the orphanage becomes less of a home.

Arrive the twins Songi-Songi and Tala-Tala. They quickly become the masters of the dormitories, bullying the other orphans into submission. Somehow Petit Piment manages to remain in their good graces. When they decide to evade from the orphanage to go to the economical capital of the country, Pointe-Noire, Petit Piment trails after them. What kind of future does he have in Loango anyway?

So they leave the orphanage, totally ill prepared for the outside world. They never learnt any trade and nothing was made to prepare them for their adult life. From the way Petit Piment talks about his quotidian at Loango, he has no expectations, no idea of what his life could be after the orphanage. It’s no surprise that Petit Piment and associates become partners in crime. Young offender is their career in Pointe-Noire. Their quotidian is now made of violence, bathed in drugs and mixed with prostitution.

I enjoyed Petit Piment as a dark coming of age novel set in the tradition of oral storytelling but I was very disappointed by the ending. Until the last forty pages, I thought it was pretty good, even if it wasn’t as political as expected. I thought I’d read more about the new Marxist power and its impact on the Congolese’s lives. This thread is a bit left aside after Petit Piment left the orphanage. I thought Petit Piment was an engaging character and I enjoyed the Congo setting as I’m always curious about life in other countries.

But the ending seemed blotched. It felt like Mabanckou was on a deadline and didn’t know how to get out of his own story. He found a dubious way out that clashed with the rest of the novel. I’m sure that what he writes about, errand young gangs in Pointe Noire, is a sad reality. I would have liked something more political and the ending drifted too much from the beginning and middle of the book to be saved by great characterization or chiseled prose.

And indeed, Mabanckou’s prose is a special territory in francophone literature. It’s like the Amazonian forest, luxuriant, colorful. Full of exotic images and new ways with the French language. Like in Black Bazaar, I had fun digging out Brassens references in the text. For example, here’s an excerpt from the song La mauvaise reputation.

Quand je croise un voleur malchanceux,

Poursuivi par un cul-terreux;

Je lance la patte et pourquoi le taire,

Le cul-terreux se r’trouv’ par terre.

Je ne fais pourtant de tort à personne,

En laissant courir les voleurs de pommes ;

When I run into an unlucky thief

Chased by a hick

I stick out my foot and why keep it quiet,

The hick finds himself on the ground

Yet I don’t do harm to anyone

By letting apple thieves have a run. 

Translation from the site Brassens With English

And here’s a paragraph by Mabanckou (p133 of my French paperback edition)

Et quand d’aventures je croisais un voleur de mangues ou de papayes poursuivi par un cul-terreux du Grand Marché, je courais après le poursuivant, je lançais aussitôt ma petite patte d’emmerdeur, le cul-terreux se retrouvait par terre tandis que le délinquant, à ma grande satisfaction, prenait la poudre d’escampette et levait son pouce droit pour me remercier. And when I happened to run into a mango or papaya thief chased by a hick from the Great Market, I ran after the chaser, stuck out my pain-in-the-neck’s little foot and the hick found himself on the ground while the petty thief, to my great satisfaction, took off and gave me the thumbs up to thank me.

As you can see if you compare the two French texts, Mabanckou replays the song’s scene with several words borrowed to Brassens. Cul-terreux is not a word we use a lot anymore and when I saw it, I immediately thought about Brassens. That part was fun to me but probably lost in translation. To anglophone readers: do you have footnotes about this in the novel or notes by the translator about Mabackou’s language?

So, if you’ve never read Mabanckou, I’d recommend Black Bazaar first and this one only if you enjoyed his style.

Other reviews : Tony’s at Tony’s Reading List and Philippe’s at Les Livres que je lis. And I’m sure there are other ones as Black Moses was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize.

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