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Burkina Faso – next stop on the world tour

The Parachute DropNext stop on my literary journey along the Prime Meridian is the small African state of Burkina Faso and The Parachute Drop by Norbert Zongo.

Few books I’ve read have opened in a more chilling way than this slim novel which was published after his assassination in 1998. In his preface Zongo, the country’s most respected journalist and publisher of the L’Indépendant newspaper, describes being beaten by Burkina Faso’s special police force who had discovered the novel and judged it subversive. What followed was a period of solitary confinement, persecution and attempts on his life, culminating in his murder. An Independent Commission of Inquiry later concluded that he had been killed for purely political reasons because of his investigative work into the death of a driver who had worked for the brother of President Blaise Compaoré.

A few pages into the novel it becomes evident why the government forces considered this work to be an incendiary piece of writing. Zongo portrays the fictional West African nation of Watinbow which is led by the corrupt and immoral President Gouama.  Gouma has grown rich by diverting IMF and world aid funds into his private Swiss bank account. He’s surrounded by sycophantic representatives from an unnamed country and advisers who are more than happy to collude in any plans he devises to stay in power, even if this involves fire bombing opponents or removing the organs from prisoners. Alerted to a potential challenge to his authority Gouama has two of his senior army chiefs killed while taking part in a parachute drop. But he still gets toppled from power in a military coup d’etat and tries to flee the country disguised as a peasant so that he can regroup and try to regain power.

History has brought us many examples of this kind of political leader in Africa, the kind that drives around in expensive cars and stays in luxury hotels while their countrymen starve. What this novel gives is an insight into the mind of such a person and the inherent instability of a country ruled via fear and military strength.

At the beginning after the initial coup that brings the new regime to power, the early disputes are always about gets appointed to the limited number of governmental posts that open up. But there is a far more subtle struggle for position that takes lace, to see how the ‘courageous’ men will line up behind the president. These are the strong men in the making, only some are more strong than others. The battle of the heroes goes on behind the scenes: hero number five wants to become hero number two, hero number form wants to become hero number one; hero number one wants to eliminate all those who dream of taking his place. In this way the fighting begins anew. The heroes systematically obliterate one another. Each in his turn crashes and burns until a new strong man emerges.

 At times like this the book veers towards the polemic so for example we have an encounter between Gouma and a poor fisherman in which the latter dispenses with the ex-President’s vision of his land as one of contented citizens he has heeled make wealthy. Other times it borders on black humour as government aides discuss the various options for eliminating their opponents.  There’s too much of the former and not enough of the latter or sufficient depth of characterisation to make this story really come alive.

An important novel if only for the fact that it was ever published but not a particularly satisfying read.

Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiong’o

petalsbloodSome novels can make you laugh; some can make you cry.  Just occasionally they can make you angry.

There was little to laugh at in Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. This is a book designed to evoke quite a different set of reactions, a book it would be difficult to read and not feel frustrated, exasperated and even outraged.

This is a novel about disillusionment; about the loss of the ideal of independence and the destruction of hope; about betrayal and hypocrisy and about the triumph of corruption over humanity. So incendiary was this novel at the time of its publication in 1977 that its author was imprisoned without charges by a Kenyan government sensitive to criticism of its manner of ruling their newly-independent nation. His arrest provoked a worldwide protest and led to his adoption by Amnesty International as a Prisoner of Conscience.

Petals of Blood opens with the arrest and detention of four people from the village of Ilmorog. It’s a village geographically remote from the centre of government and remote from the minds of those who form that government.  Ilmorog

One night three African directors of a foreign-owned brewery in the village are murdered in an arson attack. Four suspects are quickly arrested and detained for questioning: Munira, the headmaster of the village’s small school; Karega his assistant teacher, Abdullah,  the crippled owner of the  local store and Wanja the beautiful, spirited barmaid/shop assistant. The four are linked to each other through friendship, to the fortunes of Ilmorog and the fortunes of Kenya itself.

Ngugi uses these four characters to unfold a human drama, telling the story in flashback to twelve years before the fire when Munira had arrived in Ilmorog to set up the school.  Through the individual stories of the quartet we discover their past disappointments and frustrations with post independent Kenya motivate them to push for change. When the rains fail, the crops wither and the villagers begin to die, they hatch a plan to lead the villagers on a long walk to Nairobi, to lobby their elected officials for help.

…it was they outside there who ought to dance to the needs of the people. Now it seemed that authority, power, everything, was outside Ilmorog… out there….in the big city. They must go and confront that which had been the cause of their empty granaries, that which had sapped their energies, and caused their weakness. Long ago when their cattle and goats were taken by hostile nations, the warriors went out, followed them and would not return until they had recovered their stolen wealth. Now Ilmorog’s own heart ad been stole. They would follow to recover it. It was a new kind of war… but war all the same.

The walk confronts them with an even harsher reality. Modern Kenya is dominated by corrupt businessmen and politicians who have quickly and conveniently forgotten the high ideals of the revolt they waged to expel the British. No-one in this new order, neither church or state, cares about the plight of  the people of a remote village.  Despised and patronised but with all appeals for help rejected, they return home dejected.

faminein kenyaThe exodus is an emotive set piece which symbolises the moral decline that Ngugi sees permeate the country. But in case we didn’t quite understand his point, he uses the second half of the novel to reinforce the message. The efforts of the villagers to draw attention to their community have unfortunate consequences which render them vulnerable to commercial opportunism, political expediency and religious hypocrisy.

By the end, the four friends feel a sense of betrayal by those in power. Yet despite the personal losses they suffer, they never lose their faith that one day, Kenya will fulfil its true destiny. This time it will be a country run by the people themselves.

Tomorrow it would be the workers and the peasants leading the struggle and seizing power to overturn the system of all its preying bloodthirsty gods and gnomic angels, bringing to an end  the reign of the few over the many and the era of drinking blood and feasting on human flesh. Then, only then,would the kingdom of man and woman really begin, joying and loving in creative labour.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o 2Political corruption, social injustice, the struggle for freedom are not not uncommon themes in African literature. But Petals of Blood is one of the most strongly narrated indictments of a regime that assumed power with a promise of ending the inequality of its colonial masters only to perpetuate the same oppressions and divisions. Little wonder those in power were too afraid to let this author continue unfettered in his critique.

The Verdict

A truly remarkable novel. Difficult at times to read unless you are familiar with the country’s history. But it’s passionate depiction of the corrupting influence of power blended with some wonderfully portrayed characters, make this a compelling book.

Review: Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou

mabanckouTake a seedy bar in a dilapidated part suburb of an African city; mix in a few odd ball characters and the stage is set for Alain Mabanckou’s effervescent narrative Broken Glass.

The eponymous narrator is a disgraced school teacher. He spends his days soaking up large quantities of red wine at the Credit Gone West bar.  Requested by the bar’s proprietor to write the story of the bar and its clients, Broken West finds himself beset by a string of misfortunates with hard luck stories who all want to set the record straight about their downfall. Each tries hard to convince Broken Glass that they are the innocent victims but Broken Glass exposes the delusions at the heart of their tales of woe. Some of the tales and episodes border on the absurd and the fantastical – in one scene two customers engage in a contest to prove who can urinate for the longest time.

Though most of the early part of the book is taken up with the stories related by his fellow patrons, Broken Glass gradually begins to reveal the story of his own misadventure and his growing revulsion towards these downbeats.  The tone veers between downright funny and bizarre and then, with a deft touch, to mocking satire on the nature of African politicians, the self-delusion of  upstart Congolese men or the mediocrity of authors.

It’s a clever book full of teasing (unattributed) quotations from other texts, from Hamlet to Catcher in the Rye and from One Hundred Years of Solitude to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, slipped into the narrative as if they are the narrator’s own words. It doesn’t take long to discover that Broken Glass takes his task as a writer and curator of the bar’s history very seriously.

even when I’m drunk I hate useless repetition or padding, as used by certain writers known to be first-class drivellers, who serve up the same old stuff in every new book and try to make out they’ve created a new word, my eye ….

This is a short book with a distinctive voice and style in which words, images and literary allusions freewheel with barely a pause or a full stop. It’s stream of consciousness but without any pretensions to grandiose statements about the universe or humanity.   I read this book as part of my Reading Along the Equator Challenge. It tantalised me with its references to ordinary life in the Congo – a dish called  ‘bicycle chicken’ seems a big favourite but how this dish is served or cooked or how it tastes remains a mystery. Alain Mabanckou is considered one of Africa’s leading living novelists with an impressive list of commendations and awards. I came across him by chance in a library book sale but  will now definitely want to read more of his work.

About the Author

Alain Mabanckou was born in 1966 in the Republic of the Congo (what he calls Congo Brazzeville to distinguish it from the neighbouring Congo Kinsasha  otherwise known as Democratic Republic of the Congo). He trained as a lawyer and worked in a legal practice in France for almost 10 years, writing poetry and prose at night. Success came with his first novel,Bleu-Blanc-Rouge (Blue-White-Red),  published in 1998  with which he won the Sub-Saharan Africa Literary Prize awarded by the Association of French Language Writers.is now a Professor in the French Department of the University of California in Los Angeles.

Discover more about him through an interview with FranceToday or The Economist.

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