This is a book by Sony Labou Tansi, a very famous Congolese writer. If you want to read what Congo/DRC are like like from the very mouth of one of their native sons, pick this book up, it’s powerful and heartbreakingly well written. I don’t have any idea how it translates, it would be best to read it in French, but you’ll still get the gist of the feeling in translation, though some things obviously get lost.
I love the dedication page. I’ll give you the French which can never truly be translated because there’s a fantastic play on words, but I’ll give an English approximation anyway, inadequate as it may be.
A mes morts —
Pour des mots
Qui soient des têtes de mort —
Et parce que mourir
C’est rêver un autre rêve.
(To my Dead, for words that shall be skulls, and because death is dreaming another dream)
Note: ‘skulls’ literally translates as ‘heads of the dead’ in French.
I think it’s a crying shame that the US Wikipedia site has one miserable line on this fantastic author.
Here’s a good biography, from this site:
Congolese novelist, poet, and dramatist, a member of the African avant-garde, whose critical but hopeful satires met with a great deal of censorship. Tansi’s central themes were the corruption of power and the possibilities of resistance. He often provocatively broke common Western literary models, styles, and genres, switched point of views, employed carnival-like exaggeration, dismembered language, and anti-naturalistic aesthetics. Although Tansi did not abandon in his later works political satire and criticism he often touched on such universal themes as love, life and death.
“They are blind, like th elaw. And equally brutal. The only escape from the brutalities of the shabby law of the uniform is to be big–big as in bigshot. And there is also a communicable kind of bigness, the bigness through contact that comes from being a relative or friend of the original bigshot. Dadou remembered something else he had read: Africa, that great shit-heap where one will take his place. What a putrid shit-heap the world was! Neither more nor less than a great big shit market.” (from The Antipeople, 1983)
Sony Labou Tansi was born in Kimwanza, Zaire, as the oldest of seven children. His father was a Zairian and mother Congolese. Tansi learnt French in a school – in the then French Congo on the other side of the river – where using one’s own language was forbidden and mistakes were punished by ridiculing the pupil. Later he stated that French was the language “in which I myself was raped.” At the age of twelve Tansi moved to Brazzaville and completed his education at the Ecole Normale Supérieure d’Afrique Centrale. In 1971 he was appointed to teach French and English at Kindauba. In the same year he started to write seriously. He taught English at the Collège Tchicaya-Pierre in Pointe Noire and then worked in Brazzaville as an administrator in several ministries, before devoting his time to writing and to the theater.
In 1979 Tansi founded the Rocardo Zulu Theatre and published his first novel, La Vie et demie, which won the Prix Spécial du Festival de la Francophonie. His plays were staged in Paris, Dakar, and New York. However, in his own country Tansi was criticized by the Parti Congolais du Travail for his ideologically doubtful views. “Africa is a volcano;” he later wrote in Les Yeux du volcan (1988). “The whole world is another volcano. Our peoples are volcanoes and their eyes are watching us.” During the era when Congo underwent a transition from a Marxist-Leninist people’s republic to a pluralist democracy, Tansi was active in the Mouvement Congolais pour le Développement de la Démocratie Intégrale (M.C.D.D.I.), a group opposed to Congo’s single political party system. In 1992 he was elected deputy for Makélékélé in Brazzaville. As a consequence of his public activities and involvement in tribal politics his passport was withdrawn. Tansi suffered from AIDS, but he was for a long time unable to obtain the medical attention he needed; after being in hospital in Paris he sought help with his wife from traditional African herbal medicine and incantations. Tansi died on June 14, 1995, in Foufoudou of AIDS-related illness. (note from V: his wife, Pierrette, died two weeks prior)
Tansi won several literary awards, including the Grand Prix Littéraire de l’Afrique Noire for L’anté-peuple, the Palme de la Francophonie in 1985 for Les sept solitudes de Lorsa Lopez, and in 1988 the Ibsen Foundation Prize.
The Antipeople (1983) was partly based on the story of a refugee, the author’s friend, who was falsely accused of the murder of a young woman. In the bitter satire Nita Dadou, director of a girl’s school, is tormented by thoughts of Yavalde, a student who has a crush on him. Yavalde is made pregnant by another man; she kills herself and Nita is accused of the tragedy. His family is murdered by a mob. The dead girl’s father, a politician, pulls strings and Nita ends up in jail. He manages to escape but in freedom, as a poor fugitive, he must prepare himself to assassinate, in the name of an ideology, a State and Party official during a mass in the cathedral. “The most important, the first revolution: the heart, the brain, against the soldier”, says an old fisherman in a small river village.
La vie et demie (1979) was set in an imagined African country, Katamalanasie, which has 228 national holidays. A self-proclaimed “Providential guide” has banned the words “hell” and “pain” from the nation’s lexicon. The guide has the chief opposition leader cut up into pieces, but his spirit refuses to die and he continues to speak and torment the cannibalistic dictator.
Les septs solitudes de Lorsa Lopez (1985, The seven solitudes of Lorsa Lopez ) was a set of stories which took the reader into the city of Valancia, an African Macondo. Tansi got the idea for the novel from a real event, the sight of a body, surrounded by a crowd, outside the Brazzaville hospital where his wife worked. A woman is murdered by her husband, an esteemed citizen, Lorsa Lopez. When the police fail to investigate the death, and no one can remember the murdered woman’s maiden name, Estina Bronzario advocates a ban of sex, and demands that men take their wives’ names. In the background of the story is international politics, corruption, mixed with an account of chaos and some hallucinatory scenes: “One morning, unprecedented crowds gathered in the Plaza de la Poudra, not to await the arrival of the police, nor to bury Estina Benta’s bones, nor even to watch the departure of Sarnata Nola’s troupe. The multitudes jostled for position to see the fish with the death’s head that the fishermen. Fernando Lambert and Luizo Martinèz Lopèz, had just caught. It was a winged monster at least seventy feet long and weighing some three tons. On its hide, covered with scales, feathers and hair gleamed the seven colours of the rainbow.” The stories are told by the female narrator Gracia who at the end removes herself from Valancia to Nsanga-Norda, swallowed by the sea. In the foreword of the book Tansi wrote: “Art stems from its ability to enable reality to express what it would otherwise have been unable to articulate through its own means or, in any case, that which it ran the risk of consciously passing over in silence.”
In Les yeux du volcan (1988) a mysterious colossus, Affonso Sombro, arrives at the town of Hozanna, where Benoit Goldman reads Genesis aloud, to avoid sex with his wife, and Claudio Lahenda announces: “Comrades, the revolution has been postponed.” In his plays Tansi showed the inventiveness, absurd humour, and political commitment of his fiction. La paranthèse de sang (1978) was about a group of soldiers who are sent to kill a rebel leader who is already dead. They proceed to interrogate the family, and after a massacre they receive news that the “Capitale” is no longer interested in the deceased Libertashio. In Qui a mangé Madame d’Avoine Bergotha a dictator throws out of his country nearly all males. The secretary Hortense says in Je soussigné cardiaque: “Today, ‘our own’ do it from the heart. They mistreat us as though they had our permission. It’s worse.”
La Vie et demie, Seuil, 1979.
La Parenthèse de sang, Hatier, 1981.
L’État honteux, Seuil, 1981.
L’anté-peuple, Seuil, 1983. Grand Prix Littéraire de l’Afrique Noire.
Les Sept Solitudes de Lorsa Lopez, Seuil, 1985. Palme de la Francophonie.
Les Yeux du volcan, Seuil, 1988.
Le Coup de vieux, Présence Africaine, 1988.
Le Commencement des douleurs, Seuil, 1995.
L’Autre Monde’, Revue noire, 1997.
Moi, veuve de l’empire, L’Avant-Scène, 1987.
Qui a mangé madame d’Avoine Bergotha, Lansman, 1989.
La Résurrection rouge et blanche de Roméo et Juliette, revue Acteurs, 1990.
Une chouette petite vie bien osée, Lansman, 1992.
Théâtre complet, 2 volumes, Lansman, 1995.
Antoine m’a vendu son destin, Accoria, 1997.
Poèmes et vents lisses, Le Bruit des autres, 1995.