BOOK REVIEWS : Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote by A. Kourouma

For a literary novel to sell 100,000 copies is rare; that its author should be a septuagenarian, francophone African is something of a miracle. Ahmadou Kourouma is no fly-by-night phenomenon, though his name remains obscure to English-speaking readers. His place in world literature was assured with the 1968 publication of his first novel, Les Soleils des Indépendances. If since he has hardly been prolific, with each of his three subsequent novels he has achieved impressive accolades and prodigious sales.

For a literary novel to sell 100,000 copies is rare; that its author should be a septuagenarian, francophone African is something of a miracle. Ahmadou Kourouma is no fly-by-night phenomenon, though his name remains obscure to English-speaking readers. His place in world literature was assured with the 1968 publication of his first novel, Les Soleils des Indépendances.

If since he has hardly been prolific, with each of his three subsequent novels he has achieved impressive accolades and prodigious sales.

For a literary novel to sell 100,000 copies is rare; that its author should be a septuagenarian, francophone African is something of a miracle.

Ahmadou Kourouma is no fly-by-night phenomenon, though his name remains obscure to English-speaking readers. His place in world literature was assured with the 1968 publication of his first novel, Les Soleils des Indépendances.

If since he has hardly been prolific, with each of his three subsequent novels he has achieved impressive accolades and prodigious sales.

Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote comes garlanded with prizes from its 1998 publication in France, with reviewers likening Kourouma to Voltaire. (A further novel, Allah n’est pas obligé, won the Prix Renaudot in 2000.)

In fact, he is the leading writer of Côte d’Ivoire, born in 1927 in the Muslim north of that country currently ravaged by civil war. His Guinean roots place him among those whom the bizarre policy of “Ivoirité” sought to reclassify as foreigners to prohibit them from election.

The impact of his timely satire on colonial and post-colonial Africa is not dependent on knowing that its main protagonist is modelled on Eyadema of Togo, or on spotting allusions to former African rulers such as Mobutu, Bokassa or Sékou Touré.

This is the epic tale of Koyaga, despotic president of the fictional Republic of the Gulf. Narrated by Bingo – poet and chronicler – with the help of his apprentice, the “king’s fool” Tiécora, it is a lavish praise-song that nevertheless condemns its hero.

In a series of ritual gatherings, Koyaga is being honoured and his exploits recounted, each section introduced and closed by appropriate proverbs: “When words fail, it is through proverbs that we find them again.”

The griot pays tribute to Koyaga’s life as hunter and leader, while his responder adds the pinch of salt ensuring that this is no hagiography: “President Koyaga, General, Dictator, here we will sing and dance your donsomana over the feast of the six vigils. We will tell the truth about your dirty tricks, your bullshit, your lies, your many crimes.”

Koyaga’s forebears are the Naked People, or Paleos. Koyaga’s father was the first Paleo to wear clothes, to fight heroically for the French colonisers. For Koyaga, traditional values co-exist with colonial education and military obligations.

Through violence and magical shape-shifting, he seizes political power, retaining it for 30 years with an invulnerability linked to the sorcery of his mother and a favoured marabout.

Koyaga’s faults are laid bare even as the praise-singers exalt him: “You justify the coup d’état, the assassination of the democratically elected President ... You conclude your oration with more false promises; promises to restore power to the people to whom it belongs through free elections.”

The dictator’s ultimate delusion is in his supernatural powers: that should the people refuse to vote, the wild animals will come out of the bush to re-elect him.
Kourouma draws vividly on the logic, imagery and speech rhythms of the Malinke people.

Frank Wynne’s translation is largely equal to the challenge (with an occasional cultural wobble, as when he puts “strings of pearls” round the hips of naked women, where beads – perles – would have sufficed).

All in all, this is a tour de force – original, irreverent, brutal, funny, poetic – in which history and myth are brilliantly evoked.

It offers no overt solution for corruption and misuse of power, other than the proverb: “Once you have said that the anus of the hyena smells bad, you have said it all.” The night goes on and on, but day will come in time.

Source: Internet

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