BOOK REVIEWS.Théo Ananissoh.
Tunis, Elyzad, 2013.
|For about ten years, the Togolese Théo Ananissoh has been patiently putting together a book centred on the African individual and his environment (landscape, history, food, etc.). If he is less well-known than his compatriots Kossi Efoui,|
Tunis, Elyzad, 2013
For about ten years, the Togolese Théo Ananissoh has been patiently putting together a book centred on the African individual and his environment (landscape, history, food, etc.). If he is less well-known than his compatriots Kossi Efoui, Kangni Alem and Sami Tchak, he is certainly appreciated by his peers and the critics. After three novels, Lisahoé (2004), Un reptile par habitant (2007) and Ténèbres à midi (2010) which are all set in Africa, this year his latest book L’invitation has been published by Éditions Elyzad (Tunis), and it really goes against the general trend.
This question had been the subject of an issue of the review Autrement in 1984 entitled: Un regard noir, les français vus par les Africains. It was an idea first mooted in 1983 following a conference in Brest on the “culture of oracy” in June 1982 and a programme of “reverse ethnology,” in which Africans would analyse French society, but the project was cut short and was later revived in an oblique way by the Gabonese novelist Bessora in 53cm, starring a Gabonese anthropologist Zara Sem Andock. Describing herself as a “gaugologue,” Zara Sem Andock arrives in Paris in a dugout canoe on the Seine to study the manners and customs of the primitive Gauls. But before completing this reverse ethnological investigation, she must “climb the prefectural mountain” to get herself a residence permit. Thus begins an administrative tangle …
Théo Ananissoh’s project is quite different. This is not an umpteenth denunciation or an exercise in reverse ethnology. We are face to face with a writer who allows his experience of a writing residency in the centre of France to be read through putting his hosts on stage, with their joys and sorrows, surrounding landscapes, etc. However, it happens that the generous sponsor of his residency is the former mentor of an African dictator, who has withdrawn to a sumptuous château and is anxious to meet the guest. The interview is as frosty as it is eloquent... Nevertheless, the writer’s stay is fruitful in terms of human interaction. Human exchanges are highlighted by abundant dialogue in the narrative. This is a literary process in which Théo Ananissoh excels. The reader will also be struck by the prime role given to the landscape, his literary obsession. This is a remarkable intimist glimpse in which the narrator who merges here with the author passes harsh judgment on a fickle father’s flightiness. As a counterpoint, the story is dedicated to the mother.
With modesty, warmth, sensitivity and serenity, Théo Ananissoh gives us an elegant account of being thrown off-balance.
LE PROJET FANON
John Edgar Wideman (translated from English by Bernard Tule)
Paris, Gallimard, 2013
About Fanon, everything must be said, wrote Jean-Paul Sartre in 1963; fifty years later, the phrase is still valid. Around the 1980s, Frantz Fanon suffered an eclipse after Pascal Bruckner and Alain Finkielkraut put third-worldism on trial. But it was a relative eclipse. The translation published in 1976 by Éditions du Seuil of the biography by the American Irene Genzier (1976) and the essay on him in 1993 by Bernard Mouralis in L’Europe, l’Afrique et la folie propose a rereading, taking into account the three aspects of his work: psychiatry, political theory and philosophy. This distinction is striking in Bernard Mouralis, who believes that Fanon tried being a psychiatrist, then a political author but that in the end he was a philosopher, whose credo is to be found in the last pages of Peau noire, masques blancs: “My final prayer: oh my body, make of me always a man who questions.” In this way, Bernard Mouralis dismantles the trap set by Fanon’s detractors who set him up as an apologist for violence. But it was the publication in 2000 by Seuil of the psychoanalyst Alice Cherki’s portrait of Fanon which restored the author of Les Damnés de la terre to favour.
Although in France, Fanon’s return to the intellectual stage was laborious, in the United States he remained at the core of American campus debates where his essay on the status of the Black in the Western world was passionately read by Homi Bhaba. In particular, Fanon was a guide in the struggle of the Black Panther movement and the subject of heated discussions in African-American circles.
It is in this context that the latest novel of the black American writer John Edgar Wideman should be read. Le projet Fanon, the subject of the book, was at the heart of the writer’s life; after reading Les damnés de la terre, he identified with its author, secretly dreaming of initiating a revolution which would free the world of racism. A vain dream... That is when he undertook to bring Fanon back to life in the form of a personal text. He imagines Thomas, his alter ego, who attempts to write about Fanon in post-11 September America, marked by the fear of the other. One day, Thomas gets a strange package: a severed head. This is the start of an investigation which plunges the reader into the heart of a violent racist America which, through a mixture of anticipation and flashback, takes the writer (in fact Wideman’s alter ego) back to his childhood and adolescence in the Pittsburgh ghetto, to the prisons filled with Blacks, all based on a rereading of Fanon’s work and of many monographs devoted to the author from Martinique. Blistering stuff. Better than a biography, this to-ing and fro-ing between the life of Fanon and fiction enables John Edgar Wideman to show the reader how very current Fanon is in a world where the dissemination of physical and symbolic violence infiltrates our lives day after day.
ICI COMMENCE ICI
Sony Labou Tansi
Yaounde, Éditions Clé, 2013
In the eyes of his readers, Sony Labou Tansi remains an outstanding novelist, and, incidentally, a playwright; but he himself swore only by poetry. One has only to read the foreword to the Sept solitudes de Lors Lopez, that the Martinican Edouard Glissant included in his Anthologie de la poésie du tout-monde, to realise this. He wrote: “[…] To be a poet nowadays means to desire, with all your strength, and all your soul and all your flesh, in the face of guns, in the face of money, which also becomes a gun, and especially in the face of the revealed truth on which we poets have permission to piss, that no face of human reality may be hidden under the silence of history.” But Sony Labou Tansi had difficulty in publishing his poetry.
In a letter dated 20 February 1977 written from Mindouli to Sylvain Mbemba, Sony Labou Tansi, in a fit of pique, announced to his friend that he had officially bidden farewell to poetry: “Life and a Half is following in the footsteps of la Natte. With a collection of poems: I have already inhabited all these words.” “But as for poetry, he wrote, I no longer believe in it. I am making my way in the novel.” That is why all these poems, with the exception of some writings included by Serge Brindeau in his anthology (1973), were published posthumously. It was thought that all the Congolese writer’s published work had been collected following the publication by Éditions Revue noire in 2005 of his boxed set, containing the first version of L’État honteux, his correspondence and his three collections; Éditions Clé in Cameroon have just disproved this belief by publishing Ici commence ici forty years after it was dispatched. Discovered in the cellar of the publishing house by its current director, Marcelin Vounda Etoa, he then made enquiries of some African scholars, via the Association for African literature studies (APELA). Two resource persons, Professor Daniel Delas and Nicolas Martin Granel who were asked for their view confirmed the unpublished status of the collection.
The author’s obsessions are to be found in Ici commence ici: hatred of ideologies, and particularly that of Marxism, his bête noire, praise of fraternity, sun-drenched and torrid eroticism, but they also include the innocent use of words and the grandiloquent tone for which he was criticised by his friend Sylvain Mbemba. Another detail, which rather detracts from the impact of the collection, is the review by the Ivorian philosopher and poet Tanella Boni on 8 May 2013 on the site of the review Africultures. Although she acknowledges the immense talent of the author, she nevertheless questions the poetics of Sony Labou Tansi, particularly his style of writing, which consists of endlessly repeating words, images, titles and whole texts. Furthermore, on reading Ici commence Ici, Tanella Boni notes that the whole fragment of the preface of L’acte de respirer which had already appeared in the boxed set published by Éditions de la Revue noire was
in the middle of the introduction of Ici commence Ici. Hence the legitimate question: “(…) What is an unpublished work? Is it a “manuscript” never published at all or a “manuscript” never published of a “text” which was the subject of one or more publications, or perhaps there are other scenarios? Despite the precautions taken by the publisher, as soon as I opened Ici commence Ici, on reading the introduction, I had the impression of “déjà lu,” especially in the unpublished items, published in 2005: if “there is a void, why not try to put something in it? Why not use oneself to exist?” (p.13)
I took the trouble to put the question to Nicolas Martin-Granel, the scientific editor of Sony Labou Tansi’s unpublished work who confirmed that he had recognised the introduction of L’acte de respirer of which two versions had been published in 2005. I quote an extract from his response: “One finds oneself confronting a paradox that frequently occurs in Sony’s labyrinthine manuscripts that could be summed up by a paradox with which you are familiar as a philosopher, that of the blade and the knife. Sony constantly “goes back to” texts and titles, so that one has to wonder, once this piece or that piece has been modified, if one is in fact dealing with the same book.” Except that in such a scenario, one could put forward an argument based on the fact that, because the rejected manuscript was not returned to the author, he regarded it as lost, although that in no way invalidates the relevance of the observations and questions of Tanella Boni. The fact remains that all his life Sony Labou Tansi was obsessed by poetry, and even more by the place of the poet in society. Let us read his words: “Poet, you say? But what more does the poet have than others except his persistence? He appoints himself to go through life where the meat is firm. He chooses himself to call things by their names. In short, he speaks, acts and breathes on the basis of emotion. And in so doing, he deliciously escapes from the terrorism of breathing.”
LES ÉCRITS D’AIMÉ CÉSAIRE, BIOBLIOGRAPHIE COMMENTÉE (1913-2008)
Kora Véron, Thomas A. Hale
Paris, Honoré Champion, 2013, 887 pages
The centenary of the writer from Martinique is producing a wealth of books. After the biography of the Cameroonian academic Romuald Fonkoua published in 2010 by Éditions Perrin•1 and which has just been issued in paperback, David Alliot, the noted author of a short essay on the poet from Martinique in Éditions In Folio (2008) offers a reading of Césaire’s relationship with the Communist Party. His title: “Le communisme est à l’ordre du jour,”•2 recalls a famous poem by the poet in which the latter pays tribute to Maurice Thorez, the eternal Secretary General of the PCF (French Communist Party). It was in 1950, six years before the same Césaire resigned from the party in a long letter addressed to Thorez.
It is this love-hate story between Aimé Césaire and the PCF that David Alliot revisits; in passing, he sheds light on the rivalry between Césaire and Aragon. This lengthy essay, although apparently well- researched, errs through somewhat lazy writing. The author, probably motivated by a desire to be in the bookshops for the centenary of the poet, has not had the time to refine his text. This is not the case of the Chadian writer Nimrod•3 who, drawing inspiration from the visit of Barrès to Renan, gives us a visit with Aimé Césaire. Just as much as David Alliot’s book needs cutting down, Nimrod’s pamphlet, while pleasant to read, would have benefited from being beefed up. The essay devoted by the Guadeloupian writer Daniel Maximin to his “spitfire brother,”•4 is somewhere midway between Nimrod and Alliot. First by its volume, even if he does not tell us anything new about the work of the poet “neither respectful memories, nor shameless secrets, nor distanced biography,” this evocation of Césaire, Daniel Maximin tells us, is an introduction to the poet’s work, and then by the wide- ranging writing. Incidentally, there is a welcome originality of approach: a dialogue beyond the grave with Aimé Césaire, which — because he uses the first and second person singular — makes the text very fluid.
Lastly, we must welcome the publication by Éditions Honoré Champion of a copious annotated bio-bibliography (in two volumes) of Aimé Césaire’s writings by Kora Véron and Thomas A. Hale. The work, which expands an initial bibliography of Césaire by Thomas Hale, aims to provide greater knowledge and understanding of Aimé Césaire through his writings published in 1978 by Presses de l’Université. Organised around “1025 notices corresponding to the texts, classified by chronological order of publication,” as well as some audio and visual documents, Les écrits d’Aimé Césaire constitutes a real mine of information for researchers and a wonderful gift for the reader.
•1 Romuald Fonkoua, Aimé Césaire, Paris, Perrin, 2010 and 2013 for the paperback edition from the same publisher.
•2 David Alliot,” Le communisme est à l’ordre du jour.” Aimé Césaire et le PCF, Paris, Pierre Guillaume de Roux, 2013.
•3 Nimrod, Visite à Aimé Césaire, Paris, Obsidiane, 2013.
•4 Daniel Maximin, Aimé Césaire, frère volcan, Paris, Seuil, 2013.
FROM JAMES BOND TO JULES VERNE
IAN FLEMING AND SOE’S OPERATION POSTMASTER. THE UNTOLD TOP SECRET STORY
Barnsley (Angleterre), Pen & Sword Books, 2012, X-255 p. + 16 p. of black and white photographs.
SONGS AND SECRETS. SOUTH AFRICA FROM LIBERATION TO GOVERNANCE
Londres, Hurst & Company, 2012, XXXI-359 p. + 8 p. of black and white photographs.
ADIÓS, NIASSA. TRECE DIAS A TRAVÉS DE MOZAMBIQUE
Montevideo, Editorial Fin de Siglo, 2012, 277 p.
CUBAN IDENTITY AND THE ANGOLAN EXPERIENCE
Basingstoke (Angleterre), Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, XIII-230 p., black and white photographs.
BLACK SUBJECTS IN AFRICA AND ITS DIASPORAS. RACE AND GENDER IN RESEARCH AND WRITING
Benjamin Talton & Quincy T. Mills (sous la direction de)
Basingstoke (Angleterre), Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, VI-218 p.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF EXPLORATION : INVENTED AND APOCRYPHAL NARRATIVES OF TRAVEL
Raymond John Howgego
Potts Point NSW (Australie), Hordern House Rare Books, 2013, 543 p.
As we all know now, James Bond was born in the Gulf of Guinea, at Santa Isabel de Fernando Poo, on 14 January 1942. Although now these oily waters tend to beat the Somalian coastline to the top of the list of international piracy, the earliest James Bond would have been a corsair with a dual identity, but duly licenced to kill, as necessary, the enemies of the King of England and in any case, to neutralise their navies. At least this is the case put forward by the British lawyer Brian Lett in a fascinating book which tries to show, documents in hand, that the character invented by Ian Fleming was inspired by some participants in an operation so secret that for decades the British national archives chose to disregard the rules applicable for public consultation, somewhat over-liberal rules when it comes to protecting the higher interests of the United Kingdom.
How does Brian Lett make his case? Slowly and in minute detail. His father was an operative in the Special Operations Executive (SOE) at the beginning of the Second World War, a British Secret Service tasked in July 1940 by Winston Churchill with performing “dirty tricks” against an enemy which at that time still had the wind in its sails in most of Europe. What was expected of the still-infant SOE was to do what the other three traditional Armed Forces were incapable of doing successfully: guerrilla warfare, attacks and ambushes, both in the occupied and so-called “neutral” countries. We need to insist on the term “neutral” to understand how sub-Saharan Africa came into this “great game” where the British are often so masterly. The networks of former public schoolboys, schools where the cream of English gentlemen (preferably moneyed) are educated, and of future high- ranking officers proved useful for recruiting imaginative, resourceful individuals who had scant respect for the operational inflexibility of the three traditional armies.
After the pitiful evacuation of Dunkirk, Britain was teetering on the brink of defeat, so every available resource was needed to combat the Nazi steamroller. At the time Ian Fleming had the advantage of being an old Etonian, the “stainless steel” breeding ground of gentlemen of good family, but he was better known then for his worldly savoir-faire than for his mediocre career in journalism, banking and stockbroking.
His lofty connections served to get him appointed as Deputy Director of the Royal Navy intelligence services. And from there, he came into contact with the structures of the SOE, including among many other officers, Gustavus March-Phillips and Geoffrey Appleyard. These two were no Colonel Blimps but members of high society, highly trained athletes, Daring Dans ready for anything, misfits in the Army, certainly, but absolutely made to train commandos. The author even adds that these two atypical young officers were heartbreakers, mad about sports cars and, on occasion, no strangers to certain strong drinks. So they were the perfect exuberant models to flesh out the “Bondian” myth that Ian Fleming progressively spun from the time he wrote Casino Royale published in 1953.
All that belongs to the popular school of literary para-history aimed at the many admirers of the icon of the big screen, but would have nothing to do with Africa. However, the General commanding the SOE staked his credibility and the survival of his department (whose usefulness was challenged) on giving the green light to a very real operation which strongly recalls the 17th century in the Spanish West Indies: seizing sight unseen three potentially dangerous enemy “vessels” which had taken refuge in a “neutral” country, therefore regarded as inviolable in international law. And not just any country: a Spanish colony under the Franco regime.
However, General Franco was more than favourable to Germany and Italy and although he hesitated to support them officially, he was known to have made territorial claims, in addition to the whole of Morocco, on Western Algeria, a large sector of Mauritania, Nigeria, and French equatorial Africa, and especially the major thorn — and never forgotten — piercing Spanish hearts: Gibraltar. Although wearied by the fighting of 1936 to 1939, his army was numerous and still large enough to seize the Rock, which in the end, with the help of German and Italian submarines would make it possible to prevent the passage through the Strait for the reinforcements that the Royal Navy needed to send its fleet into the Mediterranean and would therefore block the route to the Indies via Suez.
The archives show that London at one point contemplated seizing the island of Fernando Poo (now Bioko) by force, which would have been relatively easy. But the fierce opposition of the British general commanding the land troops in Nigeria, the lukewarm response of the Admiralty and the view of the Foreign Office, which obviously did not want to give Franco a casus belli on a silver platter, combined to lead London to abandon the project whose dangerousness is obvious in hindsight. What was left was to use the hotheads of the SOE who would mount a secret, apparently impossible, operation. They would buy a small wooden (given the possibility of mines) sailing vessel with an outboard motor in Scotland and with a very minimal team (13 men) they were to sail anonymously along the West African coastline to Lagos and wait.
Wait for what? For the British agents on the island (including the vicar of the Protestant congregation and the vice consul) and those sent from London and the colonies to provide them with the detailed plan of their objectives: an Italian steamship or rather a passenger-cargo ship of 7 872 tonnes (which had taken refuge there on 10 June 1940), laden with a “strategic” cargo valued at 250,000 pounds sterling, a German 200 tonne tugboat, which had arrived from Cameroon in 1939 and a smaller (70 tonnes) tugboat of the same origin. What is particularly developed in the book is the interplay of the British and German spies (the latter being planters and representatives of shipping lines, all dyed-in-the-wool Nazis) in relation to the Spanish colonial authorities (all pro-Franco of course).
The three targeted vessels were immobile, moored in the quays of the port of Santa Isabel for a number of years. Using a long-prepared stratagem, the British spies invited the few Italian and German officers still aboard the vessels to a party with plenty of freely flowing alcohol at the local “casino” (cf. Casino Royale), while the British SOE commandos arrived on the night of 14 January 1942 with two Nigerian tugboats. Their assault teams blew up the moorings and twenty men, with blackened faces, boarded the private “liner” deprived of its officers, but still containing 28 Italian sailors and their nurse. Taken by surprise, they put up no resistance.
Four hundred metres from the revellers’ casino, the explosions at the port created panic. Initially the Spanish thought they were under aerial attack and fired into the sky. But their port had been magically emptied, once and for all, of its three vessels. To conceal their nationality, the mysterious assailants tossed decoys into the sea: as it happened, blue bonnets with the traditional red pompons to make it seem as though the “disappearance” of the ships was the work of Free
French sailors. Outside the Spanish territorial waters the Royal Navy advice-boat or escort supposed to protect them was not at the appointed rendezvous, but all the vessels managed to meet up and reach the safety of Lagos, on 21 January 1942. The baffled Spanish did not pursue them. Why not?
The Foreign Office denied any involvement in the “mysterious disappearance” of the three vessels, maintaining against all probability that the Germans and Italians had been trying to make their way surreptitiously to a French colonial port in obedience to the Vichy authorities when, suddenly, they were intercepted by H. M. S. Violet, on the high seas!
To conclude the account of this incredible operation in which not a shot was fired, there are two things to be added which do not appear in the book. The two above-mentioned SOE officers, the presumed models for James Bond (according to Brian Lett), did not live to see the end of the Second World War. They died in the line of duty: in France (September 1942) for the first, off Sicily (July 1943) for the second. An unexplained omission is that Brian Lett has not really tried to delve deeper into the colonial context on the island and the reaction of the local Spanish authorities to this humiliation, which should have been the very least a jurist like himself would do. Consequently, he ignores the extraordinarily detailed and indispensable book entitled Objetivo África. Crónica de la Guinea Española en la II Guerra Mundial, self-published by Jesus Ramírez Copeiro del Villar, Huelva, 2004, although a copy exists in the British Library. He would have found there, in addition to a multitude of photographs, how dense the German spy network was on Fernando Poo, before and after Operation Postmaster.
Furthermore, we think that the importance of the success of the operation must not be overvalued, given the evolution of naval warfare in the Gulf of Guinea. Before 14 January 1942, two small German cruisers had already sunk one Dutch and two British vessels, although without any casualties. But from 3 April 1942 to 20 March 1944 there were bloody reprisals : in this area a privateer and nine German submarines and one Italian submarine sunk twenty-one Allied vessels, causing the deaths of over 300 people, 95 of whom were aboard two French vessels. The damage caused was a far cry from the hunting records of today’s pirates operating in the Gulf of Guinea in 2012 and in early 2013 (although 5 of the 26 hostages captured in 2012 have been killed) (cf. Le Monde, 20 June 2013). The former wanted at all costs to paralyse the Allied war effort, the latter are only interested in the booty and ransoms they expect to collect. So which is more civilised, the white corsair or the black pirate? But this question would take us too far from Ian Fleming and Hollywood.
So let us stay with other Anglophone intelligence services, seen from a very specific standpoint: the memoirs of a former bohemian, generous-spirited student and a singer of anti-apartheid protest songs, who went into exile from South Africa in 1976 to join the ranks of the ANC abroad. Harmonising his Communist beliefs with his militant activities, he was practically the only White or at least one of the few to have undergone, at the same level as his black comrades, harsh military training in one of the most spartan ANC camps in Angola for about a year, near Quibaxe in the terrible Dembos jungle. The reader will notice at the outset that Songs and Secrets includes some of the author’s revolutionary songs, but no major secrets are revealed.
Unlike the redoubtable Namibian SWAPO army concentrated in Angola, the military branch of the ANC in that country did not engage in direct confrontation of the apartheid army. There were just a few fights and skirmishes against UNITA. This restraint is astonishing given the warrior traditions of most of the black African troops trained in Angola, but Barry Gilder, as a good desk officer, only allows what he deems useful to his cause to filter through. His family background (he is a third-generation descendant of politically active Lithuanians who came to South Africa as immigrants), his position as a member of a minority group in the nationalist movement and the rules of his profession perhaps serve to explain his omissions. He was quickly identified and taken seriously by the Soviets who from October 1980 to May 1981 gave him individual made-to-measure training on KGB techniques in Moscow. Back in Africa, he became a key element in the ANC’s intelligence in Botswana until he was expelled. In 1989, he was even sent for retraining to Havana and returned in 1991 to South Africa after fifteen years of exile.
His career then took off: in 1994, he joined the new Secret Service of Mandela’s Rainbow Nation, becoming the head of foreign posts. He is interesting on the mutation of the mainly Afrikaner-run departments of the old regime. However, some Whites remained in post. He gives an overview of the problems of the rivalries among ANC members, but he actually says very little about the ease with which the ANC had been penetrated by the agents of apartheid. We are just given the information about those wily old Afrikaners who had destroyed 44 tonnes of documents before the ANC came to power. So it will not be possible to discover who the moles were and who was betraying whom. Next, appointed as head of the National Intelligence Agency, he fought against organised crime, radical Islamism and its terrorist activity, and extreme right white activists. Having become director- general of the Ministry of Home Affairs, the problems of clandestine immigration and corruption within the ANC constituted a growing proportion of his activities.
Like many of the former ANC members in exile, shaken or ravaged by the cracks in the machinery that they had created, especially by the battles between President Thabo Mbeki and Deputy President Jacob Zuma, Gilder, eventually worn out, took early retirement in 2007. The veterans of Marxism cannot accept the betrayals of revolutionary integrity and, for his part, he made it clear that he was seeing the death of his illusions. He went as far as wondering whether apartheid had really disappeared. This idea hovers over this twilight work, extremely well written as it happens, like a flight of crows above the cemetery of his disillusionment.
Much more invigorating and anecdotal is what seems to be the second or third book to have been devoted to travels in sub-Saharan Africa by a writer of Uruguayan extraction. It is therefore a curiosity and in any case a first for Mozambique. Adiós, Niassa is the rather literary account of two Uruguayans: one a compulsive traveller, the author, and the other an idealistic professor of philosophy, accompanied by a Portuguese trader working in Switzerland, but nostalgic for an emancipating revolution that he did not experience. The book is useful in showing how white America of the Southern Cone knows nothing of black Africa and is far removed from its mental universe. The author, always on the move around the world, is an extremely accurate observer of meetings and people. All three travelled from Maputo in an all-terrain vehicle to what they mistakenly believed to be an unknown and inaccessible area: the hunting reserve of Niassa, a territory that they regarded as “reserved” for their own belated exploration and for the elephants. The Portuguese was most interested in finding his childhood home in Beira and in distributing to the children school supplies bought in that very town using money collected among his Swiss banking colleagues.
Faced with the realities of the villages they were travelling through, Bergstein became aware of the failure of the theories of the late Samora Machel, while the professor defended the uselessness and inanity of writing and therefore of the project motivating their Portuguese companion. He dreamed of a lost paradise of Neolithic innocence and cast doubt on the assumptions of international aid (except medical assistance). Before reaching Nampula, in the North, some Africans in the bush mistook this bizarre trio for child-stealers wanting to kill them and sell their organs. Was this merely a baseless rumour or had there been real precedents? Coming as they did from another planet, to all intents and purposes, they had no idea about the problem. They finally reached Nacala and then the Island of Mozambique and with a last push got to the port of Pemba where the aviator and hunter who was to take them to Niassa and its 14,000 (?) elephants, refused to transport them by air. So they will never be able to count them. Business is business. It took them thirteen days to see their goal retreat and disappear into the uncertain lands of Utopia. This was in July 2004, but Jules Verne might well have taken this book as a source for one of his imaginary journeys if he had been able to read its fine pages through one of those anticipated parallel worlds which are to be found in abundance in the last book of this article.
Cuban Identity… is a disconcerting book because of its construction. Christabelle Peters is a West Indian living in Britain. According to her, she has borrowed from political science, technology, sociology and especially from literary and film criticism. This creates a travel book into the depths of Africanía, which seems to be analysing the role of the Afro-Cubans in Castroism. Although it sets itself a number of ambitious goals, this book that endlessly flits from topic to topic seems firstly to be trying to find out if the nationalist discourse of the authorities — principally white — “shelved” the racial issue on the island. The author dissects the mythology of the Latin-African concept which at one time dominated Fidel Castro’s harangues in Africa (first visit in 1972 to Sierra Leone). At that time he exalted the role of the Africans in Cuban history and she recalls that in the anti- Spanish revolutionary armies of the second war of independence (1895-1898), there were more black combatants than white. But she immediately adds that Castro cracked down on African religious events regarded as “retrograde,” including the Santería. Given the restrictive cultural policy implemented in the export of films and books outside of Cuba, it is interesting to discover what she says about the content of Afro-centred film production in the island.
What is most easily assimilated in the book are the many extracts from her journal of 2008. She begins with a trip to the Matanza region, following the tracks of the hidden Santería and of slavery. However, she does not allow herself to be bothered by the surveillance she is subjected to during the “tourist” circuit organised for her benefit. She continues her visit to Havana and there provides a superficial look at the turning point that the Angolan experience constituted for hundreds of thousands of Cubans, beginning with what she regards as having been the “harnessing” of the revolt of a slave (Carlota) by Castro, who seized upon its strong symbolism to maintain that the military operations from 1975 in Angola were Cuba’s return to its African origins. She has no problem in suggesting — somewhat erroneously in our view — that Cuba was not interested in Angolan literature (p. 109) and she even asserts that all the filmmakers who made films of Angola were white or very light- skinned mixed race.
As her stay continues, she enters the labyrinths of local bureaucracy and unfulfilled promises. However, she does succeed in visiting the Casa de África and the museums of slavery where she notices that there are no foreign visitors, apart from herself. She finds the Orishas Museum (the deities of the Santería) more welcoming. At Santiago of Cuba and in its region where many palenques are to be found (resistance movement of dark-skinned Blacks), she at last manages to pierce the armour of the administrative system and spends a week studying in the archives (in the process of being lost) of the Casa de las religiones populares where her good relations with some members of the clergy of the Santería enable her to take part in night worship where she is regarded as a new convert, which must have consoled her for many disappointments.
Her conclusions, at the end of her stay of less than three months in 2008, seem to be the following: in the end, the militant internationalism of the years 1970-1980 gave way to the resurgence of a certain ambient racism and the Afro-Cubans are still in the bottom rank of the Socialist society. Angola is no longer mentioned except by former combatants, (why then did she never meet any?). It is a sobering realisation for the author and probably also for some of her readers.
Black Subjects in Africa… is an original and sometimes amusing book because it relates the experiences of sociologists, political pundits and of various African or African-American origins, conducting research or studies in sub-Saharan Africa (Ghana, Sierra Leone, Angola, Mozambique) or in the communities of descendants of Africans in Latin America (Bolivia, Argentina) or in the West Indies (Trinidad), and indeed in Canada. There is even, as a bonus, an Australian woman of Indian origin, with a Portuguese name, working on Cuba. It is worth noting that the majority of the authors of the twelve contributions are women and they do not hold back when it comes to explaining clearly and boldly the problems of the investigator as a black American woman belonging to the diaspora. So as not to prejudice the woman who was in Luanda in 2007, when she comes to apply for a new visa — if she wants to — we shall refrain from mentioning her identity and stating her conclusions, but the doctoral candidate who was working on feminism, women and sexuality in Maputo in 2003-2004 should, we feel, be able to get her new visa without any major problems.
These short articles often contain genuine and unexpected gems like for example, the need for an African-American man to withstand high blood alcohol levels if he wants to understand the history of North Ghana and be accepted as a valid interlocutor on the Togo border. Similarly, the search for an African identity in the suburbs of Buenos Aires can lead to some surprises not mentioned in the tourist guides. This is an often unpredictable and sometimes profound book.
To close this review focused on Africa, we need to present a reference work about it, but which also goes broadly beyond it, since the book in question is the fifth volume of the famous Encyclopedia of Exploration, the bible of all those who want to know when, how and where people able to write discovered the countries outside
Europe and the oceans, from earliest times until 1940. We have twice mentioned elsewhere the genuinely fundamental nature of the work of Raymond Howgego who wrote a book for which, since we cannot find enough words to express our admiration, we adopted the adjective “Promethean,” which with hindsight now seems to us not strong enough. But we still have not found a strong enough word to replace it.
For years, we have been asking the author and the publisher for a supreme effort and have been insisting that they expand the approximately 1000 pages which have already been devoted to the “explorers” of Africa. The author pleaded fatigue, an acceptable excuse. But he has just surprised us in a way that no one expected with a new blockbuster of 543 pages (21 x 28 cm, small type, double and triple columns) which has crashed down upon our capacities for understanding with the force of a massive meteorite. A phenomenal tome devoted to the accounts of invented, imaginary and apocryphal journeys, as well as some emanating from plagiarists. Who, outside of a few comparative literature specialists, would suspect that in his studious retreat, this redoubtable polyglot would find for us over 1,000 accounts of journeys which have never actually happened, 1,800 authors and pilgrims who have never walked on the planets that they describe as if they spent their annual holidays there, who on maps and planispheres from the realm of dreams have planted over 600 names of places where no one will ever go. In short, Howgego has become the geographer of Utopia, the fantastic and the absolute dream, conceived in a room in order to escape, criticise, lie, for personal amusement or sometimes for the creation of wealth, often to escape censorship or to hide inside madness. Among these thousand titles (in 2,600 multilingual editions), it is unlikely that anyone has read more than 400 of them and, should this outstanding reader so desire, he could not in any case take a photograph of the peoples that they do not have, the rivers that do not irrigate them, of the kings that do not govern them.
Although the author has tried to create a typology of what he has caught in his sieve, given the size of its mesh it seems a little surprising that Tolkien does not feature among his fabulous authors. But as far as Africa is concerned, if an incurably curious reader wanted to know if some forger has invented a journey never undertaken in his country, he would need to go to this book if he is interested in the following countries: Sudan, Chad, North Africa, Madagascar, Guinea, Sahara, Egypt, Ethiopia, Botswana, Namibia, Kenya, Gabon, Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana, or Somalia. Not to mention, obviously, those who love the islands once known and then vanished from the atlases of Cyrano de Bergerac, Damberger, Defoe, Gulliver, Haggard and even of Jules Verne (that Howgego has, however, amputated from many of the texts which are set in Africa).
However, in the chapter on the imaginary voyages inspired by genuine travellers, Jacolliot’s La côte d’ébène might have been worthy of his attention. Any human work is imperfect, which is why it is indispensable for Howgego to make some improvements to his Vol. IV containing the land exploration of Africa from 1850 to 1940 and expand it by at least 300-400 notices of “explorers,” albeit genuine ones. When it comes to the French, he has only to explore more deeply the key work of Numa Broc whom he seems to have ignored, and for the Anglophones, he is better placed than anyone to flesh out his very inadequate list. A sixth volume of additions and he would thereby reach the highest pinnacles where the immortal encyclopaedists are enthroned. He owes it to Africa whose length and breadth he has already covered on foot and in books. It is not every day that you find a bookworm who has also travelled through Ethiopia and West Africa with his rucksack!
“Anthropology thus faces a formidable challenge: either it disappears as an exhausted form of humanism, or it undergoes a complete metamorphosis by rethinking its field...
Les grands, by Sylvain Prudhomme, L’Arbalète, Paris, 2015. Souveraine magnifique, by Eugène Ébodé, Gallimard, “Continents Noirs”, 2014. What purpose do...
Africa has been (wholly or partially) the focus of a number of cultural events over the last six months. The first of these was the Leiris & Co exhibition, which took place at the Centre...
Who are the African historians and philosophers who matter today in Francophone Africa? High-proﬁle ﬁgures such as the Senegalese philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne and the historians Achille...
Africa, wrote Frantz Fanon, is shaped like a revolver, and its trigger is in Zaire. I no longer remember in which of his books the essayist from Martinique penned this memorable phrase. One thing is...
In Le premier homme (1994), Albert Camus’s posthumously published novel, there is a memorable scene: the hero, Jacques Cormery, is travelling to the Saint-Brieux...
When Léopold Sédar Senghor died in Normandy on 20 December 2001, France was being governed on the basis of political cohabitation. Lionel...
In an essay published some ten years ago by Maisonneuve and Larose,•1 the Guadeloupian historian Oruno D. Lara proposed a new reading of Pan-Africanism. Reviewing the long-term history of...
Book reviews n°47
REFLECTIONS ON SOME AFRICAN WARS. BARREL OF A GUN. A WAR CORRESPONDENT’S MISSPENT MOMENTS IN COMBATAl J. VenterPhiladelphia, Casemate, 2010, 504 pp. MY FRIEND THE MERCENARY James BrabazonEdinburgh,...
As far as some Europeans are concerned, Africa is not a continent. It’s a country. All Africans are therefore brothers and all know one another. People forget, or claim to forget, that Africa...
3 bonnes raisons de s'abonner
Share this page with your friends. spread the word
Informez vos ami(e)s automatiquement sur un article ou sur une publication.