NOT TO BE MISSED
"Petroleum", a novel by BESSORA
Paris: Denoël, 2004. (336p.).
ISBN: 2 207 25616 2.
Ce compte rendu en français
If fluctuating petrol prices at the bowser and polluting barrels of crude oil escaping from super-tankers summarize the extent of your knowledge of hydrocarbons, Petroleum by Gabonese writer Bessora is a novel for you. This highly entertaining detective novel proposes an unusual take on oil exploration and extraction in Gabon, set amidst political intrigues, skulduggery, supernatural forces and the overbearing influence of Elf-Gabon. A profiler sent from Paris tries to elucidate the reason for an explosion that occurred aboard the Ocean Liberator at the very time her crew is reaching oil, eighteen hundred metres below the surface of the sea. Is it due to human error ? to a malicious attempt to sabotage the new well ? to political intrigue ? Solving the enigma is not a straight-forward proposition : many people have an axe to grind with the company's activities.
Jason, the cook on the Ocean Liberator, has disappeared at the time of the accident and his past designs him as the obvious culprit. He was raised by an auntie who was wary of the spiritual disturbance engendered by successive generations of geologists who had profaned the land and water since they first arrived in Gabon in 1928. In the early 1990s, Jason had taken part in a demonstration that demanded the country's emancipation from Elf-Gabon and the placard he held read: "If Elf does not leave, we'll blow up Port-Gentil!" (p.100). Although he never put his words into practice, the French army called to quash the rebellion shot him in the back and nearly killed him. Jason is clearly a prime suspect, but is he really the perpetrator of a violent crime? As one knows, the guilty party is not always the one we think.
Etienne, the second in charge aboard the Ocean Liberator is the only casualty of the explosion, but his drinking problem and suspicious behaviour just before the accident makes him a suspect too. He has been working in the narrow circle of Elf-Gabon for thirty years and time has taken its toll. The young shop steward who, early in his career, fought for more equality between expatriates and local workers has been subdued by corporate might and, in an atmosphere of soul searching and regrets, the sequel of an old love affair catches up with him. Was it to much to bear for a lonely soul whose wife once said to him: "Despair blinds those who are not enlightened by hope" ?
Alidor Minko belongs to the "clan of Elf managers" and he is now the Director of the Company Public Relations. He has risen to this enviable position from a modest background, but like his old friend Etienne, success and wealth have come at a price: madness is lurking behind his well polished appearance. His loyalty to the company seems absolute, but too many earth-shattering and contradictory experiences during the course of his life have sown the seed of confusion in his mind: his strict missionary education from the age of two, his taxing initiation to the spiritual world of the Bwitis, his subsequent association with Freemasonry, the racist attitudes of expatriates, the paternalistic attitude of Elf and the collective delusion of their employees have left him morally confused and subject to irrational fears. But is that a enough to make him an intriguer ready to rock the boat ?
And there is the geologist Médée, head of operations on the Ocean Liberator. She was poached by Elf from British Petroleum because her drilling successes were above those of the other prospectors. She is about to prove once more her outstanding ability, but her attraction to the oil-rig workers in general and to Jason in particular makes her suspect, especially when she embarks on a search for her vanished cook in downtown Port-Gentil; she asks too many questions and ends up in jail, accused of being an accomplice of the missing man.
By a twist of fate, Médée ends up in the same cell as the official profiler from Paris whose investigation comes to an abrupt end when a parent of an under-aged girl accused him of sexual molestation. Answers to the inquiry won't come from him but the truth will still come out... nothing but the truth, if not the whole truth, as one can never be sure of knowing all the elements that led to a catastrophe, especially one that Jason's auntie attributes resolutely to the ire of the gods.
Sleuthing for facts explaining what happened on the Ocean Liberator is entertaining, but linking people's actions, beliefs and behaviours to the influence of a close-knit community that organises and regulates every aspect of personal, social and political life is fascinating. And although Bessora's story comes under the label "Novel", one gets the distinct impression that the author is well-informed and speaks from a position of knowledge. Not only did the author write a thesis titled "Oil memory in Gabon", but a few pages on the web seem to indicate that her father was a former Deputy Managing Director of Elf-Gabon and General Secretary of OPEC who fell from grace when he entered politics and later, imprisoned on dubious charges.
Bessora's outline of oil exploration in Gabon is also fascinating as it is irreverent in tone and full of humour despite the seriousness of its theme. It puts the spoliation of the region in the context of French colonial determination and Gabon's inability to resist the multi-pronged onslaught on the country. Bits of trivia meshed with precise dates of oil exploration, well discoveries, barrels of oil extracted and locals' attitudes towards the newcomers: "In 1928, the search begins on the orders of the Governor of French Equatorial Africa. Trackers, porters, drillers and carpenters survey the streams for the French Republic, under the direction of geologists who come from France and Russia ... They walk straight ahead. They go up. They go down. They drink vodka. They cross streams of clear and transparent water. They drink Ricard. They collect stones. They take notes. They draw maps ... The tracker's name is Zéphyrin. He guides the explorers across the bush. He knows full well that he is disturbing the spirits of the forest and the jinns ... but how can one teach the traditional etiquette to the geologists ?" (p.60).
Petroleum tells the story of a country that has been taken hostage by its rich mineral resources, yet Bessora's novel does not present this dependence as ineluctable: for better or for worse, there is life after crude oil and that is the truth Medée and Jason discover as the dust settle on the deck of the Ocean Liberator. Definitely a title worth reading.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities