NOT TO BE MISSED
"Matins de couvre-feu", a novel by Tanella BONI
Paris: Editions du Rocher. Le Serpent à plumes, 2005. (320p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
Matins de couvre-feu by Ivorian writer Tanella Boni is a powerful indictment of her compatriots' inability to come to terms with the demons of intolerance, discrimination and prejudice. This novel, published in 2005, evokes a country that is still in the throes of political and social unrest. The country's social dislocations have spared no one, splitting families and killing scores of innocent people. The rule of law has been replaced by the power of the gun and Zamba (alias Ivory Coast) continues to tear itself apart.
The novel tells the story of the enterprising and successful owner of a small restaurant who is apprehended by Arsène Kâ, the head of the country's security forces. She is put under house arrest and this arbitrary decision is affecting every aspect of her existence as it is preventing her from running the small restaurant she owns. A couple of visits by the employee who is taking charge of her business, a brief encounter with her brother who calls in shortly after his release from prison, and letters she receives from her sister-in-law become her main lifeline to the outside world.
A prisoner in her own home, she lets her mind drift towards the people she has known. She recalls the life of determined women such as her late mother, her sister-in-law and her friend Aya-Siyi. She also revives the mixed feelings associated with the men who crossed her path: those associated with the righteous Kanga Ba, but also with her oft absent father, her militant brother, her exploitative partner, not to mention the shady characters like Arsène Kâ who are extorting money, arresting, torturing, raping and killing with impunity. As she ponders the twists and turns of people's lives, it becomes obvious to her that every relationship contains the seed of its own destruction when it is built on exploitation and abuse rather than tolerance and genuine collaboration.
The crippling affliction that fragments society to its core is due to the fact that people have given up the art of compromise and lost sight of the necessary synergy between neighbours', families' and close relatives' idiosyncratic needs and expectations. The problems cannot be fixed at the level of the whole country before they have been sorted out at the level of the individuals and their perception of alterity. People have to reinvent themselves and their relationships. They have to revisit the past with a new agenda and emphasise people's inter-dependence rather than obsolete traditional rights and customs that serve nothing but a covering up of individuals' shortcomings and greed. The old "wisdom" that poisons relationship between genders is but one example.
The emblematic fiasco of the narrator's life with her partner is a case in point. From the day they met, she realised that they stood on opposite sides of life, but it is not because their values and outlook on life are different that she soon becomes aware that living together is not possible: rather, it is because she realises that he is not interested in her innermost beliefs, convictions and wellbeing. He keeps her at arm's length and their life is reduced to a passive cohabitation. Not surprisingly, his loyalty toward her is found wanting when he takes advantage of her absence to get his hands on her restaurant.
The relationship between her sister-in-law and her own brother suffers from the same estrangement that leads individuals to reject otherness at the periphery of their lives in the name of idiosyncratic and selfish ideals and individual pursuits. Unlike the narrator's partner, her brother believes he has the good of his country at heart, but instead of lending an ear to the people who live around him his wife in particular he loses himself in vain ideological pursuits and becomes the champion of lost causes. He has been jailed by his former "friends" and his wife has left him, tired of his empty rhetoric : "I am off", she says "but that won't make much difference to you: on the contrary, you'll not be bothered by anyone and you'll have plenty of time to remake the world on your own... I have been in this house for days but you haven't seen me, you haven't looked at me...". (p.211)
As the narrator recollects her parents' fluctuating fortune, she comes to realise that her mother's predicament was not that different from the difficult situations faced by women in subsequent generations. It was indeed a microcosm of the world of sorrow that would engulf the country more than half a century later. Heretofore as today, women had been expected to make do with little help, fend for themselves and raise their children in the context of an absentee father or husband. Generation after generation autocratic patriarchs, surrounded by not so wise elders, have been keen to ignore their plight and to silence their demands; this in the name of traditional rights and duties. The narrator suggests that, perpetuating the inequalities of the past cannot bring back peace and prosperity, it can only push the country further towards total collapse.
Meaningful relationships cannot develop when old hereditary hierarchies are exhumed in order to split the population between men and women, locals and aliens. One section of the population will invariably become the sources of all ills in the eyes of the other. It this context, it is interesting to note that Tanella Boni already addressed this issue in a seminal paper on tolerance published in 1997 : "Those who, only yesterday were our brother and neighbours and one knows all the affective charge of theses words became, from one day to the next, with no apparent reason, the archetype of the foreigner, the guy who, in time of economic crisis is designated the scapegoat. He is accused of being the source of all suffering, the cause of insecurity, the major impediment to "locals" access to work, and that's the reason why he is considered as an undesirable alien and, by political decree, expelled by force". (http://motspluriels.arts.uwa.edu.au/MP497tb.html).
Matins de couvre-feu explores the tragic consequences of such political laissez-faire, intrigues and short-sightedness, but it also reaffirms the need to rebuild a climate of tolerance and genuine collaboration within the population. The hope of a different kind of society that puts people first lies beyond the bloody and never-ending feuds sending the country to its doom: A society that pays tribute to freedom, happiness and acceptance of others, that encourages open debate instead of frightening people into "seeing nothing, hearing nothing and saying nothing" (p.99). Such a society may still be far away, but Tanella Boni's narrator already has big plans for the day it will come. Many people like her stand ready to reopen their country and their hearts to a significant Other. They are ready to negotiate anew the common code that will facilitate rapprochement and conciliation of cultural differences according to people's needs and expectations, rather than class, gender or states' self-serving and discomforting "wisdom".
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities