NOT TO BE MISSED
"Cabaret sous savonnier", a novel by Lucienne BONNOT-BANGUI
Paris: Présence Africaine, 2009. (258p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
Cabaret sous savonnier [The bar under the goldenrain tree] is not only an exciting read, it is also a novel that gives a human dimension to the impassive dryness of historical facts. It puts personal, subjective and emotional perceptions ahead of disembodied observations and reporting. The story revolves around the life of Wouarra, a free-spirited woman confronted by the destructive power of war, after she moved to Africa and settled there. The emphasis of the novel is not on documenting anew the crimes and exactions of an endless string of manipulating leaders unleashing terror on pseudo-enemies. It is rather to reveal the fate of oft-ignored civilians bearing the brunt of bloody political folly. This highly thoughtful and penetrating journey in the mind of a character "whose memory has a life of its own" (p.77), allows Lucienne Bonnot-Bangui to scrutinize society at the level of individual's hopes, feelings, hurts, loss, despair and interactions with others.
The main part of the plot takes place in Darna, an imaginary country in Central Africa but readers will note that the uneasy relationship between the North and South of Darna, the collapse of law and order in 1979, the slaughter of tens of thousands of civilians by child-soldiers and heavily armed militias, the rigged elections, the river running through the capital city separating Darna from one of its neighbours; all the facts and figures except the names, point toward a real country, only thinly disguised: the Republic of Chad. As in many places around the world, the plight of this country's ordinary civilians caught between warring factions has often been downplayed, thus the interest of a novel that leaves military and political manoeuvring in the background and focuses on both the trauma and painful road to recovery of the innocent victims of warfare. This insider's account of human history centres on the victims' predicament, but it also reveals people's capacity to survive against the odds. It debunks the grand narratives that support nationalistic fervour and invites readers to discover the world beyond cold facts, figures and doctored images of "Other".
Like many women of her generation, French born Wouarra was expected to espouse the world-view of her parents and to walk in their footsteps. But like many of her contemporaries, she decides to discover the world and so leaves the narrow confines of her village. From there, it is the capricious law of serendipity that leads her to Darna and puts young Toussaint in her path. Love and the sweet discovery of otherness gives a new meaning to her existence. It widens her horizon and introduces her to a different perception of life, duty and sense of destiny. "Toussaint had been nurtured by Darnan culture and he believed in its values", she says. "He knew how to talk to me about it and never missed an opportunity to ... initiate me to the usages and conventions of his country, allowing me to decipher people's gaze and gestures, to comprehend the true meaning hiding behind trivial expressions and words" (p.113). The more Wouarra gets immersed in Toussaint's universe, the more she is seduced by the philosophy of life she discovers, thus her decision to settle there. Unfortunately, civil war breaks out, Toussaint is assassinated and many decades later, the autocratic regime of Darna decides to expel her from the country.
The death of her beloved husband and the capricious decision taken by Darna's dictatorial government against her destroy Wouarra's existence. Moreover, the attitude of the French consular official in charge of organising her forced repatriation does not soothe her sorrow. Far from acknowledging the cruel uprooting of a woman who is abruptly cut off from her friends, the insensitive civil servant, she has to meet, takes the opportunity to sing the praise of a French welfare system "that will allow you to live a much better life in France" (p.246), so he says. To him, handouts delivered by government to its citizens is the key to contentment and happiness. But in the eyes of a very frugal Wouarra, who finds solace in the company of significant others, a few euros and indeed material possessions in general mean very little. It is drinking local beer in the company of her neighbours under a goldenrain tree that comforts her when discouragement is catching up with her; it is sharing her thoughts with her landlord and kindred spirit Wongbe, taking care of P'tit Pim, helping-out her friend Mariam. Feelings, a sense of belonging, coming to terms with the shock of losing one's husband to cold-blooded murderers, peace of mind, these are things money cannot buy.
Wouarra's first return to France after her husband's murder does not help her regain her equanimity. In Paris, she feels like a stranger and is unable to mourn the death of her dreams. Grief recedes, only to return when she thinks back to her beloved Darna. The opportunity to go back there presents itself after a long exile in the country of her birth, but the magic of her first visit is no more: "A bright sun, the same as the one that welcomed me when I disembarked here for the first time", she notes, "was throwing a cold light on the scars of fighting. Everything was bearing witness to the violence. The fountain at the cross-road was badly damaged ... the greenish walls of neighbouring houses covered with bullet-marks. The shop where I used to work did not exist anymore: only a small bit of the wrecked facade remained standing ... Rudimentary stalls had been erected in front of the ruins, offering nice vegetables: salads, beans, carrots, tomatoes, parsley. Life was creeping back among the rubble... In discovering the desolation of this neighbourhood striving to heal its wounds, I remember thinking that one would have to wait for a very long time to see real gardens blossom again, to heal these deep wounds, to relieve people's anger, to silence the guns. I now know that this 'very long time' is still not nearing its end" (p. 134).
If reason had prevailed, Wouarra would have returned to France by the next flight, but intuitively she could feel that recovery did not follow that path. "Neither on that day nor on the next", she says, "did I think of leaving this heavy atmosphere saturated with dramas and fear" (p.135). In order to regain her composure, she senses that she has to overcome her grief and make peace with the troubled world of Darna. But even in Toussaint's country, that proves a difficult feat. Rationalisation and volition are unable to prevent frequent and irrational bouts of sadness and despair, thus Wouarra's frequent mingling with the customers of Kaltouma, the woman selling beer under the goldenrain tree located just across the road. In the dark hours of depression, bilibili is providing greater solace for desperate souls than a "silent God, indifferent to human distress" (p.211). It is not Toussaint's gleaming memory that is dominating her mind during these dreadful moments, but an irrepressible need to escape a traumatic past and to drown in the waters of Lethe: "Give us drink to fill in the emptiness of our existence" she says, "mend our injuries, dull our memories, take us into the comfort of the half-light inebriety that eases the depth of our misery and pain and eventually, drag us to the bottom of the abyss of forgetfulness, or heave us towards the blinding light of a burning sun" (p.213).
Unfortunately the ephemeral repose provided by bilibili is no better suited to heal the soul than dry material sufficiency, so Wouarra's inexorable drift towards oblivion would probably have taken its predictable course had she not felt the unexpected compulsion to put her story down on paper. "Why would one wake-up in the morning with a single idea that keeps coming like a leitmotif: Writing! I must write!?" (p.27), she ponders, but the reasons behind this sudden urge remains a mystery as it has to many other writers. However, what becomes immediately clear to her is the fact that letting her traumatic past escape onto the pages marks an important step towards reining in the demons that have ruined her life: "This uncontrollable, absolute necessity" she says, "I don't know why it came back to me, feverish at the tip of my fingers and brand new pen ...I was waking up with the strange feeling that I was returning after a long absence, of a kind of vegetative existence where daily routines were performed mechanically in a sort of daze. Under my hand, I could feel my body warming up and opening up to feelings. And I understood that life was flowing back inside me, taking suffering with it. Ideas were galloping inside my head ... Writing in order to live, even if pain had to remain my travelling companion. That was a necessary exorcism" (pp.27-28).
Lucienne Bonnot-Bangui married a Chadian politician, worked many years as a nurse in Chad and, notwithstanding her disillusionment with the enduring oppressive regimes that have bloodied its history, her novel expresses a genuine interest in her adoptive country. The deep-seated feelings driving her pen bear witness to a meaningful and heartfelt relationship with the country and its people. They also allow readers to embark on their own journey of discovery. Wouarra's search for meaning holds out a very personal and perceptive reading of Darna/Chad history, yet it raises universal preoccupations: the disastrous consequences of war, the meaning of life, the value of love and friendship, the power of the mind to heal deep wounds, and many more. Definitely a fine novel expressing profound truths and the precariousness of the human condition: a book that everyone will enjoy reading.
1. The local beer brewed by Kaltouma
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities