NOT TO BE MISSED
"Va-t'en avec les tiens!", a novel by DOÉLLÉ
Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1951. (310p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
Invited to visit Togo by her friend Mag who married a French Doctor working in the Colonies, Christine Garnier left for Africa at the end of the 1940s. As a writer and journalist, she was interested in African fetishism, but it was a more consuming interest that took her fancy and provided the subject matter of Va-t'en avec les tiens! [Go back where you belong], a novel published a few years later in Paris amidst some controversy. This first-rate psychological thriller is not only a fine encapsulation of unhinged colonial life and social interactions in the early 1950s, but it is also a forerunner of the many books that have explored the issue of métissage ever-since, underlining its influence in shaping people's life and identity.
The basic plot of the novel is quite simple: Shortly after joining her husband in a small colonial outpost, the Doctor's wife, Urgèle, falls for Fabien, the local Judge who has lived for years with a nurse, Doéllé. The latter, as expected, does her best to foil her lover's new infatuation. How such inconsequential trivia could lead to a challenging novel, one full of wisdom and humanity, can definitely be credited to the literary skills of the author. It is also due to her empathy with her characters, her refusal of exoticism and her vivid portrayal of the people she encountered during her sojourn in Togo, irrespective of their race and creed. But above all, Va-t'en avec les tiens! is fascinating because it tells of a human experience from the point of view of someone attempting to reconcile what she sees in the others' eyes with her own sense of self. Thus the all important beginning of the novel:
"My name is Doéllé.
My grandfather was trading slaves along the African coast, from Cap-Vert to the gulf of Benin. Born to a Portuguese nobleman mad for adventure and a modest Ewee girl, he bestowed the name d'Almeïga on my family. It is from him, no doubt, that I inherited my aristocratic nose and due to this small drop of white blood, my skin is golden rather then plain black. Even so, my mother, a Mina from Accra, was born with the thick toes of a race who, from the dawn of time, never wore sandals These toes, look, I've got them as well ... People say that I am good-looking... Every so often, white ladies want to give me a dress. I have always refused. I do not want to wear the tight and short clothes worn by other educated women; I prefer to be swathed in the nice pagnes from the Gold Coast that leave the shoulders exposed, but cover the ankles.
I am a nurse at the maternity ward. Due to the Catholic education I received from the Sisters and the studies I did in Dakar, the Whites of Manoho do not look down on me. Sometimes, they even go as far as calling me 'Miss'... Yes, whites are talking politely to me. But as soon as they do not need me, they say: 'Thank you. Now you can go, Doéllé!' And their waving means: 'Now, Doéllé, go back where you belong, with the blacks! Your skin is smooth, for sure, but your lips are thick and your back excessively arched. You are not one of us. Go back where you belong". (pp.7-8)
Frustrated love is at the origin of Doéllé's feelings of rejection, but it is the diverging meanings attributed to such a universal misfortune by different characters that drives the narration across a maze of idiosyncratic behaviours: racist assumptions, gendered expectations and cultural misunderstandings. To Juge Flavien who was hit by love at first sight when Urgèle walked into his life, getting intimate with her becomes an obsession; and not being able to let this all-consuming passion blossom in the open brings him to the brink of despair. Compared to the fire burning inside him, everything becomes immaterial, his job, his intercourse with other colonists and, of course, his relationship with Doéllé who had been soothing his loneliness and dutifully fulfilling his darkest fantasies. He, who exults in the suffering of the people he holds at his mercy (p.73), pities himself but has no genuine interest in the people he seduces. When Doéllé lets him know her hurt at his advances to the doctor's wife, he shows genuine surprise and incredulity: "Would you be jealous, by any chance?", he says. "Thank God, jealousy does not exist in your country [...] Listen to me. Between Mrs Doctor and you, no comparison can be drawn. She brings me a little bit of Paris, she is stimulating, waking up my brain which had become idle. But you, you are imparting me some peace, you allow me to forget that I am terribly alone [...]. I like your way to submit to love without thinking, my little prehistoric being, my little animal" (pp.71-74).
Nothing could be further removed from reality than Judge Flavien's assessment of the personality of the two women competing for his favours. Mrs Doctor is not the vivacious and free-spirited women Judge Flavien has imagined in his wild dreams. She is not the emancipated Parisian who would flout convention and play Judge Flavien at his own game. On the contrary, she is soft, vulnerable, introvert and unhappily married to a man who sees her as a mental case,"unable to face facts and terrorised by the real world" (p.214). As Doéllé is quick to note shortly after Urgèle's reunion with her husband,"these two living souls did not understand each other. The words spoken by one never find an echo in the mind of the other" (p.15). Judge Flavien's victory over Urgèle's heart is nothing but a hollow victory over marital despair.
In contrast, Doéllé has nothing of the carefree, submissive and dolly attributes that Judge Flavien sees in her. On the contrary, she is a resolute woman who has lost her certitudes and illusions on contact with white culture, but gained a new sense of direction. Experience has taught her that"It is not sufficient to learn the Whites' ways, to speak their language and to read their books. Some doors they keep tightly shut and they will only open them to our children, possibly our grandchildren, provided they do not decide, eventually, to keep the magic key to themselves forever" (p.20). The only variable she has not been able to master is the colour of her skin, thus her determination to have an"almost white child" (p.44) with Flavien. But by the same token, she remains firmly attached to her ancestral roots, her family, her mother, her sister Océa, the latter's husband-to-be Fossou, and she wonders what the future holds in store for them all.
There was indeed something prophetic in Doéllé's alias Christine Garnier pondering the long-term benefit of"progress" at a time when very few of her white contemporaries would have doubted its ubiquitous value."Mother was possibly right", Doéllé says. "Whereas the majority of Africa's children get caught up in white teaching, it would be good that some of them resolutely turn their backs on the lure of progress and continue to take care of the ancient Gods. By so doing, half a century from now Europe would be able to decide where to find the real wise men: amongst native lawyers and doctors wearing a trilby, or rather among black individuals such as Océa, such as Fossou, who would have followed their own spiritual path to wisdom? A white man listening to me would laugh until his sides ached. Yet no one can tell what will befall us in time to come" (p.66). As it turns out, sixty years later the jury is still out on the question that concerns everyone. Surrounded by uncertainties, it is still difficult to gauge if wisdom will come from (wo)men in silk hats or traditional elders. Sixty years have been added to many centuries of European intercourse with Africa, but "Captain Doctor" claims that "we know precious little about each other": something which still holds true.
Likewise, sixty years on, Doéllé's longing for a society that sees people through their own personal qualities and failings rather than race, origins, gender or complexion has remained a distant dream for many. It is still shared by countless well-educated young men and women everywhere, and each of them could still claim as their own Doéllé's laments: "... by my own folk, alas, I am considered as the presumptuous, the one that cannot be trusted because I stand accused of liking the whites too much. But tell me, what am I to the whites? A lost soul they keep away from their reunions and from their preoccupations. When are they going to forget that my skin is black? And when I am going to forget that theirs is white?" (p.29).
From a narrative perspective, Va-t'en avec les tiens! is also interesting as it gives free rein to the narrator's imagination. What cannot be observed directly by Doéllé, espied by indiscrete employees, or seen by passers-by is complemented by her mind-reading ability. Her ruthless determination to keep her rival under constant surveillance offers readers the tantalising promise of being privy to the innermost thoughts of all the characters. Doéllé double-guesses Urgèle's frame of mind: "A lamp was burning in Mrs Doctor's room, a few metres away. I could imagined Urgèle locked up in the mosquito net, as in a cage... Lying soaked in sweat, she was choking, I could feel it..." (p.152); that of Captain Doctor: "I could take her with me to my rounds in the country, he was probably thinking. She could put aside her silly dreams and move into the real world" (p.117). She imagines the "brief and frustrated exchanges" between Flavien and Urgèle (pp.140-141) and can even see her own guilty conscience and eventual undoing in the deceptive smiles of people under her spell (p.276).
The close analysis of the characters' psyche that provides the most fascinating aspect of the book is complemented by an astute depiction of colonial life in the 1950s. Christine Garnier's autobiography  provides interesting details about the scenery, ambiance and people who provided the raw material for the novel, beginning with the huge python rolled up in the washing tub of her friend Mag's laundry and considered as a king. So too, her friend's respectful comments about the "magic lagoon" (Jusqu'où... p.70) that one could see in front of the local hospital, and her husband's mention of the "sacred caimans". Yet, Garnier says, "before the sorcerers and their spells, I was to discover leprosy" (Jusqu'où... p.71) during the field trips she did with the Doctor's party. Many episodes and characters of the novel are coming straight from incidents and people she met along the way. "The many strangers I met gave me a chance to discover fervent, fascinating and very generous people who spared no expense to welcome me. I meet old child- prodigies, de-frocked Sisters, cassava-flour producers, agriculturists possessed by their previous memories of Tahiti, and elderly gentlemen who refused to go back to France ... "Madam, an old outback man told me proudly, they call me Trompe-la-mort ..." (Jusqu'où... p.86). The few solitary souls "she seduced from time to time" (Jusqu'où... p.86) no doubt gave her a good idea of the mindset of Judge Flavien confronted by a blonde woman who, like her, arrived at a formal diner wearing a tight and suggestive black dress ..." (Jusqu'où... p.86).
Very little mention is made of Doéllé in Christine Garnier's autobiography, but a few pages devoted to her meetings with Bernard Grasset, who agreed to publish the novel, explains perhaps this peculiar lacuna. Upon reading the first draft of the novel and learning that the author was not black, the editor allegedly told her: "What a shame! Your text led me to believe that it was an autobiography. I was very pleased with that idea. Bad luck, but we'll fix that. As from now on, forget your name and your race, consider yourself as an African and step away from the limelight" (Jusqu'où... p.88). The rest is history. The book was published as if it had been written by an African woman but the real author behind the name of Doéllé did not remain a secret for very long. The deception never made it to the top of the literary hoax list, but this unsavoury appropriation of Doéllé's identity is quite illustrative of the contempt France has had for African property rights.
Va-t'en avec les tiens! blends the best literature has to offer with the worst editorial scheming, thus my reluctance in admitting that I very much enjoyed reading this fascinating novel. But I did! I cannot but warmly recommend it to everyone.
1. Christine Garnier. "Jusqu'où voient mes yeux". [Autobiography]. Paris Robert Laffont. 1975. 368p.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities