NOT TO BE MISSED
"Boy Dakar", a novel by Laurence GAVRON
Paris : Editions du Masque, 2008. 350p. Novel written in French.
Ce compte rendu en français
My mother loves detective novels because, she says, they offer the best possible way to escape real life. As I spent more time than I dare to admit in the company of Léo Malet, Simenon and many others, I had no grounds to disagree with her; that is until I read Boy Dakar by Laurence Gavron. There are exceptions to every rule and this novel, far from providing a nice way to escape from the world, brings unsuspecting readers back to its reality.
Arguably, spending a hot summer afternoon in the company of Brigadier Souleymane Faye from Dakar's Criminal Investigation Unit, hundreds of miles from Senegal, under the shade of a tree, with a long drink, is possibly not what one would call "the real word"; neither is the happy ending of the novel that sees marriage, children and assassins redeeming themselves under the benevolent guidance of well-meaning police. Be that as it may, to me, Laurence Gavron' book is not so much a good read because it is trite entertainment, but rather because it offers a gallery of portraits of Senegalese characters; characters that are, at least, as enjoyable to discover as finding who was creating havoc in the Senegalese capital and leaving a trail of dead bodies, including that of a prominent and ambitious religious leader.
It takes the author the first four pages of the novel to set the stage and to get Souleymane Faye out of his bed where he slumbers with his last conquest in order to bring him to the scene of the crime; but once there, he is left to his own devices by the narrator. She is more interested in recounting the life of the people connected to the case than in following closely the tedious police work. It is thus only 130 pages later that she brings him back into the fold and gets moving with the police investigation.
Meanwhile, we are taken for a stroll in Dakar, meeting a large variety of people and discovering the bustling life of that cosmopolitan city. We learn of the linguistic idiosyncrasies of the inhabitants who "droitent" when they turn right and call their grandfather "maam bòoy"; we discover the watering-hole they stop by, the family ties they have, the way they live in the suburbs, the people they meet; we share their preoccupations, accumulating sensations and images as we move on from one short chapter to the next.
With Fatim, the owner of the "Cybercafé Sandanga", we enter the world of a young, dynamic, successful entrepreneurial woman who micro-manages a small team of local youth. Business is good, but another problem occupies Fatim's mind when we enter her life : her boyfriend Modou has left her and she is prepared to do whatever necessary to get him back, including enlisting the help of Modou's sister and that of a traditional healer, Pa'Djeli.
Modou introduces us to the world of local disillusioned youth wooed by unscrupulous marabouts with the promise of a better future. In contrast, Libass Ndoye invites us to share the contented, yet frugal life, of a local celebrity whose songs and tunes reach Senegalese music lovers in every nook and cranny of the country. We meet also agents of the local underworld: the small-time gangster Gaetano Oliveira, and the powerful Baba Mekong who is taking care of the Governments' and politicians' dirty- work.
This stroll through the streets of Dakar also includes crossing the path of a few beggars such as the beautiful Ken Bugul who is a mute and becomes embroiled in the murder case as her "pagne" is part of the means used by Pa'Djeli in his attempt to bring Modou back to Fatim. As for unscrupulous politicians and businessmen such as Cheik Tidiane Ndiaye and multi-millionaire Karim Nasrallah who is about to launch a new amusement park for the locals, one understands quickly that their activities are not geared towards ameliorating the life of the bulk of Dakar's population: those attempting to meet their daily expenses, like Goorgoorlu,the popular character of Senegalese comics, who finds it hard to make ends meet.
Life is tough and many ambitions have been thwarted by poverty, corruption and other woes associated with life in the metropolises of Africa. Yet, in contradiction to the many novels exploring the brain-drain that pushes Africans out of the continent, Boy Dakar puts more emphasis on people who have returned home after their sojourn abroad. People glad to be back, such as Libass Ndoye who spent many years in France and is now unashamedly enjoying the local ambiance and the company of his peers. His career being definitively "settled", he rents a small house in Ouakam where he spends the best part of his day living a quiet life amongst neighbours, musicians and family members. But there are also people like Fatim who would live nowhere else but in Dakar, although she has become critical of a society in which she gauges Senegalese habits and behaviour with the benefit of having lived elsewhere. For her, the lack of privacy, constant interacting with others and the rather superficial nature of daily conversations are certainly much easier to bear than the cold, reserved and self-centred attitudes prevailing elsewhere; but over time, even the Senegalese intimacies can also become wearing.
The appeal of Laurence Gavron's depiction of Senegalese society has not been lost to Modou Mamoune FAYE who wrote in a review of Boy Dakar published in the Senegalese daily Le Soleil (http://www.lesoleil.sn/imprimertout.php3?id_rubrique=946 [sighted 24 October 2008]) : "Laurence Gavron's novel gives its readers great pleasure. Boy Dakar is a well written book, using everyday language, full of friendly and corrosive humour. It condenses portraits of the "people of modest means" that one could meet every single day, along any avenue, street or side alley of the Senegalese capital."
The gentle way this novel brings unsuspecting "detective novel" buffs back to reality is no doubt one of the keys to its appeal, but it would be unfair to reduce it to some kind of sociological study, which it isn't. Boy Dakar is well and truly a detective novel that will readily distract readers from their everyday life's woes and chores if they so wish.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities