NOT TO BE MISSED
"Vénus de Khalakanti", a novel by Angèle KINGUE
Bordeaux [France]: Ana Editions, 2005. 188p. Novel written in French.
Ce compte rendu en français
Discovering a little gem buried in a bevy of titles, all bustling for readers' attention, is always exciting. Two main factors contributed to make Vénus de Khalakanti by Cameroonian Angèle Kingué such a pleasurable reading experience: the story line is uplifting and the novel solidly rooted in reality despite the back cover's suggestion that we are invited to "a poetic wandering in an African jungle full of mysteries".
As suggested by its title, this novel highlights the destiny of women living in the small village of Khalakanti. Political interference, cronyism and lack of opportunities are rife and life is very tough in this remote part of the country. No one seems to be spared from despondency, the curse of rural life. The village is stagnating and the prospect of gaining basic amenities, such as a school, running water or a sealed road remain elusive. Khalakanti's inhabitants are nothing but pawns used, abused or ignored by grubby politicians and megalomaniacal civil servants from the capital.
The main character Assumta has returned to her native home after working some years as a prostitute in a bigger town. Her father the village chief had been more interested in the money provided by his daughter than in her reputation. Assumta's contemporary Khasia a former presenter of the news on national television had also been coerced into returning to the village of his birth after he refused to become a mouthpiece for the Government. He is running the school and finds it hard to remain true to his principles in the face of people's apathy and loss of self-confidence. As for Bella, who takes over the revival of Khalakanti following the death of Assumta, she arrives in the village after a terrible ordeal and dreadful mutilation at the hands of her husband a former soccer superstar who loses his mind when his ephemeral glory fades due to his retrenchment from the national team.
After the Government's failure to honour its pledge to kick-start the economy of the region in developing a new road grid, Khalakanti's inhabitants have very little going for them, or so it seems, until a rather trivial event sparks a revival of the area. The village has missed out on the building of a new road but, as chance has it, a vehicle depot is installed on the outskirts of the village. A few drivers take residence in the vicinity and Assumta befriends the "chainsaw guy". One thing leads to another, she becomes his girlfriend, begins cooking for him and his mates, opens a small eatery, followed by the building of a few shacks for those drivers living under canvas. So begins a venture of humble origins that grows from a modest "chantier" into a famous destination, attracting people from near and far. One of the attractive features of the novel is certainly its enlivened way to illustrate that, beyond official "wisdom" and interference, there will always be someone able to create something out of nothing and to make the world a better place to live in: although success is sometimes as difficult to manage as failure.
Assumta's relationship with her friend Khasia and the rest of the village is not easy as her increasing success, material and otherwise, gives rise to jealousy and innuendoes. Another interest of the novel is the way Assumta tackles the issue and her implicit belief that individual success does not have to be anathema to traditional rules and conventions. It can be handled when it doubles with a genuine interest for others' wellbeing and interest. Thus, far from barricading herself in selfish wealth and privilege, like the politicians who made it in the capital, Assumta shares her success with other women who she invites to join in and to open their own stalls and businesses next to hers. In doing so, she becomes one of many thousands of other women who are steering the continent toward a brighter future, in spite of Government failures, fratricidal wars and exploitative international "cooperation". Assumta, Bella and many other female characters inhabiting contemporary African fiction are indeed women endowed with a remarkable degree of confidence and resilience.
The arrival of Bella in Assumta's life brings home this point. Bella has been mutilated by her husband, but it is not her handicap that Assumta sees in the young woman when she turns-up on her doorstep. It is the distressed human being in need of help and comfort. Soon after, however, she realises that Bella is a present from heaven. As Assumta's health declines, it is Bella who takes charge of the "Centre de la bonne espérance" and develops it further, showing that strength and determination make light of physical handicaps. Bella's resolve, sensitivity and appreciation of the world around her could not but prompt the recollection of my encounter with Monique Bessomo, a poet who lived in a small village on the outskirts of Yaoundé. Bella's pursuit was the distant echo of the voice that impressed me so much a decade earlier when she said : "... we have to preach by example and show how to make things work rather then telling others that we disagree with their mode of operation. So we said : we are a small group of women we would create ourselves into an association. We decided that it would be an Association of women, but that the door would be open, not only to women, but also to men; to those handicapped or not... The words "handicapped women" are disturbing to some people, but here we do not shrink; we are open to the world...". [Interview of Monique Bessomo, 1996, http://aflit.arts.uwa.edu.au/intDNTbessomo.html]. Such a parallel may well be quite fanciful for want of better sources than my somewhat unreliable memory, but there is no doubt that, for good or evil, novels have a major impact on their readers when reality is catching up with fictitious characters.
Respect for the natural world is another aspect of Bella's philosophy highlighted in the title of the novel. In early Roman society, Venus was worshiped as the goddess of fertility and her power spread from gardens to humans. Oblivious to Roman mythology, but comforted by her own ancestral wisdom and the need to halt the destruction of the environment, Bella gives full support to her friend Clarisse whose mission in life is to bring people back to trusting nature and its healing power. The strategy bears fruits and an increasing number of people call in to Khalakanti in order to seek help and advice about personal issues. It is thus not without reason that Khasia suggests that the Venus of Khalakanti is indeed a reincarnation of Zema, the Goddess of Harmony in the local mythology.
Vénus de Khalakanti tells the story of characters who rediscover the meaning of life after sinking to the lowest point of human existence; yet the novel is no fairytale. Rather, it is a reminder that the road to happiness is there for everyone, everywhere, even if it is rarely a smooth ride.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities