NOT TO BE MISSED
"La boue de Saint-Pierre", a novel by Ralphanie MWANA KONGO
Paris: L'Harmattan, 2012. (154p.).
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This novel has it all: an unscrupulous politician aiming for the top job, a string of unsuspecting victims falling prey to his pretence of love and friendship, a good mix of villains and inspirational characters, as well as a nicely constructed plot that entertains readers from start to finish. The action takes place in an imaginary African megalopolis, both in the gated communities of the rich and famous and in the slums of Saint-Pierre where opportunities to escape squalor and perversions are few and far between.
Like their neighbours, the Tala have to endure the many ills befalling the poverty-stricken ghetto of Saint-Pierre, but on top of a common lack of basic amenity, they also have to contend with an added curse: their ruthless matriarch has bullied her children for years and, even worse, she remained silent when her late husband molested her daughter Pélagie and fathered her two sons. More than economic deprivation, the toxic family atmosphere has left permanent bruises on the inner being of Pélagie and her elder brother Gaspard. Relentless scolding and denigrating had continued unabated for years and the nasty memories of the now grown-up children are ever-present in their mind. Leaving the family hovel was one thing, but forgetting their grievous past something else altogether: far more difficult to achieve.
Upon departing from Saint-Pierre, leaving his sister to the mercy of her tormenting parents, Gaspard was ridden with guilt, even though he had done all he could to save Pélagie from their father's interference. He had denounced the abuser to an uncle, but to no avail. Neither his family nor the whispering neighbours had had the fortitude to confront the molester and his sharp-tongued wife. Rather the then ten year old Gaspard was accused of being a fabricator and no one came to the rescue.
After leaving home at fifteen, Gaspard eventually managed to rise above his condition and became a successful fashion designer. Pélagie's flight from her mother's tyranny had been far less effective as she only escaped from one despot to fall prey to another, i.e., an unemployed and jealous sleaze who provided her with no support, financial or otherwise. Moreover, she had to leave her two sons behind and they were unashamedly exploited by their grandmother. Gaspard was helping his sister whenever he could, but most of the money he was giving her ended up wasted by her partner on gambling and drinking, rather than on rent and food.
The novel begins as Pélagie pays a visit to her brother as she is once again in desperate need of cash. This time, however, it is not a forlorn wretch buffeted by misfortune who knocks on the door of Gaspard's mansion, but a woman determined to take her destiny into her own hands. She had just found out she was pregnant and she is adamant that there is no way she would bring another child into the world. She is intends to have an abortion and she has to get some money from Gaspard for that purpose, even if she cannot tell him of her condition and resolve.
Pélagie's calm, cool and collected attitude at the start of her journey toward freedom is indeed uplifting; it shows that there is always hope in any situation, desperate as it may seem; whatever one's experience, it is never too late to break free and to move on. Thus Pélagie's testimony, even if it lies at the periphery of the main story-line, is important as it emphasises personal agency in the context of her environment's debilitating impositions.
Also inspirational is the attitude of Barthélémy, another unemployed inhabitant of the ghetto who has been unable to secure a job at the end of his Law degree. In contrast to Saint-Pierre's idle teenagers making a living out of odd jobs and petty crime, he wants to do something useful; and if his Law degree does not help him achieve this goal, he is ready to do something else: even contemplating the possibility of going back to his village and to become a farmer. In time of economic hardship, cushy administrative positions are generating nothing except a few perks for a select few, thus his determination to take charge of his own life and his vehement criticism of the exploiters taking advantage of their position at every level of the social structure, but producing nothing of value to the community.
His encounter with an old friend from university emphasises the point. Whereas his friend awaits eagerly for a regime change in order to get a position with "little to do, plenty of money, women and glory" (p.77), Barthélémy has very different aspirations as "He was a socialist at heart and dreamt of a society where the men in power would relinquish their needless and expensive privileges and concentrate their efforts towards a betterment of living condition of the most vulnerable people" (p.77) .
The outcome of his subsequent appointment to a Government position is left to the readers' imagination. One can only ponder if his eventual admission to the Bar will allow him to bridge theory and practice, but his determination to make reparation to the young woman he abandoned a decade earlier, after making her pregnant, may suggest he will. His attitude probably won't help his promotion to the upper echelons of his profession, but it signals preoccupations of a different kind that could bring about real change.
A fair number of well-meaning characters lighten the narration, but La boue de Saint-Pierre is no fairytale. One will definitely find some comfort in the fact that not everything and everybody is irremediably lost to the devil in the city, but the overall picture proposed by the novel remains, on this whole, very grim. The Government's "wisdom" is keeping "a horde of unemployed youth" (p.19) out of meaningful employment; teenage girls are working the streets with the benediction of their parents as the money they earn puts food on the table; rogue teachers have intercourse with their students; local elders follow selfish pursuits, and politicians look after their own interests rather than attempting to better the living conditions of the have-nots. Furthermore, for fear to being labelled a rebel, or an opponent of the regime, dissenting voices are gagged and a silent majority prevented from making a fuss.
People are lacking everything from employment to freedom of speech, access to education, health services, proper accommodation, electricity, sealed roads, etc., but knowing that the country is in dire straights does not faze the government that continues "buying more arms rather than creating jobs" (p.38). Enjoying decent living conditions is beyond the means of a majority of the population, and the fact that the elite of the country is dominated by the predatory activities of unscrupulous nasties allows gross inequalities to perdure. People of influence are ready to betray one and all, to go back on friends and to dispose of their opponents by any means, including murder. Moto, the leader of the latest coup, is the identikit of his predecessor. Nothing changes when he seizes power except the name of the president, and his self-centred preoccupations tell the sorry tale of totalitarianism and bad governance:
On the scale of human perversity, Moto's murderous sentence cannot find a match, but it is not the litany of deceptions that paved the novel that makes it interesting; it is rather the penetrating evocation of self-centredness, amorality and lack of empathy that is born of moral and social deprivation. The narrator's ability to enter the mind of the characters and to reveal their personality on the basis of their moral strengths and flaws rather than socio-economic indicators is worth a mention. Thus it is not the money deposited in Gaspard's safe that defines who he is, but his painful relationship with his family, his desire to do the right thing and his genuine interest in his work. It is not the material hardship experienced by Pélagie and her mother that define their personalities, but the mean streak of the latter and the unexpected strength of character of the former. It is neither Barthélémy's initial failure to become a lawyer, nor his subsequent promotion to a cushy job that counts, but his philosophy of life and human concerns that lead him to make a positive difference to the world around him.
In reiterating the fact that good and evil are transcending age, gender and social status, this novel moves away from conventional dichotomies opposing the 'haves' and the 'have-nots', the oppressors and the oppressed. It challenges the common belief that greedy politicians at the top are solely responsible for the plight of innocent victims at the bottom of the social order. Saint-Pierre's wretchedness, the narrator suggests, is not only due to institutional deficiencies and well-entrenched social inequalities, but it also results from the devastating effects of individuals' lack of decency and egotistical pursuits that can be found at every level of society. Little help is to be expected from the top, but that does not mean that life at the bottom is doomed, once and for all, the narrator says: everyone can be a vector of change.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities