NOT TO BE MISSED
"Kouty, mémoire de sang", a novel by Aïda Mady DIALLO
Paris: Gallimard, 1998. (166p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
Published in 2002 in Gallimard well-known "série noire", Kouty, mémoire de sang is indeed a very black tale. A good read, yes, but also an unrestrained evocation of people's darkest side that would leave many readers unnerved. Kouty is a carefree young Malian girl, but her world collapses when she witnesses the slaughter of her family by several heavily armed men on a rampage. As she grows up with the gruesome images of her parents' demise imprinted on her mind, she becomes increasingly committed to avenge their death. Her unswerving pursuit of the assassins and their eventual execution provides the main plot of the novel.
Chasing the bad guys with an astute literary detective usually provides unreserved reading pleasure but, for some reason, doing the same in the company of a young avenger who has taken the law into her own hands may prove somewhat discomforting. From the coziness of one's armchair, it is hard to condone rough justice, even when we learn from the very beginning of the novel that the atrocities committed against Kouty's kinfolk are beyond words. The archaic lex talionis does not suit our sense of justice any more. Yet the fact that the fictional Kouty also evokes the plight of contemporary infants, still being subjected to the same kind of abomination, makes matters of principle more difficult to entertain. What one can oppose strongly in the abstract, one finds more difficult to condemn unreservedly in the context of real traumatic experiences tormenting people abandoned to their fate with no recourse to the Law. Who knows how many infants have witnessed their parents humiliated and massacred during Mali's bloody history? How many of today's children are getting confronted by the same horrors somewhere in the world? And how many innocent victims of crimes, euphemisticly labelled "collateral damage", will become the Kouty of tomorrow? No one knows, but one thing is certain: like the men who killed Kouty's family before her eyes, the majority of the perpetrators of such crimes will never be brought to account. Once fighting is over, society has to move on and aggrieved individuals have to follow suit, as best they can.
In this context, such killing sprees can be interpreted in different ways: For some it will evoke a personal crusade for justice; for others, a single-handed endeavour to settle old scores; or is it rather a commendable attempt to honour the memory of those innocent individuals slain by ruthless executioners and pushed at the periphery of History in the name society's best interest. During an interview, Aïda Mady Diallo said: "At the time of the conflict in the north of Mali, people travelled a lot between the northern parts of the country and Bamako; and they were invariably returning with such dreadful stories! Thus one day, I decided to get rid of these horror stories that preyed on my mind."  Kouty, her virtual alter-ego, gave her the opportunity to do just that.
As one would already have understood, Kouty, mémoire de sang is not a book that speaks of pardon and reason. Rather it is a cry from the heart, an exorcism, a call for justice rather than justice itself. A book expressing desperation; one that brushes social conventions aside and shouts the narrator's anger. A book calling for a society in which the virtuous are celebrated and the murderers severely punished, not as a matter of principle, but rather because the narrator feels it is the only way to get rid of the burden of untold injustices and horror that her contemporaries are carrying.
Kouty's total commitment to vengeance and her cold-blooded murders are neither an endorsement of rough justice, nor an invitation to follow in the character's footsteps. Rather it is a way to acknowledge and expose gross human rights violations. But Kouty, in destroying old foes and sending them to their grave without a shred of remorse, is emulating the savage inhumanity of her parents' murderers. This shows that her personal vendetta is only shifting feelings of hate and revenge from one individual to the next instead of dealing effectively with the issue of injustice and retribution. People should learn to live together, the author said, but "the world being the way it is, Kouty does not feel she has the strength to change it". (p.113)
The social decay that underlies Kouty's obsession reveals society's failure to tackle the evil of social division and age-old racism. Kouty's parents were killed for no other reason than racial intolerance. A generation later, the narrator argues, nothing has changed. Racial tension is rife, people are still displaying the same prejudices as before and the failure of the state to act resolutely is sowing the seeds of further bloodshed. Kouty's hate for the Touaregs who robbed her of her childhood is a case in point. In another world she could have been the symbol of racial tolerance and harmony, but instead she hates the blood flowing in her own veins. When she meets her parent's assassins who have become rich and powerful, she realises the depth of her resentment "for those men who are incapable of living in peace with the other ethnic groups". (p.13) "As she is shaking hands with the Targui, Kouty saw once more the vision of her tragic past. The images were burning in her head, firing her senses, and her ears were filling with the memory of shouts: the cries of pain of her father getting kicked and hit with rifles, shouts of distress of her mother begging the assailants to spare her husband, and offering her life for his. And her own cries of despair, muffled forever beneath her little girl's dress. Horrible scenes set off by a loathing of the Negroes mimicking the attitude of the Whites". (p.88)
Devastating as it is, racism is only one of the destructive forces that plague the country and Kouty, mémoire de sang addresses many other issues of no lesser importance: millions of people live on the bread-line, racketeers and dubious businessman are hard at work, NGO personnel and journalists are crisscrossing the country in their 4x4s and corruption is endemic. Furthermore, a giant gap between the haves and have-nots is a major impairment to harmonious relationships between classes and races. However, not everything is doom and gloom in Kouty's world and the best examples of humanity sometimes sit next to the worst cases of abuse. For example, her rescue from a life of vagrancy on the streets by two women who own a small restaurant in Bamako, saves her from the perils facing young orphans left to fend for themselves. Her friend Eddy is genuinely fond of her and does not deserve to become an unsuspecting pawn in her murderous venture. The same could be said for the wife and children of her last victim who are very decent human beings, completely innocent of the crimes committed by their husband and father, but whose lives are destroyed all the same.
Kouty is "pure fiction and in the real world, no woman would be able to commit a string of crimes in the way my character does it", the author said.  To me, however, it is less the degree of realism of the characters and the enormity of their crimes that I find unsettling. It is rather the very challenging questions this novel is asking about the legacy of war, the effect of violence and the meaning of justice in a world bereft of reciprocal and genuine respect for others.
1-2. Minga S. Siddick. "Rencontre: Aïda Mady Diallo, L'Africaine de la série noire". [http://www.bamako-culture.org/spip.php?article77] Bamako Culture, 13 septembre 2003. [Sighted April 14, 2010].
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities