NOT TO BE MISSED
"Tels des astres éteints", a novel by Léonora MIANO
Paris: Plon, 2008. 418p. Novel written in French.
Ce compte rendu en français
Beside the nasty prejudices inherited from her colonial past, France has always felt uncomfortable with individuals challenging the myth of a country that is "one and indivisible", thus the difficult integration of people of African origin. The colour of one's skin is a twist of fate that cannot be modified at will in order to suit antiquated republican expectations. Tels des astres éteints by Cameroonian author Leonora Miano, proposes a literary exploration of some of the ways French Black youth have met racial prejudices and how they attempt to give meaning to their lives.
Colour consciousness and the Black African Diaspora in France are thus the prime themes addressed by Miano in her book. She wrote on her website [http://www.leonoramiano.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=17&Itemid=19 (Sighted 30 October 2008)] : "The crux of the matter is : what does it mean to be Black ?" The blunt answer to this rhetorical question can be summarised in a few words: Discrimination, lost opportunities and a tough life. But being Black also means keeping faith in one's own strength and overcoming all manner of prejudices. The aim of Miano's characters, Amok, Shrapnel and Amandla, is to address the challenge of being perceived at first glance as "a colour" rather than a person.
For Shrapnel, an outgoing young man brimming with confidence and determination, being Black means to be the heir apparent of a continent that symbolises both the alpha and the omega of humanity. Proud of his origins, he despises White culture and is convinced that White glory and power are mere illusions easily exposed. To him, being Black means to belong to "a vast tapestry of interlocked souls made visible by a coloured thread" (p.146); it means to be part of a borderless fraternity of men of women whose resource, intelligence and spirituality had conquered the world, including France. His dream is to thrust back upon the world its Black component.
Whereas Shrapnel was born and raised in Africa, Amandla hails from one of France's overseas territories. She is "French" but realised from an early age that nationality means little to people who do not fit the stereotypical parameters of narrow French nationalism. Unlike Shrapnel, she believes that French racism goes beyond a neurotic fear of Black people: for her, it consists mainly in a concerted and sustained effort by White/French society to destroy Africa and her children. The future of people of African descent is not in France; rather, she believes it is in Africa where they can find their roots, be themselves and regain their legitime rights and power to negotiate with others on an equal footing.
Amok, a bright yet depressed young man, born in Africa to an affluent family, has none of his friends' convictions and certitudes. To him, being Black is not the main issue. The challenge laid at the feet of his generation is the arduous task of acting responsibly in the context of societies built on brutality and deceit. Skeletons lie in his family's cupboard and a history of domestic violence traumatised his youth. That convinced him that the past had nothing to teach new generations and the future little to offer them. The kind of paralysis that has taken hold of Amok as a result of his dark and disillusioned view of the world is only made worse when he analyses closely the various plans of action discussed amongst his friends.
Shrapnel, Amandla and Amok's rejection and displacement at the margin of society is indeed inscribed in the gaze of the people who live around them. They find it is easy to gauge the sentiments they inspire to others: fear when Shrapnel mimics American gang-leaders; marginalisation when Amandla tells her workmate that she is nothing other than French, despite the colour of her skin; contempt when Amok reports acts of domestic violence to the police. In the context of a society where skin-colour is not considered as a trivial human trait such as the size of one's feet, but rather a defining attribute of one's identity, much time is devoted by all sides to the elaboration of competing grand narratives perpetuating dichotomies, resentment and fears. In a country like France, ill-equipped to deal with the demons of her past, there seems to be no way out of a toxic undercurrent that breeds divisions and negativity: but is there?
Over the first part of the novel, the characters' beliefs and behaviour are drawn from the various currents of thought that marked the development of African-American history as the issue of race has remained taboo in France but what makes this book a good read is the fact that after valiantly defending their positions, all three characters discover that a different "Other" exists outside the realm of racial, historical or political realities. And that discovery shakes their convictions, opening new paths.
Trite as it may sound, true love is the magic ingredient that allows the characters to find a practical resolution for their angst. Paradoxically, it is not because they see stars in the eyes of their beloved, but rather because they cannot find in their gaze a stereotypical image of themselves. One of the characters most strikingly affected is Shrapnel, when he falls for a blond woman and is stunned by the realisation that she cares about him and not about his image and antecedents. As he says, "The woman most interested in knowing the man he is, was not the one asking him to tell of the harvesting of palm wine, the nice bonobos, sub-Saharan solidarity and the libraries that burned. It was she who was simply revealing herself to him as she was, simply in order to allow him to do the same." (p.239).
Similarly, Amandla and Amok's lukewarm love story makes them realise that although they have opposing views on pretty much everything, basically they enjoy each other's company and their discussions allow them to grow out of idiosyncratic visions of the world that, in the final analysis, had not allowed them to find solace and to reach their goals.
As one knows, love is rarely a definitive answer to human woes. However, it remains for Miano's characters the spark that puts them on the path of discovering otherness in a way that challenged rather than reinforced their preconceived idea of alterity. Their discovery of an alternative way of seeing and being seen opened the door for them to a new kind of social relationship highlighting both the difference and sameness of human existence. They could begin to dream of a country where "colours come together as an unproblematic whole, like the sky and the earth. This was simply part of an environment where everyone has to write their own music and to play it; to live their life." (p. 239)
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities