NOT TO BE MISSED
"Anya", a novel by Clémentine FAÏK-NZUJI
Bierges: Editions Thomas Mols, 2007. (194p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
Published in 2007 by the Congolese writer Clémentine Faïk-Nzuji, Anya invites readers to a triple journey: one into the province of dream interpretation, another takes us through the fragmented history of an African family, and the last one explores the human psyche from the standpoint of a middle-aged woman who arrives in Congo in search of her roots. But this manifold exploration of self and others also belongs to the single quest for knowledge and understanding that drives the main characters, Anya and her long-lost Uncle Vùlukà.
Paradoxically, this triple journey that reaches deep into the heart and soul of the two principal characters entails little movement across the vast expanse of the African landscape. All the action takes place within the boundaries of Kalunga, the small village of Uncle Vùlukà, and the plot has the structural simplicity of a play. This is a novel with no frills and evokes very successfully the narrator's narrowly focused preoccupations. She did not make the journey from France to Africa in order to look at the scenery, but rather to meet with an elusive Uncle who had visited her in her dreams with the promise of uncovering a few facts about her family history. As it turns out, Uncle Vùlukà who is a wise old man with the power to interpret dreams is more than happy to enlighten his niece. However, as he speaks with her, eliciting a string of dreams inscribed in Anya's memory, he realizes that this long lost relative is in fact the very person he has often seen in his own dreams and, unbeknown to her, she has also a gift for piercing the secrets of meaning.
Thus, Uncle Vùlukà's "duty of conveyance" , underscores his feeling that he is under an obligation to help Anya take the full measure of her power. That also pushes him to forewarn her of the difficulties awaiting her on the road ahead. "The mystery of human nature and secret tongues, you cannot learn like at school", he tells her; "It is the work of a whole life, patiently constructed from prayers, listening, silences, observation, meditation, failure, humiliations and much more..." (p.151) Furthermore, irrespective of one's attempts to make sense of the hidden messages coming from elsewhere, " there are always things that we will never understand", he adds, "some things I could not comprehend when I was twentyfive, I still cannot decipher today at the age of eightythree". (p.152)
The first few days of Anya's sojourn in Kalunga are spent discussing the meaning of her dreams, but as time passes by and Anya's return to Europe approaches, Vùlukà begins speeding up his niece's initiation and challenges her somewhat egocentric preoccupations. He wants her to see herself as a medium interested in others rather than a self-centred individual. "I am under the impression that your approach to dreams is reducing their meaning", he tells her, to her amazement. "You should listen to them differently ... Yes, everything seems to be concentrated on your own self. You think that everything you see in your dreams is related to you. But it is not true. You are not alone in the world, in the worlds should I say because, yes, we are inhabiting two worlds: one we see and one we cannot see. And these two worlds are inhabited by other beings: those who are visible and those who are not. You are always in the company of these people, some of whom you can see and some you cannot ... Yes, you have to learn to understand your dreams differently". (pp.165-166)
Uncle Vùlukà's multi-dimensional world offers Anya more than her eyes can see. To begin with, "there is no frontier between dream and reality" (p.104) and in his universe we live among a multitude of disembodied ghosts and spirits. People made of flesh can move between the tangible and the intangible at the blink of an eye, and the spirit of ancestors can do the same, crisscrossing this illusory boundary between life and death in sending messages to their descendants. Yet heralding a message does not necessarily means understanding its contents: thus the importance of those people who can mediate between their forebears and their contemporaries in order to get the right message to the right recipient. While dreams always tell you something, they do not always tell you something about yourself.
It is indeed fascinating to stroll along with the lead characters, listening to Anya recalling her dreams and Uncle Vùlukà sharing his knowledge patiently, unfolding the ups ad down of their family history that is closely related to what her niece is relating. Anya neither knows were she comes from nor where she is going. (p.116) She has lost her connection with the "Origin" (p.115) and Uncle Vùlukà wants her to find out where she stands in the complex web of relationships that binds the living with the dead. In the course of this journey of discovery, we learn of the family feud that led Anya's father to leave his country with his wife, never to return; we also learn of the eternal regret of her grandfather whose nasty character and unjustified accusations of sorcery led to the rift; we hear of the displacement of the family to Kalunga, the history of her lineage, the plots and the wars; Uncle Vùlukà also insists on Anya's duty never to abandon her search for understanding and to follow in his footstep, keeping the memory of the family alive and seeking peace between the living and the dead.
Anya only spends a few days in Kalunga but this short stay changes her life. She had come to the land of her forebears in order to find a few facts and figures and she leaves the place endowed with the tremendous responsibility of carrying the collective memory of her family; a memory "that cannot live without us" (p.169) Uncle Vùlukà says; one that is always catching up with us unexpectedly in our dreams, asking "Eh! Where are you going without me?". But all too often, Vùlukà adds, "it is too late to answer because, as a matter of fact, we do not know where we are going". (p.169) Once lost, even European history books, as thick as they are, are unable to provide an answer to people's preoccupation with their origins because these treatises ignore Africa's dreams, myths, wisdom and historical significance. As an old Shikumbata a WWII veteran tells the narrator: my mates and I fought the battles of our French Master, but there is not a single page in their history books telling of our deeds. (p.22)
The issue of memory transmission is thus another all-important theme of the novel. In another book devoted to the history of her own family, Clémentine Faïk-Nzuji wrote, "I felt that I was engaged in a chain of transmission that I had no right to interrupt".  Her character Anya could have said exactly the same. To her, "Building a chain of transmission" means understanding one's self and other beings who determine who we are and what we do. It means producing knowledge that gives both individuals and their community a sense of direction and purpose. When memory has been lost, dreams become unintelligible and life meanders. Contrary to Official History, collective memory and family lore are not consensual and authoritative but rather open to the idiosyncrasies of individual experience that regulate collective wisdom and provide a sense of belonging. That, I believe, is something that makes the reading of Anya so fascinating and relevant to everyone, everywhere.
1. Postface by Pierre Yerlès, p.187.
2. Clémentine M. Faïk-Nzuji. "Tu le leur diras. Le récit véridique d'une famille congolaise plongée au cœur de l'histoire de son pays. Congo 1890-2000". Bruxelles : Alice Editions, 2005. ISBN 2-87426-027-4, pp.15-16.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities