NOT TO BE MISSED
"Le jeu de la mer", a novel by Khady SYLLA
Paris: L'Harmattan, 1992. (160p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
Le jeu de la mer [The game-play of the sea] is an enthralling fantasy highlighting the tenuous demarcation that keeps fiction apart from reality. It focuses on Aïssa and Rama, two young Senegalese women living by the ocean. They spent their time spinning yarns and playing their own variation of a popular count-and-capture game. Of a common accord, they have decided that whoever wins the game at night can decide the kind of stories that will be told the following day. But win or lose, both women find much enjoyment in conjuring up fictitious characters commensurate with their most imaginative flights of fancy. One day, however, their characters escape from the narration and materialise in the "real" world. That of course provides a major challenge for Assane, the local police officer in charge of the "mock files", who is thus confronted by a string of very bizarre happenings.
This detective novel with a difference is interesting in many ways. There is, of course, Assane's investigation into the mysterious disappearance of a young teenager, a blind man, a mysterious female dancer, a baobab tree and, a racehorse that vanished before the eyes of astonished punters. There is also the abundance of snapshots and details about life in Senegal that catch the reader's imagination and bring to life the makeup of a community, complete with its bored civil-servants, ministers demanding action, popular unrest, busy artisans, workers, peddlers, beggars, etc., all engaging in day-to-day social intercourse.
Witchcraft and the fear of sorcerers is rife among the population, thus much of Assane's work consists of finding a solution to a wide range of preposterous claims and counter-claims, mostly due to people's ignorance, lack of judgment or folly, rather then paranormal manifestations. The woman who wakes him up in the middle of the night to tattle on one of her neighbours is a case in point. "This evil spirit is metamorphosing herself from human to a variety of wild animals and birds of prey", the informer tells him, before adding with a stern face: "She has to be arrested immediately". And upon Assane asking her, in exasperation: "Did you really see her rising in the air", she replied, unperturbed: "Yes, I saw her at twilight. She was taking off from the edge of her window and disappeared on the horizon". (p.62)
It is hard to pull the wool over Assane's eyes and his pragmatic approach to the paranormal leads him to dismiss wild and unsubstantiated claims and accusations. As one may guess, his refusal to act on flimsy pieces of evidence does not please complainants eager to spread rumours about a sorcerer's conspiracy, of which the recalcitrant police officer becomes an accessory after the fact.
Used to being in the firing line, he is not rattled by the slanders of disgruntled eccentrics. However, when mysterious but very real disappearances take place, he is spurred into action and solving the case becomes a matter of priority as his boss and a State Minister get all worked up, and scores of trustworthy citizen concur in their testimonies. Eventually, Assane will solve the mystery and an unexpected sting in the tale reveals not only the nature of the forces at play, but also the identity of the individual ultimately responsible for the mayhem.
The twists and turns of the investigation are entertaining but this novel is also interesting for its vivid portrayal of Aïssa's and Rama's existence at the margin of the "real" world. A mysterious ambiance surrounds their activities and the first few pages are brilliantly written from a narrative point of view. Unassuming and yet poetic, the beginning of the novel sets the stage perfectly for the ensuing action that unfolds at the intersection of light and night, reality and fantasy, life and death. The description of the picturesque little cottage on the beach, where they live, is but one example: At sunset, "the house, like in a dream, took the fictitious appearance of a theatre set, lit up by invisible projectors. A yellow drizzle was softening both the sharp angles of the building and the ampleness of the posts running along the verandah. Waves were dying against the lower parts of the wall on the beach. The ocean, lapping against the run-down timber door, was slipping through the interstices, moving a few steps forward before receding É Some day, Rama said with a high and clear tone of voice, the doors and walls will have been entirely dissipated by the waves. And the seas will invade the courtyard, thundering its triumph in the middle of our rooms". (pp.7-8)
It is in that quaint yet dilapidated cottage, lacking all modern convenience that Aïssa and Rama meet, night after night, to play the game of the sea as the sun fades slowly below the horizon in a display of shimmering lights. As the two friends sit across the table on each side of an awale playing board, carved in the shape of a boat, ready to seek the rich rewards of the game, the day is fading further. "A fine shower of tiny ambers is falling down on the open flank of the earth. The immersing disk is bleeding profusely on the Atlantic sea that is reuniting with the sky. All the fading lights are retreating towards this central point, abandoning progressively all things to their shadows É a vast array of blue shades spill over the firmament É and eventually the black shroud of night engulfs the house É" (pp.8-9)
Rama puts the oil lamp on the table, "the board is casting an excessively long shadow on the table" (p.9) and the game begins, following the rules dictated by the common accord of the two players. But, as the reader soon discovers, Aïssa and Rama "do not see things in the same way". (p.24) While a diffident and empathetic Rama is happy to stick to the daily ordinance and let chance decide her fortune on the throw of the dice, a far more adventurous and malicious Aïssa is intent to change the rituals and to explore alternative possibilities. That, of course, has unforeseen consequences, especially when the galloping imagination of the players leaves the realm of fantasy and begins to encroach on others' lives and destiny.
This exploration of the creative power of the imagination is not only entertaining, it also addresses some vexed issues, such as the relationship between fantasy and truth, two constructs that are often difficult to tell apart in literature, and more generally in life. Fads and fancies often take hold of rational thinking and one's perception of the world is often more important than any incontrovertible proof. Discovering the nature of the world, self and others, is a game-play that does not require the following of stringent rules, but rather letting the senses take hold of the mind.
A little known poem by a young Jean-Paul Sartre (written in 1924) echoes Khady Sylla's title and her characters' approach to experiencing the world:
"To play. The wind playing in the trees. The leaves playing in the wind.
The jeu de la mer in the sea. The play of the sun on the white stone.
And nature which is my favourite playing game. Do you think I am going to leave them there
Like dolls ripped apart, just for the pleasure to become a man?
And the game of truth is one of my favorites [...]
Everything is a game. To me the whole world is a game." 
Simple and direct when it concerns Assane's investigation, the novel becomes subtle, colourful and poetic when the narrator defers to Aïssa and Rama, and attempts to see through the mind of her characters. Le jeu de la mer can be read for sheer entertainment, but it will also say something to readers interested in the relationship between an author and her characters. It may even convince a few forlorn writers and story-tellers that the time has come to revive long-lost literary fantasy, abandoned prematurely under the pressures of "real life", and to let their fascinating characters set forth and conquer the world.
1. Jean-Paul Sartre. "Je suis un petit garçon qui ne veut pas grandir" (1924). "Commentaire", no. 11, 1980, pp.464-467. [Sighted November 13, 2011, on the site: http://cailloucourant.blogspot.com/2010/05/oh-he-oh-je-suis-un-petit-garcon-qui-ne.html].
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities