NOT TO BE MISSED
"La défaite des mères", a novel by Yves PINGUILLY and Adrienne YABOUZA
Paris: Oslo Editions, 2008, (168p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
La défaite des mères [Mothers' Day Lost], co-written by Centrafrican Adrienne Yabouza and French Yves Pinguilly, is a little gem that allies genuine human preoccupations with the most truculent, witty and entertaining style. While exposing neo-colonial predatory practices, it also shows the latter's practical significance on the life of Niwalie and her family over the course of fifty years of botched "independence".
The plunder of African resources, the exactions of ruthless African heads-of- state, ethnic violence, massacres of the civil population, bloody coups and repression, have all been the subject of many very dark novels. Conjointly, the devastating cost of socio-economic dictatorships on the African population has been described in its many forms. Gloom and doom has often dominated African writing and in this context, Yabouza and Pinguilly's novel is like a breath of fresh air. Not because it proposes a less contemptible account of neo-colonial excesses: It does not. But rather because it recounts Africa's life and otherwise troubled history in quick, sharp, satirical and sometimes ludicrous observations that make one smile and yet condole and empathise with the victims of the bloody dictatorships that have been the hallmark of Africa's "independence". Puns, plays-on-words and double-entendre are to be found on every page, but far from smacking of repetitive literary tricks, they enhance the narration and often offer food for thought. Just a trivial example: When the dictator Bocassa, alias Papa Bok, sent five delegates to air his complaint to his neighbour Mobutu, he sent "two men and three men" (p.62); the main thrust of the feminist protest is thus expressed in a rather amusing manner, but none of the seriousness of the issue has been lost.
Born in Kinshasa to an immigrant from Ubangi-Shari, Niwalie's destiny is primarily influenced by the twists and turns of local politics. It reflects the dark influence of the West and the vagaries of dictators such as Papa Bok, Mobutu and the likes. At first, luck seems to be on the side of the family, or at least on the side of her father who becomes the bodyguard of the dictator's first wife who takes him on shopping sprees around the world. Given his time- consuming duties, neither Niwalie nor her mother Ndjonimama see much of him. He takes to his job like a fish to water and "he does not need long to abandon his hunter's garb ... To avoid slip-ups, he imitates French diplomats, always wearing blue suits, not too blue, or grey, not too grey. He learned to knot his tie like the British and asked a little Negro to shine his Italian shoes, imported from Addis-Ababa, in the very same way all Whites do in Africa, as they are too handicapped in both hands to polish their own boots themselves." (p.21)
From Paris, he brings back new suits and from Italy, the first Vespa to be seen in Kinshasa. But to his family, he brought precious little except hollow cliches, tall tales and the certitude that good times would last forever. Secure in his position in the Palace and his wife working hard as a dressmaker to feed the children, the family's future looks bright. But as everyone knows, things can change rapidly. Ndjonimama dies and soon after the Grand-Guerrier-Roi-Maréchal Mobutu orders the expulsion from Congo of people originating from the Central African Republic. The Great Warrior's first wife is devastated, but the family has to leave Kinshasa for Bangui and life is never the same after that. Niwalie's schooling is interrupted and with her breasts beginning to show under her blouse, she is promptly married to a perfect stranger by her father. Before long, she is the mother of four girls and ends up having to care for them on her own after her husband passed away.
Papa Bok's rule is no better than Mobutu's. Anything could bring the wrath of this unpredictable despot upon the population and his exactions are many: dissention is severely repressed; so too the civil servants who "abuse the country and demand their wages be paid every month when they already are paid legally once a year, or a bit less"; (p.88) a students' rally against the obligation to buy expensive uniforms at school ends up with hundreds of deaths and the imprisonment of an undisclosed number of juveniles. Furthermore, power struggles, ethnic tension and coups hatched in Paris unleashed terror on the Bangui population. While being of Ngbaka, Yakoma, or any other origin can save one's skin one Monday, it can as easily become a death warrant on Tuesday; thus an endless cycle of violence, rape and death that eventually catches up with Niwalie and her four daughters.
"I was sick of waiting in fear", Niwalie says. "I was a daughter of the water and my daughters were too, on my side. We had to flee. But to flee with one bag and four daughters between seven and fourteen years of age, is not that easy. I rang Marie-Thérèse, my friend who was working with me at the hairdresser's salon... she also wanted to leave the city. She did not want to see corpses lying around. She was not a daughter of the water but, she also told me: You never know, with these soldiers and all these "shit stirrers" who are destroying the city, they could easily rape me as well. How would they know that I already have Aids." (p.144)
In the end, the whole party escapes the worst, thanks to Marie-Thérèse's connections, but not without many frights, suffering and deprivation over the course of a long walk that leads the six women from Bangui to Mbimbi, the village of Marie-Thérèse's parents. And once there, life remains very tough, with little to eat and the most basic of accommodation. "I Niwalie, my daughters and Marie-Thérèse, we survived on leaves boiled in plain water, cassava leaves or simple leaves of the forest", the narrator says. "This severe diet would have been ideal for the white men and women rebelling against cholesterol and hypertension!" (p.160) But by the time Niwalie reaches Mbimbi, on the brink of death, the Whites "who had been peeved because they had to bring forwards their holiday by a few days" (p.145) were safely recuperating in Libreville in five-star hotels where they had been evacuated by chartered planes.
One of the reasons why the novel works so well, is the fact that it is told by narrators who does not attempt to explain the world in terms of collective liability, but rather of personal behaviours that are crudely exposed for what they are. For example, Mobutu's long-lasting financial arrangements with France and other countries is not seen as an apportionment of the country's wealth between a bloody dictator and big business, rather as the sum of countless human transactions between unprincipled individuals engaged in self-serving deals. When the narrator writes "the cut of the Whites was handsome and France would be able to pay for their holiday on the Côte d'Azur, the Riviera, Sunset Boulevard; and why not Copacabana?" (p.58) France here does not mean the French Republic but the many French profiteers who are financing their comfortable standards while living on the back of Congo's considerable wealth and resources, all the while keeping the profits of the country's trade out of reach of the Marie-Thérèses and the Niwalies: that is, the very people whose poorly paid local industry is keeping the country afloat.
In the same manner, bribes and sweeteners are not considered as innocuous business practices, but improper behaviours irrespective of the perpetrators' creed, origin and social class. For example, the "diamonds scandal" brought forth by the friendship between a French President, Papa Bok and his wife Catherine, illustrates nothing less than crass and unethical behaviour. Thus, the biting irony hidden behind the gentle and amusing rendering of the President's visit to Bengi: "even Végéheu, the king of France who was quite fond of Catherine, came here, in the République démocratique et populaire du juste milieu, to hunt wild game. Nothing wrong with that! He had seen John Wayne doing the same in Africa, in a technicolour flick. Papa Bok took this opportunity to slide surreptitiously into his guest's pocket a few diamonds worth nothing. Small enough though not to exceed the prescribed luggage weight allowance when Végéheu had to climb back on board the plane chartered by his monarchic republic". (p.87) Quite illustrative of the shameless collusion between European and African heads of government, this sorry state of affairs is repeated at every level of the administration, from top to bottom: from the "OUA's experts sent away on dubious missions with very good per diems" (p.90) to Niwalie's father bringing home his Italian Vespa in his luggage.
Another reason for the novel's appeal is its systematic, derisive portrayal of people as actors of their own lives and unsuspecting victims of fate. The President who "found" lost diamonds in his pocket; the dictator who has to prove his power when he is accused of being a little man whose head was too close to his feet; Niwalie's beating and broken arm when she insists on resuming school; or her father's tarring by the henchmen of the dictator and rescue, in-extremis, by a white representative of a plumbing company about to clinch a deal "to install gold urinals at every stair of the Palace." (p.95) Almost every character in the novel is described as if they were never master of their own destiny, but behind this ambiguous illusion, one reads a fierce condemnation of all those people hiding behind bogus excuses in order to justify their selfishness and to eschew their responsibilities.
Niwalie does not belong to the latter group and her quiet determination to make do, the best she can, is also an uplifting feature of the novel. It suggests that doing the right thing is not a question of race or class and that responsible behaviour is determined by individuals' initiative and righteousness, rather then collective (ir)responsibility and rhetoric. La défaite des mères is indeed a good read, entertaining in its form and stimulating in its content.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities