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Every Sunday in the summer, The World Africa asks an author from the African continent to talk about works that have marked him. This week, the question is put to the Cameroonian writer Hemley Boum. His latest novel, Days come and go, was honored with the 2020 Ahmadou-Kourouma Prize.
• Belovedby Toni Morrison
Because it made me want to write. This book was lent to me by an English teacher at my high school in Douala. I was 16 years old. I got caught reading a novel on the sly, as I did every time a cl bored me. Instead of punishing me, she offered me Beloved, by Toni Morrison. It was a revelation.
The novel is the story of Sethe, a runaway slave who slaughters her 2-year-old daughter to spare her the monstrosity of captivity. Sixteen years later, a young woman called Beloved, like her deceased daughter, emerges from the waters and lands in the universe of Sethe who recognizes in her the child of the past, returned from the beyond to torment her. The young woman is jealous, immature and evil, but the mother accepts the punishment she inflicts on her as a just sanction for her past crime.
The book tells of segregation, the violence of slavery and the relentless struggle of blacks to build a dignified life. All this is said through the metaphor of motherhood: the omnipotence of mothers confronted with the survival instinct of children. Beloved wrecks Sethe’s life to the brink of madness. But Sethe is saved by the other women in her community, who end up driving the intruder away. They are responsible for the necessary separation between the dead child and the living mother. They are the ones who anchor Sethe to life, despite his blood on his hands and his immeasurable guilt. In this story, men are of no help, even when they are strong and loving.
Toni Morisson’s writing is powerful, poetic and uncompromising. She recounts the long and tortuous intimate path of beings towards dignity, the heartbreaks, the sometimes cruel choices dictated by love, when survival must be constantly renegotiated. Beloved was the book I would have liked to read about mine. The one that made me want to write myself.
• The Hunger Roadby Ben Okri
For its mythological dimension. This book also deals with a spirit child. The myths I grew up with say that unborn children choose their parents and not the other way around. Children exist in a parallel universe where they are happy. Once they are born, they can decide to return there if life on Earth does not suit them. So many stories evoke the epics of these wayward children that they can be seen as a way that society has found to transcend the misfortune of infant mortality. It is a way of sublimating this unthought through tales and legends.
I remember my emotion when I read the story of Azaro, this boy who decides out of pity for his mother to stay among humans, after many back and forths. An emotion commensurate with my enchantment with the magic of literature. Until then, I had learned and enjoyed reading thanks to Western authors: their vision of life, of love, of mourning, what they said about their society and its injustices, about the complexity of human aspirations. I discovered with The Hunger Road that it was possible to make literature with my personal mythologies. I understood that our lives as Africans in all their aspects were infinitely romantic.
Ben Okri stages magic, sorcery, the porosity of the visible and invisible worlds, of space and time. With him, neither life nor spirituality are vertical, I knew it from my experience, his book confirmed it to me. It is about horizontality, amplitude, decompartmentalization, a constant coming and going between realities that brush against each other, marry and influence each other. And, of course, our children choose us, their lives do not belong to us. Ben Okri tells Nigeria in a rich and sumptuous language. Under the gaze of Azaro, the child-spirit, he speaks of corruption, misery, unheard-of violence, but also of art, the resistance of ordinary people, the fragile beauty of landscapes, faith in victorious life. Azaro decides to stay on Earth, he chooses the path of hunger when he could have preferred eternity and the satiety of limbo.
• Always with meby Kasuo Ishiguro
For his critical dystopia of capitalism. This novel by Kasuo Ishiguro opens with students preparing to receive patrons at an English boarding school. Immediately, we imagine them receiving an elitist education with culture at the heart of learning. But the tension rises and we understand that the young people in question are not ordinary: in reality they are clones designed to serve human doubles that they never meet. Their body is destined to be dissected, their organs are spare parts destined to replace those of their double in case of failure. But a rumor runs and feeds the fantasies among the clones: those of them who are gifted in the arts or who are able to fall in love would be endowed with a soul, and therefore spared. Because love and creation would bring the irrefutable proof that they are human like the others. The rumor is false, which does not prevent it from growing. Generations of clone artists or lovers believe in it and dedicate their existence to trying to prove that they are worth saving, before disappearing like the others.
Always with me was seen as a harsh criticism of cloning and “science without conscience”. But, for me, it goes even further: it is a critique of capitalism in its most extreme expression. On the one hand we have bodies designed to serve, in a way “essential but not essential” to use current terminology. On the other hand, we have the issues of creation, love and the soul. Can clones have a soul? The same question has sometimes been asked throughout history, with regard to women, blacks or other minorities. And the answer from those in power was: it doesn’t matter that the mes have a soul, only their usefulness counts and their labor power. And that’s probably what touched me in this strange and fascinating novel. We see the clones grow, learn, hope for redemption, love and live, then become what they were designed to be, finally being mutilated member after member… while appearing to us from start to finish, terribly human.
• Anna Kareninaby Leo Tolstoy
In a nod to the romantic girl that I was. I read this great novel relatively early, at the end of my high school years and I loved this story. In my imagination, it has long remained as my first real love novel, for all the variations that Tolstoy makes of it through Anna and Vronsky, Levine and Kitty, Daria and Oblonski. It seemed normal to me that the respectable household be happy, that the unfaithful man have a wife who forgives him his escapades as long as he remains discreet and that the scandalous wife commits suicide in the most violent way possible. This pion, which violates all the rules of morality, had to be punished and, of course, it was up to the woman to pay the high price. The story was all the more perfect.
Years and a bit of experience later, I can only see how silly, childish and fragile the female characters in this book are. Even in the Russian Empire of the second half of the XIXe century, it seems unlikely to me that such women existed anywhere other than in the author’s talented yet conservative imagination.
It’s always interesting to note what in a novel challenges, seduces or annoys at various stages of your life as a reader. What it says about us, because books always speak to us about ourselves in the somewhat mysterious questions they trigger. I reread certain authors with the wonder of the first times, coupled with the expectation of what I know because I know the plot. Today Anna Karenina makes me smile because I think back to the romantic young woman I was the first time I read it.
Days come and go is published by Gallimard editions.