What is on my bookshelf these days? My tastes are fairly eclectic, but I tend to read books in groups—moving between works based on the echoes I hear between them, the conversations I can imagine among the characters and the authors. This helps me to think through and imagine new possibilities for the plotlines I’m working through in my own writing.
At the moment, my reading could be characterized as “something old and something new,” juxtaposing classics of Central African literature with works by contemporary authors. While diverse in tone, the books I’ve been reading this summer share an ethics of political engagement, a quest for identity and cultural inventory, and an ear for the voices and harmonies of African languages.
To start, I’ve been rereading two classics by the Cameroonian author Mongo Beti, who died in 2001. If you are looking for an introduction to Cameroon, both colonial-era and post-independence, Mongo Beti’s novels are a great place to start; his influence on authors of my generation is immeasurable, as you can tell from my own recent novel Les 700 aveugles de Bafia (2021), translated as The Blunder (Amazon Crossing, 2022). From his early realist novels and his masterful political essay Main basse sur le Cameroun (1972), to the noir detective fiction he wrote around the turn of the century, after his return from exile, Mongo Beti describes the tragic failures of Cameroon’s past and present with an unflinching eye, but still tempers his dark humor with a glimmer of hope for our tomorrow. Because of my interest in understanding the ongoing impact of the colonial era on contemporary Cameroon, I turned first to Le Pauvre Christ de Bomba (1956), translated as The Poor Christ of Bomba (and republished by Waveland, 2005), which considers the ambiguous legacy of religious missionary work in sub-Saharan Africa, and then to Perpétue et l’habitude du Malheur (1974), translated as Pepetua and the Habit of Unhappiness (Heinemann, 1978), a heart-wrenching tale that, focusing on the struggles of a poor young woman, skewers the pretense of independence granted in 1960 to a former French colony in Central Africa.
These led me to another canonical author, the Congolese Henri Lopes, and his unforgettable Le Pleurer-rire (1982), translated as The Laughing Cry: An African Cock and Bull Story (1987). Lopes is both a politician and a novelist; he served as Prime Minister of Congo-Brazzaville from 1973-75, and in 1993 received the prestigious Grand Prix de la Francophonie from the Académie Française for the body of his work—who better to turn to for insights into postcolonial politics? Le Pleurer-rire is a comical sketch about African dictators and their botched attempts to manage power. Whereas Mongo Beti’s novels elicit compassion for the struggles of those at the bottom of the colonial social ladder, Lopes invites us to laugh at the blindness of those who see themselves as destined to rule. His experience, his incisive pen, and his razor-sharp caricatures animate frescoes of the political intrigue of his day, frescoes that have never ceased to be current.
In conversation with these classics, I’m reading two contemporary novels, one from Cameroon, the other from Togo. First, Le Moabi Cinéma (2015) is the debut novel by the Cameroonian musician Blick Bassy. Like Mongo Beti, Bassy wants us to remember the lost heroes of Cameroon’s struggle for independence—Ruben Um Nyobè, Earnest Ouandié, Félix Moumié—but his aesthetic captures all the music and rhythms of today’s urban Cameroon. In the same way that Bassy combines local sounds in his spellbinding songs, his novel conjures the vibrations of Yaoundé’s streets and insists, with a slew of rhetorical questions, that we hear the rumbling of political debate beneath the banter.
Finally, I’m now diving into the latest novel by the Togolese author Sami Tchak, Le continent du tout de du Presque rien (2021), which recounts the tumultuous adventures of a French ethnologist in an African village he has decided to study. Although Tchak’s work has been well-received in French, and translated into Spanish, German and Italian, I’m sad to say he has not yet been translated into English. Trained in both philosophy and sociology, Tchak looks through the mirror of his own studies to consider the dynamics of how Western scholars create the Africa and the Africans they purport to study. In this novel, Tchak makes good use of his biting style and aesthetics to redefine ethnography. A fascinating and provocative work.
What’s next? On the top of my book pile, two more new novels: Les Aquatiques by the Cameroonian Osvalde Lewat (Les Escales Editions, 2022) and Dans le ventre du Congo (Ed du Seuil, 2021), the latest novel from the Canadian-based Congolese author Blaise Ndala. Whether you read in English or in French, I hope some of these books will find their way onto your bookshelf—and lead you to other new favorites from Central Africa.