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Olympe Bhêly-Quenum: Un piège sans fin (Snares without End)

Bhêly-Quenum’s first novel tells a common story – a portrait of an African family that has been living in more or less idyllic conditions but whose life is turned upside down by the arrival of the colonial power, though this novel has a decided twist to it and the French can hardly be said to blame for most of the misfortunes of our hero. The novel starts with the arrival of Ahouna near Zado. He is clearly not in good shape and a local takes him in and Ahouna tells his story. He came from a well-to-do family. They had their share of misfortune. One day all the cattle were suddenly afflicted with a strange disease and suddenly died and, on the next day, a swarm of locusts devastated their crops but they recovered. Ahouna’s eldest sister, Séitou, goes off with a toubab (a white man, which can include Arabs) to the South of the country. She has three children by the toubab but he does not want children and abandons her. The family urge her to return home but she declines. One day the French call on his father to do forced labour in the fields. He refuses, offering to pay poor people to work in his place, and is beaten when his offer is refused and he continues to claim exemption. Eventually he accepts the work but the local French commander has it in for him and continues to beat him. On one occasion, when he stops because of tiredness, he is soundly beaten and he is so upset that he grabs a knife and kills himself.

Despite the tragedy, life goes on. Séitou returns, with a new husband, Camara, a Cameroonian, and more children. Camara has effectively been driven out of the family home as his mother and sister think that Séitou is beneath him. However, he and Ahouna soon become friends. Ahouna, of course, meets a nice girl, Anatou, and they eventually get married and have children. One day, Ahouna is watching the crops when Anatou comes and accuses him of having an affair with another woman, which he vehemently denies. At that moment, a young woman crosses the property nearby and Anatou has her suspicions confirmed. Ahouna insists that he has never seen the woman before and that it is just by chance that she is crossing the property. Anatou continues her accusations and relations between the two rapidly deteriorate, though they put on a brave face for the family. Ahouna consults Anatou’s parents and they agree that their daughter is behaving badly but she insists that her dreams confirm Ahouna’s infidelity.

Matters get steadily worse and eventually Ahouna is so hurt that he suddenly leaves home, without any money or food, and starts walking. He makes a long journey, working or stealing food to survive. He is clearly in distress when he comes out of the bush and sees a woman carrying oil. She is so frightened that she drops her oil and screams. He instinctively attacks her and, in his madness, kills her. He then runs into the bush, pursued by her family. He manages to escape and it is at this point that he arrives in Zako, where we saw him at the beginning of the novel. The police, however, track him down and he is arrested and badly beaten. He is taken to prison tied to a cross (the symbolism is made quite explicit, with the involvement of the local priest). After a period of recovery from his beating, he is sent to the quarries to do hard labour which he finds difficult. When his friend, Boullin, a white criminal, is killed when a rock falls on him, he is devastated.

Meanwhile the family of the murdered woman are plotting their revenge. One half of the family feels that they should do nothing and let the gods take this punishment but another group wants to get their revenge. They arrange for one of their number to be arrested on a minor charge. He befriends Ahouna and tries to persuade him to escape. Ahouna initially refuses but then accepts, with a view to going and killing Anatou, the source of all of his troubles. The escape is successful and the ending is tragic for virtually everyone. It is a very well told story and interesting in that, though the French have their role to play, many of the problems of the main characters come from within themselves. Ahouna’s mad attack on the woman he kills is never fully explained either to us or to those that know him, as it seems very much against character but it is clear that Anatou has driven to it. Nor are her reasons for suspecting infidelity ever explained, as she has no reason to do so and, till then, had seemed a kind and loving wife and mother. Whatever their motives, it does give a different twist to a not uncommon story.

Publishing history

First published in 1960 by Librairie Stock
First English translation 1981 by Longman