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Mohamed Toihiri: La République des Imberbes [The Republic of the Beardless]

After gaining independence from France, the three islands of the Comoros that voted for independence (the island of Mayotte opted to stay as part of France) entered a period of chaos which has continued almost to the present day. This novel is a not very fictionalised account of one two and half year period during that time. The novel starts with John Ménard on a boat with a small group of mercenaries, off on a mission, whose details the men are unaware of. They soon learn that they are going to the Comoros, where they will seize President Guigoz at his beach hut. It is soon clear that Ménard is Bob Denard (real name: Gilbert Bourgeaud) and Guigoz is Ali Soilih. (Guigoz, by the way, is the name of a well-known French baby food.) The mercenaries have no problem dealing with the guards and capturing the president. He is drunk, lying on a sofa with two completely naked women. He surrenders without a struggle and is imprisoned. The rest of the novel is Guigoz ruminating on his life.

We first see him as a boy. At school, he is a bully and head of a gang. Young boys are required to bring him gifts – usually food – every day, till, one day, he is tricked into eating what seems to be a delicious piece of meat but is, in fact, dog, the eating of which is anathema to Muslims. We next jump to a meeting of groups opposed to the then government, all of which agree on the need to overthrow the government but disagree on virtually everything else. In a brilliant move, Guigoz decides that the important issue is which group will have which ministries and cleverly allocates ministries to each group’s strengths, leaving his own group out of the equation but also leaving the key ministries of Defence and Finance out of the equation. He reluctantly accepts these ministries later on and then uses them as stepping stone to take absolute power.

His power, though essentially Islamic, is also ruthless and often arbitrary. He starts by getting rid of the entire civil service, arguing that it is a legacy of the white coloniser. All civil servants are fired and all the papers of the administration – from historical documents to individual birth certificates – are burned. He next bans sorcery. Though most of the population is nominally Muslim, many still practise sorcery and witchcraft. Toihiri gives us several stories of individuals who wish to continue to use medicine men, whether for healing or for saying prayers after ritual circumcision. The Guigoz administration is ruthless in purging sorcery and many are arrested and tortured and killed for practising it. However, Guigoz does not practise what he preaches, as he arranges the sacrifice of seven seven-year olds for his own purposes. Toihiri gives us a detailed description. Guigoz also has his own sorcerers. Indeed, he already has one, when he hires another without telling the first one. This one – Lulé – will abuse his position many times so that eventually even Guigoz has had enough but, even then, Guigoz does not make his death easy.

As we have seen with the young women he is found with at the beginning and, as the title tells us, he enjoys surrounding himself with young people. He even sends a young woman who can barely speak properly to a United Nations meeting. Not only can the other delegates not understand her, they do not even know what language she is speaking. One key (actual historical) event concerns attacks on Comorians in Madagascar, following a dispute between two boys, with many Comorians massacred. Many Comorians return home. As many of them fly with Sabena Airlines, they are nicknamed Sabenas and are often despised as they are often out of touch with Comorian life. Guigoz uses many of them (Lulé was one) for his own ends.

It may well have been intended as a satire and, occasionally, Toihiro does stray into satire but most of the book is a vitriolic attack on Soilih/Guigoz. It is interesting for most Westerners, who are probably ignorant of these events and, indeed, of the country as a whole. As such it joins the list of dictator novels, even if it is not quite in the same class as the likes of La fiesta del chivo (The Feast of the Goat) and El Señor Presidente (The President; El Señor Presidente).

Publishing history

First published in 1985 by L’Harmattan
No English translation