V. Y. Mudimbe: Le bel immonde (Before the Birth of the Moon)
I am not quite sure where the English translation comes from. The French means something like The Beautiful Ugly and is meant to show that the theme of this book is the relationship between the professional (in this book, political) life and the personal (in this book, romantic/sexual) life. The two characters are generally not named, except as I, you, etc. She is called Ya but she says that it means sister and it is not her name. She is a prostitute in Kinshasa. We first meet her in a bar where she “entertains” a visiting American. However, she soon becomes involved with a nameless minister. He is not interested in dancing but wants to know the gossip, such as the story of the captain who disguised himself as a woman and danced with an American and was only discovered when one of his breasts fell down. They start an affair though, the minister is, of course, married with children.
On his side, his wife is aware of the relationship, criticising him for spending money on his mistresses while not getting the best doctor to circumcise their son (who will later die from an infection after circumcision). On her side, she and her “sister”, i.e. her room-mate, are visited by people from her tribe, where her father had been a leader, and beaten up for being involved with the enemy of the tribe. However, she is subsequently encouraged to continue the relationship to obtain information from him. She had initially planned to break off the relationship and had, indeed, told him so, but resumes it, feeding the requested information to her “uncle”, i.e. tribal elder. This information proves of some significance.
The minister is concerned about the strong effect she has on him. He considers suicide at one point but her picture inspires him. He takes up the local religion but that does not help. However, the political situation is deteriorating. The Minister chairs a commission investigating the rebellion and even interviews captured rebels in front of the commission. He loses his post when the government falls but seems to regain it. Finally the authorities seem to make the connection between Ya, the Minister and the leaked information but the outcome is not necessarily as we might expect. The ending as well as most of the book, while well written, leaves us feeling that something is missing, though the point is clearly not to show concern with the rebellion or the political situation but this conflict between official responsibility and personal feeling. No conclusion is reached, except that there is a price to pay and a price that might well not be worth it.
First published in French 1976 by Présence Africaine
First English translation by Simon & Schuster in 1989
Translated by Marjolijn de Jager