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V. Y. Mudimbe: Entre les eaux (Between Tides)

Pierre Landu is a Catholic priest. More particularly, he is a black African priest. He is struggling with his uncertainties about his religion but also about the conflict between his religious vocation (it is a white man’s religion, his mother tells him) and his being an African, particularly, in this case, being a Zairean, a country where there is considerable opposition to the ruler, Mobutu. Initially, we see his concern about his religion in general. He cannot see why his white colleagues seem so certain in their faith. Do they not, like him worry and think about it? However, he also feels, as a Catholic priest, he is representing institutionalised injustice. God, he feels, is responsible for colonisation and exploitation.

Of course, he talks about his concerns with his fellow (white) priests, in particular his friend Father Howard. Father Howard tell him that the cross that Christians must bear is to resist the temptation to seek vengeance for the injustice they see around them. Pierre is not convinced. However, he remembers the good times with Father Howard, the evenings spent together, drinking a glass of whiskey, listening to classical music and talking about books. The only thing that separated them was the colour of their skin. Was that important? In theory no but when you thought about it, his people were the masters and Pierre’s the serfs. But, in the end, he knows that before being a Catholic priest, he is an African, a Zairean and he slips away to join the rebels, leaving a note for Howard.

It is not easy with the rebels. The first night, he has to share a tent with a woman rebel, Antoinette. He is tempted and she knows that he is tempted – the others do, she tells him – but he resists. She, too, tells him that Catholicism is a white man’s religion and, while she believes in God, she does not believe in the white man’s religion. His first action is an attack on Kanga. They are going to destroy the garrison and he, Pierre, is responsible for buying food from the local cooperative. Buying? Pierre is surprised. Yes, they pay for their food, even if the owners do not willingly sell it. During the attack, a soldier is badly hurt but not dead. Miss Poubelle gives him the order to finish him off. Reluctantly he does, remembering the words of Ignatius of Loyola: Before acting, pray, then act as if God did not exist. (Miss Poubelle – her nickname – is so called because every time a man makes a pass at her, she calls him poubelle [dustbin]. Her real name is Suzanne.) When they come to buy the food, which the local priest refuses to sell, Miss Poubelle says that if any sin has been committed, Father Pierre will grant them absolution.

It is Pierre’s relationship with the commander of the group that is interesting. The commander is a man of learning and well versed in scripture. His religion, he says, is Marxism and he is happy to argue about Marx and religion with Pierre. He quotes Marx: we are not going to come out before the world as doctrinaires with a new ready-made creed: here is the truth, fall on your knees before it! We are developing new principles for the world, which we draw from its existing principles. We do not say to the world: ‘Stop the struggle; all struggle is in vain,’ we provide it with the true slogan of the struggle. We are simply showing the world the real reasons it is fighting for, whereas consciousness is something that the world has to gain, regardless of whether or not it wants this and compares the Marxist approach with the Catholic approach. He suggests to Pierre that he, Pierre, has tried to find an African approach to theology but that this has not worked. This is, of course, accurate. But the commander also involves Pierre more and more in the struggle. He blows up a garrison, killing many men. One of their own men is shot for desertion, though Pierre keeps away from that. But Pierre is fighting with a group whose role is to oppose colonialism and he is instructed to teach the men la nécessité de combattre l’influence réactionnaire et moyenâgeuse du clergé, des missions chrétiennes et autres éléments [the need to combat the reactionary and medieval influence of the clergy, the Christian missions and other elements].

However, he also remembers his past life. He remembers his initial love of the church. He was inducted into the local religion at puberty when a goat was sacrificed and he had to drink the warm blood. He remembers, above all, Rome and how much he enjoyed his life there. Indeed, when he is talking to Suzanne about it, one of the things he remembers with most affection is going to hear an Italian talk about Homer and proving conclusively that all the Trojan heroes wore beards. Some time later he went to another talk when an Italian proved conclusively that all the Trojan heroes were clean-shaven. Finally, he went to a third talk where the speaker proved conclusively that we could not possibly know whether they wore beards or were clean-shaven. It is this intellectual discussion that he really enjoys and is partially why he enjoys talking to the commander. The commander has told Pierre that one day he expects to be killed and, most likely, by one of his own side. One day, he seems to disappear and his number two takes over. This man, Bidoule, is far less sympathetic towards Pierre and it is inevitable that things are going to go wrong for him.

This is a very fine book on religious faith and its meaning and the struggle to reconcile religious faith with one’s political views, one’s background and culture and one’s own feelings. Throughout the book, Pierre struggles with this, not always successfully, examining the question both from the emotional and intellectual viewpoint but, unlike his white colleagues, he does not have certainty, about his faith, the role of faith and the issue of faith in a world in turmoil. There are no easy answers and never will be. As he says at the end, he has to live with what he calls the duplicity of love.

Publishing history

First published in French 1973 by Présence Africaine
First English translation by Simon & Schuster in 1991
Translated by Stephen Becker