Georges Ngal: Giambatista Viko ou Le Viol du discours africain (Giambatista Viko or The Rape of African Discourse)
There is a certain style of African writing in French where the writer tries to be more French than the French – flowery language, highbrow intellectual discussions and a generally Gallic style, unlikely to appeal to most of us Anglo-Saxons (as the French call us). This is one of those books. Giambattista Vico (note spelling) was an Italian philosopher famous for his Scienza Nuova (New Science), a book which influenced James Joyce amongst others. Vico’s principal theory was that truth is ascertained through creation and invention rather than observation (the latter being Descartes’ point of view). In this book, Giambatista Viko, the hero/narrator of this novel, refers to Vico and his work and takes his views to mean that created work, such as a novel, is just as valid for determining the truth as what we would now call a non-fiction work.
Viko is a teacher in an institute of higher education. He has a coterie of friends who discuss learned matters (usually by phone!). In particular, there is one friend with whom he talks frequently, called Niaiseux (it means something like irritating) who addresses him as Master and who uses the polite vous form when talking to Viko. The key theme is the discussion of writing in an African style or a Western style. Viko readily acknowledges the influence of Western (particularly French) culture and cites numerous French authors throughout the book. He also recognises the influence of the West in openness about sex (he invents a whole host of titles for porno magazines, many in (sometimes bad) English). He wishes for greater influence from Asia. He quotes an African fable which, for him, has the ideal African characteristics, in that it is not tied to a specific time or a specific place, unlike bourgeois Western literature. The following is a summary of it, though it takes up barely a page in the book:
An African couple have a daughter who dotes on her father. The mother is again pregnant and, when the father has to be away at the time she is expecting, he instructs his wife to save the child if it is a girl but kill it if it is a boy. The woman has twins, both boys. She hides them away and then eventually presents them to her husband as servants. However, one day, the daughter tells her father. The boys are away and are informed and when they return they take refuge with the wife of the village chief, who gives them two magic bottles to protect them. However, the father captures the youngest one and puts him in the cooking pot but he is saved by his brother. Meanwhile, the mother has killed the daughter who then rises up from the cemetery, while the father is placed in the cooking pot.
This story has, according to Viko, all the elements for an African fable – magic, killing, cannibalism, fantasy, surprise and treachery. However, Viko himself is planning to write a novel. He has already published poetry and essays but not a novel, which he has barely started. He seems to think that he is revered as a writer but also fantasises about the fame he will have when he finally does write his novel. His lust for fame also takes the form of jealousy. When he learns that a colleague has had another article published in a prestigious magazine, he and his friends are envious and plan a campaign against this person, finally agreeing on ignoring him completely.
The second part of the novel takes a completely different tack. Viko (accompanied by Niaiseux) is arrested. It is not clear who is doing the arresting but it is clear that this is a fantasy. It may even be happening in the afterlife. In short, he is accused of betraying Africa and African literature with his Western-style novel and must clearly be punished for doing so. This section carries on for a long time as the judges not only go through his life and crimes, but they also discuss general Western crimes, such as Western museums taking African art. Poor Niaiseux is badly beaten and tortured.
While the basic idea might be interesting, it really does not work for me. Much of the first part consists of dialogue on the phone, often in a pompous, highbrow style which, I imagine, few people would use in actual speech (though may write it). In the second part, many of the judges talk in proverbs which, they state, is the African way. Both styles do not make for enjoyable reading. However, it seems that the French loved it. After being published in what was then Zaïre, it was republished in France and is still in print. As the French say, chacun à son goût.
First published in French 1975 by Alpha-Omega, Lubumbashi
First English translation in 2022 by Modern Language Association
Translated by David Damrosch