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Sony Labou Tansi: La vie et demie (Life and a Half)

It is no secret that there are some very nasty people in charge of various countries round the world and it is equally no secret that there are and have been some particularly nasty ones in Africa. This book is, according to its author, a fable and is clearly written as such. However, the political leader of Katamalanasia, the fictitious country where this novel is set, who is known as The Providential Guide, is presumably based to some degree on a real political leader. At the time Sony Labou Tansi was writing this book, his country, the Republic of the Congo, was changing its leaders, not always democratically, fairly frequently. However, next door, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (aka Zaire), the country of his father and, indeed, Labou Tansi’s birthplace, there was a long-term leader who, even by the standards of the day, was a particularly unpleasant person, both as regards looting the country for his own benefit and being particularly cruel to his enemies, real or imagined. He was Mobutu Sese Seko. It is clear to me that The Providential Guide is based, at least in part, on Mobutu.

We see how unpleasant The Guide is, right from the opening scene. He is having his dinner – he enjoys his food and normally takes four hours over his meal – when he has Martial, the former leader of the opposition, brought before him, together with Martial’s family, wife and several children, all bound up. He does not waste any time. Taking the knife he used to cut up his meat, he stabs Martial in the throat. Martial, however, does not die. The Guide proceeds to stab him, cut him, shoot him and poison him but Martial refuses to die, saying only I do not want to die this death . Eventually the Guide cuts him up and then informs his family that hey will have to eat the remains.

The next day they are presented with pâté and stew made out of the dead man. Jules, the eldest son, refuses to eat it. He is murdered and the family have to eat his remains the next day. All but two – Chaïdana and Tristansia – refuse so they are murdered. Chaïdana and Tristansia have to spend the next seven days eating the remains of their family.

However, Martial’s body may be dead but this is a fable. Martial’s upper body continues to appear to the Guide and he is not surprisingly upset by this. His soothsayer tells him that the only solution is to share a bed with Chaïdana but he must not have sex with her. She takes a sleeping pill every night and is therefore unaware of when the Guide breaks the rule. However, before he can do anything Martial’s upper body is back. The soothsayer pays the price and his successor is more careful in what he reveals.

Chaïdana is to be the heroine of this novel. She manages to escape the Guide, with the help of the doctor (who pays the price – again we are spared no details) and, with the help of her father, whose spirit continues to appear to her, takes her revenge. Meanwhile the people are calling for Martial, despite the determined efforts of the Guide’s soldiers to prevent this.

Chaïdana manages to have an affair with and then poison most of the senior officials of the country. However, her father does not approve and reappears on more than one occasion to rebuke her, by slapping her in the face. He will later write on her hand, telling her to leave. The Guide sees her at the funeral of one of ministers and is immediately struck by her. She has numerous identities (apparently she carries them in a bag) so the Guide does not recognise her. He proposes to her and they marry. However, when he tries to touch her, the body of Martial appears to him.

We will continue to follow the adventures of Chaïdana, who continues, to her father’s annoyance, to seduce and kill the senior officials. The Guide will again see her and fall for her with negative consequences (for him).

Chaïdana meets Layisho and they have two children called, not surprisingly, Chaïdana and Martial. When Chaïdana 1 dies and Layisho is locked in a cage, we follow their adventures. The Guide also dies – Martial 1 is at his deathbed and funeral – and we follow several of his successors, starting with Jean-Oscar, Coeur-de-Père, which means Jean-Oscar, Father’s Heart, but is clearly a pun on Coeur-de-Pierre, i.e. Heart of Stone. One of his successors will indeed be called Heart-of-Stone.

These successors do not have any more luck with Martial 1 or with Chaïdana 2 than their predecessors. Chaïdana lives well into her hundreds and gets involved with the pygmies and with the Catholic Church. The spirits of Martial and Chaïdana live on and people continue to support them and Martial 1 continues to make appearances. Someone suggests the country should be called simply Hell, which really upsets Jean-Oscar, Coeur-de-Père. He is even more upset when people throw fourteen kilograms of tracts onto his bed on which is written just the one word Hell, so much so that he starts a nine year war on books. This will not be, by any means, the only war in which the country engages. Indeed, part of the country splits off, inevitably causing further conflict.

As you can see from from this somewhat chaotic summary, this is a most unusual book. It is a fable and all link to reality is abandoned. It is excessive – the deaths of Martial and his family that open the book are brutal. They reminded me to a certain degree of Mario Vargas Llosa‘s La fiesta del chivo (The Feast of the Goat), where he gives graphic descriptions of the torture of those implicated in the plot to kill Trujillo. When criticised for this, he stated that the reality was much worse. Labou Tansi has made similar comments. However, this book, like Vargas Llosa’s, does aim to show the horrors of dictators like Mobutu, while showing that there was an opposition, and he certainly succeeds in doing that.

Publishing history

First published in French in 1979 by Editions du Seuil
First English translation in 2011 by Indiana University Press
Translated by Alison Dundy