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Sylvain Bemba: Rêves portatifs [Portable Dreams]

Bemba’s novel tells of a fictitious African country called Le pays des palmiers (The Country of Palm Trees), presumably based on the Republic of the Congo. Like the Congo, Le pays des palmiers is to attain its independence in 1960 and this novel tells of the days leading up to independence and the ten years following (when the Republic of the Congo become the The People’s Republic of the Congo). The novel is somewhat disorganised, with plot lines starting up and fading away but it does give the impression of the teething problems of a newly formed state.

The country has two political parties, One is the Nationalist Party, primarily the party of the lowland people and the other is the Independents Party, primarily that of the upland people. The lowland people tend to be calm, phlegmatic and hard workers. They have been the ones who have worked best with the (unnamed) colonial power and now hold most of the civil service jobs. The upland people are more nervous and fierce. They tend to be warriors, hunters, poets and fetishists. For various reasons the upland party now seems to hold the political power. They also control the police and military, which may well be a factor. However, the novel, while telling us this, starts off with he story of Ignace Kambeya. Since his brother died when he was five, he has lived somewhat in a dream but, after trying various things, managed to land a job as cinema projectionist, a job he does well and works very hard at. However, he tends to spend much of his time in cinema-based reverie (hence the title of the book). Though a key character in the early stages of the book, he will essentially disappear towards the end. He has been entrusted with looking after a suitcase by Pierre, his colleague, the ticket seller. We learn later that the case was taken from him by someone to whom he owed money and he has not been able to return it to Pierre. Pierre, for his part, must return it to Edouard, the local drug dealer, as the case contains drugs and gold (though Ignace is completely unaware of this). The matter is complicated further by the fact that Edouard that day turned up at Ignace’s house where he had sex several times with Marie Kabongo, Ignace’s wife, including in the very crowded cinema, just below where Ignace was projecting the film. Ignace is also completely unaware of this.

Meanwhile, for the independence celebrations, a key football match is played between the Wounded Buffaloes (the lowland people’s team) and the Panthers (the upland people’s team). The Buffaloes’ director has had a curse put on Trouet, the Panthers’ star striker and it seems that he won’t score, till the last minute when a loose ball from a free kick comes his way. He mishits it but the opposition is so scared, they try to dodge the ball, which dribbles into the net. The director of the Buffaloes is all the keener to get his suitcase. When Ignace tells Edouard what happened, Edouard hits him a couple of time. Ignace defends himself with a knife, killing Edouard (unintentionally) and is arrested and imprisoned. All of which leads to Cassius Yaya, a journalist who is imprisoned for inflammatory writing and who is the son of King Yaya, who had been an important leader but had been arrested and nearly executed by the colonial power but is now in prison in a remote part of the country. Ignace is put into a cell next to Cassius. However, a general amnesty next day sees Cassius (but not Ignace) released.

The rest of the book describes the somewhat murky political situation post-independence. Will King Yaya come back? What will Cassius’ role be? How will Léonidas Mwamba, former seminarian and classmate of Cassius and now president, survive? Will Wilbraham Moukoungou, the chief of police who is interested in Marie Kabongo, continue his dirty deeds? Will Ferdinand Moudandou be able to overthrow the Mwamba government and, if so, what will he do? And what will happen to Ignace? It is all put together in a slapdash way but Bemba’s sympathies are clear and the corruption found in many countries like Le pays des palmiers is clearly stated.

Publishing history

First published in French 1979 by Nouvelles Editions Africaines
No English translation