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Tchicaya U Tam’si: Les Cancrelats [The Cockroaches]

The book starts with a fascinating introduction by Congolese writer and politician Henri Lopes who tells of how he first met Tchicaya U Tam’si fifty years previously, when Tchicaya was working in UNESCO in Paris. It seems that Tchicaya worked with Congolese politician Patrice Lumumba who was later assassinated by Mobutu’s forces and became a martyr. Lopes denies using Tchicaya as the basis of one of his characters but then half-admits it.

The story starts off with Ndundu, a Congolese from the small coastal town of Mabindu, at the beginning of the twentieth century. He had got to know the Frenchman, Charles de l’Escaut, and started working for him. He had travelled to various parts of the world with him and done quite well. However, he decides he wants to go back home.

En route, he stops off at Grand-Bassam in Côte d’Ivoire. There he meets and marries Lohya, the niece of Émile Boulh’Yeng M’Kossu Hmoyho, a successful tailor. They have two children, Sophie (born 1902) and Prosper (born 1904). Sadly, Lohya dies in 1905 and Ndundu returns to the Congo with his two children.

Ndundu has two living siblings. His older brother is Tchiluembh, who has three wives and six children but is quite bitter towards his younger brother because of his success. His sister, Liambu, is more welcoming. Their father, Mué Mbumbh Buangh, has died.

Ndundu is a Christian (Tchiluembh is not) and sends his children to Christian schools Prosper gets bullied and also suffers from ill health. Prosper’s ambition is to be white and he maintains that he will become white when he dies, as he has been baptised, and therefore go to Heaven.

The area is ruled by a Frenchman known as the Commandant, called Chartriant. Chartriant rules with a rod of iron. We see examples of his kangaroo court, where the locals are brutally punished for trivialities or even when they are innocent. There is one basic rule. If a black person goes against a white person (or vice versa), the white person is also right, regardless of the facts. Chartriant has taken against Ndundu, primarily because Ndundu is intelligent and has seen the world and therefore questions some of Chartriant’s decisions. Chartriant has decided that Ndundu is an agitator.

However, before Chartriant can take nay action, Ndundu is killed in a road accident. Tchiluembh becomes the legal guardian of the children but he is not a good foster-father. Having three wives and six children leaves little room for any additions. Sophie adapts, but Prosper struggles.

Jean de l’Escaut, son of Charles, Ndundu’s former employer, comes to the area and he decides to hire the brother and sister, primarily because he is sexually attracted to Sophie, whom he makes his mistress. (He is, of course, married, but his wife and children have remained in France.) The Commandant objects to this relationship but l’Escaut ignores him.

We now move to 1921 and Jean de l’Escaut, who has had several bouts of malaria, returns to France. Sophie has been given some money by him and brother and sister move to Loango, where Sophie buys a house. It is now 1930. Prosper suffers from health problems and certainly lacks the determination of his sister. Though only two years older. Sophie becomes almost a mother to Prosper.

One of the key features of this book is that Tchicaya often does not give the full story of an event or a full description of the various characters, skirting around the issue. For example, a Portuguese trader accuses Prosper of stealing. The trader is white so must be right. Prosper knows he has not stolen but seems unable to defend himself, while Sophie goes to fight for him. Nevertheless, he is arrested by two police officers but, even when beaten, declines to say whether he has stolen or not. The police take him off in a van, driven by a driver who is not a police officer.

En route the police officers decide they want to bathe as they are dirty. When they are in the water, the driver steals their clothes and drives off with their clothes and Prosper. What happens next? We do not know. We jump ahead. It seems that Prosper may have spent some time in prison but it is not sure. We meet the driver again and he does not seem to have suffered any consequences. As for the police officers, the narrator seems to casually wonder what happened to them.

Prosper finally decides to take a wife – Malila. Sophie is initially opposed but then agrees. Sophie disappears, allegedly to get married.The marriage is short and not very happy, Malila dying suddenly. Sophie returns – unmarried.

We now jump to Brazzaville in 1945. It seems Prosper is living there, married to Juliette, with three children. Sophie comes by train to visit. However, the marriage is no happier than his first one, with Propser no better a husband than he was to Malila. Indeed, he spends much of his spare time at the local bars, even when Juliette is very ill.

Tchicaya is a poet and this is more a poet’s novel than a novelist’s novel. There is a plot, as shown, but Tchicaya is more concerned with looking around, not ahead. As indicated, the story is divided into tranches, each one separated by ten years, more or less. He aims to give us portrait of what is going on in that tranche, rather than developing a plot.

Death, for example, is random. People are alive and suddenly they are dead without warning and, indeed, in some cases almost in passing. As Sophie says, the only thing we know how to do is to bury. For Prosper, however, the dead are looking at us. They are everywhere with us.

The title is also key. At the beginning of the book he quotes a saying in Kikongo: Luvesi u ye’nfundilà nkanu fa’ngandà susu! Google Translate will not help here (it very wrongly guesses Igbo). It means A cockroach went to plead its case at the court of the hens. This is a reference to the relationship between the Congolese and the hens. For the French, the Congolese are the cockroaches with no chance in the French courts. However, we also see on more than one occasion real cockroaches.

The key to the book is, of course, Sophie and Prosper and their relationship to one another. Sophie is devoted to her brother and, as mentioned, treats him as though she were his mother. Indeed, it is clear that Prosper needs the guiding hand of a parent and it was clearly unfortunate that he lost both parents at a relatively young age. Prosper does, to a certain extent, take his lead from his sister but all too often, he goes off on his own way which is generally not the best way.

The book is the first of a trilogy and we will follow the further adventures of the siblings in the next book – Les Méduses (The Madman and the Medusa) – which has been translated into English. This book has not been translated into English or any other language. It is not a straightforward book, at least by Western standards of novel-telling but is a fascinating glimpse into a country most of us know little about.

Publishing history

First published in French in 1980 by Albin Michel
No English translation