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Tchicaya U Tam’si: Les Méduses (The Madman and the Medusa)

This is the second book in what is a loosely connected trilogy and, oddly, the only one to have been translated into English. It is set primarily in Tchicaya U Tam’si’s home town of Pointe-Noire in what was then French Equatorial Africa. It is set in June 1944 and though, as we shall see, the war does play a role, the news of D-Day does not seemed to have reached Pointe-Noire. There are labour disputes, which are forbidden under martial law which prevails as it is wartime. One week during June 1944, two men die (on separate days) and a third is found in a coma between the graves of the other two on another day. In fact the book says that three men died but the third did not die, perhaps because of a miracle. We do not initially learn the cause of death/coma but, inevitably, mysterious forces are blamed. One of the themes of this book is the difference between Christianity and the African religions and how they see the world.

The two men who died, die at their workplace. The third man, in the coma, was a clerk who worked for the C.G.B.C. (Compagnie générale du Bas-Congo [General Company of the Lower Congo]. He not only did not die at work. His colleagues had not noted his absence. He was hired by the manager, Mr. Martin because not only did he know good French (he been to a French school) but his handwriting was excellent. though he nominally reports to André Sola, who is in charge of the clerks, most of his work comes from Mr Martin and he does not socialise with the others at all so they did not notice his absence.

We learn a little bit about the men. Christophe Elenga was a railway engineer and Muendo Omar worked at the sawmill. The third man, the one in a coma, was Lufwa Luambu. We learn a little bit about their back stories. Luambu, for example, travelled around with his unfortunate wife. As his French was good, he had no difficulty getting a job but he had a habit of packing up and leaving in the middle of the night, his poor wife trudging behind. What happened to her? We do not know as there are a lot of things we do not know the whys and wherefores of. As for Muendo, Muendo is women, women, women! He needs them all! All fall! Muendo is married, monogamous married, father of three children and soon four unless twins are born to him, that would be five.

Nobody seemed to be aware, not even their families, that the three men actually all knew one another. It would appear that it was unlikely that a railway engineer, a sawmill worker and a clerk knew each other but they did.

One day, at he beach, a mad preacher (mad because he was somewhat insane not because he was violent) was standing in the sea, preaching. Most of the people were waiting for the fishermen to return and when they did, they moved over to the fishermen, leaving the preacher and three others – our three protagonists – who chatted to one another. However, the preacher moved over to the fishermen and started baptising them, not only splashing them with the seawater but also with jellyfish. (Note that the French titles of this book – Les Méduses – means The Jellyfish which leaves me somewhat baffled by the title chosen for the English-language book).

The fishing master is somewhat annoyed about this and he proceeds to beat up the preacher and looks in danger of killing him till Luambu intervenes. He then attacks Luambu who is aided by his new friends. The preacher has now smartly disappeared and the fracas breaks up.

So why did they die/fall into the coma? Some are convinced that Luambu, who is still alive, albeit in a coma, had something to do with the death of the other men. Others wondered, when they found out, that it might have had something to do with the preacher incident. Mr Martin delegates André Sola to investigate, as one of his employees was involved and Sola gets these and other theories from the people he speaks to. It seems that Luambu was close to Elenga’s sister, Mazola. Could this be connected to what happened to the three men? Indeed, we learn a lot about the various family issues of the men, though little if anything is known of Luambu’s family.

We gradually learn how close the three men were after the preacher incident, though their colleagues seemed to be unaware of their relationship, We also learn that they will again come across the preacher and the fishermen though this time the meeting is less contentious.

Was the war somehow connected to the incident? Some people think so, not least because of the strike issue which leads to bad blood. André Sola pushes on with his investigations but comes no closer to finding a solution or, rather, is offered various theories, none of which can be confirmed, though the majority seem to think Luambu was somehow responsible as he is still alive and his origins seem decidedly murky.

It is pointed out that three men are linked professionally. Elenga worked on the trains that brings the wood. Muendo worked at the sawmill where the wood is sawn up. Luambu worked for the company that markets the wood but is this relevant?

We have been following what is going on in the lives of the three men and their families in the periods preceding the deaths and, eventually, we get to the week in which it is happened and all, is more or less, explained. One man who very much takes it to heart is André Sola. He feels somewhat guilty about Luambu, not least because Mr. Martin does not seem too concerned. As well as all the theories he has heard expounded, he fears that ghosts may have been involved and that Luambu himself may well have been a ghost and even wonders if there is some conspiracy involving Luambu and Mr Martin.

This is a strange book. We get multiple points of view. We see the dichotomy between Christianity and the African religions as well, of course, between the Africans and the French. We see the African beliefs which clearly colour their views even if the Western reader and Mr Martin may look down on them. Nevertheless it is an interesting book as, though written in French, it is very much an African book.

Publishing history

First published in French in 1982 by Albin Michel
First English translation in 1989 by University Press of Virginia
Translated by Sonja Haussmann Smith and William Jay Smith