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Tchicaya U Tam’si: Les Phalènes [The Moths]

This book continues on from Les Cancrelats [The Cockroaches] which, like the previous book, has not been translated into English. It is also linked to Les Méduses (The Madman and the Medusa), which has been translated into English. We are following the same extended family though a bit later.The war (World War II) has ended and things are changing. To a great extent, this book is about these changes.

The main family consists of father Prosper, his wife Juliette and their children, Léa et Paulin. Prosper’s older, unmarried sister, Sophie lives with them. ‘We will also meet Jean Taty, cousin of Prosper.

The tone of change is set at the beginning. All the young women are wearing Charleston dresses and dancing. Dressmakers (including Juliette) spend much of their time making these dresses and one dressmaker says that she will only make Charleston dresses and nothing else. Things are not as before.

One political change that occurs early in the book is that the French government has changed the status of the native population. Previously they had a separate status, called indigénat, which meant that the Africans had fewer legal rights than the French. When, for example, a case came to court and involved a native against a French person, the French person always won whatever the facts of the case. Now, in theory, the native population will have equal rights. This is broadly welcomed by the native population, though some of them, such as Prosper, are concerned some people may abuse this right. However he also sees it as the first step towards independence.

We notice that all our family have French names. Prosper’s surname is Pobard, a gallicised version of his father’s surname, Mpobah. They are primarily Christian, speak French and want a French education. We see this with Jean Taty who is planning on becoming a doctor, with a future hope of not only becoming a doctor for his fellow Africans but for everyone. Prosper himself will study for the baccalaureate and pass. Later in the book, Paulin will be sent to France (Marseille, not Paris as he would have preferred) to go to schoool, also with a view to becoming a doctor. He is aided by a French woman, Aimée, whose husband says that the family are her project. What he does not know is that his wife is having an affair with Prosper. She asks Prosper if she is better in bed than Juliette. Prosper does not reply but we know that she is.

As the older sister, as is traditional in the culture, Sophie has taken on the role of Prosper’s mother and she suspects something, even commenting Ah! The good weather when it was reasonable to be polygamous! Indeed, it soon becomes apparent that both Sophie and Juliette suspect. Sophie has for her brother the weakness of a mother’s heart. She takes “his sins on herself.

While much of the book focusses on Prosper, Sophie has a role to play. Her niece (in particular) and her nephew are very close to her.As mentioned she is very much the elder sister to Prosper and, to a certain degree to Juliette. Indeed there is a strong rumour that Sophie and Prosper have an incestuous relationship. She is very religious (Christian – African religions do not get a mention in this book). She also provides a key plot element when she disappears. The panther men (a perhaps mythical murderous band of men) are at first suspected and there is a hunt for her. She is found safe and sound. Later we learn that she has been helping the sick in a native village and they consider her to be a saint with the power to heal.

Prosper, as well as having a proper job in the civil service, is very much a politician, involved in a political party whose ultimate aim is clearly independence. He works closely with a French communist, Paul Vincent. His political activities take up a fair share of the books and, inevitably, what happens is complicated and messy.

With the messy love life, the political problems and his sister, Prosper’ s hands are full. Any plans he might have had with Aimée fall apart when Aimée’s husband refuses to divorce her (this is France in the 1950s so divorce is not straightforward) and Juliette becomes pregnant. Aimée jokingly asks if he plans to impregnate her as she has always thought that he was still in favour of polygamy.

This is certainly an interesting book seeing how what would become the Republic of Congo was moving from being a traditional, old-fashioned colony where the native population had few rights and few opportunities to becoming a country which had started to move towards independence (which it would achieve in 1960) and seeing it through the eyes of a family with its complications, ambitions and issues.

Publishing history

First published in French in 1984 by Albin Michel
No English translation