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Abdourahman Waberi: Balbala [Balbala]
I am not sure what to make of this novel. It is written in a very overblown, flowery style which does not make for easy reading for a straightforward Anglo-Saxon. There is a sort of plot and a lot of background, so it is certainly an interesting novel but I just did not find it easy to read. It tells the story of four people who live Balbala, a slum suburb of the city of Djibouti. The book is divided into four parts, with each part devoted (nominally) to each of the four. The first and longest part is about Waïs. He has been a very successful marathon runner. We get an account of how he won a major (presumably Olympic) marathon, with two of his compatriots also doing well. They are feted (in Paris) by the authorities and seem to have a massive party. However, the main plot of the book is that Waïs and the other three protagonists have been declared as being inimical to public order and have been targeted by the authorities. Waïs has been arrested and we him spending time in prison. However, he does not seem to be suffering too much.
Part of the story concerns the history and politics of Djibouti. Waberi tells us the history of French colonisation (and decolonisation). He mentions the famous Europeans who came there, particularly Rimbaud. He is highly critical of the French as well of other European colonisers, outlining how Djibouti has been exploited, with references to British and other colonisation of nearby countries. He is also not averse to criticising Djibouti’s neighbours, particularly Ethiopia. However, it is for the current government that he reserves most of his vitriol. He condemns them as corrupt, brutal, torturers, undemocratic and so on, much of which, as we know, has a considerable basis in fact. All of this we see through the eyes of the four protagonists. The other three are a doctor, Yonis, a civil servant, Dilleyta and Anab, Waïs’ sister and Yonis’ girlfriend. The section on Yonis, for example, tells of how he discovered Africa through Leningrad. Till he managed to get a scholarship to study medicine in Leningrad (Waberi mocks the Soviet Union’s activities in the developing world), he knew little of Africa, beyond Djibouti and its immediate neighbourhood. In Leningrad he meets Africans from all over the continent and his first real girlfriend is Juana, from Cape Verde. When he returns from Leningrad, he becomes active in the movement for independence but is, of course, disappointed with what happens after independence. The sections on Dilleyta and Anab have relatively little about those two though Waberi does mention the difficult situation of women in Djibouti.
There is no doubt that Waberi feels passionately about his country and how it was badly treated (by the French) before independence and has suffered very much since independence and continues to suffer. His four protagonists are clearly meant to represent those intellectuals who feel as passionately as he does about the situation, past and present, in Djibouti and how those that have remained in the country are paying a hard price. But his all too frequent incursions into a flowery, overblown language I did find offputting. The novel has not been translated into English and I am not sure this language would work in English. (It has been translated into Italian, a language perhaps more suited to flowery discourse.) However, it is still nice to have a Djiboutian novel to read.
First published in 1998 by Serpent à plumes
No English translation