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André Salifou: Tels pères tels fils [Like Father, Like Son]
The sub-title of this novel is A Sahelian Saga. The work is set in three periods, the pre-colonial period, the colonial period and the present day. Nevertheless, it is very much influenced by Nigerien legends and traditional tall stories and, for the benefit of his readers, Salifou tells us what they are. They include the legend of King Kabrin-Kabra who built a palace between the Earth and the sky; Prince Amadou, who was impotent so his wife took a lover. When he became king, Amadou had the lover castrated; King Dougouza, the king of liars; the young peasant who picked up a few words of French and when, when called on to act as interpreter when the French commandant came to the village, made a complete fool of himself. All these stories and more can be found in this novel, set in the not very fictitious African country of Bakin-Dawa.
We are also introduced to the main characters – Alâtouni (who actually becomes Alâtoumi in the main part of the book) and Kasko, Fewdo and Chédane. All are scurrilous rogues. Alâtoumi is the father of Fewdo, while Kasko is both the father and brother of Chédane. Yes, incest is alive and well in this book. He points out three other characters who, he says, are more likeable. One of them assists his master (Kasko) to rape a woman and kill her husband. Presumably standards of what is likeable may not be the same everywhere.
The novel opens in Bandariko in the pre-colonial era. Alâtoumi is born. His father was sixty and his mother twenty. Being a woman in this country is often not a happy experience. On hearing the news that he finally has a son, his first, the father dies of a heart attack. The mother dies later that day from post-partum problems. Alâtoumi is brought up by his grandmother. It is from her that he learns the basic commandments of his people. These include the idea of always being a liar, having no respect for women, that the best guide for a man is not conscience or religion but his interests, tht a man is judged only by his wealth and that the end justifies the means. Women are considered basically untrustworthy.
When he is eighteen, Alâtoumi marries the fifteen-year old Lewrou, who is his cousin. She is told that she has to obey him in all things. As in other cultures, the married couple spend the night in special quarters and then the old woman guarding them produces the blood-stained sheet to prove that the bride was a virgin. However, Lewrou was not a virgin as Alâtoumi soon finds out, so there is no blood-stained sheet. He flees the village in disgrace and her family are also disgraced.
His friends set out to find him but uncharacteristically bad weather hinders them. Alâtoumi disappears and never reappears in the village, though he does turn up some time later in another village, where he will come to play an important role. Of the other three, Indiel is found by Kasko and becomes Kasko’s friend and helper (including, as mentioned above, helping him to rape a woman). This attack causes Kasko and Indiel to have to flee and they end up in Orâko. By all sorts of complicated and devious means, Kasko becomes king there. Alâtoumi will later appear in the village.
We follow Kasko and Alâtoumi and their descendants. Kasko happily murders all and sundry. Things get more complicated for him when the French arrive. Though the French leave the local rulers in place, they expect them to obey their orders and Kasko continues with his bad behaviour, randomly killing, stealing the tax money due to the French and keeping up the old tradition of droit de seigneur. Indeed, he believes it is his right to have sex with any woman he pleases. The French are not amused.
Indiel, who you may recall, Salifou deemed likeable, has also done well, has the two ingredients he considers essential to life, namely alcohol and women.
Kasko’s life gets more complicated when all the soothsayers predict that his son will be more devious than him and that his son will also be his brother. The soothsayers are correct, despite the fact that his mother is elderly.
We move on to World War II. Fewdo, son of Alâtoumi, serves in the French army and will later study in France, when Niger gains its independence, becoming a customs officer. Fewdo proves to be the most devious of the lot and with a host of clever and unscrupulous tactics becomes the major power behind the throne and nearly becomes president.
Virtually all the major characters (at least as regards the men) are thoroughly unscrupulous and disreputable, despite the author’s comments at the beginning. They follow the basic dictum of their people, namely treat women with disrespect, all that matters is making money, no matter how, and power for its own sake or, at least, to gain access to lots of women and alcohol.
Salifou was a long-time politician in Niger and, if this story is in any way based on his own experiences and what really happens in Niger politics, then the country is or, at least has been, a total disaster. The ordinary people, and the women in particular, really suffer and, if it had not been for French colonisation, they could have been much worse off. It is, as he calls it, a saga and as, he tells us, based on traditional legends and stories, but, apart from a few supernatural incidents, it is told as a realistic tale. However, if his intention is to show that his country is thoroughly corrupt and the people in it disreputable rogues, he succeeds very well.
First published 1996 by ACCT
No English translation