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Kossi Efoui: La fabrique de cérémonies [The Ceremony Factory]

Edgar Fall was born and bred in Lomé, Togo. His father disappeared soon after he was born but reappeared again much later, only to die soon after. Meanwhile, his mother had been looked after by a protector, Mr. Halo. He managed to get a scholarship to study in the Soviet Union. It is there that he met Urbain Mango. The two watched the collapse of the Soviet Union on TV and, with it, the loss of their scholarships. Edgar is now living in Paris, in a small eighth floor flat (the lift only goes to the seventh floor). He would like to earn his living translating Pushkin’s incomplete novel into French (there were actually three – he does not say which one) but in fact earns his living by translating pornographic photonovels into Russian, as a French publisher has found a good market for them in Russia. He has kept more or less in touch with Urbain and, one day, Urbain has a proposal for him. A magazine called Périples Magazine (it means Journeys Magazine) specialises in what it calls trash travel (the English word trash is used), which involves well-off Westerners slumming it in the third world, such as going to the slums of Soweto or Kinshasa. The publishers propose that Urbain and Edgar go to what was Lomé, to report on what it is like.

In this book, Togo has not fared well. It has been taken over by the (possibly fictitious) General Tapioka, presumably based, at least in part, on Gnassingbé Eyadéma. Lomé is now Tapiokaville. The rest of the book is Edgar’s grim visit to Togo. They are accompanied by others, particularly an American called Wang Lee, whose claim to fame is that he has acquired all the notes, memoirs, diaries, etc. of a Ukrainian former Nazi concentration camp guard. Efoui paints a grim picture of his country. The lorry carrying the group is stopped by child soldiers, who need paying off. When Wang Lee cries out that he is American and has a US passport, the response of the soldier is Can you eat it? They are shown a huge statue, with the inscription Year One of Peace and then a dead body, which has been decomposing for two days. When they try to get to Tapiokaville, they find that the road has been washed away by the sea and a young man who calls himself Jack Lagos ferries them across – for a price.>

Efoui mixes in the current view of Tapiokaville and Edgar’s reminiscences of what it was like when he lived there. He remembers the Northern District, where he and his mother lived. It was knocked down soon after he left and housed a notorious prison for General Tapioka. The current picture is grim. We see a gang of thugs seize hold of a teenager and necklace him. Drugs are freely sold and children roam around, clearly begging and without a home. But he also remembers the past, such as Johnny-Quinqueliba, his friend the photographer, who has travelled around Africa photographing. It is not a pretty picture elsewhere. In Tapiokaville, he spends time in a seedy bar, presided over by a Thelonius Monk look-alike and drifts around, half in a state of shock, but also remembering his aunt, his mother and Mr. Halo.

While this is certainly a fascinating idea, even if somewhat grim, Efoui tends to write in the very flowery style and high-blown language that African writers, both in English and French, sometimes use. I have to admit to finding it a bit offputting. But, apart from that, he writes well though he is unlikely to endear himself to the Togo Tourist Office. When he wrote this book Gnassingbé Eyadéma was still in power. Democracy has still not fully returned to Togo under his son Faure Gnassingbé and, while Efoui’s picture may be exaggerated, he was certainly right to be pessimistic.

Publishing history

First published in 2001 by Editions du Seuil
No English translation