Translation by Alison Dundy
Reviewed by Magalí Armillas-Tiseyra
“Life and a Half,” the Sony Lab'ou Tansi declares in the Warning that opens the novel, “it’s about writing absent-mindedly.” The joke here has little to do with the image of the writer whose mind is wandering; the phrase turns the notion of “engaged” writing—littérature engagée, following Sartre—on its head. Counter to our expectations when approaching an African novel about a brutal dictator, the Warning declares that this novel is not about a material historical reality, that is does not refer to an actual authoritarian ruler or regime, and that we should not read it as a piece of politically engaged writing. Lab'ou Tansi, invoking Ionesco, offers an “engaging man” in place of the “engaged author.” He continues: “Life and a Half becomes this fable that sees tomorrow through today’s eyes. No present—neither political nor human—should get mixed up in this.”
The play with the distinctions between literature and (present) history brings to mind the very real dangers of writing under a politically oppressive regime--calling the novel a “fable” is one strategy for avoiding censorship or retribution. Life and a Half takes place in a fictional central African country, Katamalanasia, ruled by an authoritarian dictator, the Providential Guide. First published in 1979, Life and a Half (La Vie et demie; Éditions du Seuil) transformed Francophone sub-Saharan African literature. It was part of the shift away from the commitment to realism and critique of colonialism that had characterized African literature leading up to and immediately post-independence. In very broad terms—in both Anglophone and Francophone African literature—this shift included a self-critical turn in which writers began to consider the political social changes shaping their emerging nations. But the change was also formal; the departure from realism entailed experimentation and the exploration of new narrative forms and modes. While it might not immediately recall the postmodern novel of the Anglo-American tradition (for example), Life and a Half should be read with this history of experimentation in mind.
Earlier this year, Indiana University Press published the first English translation of Life and a Half, by Alison Dundy, as part of their new “Global African Voices” series. Although the press is academic, this edition is very accessible. Dundy has worked hard to render Lab'ou Tansi’s highly particular use of the French language—which is filled with neologisms, hyperbole, and idiosyncratic expressions that resist easy phrasing in English—and maintains the feel and humor of the original. She addresses some of these challenges in her useful, if brief, translator’s introduction. The novel also has a short introduction by the series editor Dominic Thomas, which serves as guide to critical studies of the novel.
Lab'ou Tansi (1947-1995) was born in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo and moved north to Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo as a young man. Considered one of the foremost writers of his generation, he wrote several novels, plays, and worked as a teacher and in theater in Brazzaville. In a New Yorker piece on Tansi (February 5, 1996), Updike describes the author and his wife dying of complications from AIDS. It is a pathetic scene that allows Updike to reflect on the plight of the African writer, whose novels “seethe with political despair.” In emphasizing the experimental nature of Life and a Half, I do not dismiss the very real dangers and suffering of African writers. But I want to grapple with the other major point in Updike’s piece; he writes that there is much in Lab'ou Tansi’s writing he does not understand and concludes that he is not the intended reader. (Updike does not cover Life and a Half in his survey, as it was not yet available in English). Life and a Half is not an easy text--although humorous, it is often intentionally abrasive, even repellent. But difficulty should not be mistaken for incomprehensibility.
The novel opens with a scene in which the Providential Guide is in the process of executing Martial, the leader of the resistance. No matter the method or degree of brutality, Martial does not die. Once the body is reduced to a pile of flesh, the Providential Guide has the remains fed—in the form of pâté and other delicacies—to Martial’s family. Those that refuse are killed and likewise prepared for consumption; the only one to survive is Martial’s daughter, Chaïdana. The Guide, now persecuted by Martial’s ghost, takes Chaïdana into his bed to ward off the ghost, but is strictly forbidden from doing “that thing” with her by his fortune-teller. Chaïdana eventually escapes the palace and begins to mount an attack on the regime: she seduces and poisons members of the government, assuming a series of identities, and eventually marries the Guide himself. Martial (the ghost) opposes his daughter’s actions, repeatedly beats and then rapes her. Later, she is raped by 363 soldiers.
Rape, like all the violence in the novel, is hyperbolized. Significantly, sexual violence is carried out by all sides and the novel demonstrates the extent to which it is not an aberration but rather of a part with the practice of politics and power. After she has given birth to triplets and is paralyzed, Chaïdana becomes a writer of memoirs and pamphlets. But then the novel takes an unexpected turn: Chaïdana and the Guide die and are replaced by subsequent generations of characters whose names and actions repeat or recall those that came before them. The effect of this serialization is confusion, where repetition renders the individual units almost meaningless. It is here that Lab'ou Tansi’s novel truly takes off.
Life and a Half is often compared to Gabriel García Márquez’s Hundred Years of Solitude, in which the narrative unfolds over generations of the Buendía family, whose names (and origins) also become confused. It is tempting to ascribe to the increasing delirium of Life and a Half the catchall label of “magical realism.” But—following many others—I would argue that this is merely a way to exoticize the novel rather than comprehend some of its stranger turns. In closing, I suggest one way we can read the final section of Life and a Half, borrowing from Lydie Moudileno’s work on the novel. Moudileno argues for the use of the term “science fiction” to describe the changes that take place in the narrative. If the first section of the novel, with its unbridled sexuality, cruelty, and violence, slots rather easily into what Lab'ou Tansi has called tropicalité (“tropicality,” significantly related to the frequent descriptions of the “Guide’s tropicalities”), at its close, “engineers” take over for the “tropical characters.”
In subsequent generations, the Guide (Jean-Heart-of-Stone) initiates the annual celebration of Virgin Week, which produces groups or “series” of sons distinguished by the letter of their names: the C-series (Jean Cold-Blooded, Jean Crocodile, Jean Carburator, Jean Coffeepot, Jean Contiguous) are born in the same year, the V-series (Jean Vagrant, Jean Vat, Jean Vocabulary, and Jean Vulva) the next, and so on. Members of the C-series go to join their grandmother, another Chaïdana, in the forest and secede from Katamalanasia, founding the country to Darmellia. Katamalanasia and Darmellia then initiate a highly technologized war, supported by the investments of foreign powers but also using their own powerful and locally developed technologies. This includes the use of “flies,” developed by Jean Calcium in a special laboratory, which kill humans with a single sting and turn all other living things to carbon. Katamalanasia reciprocates accordingly and the wars escalate until all is destroyed: the countries are described as “two cadavers fighting each other in the void.” Eventually, an elderly Jean Calcium and his wife emerge from the subterranean city where they hid and are confronted with a strange world where the past—including the history of secession and the many wars—has been erased under the new law. A mine, “Carbon 80,” has replaced the former capital city. The novel closes with Jean Calcium repeating one of the key refrains in the novel: “My body remembers!”
In claiming the label “science fiction” for the latter part of Life and a Half, Moudileno contends that the novel in its exploration of the violence of authoritarianism in postcolonial Africa in fact looks toward a future that may or may not prove apocalyptic, rather than back to a colonial or primitive past. The story here is less about the horrors of dictatorship and authoritarianism in and of themselves than about humanity’s encounter with technologies that reduce individuals to parts of a series, barely discrete and infinitely repeatable and replaceable, with little real value. Looking backward, slavery provides a powerful analogue for this process, but, as is Moudileno’s point, Lab'ou Tansi goes forward instead. Despite the injunction to forget, memory has a long half-life and, like people forcibly moved across oceans, the characters in Lab'ou Tansi’s world remember, even when they have been reduced to little more than bits of flesh even when forgetting is imposed by laws that rewrite the past.