All of our current texts in English or French were, according to an idea dear to Cheikh Anta Diop, only a simple transitional literature. – Boubacar Boris Diop
The debate on national languages is at least as old as independent Senegal. Léopold Sédar Senghor and Cheikh Anta Diop represented, respectively, two opposite poles: Senghor’s was that of the Francophile, who considers the language of Moliere as exceptional and superior, and Diop’s was that of the restorer of African languages, who affirms their equal capacity in formulating both scientific statements and producing literature. Besides the attribution of qualities unique to the French language, among the Francophile arguments we find nationalistic and economic concerns about the adoption of Wolof as an idiom of work, administration and teaching. At the political level, these reservations extend to the question of the relationship of language to the nation-building project. The nation, in accordance with the Jacobin model, is conceived as a monolingual entity. With this as a given, the Francophiles argue that only French can become an administrative language imposed on all without any particular linguistic group taking offense.
On Diop’s side, there are no particular weaknesses for the French language or a priori fears of tribalism, but, rather, some common-sense arguments. All languages, in absolute terms, are equal. Each one carries within it infinite resources which, cultivated by the labours of its thinkers and writers, make it possible for its words to speak the world. The vast majority of Senegalese do not understand the French language. Some, a tenth, understand it, but do they hear it? Anyone who has visited Senegal, including its capital, will find that the language of everyday life, the language in which people live and in which they speak, is Wolof. French, in Senegal, simply does not have the words to capture life.
Let us say that language in the hands of the novelist is like a fishing net. The French net is unfit to capture the shimmer and slippery bodies that bathe deep in the Senegal ocean. In an interview with the journal, Círculo de Poesía, Boubacar Boris Diop confides: “[M]y novels in French are not related to my life or the various realities of Senegal. The words are cold… they cannot bring to the narrative the electric shock that it needs. And that is only in our language.” A novelist and consequent disciple of Cheikh Anta Diop, the younger Diop spoke out in this debate on languages not through an essay, as Ngugi Wa Thiongo’o did so well in Decolonising the Mind, but by writing a great novel in his most beautiful Wolof. I see in this act a great generosity: let us think of the efforts, the breakdown of acquired habits – first in school, then in university, and then in his life as an artist – to which he had to commit himself in order to write the first sentences of this novel.
IN THE BEGINNING THERE WAS MONGO BÈTI’S PREFACE
Readers were first introduced to Diop’s writing by Mongo Béti, who wrote a preface for his debut novel, Le temps de Tamango. Béti was himself a precocious, flamboyant and insufficiently celebrated talent, largely because he was inclined to thwart Françafrique with his agile pen. For Béti, it was relatively simple: the writer of Francophone Africa could not, without discrediting himself, write without his work depicting colonial domination. Some 30 years later, this endorsement from Béti – not easy-to-carry honours in the Francophonie – is openly embraced by Diop. To be convinced of this, it suffices to read some of the articles the latter has published in the press, such as Le Monde Diplomatique or Foreign Policy, some of which appear in his collection of essays, Africa Beyond the Mirror.
In his preface to Le Temps de Tamango, Béti begins by commending the then 35-year-old Boubacar Boris Diop for his “aesthetic experimentation… audacious research and especially depth”. Already in this first novel, Diop confers upon his work a fragmented composition, multiplying the instances of enunciation, and reconstructs, by the addition of successive layers, the complexity of a human reality. As the philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne recently described it, Le Temps de Tamango, was “a tremor” for his generation. It showed the night of the present, and the bright, anticipated future of a freer political situation.
NGIRAAN FAY, DAKAROIS WORKING CLASS HERO
The opening scene of Doomi Golo presents a lone man at the twilight of a life without glory, one that he re-examines through writing as a way to appraise his journey and to transmit teachings to his grandson. Immersion in memories and the examination of one’s life never go without melancholy, and the narrative of Ngiraan Fay, even though he often makes us laugh, is swept from end to end by this feeling. This initial scene of an old man who gives himself up to epistolary confession reminds us of the character from Le Noeud de Vipères, a novel by François Mauriac, but it also differs. These two characters are opposed by their social positions: on the one hand, Monsieur Louis, an aging lawyer and thus bourgeois, on the other hand, Ngiraan Fay, a modest old man, who all his life has ranked as a low-wage earner. While the fortunate old man of Mauriac wants to disinherit his relatives, Boubacar Boris Diop’s character, Ngiraan Fay, is entirely preoccupied with passing down, not his wealth (he does not have any), but his memory.
Similarly, the book Doomi Golo displays enormous generosity, as a work of transmission that speaks through historical narratives and tenderly evokes its historical figures. The protagonists of the novel, anonymous people, ordinary city peddlers, lead a very common existence, punctuated by the current affairs of the neighbourhood and family dramas. The emigration of young people – justly called adventurers at the time, who left the country for years, often decades, without any word – is one of the major subjects of Diop’s novel. The son, Asan, as well as the grandson, Badu, are absent from Ñarelaa and away from the patriarch who leans over his pages to retain what they have, in their exile, missed.
The narrative, subdivided into two large notebooks, navigates between the distant past, the mythological realm, and the prosaic daily life of the neighbourhood. There are, in Doomi Golo, vertiginous abysses, the embedding of narrative within embedded narratives. Ngiraan Fay, a fictional character who gradually takes up the game of writing, ends up producing his own fictional beings who themselves produce fiction. Over the course of the novel, we discover in the writer Ngiraan Fay a calm virtuosity.
At the age of 70, Ngiraan gives his grandson a series of portraits of the men who have marked him. These are conveyed through writing that communicates a deep love of the little people. It is as if Ngiraan has taken up Djibril Diop Mambéty’s phrase, “little people are the only ones who are consistent”. There are, in particular, pages that deal with a Qur’anic master, the archetypal figure of the sage and the ascetic, materially indigent, corporeally stunted, but humanly and spiritually sublime. This man, Ustaas Mbay Lóo, had welcomed his pupils, including the young Ngiraan, into a filthy hut devoid of anything but books and Qur’anic leaflets. As grandfather, Ngiraan evokes the remembrance of this man, who was his master and who inspired him, with both tenderness and respect, to the point that he would choose, if the good God gave him a gift of a reincarnation, to live under the guise of this humble sage rather than that of the president of the republic.
The reminiscences of the past give rise to melancholic pages in which Ngiraan’s story coincides with the story of Senegal. Ñarelaa, presented as one of the first districts of Dakar, is clearly inspired by the Medina, a matrix of modern Senegal which, in the time of the colonists, was the portion of the city reserved for the natives. It is the neighbourhood seen in Ousmane Sembène’s film, Borom Sarret. In Doomi Golo, Ngiraan’s youth unfolds in Ñarelaa, where he worked, and was a sincere and dedicated member of the PAI (the African Independence Party), founded in Thies in 1957 and presenting itself as pan Africanist and socialist.
A NOVEL MADE LIKE RUSSIAN DOLLS
In the fourth chapter, the grandfather attempts to talk to his grandson about the political situation by composing a fictional narrative. Is it because he has taken up the game of writing that his creator’s fantasy is beginning to possess his pen? It is already clear that the grandfather, who openly declares his admiration for authors and poets in the Wolof language, is not without a literary sensibility. This chapter is a stunning mise en abîme. Here the grandfather throws himself into a narrative filled with anticipation. A march of market women stops in front of the gates of the Palace of the Republic, afterward descending into a rock-throwing riot, in which the president’s daughter is hit. This episode is a reference to the history of anti-colonial struggle in Ghana and the leading role played by market women. In his Nkrumah and The Ghana Revolution, CLR James said of these women that each of them were worth more than a dozen graduates of Achimota in the struggle. In Diop’s novel, the father president, seized with fury, demands that the army avenge the affront. They fire on the crowd, killing more than 100 people. This is the beginning of a civil war. The grandfather Ngiraan takes inspiration from himself, from episodes of political commitment of his life, and from the youth in revolt.
In the political fiction of Ngiraan Fay, there is a certain Aatu Sekk, who curiously resembles his creator. Aatu Sekk’s dreams are the subject of a long narrative which appears to deride the speech of Boubacar Boris Diop himself, and which explains Diop’s imagination of a fictional character created by a fictional character: stunning! The life of Aatu Sekk is trying, without respite – he is caught in a civil war, cloistered in his house, surrounded by raging fights. Moreover, two little monkeys satiate their sadism on his person. The grandfather-writer is the most facetious: Aatu Sekk is the male; the she-monkey, the widow with the dissolute mores of his son; and the two little monkeys, the children of the latter. The monkeys torture him, tie him up, feast, watch TV and then torture him again. It is a nightmare, the ultimate nightmare: being tortured by vicious primates.
The character of Daawur Jaañ and his depiction as Dibi Dibi in the fiction of Ngiraan Fay has many traits in common with Abdoulaye Wade: he erects monuments, parades his knowledge on prime-time television, and displays self-adoration no matter who is watching. It comes to pass that the president, Daawur Jaañ, a character who provides comic relief in the novel, comes to Ñarelaa incognito at nightfall. He sneaks into the cabin of the fool, Aali Këboy, asks him advice and even drives him to his Palace where they share breakfast.
In the last part of the book, Aali Këboy takes over from Ngiraan Fay, since deceased. Aali Këboy is completely crazy at first – he terrorizes children and snatches the wraps off women from Ñarelaa. Then he metamorphoses, after having murdered a dog and seen himself violently corrected by the master of the animal, and ends by becoming a prophet who tells of deep truths. After Aali Këboy disappears then reappears, Ñarelaa holds him as a source of inspiration, a sage.
Ngiraan Fay writes to his grandson that he owes his knowledge to two men, Cheikh Anta Diop and Aali Këboy. A curious connection is forged between the scholar after whom a university is named and Aali Këboy, the fool of the neighbourhood. As a figure, the madman is the one who disturbs the status quo by saying what cannot or should not be spoken. In this respect, he is not unlike the revolutionary idealist, Thomas Sankara, who, channeling Lenin, believed “only truth is revolutionary”.
Just as the Great Gatsby is a great American novel, Doomi Golo is a great Senegalese novel. Arguably, it is the only one. Through the fate of the Fay family and the life of Ngiraan, Boubacar Boris Diop tells a counter-history of Senegal that pays tribute to those who have always refused the status quo.
This and other stories available in the new issue of the Chronic, “The Invention of Zimbabwe”, which writes Zimbabwe beyond white fears and the Africa-South conundrum.
The accompanying books magazine, XIBAARU TEERE YI (Chronic Books in Wolof) asks the urgent question: What can African Writers Learn from Cheikh Anta Diop?
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