A short story by Yambo Ouologuem adapted from the French by Dominique Malaquais and Ntone Edjabe.
On Yambo Ouologuem
There are many texts of Yambo Ouologuem’s we could have chosen for this issue of Chimurenga. The man’s our kind of man: rude and lewd and very, very sharp on just those issues this crew holds dear. Greed, colonialism and neo-colonialism, invented Africas, cops, chiefs, windbags and bags of loot, anthropologists, (f)art historians, robed hawkers hawking heaven on a cross, a crescent, a star or bullet-made-water, white racists, black racists, non-racialists (one of his books is dedicated to “the victims of anti-racism everywhere”), presidents, bombs, sexbombs. Ouologuem touches on them all. And blows them all sky high.
The text we choose is just plain weird. Porn snuff (it’s a lion gets snuffed, mid-come) and definitely not the man’s best work. So why?
A little background. ln 1968, at the age of 28, a Malian by the name of Yambo Amadou Ouologuem publishes his first novel, Le devoir de violence (Bound to Violence, as translated by Ralph Mannheim in 1971). Simply put, the book is a blasting zone. Lt tells the story of a fictional West African kingdom named Nakem-Zuiko, from its Medieval beginnings to “independence.” From this account, no one – not a single character, not the reader, not even the writer – emerges unscathed. Everyone comes out covered in shit, of the most pungent kind.
It’s one hell of a book, this Devoir.
’68 was the year of all years in Paris. ln the far French North, wildcat strikes were shutting down factories left and right, sending shock waves through the establishment. By the time the waves made their way to the capital, the workers had been teargassed and jailed, their movement clamped, locked, shut down and buried. It was ripe for appropriation by the intellectual left. And so came “Mai ’68”: teach-ins, cobble-stones flying, De Gaulle fleeing (again).
ln the halls of academe, that year, they loved Ouologuem. No, let us be fair: they loved themselves for loving an African writer. Le devoir was awarded the prestigious Prix Renaudot (one step further and they build monuments for you).
Whereupon shit hit the fan. lots of it.
African scholars of Négritude allegiance abhorred the book: the image it presented of the continent’s past was an affront, they chimed, a crime perpetrated against the redemptive grace of a Senghor, a Césaire, an Achebe even. Afrocentrists in New York were incensed, not least because the picture of Islam painted by Ouologuem (along with that of Christianity, Judaism and a long list of local religions) was a good deal less than flattering; Cheikh Anta Diop came in for a beating too, which didn’t help. Ouologuem’s refusal to let anyone escape his novel shit-free prompted critiques – some agonized, many thoughtful, others simply silly – from the proudest names in African literature. Soyinka admired the book but shivered at ”the intensity of contempt for the victims” portrayed. Négraille, Ouologuem calls these victims – “nigger-trash” – a term staunchly opposed by Mbelokoya Mpiku. Tunde Fatude solved the matter by accusing Ouologuem of collusion with the ruling classes … The book’s image of women – sold, raped, butt-fucked, eviscerated – pissed off feminist critics. A homosexual relationship involving one of the main characters caused an uproar in African circles phobic to such things.
The nail in the coffin was the discovery of passages allegedly purloined from the greats of “white” literature- Graham Greene and André Schwartz-Bart, to name but two. ln all likelihood, plagiarism was not at issue – the book was miserably edited by the folks at Seuil, the grand publishing house that issued le devoir, whole sentences (some of them references to other books, other authors) removed without Ouologuem’s consent. Still, it didn’t help when an essay turned up, published the same year, in which Ouologuem advocated plagiarism as a form of political resistance … Postmodern critiques of the novel – some more elegant than others – give Ouologuem considerable credit for his use (or mis-use) of the colonizer’s texts, for turning la littérature against itself, cannibalizing the cannibals; others reject such praise, seeing in it an implicit acceptance of the plagiarism charges and, so, an attack on Ouologuem’s character.
At Seuil, they just went berserk. The book was pulled off every bookstore shelf, never to be reprinted. Effectively, it was banned. Ouologuem briefly defended himself, then told them all to go to hell. Eventually, he left for Africa, turning his back once and for all on Europe, the States (where he lived a while) and, ultimately, literature in any European language.
He did offer one parting shot: a book of pornographic short stories penned under the pseudonym Utto Rodolph (a nasty little pun on the name of German theologian Otto Rudolph). The book is called Les mille et une bibles du sexe (“The 1001 Bibles of Sex”). It was never translated. The story we publish comes from this tome.
Les mille et une bibles is not a good book – whatever that means. What it is, is a kick in the teeth of “proper”, “serious”, “prize-winning” literature. The story we publish is something else as well – several things, in fact. It is a savage indictment of European fantasies about Africa and an equally savage indictment of “enlightened” critiques discarding these fantasies. It is so fabulously politically incorrect the jaw drops. Grad students playing with Said, Clifford and Babba: read this. Animal rights activists: please, please read this.
And then there’s the issue of translation. Gallons of ink have been spilled on the problématique of translating Ouologuem what do you do with the purloined or maybe-they-weren’t purloined passages? How do you deal with the wild ‘n woolly things the guy does to the French language – I mean, really strange stuff? Do you deal? Can you? We decided to throw an extra wrench into the works: what follows is an adaptation, not a translation. Close – often very close – but not quite the cigar. Rhythms, flows, words lobbed and arced: here, we’ve cleaved to the text, as close and lovingly as translation allows. Here and there, we’ve cut a line, two or three – for ease of understanding; these stories follow one another and some bridges, out of context, make little sense. More than a few times, we’ve refused to use the “right” word – the one a dictionary would have us use – because, we felt, there was another word – nastier or saltier or tastier, one Ouologuem would have picked had he been writing in English. Of course, we could be wrong. Then again, we’re not much interested in being “right”.
Read on, you might like it. Worry if you do.
Yambo Ouologuem, Le devoir de violence. 1968.
Yambo Ouologuem. Bound to Violence. Trans. Ralph Mannheim. 1971.
Yambo Ouologuem. Lettre à la France nègre. 1968.
Yambo Ouologuem. Les mille et une bibles du sexe. 1969.
Christopher Wise, ed. Yambo Ouologuem: Postcolonial Writer, Islamic Militant. 1999.
Christopher Miller. Blank Darkness: Africanist Discourse in French. 1985.
Christopher Miller. Theories of Africans: Francophone Literature and Anthropology ln Africa. 1990.
OUT OF SIGHT
The dawn of time! It was all around them … Here, amidst the exotica of crowds milling about in babouches, in shoes worn with age, going barefoot, arms bare, legs bare; there, among market folk squatting, exhibiting their wares … : embroiderers, tailors, jewellers, saddlers, beggars in rags, merchants and their wives, swathed in crimson robes; before they had landed, even, as the plane approached Roberts Airfield: the disconnect of it! Time travel, as, from above, through copper clouds streaked brilliant blue, the land appeared, naked, quivering in the aftermath of a desert wind … Ah, but it was no secret to them: they were experiencing Africa, faster and faster with every beat.
For these reasons, and others too, the place had taken hold of them. There was neither unease nor fear; just freedom, the complete freedom of people passing through. After the heat and humidity of Côte d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone came the Guinea Coast and Liberia … There, they heard the ocean roaring, witnessed tornados uprooting coconut trees, children struck by lightning on Sinkor Street, in the very heart of Monrovia … The dry season, all fire and dust, had lasted six months. Now the monsoon was upon them, with its nights of apocalypse … Still, dotted with palms, the beaches went on forever, the Atlantic lapping at their shores, sharks patrolling, an undertow pulling at the sand, waves crowned with foam moving in by night, sweeping the unwary out to sea.
The landscape was all baroque luxury, all flounce of exuberant cochineals, bougainvillea, hibiscus, amaryllis-stained vermilion red, orchids in odd shapes and devilish hues …
Pineapples, oranges, grapefruit, lemons, coconuts fresh off the tree and cured as copra, sweet mangos, melt-in-the-mouth papayas, soursop hairy and bumpy, sweet and sour, kakis and gourd-shaped jackfruit … All of these they sampled as, walking about, they came upon magnificent trees: rubber trees, persimmon trees, ebony, raffia palm, clusters of towering bamboo, the baobab and its sourish fruit – monkeybread, they call it.
John owned vast cacao and coffee plantations in Vai country, North of Monrovia. His cousin Willy worked for President Tubman, whom some adored and others hated with a passion. But what of his friend Samuel? Was he a businessman? It was rumored that he had invested heavily in diamond and pyrite mines, in copper, iron ore and gold. But of these matters little was said. Quartz, tourmaline, rubies – even these were off limits; one did not speak of such things, the white folks knew, lest, summoned by the powers that be, one finds oneself at army headquarters, answering questions put with little restraint.
It wasn’t the Nazis – one a doctor without a degree who performed surgery under the influence, another the owner of an air-taxi concern, an apoplectic creature whose evenings were spent, whisky in hand, listening to choirs of Hitler Youth – whom Emmanuelle, Régis, Harry and Vive found the most disconcerting. It wasn’t even the French doctor, barred from practicing medicine back home, whose ill-administered Polio vaccines had left local children paralyzed from the waist down. No. What most put them off was the atmosphere of the place, this land of manumitted slaves, where white men married black women to maximize their profits, fathered children to gain rights the law would otherwise deny them, then, once they’d made enough money, left on vacations from which they never returned, abandoning wives and offspring. That and the racism, the unbearable Black-on-Black racism …
To wit that day in Monrovia. Régis and Vive were visiting the city. ln the marketplace, their boy struck up a conversation with another boy. No sooner had a few words been exchanged that both servants turned away. Why the cold shoulder, Vive enquired? “Oh! That wasn’t nothin: Missus,” the boy answered; “I just wanted to see if he’s Bassa, like me; he’s not, so I got nothin to say to him. He’s an idiot.” And so, it went with all the tribes – Bassa, Kru, Mandigo, Bulom, Gora …
Among the whites, things were different. Watchmakers, restaurateurs, pharmacists, travel agencies, foreign companies- Nestle, Coca Cola; American execs, in droves; folks skilled and unskilled: all were welcomed into the ranks of the white colony – all but the Lebanese merchants, of course.
After a week, Régis, Vive, Emmanuelle and Harry decided it was time to move on. On the eve of their departure, they were invited to the home of an Irishman. The gentleman saw to the President’s personal zoo. Of the twenty-seven varieties of snakes he kept, the deadliest were the cobras, cassava snakes and mambas. He was the proud owner of the world’s largest scorpion, twelve inches long. which he displayed in a glass case alongside other outsized insects – wasps and praying mantises.
The guests were scantily clad, but nothing came of it.
The evening was pleasant enough – but no more. Caviar was served (of the molosso! variety) and Slivovitz vodka, brought by two of the guests, a German woman and her Yugoslav companion, whom the Irishman had invited along with a pair of Peruvian sea captains, a Greek architect and the local Swiss Air rep. Today was the day, the four travellers learned, when girls of the Vai ethnic group, blood caking their thighs in celebration of the ancestors, had their clitoris removed.
Mid-way through the meal, two guests – African Americans – got up; they needed to turn in early, they explained, donning pith helmets: tomorrow was the Lord’s Day. And a many splendored thing it was, this day, in a country so small, with its Catholic churches and its Protestant churches, its Lutheran, Baptist and Anabaptist services topped off. for locals, by a visit to the sorcerer. An uncomfortable silence followed the departure of the Americans and the party broke up.
* * *
Lovers of sex and all things sexy, Régis, Harry, Vive and Emmanuelle decided a safari was in order. Chad and Kenya would be their destinations. The hunters you encountered there – hunters of pictures and big game both – came from all walks of life; there were fashion designers and filmmakers, painters, politicians and financiers, professional people, photographers and connoisseurs of the female form.
Such things Régis and his friends discovered! Bare-breasted women ambling about unabashed, in their walk the slightest hint of a tease, hips sheathed in gold-trimmed cloth, buttocks round and lower backs arched just so, tight curls about the twat, electric to the touch … And breasts, those breasts, heavy under the heavy sun – sensuality born as if of the climate, flooding bodies and skies beyond. Sex, here, was the stuff of bullfights …
When, before thousands of eyes, the toreador puts the bull to death, every sense is awakened in those looking on.
And so, it was here. It wasn’t life-altering so much as freeing: one could live out one’s fantasies in this place, one’s dreams of adventure and domination. It was bullfighting gone tropical, exotic and spiked with the prospect of first blood drawn …
And a safari was other things too … There was the bone tingling pleasure of doing nothing in particular, the sex-appeal of it all, so like the courtly love of a Medieval hunt. the women among them, so very present and desirable.
After the hardships of the day came nights of pleasure: in Chad, at Fort-Lamy, on the banks of the Chari River: bosoms round, buttocks proud and for the taking, air-conditioned rooms and plush baths, restaurants and bars; in N’Gaoundéré; on a ranch in N’Gaoundaba; beneath the Tello Falls; at a game park in the Benue foothills, where they came upon lions and giraffes, elephants, buffalo and hippopotamus. Or in Kenya, yet, where Régis and his friends stayed the longest, in four-star comfort a stone’s throw from barbary barely contained. How could one fail to find inspiration in the mythos of places so foreign and far removed? Artful gestures and fine intentions, subtle come-ons and coitus – the moment of truth: such is the stuff of sex. Still, our spirit, ever in quest of things new, seeks more …
And so it came to pass, one lovely Kenyan afternoon. The, night before had been spent sampling bodies – men’s and women’s, many and sundry – in a crowd of Belgians and Germans, Danes and Swedes, Americans and Italians.
Sitting on a beach, resting after the night’s amusements, Vive had a thought: they should visit a game park, make it a foursome; well, five, really – with the guide. Provided certain limits were set …
. . . Or not. After all, where’s the fun in limits?
They set about finding a guide.
By mid-afternoon, they’d located one and rented a jeep. They agreed to leave the next day at dawn.
They met up with the guide in a town called N… , behind a cluster of luxury villas masquerading as grass huts. From there, they drove for hours, through the sun-drenched savanna. Lunchtime brought an excellent picnic, followed by a siesta. Around 4:00, once the sun had gone down a bit, they started up again.
Thirty kilometres on, they came to a fork in the road.
And on they went. drinking in the land, the grasses, the many species of birds about them. They had entered the park from one end and planned to exit at the other, making their way toward the ocean and, from there, back to their hotel.
This was the life! Not a care in the world …
The guide spoke a few words of French, but not enough to follow their conversation. Civilized by the Brits and a gentleman to boot, he paid no heed as their talk grew lewd.
An hour later, they came upon a pleasant spot and decided to stop. The guide – Ali was his name – lifted the bonnet to let the jeep’s motor cool.
The women ran ahead, disappearing behind a cluster of bushes, out of Ali’s sight, or perhaps not – what did it matter, really? Régis made for Vive, lowered her to the ground; a little way away, at the foot of a shade tree, Harry saw to Emmanuelle. The two couples could not see each other, but, in the afternoon’s silence, you could hear everything …
Suddenly, off to the left, a growl: a lion, its pupils slashed as if by a streak of lightning.
The beast stood before one of the couples. Dumbstruck, they looked about, first at the bushes surrounding them – gorse, brambles and wild henna – then at the lion itself. Jagged teeth stood out against a gaping maw and red tongue, as the wind – or was it anger? – ruffled the creature’s mane, carrying its strong scent.
Why pretend? They were scared to death. Vive was the first to move. Régis hesitated. Neither Harry nor Ali was in sight. The lovers stood up. The lion pounced.
Making a run for it was out of the question. But why weren’t the others doing anything? Emmanuelle and Harry were just thirty meters away, frozen. ln their eyes, complete helplessness.
Ali had been adamant: no weapons! What would they do if … ?
Suddenly, Régis seemed to see a way out. He didn’t dare look the lion in the eyes – not yet … Slowly, he sat down, beckoning Vive to join him. The others watched, brandishing sticks, unsure of their next move.
Régis leans forward in the high grass, puts the weight of his body on one hand, then the other. Now on all fours, he takes a few steps toward the lion. He stares at the lion, into its glassy pupils. “Do as I’m doing,” he whispers to Vive. Nearby, the guide is crouching, coaching, telling Régis what to do.
Slowly, Ali begins to disrobe. He has taken position to the left, downwind of the lion. He whispers to the others. Tells them to keep quiet. quiet no matter what. The black man is naked now, but for a cotton loincloth secured with a string. He casts about for something – in the bushes, a dump of moss, a duster of mushrooms.
Why is the guide growling? The lion hears him and turns. Slowly, Ali gestures to the two couples; they move toward him, downwind of the beast.
The lion can still see them, but seems less agitated: the smell of them is no longer as strong; the scent of sperm, slick and thick on Vive and Régis, has subsided.
Then the guide disappears.
Vive moves. The lion growls. Tail whipping, it slashes at insects overhead; with its left foreleg it paws the air.
Suddenly, it dawns on Régis: the lion is in heat. More – it knows the humans around it are naked and that they have been making love.
Régis lowers Vive to the ground, head facing the lion’s maw, mere meters away. One more pounce and they’ll both be crushed …
Régis stares down the lion, biting his lip – hard – to control his fear. The lion settles on its haunches, mane fluttering and chest a-quiver.
Régis lifts Vive’s thigh. Gently, he rotates her other leg, straddling her. He looks at the lion. The creature drools, growling softly. Its tail folds under, between its hind legs; slowly, rhythmically, the tuft at the tip of the tail begins beating against the lion’s phallus.
The phallus comes out of its sheath. The beast slinks forward. Régis lowers Vive’s legs. The lion stops.
The man murmurs something.
Harry takes over. He stares at the lion, unflinching. The lion blinks, takes a few steps back, then begins to turn on itself, twisting to look at its genitalia, its testicles, each the diameter of a grown man’s calf. The tip of the tail whips the tip of the phallus. The creature stops, roars. ls it about to attack?
The lion looks at them, undecided. Vive and Régis, Emmanuelle and Harry form two distinct groups, each poised in mid-coitus. Eight pupils stare down the lion, each seeing what the lion cannot see: Ali, naked, creeping up on the beast from behind. ln one hand, the guide grasps a gourd brimming with honey; in the other, he holds a V-shaped branch. To this, he has tied bundles of grass and, to these, flowers, their stems still oozing sap.
The black man approaches the lion. He extends an arm. The grass-tipped branch strokes the lion’s haunches. The lion turns. Ali turns with it. One arm of the V toys with the lion’s anus. Ali sets down the gourd. It lies on its side, honey spilling from its mouth. The man squats, uproots a weed, ties one end around the neck of the gourd, the other to his ankle.
ln his other hand, the guide holds the branch. Gently, he pushes it forward, then rotates it. The tufts of grass at its tip stroke the lion’s penis and the edges of its anus. The lion tenses. Ali takes a step. The gourd follows, spilling honey. Another rotation of the branch. The lion stands still, panting.
Ali takes another step. Again, the gourd follows. The guide gestures to his charges; in silence, he explains: among the flowers and grasses tied to the branch are plants that will put the lion to sleep. As the lion looks on, the two couples swap partners. The beast moans.
Ali creeps closer, stroking. stroking. He is within arm’s length of the lion.
Without missing a beat, the man replaces the branch and its gentle grasses with the warmth of his hand, wet with saliva.
At first, the hand flits about the lion’s genitalia. Then its strokes grow stronger. Ali grabs the lion’s balls. He begins to jack the beast off, gently, then faster and faster.
Ali has planted the branch in the ground, at an angle, under the lion’s body. The tufts of grass tied to its tip tickle the beast’s snout. They are meant to lull the lion to sleep, but the lion will have none of it. Exasperated, the guide works his hand harder still, willing the creature to climax.
The roar, when it came, was so loud they all jumped. The jizzm sprayed the grass all around, thick and yellow and abundant like an ostrich’s egg yolk. The lion shook its mane and clawed the air, sending the branch and its grasses flying.
As it landed, the branch thumped, drawing Ali’s attention to the gourd …
For a while now, the honey had been attracting wasps, bees and butterflies. Its mouth was abuzz with insects – a veritable hive.
With a scrap of cloth, Ali plugged the gourd.
Eyes glazed, the lion was lying on its side, panting, moaning. It was a mere moment’s weakness; any second now, the beast would regain its senses and lunge. There was no time to lose …
The plan had been to incapacitate the lion – by means of orgasm or sleep, whichever came first. The plan had failed.
The grasses were scattered to the winds and now, it seemed, having come, the lion wanted to come again. It had all been for naught. Ali was down to his last option: if they were going to get out alive, the lion would have to die. The guide lowered himself to the ground. Deftly, he scratched the soil, then closed his fist. ln his hand, he now held a small clump of earth, which he broke in half, shaped into two little balls and wet with saliva.
Then he leapt forward – a prodigious leap that put him right next to the lion.
As his feet touched the ground, he found the lion’s flared nostrils. ln each, he stuffed one of the little balls he had fashioned. The beast roared and bared its claws. First feinting, then twisting and with all his might, Ali projected the gourd into the creature’s wide-open maw.
The lion slashed at the air. Ali fell to the ground, hands cupping the base of his skull, barely escaping the creature’s wrath.
The lion was choking … Its head and mane tossed about wildly. It all came down to one thing: no matter what, the lion had to be kept from spitting out the gourd.
“Run!” the guide screamed.
He was on the ground, steps from the lion. Arching his back, his face twisted in fear, he shot his legs forward and up. He felt his heels meeting the lower half of the lion’s jaw. Bracing himself against the earth, elbows digging deep into the soil, frantically, he pushed. After a while, he rolled over, anger and savage pleasure mingling within him: the gourd had shattered in the lion’s gullet; he had heard it, hard and sharp.
Ali stood. Taking his time, enjoying the moment, he walked a few meters, picked up a comb Emmanuelle had left behind. He found Vive’s pocketbook, opened it and fished out a cigarette. With one hand, he lit the cigarette; with the other, he fondled his prick.
Absently, enjoying the feel of his hand on his dick, the man watched the lion go crazy, contorted in pain, foaming at the mouth, flinging itself in the air only to crash down. frenzied, pathetic, onto its twisted back, ripping its tongue to bloody shreds as, in vain, it clawed at its mane and the bees trapped in its throat, laying its tonsils bare in a froth of blood and foam.
This piece features in Chimurenga Magazine 04: Black Gays & Mugabes (May 2003). To purchase in print, or as a PDF, head to our online shop.