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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Un aventurier qui gagne à être connu

by Muriel Steinmetz

“le Roi de Kahel” by Guinean Writer Monémenbo : An Adventurer Who Improves on Acquaintance

A humanist traveller’s African utopia before the colonial conquest

Translated Sunday 14 December 2008, by Isabelle Métral

A Fulani writer from Fouta Djalon (Guinea), Tierno Monémembo had a scientific education. In 1969 he opted for exile for his country was under the iron rule of Ahmed Sekou Touré whose political opponents were eliminated. "le Roi de Kahel" (“The King of Kahel”) relates in novel-form the true epic of Aimé Victor Olivier de Sanderval, the son and grand-son of engineers in the metropolis of Lyon (France). This inventor was over forty when he decided, in the very middle of the nineteenth century, to go and carve out an empire for himself in Africa with a view to building a railway, the new track along which modern civilization must be founded.

Sanderval was a man in whom fancy was no enemy to “the use of science and the passion for industry”. A traveller “who loved maps and prints”, he took Plutarch, Bossuet, La Bruyère away with him in his luggage. Africa to him was “a new challenge after the wheel and the steam engine!” His firm intention was to make of Africa “the new Thebes, the new Athens, the new Rome and the new Florence all together”.

Once in the field, at about the time when Rimbaud himself settled in Harare, he had to confess that the immense continent was far from being virgin land. He discovered a kingdom whose structure was complex, with a subtle theocracy ruled by well-read marabouts, a feudal organization around two kings that ruled alternately. He also became acquainted with Fulanis, crafty, distrustful, wily, treacherous and sly fellows, to whom “being candid was a lack of subtlety and looking someone in the face an unforgivable mark of grossness”. Tierno Monémembo cultivates self-derision, and unhesitatingly teases his own people, as if he himself came from the stricter ethnic group, close kin to the Fulanis, who “have a right to insult them in the name of their kin’s ancestral customary banter.

The power of the novel lies entirely in the resurrection of a bygone age brought back to life through a rich mass of plausible detail and a stunning sense of verisimilitude. Another strong point is the judicious and sustained parallel between two continents and two societies that are poles apart: an African kingdom in the middle of nowhere and the muffled atmosphere of French embassies. Written in a language that is distinctly classical, spiced with Fulani words in italics in the body of the text (with the corresponding foot-notes), le Roi de Sahel makes a brilliant and delicate use of dialogue, so much so that the intonations of each character’s voice almost seem to strike the reader’s ear - dialogue embedded in a narrative that often vibrates with epic resonance.

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