ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Tierno Monémembo sur les traces d’un apôtre de l’absolu
by Muriel Steinmetz
Translated Sunday 14 December 2008, by
Tierno Monémembo lives in the French city of Caen. The award he has won is proof of the great public favour which African-French literature has won, since as recently as 2006, the same Renaudot prize went to a novel by Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou entitled "Mémoires de porc-épic" (A Porcupine’s Memories).
Through the singular figure of Aimé Victor Olivier de Sanderval, who arrived in Guinea before the colonialists, and developed an insider’s knowledge of the Faluni society, the author recreates that part of pre-colonial Africa.
HUMA: What can it mean when you are an African - a Fulani in your case – to write the epic of a white man, a colonialist?
MONÉMEMBO: It means looking at the other from the other’s viewpoint. Evoking this character, who has really existed, enables me to look differently on my own group of ancestors in the nineteenth century, from his own viewpoint. Aimé Victor Olivier de Sanderval met my ancestors: he went off to my country in particular circumstances. His approach to Africa is markedly different from that of other Europeans, for they came as conquerors. Aimé Victor Olivier de Sanderval did not view this country merely from the outside. There was something of an insider’s approach about his attitude, which almost made a Fulani of him, one of us. So it is possible to see that society from all sides, from outside, as well as from inside.
HUMA: Why did you select such an original, idiosyncratic character instead of writing about colonialism and its military force. This novel could have been written by a Frenchman!
MONÉMEMBO: A Frenchman would never have written about Aimé Victor Olivier de Sanderval, first because he is very little known in this country. Aimé Victor Olivier de Sanderval won’t fit in the classical colonial system. He arrived in Africa before the colonialists. He arrived without an army, with no desire to earn stripes. He just wanted to bring to life a little utopia. Reading his archives I was literally under a charm. I had no choice. I did not write this book: he did.
HUMA: Didn’t this somewhat eccentric observer look on blacks in the same way as his fellow-contemporaries, with a racist bias?
MONÉMEMBO: He was a white man and lived in the nineteenth century when racism was considered as a natural philosophy. This man’s originality consisted in saying that the whites’ superiority was only temporary, that decadence was a short way ahead of them. Aimé Victor Olivier was an evolutionist. Evolution was his century’s creed. He made an excessive use of it. That notion of evolution prevailed in all fields, climate included. He for one believed that a new ice age would come over Europe. And he acted accordingly.
HUMA: There was a mystic touch about him too!
MONÉNEMBO: To be sure, but his brand of mysticism was tempered with rationalism. Reading his notebooks, I realized he had no specific religious feeling whatsoever. He mostly believed in some form of absolute - whether it was a physics formula, or a God, or a Devil, or a simple sorcerer, he did not know exactly. In Marseille he created a clan called the Apostles of the Absolute, for the purpose of proving God’s existence conclusively by some sort of algebra.
HUMA: What were your sources for this book?
MONÉMEMBO: A Guinean historian suggested I write a novel about this man, whom he thought would make a perfect character for a novel. Sanderval’s name is still known in Guinea, but not the episodes in his life, or very little about them. Olivier de Sanderval had several lives. He had a great scientific career and his political destiny might have made him play a role on the political scene nationally, or even beyond. His dream-like African adventure came late in his life since he was already forty, and so, by his fellow-contemporaries’ standards at least, on the verge of old age. Before that he’d set up factories in Europe, invented the bicycle wheel, and set up a cycle factory. My intention was not to write a biography. I used his traveller’s notebooks as a material, much as a sculptor carves a face out of wood.
HUMA: Was not the recreation of pre-colonial Africa part of the pleasure in writing the novel?
MONÉMEMBO: The idea was not to go back to the sources but to show what Africa used to be like, something about which people today know very little.