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What a year for the African novel!



Recently I was struck by a comment made by a Nigerian scholar of African literature (I forget which one, and readers be warned, a good deal of this column is being written in the absence of my academic notes, which are stacked away in huge cartons as I finalise a move of accommodation). The Nigerian scholar said words to the effect: “when the continent fails to fully industrialize or technologise, and when the extractive minerals run out and can no longer be exploited, it may well be that the only thing Africa has to sell will be culture.” This year looks pretty hopeful in that respect, with a string of major prizes going to African novelists. The first African writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature was Nigerian Wole Soyinka in 1986. He was followed by Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt) and Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee (both South Africa). This year the prize has gone to Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah. Now, bearing in mind what I said above about the inaccessibility of my notes and (I might now add) my still vigorous but increasingly erratic memory, I’m not going to be able to tell you anything about Gurnah, but I’m sure you can find out lots on the internet. I read his first novel, Paradise, when it came out and thought it wonderful, but can remember nothing about it except the title. Still, hearty congrats to Gurnah! The Nobel Prize is awarded for a body of work, and so, too, is the US-based Neustadt International Prize for literature. Another of the world’s prestigious prizes, the Neustadt this year has gone to Senegalese novelist Boubacar Boris Diop. About Diop I can tell you a little more than about Gurnah. He is the author of six novels written in French and one in Wolof. His best-know work is Murambi: The Book of Bones, about the Rwandan genocide. But notable also is his first novel, which I remember reviewing when it appeared. This was The Time of Tamango, a savage, part-absurdist satire on African dictatorship; the original French edition included a Preface by that scourge of the Camerounian dictatorship, Mongo Beti. And then there is another Senegalese novelist, David Diop, the English translation of whose second novel, At Night All Blood Is Black has just won the major UK prize for literature, the international Booker, which is awarded each year to a novel originally written in a foreign language but now in English translation (the original French edition of the novel was titled Frere d’Ame or Soul-Mate; the translator, Anna Moschovakis, took At Night from a line in the novel, and it certainly has a ring to it! David Diop, the author of At Night, was born in Paris and brought up in Senegal; currently he is Professor of eighteenth-century literature at the University of Pau, France. So we are talking about a spectacularly high achiever, and (now) one of the most notable Afropolitan writers. Please, readers, do not confuse him with another David Diop, whom I mentioned in this column some weeks ago; more recently my fellow columnist at thepost, Memory Chirere, quoted Diop’s “Africa, My Africa” as being one of his favourite poems. The earlier David Diop was of Camerounian and Senegalese background and was one of the major Negritude poets. He published just one superb collection of poems, in English translation Hammer Blows, before his death at a young age in a plane crash. To return to the contemporary David Diop, within just three years of its publication his second novel, At Night All Blood is Black, has already been translated into thirteen languages and it has won nearly a dozen prizes in Europe and the USA, of which the international Booker is perhaps the most prestigious. My job now (mostly next week and perhaps the following week) is to review the novel, to try to show you what all the fuss is about. At Night begins with its main character, Alfa Ndiaye, as narrator, speaking of his family: “They won’t imagine what I’ve thought, what I’ve done, the depths to which the war drove me.” The war in question is the First World War of 1914-18, one of the biggest killing fields the world has ever known. As is now well recognised, this was a war in which millions of lives were lost, not in the interests of national sovereignty (the UK and France versus Germany) as much as in the interest of profit-making by arms manufacturers and, more generally, to further the interests of international capitalism. Alfa’s crisis starts with the death (his bowels blown open) of Mademba Diop, Alfa’s childhood friend, his “more-than-brother”. With his guts spilling out, Mademba begs Alfa with his eyes to finish him off, and Alfa tells us “God’s truth, if I’d already become then what I am now, I would have slaughtered him like a sacrificial sheep, out of friendship.” And this leads us to a comment in the blurb to the novel: At Night is “a hypnotic, heart-breaking rendering of a mind hurtling toward madness”. David Diop  

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