If these, Philombe is not at all well known in South Africa, though he was an extremely gifted and versatile writer.
A courageous man, he published prolifically over a period of three decades, despite being stricken with polio, and despite regular police harassment due to his opposition to the oppressive Cameroonian government.
Among his writings are poetry collections, notably the prison sequence Choc anti-choc (Shock Anti-Shock), novels and short stories, including the delightful and audacious Histoires queue-de-chat (Cock-and-Bull Stories, though the title is cheekily ironic) and an ambitious and trenchant play on dictatorship, Africapolis.
The fact that Philombe’s writing is so little known to English-speaking readers points once again to the gulf that lies between the literary worlds of ‘Francophone’ and ‘Anglophone’ Africa. Very little of the continent’s literature crosses national, regional and language boundaries. For English speakers this used to be less so, when the Heinemann African Writers Series was in its heyday and pumped out translations of work from the French, Portuguese and Arabic. Now — largely for economic reasons — fewer translations appear.
In some cases, efforts to bridge the language divide could be made, but are not. Whatever
the merits of the Caine prize for African writing, the rules state that “for practical reasons” works in languages other than English are not eligible (stories already translated pass muster). But are the impracticalities here really that great? By contrast, of the 40 tales collected in Stephen Gray’s Picador Book of African Stories half are translations, many of these newly commissioned — a tribute to the flair and will power of the book’s editor.
Of course this situation isn’t peculiar to Africa. In the United Kingdom, for example, how much contemporary fiction and poetry is available in translation from the Norwegian, Hungarian, Greek or Dutch? But in Africa, where internal divisions are so damaging, where rivalries persist as poisonous hangovers from the colonial period, the problem appears especially severe.
I’m not touching here on the topic of literacy — this opens up a whole new dimension to the question of deprivation. Though as Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa’ Thiongo once proved, the non-literate
can enjoy novels once they are embraced as listeners. Then there are bottom-line questions having to do with the fragile economics of publishing in Africa.
Finally, playing devil’s advocate, I focus on languages of European origin. Once you start looking at the restricted transmittability of work in Yoruba, say, Wolof, Setswana or Ngugi’s chosen language, Gikuyu, the tragic fact appears more glaring still: Africa is a continent debarred, again and again, from talking to itself.