Poets with history

Scholar Achille Mbembe, writing on post-colonial politics, noted how critical the mouth and the penis are, indeed the body as a whole, in the celebration and depiction of power.

The Blind Kingdom (Ayebia Clarke Publishing), a post-colonial narrative by poet, academic and painter Veronique Tadjo, accordingly kicks off in earnest with a lavish wedding party thrown by King Ato IV. Set before the invited elite are “dishes emitting irresistible aromas” and “fine wines, imported from the most famous cellars in the world”.

The king issues an order, “may the festivities begin”, a command that results in celebrations that go on for hours. The absurdity of it all is that the servants who serve the elite are not allowed a bite. “They waited for the dirty plates and leftovers. As soon as they had the chance, they licked up the sauces, cracked meat bones, ate the marrow —” The contrast is striking, how excess and opulence never seem to mind scabrous poverty.

The Blind Kingdom is about Ato IV, “from the other side of the mountains”, who takes over a neighbouring empire. Ato’s kingdom is symbolised by the bat: “A bat was carved on the throne and the royal sceptre because the bat inhabits the night and masters the sky despite blind eyes.”

Originally published in French in 1990, The Blind Kingdom is a short (at 90-odd pages), beautiful and evocative work. Although probably inspired by the decaying Felix Houphouet-Boigny regime in Tadjo’s native Ivory Coast, it resonates beyond the text, especially in light of the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the human catastrophe in Zimbabwe and the total collapse of Somalia.

The cities are in a state of devastation and neglect. The police run riot, “bludgeoning” the city’s inhabitants as polluted air hangs heavy in the sky; the indigenous people’s culture has been trampled upon, its “treasures — broken, plundered, thrown away”.

Enter Karim, the king’s secretary. He is a “handsome and lithe man” who falls in love with Akissi, the daughter of the king. Karim and other like-minded people meet in the anonymity of the night to discuss what they should do “to shatter the crown”. They are those who want to “burn this wretched city” but Karim wants to make the long- oppressed and impatient people see that the goal “is not to kill, but to create.”

Tadjo’s book examines the nature of power; how it seems to be obsessed especially with the past and the present. This is true both for the rulers and the ruled. “The praises [for the king] increased, glorifying the present and abolishing the future.” Similarly the ruled want to throw off the yoke of the oppressor, immediately. “Hurry up, because our patience is running out. It’s today and not tomorrow that we want to live,” they tell Karim.

The Blind Kingdom is bedecked with philosophical gems on many things, including the nature of power (either the kingdom regenerates itself or it dies); on exile (“It’s not by fleeing your country that you will understand things better.”); on patriotism (“The love I feel for my country is not enough to excuse my faults. I will always blame myself for having not revolted earlier —”). There is a take on female sexuality that may make some people flinch (“My daughter, your body is made to carry children.”).

Poet, author and activist, Sindiwe Magona’s Beauty’s Gift (Kwela Books) may not readily agree with such a statement. Set in Cape Town in 2002, it is about five middle-class friends: Edith, Cordelia, Amanda, Beauty and Doris. The narrator collectively calls them FFF, short for the five firm friends. They represent women who live mostly under the yoke of an oppressive patriarchy. Edith, for instance, can wear only skirts and dresses because “her husband does not allow her to wear pants” as “this would offend his parents”.

One of the friends, Beauty, is gravely ill, dying of Aids. She tells her friends: “Ukhule!” (grow and age gracefully). This injunction results in an unforeseen stampede. Amanda refuses to sleep with Zakes, her husband of many years, unless they go for an HIV test. The other friends also suddenly become defiant.

Magona’s is an exacting account of women under an oppressive tradition that keeps women in servitude. Not even the throwaway question: “What do you think the black man’s penis is?”—and its devastatingly accurate riposte: “I’ll tell you what it is. It is a deadly weapon”—captures the devastatingly destructive male footprint in the narrative.

At a funeral of an Aids victim (there are several of these), a retired teacher stands up to give a speech. “How is it that we let our government, our government, get away with mass murder? A genocide of the poor? Why are we allowing the government to squander the resources of our country on arms when the real war facing us demands antiretrovirals?”

Although decrying patriarchy, Edith says that “the identity of many a woman is so tied up with her husband’s, she wouldn’t know who she was without him”. Yet another time she says men should be reminded of their responsibilities. “We must rekindle what has been extinguished by the cruel fires of history — These men are our sons — We can’t just give up on them.”

These and other instances of dialogue reminded me of what one critic says is wrong with most novels: sometimes one feels that the novelist is a dictator, that the characters are merely extensions of the author. Although the characters may have names, they don’t feel like real people one expects to bump into on the street.

Magona’s book recalls the debate kicked off by the essay written by Russian poet, Marina Tsvetaeva, titled Poets with History and Poets without History. It is a theme much written about in literary studies, in which French philosopher, Roland Barthes, wrote: “Poets with history are — poets of a theme.” The readers “always know what they are writing about — Rarely are they pure lyricists — Poets with history are, above all, poets of will.”

Beauty’s Gift shows Magona’s will, her passionate concern and her righteous fury at the ravages that Aids has brought upon the communities she writes about. No less real is Tadjo’s passion for her subject. Both writers could loosely be described as poets with history.

Yet Tadjo’s is the triumphant narrative, one that goes beyond the constraints of a particular locale and history. Indeed, in an interview with the translator of her book, Tadjo said: “The challenge [of the story] is that it has to be rooted in the particular, while at the same time, [possessing] the potential to become relevant to other people outside this reality.”

This is why, perhaps, as I read The Blind Kingdom, I didn’t find it a particularly Ivorian story; the devastation she writes about could have been that in Zimbabwe, Somalia, the DRC or the Liberia of old.

On the other hand, the ravages Magona writes about do not quite morph into a personal tragedy even though Aids has claimed several of my relatives. The tragic winds that quietly blow throughout her narrative don’t quite rise above the Cape peninsula.

Yet both stories have much to recommend them. Tadjo’s resonant narrative is a rebuke to dictators snuffing out the dreams of millions on the continent, whereas the passionate particularity of Magona’s story shows how outdated traditions have actively provided succour as Aids wipes out communities.

Percy Zvomuya

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