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First, it must be noted that this Francophone novel has two different English translations: one by Frank Wynne (published by Heinemann in the UK), and one by Carrol Coates (published by the Univ. Press of Virginia in the US). I borrowed both from the library and read the first ten pages of each to determine which to proceed with. I found the Wynne translation to be far more readable, and perhaps equally importantly, the typesetting of the Coates edition is atrocious, far too dense and hard to read. Therefore, although the basic content of the two versions is the same, my comments are based on the Wynne/UK edition of the book. However, the Coates edition does have a brief and informative afterword that's worthwhile.
This is the third of Kourouma's novels to appear in English, following The Suns of Independence and Monnew. Taken together, the three books form a full-bodied portrait of West Africa from the time of colonialism up to the present. (His latest book, Allah is Not Obliged, is about a child soldier in Liberia). Here, the story is told through a traditional storyteller/praise singer engaged by Koyaga, president for life of a fictional West African nation. The storyteller and his fool apprentice are to tell the president's life story, warts and all, over the course of a six-day ritual, for a reason not revealed until the final pages. The tale that emerges is a wicked satire of post-colonial African despotism. Like many writers, Kourouma has fictionalized the targets of his outrage, although those familiar with modern African history will be able to spot Sékou Touré (Guinea), King Hassan II (Morocco), Bokassa (CAR), Houphonouet-Boigny (Cote d'Ivoire), and Mobutu Sese Seko (Zaire) amongst the various leaders Koyaga visits for advice in one lengthy section. Born in and exiled from Cote d'Ivoire, Kourouma lived in France, Cameroon, Algeria, and Togo, and has modeled Koyaga on the Togolese dictator Gnassingbé Eyadema (who died earlier this year and was succeeded by his son following some very dubious elections in April).
Koyaga's life story is mostly as one would expect, mythical beginnings, leading to a distinguished career in the French colonial armies serving in Vietnam (as Kourouma himself did), leading to the inevitable military coup, oceans of offspring, and lifelong rule. And, as anyone who follows Africa could guess, there's plenty of corruption, torture, and tragedy to follow, all backed by the Western powers seeking to win the Cold War. And when the Cold War ends, and Koyaga is confronted by demands for Structural Adjustment Programs and the like, he must scramble to keep the disaffected youth from joining with returned elite exiles to overthrow his rule. Kourouma is clearly angry and bitter at what Africa became after independence, and he does yeoman work in bearing witness to this without ever becoming strident or editorial. The main flaw is that it is a rather lengthy work (there is a long section which digresses into the life of Koyaga's right-hand man), and can be a bit exhausting. Yet it remains a great deal more readable than a much African fiction in translation. Those with a strong interest in modern African literature will obviously want to check it out, and anyone with a strong interest in Togo should have a look as well.
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on 10 May 2011
This book is a bit of a nightmare. It has an authentic feel about it, and it describes all the horrors of human greeed and lust for power. Koyaga, a dictator, is the main character. His story is told from his origins to the pinnacle of his power, starting in a semi mythical style, ending in a straightforward but harrowing account.
A naive reader such as myself is sickened by the ruthlessness with which power is siezed, challenged and maintained. Koyaga has the habit of cutting off the genitalia of his enemies once they are in his power, a horrible form of execution, which he relates somehow to his mental picture of himself as a hunter. He, and seemingly the other dictators whom he encounters, adopt any political posture to appeal to whichever one of the two cold war powers is offering him far from disinterested support. The capturing of the atmosphere of magic mingled in with finance, violent politics and tyranny is all too convincing.
It is easy to suppose from a comforting distance that this account is merely of the last barbaric triumph of humanity in the raw, but one fears that this may be down to ones own complacency, fuelled by experience of a peaceful life only barely touched by early memories of the blitz. Dream on, I tell myself, as I pick up a Barbara Pym as literary valium.
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First, it must be noted that this Francophone novel has two different English translations: one by Frank Wynne (published by Heinemann in the UK), and one by Carrol Coates (published by the Univ. Press of Virginia in the US). I borrowed both from the library and read the first ten pages of each to determine which to proceed with. I found the Wynne translation to be far more readable, and perhaps equally importantly, the typesetting of the Coates edition is atrocious, far too dense and hard to read. Therefore, although the basic content of the two versions is the same, my comments are based on the Wynne/UK edition of the book. However, the Coates edition does have a brief and informative afterword that's worthwhile.
This is the third of Kourouma's novels to appear in English, following The Suns of Independence and Monnew. Taken together, the three books form a full-bodied portrait of West Africa from the time of colonialism up to the present. (His latest book, Allah is Not Obliged, is about a child soldier in Liberia). Here, the story is told through a traditional storyteller/praise singer engaged by Koyaga, president for life of a fictional West African nation. The storyteller and his fool apprentice are to tell the president's life story, warts and all, over the course of a six-day ritual, for a reason not revealed until the final pages. The tale that emerges is a wicked satire of post-colonial African despotism. Like many writers, Kourouma has fictionalized the targets of his outrage, although those familiar with modern African history will be able to spot Sékou Touré (Guinea), King Hassan II (Morocco), Bokassa (CAR), Houphonouet-Boigny (Cote d'Ivoire), and Mobutu Sese Seko (Zaire) amongst the various leaders Koyaga visits for advice in one lengthy section. Born in and exiled from Cote d'Ivoire, Kourouma lived in France, Cameroon, Algeria, and Togo, and has modeled Koyaga on the Togolese dictator Gnassingbé Eyadema (who died earlier this year and was succeeded by his son following some very dubious elections in April).
Koyaga's life story is mostly as one would expect, mythical beginnings, leading to a distinguished career in the French colonial armies serving in Vietnam (as Kourouma himself did), leading to the inevitable military coup, oceans of offspring, and lifelong rule. And, as anyone who follows Africa could guess, there's plenty of corruption, torture, and tragedy to follow, all backed by the Western powers seeking to win the Cold War. And when the Cold War ends, and Koyaga is confronted by demands for Structural Adjustment Programs and the like, he must scramble to keep the disaffected youth from joining with returned elite exiles to overthrow his rule. Kourouma is clearly angry and bitter at what Africa became after independence, and he does yeoman work in bearing witness to this without ever becoming strident or editorial. The main flaw is that it is a rather lengthy work (there is a long section which digresses into the life of Koyaga's right-hand man), and can be a bit exhausting. Yet it remains a great deal more readable than a much African fiction in translation. Those with a strong interest in modern African literature will obviously want to check it out, and anyone with a strong interest in Togo should have a look as well.
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on 8 October 2011
I can only describe this book as "mesmerizing". It has been wonderfully written and makes you conscience of what has and is still happening in Africa today.

The quotes are simple but thought provoking.

The book makes you appreciated the wisdom which can be found in Africa.

***********************************MUST READ**********************
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on 28 July 2003
I am pleased to see another English translation of Ahmadou Kourouma's great work, En attendent le vote des betes sauvages, Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote, translated by Frank Wynne. The content of this great novel has been reviewed many times; I would like to address problems of translation.
I think Wynne's version is the better one--more musical, more of a pleasure to read than the American translation, by Carrol Coates, which seems stilted and academic. It would be interesting to discuss many aspects of the Wynne translation, such as whether to adhere to the author's style with regard to verb tenses, sentence length, omission of articles, capitalization or lack thereof, repetition of words and structures, creation of neologisms, use of foreign words, and so on, but that would take many more than the allowed number of words, so I'll concentrate on the translation of a culture.
When we work with texts dealing with our own culture, we already have a store of intuitive knowledge that keeps mistakes of tone, meaning, and vocabulary to a minimum and preserves the context effortlessly. Working in a different culture requires not just a dictionary but research. I think both translators fell a bit short in this respect.
These examples are from the first chapter. As the hunters sit in a circle to begin the first vigil (FW)/sumu (CC), CC says their hunting cloaks are bedecked with gris-gris, etc. The garment is not a cloak but a quite distinctive long shirt or tunic. (Kourouma's book for children about hunters has a good photo of a hunter's tunic; see below.) FW leaves this garment out altogether and says that the grigri are attached to the Phrygian bonnets. This is not the case. The hunters are wearing rifles not slung over the shoulder but attached to a bandolier. It is part of the uniform, the costume, the tradition. And the rifle itself? A "fusil de traite." A slave rifle? A trade rifle? or a home-made rifle, as Kourouma defines it in Une journée . . . ? Both translators say the hunters are holding fly-swatters. They are actually ceremonial fly-whisks, better for brushing flies away than killing them and part of the "uniform." The ones I have seen are beautifully made, the whisk part made of the hair (perhaps the tail) of an animal. And, the hunters are sitting in a circle; both CC and the author say "cross-legged," but FW says "crouched."
The hunters are gathered in Koyaga's garden. The author says in the "apatam" of the garden. CC uses that word and would have us refer to his glossary at the back for enlightenment. There it is defined as a rough shelter. FW leaves it out. The Dictionnaire Universel Francophone (available on-line) describes a traditional structure built to receive guests-a large mat held up by posts. A photo on another website shows a very attractive open building with a thatch roof designed for community get-togethers. I imagine that the appearance of an apatam depends on the means of the person who builds it, and that Koyaga would probably have a very nice one built on his grounds. I would use the word "pavilion."
Another area of misunderstanding is the environment of the "Paleos," the montagnards, the naked men. The author says they live in "fortins." Anthropologists have struggled to describe these well-defended homesteads: "strongholds" and "little fortresses" are two terms used. Both translators call them "fortified villages," but for the most part they are not villages but individual homesteads, or compounds, with one man and one or more wives, perhaps some relatives, with sleeping quarters, kitchens, granaries, brewing huts, and so on, all enclosed by a stone wall and often another wall of thorny plants. Thus, the French had to conquer the area mostly one family at a time. Several "fortins" might cluster to form a village, but each would still have to be taken singly. This type of homestead (whether fortified or not) is usually called a compound and is common in Africa, with many variations in style and layout.
Translation of the proverbs is another ticklish problem. Some are difficult indeed, making it all the more important to get the easier ones right. Here again, some research into the plants, animals, and situations mentioned is profitable. I won't detail the examples I found of translation based on inexact understanding of what's being talked about except for one: the one about the canary falling on your head (FW). A "canari" is not a bird but a container, usually pottery, here used for carrying water (on the head). If it breaks and the water spills, you might as well use it as wash water.
Translators face a daunting task. Every word, every combination of words, is an opportunity for error. And we all do make mistakes-of tone, meaning, vocabulary. But an author of Ahmadou Kourouma's stature deserves a first-rate translation. I don't think either translator worked hard enough.
Selected references:
Demougin, J., ed. Dictionnaire Universel Francophone. Paris: Hachette/Edicef, 1997.
Gassama, Makhily. La langue d'Ahmadou Kourouma. Paris: ACCT/Karthala, 1995.
Kourouma, Ahmadou. Une journée avec Le chasseur, héros africain. Orange: Grandir, 1999.
Middleton, J., editor in chief. Encyclopedia of Africa South of the Sahara. New York: C. Scribner's sons, 1997. 4 Vol.
Seignobos, C. Nord Cameroun, Montagnes et hautes terres. Roquevaire: Editions Parenthèses, 1982.
Seignobos, C. and Olivier Iyébi-Mandjik, Scientific editors. Atlas de la province Extrême-Nord Cameroun. Paris: IRD and Yaoundé: Republic of Cameroon, 2000.
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on 5 June 2003
I was very pleased to get hold of this book by Ahmadou Kourouma. It is an exceptionally Africanised narrative, steeped in the tales of marabouts, gris-gris, shamans and shape-shifters which are so integral to the belief systems of West Africa.
Through the life story of Koyaga, the protagonist and President of the fictional state of the Republique du Golfe, Kourouma dissects the venal ambition, corruption, mendacity, brutality and tragedy of African governments since independence. He also takes some excellent sideswipes at both colonial and neocolonial policy towards the continent.
However, while this might all sound polemical, the narative is framed within the traditional African narrative framework of the praise singers and their stories of the doings of the ancestors, and so manages to rise above the satirical rhetoric to be a story that is at once believable, true and relevant.
The prose is sharp and readable, well-translated, and the story is utterly compelling. If you are interested in the issues and realities which confront Africa today, you will find this book well worth reading.
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on 8 April 2015
Was in great condition.
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