Based on the title of this book, I expected a triumphal story of an African country becoming independent of colonial rule. Instead I found the story of an impoverished prince, the last legitimate heir to a tribal royalty, navigating the uncertain and treacherous waters of his country’s independence. At one point he even comments that he hadn’t fully realized the implications of fighting against French colonial rule – that the sapling growing in the shade of a branching oak longs for more room to grow, but when the oak is cut down it suddenly realizes how much protection from the wind it had received from the larger tree.
It’s a strange tale. We see Fama, a man clinging to the past honor of his family line, but also seeing the present degeneration and insignificance of his tribe in a brave new world. Alongside him is his wife Salimata: a beautiful woman longing for a child, yet haunted by her past of botched female circumcision and rape. The book also deals with the layered nature of spirituality in the West African experience. On the surface, the characters live the lives of good Muslims, their days divided by calls to prayer and their speech and greetings peppered with references to Allah and his mercy. Yet when faced with desperate circumstances, the older pagan practices seep through, and we find the characters wondering whether the older paths of sorcery and fetishes might not hold more power over their daily lives.
I was surprised, however, to find an African author writing passages that used the colors “black” and “white” as metaphors for good and evil. In so many postcolonial and civil rights writings, authors speak of the damage done by associating the colors of skin with attributes of morality and value. So I found it surprising to find deceit described as people having souls blacker than their skin and words whiter than their teeth. (“Les Malinkés ont la duplicité parce qu’ils ont l’intérieur plus noir que leur peau et les dires plus blancs que leurs dents.”) It’s a powerful image, but I found it troubling all the same, though it fits in with the folklore tone of the book as a whole. Kourouma makes bold use of color and physical attributes in his descriptions, and uses numerous references from the animal kingdom to make the tale seem almost fable-like.
Ultimately, this book is about the end of an age. About how some things can’t survive the upheavals of colonialism and independence. About how people and traditions can come through such changes as mere ghosts of themselves, blinking in the sunlight of an unrecognizable world.