Virginie Mouanda Kibinde, Beneath the black sun of Cabinda (Stellenbosch: SUN Press 2015). ISBN: 978-1-920689-87-2: R175, ISBN: 978-1-920689-88-9: R140 [e-book]; Available from: www.africansunmedia.co.za / www.sun-e-shop.co.za / africansunmedia.snapplify.com; 127 pp (including foreword, glossary and translator’s bibliography).
This is a translation of Virginie Mouanda Kibinde’s first novel, originally entitled Les âmes de la forêt (Souls of the forest, 2002). In a second edition of 2004 the book was renamed Au soleil noir du Cabinda. In the introduction, the translator, Vanessa Everson explains that this modification of the title frames the novel more closely to its setting in Cabinda and the tragedies of life under this ‘black sun’ as described in the novel (p. 1-4). The oil-rich enclave of Cabinda, officially a province of Angola, but separated from the rest of the country by a narrow strip of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has long been the setting of war. After the colonial war against Portugal, war broke out between the government forces of the newly independent country of Angola and the Cabindan separatist movement FLEC. Since then, more than 200.000 Cabindans have met their death at the hands of Angolan soldiers and many more have been forced to live in exile.
The novel starts in a calm African village, its couleur locale emphasized through the usage of words in the local language and references to ‘custom’. Albino, the protagonist of ‘almost twenty-one’ (p. 21), visits his grandmother who raised him after his mother’s death. Yet, underneath the quiet, we can already feel the tension: the village is populated by refugees – Angolans from Cabinda who have to live in Congo-Brazzaville because of the war. And so, the quiet village life also knows the melancholy of exile.
Soon after, Albino leaves for France on a scholarship to study medicine and visits Portugal to look for his grandfather, a Portuguese military who had been the governor of Cabinda during the colonial era. It becomes a traumatic encounter for both, and in a flashback we then learn that Albino’s grandfather had had a strong hand in the war in Cabinda, the ‘Kuwait of Africa’, as Kibinde once called it (introduction, p. 4).
After the Portuguese had left in panic, they sold the region to the Angolan government forces, who invade Cabinda with full force soon after. These army kids who had known nothing but war and constant indoctrination of ‘Afro-Stalinist’ propaganda (p. 36) completely destroy Albino’s village, raping and murdering in the process. His mother dead, baby Albino is raised by his grandmother, and together they seek refuge in Congo-Brazzaville.
After his stay in France, Albino returns to Cabinda to search his father who has become a guerrilla in the separatist movement. He finds him, handicapped after having stepped on a landmine, but still strong-willed. Albino also finds the love of his life, the beautiful village girl Maria. Despite his love for her and his father’s wish for him to become a guerrilla, Albino returns to France to finish his studies.
A second visit to his grandfather is so unsettling that the latter realizes that his life in Portugal is even more miserable than it was in Cabinda: ‘In Cabinda, people despise me – they hate me. They’d kill me if they had the chance. That means that for them, I exist. But here, no one knows me, no one even looks at me’ (p. 75). From this negative assessment, Albino’s grandfather decides to return to Africa, even if already very old and crippled. There he is able to reach the village where his former mistress, Albino’s grandmother used to live, only to learn that she has just died and people are preparing for her funeral. He is allowed to attend the funeral, but then he is tortured by the village youth. The women of the village have pity on him and show him a path to escape, but he meets his fate by stepping on a landmine (p. 98-100).
In the meantime Albino has concluded his studies and returns to Cabinda to start a clinic in the guerrilla-controlled forests. He lives happily with his Maria, but the novel ends sadly with her death during a raid by the government forces (p. 120).
The publishing house advertises the book with the remark that ‘this novel is much more than a political tract’, but at times Beneath the black sun of Cabinda is precisely going too much in that direction. A quote like this says it all: ‘At that time, certain young African states emerging from colonial bondage adopted the Soviet Union’s totalitarian Marxist-Leninist doctrine, which in Africa translated into scientific socialism and the one-party state. For that reason, Congo was denying even its most recent and closest historic ties to the benefit of a completely foreign and inadequate philosophy’ (p. 40). Such clumsy political jargon sharply contrasts with other sections in the novel, where the book’s language is nearly poetic and pleasant to read. For example, a mad woman wandering in the bush who had lost her children when her Portuguese patron/father took them to Portugal sings about her hope and despair: ‘The entrance to the house, the entrance to the village, the entrance to the forest/ The stranger approaches from there/ The messenger comes from there/ From afar he brings news/ Good or bad news/ Happiness or sadness in view/ As told us by the messenger from the cliffs/ Watch carefully the footprints ahead of you....’ (p. 116). Another example would be the reaction of the spirits when the deceased Maria does not want to leave her children: ‘You are in another place now; nothing is the same. When you speak, they hear only the murmur of the wind; when you move, they see only a whirlwind of sand. You aren’t with them anymore, come with us!’ (p. 120). Stylistically then, the novel can hardly be called balanced; at times it makes for tedious reading, at other instances there is rhythm in the language.
The representation of women in the novel is strongly connected to race, bordering on the old notion of Mother Africa. Thus after it is said that Albino could not help ‘pursuing’ some women in Lyon, the fact that he does not develop a longstanding relationship with any of them is explained with: ‘his multiracial fascination with women from the four corners of the earth did not make him forget Maria [...] She represented the mother he had never known, and the homeland he had been deprived of from the time he was born’ (p. 80). Also on page 111 we learn about ‘the uniqueness of black women,’ and Cabinda is compared to a ‘betrothed’, having been ‘besmirched’ and then ‘tossed aside to rapists’ by the ‘groom Portugal’ (p. 35). This classic gender framework no longer ‘works’: it was a novel thought in the négritude of the 1940s, but by now sounds very much like beating a dead horse.
Kibinde portrays men and women in all their vulnerability to violence. She tells of women left behind after their Portuguese patrons have taken their children to Portugal, of rape and murder (Maria and Albino’s mother) by the government forces, and of the destructive force of landmines (Albino’s father and his grandfather). These are men and women reduced to silence (p. 37).
Albino’s indignation about all this runs deep: ‘He knew that one day he would write about it all. He would write the history of this hidden people, who had been expressly side-lined for purely economic reasons’ (p. 76). The indignation of the author, who grew up in Congo, but whose family hails from Cabinda, may run as deep, but poetics may be a more forceful way of voicing that than political argument. Especially in literature.
Inge Brinkman (Ghent University, Belgium)
Finnegan, Ruth, Black Inked Pearl: A Girl’s Quest, New York, NY: Garn Press, LLC, 2015. ISBN: 9781942146179 (pbk); 9781942146162 (hardcover); 9781942146186 (Elizabeth-book). 306pp.
Black Inked Pearl: A Girl’s Quest by Ruth Finnegan is an unusual romance novel, the first of that kind I am going to come across in a long while. It is a poetic riddle that expresses the journey of a girl, Kate in search of lost love. The novel is set in the dream world, or rather, is conceived in dreams, with images of this world and another intertwining and interweaving to construct an epic quest reminiscent of the kind found in major world writings. There are echoes from the Greek myths, from Irish folklore, from Christian tenets, from African legends and from that indecipherable existence populated by dream beings. It is indeed a magical book.
Before I had read a few pages, thoughts sprang to my mind: Amos Tutuola is not dead, he is alive in the writing of Ruth Finnegan. There are tales of quest from African myths and folktales, and in the literary works of African writers such as Tutuola, in particular The Palm-Wine Drinkard and his Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads' Town (1952), the first African novel in English published outside Africa, where the narrator traces his dead palmwine tapper to the abode of the dead. Or in the Yoruba novels of D. O. Fagunwa where the Quest-motif provides a series of events such as the ones in Black Inked Pearl, where the narrator – in the first instance, Akara-Oogun (in Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole (1939), translated by Wole Soyinka as A Forest of a Thousand Daemons: A Hunter’ Saga (1982) – joins other hunters to brave several vicissitudes in search of peace.
The plot is simple; familiar. The narrative centres on the thoughts of an Irish girl and her lover whose mystery is not quite resolved – or resolved in a magical realist manner – and whom she had rejected in a moment of panic. She traces her recollection from before meeting the lover to expose a life-long quest to finding him. To implant the circumstances of her being and her action, Kate recalls and shares her Irish upbringing in an Irish convent, with all the emotional and academic directions, re-directions and mis-directions that emanated from that. On the banks of an African river, the now very successful professional suddenly recognises a hollowness in her life, the kind that can only be filled by reuniting with a lover whom she had passionately and intensely loved but whom she had rejected nonetheless. Could falling in love have been a result of wanting to revolt against the restrictive Quaker education by a life that is trapped in years of endless indoctrination? I think the answer to that is in the novel.
In any case, Kate begins a quest, an all-consuming quest, to find this mysterious lover whose gaze sets souls on fire and turns young impressionable girls into dreamers of dreams so terrifying and absorbing! She visits all the known physical haunts and the shadowy dream world, including the underworld, to re-cover the lost love – the kingdom of beasts, where the cagy wolf leads her on ‘winged feet… to the great hall to see the heavenly archive’ (p. 108); a trendy London restaurant, an old people’s home, and several other possible rendezvous before heading back to the hazy spaces around the Donegal Sea where it all started. Yet, the lover proves elusive until Kate finally locates the lover trapped in the heavenly spaces of hell that is at once Grecian, Christian, and dreamy. She even becomes ‘translated’ (p. 115) into a golden Garden of Eden which ‘was the traced lacerie of true larch trees, gold into the clouds… and a wondrous beautiful glade with clear sky above, gentle wind blowing, and fragrant soughing song of boughs’ (p. 115). Yes, this dream world has a ‘clear sky’, which is unlike any above the stormy seas off Donegal. She encounters ‘Adam’ and ‘Mr Business Snake’ whose spiels remind one of those scams that could come from anywhere. At a great cost to her life, she saves her lover and dying love. They walk together, hand-in-hand, toward heaven, promising a predictable dénouement to the romantic yarn. However, at the gate separating hell from heaven, the lover escapes first but the Golden Gates clang shut, leaving Kate entrapped by the dusts of hell, enshrouded in her fear and screams and impotence. ‘No man had ever found a path to heaven if the gate was closed… no trumpets on the other side… not purgatory, not hell, not death. Just – nothing… the void. The between no-where’ (p. 241).
But that is not the unhappy ending that the reader by then expects. For the lover now begins his own quest and at last, locates Kate in the dust though, to his anger – fury – and disappointment, and a reverberation of the initial reject, his sacrifice is not recognised and Kate does not thank him. This ageless love is on the wane. And the gates: still shut.
On the way back to heaven, guided by a little beetle – this novel is full of anthropomorphic beings – Kate debates with herself on saving her love, and in the end, in spite of her poor perception of the order of numbers, or of emotions, or of time, and in spite of herself, her lover saves her. Finally, Kate comes to the ultimate realisation – a man (or woman) should not fall in love with a river, for he would have to fall in love with a mountain to understand the river, and he would have to fall in love with the forest to achieve happiness; life – and love – is a riddling riddle. In the end, her quest is not in vain: she finds herself and recognises that she is the unexpected pearl that she thought was buried in the heart of her lover.
Like an enduring dream, the images in this poetic, epic, romantic novel flit through the memory – now vividly clear and memorable; now dull, blunted and fragmented, with moderated emotions and agents of recall. Some clear memories end in the arena of vague meanderings, as the lover feels / webs her way through the warren of reminiscence. At other recollections, the muddled thoughts and disjointed ox-bow lake of ideas suddenly flood over in a dazzling array of lights to reveal a core experience of the relationship between Kate and her lover.
Sprinkled throughout the book are allusions – what the author terms ‘literary allusions’ – to modern and ancient texts, and some original poems, which lend postmodernist assumptions and universalizing propensity to Kate sojourn, emphasizing and questioning relationships, memory and other texts to construct a narrative that threads through a weave of truths, half-truths, faction and surrealistic remembering. There is an resonance of Harold Pinter’s key line in the play Old Times (1971) here: “There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened. There are things I remember which may never have happened but as I recall them so they take place”. It is this intertextuality, which connects Kate’s ‘life’ to that of the author, as Ruth Finnegan spices Kate’s journey with allusions from Greek texts, the Bible and other historiography that she recollects from her Quaker education in Ireland in the early 21st century, her time at Oxford (Oxenford!) and her passages through Europe, Africa and Australasian regions. At other times, the impression intensely converges on Kate’s mind, with all the undependability of the agent of recall; the dream-like familiarity that scrutinises humanity and that imperfections. At that time, you find ‘understanding’ between the ambiguity of the dream world and the inexplicableness of what we recognise as reality.
This epic love journey is fuelled by love but propelled – wheeled? paddled? encouraged? winged? – by myths and legends as well as those intertextual passages from the Odyssey, Iliad, the Bible, Saint Augustine, Rainer Maria Rilke, Milton, Irish folklore, various modern poems, and by the voice of James Joyce and the nuns from Finnegan’s past. Ogun, the Yoruba god of creativity, war and smithery is summoned to forge a path across ‘The way no-way’ (pp. 248-261). It is a quest that ends in delight, and pain, and joy, and angst, and relief and despair. For, ‘in the beginning was the Word, the creator of Truth, the very tool of love’ (p. 294). In the beginning was the end, and the arousal from the dream becomes recognition of the pearl, the black inked pearl. This is a novel that is to be enjoyed by all, particularly readers who derive pleasure in a specialized use of language to evoke mind-bending realism.
Sola Adeyemi (Goldsmiths University of London, UK)