The dearth of translated works in the U.S. has been widely lamented, here, here, here, and hear. I’d like to join the chorus, and register my vote for two works of francophone literature that I believe merit translation, and for a third work, already translated, that deserves a wider audience.
The first of these novels is Léonora Miano’s Contours du jour qui vient (literally, Outlines of the Coming Day). Miano, who is from Cameroon, published the novel in 2006, invoking an imaginary African nation, in which the collapse of social institutions has led to a breakdown in the ability of parents to care for their children. The novel imagines the world that would result if the normal intergenerational transfer to the young were incapacitated.
The novel is easily read as political commentary on contemporary Africa, which certainly it is. But more powerfully, Contours suggests the fragility of the bonds that tie together the generations in an every-man-for-himself social system—a phenomenon that is far from confined to impoverished nations. For me the brilliance of the novel comes in its invocation of the viewpoint of children who have been born into a world in which the adults have lost the ability or the willingness to care for them.
The novel’s hero, Musango, is a young girl who has been driven from her home by her mother, who under the pressure of disintegrating social bonds and the brutalities of a war just ended has been ravaged psychologically. Musango moves through a society in which children have become a kind of coin of exchange, targets for sex traffickers, and exploiters of every stripe, including religious charlatans.
Contours is not a young adult novel, but as one who spends a considerable portion of his time helping sixteen-year-olds determine what literature might have to offer them, I’m certain that Miano’s novel would strike a chord among teen readers, who I believe would sense, despite the vast differences in their circumstances and those of the novel’s narrator, the vulnerability they too face in navigating a world in which adults are often embattled in Darwinian struggles and in which economies are organized to put children, and particularly adolescents, to use.
The second novel I believe deserves to be translated is Anna Moï’s Riz Noir. A Vietnamese francophone writer who grew up in the Saigon of the Vietnam War, Moï based her novel on the true story of two girls from her lycée who were arrested in the aftermath of the 1968 Tet Offensive and sent to the notorious Poulo Condor prison, on an island off the coast of Vietnam. This was the site of the famous tiger cages where individuals believed to have cooperated with the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese were brutally tortured.
The novel opens on the first night of the sisters’ imprisonment, but shuttles back to the years of their adolescence prior to their arrests. The two schoolgirls are sometimes silly, frivolous, and unheeding, in the way of adolescents everywhere. Their involvement in supposedly traitorous activity feels almost haphazard. But the scenes of torture in the prison act as devastating counterpoint to the insouciance of their earlier life (including an incident involving a form of waterboarding). Moï manages the technically difficult feat of balancing these two contrasting settings with great skill.
Historically accurate, the novel recounts the visit of current U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, then a congressional aide, with a delegation of U.S. members of Congress to the notorious prison. The pictures he took ran in Life magazine in 1970, and added to domestic opposition to the Vietnam War. This novel would be an exceptional addition to the syllabus of any course on the history of the Vietnam War, delivering a view of wartime Vietnam that U.S. readers are seldom, if ever, exposed to.
The last novel I want to mention has already been translated into English. Sony Labou Tansi’s La Vie et demi (English title: Life and a Half) was first published in 1979. The work was offered in translation last year by Indiana University Press.
Tansi was a Congolese novelist and playright who died of AIDS in 1995 at the age of 47. (I became aware of him a number of years ago in a class taught by the great Guadeloupian novelist Maryse Condé. I remain grateful to her for guiding me to works like Tansi’s.) As in Miano’s novel, Tansi’s book takes place in a mythical African republic where a dictator, the Providential Guide, exercises absolute power. The novel opens as this dictator humiliates and then murders a man named Martial. But Martial announces, “I don’t want to die this death.” And as it happens he doesn’t: against the counterpoint of increasing rage of the dictator Martial is shot, garroted, strangled, knifed, and yet simply doesn’t die.
Even after he has been reduced to a few ragged and torn bits of flesh, Martial continues to haunt the dictator for the rest of the narrative. At this point the real hero emerges: Martial’s daughter, Chaidana. A 15-year-old, she soon becomes a serious thorn in the side of the dictatorship.
Life and a Half is wildly inventive, and written in a dense, propulsive French that must have been a real chore to translate. Unfortunately, the translation by Indiana University press currently lists on Amazon at the price of $55—not the kind of bargain that leads to bestsellerdom. Tansi’s work, somewhat sadly, finds itself in the odd position of being out of print in many cases, while meanwhile multiple volumes of criticism are churned out examining his importance and influence. Those studies seem largely in agreement that Tansi is among the most influential novelists of his generation in Africa. The continent’s most celebrated current satirist, Alain Mabanckou, is among those who agree.
Three novels. Each worthy of the attention of American readers. I advance the perhaps somewhat naïve view that if these three novels were to reach a wider American audience, the national life would be enriched, and our home here on this far continent would become a marginally better place.
That’s all I’m saying.