Magazine article The Spectator

A Far Cry from Plato's Republic

Magazine article The Spectator

A Far Cry from Plato's Republic

Article excerpt

WAITING FOR THE WILD BEASTS TO VOTE by Ahmadou Kourouma, translated from the French by Frank Wynne Heinemann, L12.99, pp. 445, ISBN 0434008141

This witty and wholly authentic chronicle of black African atrocity mockingly presents itself as a tribute to home-grown dictators, mainly of the francophone variety. Kourouma's fictitious Republique de Golfe and its miserable four million inhabitants belongs to West Africa, not far from the author's own Ivory Coast, yet Golfe is a spiritual province more akin to the Ubu Roi absurdity of Bokassa's distant Central African Empire than to the highly developed, evolue culture of neighbouring Senegal. Kourouma frequently likens the stink to that of a hyena's arse.

The dictatorial limelight has for the time being been stolen by a highly intelligent anglophone from southerly latitudes, Robert Mugabe. Does this good Catholic rely on spirit mediums, diviners, seers, astrologers when calculating the disposal of his enemies? Does he carry a personal fetish or totem like every member of the club of dictators in Ahmadou Kourouma's spellbinding novel? Neither the Bible nor the Qu'ran is any obstacle to voodoo, just as one observes in Sri Lanka the huge ears of the Buddha serenely set down side by side with prancing Shiva and long-nosed Ganesh.

Kourouma's narrative (nominally entrusted to a jesting sora called Bingo, who addresses his responder-apprentice Tiecoura, as `king's fool') hinges on the dazzling co-existence of the primitive and the modern. French colonialists, Cold Warriors and IMF bankers come and go while the dictator Koyaga ritually stuffs his victims' penises into their mouths (evidently a shrewd move in fending off vengeful spirits). The Naked People of the Mountains return from France's wars in Europe and the Far East proudly wearing uniforms which violate the sacred ancestral nakedness of their people. The hero thus becomes the betrayer, a metaphor for the pain of 'progress'. From unquestioning service to the ice-cold French these conscripted black veterans of Dien Bien Phu and Algeria finally deduce that corporals can appoint themselves colonels. The French respond to ideas which are not their ideas with executions in the name of the mission civilisatrice, but the game is up: re-enter de Gaulle, la main tendue, followed by the agents of an irrelevant Cold War, determined to divide Africa between phoney 'progressive' regimes and phoney democracies waiting for the wild beasts to vote - as indeed they recently did in Zimbabwe, to their cost. …

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