The sound of one bracelet jingling

Posted on June 23, 2013



A single bracelet does not jingle – Congolese proverb

Strictly (alphabetically) speaking this week should have been a review of a book from Comoros.  Unfortunately, the book I’ve chosen, Salim Hatubou’s Hamouro, hasn’t yet arrived. However, you’re in for a treat and a break from me (synonymous?), as the review below, from Congo (Democratic Republic of – as the list would have it), is written by a wonderful colleague and friend who is far better read, educated, lived, and evolved in every way than I am. And if that makes him sound a little too perfect, as his young niece once said to him, he really is also ‘very silly’.   So, over to Robert with thanks.

Sony Labou Tansi L’anté-peuple (Seuil, 1983)

‘A single bracelet does not jingle.’ The Congolese proverb could be taken as the equivalent of Donne’s ‘Never send to know for whom the bell tolls’, or it could be taken at its literal level as expressing an aesthetic. In getting dressed some people go for simplicity: they don’t want to jangle. ‘All you need’, they say, ‘is a little black dress, and one piece of quietly understated jewellery ’. Some novelists too seek to simplify: life becomes a formula, a beautiful formula perhaps, but one which is necessarily limited. ‘All you need’, they say, ‘is to know…’ Sony Labou Tansi is not like this. For his characters, life is a mess, everything affects everything else, there are no simplifications, little beauty and much ugliness. There is sometimes idealism but never much kindness and where kindness exists it is punished. ‘The whole world’, he says, ‘life itself, is a form of ‘sickness’. His novel jangles.

Sony Labou Tansi was born in the Belgian Congo, later Zaïre, and now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, near to Leopoldville, now Kinshassa, where his book begins. He moved with his family at the age of 12 north of the great river to Congo-Brazzaville, now the Republic of Congo. Here he learnt French, the language in which he wrote, and became first a teacher, then a novelist, a playwright, and later a member of parliament.

I was living in Zaïre, when this novel was published and recognise well what Tansi describes: the smug clarity you would see in people as they explained the next step they would take in their relationship with Mobutu’s military and bureaucracy, convinced that their tribulations had led them finally to understand everything, only to be faced with an unforeseen and still-deeper absurdity in their enemies’ power. And Tansi’s protagonist, Dadou, a head teacher in Kinshassa, has no shortage of enemies or misfortunes.

But this is not just a novel of its place and time. Any teacher will recognise Dadou’s relationship with his pupils as he watches, and tries to work with, the energetic creativity of adolescence and its manipulative self-centredness. They will also recognise the character of his pupil, Yavelde, whose casual possessiveness and sense of entitlement descend into a suicide which expels Dadou from family life and his easy position in his community to a point where ‘he begins to unexist’.

The novel’s action moves into Angola and the underground politics of a rebel movement. Dadou comes to achieve moments of revelation as his relationship develops with the third powerful character of the book, Yavelde’s cousin,  Yealdara. Dadou is called to an action which effaces the cosy falseness of his earlier life with a violence which Tansi makes both inevitable and infinitely sad.

Tansi’s jangling richness sounds throughout this novel and continues insistently.