BENIN (**)

Olympe Bhely-Quenum — Snares Without End (1960)

Setting: Colonial 20th-century Benin

What it’s about: the story of a peaceful farmer turned into a murderer.the story begins with an injustice from which all other miseries follow.

His father, a WWI veteran, refuses to comply with an order from colonial authorities to join a chain gang building a railway and is beaten in front of his son. He stabs himself to end the humiliation. Its an incredibly powerful scene as the French officer shouts at the wealthy, proud farmer demanding he submit:

“Ten times he was asked the same question without answer, while the commander’s whip furiously marked the usually peaceful, soft face, nobly framed by a beard, that I loved so well…blood gushed from his ears and head, his face started to cry blood.”

You can feel a whole nation, a whole continent cry blood when you read these passages. But the vast majority of the books, like Things Fall Apart, plays out away from colonialists.

The tragic hero, his son, builds a good life in his absence for his family, only to be undone by his wife’s insanity. The more he tries to do the write thing, the worse he makes the situation, just like a Greek tragedy. He leaves the family home to the howls of his beloved dogs.

The central premise is:

“It’s possible that everyone has a monster inside, but nobody has the right to wake that monster in us if it doesn’t show itself of its own accord.”

The best book from Benin? It’s mysteriously allegorical. The impact of colonialism is only felt at the beginning. Is the tragedy that unfolds later, with no direct colonial interference, supposed to stem from it?

To read if you liked: Things Fall Apart, The Kreutzer Sonata, The Outsider.

Rating: ** (At times the story drags on but the powerful imagery of key scenes makes it an important read)

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