Étienne Goyémidé — Le Dernier Survivant du Caravan (1985)

Setting: French-colonial CAR

What it’s about: Slavery. A peaceful village is suddenly raided by Arab slavers: the majority of the narrative is the forced march told by its last survivor, interspersed with memories and fables from home, which the enslaved villagers tell to maintain some semblance of humanity during an ordeal that leaves them wishing for death as the only means “to put them on an equal footing with their masters”.

The slavers’ brutality is laid bare in raw, microscopic detail: the raid on the village, the planks around the villagers necks, the heat of the march, the desperation for water at the wells, the constant cruelty of the slavers. The slavers themselves are two-dimensional, seen only as phantoms and beasts, and the narrative might well have done with more personalisation to better understand what drove the trade.

Why you should read it: For the subtle sub-text: the triumph of oral narrative, of the word, over both the slavers and the colonial modernity contemporary to when the elder “last survivor” tells the story to the village’s descendants after they laugh at him for refusing to use the products les Blancs. The novel starts with the villagers’ awe at the new buildings, institutions and airplanes of the French, but that evening they still return to the traditional fireside where the elder shows his scars and tells them:

“Sooner or later the war will start again, and this time we will emerge the victors.”

The best book from CAR? There are not many books from CAR available, even in French. This book is out-of-print, making it shockingly hard to get a hold of a copy of such an important book. Another book from CAR takes a much different stand on colonialism. In L’Odysee de Mongouby Pierre Samy Macfoy, village chief Mongou gladly hands over the reins of power to the French in exchange for prosperity — the French take control of education, religion and trade with little or no consequence. Not only is it written like a school textbook, it offers a complete whitewash of colonial history. Mongou goes to fight from France in WWI, is treated like royalty and never makes it to the front, and his compatriots come back from that brutal war only with smiles and medals.

To read if you liked: Olaudah Equiano, Twelve Years a Slave.

Rating: * (a powerful story, but one that begins and ends too abruptly)

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