CHAD (**)

Chroniques Tchadiennes — Nétonon Noël Ndjékéry (2008)

Setting: 21st Century Moundou — the second city of Chad

What it’s about: A deeply poetic, yet entirely modern, telling of life in Chad told through a series of vignettes that piece together a simple “Romeo & Juliet” style love story.

The hero is a struggler: amember of generation “Bac + Zero” — youth who complete their school exams only to find no job prospects waiting for them. Because he is left-handed, his family and teachers assume he is a good-for-nothing. But being passed over in favour of his younger brother saves his life when his family is slaughtered during a coup.

He considers life in his country a desert, but when he meets a certain girl, his perspective suddenly changes:

“This country certainly is a desert. But nothing changes as much as a desert. Dunes shift without seeming to. And, by dint of patience, they will overcome the thickest of forests.”

Why you should read it: The title translates as Chadian tales, but also refers to the chronic diseases affecting Chadian society: war, dictators, corruption and, never mentioned but ever-present, AIDs. The “chroniques” in the title can be understood as these chronic afflictions that ail the country but also “chronicles” or short news reports, which are delivered with the remote irony of a journalist.

The life of the hero Souloulu evolves through these various disasters, watching his country move from one trauma to another. Through him we meet a broad ensemble: forced, early marriage, warlords, generals, tricksters, sex workers, prophets.

The author is not shy about presenting the grimy underside of everyday life but presents it in deeply poetic prose:

“He felt like a ball bounced back by wall of questions”

“La faim (f,a,i,m) justifie tous les moyens” (Hunger, instead of “the ends” or “ la fin”, justifies the means)

…or looking at a broken condom bought at second-hand the market, that “damp piece of rubber next to its stapled packet” in which he regretted “not being to read the future”.

When the parents of Souloulu’s love interest, Haidara, (the “purveyors and cookers of meat” both literally and metaphorically), intervene to marry off the heroine to a corrupt official made rich by the oil-boom, the girl quickly suspects something:

“Haidara suspected that this particular carnivore was not just interested in extricating the best sheep testicle — based recipes that he was mad about from her parents.”

The definitive Chadian novel? In its engagement with the many challenges the country has faced in recent years, and the way it intersperses them with several lives, translating their impact into daily life. Forbidden love during civil war is also a theme in “Alice and her legs” by Nimrod, which is a bit too much “Lolita” for my taste. A predatory, pervy school teacher taking advantage of a school girl caught up in a mass of refugees fleeing civil war ought could be a good story, without the leering (“And yet I have never kissed a woman’s feet before” after half a page dedicated to a teenagers legs and watching them play basketball). Yet it ends with a powerful account of Chadian soldiers massacred by Qaddafi-backed forces.

You’ll like this if you liked: True Romance, the Quentin Tarantino movie! It has the same irreverent-but-melancholy tone.

Rating: **

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