GUINEA (*)

Tierno Monénembo — The Black Terrorist (2012)

Setting: Wartime eastern France.

What it’s about: French villagers find a solider (based on a real person, Addi Ba) from Guinea hiding in the woods after escaping from German captivity. He builds a resistance cell only to be betrayed to the Gestapo (who call him “The Black Terrorist”).

The tale is mostly told to the man’s nephew 70 years later, as the villagers finally seek to recognise his bravery. Bit by bit, the story of a resistance cell and its eventual betrayal is revealed.

But it is also a book about how small French towns dealt with their demons after the war (and why not, after all, have this story told by a writer from one of France’s old colonies which in many ways liberated it). As one of the French narrators says, the towns that didn’t see acts of revenge at the Liberation, “but a wall of silence and bitterness, where we fall back on Jesus Christs and time for the curse to finish its work.”

African soldiers — Tirailleurs Senegalais — in the Vosges, 1943. Photo credit: ECPAD.

Why you should read it: It brings to life the disgracefully undocumented role of colonial soldiers in liberating France. The soldiers who fought for France in Vietnam, Algeria, in the trenches in ’14 and the cavalry in 1870:

sent off every time with a kick in the arse, with lungs bloody and legs missing; mugs, low in the ranks, missing from the citations and the monuments to the dead, and with that, a nest-egg ten times less than their white colleagues.”

But Monenembo has French people tell the story to the hero’s nephew from Guinea, mostly full of admiration but also betraying their stereotypes about the tirailleurs senegalais — who actually hailed from all over Africa despite their name:

From Guinea, from Congo, or Chad, for us, all the tirailleurs were senegalese. All Blacks on the planet as well.” 

The real Addi Ba, with other members of the French resistance. Photo credit: DocAnciens/docpix.fr

Monenembo has one of the contemporary French villagers who is narrating to the nephew point out the irony of African soldiers resisting while so many French collaborate:

What a strange moment, the war! Black resistance fighters, French traitors, Germans who love Berlioz, Baudelaire, and Beaujolais, policemen allied with outlaws. Who was the victim, who the executioner?

One could betray his brother, give up a friend to be deported to Germany, for a ration ticket or a kilo of potatoes.”

In this dynamic, Addi Bâ was

…this unknown man from the African forest who came to fight when the Whites had thrown down their arms and made peace with the enemy.”

The best book from Guinea? Tierno Monénembo dominates Guinean literature, writing about France, French colonialists in Guinea, the history of Guinea, and Guineans in Cuba.

This one is not set in Guinea, but there is a conscious effort to compare the life of the rural French village to one in Guinea, giving a deep humanity to the story.

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