Ahmadou Korouma was born in the Ivory Coast into the Malinké tribe. His unique style which meshes Malinké traditions, superstitions, Islamic religious beliefs and sharp satirical takes on African politics was something the French language had never seen. Often called the Voltaire of Africa, Korouma wrote very few books in his lifetime. In fact he took 20 odd years to follow up on his debut novel “Les Soleils Des Indépendances“. But each book was an instant classic. Let’s take a closer look at his debut novel, which till today is an essential read for any lover of the French language.
Les Soleils Des Indépendances, follows the story of Fama Doumbouya, the last prince of the Horodougou tribe- a branch of the Malinkés. The Ivory Coast had just attained independence from French colonial rule and this had turned out to be a catastrophic event for Fama. The socialist movement which followed, had ruined his business completely. Now, all that Fama is left with, is his dignity. But this sense of honor, which he owes to his being a Prince, is eroded away by his penury. Fama starts going to funeral ceremonies to take part in the rites as a Malinké prince, to make some money. This “scavenger” like behavior only degrades him in the eyes of his people. As Korouma says, the French had stripped people like Fama of their pride and the new socialists of their money, leaving them with little to live for. The story, while tragic, is darkly comic in its narrative style.
Korouma’s novel published in 1968 would remind the reader a little of Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude which preceded it by a few months. Although Marquez’s novel is more well known as a masterpiece in magic-realism, Les Soleils Des Indépendances is just as worthy of the title. A great example would be the way Kourouma starts the novel- by talking about the death of a man in the village and how his shadow, which, in Malinké tradition, survives the dead till his final rites are done, follows the body everywhere. The humor is dark and cynical. The language which mixes Malinké and French freely, is absolutely original.
Les Soleils Des Indépendances is also a bitter novel. The characters seek refuge in multiple shelters from the world that is changing so rapidly around them. Old traditions- like the Malinké- or Islam- like Fama’s wife, Salimata-whose story runs parallel to that of Fama’s. Her tale of circumcision, rape, blind faith in God and misplaced shame could turn to melodrama in the hands of a lesser writer. But Korouma turn’s Salimata into the strong counterpoint to Fama’s incapacity to handle reality. She survives to the best of her ability the ruin and finally finds her own path out of the misery.
The novel’s greatness lies in Korouma’s half-serious, half-ironic tone which he uses to take a step back and dissect his own culture. It is a novel that shocks and pleases. It interweaves realism and magic to immerse us in the heart of a culture, with its own unique symbols, sense of drama, traditions and blind beliefs. Right to the very last breath of its protagonist Fama Doumbouya, last of the princes of Horodougou.
While many associate French literature to the great writers from France or Belgium, writers like Ahmadou Kourouma prove that the language is enriched so much more when voices from elsewhere add to the tapestry. Les Soleils Des Indépendances is a sparkling sun in the firmament of Francophone literature and is an absolute must-read.
Ahmadou Kourouma’s works are available widely in translation. Needless to say they are best enjoyed in their original French. In case you would like to start reading French literature in French, you can always enroll yourself for an online French Course at Babel School of Languages. Just click on the contact us tab.