|BOOK REVIEW BY JEAN-MARIE VOLET|
La naissance d'Abikou" : Nouvelles
Cotonou: Phoenix Afrique, 1998, 340 pages.
[or directly from the author: Rue Damon. Garrigues-Sainte-Eulalie. 30190 Saint-Chaptes (France)]
The three stories opening the Volume take place in Africa but, in spite of their common geographical location, they differ greatly in terms of tone and content. The first, "La naissance d'Abikou" [Abikou's birth], which gives its name to the entire Volume, consists of a humorous - and often bold conversation between an as yet unborn cheeky child about to enter the world and his pregnant mother about to give birth. The second story entitled "Le veilleur de nuit" [The night security guard] is, in contrast, no laughing matter . A young man brings home a statue that has been discarded by villagers who have lost faith in its ancestral and magical powers. After proper ceremonies, the power of the fetish is reactivated in order to protect the dwelling of the young man's family. "Mashoka Elfu Moja" also tells a story that has no room for humour and byplay. It relates to the downfall of a dictator who is eventually killed during a successful student uprising marking the end of years of plunder, rape and despair. The following five texts represent loosely connected episodes of a single story, that of an African youth lost in provincial France in the fifties. These texts re-acquaint readers with some of the places and people already mentioned by Olympe Bhêly-Quenum in his other novels and could be read as a kind of sequel to them. While the emphasis is on different characters and situations, differing slightly from one episode to the next, the location and the bunch of friends 'hanging out' together remain the same. "Eros Noctambule" tells of young male teenagers aimlessly roaming the streets at night, stalking couples making love in the bushes and boasting about their own love-life to impress Edouard, a shy teenager from a well-off family. In "La grande amitié " [A solid friendship], we learn that, to his parent's dismay, Edouard has joined the group and that leads to tragedy. "Le vagabond" and "Sacrifice au soleil de midi" (the latter episode appearing out of sequence) approach from different angles the stifled ambience of provincial life in the fifties; whereas "Funmilayo", by contrast, emphasises both true love and the political involvement of the main character in the turbulent times of the Loi-Cadre. "Les Francs maçons" [the Freemasons] marks the end of the sequence and coincides with the first invitation of the narrator, after six years spent in France, to visit to a French family.
"Oni Loni Je" takes the reader back into the realm of the short story proper and deals with the issue of magical power, a theme close to the heart of the author and already explored in a similar way in one episode of his novel "L'Initié". A young man invested with the magical power of a 'bochio' finds himself protected from evil forces and able to keep those negative forces at bay. The following story, "La Conference de Berlin", tells of the short visit - and love affair - of an African scholar invited to a conference in Germany. The last text of the collection is titled "Madame Venihale". It is the story of a loveless marriage which takes a new turn when Madame Venihale's husband is killed during W.W.II.
Olympe Bhêly-Quenum's book is interesting yet difficult to review because one feels that a purely literary and formal analysis of the Volume would miss its main interest and purpose. La naissance d'Abikou is not a well polished product. It lacks coherence and proper editing; the stories are full of the gender bias common in the literature of the fifties. The relationship between the texts and previous novels published by Olympe Bhêly-Quenum would need to be better established as would the writer's own experience in France in the fifties. However, an evaluation of the book along these lines is inadequate if one considers the Volume as some kind of archival material bequeathed to posterity by a well-known author at a time when no publisher was interested in editing and printing this material. Too many manuscripts are lost today because they do not fit the requirements of economic rationalism or fall short of contemporary canonical expectations. In a profit driven economy with no long term vision and appreciation of cultural diversity, diminishing budgets for the safe-keeping of "non essential items" leads to an ongoing destruction of precious bits of trivia that should be kept for future generation to enjoy. Who can say what will be important in 50 or 500 hundred years. In this context, instead of burning his manuscript, Bhêly-Quenum's has decided to publish the material in a rough hewn fashion. By so doing, his manuscript invites a sympathetic reception; however, it is to be hoped that this last resort in publishing is not going to become the norm. Authors of the stature and reputation of Olympe Bhêly-Quenum and their readers deserve better by way of editorial, publishing and distribution resources.