by Donato Ndongo
Translated by Michael Ugarte from the Spanish
Note: Equatorial Guinea was the only Spanish-speaking country in sub-Saharan Africa
The first chapter of this book grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. It’s a young African man explaining to the white priest why he no longer wants to be ordained. The white man is just incredulous that he would reject this amazing opportunity to do anything else. And of course, the priest thinks the Lord has called the young man.
The African says that while his country needs religion–it also needs doctors and lawyers and engineers. Of course the priest dismisses this statement as nonsense.
What’s It All About
This novel features a Westernized African man looking back and trying to remember his “African-ness”. And it’s hard. Identity, as the translator’s postscript says, is a mixture of the personal, ethnic, national, religious, existential. From the time he was little, the narrator was conditioned to turn his back on Africa and embrace Spain. He wants to identify with the colonizers because they have power.
Here’s a paragraph from the time when the narrator, under the wing of Father Ortiz, his would-be mentor and colonial father-figure, steps into a boat. They’re going to an island where the kid will learn to be a priest and he’s leaving his family.
“…And you would return many years later, carrying the wisdom and power of the whites, determined to be the new boss in town. Your mother was crying, but you didn’t see her because you were busy thinking about your victorious return, dressed in a black cassock and blue sash that would give you the perpetual immunity necessary fro the salvation of the tribe. Your father was crying, but you didn’t see him, you saw yourself as a replica of Father Ortiz imbued with his mysterious, magical power, which , together with the mysterious magical dignity of the ancestors, had been granted to you; it would give you the strength and valor necessary to consolidate the triumph….”
Straight Out of Equatorial Guinea
And more memories:
“When you all met Father Ortiz that noon at the mission, you didn’t know that many, too many years would pass before you would again walk on that beach, a beach with bubbling waters, in the distance, touched by white foam and bright red clouds of dust. Father Ortiz took your hand when you got out of the mission’s Land Rover.
“The blacks, conquered by the will of the planters, were gathered there with boxes, sacks, packages, wood, themselves determined to initiate a life as conquerors–indecisive, unpracticed, and unwilling, like you, in an unfamiliar island shadowed by mist and covered in black by the vomit of the earth’s entrails.
“Yes, just like you, except that they would break their backs on the plantations and you would genuflect at the alter, initiated into the white man’s practice of witchcraft, without knowing that you too would join an invisible army of conquerors attracted to the island’s riches.
“The planter had told them they would find good pay for their work, fine women, taverns just for blacks, a short distance from Santa Isabel but you’ll be able to do what you want there, not like on the mainland, where you have to hide your drink; you’ll have good strong brandy; here, take three hundred pesetas for your girlfriends dowry and come with me to Fernando Poo for a couple of years, only four work seasons, and when you go back, you’ll be top man in town, the envy of your townspeople.
“And the black man rolled his eyes, and he took the three hundred pesetas that to him meant fine women and good strong brandy; happiness was promised, so now he dozed off among the boxes, the sacks and packages.
Young Men Coming of Age
Some of the tension in the plot comes from cultural clashes in Equatorial Guinea. The boy narrator’s father is all for Western ideas. The mom and dad are Catholics who have been well taught about the “needed advancement of their native land in economics, morals, and technology.” The kid never has to kneel on gravel at school as a punishment like some of the kids, because they speak Spanish at home and so he speaks it well.
In school they march in front of the Spanish flag, and sing paeons to Ferdinand and Isabella. They are taught to say that they are Spaniards and Fascists, and that Facism and Catholicism are good and great.
But the boy’s Tio Abeso has other ideas. He’s all for the indigenous culture. He speaks Fang and doesn’t know Spanish. He was the elected village chief before the Spanish forcibly deposed him, but he still influences the people. He is a polygamist who believes in the power of the tribe’s ancestors rather than in Christ, and he insists on providing his nephew with the traditional rituals. Including circumcision.
The second chapter is the narrator’s reminiscing about “becoming a man” in the tradition of his tribe. As a little boy he was teased by his older cousins and boys in the village because he was “a child” and they were “men”. So at the age of 6 or 7 he’s taken out for his circumcision ceremony. It’s described in detail. I’m sorry, but UGH. Maybe this is just me as a woman, or as a Westerner or both, but I don’t like male coming-of-age stories because I don’t understand the obsession with the phallus. Moving on!
In the flashback where the narrator is leaving his family, there was a sentence that really struck me: “They were carrying bundles, oil lamps, a mattress, a sack of malanga, and the one at your side wearing a grotesque helmet from some mysterious war the whites had fought among themselves, who knows when. But you, recalling it many years later when you read about the heroic feats of that way, identified it as a German helmet. But of course, the man wearing it didn’t know…”
Didn’t know? Didn’t know about World War II? We think in the Western World that everyone knows about it and is as horrified as we are. No. In Trevor Noah’s memoir Born a Crime, he explains that many black South Africans name their dogs or even their children “Hitler”, thinking it a strong name that scared lots and lots of white people. They neither know nor care about the war.
This was an easy read. The translator did a great job, and I liked having the explanations and notes at the end, so I could form my own opinions of Ndongo’s prose. His writing, at least in translation, is smooth and fluid. It was an interesting choice to tell the story in flashbacks but somehow keep the tension. He managed.
Three sacks of Malanga!
Malanga is Arrowhead Root, a potato-like tuber said to have a nut-like flavor.