Interview with Henri Lopès, by Boniface Mongo-Mboussa

Paris, October 1997
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What struck me the most about Le Lys et le flamboyant (1), are its similarities with your previous novel Sur l’autre rive (2). The main characters of both books are female artists. Both are in conflict with their families. Neither is fulfilled until she flees her marriage. On the other hand, the narrative is different. In Sur l’autre rive the narrator is also the heroine. In Le lys et le flamboyant, the narrator is a half-Chinese, half-Congolese man who not only tells us Kolélé, the heroine’s, life story, but also his own. Would you agree with this reading of your novel?
Totally. I have nothing to add, other than that I hadn’t realised that there was any similarities between the heroines of Le lys et le flamboyant and my previous novel. In effect, both are artists, both go through a process of rupture for personal growth. But, of course, I was most interested in the differences. That is, I wanted to tell a different story. Having said that, all my stories a kind of variant on the same story. Sembène Ousmane is supposed to have recently said that, « A film-maker’s every film is the rough of the next one » (3). I think this is also true of novelists.
All your works seem to talk about women. Why this obsession?
There are several possible explanations. Firstly, there’s a literary reason. For a long time, I was under Aragon’s spell. And you know the role that women play in his works. Then there are explanations from my own life. I am an only son and my mother raised me on her own for a long time. That no doubt gave me special respect for women. Other than that, whenever I see a beautiful woman, I can’t help staring quite inappropriately. And more interesting than any of the reasons that I’ve just given, are those that I can’t explain. I’ll leave them up to the psychoanalysts.
After reading Le Lys et le flamboyant, I thought it could have been called « The book of sand ». That is, a book for which there could be an infinity of writings and re-writings. Is that how you conceived it?
Absolutely! It’s a kind of system like the old Dubonnet advertisement that had the picture of a cat rolling a Dubonnet bottle that had a picture of a cat rolling a Dubonnet bottle that had a picture of a cat rolling a Dubonnet bottle on it, and so on. Or Russian dolls – matrriochkas. Even though it’s not the general style, Le Lys et le flamboyant sometimes seems to be a shaggy dog story. It’s a bit of a hoax. You can never tell when the narrator is the real narrator, and when he’s his double. And this system of doubles of characters that resemble each other – that see themselves as a part of the other – goes even further. There is another character in the novel, Léon, Kolélé’s son. Well, when Houang the narrator in the novel, reproaches him for playing his guardian angel, Léon replies with something like this, « Don’t forget that you were born on Christmas Day. So you too are called Noël. My name is Léon, which is the anagram of your name. Therefore, we are brothers ». From this point of view, I wouldn’t say that the novel is a farce, because, once again, this is not the general style, but there are a whole series of little allusions that appear throughout the story.
In any case, the references are disturbing. The line between fiction and reality becomes blurred, starting at the end of the prologue, the narrator writes, « Lopès has turned Simone Fragonard’s stolen memories into a novel. As for me, I’m going to tell you the real story of this woman’s life. » (4) When I read this passage, it immediately made me think of Borgès, especially L’auteur et autres textes. It can’t have been an arbitrary decision to use a text by Pessoa, THE author of the mask, as an epigraph. Does this novel break with your previous novels?
Once again, I would say that every text, while better than its predecessor, also represents a rupture or a new path. As for the connection with Borgès, I was once telling someone how I was going to write the novel, and they said, « Borgès does that ». And, I have to admit, much to my embarrassment, that I haven’t read any Borgès yet. I have since bought a number of his works. They are on my bookcase. I intend reading them in the very near future but I didn’t want to before, in case I was influenced by the way he writes. As for Pessoa, I am, in fact, very much haunted by him. Choosing Pessoa’s text was no accident, given the way the narrative is constructed. But I might add that I’m also playing with something else. I wanted to disturb the reader, to confuse them with two other realities – the reality of fiction and the reality of history. When is it a narration of history, and when is it imaginary? Kolélé is a virtual character. And, as all things virtual, she is a combination of images – the synthesis of the lives of several people that I have known, or that I’ve heard about. Sometimes this virtual character enters precise moments in history – in China, in France, in Algeria. Sometimes she even meets characters that have really existed. This is what happens with the festival d’Alger on the night that Archie Shepp, Nina Simone and Myriam Makéba perform. That night really existed – I was there. I recreated it and added Kolélé’s character. Readers who have been to the festival d’Alger, especially those who were there that night, will find that passage disturbing. I would like to add that I have already played these kinds of games (and really, you can only write seriously when you are playing) in Le Pleurer-Rire. That’s why I included this beautiful quotation from Boris Vian (that could just as easily have been included in Le Lys et le flamboyant), « This story is true, since I invented it from the beginning to the end »(5).
Your writing is at once easy to understand and complex, because the characters you use are very baroque. This is the case for Le chercher d’Afriques (6), and again for Le Lys et le flamboyant. In these two novels, the characters are going through an identity crisis. But their quest often leads to disappointment. That’s what happens to the narrator in Chercheur d’Afriques when he goes in search of his father and falls in love with his sister, Fleur. In Le Lys et le flamboyant, Houang becomes Kolélé’s Aunt’s lover.
She’s not her Aunt. She’s one of the métisse women (of mixed blood) that he calls Tantine. And at the beginning of a chapter, he says, « In those times, all the métisses on both sides of the river were my Aunts ». So she’s not his real aunt. You could say that he does have a certain kind of respect for her though. However, in Le chercheur d’Afriques and Le Lys et le flamboyant, this « incest » is born of misunderstanding rather than desire. Some readers apparently accuse my books of being immoral, because of the so-called incestuous relationships. It’s best just to laugh!
So, you mentioned a quest for Identity, various identities. I think that’s the main theme of all my works, and possibly even more so in Le Lys et le flamboyant. Initially, because the woman has several names. And for a while, I was worried that the reader would get lost. I wondered whether it might not be best to go with a single name. In the end I kept them all but made sure that the reader was given plenty of signs to show them that it was the same character each time. But these name changes show that the character is… I wouldn’t say that she’s searching for her identity, she’s more constantly evolving, and doesn’t want to confine herself to a single identity. And she says, in the passage where she’s in a village on the Ile de Noirmoutier, that she has naturalised her soul. There we’ve not only an image of the woman of tomorrow but also of the man of tomorrow. On another note, you said that my writing is classical. I think so too. You add that there’s something baroque about it too. Granted! But I would be really happy if you wrote an article on the baroque aspect of my characters, because it would teach me a lot about myself!
It’s a deal! Earlier in your career as a writer, you wanted to write about « Independent Africa ». Now, you talk about Pre-Independence Africa. I would even go as far as to say that you turn back towards your childhood in your works. Is this a conscious decision on your part, or simply an accident of writing?
This point touches something vital in me, most probably because I’m getting older. The older you get, the more you look to your childhood, and the more you’re surprised to find that it’s so close. This attitude is no doubt representative of a natural tendency that everyone has, but two writers have reinforced it. One is the Austrian, Rainer Maria Rilke, who says we should always come back to our childhood. The other is my kinsman Tchicaya U Tam’si. Once, when I invited him to come back to Congo, Tchicaya replied, « You’re living in Congo whereas Congo is living in me »(7). These days, Tchicaya is often living in me, less through his writing than by what he used to say during our conversations. I am actually writing an article about this at the moment. I often used to criticise him for describing pre-Independence Africa in his novels. I was very harsh on him. As for me, I used to write about the post-Independence period to distance myself from a certain number of writers who came before me. Today, I realise that this attitude shows how narrow-minded I was. In fact, I didn’t understand what Tchicaya was looking for. I believe that a writer needs to look into every detail of his past, and work it in with his imagination. He even needs to look back into the distant past, before his times.
My next question will no doubt seem a little simplistic to you. Why did you choose a Chinese-Congolese man as the narrator of your last novel? Is this a Historical allusion? I mean, to the construction of the Congo-Océan railway, which drew people from several different countries. Or is it simply a literary whim?
Both. But first and foremost it is a veiled reference to History, because it’s a reality. I can give you several examples. Coming from Congo you will understand what I mean. Georges Lao is of mixed Chinese-Congolese blood. His father came over to work on the Congo-Océan railroad. There are other examples all around Africa. A well-known Minister in the Gabon government has a Chinese name. The other thing that I wanted to do was to chasten those of my readers who seem to have forgotten that I am a novelist, and not somebody simply recounting my own story – as far as they’re concerned each of my books is some kind of autobiography. I’m trying to get around them. In Le Chercheur d’Afriques, my narrator (who does resemble me to some extent) has green eyes. In Sur l’Autre Rive, I used the first person – but as a woman. In this one, the narrator is part Chinese, part Congolese, so technically there shouldn’t be any confusion, but several people have said to me, « Huh! I didn’t know you had Chinese blood ». So, I smile and point out, « Of course, Lopès is a Chinese name ». I could go even further and say that I had fun with this book because at one point, the narrator meets someone in Brussels who’s the spitting image of Lopès. The only difference is that he has green eyes. When Houang (the narrator) asks if he’s Lopès, the other man replies that it’s not unlikely but that his name’s actually André Leclerc. André Leclerc is the narrator and character from Chercheur d’Afriques.
In an interview with the newspaper Tam-Tam, Kolélé says that the Independence was, in her opinion, the real revolution. Do you share this point of view? If yes, do you think that we can now say that the Independence was a revolution when we know what became of it?
Before she talked about her opinion in the interview, Kolélé convinced me. I listened to her so often that I ended up believing it too and can now defend her point of view, which is also my own now.
You know, I belong to a country where the Revolution of the 13th, 14th and 15th of August 1963 is much talked about. It’s almost as if it were bigger than the French Revolution. I was involved in the revolution but I didn’t want to play a leading role. I didn’t have the strength to convince people that we were ridiculous at times, but I became more and more conscious of the fact. And, I realised that the 1963 Revolution hadn’t made a big difference to people’s everyday lives. What did make a difference was the Independence… not necessarily to everyday life, but we underestimated the impact that it would have. For centuries we had been ruled, ordered about, taken care of, and suddenly we were the rulers, we had to join the modern world. THAT caused a big upheaval and we didn’t even stop to consider what kind of effect it was having. We just kept on singing, and dancing, etc. What I like about that interview (which was rewritten several times before publication), is the fact that Kolélé – even though she belongs to the world of music – is very critical of our music. I think it’s a very healthy kind of interior criticism.
You have just mentioned the double life that you lead in Congo, being both a writer and a man of action. Would you say that writing is a kind of therapy for you?
Absolutely! I’ve said somewhere that I write to heal myself. I am eternally sick. When I’m not sick, I am affected by things that happen around me, in politics and in my private life. And, each time, writing helps me get over my melancholy. In my opinion, writing is the best medicine invented.

1. Loosely translates as « The lily and the flame tree »
2. Loosely translates as « On the other bank »
3. Translated by Africultures for the purposes of this article.
4. Translated by Africultures for the purposes of this article.
5. Translated by Africultures for the purposes of this article.
6. Loosely translates as « The searcher of Africas »
7. Translated by Africultures for the purposes of this article.
///Article N° : 5287

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