The Gabonese novelist Ludovic Emane Obiang first made a name for himself when he published L’enfant des masques in 1999 (Editions N’Dzé/L’Harmattan). He is also a musicology lecturer at the University of Libreville. In 1998, he was invited by the 16th edition of the Limoges Festival des Francophonies as a writer in residence. There he wrote Péronnelle (Editions N’Dzé: Libreville & Paris, 2001), a play set in a governor’s house in the colonial era. The play is a bit like being back in an old Fifties’ adventure film, only Obiang’s treatment of the situations is not at all realist. He perfectly captures the different power struggles and the collapse of a dying order that finally scuppers itself. The entire play’s dramatic tension lies in the paradoxes which are not without their perversity of the blend of humiliation and alienation that comprises the Governor’s wife and the servant Ada’s relationship, a servant who becomes indispensable to « Madame », « Madame’s » shadow, « Madame » herself, who becomes Péronnelle. Obiang does not shy away from the supernatural. Ada traverses the ages and time. She incarnates the power of resistance that has enabled black people to survive the various forms of oppression that history has imposed on them.
Why did you choose to set Péronnelle back in the colonial era?
I had read a lot of colonial novels. The colonialists formed a very specific population. They were far from Metropolitan France and often exaggerated their personality, their identity, and their authenticity. They exacerbated it.
They invented their own nobility, a distinction they wouldn’t have had back in France.
Exactly. This is clear from the Governor’s wife character. But I hope that spectators will forge their own opinion, that they will decide whether this character does in fact have a certain noblesse that goes astray in Africa. For, it has to be said that it was extremely hard for most of the colonialists and those living in central Africa in particular. The forest world is particularly hostile, with its malaria, sleeping sickness, leprosy, the sun, the rains. It’s a very difficult climate that takes its psychological toll. A lot of colonialists often drank themselves into the ground. The climate also plays on and exacerbates the libido, which fuelled their obsessive amorous adventures with the servants.
Some people might find the colonial society you portray particularly caricatural
I wanted to portray a stereotypical world, a world in which the characters are rigid. This is clear from the equally rigid and schematic vocabulary. This world the world of the governor, the foreman, the priest is a world of more or less implicit relationships. But a vibrant world, a world people aren’t aware of, the world of the caryatids, bubbles parallel to it. This underground, behind-the-scenes, subjected, black world that blends in with the furniture, but which is always present, listening and growing richer, can take up the roles and act out the play at any moment. I wanted to capture the stereotypical nature of the language, of an ossified world that freezes people’s real sensibilities. But when you look closely at the characters, you can detect a soul; only the distance and exile hardens them.
Your play, like many contemporary African plays, is built on the duality between two worlds and notably depicts a dark, magical world.
You have to enter this magical universe to grasp African attitudes, to understand the difficulties Africa currently faces in trying to find a certain stability. That is why I wanted to get to this « soul », to exhume it. I tried to take what could be conceptualised and, above all, adapted to modern reality from this African propensity for the supernatural. In this play, I attempted to recall the brilliance of spirituality via the mask and via a certain number of rituals. But it’s an incomplete text. You need to read Henri Piron’s play L’Enterrement to understand it properly, to discover who Péronnelle really is. In this text you grasp Péronnelle’s real anthropologic anchoring, i.e. the Ada character who features in this story. She’s a Mangane dancer
A universe that features in your book of short stories.
I already tried to unveil this creative brilliance in L’Enfant des masques in order to explore the extent to which this genius can be adapted to contemporary Africa. Our problem is that we are trying to create a development based on imported values. I don’t think there will ever be a development if it doesn’t correspond to a past. We woke up one morning, we were given clothes, a name, and we were told to live. But it’s a total amnesia; the background has been eclipsed. An individual needs to be conscious of his or her past to develop. We neglect our assets. That’s why I work on masks a lot, which cannot be reduced to their aesthetic value. It’s these masks’ creative brilliance that must be adapted to African needs today. I took the masks as texts that can open up a programme of civilisation for us today. That’s what I tried to do in this diptych, of which Péronnelle is only one part, Henri Piron’s L’Enterrement being the second. I am convinced that there’s no salvation for Africa unless we revisit the real « sites » of our tradition. We need to question traditional values, notably the values of immortality.
You define yourself first and foremost as a short story writer. Why did you choose the theatrical genre for these two texts?
It was a personal choice. I love the Mangane, a kind of ballet that alternates songs and tales, which lasts all night long and whose dancers sit on drums. I wanted to honour these artists. But it was a question of aesthetics too. I initially wrote a short story that I wanted to adapt. The short story was easy to write, but the theatre has other demands. It has the power to offer joy and sharing, which very clearly answered the situation I wanted, i.e. a rigid, opportunistic and self-seeking world and alongside it, a world of festivities.
What are your literary models?
I write short stories. I need to capture the reader’s interest, to keep the reader in suspense, to activate the reader’s intelligence, and to get him or her to question. That’s why my favourite writers are predominantly storytellers, for example Edgar Allen Poe and Frantz Kafka. Antonin Artaud and Jean Genet have greatly marked me too. I in fact wrote Péronnelle under the influence of Genet’s Les Nègres. I greatly respect Wole Soyinka too, particularly The Strong Breed, and The Road. I see them as a kind of mirror, rather than a model.
Are we right to detect the constantly reborn creator genius, the allegory of the artist in Péronnelle?
Péronnelle has the ability to metamorphose. She finds herself in all oppressive situations, in the United States, the West Indies, Africa. She incarnates a desire to recall that all black people have the same origin and a common history that must not be forgotten. To my mind, Péronnelle is fundamentally woman’s creative force, woman’s capacity to bring back life. This is the dynamic that makes it possible to struggle against inertia, to perpetuate ourselves. I am convinced that this is the way forward.
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