Author of a dozen novels and several essays, Mongo Beti is the most prolix and significant Bantu writer along with Tchicaya U Tam’si. His eminently political and subversive work remains well within Africa’s socio-historic contexts, to such an extent even, that it is possible to trace the contemporary history of Africa through his works (for more details about the author, see the long interview published in Africultures nº 14).
From Ville Cruelle to your latest novel Trop de soleil tue l’amour, your work strikes me as being characterized by a culture of insolence. What is behind this insolence?
That is a critic’s point of view. I do not get the impression that I am insolent. In any case, I’m not aware that I am. It might be in my nature. It is like someone being little or tall. The person doesn’t think about his/her size. It is other people who makes them conscious of how big or small they are. It’s the same with insolence. I grew up in a climate of protest. I was at high school in the Forties, in a mission school first of all. The missionaries soon threw me out, as you were forced to go to confession. At the time, I was highly shocked at the idea of telling somebody my sins. As I was expelled at a very early age, I was able to go to a secular secondary school just after the 1946-1947 war. I passed my Baccalauréat in 1951 and then got a scholarship. When you got your Baccalauréat in those days, you were automatically given a scholarship to come and study in France. That period at the end of the Forties and the beginning of the Fifties was a period of great anti-establishment activity in Africa.
The great U.P.C movement (Union des Populations du Cameroun), which was anti-colonialist, progressive, and a little Marxist, existed in the Cameroon. My adolescence was clothed in this climate of anti-colonial protest. In fact, I barely recognize today’s Cameroonians: they are gutless, nonchalant. They are a far cry from the Cameroonians I knew when I was a teenager. Coming back to your question, my writing is often said to be sarcastic. That is true. I owe that kind of writing to my French culture. One only need think of Molière, of Voltaire, of all those great French writers who challenged and ridiculed the societies of their time.
The tone of your latest novel is just, the narration fluid. It is very easy to read. I get the impression, however, that the book would have benefitted from a degree of rupture in the narrative.
Everybody writes in their own style. I am happy with mine. The book is about a society which is basically seen through the eyes of a bad guy. He isn’t all bad, however, as he has a naturally chivalrous nature. For example, when a woman cheats on his friend, he takes matters into his own hands. He is the one who give the book its tone. It is the tone of someone who is in a position of rupture vis-a-vis everyone else. He isn’t in the opposition. He isn’t on the side of the rulers either. He doesn’t believe in love. He doesn’t believe in African women’s ability to love. He is wrong, because he judges them all based on a certain kind of woman, that is, the free woman.
Is that why your book is called Trop de soleil tue l’amour (Too Much Sun Kills Love)?
There is a long story behind the title. The book was originally called Les Exilés sont de retour (The Exiles Are Back), a title I thought corresponded with the content of the novel. But my publisher is quite a difficult man… Still, I like that because he pushes you to give the best of yourself! He made me realize that, as eloquent as this title was for a Cameroonian, it meant very little to a Canadian, or a Belgian. I had to find another title, therefore. It took me a very long time. And he was never satisfied. One day he said to me: send me a last selection of titles. If we can’t come up with anything satisfying, we will chose one from those we’ve already got. In the meantime, he had said to me: as you have a « jazzy » culture, try to find something in that field. I sent him a selection of titles including the current one, which he liked. It’s a very well-known jazz standard. On the sunny side of the street. The rest of the verse is « Life can be so sweet ». You know, in the southern United States, Blacks were not allowed to walk in the shade. The shady side was reserved for the masters. The slaves had to walk on the sunny side, which was unbearable as it was so hot. Through their taste for subversion, the Blacks turned something that was initially meant to be a punishment into something pleasant. I in turn contradict them somewhat by answering that life is not as sweet as that, it’s a lie. Life is not so sweet on the sunny side of the world. In Africa, for example (the sunny side of the world), life is vicious, it’s a jungle. I had to ‘juggle with’ the title to come up with the final version!
In any case, it has a nice ring to it.
Well my publisher certainly likes it. I must admit that it isn’t too explicit. It is quite enigmatic.
I think it has a lot of charm, and not least because there is quite a funny love story behind it.
For me, the most moving parts of your novel are those which deal with exile. Don’t you find that you give quite a romantic vision of exile?
You are absolutely right. It is an extremely romantic vision. I lived in France for too long. And I idealized my country for a long time. I had to go back to Cameroon, to live there, to discover another vision of Africa. Yes, for a long time my mentality was that of an anticolonial militant, a black militant, as we were very marked by the combat of South Africa’s Blacks. It was a bit like Uncle Tom’s Cabin: the good Black oppressed by the bad White as, in our opinion, even the heads of the postcolonial States were the puppets of the Whites. Colonialism and slavery were thus still at play. It was only when I went back to Africa that I realized that we are half responsible for our misfortunes. One thing struck me. When we are here in Europe, we are subjected to, or articulate a highly militant discourse on African development. It is, moreover, one of the things that encourage me to go back to Africa. I wanted to go to Africa, to carry out development projects in my village, dig wells, perhaps build schools. People had promised me money here saying: ‘we’re going to help you’. I got to Cameroon and I realized that the grand, eminently impatient discourses we spew out here are completely out of touch with reality. In the towns, the young graduates who have been to university in Europe live as if they were still in France. That is, as if they were members of a French or American bourgeoisie. They have beautiful houses, they eat well, they run after women, etc. They show none of the concern we do here about how Africa is going to evolve. There is a kind of indifference amongst the elite vis-a-vis the poorer members of the population. For alongside the corrupt and carefree elites, there are those who cannot go to hospital because there is no equipment, children who cannot go to school because their parents have no money, girls who go into prostitution because they are hungry, etc. But it absolutely does not trouble this ‘bourgeoisie’. I was very disappointed. I found myself caught in a mechanism in which I was a kind of cog-wheel turning too fast, whilst everything else was moving slowly. As a result, I had some run-ins with my compatriots. What is more, one thing is very surprising about this Cameroonian ‘bourgeoisie’. They take money from the Cameroonian banks and place it here instead of investing it at home. I have no more illusions about exiles. Let’s say there is a collective fantasy: people think that because you have come back from exile, that you are perhaps going to do better than those who stayed in the country.
There is an elite poverty in this novel which can be seen, for example, in the people who claim to belong to the elite, but who are incapable of writing French properly.
It is true that there is a false elite, whose diplomas are sometimes fake. The Cameroonians are very good at counterfeiting. This poverty is not easy to show. As for their relation to the French language, people have reproached me, saying that it is not our language. If you asked a White to write our language, would he/she be able to? It’s a sophism. My answer is: when you are in a car, you don’t claim that it was invented by your father. You say, I have a car, I have to drive it in the best conditions possible and as best as I can. It is the same with French. There is a degree of laxity amongst the African elites. And so when you catch them out, they say you have to give them time. We are not like White people. This kind of sophism still lingers amongst this elite. Indeed, it is one of the reasons why Africans lack rigour. They reproach the president’s lack of transparence, for example. Which is true. But then their affairs are not transparent either. They think that democracy, development are going to come automatically. They don’t understand that democracy is both a collective effort and an individual combat, if only against tribalism. Above all, the civil servants are never in their offices. There are even those who never go to work and who are paid a salary they do not actually earn. As for corruption… I often go to the Douala port. It’s incredible! You declare your merchandise. Customs send an inspector to check that it complies with the rules. He says: I’ll write the required report on my visit, but give me 10 000 FCFA. It’s the same with the police. When you ask for their help, they answer: we are not equipped. Give us money to buy petrol. That is the mentality of the Cameroonian civil servant. Having said that, the poverty you are alluding to is more moral than intellectual.
There have not been many heros in our History. The only one who existed was killed in the maquis. But all peoples need heros, models. The French, whether they like it or not, situate themselves in relation to De Gaulle, to take the most recent example. Next come Clémenceau, Louis XIV, etc. This is what defines their identity. These models give France its identity as a great nation in the world with a certain number of values. We don’t have any. What people need, therefore, is education, that we teach them certain values like loyalty, tolerance, etc.
The critics highlight the fact that you always situate your books in Africa’s socio-historic context. So much so that we can follow the course of contemporary political history in Africa in them.
Yes. I try to. It’s kind of them to say so…
Does that mean that politics and writing cannot be dissociated in your work?
Not at all. I have been marked by French writers like Balzac, who is an incontestable model, or Zola. I see myself as belonging to this vein of social inspiration. Richard Wright has also influenced me. I have chosen this aesthetic to evoke African problems. But there are other writers I admire – Flaubert, Madame de Lafayette – who are not inspired by the social.
Will you ever write an essay on your poetics which could serve as a kind of legacy to the younger generations?
What you are saying is very important, but I had never thought of it! It has to be admitted, and I admit it. You know, I am beginning to feel old. I still have many things to say in the novel form. I have signed a contract with my publisher. I didn’t have to, but I did it. I have to honnour my engagements, therefore, which are to write two novels that will form a trilogy with Trop de soleil tue l’amour. Of course, if I feel that my inspiration as a novelist is beginning to dry up one day, I will then explain what I have tried to do. Not so that people do the same as me, but so they understand why I have written militant novels. I don’t make art for art’s sake. I was born in a context in which it was barely conceivable for a writer not to be engaged. Certain events have shocked me, have marked me, especially during the Second World War when Africans were forced, against their will, to contribute to a war effort without instruments, without equipment. I saw it. People were taken by force from their huts to such an extent that after a while, people stopped sleeping in their homes. So, as soon as I was able to express myself, I had to express Africans’ revolt against this abominable treatment. It just so happens that that suited my temperament.
The critics see you as a classic writer but at the same time you constantly criticize Francophonia as an institution. Isn’t that a contradiction?
You have used the right word. Francophonia is a neocolonial institution. I have often criticized it because, in spite of the number of institutions which claim to be Francophone (French language universities, etc.), come and see things on the ground: there are no libraries in Yaoundé. And yet if those people really supported the French language, they would begin by giving French speakers the instruments to help spread French culture. I find it hard to believe that my bookshop is the first in Cameroon! The first real bookshop since independence. The one that existed before was run by a Lebanese man who was very close to the early nationalists. As soon as the first Cameroonian dictator came to power, he threw him out. My own relation to the French language is absolutely not a mystical one. I am not Senghor. French is a tool which was thrust upon us. One has to make the most of it. That is all. I personally see the future in multilingualism. In towns like Yaoundé, you see children who can speak Beti, French and their friends’ languages too. When the use of French becomes political, I challenge Francophonia, but when it is simply a means of communication, I am for it.
I was surprised to see that you latest novel uses a popular style language.
You know, at the Corneille high school I taught at in Rouen, I was often criticized for using a language that wasn’t very « correct ». I have always been immersed in this « popular society », either as a student, or living in the Belleville district of Paris, at number 203 Place des Fêtes, to be precise. Furthermore, my brothers-in-law speak like that. We always chat like that together. Finally, there is a character in the novel who was a tramp in Paris. One of the things that struck me in Cameroon was that the exiles who have lived here a long time speak a popular Parisian language. Some even call their friends ‘bougnouls’ (‘niggers’).
In spite of its humouristic tone, the novel gives the impression that the continent is drifting. What hope is there left for Africa today?
I am not my own critic. It’s up to the critics to say whether or not my novel is pessimistic. I am optimistic for Africa. An oppressed people always liberates itself. Look what is happening in Eastern Timor. Two years ago, no one would have imagined that that country would become independent one day. But the Timorians have resisted. Sooner or later, Africa will rid itself of neocolonialism and its tyrants. It will invent a new breed of leaders. There has already been the example of Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso, who was a personal friend of mine, moreover. Look what is happening at the moment with our great neighbour Nigeria, for example. Somehow, we are going to free ourselves. I often mention one thing I did in my village when I came back. All the young people had left for the towns to look for work and were experiencing a whole range of precarious situations. I asked them to come back to the village, but warned them that I didn’t have any money to give them. We planted corn. And, believe it or not, that corn immediately found buyers in Yaoundé and Douala!
Trop de soleil tue l’amour, by Mongo Beti, Julliard 1999, 119 FF.
After L’Histoire du fou (also published by Juilliard, 1994), which shows that what was a little too quickly called the era of democratization in Africa is in fact a farce that has allowed dictators to organize sham elections that have kept them in power, Mongo Beti is back with a novel which evokes the drift of a continent.
The action takes place somewhere in an African country which could well be Cameroon. The plot is simple. Zamakwe, a politically engaged journalist, finds himself with a corpse in his cupboard one day. His CDs, his most precious belonging, have also been pilfered at the same time. Later in the plot, his mistress, the beautiful Elisabeth, is kidnapped by the « Death Squadrons ». Accompanied by his friend Eddie, Zamakwe, the narrator and protagonist of the novel, decides to launch an enquiry into what soon becomes a nightmare. Indeed in the end, he is in turn kidnapped by the head of an armed gang who claims to be his son…
This justly-written and easily-read novel is both a book of continuity and rupture in relation to Mongo Beti’s other works. Continuity because it evokes the author’s pet themes: the importance of the political question, the questioning of the roles society imposes on the individual, and the questions of family ties and remorse already present in Perpétue ou l’habitude du malheur (1974). Rupture because it is first and foremost a love story written in an essentially popular style.///Article N° : 5342