February 16, 2012 by markstani
It is widely acknowledged that, through the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, Latin America has pretty much cornered the market in political mysticism.
So it is tempting, when reviewing the late Ahmadou Kourouma’s epic Waiting For The Wild Beasts To Vote (pub. Vintage) to seek to draw some kind of parallel: re-imagine a blend of Vargas Llosa’s twin totems, ‘Feast Of The Goat’ and ‘War Of The End Of The World’ in post-colonial Africa, and you get part of the picture.
In reality, though, if Kourouma’s story of the merciless reign of Koyaga, dictator of the fictional Republic du Golf, deserves lifting to such illustrious company for its sheer scope and complexity, it is also undeniably unique.
Kourouma tells the story of a child orphaned by his father’s brutal murder by colonial forces, who grows up to seize power and reign for three decades, surviving dozens of attempts on his life, each of which enhance his mythical status in a land steeped in the supernatural and voodoo lore. The book was first published in English in 2003, two years after the author’s death.
It has been described as a savage satire on the corrupting influence of absolute power, yet the most chilling aspect of this extraordinary novel is that it is all too real: after all, we live in a world whose variously oppressed peoples are forced to believe that their Dear Leaders shot multiple holes in one in their first ever rounds of golf; who exist in countries whose days of the week have been renamed after their Father’s relatives.
Upon gaining power, Koyaga is courted by other dictators from the continent who are thinly disguised versions of true-life despotic leaders: Kourouma said he was particularly influenced by the reign of Togo’s Etienne Eyadema, who, like Koyaga, emerged as the only survivor of a plane crash which further served to mythologize his rule.
Koyaga is told that ‘the most dangerous beast that attacks the Head of State, the leader of the one party, is the insidious tendency at the outset of one’s career to separate state coffers from one’s own.’ Furthermore:
‘In Africa today, everyone knows [about the appropriation of funds for personal use], and everyone accepts it. And no African would be so petty-minded as to try to find out what is written in the accounts of a leader elected by universal suffrage. In Africa, we do not inspect the mouth of he who is entrusted with shelling peanuts for the village, nor the mouth of he who manages the smokehouse where the agoutis which the whole village has hunted are cured. In Africa, we trust our leaders.’
If it is a tale of ruthless exploitation it is also a savage indictment of the abuse of both colonial and neo-colonial power: Kourouma chronicles the cynical retreat of the French armies, but not their influence; and how the emerging dictators ruthlessly exploited Cold War tensions to achieve validation for their reigns from western powers terrified by the spread of communism – the one-time puppet-masters turned to puppets.
Inevitably, as with almost all dictatorships, Koyaga’s brutal, lavish rule is finally threatened. With civil war about to erupt, he must conjure ever more deft political manoeuvrings to maintain order. In doing so, he reveals the sharp mind that lies at the heart of all long-term dictators, challenging the commonly held western assumption that these men are simply sociopathic buffoons whose habits are ripe for mocking.
‘Waiting For The Wild Beasts To Vote’ is a stunning, unforgettable book. Not only does it lift Kourouma among the superstars of what is broadly known as magical realism, but it surely also secures his place among the truly great African novelists of the 20th century. No especially exhaustive knowledge of the continent’s fiction is required to make such a statement: it is as unfathomable as the boasts of the greatest dictators themselves that more than a handful of others could possibly have written a book this deep, this complex, this good.
This book was reviewed as part of the Africa Reading Challenge hosted by Kinnareads.