Tchicaya U Tam'si Essay - Critical Essays

U Tam'si, Tchicaya


Tchicaya U Tam'si 1931–1988

(Born Gérald Felix Tchicaya; surname also spelled Tchikaya) Congolese poet, dramatist, novelist, and short story writer.

Considered by many as one of the most influential modernist African writers, Tchicaya is relatively unknown in the English-speaking world due to the paucity of translated editions of his work. He chiefly wrote poetry but turned to drama and fiction toward the end of his career. Despite having spent nearly a lifetime abroad in France—a move which marked his early works with an overwhelming sense of loss—Tchicaya reflected on life in newly independent Africa in his poetry, addressing the effects of Christianity, colonialism, and European pedagogy on his native continent through rich imagery, African symbols, and rhythms derived from African oral literature. Critics have observed the influences of French surrealism and négritude, a literary movement that championed blackness, in his writing style, and they have compared his verse to that of French poets Aimé Césaire and Arthur Rimbaud and African poets L. S. Senghor and Diop Birago. Tchicaya's novels and short stories juxtapose Christian and African cultural and religious values, often blending elements of surrealism and fantasy, while his dramas concern modern African struggles for power.

Biographical Information

Born August 25, 1931, in what is now the People's Republic of the Congo, Tchicaya was the son of the Congolese first deputy to the French National Assembly in Paris, and he finished his secondary education at Paris's Lycee Janson de Sailly. Afterwards, he remained in France, working at various odd jobs as a laborer, draftsman, and messenger. During the early 1950s, Tchicaya began writing poetry, and in 1955 he published his first verse collection, Le Mauvais sang (Bad Blood), which attracted little critical or popular attention. His succeeding volumes, Feu de brousse (1957; Brush Fire) and A triche-coeur (1958; By Cheating the Heart), however, garnered him recognition as an important new African voice. In the late 1950s he produced more than one hundred radio programs based on adaptations of African legends that he later collected as Légendes africaines (1968). After a brief stint in Leopoldville, Zaire, in 1960 as editor of the newspaper Le Congo, he returned to Paris and worked with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a permanent official for the rest of his life. Tchicaya solidified his reputation as a leading proponent of négritude with the publication of Epitomé (1962) which earned him the grand prize for poetry at the Festival des Arts Nègres at Dakar in 1966. By 1970 Tchicaya was considered a major African writer following the appearance of L'Arc musical (1970; Bow Harp) and the English-language translation of Selected Poems (1970). During the late 1970s he focused his literary skill on drama, producing the plays Le Zulu (1976), Vwène le fondateur (1977), and Le Destin glorieux du Maréchel Nnikon Nniku, prince qu'on sort (1979; Glorious Destiny of Marshal Nnikon Nniku). In the 1980s, Tchicaya diversified his canon further by writing fiction, including the short story collection La main sèche (1980; Dried Hand) and the novels Les cancrelats (1980; The Cockroaches), Les Méduses, ou les orties de mer (1982; The Madman and the Mermaid), and Ces fruits si doux de l'arbre à pain (1987). Tchicaya died April 21, 1988, at Oise, France.

Major Works

Bad Blood concerns the poet's emotional response to his awareness about the human condition and the black man's status as a victim. Using images of children and birds, the collection's passive, despairing lone alternates with one of aggressive revolt. Tchicaya characteristically uses irony to temper intensity. Brush Fire explores the consequences of European colonialism, articulating the ways foreign systems of education and religion have alienated Africans from their culture and undermined native spiritual traditions. By Cheating the Heart emphasizes the poet's search for a purpose in life and addresses the suffering in Africa caused by slavery and colonialism. The fable-poem "Exquinoxiale," for instance, portrays Africa as a mother who has lost her child, yet prepares her body for the birth of another. Epitomé, widely regarded as Tchicaya's masterpiece, "reads like a poetic diary" of the Congolese uprising in 1960 and 1961, according to Gerald Moore. Christological imagery and language are vital in the collection, as the poet identifies himself with Christ and draws parallels between the exploitation of the Congo with the crucifixion. In Le Ventre (1964; The Belly), the Congo experience again dominates, with the author contemplating the life and death of his country. This collection contains some of Tchicaya's most difficult poetry due to its concentrated language, grammatical structure, and limited use of punctuation. Bow Harp and La Vests d'Intérieur suivi de Notes de Veille (1977) contain few references to public events but plenty of religious imagery. The more lyrical Bow Harp attempts to define the poet's faith, and La Veste d'Intérieur explores the isolation of the artist who lives in exile in a foreign culture. His novels are more political in nature. The Cockroaches details the lives of a French colonial and his African servants, and The Madman and the Mermaid investigates the mysterious deaths of two Congolese villagers. The stories of Dried Hand feature a surreal style, a mixture of French and African storytelling conventions, and a proverbial tone. Ces fruits si doux de l'arbre à pain focuses on family relationships, African mysticism, and Congolese politics.

Critical Reception

Tchicaya's literary work—no matter what the genre—has met with nearly universal critical acclaim, despite little attention from critics of African literature and general readers. Thomas R. Knipp called Tchicaya "the most prolific and gifted of the second generation of francophone poets," adding that "he is also the most difficult … an old-fashioned poet—even bookish and academic." The difficult nature of Tchicaya's poetry is a recurring theme in criticism of his work, however, Tchicaya's "mastery of his medium precludes his being dismissed as obscure or unintelligible," remarked Betty O'Grady. Many commentators have viewed Tchicaya as the most successful poet of négritude, although his verse as a whole has had little impact on the black world for reasons "more closely related to the political evolution of Africa than to literary merit," according to Clive Wake. Others have sensed a difference in Tchicaya's style of négritude, because it is more focused on the changing present rather than the traditional past. Chaibou Elhadji Oumarou suggested that Tchicaya's verse attempts "to build a cultural identity from within, that is, an identity geared toward the future. Such an identity has to be informed not by literary patterns imposed from without, but by pages of African history." Generally, critics have commended Tchicaya for the authenticity and universality of his work. Because of the religious nature of many of his poems, commentators have often attempted to reconcile the Christian and African elements to determine each poem's or collection's primary influence. Susan Erica Rein suggested that his poetry conveys a transcendent religiosity constituting nothing less than a unique "Tamsien religion," which combines features of African spiritual traditions and Catholicism. Tchicaya's fiction also has garnered praise similar to his poetry. Eric Sellin found that the novel The Cockroaches "significantly enriches the corpus of Francophone African literature," and that his stories "deserve the most careful intellectual scrutiny.

Principal Works

Le Mauvais sang [Bad Blood] (poetry) 1955
Feu de brousse [Brush Fire] (poetry) 1957
A triche-coeur [By Cheating the Heart] (poetry) 1958
Epitomé (poetry) 1962
Le Ventre [The Belly] (poetry) 1964
Légendes africaines [editor] (radio scripts) 1968
L'Arc musical [Bow Harp] (poetry) 1970
Selected Poems (poetry) 1970
Le Zulu (drama) 1976
La Veste d'Intérieur suivi de Notes de Veille (poetry) 1977
Vwène le fondateur (drama) 1977
Le Destin glorieux du Maréchel Nnikon Nniku, prince qu'on sort [Glorious Destiny of Marshal Nnikon Nniku] (drama) 1979
Les cancrelats [The Cockroaches] (novel) 1980
La main sèche [Dried Hand] (short stories) 1980
Les Méduses, ou les orties de mer [The Madman and the Mermaid] (novel) 1982
Ces fruits si doux de l'arbre à pain (novel) 1987


Thomas R. Knipp (essay date Summer 1974)

SOURCE: "Negritude and Negation: The Poetry of Tchikaya U'Tamsi," in Books Abroad, Vol. 48, No. 3, Summer, 1974, pp. 511-15.

[In the following essay, Knipp examines the themes of negritude and the alienation of the modern African in Tchicaya's poetry.]

The Congolese Felix Tchikaya U'Tamsi is the most prolific and gifted of the second generation of francophone poets. He is also the most difficult. His surrealism reaches back through Aimé Césaire to André Breton and others in the 1920s. In this sense he is an old-fashioned poet—even bookish and academic. But his poetry, which in the hands of Gerald Moore, Sangodare Akanji and others seems to translate well, is...

(The entire section is 1488 words.)

Clive Wake (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Tchicaya U Tam'si," in A Celebration of Black and African Writing, edited by Bruce King and Kolawole Ogungbesan, Oxford University Press, 1975, pp. 124-38.

[In the essay below, Wake provides a thematic overview of Tchicaya's works, suggesting "ways in which one might gradually penetrate the mysteries" of his poetry.]

Tchicaya U Tam'si is a major African poet, the most outstanding French-speaking African poet of the younger, or what one might perhaps call the post-Négritude, generation. His work has not, however, made the same impact on the black world as Senghor's, for reasons which are more closely related to the political evolution of Africa than to...

(The entire section is 5535 words.)

Eric Sellin (review date Autumn 1981)

SOURCE: A review of Les cancrelats, in World Literature Today, Vol. 55, No. 4, Autumn, 1981, p. 715.

[In the following review, Sellin praises Tchicaya's literary achievement in Les cancrelats.]

African fiction of French expression has tended, since the early 1950s, to conform not only to French linguistic stringencies but also to French literary models. The African writer adopted certain forms which conformed to his predilections, notably the diary, the epistolary exchange, the autobiography and the short story or fable.

A new, more boisterous fiction, which made the French language and consequent literary tradition bend to its will rather than...

(The entire section is 375 words.)

Eric Sellin (review date Winter 1982)

SOURCE: A review of La main sèche, in World Literature Today, Vol. 56, No. 1, Winter, 1982, pp. 162-63.

[In the favorable review below, Sellin maintains that the stories in La main sèche "deserve the most careful intellectual scrutiny."]

Tchicaya's short stories [in La main sèche], published the same year as his first novel, Les cancrelats, have the same triple thrust as that novel. First, there is the surreal and fascinating style; second, there is the blend of Western Christianity and African tradition; and third, there is the proverbial tone to the diction. Particularly salient in these tales is the fascinating blend of Christian...

(The entire section is 338 words.)

Victor Carrabino (review date Spring 1984)

SOURCE: A review of Les Méduses, ou les orties de mer, in World Literature Today, Vol. 58, No. 2, Spring, 1984, pp. 310-11.

[Below, Carrabino compares Les Méduses, ou les orties de mer to a detective novel.]

Within twenty-four hours, two friends, Elenga and Muendo, die. Their third friend, Luambu, is found comatose between the two friends' graves, yet he appears and disappears, much to the dismay of the people. André Sola, supervisor of the C.F.C.O. where Luambu was employed, goes through great pains to uncover the mysterious death of the two friends. Obviously, there are two versions of the story: the story told by the "civilized people," who blame...

(The entire section is 547 words.)

Kenneth Harrow (review date Spring 1988)

SOURCE: A review of Ces fruits si doux de l'arbre à pain, in World Literature Today, Vol. 62, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 322-23.

[In the following review, Harrow briefly comments on the family relationships, mystical aspects, and Congolese politics of Ces fruits si doux de l'arbre à pain.]

Tchicaya U Tam'si's first two novels, Les cancrelats and La main sèche, both appeared in 1980. Now, after a lacuna of seven years, we have a third novel in the vein of the first two. Three elements characterize U Tam'si's latest efforts [in Ces fruits si doux de l'arbre à pain]. The first is the focus on family relationships as a vehicle for developing...

(The entire section is 415 words.)

Irving Malin (review date Fall 1989)

SOURCE: A review of The Madman and the Medusa, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 4, No. 3, pp. 223-24.

[Below, Malin considers The Madman and the Medusa "as an epistemological and linguistic mystery."]

Although Tchicaya's brilliant novel [The Madman and the Medusa]—part of the acclaimed Caraf series—can be read in several ways, I would like to look at it as an epistemological and linguistic mystery. From the very first page we see the uncertainty principle at work. We are told in an "introduction" that "this story took place about the same time when, so they said, a white man used to wander at night through the native village of...

(The entire section is 457 words.)

Betty O'Grady (essay date Winter 1991)

SOURCE: "Tchicaya U Tam'Si: Some Thoughts on the Poet's Symbolic Mode of Expression," in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 29-34.

[In the essay below, O'Grady assesses Tchicaya's literary achievement, analyzing the imagery, symbolism, rhythms, and sociopolitical context of his poetry and prose.]

The death of Tchicaya U Tam'Si on 22 April 1988 at the age of fifty-seven sent shock waves through the world of African literature. Tchicaya, the oldest of a generation of important Congolese writers, is one of the few whose reputation has reached beyond the confines of Francophone Africa and France. During his lifetime, however, he never reached the...

(The entire section is 4535 words.)

Chaibou Elhadji Oumarou (essay date Summer 1995)

SOURCE: "Writing a Dynamic Identity: Self-Criticism in the Work of Tchicaya U Tam'Si," in Studies in Twentieth-Century Literature, Vol. 19, No. 2, Summer 1995, pp. 223-37.

[Below, Oumarou explores the rationale behind the critique of Négritude and Africa in Tchicaya's works, determining that such self-criticism functions to "free [oneself] both from the vestiges of colonialism and from the stifling African traditions."]

Je suis en rupture avec la tribu, je suis en rupture avec l'ethnie, je suis en rupture avec l'Afrique. 'I broke with the tribe, I broke with ethnicity, I broke with Africa.'


(The entire section is 5011 words.)

Further Reading


Ibitokun, B. M. "The Hemorrhage of Time in Tchicaya's Le Mauvais sang." Ufahamu; Journal of the African Activist Association 10, No. 3 (Spring 1981): 29-41.

Explores the ways Le Mauvais sang presents and dramatizes the historical effects slavery and colonialism.

Moore, Gerald. "The Politics of Negritude." Protest & Conflict in African Literature, edited by Cosmo Pieterse and Donald Munro, pp. 26-42. New York: Africana Publishing Corporation, 1969.

Discusses Tchicaya's contributions to the negritude movement.


(The entire section is 266 words.)