Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1488
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 oblique, fluid, suggestive, and replete with private symbols and symbolic motifs which accumulate meaning as they appear in poem after poem. Moore describes this process as a "spiral, exploratory movement."
It is easy to read U'Tamsi as a poet of Negritude—as the most successful example of Negritude at work in the second generation. Senghor insists upon such a reading. He attributes to U'Tamsi "A single passion, to bear witness to Negritude. [U'Tamsi] is a witness whose sole end here [in Epitomé] is to manifest Negritude. We have seen that he has all the negro virtues, but above all he assumes the mingled hope and despair of the negro, the epical suffering." U'Tamsi himself speaks of Negritude as of a movement in which he is participating. At the Dakar festival he stressed the link between it and the universal civilization in the best Senghor tradition: "The fruits of Negritude should not be picked by black hands alone but also by the hands of men of good will everywhere."
On the other hand Moore wonders if surrealism (what Senghor calls une syntaxe qui déraisonne) can be made to serve the cause of an ideology. The conception of Negritude as an ideology is, of course, inadequate even as a critical convenience. Negritude is so many things that its opponents cannot isolate it long enough to kill it. Among other things it is a state of mind—and a very flexible, durable one. In U'Tamsi's case it is indeed a state of mind, and surrealism is a technique used by a poet whose mind and experience are encapsulated within the boundaries of Negritude. Therefore the sentiments of Negritude will surface periodically and will underlie and infuse much of the poetry.
A reading of his poetry—particularly Brush Fire—reveals that U'Tamsi does combine the surrealism associated with the Caribbean origins of Negritude with the themes and historical perspective of Senghor and David Diop.
U'Tamsi's African suffers.
je vous ai dit ma race
elle se souvient
de teneur du bronze bu chaud
the taste of bronze drunk hot
Because of their suffering his Africans have acquired a moral superiority to the white Europeans, who were the cause of the misery. In Epitomé the white man is portrayed as a criminal—not only exploitative, but hypocritical and sadistic.
La mer obéissait déjà aux seuls négriers
des nègres s'y laissaient prendre
malgré les sortilèges de leurs sourires
on sonnait le tocsin
à coups de pied au ventre
de passantes enceintes
Already the sea obeyed the slave traders
The Negroes let themselves be taken
Despite the spell of their smiles
The alarm bell was sounded with a kick in the bellies of pregnant women.
Elsewhere, where his anger against the Europeans is less intense, he still indicts them because "they could not wait / until I proferred my own hand to them." He complains that "they set their technical constellations against me" and that the harmonious nature of Africa—the mangrove and weeping willow—could not resist their onslaught. However, whether the anger is mute or intense, the roles assigned to European and African correspond to the roles found in Senghor, Dadié and the two Diops.
In the poem "Erect," U'Tamsi rejects the roles assigned to the black man by the conqueror—the roles of slave and evolué. "No slave's lament nor the Marseillaise either." And the African himself, liberated by the retreat of colonialism, will determine his new role.
voici le serpent fuit devant la sève mûre
qui surgit des flammes
une nuit fit des noeuds dans toutes les mémoires
je sais des danses qui sont d'atroces tragédies
mes nègres dansent
ton nègre danse
le serpent en fuyant libère nos mémoires
Here the serpent flees before the ripe sap
that wells up in flames
a night knotted together from all memories
I know dances that are atrocious tragedies
My negroes dance
Your negro dances
the fleeing serpent frees our memories
"A Mat to Weave" is a fairly long poem which establishes a counterpoint between the social and the personal. The poet speaks of the unique black contributions: "he came to deliver the secret of the sun." But he is rejected:
il avait l'âme mûre
quand quelqu'un lui cria
sale tête de nègre
His soul was ready
when someone called him
And he remains unaccepted, still in possession of his secret. "Still he is left with the gentle act of laughter." The later lines of the poem seem autobiographical. He describes the Westernizing process through which he has passed:
ici commence son poème-de-vie
il fut traîné dans une école
il fut traîné dans un atelier
et il vit des chemins plantés de sphynx
here begins the poem of his life
he was trained in a school
he was trained in a studio
and he saw roads planted with sphinxes
But he emerges from the process with the vital African residue—nature and joy—still intact.
il lui reste l'arc suave de son rire puis
l'arbre puis l'eau puis les feuilles.
he is still left with the soft arch of his
laughter then the tree then the water then
However among these rather positive assertions of Negritude, U'Tamsi weaves other themes and visions. The search for identity which one finds in Lenrie Peters, the sense of alienation that one finds in Kofi Awoonor, the apocalyptic visions found in Frank Parks—all these surface in Brush Fire. U'Tamsi speaks of the African's identity quest as the search of a desolate man—a man, as he says in Epitomé, with "soul and body naked," a "man without a history." If these phrases seem to refer to the generic Negro, the following apocalyptic lines from "Still Life" seem painfully personal as well:
si je vous dis
mon père ignore le nom de ma mère
je suis témoin de mon temps
et j'ai vu souvent
des cadavres dans l'air
où brûle mon sang
If I tell you
my father does not know my mother's name
I am the witness of my age
I have often seen
carcasses in the air
where my blood burns.
Under such conditions and in such a world it is heroic not merely to know one's identity but also to contribute, and U'Tamsi takes on this heroic task in "Abortive Joy."
j'essaie de sauver ma peau
et d'agrandir le monde
d'une mesure de deux mains
I am trying to save my skin
and to enlarge the world
by the measure of two hands
But the last three lines of the previous quotation suggests that for U'Tamsi there are moments of suffering when Negritude and the contribution of two hands are burned away by the apocalyptic vision of the modern world in all its violent hopelessness—a modern world in which to carry the Negro's unique message of laughter and the universal rhythm is not to redeem men but only to intensify through irony one's own agony. The following lines are from "Against Destiny":
il n'y a plus de soleils couchants
il y a l'herbe vorace
il y a le feu plus vorace
les peines poilues des bras pauvres
There are no more setting suns
There is ravenous grass
There is more ravenous fire
The hairy sorrow of impoverished arms
These last quotations illustrate themes more commonly found in anglophone than in francophone poetry. They are part of the cry of the lonely African, not part of the assertion of Negritude. Perhaps this thematic duality is explainable environmentally in terms of U'Tamsi's time and place. He is the inheritor of the poetic tradition of Senghor and Césaire, but he is also, like Peters, Awoonor and Parks, an African who came of age as a man and an artist in the troubled 1950s. If he shares a tradition with Senghor, he shares an experience—a moment in time—with Peters and the others. But whatever the causes, his poetry does possess a tension and a density resulting from the counterpoint and interpenetration of the two themes. The result is, perhaps, the richest poetic achievement in modern Africa.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5535
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 literary merit.
Tchicaya's poetry, like Senghor's, is deeply rooted in an African consciousness torn by colonialism (although unlike Senghor, Tchicaya is also profoundly affected by the memory of slavery). Their attitude of mind is, however, very different. Whereas Senghor knows who he is and where he is going—it was part of the essential confidence and optimism of Négritude—Tchicaya is frustrated by the apparently insuperable difficulty of finding his identity, in relation both to the past and to the present, and has no certainty at all about his future either as a black man or quite simply as a man. It is precisely because he is unsure about the ability of man in general to overcome his weaknesses that he can feel so little confidence in his future as a black man. Senghor, starting from an absolute confidence in his own race, is able to face the rest of humanity with an equal confidence. The tone of their writing is therefore very different. Senghor's poetic diction embodies the calm dignity of the poet's self-assurance, with which the almost biblical rhythms of his verse are very much in keeping. Tchicaya's sense of frustration, anger and loss produces a more aggressive diction which expresses the ups and downs of an unsatisfied self-exploration. Sure of his links with the African past, Senghor constantly refers by name to the heroes of African history and to the particularities of the traditional culture. Such references are almost totally absent from Tchicaya's poetry. For him, there are the general images of a suffering past—slavery and colonialism—and the particular images of twentieth-century misery—the lynched black American Emmet Till, the murdered political leader Patrice Lumumba and the Congo: the Congo, a river as well as a place, above all. This is the region where he was born in 1931 and the scene of one of Africa's most traumatic experiences of the twentieth century. Although he was born on the Brazzaville side of the Congo, he identifies in his poetry with the nightmare of the other Congo's history between 1959 and 1961, both because of the significance of the events themselves and because they reflected with symbolic intensity his own sense of violation and loss. The specific events of the period find their place almost naturally in a poetic universe which was by then ready to receive them. This was a poetic universe made up of two primary elements, the suffering human body in all its parts and the Congolese landscape of savannahs, forests, rivers (and chiefly one river), birds, animals, sun and sky. These are the realities of his world, and the necessary sources of his imagery and his symbolism.
Tchicaya writes a difficult poetry. Much of it remains impenetrable to even the most assiduous and sensitive of readers, although there is little doubt about the main lines of his thought. Tchicaya has, however, with justification, denied the charge of hermeticism: '… personally I do not think myself hermetic. I admit I have a big nose, I admit I have a club foot, but I do not admit being hermetic. It is quite easy to read my poetry if one takes time, if one is careful to pause in the right places; there is no trick about it' [Cultural Events in Africa, no. 60 (1969)]. There is no evidence that the poet is deliberately trying to make his work inaccessible to the reader. The poetry is constructed around a very vivid, startling use of imagery and symbolism of a chiefly visual kind. One is tempted to define it as Surrealist, but this would be a mistake. The use of enigmatic visual imagery, largely without referents, along with ellipsis, non-linear argument, ambiguity, lack of punctuation and a refusal generally to make allowances for the reader are common to much modern French poetry which is not Surrealist. Surrealist poetry is concerned with subconscious experience and ought, if it is genuine, to be based on spontaneous (called 'automatic') writing. The structure and imagery of all of Tchicaya's poetry are very carefully controlled, and throughout his work there is broadly the same recurring pattern of images, phrases and themes. Moreover, Tchicaya seems to be much more concerned with conscious experience than with the subconscious; he is anxious for the self-knowledge which will tell him where he stands in relation to other men. This would certainly be in keeping with Tchicaya's rejection of the description of his poetry as hermetic. He goes on to say: 'It is as when I say: I lend a pack of cards to a passer by. I lend. I give. One must visualise the pack of cards and one must visualise the hands of the passer-by, and the passer-by himself. And if the passer-by is a Fortune-teller one must wail for the prognostication … nothing could be more direct.' He is stressing here the conscious quality of his poetic experience. The purpose of this essay will be to try to suggest some of the ways in which one might gradually penetrate the mysteries of this complex, highly-charged but very immediate poetry.
Tchicaya has so far published six volumes of poetry: Le Mauvais Sang (1955), Feu de Brousse (1957), A Triche-coeur (1960), Epitomé (1962), Le Ventre (1964), and Arc Musical (1970). The first three volumes were re-issued (with a number of significant alterations to Le Mauvais Sang) in a single volume, in 1970. Epitomé, which also incorporated a number of significant textual amendments, as well as additions, was re-issued in the same volume as Arc Musical.
In his first volume, Le Mauvais Sang (Bad Blood), the young poet evokes the emotional impact made on him by the realization that the human condition, and in particular that of the black man, condemns him to the role of victim, not hero. Although the black man's situation in the world is central to his theme (it is mentioned in the very first poem and the notion of 'bad blood' refers to the black man's supposed congenital inferiority), it is not again directly referred to until the end of the volume, and in the final poem it literally explodes into prominence. This approach has the effect of strengthening Tchicaya's point by bringing us to the poet's awareness of himself as a black man via his awareness of himself as a human being first and foremost. But Tchicaya is not so much concerned with his lot as a black man as with that initial realization of his human condition. Like his admired predecessor Rimbaud, Tchicaya expresses it very aptly through the image of the child, and occasionally through the image of the bird, when he wants to stress more the idea of the poet as a singer and a lonely figure. The child's imagination is particularly sensitive to the experience of alienation and hostility. Family ties are important to him, so Tchicaya's child has no family, 'neither father, nor mother, nor brothers', he is 'a bird without feathers, a bird without a nest'. He has an instinctive longing for joy, purity and love ('sun', 'gold', 'love', 'heart' are all words carrying these ideas which recur frequently), but he seems to be held by a 'destin' ('destiny') which is corrupted at source; he is led to believe that his very life blood, his very blackness are impure. In his quest for an answer to the riddle of this paradoxical conflict between aspiration and hopelessness, he is torn alternately by hope and despair, by apparent success and a profound sense of defeat. He meets a fortune-teller who describes his life as 'a long journey at the end of which you will be hanged'. His frustration provokes intense resentment, emotions which come very forcefully through the imagery and the rhythms. Passive sadness, in verses perhaps deliberately reminiscent of the nineteenth-century French poet Verlaine, alternates with outbursts of aggressive revolt which are in turn reminiscent of Verlaine's companion Rimbaud. The intensity of the emotion is maintained by its being held tautly in check, its only outlet an irony which makes no allowances for the unwary.
The volume is not, however, merely a random collection of mood poems. There is a unity of imagery and theme, but also an evolution in the poet's attitude to his predicament. A poem of hope seems to be cancelled out by a poem of despair and so on, like a pendulum. But as the volume nears its close, the feeling of hope comes to dominate more and more. In the poem 'Espérance, o savanes', while the penultimate stanza ends with the exclamation 'Défaite!', the last stanza ends with a resounding 'Espérance!'. The first and last poems of the collection themselves indicate the distance covered by portraying exactly opposite states of mind through the same image of 'le mauvais sang'. The first poem asks a question without any hope of an answer:
Heave your song—Bad Blood!—how then to
survive the soul bloomed with shit….
In the last poem, ['Le Signe du Mauvais Sang'], rather like Césaire in the Cahier, the poet ironically accepts the squalor and ugliness of his physical and moral condition as it has been presented to him. He rejects the temptation of self-pity and fatalism. 'A toad's destiny is pure enough', he exclaims. Another of the last poems is entitled 'Le Gros Sang', where 'bad' (or 'impure') is replaced by 'big' as the qualification for 'blood'. This poem contains an important line which expresses the mood of the final poem: 'I am the tempered steel, the fire of the new races'. The poet acknowledges the virtue of pride: "In the memory of man pride has been a vice I make it a God … I am a man I am black'. Along with the transition from defeatism to a more aggressive self-assertion comes the realization that what he has so far seen as a private predicament is one he shares with all the 'new races'. The poet's sense of isolation disappears and he is able to declare: 'I create Brotherhood'. Where he had once taken seriously the idea of the inherent impurity of his blood, he now uses the phrase 'le mauvais sang' with an irony which indicates his new state of mind:
That's it they are of course tractors grumbling across my savannah.
No it is my blood in my veins!
A bad blood it is!
Tchicaya's concern with colonialism is more explicit in Feu de Brousse (Brush Fire). Although he tells us his 'love is sad', this volume has none of the passive sadness, with its hint of self-pity, to be found in Le Mauvais Sang. Instead there is a much greater firmness of purpose, already evoked in ['Le Signe du Mauvais Sang']. The central theme of Feu de Brousse is the idea that the black man has been deprived of the spiritual continuity of his African tradition, and without it is seems he cannot find his identity. Colonialism, coming in the wake of slavery, and bringing with it the cultural arrogance of Christianity, has undermined his tradition and created in him a sense of rootlessness; in terms of the book's symbolism, the fishermen have abandoned the river. In the poem 'Long Live the Bride', he illustrates his argument by taking what was at the time one of the great events of Africanized Christianity. The Messe des Piroguiers ('The Fishermen's Mass') had recently been performed in the Cathedral of Saint Anne in Brazzaville. Less well-known than the Missa Luba, it was nevertheless one of the fashionable 'African' masses of the day:
uncle nathanael writes to me of his astonishment
at hearing the drums
Tchicaya was not to be taken in by the novelty of drums in a Christian church. In allowing their use, the missionaries had been careful to exclude any of the 'lewdness' they associated with traditional African dance and music. Tchicaya regards this emasculation as a travesty:
my catafalque is ready
and I lie dead murdered on the altar of christ.
Tchicaya returns constantly in his work to the way European education and religion have alienated him and Africans in general from themselves, and at the same time destroyed the links that once bound Africans of different tribes together. The poems of this volume evoke the poet's attempts to rediscover his own lost spiritual continuity with his people. There are false solutions: he pretends to accept the white man's ways, but this leads to a hypocrisy which can only give him 'the life that kills'. He seeks the answer in the vision of an ideal, represented here by the love of a woman, especially Sammy; the theme and Sammy recur throughout his work. But idealism is no solution either. He comes finally to realize that he has to stand on his own two feet and walk, as the titles of the last two poems in this volume indicate: 'Debout' ('On your feet') and 'Marche' ('Walk').
This summary is a gross oversimplification, inevitably, of a complex and subtle exposition in poetic terms of the poet's conception of his predicament. Imagery drawn from the human body, especially the various associations with blood, is significant, but he expresses his theme mainly through the medium of imagery suggested by the Congo landscape. The river itself is the central symbol, standing for the continuity of life and the spirituality it ensures. Often the poet identifies himself directly with the river:
His river was the gentlest dish
it was his most living flesh.
Some of the images, such as the dish in this quotation, seem odd at first. The dish can be associated with the later image of the matrix, equated with the poet's eyes, the symbol of the true self.
The river must be bridged, the two banks linked again, and the spiritual continuity of his soul in space and time restored. It seems to him that only the rainbow—perhaps an image of the ideal—can achieve this. The last poem, 'Marche', draws the imagery and themes of the volume together in the form of a fable which seems to suggest ultimate success for the poet. The river Congo is created from the eyelash of a waking child, and the banks of the river are joined by time; the poet crosses and is restored to his origins, able to undergo the purification by fire which will clean away his shame.
the bell tolls it is time
across time and river
time fords the tolling of the bell
on its mounts of silence
my soul is ready
peace on my soul
light the fire that washes away shame.
A Triche-coeur (By Cheating the Heart) stresses the theme of the poet's quest for purpose. In the opening fable-poem, 'Agonie', the poet ('the black boatman') crosses the river to a bird on the other bank who represents his soul. Filled with his ambition to 'heal with the mud of his sad eyes / the lepers of their leprosy', he learns that he must instead set his sights much lower. The bird tells him:
I am your soul farewell
my body is only a shadow farewell
your arms will be untied
I am not a leper
do not die waiting for me
with your arms stretched out in a cross.
A later poem, 'L'Etrange Agonie', develops the theme of the poet's quest more fully and in a more intensely personal way. The outcome is, however, the same: his future will not be that of a conqueror but a club-foot.
The poet's concern with the purpose of his own life is always inextricably tied up with his awareness of 'the orphan' Africa's three centuries of suffering through slavery and colonialism. In a very vivid and moving fable-poem, 'Equinoxiale', Africa is portrayed as a mother who has lost her child and during her centuries of mourning ploughs and sows her body in readiness for the birth of a new child. In several poems, Christianity's role is developed more fully, in readiness almost for the next volume, Epitomé. It enables the poet to exploit the image of the cheating heart. The Christianization of Africa by men who use methods that betray Christ also leads to duplicity on the part of the poet who hides his real preoccupations from them and even from his own people:
Devoted to my illusions
I never laughed
I never showed my teeth to anyone …
I pretended they were bad.
In turn he betrays the betrayed Christ (who is later to be presented as the betrayer himself) and turns back to the pagan Sammy, whose pure song rises from among the devastated trees of Africa like a clear river flowing through green fields. In the title poem of the volume, Tchicaya contrasts the apparent sterility of his own suffering and his sense of having betrayed Africa by his cheating and hypocrisy with the falseness of Christ's sacrifice (Christ is symbolized as a wild boar), for did he not instruct the 'corner-stone' Peter to bring into being a religion of violence?
with the sword break bread
stretch forth your hand make love.
The unifying idea of this volume is the moment of death (agony) and death itself, for death sums up a man's life and, as the Gospels say, inaugurates a new life. Christ dies so that a religion based on violence and violation might emerge; the mother mourns for her child while she prepares her body for a new birth; the death of the orphan Africa is evoked in yet another fable-poem, 'Le Corbillard' ('The Hearse'); and so too is the mystery of the poet's own agony as he strives to free himself from a destiny that prevents him from realizing the real purpose of his existence.
A Triche-coeur reads like a prologue to Epitomé, although all three volumes so far discussed reach their climax in this last one. Epitomé/Les Mots de Tête pour le Sommaire d'une Passion (Epitome/Epigraphs for the Summary of a Passion), published in 1962, is perhaps Tchicaya's most important work to date, the two subsequent volumes notwithstanding, not only in terms of the poet's artistic development, but also, as it is clear from the title, in terms of his awareness of the stage reached by his intellectual and emotional development. 'Epitome' indicates a quintessential bringing together, or summary, of the elements that constitute his 'passion' (in the religious sense), and the word 'summary' in the sub-title on the one hand reinforces this intention and on the other it includes the now less common meanings of summa, the 'sum or substance of a matter', to quote the OED, and the notion of the highest point or climax of an experience. This is clear from Tchicaya's use of the preposition in the title of the poem's first section: 'Au Sommaire d'une Passion' ('At the Summary of a Passion'). These intentions are made very relevant when we consider the events which provided an essential element in the inspiration of the poem. These were the events that followed on the outbreak of violence in Leopoldville (which Tchicaya refers to throughout his work as Kin) in 1959 (the date is mentioned in the text), a year before the country's independence. Something like two hundred African civilians lost their lives in clashes with the Belgian forces of order. These events, in all their brutal reality, force the poet to come face to face with himself, to confront the introspection of a perhaps too theoretical poetry with the facts of life.
In 'Préface', Tchicaya acknowledges the ambiguities of his attitude to the world around him. During the course of the poem, he refers to himself as the man with a limp, anxious to do what is right, but imperfect and aware of his own treachery. People, he says, demand purity, but he is not pure in the accepted sense. There are sides to his personality and his behaviour which deserve criticism. He has seemingly identified with the white world, spent time on that 'society beach' which crops up from time to time in his poems. But real purity, he argues, comes from the experience of all aspects of life, with its many pressures and temptations. They are the cause of the 'headaches' that constitute the matter of his poems. 'Nothing is pure which excludes a mixture of everything; I shall say that real purity doesn't care a damn for purity…. The darkest night has greater brightness than the flash of lightning that shatters it.'
The poet is faced with two main problems. Firstly, there is the urgent need to know who and what he is, the nature of his destiny. This is the continuing anxiety. He wants to find the roots of his 'genealogical tree', which is his tree of life. This quest remains an apparently hopeless one. He is reluctant to opt for the artificial answers provided by movements like Négritude—
The cross the banner négritude in overalls
who wants to get involved?
Secondly, he senses a conflict between his quest for his racial and cultural roots and the intense anger he feels about the events taking place in Leopoldville. There is, in fact, a shift of emphasis from the hitherto essentially egocentric nature of his quest to the poet's relationship with the here and now of the African situation and the problem of the poet's commitment to it. The long first section of the poem, 'At the Summary of a Passion', poses the problems and indicates the poet's hesitations. In the last section, he seems to reach a conclusion. He rejects the attitude of mind that is represented by van Gogh and Matisse who withdraw from 'the noises of the city' in order to create an art which has nothing to do with everyday realities. They work in isolation—perhaps to some extent he has also done so up until now—while
on the pavements the passers-by
have a deluge in their hearts.
His own passion—the word already indicates this—is paralleled with Christ's, and he too assumes the suffering of his fellow men. But, whereas he has so far tended to reflect mostly on the pain caused to himself by the wearing of the poet's crown of thorns, he will instead now concentrate on the pain felt by others, and thus in a true sense assume their suffering:
by the salt of a wine
explain the weather as it is
turn away from all the sores that condition
the growth of thorns on my crown.
The poet's commitment is to an awareness of the suffering of others, not his own, and to its poetic expression:
From what love
at what cost
I die with each song of love.
The poet becomes a Christ whose passion and death are the poem, the verbal realization of the people's suffering. This brings him back, as so often is the case with this poetry of exploration, to the first poem, 'Préface': 'Nothing is closer to the Word than the word when it is made to resound'.
Much of the imagery and many of the key phrases of the earlier volumes are present in Epitomé, which is a bringing-together in a special way of all that has gone before. More stress is laid in this volume, however, on the image of the sea, the symbol of 'the human adventure', than on that of the river, the symbol of an individual culture, ultimately only part of the whole into which it flows. The shift is in line with Tchicaya's anxiety to decide whether his duty is to all men or to those who make up his own people. He is fascinated by the figure of the salt-gatherer, working on the sea-shore, gathering the essence of all things. In the end he decides, 'I shall no longer go down to the sea'. This is, too, the volume in which Tchicaya's Christological imagery plays its most important role, for, not only does he deliberately parallel 'the analysis of his suffering' with Christ's, using the imagery and terminology of Christology throughout the poem, but he also makes a bitter attack on Christ (especially in the section entitled 'The Scorner'), who is contaminated by association 'with the bourgeois', and Christianity, which is epitomized in the Cathedral of Saint Anne at Brazzaville. He plays on the ambiguities of Christ's betrayal of Africa and his own, but finally shifts the true dignity of the Cross from the white man's God to the black poet.
Le Ventre (The Belly) is Tchicaya's most difficult poem; the concentration of the poem's language makes the text often intractable. Although it is based on the by now familiar imagery of the human body, the belly of course in particular, and although many other key images and phrases return, if with less insistence, there is an air of unfamiliarity which must strike the reader who has followed Tchicaya's poetry this far. He is clearly still preoccupied with the development of the situation in the now independent Congo-Kinshasa (Zaïre), between the date of independence on 30 June 1960 (once again, the date is given in the text) and Lumumba's assassination in February 1961: violence continues, the African leadership is compromised with international big business and the former colonial power has sent in troops to protect its interests (there is specific reference to the landing of Belgian troops at Kamina and Kitona). The name Kin recurs almost obsessively,
where the river has its hand
on my heart.
Nor is Katanga forgotten. The opening section recalls the imagery of the closing section of Epitomé: the rain continues to fall, and there is 'nothing to take away from that crown (of thorns)'.
Lumumba is not mentioned by name in the text, although he is given as the author of an epigraph: 'I am the Congo'. He is, however, the poet's central preoccupation, the basis of his angry reflection on the political and human situation and on leadership and sacrifice. Continuing the imagery of Epitomé, he presents Lumumba as a Christ figure, betrayed by his own people for money:
Ah the jews know too well
that this messiah was for sale.
(Tchicaya often refers to himself and black people metaphorically as Jews.) Money dominates:
at Kin where blood
has its exchange rate I don't know what it is:
Is it measured by the dollar?
The poet even foresees the time when his own poetry will be quoted on the stock-exchange.
Gerald Moore suggests that 'in Le Ventre there is less reference to external events or to the past. The poet is here involved in a long interrogation of himself.' The past certainly does have little place in the poem, and the quest for the genealogical tree has disappeared (although the river symbol remains). However, it is because the pressure of the present is even more overwhelming than it was in Epitomé, and it determines the nature of the self-interrogation; this becomes a reflection on the life and death of another person with whom the poet identifies. The dominating image of the belly (closely linked with blood, which is perhaps the second most powerful image in the poem) suggests concern with the most basic of everyday human experiences, with the elemental human realities of sexuality and birth, greed and generosity, the physical satisfaction of hunger and thirst. As an image the belly is a kind of visible presence in a way that the more traditional symbols of the heart and the head cannot be. The latter remain curiously abstract because they are dominated by what they stand for, whereas the belly, unusual, almost grotesque as a poetic image, seems to have a physical reality which imposes itself on the imagination. The poet's reflections range from:
the belly. For sale everywhere with that pestilential heat of old charnel houses,
to Lumumba's death:
He died with his back to the wind:
turn over his belly:
if his belly is hard
it shows he died on his feet!
Do not weep.
In the opening section of the poem we are presented with the vivid, startling picture of upturned bellies floating among the water hyacinths in Stanley Pool. The upturned belly is likened to the visible part of a seamark, for which he uses the word voyant, normally associated with the idea of prophecy. But prophecy does not seem to be his preoccupation here. He is using the more down-to-earth meaning of the word to stress a very down-to-earth meaning of martyrdom: the inspiration that the martyr gives through his example. Tchicaya uses the image to bring the poem to an end, associating the marker with the dead martyr:
But love for life
the love one gives from the belly
the earth takes care of that
Thank God markers fall
mostly on their back
mostly with their arms outspread
mostly with their belly facing the sky!
During the course of the interview quoted earlier in this essay, Tchicaya mentioned his feeling of sadness at the failure of men of different races to form community: 'An overflow of misery, undisguised and physical, a moral misery I would like to call it, and there was this odd impression of forlornness, of utter solitude, a barred horizon. Certainly there is in my writing this universe, this loneliness, sadness of man—man everywhere, whether he be black, white, yellow etc,' He had spoken of his 'sad love' before in his poetry, especially in Epitomé, but it is with Arc Musical (Bow Harp) that the feeling itself comes through. In earlier volumes, the sadness was spoken of but not evoked; it was kept in the background by the more imperious nature of the poet's anger and frustration. The tone of Arc Musical is strikingly different from its predecessors. We are made to share his sadness that
a cry cannot pass
unless it is covered in blood,
unless it promises its blood …
but this cry is
there has been enough bloodshed!
His whole work is haunted by the spilling of human blood, so the need for love is what becomes most urgent for the poet now, 'love, love at last satisfied'. With it goes an equally urgent longing for peace:
The treasure …
is in the voice of the man
where no storm rages
over the corn in the plains at dawn.
In the first of two poems entitled 'Communion', Tchicaya evokes his own discovery of communion with men, a discovery which, to his surprise, was not painful, which did not dismember him, and for which he would now be prepared to suffer anything. The second poem of this title opens with one of those striking lines which one constantly meets with in Tchicaya's poetry:
Quand l'homme sera plus féal à l'homme
(When man will be more loyal to man).
When this happens, 'life will rediscover my body'.
There is a lyrical quality about most of these poems which is sometimes reminiscent of Le Mauvais Sang, but it is a parallel which only serves to show how far Tchicaya has come both as an artist and as a man since that first volume. His style is now very much his own. There is no trace of Verlaine or of Rimbaud, and there is, above all, a depth of feeling and a depth of sincerity which could only have come after the experience of suffering recorded in the previous volumes. The confrontation between the egocentric poet and external reality at the heart of Epitomé seems to have come to complete fruition. Similarly, Tchicaya is able to transcend the specifically racial concerns of his earlier poetry to write poetry which is unambiguously universal in its representation and understanding of the human condition. He is not afraid to go down to the sea. He does not, however, fall victim to sentimentality, as could so easily happen. He is very much aware of the human realities, and it is his recognition of the fact that love and peace are not often enough preferred to hate and bloodshed that forms the basis of his sadness and prevents sentimentality. He constantly reminds himself of the need to return to reality from the world of music in which he would prefer to live. These poems are about the interplay in the poet's life of his dream and reality. In the final poem of the collection, entitled 'Sinaï, bis', he offers to inscribe a new decalogue on the cheeks of the men of peace, the poem he cannot set down on the printed page:
the poem I have seen
the poem this page suppresses
which would have saved the blood
so that a hand might dash
both sphinxes and wanderers
so that birds might trust
in the innocence of man.
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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 vice versa, emerged in the late 1960s with the publication of Ouologuem's irreverent Le devoir de violence and Kourouma's Les Soleils des Indépendances. This free-wheeling assault on the French love of order and conformity—paralleled in North Africa by the writings of Kateb, Boudjedra and Khaïr-Eddine—seemed to herald a new and vital African idiom. Two swallows do not, however, make a summer, so to speak, and the arrival of another major novel in this lineage may therefore be viewed as something of a literary event.
Les cancrelats is a first novel by Tchicaya U Tam'Si, a world-renowned Congolese poet. The plot is labyrinthine and contains subplots, but essentially it deals with the activities of two generations in a French colonialist family and in the family of the elder colon's servant. The precise nature of the plot is almost incidental, however, to the texture of Les cancrelats, a texture which is deliberately rough and abstract, like one of those experimental wall hangings by weavers. The main pattern interweaves missionary-style Christianity (in the novelists mentioned above Islam is a major force, but in the Congo we are south of the reach of Islam's proselytizing), the proverbial wisdom of traditional African culture and a highly charged style with a unique vocabulary.
Tchicaya has bent the French language to fit his narrative without breaking it. There is a sense of translucence in which the African proverbial diction glows vigorously through the otherwise Cartesian light of the French language. Tchicaya has written fables and stories and retold African legends, but with Les cancrelats he establishes himself as a novelist of major proportions and significantly enriches the corpus of Francophone African literature.
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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 elements and the personal African optics of the narrator. A black baby who takes the place of a papier-mâché Jesus in a crèche has been abandoned by its mother. Or are we actually witnessing the Second Coming? In another story a talking mouth ("noire et lippue, bien sûr") retraces the evolution from sea organism to Homo sapiens.
Tchicaya has often been assimilated into the surrealist movement because of his unusual imagery and his interest in Rimbaud. Now, with the stories of La main sèche, Tchicaya reinforces that association, especially in the oneiric passages of "Rebours" and in the plotless urgency of several other stories. These tales are not slices of life but rather slices of consciousness lent a palpable dimension. The major coordinates of Tchicaya's world are African and French conventions. If Tchicaya is a "surrealist," it is on his own terms. His devotion to the Rimbaldian tradition of the hallucination simple is embraced somewhat cynically, and his prime world view remains African—namely natural rather than supernatural. Tchicaya brilliantly reverses one of Europe's most famous existentialist quotations when he speaks of people entering a judge's chambers, including "un certain Pascal qui, dit-on, enseignait aux arbres la mauvaise foi des humains." In this reversal lies the clue to the fundamental difference between European surrealism and African surreality.
Tchicaya's stories, which at first appear casual, deserve the most careful intellectual scrutiny.
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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 war, and that told by the villagers, who delve into the world of magic to explain the evanescent presence of Luambu—a sorcerer who is solely responsible for the death of the two friends. There is a reason for his vengeance:
"[Luambu] avait fait mourir parce que [Elenga] ne voulait pas, pour sa soeur, quelqu'un qui n'était pas de son ethnie, qui pouvait bien être son ami mais pas son beau-frère…. On ne plaisante pas avec un lari…. Muendo, avec ses ancêtres sénégalais … Luambu l'avait endormi, fait ami-ami et vlan! l'avait scié. Littéralement scié."
André Sola, the investigator of the novel [Les Méduses, ou les orties de mer], is convinced that Luambu is a revenant, having himself benefited from the magic of Luambu: "À la suite du cadeau de Luambu, il avait perdu son bégaiement." Luambu is as mysterious as the night with which he is symbolically associated. Sorcerers exist. The white man will never understand the story as André Sola sees it: "Comment expliquer au Blanc ce qui se passait; il dira: superstition de sauvage." Sola's fear is intensified when he finds out that his own boss, M. Martin, may be involved with the magic spell of Luambu: "Il se voyait pris dans un cercle de magie blanche, tracé autour de lui par M. Martin et Luambu. M. Martin, Luambu, complices, acolytes." M. Martin's diabolic laughter strengthens Sola's fear, for he is convinced that Luambu and M. Martin "étaient complices." M. Martin, a white man, is associated with the "Malin parce qu'il se présente sous la peau d'un Blanc."
Evil and malefic forces then become linked to the arrival of the white man, for
"l'histoire que voici se passe à peu près à l'époque où, disait-on, un Blanc parcourait de nuit le Village Indigène de Pointe-Noire et qu'avec une baguette magique, il transformait hommes, femmes, enfants et chiens en viande de corned-beef … communément appelé singe." Once evil has entered, it will lurk over and over again, like Medusa's head. And like Medusa's head or the "orties de mer," evil will constantly nettle and prick the sacred world of the black man. The two worlds are thus juxtaposed in a blend of poetic images that transport the reader to a world of mystery and unknown, which, no doubt, Tchicaya prefers.
[Les Méduses, ou les orties de mer] could easily pass for a detective novel, though often bathed in the irrational pursuit of something intangible, unattainable. The past can be captured by the oral tradition. Tchicaya U Tam'si fortunately perpetuates it through his art.
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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 characters and the story. Here the family head is an upright and caring paterfamilias whose role as judge embroils him in the snares of Congolese politics and corruption during the early years of independence. His wife and children belong to the new generation of the educated class. Much care is given to developing the close feelings of this family; the society in which they live, however, is scarcely evoked. The light banter, the chic tone, and the isolation of the action act to remove the sense of historical specificity; the setting could as easily have been Paris for much of the novel.
In a sense the same could be said of the second element, the novel's mystical aspect. Here the discourse, in contrast to that involving the family scenes, is typically dense, poeticized, stiff with symbolic overtones. The poet who established himself as one of the major voices in contemporary African writing here continues the vein of his earlier work. Death, madness, extraordinarily introspective contemplation—all are dimensions added to the political and familial relationships which acquire a text of their own and which reduce the mundane to a surface reality. However, for all the surrealistic qualities evoked, no sense of a concrete African tradition emerges. Conjointly, U Tam'si gives a parallel, folklore text to this hermeneutic, augmenting the subjective discourse with its own reverberations of unreality, recalling his earlier publication, Légendes africanes.
Lastly, U Tam'si gives us his most overtly critical portrayal of the political scene in contemporary Africa, damning not only the actors at the time of the 1963 coup and its aftermath, but also their hypocritical, unjust, and pitiful counterparts in the ruling classes of Africa since the suns of independence rose. Poet, playwright, and novelist of force and style, Tchicaya U Tam'si remains one of the most gifted African writers of our time.
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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 Pointe-Noiri and with a magic wand turn men, women, children and dogs into corned beef which people called monkey meat." There is an opposition between the white man and the natives—the novel is set in Africa—which suggests the warfare against colonials, but the emphasis seems to be upon magical transformation. Can we believe the story? Is it "true"? Is it a symbolic tale or an African sermon?
We are ready for the mysterious atmosphere of the rest of the novel—that story which serves, if you will, as a parallel text or an extended commentary upon the introduction. The novel gives us the stories of the deaths of Elenga and Muendo and (possibly) Luamba-Lufwa Lumbu—the events preceding their deaths, the events following their deaths—but there are many gaps that are never filled, many mysteries that remain unsolved. And the imagery continues to disturb us: it stresses changing perspectives, perverse displacements, incomprehensible occurrences. The result: we are placed in a discontinuous world that engulfs our conscious attempts to order it. If we consider the discontinuities, disappearances, and discrepancies of the text (and the texts within the text), we begin to go mad. We cannot explain character, plot, cause and effect. We are told to "pull ourselves together," but at the same time we are informed that we do not have distinct selves.
The novel is brutal for several reasons: it describes (if only ambiguously) the painful deaths of two (or three?) men; it subtly undermines the possibility of knowledge; it apparently questions itself because it is filled with disappearances, secrets, and visions. Thus the novel, in a metaphoric sense, attacks its very existence and madly destroys all order. But the artistic triumph is clear. Tchicaya suggests that language itself is a displacement—an incomplete world that refuses to be conquered. After we attempt to define things, we are left with the idea that only questions, omens, and signs can ever help us to admit: "No, no, it's not here. Look … it's over there." But where are "here" and "there"? And how should we look?
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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 wide audience that he deserved, not only as a poet but also as novelist and playwright. Despite the fact that Epitomé (1958) won him the first prize for poetry at the Festival des Arts Nègres at Dakar in 1966, his reading public has remained limited. While recognizing him as one of the leading contemporary African poets, critics and readers remain strangely reserved. In a recent publication Théophile Obenga puts his finger on one of the main reasons for this reticence: "U Tam'Si n'est l'héritière de personne et de rien: à souhait, et non sans belle ironie" (U Tam'Si inherits from nobody and nothing: by choice and not without beautiful irony). Tchicaya's writing defies classification. His intensely personal world view and poetic expression create his own individual mythology, which sets him apart from all neat literary categories. His poetry is often described as hermetic, which is, in reality, the literary critic's terminology for admitting that it is not easily understood. At the same time the poet's obvious mastery of his medium precludes his being dismissed as obscure or unintelligible. Who then is this poet? What is his significance as a writer?
Perhaps U Tam'Si owes the initial recognition of his work by Western critics to fortuitous historical circumstances. In France the surrealist revolt against traditional poetic norms had opened the way for experimental form and expression, and poets such as André Breton and Robert Desnos had enthusiastically supported the Negritude poets. In his preface to the 1947 edition of Aimé Césaire's Cahier d'un retour au pays natal Breton recognized in Césaire's poetry "cette exubérance dans le jet et dans la gerbe, cette faculté d'alerter sans cesse de fond en comble le monde émotionnel jusqu'à le mettre sens dessus dessous qui caractérisent la poésie authentique." At times U Tam'Si's own words would seem to confirm this link with the surrealists, although he himself has said that he had not read their poetry at the time of writing his own first poems: "I lack the intoxication to understand what is plausible. And yet the world is as it appears to the lark: a distorting mirror." However, as this study of U Tam'Si's imagery and symbolism will attempt to make clear, fundamental differences distinguish his verse from that of the French surrealists, who, in advocating automatic writing, deliberately refused all restraint imposed by logic. The surrealist poet's highly individualistic message was "dictated" by his subconscious being, which he believed to be the echo of the universal consciousness. It was expressed by an arbitrary association of words which, at first reading, the poet often understood no better than the reader. This is very different from U Tam'Si's dense and at times esoteric imagery, by which he expresses his profound and passionate identification with the suffering of Africa and, more particularly, of the Congo. U Tam'Si's imagery is distinguishable from that of the surrealists because of its coherent scheme of reference and world view. His poetic universe is that of an individual who expresses both consciously and unconsciously his sense of a collective identity. This will become apparent when a closer look is taken at his image-symbols.
In general, U Tam'Si's merit as a poet was judged in terms of criteria that had evolved out of the European experience, which meant that the full extent of his creative inspiration and originality was not appreciated. This is perhaps still true today. By virtue of his early schooling under the French colonial administration and his having lived almost exclusively in France since the age of fifteen, U Tarn'Si inherited from a dual cultural tradition. Nevertheless, his early writing in particular was strongly marked by his non-Western experience, thought modes, speech patterns, and thematic concerns. Although he was in no way traditionalist or limited by a uniquely African perspective, it is no doubt this unfamiliar world of reference which, on first reading, makes his poetry appear impenetrable to the Western reader or even to the Congolese reader who, through the process of "acculturation" has lost touch with "the cultural heart of the land." U Tam'Si is uncompromising in the demands he makes upon his reader: "When I write, I do not recount, I don't chew your food for you. I say to you 'There you are,' and according to the habits that you have acquired, you may take more or less." He has also noted, on the other hand: "If one makes a literal reading of what I write, one understands what I am saying." Similarly, he has indicated that the key to his poems can be found in the titles, just as the proverbs that run as a leitmotiv through his novels point to the meaning.
However, the "literal reading" advocated by U Tam'Si is based on an important assumption: that his work will be read as a whole. This is a crucial factor in "decoding" U Tarn'Si's creative writing. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to make the necessary global reading of his work so as to appreciate the extended imagery and thought patterns; not only does little of his work exist in translation, but much of it is out of print as well—the fate suffered by a high proportion of valuable African writing. Perhaps, following upon U Tam'Si's untimely death, there will be a resurgence of interest in his writing, leading to the reprinting of those works that are presently unobtainable.
It is important to read U Tarn'Si's oeuvre not only as a whole but also chronologically, in the order of composition. His novels illustrate this very well; the first three, each over 250 pages long, form a trilogy that paints a vast human and sociopolitical fresco of the Congo, although spanning only fifty-some years in the life of the main protagonists, Sophie and Prosper. In fact, it was conceived of as a single narrative and was divided into three in order to satisfy the editors. Thus, although each novel may be read and enjoyed in isolation, characters and events in one of the three may be alluded to in another or may reappear without explanation, with the result that the full significance is lost on the reader. Similarly, certain recurrent images become key symbols, an understanding of which is essential in order to release the full meaning of the text. One such image-symbol is that of the cancrelat or cockroach, which lends its name to the first novel, Les cancrelats. The word first appears in the enigmatic proverb which introduces the novel: "Le cancrelat alla plaider une cause au tribunal des poules!" (The cockroach went to plead its cause before the hens' court). Both the proverb and the cockroach image reappear at significant points in the first and last of the three novels, illuminating the meaning of the text and themselves acquiring new connotative dimensions. The semiological role of le cancrelat is lost on the reader who reads Les phalènes without having first read Les cancrelats.
When viewed globally, the overall shape and development of U Tam'Si's poetry and prose can be compared to that of an orchestra. In fact, the importance of music as a structural element is consciously emphasized by the poet in his first collection of poems, entitled Le mauvais sang, which has musical terms as subtitles to the two main sections. In a piece of orchestral music the part for a single instrument may be extracted from the score and enjoyed in isolation, but it only acquires its full meaning when integrated into me orchestrated whole. Similarly, the full force of a single poem's expression and vision is released only when it is read in the context of the whole body of U Tam'Si's poetry. His poetic discourse works extendedly: an idea or image, initially introduced almost unobtrusively, will be picked up in successive poems, where a different context or emphasis will add new layers of meaning, until, as with the cancrelat image, it attains the value of a symbol. U Tam'Si's discourse at times reads like a form of poetic shorthand, where a single word-sign signifies a complexity of meaning, intelligible only if the reader has followed its development.
The importance of the overall shape or structure as a signifier in U Tam'Si's poetry can be illustrated by the collection entitled Le ventre. The final poem, "le ventre reste," takes up successively and almost line by line the titles of the thirteen poems that make up the collection, so that each phrase releases the complexity of emotion and meaning that was developed in the poem of that little. The whole is woven together in a perfectly controlled and unified statement which, in the final stanza, ends with a vision of hope: "God be thanked the prophets fall / most often on their backs / most often with their arms opened wide / most often / their bellies to the sky!"
A study of the way in which the image of le ventre is developed into a key symbol reveals the dialectical nature of U Tam'Si's symbolism. Typically, the final statement of "le ventre reste" (quoted above), which is also the final statement of the collection, is not definitive, for U Tam'Si refuses to be categorical. "To identify a thing is to limit its possibilities," he says in Les cancrelats. It is by taking cognizance of the dialectical complexity of an idea or an image that one comes to some sort of understanding. U Tam'Si's refusal to simplify is illustrated in the image-symbols that constitute the framework not only of his poetry but also of his prose. It is thus worth making a brief semiological study of the complex ventre symbol.
In divinatory practices the opened belly of an animal or fowl reveals the future to the seer. This is particularly significant, for in his poetry and prose U Tam'Si makes frequent allusions to the prophetic vocation of the poet. Furthermore, in traditional African society the storyteller was often believed to have prophetic vision, and, conversely, the seer would express himself in poetic or esoteric language. Lying on his back, open to the sky or the heavens, arms wide and receiving, the seer-poet offers himself to divine inspiration. Yet the opened belly means death, both for the sacrificial animal and for man caught up in violent conflict. Yet again, the belly is associated with fertility and regeneration (bas-ventre means "womb"). The navel symbolizes the biological and the cultural link with the mother, Mother Earth/Africa, and therefore the Ancestors. Indeed, the collection entitled Le ventre has been interpreted as the poet's attempt to understand his own identity in terms of his origins and his relation with his mother and Africa. The belly is associated too with warmth, with passion, and, particularly in Africa, with dance: "Dance is the best language / in which to make of two bodies / the two parts of a single phrase / which writes the perfect verb to love!"
The concept of the brotherhood of man and, more particularly, of a united Congo, informs all Tchicaya's creative writing; it is something he believed in passionately, and his disillusion and bitterness were all the greater as he witnessed the internecine fighting that crippled the Congo Republic. He was deeply shocked by the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, with whom he had worked and whose ideals he shared. The martyred political leader, epitomized by Lumumba, is the major thematic concern of Epitomé (1962) and Le ventre. It is a theme which links up with that of the Christ, betrayed and betrayer, and the suffering poet-prophet, thus forming another complex image-symbol, which finds its origin in his first collection of poems: "Christ trahi voici ma croix humaine de bois" (Christ betrayed here is my human cross of wood).
Still, whereas the belly is often associated with warmth and life, refrains such as "The belly / always with that sickening warmth / as of the charnel-house" serve as a reminder not only of death but also, significantly for the Central African countries such as the Congo, of cannibalism: "We shall live no more on flesh or blood / I am eating a dish of meat this evening / why not the flesh of my brothers / burnt in the holocaust?" The belly is associated with greed, the voracious appetites of the exploiters of Africa, both the colonialists and the neocolonialist dictators of the newly independent states.
It is not possible here to do more than touch on some of the main dialectical themes and connotations contained in the symbol of the belly; as one progresses through the poems of Le ventre, one is struck by the rich density of allusion, the play and replay of word and image, and one becomes aware that it is probably impossible to give a complete exegesis of the symbol. To define is to limit, to simplify is to falsify—that is what U Tam'Si would seem to be saying.
Another important factor that contributes to the dynamic force of U Tam'Si's creative writing but is unfortunately lost in a piecemeal or incomplete reading of his work is the role played by rhythm, in terms of both structure and language. The importance of rhythm in African poetry has been more than adequately explained by Léopold Senghor, himself one of the greatest lyric poets of Africa. Like the poets of the Anthologie, U Tam'Si is, in the words of Senghor, an "auditory" poet; his poems are to be spoken aloud, not read silently. In a 1986 interview in Paris, U Tam'Si stated, "Everything that I have written is oral." Thus assonance, alliteration, and echoing reverberations reinforce the repeated images, refrains, and ideas. This makes his poetry extremely difficult to translate satisfactorily.
Again it is important to make a chronological reading of U Tam'Si's poetry in order to appreciate the semiological significance of rhythm. As he frees himself of conventional metric form, it is rhythm that determines the shape and progression of the poem. In Feu de brousse the insistent and syncopated rhythm of the drum predominates. A selective reading destroys the cumulative effect of the repeated words and phrases, which mark time and then advance the poem, which echo an image from a previous line or poem and then surge forward with a new thematic element. At times the effect is incantatory, creating a profound emotion that in turn releases the poem's significance. In his later poetry rhythm plays a more subtle role; less semiologically significant in itself, it serves to underscore and develop the meaning of the image-symbols. Flexible yet controlled, the dynamics of repetition and variation, suspense and advance, create a complex pattern of sound and movement, which is an integral part of the poem's meaning.
In U Tam'Si's writing, repetition and rhythm are not only semiologically but also structurally significant. The collection Le ventre represents one of the most striking illustrations of this. The dialectical nature of the word-symbol le ventre has already been discussed, but it is important to consider the ventre symbol in the context of the collection as a whole in order to appreciate how the contradictions and contrasts make up a synthetic unity. Space does not allow for the required detailed study of this high-frequency word. However, a chronological reading of the poems in the collection would reveal how the development of the referential value of the ventre symbol mirrors the organically integrated structure of the whole. This rhythmic pattern is a constant in U Tam'Si's writing, a structural technique which can be found in his first collections of poems and which is developed to a striking degree in his later works. For example, repeated semiological and linguistic elements link the poems in Le mauvais sang, and key recurrent images such as blood, water, the woman/mother/Africa, and the Christ are introduced. In later volumes the title of a poem is often anticipated in the preceding poem, thus reinforcing the sense of pattern in ideas and sounds. This repetition is not static; each reappearance of an image brings to it a new dimension, and its development can be traced through U Tam'Si's work as a whole. It is significant that many of the key images in his verse are important signifiers in his prose.
To understand how repetition determines progression, it is important to consider African music. There the repetition, which is often monotonous to the Western ear, is in fact made up of constant slight variations that mark the forward movement of the song or dance. The development takes place over an extended time span.
One of the most important effects of the rhythmic repetition of image and sound is to give U Tam'Si's work both consistency and homogeneity. As has already been shown, certain core ideas or images inform his entire work, not only as leitmotivs but as part of the structural and referential framework. These images, anchored in the real, material world, are developed by association and correspondence, and they signify at several levels. Thus in Le mauvais sang, a chain of ever-widening reference is created, beginning with "blood" and the "wound," through "water" to "thoughts" and "memories," "diving" (back into the stream of time, the past), to "skiff" (canoe), "river" (the Congo River), and "shipwreck." Each of these links in the image chain acquires greater resonance as it is picked up and developed in a later poem or collection. Thus "wound" is inseparable from the Christ figure, which, introduced in Le mauvais sang, becomes a dominant image in Epitomé and Le ventre.
Water and rain link with the immense Congo River, which reflects the past and potential grandeur of the country, the dream of a nation reunited, just as the tributaries of the Congo River link across the land. The Congo River is also the source of identity: "There remains a river and the key of dreams in its flanks." Furthermore, it represents the total giving of self, the poetic vocation, commitment to an ideal (the throwing of oneself into the water). Elsewhere U Tam'Si has compared his poetry to the Congo River, "qui charrie autant de cadavres que de jacinthes d'eau" (that carries along as many cadavers as water lilies). Water, like blood, is a sacrificial and cleansing element, and as the river leads to the ocean, so it links up with another very important and complex image-symbol in U Tam'Si's discourse, the ocean/salt/waves/sea gull. Again, space does not allow an adequate treatment of these images, each of which requires close analysis in the context of U Tam'Si's creative writing as a whole.
It is not possible to appreciate the full depth and breadth of U Tam'Si's symbolic universe without taking cognizance of his dual cultural heritage. His early, formative years in the Congo would have had an indelible effect on his thinking and imaginative mind, but at an early age he accompanied his father to France and, from that time, spent most of his life away from Africa, primarily in Paris. An important facet to the study of his poetic imagery would be to trace the gradually increasing incidence of semiological elements originating in the European context. Right from the start of his literate life, however, elements of a French subculture would have influenced his thinking, for all his schooling was in French. In fact, his mother tongue, Vili, was not and still is not taught anywhere, not even at junior school. It is important, then, not only to take into account the way in which language patterns influence thought, but also to remember that the French colonial policy of "assimilation" consistently aimed at imposing a French subculture at the expense of the African cultures.
For a non-Congolese reader, U Tam'Si's writing cannot be understood out of its sociopolitical context. This is not always easy, since few detailed historical, geographic, or so-ciocultural studies of the Congo are available, and of those that do exist, the majority are written by European historians and ethnologists. U Tam'Si does not make it easy for the non-Congolese reader. He has said that he does not write for a Western public: "That would denaturalize my thinking. I speak of my country to those of my country … and then to those who might be led to live there." Thus he assumes a knowledge of the political events leading up to independence in 1960 and the turbulent years that followed. His language is elliptic; images follow each other in quick succession, often specifically Congolese or regional in origin. Even universal images such as the sun or rain or trees must be read in the context of the Congolese heat and tropical rain forests. For example, no European experience of rain can release the full resonance of "The belly trembles, the deluge approaches" or of the lines "the rain is clinging, sticky, / gummy, insistent, petrifying, excreting, / shitty and distressing." It is impossible to convey adequately the musical reverberations of the original French, which reinforce U Tam'Si's earthy, ironic humor as he speaks of the chaos that engulfed the Congo after independence.
In his preface to the 1962 edition of Epitomé Senghor speaks of the "kaleidoscope" of images, which erupt with the force of a "geyser." He refers to the "syntax of juxtaposition," which "explodes the hinges of logic." U Tam'Si's poetry translates the "movements of a passion, in offbeat rhythms and syncopation," like African music. At times the asymmetric parallelisms, the enjambments, the breaks and returns make it difficult to follow the movements of the poet's mind and passion. What appear to be linguistic "gymnastics" in fact find their origin in the oral tradition. Learning to understand and use proverbs and devinettes (riddles) was as important a part of the young African child's "schooling" as was the learning of mythological and historical stories and fables. Riddles depend upon the clever use of sound and words to create a symbolic language, behind which lies the "hidden" meaning that must be guessed at. Through these games a certain mental and linguistic dexterity is learned. Many of U Tam'Si's poems open with a gnomic utterance which, while not explained, is never gratuitous; it plays an important semiological role, just as the titles of the poems or the lines set in proem serve as an epitome for the poem. This use of proverbs and enigmas is equally significant in U Tam'Si's prose works. For the non-Congolese or even non-Vili reader, the meaning of some of the aphorisms and esoteric utterances will remain hidden. For example, only someone familiar with African and more particularly Congolese or Vili custom would realize the full dialectical force of the phrase "They have spat on me," since spitting or unction by saliva is a form of benediction.
Two interesting attempts have been made to categorize the major images that inform U Tam'Si's poetry, but the danger of this method is that the essential and dynamic homogeneity of his symbolism is lost. To classify separately such complex symbols as water, blood, and the woman/mother figure is to splinter the "substance" of the writer's creative universe. Théophile Obenga gives a better understanding of the intrinsic unity of U Tarn' Si's poetry through a detailed study of the blood image (Le sang), which he sees as U Tam'Si's "literary fancy," the key to both the logical and the imaginary universe of his poetry. The work of Gaston Bachelard and, more recently, that of Gilbert Durand suggest a similar approach. Their investigations into the psychology of the imagination and their analysis of archetypal and mythical imagery represent a synthetic treatment of image and symbol, whereby contradictions and contrasts form a harmonious whole. Durand demonstrates the inadequacy of the structuralist approach for the analysis of imagery, in that it does not take sufficient cognizance of the dynamic and unifying creative mind behind the poetic discourse, an understanding of which requires an organic rather than a mechanistic approach. Although one would not claim that a piece of creative writing can be fully understood only in the light of the author's personal life and psyche, there is nevertheless a general motivating force behind the symbolism that emanates from a particular emotional and mental universe.
There exists a symbiotic relationship between, on the one hand, the mythical universe created by the poet and augmented with each new piece of writing, and on the other the writer's own mental universe; symbols, rhythm, and structure acquire a dynamism of their own and inform the writer's own philosophical and emotional development. Speaking about his writing, U Tam'Si said: "A creative work should take root in you. The more it takes root in you, the more chance it has of affecting others." This is not a new idea, but its significance is not always taken into account by contemporary literary critics.
U Tam'Si's work is of particular interest in this respect, for his highly integrated poetic universe reflects a holistic world view that stands in sharp contrast to the Manichean Western world view. U Tam'Si's thought processes are firmly rooted in a sense of rhythmic pattern, the cycles of life and man's collective identity. His poetic discourse is strongly individualistic in terms of image and language, yet his concern is for understanding the meaning of "existential anguish" not for the individual alone but for the individual as part of a corporate body, past, present, and future. His poetry is the concrele expression of his conception of the poet-prophet, whose role in the life of society is as important as that of the mason or the carpenter: "The poet is above all a man, a man in the full meaning of the word, a conscious man. A conscious man is he who dreams, and the dream is only a projection into the future of what can be realized." The poet, like Christ and the political martyr, lays himself open to the conflicting forces of life. U Tam'Si's creative writing constitutes the commitment of a life to this task. In his poetry the poetic "I" represents a constant dialectic, an intensely personal expression that crystallizes the experience of a people. He expresses this in an observation from Notes de veille; the final ironic comment is typical of his blend of mocking self-deprecation and dedicated belief in the poet's vocation:
"En fait l'homme s'élabore dans un temps trop court dans lequel il lui est impossible d'assimiler tous les éléments extérieurs qui pourraient faire de lui une unité solvable. Peu y sont arrivés: Christ, Rimbaud … moi ma gloriole défunte" (In fact man develops in too short a time, during which it is impossible for him to assimilate all the external elements which could make of him a creditable unity. Few have managed it: Christ, Rimbaud … I, my defunct vainglory).
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5011
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.'
Thus spoke Tchicaya U Tam'Si in an interview with Tahar Bekri (1988). Very few Africans have had the courage to express their outrage at the stifling African traditions with the vigor and consistency of U Tam'Si. The break with the tribe, the ethnic group, and Africa is an expression of his anger and frustration at himself as reflected in the practices of his society.
In fact, self-criticism is a major theme in Tchicaya's work as he strives to build a dynamic identity through a dynamic writing style. A dynamic identity changes with time and it is directed toward the future as opposed to static identity, which is concerned with only the past. The former is an attempt to live the present, an opening up of self to reality and the necessities of life. The latter is an attempt to escape reality in order to swim in the stagnant waters of an idyllic past.
U Tam'Si's attempt to face up to the present, to confront it in order to change it, permeates all his work as he tries to teach and educate his readers about the danger of a return to a mythic past:
Car en réalité il faut savoir rompre avec le passé lorsque celui-ci croupit dans les eaux stagnantes de la turpitude. Les nations, les peuples meurent de leur identité figée. Ce qui est vie est nécessaire dans le changement. Je veux être une civilisation et non un vestige.
For in reality one must know how to break with the past when it grows foul in the stagnant waters of turpitude. Nations and people die of their set identity. What is life is necessary in change. I want to be a civilization, not a vestige of the past.
This essay is an attempt to problematize Tchicaya's efforts to create a dynamic identity for himself, his country and Africa. The focus on self-criticism is meant to further explore the rationale behind his attempted break away from the stifling African traditions. It seeks to know whether or not U Tam'si is hiding behind self-criticism to please a particular audience or whether he is expressing legitimate concerns about Africa.
In order to understand his position better and find appropriate answers to these questions, it is imperative to place him and his work in historical context. Born before the independence of Africa, he grew to witness and experience colonization and the struggle for independence in his native Congo. As a matter of fact, he worked closely with Patrice Lumumba to gain political independence for the country. Thus, his personality as a writer must have grown out of those difficult moments in the history of the continent, and one should expect his work to reflect his personal take of the events.
In addition to the political events, Tchicaya could not ignore the literary activities of his contemporaries. He had to communicate with them in one way or the other since each writer is the product of his or her epoch. In this respect, Négritude was one important literary event he could not circumvent. Founded in Paris in the thirties by Léopold Sédar Senghor, Aimé Césaire and Léon G. Damas, it was then their attempt to create an image for and about Africa with which they could identify with a sense of pride.
An exact definition of Négritude is difficult to find, partly because the founders' distinct personalities influenced their respective philosophies and works. But Senghor soon became the spokesperson for the movement, and he has been credited for giving it a wider application. In Ce que je crois (1988), Senghor defines it as "I'ensemble des valeurs de la civilization noire" 'the sum total of the values of black civilization.' But as translator Melvin Dixon claims in the introduction to his The Collected Poetry By Léopold Sédar Senghor (1991), the latter's search for the essence of Blackness has led discussions of the movement "to come dangerously close to validating racial stereotypes…."
Of particular relevance to this essay is Dixon's remark that "the most powerful African elements in Senghor's poetry are in fact images from the past rather than verbal constructions of a present reality: the past in its lush, abundant, luxuriant, erotic diction…." The poem, "Night of Sine," is a case in point. In it the poet tries to remember his past, but by so doing he also constructs and expands what he sees as an African identity. Listen to him:
Woman, place your soothing hands upon my brow,
Your hands softer than fur.
Above us balance the palm trees, barely rustling
In the night breeze. Not even a lullaby.
Let the rhythmic silence cradle us.
Listen to its song. Hear the beat of our dark blood,
Hear the deep pulse of Africa in the mist of lost villages.
Now sets the weary moon its slack seabed
Now the bursts of laughter quiet down, and even the storyteller
Nods his head like a child on his mother's back
The dancer's feet grow heavy, and heavy, too,
Come the alternating voices of singers.
Now the stars appear and the Night dreams
Leaning on that hill of clouds, dressed in its long, milky pagne.
The roofs of the hut shine tenderly. What are they saying
So secretly to the stars? Inside, the fire dies out
In the closeness of sour and sweet smells.
Woman, light the clear-oil lamp. Let the Ancestors
Speak around us as parents do when the children are in bed.
Let us listen to the voices of the Elissa Elders.
Exiled like us
They did not want to die, or lose the flow of their semen in the sands.
Let me hear, a gleam of friendly souls visits the smoke-filled hut,
My head upon your breast as warm as tasty dang steaming from the fire,
Let me breathe the odor of our Dead, let me gather
And speak with their living voices, let me learn to live
Before plunging deeper than the diver
Into the great depths of sleep.
Rather than be concerned with such a past, U Tam'Si opts for the creation of a new dynamic identity that focuses on the present. His break with Africa is not a total rejection of his roots or an absolute refusal to keep usable elements of the past. On the contrary, it is an attempt 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. Seen from that perspective, his break with ethnic can be interpreted as an effort to break free from the chains of ethnicity in order to reach out to and accommodate the other.
As a matter of fact, Africa is now coming to grips with post-cold war problems such as famine and civil unrests that contrast with the peace in "Night of Sine" and further complicate divisions along ethnic lines. In this respect, Tchicaya's verbal construction of reality carries some dose of nationalist concerns and his self-criticism is just the other side of his dream of fraternity.
It is unfortunate that he has received so little attention from critics of African literatures. Whether their relative silence is the result of his position vis-à-vis the stifling African traditions and Négritude or of the difficulty in penetrating his work is uncertain. But there is no doubt that he is one of the most modern African writers, as George Lang (1985) has already noted, and one of the greatest as well.
Among the critics who have studied him, most see him as unruly and rebellious. In the novel Les Cancrelats, a voice expresses doubts about the past of Loango, a metaphor of Congo and Africa. Says the voice:
Ce passé de Loango est peut-être une légende. Une légende perdue au fond d'un précipice mauve et sombre. Ne vous approchez pas, ne vous penchez pas sur cet abîme, les argiles pétrifiées au fond, parmi les broussailles, ont la couleur de blessures purulentes….
This past of Loango is perhaps a legend. A legend lost at the bottom of a mauve and gloomy precipice. Do not go near it, do not lean on that abyss, the petrified mud at the bottom, among the bushes, has the color of purulent sores.
Against this background of a gloomy and dirty past, the petrified mud is a sign of decay that indicates that the past in question is about to die. What is more, instead of a stone or concrete wall as found in many brilliant dead civilizations, Loango's past has mud in the bush. This ugly picture contrasts sharply with glorious pasts that one can be proud of. The association of that ugliness with the African past shows U Tam'Si's intention to denounce exaggerated embellishments of the African past.
It is an attempt to say that Africa also has its dark side which has almost gone unnoticed by the Négrilude romantics. In Le ventre, a collection of poems, he makes it clear that his focus is the ugly facet of himself: "Je dialogue avec ce qui est pollué en moi" 'I hold a dialogue with the defiled part of me.'
As pointed out earlier, it will be a mistake to consider this dialogue as a denial of self in order to please a particular audience. In an Africa facing all sorts of social problems, the pollution Tchicaya talks about is likely to refer to the collapse of religious and ethical values. Ill-digested western values coupled with ignorance and poverty have indeed led to corruption and lack of morality. Thus by choosing to address with the ugly facets of modern Africa, U Tam'si magnifies the issue so that it can receive the attention it deserves.
In other words, he is just saying that he is not perfect, nor does he expect anyone else to be. In his collection of short stories, La main sèche, he criticizes those writers who embellish their past to make it look more glorious and perfect. There is no such past in the history of civilization as far as the present author is concerned. For Tchicaya, there is nothing to be ashamed of as long as one faces the truth and uses it as a basis for positive and constructive action.
In this respect, running away from one's culture to embrace a foreign one is not the solution to the problem. Tchicaya laughs at the so-called "évolué(e)s," who, as the result of their contact with Western civilization, have lost confidence in their own. To them he has this advice: "Je tus mon dégoût. Je me dis qu'il y a lâcheté à fuir le monde tel qu'il se revèle" 'I silenced my disgust. I tell myself that there is cowardice in running away from the world as it is' (Main).
Tchicaya wants everyone to face their world as it is, to look at themselves critically in order to see their reality. His self-criticism has cost him his credibility in the eyes of many people in Africa. Yet as Emil Magel (1980) claims, Tchicaya is critical of both Europeans and Africans. His criticism of them, in the process of the search for the truth, has been seen as unfaithful, treacherous, and disloyal. Despite his awareness of the criticism, U Tam'Si persists against what Magel calls the normative rules of the game. They consist of the unspoken prohibition against providing ammunition to racist enemies by exposing the ugliness of Africa.
But for Tchicaya, the search for the truth is more important than whatever the searcher happens to find. Thus in Les Cancrelats, Damien, whose daughter is murdered, goes to search for the killer. In the process, he makes important discoveries about himself and the conditions of his life. The authorial voice comments:
La révolte, née de cette recherche, l'aurait conduit à l'avant vers un acte. Qu'importe quel acte? Chaque acte étant l'affirmation d'une liberté!
The revolt, born of this search, would lead him forward toward an act. Does it matter what kind of act? Each act being the affirmation of a liberty!
The search is therefore essential in U Tam'Si's philosophy and it should be considered as such. To his counterparts who undertook the search for their identity in a remote past, he warns that the search ought to be exhaustive as well as objective:
C'est une chose d'aller à la source, une autre de voir venir l'eau à vous. Dans le dernier cas, c'est que ça déborde de quelque part. Savoir ce que c'est ce quelque part est important, si vous tenez à la vie; sinon il vous reste votre soif ou pire….
It is one thing to go back to the sources, another thing to see water coming up to you. In the last case, it is because it overflows from somewhere. To know that somewhere is important, if you hold to life; if not, there remains your thirst or worse. (Cancrelats)
There is no doubt that the water is a metaphor for the identity the writers in question are looking for. The quotation is almost a direct attack on those writers of whom Prosper, a character in Les Cancrelats, is a representative. Under "Le Cauchemar" 'Nightmare,' Tchicaya, in describing Prosper, says that he:
vivait dans un perpetuel compromis, à ce qu'il disait. Une formule creuse à laquelle il voulut donner un sens. Tout son malaise était que ce compromis devenait irremediable. Et qu'il fallait s'en faire une raison. Mais ce qui le chiffonnait de plus, c'était qu'il ne savait de quoi était fait ce compromis. Il était revenu au pays….
lived in a perpetual compromise, as he said. A hollow formula to which he wanted to give meaning. And it had to be a good reason for him. But what annoyed him most was the fact that he did not know what the compromise was about. He came back to his country…. (Cancrelats)
Prosper epitomizes the dilemma of African writers in general. The above accusation points to the external influences on African literature through some literary patterns on which it has been modelled. The perception of a negative influence of Europe on Africa is not new, however. Various critics (Ingeborg Kohn 1980; Mike de Llew 1973, 1979) have discussed the influence of European anthropologists on African writers at the beginning of the 20th century.
The essence of their criticism has been summarized by Cheikh Anta Diop and Paulin Hountoundji, as quoted by Eileen Julien (1992). In her critique of Négritude, Julien points out the rampant racism in the movement whose "terms of definition … are … precisely those of Gobinau [a French racist], with this difference that they are now seen as positive and essential to world humanism."
Senghor's idyllic past has indeed a lot to do with the influence of the early European anthropologists and other scientists. The negative consequences of the scientific revolution on European societies had given birth to a love for nature known as Romanticism. Under this movement, the "savages" of Africa and elsewhere were considered as living in paradise. The notion of the "Noble Savage" became popular and more anthropologists became interested in Africa. Leo Frobenius was influential on the work of Senghor, who readily acknowledges his debt to him.
Yambo Ouolognem's Devoir de violence [Bound to Violence] is one of the African responses to the influence of anthropologists who, it should be noted, were not all bad. Hountoundji is also noteworthy for his sharp criticism of those early anthropologists and African writers whom he accuses of complicity in many respects. According to Julien, he:
refers to the complicity in the 1930s and 40s between Third World nationalists and 'progressive' Western anthropologists. For years they will assist each other, the former using the latter in support of their pluralistic theses.
Tchicaya is therefore not the only one to have criticized the external influences on the African writers and the African identity they have attempted to construct on foreign literary models. He refers to Négritude as a "formule creuse" 'hollow formula' to which Prosper has attempted to give meaning. He also defends himself against the accusation that he destroys Africa by exposing its ugliness to the world. A voice that may be considered as his says to Ndundu:
Ndundu,je suis … je n'oublie pas, je suis tien, mais! Tu es mien et je te dis encore: mais! Comprends ce que tu voudras, regardetoi, regarde-moi. Je me regarde, je te regarde. Le ciel ne nous voit pas autrement que tu te vois, autrement que je me vois. Là est la vérité. Hausser les épaules, c'est se tourner le dos et se dire innocent! Quelle innocence est la mienne? Je m'accuse, oui! Je m'accuse!
Ndundu, I am … I do not forget, I am yours, but …! You are mine and I say again: But …! Understand what you want, look at yourself, look at me. I look at myself, I look at you. The heavens do not see us differently from how you see yourself, differently from how I see myself. In that lies the truth. Shrugging one's shoulders, that is turning one's back and proclaiming oneself innocent! What innocence is mine? I accuse myself, yes! I accuse myself! (Cancrelats, emphasis mine)
This self-accusation is certainly a balance to the exaggeration of the African romantics whose idylls have not cured the ills of their societies. B. M. Ibitokun (1981) has defended Tchicaya on the ground that his "mauvais sang" 'bad blood' has nothing to do with congenital inferiority. At best, it is his historical situation that can best explain it. Unhappy about that condition, the poet "covers himself up with a mask of humor in order not to give up way to despair and nihilism."
U Tam'Si calls upon his people to live in the present and to be more responsible. He makes this point most clearly and eloquently in his interview with Tahar Bekri, expressing his outrage at:
Cet angélisme qui veut que nous n'ayons aucune part de responsabilité dans toutes les catastrophes qui sont cause de tant d'indigences. Bouter le feu à tout cela.
that sainthood which wants us to have no share of responsibility in all the catastrophes which are the cause of so much indigence. Set fire to all this.
The call to set fire to the stifling African traditions is reminiscent of his other collection of poems, Feu de brousse (Brush Fire). Used to clear farms seasonally in Africa, the bush fire is, as Tchicaya says, an exorcism meant to destroy anything that could hinder the sowing of good seeds. In other words, the collection is meant to be an action of weeding and seeding, an act of the construction of a better future.
To reach that goal, he calls upon people to be more active, more involved, in taking constructive initiatives if they want to get out of the desperate conditions in which they languish. He urges them all, especially the youth, not to simply follow the steps of their parents:
Parce que c'était ce qui était désormais permis: qu'un fils pouvait marcher devant son père et non suivre son père … Mais ceux-là qui disent, qui s'indignent qu'un fils … qu'ils s'indignent après tout!… Qu'un fils pouvait préceder son père sur un chemin périlleux.
Because that was what was allowed from that time onwards: that a sibling could walk in front of his father and not follow his father … But those who say, who are indignant with the sibling … let them be indignant after all!… That a sibling could precede his father on a perilous road. (Cancrelats, emphasis mine)
The dangerous road is the one that leads to innovative and positive thinking and action. And because there is no easy way to freedom, he wants to shake the people, especially the youth, out of their resignation and docile obedience. As mentioned earlier, any act is, in the view of U Tam'Si, an affirmation of liberty. On the contrary, silence is an acceptance of oppression and an exercise of cowardice.
As Katheryn Wright (1991) suggests in her article on satire and censorship in Le destin, central to the climate of his work is the theme of the death of life, a wounding of the spirits that have led to resignation. Because of his repulsion at the general state of things, he dedicated Le destin glorieux du Maréchal Nnikon Nniku, prince qu'on sort
à la jeunesse Congolaise avec l'espoir de la voir partager avec moi la sainte horreur que j'ai des petits caporaux faiseurs de coups d'états.
The Glorious Destiny of Marshal Nnikon Nniku, Prince to be deposed to the Congolese youth with the hope to see it share with me the holy horror that I have for the small corporals makers of coup d'états.
This is a sad commentary on modern Africa, where military regimes still preside over the destiny of many nations. The play is in fact a dramatization of the various problems facing the continent. It magnifies and criticizes neo-colonialism, which still operates through political, economic and cultural channels. Very satiric, the play exposes the corrupt African regimes, which are more eager to serve foreign interests rather than those of their own countries. Finally, the satiric laugh it causes is meant to move Africans out of their, passive acceptance of exploitative regimes.
To this effect, Tchicaya is determined to get everybody out of the "mauvais sommeil" 'bad sleep' and to break with the chain of the "solidarité tacite, dans le pire" 'tacit solidarity, at its worst.' He takes recourse to the techniques outlined above in order to sensitize the people and lead them to revolt against the yoke of the living death. No wonder that he employs several aesthetic devices to transform ugliness into awareness, silence into voices, and passivity into action. The scatological device is used not because he likes the filth in Africa, but because it is too repulsive to live with:
Il arrive qu'on se bouche le nez…. L'air a mauvaise haleine. Des carries qui troublent les bouches!… Les gens ne savent plus vivre,… on aimeraient que certaines bouches n'aient jamais raison! Tout depend de la place que l'on fait dans la vie.
It happens that one closes the nose…. The air has bad breath. Tooth-decay which troubles mouths!… People do not know how to live anymore,… one would like that certain mouths never be right! It all depends on the place one makes in life. (Cancrelats)
While tooth-decay suggests a state of mental and physical corruption, the polluted air shows how the corruption penetrates all aspects of life, political and cultural in particular. It is therefore a general contamination that invites a serious and urgent treatment that U Tam'Si is trying to offer through his work. To that end, his satiric pen is like a magnifying glass which helps everyone who can read to see the social ills they are living with.
Wright has contended that Tchicaya has the ability to transform political oppression into a successful surrealistic vision by supporting its meaning with satire and its attendant ironies. She defines irony as a "type of literary censure" which is used to criticize and correct a given situation. To do so, the satirist has to strike a difficult balance between aesthetic features and those of attack. Although most of her observation is based on Destin, much of it can be applied to his entire work.
In this respect, irony, humor, and satire are the most important tools of his sharp criticism. Les Cancrelats (The Roaches) is an ironic title whose meaning unfolds as one reads the novel. It is the story of cockroaches (Africans) taking their case to the tribunal of a hen (France). Set against the background of colonialism and neo-colonialism, the novel is a satiric laugh at those naive Africans who believe that they can get a fair trial at the tribunal of a judge who happens to have interest in the case they defend.
Apart from the self-criticism, this novel contains some of U Tam'Si's most acerbic attacks on colonialism. Casting the latter in the same mold with Christianity, Tchicaya has condemned the wrongs done to Africans in the name of Christ. Using a mixed couple (African woman and White male) as an example, he describes their love-making as a metaphor for the rape of Africa by Europe. It has also been a plunder of the former by the latter. Thus after they finish their intercourse, an authorial voice comments that "Jean a pillé Sophie … Saint Jean a pillé Sainte Sophie…." 'John has looted Sophie … Saint John has looted Saint Sophie….' (Cancrelats). Is it not ironic that Saint Jean loots Saint Sophie in the name of Christ?
But as Jacques Chevrier (1988) argues, despite Tchicaya's apparent bitter attacks on Christianity, he is not against the Christian religion as such. He is against the false Christians preaching a false Christianity supported by mercantilistic interests. Chevrier reports that the Bible was Tchicaya's bedside book, and the title. La main sèche (Dried Hand), borrowed from St. Matthew's gospel, supports his claim.
U Tam'Si is a realistic writer whose critique of Négritude and Africa is not as negative as many would like to think. The writer is very concerned about the future of his continent with regard to the present. He worries about his culture as it faces the invading French culture and civilization. Yet he criticizes those who think that the stifling African traditions and other symbols of oppression should continue to be worshipped.
His courageous move away from the mythic past and Négritude, which, according to Chevrier, are synonymous with obscurantism and immobilism, is also seen as his willingness to accept a compromise whose reality is dictated by the history of Congo, which many critics associate with the Congo River as well. Godard quotes U Tam'Si as saying that "Le Congo c'était la quete politique de mon père, c'est la mienne" 'Congo was the political quest of my father, it is mine.'
The history of Congo is the history of all colonized African countries. It is the history of the encounter between the Christian God and the local divinities of Africa. The result of the encounter is the fusion of two different and often conflicting world views. As a result, a new barbarian has been born out of that encounter, a barbarian defined by Tchicaya in the foreword (Avant-propos) to La main sèche (Dried Hand). His argument is that every civilization is:
une rencontre syncrétique de deux mondes, au moins, barbares l'un pour l'autre, barbare l'un et l'autre. Et cela produit de toute évidence un nouveau barbare si controversé lui-même que c'est forcement un être tragique, fatal, parce qu'habité par deux morts, celle de deux mondes qui l'ont enfanté. Ici, le monde paien et le monde Chretien.
a syncretic encounter of two worlds, at least, barbarians to each other, barbarians both. And that produces obviously a a new barbarian so controversial that he is by force tragic and fatal as a carrier of two deaths, that of the two worlds which gave birth to him. In this case, the Pagan and Christian. (Main, emphasis mine)
This argument is reminiscent of Samba Diallo's tragic character in L'aventure ambiguë (Ambiguous Adventure) by Cheikh Hamidou Kane. The new barbarian and Diallo share the same tragic destiny of living in a world where different value systems come together, sometimes with conflicts. They consist of Christianity and Paganism in the case of the new barbarian. Western values in addition to Christianity and Islam in the case of Samba Diallo.
The death of Samba Diallo after the fatal blow dealt by the fool leaves open the question of whether or not his death means opting for a choice, that of dying in the name of Islam in order to avoid the paradox of a tragic destiny. In fact, the voice of the Light which talks to Diallo in his grave may be interpreted as a sign of welcome to him.
In the case of the new barbarian, he is said to be the child of two dead worlds: African and European. So despite his being fatal and tragic, the new barbarian seems to be the phoenix born out of the ashes of his parents. A syncretic synthesis seems to have been achieved, unlike in the case of Samba Diallo. In the foreword to La main sèche, U Tam'Si says that the collection is "Le portrait à facettes d'un être qui se cherche une identité de synthèse" 'The portrait of a multi-faceted man looking for a syncretic identity.'
This may be interpreted as part of U Tam'Si's struggle to live a significantly productive life, an attitude well summarized by Katheryn Wright when she says that for Tchicaya, "Fate itself may not be controllable, but to yield to a contrived destiny is to accept the prison of oppression." He has proven that philosophy through his personal writing style, which invites readers to adopt a self-questioning or critical attitude. Not content with his identity, he looks for a dynamic model that would help him free himself both from the vestiges of colonialism and from the stifling African traditions. The only true identity is created through (self-) questioning, Tchicaya U Tam'Si answers in his work. Without sure and dynamic identity, there is no sure stance from which one can look at oneself with the smile of a free person.