I’ve learned that there are a lot of reasons why a book doesn’t make it onto a long list. Mostly it’s about the numbers… there are hundreds of books and a limited number of opportunities to recognize them. And so, while I am proud of having contributed to this year’s Best Translated Book Award Long List, and on the whole I think it’s excellent, I still have an entire stack of books which I feel deserve honorable mentions at the very least.
Over the next few weeks I’d like to talk about the novels I read from 2017 that – for a huge variety of reasons, all of which are so benign as to be entirely uninteresting – didn’t make it onto this year’s long list. These are books I enjoyed and wanted to shine my little flashlight on.
The Lieutenant of Kouta is the first in a trilogy of books by the Malian writer Massa Makan Diabaté to be translated into English. Written in 1979, and set in a fictionalized version of the author’s hometown of Kita, it follows the adventures/journey of one Lieutenant Siriman Keita, a retired tirailleur sénégalais (the name taken by members of the black African infantry of the French Army) who returns to Kouta after his years of service to France. Once home he builds an expensive house (square, like those he saw on the continent) and – puffed up on his own importance, surrounded by hangers-on and overly impressed with the French colonial government, – he settles down to criticize, annoy and unintentionally entertain the locals. Initially, Siriman Keita does not make himself beloved to his neighbors. Just the opposite: he rebuffs the overtures of the local imam and openly criticizes the local customs. His pride gets him into some embarrassing, and ultimately humbling, situations. The tone of his exploits veer mostly towards slapstick, like the time he falls from his horse while trying to impress a young woman’s family.
Emboldened by the applause, at the limit of his self-control, he made his horse rear until it was almost vertical; then he ordered it to prostrate itself before his future in-laws. The beast bent its knees; the cries of admiration rose, and the band resumed, even more beautifully. Surprised, the horse reared, launching its rider into a mud-filled ditch. The crowd gathered around the lieutenant in a circle to block him from sight. The rumor spread throughout the village; his image was tarnished.
“It looks like he pooped his pants, like a baby,” some said. The more merciful maintained that he had only pissed himself…
The Lieutenant of Kouta gets high marks just for its entertainment value. It’s really funny. Diabaté’s prose style has a folksy charm reminiscent of Eudora Welty’s rowdier tales, like Losing Battles and Why I Live at the P.O. His characters also have a lot in common with one of John Steinbeck’s down-on-their-luck heroes. Both writers concerned themselves with the situation of disenfranchised men struggling, through a mix of humor and pathos, to retain their dignity in rapidly changing worlds. Steinbeck once wrote “I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature”, which makes me think he would have approved of Diabeté’s work… if it’d been available in English during his lifetime. Because despite being from different continents and very different cultural backgrounds, these three writers were contemporaries. And once you realize that simple fact, the overlap in their work is obvious.
Massa Makan Diabaté (1938-1988) was descended from a family of griots, with deep roots in Mali, Africa. Griots were oral historians, storytellers, spreaders of news and gossip, entertainers and the advisers to kings. Their job was to preserve and disseminate important community information in the absence of the written word. Diabaté was trained by his two uncles, both renowned griots. His life’s work would be to keep the griot tradition relevant in 20th century society. Shane Auerbach’s and David Yost’s vibrant translation celebrates that history by preserving the sense that this novel comes out of an oral, storytelling tradition. Most of the lieutenant’s escapades are related to us as anecdotes, casual gossip passed between neighbors.
The narrative structure is fairly standard, and for some readers, those who might be over modernism and need a break from experimental prose, the no frills approach to character and plot can be something of a relief. It’s the local nature of the subject matter which elevates it, coming at us from an unusual point of view – that of the crowd. In the waning days of colonialism returning soldiers, receiving government pensions and indoctrinated with military discipline, served as unofficial extensions of the colonial administration. (Mali didn’t gain independence until 1960.) Lieutenant Siriman Keita is no exception, with his susceptibility to flattery and misplaced allegiance to France. But hints are dropped early on that there is more to this character. He possesses a kind heart. The novel opens with laughter as we (along with a group of villagers) witness the lieutenant catch a local boy stealing his eggs. The uncowed child, Famakan, is paraded through the streets, responding to the Lieutenant’s constant berating and threats of dire punishments with his own muttered asides. The two reach a bridge and the boy, knowing he will come out of it unharmed, says that for his punishment he chooses to be thrown over the side. Siriman, not wanting to do Famakan actual harm, believes this too harsh. But Famakan insists. “He’s suicidal,” the lieutenant shouted. ‘“He chose for me to throw him from a bridge. Let none accuse me of murder!”’ A struggle ensues as the lieutenant tries to restrain/dissuade Famakan. The boy manages to push his captor headfirst into the mud below and “To disguise his ruse, the boy dove in after him, to the applause, shouts, and laughter of the audience.” Ever aware of his dignity, Siriman shouts to the spectators, “Mark my words… Whoever tells this story will have to pay twenty francs! Ten francs will go to me, and ten will go to Famakan.”
The fact that he is willing to split the fine so that the boy benefits reflects well on him. Later the lieutenant will adopt Famakan and reenacting their first, inauspicious meeting will become a game between them. One designed to make the boy smile and laugh. Diabaté’s secret sauce is allowing his character to evolve, balancing the man’s pomposity with an almost tragic integrity. Eventually – after several comedic missteps which serve to lighten what is ultimately a tale about one man’s disillusionment with colonialism – the lieutenant’s better nature will win out and his transformation into an entirely sympathetic character will be complete. Perhaps even into a heroic one, in that way that introspection in old age can sometimes become heroic. At the end, I was surprisingly moved by The Lieutenant of Kouta journey.
Title: The Lieutenant of Kouta
Author: Massa Makan Diabate
Translator: Shane Auerbach & David Yost
Publisher: Michigan State University Press, 2017