Monday, November 23, 2009

Doomi Golo: Nettali by Boubacarr Boris Diop [A Review]

Suppose a man, a Wolof man, were to write a novel. Not simply a novel about a Wolof man, you understand, but a novel written by its main character (the Wolof man) in Wolof, documenting a Wolof life. Suppose this man wrote, not for critical acclaim or a wide readership, but out of a sense of obligation to record the facts of his life for his grandson, who had traveled overseas and not yet returned. The man at the sunset of his life, certain he will not see his grandson again, this lending a certain urgent sadness to his prose. And yet every word weighed down by the many years of his life and what he has done (or failed to do) with them, and also a resignation that all was as it was predestined to be. Such is the central conceit of Boubacarr Boris Diop's Wolof novel Doomi Golo: Nettali.

Set in Dakar, Senegal, in the district of Nyaarela, it tells the story of one Ngiraan Fye, an old man waiting for his death, sending out this last communique to his absent grandson, a "hardworking and disciplined young man who the whole district still talk about with great respect". Ngiraan writes to tell him of all he has missed in his absence, but also to give an account of his own life, and his son's (the absent grandson's father). Divided into multiple books, each book dealing with one facet: the boy's mother, the boy's stepmother who came from France when his father died, the political state of the country (including a short exploration of Sheikh Anta Diop, as well as colonial occupation), and many more.

One could spend many years reading all the different levels in the novel, and finding interpretations for them. Wolof culture is permeated with Islamic values, and so a peculiar form of existentialism is manifested by Ngiraan. He believes in Allah, and that when he dies he will return to Him, and that He is the source and root of his life; and yet still he cannot stop wondering what his life was for, and what he did with it. These questions nag at him throughout the book, refusing to go away or be easily dealt with. In one section he is set upon finding out about his ancestor, who he has only memories of from childhood, but who he holds in great reverence. He goes on a journey which gets more and more allegorical as it proceeds, becoming a representation of the search for the soul and the ever receding self. In the end what he finds upends all his initial thoughts about this ancestor, who turns out to be an evil man reviled by all and not the hero he had thought. "The search for oneself", the narrator tells his grandchild (and the Reader), "is the most difficult and seldom ends in places we prefer or expect - one must be strong in order to attempt it". This continually happens in the novel, with Diop taking us to places we did not at all expect, and forcing us to revisit our original assumptions. Parallel to this,there runs through the novel a Borgesian fascination with mirrors, as a means of telling us what we are - a task they often fail at, partly because we put our own interpretations on even the things we see in mirrors, rendering them not as objective as we would like to believe. In one memorable scene a pair of gorillas which cause strife between the colonizing white men and the locals, and more than one death, by destroying the constructs created at sea for incoming ships, are finally trapped using mirrors. They end up tearing each other apart.

Ngiraan's search for identity is only the whole culture's search for identity writ small. Again and again we return to the question of who we really are, by way of Sheikh Anta Diop, by way of Lumumba, by way of the young people walking down the street dressed in the latest European fashions. But if this were only a recounting of African heroes and their achievements then it would not be anything out of the ordinary, and would tell us nothing new - that is well-covered ground after all (and tired ground, in the hands of the many dictators on the continent self-styled after these heroes, ready to namedrop them at the slightest shake of a microphone in their faces). Diop goes much deeper - Ngiraan's daughter-in-law returns from France to bring his son's corpse back, and from the moment she steps off the plane she distances herself from everyone around her, claiming she is white and does not belong amongst them. Immediately we begin to see the metaphoric possibilities.1 If Ngiraan is the part of us earnestly painstakingly attempting to build an identity that falls in line with our history and heritage, she is the part that has given in to the strong temptation to float away on the river of the new culture all around us, where every one else seems to be floating these days. ("This need to continually assert our pride in our culture and our belonging to it", Ngiraan asks, "does it not point to a deeper dislocation? Surely the one who is does not need to continually assert what he is. Why would he imitate himself?" - words, after all, cannot make us - they only describe what we are; no matter how fervently one hopes, one cannot become something by merely repeating over and over that one is not its opposite). She does not stop at merely telling people she is toubab, she goes to see a Marabout, who promises he can turn her into what she has always wanted to be. He does so, changing the color of her skin and giving her a grand name, but the price he asks is high (aren't the prices for these things always): that she will give one of her two children to him. She refuses, and he turns her into a spectacle every one in Dakar travels to see, almost causing a riot. Finally soldiers from the French embassy arrive to rescue her. She rushes out to greet them, tears in her eyes, thankful that her ordeal is over at last. They ask her to come with them but they will not let her bring the children, who "cannot possible be hers - look how dark they are, and how white you are". She hurls herself on the ground and asks for their mercy, but they will not budge, and in the end she is compelled by the soldiers to leave them, wailing where they stand in front of the house. The reader is left to reach their own conclusions.

All this - the play with internal and external representations, the characters' misadventures and how deeply they are engrossed in them - make for intriguing reading. But the highest accomplishment of the novel is its powerful presentation of the Wolof language (and by extension all the other local/native languages) as a language which is fully capable of holding one's model of the World in all its complexity, and able to navigate this complexity with ease. This statement may seem like a self-evident fact to people not familiar with the local languages and what happens when one begins to learn to assume a foreign culture. Not learn a new language: the process by which we the previously colonized bit players in the epic play of globalization come to adapt the language, customs and mores of our colonizers is much more involved than simply learning a new language. It runs much deeper than the level of mere word substitution (the words of our local languages for the words of the foreign tongue), instead coming to be a gradual substitution of large swathes of our World View for the foreign one. Yet all this happens so subtly and creeps up on us so gradually - one moment we're learning to read Peter and Jane in primary school, years later we're writing essays in English - we barely even notice it. But the consequences are far-reaching: by the time we have reached enough mastery in English to be able to go to college it is too late. Somehow, through a process of selection over the years, English has become not just the language we communicate in but the language of our thoughts. All forms of sophisticated thought - from science to literature - having been presented to us in this language, we come to equate it with sophistication and the higher forms of intellectual reasoning, far and above any local language we speak.

This is where Doomi Golo succeeds so well as a novel. There are novels in which the voice and the narratorial presence do not matter so much as the events that are narrated: one could conceive of these novels translated into other languages with ease, with not much being lost in the process, beyond the usual quibbles over what word or sentence structure best maps to the one in the original language. Doomi Golo falls squarely out of this category. It presents to us the possibility of a man who speaks only Wolof, yet has the same complicated thought processes we have come to associate, in our Anglicized minds, with people who can speak that language. The language used in Doomi Golo is constantly beautiful, sharp and spare in places, in others rising to grand heights of description. One gets a thrill every time one reads Ngiraan's many plays with words and ideas, at the freshness of his insight, at his wisdom. In one section he represents the days as men marching through time, each vying for more popularity than its fellows. He takes this idea and uses it to explore days in history on which significant events happened, changing the perspective - now instead of these events happening with the day being merely an unimportant background, instead the day comes forward as - if not the causer of the event - at least as important in its creation as the people involved. And while the people did it for their own reasons, the day did it so it would be remembered in history.

By the end of the book Ngiraan has gone into a delirious state2. The narration in the final section is (fittingly) picked up by a mad man, Aali Kebooy, who also lives in Nyarelaa. Aaali Kebooy has been murdered multiple times, and seems to have some form of magical power, as well as an incredibly long life. It is he who explains to the grandson about the death of his grandfather, and writes the postscript to the book. By the end of the book we are left with the impression that we have read a truly great work, and it is a pity that more people cannot read this book and understand what it is saying.


1 yet, I hasten to add, these metaphors are not stilted, nor do they seem forced. The people represented are fully fleshed-out characters, with lives beyond the metaphors.

2 there is a whole section in which he is captured by monkeys and made their slave - there are strong indications this only happened in his mind

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