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Jessie Stoolman

“It was the first time the Sepoys had seen such a cowardly Chief of Post. It left them very disillusioned. They told everyone in the tabanca what had happened, adding a little salt of course.”

No “salt” appears to be lost in Jethro Soutar’s translation of The Ultimate Tragedy, which is the first Bissau-Guinean novel to be translated into English.

Reflecting the Bissau-Guinean oral traditions that influenced Abdulai Sila’s writing style, the novel reads like an uninterrupted conversation about what the future holds for this nation, seemingly on the verge of liberation.

Indeed, it is not difficult to imagine protagonist Ndani’s life (re)told in an oral narrative as she transforms from cursed outcast to abused servant, to the wife of a wealthy régulo in whose village she will meet her true love. With every change in Ndani’s environment, we are introduced to a different facet of colonial-era Bissau-Guinean society: rural, under-served poor; white, colonial elite; powerful, indigenous leaders; and finally, Church-educated citizens.

Ndani forges her own destiny despite facing poverty, illiteracy, and an ominous prediction for her future from a local religious figure. At the outset of the novel, young Ndani is shunned by most her family and community due to what she calls “the prophecy of the damned djambakus.” The revered djambakus alleges that Ndani “h ...

“It was the first time the Sepoys had seen such a cowardly Chief of Post. It left them very disillusioned. They told everyone in the tabanca what had happened, adding a little salt of course.”

No “salt” appears to be lost in Jethro Soutar’s translation of The Ultimate Tragedy, which is the first Bissau-Guinean novel to be translated into English.

Reflecting the Bissau-Guinean oral traditions that influenced Abdulai Sila’s writing style, the novel reads like an uninterrupted conversation about what the future holds for this nation, seemingly on the verge of liberation.

Indeed, it is not difficult to imagine protagonist Ndani’s life (re)told in an oral narrative as she transforms from cursed outcast to abused servant, to the wife of a wealthy régulo in whose village she will meet her true love. With every change in Ndani’s environment, we are introduced to a different facet of colonial-era Bissau-Guinean society: rural, under-served poor; white, colonial elite; powerful, indigenous leaders; and finally, Church-educated citizens.

Ndani forges her own destiny despite facing poverty, illiteracy, and an ominous prediction for her future from a local religious figure. At the outset of the novel, young Ndani is shunned by most her family and community due to what she calls “the prophecy of the damned djambakus.” The revered djambakus alleges that Ndani “harboured an evil spirit inside her, the soul of a wicked defunct” and was destined to live “a series of catastrophes, one tragedy after another.”

At each turn, as is common in many oral narratives, archetypal characters meet challenges and their success or failure informs the reader’s perception of good and bad, on an individual and societal level.

Ndani first encounters Dona Linda, who embodies the precariousness of the regime’s “civilizing” mission, unsurprisingly framed by a Portuguese priest as so: “Europeans reached Africa in order to save the Africans.” Dona Linda sees Ndani (whom she renamed Daniela to rid her of that “Communist” sounding name) as her ticket to becoming a pioneer of the movement. However, Dona Linda’s reputation for being “an Alentejo peasant who couldn’t write her own name,” as well as her husband’s violent disposition, put that plan in jeopardy.

Through the eyes of Bsum Nanki, the régulo, or village chief, of Quinhamel, who is committed to the idea that “two heads are better than one,” Ndani is introduced to another vision for Guinea-Bissau’s future, based on putting an end to the colonial administration. In one of the novel’s most mesmerizing passages, Bsum Nanki divulges to his hand-picked scribe, the village’s Teacher, a testament filled with his ideas on how to govern a society justly:

Whenever the Régulo needs another counsellor—or more than one, it matters not, the method is the same—the Régulo simply explains the issue and consults the local population: he says he needs someone who can calmly and patiently help him to think through the tabanca’s current and future problems; he says he needs someone who is experienced and trusted, a person who will not djanfa him later on. The population will tell him who’s most suited, that’s the way it should be done. What’s that you say? Elections? No, I have heard of them, but it’s not the same thing. What’s the difference? Elections are always won by whoever has the most money, whereas this way the population picks whoever is the most suited. Sometimes the two things may appear to be similar, but they’re not the same thing… Elections are cheating and I don’t like cheating.”

Ndani, ever perceptive and, lest we forget, forcibly married to the régulo, is quick to point out that what the régulo deems as an essential principle of governance, “each monkey to its own branch”, will not resolve societal inequalities. She enlightens her future lover, who also happens to be the régulo’s scribe, when the Teacher comes to her not knowing what to do with the unfinished testament:

“He’s lost interest in it.”

“Then throw it away.”

“I can’t.”

“What will you do with it then?”

“Finish it.”

“And then what?”

“Divulge it. That’s what he wanted.”

“In that case you should add that forced marriage should be abolished.”

“What?”

“End forced and false marriage. Marriage should only be for people in love…”

As Ndani enters the final stage of her life, having found a partner who she loves and freely chose, she dreams of creating an institution that would teach young girls what she learned as a survivor of various injustices. Specifically, she wants to create a school unlike those she attended, which were born out of the “civilizing” arm of the colonial regime and intent on justifying inequality. In the school Ndani envisions young girls being taught to read, write, and create: “There wouldn’t be a single teacher in the school. Like the playground, it would be run by Great Women who would pass on the lessons that life had taught them, things not found in books, encyclopaedias or testaments, new or old.”

Again Sila’s novel touches on the dreams of many, across national and historical lines, to establish institutions that dismantle systems of oppression by giving a platform to those who are often silenced. Perhaps unsurprisingly, but no less heart-wrenching for that, is a dream the Teacher has that forebodes a future mired by continuing political corruption, with only the players’ faces changing.

Crioulo words, expressions, and particular sentence structures play a big role in shaping the flow of Sila’s novel. As mentioned above, Sila appears to borrow from literary and linguistic devices particular to Bissau-Guinean oral traditions. His decision to represent elements of Bissau-Guinean oral traditions through the written word may form part of a larger trend in writing from the region. As Francesca Francina argued in her piece on expressing guineidade in fiction, Sila and a fellow Bissau-Guinean writer, Odete Semedo, “reinforce the sense of guineidade carried in their works of fiction not only through linguistic and formal appropriation but also with the structuring of prose as lit/orature to construct a meta-narrative of orality”.[1]

Furthermore, Sila takes on the task of de-otherizing non-institutionalized languages by not including a glossary or footnotes (á la Junot Díaz) to explain Crioulo words and by weaving Crioulo sentence structures into the text’s dominant language.

In the original Portuguese-language edition there had been a glossary, but only at the publisher’s request. As translator Jethro Soutar explained to me,

Silá agreed to the Portuguese publisher’s request for a glossary, but he was against the concept in principal: he felt (and I agree) that there is a tendency to treat African languages as being somehow more alien than other languages, and the notion that readers require a glossary is built into that. If a foreign word is used with sufficient context, the reader can more or less figure out what it is without an explanation.

Sila masterfully challenges the reader to recognize the inherent value of all languages, institutionalized and not, not only by allowing context to explain the meaning of Crioulo words and phrases, but also by using Crioulo verbs in Portuguese conjugation. For example, after an arrogant Portuguese Chief of Post attempts to intimidate a group of Bissau-Guinean workers, the régulo Bsum Nanki comments “[s]ome even began to tchiar, though most just looked at him in disgust.” Sila thus normalizes Crioulo on two fronts, through meaning and structure.

In terms of meaning, the reader can easily understand the sentence without knowing the dictionary definition of the word. Regarding form, by inserting the Crioulo verb into the conjugational structure of Portuguese (and later in translation, English) verbs, the reader is reminded that every language, institutionalized or not, shares a structural basis (perhaps confirming the existence of Chomsky’s “universal grammar”).

Sila’s preference not to include a glossary and his seamless weaving of Crioulo words and sentence structures into the novel can be seen as challenging the reader to consider the politics of language within literary production. Particularly, the reader of English is forced out of their more common role as a passive consumer of translated literature. To address the hegemony of English (and to a lesser extent, other Western European languages) in a global literary context, we must engage with literature (oral and written) that takes the reader outside the normal confines of their linguistic world. Thus, through Sila’s work, we are reminded of what should be considered a universal truth: that literary production is not an art form limited to the “West” nor to the written word.

The Ultimate Tragedy serves in many ways as a sort of literary privilege-check, introducing histories as well as literary/linguistic styles rarely given space on an international platform. Published under Dedalus Books’ new section Dedalus Africa, there’s hope that Sila’s novel marks the start of a push to correct such disparities in representation. Soutar, who edits this section, confirmed as such:

The aim [of Dedalus Africa] is to bring fresh voices to English-language readers, ‘fresh’ in one of a number of ways: they tell of remote people and communities English readers know nothing about; they are about life in a modern, urban Africa that generally gets overlooked by Western observers. We will encourage marginalised, suppressed and outspoken writers and we will seek work from countries (and eventually languages) that have not previously had work published in English.

Here is to hoping that future titles will be as enthralling as Ndani’s story, whose resilience, perceptiveness, and unwavering commitment to autonomy will certainly glue your eyes to the page…

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