Set in a fictitious African nation, this novel by the distinguished writer Sony Labou Tansi takes aim at the corruption, degeneracy, violence, and repression of political life in Africa. At the heart of The Shameful State is the story of Colonel Martillimi Lopez, the nation’s president, whose eccentricity and whims epitomize the "shameful situation in which humanity has elected to live." Lopez stages a series of grotesque and barbaric events while his nation falls apart. Unable to resist the dictator’s will, his desperate citizens are left with nothing but humiliation. The evocation of this deranged world is a showcase for the linguistic and stylistic inventiveness that are the hallmark of Sony Labou Tansi’s work.
This first English translation by Dominic Thomas includes a foreword by Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou that contextualizes the novel’s importance in literary history and the significance of Sony Labou Tansi for future generations of writers.
About the Author
Sony Labou Tansi (1947–1995) was a Congolese novelist, playwright, and poet whose groundbreaking work transformed postcolonial francophone African literature. He is author of Life and a Half (IUP, 2011).
Dominic Thomas is Madeleine L. Letessier Chair in French and Francophone Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Alain Mabanckou is Professor of French and Francophone Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles and the author of several prizewinning novels. He is author of Blue White Red (IUP, 2013).
Read an Excerpt
The Shameful State
By Sony Labou Tansi, Dominic Thomas
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2016 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
This is the story of Colonel Martillimi Lopez, son of National Mom, our very own matriarch of the nation, who came into the world holding his big greasy herniated balls and exited still holding onto them — National Lopez, younger brother of Lieutenant Colonel Gasparde Mansi. Oh dear! Poor old Gasparde Mansi, Supreme Commander of the Army, ex-President for life, ex-founder of the Rally for Democracy, ex-Commander-in-Chief of the Peoples' Liberty, the late Gasparde Mansi, alas, just like Mom's Lopez, born holding onto his hernia and still clinging to it in the same old filthy way when he died; such a pity!
We set off from National Mom's village and took him on his first ever trip to the capital. He was greeted by a lively crowd, chanting, and saluting cannons; there he was, perched on his white horse Moupourtanka, singing the national anthem. Because white is the color of frankness, and if nothing else, as we shall see my brothers and dear fellow countrymen, he was certainly frank. My brother from another mother, National Oupaka, was galloping along proudly behind him, sharing a horse with Mom, who would probably fall off if she were riding alone on such a beast. To his left, Carvanso, to the right, Vauban. The crowds followed him on foot. We were all convinced that this president was going to be a good one. We carried his kitchen utensils, old fishing nets, machetes, fishhooks, domestic birds, seventy-one sheep, three cases of gourmet Benedicta mustard, eleven Sloughi hounds, his Argand oil lamp, bicycle, fifteen watering cans, slop pail, three mattresses, Arquebus, sieves.... And when our brother Carvanso said to him: "Don't worry, Mr. President," he responded: "I'm not so sure; I won't put up with people saying that I embezzled funds." His big magnanimous father-of-the-nation smile extended from ear to ear.
At first glance, you might have thought we were back in the age of caravans, because he'd refused to take an airplane, and so we had to walk, bent double under the weight of his belongings and you better make sure you don't break anything.... We sang his praises. Spread our loincloths out in front of him. As he made his way in to the capital, an honor guard stretched out for over eight miles, almost three thousand feet of red berets, a hundred of green berets; he sidled up to brother Carvanso when he saw the soldiers and whispered: "What are they?" — "Infantrymen Colonel" — "Ah, Ok!"
We made our way to the city center via route 15, and once across the Alberto-Icuezo Bridge, reached District 45. Folks were dancing at Delpanso's and he wanted to watch since the dances were different from those he was accustomed to in his tribe. But Colonel Vasconni Moundiata approached the dance floor and bellowed: "Cut the crap, can't you see that the President is here?" Colonel Vasconni Moundiata lost his temper and started kicking the dancers, and five infantrymen charged in and lashed out with rifle butts. We then noticed his father-of-the-nation frown as he motioned to National Carvanso. Carvanso steered his mount over to the white horse and listened attentively: "Shoot these idiots, they're disturbing the people." We applauded loudly: this was the first time a president had done such a thing in the name of the people. We walked over all the dead bodies. One man ran up to him, kissed his national legs and then killed himself, screaming just before taking a nose-dive: "Ah, Mr. President, what a beautiful gesture!" "Go ahead and grant him two national days of mourning," Lopez instructed Colonel Carvanso.
We took him all over the capital: up and down Valtaza, Dorbanso, and Corbanzo streets, to the Graci roundabout, the Opera.... Then on to Vatney, the seat of power. Later to city hall, to the Museum of the Nation, the military camps, the presidential port, the Place du 8 juin; we only made it back to the palace at dusk. We walked through all the rooms: the weapons hall, the diamond gallery, the corridor to the Companions of the Revolution, the presidential vault where only one of our eleven presidents had lain at rest because the other ten had been dumped in a mass grave for acts of high treason.
"That's the map of the country, Mr. President sir."
"Aha! I see! But what are all those blue serpents?"
"The rivers, Mr. President."
"Aha! I see! And these smaller serpents?"
"The county roads, Mr. President."
"And those serpentlets?"
"The borders, Mr. President."
This is when we first heard his big fatherly laugh, and holding on to his sides, he pointed out just how stupid we all were: You've gone and left parts of the nation over in that shameful state in which those "Flemish" left them, you've left parts of the nation as if the pale power was still here. How shameful dear Mom, and you're such a bunch of fools! Hand me some red markers. And he set about redrawing the contours of the fatherland: put those infantrymen to work, and he proceeded to join together four straight lines, leaving areas of the sovereign territory over to our neighbors and taking over some of theirs because, my brothers and dear fellow countrymen, that's the sovereign decision of my hernia: the fatherland shall be square. How could you possibly expect us to live in a crater left behind by the colonizer! What kind of a people are we if we don't even have the freedom to fabricate our own borders? He enlisted the support of the media for this decision of his hernia and that's enough of this crap, and put those infantrymen to work instead of them spending their days mounting girls, clothed and fed by the state, and fucking up the shit and seizing power at the first opportunity.... And the sovereign decision of his big, big, big herniated balls was decreed in red ink, sending the infantrymen to the new borders, get the lot of them outta here, because an infantryman is made to fire old boy!
After delivering this first televised message on those god-damn TVs that keep teasing my hernia, he beckoned Carvanso, grabbed him by the shoulders, and gave him a couple of friendly taps: you're going to be my right-hand man, you'll be National Mom's right-hand man, and then he lowered his voice and asked him if, well, you know, it's not that easy being a bachelor these days: my appetite is up, go find me a hooker.
"Mr. President sir, you need to be more careful now with all the media around."
"Fuck the media, my appetite is up. And don't bring me one of those young ones. Those young ones aren't ripe enough."
He ate quickly, barely drinking. He called over the maitre d' to ask him why his meat was bloody. "I'm not a fucking cat, you know!"
"On the contrary, Mr. the Presidente: this is civilized cuisine."
"Well what on earth makes you think I'm civilized?"
"... Ah, Mr. the Presidente ..."
"Just get the hell out of here if you don't know how to cook like we do around here."
We applauded when he appointed Mom as the national cook.
"What about the title National Hotelier, Mr. President sir," suggested Carvanso.
"It sounds better, Mr. President."
He sounded out the title a few times and said, well, Ok then, you're right, it does sound better. And then came the day when, in front of the parliament, the Chamber of Elders, the diplomats and military High Command, the Apostolic Nuncio, he swore in Mom's name and mine, in the name of the fatherland, "You can trust me, I'll be a good president." He got down from the podium, sporting the colors of the nation, grinning from ear to ear, humming the national anthem, arms raised, hands joined together, escorted only by Mom, Carvanso, and Vauban, making his way through the cheering crowd, past the people dancing, covered in the fatherland's flowers, past the children who wanted to touch his hernia, the mothers who laid down their loincloths on the ground before him, the elders who wept tears of joy: we're going to have a good president, long live Lopez, son of National Mom, long live Carvanso! The air in the streets of the capital, Zappalo, Muerte, Grabanizar, Machinier, and in Passion Place was filled with the smell of palm-waving perspiring dancers and sulfurous gunpowder. He paused to eat and drink as my people do, joined them in my true dances, not like those assholes who imported everything from my colleague's country; I'm staying as I am, I'll eat what we eat here, drink what we drink here. He gathered one hundred and thirty nationals and fifteen former presidents living in exile in the country and I'll show you how we do politics around here; he set about dictating to our brother Carvanso the seventy-five articles that would make up the new "Order of Command": article 1: the fatherland shall be square; article 2: down with demagogy; article 3: National Mom is everyone's mother; article 4: no strikes and no more bullshit; article 5: down with the death penalty; article 6: I'm the president but you can knock me off whenever you see fit.... He set about appointing the Council of Ministers. Raise your hand. Who wants to be Minister of Dough? Who wants to be Minister of Stamps? So, who wants to be Minister of Roads who wants to be Minister of Rocks who wants to be Minister of Medication in charge of the status of women? He appointed a Minister of Borders, Minister of Customs, Minister of Transactions, Minister of Debts, Minister of Crops in charge of the forests, Minister of Fishing in charge of wildlife, Minister of Trade Negotiations.... But I'm going to be Minister of Infantrymen in charge of the people's freedom. My brothers and dear fellow countrymen, let's get to work. And while they sang the national anthem, he whispered to Carvanso: please, I'm so horny: fetch me a chick.
"Yes, Mr. President."
"And a real chick. How about a White one, I feel like a nice juicy White one."
"Yes, Mr. President."
For five years he managed the nation and the borders and damn those Mihilis who had risen up in the western region. Carvanso will teach them the lesson of my hernia; as for the Bhas who refuse to pay a tax offering, go dish out my big greasy balls, and those Bhozos rising up in the south, go put a curse on them Carvanso! Yes, Mr. President sir! And to relax he had his griot National Thanassi come over, who recounts the famous story of our brother Louhaza who loved his own mother so much and gave her twelve children including Talanso Manuel, National Mom's great-grandfather, a descendant of National Lakensi, founder of the fatherland, and tells the story of Lukenso Douma, founder of a vast kingdom that encompassed the Congo, Zaire, and Angola, and also how Manuelo Otha had founded Tamalassi ... as well as the story of ex-Colonel Youhakini Konga, now that one's a long story, but I very much want it to be handed down from father to son for eternity, exactly in the way I heard it from my grandmother, the late Gasparde Luna. As he listened, his eyes looked as if they were going to pop out of his head: my God, our ancestors were truly great.
"Yes, Mr. President."
"They were born to shake things up."
"Yes, Mr. President."
"There aren't a thousand ways of being in this world. We'll muddle through somehow. Twenty percent Flemish blood running in our veins, not quite Black enough to be negroes, not quite White enough to be whites, but I'll find a way to shake things up too.... There aren't a thousand ways of being in this world."
"Yes, Mr. President."CHAPTER 2
It all started one May evening at the Alberto-Sanam-atouff stadium. On a Tuesday, at that time of day when the sun begins to set, striping the hands of nature blood red, as the nocturnal concert of pulsating insect wings gets underway announcing Africa to the tourists in my colleague's country across the way. At that hour when you found out, as we all did, that Lieutenant Proserdo Manuelio had killed his brother-in-law Jolanso Amelia as he lay in a hospital bed: "After all the blood and sweat I put into making you a lieutenant! So apparently you want to take power? Well here it is: in the barrel of a gun."
Mother of Lopez! He had summoned all my brothers and dear fellow countrymen to this first evening meeting (because there's no time to waste: the nation's business can't wait), and so I'll start by explaining, ah yes, because I need to provide some background and explain the real reasons that motivated my hernia to get involved in power. And no, no, and no, it was not a coup d'état! I rebelled against the central authorities because we couldn't let you know who go on pissing on the fatherland, we couldn't let him go on confusing the nation with the legs of his badly fucked mom, a real loser, uncultivated, a rogue like him. It wasn't a coup d'état and he went ahead and pointed to a scar done by you know who, and then unbuttoned his fly and showed us another scar on the inner thigh, and several others as well, and then also his puckered ass and told us how, my brothers and dear fellow countrymen, Abbey Perrionni the son of his mother injured him there on the day he was caught with the ex-virgin Gléza Dononso: "This is truly shameful, Captain (that was my rank in those days), shameful that you can't find a real woman to throw your juices at when the streets are brimming with them, and it would be so much better than preying on those nice religious girls." He showed us what you know who did to his hernia the day he surprised him in bed with his daughter and well, what can you say, we're only human. I have to show you all these scars so that you can understand that being in power was not some kind of personal ambition of my hernia. Ah my brothers and dear fellow countrymen, I still haven't shown you the full extent of the injuries I sustained on the day when National Loutoulla caught me screwing his wife.... And so out came his male junk, ravaged by pock marks and blemishes, and please, don't go thinking I'm crazy: this is where the nation begins.
And that half-wit National Outranso who thinks this is all a big joke: I'm educating our people and all you can do is giggle from under Foni Sènso's beret. You must take me for that ex-President Jlanso Zenno who used to throw himself in front of young girls, with joined hands and hernia: you're a mulatto, mulatto girls drive me crazy. With Africa, clenched between their thighs. But let's get back to the subject at hand and let's not forget what a nasty world we live in: men, ah men! Always trying to conquer the world with their tools. But God rules, ah yes, my brothers and dear fellow countrymen, if we can still breathe this evening as we're breathing it's because God is with us. Because, and the evidence is clear, at two o'clock tonight, you know who tried to seize power with the help of a dozen or so little mechanics and a handful of demons who work with those goddamn TVs, what bullshit; do you really think, my brothers and dear fellow countrymen that you can seize power with big plans? But in that gang there was also a woman ah! Mother! And by all accounts she's as beautiful as the Queen of Sheba. And he started fondling his big greasy herniated balls, gently massaging them as we applauded, as our cries made their way to the heavens: Long live Lopez! Long live National Mom! He stroked his hernia in a premeditated fashion, "But before I fully expose them to your anger, my brothers and dear fellow countrymen, children of my loins, let's take stock of the situation: I'm no Gasparde Mansi who got his balls chopped off by some girl because he held sexual audiences in his office, I'm no Oustanno Ludia who killed people as one does a chicken, and I'm certainly no son-of-a-bitch Orenso Gemma whom you made a hero of the nation just because he left behind three hundred and twelve mulatto girls and seventy-five Black ones just like him; I am Lopez, National Mom's son, five years at the helm, now tell me, who have I killed?" We all shouted out: "No one! Long live Lopez, long live National Mom, down with crocodiles."
Excerpted from The Shameful State by Sony Labou Tansi, Dominic Thomas. Copyright © 2016 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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