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Slaves by Kangni Alem – Disappointing.

November 24, 2019 2 comments

Slaves by Kangni Alem Original French title: Esclaves Not available in English.

Slaves is a historical novel by the Togolese writer Kangni Alem. It relates the story of the slave trade in the 19th century on the Slave Coast of West Africa. After a quick foreword, the book starts in 1818 when the king of Dahomey Adandozan is deposed and his rival becomes the King Guézo (1818-1858). Adandozan was trying to oppose to the slave trade. Guézo has an alliance with the Portuguese governor Francisco Felix de Souza and their only aim is to get rich. They sell slaves to Brazilian landowners to have free workers on their plantations.

The master of rituals Sakpatê unwillingly participates to Adandozan’s dismissal. He is seen as unreliable and his wives and children are sent to plantations in Cuba.

He is sent to Recife in Brazil where he is renamed Miguel. There, he becomes a Muslim under the patronage of another slave and chooses the name Sule. He learns how to read and write.

After a slave upheaval in the plantation, he is sold to another master in Salvador de Bahia. He becomes a respected house slave but he keeps a distant relationship with a man who intends to lead a slave rebellion and take the power in Bahia. The plot is revealed and the repression is bloody. Sule is sent back to Africa and he chooses to go back to the city where Adandozan is said to be buried.

Kangni Alem writes this novel with a purpose: he wants to confront the hypocrisy of the Europeans who benefited from the slave trade and of the African powers of the time who got rich by selling their people or war prisoners. Neither of them can reject the responsibility of slavery to the other’s face. They are accomplices and they knew what they were doing.

I enjoyed the historical side of the book. It is something I was vaguely aware of but I never took time to dig further. I wasn’t so engaged with the Sakpatê/Miguel/Sule, though, probably because the structure of the book felt stuffy and artificial.

The prologue was set in 1841 and it was about a ship leaving England to Sydney, a vessel that was used to transport slaves to Brazil. It is said to be cursed and indeed, it is mysteriously shipwrecked in the Sydney Bay. The rest of the story is split in small chapters with titles similar to the ones you may find in 19th century literature. It fit with the times of the novel but it felt artificial.

The prologue made me suspicious about the book because I suspected anachronisms. One character alludes to the Loch Ness monster, something that became popular in the 1930s. Another mentions Texas as being part of the USA but in 1841, Texas was a Republic. A character hates Lincoln for his abolitionist views. I’m not a specialist of US history but I’m not sure that Lincoln was a famous abolitionist in 1841.

And then there were typos – irritating but it can happen – and grammar mistakes—unforgivable—the worst one being ‘Il surviva’, which is as bad as writing ‘He stealed’ instead of ‘he stole’.

All this went in the way of my reading and while the substance of the book was interesting and pushed me to read a bit about the Kingdom of Dahomey, the form got in the way of its message. Or it belongs to another literary culture and I read it with my biased Western eyes and I’m totally unfair to this novel because I missed the point.

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