Comoros: beyond belief

I thought this one might defeat me. As far as I could see, there was not – nor had there ever been – a single novel, short story collection or memoir published in English translation by a writer from the Comoro Islands. No matter who I asked or how charmingly I smiled at the Google homepage, the answer was always the same: nada. It seemed I had come to the end of the road.

In despair, I mentioned the dilemma to my colleague – the same colleague who came up trumps with the Niger book. A few weeks later he was back with, in his words, ‘possible gold’. He’d found a CV online of Anis Memon, a lecturer in French and Italian at the University of Vermont. It stated that in 2005 he’d done a translation of Le Kafir du Karthala by Mohamed Toihiri, the Comoros’ permanent representative to the United Nations and, according to Simon Gikandi’s Encyclopedia of African Literature, the country’s first published novelist. Perhaps if I contacted Memon, he might be able to dig out the manuscript for me?

I fired off an email and received a modest response from Memon. He said he couldn’t vouch for the quality of the translation as it was a personal project he’d undertaken when Mohamed Toihiri was a visiting lecturer one year at Memon’s grad school. The two had spent quite a bit of time together and as a result Memon had decided it would be good practice for him to try and translate one of the writer’s novels. Still, if I wanted to look at the manuscript, he’d see if he could find it for me.

A nail-biting wait ensued. The way I saw it, Memon’s translation was probably my one chance of reading a Comorian novel in English. I just hoped he was better at backing up and archiving his files than I was.

Luckily, that turned out to be the case and when I next checked my emails while on holiday in Spain, the file was waiting for me. The Kaffir of Karthala was mine to read.

Beginning on the day Dr Idi Wa Mazamba discovers he has terminal cancer, the novel tells the story of one man’s struggle to free himself from the conventions, patterns and prejudices that have dogged his life. Liberated by the knowledge that his days are numbered, married Mazamba embarks on an affair with a French woman, Aubéri, and comes to look at the world around him with new eyes. Yet this fresh vision brings with it a heightened awareness of the racism, corruption and contradictions that riddle society. Appalled by the hypocrisy he encounters, Dr Mazamba hatches a plan to challenge the status quo while he still can.

Toihiri is a clear-eyed writer, who excels at presenting complex situations in concise, memorable ways. Whether he is describing the inequality of living conditions in Chitsangani – ‘a neighbourhood where the Middle Ages and the Third Millennium went hand in hand’ and where ‘here one slept on a mat of fleas, there one got ill from hyper-cleanliness’ – or the double standards that see foreign nationals and the ‘generous partner’ donors who pull the political strings behind the scenes receiving top treatment while patients in Mazamba’s hospital can not afford drugs, Toihiri’s descriptions are precise and fearless.

Often, they are very funny too. Ranging from witty anecdotes to satirical attacks, such as the summary of the political career of Marshal Kabaya – ‘at first Minister of Sand in Your Eyes, he was then promoted, following a shuffling of the cabinet, and became the Minister of State in Charge of the Occult Sciences’ – they puncture pomposity and pretence wherever Toihiri sees it. Meanwhile, the writer balances these descriptions with a wry affection for some of the customs on the archipelago that keeps the narrative from becoming overly bitter, as when Mazamba explains the rivalry between the islands to Aubéri:

‘In Ngazija and Mmwali they say that the Anjouanese are poisoners, that they’re skinflints, morbidly jealous, that you mustn’t even look at their women otherwise they’ll arrange to have you thrown off a bridge; we actually say a lot of nonsense about each other.’

Perhaps the most fascinating passages of the book for readers unfamiliar with Comorian culture, like me, are those surrounding marriage traditions in Mazamba’s home village. There, the concept of the ‘great wedding’, a huge celebration which each man is expected to save for and go through once in his life, regardless of whether he is already married to another woman or not, holds sway. And when Issa, Mazamba’s best friend, allows himself to be flattered into going through a great wedding with a canny teenager, the folly of the institution is laid bare.

Occasionally, Toihiri’s desire to encapsulate contradictions and struggles in punchy imagery runs away with the narrative. Muslim Mazamba and Jewish Aubéri’s first physical encounter, for example takes place in a church during a trip they both conveniently have to take to apartheid-riven South Africa. Reading the descriptions of Mazamba breaking his Ramadan fast with Aubéri’s bodily fluids under the shadow of a crucifix, I couldn’t help feeling the author was labouring the point. In addition, the final stages of the plot, during which Mazamba is unexpectedly manoeuvred into a position of influence that enables him to take radical action, rely too much on coincidence and luck to be entirely credible.

But then I’m writing this having just read a translation that until a couple of months ago existed only on the hard drive of an academic I’ve never met more than 3,000 miles away. Hmmn. Perhaps anything is possible after all…

The Kaffir of Karthala  (Le Kafir du Karthala) by Mohamed Toihiri, translated from the French by Anis Memon