Book of the month: Boubacar Boris Diop


This book came onto my radar thanks to award-winning translator Jennifer Croft, who mentioned on social media recently that she was obsessed with it. The novel had another claim on my attention too, being the first work to be translated into English from the north-west African language Wolof (although, as co-translator Vera Wülfing-Leckie explains in her introduction, the English version comes from a francophone text also created by celebrated author Boubacar Boris Diop, who usually writes in French rather than his mother tongue).

The premise of Doomi Golo: The Hidden Notebooks is deceptively simple. Coming to the end of his life in Dakar, Senegal, Nguirane Faye sets about recording his thoughts and recollections for the benefit of his absent grandson, Badou, who he hopes will one day return to his native Senegal and unearth his notebooks. What follows, however, is far from straightforward, as time, language and the written form itself bend and snap beneath the weight of Nguirane’s experiences and ideas.

A plethora of techniques are at work here. There are stories within stories, proverbs, voices that interrupt or take over the narrative and digressions galore. Historic events jostle with folklore, hallucinations and memories. Often, Nguirane will pause, mid-flow, to chide or tease his reader for getting exasperated with his meanderings. Sometimes, he will imagine his grandson’s responses and embark on an argument with him – a mechanism that is as touching as it is funny.

At the root of it all, lies the oral tradition (a tradition to which Diop has said he belongs ‘with every fibre of [his] being’). And though the writing is exceptionally deft, sidestepping many of the problems that often beset novels framed as accounts directed at imaginary recipients (which are often weighed down by expository passages too obviously penned for the benefit of the real-world reader), there is a tension between written and spoken that Diop clearly intends us to feel: ‘I would have preferred to talk to you face-to-face, of course, like any storyteller worthy of that name.[…] But, I am writing to you, since that’s my only option,’ laments Nguirane in the opening pages.

This idea of people and stories being forced into frameworks that don’t serve them is a central theme. Time and again, we encounter characters who are obliged to work against their nature and interests, both in terms of the contemporary political system, their own identities and Senegal’s colonial history. ‘Our chains are in our heads, you see,’ cart driver Ousmane Sow tells Nguirane.

With plain speaking often impossible, satire and allegory are the order of the day. Revelling in a mischievousness that once again draws strongly on the oratorical daring of West Africa’s griots, Diop creates a corrupt fictional president, Daour Diagne, only to substitute him with another fictional figure, Dibi-Dibi, who, we are told, will stand in for the former. The implication is clear: by making so much of the fictional figure and its double, Diop is inviting us to draw parallels with Abdoulaye Wade, Senegal’s actual president at the time of the novel’s writing. The double substitution underscores this, while seeming to deny any comparison, thereby emphasising  the threat to free expression that Diop – co-founder of Senegal’s first independent daily newspaper – is keen to highlight. Similar techniques are at work when it comes to Europeans and colonial figures, with monkeys often standing in to bear the brunt of the bitterest truths.

And this is only the start – there are layers within layers in this book. As Wülfing-Leckie explains, many of the incidents and walk-on characters bring with them a train of associations and references to other African novels and key cultural figures. The articulateness of the cart driver Ousmane Sow, for example, is unsurprising when you realise that he is intended to represent the celebrated author and filmmaker Ousmane Sembène.

The genius of this novel, however, is that it does not require you to know any of this to be thoroughly engrossed. The writing is so good – rendered in an accessible, conversational and witty register, with sporadic flights into breathtaking lyricism, by Wülfing-Leckie and El Hadji Moustapha Diop – that it sweeps you along regardless of who or where you are. The storytelling – fractured, thrawn and divorced from its natural framework as it is – keeps the pages flying. Unlike so many clever novels that use their references as barriers to keep out the hoi polloi, this book opens the door to a rich world of ideas and invites the reader in. Marvellous.

Doomi Golo: The Hidden Notebooks by Boubacar Boris Diop, translated from the French/Wolof by Vera Wülfing-Leckie and El Hadji Moustapha Diop (Michigan State University Press, 2016)

Picture by Toon van Dijk on

Senegal: the other woman

Discovering that your middle-aged husband has fallen for one of your teenage daughter’s school friends has got to be pretty high in the nightmare stakes for most married women. In British novels, such a scenario usually has one of two outcomes:

  1. aggrieved woman ditches the bastard, reconnects with the vibrant, inner self her marriage has stifled all these years and realises she’s better off without him
  2. aggrieved woman thinks about ditching the bastard and reconnecting with her vibrant, inner self, but, after much soul-searching, and after her husband has realised the folly of his ways, finds a complex, unconventional peace with what has happened and moves forward as a beautiful, seasoned character.

But what about countries where your husband is not only expected to fall for another, younger girl but also legally entitled to bring her into your home and family as his second wife?

Mariama Bâ’s partly autobiographical 1980 novel explores just such a predicament. Written in the form of a letter from schoolteacher Ratamalouye to her old friend Assiatou, the novel’s series of reminiscences sets out the ‘slender liberty granted to women’ and in particular the plight of first wives who are ‘despised, relegated or exchanged… like a worn-out boubou [robe]’ under Islamic polygamy.

Ratamalouye’s husband of 25 years, Modou, has just died. As the rituals of the 40-day mourning period throw her together with his extended family, she relives the hurt and indignity of losing his affections and support to one of her daughter’s friends three years previously. She rehearses these thoughts in her letters to Assiatou, who took the unconventional step of leaving her own husband when he married a second wife, and her descriptions become a prism through which Bâ is able to illuminate the frustrations of many Senegalese women.

Bâ’s work might easily tip into a rant if she weren’t so for aware of the complexity of living through the issues she describes. Though clearly a passionate believer in the importance of education for all, she tempers this with reflections on the toll academic aspirations have taken on rural life with ‘the disappearance of an elite class of traditional manual workers’ because ‘The dream is to become a clerk. The trowel is spurned’. Similarly, though full of admiration for Assiatou’s hard-worn career and independence and though she rejoices ‘every time a woman emerges from the shadows’, Ratamalouye is prevented by her love for her husband and sense of duty from following her friend’s path.

Interestingly, So Long a Letter is the first book I’ve read so far this year where Western influence is presented as a largely positive thing. Ratamalouye writes with unqualified affection of the French headmistress who strove ‘to lift us out of the bog of tradition, superstition and custom, to make us appreciate a multitude of civilizations without renouncing our own’. Given the choice of novel endings facing women in western Europe and women in West Africa, perhaps that’s not such a surprise.

So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ (translated from the French by Modupé Bodé-Thomas). Heinemann International Literature & Textbooks (1989)