Shadows of Your Black Memory, By Donato Ndongotrs Michael Ugarte

This poetic and magical novel describes a transitional period in Equatorial Guinea's history
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

This accomplished novel describes the love of something mercilessly elusive: a magical and transitory space floating between the past and the future, an eternal present wherein the moon is "round and red, stained with the blood of the sun hidden behind themountains". Originally written in Spanish, Donato Ndongo's remarkable and strikingly original novel appears now in a subtle and elegant translation by Michael Ugarte, which does full justice to the dreamily poetic nature of the narrative.

Set in the west African country of Equatorial Guinea during the final years of Spanish colonial rule, Shadows of Your Black Memory tells the story of a young boy's rite of passage into adulthood. However, in this case the boy faces unusual problems. He has to confront two very different, parallel societies, which are radically and immiscibly opposed to each other. His uncle, Tio Abeso, is the undisputed leader of his tribe, a man whose patient struggle to preserve the collective memory of his fallen tradition weighs heavy on his nephew's shoulders. Yet Tio Abeso's determination to shape the boy's tender spirit conflicts violently with the ambitions of his father, a man who has visibly abandoned his tribal roots in order to embrace the values of Catholic western civilisation.

This understated, confiding book is written in the voice of the boy – now a man. At no point in the novel is he given a name. This anonymity, coupled with Ndongo's fluid and inconspicuous use of first and second person narratives, combine to create an atmosphere of heightened intimacy. The reader is entrusted with privileged access to the remarkable internal dialogue of a man still grappling with the shadowy and intangible memories of his divided identity.

His enduring sense of being split in two culturally is not surprising, considering the weight of the influences he has been forced to carry all his life. When he was only six, for example, he would privately recite the whole of the Latin Mass – but he would soon

after be selected to be the one who was destined to bring glory back to his disenfranchised tribe.

The boy's struggle to harness the competing visions of cultural and religious superiority that haunt his subconscious is beautifully reflected in Father Ortiz's determination to convert Tio Abeso to Catholicism. A fascinating intellectual joust ensues, in which provocative and contemporary social tensions clash head on.

It is in this area that Ndongo displays his originality. The respect with which he is able to treat the two figureheads in their complex battle of wills is subtly conveyed through the young boy's compassion for both men. This deference also allows us to transcend the debate itself and to acknowledge its wider significance.

Indeed, it is while translating for them both during an exchange in Tio Abeso's cabin that this increasingly perceptive, increasingly desolate young man is able to take stock of the full implications of his situation: one in which he finds himself caught between two powerful traditions, neither of which he can fully embrace. "I was observing," he says, "the last splendours of a world that was disappearing for ever, and another very different one was arriving."

Comments