Ahmadou Kourouma

Mordant Ivory Coast novelist who spent much of his writing life in exile
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The Independent Online

Ahmadou Kourouma, writer: born Boundiali, Ivory Coast November 1927; married (four children); died Lyons, France 11 December 2003.

Known the "African Voltaire", Ahmadou Kourouma by the time of his death could lay claim to being the best-known African writer in France, where his books are capable of selling over 100,000 copies. With just four published novels to his name between 1968 and 2000, however, his oeuvre was about quality rather than quantity, and he had an impressive array of 18 prizes to prove it.

Unusually for a francophone African writer, Kourouma was first published in Canada; French publishers were initially critical of the liberties he took with their language, using neologisms and the imagery and speech patterns of his Malinke mother tongue to mordant effect.

Born in 1927 in Boundiali, in Ivory Coast's Muslim north, Kourouma was of Guinean stock (by which fact the policy of political exclusion known as Ivoirité latterly sought to reclassify him and others as foreigners). His father was a nurse whose rank dignified him with the title of "doctor", but Kourouma was raised by an uncle who was both a civil servant and a master hunter, giving him insights into traditional as well as colonial ways.

A man of imposing stature, Kourouma was drafted into the French army and served in Indochina (1951-54). He is said to have accepted this posting because Bernard Dadié, then Ivory Coast's leading writer, persuaded him that military experience would prepare him for the anti-colonial war he believed to be inevitable. After leaving the army Kourouma studied in France, graduating from the Institut des Actuaires in Lyons in 1959.

He returned to Ivory Coast after independence in the 1960s, and worked as an insurance executive. However, he was politically at odds with President Félix Houphouët-Boigny. As Kourouma put it: "I was impervious to the magic of the single party, which claimed to be the only form of authority capable of developing the country." He was jailed for a few months and subsequently went into exile.

He returned home in 1970, but when his play Tougnantigui, le diseur de verité ("The Truth Teller") was published in 1974 it was deemed "revolutionary" and Kourouma again left the country, living in Cameroon and Togo until 1993. For several years he divided his time between Ivory Coast and France. Since the beginning of the military-political crisis in Ivory Coast in September 2002, he and his wife were based in Lyons.

Exile and censorship inform Kourouma's fiction, which draws on history and myth as well as autobiographical experiences. His first novel, Les Soleils des indépendances (1968, translated in 1981 as The Suns of Independence), which won the Prix Francité, was followed after a gap of over two decades by Monnè, outrages et défis (1990; Monnew: a novel, 1993).

In 1998 came En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages (translated this year by Frank Wynne as Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote), which was awarded the Prix des Tropiques, Grand Prix de la Société des Gens de Lettres and the Prix du Livre Inter; it showed Kourouma to be a satirist who took no hostages when depicting the quirks and excesses of post-colonial despots. His last novel, Allah n'est pas obligé (2000), dealt with child soldiers in West Africa, and won the Prix Renaudot and the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens; it has yet to appear in English.

An exceptional storyteller, who also wrote for children, Kourouma had a palpable love affair with words. In a published interview the month before he died he spoke engagingly of his need for a computer with a large enough memory to accommodate every imaginable French dictionary, so that he could indulge his favourite pastime of comparing different definitions of the same word. He had recently begun a new novel which - at the suggestion of his daughters - would have tackled the current crisis in Ivory Coast. Acknowledging that he did not write quickly, he hoped that the situation would have improved before the book was finished.

To the end he was a committed advocate of national reconciliation and elections that are open to all, in the hope of seeing his country once more become one that will peacefully accommodate people of all religions and origins.

Margaret Busby

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