Africa has produced some first-rate dramatists and novelists like Wole Solynka and Athol Fugard, but in the field of francophone African writing there was no greater genius than Sony Labou Tansi.
Tansi was Congolese, but I was introduced to his work by two French Guinean writers, the late Camara Laye and Tierne Monenembo, whose books I had translated. Tansi was a man of many parts - teacher then professor of English, he was also dramatist, novelist, theatre director and actor. He was one of the outstanding literary figures of the Eighties. His dramatic works, numbering at least a score, form one of the most important bodies of creative literature in Africa.
His first play, Conscience de tracteur, won the Concours theatral interafricain de Radio-France Internationale in 1979. Its theme now seems very topical, and uncannily prophetic. Like many of Tansi's plays, it is a dramatised fable on corrupt politics. A mysterious epidemic suddenly starts killing the inhabitants of a small town in the tropics. It turns out that the plague has been brought upon the town by an old man of 95 who wanted to save the human race with a new Flood and a new Noah's Ark. But only the very old survive.
Sony Labou Tansi's next plays are again political fables. La Coutume d'etre fou appeared in 1980, followed in 1981 by two important works, Je soussigne cardiaque and Parenthese de sang. The former tells of a teacher whose ideas on liberty and self-respect are in conflict with an absurd but murderous dictatorship, and his beliefs lead to his execution. The latter play is an apocalyptic vision of the hunt for another rebel, Libertashio, whose friends and relatives are subjected to pitiless repression and become unable to distinguish between living and dying. Another dictator appears in Antoine M'a vendu son destin (1986) and puts himself in an absurd Lear- like situation by pretending to have been made destitute by his two most faithful generals, in order to save himself from the plots against his authority. Naturally, the generals seize this golden opportunity to overthrow him, but this has the paradoxical effect of making Antoine change sides.
Another Shakespearean theme appears in Moi, veuve de l'Empire (1987) in which Julius Caesar conquers Kula-Mutu, an imaginary state on the Nile. He falls in love with a black princess, Cleopatra, but his army leaders do not want the Roman Empire to fall into the hands of a negress, so they assassinate Caesar. This re-reading of antiquity gives the author an opportunity to meditate upon the disasters of history: "History always stinks. It excludes not only blacks, as Cleopatra thinks, but often excludes both common sense and reason. In such cases politics is just a way of going to extremes with closed eyes."
In 1989, Sony Labou Tansi played a dictator in his Qui a mange Madame d'Avoine Bergotha? presented with great success at the Sixth International Festival des Francophones inLimoges. Tansi toured the world with the theatrical troupe he founded, the Rocado-Zulu Theatre de Brazzaville. At the same time, he wrote a number of excellent novels couched in delightful French that breaks the rules of grammar and syntax with hilarious effect. In this, Tansi was greatly influenced by South American magical realists and by Caribbean authors of fantastic fiction like the Haitian Jean Metellus and the Martiniquais Aime Cesaire.
In January, I was alarmed to hear that Sony Labou Tansi and his wife had sought refuge in Paris for the treatment of an unstated disease. He returned home to Brazzaville in April, encouraged by the fervent support of a large group of French writers and intellectuals who formed the "Association des amis de Sony Labou Tansi". But his wife died of Aids shortly after returning home, and her husband followed her only a few days later.
At present, only one of Sony Labou Tansi's novels is in print in Britain: L'Ante-peuple (The Antipeople, translated by J.A. Underwood, published in 1988 by Marion Boyars). In October Seuil will bring out an unpublished novel, with the ominous title Le Commencement des douleurs.
Sony Labou Tansi, dramatist, novelist, poet, theatre director, actor: born Kimwanza, Congo 1947; died Brazzaville 14 June 1995.
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