Boubacar Boris Diop is “one of the giants of Francophone African Literature” but sadly not so well known to English-speaking audiences. His most recent novel, Kaveena, was published in French back in 2006 but only came out in English last year. The book is an intense read, about dark deeds in the corridors of power in a fictitious African country – but it’s also a timely meditation on ‘truth’ in an era of lies and ‘fake news’ in both rich and poor countries.
These days, politics in ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ countries seems to be getting more and more similar. It’s no longer possible for well-meaning liberals in Western countries to interpret political developments elsewhere (say, the Arab Spring) as a sign that people in those countries are going through processes of historical change which ‘we’ went through decades or even centuries ago. The reality is that people in richer countries are as frightened and angry with the way the world is going as are those in poorer countries – and this is leading to surprisingly similar kinds of politics the world over. ‘Populist’ policies, restrictions on trade, a strong emphasis on nationalism and attacks on the media are favoured tactics of politicians from Tanzania to Turkey to the US.
In this context, Boubacar Boris Diop’s novel about an apparently ‘failed state’ in Francophone Africa seems especially relevant. Allusions to Presidents’ lies and media fabrications, which only a few years ago might have been easy for Western readers to dismiss as poor country problems, hit home much harder these days. As the merciless French businessman says to the President:
“Words are what drive the world. Don’t ever forget that, boy. People want words, and the less they understand them, the more effective they are.”
The story of Kaveena is narrated by Colonel Asante Kroma, the former head of the Secret Service in a fictionalised (never named) African country. The book opens with him finding the ex-President’s corpse in a small nondescript apartment in Jinkoré, an affluent suburb of the capital city. Colonel Kroma is on the run himself from the new regime and decides to lie low in the apartment while he goes through the President’s old papers and tries to figure out what went on in the final days of the old government. One case particularly intrigues him: the brutal killing of a 6 year old girl, Kaveena. The case caused outrage in the press and was instrumental in dividing the President, N’zo Nikiema, from his former adviser and powerful French businessman, Pierre Castaneda – leading to the civil war that has divided the country. But who was really to blame for the murder? Why was this one crime, out of so many others, the only one that Castaneda and Nikiema seemed to be ashamed of? And what was the nature of the President’s relationship with Kaveena’s mother, a dancer and prostitute? In trying to piece together the answers to these questions, Colonel Kroma’s firsthand accounts of Nikiema’s actions are interspliced with direct quotes from Nikiema’s own letters, which gives the book something of the feel of a detective story. But of course Colonel Kroma is no likeable Sherlock Holmes or Philip Marlowe: he has been the President’s ruthless right hand man for decades, having killed countless numbers of innocent people. This puts the reader in an uncomfortable position: how much should we trust Kroma’s account?
The business of distinguishing truth from lies seems to run through the whole book. Kroma disparages the media early on (“I don’t listen to the radio to find out what’s happened. I listen to it to find out how the happenings have been distorted”). The President lies incessantly (“He had lied so often – out of necessity much more than out of perversity – that he couldn’t even trust his own memories anymore”). The French businessman Castaneda is especially duplicitous, ordering executions, planning elaborate torture sessions, and heartlessly extracting the country’s wealth, whilst positioning himself with international journalists as the guardian of human rights in the country. Even international development agencies come in for scorn, for the divide between their high-sounding words, dreamt up in air-conditioned offices, and the harsh realities of everyday life. In the end we as readers need to be the detectives, because neither Colonel Kroma’s account nor President Nikiema’s letters can be trusted as ‘fact’. As Kaveena’s mother says towards the end: “almost everything you’ve seen or read in Jinkoré is false. Even from the other world, this man continued to lie to us.”
It’s tempting to wonder if in this kind of world, finding out ‘the truth’ is impossible, even pointless. But I don’t think this is quite what Diop is trying to say. Rejecting the idea of truth altogether only plays into the hands of liars like Nikiema and Castaneda (at one point Nikiema advises his reader to “be wary of these obvious facts – they only lay the groundwork for serious errors”). And even if it’s not possible to know the full factual truth of everything that happened and the motivations involved, one thing is undeniable: a small girl was murdered. The book’s heroes are the people who are true to themselves – who refuse to accept the leader’s ‘truth’ in the interest of power and money. Kaveena’s grandfather refuses a suitcase full of money for keeping quiet. A childhood friend of Nikiema’s who was “truly incorruptible” raises a rebel army against his former comrade. They may fail, but they keep their sense of honour and dignity. There is a story told to Nikiema by an old adviser of his father’s: it’s about a hummingbird who tries to put out a forest fire by taking tiny droplets of water in its beak and dropping them on the flames. The other animals make fun of the hummingbird’s hopeless efforts, but it remains proud: “at least I am doing what I can”.
So are development agencies in ‘fragile states’ true to themselves, ‘doing what they can’? Or are we part of the edifice of lies, building elaborate structures of human rights and development for our audiences in headquarters, that obscure what is really going on? As ever, there’s probably a bit of both, but it’s a question we need to consider. The challenge is to be self-critical about the way in which our ‘truths’ may be wrong (think about the way development statistics don’t always reflect people’s subjective sense of well-being, for example) – whilst not giving up on the concept of truth altogether.