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by Bamber Gascoigne

Sony Labou Tansi (1947-1995)


Congolese novelist, poet, and dramatist, a member of the African avant-garde, whose critical but hopeful satires met with a great deal of censorship. Sony Labou Tansi's central themes were the corruption of power and the possibilities of resistance. He often provocatively broke common Western literary models, styles, and genres, switched point of views, employed carnival-like exaggeration and dismembered language. "You can't make an omelette without breaking the words," he once said. Although Tansi did not abandon in his later works political satire and criticism he often touched on such universal themes as love, life and death.

"They are blind, like the law. And equally brutal. The only escape from the brutalities of the shabby law of the uniform is to be big – big as in bigshot. And there is also a communicable kind of bigness, the bigness through contact that comes from being a relative or friend of the original bigshot. Dadou remembered something else he had read: Africa, that great shit-heap where one will take his place. What a putrid shit-heap of the word was! Neither more nor less than a great big shit market." (from The Antipeople, 1983)

Sony Labou Tansi was born as Marcel Ntsoni at Kimwanza, Zaire, the oldest of seven children. His father was a Congolese from Congo-Kinshasa (the Belgian Congo) and mother Congolese from Congo-Brazzaville (formerly the French Congo). Tansi learnt French at school in Brazzaville – on the other side of the river – where using one’s own language was forbidden and mistakes were punished by ridiculing the pupil. At the age of twelve Tansi moved to the capital, Brazzaville ("that ancient capital of France," as Tansi  called it) and completed his education at the Ecole Normale Supérieure d'Afrique Centrale.

While in college, Tansi began to write poems. In 1971 he was appointed to teach French and English at Kindauba. About that time he started to write seriously. He taught English at the Collège Tchicaya-Pierre in Pointe Noire and then worked in Brazzaville as an administrator in several ministries, before devoting himself to literature and theatre.

In 1979 Tansi founded the Rocardo Zulu Theatre and published his first novel, La Vie et demie (1979, Life and a Half). This masterful display of Rabelaisian storytelling and wordplay won the Prix Spécial du Festival de la Francophonie. Soon after his entry in the literary world, Tansi began to earn himself a reputation for his ability to make provocative comments. "I write in French," he once said, "because that is the language in which the people I speak for were raped, that is the language in which myself was raped." ('Sonoy Labou Tansi – the Conscience of Africa and the Voice of the People' by Dominic Thomas, in Life and a Half by Sony Labou Tansi, translated by Alison Dundy, 2011, p. ix) His plays were staged in Paris, Dakar, and New York. However, in his own country Tansi was criticized by the Parti Congolais du Travail for his ideologically doubtful views. From the beginning of his literary career, Tansi had constant difficulties with authorities.

During the era when Congo underwent a transition from a Marxist-Leninist people's republic to a pluralist democracy, Tansi was active in the Mouvement Congolais pour le Développement de la Démocratie Intégrale (M.C.D.D.I.), a group opposed to Congo's single political party system. In 1992 he was elected deputy for Makélékélé in Brazzaville and in 1993 he won a seat to the National Assembly. He refused to attend any sessions.

As a consequence of his public activities and involvement in tribal politics Tansi's passport was withdrawn. He suffered from AIDS, but he was for a long time unable to obtain the medical attention he needed. After being in hospital in Paris he sought help with his wife from traditional African herbal medicine and incantations. Tansi died of AIDS-related causes on June 14, 1995, in Foufoudou, Congo. His wife, Pierrette Tansi, a nurse, had died some days earlier. During his stay in Paris, Tansi had finished a new work, The Beginning of Sufferings, but at that time there was no publisher for it.

With his antinaturalist aesthetics, Tansi could be categorized as a representative of the Theatre of Absurd, or magic realist or surrealist, but basically Tansi's work doesn't fit into any literary category easily – he had an incomparable literary voice and style. He won several literary awards, including the Concours theatral interafricain de Radio-France Internationale in 1979 for Conscience de tracteur, the Grand Prix Littéraire de l'Afrique Noire for L'anté-peuple, the Palme de la Francophonie in 1985 for Les sept solitudes de Lorsa Lopez, and in 1988 the Ibsen Foundation Prize.

The Antipeople (1983) was partly based on the story of a refugee, the author's friend, who was falsely accused of the murder of a young woman. In the bitter satire Nita Dadou, director of a girl's school, is tormented by thoughts of Yavalde, a student who has a crush on him. Yavalde is made pregnant by another man; she kills herself and Nita is accused of the tragedy. His family is murdered by a mob. The dead girl’s father, a politician, pulls strings and Nita ends up in jail. He manages to escape but in freedom, as a poor fugitive, he must prepare himself to assassinate, in the name of an ideology, a State and Party official during a mass in the cathedral. "The most important, the first revolution: the heart, the brain, against the soldier", says an old fisherman in a small river village.

In La vie et demie Tansi gives a warning to his readers of what is coming: "I wish to make clear thar Life and a Half leaves only the sort of stains made by life itself. This book takes place entirely within me. Anyway, the earth is no longer round. I never will be again." And upon the publication of the book, francophone sub-Saharan African literature was not the same any more.

The story is set in an imagined African country, Katamalanasie, which has 228 national holidays. Colonel Martillimi Lopez, a self-proclaimed "Providential guide" has banned the words "hell" and "pain" from the nation's lexicon. Martillimi Lopez has the chief opposition leader cut up into pieces, but his spirit refuses to die and he continues to speak and torment the cannibalistic dictator. The English translation of this novel was based on the 1979 version by the Éditions du Seuil; Tansi continually worked and reworked his writings. Editors at Seuil rejected his first manuscript, entitled Le premier pas (The First Step), saying that "Your rootsy style will not sell, revise and then we'll talk." ('Performing identity: Nations, Cultures and African Experimental Novels' by Phyllis Taoua, in Journal of African Cultural Studies, 14:2, December 2001)

Les septs solitudes de Lorsa Lopez (1985, The Seven Solitudes of Lorsa Lopez) was a set of stories which took the reader into the city of Valancia, an African Macondo. Tansi got the idea for the novel from a real event, the sight of a body, surrounded by a crowd, outside the Brazzaville hospital where his wife worked. A woman is murdered by her husband, an esteemed citizen, Lorsa Lopez. When the police fail to investigate the death, and no one can remember the murdered woman's maiden name, Estina Bronzario advocates a ban of sex, and demands that men take their wives' names. In the background of the story is international politics, corruption, mixed with an account of chaos and some hallucinatory scenes: "One morning, unprecedented crowds gathered in the Plaza de la Poudra, not to await the arrival of the police, nor to bury Estina Benta's bones, nor even to watch the departure of Sarnata Nola's troupe. The multitudes jostled for position to see the fish with the death's head that the fishermen. Fernando Lambert and Luizo Martinèz Lopèz, had just caught. It was a winged monster at least seventy feet long and weighing some three tons. On its hide, covered with scales, feathers and hair gleamed the seven colours of the rainbow." The stories are told by the female narrator Gracia who at the end removes herself from Valancia to Nsanga-Norda, swallowed by the sea. In the foreword of the book Tansi wrote: "Art stems from its ability to enable reality to express what it would otherwise have been unable to articulate through its own means or, in any case, that which it ran the risk of consciously passing over in silence."

Les yeux du volcan (1988) is supposedly set in Brazzaville, but besides the fictitious city of Hozanna, it depicts events in Hondo Norte and Tombalbye. At the beginning of the story, a mysterious colossus, Affonso Sombro, arrives in Hozanna, where people believes that he is going to lead the revolution.  A man pretending to be mad murders him. In another city, Tombalbye, Benoit Goldman (a "Hercules in bronze") reads Genesis aloud, to avoid sex with his wife, and waits for a word to start the revolution. Graffiti artists turn Party posters and slogans into jokes. Colonel Claudio Lahenda announces to a crowd: "Comrades, the revolution has been postponed." "Africa is a volcano," Tansi said in the preface to the novel. "The whole world is another volcano. Our peoples are volcanoes and their eyes are watching us."

Like in his fiction, everything in Tansi's plays is in a constant state of flux, names change, dead can be alive, roles are not fixed. Under the absurd or grotesque humour, there is a lot of anger towards the political lying, corruption, and general indifference. Tansi's most famous tragic farce La paranthèse de sang (1981, The Parenthesis of Blood) was set in a country, where the most feared opponent of the government, Libertashio, is already dead, but soldiers keep on terrorising people who claim that he is dead. 

Qui a mangé Madame d'Avoine Bergotha? (1989) potrayed a dictator, named Walante, who throws out of his country nearly all males. He vows to fight against the mind, intelligence and rationality, and plans to guillotine the Pope. Labou himself took the role of the dictator, when the play was presented with great success in 1989 at the Sixth International Festival des Francophones in Limoges. In Antoine M'a vendu son destin (1986) another dictator plots against plots to overthrow him. The secretary Hortense says in Je soussigné cardiaque: "Today, 'our own' do it from the heart. They mistreat us as though they had our permission. It's worse."

For further reading: Littérature nègre by Jacques Chevrier (1984); Nouvelles écritures africaines by Séwanou Dabla (1986); Francophone African Fiction by Jonathan Ngaté (1988); Littérature et politique en Afrique noire by Koffi Anyinefa (1990); La fonction critique de l'oeuvre romanesque de Sony Labou Tansi by S. Osazuwa (1991); 'Passages: The Women of Sony Labou Tansi' by Louise Fiber Luce (in The French Review, 64.5, 1991); Rape and Representation, ed. by Lynn A. Higgins and Brenda R. Silver (1991): 'Tansi, Sony Labou (Sony, Marcel,' in World Authors 1985-1990, edited by Vineta Colby (1995); Introduction á l'oeuvre de Sony Labou Tansi by M. Cakabakulu (1995); Sony Labou Tansi by J.-M. Devésa (1996); Les procédés de création dans l'oeuvre de Sony Labou Tansi by A. Mbanga (1996); 'The Works of Sony Labou Tansi' by J. Updike (in New Yorker, 5 Februart 1996); Sony Labou Tansi ou La quête permanente du sens by M. Kadiima-Nzvji (1997); 'L'écriture romanesque de Sony Labou Tansi. L'oeuvre littéraire dans un environnement francophone' by Janusz Krzywicki (in Studies of the Department of African Languages and Cultures, 1998); 'Passionate Engagements: A Reading of Sony Labou Tansi's Private Ancestral Shrine' by Phyllis Suzanne Clark (in Research in African Literatures, 1999); 'Sony Labou Tansi'. Special Issue of Research in African Literatures, ed. by Phyllis Suzanne Clark and Alain Ricard (October 2000); Mémocriture: Sony Labou Tansi ou les enjeux oppositionnels d'une archéologie documentaire by Eugène Nshimiyimana (2010); 'Introduction: Sony Labou Tansi – the Conscience of Africa and the Voice of the People' by Dominic Thomas, in Life and a Half: A Novel by Sony Labou Tansi (2011); 'Sony Labou Tansi (Marcel Nstoni) (1947-1995),' in Contemporary African Writers, edited by Tanure Ojaide (2011); L'esthétique romanesque de Sony Labou Tansi by Clémence Kasinga (2015); Sony Labou Tansi: une écriture de la décomposition impériale by Xavier Garnier (2015) Sony Labou Tansi: naissance d'un écrivain by Céline Gahungu (2019) 

Selected works:

  • La Vie et demie, 1979
    - Life and a Half: A Novel (translated from the French by Alison Dundy, introduction by Dominic Thomas, 2011)
  • Conscience de tracteur, 1979 (play) [Tractor Consciousness]
  • La Coutume d'etre fou, 1980 (play)
  • L'Etat honteux, 1981 [State of Shame]
    - The Shameful State: A Novel (translated by Dominic Thomas; foreword by Alain Mabanckou, 2016)
  • La paranthèse de sang, 1981 (play)
    - The Parenthesis of Blood (translated by Lorraine Alexander Veach, 1986)
  • Je soussigné cardiaque, 1981 (play)
  • La parenthèse de sang, 1981 (play) [Parentheses of Blood]
  • L'Anté-peuple, 1983
    - The Antipeople (translated by J.A. Underwood, 1988)
  • Les sept solitudes de Lorsa Lopez, 1985
    - The Seven Solitudes of Lorsa Lopez (translated by Clive Wake, 1995)
  • Sony Labou Tansi: un citoyen de ce siecle, 1986
  • Antoine m'a vendu son destin, 1986 (play) [Antoine Sold Me His Fate]
  • Moi, veuve de l'empire, 1987 (play)
  • Le coup de vieux, 1988
  • Les Yeux du volcan, 1988 [The Eye of the Volcano]
  • Qui a mangé Madame d'Avoine Bergotha?, 1989 (play)
  • La résurrection rouge et blanche de Roméo et Juliette, 1990
  • Une chouette petite vie bien osée, 1992 (play)
  • Poèmes et vents lisses, 1995
  • Théâtre, 1995
  • Le Commencement des douleurs, 1995 [The Beginning of Sufferings]
  • L'autre monde: écrits inédits, 1997
  • Paroles inédites: la rue des mouches (comédie tragique): entretiens, lettres à Sony, 2005 (edited by Bernard Magnier)
  • Poèmes, 2015 (coordinateurs, Claire Riffard et Nicolas Martin-Granel)
  • La chair et l'idée: théâtre et poèmes inédits, lettres, témoignages écrits et regards critiques, 2015

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