“Pelourinho”, by Tierno Monénembo

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Cover of "Pelourinho" by Tierno Monénembo. Threshold Editions

By: Tirthankar Chanda Follow

2008 Renaudot Prize, Tierno Monénembo is a novelist, with thirteen novels to his credit. Born in Guinea in 1947 and exiled from his country since the age of 23, he has published a major work which gives a large place to nostalgia and exile. Divided between the house that cannot be found and the world, his novels take you on a journey through the countries where he has stayed more or less for a long time (Ivory Coast, Senegal, France, Brazil, Cuba, Algeria). From book to book, he has built a fiction-world like no other in the African literary field, inviting his readers to follow him in the intimacy of societies and their experiences. In Pelourinho, his fifth novel, Tierno Monénembo retraces the frantic quest for an African writer in Brazil.


Brazilian sounds

Pelourinho by Tierno Monénembo is undoubtedly the most Brazilian of African novels. Its plot takes place in the city of Salvador de Bahia. "Pelourinho" is the name of a place in the old town, where the oldest slave market in Brazil was located.

The novel tells the story of an African writer who came to this city to write a book about his Brazilian roots. His favelas friends call him "Escritore" or "Africano". They see in him the Prince of Dahomey whose coming was proclaimed by voodoo songs. For the protagonist, the Escritore therefore, this journey is also a quest for identity, in order to find the traces of his ancestors, uprooted from their villages in order to populate the plantations of the New World.

The legend of the baobab tree

It is indeed an inverted vision of the quest for African origins that this novel offers. The origins here give way to the issue of parentage. The character of the writer in the novel by Monénembo knows that people from his family, "same hut, same legacy", are found somewhere in the streets of Bahia. They have in common practices, cosmogonies, legends, including that of their common ancestor, King Ndindi-Grand-Orage. A legend as derisive as it is serious. Intoxicated with his power, this king wanted to measure himself against a baobab. He had the tree cut down, but then he was of course unable to put it back on the stump, as he prided himself on doing with the neighboring tribes. Humiliated by his failure, he demanded to be sold as a slave and branded on both shoulders. This brand identity, perpetuated from generation to generation, allows the hero of Pelourinho to recognize his family in Brazil, descendants of former slaves. The experience is both an anthropological inquiry and a genealogical quest, revealing destinies intertwined across the seas.
A novel on slavery?

Rather on the human consequences of slavery, against the background of Brazilian multiculturalism, which is perhaps the real theme of this novel. This multicultural Brazil is staged here through the experiences of the mixed population of the favelas of Bahia. Tierno Monénembo likes to recall that what he liked in Brazil was his cultural and religious syncretism, with the black religions which imposed themselves on the Whites, the Indians and the Métis.

Syncretism is at work in his story, whose characters, irrespective of the color of their skin, are penetrated by the Yoruba myths and legends conveyed by voodoo. This is the case, for example, of the blind narrator of the story, whose name is drawn from Greek mythology, Léda-paupières-de-chouette. She has white skin and blond hair. Alternating with a small black thug, from the same favela, Leda provides the narration of the story, revealing the fortunes and misfortunes of the little people of Salvador de Bahia.

The two reciters with an exuberant imagination, which is reminiscent of the baroque universe of Latin American literature, have in common that they knew closely the Escritore, who had become their friend, but who died stabbed in a brawl, from the first pages of the book. The entanglement of their triple quests leads the story to its relentless end, announced from the beginning of the novel.

Three reasons to read Pelourinho

This novel should be read first for the intelligence of its narrative, which of course requires in return a flawless concentration on the part of the reader. It is a narration with three voices, a polyphonic composition, which summons memories, dreams, legends, a proliferation of secondary episodes, to gradually bring out, through a cacophony of destinies, a common quest for origins. It is great art, which is all the more astute as the author has chosen to "  go first downstream   ", as he explained, to "  go up the river too long African history   ”.

You should also read Pelourinho for the very oral and colorful writing of Monénembo which favors the spoken language, the popular register, the greenness and the local sounds. We are closer to Céline than to the classicism of the academicians and grammarians of the first generation of African writers.

Finally, this novel which appeared in 1995 is a turning point in African literature, because by abandoning geographic and political Africa which has long been the obsessive theme of novelists, to go and get its honey in the Brazil of bars and favelas, the Guinean literally "takes off" the French-language novel and imposes itself as the father of the African novel-world.

Pelourinho , by Tierno Monénembo, Le Seuil, Paris, 224 pages. (available in Pocket)

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