This was not the first time the Reverend Father Huchard, a long-standing member of the African Missionary Society in Lyons, had landed on these shores. He was an old-timer and had already spread the word of God among the natives of Dahomey as well as those in the Lower Congo. So it was of no surprise to him that the land was so flat, the forest beyond so impenetrable, that the rain over his head never let up and the sun up there, way up there, was so hazy. His eye was fixed on one of his flock of six: an oblate who answered to the name of Celanire. Celanire Pinceau. A most unusual name! The priest's gaze, however, did not betray any covetous look. It was simply the fact she stood out from the others. She hardly spoke. She did not seem curious or excited like her traveling companions, who were eager to begin their missionary work. What's more, her color set her apart, that dark skin that clothed her like a garment of deep mourning. Her features were not strictly black -- rather, a hybrid of goodness knows how many races. She did not wear religious garb, since she had not yet taken her vows, but wore a somber gray dress and a scarf around her neck tied with a ribbon from which hung a heavy gold cross. Winter come summer, morning, noon, and night, this tightly knotted scarf never left her and matched the color of her clothes. Where did she come from? From Guadeloupe or Martinique. Well, from one of those colonies that are only French by name, where the natives have been baptized yet still run wild, swear like heathens, beat the drum, and drink strong liquor. She was an orphan raised by the Sisters of Charity in Paris whose desire to do missionary work in Africa had made her join the nuns of Our Lady of the Apostles in Lyons the previous year. Reverend Father Huchard, who had kept his eye on her throughout the voyage, was no wiser now than he had been when the Jean-Bart first sailed out of the Gironde estuary in a great swirl of muddy water. The fact was that whenever he regaled his audience with stories about the natives, and he had seen some in his time, she had a way of staring at him that made him ill at ease and reduced him to silence. But there was nothing serious to report. She wasn't insolent. She wasn't disobedient. Even so, Reverend Father Huchard didn't trust her and believed she was capable of anything.
The flotilla of small boats bobbed toward the old freighter, braving the wall of waves, jostled each other on reaching its side, and the passengers began to descend, the women standing in large metal baskets, clasping their skirts around their legs, the men gingerly clinging to the rope ladders. As they gradually boarded the boats, the smell of unwashed body parts wafted up.
It was the long rainy season, the one that stretches from April to July. The sun's beacon cast a reluctant glare over the immensity of the ocean's swell. The land remained at a safe distance behind the line of rollers, a land devoid of life and houses dotted among the greenery. It was a grayish, spongy land, in places eaten away by the mangrove swamps, in others wrapped in a shroud of vegetation. The sky was low, smeared by streaks of clouds. The silhouettes of the African porters could be seen fending off the torrential rain as best they could on the wharf while the European officials huddled under black umbrellas as voluminous as church bells.
At the time when this story begins (but is it the beginning? Where in fact does it begin? That's anyone's guess!) they had barely finished burying the dead at Grand-Bassam. An epidemic of yellow fever had laid to rest all that remained of the Europeans in the vicinity, resulting in the decision by the governor, Roberdeau d'Entremont, to transfer the capital to a more salubrious spot, a few miles distant, on the plateau of Adjame-Santey. In response to the barrage of objections regarding the cost of the upheaval, he pointed out that the many springs located beneath the plateau would provide an ample supply of water, which was not the case with the present capital.
Despite its misfortunes, Grand-Bassam proved to be a pleasant surprise. Forty years earlier it had been a stew of fresh and salt water trickling into the bush, emitting deadly miasmas. Now a neat little town had emerged from the sand, white as snow. There were not only the houses in the French district. A grove of coconut palms added a touch of green beside the Governor's Palace and the offices of the Western Telegraph Company. The Governor's Palace, built entirely of prefabricated material shipped from Bordeaux, was a rich example of French technology. Along the banks of the river Comoé stretched the Essante district, or District of the Converted. It was thought the souls of the newly baptized could be saved by herding them into huts made of palm fronds and branches. Life was returning to normal following the latest epidemic. The warehouses piled high with casks of palm oil were reopening. The priests had started working again with a vengeance, setting up outlying missionary stations along the shore like confetti. Since the church was one of the few buildings spared by the fire that had been set to check the epidemic, the apostolic nuncio had declared a miracle. Leading his flock, Father Huchard headed for the mission. Gone was the time when mass was said in the only priest's one-room hut, which had been used as a makeshift place of worship, bedroom, dining room, storehouse, and shop. The mission now numbered three priests bursting with health and two buildings made of bamboo, one of which was the school for thirty-two children. A group of African women catechists, with unflattering gray canvas head scarves pulled tight over their foreheads and blouses of the same color flattening their breasts, had set up a table in the courtyard and heartily served a frugal meal of rice, fried fish, and slices of pineapple.
Unperturbed, Celanire jotted down everything she saw in a notebook. She had already used up two thick ones on board the Jean-Bart. The majority of the Sisters of Charity and those of Our Lady of the Apostles disliked this habit of keeping a diary and thought it a sin of pride. But some of the more indulgent among them recalled that Thérèse Martin, in line for canonization, had written her autobiography. The five nuns from Our Lady of the Apostles were destined for a hospital recently opened in Man, way out in the bush. Only Celanire had been appointed to teach at the Home for Half-Castes some thirty miles away in Adjame-Santey. All because of those vows that Celanire had not taken! Since the nuns couldn't very well stop her from wanting to serve in Africa, they were, nevertheless, adamant she would not be allowed to experience the real hardships of Christian work.
Around midday an army of rudimentarily dressed porters turned up carrying tipoyes, signaling the farewell ceremony. Father Huchard blessed everyone, repeating his last words of advice:
"Be careful what you eat, what you drink, and what you breathe. Beware of the water, the air, and especially the heathens. Those fiends can kill you with their magic."
He was going straight back to France on the same Jean-Bart. He would pray for them. Celanire bade farewell to her traveling companions as politely and coolly as she had behaved toward them during the voyage. She had never shared their petty enthusiasm, their elation, or their fears. When they told each other secrets, she would cover her ears. Likewise, when they removed their cornets and veils to soap themselves, revealing their pallid skins, she would lower her eyelids out of nausea.
As soon as her tipoye left Grand-Bassam, it was sucked into the sticky armpit of the forest. The trees stood like pachyderms. The penumbra of a cathedral, where the strains of Bach's Magnificat would not have been out of place, replaced the rain and dismal, murky daylight. Yet all that could be heard was the squelch of the porters' bare feet treading the humus as they raced along. Their load was no heavier than a child, and then they wanted to arrive at Adjame-Santey before dark. At night, too many evil spirits roamed at liberty. From time to time they turned their heads and tried to figure out this odd creature, black of skin but speaking the language of white men, living among them, and dressed like them.
Suddenly, the silence was broken by a cacophony of sounds. Monkeys, bats, and all kinds of invisible insects called and responded to each other amid the tangle of branches. Celanire was not listening and not even looking at this strange landscape. She had not come to Africa to be a tourist and was lost in her daydreams. What was in store for her in the days to come? She went back over the years gone by. She had not liked Lyons, where her color signaled her presence like a beacon wherever she went, and she had constantly to be on her guard. She missed Paris. The convent of the Sisters of Charity was situated right on the rue de Vaugirard. Once she had closed behind her the heavy door studded with a cross, she found herself bang in the middle of the jungle of a big city -- free to do whatever she liked. At night the cars roared and blinded passersby with their lights. Blacks in tuxedos lounged in piano bars. She had never revealed her secret escapades, and she became the Mother Superior's favorite. She never raised her voice, quarreled, or said a wrong word. By no means meek, she abided by the rules. Once the classes in theology and general instruction were over, she took the nuns by surprise. They were expecting her to return straightaway to Guadeloupe. Instead of which she was going to take her time: revenge is a dish best eaten cold. She was sharpening her pretty pointed teeth one against the other.
Briefly passing through the light of a clearing, they plunged back into thick undergrowth. The trees were different. Gone were the ironwoods, the silk cotton kapok and rubber trees. You could sense the heavy hand of man on nature. Rows upon rows of oil palms followed one after the other, as rigid as soldiers marching. At the foot of the trees the carefully weeded soil was bleeding from its wounds. Then the sky reappeared, pricked with stars, and the porters began to run along a rough track.
Lights appeared in the distance, the sight of which seemed to put wings on their heels, and Adjame-Santey came into view. The tipoye began to jolt as if buffeted by the ocean's waves. Indifferent to all this, Celanire sank into a semi-slumber until a commotion of excited voices awoke her. A troop of askaris, a comical sight with their legs swathed in strips of cotton fleece and tarbooshes askew, had almost collided with the porters. They were running in the opposite direction to announce some terrible news to the authorities in Grand-Bassam. Monsieur Desrussie, the director of the Home for Half-Castes, the very person Celanire had come to assist, had just passed from this life to the next. And how! He was about to make love to his new sixteen-year-old mistress when a giant spider hidden in the bedsheets had bitten him on his penis.
He had died on the spot!
People couldn't get over it. Only the day before he had been roaming the streets of Adjame-Santey, leering at the teenage girls, his cane under his arm as was his habit. There was no doubt his wife, Rose, had had a hand in the matter, and was tired of wearing the horns. She must have finally found a good witch doctor. For there is no such thing as a natural death. Everything is the work of malicious spirits whom the artful know how to subjugate to their own advantage.
Celanire could not understand a word of what was going on around her. Yet she guessed that her destiny had just been given its first nudge in the right direction. She poured out her thanks to her Master.
Karamanlis the Greek was stunned. No later than yesterday morning he had sold three boxes of matches to Monsieur Desrussie. The latter had come in to shelter from the rain, in actual fact to complain about everything as he usually did, and Karamanlis had had to put up with yet another diatribe about the laziness of the Ebriés and their drunken habits.
He was about to mount his bicycle when he saw the porters come charging into town. Everyone knew who they were carrying and who was coming to live in Adjame-Santey. An oblate. In other words, a nun who was not quite a nun and had no right to be called "sister." He craned his neck to get a glimpse of her and had this vision of a lovely face resting against a pillow of black silky hair. An emotion that he had not felt since leaving Athens stung his breast. It was as if the spider that had finished Monsieur Desrussie off had also attacked his heart. Pedaling awkwardly, he left what went by the name of town center, with its shops, the huts of the administrative services, the school, the church, and the bamboo buildings of the mission. He himself lived in a poto-poto neighborhood where cowpats looked as though they had been kneaded into huts. He had arrived in the Ivory Coast a few years earlier, drawn by stories of making a quick fortune from ivory and palm kernels that had replaced the slave traffic. Little did he know that the administration reserved its favors for the French companies, and there was no room for foreigners who massacred the language of Descartes. So he had done just about everything, even panning for gold in the kingdom of Assinie. In Adjame-Santey he made do with a small grocery store trading in dark leaf tobacco, loose sugar, sea salt, rock salt, and paraffin. He led a celibate life, since he did not have the means to contract a colonial marriage, lodging in his two rooms a friend who was even more destitute than he was, despite his attribution of "Mr. Philosophizer." Jean Seydou, a monitor of native instruction at the mission, had forbidden any mention of the name Jean and, out of loathing for the French, claimed to be Muslim and renamed himself Hakim. He was very handsome, with his curly hair, the offspring of a Toukolor princess and a high-ranking white administrator of the colonies. One morning his father had left him in a home for half-castes before sailing back to Perigord. Such an act was especially cruel, since Jean, who was not yet Hakim, had accompanied him everywhere for eleven years, following him from post to post in every nook and cranny from Upper Senegal to Niger. Despite this cruel abandonment, Hakim managed to pass the native examination for elementary studies and was hired as a primary-school teacher by the mission in Bamako.
Karamanlis found him lounging on his bed, buried in a magazine on India. The news did not interest him one bit. Monsieur Desrussie was dead? Good riddance! One bastard less! The oblate? She was lovely, was she? He was not attracted to women, in love with and secretly troubled by the bodies of his students and all those boys colonization had produced: kitchen boys, laundry boys, and tailor's apprentices.
Only once had he crossed the line. He had been a student in his last year at a home for half-castes. Bokar was also the son of a senior administrator and a Toukolor, Awa Tall. His father had left for France before he was born. His mother, remarried to a traditional chief, visited him from time to time, carrying on her head a calabash of pastels or a jar of lakh that sweetened the dull routine at the home. She always brought her other children, all perfectly black, who cast pitying looks at their illegitimate half-brother. Hakim's and Bokar's beds were next to each other. The inevitable had to happen. There followed months of wild, passionate happiness. Then the love nest was discovered. Either they gave the game away, or else the boys in the dormitory guessed something was going on. Hakim was dispatched to the recently pacified territory of Ivory Coast, while Bokar was left to languish in a school way out in the bush on the edge of the desert. It was here he was to commit suicide several years later. Hakim received the news of his death like a slap in the face. Ever since, there had never been a lack of opportunities -- mainly French civil servants come to bury their youth under the sun in the colonies. But Hakim had never given in. He knew he would bring death to those who got too close. He cut short Karamanlis's shallow chatter by suggesting they go and listen to some music at the compound of King Koffi Ndizi.
Under the terms of a treaty signed two years earlier, the French had paid King Koffi Ndizi one hundred rolls of assorted fabrics, one hundred barrels of gunpowder, one hundred shotguns, two sacks of tobacco, six two-hundred-liter casks of brandy, five hats, a mirror, an organ, four cases of liqueurs, and three skeins of coral. In exchange for all that, they whittled down his power. Fortunately for Koffi Ndizi, his fetish continued to strike awe in his subjects, who, among other things, made him offerings of concubines, oxen, sheep, and fowl. His compound was a maze of courtyards and huts into which at least one hundred and fifty people were squeezed. Of an evening, his slaves served roast meat and carp fried in palm oil to almost a thousand admirers while his griots delighted the ear with music from koras and balaphons. On this particular evening nobody was in a mood to listen to them. Nor even badmouth the French, which was normally their favorite occupation. Two subjects dominated the conversation: the sudden death of Monsieur Desrussie and the arrival of the oblate. On the surface, the two events were unconnected. However, on second thought, who gained to profit from this death? Wasn't it the oblate who very likely would be appointed director of the Home? A woman, director of the Home, and a black woman into the bargain? Come now!
Exasperated, Hakim pushed his way to the royal dais. Koffi Ndizi was overweight, susceptible to inexplicable bouts of suffocation that alarmed him a lot. Like Hakim, he was in no mood to listen to the nonsense from his entourage. Three nights in a row, Zokpou, his senior fetish priest, had had dreams of ill-omen. The first night he had seen vultures swooping down on an impala and devouring it raw. On the second night an anthill over fifteen feet tall had suddenly crumbled into dust. On the third night the Ebrié lagoon was dyed red with blood. Zokpou had concluded that a succession of moons, portents of strange events, would be seen in the kingdom. But what would happen, he did not know. He did know, however, that for once it would not be the fault of the French. Besides, what more could they do? They had already turned Koffi Ndizi into a toothless, maneless lion.
Koffi Ndizi motioned to Hakim to approach. He liked the schoolteacher, always ready to run down his enemies, the French. He was well familiar with his tendencies, but was easygoing, having groped a good many boys in his youth. Together with incest, sodomy is a king's privilege. For two years he had been plotting unsuccessfully to overthrow Thomas de Brabant, the governor's deputy, a poker-faced individual who had two obsessions: building roads and railways. Next to the Romans, de Brabant would say, the French were the people who best realized the importance of roads. He was responsible for countless fathers being snatched from their homes to break stones under the sun. Koffi Ndizi and Hakim had tried to hide a mamba in a drawer of his desk and bribe his cook to poison his meals. Once they had buried a doll in his image in the entrails of a black cat. Nothing doing!
Hakim sat down on a corner of the mat he was offered and recounted his latest readings, for the king, however much a king, could neither read nor write. In India, the British did not attack the traditional authorities. They formed alliances and governed hand in hand with the local powers.
Why did the French have to put everything to the fire and the sword?
Copyright © 2002 by éditions Robert Laffont, S.A., Paris
English language translation copyright © 2004 by Maryse Condé
A Fantastical Tale
Who Slashed Celanire's Throat?
A Fantastical Tale
With her characteristic blend of magical realism and fantasy, and inspired by a true story, Maryse Conde hauntingly imagines Celanire in an unforgettable novel -- a most dazzling addition to the deeply prolific and widely celebrated author's brilliant body of work.
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
Who Slashed Celanire's Throat?
1. Who Slashed Celanire's Throat? opens with the Reverend Father Hutchard gazing at Celanire while giving us a brief introduction into her character. How does this initial introduction of our heroine differ from the character we've come to know in the end? Describe the development of Celanire's character.
2. We are told in chapter 4 (pg. 45) about Hakim's hatred of the French ("...and anti-French dreams") which seems to be a sentiment held by many members of the community. For Hakim and those who share his views, what do the French represent?
3. Celanire's arrival at Adjame-Santey coincided with the beginnings of an influx of French influence over African tradition. Discuss the role of Imperialism in the novel. What kind of an impact did all of the changes brought about by imperialism have on the quality of life of the natives? How much of a role did Celanire play in the introduction of these changes and how much of it revolved around her? How much did she stand to benefit from them? In this vein discuss the differences and similarities between Celanire and Thomas De Brabant's first wife, Charlotte. How much of their differences are based on their cultural upbringing?
4. While resisting Celanire's advances in chapter 6 (pg. 60) Hakim ponders about Betti Bouah, "Didn't he realize that once the Africans had hoisted themselves up level with the whites, they would prove to be even mo see more