cover image The Shameful State

The Shameful State

Sony Labou Tansi, trans. from the French by Dominic Thomas. Indiana Univ., $20 (132p) ISBN 978-0-253-01925-7

Acclaimed late Congolese writer Tansi explores the violence and corruption that has plagued many central African states in this dark and whimsical novel. Set in an unnamed country once colonized by Belgium, the story follows Colonel Martillimi Lopez through his 39 years as president. Under his command the nation falls into a shameful state, eventually leading Martillimi to consider giving up his rule and prompting members of his administration to resign en masse. Many of Martillimi’s eccentricities are often comical, but he is still a person who kills a cat for scratching him, and a narcissist who orders dancers to be murdered because they annoy him. He slaughters peaceful hunger strikers with the same force he uses to squelch rebel uprisings and rationalizes it by weighing his crimes against the atrocities committed by other fictional dictators. The names and brutalities described share resemblances to real totalitarian regimes, and this is a sobering reminder to readers that Martillimi might well be a lesser evil when compared to tyrants in modern history. Thomas’s translation vibrantly conveys the energy of Tansi’s prose. Perspectives switch rapidly among Martillimi’s point-of-view, nameless outside observers and victims, and a collective we embodying the voice of the nation. These shifts happen from one line to the next and in a single sentence. The effect is compelling and helps give a wider understanding. This book showcases Tansi’s incredible talent and his position, even in death, as one of Africa’s important voices. (Jan.)