The reader is comprehended by the letter; there is no place from which he can stand back and observe it.—Barbara Johnson, “The Frame of Reference”
The dream of a suitable political work of art is in fact the dream of disrupting the relationship between the visible, the sayable, and the thinkable without having to use the terms of a message as a vehicle. It is the dream of an art that would transmit meanings in the form of a rupture with the very logic of meaningful situations.—Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics
On August 2, 1999, in the rear right-hand wheel compartment of a Sabena Airlines Airbus A330, two bodies were discovered. Wrapped in warm sweaters, presumably in anticipation of the cold temperatures of the high altitude air, but with only plastic sandals on their feet, Yaguine Koita, fourteen, and his friend Fodé Tounkara, fifteen, had finally made it to Europe. In fact, after hiding themselves in that space four days earlier, they had made the journey from Conakry to Brussels at least three times before actually touching European soil. With them, they carried plastic bags containing birth certificates, report cards, and photographs—the paraphernalia necessary to begin life anew. The two boys were not the first to make such a trip, nor the first to die in such circumstances; there had been other deaths before, and theirs, though tragic, could hardly be considered exceptional. At best, their story had shock appeal, the momentary pull of what in French is called a fait divers, which, as the dictionary tells us, is an “an event without general importance” (Larousse, my translation). The private tragedy of the boys’ death was destined to remain an event of significance [End Page 35] to only a handful of people, arousing curiosity on the part of others but not much else. If the particular condition of their death guaranteed the brief attention reserved for the odd occurrence, it also cut them off from any claim on the general interest. As the tragic protagonists of a personal drama, the two boys would probably have remained anonymous, their birth certificates and report cards notwithstanding, and their story would probably have remained a simple cautionary tale relayed fitfully by the news media, leaving behind only the faintest of memories.
There was, however, an element that made things slightly different: a letter. Unlike the other documents they carried, the letter was prepared in anticipation not of life but of death, for the two friends knew quite well what they were getting into when they sneaked inside the airport at Conakry and hoisted themselves up into the space of the wheel bay. Carefully sealed inside a white envelope, the letter was not quite a suicide note, but was composed nonetheless with the knowledge that their actions could very well lead to death. On the envelope was written in meticulous schoolboy script: “Dans le cas si nous mourrions remettre à Messieurs les membres et responsables d’Europe” (“In case if we die give to Messieurs the members and officials of Europe”). The nonstandard grammar of the sentence with its double conditional—the correct grammar would give “Dans le cas où nous mourrions” or “Si nous mourrions”—almost seems to push away the eventuality of death, unintentionally inscribing the hope that the verb in the subordinate clause would remain unrealized. The letter itself was written in flowery prose imitating the language of bureaucratese. Its most immediate message—or at least, the message that was most immediately identified—was an appeal to the leaders of Europe to come to the rescue of Africa.
Excellences, Messieurs les membres et responsables d’Europe,
Nous avons l’honorable plaisir et la grande confiance pour vous écrire cette lettre pour vous parler de l’objectif de notre voyage et la souffrance de nous, les enfants et jeunes d’Afrique.
Mais tout d’abord, nous vous présentons les salutations les plus délicieuses, adorables et respectées dans la vie. A cet effet, soyez notre appui et notre aide, soyez envers nous en Afrique, vous à qui faut-il demander au...