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French Forum 28.3 (2003) 130-133
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Dominic Thomas. Nation-Building, Propaganda, and Literature in Francophone Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002. XV + 270 pp.
State Hegemonic Principle Gives in to Polyvocality
Dominic Thomas describes the changing circumstances of literary creativity in the Congo, going from early independence to the era of national conferences of the Nineties (7). He studies the production of Congolese literary texts as dictated by the socio-political conditions within the framework of the nation-building endeavor. The official line in Marxist-Leninist Congo—as stipulated by ideologues such as Marien Ngouabi, Denis Sassou Nguesso, and Ahmed Sékou Touré—was that, in order to foster a unified national space, the government needed to sponsor an official literature (hegemonic texts) capable of generating a catalyst political climate favorable to the nation-building agenda (1).
Against this attempt emerged a literary practice of resistance (counter-hegemonic texts) that subverted such coercive measures because it would not only foster longed-for national integration, but [End Page 130] would stifle creativity. Therefore, the Congolese literary space became a dual framework. On the one hand, there is the official line that evolved along stipulated guidelines; on the other hand, there was the unofficial one—here equated with counter-propaganda writings—that resisted any attempt at imposing a monolithic creed (11).
Although the book has six chapters, the discussion revolves around three main components. The first component (first and second chapters) lays down the Marxist-Leninist ideological foundation that fed the stipulations of official literary production, followed by a discussion of official writers who include Maxime N'Debeka, Jean-François Obembe, Mamonsosso, Xavier Okotaka-Ebale, and Eta-Onka. Engineering artistic creativity harmed, more than helped, the national cause. Therefore, it is important to take into account the writer's "situatedness outside of imperializing colonizing narratives and discourses" to accommodate polyvocality. For Thomas, this key term designates "the multiplicity of competing voices both within the text and outside of it—official, propagandist, and resistant." (93) Harmonious nation-building ought to incorporate multiple voices in the effort to set up a nation-building discourse.
The second component and the most important one (third through fifth chapters) deals with three "unofficial" writers, namely Sony Labou Tansi, Henri Lopes, and Emmanuel Dongala. For Thomas, Sony Labou Tansi is the writer of oppositionality par excellence, known for his radical language in denouncing gross injustice and for his experimentation in narrative as highlighted in two instances. First, Maillot, the main character in La Parenthèse de sang, is symptomatic of the writer's underlying oppositionality (82). Also, La vie et demie explains the exacerbated relationship between ethnic groups that would culminate in a wider crisis that cost scores of innocent lives.
Like Sony Labou Tansi, Emmanuel Dongala fits perfectly Thomas's characterization of an unofficial writer who challenges state-stipulated dogmas. Throughout his work, Dongala has attacked the state's authoritarianism and has insisted on the necessity for polyvocality. His strong position is due to his unwavering dedication to social justice, his skill to transpose reality into fiction (140), his pan-Diasporic themes (transplantation, displacement, unhomeliness), his educational background, and his recognition of the fallacious nature of the "truth" (156). Dongala also interrogates the disorientation that had [End Page 131] accompanied political transitions of the Nineties that, despite claims to the contrary, did not accommodate polyvocality.
Dealing with Henri Lopes, who occupied important positions in the Marxist-Leninist governments, as an unofficial writer raises skepticism that undermines the book's main thesis. Thomas vigorously defends Henri Lopes, making the distinction between the writer, who claims to be an "unrepentant liar," and the politician. First, Lopes does not aim at reproducing the truth; rather, he attempts to make sense out of the events. Secondly, his literary expression needs to be grasped in the French tradition of rhetoric, where debate and cross-examination constitute important elements of the public discourse.
Thirdly, in a comparative move, Thomas brings in Coetzee's essay "Confession and Double Thoughts," which deals with the notion of "truthfulness" in a tightly controlled setting (115...