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Authors: Sony Labou Tansi

The Shameful State

BOOK: The Shameful State
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Dominic Thomas,

I Was an Elephant Salesman:

Adventures between Dakar

Paris, and Milan

Pap Khouma,

Edited by Oreste Pivetta

Translated by Rebecca Hopkins

Introduction by Graziella Parati

Little Mother: A Novel

Cristina Ali Farah

Translated by Giovanna

Bellesia-Contuzzi and

Victoria Offredi Poletto

Introduction by

Alessandra Di Maio

Life and a Half: A Novel

Sony Labou Tansi

Translated by Alison Dundy

Introduction by Dominic Thomas

Transit: A Novel

Abdourahman A. Waberi

Translated and introduced by

David Ball and Nicole Ball

Cruel City: A Novel

Mongo Beti

Translated by Pim Higginson

Blue White Red: A Novel

Alain Mabanckou

Translated by Alison Dundy

Introduction by Dominic Thomas

The Past Ahead: A Novel

Gilbert Gatore

Translated and introduced

by Marjolijn de Jager

Queen of Flowers and Pearls: A Novel

Gabriella Ghermandi

Translated by Giovanna

Bellesia-Contuzzi and

Victoria Offredi Poletto




Translated by DOMINIC THOMAS

This book is a publication of

Indiana University Press

Office of Scholarly Publishing

Herman B Wells Library 350

1320 East 10th Street

Bloomington, Indiana 47405 USA

This book was originally published in French by Editions du Seuil under the title
L'État Honteux
copyright © 1981 Editions du Seuil © 2016 by Indiana University Press

All rights reserved

No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. The Association of American University Presses' Resolution on Permissions constitutes the only exception to this prohibition.

The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of the American National Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z39.48-1992.

Manufactured in the United States of America

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Sony Labou Tansi, author.

[L'État honteux. English]

The shameful state / Sony Labou Tansi ; translated by
Dominic Thomas ; foreword by Alain Mabanckou.

pages cm.—(Global African voices)

ISBN 978-0-253-01925-7 (pbk. : alk. paper)—ISBN 978-0-253-01932-5 (ebook)

I. Thomas, Dominic Richard David, translator. II. Title.
III. Series: Global African voices.

PQ3989.2.S64E813 2015



1  2  3  4  5    21  20  19  18  17  16


Together we shall fight
until freedom is no longer
a word buttered with sardines.



Alain Mabanckou

Sony Labou Tansi (1947–1995) is widely acknowledged as one of Africa's most talented authors. Although he died at a relatively young age, the singularity, creativity, and pioneering qualities of his novels and plays shaped a generation of literary production and continue to influence contemporary African literature. A cursory glance at the work of such important writers as Kossi Efoui (Togo) or Koffi Kwahulé (Ivory Coast), both of whom have also published novels and plays, reveals traces of this inspiration. Sony Labou Tansi's creative energy was channeled in multiple directions, at times toward the Rocadu Zulu Theatre Company which he founded in the early 1980s, at others toward the six novels he wrote, all of which were published by the prestigious Éditions du Seuil.

Sony Labou Tansi burst onto the French and francophone literary scene in 1979 with his novel
La Vie et demie (Life and a Half
, IUP), featuring the emblematic figure of the immortal rebel Martial before whom the relentless efforts of the ruthless postcolonial dictator to liquidate him prove futile.
This marked a significant turning point in francophone sub-Saharan African literature in a more general manner, bolstering the importance of the African dictatorship novel. Sony Labou Tansi's political commitment and oppositional nature were the source of constant difficulties with the authorities, but also afforded him tremendous respect and the opportunity to engage with audiences in Africa and beyond that listened attentively to his words.

In his next novel,
L'État honteux
The Shameful State
), published in 1981, the figure of the rebel is eclipsed by the dictator, the despot, the African monarch, whose name is Colonel Martillimi Lopez. One day, all his ministers seek private audiences and hand in, one after the other, their letters of resignation, because they can no longer bear the idea of leaving “the country to the children of the children of our children” in this “shameful state.” The nation is on its knees, and they don't want to be blamed. The irony is palpable in this unusual turn of events in which the very people who had the most benefitted from the power structure now become conscious of the country's collapse, after having enriched themselves and enjoyed its spoils while the masses languished in poverty. The political situation at the time is of course relevant, and observers were quick to equate the central protagonist in this novel with real-life megalomaniacs such as Mobutu Sese Seko, whose dictatorial rule over Zaire for more than thirty years was characterized by embezzlement, corruption, and widespread human rights violations.

Following in the footsteps of such Latin American greats as Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, Sony Labou Tansi applied himself to the task of describing the most salient traits of political intolerance, to exposing the arbitrariness and whims of a monarch, while also highlighting the absurd nature of dictatorial rule.
The Shameful State
offers readers a historical insight into a grotesque and bloodthirsty monarch whose appetite for power proves insatiable. His degenerate behavior is comical, excessive, and ludicrous, but also tragic and apocalyptic when one takes
into account the fact that so many African leaders, such as President Gnassingbé Eyadema (Togo), Field Marshal Idi Amin Dada (Uganda), and the self-crowned emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa (Central African Republic), all closely resemble Martillimi Lopez. In
The Shameful State
, Sony Labou Tansi provides an inventory of the eccentricities of a leader whose acts of sexual debauchery prove to be limitless and who governs exclusively by responding to the urges of his “big herniated greasy balls.” Extrajudicial killings, murders, and imprisonment without due process are simply the order of the day.

The Shameful State
was written at one of the most tumultuous moments in the history of the African continent. However, over time, this magisterial novel has lost nothing of its innovative merits and initial appeal and remains relevant to a range of political and social realities of the twenty-first century. Sony Labou Tansi has made it possible for us not only to understand better the complexity of Africa and the world today and the incessant ethnic conflict and competition for power, but also to reckon with the latest incarnation of the dictator-monarch who now exercises power in more discrete and discernible ways, perhaps because they too have read
The Shameful State
 . . .


I've heard it said that the novel is a work of the imagination. Even if that is true, this imagination must still have a place somewhere in reality. One could say that I write, or rather that I cry out, as a way of forcing the world into the world. Your shame of calling things by their name doesn't apply in this instance. In my view, our so-called world is both a scandal and a source of shame, and I am only able to express this through several “ill-gotten words.” Ultimately, God alone can decide whether or not a book is great: in my book you will find me fighting for it to stand out. Life is no secret to any of us.
The Shameful State
is thus the summary in a few “ill-gotten words” of the shameful situation in which humanity has elected to live.

Sony Labou Tansi



BOOK: The Shameful State
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