Albert Sánchez Piñol's novels Cold Skin and Pandora in the Congo are published by Canongate.


Human steamrollers

In the chapter devoted to Emperor Caligula in his The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Suetonius divides the narration, starting a new paragraph with the line "Up to this point we've discussed the prince. Now we'll turn to the monster."

A survey of African dictatorships of recent history – from Amin and Mobuto to Banda and Obiang – reveals monsters in the literal sense of the term: amalgamations of various qualities that combine to create pure evil. To reduce the concurring elements to their common points, they each possess a noteworthy ability to absorb and represent the worst aspects of two worlds that had come into contact with each other: an underlying power implemented with means provided by a foreign power. The results were beyond horrific.

As hard as we struggle to describe the carnage, the right words are nowhere to be found. How can one do justice to the thousands, the hundreds of thousands of murdered civilians? How can we talk about the steamrollers MacĂ­as used to flatten his opponents? How can we speak of the children beaten to death publicly by Bokassa? How can we bring to mind the many opponents of Mobutu who mysteriously disappeared in the middle of the night, or those who were gunned down simply because they were looking for diamonds in the mud and therefore endangering the thief's monopoly? How can we describe the shame of the Jehovah's Witnesses forced to copulate with their progenitors, in Dr Banda's Malawi? How can one avoid shuddering when citing the hundreds of deaths by starvation at Camp Boiro in Sékou Touré's Guinea? Or the ritual emasculation of Pedro Motu at the hands of Obiang's thugs? Who can overlook the thousands of children who died of hunger in the Ethiopia of Selassie, the emperor of the fairytale kingdom?

For almost one hundred years Europe maintained absolute control over vast African spaces. But beginning in the 1950s, Europe had no choice but to grant independence to the new African states. Africa applauded the measure. It had fought to liberate itself from the European powers that had imposed their hegemony for so long. That said, it isn't at all clear that the Africans really wanted the new political structures that were imposed on them (the state, the administration, the army...). Nor is it evident that they wanted the body of laws it was their lot to accept. And it is obvious they didn't particularly identify with the new borders that emerged from a pact between the colonial powers that they had been deliberately excluded from participating in.

One of the worst defects of colonialism was its immense capacity to believe that it was being applied to a terra nullius, an empty space. But Africa existed prior to the colonial conquest. The Africans already had their own laws. They already had political institutions, their own family models, numerous sophisticated religious beliefs, economic, social and productive structures. (Today many Europeans are still unaware that hunger, as an ill that affects entire human masses, was a practically unknown phenomenon in pre-colonial Africa.) They weren't idyllic models, or even better than the European ones. They were different formulas for living the human experience. With the granting of independence there was an attempt to fit all that plurality into a system that was unknown and alien to the African continent: the state.

Continues in the print edition. Order now.

Translated by Mara Faye Lethem, supported by a grant from Institut Ramon Llull.



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