Angolans, Cubans and Soviets, in ‘a tower of babel of Communism’
In the newly released French translation of the novel, 'Avó Dezanove e o segredo do Soviético' (Grandma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret), Angolan writer Ondjaki tells the life of a neighbourhood in Luanda, where sensations intertwine.
Since the publication of his first novel, Bom dia Camaradas [Good Morning Comrades], in 2001, Ndalu de Almeida – better known under the pseudonym Ondjaki – has established himself as an original voice in Africa. Not only have his works been translated into many languages, he has also been the recipient of numerous awards, including the José Saramago Prize (awarded to young Portuguese authors) for his novel Os Transparentes [Transparent City] in 2013.
GrandmaNineteen and the Soviet’s Secret, in French GrandMèreDixNeuf et le secret du Soviétique, is the sixth novel – the third translated into French – by the Angolan author born in 1977. Ondjaki examines the life of a neighbourhood in Luanda, the capital. Two characteristics of his work are found in it: the childish point of view and the setting of the novel during the first post-colonial years.
The novel takes place in the early 1980s when the People’s Republic of Angola was a communist regime. Upon the death of Agostinho Neto, the first president, the Soviets built a huge mausoleum where his embalmed body would rest, on the Praia Do Bispo waterfront.
Communism’s Tower of Babel
In his own unique style, Ondjaki writes ‘PraiaDoBispo’, in the same way he describes the other characters of the book. Each one has a story, an anecdote tinged with poetry and humour. GrandmotherAgnette becomes GrandmotherTenNine following the amputation of a toe that leaves her with only 19, the young Three-Fourteen is actually called Pinduca, whose diminutive Pi is equal to 3.14, ÉcumeDeMer, sweet and crazy, bathes “where the sea used to be on the sand like an enormous sheet of white foam that the waves invented so that the water would not force its way onto the sand”, VendeurD’Essence’s pump contains only seawater, RafaelTocToc, a doctor, ritually announces himself with a “knock knock knock” before knocking on doors…
At the beginning of the 1980s, Luanda was communism’s Tower of Babel, where Angolans, Cubans and Soviets mingled. Colourful voices resounded in this neighbourhood where people danced the tango before an operation, where a spontaneous party could gather together all the neighbours within a few hours, where a crocodile lived in a niche, where parrots repeated the insults they heard on TV… And where children set themselves a mission: to prevent the programmed destruction of the neighbourhood through modernisation, they would need to blow up the mausoleum. Or rather “dexplode” because, explains the young narrator, “I like to say “dexplode”, it sounds like a word that explodes, exploding is like a flame that is too weak.”
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In contrast to his enchanting world, stands – like the mausoleum – the absurd world of the Soviets. The “lobsters”, whose skin reddens under the sun, struggle to wear long-sleeved shirts and blue overalls, which leads them to exhale – to use the language of children – a certain “puanteurov” (stench) from their “aissellov” (armpits). Comrade Botardov, the Soviet soldier who got this nickname because he distorts “boa tarde” (good afternoon in Portuguese) into “botard”, is the scapegoat for the devastating mockery. However, in his clumsiness, he is also the touch of humanity of the “other side”, even in his secret that gives the book its title…
In an exchange with the Angolan poet Ana Paula Tavares, which appears at the end of the novel, Ondjaki describes his writing process better than anyone else: “I use distorted memories to invent stories.” He adds: “I exercise the right to attribute speech to dreams – even to those that have not really been dreamt, because I believe in blue cries, in explosions of kites flying in a dark night in Luanda. I continue to summon children to tell me about their belief in dancing skies. I continue to listen to stories to make history.”
The “blue cries” are “words shouted at the bottom of the sea”, he explains. Hearing and sight therefore go hand in hand, words have a sound but also a colour, a smell, a taste. Associating, for example, a sound with a colour is by definition synesthesia.
A form of expression at the heart of Ondjaki’s work, a master in the art of intertwining sensations. He combines his talents as a poet, a children’s author, a novelist, a short story writer and even a documentary filmmaker, in order to create a whole world for his readers. This fabulous interlacing, between dream and reality, characterises his works and explains how he manages to continuously enchant his readers.