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Tierno Monénembo: My former headmaster, the great Guinean historian Djibril Tamsir Niane! He suggested I take an interest in Olivier de Sanderval during a conference in Niamey. He told me he was "a real character out of a novel."
He didn’t know how right he was!
Question: What authors or books have influenced your writing?
Tierno Monénembo: Everything I read influences me, even the phone book! There are so many jumbled influences on my imagination that it would be very difficult for me to give every one of my mentors his or her due. Let’s start with my grandmother, who never wrote a thing, by the way, but whose tales and legends were my first heritage. Immediately after her come Mongo Beti, Hampathe Ba, Flaubert, Maupassant, Juan Rulfo, Céline, Yambo Ouologuem, Dostoyevsky, Ahmadou Kourouma, Faulkner, Kateb Yacine, and a thousand other geniuses who came from every end of the earth to teach me to dream my own dreams.
In my case, we shouldn’t speak of influence, but of confluence and preference, in the plural.
Question: What research did you do while writing your book?
Tierno Monénembo: I was more or less familiar with the historical context. My research was therefore limited to the life of Olivier de Sanderval, notably his inner and romantic life. Chance led me to his grandson, who is now 83 years old and who generously allowed me access both to the written family archives and, thankfully, to the oral ones. Olivier de Sanderval was not only a legend in his time, but in his family.
Question: Is there any character in The King of Kahel with whom you most identify? Why?
Tierno Monénembo: Olivier de Sanderval himself! I like his intelligence, his splendid sense of pride and solitude, his insatiable curiosity, his courage at the edge of despair, his perpetual dissatisfaction, and his obsessive desire to be unlike anyone of his time.
Question: Have you always wanted to be a writer? What other careers have you pursued?
Tierno Monénembo: When I was a kid, I would rather have become a singer. My schoolmasters told me I had a beautiful voice. Though to be honest I have to admit that I loved to read and that by high school I had filled an old notebook with my own tales.
The writer I became was revealed by the pain of exile rather than the magic of precocious talent found in Mozart or Rimbaud.
Question: How does this book compare to your previous books?
Tierno Monénembo: My previous books were written from inside Africa, its woods, its myths, its chimeras, and its curses. This one was written from inside Olivier de Sanderval. And please don’t see that as some literary trick. This Merlin simply succeeded in casting his spell on me (despite the still-fresh colonial memory that clutters my mind), taking hold of my pen, and writing this book in my place.
And I guarantee you I see no reason to complain about it!
Question: What’s next for you?
Tierno Monénembo: I am currently writing a novel about a character in many ways similar to our King of Kahel. Olivier de Sanderval is a white man who came to Africa to take part in the history of the Fulas. Addi Ba is a Fula who came to France to take part in the history of the white man. During the Second World War, after General De Gaulle’s call, he was one of the first to found a resistance Maquis. Arrested by the Germans, he was executed by a firing squad in Epinal in 1943. Generous and eternal France finally recognized his contribution... in 2003, or sixty years after his comrades.
Still, three streets in France are now named after him.
Amazon.com: What was your initial impression of The King of Kahel?
Nicholas Elliott: I read it in one sitting, on a plane, and was immediately struck by Monénembo’s daring. The King of Kahel bows to no official positions on colonialism in creating a depiction of a land as terrifying as it can be mystifyingly comical. Monénembo’s sly way of comparing the conniving of the Paris bureaucracy with the ruthlessness of the princes of Fouta Djallon would be hilarious if it wasn’t so tightly wound into a thrilling story. But more than anything else, the images of a harsh and beautiful land and the madly ambitious men who fought for it haunt me to this day, nearly a year after I finished translating the book.
Amazon.com: What authors or books have influenced your writing?
Nicholas Elliott: Sometimes I ask myself who hasn’t influenced my writing. Current favorites include Flaubert, Dickens, Willa Cather, Barry Hannah, William Gaddis, James Schuyler, Gary Lutz, and Gilbert Sorrentino. But I think what you really want to know is what translators have influenced me. We all know that great translators are disappearance artists. We never know how much of the translated work’s magic is due to the translator, but we know who gets the glory. So let me thank those who have translated Thomas Bernhard, Fernando Pessoa and Roberto Bolaño into French and English--I don’t know much about them beyond some names on a page and that they can claim responsibility for adding these authors to my swelling pantheon. And I will close with a special mention of the apostles of translation: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, translators of Dostoyevsky, Gogol, and especially Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
Amazon.com: What research did you do while writing your book?
Nicholas Elliott: Part of what was exciting about this project--and what made it so hard--is that there is not a lot out there in English about the lush kingdom of Fouta Djallon. My trusty Geographical Dictionary was of little help in finding standardized names of villages and streamlets in Guinea. And, to make matters worse, I translated most of the book while in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, which is not renowned for its English libraries. So I cast a wide net, going as deep into the internet as the novel’s protagonist ventures into the jungle, and looking at other novels set in colonial times. The only book I constantly referred to for a sense of atmosphere was Adam Hochschild’s brilliant King Leopold’s Ghost.
Amazon.com: Is there any character you most identify with? Why?
Nicholas Elliott: I wish I could lie to you and say I identify with the protagonist, the explorer, scientist and industrialist Olivier de Sanderval. If Monénembo wasn’t so wickedly frank in detailing the devastating effects of Sanderval’s adventures on his health, you’d swear the guy was a superhero: boundless ambition, a powerful intellect and quite a way with the ladies. I can’t imagine having the kind of single-minded drive this real-life character had. But maybe the reason he sticks with me is that Monénembo keeps him human the whole way. Sanderval’s vision is grandiose, but his body is not always up to the task. The irony of the celebrated explorer being carried through the jungle as he rattles with some mysterious fever is not lost on me.
Amazon.com: Have you considered trying your hand at other genres?
Nicholas Elliott: Actually, the novel is a new genre for me. I generally specialize in film, photo and art books--huge, heavy volumes that require a table just to be leafed through. So it was a novelty to go to the publisher and pick up a book I could read on the subway. When I was starting out, I took anything that came my way: a photo book about surfing, a dauntingly technical volume about luxury watches, a 300-page treatise on the history and meaning of the Bar Mitzvah. I enjoyed some of the discoveries those books afforded--how else would I have learned about Neptune sandwiches?--but I’m hoping I’ll be able to keep focusing on literature and those areas I have some expertise in.
Amazon.com: Have you always wanted to be a translator? What other careers have you pursued?
Nicholas Elliott: I was raised perfectly bilingual with one foot in Europe and the other in the United States, so being a translator was never a calling so much as a natural function of my background. Outside of translation, I’ve worked at every level in film and theater: writer, director, performer, critic, stage manager, script supervisor, accountant, usher, whipping boy.
Amazon.com: How does this book compare to your previous books?
Nicholas Elliott: For me, the defining factor in a work of literature is its style. To be responsible for delivering someone’s style--i.e. someone’s voice--to a new audience is daunting. But I have benefited from the help of a stellar editorial team--what I call "gold-dusters"--and can now focus on the excitement of having "my" first novel published and sharing The King of Kahel with English readers. As someone who goes into a decline when not reading an engaging work of fiction, I can only think of one thing better--publishing my first novel.
Of course, I’m also thrilled to inaugurate Amazon’s new series of translations. Translators rightfully gripe that American publishers lag far behind their international counterparts when it comes to publishing foreign works in translation. That Amazon should devote such a major effort to trying to reverse this isolationist trend--particularly one launched with a novel of the quality of King of Kahel--is great news not only for underemployed translators but for readers and writers hungry to discover what’s going on in Norway, Argentina, Kazakhstan... and Fouta Djallon.
Amazon.com: What's next for you?
Nicholas Elliott: I’ve been waiting for the manuscript of this great photo book to be ready for me for weeks and working on my own writing. Doing my own stuff is a slow process; I imagine my Amazon Q&A as an author is a few years down the line.
(Photo © Sophia Chai)
First pour 2 cups of water in the pot, put it on the fire, then add the well-cleaned fish and the 5 pieces of meat. Cook the fish for 10 minutes then take it out of the pot. Skin and bone the fish and put it back in the pot, then pour the 2 cups of oil in. Add the 2 smoked fish after having removed their bones. Wash the potato leaves, which have been cut into small pieces, and put them in the pot. Crush the onions and the peppers.
The trick of cooking this dish is to remove enough water from the sauce to make room for the oil, which rises to the surface of the sauce. Cooking for one hour will get you a very good "bourékhè" sauce.
Follow the same steps to prepare this dish with manioc leaves, with the exception that the leaves need to be ground and dried before they are cooked.
In the early 1880s, Aimé Victor Olivier, (known as the Viscount of Sanderval), devised a project to conquer Fouta Djallon, a highland region in Guinea, and to build a railroad through it. Nearly forgotten today, Olivier was one of the earliest colonizers of West Africa whose adventures often made headlines. Over the course of his journeys, Sanderval managed to gain the confidence of the Fula people, who gave him the Kahel plateau and authorized him to create coins bearing his effigy.
In The King of Kahel, Tierno Monénembo has brought us an incredibly rich novelized biography of this colorful character, who sought to carve out his own kingdom under the noses of both the French and the English.
(Translated from the French by Nicholas Elliott)