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The King of Kahel Paperback – Nov 2 2011

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: AmazonCrossing (Nov. 2 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0982555075
  • ISBN-13: 978-0982555071
  • Product Dimensions: 20.8 x 14.1 x 2 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 281 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,421,341 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 33 reviews
31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
A brilliant work of imagination Sept. 12 2010
By Douglas S. Wood - Published on
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product
The King of Kahel is a story of colonialism, a French child's fantasy, and 19th century Guinea. Author Tierno Monénembo, little known in the US, won a prestigious French award for this book. Monenembo was exiled from his home country of Guinea and has lived in France since 1973.

The King of Kahel is based (loosely says the book jacket) on the exploits of French explorer, the Viscount Aimee Olivier Sanderval. As a child Sanderval's tutors exposed him to stories of faraway islands and continents. He had long dreamed of establishing his own kingdom when went to the west African area known as the Fouta Djallon (roughly the uplands of Guinea). The book jacket calls King of Kahel "a jovial Heart of Darkness", and that is an apt description of about the first third of the book as Sanderval journeys into Fouta Djallon. After many trials and tribulations, he finally reaches an agreement with the tribal leader for a trade agreements and permission to build a railroad.

That success is only the first step. Sanderval must return to France and try to convince the government to recognize his enterprise. Battling the French bureaucracy isn't easy. Sanderval finally returns to Fouta Djallon, but just when it seems he has moved closer to his goal, conditions change drastically. The French army marches in and ironically Sanderval's dream evaporates in a miasma of colonial power.

Monénembo puts the reader in the middle of the complex power struggles within Fouta Djallon. He puts a full range of local characters on display.

The book has its shortcomings - in his last trip he takes his son Georges along, but Georges disappears from the story for long stretches and it's not clear why. Sanderval assigns strong feelings (positive and negative) to his characters, but again it is not always clear why some of the characters.

On the whole, though the book is a wonderful feat of imagination. Also consider: The King of Kahel tells the story of a French colonial adventure from the white man's perspective - but it is written by an African author exiled in France. Let's hope for more translations of Tierno Monénembo's work.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Interesting History Fails as Storytelling Nov. 15 2010
By A. Ross - Published on
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product
I'm always on the lookout for new fiction from Africa, so when I saw this translation of a Guinean book was available I snapped it up. Aside from my interest in world literature, my grandparents lived in Conakry from 1960-62, so the country holds a particular interest for me. The novel as a form does not have a long history in Africa, and as a result, much of the African fiction available in the West focuses on the struggle for independence and the legacy of colonialism. This book goes further back in history to deliver a fictionalized version of the exploits of 19th-century French adventurer Olivier de Sanderval, whose personal ambitions were at least partly to blame for France's colonization of what is modern-day Guinea.

Sanderval was a prodigiously talented and wealthy man of his time, whose childhood romance with tales of exploration were the catalyst for his adult ambitions to carve a slice out of the African pie for himself (and to a lesser extent, France). He was also a prolific writer who extensively documented his travels, and the author of this novel also had access to private family archives in gathering material for the book. Unfortunately this seems like a case where having too much "true" information at one's hands actually inhibits the fiction. Far too much of the book reads like a thinly fictionalized rendering of a travelogue, in which various trials and tribulations are chronicled in a manner which becomes slightly tedious.

The book does a decent job of illustrating the complexities of Europe's colonization of sub-Saharan Africa. Rather than simply decrying European colonialism, the story illustrates the internal strife among various local potentates, as well as the policy disagreements within the French establishment. In Sanderval's attempts to lock in trading rights, right of way for a railroad, and a land-grant for his own personal fiefdom, he encounters all manner of cunning and shifty characters, both French and Fula. However, it never really manages to engage as storytelling. So, even though the author handles the colonial material with a more judicious touch than most, I kept wishing I was reading a good biographical profile of Sanderval instead. Worth a look if you've an interest in African fiction or European colonialism, but probably not a book that will interest the general reader.
21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
The King of Kahel Sept. 10 2010
By Stephen Balbach - Published on
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product
`The King of Kahel` is the inaugural book in Amazon's new publishing imprint, AmazonCrossing, which publishes foreign works in original English translation. The author, Tierno Monénembo, is from Guinea and lives in France, and the novel won the 2008 Prix Renaudot. It is a good pick for AmazonCrossing's premier novel.

During the 1880s French colonial aspirations reached an apex. One little known colonialist at the time was a wealthy French businessman by the name of Aime Olivier de Sanderval. Having made his fortune in the manufacturing industry in France, he aspired to be a real aristocrat, no less than a King. He had a life long interest in Africa from childhood, so he traveled to the mountain highlands of Guinea to a place called Futa Jalon, a geographically unique and beautiful region which has been called the Switzerland of West Africa. The tribes who lived there were fractured and warlike. Through cunning and mostly luck, Sanderval was able to obtain a piece of land over which he became King, complete with his own native army and minted coins. Then things started to go wrong.

The novel has an authentic feel of a 19th century retelling, based as it is on a true story, but with the sly irony of a post-colonial perspective which results a humorous image of Sanderval as a bumbling fool who succeeds despite himself, a reputation well deserved. The jacket compares his story to `Heart of Darkness` but that's only superficially true (both are set in Africa), it's really more in the spirit of The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling, another story of bumbling fools with grand designs and limited capabilities.

Since Monenembo follows real history, the plot is a little complex and not quite novelistic, there is a lot of subterfuge and politics. It's certainly readable by anyone, and well written, but it's not an entirely easy read, being steeped in 19th century French history and Guinean place and people names, though these things attracted me to it. The reader will get much more out of it with GoogleEarth (which has pictures of places and even buildings mentioned) and a Guinean encyclopedia would help. But this is why I enjoy novels in translation, in particular by authors who are from the country in question, it is more rewarding to learn about a place and history.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Fearless Frenchman Founds Forest Fief April 19 2011
By Robert S. Newman - Published on
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product
We have a number of colonial tales of white men who strove to carve out kingdoms among peoples in odd corners of the world that had not yet been much influenced by the West. Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King" does come to mind, but more impressive is the true story of the white rajahs of Sarawak, a British family dynasty that ruled a large patch on Borneo's north coast for over a century. When these tales are told, it is always from the European point of view. The whites act, the `natives' are acted upon. THE KING OF KAHEL provides an interesting glimpse from the other side. Monénembo, a Guinean long in exile in France, tells a story of the scion of an important Lyon family made rich by capitalist exploits in France, who is lured to Africa by romantic dreams and tries persistently to carve out a kingdom in the then-remote Fouta Djallon region, now part of Guinea. He longs to `civilize' the place, a theme touched upon in ironic fashion by the author, who valiantly endeavors to write as a colonial-minded Frenchman would think. Far from being some kind of Indiana Jones, Aimé Olivier de Sanderval barely squeaks through. The Africans continually outwit him, punish him, betray him, and try to bump him off for good. Only by becoming more African is he able to survive. He can't trust the emissaries of France (who refuse to recognize that he has any rights in Fouta Djallon) and he is caught in the endless intrigues of the Fula almami and ruling circles also. The reluctance of Fula rulers to get involved with whites is paralleled by the disinterest and reluctance of French officialdom to back de Sanderval's schemes. In the end, as we know from history, no Frenchman was able to become a king on his own in Africa. France finally pushed `the king of Kahel' aside and took over. As to the fate of the `would be king', you'll have to read the book.

At first, the unusual style of dialogue put me off. I ascribed it to bad translation. But as I read, I got used to it, and felt that probably the translator had preserved what was unique in this most interesting book. Based on a true story---most of the characters really existed---the dialogues and details have been created by the author who describes the land in a most colorful and appealing way. I wondered if there were really eucalyptus forests in Guinea in the 19th century and stumbled over a few other such questions, but overall I enjoyed this novel and would recommend it highly to anyone interested in adventure, in colonial era Africa, or historical fiction.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Captivating story that was hard not to love Dec 23 2010
By Eric D. Knapp - Published on
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product
The King of Kahel isn't normally the type of book that I would read, but the story synopsis sounded so interesting that I had to give it a try. True to my fears, this read a bit like a history book -- in some places to the point where I almost didn't continue. Now, for those who love history and/or historical fiction, this probably wouldn't bother you - but for me I found it very distracting.

... but then after a few days Id pick it back up again. I found that my dislike of the writing style was far outweighed by my need to find out what happens next.

A story of African exploration (conquest?) by a white man, King of Kahel gave a true glimpse into one man's perspective on a pivotal time in Africa's past. The descriptions were fantastic, if somewhat disjointed (perhaps a side-effect of the translation), and I found myself not wanting to believe that one man could suffer so many gastronomical maladies.

If you decide to read this, give it a chance: if I had put this down and reviewed it right away, I probably would have given 3 or maybe even two stars. It gets 4 due to the depth of character, the well-established relationships between our protagonist and his various countries of interest, the naval character of French military bureaucrats, and the colorful culture of the native people (pun intended - written true to the time and perspective of a white man, color of skin was definitely acknowledged).