The King of Kahel Paperback – Nov 2 2011
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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 Exclusive: An Interview with Translator Nicholas Elliott
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)
A Traditional Guinean Recipe: Bourakhew
- 2 cups palm oil
- 3 onions
- 2 hot peppers
- 1 carp and 2 smoked fish
- 1 pile of dried shrimp
- 2 gumbos
- 1 bowl of potato leaves, or ground manioc leaves
- 2 Maggi cubes
- 5 pieces of meat
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.
From the Back Cover
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)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
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.
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.
... 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).