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Colo-mentality: Colonial Trauma in

Oyono's Houseboy and Conde's Crossing


the Mangrove
CAJETAN N. IHEKA
Michigan State University
ihekacaj@msu.edu

ABSTRACT

This essay analyzes the traumas induced by colonial violence in Ferdinand


Oyono's Houseboy and Maryse Conde's Crossing the Mangrove. Despite the
differences between both texts, they are joined by their engagement with
colonial violence in African societies, by their discursive inscription of
trauma arising from such violence, and the way their portrayal of the sever
ity of colonial violence shows the limits of trauma theory. Moreover, both
novels' portrayals of bloodshed and death make them rich for a compara
tive study of colonial trauma. Cathy Caruth's notion of trauma inspires the
use of the term in this essay.

INTRODUCTION
Writing in "Trauma Theory: Context, Politics, Ethics," Susannah Radstone asks,

Why is it, for instance, that there has been so little attention, within trauma
theory, to the recent sufferings of those in Rwanda, in comparison to the atten
tion that has been focused on events in the US on 9/11? The questions of firstly,
who it is that gets claimed by trauma theory, and who is ignored, and secondly,
which events get labeled "trauma" and which do not have not been omitted,
entirely, from critical commentary. (24)

The politics of traum a scholarship that Radstone discusses is im portant because


it highlights the divide between the West and the "Other" even in the articula
tion and discussion of trauma. While traum a is always an operative term in the
analysis of Western events like the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United
States, events or experiences in the rest of the world are not always interpreted or
framed in this way.
In literary and cultural studies, the colonial moment in Africa is illustrative
of several violent events that have not attracted the kind of attention from trauma
studies that events like the World Wars and other Western conflicts have generated.

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34 > RESEARCH IN A F R IC A N LITERATURES V O L U M E 45 N U M B E R 4

This point is significant because these events (the colonial moment in Africa and
the World Wars in the West) occurred around the same time. Yet some events gain
more analytical attention than others. It is against this background that I analyze
the traumas of colonial violence in Ferdinand Oyono's Houseboy and Maryse
Conde's Crossing the Mangrove. The goal is not simply to apply trauma theory to
the texts, but to show how the severity of the colonial violence portrayed in the
novels reveals the limits of the theory for the colonial context and envisions its
rewriting to accommodate a global perspective.
Oyono's Houseboy is set in late colonial Cameroon and features a young
Toundi as its protagonist. The novel fits the category of African writings that Ken
Harrow terms "literature of revolt" (74-75). Houseboy critiques the violence and
hypocrisy of colonialism while also highlighting the subjectivities and suffering
of the colonized. The novel provides us with two diary exercise books of a young
African serving as a houseboy first in the Catholic mission and later at the com
mandant's residence in colonial Cameroon. In these diaries, we follow Toundi
through his transformation from a naive boy who escapes from his father's abuse
to the "civilized world" of the Europeans. Like many other Africans at the time,
Toundi is shocked to witness the violence, hypocrisy, and soulless attitudes of the
Europeans. In a relatively short time, he becomes the ultimate victim of colonial
abuse when the Europeans frame him for his knowledge of the adulterous affair
between the commandant's wife and the prison director. While Toundi does
not survive his traumatic violations, he nonetheless leaves behind a narrative in
two exercise books. These written works give access to Toundi's experiences as a
houseboy with the Europeans, the violence associated with the colonial experi
ence, and, very importantly, his shock at the bestiality of the colonialists. In the
end, Toundi's account can be read as emblematic of the effects of colonialism on
the African psyche and body.
On the other hand, Conde's Crossing the Mangrove is set in Guadeloupe and
features an older protagonist, Francis Sancher, who is both a perpetrator and vic
tim of traumatic violence in Angola. The novel explores various themes, including
how the diversity and complexities of the inhabitants of Riviere au Sel represent
a microcosm of Carribbean history, the gender dynamics and politics of the com
munity, the allegorical functioning of both Sancher and the text, alongside a reap
praisal of the revolutionary impetus of the anticolonial era.1Unlike Toundi, who
is a native of Cameroon, Sancher travels from the Caribbean to Angola to fight
in the anticolonial war there and is a stranger, whose presence back in the small
community of Riviere au Sel changes its dynamics. Conde's novel focuses on the
Christian funeral wake of the protagonist, Francis Sancher, whose corpse was
found by the roadside at the text's beginning. We have no clue who he is early in
the novel, but through the narrative of the mourners gathered at Sancher's home,
we can piece together that he is a complicated character who appears in the town
of Riviere au Sel and impregnates two girls in quick succession soon afterwards.
The critic Ruthmarie H. Mitsch captures the feeling of the inhabitants of Riviere au
Sel toward Sancher very succinctly: "To some, he was a hated intruder; to others,
he was a lost soul who inspired sympathy; to others still, he held out the promise
of breaking out of an isolated, lonely existence. Everyone, however, sensed that he
carried the burden of past sin, and for that reason he had withdrawn from another
universe to the universe of Riviere au Sel" (54). In terms of narrative style, the novel
CA)ETAN N. IHEK.A * 35

oscillates between first- and third-person, favoring the former for the most part.
The other stylistic characteristic of this novel is that the individual chapters track
each character's relationship with the deceased and their perception of him. It is
from the first- and third-person narrative voices that we derive our knowledge
of Sancher.
Despite the differences in the two texts, they are joined by their engagement
with colonial violence in African societies and by their discursive inscription of
trauma arising from such violence. Furthermore, their portrayal of the severity of
colonial violence challenges trauma theory's notion of traumatic events and heal
ing. Both novels' emphasis on bloodshed makes for a rich comparative study of
trauma as well. In the two novels, the protagonists travel to the site of their trauma
and then flee from it to escape death. The journey is short and less remarkable
in Houseboy, where Toundi flees his traditional family home for the world of the
Europeans and later escapes to M'foula, where he eventually dies. In comparison,
the peripatetic Sancher in Crossing the Mangrove travels from the Caribbean to
Angola to participate in colonial violence and then escapes to Riviere au Sel to
obliterate his past. Like Toundi, he dies there but not before inflicting trauma on
this community. The texts are also joined by their attention to the way that the
colonial experience complicates and rewrites trauma theory, thereby emphasizing
the severity, if not the peculiarity, of the colonial moment.
The use of "trauma" in this paper is based on the work of Cathy Caruth,
who describes the phenomenon as "an overwhelming experience of sudden or
catastrophic events in which the response to the event occurs in the often delayed,
uncontrolled repetitive appearance of hallucinations and other intrusive phe
nomena" (11). Caruth's definition identifies at least four important features of the
traumatic that deserve some elaboration. First, there must be a "traumatic event"
leading to a belated response. Caruth provides an example of a traumatic event
when she writes of "the experience of the soldier faced with sudden and massive
death around him ... who suffers this sight in a numbed state, only to relive it later
on in repeated nightmares, is a central and recurring image of trauma in our cen
tury" (11). The second feature can be found in both Caruth's definition of trauma
and her use of the soldier's experience to exemplify it. Notice that Caruth uses
the word "sudden" to underscore the shock that characterizes the traumatic event.
Thus, it cannot be just any event. In fact, as Caruth puts it, the traumatic event is
"the shocking and unexpected occurrence of an accident" (6). The shock factor
eliminates the expected and the unsurprising in the articulation of the traumatic.
The third characteristic of trauma is repetition of the traumatic event. The
repetition that marks trauma usually takes different forms, including hallucina
tions and dreams. Finally, Caruth's definition features what she calls an "often
delayed uncontrolled repetitive appearance..( 1 1 ) . The belatedness of traumatic
repetition and its uncontrollability are important for the subsequent reading of
Toundi's trauma. By "often delayed," Caruth refers to what Sigmund Freud has
described elsewhere as the "incubation period." In fact, the ostensible influence
of Freud's work on Caruth's justifies quoting him:

It may happen that someone gets away, apparently unharmed, from the spot
where he has suffered a shocking incident, for instance a train collision. In the
course of the following weeks, however, he develops a series of grave psychical
36 RESEARCH IN AFRICAN LITERATURES VOLUME 45 NUMBER4

and motor symptoms, which can be ascribed only to his shock or whatever else
happened at the time of the accident. He has developed a "traumatic neurosis."
This appears quite incomprehensive and is therefore a novel fact. The time that
elapsed between the accident and the first appearance of the symptoms is called
the "incubation period," a transparent allusion to the pathology of infectious
disease. (84)

This point is articulated in Moses and Monotheism, where Freud debunks Moses's
Jewish identity and argues that Moses was an Egyptian killed and replaced by a
Jew. This is not the place for the analysis of Freud's polemic, but of concern in this
passage is Freud's articulation of a time lag between the event and its compulsive
repetition. But as Caruth's use of "often delayed" suggests, there is a slim chance
of immediate occurrence of traumatic repetition. Yet, what Freud and Caruth after
him leave unstated is any specificity concerning trauma's incubation period. In
other words, is there a time limit for trauma's incubation period?
While Freud and Caruth leave these questions unanswered, scholars like
Marianne Hirsch have demonstrated the generational transferability of trauma.
She frames the intergenerational transfer of the traumas resulting from the Holo
caust as "postmemory." For Hirsch, this condition transfers the traumatic experi
ence of the Holocaust from the survivors to their children born after the tragedy
(243). Hirsch's work suggests the longevity of trauma and the ways it may survive
the demise of the victim. The implication of Hirsch's conclusion to the analysis of
colonial trauma in Africa is uncertain, but her work implies the need for paying
closer attention to the place of trauma in the analysis of the African colonial past
and its aftermath in the present.

THE TRAUMATIC POSSIBILITY OF OYONO'S HOUSEBOY

Early in Oyono's Houseboy, we follow the naive Toundi as he escapes his father's
physical abuses to live with Father Gilbert, the Catholic priest at the nearby mis
sion. It is worth emphasizing the ironic depiction of his happiness at leaving his
biological family to live with a priest who is described as "cheerful and pleasant"
and as his benefactor to whom Toundi owes everything. Father Gilbert lures the
"heathens" to his church partly by throwing sugar at them, thereby constructing
a narrative of kindness and sweetness around the church and the "civilization" it
represents. Even when Father Gilbert kicks Toundi for mimicking him in the sac
risty or pulls his ear, the young boy does not compare such violence to his father's,
as seen when Toundi describes his experience after a fight with another boy in
their struggle for Father Gilbert's sugar: "My father however was not a stranger
and I was well acquainted with what he could do with a stick. Whenever he went
for either my mother or me, it always took us a week to recover. I was a good way
from his stick. He swished it in the air and came towards me. I edged backwards"
(10). Ultimately, Toundi resists his father's disciplinary tactics and runs away to the
priest's residence for protection. Toundi is well received by the priest and refuses
his father's entreaties to return home:

In the afternoon my father came. All he said to me was that I was still his son,
the drop of his liquid and that he bore me no grudge. If I came home, everything
would be forgotten. I knew just how much trust I could put in a speech like this
CAjETAN N. IHEK.A 37

made in front of the white man. I put my tongue out at him. The look came into
his eye that always came when he was going to "teach me how to behave." But
I was not afraid while Father Gilbert was there. Father Gilbert's eyes seemed to
cast a spell over my father. He lowered his head and went out crestfallen. (13)

Toundi's comfort in the presence of the white man foregrounds the suffering and
abuse his traditional patriarchal society imposes on him and his mother. As such,
his mother endorses Toundi's retreat from his father's house even though she
herself remains in that abusive space. Despite giving her blessing, it is obvious
that Toundi's mother is not excited about her son's separation from her. In fact,
she cries about the development and laments the authoritarianism of Toundi's
dad. Toundi's mother displays maternal love in letting him go. Although her
tears reveal the emotional toll of her separation from her only son, she painfully
sanctions Toundi's departure because she considers it best for the boy under the
circumstances.
In Toundi's naive worldview, the Europeans serve as the antithesis to his
father's "wicked ways." As such, he feels comfortable enough to challenge his dad
in the priest's presence. Indeed, Toundi's disposition toward his father supports
Helen Harrison's observation that Toundi's "patricidal feelings are symptomatic of
ways in which the allure of the colonizers can disrupt and undermine traditional
structures" (926). In short, he continues to bask in the euphoria of living among the
Europeans until the death of Father Gilbert, when he is transferred to the service
of the resident commandant of the colonial machine. There, Toundi witnesses the
romantic intimacy of the Europeans at mass as well as the violence against Afri
cans, even as he becomes a victim of that violence at the hands of Father Gilbert
and the Resident Commissioner, both agents of the colonial machine: Christianity
and the military. These unexpected and therefore shocking incidents constitute
Toundi's traumatic events. They are shocking because of their unexpectedness.
Toundi sought refuge with the white man to escape his father's abuse, indicat
ing he trusted the civilizational ideology and believed it contrasted with the
patriarchal excesses of his biological family.
The first shocking event for Toundi is the romantic intimacy of the Europe
ans at mass. Toundi accompanies his boss and is shocked to witness the eroticism
infiltrating the liturgical celebration. According to Toundi, "Down at the front,
Gullet seizes his opportunity at the elevation of the Host to squeeze the hand
of his neighbor. Mme Salvain's legs move imperceptibly closer to the Comman
dant's" (34). The Commandant is intimately linked to Mme Salvain, the wife of the
school's headmaster, while Gullet uses the elevation of the host as an opportunity
to squeeze the hand of the plump girl beside him. Meanwhile, the doctor's wife is
incessantly distracted by her sensitivity to her colleagues' "holy romance." One
of the colonizer's justifications for colonization is the spiritual redemption of Afri
cans, who were considered barbaric and heathens. Within this colonial framework,
the Europeans in Oyono's novel are constructed as the redeemed group. This
perhaps explains why they leave the church before the sermon, while the Africans
are forced to listen to the priest's homily. Toundi tells us that he has to introduce
himself as the Commandant's houseboy before he is permitted to leave with his
boss. However, the ironic depiction of the erotic scene among the mass-goers at the
church contradicts the notion of the conscientious Christianity of the Europeans
38 a RESEARCH IN AFRICAN LITERATURES @ VOLUME 45 NUMBER4

in the same way that it is disturbing, at least, for a new convert like Toundi, who
must have been taught that the church is God's house and is to be treated rever
ently. Another Catholic teaching that Toundi must have been indoctrinated with
is transubstantiation, the moment when the bread and wine become the body and
blood of Christ at the utterance of the words of consecration by the priest. But as
the novel shows, the European mass-goers choose the most sacred moment of the
mass to intensify their sensual adventures with one another.
As shocking as the adulterous church scene might be for a young and naive
convert, it is the physical violence against his fellow Africans that is most unset
tling to Toundi. In the first exercise book, we see Janoupoulous, the organizer of
events at the European Club, setting off his dogs in pursuit of the Africans. It is
important to note that the Europeans are portrayed as taking pleasure in this
act, which is described by Toundi as Janoupoulous's "favorite sport" (26). Toundi
also witnesses a similar cruelty when the prison director tortures two Africans
for stealing. What is obvious from such acts is a betrayal by a "cultured" race. If
anything, deriving pleasure from inflicting pain on others is a marker of barbarism
and not civilization. But the so-called civilized race in Oyono's novel indulges in
such sadistic pleasures, to Toundi's wonder and consternation.
Caruth's formulation of trauma emphasizes suddenness/shock as a charac
teristic of the traumatic event. While one may argue that Toundi was already a
victim of violence in his traditional family, the expectedness of his father's violence
differentiates it from his experiences with the Europeans. In other words, Toundi
is familiar with his father's disciplinary tactics and the violence accompanying
them. In this way, this violence does not constitute the originary moment for his
trauma, as we recall him saying, "My father however was not a stranger and I
was well acquainted with what he could do with a stick. Whenever he went for
either my mother or me, it always took us a week to recover" (10). We can contrast
this statement with Toundi's reaction to the torture scene being supervised by
Moreau, the prison director. The tortured Africans were suspected of stealing from
Janopoulos, the hospitality manager:

I can't remember what I did when I got back to the Residence, I was so upset by
what I had seen. There are some things it is better never to see. Once you have
seen them, you can never stop living through them over and over again. I don't
think I shall ever forget what I have seen. I shall never forget that guttural, inhu
man cry from the smaller of the two suspects when Ndjangoula brought the butt
down on him with such force that even M. Moreau swore under his breath and
M. Janopoulos dropped his cigar. (77)

Toundi's reaction to the bestial scene is insightful for highlighting the trau
matic core of the novel. In fact, it is this same passage that Lilian Corti provides
in her discussion of Toundi as "an individual whose judgment is impaired by the
effects of traumatic abuse" (47):

This passage is remarkable, not only in telling the reader that the character is
"overwhelmed" but also in depicting the peculiar nature of his befuddlement. In
that he cannot remember what he actually did in the aftermath of this terrible
scene, the character seems to be experiencing the kind of emotional anesthesia
which Herman describes as a "constriction of the field of consciousness" that
keeps "painful memories split off from ordinary awareness." (47)
CAJETAN N. 1HEKA # 39

Corti's reading of this traumatic scene is apropos and supports my ongoing analy
sis, but she does not highlight what is shocking about this scene and, by extension,
what makes it traumatic. Corti's work does not acknowledge what differentiates
this scene from his father's disciplinary strictures. That there is a shocking effect to
this scene that is absent in Toundi's discussion of his father's familiar and expected
disciplinary terrain is crucial. Yet the violence of Toundi's traditional home life
is significant given that it is what motivated his journey to the world of the Euro
peans, the site of his traumas. If his father had not tried to beat the young Toundi
that night as he normally did, he would have remained in his father's house and
avoided the traumas he suffered at the hands of the Europeans.
Also, the notion of "living through them over and over again" is suggestive
of the repetition of the traumatic event that is at the heart of trauma as Caruth
defines it. With respect to Toundi's words above, we see a clear articulation of
what Freud calls a "fixation to traumas." For Freud, "the traumatic neurosis gives a
clear indication that a fixation to the moment of the traumatic accident lies at their
root" (Introductory Lectures 340). Freud's point is of importance in understanding
the unforgettability of the event for Toundi. By declaring his inability to forget,
Toundi is registering his fixation on that shattering experience and asking readers
to interpret the torture of the Africans as fundamental to his traumas.
Ultimately, Toundi himself is victim of the Europeans' violence and this
adds a layer to the trauma induced by his witnessing the torture of the Africans.
At least three moments in the novel bear witness to Toundi's abuse. The first is
when Father Gilbert kicks him in the sacristy for mimicking him; the other two
occur at the residence. The narrator notes that the Commandant's abuse begins
on Toundi's first day at the residence: "With that he shot out a kick to my shins
that sent me sprawling under the table. The Commandant's kick was even more
painful than the kick of the late father Gilbert" (22). It is significant that the Com
mandant begins abusing Toundi as soon as he arrives. Welcoming Toundi with a
kick foreshadows the abuse he will experience later in the novel. Later, the Com
mandant steps on Toundi's fingers on two occasions and Toundi refuses to cry in
these moments. By refusing to cry out, Toundi suggests the unspeakableness of
his pain while also demonstrating his defiance of his tormentors.
Yet while the novel demonstrates the events constituting Toundi's traumatic
events and suggests the possibility of traumatic repetition, we do not actually
witness the compulsive repetition that characterizes trauma. The period between
Toundi's traumatic events and his death can be read as the incubation period
of his trauma. To that end, the seeming absence of traumatic repetition can be
attributed to a period of latency. Viewed through this lens, we can surmise that
we would have witnessed the repetition of Toundi's traumas if he had lived lon
ger like Sancher, Conde's character in Crossing the Mangrove. Toundi's death from
colonial violence thus terminates the incubation period of his trauma and denies
the possibility of the manifestation of any form of compulsive repetition of, say,
the "guttural inhuman cry" of the smaller of the two suspects (77).
However, Oyono's Houseboy also shows how colonial trauma extends from
the individual to the larger community and two such moments are worth noting
here. The first occurs at the novel's beginning, when the French Cameroonian who
translates Toundi's diary visits the dying man. He is disturbed from the moment
he hears the ominous drumbeats and remains restless until his host agrees that
40 RESEARCH IN AFRICAN LITERATURES VOLUME 45 NUMBER4

they track the source of the beats. On reaching Toundi, he states, "I had never seen
a man die. There was a man before me, in pain, and I saw him utterly untransfig
ured by any glimmer of the after-life. He looked as if he might still summon the
stubborn energy not to go on the great journey" (3). Shortly afterwards he adds,
"He coughed. Blood ran out from between his lips. The boy who had come with us
put down his lamp beside the dying man. With a superhuman effort he struggled
to cover his eyes" (3).
At the point of Toundi's expiration, we can shift our attention to the impact
of violence on the community. The man's restlessness is indicative of the feeling
of fellowship and warmth among the people and is suggestive of the pain they
must have felt as Toundi lay dying. That this was the first time the man would
witness such an event also suggests a psychological disturbance brought about by
the pain of seeing a brother, in the sense of African extended relations, struggle
and succumb to death. The case of the little boy who carried the lamp is touch
ing as well, especially because of the exposure of his young mind to bloodshed
and brutalities of colonialism. Although he is not physically abused like the two
girls in Conde's text, his struggle to close his eyes demonstrates the overwhelm
ing force of the sight before him and suggests a lasting effect of the trauma. The
image of an overwhelmed boy also raises a critical question concerning the future
of this colonized society. If the young, which the boy symbolizes, are scarred by
the violence of colonialism, then a traumatic future needs to be considered in the
assessment of the development of his generation.
The response of Toundi's community to his victimization at the novel's end is
also remarkable for highlighting the impact of his traumas on them. After Toundi's
arrest and torture, he is brought to the house he shares with his sister and her
husband. As Toundi's tormentors search the place, the community laments his
arrest. Toundi states in the notebook, "The worst thing to bear was the women.
They gathered round my sister, wailing shrilly and tearing their hair. My sister
kept shouting that the whites were going to kill her brother, the only brother she
had in the world" (110). Toundi's arrest inflicts pain and mourning on his com
munity. Like in Conde's novel, it is the women who are most distraught by the
scene unfolding before them. For instance, Toundi's sister is pained and fears for
his impending death. In the absence of their father, who dies from heartbreak
after Toundi flees his home for the priest's residence, Toundi is the only sibling
and male figure she has, aside from her husband. Given the patriarchal nature of
her society, one can appreciate her pain at the looming end of her father's lineage.
For, if Toundi, the only son of her father, dies without bearing a son, it suggests a
great disruption in generational continuity. This understanding of the patriarchal
worldview of the novel and the threat to continuity implied in the loss of Toundi
are important if one is to fully appreciate the pain and suffering of the community.
In fact, Mendim, the policeman who tortures Toundi, captures this aptly when
he moans, "Poor Toundi. . . and all of us" (114). Mendim's emotional response, if
anything, shows that Toundi's suffering is intertwined with theirs and that we
cannot easily separate the two.
CA|ETAN N. 1HEKA * 41

TRAUMATIC COMPULSIVE REPETITION IN


CROSSING THE MANGROVE
Maryse Conde's Crossing the Mangroves engages with colonial violence, as does
Oyono's novel, and its attentiveness to the traumatic repetition missing in House-
boy deserves study. This paper's reading focuses on Sancher's past because it is
the least analyzed aspect in critical studies of the novel, even when it is helpful for
understanding his stay in Riviere au Sel. More specifically, this reading focuses
on the Angolan aspect of his travels because, beyond helping to understand the
flow of trauma in the novel, excavating his Angolan trajectory rescues this part of
his life that seems elided in the emphasis placed by scholars on his stay in Riviere
au Sel.
Sancher's interactions with Lucien are pivotal to uncovering his background
and journeys, just as the efforts of the man who visits the dying Toundi are cen
tral for accessing the narrative of the protagonist of Oyono's novel. Lucien is an
aspiring writer who obtained a Master's degree in classics from Paris. He has a
mutilated ear, a consequence of his participation in a protest in France. Yet, this
scar does not deter him from his pro-socialist ideological temperament when he
returns to Guadeloupe. He is keenly interested in Cuba and immerses himself in
Cuban films and other cultural productions from the socialist country. Lucien also
becomes the editor at "Radyo Kon Lambi in charge of the program Moun an tan
lontan (People of Yesteryear), in which he told the stories of the heroes, martyrs,
patriots, leaders, and major figures who had died naturally, or more often violently,
in their struggle to get the wretched of the earth to rise up and march" (180). It is
against this radical background that Lucien is intrigued to learn of a Cuban writer
in Riviere au Sel. At once, he becomes interested in meeting Francis Sancher.
Lucien arrives at Sancher's residence, introducing himself and his mission
to meet a Cuban writer, but he is informed by Sancher that he is not Cuban: "And
first of all, I'm not a Cuban. I was born in Colombia, in Medellin" (183). While this
information about his origin is important, considering that the reader could only
work with conjectures from community gossip before now, what is particularly
intriguing about Sancher's effort to break away from his past is his renunciation
of revolution and writing in that conversation:

You have knocked on the wrong door, my son. May I call you that? The person
you see standing in front of you can only tell of men and women whose lust
for life has been cut short. Just like that! No glorious struggle. I've never heard
the names of those you mention. I'm not what you think I am. I'm more or less
a zombie trying to capture with words the life that I'm about to lose. For me,
writing is the opposite of living. I confess to impotence. (183)

Sancher's response to Lucien's glorification of revolution and literature suggests


he carries a burden of the painful aspect of revolution, that is, "men and women
whose life has been cut short." In fact he denies that revolutions are glorious
struggles and this denial again seems tinged with the pain of an unpleasant
experience. Later, he tells Lucien that he "used to speak like that," that is, of the
liberatory power of literature and revolution. At least two questions come to mind
at this point: why is there this repudiation of revolution and literature? Why is
42 A RESEARCH IN AFRICAN LITERATURES 5 VOLUME 45 NUMBER 4

Sancher reluctant to speak about his past? The novel does not answer these ques
tions directly. More accurately, the novel complicates any simple answer to the
questions while simultaneously providing some clues.
The clues are provided during Lucien's second visit with Sancher. According
to the narrator, "[e]aten away by curiosity, Lucien had gone back to see Francis
Sancher to try and piece together the puzzle of his life." On this visit, Lucien asks,
"'So you were a military doctor?' In response, Francis declares, 'You could call it
that. You know when they started to be wary of me? When I started taking pity on
the Portuguese. I too used to think they were a bunch of bastards who had bled
the country white and deserved what they got'" (185). This dialogue provides the
first clue toward an understanding of Sancher's involvement in the Angolan war
as a military doctor. As usual, Conde's protagonist evades the question, but even
without an answer, the question confirms the location. Note that Lucien did not ask
him if he went to Angola, but says "when you were in Angola?" (188), which con
firms Sancher's presence in Angola at some point. It also buttresses his comment
to Sonny earlier in the novel about meeting Haitians in many places, including
the United States and Angola. If he was there at some point, started pitying the
Portuguese, and was a military doctor at that time, we can conclude that Sancher
fought in the Angolan war against the Portuguese. If this is so, why did he pity
the Portuguese who were supposed to be the enemy in this battle and who was
wary of Francis Sancher for his sympathy for the Portuguese? Like other colonial
conflicts in Africa, the Angolan war was very violent and both sides were guilty
of outrageous atrocities. Francis Sancher says to Lucien, "We knew death could
come from any direction, and we waited for it, philosophically" (187). These atroci
ties constitute the grounds for his sympathy for the Portuguese. As expected, the
Angolans would not take kindly to his sympathy for the enemy and, considering
that he is an outsider from the Americas, they are wont to suspect his motives and
be "wary" of him.
The atrocities from this war also constitute, at least, part of the traumatic
events for Sancher. Like Toundi, who expects a pleasant and comfortable stay
among the Europeans, Sancher has hitherto believed in the power of revolution
and literature. Recall his response to Lucien's speech extolling the virtues of lit
erature and revolution: "I used to speak like that." One can add that he actually
commits to the Angolan trip due to his belief in the glorious struggle of the revo
lution. In fact, Lucien's sentiment on revolution seems to echo Francis's prerevo
lutionary belief. However, all that seems to have changed since his participation
in that conflict.
Thus, his vulnerability and nightmares in Riviere au Sel are linkable to the
violence in Angola. It is true that Francis's multiple trajectories make it difficult to
unpack his character and that his crisscrossing (Colombia, Cuba, Angola, Zaire,
and Guadeloupe) is indicative of what Edouard Glissant has described as "trans-
versality" in reference to the question of identity in the Caribbean. For Glissant,
transversality is characterized by "cultural relationships ... this convergence that
frees us from uniformity" (66-67). Glissant proposes diversity as the synonym for
the notion of transversality: "Diversity, which is neither chaos nor sterility, means
the human spirit's striving for a cross-cultural relationship, without universalist
transcendence" (98). The idea of transversality or diversity resists the positing
CAJETAN N. IHEKA J* 43

of a pure or single identity in the Caribbean. It stresses, instead, mixing and the
notion of hybridity.
The fact that the reader's knowledge of Sancher comes from the different
characters after his death also complicates any effort to understand his trauma. Yet,
focusing on Sancher's experiences in Angola in this paper is significant for at least
three reasons. The first is that the description of these experiences reeks of trauma;
he is both a perpetrator of trauma and a victim of the Angolan war.2The second is
that awareness of his Angolan experiences is helpful for understanding the reliv
ing of his trauma and the trauma he inflicts on the community in Riviere au Sel.
As stated earlier, another reason this reading is important is because it emphasizes
a significant aspect of his trajectory that is less frequently discussed in existing
studies of the novel. Despite the inconsistencies that sometimes characterize the
narration from the different characters in the novel, Francis's presence in Angola
is never disputed; instead, it is corroborated not only by Lucien, but by Sonny and
Isaure, the prostitute who informs Astride that Sancher "said he had spent time
in Africa where he was doctor" (54).
Unlike Toundi, who dies before he can reenact his traumas, Francis Sancher
survives the physical violence, but his anxieties, as indicated by Moise, Vilma,
and Mira, show the compulsive repetition of his traumas. From the narrator's
monologue on the relationship between the deceased and Moise, his first friend
in the town, we learn that Sancher is overwhelmed and disturbed in his sleep by
some invisible spirits:

Francis Sancher was weak and whining, as scared as a new boy in a turbulent
schoolyard, like a newborn arriving in the world of the living. His sleep was not
filled with voyages to paradise but struggles with invisible sprits, who judging
from his shouts, stuck their red-hot irons into every corner of his soul. Moise
was not prepared to forget the first night they had slept under the same roof. (23)

On this particular night, Francis Sancher experiences what can be called a


compulsive repetition of his traumatic event:

He [Moise] first thought a neighbor had strangely chosen to slit his pig's throat
in the middle of the night. Then he had realized that the din was shaking the
wall behind the head of his bed and was therefore coming from the next room.
He had rushed in and found Francis, a crazed look in his eyes, shouting mean
ingless phrases:
"One can't even lie to one's own flesh and blood! One can't change sides! Swap
one role for another. Break the chain of misery. I've tried and you see, nothing's
changed. After all, it's only justice. If the sun rose on the other side of the world,
lighting first the West then the East, how would the world work? Perhaps it
would be like in the fairy tale where the flowers grow roots up, where man's
body grows warm only to grow cold and where speech is given to the wisest,
in other words the animals.... You, do you believe we are born the day we are
born? When we land up sticky ... well before that. Hardly have we swallowed
our first breath of air than we already have to account for every original sin,
every sin through deed and omission, every venial and mortal sin committed
by men and women who have long returned to dust, but leave their crimes intact
within us. I believed I could escape punishment! 1couldn't." (24)
44 RESEARCH IN AFRIC AN LITERATURES # VOLUME 45 NUMBER 4

First, Francis Sancher speaks of fate's inevitability. Next, he speaks of the


inequality between the East and the West and the implication for justice. It is
possible to read his commentary on the East-West dichotomy as a rationalization
of his participation in the revolution. If colonialism is Western domination of the
colonized, and is a conceptual category that demonstrates the power disequilib
rium between both groups, an anticolonial revolution like the Angolan war can
be read as an effort toward world justice. If so, participants like Francis Sancher
can be viewed as fighters for social justice and freedom. In this way, his rant can
be interpreted as a lamentation of one being wrongly punished. In other words, he
does not think he deserves the punishment he suffers, considering that his actions
in Angola are motivated by the quest for the emancipation of the colonized people.
Similarly, Mira and Vilma, the two girls impregnated by Francis Sancher,
express a concern similar to Moi'se's regarding Francis's anxieties. According to
Mira, in her narration of her first encounter with Sancher at the Gully, "I laid my
hands on his shoulder. He was shaking all over. 'What are you afraid of?' I asked.
'Of you of course. . ( 3 7 ) . Here again, Sancher exhibits vulnerability akin to what
the reader is presented with earlier. Mira's utterance suggests that Sancher is not
only disturbed at night but even during the day. Here is a full-grown man, visibly
shaken before a young girl to the extent that she notices his fear. Vilma, who is
pregnant with his child and cohabiting with him at the time of his death, expresses
a similar sentiment:

He gave me the smaller of the two bedrooms. For a whole week, I heard him
scream and struggle with invisible spirits, call for help and cry. .. .
But as soon as darkness fell, everything changed. He drew close to me as if I
could protect him.
Shaking, he would ask me:
"Can you hear him? Can you?" . ..
"Can you see him? Can you? He's standing there under the ebony tree. He's
waiting for me. He's counting the days." (158-59)

Together, Moise's, Mira's, and Vilma's accounts of Francis Sancher's anxieties and
vulnerability produce a credible narrative of a disturbed personality.
Francis Sancher retires to the sleepy town of Riviere au Sel to escape his past,
but as the nightmares and endless fear suggest, crossing the Atlantic away from
Africa does not obliterate that past. Sancher's final lamentation about being pun
ished ties into the theme of his failure to escape his past because his efforts have
not saved him from the consequences of these traumatic events. Recall that he asks
Vilma if she could see the person by the ebony tree even when they were alone.
The ghost that he sees can be read as symbolic of those who died in the bloodshed
of the Angolan war. Taken together, Francis Sancher's "punishment," to use his
term, is basically his acting out of the violence of the Angolan war in the form of
nightmares and other extreme anxieties.
The novel's engagement with the bloodshed in Angola comes to us in the
form of two abused girls and the deserted village Conde's protagonist encounters.
Earlier in the novel, Vilma renarrates Francis Sancher's encounter with a young
disabled girl in Balombo, a community in Angola. Sancher notes that, "[tjhere was
this young girl, this child, I should say, with her legs torn off, who at the height
C AJETAN N. 1HEKA 45

of her suffering kept repeating: 'Long live the Revolution!'" (160). Later, he tells
Lucien about the young girl he raped in a village they captured:

My finest memory, you know, was the time when we recaptured a village.
Exhausted, 1entered a compound thinking it was deserted. A girl, almost a child,
her breasts hardly showing, was huddled up on a mat. On seeing me, she uttered
a cry of fright. I can still smell her virgin blood in my nostrils. (188)

Of particular interest for this project are the girl's cry and the fact that Sancher
"can still smell her virgin blood." This is an aspect of war's atrocities that haunts
Francis Sancher. The fact that he can still smell the blood of the girl even when he
is far away from the atrocities suggests the persistence of the event and a similarity
to Toundi's statement that he will never forget the brutalities against the natives
by the colonial officers.
Taken as a whole, the violence against the two girls is symbolic of the larger
implications of colonial and revolutionary violence on communities, especially on
women and children. It is significant that the Balombo girl endorses the revolution
despite her life-altering injury. The case of the raped girl is even more significant
given that she is not a victim of the colonizer's assault, but of a soldier who should
be sympathetic to her people's cause. This scenario blurs the distinction between
the contending forces in the war; it portrays the abuses perpetrated by all sides of
the conflict. Worthy of note also is the fact that both victims are female and young,
thereby suggesting Conde's interest in highlighting the horrific impacts of such
violence on the most vulnerablewomen and children.
The communal wounding discussed in relation to Oyono's novel also finds
its parallel in Conde's. In other words, the violence against the girls also shows the
traumas of a people who continue to suffer from colonial violence. The war itself
is an outcome of colonialism, which dispossessed the people of their land and did
so violently. In both instances, the girls are alone, suggesting their separation from
their family and the traumas of displacement occasioned by war. Like the boy in
Oyono's novel, the ability of the girls to function fully in a post-war Angola will
be thwarted by their disabilitiesboth physical and psychological. In the case
of the incapacitated girl, she would have to live without her leg while her family
and community would have to adjust to her present circumstance. The raped girl
would also have to contend with not only the emotional aftermath of her abuse, but
also with the fact that a soldier who is supposed to be sympathetic to her cause is
responsible. Add this to the stigma of rape on the victim and family and we can get
a larger sense of communal wounding occasioned by colonial violence in Angola.
The severity of the colonial violence implicated here is responsible for Sanch-
er's failure to obliterate his past, despite relocating to Riviere au Sel, and his
inability to complete his book project. In fact, Sancher's book project is worth
discussing for its significance as a vehicle for working through trauma and for its
relation to Toundi's notebook in Oyono's Houseboy. This is how Sancher introduces
the project to Vilma:

You see, I am writing. Don't ask me what's the point of it. Besides, I'll never
finish this book because before I've even written the first line and known
what I'm going to put in the way of blood, laughter, tears, fears, and hope, well,
46 * RESEARCH IN AFRICAN LITERATURES VOLUME 45 NUMBER4

everything that makes a book a book and not a boring dissertation by a half-
cracked individual, I've already found the title: "Crossing the Mangrove." (158)

The title of Sancher's book is especially important for consideration because it is


the title of Conde's novel as well. Patrick ffrench argues that the title should not
"be seen as a technique of reflexivity, or a textual game, but rather as an allegori
cal reflection on the effect of the stranger on the community" (98). While ffrench's
interpretation of the title certainly supports his reading of the novel "as a text
exploring the issue of the community at multiple levels: narrative, thematic, and
political," we can also read the title as indicative of the rootless and multifaceted
nature of trauma in the postcolony (95). Writing of the mangroves in Conde's
novel, Mitsch points out that "it is precisely multiplicity that is so well conveyed
in the image of the mangrove with its multiple roots, multiple ramifications,
horizontalness, lateral linkages rather than vertical roots" (58).
The idea of horizontal multiplicities, which draws clearly from Gilles Del-
ueze and Felix Guattari's notion of the rhizome, can also be seen in relation to the
novel's trauma. In fact, Mitsch's claim that, "[l]ike the mangrove of the novel's title,
Francis Sancher's activities spread out in many directions, intersecting, crossing,
setting roots in the lives of many others" applies to the spread of traumas in the
novel (54). Although we are uncertain of the specific location of Sancher's birth
place, his highly possible Caribbean ancestry means he carries the generational
traumas of slavery and colonialism, which Hirsch calls "postmemory." Yet his
Angolan experiences, as seen above, both traumatize him and spread trauma to
the communities of the two young girlsthe incapacitated and the raped. Further
more, Sancher's appearance in Riviere au Sel and his activities in the community
demonstrate a transatlantic spread of trauma. Sancher is obviously traumatized
in this community, as shown in the signs of a troubled personality, hallucination,
etc., to which Moise, Mira, and Vilma testify.
Yet what further underscores its spread is the evidence of trauma he inflicts
on this community. As the community gathers for Sancher's funeral wake, several
of the people mourn not his death, but the fate of Mira and Vilma, the two girls that
he impregnated. Vilma, a child herself, is carrying Sancher's baby at the time of
his death and, as she wishes she were her "Indian grandmother who would have
followed him to the funeral pyre," we see the pain that Sancher inflicts on not just
her, but her family (161). Madamoiselle Leocadie's unease on finding Sancher's
corpse is worth considering for the grief that Sancher caused her. The narrator
states, "Mademoiselle Leocadie had never imagined that one day the Good Lord to
whom she prayed so devoutly, missing neither Vespers nor Rosary nor the month
of May, would send her such a cross to bear, such a tribulation at the end of her
old age" (4). Here, Leocadie is lamenting the difficulty of breaking such tragic
news to Vilma, who she describes as "this young thing, this child" (3). Astride is
still very upset at the fact that Sancher impregnated his sister, so much so that he
wished "his blood should have been made to flow and avenge my sister" (45). The
emphasis Astride places on Sancher's blood, even after the latter's death, helps
to show the depth of the wound inflicted on him by Sancher's treatment of his
sister. In other words, his submission that Sancher's death is not enough revenge
for impregnating her speaks to the pain and humiliation of his family. What these
examples show is the traumatic pain and the violent alteration of the community
CAJETAN N. IHEKA # 47

that Sancher's arrival imposes. We are left with no doubt that Sancher's peripatetic
crossings inflict trauma on him, even as they facilitated the spread of trauma in
the different directions he went. Yet a remarkable point is the novel's refusal to
privilege a particular source of trauma, which aggregates from different sources
and various locations in the world of Crossing the Mangrove.
While Caruth emphasizes a traumatic event as if it is always singular, Con-
de's and Oyono's novels suggest the plurality of traumatic event(s) in the colonial
situation and reinforce Amy Novak's idea that "exploring the intersection between
trauma discourse and neocolonial experience asks for a reconsideration of the
traumatic event not as exceptional but as frequent and widespread" (38). In the
analysis of Oyono's novel, I identified some traumatic moments for him and his
larger community. On the other hand, the trajectory of Sancher tracked above sug
gests the multidirectional flow of trauma that resists privileging a particular event.
Together, these examples suggest that the colonial encounter is mired in violence.
To speak of one traumatic event in the colonial universe of these novels is, therefore,
an understatement. To fully grasp the tragedy that was colonial violence in these
texts is to recognize the multiplicities of traumatic events during the period. In this
way, the image of an interlinked mangrove, with its absence of a single root, aptly
captures the multiple sources of colonial trauma, as well as the multidirectional
flow of them, and exposes the impossibility of healing that Conde's text portrays.
These two novels challenge trauma theory and expose its limits for the
colonial situation. Both texts suggest that the theory needs to address traumatic
eventsnotice the emphasis on the pluralnot only for the neocolonial experi
ence, as Novak argues, but also to grapple with colonialism, especially, in Africa
as well. The other question these texts raise for colonial trauma concerns traumatic
survival and healing. According to Lori Laub, a psychotherapist and holocaust
survivor, "None find peace in silence, even when it is their choice to remain
silent" (64). Likewise, Richard Kearney argues that "[o]ne of the most enduring
functions of narrative is catharsis. From the ancient Greeks to the present day, the
healing powers of storytelling have been recognized and even revered" (51). Laura
Murphy's reading of Ayi Kwei Armah's Fragments as a traumatic reenactment of
slavery contends that Baako, the novel's protagonist, "is able to relieve some of his
pain through writing about Ghana's p ast..." (64). What these critics underscore is
the usefulness of "speaking out," albeit in different forms, for traumatic healing.
Read in relation to the value of narratives that the works of Laub, Kearney,
and Murphy indicate, Toundi's diary, as well as Sancher's uncompleted book
and his dialogue with characters like Lucien, can be read as modes of speaking
out. Yet Toundi dies before we know if he will manifest any form of compulsive
repetition. His diary survives and brings us his story, but he, unfortunately, does
not. As Harrison has indicated, Toundi's "diary itself becomes a potential source
of nourishment. Through writing, Toundi reclaims power over his own existence,
over his own pleasures and pain. At the same time, he provides testimony against
the society that has killed him" (932). There is a redemptive tonality to Harrison's
explication of the diary that evokes Kearney's analysis of the cathartic potential
of traumatic narratives. Nonetheless, Toundi's death complicates the reclamatory
power of such narratives. While the narrative survives him and can be produc
tively read as a testimony against colonial oppression, as Harrison argues, and
while we read the narrative and perhaps derive healing from its testimony, it is
48 RESEARCH IN AFRICAN LITERATURES VOLUME 45 NUMBER 4

noteworthy that Toundi is not saved. Similarly, even Sancher, who manifests ten
dencies indicative of compulsive repetition, does not survive despite his efforts.
In fact, his confession to Vilma that he will not complete the book suggests the
unspeakability of his traumas. Besides writing, Francis Sancher's relocation to
Rivere au Sel can also be read as a healing strategy, as he had expected a break
from his past by relocating to a different environment altogether. Yet, all his efforts
prove futile as he dies just as Toundi did.
The deaths of both characters suggest the impossibility of healing from
traum a in the postcolony. In Susan Najita's reading of John Dominis Holt's novel
Waimea Summer, she argues that the "inconclusive, unfinished ending [of the
autobiographical novel] also suggests the impossibility for full interpellation of
resistant, colonized subjectivity" (62). Further, Najita writes that, "[t]he truncated
story that Holt tells presents a radical alternative to the fetishized narrative of com
plete recuperation and recovery of a lost past, or even of the protagonist's healing
testimony of his experiences, which psychoanalysis tends to uphold as cure" (62).
Although Najita's work centers on the PacificHawaii to be precisethe colonial
framework invoked here makes her conclusion applicable to the African scenario.
What Najita's work and the novels under investigation here bring to the fore is
the degree of violence that constitutes colonialism, a validation of Fanon's claim
that studies in psychiatry have indicated the difficulty of curing colonial subjects,
and perhaps, the limitation of narratives as vehicles for healing and survival in
the postcolony (181).
This study of Houseboy and Crossing the Mangrove adds to the growing body
of criticism on colonial traum a as depicted in African cultural productions. Engag
ing the literary texts under study through traum a theory also gives evidence of
a productive interaction that shows the limits of a singular conception of trauma
for the colonial experience and a model for the use of so-called Western theories.
But the larger statement that both Oyono's and Conde's novels make is the felt
need to consider more seriously the place of colonial trauma and its residues in
the analysis of the African condition, past, present, and future. If the emphasis
has been on the physical, bodily implications of colonial violence, this reading
of the novels under consideration compels a rethinking of the psychological sig
nificance of such violence and its im prints on the continent today. Furthermore,
both texts clearly show the connection between Africa and its diaspora and invite
more consideration of their convergences, while not dim inishing their differences.

NOTES
1. These themes have been explored by other scholars, hence my focus on the
colonial traumas that the novel portrays. For a brilliant explication of the community
of Riviere au Sel in Conde's novel, see ffrench and Fulton. Fulton's essay is also insight
ful for its exploration of allegory in the text. For a treatment of space and the gender
dynamics of the text, also see Adesanmi
2. Zaire is mentioned as well in respect to Sancher's sojourn in Africa, but the
novel says little or nothing about his stay in Zaire to qualify it for analysis.
CAJETAN N. IHEK.A 49

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