September 2013

Matt Hartman

fiction

The Shadow of Things to Come by Kossi Efoui, translated by Chris Turner

The Shadow of Things to Come is the story of a man surviving in an unnamed African nation. It follows him from childhood to a banal resistance to oppression to his flight from the country. It touches on the methods of control, the psychology of the oppressed, and the kinds of hope left for those who have no real chance of escape. And it speaks with such force and clarity that is cuts through the subject matter to speak about much more than exists in the novel's stark world.

Written by Togolese writer Kossi Efoui, now living in France after his own political resistance, The Shadow of Things to Come is being compared to Orwell by its own jacket description. It has good reason to -- both books carry the same interest in the abuse of language for political power, the control of memory, and the psychology of domination. But contemporary Africa is a much different place than Cold War England, and this is a very different book than 1984, if not in subject matter, then in spirit.

Efoui's writing is sharp and cutting, his characters given life through his sparse prose. He cuts the fat away from the novel and speaks all the more powerfully because of it, just as his narrator's meager existence somehow bubbles with life -- difficult and damaged, but there nonetheless -- in spite of the regime's abuses. ("The sole method of suicide that is worthy of respect is to live" is the book's epigraph.)

"There you have it, says the speaker, that's how you know what a childhood that wasn't without its troubles looks like," Efoui concludes an early chapter. But the troubles in question are the disappearance of a father to a work camp, the institutionalization of his mother, and a childhood lived with other abandoned children in the care of a concubine. Call it Efoui's Kafkan inheritance -- the novel smacks of hazy mystery, highlighting not (just) characters' inability to free themselves from oppression, but even to form convictions about their oppression. It's simply how life is: not without its troubles.

The narrator's father is eventually returned to him, but he is hollow and has lost the ability to speak. The conflict is not how to overthrow the regime, but how to go on living in its midst. It's a world where survivors have their pictures taken to be passed around in the hopes that someone will be able to tell them who they are. "How can you be surprised, then, says the speaker, if my face in the photo has the hollowed-out form of a mask turned inside-out?"

Today, in the era of the NSA and the distinction between war and "military actions," or between soldiers and "armed combatants," 1984 is often referred to for guidance because it elucidates the macro-picture of our world. But The Shadow of Things to Come does not speak to world systems. It builds its horror through stark visions of being unable to see oneself clearly and on the limited hope that one can find a way to be a person in spite of the injustices one faces. It is very much a work born in Africa, a work that gives a clear picture of our geopolitical system because it gives a personal picture.

"You have to imagine," Efoui writes, "what the heart of a man might feel if it had been separated from the sea by high walls and had heard the sound of waves his whole life without ever having seen the ocean; you have to imagine that man's breathing on the morning when the walls crumble away before his eyes." The brilliance of The Shadow of Things to Come is Efoui's ability to make you forget the look of the sea, to inhabit the barren world of the novel so that you can re-experience the simple beauties that the characters live on -- the warmth of the moon on a summer night, the simple joy of finding a book that speaks to you. Efoui's style is full of alienating beauty. His narrator refers to himself as "the speaker," distancing himself from the story not in the convoluted maze of postmodernism, but in the naked confrontation of high modernism.

Efoui brings to life what was drained from it for his characters. Unlike 1984, that novel of government systems and world orders, The Shadow of Things to Come instead looks at the human experience. Efoui opens a dialogue over power and politics by showing, with sobriety and force, what stops us from speaking. This novel is a powerful reflection on the world we live in, a vision that goes beyond truisms about tyranny and control and freedom and returns our gaze to the humans at the center of it all.

The Shadow of Things to Come by Kossi Efoui, translated by Chris Turner
Seagull Books
ISBN: 978-0857420992
168 pages