As we continue our deep dive into the lost realm of African literature, we have now arrived at postcolonial literature. If all roads diverged in Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel “Things Fall Apart,” then the separation of perspectives in Boubacar Boris Diop’s “Murambi: The Book of Bones” may best suggest just the direction the continent was taking literature as the new millennium dawned.
Beginning in the ‘70s, literature and history were not only examined for the words on their pages but were also studied for the lens they chose to tell their stories.
Since so many works were told by “the oppressors” or with a cultural slant, the choice of a protagonist’s point of view could completely alter a book’s interpretation.
The next question under scrutiny was the representation of anyone who was non-European. As far back as Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” there were cultural implications that could be troublesome, like portraying the people in the work as “exotic” or even worse: a sinister, unknown “other.”
Boubacar Boris Diop was a Senegalese journalist. His account of the horrific 1994 Rwanda massacre remains his best-known work and a shining example of African postcolonial literature. A novelist, teacher and playwright, Diop seemed to view history from multiple points of view.
“Murambi: The Book of Bones,” for example, is told from multiple perspectives. Even if you do not know the basic conflict between the rival tribes (Hutu, Tutsi and Twa), you get everything you need to know from the context. Diop is never explicit about where each character is coming from, leaving you to follow clues as the characters discuss the same events and intersperse small details.
What is even more fascinating is how many of the characters are subjected to some manner of conflict or disagreement within their own families. For some, the family is a source of solitude, and you can feel how tightly they are bound to it despite the rapidly unfolding chaos. Other characters, however, inadvertently show you how they learned their hatred or doubt from the actions and inactions of their family members.
Once the terrible, catalytic political event takes place, you finally get the most unique perspective of all through a novelist writing about it. Like Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart,” the act of seeing the changes in the community upon a character’s return makes you, as reader, never see an outright oppressor, other or savage.
“Murambi: The Book of Bones” is largely about where cultures cross and how the implications of tradition push some forward while holding others back. Conflict within the characters and between the characters results from a faraway action, which is then brought chillingly close to the reader.
There is a lot to read and re-read as it works on many different levels. Given this terrible slice of history, it would be easy to turn a blind eye to it. Once you open your eyes and change your perspective to those of these many characters, however, the experience is not easily forgotten.
Mik Davis is record store manager at T-Bones Records & Cafe.