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The Seven Solitudes of Lorsa Lopez*

Novel by Sony Labou Tansi

Annie Gagiano

The Seven Solitudes of Lorsa Lopez

Originally published in French as Les Sept Solitudes de Lorsa Lopez (1985), this slim novel is that unusual combination - a daringly irreverent and inventive piece of writing that has become one of the Europhone classics of our continent. It is almost impossible to describe, or at least to typecast, this text - political satire, inspirational feminism, philosophical insights, cultural celebration, tales of passion and murder mysteries all jostle and intertwine in its mere 130 pages.

The plot is utterly bewildering (though somewhat more accessible at a second reading) - because new characters are constantly being introduced, because social and political realism intertwine with magic realism and insoluble (natural and unnatural) mysteries, and because Tansi manages to make his reader feel as if s/he ought to know what the many unrecognisable cultural and historical reference are alluding to. The man called Lorsa Lopez, for instance, towards whom the title seems to point us, plays an extremely peripheral and largely symbolic role in the "story", while it is only very late in the novel that we are allowed to discover that the (up to that point) anonymous narrator is female, is named Gracia and is one of the three granddaughters of Estina Bronzario (or "the Woman of Bronze"), the main and most forceful character in the narrative.

The author, Sony Labou Tansi (b 1947), died of AIDS in 1995 in the Congo (formerly Zaïre), where he had always lived. His activities included teaching English at tertiary level, employment in the Ministry of Culture, the writing of poetry, novels and plays, and directing a Congolese theatre troupe. In Europe, France and Francophone countries outside his own, his work was very highly rated, but political pressure in his native Zaïre/Congo rated his output ideologically "suspect". His political activism led to his passport being withdrawn.

Perhaps the main theme of the novel is the sense of the postcolonial state as a zone of political as well as cultural muddle: inefficiency, corruption, power abuse, cultural predation and domination are all very real and impinge constantly on the existence of the community (a largely distinct cultural and social entity) of Valancia, the largely evacuated and raped remains of a coastal city, due to what is sarcastically called "recapitalisation" - ie removal of the capital (and of power as well as monuments, wealth and people) to another centre: a process which has supposedly occurred seven times! Most of those in the old town are cowed and apathetic, but there are pockets of strong and principled resistance - especially among the women, who are led by Estina Bronzario, the feisty champion of women and of local culture.

Tansi's analysis is razor sharp for all the zany surreal extravaganzas that his text contains - he never sentimentalises the inhabitants of Valancia and its surrounding areas (which include several strange islands, as this region lies along the coast) merely because they are the people who are being bureaucratically and politically bullied, exploited and neglected. They are shown to have plenty of scoundrels and villains (and weaklings!) of their own and to have contributed in considerable measure to their own problems. Nevertheless, the author gives an immensely convincing portrayal of a bustling, vital community - nominally Catholic Christian, but with numerous ancient, enduring and scrupulously maintained rituals and customs of their own; tolerant of their bumbling and hopelessly hamstrung mayor and judge, but fiercely loyal to their own people and antipathetic towards the despised inlanders and meat-eaters of the Muslim capital (Nsanga-Norda).

The style shifts in a moment from the hilariously comic to the movingly melancholic to the spectacularly violent, or to combinations of these effects. For all its unpredictable and seemingly haphazard shifts in perspective, the novel is very finely managed or composed, tonally, and is a most elegant piece of writing.

Here is one of the passages where the setting is described from the perspective of Estina Bronzario:

She stopped for a moment to draw breath, turning round to gaze at the sea and at her daughter, Valancia: Jesus Island, the lagoon, the mission, the railway station, Baltayonsa, the Bayou quarter, the town centre, the Plazia de la Poudra, the Malsayo cliffs zigzagging into the sea and trailing small islands of all shapes in their wake, the lake with the shining silhouettes of its hippopotamuses, the old harbour with the carcasses of its wharfs, the menhirs and, beyond the menhirs, the burial islands, with the Island of the Angel showering its red water over a skewer of rocky loaves, all steeped in the millennial dream of a scrap of sky that seemed to dip its clouds into the water. Sea, sky and rock: they're the heart of us people of the Coast. Estina Bronzario felt a pang of anguish: one day she'd leave and join the rocks and the sea, and Valancia would remain Valancia, with its innumerable islands, its great-bellied rocks, its grandeur and its peace. She looked up at the sun, already so high and so brave in the sky, which had always dreamed the same dream as we did. (55)

Estina Bronzario has earned her nickname for her bronze hard toughness of mind and courageous spirit. She is also a descendant of the oldest family and a priestess-like cultural leader. We see her taking a leading, initiating role in encounters with a number of prominent male figures - for instance, the government notary from Nsanga-Norda who goes to her "wearing a … smile, which he had prepared too long in advance" (3) and whose offer of mayorship of the new capital she contemptuously rejects. One of her most important interventions is her insistence on honouring the memory of a beautiful, unfaithful woman who is barbarically murdered by her husband (the Lorsa Lopez of the title), because she recognises that failure to protect and assist the victim of the killing makes of it a communal crime. There is a strong feminist thread in her thinking (one that is central to this male-authored novel as a whole), but it is a nuanced and localised feminism rather than an ideological import. As he is killing his helpless wife, Lorsa Lopez does claim that "it's all the fault of the whites" that "the women of this town have started playing at being men" (11), but it is clear that Estina Bronzario needed no one to instruct her in the need for female assertiveness. Nevertheless Estina Bronzario is taught a thing or two here by a charismatic travelling theatre troupe director (with umpteen wives) who settles in Valancia (and who will eventually become her staunchest ally, admirer and friend) - Sarngata Nola. When Estina Bronzario attempts to force him to "free" his wives, he castigates her for jumping to conclusions and insists that by marrying them, he bestowed both freedom to decide and self-respect on women who were otherwise doomed to the miserable slavery of prostitution for survival. Like her, he reveres the vagina, calling it "the will of God in flesh and water" - he tells her that he married his many wives because he "can't bear the sight of women fucking for cash"; in his view the vagina is "the road all people must take to freedom, honour and dignity" and is not to be treated as if it were "a Coca-Cola can or minced meat". What he wanted these women to realise also, he says, is that "the penis isn't an instrument of terror … but out third eye" (38). The beautiful, angry lyricism of this tirade reconciles these two people to each other's viewpoints. Estina Bronzario becomes stronger for relinquishing an overly doctrinaire position, and gains a powerful friend and occasional protector.

In turn, she in her dignity and in the integrity of her position and person softens the heart of the dreadfully frightening and brutal emissary sent by the state from Nsanga-Norda to get rid of her. He confesses eventually that he is unable to kill her and cannot bear the thought of being haunted by guilt at the thought of her death. For his pains (and as he expected), he is put to death in her place (delaying her eventual murder by many years); his corpse is sent to her as a macabre gift in a box - a dreadful illustration of state terrorism taking vengeance on a resistance leader. Tansi never bamboozles his readers with a political fairytale in which the heroic necessarily triumph, or have an easy time.

Not that the women in this community aren't themselves dangerous, destructive and even murderous: it is strongly suggested, for instance, that it is Estina Bronzario and her henchwomen who are responsible for the mafia-style murder of the town butcher, whose dismembered body is deposited in his own deepfreeze with the legend "Women are also men" placed between his grinning, dead teeth. His "crime" was to express disrespect towards women. Nevertheless one gets a strong sense that an author whose dedication (as in this text) ends on the words, "And may women now fight/ with weapons other than/ those of the female woman" prefers Estina Bronzario-style activism to female promiscuity or sexual humiliation of men by women (as "vengeance" on male chauvinism, infidelity or lust). Tansi's introductory description of his heroine also suggests this:

Wearing her mother-of-pearl smile, Estina Bronzario bore her august bronze stature from the kitchens to the sewing rooms, an ageing but still beautiful princess, endowed with that beauty which takes a lot of cooking and which lifts the lid of age, beautiful in gesture and voice, the collapse of her features belied by the ultimate achievement of that perfect harmony which is a blend of strength of feeling and obstinacy of spirit. And every part of her body was a tender reminder of the time when she used to dance the Nsanga-Norda rumpus and enfold men in the many delights of her flesh. "A woman full of vitamins, that Estina Bronzario", people said of her. (6)

This woman's female strength is really neither feminist nor feminine - midway into the text, when she's well aware that the powers that be are intent on having her put to death, she proclaims with fierce pride that even after her murder "the three words that have guided [her] life, … that ought to be the motto of our wounded world - openness, solidarity, tolerance - will grow on [her] grave like conch grass" (66).

When Estina Bronzario is eventually found murdered, her corpse mutilated in an obviously deliberate gesture of humiliation, despair settles on Valancia - the faces of all the inhabitants are described as "swimming in sorrow, overcome by impotence and shame. By anger, too. But by that anger which has no clear object and comes over you when you have it in for God as well. Mother!" (99). The barbarous deed demoralises everyone, it seems.

It is at this point that the infidelity of Gracia's (the narrator's) husband is revealed and where the textual focus shifts from the more public-spirited presence of her now dead grandmother to the narrator's own love-melancholy and despair.

Gracia decides to go to the capital Nsanga-Norda, seen as "enemy territory" by her family and townspeople, in an act that they interpret as a betrayal - but which is merely an expression of her despair at loss of love. Her husband begs for forgiveness, but her hope and love-faith have died. This is no woman of bronze, but a sensitive, broken-spirited young woman, and her story is a sort of coda to the past greatness of her ancestress and culture. She arrives by train at the place where Nsanga-Norda should have been, only to find that the city has been entirely swallowed by the sea, a resurgent ocean in which her husband subsequently throws himself to drown.

The final section of the text is imbued with cynicism and despair. The erasure of the oppressive presence of Nsanga-Norda registers no triumph; a sort of fatalism prevails. The "original" murderer, Lorsa Lopez, returns to acknowledge that his was a love-crime. Since the authorities from the capital will now never arrive to judge and punish his crime, "[he'll] have to wait for the Good Lord to judge [his] crime" (129) - probably a far more dreadful punishment. The great bastion and castle that Sarngata Nola built to protect Estina Bronzario now seems like a "stone monster" in the narrator's eyes - an "arrogant, incestuous construction", for she recognises that "always and everywhere, man has played at laying stones on top of stones, to hide the wound of his fragility" (125).

The most moving words in the text, however, and the comment with the most haunting, lingering effect on the reader, is one of the last things said by Estina Bronzario, particularly to Sarngata Nola and her other intimates: "Man only has words to say what even words can't say … He only has words to help him to live" (93).

A feminist novel? A political novel? This text is either and both, but it also transcends those and other smaller categorisations. It wonderfully combines understanding of human (especially but not exclusively) sexual and social relationships with a bitterly astute reading of the ways in which love relationships and politics mirror and parallel one another.

* The text was translated from the original French by Clive Wake

LitNet: 12 July 2005

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