Sunday, April 19, 2015

Ségou II: De verkruimelde aarde - Maryse Condé

Ségou II: De verkruimelde aarde is the second part of the duology Maryse Condé wrote about the city of Ségou in present day Mali. Like the first part, which I reviewed earlier this year, I read it in Dutch translation. The original is in French and appeared under the title Ségou: La Terre en miette. It has been translated in English as well under the title Children of Segu but that edition appears to be long out of print. The second part is generally considered to be the lesser of the two. I tend to agree with that. Although I did enjoy this reread, some repetition works its way into the narrative. That being said, it does a very good job of showing the reader the developments that affect the city.

The second book covers the period from the fall of Ségou to the Toucouleur Empire of El Hadj Omar Tall in 1861 to the arrival of the French in 1890. It again follows the lives of the sons of the Traoré family, who spend lot of time outside the city. The book is essentially divided in four sections. The first deals with the life of Mohammed, who lost a leg in the war against the Toucouleur and desperately tries to reconcile his religious convictions and the goals of El Hadj Omar with his Bamambara heritage. The second section covers the story of Olubunmi, who worked for the French and knows what is in store for the city. The third section deals with the journey of Samuel. Raised by his devoutly Christian father and educated by the English, he decides to seek out his Trelawny ancestors on his mother's side of the family and gets caught up in the Morant Bay Rebellion on Jamaica. The final part of the novel is seen from the point of view of Omar, son of Mohammed, who is trying to understand the father he never knew and end up trying to start a jihad against the French. More than enough material for drama in other words.

There is an element of repetition in these novels. The Traoré men are often idealistic, with grand plans to change the direction of the city of Ségou, the Bambara people or even the continent. They inevitably clash hard with the realities of the world around them and end up disillusioned or dead. Sometimes both. Where in the first novel, fate carried the Traorés all over the world, the characters in this one are more likely to make their own choices. The outcome of these choices are usually not much better than the lives forced upon the four sons of Dousika in the first novel.

The main characters spend relatively little time in the city of Ségou. In fact, most of the main characters are somewhat estranged from their Bambara roots. Mohammed for instance, feels he should be a good Muslim first, and despises his people for the mixture of Islam and traditional beliefs that is practiced in the family. Where the family as a whole, seems to manage a balance, he cannot and it gets him in a lot of trouble. It is a conflict his son Omar will relive to an extent a generation later.

Samuel is even more cut of from Ségou. He has a very poor relationship with his father and that influences his decision to leave for Jamaica. His grandmother was part of the Maroons. Escaped slaves who resisted the British and managed to establish a free community in the 1700s. While the British did not defeat them, they did manage to get them to agree to hunt other escaped slaves for them. Samuel is severely disillusioned when he sees what has become of the people who he considered heroes. It is one of the many examples in the novels of how dealing with white people, one way or another, always ends in disaster for the black characters.

The relationship between Africa and its diaspora is a theme that shows up in many of Condé's novels and it is very prominent in this particular storyline. In the previous novel it was the descendants of Naba who show the problematic relationship between the slaves and their descendants and the Africans who remained on the continent. Samuel shows us another side of this. Because of his education and upbringing, the blacks on Jamaica tease him by wondering how he can be a white man even if he is from Africa. Condé drives how the dramatic consequences of their displacement and the loss of their cultural roots home thoroughly in this book.

Another tragedy that is well represented in this novel is the way in which the colonizing powers manage to control vast stretches of the continent with minimal resources and manpower by exploiting the internal divisions among the local population. Omar's slogan, 'we are one' (against the French) mostly falls on deaf ears or is considered a somewhat controversial interpretation of a sura in the koran. The Bambara try to get rid of Toucouleur rule by enlisting the help of the French, the result of which is the establishment of French rule. While the white men seem to be unable to tell one black person from another, they know how to exploit the differences. The sheer racism and disregard of local culture, traditions and economies and even human life is staggering even to a people who have experienced a jihad a generation before. Condé may well have spared us the worst by ending her tale in 1890.

Once again the women in this book suffer even more than the men. Their men, caught up in wars, religious conflicts and political games do not precisely make life easy for them and neither the Bambara traditions nor Islam treats them kindly. Under the French things would not improve either. Whichever way they turn, they are at the mercy of men who, while not always uncaring, see them as little more than possessions or in some cases distractions from their attempts at living a devoutly religious life. Condé chooses to tell her story almost entirely from male points of view. I can't help but wonder how this novel would have turned out with a bit more sections form a female perspective.

Where we started the tale with a proud, independent nation, over the course of two books we see the city of Ségou decline ever further. Their absorptions into French Sudan seems inescapable. What little hope remains in this book can be found in the roots of the extended Traoré family. It is a family who have weathered all storms for almost a century. Despite religious disputes and all manner of conflict, they have managed to keep that in tact at least. Condé leaves us with a profound sense of loss at the end of the novel, where one of the charters muses on the state of the city and how he is going to lead the family though this. Although the continuing downward spiral in both books suggest an answer, it is up to the reader to decide whether or not to go along with that. Whichever way you choose to look at it, Ségou is a remarkable piece of historical fiction.

Book Details 
Title: Ségou II: De verkruimelde aarde  
Author: Maryse Condé
Publisher: Rainbow Pocket
Pages: 550  
Year: 1990
Language: Dutch
Translation: Edith Klapwijk
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 90-6766-086-8
First published: 1985

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