In a historical novel carried by a griot language entitled “There are no rainbows in paradise”, the Swiss and Chadian author Nétonon Noël Ndjékéry recounts seven generations of the slave trade to the present day.
Zeïtoun is a teenager captured somewhere in present-day Chad, or not far away, by slave traders. He joins a caravan of absolute horror, to sell himself in the Arab world. It was the end of the 19th century: in a context of French colonization and wars between local emirs, the slave trade in the East was in full swing. Zeïtoun manages to escape. He is welcomed, between life and death, by Tomasta, a mysterious ulema, accompanied by Yasmina, a young Yemeni woman. It soon turns out that all of them are, according to their own routes, runaway slaves.
Together they will build a utopian community on an island in the immense Lake Chad. A luminous and candid utopia, even childish. The island: the only possible place to build a world safe from the violence of the world. But also a closed place: throughout seven generations, utopia will end up cowering, and in turn suffering the blows of History, with its great axe, in the words of Perec. The book closes with the return of pure and simple slavery, practiced by radical Islam in our time.
A book full of life.
“There are no rainbows in the sky” is an important and ambitious book. It is at the same time a historical novel, a family saga, a novel with drawers and a tangle of stories. Because the language of Nétonon Noël Ndjékéry is that of the story, that of a griot.
Impregnated with orality and vivid fantasy, he never strays from his colours, his flowery brilliance, his humor as well, his spirit, even in evoking the atrocious. As if the choice of unexpected epithets or the surprising and playful association of contrasting linguistic levels were necessary to tell these stories, and to read them, without giving in to being overwhelmed. Suddenly nothing depressing or resounding, in this spirited book, where compassion itself willingly takes the form of humor.
As soon as the sun’s rays stopped forcing the lice to live hell on the scalps, the breaking of the camp was announced to the sound of the umbaia. The orders began to flutter in the wind again, the whippersnappers to whistle through the air. And the caravan, surrounded by its cloud of spinning mosquitoes, began to move again.
Noël Nétonon Ndjékéry has lived in Switzerland for forty years, but was born in Moundou, Chad, in a wooded savannah region. Before the microphone, he says that when he was little, the children who went to play in the mountains were told to be careful with wild animals, snakes and slavers. That he himself knew fugitives, who had escaped caravans and human trafficking. And that among his youthful comrades, there are some who still today use a ritual scarification called “the seal of Rabah” named after a slave sultan of the 19th century: in the regions where he was rampant, we continue after his death to carve his mark on the cheeks of children to protect themselves from a return, a reincarnation of this terrifying character.
history of a legacy
It is therefore the arc of a long-term story that this book evokes, and of which the author bears an indirect memory, an inheritance. We learn a lot there, and we will meet, in the stories of the characters, prominent historical figures from the region, from Chad in particular: Rabah, precisely; Hissène Habré (reincarnation of Rabah?), long protected by France, convicted of crimes against humanity and died of Covid in captivity in Dakar in August 2021. Gabriel Lisette, embodiment of Chad’s dream of independence, betrayed when the ideal he embodies is confiscated by the very people he had helped to gain power.
We also meet an avatar of the author’s father, an African rifleman wounded at Monte Cassino in 1944, when he tried to liberate Europe from Nazism under the orders of a pink-skinned racist officer.
In the appendix at the end of the volume (superbly edited by Editions Hélice Hélas), a fascinating chronology compares events in the Chad Basin, in the rest of Africa, and in the rest of the world. It confirms the historical and documentary dimension of the work, and lends itself to edifying meditations.
We did not leave the inn.
The novel itself ends in 2015 with a very real Boko Haram suicide attack. The author’s fantasy makes us marry the thoughts of one of the members of the command. He is none other than the descendant of Yasmina and Zeitoun, those magical teenagers who had made us believe, some 300 pages earlier, in a new dawn of humanity. The cycle of slavery never seems to end. Nétonon Noël Ndjékéry recalls that in 2017 CNN published images of the auction of black slaves in Libya. And he just blurts out, “We haven’t left the inn.”
Nétonon Noël Ndjékéry, “There are no rainbows in paradise”, Hélice Hélas 2022.
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