31 October 2020

Djaïli Amadou Amal: Les Impatientes (2017 (in Cameroon)); repr. (in France) 2020

It's worth quoting the back page of this very powerful book – the first of this Cameroon author's to be published in France – and this is my translation of that page:

'Three women, three stories, three linked fates. This polyphonic novel traces the fate of the young Ramla, torn from her loved one to be married to Safira's husband, while Hindou, her sister, is forced to marry her cousin. Patience! That is the main piece of advice given to women by them by those around them, as it's unthinkable to go against the word of Allah. As the Peul proverb has it: 'At the end of patience is heaven.' But heaven can become a hell. How will these three women manage to free themselves?

'Forced marriage, marital rape, consensus and polygamy: this novel by Djaïli Amadou Amal breaks taboos by denouncing the female condition in the Sahel and gives us a staggering novel on the universal issue of the violence perpetrated on women.'

Munyal is a key word in the novel, which is based on Amal's experiences, and the word means 'patience', but as it's patience founded on violent coercion, suffering and mindless duty to the husband god, the title Les Impatientes takes on a whole other meaning to 'The Impatient women': disobedience, revolt, in fact rebellion.

Ramla comes from a large family, her father's four wives having given him thirty children. But she has always been different, viewed by her mother almost as a being from another planet: unlike the women around her, she was interested in study, wanted to have a profession, but was told to return to the 'real life', meaning lifelong subservience to men. She wants to marry Amidou, studying to be an engineer, she wanting to be a pharmacist, but... Hyatou, her uncle and the richest of the family, decrees that his biggest partner, Alhadji Issa, wants to marry her: Ramla isn't just her father's daughter, but a daughter of the extended family. Amidou is sent away and Ramla feels dead inside. She is forced, at the age of 17, to marry a man of 50, who has a co-wife, Safira, aged 35. 'How will these three women manage to free themselves?'. As regards Ramla, we don't know yet.

Formally, Les Impatientes resembles Mairie DNiaye's Trois Femmes Puissantes, and to some extent thematically too. Hindou is Ramla's sister, and they are both married on the same day. Hindou envies Ramla marrying the rich Alhadji Issa because she has to marry her cousin Moubarak, the son of her father's brother, an unemployable wastrel, an alcoholic, a chaser of women and a drug taker. Moubarak is also a violent rapist husband, but then he can almost escape with impunity for beating his impatient (meaning his disobedient) wife. Tacitly, the whole insane extended family (even the local doctor) has to agree that the male is always right. Until, that is, Moubarek is almost ready to kill Hindou for her 'impatience', in fact almost kills her, in spite of her futile attempts to escape the inescapable. 'How will these three women manage to free themselves?'. In Hindou's case, it seems to be via madness.

The third section of Les Impatientes comes from the words of Safira, for twenty years the only wife of Alhadji Issa, but now to be his co-wife as her husband has decided to marry a younger model: Ramla. Like many other co-wives in this devastating novel of familial insanity, Safira is jealous of the new intruder, jealous of her youth, of the fact that Ramla will make her a second-class wife, even though she in theory is to some extent in control of Raml baecause she knows the ropes and is (again to some extent) in charge. Insanity begets insanity and Safira's wholly understandable jealousy triumphs in the form of stealing a large amount of money from her husband (partly to pay for the 'skills' of witch doctors) getting people to falsely claim Ramla's adultery, etc. Alhadji discovers the theft which hardly makes a dent in his wealth, but he rashly repudiates both of his wives, and then relents. Safira learns that Ramla had no interest in him anyway, and Ramla is not long, on her (forced) return to Alhadji, to walk out on him with her computer on which she has been having contact with her brother, the friend of her (unrequited) lover Amidou. 'How will these three women manage to free themselves?'. In Safira's case, freedom is a long way away, as her husband is preparing for another wife. But as for Ramla, her forced marriage is now annulled, so she is truly free.

This novel made it to the Goncourt final in 2020 but is very highly unlikely to achieve final success: Hervé Le Tellier's L'Anomalie is the probable winner, although when the announcement will be is at the moment anyone's guess. Covid-19 rules, OK?

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