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African Writing Archives


Jarmo Pikkujamsa


Jarmo Pikkujamsa

Jarmo Pikkujamsa is a PhD Research Student in the Africa Department at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He holds a DEA in études littéraires francophones et comparées from Université Paris XIII (2003) and his research interests include contemporary African novel and migration, urbanisation and gender.



 Bridge Road - a mise en abyme by M. N'Dongo

Mamadou Mahmoud N’Dongo, who was born in 1970 in Senegal, is a writer and a film maker whose work has been enthusiastically received in France, where he lives. His short stories L’histoire du fauteuil qui s’amouracha d’une âme (1997), and L’errance de Sidiki Bâ (1999) and his recent novel Bridge Road (2006) demonstrate of a remarkable style both in his minimalist use of the French language and in his way of deconstructing the narrative form. His stories feature enigmatic and multiple voices that create realistic and yet out of the ordinary atmospheres, almost as if they were still pictures pulled off the cinema screen into books. As a result, his texts make an invigorating and even disturbing reading.

L’histoire du fauteuil qui s’amouracha d’une âme (“the story of the armchair that fell madly in love with a soul”), N’Dongo’s first collection of short stories, creates dreamlike, experimental and philosophical encounters with characters that abruptly enter the scene, and who leave just as quickly. For the lovers of unsolved suspense this is a highly gratifying effect, and it gives the opportunity to explore N’Dongo’s facetious storytelling skills. In addition to this, much darker undertones impose; for instance, the short story called Le festin de la hyène (“the hyena’s feast”) depicts the terrible strains of the human condition, witnessed and told by a child in extreme despair before death by starvation.

Tally, another short story, sets out to put the strength of tradition in its right place, a theme that clearly inspires N’Dongo throughout this collection. It encompasses the conflict between generations, be it Senegal or any African country, with the history of having been colonized once. In one particular case the conflict materialises through a dialogue between a young philosophy teacher named Cissoko, and an old man whom he picks up in his car in the night, and who is returning from exile to die in his home village. In their conversation the old man opposes to Cissoko’s appreciation of the emergence of the black intellectual as a pitiful mimicry of the white man, and argues that in the white man’s eyes you still remain “a Nigger” and that even the famous concept of négritude already by its name is “an insult.”

Cissoko: You certainly are African.

The passenger: I have not been to Africa for 66 years.

Cissoko : What were the reasons that made you leave our country ?

The passenger: The colonialism.

Cissoko: And what stopped you from coming back? 

The passenger: The postcolonialism.

N’Dongo’s next book, L’Errance de Sidiki Bâ, (“the wandering of Sidiki Bâ”) addresses that past in a much more direct manner. The book consists of pieces of memories and fragmented images in the form of diary notes, brought to life by a character called Sidiki Bâ, who could just as well be a tirailleur, a Senegalese combatant, who fought in the French military in the Second World War like so many West-Africans did under the French colonial rule in both World Wars. At the background for this book is N’Dongo’s astonishment of the schizophrenic aspect of the colonized that fights for the colonizer.

The flow of memories that Sidiki Bâ explores embody this schizophrenia and speaks of the terrors of war which - scholarly research on the colonial period apart - has been explored only indirectly and surprisingly little by other Senegalese writers. Of course Ousmane Sembene’s film Camp de Thiaroye (1988) [i] that was inspired by real historical events is unquestionably one of the landmarks on the topic. The film tells the story of returning tirailleurs who in 1944 end up in a transit camp in the outskirts of Dakar; the soldiers are waiting to be demobilized but instead become brutally massacred by the French colonial army. One of the characters in the film is allegorically called Pays, “country”, while his fellow comrades have named each other on the basis of their real countries of origin.

Pays has been so deeply affected by the atrocities of war that he has lost his mind and ability to speak. Now, with his memories drawn from behind the inscrutable curtain of soldiers like Pays, N’Dongo’s character Sidiki Bâ gives form to what has remained hidden and unsaid for a long time. The author calls Sidiki Bâ’s impressions strata, and these fragmented images from the past are actually drawn from testimonies of real combatants: many of N’Dongo’s family members took part in the war. The memory work in this book is extremely human in size: it gravitates towards small, often horrendously physical and nauseating trivia, surrounded by plenty of empty space. Sidiki Bâ is lost somewhere in between this emptiness and these distressingly detailed memories of the flesh carved in him. N’Dongo puts the reader at halt to digest images of war, violence, and suffering. Slowly, one by one:


An acrid stench caught my head.

My entire features turned into a convulsive mask.


The tree.

I rubbed my lips, and bit the bark.

I could not hold back my tears.



A famished body lifted another famished body, entangled together, a dancing couple.


Some children blew air into his direction, others held their breath.

The children roared of laughter: Helium eater! Helium eater! And the man, blissfully opening his jaws, clicking teeth as if he were eating the air, the atmosphere, the wind.

Bridge Road, N’Dongo’s first novel, brings out another form of violence in a very unusual way. The book has been acclaimed to have renewed the genre of roman noir and critics refer to similarities with Kateb Yacine or Borges in regard to his writing technique and his avant-garde approach. The novel builds on a series of events that come about little by little, without straightforward plot and through testimonials on tapes that the narrator is listening over and over again. As a reader you first keep asking: Who are all these people? What has happened? What is happening? The suspense holds on and the ever-growing web of characters slowly begin to reveal how the seemingly irrelevant details or remarks that they have immortalized on tape start to make a story or, rather, several inter-dependent stories, in which violence and extreme racial hatred both in Europe and the US prove to be the leitmotiv.

The novel unfolds fragments of the interior of thought of persons that have been in various ways in contact with extreme forms of racism. It constitutes a direct reference to the documentary film Sud (1999) by Chantal Akerman. [ii] This documentary was shot in Texas, where the murder of James Byrd, a black male lynched by three white males, took place in 1998. Akerman’s film traces how a murder can both mentally and physically become part of a landscape. Something similar has happened in Bridge Road, and the atrocity of the event, slowly revealed from the tapes that the narrator is listening, speaks not only about this one particular and sad racist crime but also about the continuity of horrendous violence across times. N’Dongo’s novel has a unique internal logic of its own that has its power drawn perhaps from his own experiences in film-making.

Ahmadou Kourouma once observed: African writers have no choice but to write experimental novels, because natural disasters and political turmoil force their lives to be experimental and so they must constantly improvise in order to survive.” [iii] In reaction to this, Lawrence M. Porter argued in his essay in 1993 that “Senegalese literature, in contrast, is relatively conventional and conservative in form even in recent times.” [iv] I would like to suggest that the literary scene that emerges from Senegal and among writers with Senegalese background has clearly been rejuvenated by N’Dongo’s work. Whatever the case has been earlier and whether in this case we accept the “experimental” by definition as something that deviates from the former national literary canon, Mamadou Mahmoud N’Dongo has indeed proved Porter’s claim wrong.

None of Mamadou Mahmoud N’Dongo’s work has been translated into English yet. Bridge Road has been translated into Italian. [v] His second novel “El Hadj” was published by Serpent à Plumes in August 2008.

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