Vol. XXIX , #3 Dalkey Archive Annual 3
With Michal Ajvaz, Heimrad Bäcker, Jon Fosse, Jacques Jouet, Stig Sæterbakken, Lars Svendsen, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Dumitru Tsepeneag
Review of Contemporary Fiction
In the United States of Africa, by Abdourahman A. Waberi
Reviewed by James Crossley
Trans. David and Nicole Ball. Foreword Percival Everett. University of Nebraska Press, 2009. 134 pp. Paper: $19.95.
Before the page count of In the United States of Africa reaches double digits, the Djibouti-born Francophone author Abdourahman A. Waberi has mocked down any number of intellectual castles, particularly those built by Westerners writing about his native continent. His alternate-reality Africa is a unified federation and an economic powerhouse, spreading its culture and politics across the globe and serving as a haven for wretched refugees from uncivilized regions. He explains why one illegal immigrant has washed up in Eritrea: "The clown suit called Switzerland has been subjected to ethnic and linguistic warfare for centuries and centuries. . . . Hatreds, resentments, and dialects clash in contagious cacophony, not to mention that two-thirds of the country—snow white—is barren and uninhabitable. The north, peopled by German or Swiss-German speaking people of the Lutheran persuasion, is a bit richer than the south, a region of peasants speaking French, Italian, or Romansh, all Catholics. . . . No wonder they gleefully bump each other off every three years for a dubious word, an inappropriate accent, or an occupied mountain pasture." It's the offhanded way Waberi goes about his satire that makes his critique as devastating as it is; he doesn’t belabor the scenario, he casually inverts cultural references (not Fay Wray’s King Kong but Miriam Makeba’s, not Courbet’s The Origin of the World but Gustavio Mbembe’s) and twists the thoughtless rhetoric that’s been used so often to flatten and homogenize Africa in literature. There’s self-criticism on offer, too. His heroine Malaïka is an adopted Parisienne, an artist upset and inspired by living in a luxurious capitalist society that exists at the expense of the pale-skinned multitudes abroad. She’s a modern-day Gulliver, and each chapter of her interior and exterior voyage is a glittering facet of this small jewel of a novel.