The Unreal World of Power
A Review of The Shameful State Sony Labou Tansi, trans. Dominic Thomas, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2016 by Sanya Osha
In The Shameful State, Sony Labou Tansi charts how farcical and chimerical twists related to power play upon the disfigured face of postcolonial Africa. Africa’s fate was not decreed solely by the numerous despots who have stymied her potential. Rather it was drawn by the colonial forces that treated her as a mere object to be toyed with, and exploited at will. We are now left to cope with the myriad internal distortions and dysfunction created in the wake of a mostly bitter colonial legacy.
Labou Tansi, in his novel, focuses on the nature of state power which in Africa is often forcefully privatized in order to stifle dissent and opposition. The ruler’s ultimate aim is to be President-for-Life, an ambition that invariably courts violent death and enormous collateral damage. The state, then, can be seen as some sort of succubus ingesting both the ruler and the ruled. The ruler is merely a temporary custodian of its unpredictable and often uncontrollable paroxysms which by virtue of their nature are meant to wreak unsystematic expenditure, exhausting the resources of both the state and the nation.
Labou Tansi shows us how both governors and the governed are enslaved by this apparently ceaseless dynamic of internal combustion. Rulers are intoxicated and rendered quite insane by seizures experienced by the state and become almost helpless spectacles before equally hapless, servile subjects who in their genuflection unsettle the limits of state power. In their possession are weapons fashioned by humor, ridicule and the carnivalesque which are able to reduce rulers to mere puppets of power for public amusement.
Power in the Foucauldian sense recognizes no one and is only confined to limits solely prescribed by it. And so those who seek to possess it indefinitely as if it were a tangible thing, do so at their own peril.
In the first few pages of Labou Tansi’s novel, authority figures immediately display themselves as pathetic slaves of their physical urges and orgies of power. They are as such emptied of character and substance by virtue of the fact that they have been turned inside out by a force larger than themselves.
The conviviality of power, as we know, is both thoroughly corruptible and corrupting. There is also a grandly theatrical dimension to its dynamic. In a hybridized postcolonial setting – common in Africa, parts of Asia and Latin America in the era of dictators – the exercise of power has a strong theatrical element that binds rulers and their spectators in captivating performances and rituals. Indeed the excessive ritualization of power, the pomp and ceremony involved in its enactment and maintenance are even more awe-inspiring than the actual effects of power and nothing else. This mutual dependency between the ruler and the ruled extends and strengthens a syndrome of abuse from which it is difficult to escape.
Labou Tansi’s tone is farcical, reflecting perhaps the futility of it all. Also, because of the sheer perversity of aberrant forms of political power, the actual details of their sordidness might be too hard to bear. So perhaps a deliberate light-hearted tone might best convey how power utterly corrupts everything within its reach. Even the scandalous is conveyed with generous doses of humor; “He starts telling the story of how that pig Oxbanso, on the very day I appointed him Minister of Imports, tried to sleep with National Mom” (p. 11).
The dictator, Colonel Martillimi Lopez, tries to keep everyone under his spell by installing loudspeakers even in remote villages blaring out his dull speeches:
I ask Colonel Minister of Borders to install loudspeakers in every district, and to make sure they’re all functioning properly while my hernia is at work, because it would be utterly shameful for a people not to listen to their president’s speeches; make sure they’re installed, Carvanso, and blasting so that they can hear me as they mount their wives, curse me and plot against me, as they insult me; at least make sure they can still hear me and let my voice deflower them, if they won’t love me at least they can hear me, know me, smell me (p.12).
Sometimes, it is unbearably heavy to have to observe how relatively powerless subjects are abused by power simply being itself; that is, power in its dormant state.
There is something ineffably humiliating and dehumanizing about having to watch power merely preening itself like a shameless peacock: “He stuck his hand back into his pants and unconsciously sniffed his fingers openly and for the whole crowd to see, come closer my girl: my dear sweet girl, in the name of the revolution, in the name of the fatherland, in the name of all our mothers…” (p. 17). And perhaps when this gets too obscene, masses the world over have been compelled to hurl stones and various missiles in revolt against symbols and representatives of power.
Those who understood the corruptibility of power formulated the doctrine of separation of powers and the private/public distinction. A lack of distinction in power relations is exhibited when one of the dictator’s cronies complains: “…Mr. President, it’s so shameful: my wife is sleeping with some infantryman called Tannanso Hussoto, please, National Colonel, do something to get me out of this shameful situation!” (p.55) to which the ruler responds, “all right then, I’ll have his rival executed, it’s ugly, real ugly…” (p. 56). In Labou Tansi’s universe, no such doctrines exist and hence the visage of power is vilely marked by a Hobbesian state of nature where as the saying goes, anything goes.
Apart from the random violence generated by state power, its custodians are also held in thrall by their sexual urges. Invariably, every state event is an opportunity to display and be intoxicated by sexuality, with the National Mom, mother of the dictator, being included. In this respect, power is devoid of limits and this also applies to its orgiastic deluges. Tabou Lansi is preoccupied with illustrating its ravages. It makes one wonder what was his own relationship with power?
He started off as a school teacher, then a professor of English, government official and finally parliamentarian. This career progression reveals something about that curious relationship. It would have been more appealing had he kept mainstream political circles at bay to retain his independence. In concentrating on recounting the degrading escapades of Colonel Lopez, Labou Tansi focuses on the upper echelons of the sociopolitical structure which from a revolutionary perspective might be – even if inadvertently – stoking the egos of the powerful to the detriment of the largely disenfranchised masses. And so what might the silence of the masses mean if not the worthlessness of the entire situation? Or more succinctly, might it imply infinite nihilism?
Nonetheless these are the sort of vistas one is forced to contemplate. Once I had read the last few pages of the novel, I was glad to have escaped the unreal world of power, which is in fact, more like a prison-house that infects everything with madness; a madness that stings even more because those unfortunate to be trapped within its confines appear to be blithely unaware of it.
Unaccountable and irresponsible power is undoubtedly a source of tragedy but in Labou Tansi’s almost breathless handling, its extreme bloatedness becomes a source of unending ridicule. Tragedy and farce become natural bedfellows because it is the only way the former can be truly credible. Tragic hues stem from instances of mass murder and acts of incredible mutilation such as the multiple hacking off of tongues. Such unbearable scenes of carnage and torture can only work in literary terms when they are bathed with evanescence and lightness so as not to simply crush the spirit.
Labou Tansi seems less concerned about creating fully fledged characters. Instead what we are presented with are more like puppets formed by, and duly serving, the corrosive whims of power. As such, those figures are unlikable. Power, too, is demonstrated to be unalloyed evil.
The incontinence of power directly mirrors sexual promiscuity at the highest levels of the state or what Labou Tansi calls the “indiscretions of the hernia” (p.22). And the established creed of the powerful is “live by herniated balls and die by herniated balls” (p.22). Labou Tansi has a penchant for the startling and grotesque as when a character similar to one from Donald Goines’s work is graphically depicted in death; “Her corpse even crapped a big hot turd” (p.23).
The first ladies of the nation are great betrayers of the nation’s first pair of herniated balls; they betray them with commoners such as cooks or mere street musicians. Once when cuckolded, the dictator cuts open his spouse’s belly to get to her unborn child. His subjects pray he doesn’t return from one of his military campaigns against insurgents bent on seizing power so that virgins for once may be safe. The sexism here, is extreme; “What’s the deal with this guy, he’s dumber than a woman’s backside” (p.28). A rape scene is thus described: “He couldn’t believe his eyes. Mother of Mom: man has become a butcher. I can see that it’s her, but what on earth have you done to her? Where there had once been skin he now saw bone, and where’s all the flesh gone? He saw bones where there had once been breasts, where’s all the flesh gone? Instead of a vagina all he could see was a big blue gaping hole” (p. 75).
There is also present in the novel the constant symbol of the phallus as the be all of existence; it is the source of life, primal energy, power, domination and death. Sometimes this perception seems a trifle too rigid. It also enforces a narrow masculinist and unexpectedly immamentalist notion that reason is an illusion while all that matters are the dark uncontrollable rhythms of corporeality.
The female, in relation to the rampant and uncritical deification of the phallus as the central symbol of existence, is merely there as a transparent or by turn opaque object for mechanical male desire. The sexual act is devoid of emotion and intimacy and is conditioned and underpinned by latent violence and brutality. Such an unsubtle view of sexuality surely belongs to the Dark Ages of ribaldry and notions of male supremacy. Labou Tani’s avant garde reputation on this account can be seriously questioned, as he would seem more of a sexual conservative.
There is an over-sexualization of the exercise of power and everyday life, the overall effect of which is negative by virtue of its excess. Beyond this limitless expenditure, life seems unimaginable, accentuating the tragic and farcical elements of Labou Tansi’s unusual vision.
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The supreme dictator is one and the same with the state – as in the decadent final days of the French monarchy before the revolution – and he commandeers its material resources for unjustifiable private use: “He instructed the Minister of Dough to give National Mom three hundred and twelve million for the catering and to set aside the same amount again for the wedding attire and consorts” (p. 24). His sense of entitlement knows no bounds; all women are there for his taking and to do his bidding. A man of God complains about being compelled to officiate a forced wedding: “Mr. President, I can’t bless this union, not with this girl who’s crying when she should be smiling. The Church would be ashamed, our Lord would die a second time of shame. Because, Mr. President, Christ is watching me and I can’t go pounding shit into the scars left by the nails; I can’t give him piss instead of water” (p.31). But the dictator finds out he cannot permanently banish revolt and disagreement when his latest spouse hangs herself. In yet another unguarded moment of hubris, he cries out, “they are anti-people: kill the whole bloody lot of them!” (p.37).
Another striking feature in the world of power Labou Tansi portrays is a marked lack of civility. The supreme commander does not have a shred of respect for anything and no one including his mother, the National Mom. Apart from the usual tumults of violence that engulf the land, language and public discourse are completely perverted and it is almost impossible to retrieve an iota of decorum from them. Labou Tansi is relentless in conjuring scene after scene of personal and collective degradation and he pursues this by a deft and uniform unmooring of language, metaphor and imagery.
Even the fawning language of sycophancy that caresses the leader and shields him from reality is part of a more generalized corruption of language. The subjugated citizenry seek to ensure their safety from insane power by constantly licking the leader’s “big fat greasy acetylene-drenched herniated balls” (p.40) like a “bunch of grovelers” (p.50) whom he in turn cretinizes.
His graft and corruption attain obscene proportions and all decisions pertaining to state interests and expenditure are made by him on a whim. There is nothing like due process or collective responsibility in “this country of mayhem upon mayhem” (p.50). Just as the state and its ruler are hamstrung by madness, the latter’s mind is plagued by myriad superstitions and by those who brazenly peddle them.
While the dictator and his cronies only think of inflicting the sexual compulsions on a prostrate populace, by the same token, they devise stratagems for policing the sexualities of their subjects in terms of extorting brothels and those engaged in same-sex relations as “sex is the state apparatus” (p.58). The boldness and consistently with which Labou Tansi explores this point of view is both remarkable and unique in African literature.
With such high levels of collective madness prevailing, paranoia also pervades everything in which extraordinary motives are attributed to the most mundane occurrences. There is paranoia lurking before and in the wake of every attempted coup plot; there is paranoia enshrouding relations with spouses and mistresses; there is paranoia involved in the ordinarily simple act of partaking in a meal.
There are also copious references to excrement and defecation in relation to Colonel Lopez. Obviously, Labou Tansi is employing crap as a metaphor for the obscenity and vacuity of power and its grotesquely disfigured custodians. Indeed Labou Tansi demonstrates at every turn that obscenity is the main hallmark of power, crudely and constantly squeezed through an unvarying vocabulary of defecation; a world filled with the vilest bodily odors from which there can be no respite except perhaps through violent and sudden death.
It is an utterly degraded image of power that Labou Tansi illustrates; insufferably self-serving and self-indulgent with no consideration whatsoever for the common good. This aspect merely increases its inherent nihilism and megalomania. In a similar vein, apart from the egotistic understanding that Labou Tansi addresses, power in that context is consistently deployed to undermine the nation. By its violent spasms and unpredictable eruptions, it seeks to destroy the ethics and fabric of community. This is probably the most incisive insight to be gained from its multiple forms of devastation. The self-intoxications of power are meant to accomplish one purpose only; its indefinite prolongation at the expense of all else. It is this brutal lack of disregard for anything outside itself that underscores the irreversibility of its negative dialectic. It must extend its life span while simultaneously destroying life itself. The singularity of this paradoxical movement is quite striking. Just as it is filled with untold viciousness and brutality, it is also marked by disconcerting obtuseness. And just as it is characterized by almost limitless arrogance, it is also fenced by diabolical cunning. The quixotic nature of this combination of features is detrimental to both the powerful and the powerless.
Labou Tansi’s depictions of power in an imaginary African setting are uncannily accurate. The reality of the “strong man” as an omnipresent figure on the African political landscape cannot be denied. Idi Amin’s brutal regime in Uganda; Mobutu Sese Seko of what used to be Zaire, and currently Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe ( president since 1980); Yoweri Museveni of Uganda who has just controversially won a fifth term in power; Paul Kagame of Rwanda, in power since the 1994 genocide and who has changed the constitution to enable him stay in office until 1934; and Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi whose extension of his presidential term has caused death and destruction, are the type of leaders The Shameful State addresses. The tragedy is that these leaders seem to believe that they are indispensable and that their conduct is honorable rather than shameful.
In the final pages of the novel, there are passages that wax philosophical and which grant a slightly deeper cast to the earlier farcical proceedings. Labou Tansi ponders, if Africans had been slaughtered en mass to attain liberation, why must their heroes now lose their lives needlessly on the altar of freedom? How is such a cruel volte face justifiable? And so it is pertinent not to “turn freedom into some kind of fool’s trap” (p.92). And while this important political assertion stands as a direct indictment of tyranny, Labou Tansi is at the same time affirming an artistic freedom that roams unrestrainedly from the very first page of the novel to the last.
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Sanya Osha is a philosopher, novelist and poet living in Pretoria, South Africa. His most recent publications include the novels, An Underground Colony of Summer Bees (2012), and On a Sad Weather-Beaten Couch, the volume of poetry, A Troubadour’s Thread (2013), and the work of scholarship, African Postcolonial Modernity: Informal Subjectivities and the Democratic Consensus (2014). He works at the Institute for Economic Research on Innovation, Tshwane University of Technology, Pretoria.