Dispatches: Shadows of Your Black Memory

By Geoff Wisner

Shadows of Your Black Memory is a rarity -- a novel from the tiny West African nation of Equatorial Guinea.

Of Africa’s three Guineas -- Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Equatorial Guinea -- Equatorial Guinea is the smallest at 28,000 square kilometers, about the size of Massachusetts. It is also the only Spanish-speaking country in sub-Saharan Africa. (Western Sahara in North Africa is also Spanish-speaking.)

The country comprises the mainland territory of Rio Muni along with several islands. The island of Bioko, formerly Fernando Po, was once notorious as a forced-labor colony and an extremely unhealthy spot. The explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton, posted there in 1861 as a British consul, said he felt "uncommonly suicidal" on his first night there, and remarked that the rain fell "as a sheet of solid water" from May to November.

Shadows of Your Black Memory is a sensual, impressionistic, seemingly autobiographical novel about a young boy growing up on the mainland of what was then the colony of Spanish Guinea. Much of it concerns his struggle between the conflicting demands of the Catholic priests who teach him and the traditional beliefs of his people.

Though the unnamed boy, whose story is narrated by his adult self, feels a vocation to the Catholic priesthood, he is also alive to the power of traditional ceremonies. His circumcision, at about six years old, is dramatically told, as is a later ceremony (at age thirteen) in which his head is anointed with the blood of a toucan.

You were happy, remember it, and the breeze began to dry the blood on your body, and the clots stuck to your hair and skin, making them feel extraordinarily heavy, and you learned to endure it all, not like them, and your eyes looked without seeing at the ecstasy-filled eyes of Tío Abeso who was receiving the inspiration of the four branches of the gigantic ekuk pointing toward the four directions. And as the morning became brighter, as the light won over the darkness, as it had always been and would continue to be, as illusion won over tedium, you were thinking of all those wonders, and despite your brief thirteen years, you were convinced that although you would one day cross the ocean and go beyond, you would always have the spirit of the tribe within you, the blood of the tribe, you would always hear the tribe whispering to you.

Published in 2007, Shadows of Your Black Memory is translated from the Spanish by Michael Ugarte. The translation reads smoothly and pungently, though the proofreading is spotty ("lightening" for "lightning," "break" for "brake," "chord" for "cord"). In his helpful endnotes, the translator comments on the author’s "intricate style" -- long cascading sentences that sometimes required additional punctuation -- and its shift from first to second person as the adult narrator’s perspective on his younger self changes.

He also mentions that Ndongo has written a sequel to this novel, Los poderes de la tempestad (Powers of the Tempest), that deals with the years of repression under the dictator Francisco Macías Nguema, who took over the country at independence in 1968.

As Robert Klitgaard wrote in Tropical Gangsters, "Africanists who calibrate such things rate Macías as worse than Uganda’s Idi Amin, worse than the Central African Republic’s Emperor Bokassa." A novel by Ndongo about what it was like to live under his regime would be well worth reading, and I hope it will be available in English before too long.


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