Both of the recent novels that have won the Prix Renaudot (de facto a runner-up Prix Goncourt, awarded at the same time and place) winning novels I have read are written by West Africans and set in their native countries from which the authors were exiles, the Ivory Coast-born Ahmadou Kourouma’s Allah is Not Obliged, which won in 2000, and The King of Kahel by Guinea-born Thierno Saïdou Diallo (1947-), who writes under the name Tierno Monénnembo. Both are historical novels, Kourouma’s set in the recent past of civil wars in West Africa, Monénnembo’s in the era of exploration and colonization of the late-19th century.
Both have fever dreams and maneuver through multiple lethal dangers. The elderly, now deceased, Kourouma wrote in the first person of an uneducated child soldier. Monénnembo wrote in the third person, albeit with ready access to his interiority, of a French inventor and manufacturer and mayor with a vision of carrying the best of European civilization to the relatively temperate highlands of West Africa.
With no previous knowledge of the history and culture of what is now the Republic of Guinea (Conkray) in the nineteenth century and never having before heard of Victor Aimé Olivier, Vicomte de Sanderval (1840-1919), I have no idea how much of The King of Kahel is fiction. I assume that much of the subjectivity of the white inventor/businessman turned African adventurer is imagined, though Tierno had access to family archives and legends through Olivier’s grandson. I am dubious about the sexual subjectivity of the novel’s protagonist. It seems 21st-century rather than 19th-century to me.
As far as I can tell, the complicated itineraries, both within France, and from the French colony of Senegal into Fouta Djallon before and after it was conquered by French arms, hews closely to historical events and the intrigues among the Fulani kings (ranking below an almami) of Fouta Djallon (and one of the wives of one of the kings) are credible. There is a lot of movement across space and many, many characters in the book. Other than Olivier (he as made Viscount Sanderval by the king of Portugal), none is at all a rounded figure and I found it difficult to keep the names straight. Trying to anticipate the political fortunes of various other Fulani kings (Olivier became one, though the scale of the territories of the mutiple “kings” is that of what I would consider “principalities”) and the almami overlord(s) was a life-or-death problem for Olivier, both as a guest of Fulani and as a king of a highland “kingdom.” That is, not only his enterprise of building a railroad and civilization to highland/inland Guinea, but keeping his head from being chopped off depended on the micropolitics of Fulani kings and almamis.
The cost in recurrent nearly fatal sicknesses is very credible (and for this I have the example of a mentor who had been a missionary in West Africa who carried back more than a dozen different kinds of parasites to compare with Olivier’s maladies in the field before the discovery of antibiotics). So is the ultimate failure of what Olivier advocated: “Know them rather than fight them.” Olivier was accepted by the Fulani, learning their language and working within the cultural mores, but French colonialists insisted on war and conquest… and direct rule, costly as that approach was in both French and Fulani casualties.
Olivier was more successful in Fulani politics than in French geopolitics. Though honored as an explorer and explicator of the Fulani, his advice was rejected and colonial rule was imposed. The novel shows this happening to the dismay of Olivier. It seems he was better able to understand the ways of the Fulani than of the French governments (royal and republican). The road not taken, of working with rather than conquering and dominating the Fulani, was a tragic failure, and Olivier was banned from returning to his second home on the Kahel plateau by the colonial regime.
Thierno Saïdou Diallo was exiled from Guinea for political dissidence (criticizing the long-running dictatorship of Ahmed Sékou Touré), earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and taught that in French universities for some years. He has published eight novels in French. The only one previously available in English was the novella The Oldest Orphan (2001 in French, 2004 in English) set in Rwanda. His acclaimed 1995 novel set in Brazil, Pelourinho, awaits translation.
So does the most recent Prix Renaudot-winner Un roman français by Frédéric Beigbeder, The best-known recent Prix Renaudot-winner saw Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky. The most canonical title to have received the prize is Voyage au bout de la nuit (Voyage to the End of the Night) by Louis-Ferdinand Céline.