A novel by Anthony Burgess
It was November 29, 1879, a snowy day in Marseille, on France's Mediterranean coast. Forty year old Aime Victor Olivier (1840 - 1919) was setting forth on his first of five expeditions to West Africa, something he had been determined to do since his school boy days in Lyon. His beloved wife Rose insisted that he take along his stage costume for Mephistopheles. For the Negroes would love to see him act. Victor replied: "I'll throw it overboard. I'm going to Africa to become a king, not a buffoon!" (PART ONE). But he kept the costume and months later it would save his life in the highlands of Fouta Djallon, in today's Guinea-Conakry.
All this and much, much more is told in 2010's THE KING OF KAHEL by political exile from Guinea Tierno Monenembo. This splendid historical novel is New Yorker Nicholas Elliott's translation of Le Roi de Kahel, which won France's prestigious Prix Renaudot in 2008. The novel is freely but in scholarly wise based on the well documented life of pioneer French explorer of the future Guinea-Conakry, Aime Victor Olivier, later ennobled by the King of Portugal as the Viscount de Sanderval.
Probing the modern pre-history of his birthplace, biochemist and prolific writer Tierno Monenembo brings to life those lush Guinean Highlands that have been called "the Switzerland of West Africa" for their green mountains as well as "The Tibet of Africa" for their leaders' devout cultivation and preaching of Sufi Islam. His goal was to penetrate the empire of Fouta Djallon and make friends with its King of King, the Almami.
He came in peace among the ruling Fula tribesmen, offering more trade and a railroad to the coast. Olivier over the decades made himself the premier interpreter of Fulas to Europeans and vice versa. For himself we won official membership as a Fula tribesman and a 12 miles by 3 miles "Kingdom of Kahel" in a lovely valley of his own choosing. There he made history by raising West Africa's first standing army -- of 3,000 troops.
Olivier's personal goal was to dominate the tribes one by one peacefully and become the ruler of an empire extending east through the Sudan down south to the Limpopo River. He saw Africans as the predestined cultural and creative successors to the Romans and Greeks.
There was to be no coercion of African rulers, only agreements and covenants openly reached. This peaceful, empathetic method of cultural penetration Olivier preached to the deaf ears of French military and colonial officials. Conquest was their method, absolute obedience their goal. By the 1890s they had scattered the Fula powers of Fouta Djallon, and the French tricolor floated over an enlarged French West Africa.
On the basis of his books and explorations, Aime Victor Olivier was ennobled by the King of Portugal and made Viscount de Sanderval. He kept extensive notes, made maps and was closely observed and written about by his contemporaries: French, British, Portuguese and African. He lived. He loved. He put the future capital of Guinea, the island of Conakry, on the map. Today its presidential palace stands on land seized by the French from the Viscount of Sanderval.
THE KINGDOM OF KAHEL is an excellent historical-fictional jumping off point for readers who wish to start learning about French West Africa. I commend this historical novel warmly.
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