Between the Naked Water and the Flower of the Iroko: A book review of My Country Tonight by Josué Guébo

Guébo’s verse in My Country, Tonight (Mon Pays Ce Soir) often refers to the Iroko, a tree that withstands brush-fire and cannot be razed, because of its deep and study roots. Iroko: the name of the tree is also the name of a guardian-deity, or ancestor-spirit worshiped in West-African traditional religions — the native religions that Guébo insists have been betrayed by “the daughter of the Church,” the missionary Christianity that prepared his and other African lands for colonialism.

My Country, Tonight reads as an exegesis, a physical, psychological, and spiritual exploration and exorcism in poems. Patriot Guébo confronts his countrymen’s eagerness to sell their country and their hopes for freedom. Todd Fredson, the translator, seems committed to Guébo’s verse and politics, and to the Ivoirean cause and to the third world as envisioned by the poet. This is a commitment that implies many risks, for the poet’s third-worldist vision is at odds with international financial and legal institutions, and at odds with “progressive opinion” in the West regarding Africa (“liberal guilt’’ and its politically correct catharsis notwithstanding.)

In an interview with the Ivoire online mag Reseau Ivoire, [1] Guébo explained his way of writing as closely linked to orality (despite use of French and literary influence of French poetry.) There is a strong sense of internal rhythm, riff after riff shouting off the page, prophetic talk-song of varying cadence and emotion.

Guébo’s political views would, should make Westerners uncomfortable to the point of intellectual provocation. My Country Tonight contains here and there a hint at Picasso’s Guernica, where Guébo tries to make a painting (the French uses the word gouache, translated by Todd Fredson as ‘’pigments’’) of the catastrophe of the city under attack,
“Authoritarian jets
Of oil
And the thick pigment
Of the nightmare
Procession inside
The open artery of the city ‘’ (p. 9)

Here is a historically shocking bridge between jets bombing the open artery of Guébo’s home, and the attack in Guernica, of enduring infamy thanks to Picasso’s painting. Guébo tries to paint his own Guernica of Abidjan, under the soaring fleet of “authoritarian jets of oil’: these seem a counter-mirror across time, air-forces now attacking Ivory Coast, destroying “the innocent stalks’’ of flowers of his country.

Betrayals of the colonized, divided against each other; the willingness to sell motherland, soil, oil, and resources to alien interests of foreign dominion, to L’eau Nu (“The Naked Water,” his code-word for the United Nations): none of these are specific to Ivory Coast. Sadly, those dramas are universal for the Third World, and perhaps not unique to any repository of “third world’’ literary curiosities. The treason of those willing to sell motherland and memory has formed a central theme in many recent European literatures, as well as in older Elizabethan and even Greek tragedies, depicting the intrigues of those conquered.

Many of Guébo’s poems confront how the colonized harbor within them one of the greatest obstacles towards liberation from conquest. They choose “glass jewelry/in the marketplace of counterfeits’’ (p. 62–63), over freedom, their country “dreams
Of Irons at its feet.”

Such enemies of freedom obtain far more fire from Guébo than he directs towards the European oppressor. Clearly, the poet judges European presence as being self-deluded in having changed its relation to its subjects: “its right of veto/ as straight/ as the tower of Pisa.”

Unlike Kenyan author Ngugi Wa Thiong’o — an author with similar post-independence themes who pens his literary brainchildren first in Gikuyu, then self-translates into English — the West-African Guébo, in his fiery embrace of Francophonie, appears to strive for universalism, and for his Francophone poetry to be read and recited in Algiers, in Tunisia, in France, and the Caribbean where his patriotic song resonates beyond Ivory Coast’s captivity.

In stark contrast to the “ivory tower’’ of many Western political poets, Guébo has described his country as one where “childhoods are barefoot.” Now, thanks to Todd Fredson’s standing barefoot in “l’eau nu,’” the naked water, while translating the poet into English, Guébo’s project can thankfully also break past Francophone barriers and be read in English-speaking territories — hopefully not specifically in the West, but also closer to his Coast.

Perhaps it is good for Western readers to be disturbed and provoked in entirely different ways, both in art and in politics. Guébo has eschewed typical identity politics as a discourse (and curse) prevalent among academics in Western communities, such as in his prose-poem article “Je ne suis Noir’’ “I am not a black’’ (published recently in the Ivoirean zine [2], a piece lamentably still untranslated by Fredson) where Guébo mocks those who differentiate between the impact of the words “Nègre’’ and ‘’Noir.” Guébo decants the black-white dichotomies of identity as an alien concept inserted by colonialism (along with the similarly dichotomous Christian world-view, brought by the serpentine ‘’daughter of the church’’) into the African and third world discussions. An Ivoirean patriot and griot, surely, yet his song deigns towards universality and for all lands, perhaps a ‘’general song’’ for countries under occupation during the 21st century, from Africa to occupied Haiti and beyond. His is the politics of third world progress that insists on memory, of countries whose movements want nationalized economies, sovereignty, the end of the Western militarist yolk. Guébo’s politics is a position entirely adverse to that of the international humanitarian agencies who collude in the occupation. His views differ starkly from expatriate writers and journalists reporting from Abidjan. Western solidarity with third world insurrection is today regarded as a relic of the 1970s, as the Left in first world societies typically favored military interventions during the Obama years. Fredson is willing to take the leap, risking to become such a relic, and his rarity raises his value. It is of dire necessity to have more of such high-quality translations from Francophone and French-African writers into English. The relatively recent death of Charles Guenther (translator of Francophones such as Senegal’s Leopold Sédar Senghor and Uruguay’s Jules Laforgue) left a steep void needing to be filled, the prompter the better.

Yet Fredson makes one mistake: leaving out literary context of Guébo in the foreword, focusing only on the economic and legal intrigues that befall the dominated country. Never in his confrontation with the current, post-modern face of the occupier does Guébo fall into the trap of adopting the counter-poetical, anti-poetic funk that is the language of the NGO culture or of UN diplomats. Fortunate indeed, that a poet refuses to name, let alone sound like Ban Ki Moon!

Fredson’s translation reads as an accompanying fight, a struggle in itself, imitative of the one it studies, attentive to the patriotic-prophetic French poems like a boxing shadow.
My Country Tonight offers a prophetic lament, at times rhythmical aggression in verse, a J’accuse (and whereas Emile Zola’s J’accuse sought to condemn false accusations by the French press sentencing the falsely-accused colonel Dreyfus to the Guyanas colonies for high treason, Guébo hunts down the true culprits of national high treason with moral indignation and jeremiad.) These are poems of the public prophet, whose anger towards the betrayal and infidelities against the land are bitter fruit of a love for the land and nation, a love as deeply rooted and ineradicable as Guébo’s Iroko.

Fredson translates with a total dedication and “literalist’’ adhesion to the original text. The translator’s rigor is admirable, even if at times the tone and musicality of the French original text is subdued in transmission, though elsewhere reemerges victorious in the translation of My Country Tonight. If Guébo’s text is the mirror held up by a patriot to the Ivory Coast, in language fed by the arsenal inherited from “orality” and oral tradition as well as emerging from Francophone poetry and modern French surrealism, then Fredson’s translation reads as an accompanying fight, a struggle in itself, imitative of the one it studies, attenuated to the patriotic-prophetic French poems like a boxing shadow.
Tensions at times resonate between translator Todd Fredson and translated Guébo — a slight dissonance for the reader is already expected after the foreword. It were as if Guébo’s poetry, or for that matter the art of any Ivoirean poet or writer, requires only a geopolitical-themed foreground about the economic and political quandaries affecting the state of Ivory Coast in 2012. These intricacies are many. From the UN bureaucracy’s militarized occupation of the country; to the dubious and highly-selective role of the International Court of Justice in the Hague having chosen to specifically extradite ex-president Laurent Gbagbo on war crimes charges, preserving his more convenient political rival Ouattara, a war-criminal preferred by his former employer the International Monetary Fund (aka ‘’the international community’’ of speculators.) Clearly, the IMF sports great expectations for profiting off the indebted country. No surprise there, as such interventionism is consequent with practices of IMF offices sprawling around the globe and global South.

The bilingual, pocket-size edition from Action Books also reads as a correspondence, and a bridge. The introduction makes clear that translator Fredson has learned a genuine love for the country and for learning the political perspectives of its inhabitants, making him a good translator for Guébo. But just as relevant to Guébo’s poetry is its context within Francophone literary traditions, and the present-day artists who write upon that palimpsest of Francophonie today (mostly in France, Africa and the Caribbean).
What debts are there to Leopold Senghor, Aimé Césaire, Édouard Glissant and other postcolonial (African, Caribbean and Arab) Francophone versifiers? For that matter, the debt to Paul Verlaine and the subsequent French surrealists (Fredson thankfully emphasized these elsewhere, more recently, in the preface to later translations of Guébo’s recent work Songe à Lampedusa published in Boston Review). All this context is also omitted, in lieu of a context consisting only of economics and geopolitics. These questions, unasked and unanswered by the intro, are answered only in the subtext of the fiery poems for those who might recognize it by being steeped in French/Francophone lit.

Such a literary (and as radical and as political) backstory is omitted in the translator’s nonetheless rigorous contextualization to My Country Tonight. Maybe Fredson wisely took the space needed to sufficiently pry open biased perceptions among Western readerships, who otherwise might be unwilling to contemplate Guébo’s position (one strongly opposed to the consensus of the so-called ‘’international community’’ of arms-producing countries acting on behalf of the global financial firms and compromising Ivoirean sovereignty). The American literary bubble’s trusted expat commentators on Ivory Coast would find themselves struggling at odds with his indigenous voice, his verse adverse to theirs.

The UN is referred to indirectly, brilliantly, as Fredson points out, as L’eau nu, “The naked water,’” which is also a phonetic abbreviation for the UN in French: L’O.N.U. Yet the ploy operates on many layers. Here one might suspect a nod to Mohammed Choukri, one of the most important North African writers, whose debut-novel was The Naked Bread (in turn, perhaps influenced by, or an influence upon William Burroughs, who Choukri knew in Tangier and who later wrote Naked Lunch, which warned the reader to “look at what is on the end of that long newspaper spoon,” the system of domination, dependency and death.)

The bilingual, pocket-size edition from Action Books also reads as a correspondence, and a bridge. Even if Fredson’s intro and context might be interpreted by some as ‘’pontificating,’’ it only serves the purpose, as ‘’pontificate’’ indicates “to make a bridge.” One of the written subtexts running through the English translation reads as the excitement of self-witnessing by an American foreigner brought to see the Ivoire’s reality from the near-inside, and its 21st century independence struggle, breaking away from easy consensus with those left behind. Translation, then, reads as a form of travel if well executed.

Self-satisfied Westerners will stand perturbed by this poet, who Fredson drops as a visitor to knock at their door. His different political views can disturb the Western reader, as it should be: Guébo’s surrealist nightmare about “the Naked Water’’ is as disturbing as art must be. Circulation of such a work, and hopefully its newfound availability in English, helps this radical document’s testimony to encroachment and spiritual corruption, stimulating Iroko-fruitful flowering of transnational engagement with the others’ political and cultural quests.


by Arturo Desimone
First published by Anomaly

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