A woman answers an ad for work. The ad is vague, stating simply that the job is part-time and well-paid. She goes to the appointed place, a house in a wealthy residential area. Once there, she’s met by a security guard, who escorts her inside and leaves her alone for a while. He returns and informs her that the job is hers. All she has to do is sit in a chair three days a week and talk. The pay is substantial. She asks what she should talk about. About anything. It doesn’t matter. When she asks who she’ll be talking to, the guard replies, “to the Master,” gesturing to the open door leading into the adjoining room. When she asks to meet the Master, the guard tells her she can’t. It’s impossible. They’ll never meet.
The woman feels that what she’s being asked to do is strange and somehow degrading. At the same time, she needs the money. And while she imagines at first that she must have been hired as an entertainer for some rich, spoiled child, she soon becomes convinced that something more is at stake. The child must be deathly ill, maybe with a rare genetic disease. Having talked herself into this scenario, she takes the job. She endeavors to do her best, weaving stories for her mysterious listener out of personal life events, history and mythology. But her thoughts remain fixed on the question of exactly who is in the next room, and this question, added to the zeal with which she continues to create her stories, slowly begins to drive her insane.
This scenario is itself a story, recounted by the woman’s former lover in Boubacar Boris Diop’s novel Le Cavalier et son ombre, published in French in 1997 and just this year available in an English translation put out by Michigan State University Press. Diop is a Senegalese author and journalist who writes in both French and Wolof. The Knight and His Shadow references the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and interweaves much social and political commentary into the plot. The core of the book, however, is an existential love story.
The man first introduced to us as the main protagonist, Lat-Sukabé, is traveling to a place called Bilenty to meet Khadidja, the woman in the story above. He’s going there in response to a letter she’s sent asking him to “come before it’s too late.” In explaining to the reader his past with Khadidja, he delves into her past job as a “storyteller,” as well as several of her actual stories.
As the book goes on, Khadidja’s stories begin to make up the bulk of the action in the text. While we’re continually updated on what’s happening with Lat-Sukabé and his attempts to reach her, the present in which we find him remains oddly static, and what originally seemed set up to become an adventure story or a grand quest begins to break down into something else entirely.
Lat-Sukabé can’t even start getting to Bilenty because he needs to cross the river, and the “Ferryman,” ostensibly the only person who can take him there, is for some reason reluctant to do so. In the meantime, Lat-Sukabé hangs around the Villa Angelo, a hotel, where he spends time with a prostitute whose company he genuinely enjoys, eats shitty food, and suffers from profound impatience. His recollections of Khadidja’s stories, on the other hand, put her in motion. She becomes a more vivid character than Lat-Sukabé, which is sort of a feat considering that she’s not appearing in present events. Plus, you know, the whole insanity thing.
Without giving too much away, I’ll say that formwise, I’m not overly fond of how the book swallows its own tail (no pun intended). On the other hand, the many story arcs (for lack of a strong main one) presented throughout the text are compelling and written in a simple, intimate prose style that creates an unusually strong feeling of closeness to the narrator. Some gripes with overall structure aside, it’s a generous, highly readable piece of work.
I haven’t managed to get a look at the original French version, but I’d like to think I have a pretty good idea of what it looks like. While talking about Thom Satterlee’s The Stages the other day, I was struggling to describe a certain sound to some translated texts. I was thinking that this particular sound didn’t indicate that a text had been translated badly (in fact often the opposite) and even seems to have some linguistic equivalent in non-translated situations, either in literature or real life.
Now I’m reflecting on Diop’s writing, which, in this particular book at least, seems to have something in it that may be a category or subset of the aforementioned sound. It might be that the pacing of the story gets along with the language so well that it’s set a little outside of language, like a drummer who draws your attention to the rhythm of a song by playing slightly behind the beat.
In her foreword to The Knight and His Shadow, scholar Nasrin Qadar mentions a “‘crystalline’ quality” in Diop’s writing, citing an interview (2003 in Brigham Young University’s Lingua Romana – text in French) in which Diop himself referred to “quelque chose de cristallin” in the work of Camus and Kafka. This might be what happens when language is used so effectively that you run the risk of forgetting you’re reading. But it’s not enough to simply write compelling action compellingly, you also have to use the language in such a way as to make your usage of it seem effortless. To consider the way the words sound but to make them sound artless.
All that’s before even considering translation. Translators of Camus have struggled, understandably, with the task. I suspect, though, that Alan Furness has done a good job of balancing the aesthetics and pragmatics of Diop’s writing here. I feel, reading the translation, that I know exactly what Diop meant by “cristallin,” and it’s comforting to know that this certain something is recognized by others as well.