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Paperback The Fortunes of Wangrin Book

ISBN: 025321226X

ISBN13: 9780253212269

The Fortunes of Wangrin

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The Fortunes of Wangrin
Amadou Hampat B note special accents on the "e" in Hampate and "a" Ba not correctly reproduced here--see ms.]
Translated by Aina Pavolini Taylor with an Introduction by F. Abiola Irele

Winner of the Grand Prix Litteraire de l'Afrique Noire

"I think this is perhaps the best African novel on colonialism and it draws very richly on various modes of oral literature." --Ralph Austen, University of Chicago

"It...

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The Life of a Scoundrel, Schemer, and Gentleman

Don't be put off by the truly terrible cover, this prize-winning novel by Malian author Ba is an entertaining masterpiece of African literature. Originally published in French in 1973, the book won the "Grand Prix Litteraire de L'Afrique Noire", and is a vivid window into colonial French West Africa circa 1905-25. In a nutshell, what makes the book so special is that Ba refuses to allow his protagonist to be a defenseless victim of colonialism, but paints a complicated portrait in which the protagonist is the engineer of his own rise, and his own downfall. The story is essentially a biography of Wangrin, a noble-born West African boy sent to a French colonial "hostage school" for the sons of chiefs and other African notables. There, his quick mind and facility with French takes him to the top of the class and sets him on a path of prosperity. He enters the service of the colonial administration as a schoolteacher, but soon machinates his way into a clerkship, and eventually into a position as all-powerful, indispensable interpreter. (One of the novel's many comments on French colonial rule comes via the role of the interpreter, who, although ostensibly an aide to the French officer in charge of a region, was the only person who knew everything that was going on.) The story charts Wangrin's gradual rise to power, as he craftily maneuvers his way, all the while making the most of his position to enrich himself. Wangrin is very much a trickster character, however, unlike many portrayals of colonial lackeys, his rise in status and wealth comes solely at the expense of the powerful and rich. Never in the story does Wangrin take advantage of the poor or destitute -- quite the opposite, he is a munificent bestower of alms and largesse. These battles with other Africans for influence and wealth go a long way toward dispelling the framework of colonizer vs. colonized. In Wangrin's world, the colonial rulers are essentially very powerful pieces in the chess game of his life. Which is not to suggest that the institution of colonialism isn't severely criticized in the course of the book -- topics coming in for special derision include the requirements for forced menial labor, the practice of taking native sexual partners, and the possibility of unchecked cruelty. That said, the story also provides plenty of examples of administrators being careful to act within certain boundaries lest they be censured. It is Wangrin's mastery of both the colonial and the native languages, traditions, laws, and beliefs that allows him to blossom. This adaptability is also evident in his personal blending of Islam and animism (a fluidity of belief still common in West Africa), that the book does a wonderful job of displaying. And yet it is this adaptability which is his ultimate undoing. In a sequence rich in meaning, he is speeding at night in his European sports coupe along a road built by forced labor, only to run over and kill a python. His imprudent use of this modern
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