...and every of his written literary thought!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Review of Mariama Bâ’s "Un Chant 'Ecarlate" ("Scarlet Song")

The status of women in Muslim religion revealed by cultural die-hards, and the mother-in-law!

Mariama  Bâ towers in French Literature; she could have borrowed some salt from (LSS) Leopold Sedar Senghor, when her father worked for his government as a minister for health. While LSS glorified Mother Africa’s past through his Negritude literary movement, Bâ highlighted on the disparity the woman felt in general and as a mother in particular because of patriarchy and religion—Islam for her case—in this self-same society. Her work portrays women of Africa as resilient and proves that this grandmother, this mother, this sister, this daughter, this cousin and this friend is the “mother of Africa” and that she is essential to the very society that is busy alienating her.

In childhood, she was raised by her extended family, and had to struggle to get an education, like most girl children in Africa. Later in her life, her first hand brush with this traditional inequality is seen through her disastrous marriage to an MP and ended in a divorce and the experience found a vent in her ‘So Long a Letter’, what Abiola Irele referred to as ‘the most deeply felt presentation of the female condition in African fiction’. But even then, that was a poor transposition of the length the society has misplaced the woman.
And this is the scenario that gave birth to ‘Scarlet Song’, which depicts the hurdles a woman meets first as a result of a youthful lust, and later after her marriage to a man who leaves her for a younger ‘traditional and beautiful’ woman.  Mireille, daughter of a French diplomat, secretly marries Ousmane, a son of a poor Senegalese Muslim family. He goes through a transformation, in Dakar to Paris, and back Dakar to embrace his roots, traditions and customs of his ‘elders’. As an Occidental, his White wife is unable to adjust and fit in easily with this lifestyle, and it gets worse when his ‘Liberal’ husband takes another wife, a veritable killer in her marriage.

It’s an ingredient of conflict and this is what , ‘a modern Muslim woman’, ridicules—despotism, chauvinism and ‘dying’ tradition, at the same time develops the anguish brought by cross-cultural marriages.
It’s a work that not only explores incompatible culture clash but also with the woman on the losing end.  Their initial idyll liaison to survive against odds is shattered by the realities on the ground and climaxes with a marriage that distresses and depresses both sets of parents. And sooner than later, it’s apparent that their Romeo and Juliet escapades and romance is ‘a poor defense against the pressures of society’. Ousmane is enticed back to his roots, while Mireille is left disgraced, lonely ‘with her exquisite bathroom and expensive toiletries’.

She’s a resilient tigress and bent on saving her marriage against all odds and family and cultural bigotry. This is where the book delves deep into the significantly pressing need for women to create empowerment to dispel titles that define them and disprove the clichés of being referred to as ‘weaker sex’, and societal scapegoats but like tigresses, should pounce as Soyinka said. But Bâ’s misanthropy swings in action when things must nose-dive and plunge into an abysmal moral decay and previously deeply held beliefs confronted after we tread the road to the other side of society where  absurdity lurks and enables us to consider critically sensitive issues of race, intolerance, matrimony, loyalty, and tradition into the bargain.

Their story-book romance is unable to survive ‘ruthless’ traditions and expectations of her in-laws and the general relations of the extended family. The mother- in-law, true to her Mrs. Grundy prudery, mocks her and calls her a jinni that has bewitched her son. Ousmane, now a former self, after being hen-pecked by his mother, slowly reverts into his cultural cocoon, deserting  his wife for his childhood secret crush, Ouleymatou, who had despised his advances when they were young, for the young Ousmane, ‘smelled fish’ and was a ‘mama’s boy’. This is where tradition kicks in and turns a blind eye, even with his religious father and blesses the illicit union because they couldn’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Mireille hopes to have a moment of ‘reculer pour sauter mieux’ in her bid to avenge herself, but only suffers a mental breakdown. 

A major strength of ‘Scarlet Song’ is in the grim demonstration of the torment imposed on the two families because of this interracial marriage, even if their woes lie on bedrocks of distasteful historical and individual intolerances. Ousmane and Mireille endure inner conflict at the thought of betraying their personal cultures although ultimately it is she who submits. Bâ, having experiences from her traditional Muslim background and later, being a divorced mother of nine children, was no stranger to the trials and tribulations of marriage. In fact ’Scarlet Song’ doesn’t hide behind polite formalities in exposing the prejudice of the black Africans toward the white woman, it’s a reverse Desdemona in her tragic liaison with Othello the moor and the moral is for us to ponder at Bâ’s strong message—historical injustice and the submissive character imposed on women by cultural ‘terrorists and goons’. It’s worthy to mention here too of the terrible injustice from the Anglophone readers who know very little of Bâ’s works, and the French’s snobbery in being reluctant to avail and market the book beyond the Eiffel Tower. 

We get too a narrow perspective on the sensitive question, namely the status of women in Muslim religion as revealed when cultural die-hards personified by Yaye Khadi, the mother-in-law, confuses her intolerance for religious duty and instead of nurturing the new convert into the society, is more anxious to kill the happiness of the inter-religious marriage and campaigns for bigamy, which herself is reluctant to taste when she has an inkling that her sister-in-law cuts her teeth to introduce a co-wife in her own marriage. It’s no wonder that she helps in insinuations, a younger local lass Oleymatou, and invites her to ‘tame the shrew’ in her rival—the White woman—which her traditional society sees no problem and sanctions this illicit relationship. 

All this is so confusing to Mireille, she can’t possibly grasp all the stringent rules that governs mother and daughter-in-law, try as she may to study under her mother in law the veritable queen of prudery. Like when she sends her father-in-law ‘one miserable piece of chicken swimming in a sea of sauce’, to the general laughter and consternation of the whole village. Being the daughter of a diplomat, she’s ill-suited for her new role, and leaves one wondering why, unlike Karen Blixen, she is still clueless, even after having lived in Senegal for some time. I think she fails as a wife for this inability even to try and adapt to her new role as defined by amorous cultural standards. She frets and retreats to her bathroom and kitchen when guests ‘intrude’ into her household to ‘eat, dirty the kitchen sink and proceed to sit in choicest settees, and after spitting slimy cough into her carpets’. She has a poor view of these ‘hangers-on’ who treat her like a ‘zoo’ animal and property. Then there’s Yaye Khadi and her toothpicks which she would love to admonish, but Ousmane warns her that culture forbids children from correcting their parents. 

feels through the eyes of Mireille that African society should tone down the toxic force of their culture. It plunges women into a psychological trauma and totally disrespects them as members; it elevates the machismo even within ‘civilized’ families. Through Mirelle, Bâ’s task is to reveal and review the rationale used to justify time-honored cultural practices.

A complete about-turn in Senegalese disturbing cultures, especially those governing the social construct between man and woman, whatever colour, for there’s an imbalance, and if we become aware, we can change politically and get the woman truly empowered instead of just making ‘empty rhetoric’.
Through the conflict in the rich plot, she insinuates the deformations of patterns and establishments that are supposedly impersonating as tradition and culture. The society that has long been lured into swallowing the perpetuation of these customs should now be swayed over again to the ultimate necessity of having a harmony between man and woman. She also stresses the duplicitous values of the human society and the erroneous accepted wisdom that obviously leans heavily on the social circle of men.

That’s why on morality, it would appear that Ousmane's father, the Qur’anic scholar, is the most tolerant to his white daughter-in-law—but this doesn’t translate much to anything except a comment that this marriage is after all a ‘necessary evil’.  There are also reproaches from Ali, a childhood friend, and doesn’t endorse the illicit liaison and condemns Ousmane as turning into a racist, just like Mireille parents. As youths, they had been on the forefront in condemning what Ousmane was busy practicing. The sister too, objects this immoral behaviour and offers herself as a stool pigeon to keep abreast Mireille and console her. 

These three are the only hope for Mireille and all the other struggling marriages under the strain of ‘society’; for these ‘reformists’ don’t simply accept that it’s fate that drives Ousmane to Oleymatou and away from his wife, but his own frail Achilles heels ‘weak-willed and stubborn’.  This is where ‘Scarlet Song’ ranks in the same plane as Voltaire’s ‘Candide’ for it unearths the unkindness, inequalities, inadequacy and injustices of the human society. 

Feminism aside, Bâ will continue to be a great inspiration to African women who are still oppressed by cultural practices; that it’s time they were revised. As a classic, ‘Scarlet Song’ goes on to inspire too with its depth and intensity. It’s a work written poignantly and beautifully while using vivid literary devices and figurative qualities. It can be read in one sitting, for it’s short and masterly narrated. The two parts are consistent with each other—in fact, like all ‘tramedies’, it gets worse after the break—and has a superb weave as a whole.

Had she been alive, she would definitely be a candidate for a Nobel Prize, but sadly after the success of her first novel, ‘So Long a Letter’, she died just before its publication, and the book itself states sadly ‘she was dying as she wrote it’. 

What inspiration!

If you enjoyed her first novel, you shouldn’t find it a burden to relish this 1981 Longman African Writers publication or the later editions—reprinted 8 times. Personally, I have devoured it numerous times, and I’ve loved the French version the most, for there are literary nuances lost in the English editions.


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