Blue, White, Red - Words Without Borders (2022)

At the beginning, there was the name.

A humdrum name.

A two-syllable name: Moki . . .

At the beginning, there was that name.

Moki is standing in front of me. I see him again. He's talking to me. He is giving me instructions. He tells me to take care of the rest with Préfet. Don't ask him any questions. Just do what he asks me to do. Moki is there, his gaze turned upward toward the sky. He rarely takes a good look at his go-betweens. I listen to him. Continuously. Rapt.

Am I ready?

Have I seen to everything?

He is in a hurry. He doesn't have time. We have to hurry. Don't dormir debout—sleep on your feet, that's his expression. We're supposed to cross paths at noon at the Arc de Triomphe. Don't say a word to anyone. Come alone. Make sure that you're not being followed. Take a different route than the one we usually do. Don't get there too early. Waiting around is a bad sign. You'll end up getting caught that way. Be there on time. Not one minute later. Not one minute earlier. Everything happens so fast. You have to shape up. That's the way it is with Moki . . .

Moki is there.

I still hadn't figured out that he's the one who made the arrangements to get me into France. I couldn't figure out that he was also the one who took me in and gave me shelter in this country.

I was one of those who thought that France was for the others. France was for those who we used to call les bouillants—the go-getters. It was that faraway country, inaccessible despite its fireworks that shimmered even in my smallest dreams, and from which I woke with a taste of honey in my mouth. True, I had been secretly working in my field of dreams on that wish to cross the Rubicon, to go there some day. It was a common wish; there was nothing special about that wish. You could hear that wish expressed from every mouth. Who of my generation had not visited France par la bouche—by mouth, as we say back home. Just one word, Paris, was enough for us to meet by magic spell in front of the Eiffel Tower, at the Arc de Triomphe, and on the Champs Elysées. Boys my age led their girls on by showering them with the serenade: I'll be going to France soon. I'm going to live in the center of Paris. We were allowed to dream. It didn't cost anything. No exit visa was necessary, no passport, no airline ticket. Think about it. Close your eyes. Sleep. Snore. And there we were, every night . . .

Reality caught up with us. The barriers were insurmountable. The first obstacle for me was my parents' poverty. We weren't dying of hunger, but a trip to France was nothing but an extravagance for them. We could do without it. We could live without having gone there. What's more, the Earth continued to rotate. The sun followed its course and would visit other faraway places; we would cross paths in the same places, in our fields or at the marketplace at slaughter time or when the peanuts were harvested. My parents would be ruined for no good reason by contributing to an adventure like that.

I imagined their response: “What the hell will you do in the white man's country? You abandoned your studies a long time ago!”

The other obstacle was my negative opinion of myself. I was my own harshest critic. I did not grant myself a single positive quality. I saw the dark side of things and imagined only the worst.

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Convinced that I was a good-for-nothing, lacking self-motivation, I thought of myself as a sluggish, spineless character, incapable of resisting the vicissitudes of life outside my own country. To travel in search of success required a mind that was always on the look-out. You can't look back once you've stepped into the wrong river. You need a strong stroke, and then you have to swim some more to reach the shore.

Above all, leaving means being able to fly with your own wings. To know how to land on a branch and continue the flight the next day all the way to the new land, the land that pushed the migrant to leave his footprints far behind in order to encounter a different place, an unknown place . . .

Could I leave? Fly with my own wings? I wasn't certain. I was used to living with my parents. I could count on a roof over my head there, and meals. That's how I could nestle in my laziness all day long without having to answer to anyone.

To my mind, France was not a good haven for a dormouse or snails. I fancied it a world where the clocks were set ahead and where, without a break, one had to catch up with time because that was the only way to live. France needed quick, well-informed, resourceful people, like Moki. France needed bouillants. Quick people, ready to bounce back from inextricable situations, as swiftly as a mosquito extracts blood.

I didn't fit that profile . . .

I will remember.

It's here and now that I have to make an effort to pick out the memories, one by one. Push aside the night that blurs my vision. Scrape the dirt, look for tracks, dust them off and set them aside so I can put things back in their place. It might be too late afterward.

In the beginning, there was the name, Moki.

I won't recall the name Préfet, the man that I knew through his go-between, a little later, when I was already on the rue du Moulin-Vert. I won't summon his name. Préfet. I will have time to remember him. He's not getting out of things this way. I won't need to do more than blow on the embers of reminiscence. I will see his face reappear exactly as I saw it that day, in Moki's presence. I will instantly remember that warm handshake, his shifty eyes and the smell of alcohol . . .

For the moment all I see is Moki.

He is the origin of the whole thing. I'm sure that our lifelines are crossed. That my own personality was blanched and blurred to the advantage of his own. That we have the same breath, the same aspirations, the same fate. The same fate? Yes, so how is it that he doesn't find himself in here with me?

And what if I were only his shadow? If I were only his double? I've asked myself that sometimes. We don't look anything like each other. At least not physically. He is taller than me. Older too. He's a little heavier than me right now. Me, I stayed puny, despite the dishes made with semolina and potato starch that certain compatriots advised me to eat as soon as I arrived in France, in the hope that this skinny body would put on a few kilos and stop sullying the image of our country in the eyes of real Parisians: the men with chubby cheeks and white skin, and who cut an elegant figure.

No, Moki and I bear no physical resemblance. I lived like his shadow. I was always behind him.

Especially in the days preceding my journey. I was nothing but a shadow. A shadow is nothing in and of itself. It needs a presence and a virgin surface to print its outline. Sometimes a shadow wants to make a big mistake. It wants to take the initiative. I know. But a shadow molts at its own risk and peril.

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I was Moki's shadow.

He was the one who created me. In his own image. His lifestyle bankrolled my dreams. A way of living that I will not forget . . .

I remember the many trips he made home while I still hadn't set foot in France. The white man's country had changed his life. Something had shifted, there was an undeniable metamorphosis. He was no longer the frail young man who, we used to say, if he's as thin as a dry stalk of lantana, it's because he ate standing up and slept on top of an old mat. There was a wide chasm. It wasn't the same Moki. He was robust, radiant, and in full bloom. I could take note of this, with a tinge of bitterness, because his parents' home was next door to our own. This intimacy compelled me to see his comings and goings over the years. I studied his doings and his gestures with a magnifying glass. France had transformed him. It had chiseled his habits and prescribed another way of life for him. We took note of him with envy.

According to Moki, a Parisian should not live in a hovel like his father's any longer—a shack made from mahogany planks topped by a corrugated sheet metal roof. Their hut was at the edge of a gully, just before the main street. Stunned passersby wondered by what miracle this home had managed to outsmart the guardian of tempests during the rainy season. It's not as if Moki's father was indifferent to the dilapidated state of his home. On the contrary, many years before, the old man had the initiative to begin construction on another house with his own two hands. This one would be solid, like the one he dreamed of before he went into retirement. He bought sand, gravel, and a few bags of cement. And that's not all. He had to pay the labor costs and provide for the workers' needs. Back home, skilled workers were fed and paid in vin rouge de France, and invited into your home in the evening with their apprentices, to the point that you were devoting your body and soul to their every need. It was the owner who had to kowtow, to wait on them hand and foot, and to beg them for months on end. The numbskulls who challenged the ingrained order of these customs watched their own projects drag on for ages.

Moki's father was one of the latter.

First of all, he could not convince this union of slackers to drastically change their work habits. The most obvious reason was mainly to do with his cashbox. Without financial means, his best intentions were translated into pathetic and laughable creations. He hadn't done more than pile up rows of bricks and trace the foundations. He quickly ran out of steam. His pockets emptied sooner than expected. He didn't know which lender to turn to. They all slammed the door in his face. His hidebound workers would not work for credit. The work came to a halt. The old man threw in the towel. Then he began to experience the nagging headaches of small proprietors who abandon their projects before completion.

Bricks disappeared from their place. He counted on starting the work again someday, so he outlined his lot by piling one brick on top of another. He filled his Sundays—the day for small projects in the courtyard—by counting his bricks. He mortared and reset any bricks that came loose. He underestimated the gangs that worked at night: some youths and other builders or future owners of solid homes who needed only two or three bricks to finish a facade, a window, a stairway, or water well.

Over time, the old man's enclosure shrank tighter and smaller. His goods, if they hadn't been stolen from him, were strewn in the street. Drivers of big trucks with brakes that needed repair used his things to brace their vehicles in place. And to top it off, a greenish foam coated the bricks during the rainy season.

One day, he finally flew into a rage and went from house to house to complain and utter threats about this behavior, which, in his opinion, was a deliberate plot to keep him from finishing the construction of the most beautiful villa in the neighborhood.

We saw that it was Moki, during one of his trips back home, who decided to resume construction. The Parisian surprised his father. He surprised us. None of us had ever seen such an industrious undertaking in the neighborhood before. He hired a dozen masons who were encouraged to work with advance pay in sums that made our mouths water. They worked under their own boss from morning until very late at night by the light of lanterns held by apprentices who swayed with sleepiness. Moki closely supervised the work. He gave in to the workers' whims. We thought he even spoiled them. He picked them up at their homes by car in the morning and drove each of them right to his doorstep at night. He tipped them everyday. At the worksite he congratulated them over a small brick set just so, or even for pushing a wheelbarrow of sand from a little further away. He established a father and son relationship with the oldest, who was the lead worker. This one called him “mon fils”—my son—and Moki responded “mon père”—my father. He knew how to find that man's soft spot and play up to his sense of pride.

“My throat is dry, mon fils . . .

“I'll bring you some vin rouge de France, mon père.”

It didn't take long to see the results.

After two and a half months, we woke up in front of an immense white villa. The doors and shutters were painted green. All of us were bedazzled. We had no idea that those facades, those columns, the beams and paving stones, would fit together and turn into something so stunning. The whole thing developed like a puzzle fits together. Bricks were lifted and broken in two or three pieces for the foundation; the apprentices rolled barrels of water from the river to the site; bags of cement were torn open with pointed shovels; fine-grained sand and small stones were brought every other day by a dump truck belonging to the Pointe-Noire township; a hammer blow over here; the strike of a pick over there; the planning of a wood plank; a pinch of pliers to that ironwork; a coat of paint on the doors and windows; sawing rafters from limbs of trees famed for their strength to guarantee a solid roof. These workers were simultaneously carpenters, architects, cabinet makers, iron workers, plumbers, and well-diggers. They worked on an assembly line.

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Bit by bit the house was born.

There it was, in front of us. We could study it and get a measure of the toil of those workers who outdid themselves over that period of time. An immense villa. There it stood, majestic, on all four sides. Its aluminum tiles glistened in the sun's rays. It stood out from far away and was taller than the nearby houses that were nothing more than a shamble of shacks, an eyesore, like a favela. There were two worlds. One belonged to the Moki family and the other for the rest of the neighborhood.

This sense of the dichotomy of these two worlds grew sharper when Moki installed electricity and a water pump on their lot. Houses with lighting and access to drinking water were rare. Installing this water pump proved useful for the neighborhood. We paid a modest sum of money on the days we filled two or three casks of water. Young people hung out in the evening on the main street in front of the villa to take advantage of the light and talk the night away, until Moki's father came out and put an end to that.

There were more surprises in store for us . . .

A year after the villa was built, we saw two Toyotas arrive. Moki had chartered and sent them from France so his family could profit by using them as taxis. That protected the family from utter destitution.

Moki's father was a humble and energetic man. He was short, and that bothered him. We could tell by the jokes he made about tall people, his favorite whipping boys, and by the overblown pride he showed when he reminded all those tall forgetful people that he, a tiny little man, barely five feet tall, had brought a tall son into the world, a very, very tall son, he insisted, some six feet, according to Moki. We would fire back that it takes two to make a baby and the obvious explanation was that his wife was taller than him.

His modest height was however largely offset by a headstrong and stubborn personality and a serious, sepulchral voice. This voice made everyone think he was wise, even apart from his gray beard and bald shiny head, which had so few remaining strands of hair they could be counted on the fingers of one hand. He usually dressed in traditional multicolored clothes and rode around on a vélo-pédalé—a bicycle. The old man saw his life change in one fell swoop.

He was never himself again. It was as if he had followed a calling. His social promotion caught everyone off guard. It was like an unobstructed arrow in flight: he was put in the town council and shortly thereafter unanimously elected its president. His elevation did of course cause a bit of a grumbling among elders in the neighborhood. But they raised their opposition in the shadows, in the talk shops, not out in the open in the neighborhood where the old man waved his ceremonial cane to demand silence. We didn't dare confront him. He was blatant in his insistence that it wasn't his gray beard or voice of a baritone gospel singer that got him nominated in such haste to the presidency of the town council. Quite a few old timers had vied ceaselessly for this honorary position and their beards were as white, if not whiter, than his. Some of them had stopped shaving the moment their first white hair appeared and they ostentatiously trailed their beards in the public square like prophets that arrived too late to a world where the gods themselves were reduced to going door-to-door, identity card in hand, instead of their disciples and saints doing it for them. Something else was needed to convince the influential people in the neighborhood. Presidential candidacies are serious business in the village. The way candidates settled accounts had left bad memories in peoples' minds. According to ancestral beliefs, old people frequently appear at night through the medium of dreams. One elder steps into another's dream by breaking and entering. It's a merciless battle in this netherworld where there are no women or children. The loser's sleep could cost him a one-way ticket to the tomb. So, when one could find grounds for agreement, one chose the path of conciliation. The most prudent elders preferred not to take the risk and waited until they were chosen for the throne without any competition. Wasn't this the case with Moki's father?

He wasn't the dean of these old, old men. He needed something else to discourage the voracious appetites of those who had waited in line for his post for at least a quarter century. What else? A son who lived in France, for instance, a Parisian. The candidacy of a father of such a son was powerful in itself. Other arguments weighed in his favor: Moki's father was aware of everything going on in France. That was his trump card. Moreover he had had the chance to attend the colonial school when the teachers—real teachers, he said—were recruited in the middle of the second grade, against their wishes. They tossed you out to go teach in an isolated backwater in the brush. It was a national duty. For Moki's father, to have made it to the second grade in his first year was a point of pride, a feat that no one of his era had equaled. He wrote and read French fluently. He could have been a teacher if his parents had supported him for one more year. In his day there was only one primary school in the entire south of the country. It was fifty-two kilometers from Louboulou, the village where he was born. You went there by foot. You stayed for one week in a boarding school that accepted only the best students, or those whose parents knew a village leader or a white man. Mothers and fathers brought food to their children. Alas, after a few years, squeezed dry by their considerable sacrifices of money and food, they gave in and asked their children to go back to the fields on the double to work with them. That's how that type of education stopped for Moki's father. He took up a hoe and machete and put himself in the service of his parents.

After that, he did what other youth of his generation did, and followed the current of rural exodus. He made his way to this neighborhood where the closest city, Pointe-Noire, was fifty kilometers away. He had been living here for some forty years with his four children and his wife. He worked, variously, as “boy,” then postman and receptionist at Victory Palace, a French hotel in the city center. His level of education put him above all the other council members who were, for the most part, illiterate. During council meetings he spoke about France—a country he had never visited. He was capable of reciting to the town council the names of all the kings and presidents in order from the Second Empire of Napoleon III up to the present, without faltering. He especially liked General de Gaulle (Digol was how he pronounced it) and he held forth, as if he had been there himself, about how the General came to Brazzaville in the 1940s and organized a conference in that city with the Algerian Committee. The outcome of this conference included a plan for a new organization of the French colonies in black Africa. Moki's father told the story of this fragment of history at every meeting of the town council: General Digol was tall. Very tall. A little taller than Moki, he said. That's the reason that I gave my son Moki “Charles” as his first name.

Somebody heckled that the General was quite a bit taller than Moki. He shot back that he knew the General better than everyone, and that people could challenge him on all the French presidents except the General.

“That one there, he's mine.”

Moki's father was aware of his growing influence. The reverence people paid him began to make him lose his head. He wasted no time in adopting the latest fashions. He cast aside all his traditional clothing and preferred to wear clothes that came straight de Paris. From that time on, he wore gray trousers made of virgin wool, well-pressed with sharp pleats. No belt, but tricolor suspenders (blue, white, and red), a white dress shirt, a black fedora, and the kind of good black shoes you wear to church. Suddenly he looked like the American blues singer John Lee Hooker. He strolled around the neighborhood, chest out, head held high, both hands in his pockets. Above all, you really needed to see him on his bicycle. He rode slowly, stopping to greet everyone he met at an intersection. Without any prompting, he gave everyone the latest news on Moki. He took out a letter, a postcard. He said that his son had just written him “Une très longue lettre en français de la France, le français de Guy de Maupassant lui-même—a very long letter from France, in French, the French of Guy de Maupassant himself!” “What's new?” he'd ask, as if someone had posed the question. “My son is doing fine. The only thing is that it's the middle of winter there right now, you know, winter is the season when the trees are in mourning, the birds are few and far between, the streets trail sadness, and even the whites themselves are stuffed into warm, heavy clothing. Ah, the snow is…how I can explain it to you? It's like the foam on top of a beer, but a little firmer than that. When it snows, the roads over there are useless. It's not easy to stop a car. The cold can kill you. You have to consume a lot of hot drinks and not stick your nose outside . . . “

He recited these words like a child who had really memorized his lesson. He knew how to keep the crowd that was listening to him from leaving. Most importantly, he did not forget to tell everyone the exact date that his son would return home . . .

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We knew. Moki wasn't coming home except during vacations in the dry season, between July and September. That was party time. The liveliest time in the country. Everything suddenly happened so fast. The days, the weeks, the months ran by at a dizzying pace. The tree of time doesn't let us have our fill in savoring its fruits. Was it because this was the time of year we most looked forward to? Of course. In the neighborhood, the smallest brouhaha turned into a mob scene. A brawl was the best excuse for everyone to be in the street. We went out, not to put an end to the scuffle but in the hope that the show would last longer.

When I think back on it now with a little distance, this unquenchable thirst for relaxation sprang from unimaginable situations. Funerals were no longer the lugubrious scenes they were known to be. We laughed and we burst into giggles more than we cried. We played chess and checkers and cards. We drank beer, palm wine, and maize alcohol all night long. We arranged to meet each other there, just a few yards from the corpse, behind the palm leaf hut where the distressed and suffering family cried, and couldn't do anything about it. The loss was nothing but a pretext. We practically begged heaven to take the soul of an old person every week so that we could count on a moment to get together and collectively blow off some steam. The population in the neighborhood grew tenfold. And on top of that there were vacationers from the city and nearby villages.

We all knew the latest. Moki was going to come back from Paris. His father didn't keep the secret from anyone. People in the neighborhood had nothing but his son's return on their lips. That would be a blessed day. An event. The sudden hustle and bustle of Moki's parents and brothers proved it. The Parisian's family did not skimp on anything in preparation. It was time for a lot of work to be done. Everyone rolled up their sleeves. The courtyard was swept meticulously. Part of the street in front of the home was sprayed with water three times a day. Not a single leaf from the mango trees was left on the ground. The Parisian's room, which looked out on the main street, was fixed up. The trunks of trees around the property were repainted. The two taxis were washed every night. A small table wrought of tropical vines was placed under the mango tree in the center of the courtyard. That's where the Parisian would eat his meals. He would eat l'air libre—outdoors. The real reason was so that everyone knew and could watch him eat out in the open. These little details were of great importance to Moki's father. He said that his son would not eat like the last village peasant. According to him, peasants swallowed big pieces of manioc with a little bit of salted fish, really just a very little bit, the size of a child's finger. Then they drank two liters of water. What mattered was that their stomachs were full. Moki's father laid out in detail the meals fit for his son to eat: he'd have an apéritif, an appetizer, a main dish, du vin rouge de France, cheese, a dessert and coffee. Just like in France, chez Digol . . .

The old man swung into action and stayed up all night to get ready for Moki's arrival. He didn't use his vélo-pédale anymore. To save time he got around in one of the two taxis. For this situation he got a chauffeur. He wore his nicest clothes, venus tout droit de Paris—straight from Paris. He was involved and took personal responsibility for the shopping that needed to be done. We knew him as an affable, smiling man, eager to please his neighbors. He hung all these qualities in his closet and displayed a remorseless severity.

His chauffeur was no more than a scapegoat. The poor man endured his every fit of anger. The old man barked contradictory orders. He ordered him to park the car here, then there, then a little further away, before finally deciding to park it in the first spot. He ordered him to stay in the car with the motor running. As soon as the car was moving, Moki's father dictated to the chauffeur how fast he should drive. He repeatedly told him to first shift into gear and then to carefully put on the brakes. The two men appeared to be driving together. “Turn left! Signal! Beep the horn! Don't give him the right of way, can't you see that his car is older than ours! Pass that imbecile who's blowing smoke right in my face! Who is that crackpot trying to pass us! Step on it, don't let him pass you, come on, I said go, go, go . . . “

Under the stress of it all, the father of the Parisian aged ten years. Deep wrinkles lined his face. A big vein that started on his forehead split his head in two. His eyes were red, his eyelids made heavier with black circles and lifeless pockets of skin. He sweated and sponged himself off with his hat. He shouted himself hoarse, became irascible, and more bilious as the big day appeared closer on the horizon. He took a calendar, crossed out the days gone by, counted how many were yet to come, underlined le jour “J” in red and scrawled something. He was not the least bit satisfied. Some small detail was missing. He complained. The courtyard wasn't properly swept? He'd have none of it, and after scolding his wife and sons, he grabbed a long-handled broom himself. He stood, straight as an “I,” facing his property, his eyes riveted on the mango trees. He kept track of the leaves that fell. He lambasted the trees, promising to cut them down if they persisted in dropping their dead leaves with each ill-tempered gust of wind. That's how his long monologues began. Words had no beginning and no end. A laugh that resonated and made us think he was no longer from this world. At meetings of the town council, the poor dignitaries were at a loss with his recitations about Paris, France, and the bravery of the man of June 18th:

“Digol, a great man of a kind of stature that doesn't exist anymore. Men like him, they only come once a century. Indeed, there are even centuries when fate stockpiles its reserves of great men.”

The tenor of the old man's voice conveyed his emotional sincerity. Loyalty sparkled in his eyes, a blind loyalty deeply rooted in the depth of his soul.

“Remember, my friends, Digol outright refused the 1940 armistice and the Vichy government. He sent an unforgettable appeal to London to drive forward without reprieve in the fight against the Nazis. How can you talk about the Resistance without realizing the stature of this mighty beefwood tree whose head is crowned with laurels of all the victories he won for the grandeur of France? After that, some youthful ingrates wanted to stir up trouble for him, to make mountains out of molehills, in May1968. They were minuscule groups of students and union members. There too, Digol showed what a giant he was by leaving the seat of power one year later because those forgetful French people dared to challenge him in a test of strength when they rejected a new course he proposed by referendum . . . “

In the evening, a wreck, his voice gone, the old man ran a trembling hand over his head, pulled out an armchair covered in leopard skin, and sunk into it. He crossed his frail legs, adjusted his suspenders, filled his pipe, and drew long puffs.

He was already snoring.

His wife, an almost imperceptible silhouette compared with the old man's strong personality, timidly shook him. The moon was just above them, round and grand: the dry season had come.

The son was coming . . .

From Bleu Blanc Rouge, published 1998 by Présence Africaine. Copyright Alain Mabankou. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright 2007 by Alison Dundy. All rights reserved.

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