by Kossi Komla-Ebri
Neyla (2004, translated into English and edited by Peter N Pedroni) was first published in Italian, in 2002, and is the first novel by its Togolese author, now a naturalised Italian citizen practising his profession as a surgeon in Italy. Both poignant and naïve, the brief text appears to serve as something of an act of atonement towards the woman – or the type of woman – whose name serves as the novel’s title. The text does nevertheless step into many of the pitfalls inevitably besetting its allegorising aspect – earnestly spelt out in a kind of Afterword by the author: “Africa is Neyla and Neyla is Africa” (107). Yet the title character is no “traditional African woman” but a young woman “ruined” (in the old-fashioned sense of the term) initially by a suave Frenchman who seduces, exploits and abandons the young and beautiful Neyla, fresh from the countryside and driven to seek work in the city to earn enough to send to her younger (male) siblings to school (they are orphans).
Her first (French) lover teaches Neyla to speak the language in a sophisticated way and through his training she acquires the veneer of a cosmopolitan and smoothly confident woman. When she informs this lover of her pregnancy, he abandons her and returns to France to marry his white fiancée – at least enabling Neyla to acquire a small but comfortable home. The shock of the abandonment almost costs her her life, though, and causes her to lose the child she had been expecting. When she recovers, she resorts to “high-class” prostitution of the kind available in African urban centres – waiting outside expensive hotels for the custom of foreign men.
A problematic aspect of the text is the employment throughout of a very particular type of male gaze and of the exclusively male voice in retrospective monologue – for the novel is in fact the narrator’s recollection of his brief and torrid affair with Neyla and of its inevitably tragic end. In the opinion of this reader, Yawo (both narrator and co-protagonist of the novel) comes across as unconscious of many of the ironies and several of the exploitative aspects of his relationship with Neyla - but so does the author, some of whose evocations of Yawo and Neyla’s activities and attitudes appear unconvincing or “unlikely”, given that they were both brought up in the country and conduct their relationship in the context of their own society (albeit here in a city setting). The narrator and the author both do attempt to demonstrate a male-critical gender sensitivity, but often in an unconvincingly heavy-handed manner.
The element of disingenuity is especially evident in Yawo’s declarations (to himself and hence to the reader, rather more often than to Neyla) of instant yet profound and undying love for this young woman, whose appeal to him rests simultaneously on his appreciation of her “un-African”, foreign-seeming sophistication and on her totally unselfish and complete adoration of him, her “little big man” – the latter attitude related to her African and Togolese “localism”. Absent from the text is any qualifying sense of irony: Would even a young woman who has been seriously left in the lurch by a foreign lover be so unworried about the unmistakably temporary visit of a local man who is far from finishing his studies abroad? Would she not have protected herself against falling pregnant by her customers during the period between her two major relationships?
In any event, Komba-Ebri is keen to use his text to score some points against those “who mirror you as ‘diverse’ and (…) send back to you in some way that reflection … which sometimes you can’t even recognise” (27). Nevertheless, Yawo is shown to be aware that he may have “become more individualistic and egotistical than the whites themselves” (29).
One is prompted to ask: On what (local) leg does Yawo really stand? And if his eventual but growing self-aware exploitation and betrayal of Neyla results (to at least some extent) from her willingly and self-consciously permitting the use and abuse of her body and being, where and to whom can the responsibility for the tragedy of Africa be ascribed? Yawo both wants and rejects “traditional” Africa, but he does so even (in the end) to the woman who might seem an ideal combination of traditional knowledge and cosmopolitan style – Neyla. One passage that illustrates the author’s awkward rendition of Yawo’s hypocrisy or double consciousness is the following:
Yawo complains that the West sends out falsely glamorous images of life to “our” (ie Africa’s) young people in soap operas like Dallas and Dynasty, and gets them hooked on “impossible dreams” (79), but the author’s representation of Yawo and Neyla’s extravagantly passionate and public affair does not seem very unlike an African version of those television sagas. Not only does the castigation of Europeans’ “sexual tourism” in Africa (79) ring a bit hollow, coming from Yawo, but the reader cannot discern sufficient evidence of authorial irony in this passage. The author – in the narrator’s voice – calls the “attraction” of Europe a “deadly” one for Africa, “because it bleeds us of the vital forces and of the brains of the continent” (79), but without any clear suggestion that he recognises its seemingly evident application to his own location in Europe.
The most truly dramatic moment in the text occurs when Neyla, who has been invited by Yawo to accompany him to the countryside on a visit to his uncle (a traditional healer there) gets possessed by a prophetic spirit and “speaks” the following words in a raucous voice quite unlike her own:
- and there she breaks off, falling down in a sudden sleep.
On their return from the visit to the country, Yawo falls ill with malaria, but a far worse crisis erupts when Neyla reveals to him that she has discovered that she is pregnant – but not by him. The father is one of the men who had been her sex customers. Dismayed, and still ill, Yawo returns to his parents’ home. An unconvincing aspect of his ensuing thoughts is that he - who had not been loyal enough to Neyla to tell his parents that he was in love with her nor declared an intention to marry her – now seems anguished by how difficult it will be to continue their relationship, when previously he had shown little concern about the fact that he would be leaving her behind upon his (imminent) return to Europe to continue his studies. Tragedy solves his dilemma – tragically, but with rather absurd immediacy: Neyla who had explicitly not attempted an abortion and had clearly indicated to Yawo that she was determined to keep the baby that she was expecting, has a miscarriage that very night and bleeds to death in the poorly equipped local hospital, where the narrator discovers her corpse, and bursts out in anguished lamentation of his loss.
In his epilogue, the author explains to us that:
In these words (that conclude his text) Komla-Ebri perhaps exposes some “false promises” of his own: What manner of rebirth (Renaissance?!) can “ Africa” achieve by “giv[ing] herself totally to the universal” (108)? The only incarnation of this hazy ideal that the reader has been shown is poor Neyla’s no holds barred giving of herself to Yawo, who cuts a poor figure as a saviour, a forgiving and loyal lover, or a healer who would help bring a new Africa - combining the modern and the traditional – to birth. Perhaps the root of the problem is the lauding and idealisation of African/female “generosity”; the continent’s women have survived (when they have) by means of rather more discerning distribution of their favours and less compliant attitudes towards their menfolk than Neyla’s towards Yawo.
Komla-Ebri may in future produce accomplished writing, but in the perception of this reader the novel (like Yawo) promises more than it manages to deliver. Especially, it shows and even tells us far too little about the woman Neyla and her past and present (except for the few rather melodramatically confessional scenes in the text). It is the chief irony of – and problem with – this text that its self-centred narrator is unable sufficiently to transcend his preoccupation with his own desires and needs and with how satisfactorily Neyla fulfils them, to be able to give us a fuller and deeper sense of Neyla’s independent being. This, from a feminist perspective, is a gender imbalance in the text; evaluated as a novelistic portrayal of “ Africa” or of African womanhood it is an evocation that remains limited and somewhat deficient in imagining or restor[y]ing its own abused heroine.
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