The whites had come, cadged a little land to build their forts, and then because of them nothing was ever the same again. They had brought with them things never before heard of here, and people had fought over them, nation against nation, brother against brother. And now the whites’ ambition knew no bounds. Where would it end? (p. 249)
Segu is a story of first contact. Or, to put it more accurately, it is a story of many first contacts. Beginning in 1797, and spanning the first half of the 19th century, it tells of the last days of the Bambara Empire (that spanned present-day Mali), and of a West African society disintegrating under the twin forces of Islam and colonialism.
From the time that Tiekoro, the eldest son of Dousika and Nya Traore, announces his conversion to the new religion of Islam, a curse hangs over the Traore family, intent on claiming each one of their sons. From Timbucktoo to the Middle Passage, from London to plantation Brazil, and then back to the capital city of Segu, it haunts them – and through them, the Bambara Empire itself. As Islam becomes more dominant in West Africa, transforming itself into a militant and exclusionary religion, as the slave trade begins to spread its tentacles inwards from the Gold Coast, and as the French and the British begin to make the first moves in their eventual “scramble for Africa” (the book opens with Mungo Park’s arrival at the capital city), Segu must make the agonising choice between destruction as the price of maintaining the Bambara way of life, and assimilation or dissolution for survival.
Written in 1985, Segu predates by quite a few years the more recent expositions of this genre. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart remains, of course, perhaps the most well-known novel about the disruption of social structures under the pressures of colonialism; and Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North continues to be the classic exploration of the ambiguous personal relationship between coloniser and colonised. The influences of these works are evident on Conde (in fact, one of her characters’ visit to London bears strong resemblances to Season of Migration to the North), but perhaps what is more interesting is how Segu has strong echoes in contemporary work. Its skilful use of the family saga to tell the story of a nation will put readers in the mind of Jennifer Makumbi’s Kintu (2014, Uganda); and its sensitive portrayal of a society that struggles to preserve itself, but knows only too well that its destruction is inevitable, foretells Naivo’s Beyond the Rice Fields (2017, Madagascar) and Patrice Nganang’s Mount Pleasant (2011, Cameroon) (indeed, all three novels are set in the first half of the 19th century, their events separated by a few years). More than these novels, however, Segu bears the imprints of an epic: it is concerned not merely with the breakdown of Bambara society, but with the transformation of a world, and it is that sense that gives Code’s prose an almost transcendent quality, at times:
The child pondered. “How many languages shall I be able to speak?” Naba stroked the little head, with its knobby curls. “I hope you’ll only speak the languages of your heart,” he said. (p. 259)
Segu is also a story about motherhood. While the role of women in a patriarchal society remains circumscribed and limited, by the end of the book, Nya – the chief wife of the deceased Dousika, and (therefore) mother of the Traore children, who are doomed to wander the corners of the earth – has emerged as one of its most important characters. Her character is illumined by her bearing the loss of her children (and the eventual return of some), losses that finally become unbearable, and trigger some of the most memorable lines in the book:
And so Nya was brought low, like a tree eaten away from within by termites … ‘Nya, daughter of Fale,’ they repeated, ‘your ancestors bent the world like a bow and unbent it again like a straight road. Nya, stand erect again too.’ (p. 375)
These lines are also representative of a particular feature of Segu, which stood out for me: language that is so rich in metaphor, that it often engages multiple senses at the same time. “Her heart was bitter,” writes Conde at one point, “bitter as cahuchu, the wood that weeps, which the seringueiros, the rubber gatherers, stabbed with their knives in the forest.” (p. 204) The smell of bitterness, the taste of tears, the tactile sense of stabbing, all come together within an image of men plunging their knives into a tree, combining to create an immensely powerful sensory experience. And so it is elsewhere. “[Is] the spirit … as bitter as the bark of mahogany?” (p. 306), it is asked on an occasion. “Why was life this swamp into which you were drawn in spite of yourself, to emerge defiled, your hands dripping?” (p. 377), it is asked on another. “There are times when a man’s life disgusts him, staring him in the face with its pitted skin and its bad teeth in their rotten gums” (p. 396), it is observed on a third. The sentiments that these lines express are simple enough, but with Conde’s use of language, they hit the reader with all the force of physical sensation.
That is not to say, of course, that reading Segu is like an extended sensory excursion. The novel carries depth and an emotional charge, and it is suffused with a sense of tragic – yet inevitable loss. This comes through in specific lines that are delivered, rapier-like, cutting into the recesses of the soul (“He suddenly felt sorry for her, and his compassion created the illusion of desire.” (p. 292), but more than that, it is present in the atmosphere of the novel. In an essay called ‘The Futurists’, the Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky wrote of the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, on the eve of the Russian Revolution, thus:
I remember walking with Mayakovsky, whom even now in my mind I must call Vladimir Vladimirovich, and not Volodya, along the paved streets of Petersburg, the sun-speckled avenues of the Summer Garden, the Neva embankments, the Zhukovskaya Street, where the woman lived whom the poet loved. Bits of landscape melted into – burned themselves into – Mayakovsky’s poems. The poet was quiet, sad, ironic, calm. He was sure – he knew – that the revolution would happen soon. He looked at the things around him the way one does then the thing is about to disappear. (The Shklovsky Reader, p. 236).
It is a bit like this. Bits of the landscape melt into – burn themselves into – Segu. And Segu is all about looking at the things around one the way one does when they are about to disappear. And if the disappearance is of the Bambaras, of Segu itself, then it is presages in the lives of the Toure sons, who are driven from wherever they go, unable to find or make a home anywhere in the world, until driven back to Segu that itself faces the threat of extinction. Segu is a novel about leave-taking – whether one would or no – and all that that brings with it. But for all that, it is a novel that resists saying goodbye, even until the last page – and, after we have put it down, if we want to know how things really played out, we have to consult history books. Conde and Segu, however, refuse to deliver that, perhaps to affirm that as long as we have literature, there will always be another way to imagine an ending.