101 Weird Writers #24 — Olympe Bhêly-Quénum

Dreams, Death & the African Weird in "A Child in the Bush of Ghosts"

This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.

OlympeBelhyQuenumOlympe Bhêly-Quénum (1928 – ) is a Beninese writer, journalist, literary critic, and researcher. Born in Ouidah, Benin, Bhêly-Quénum won the Grand prix littéraire de l’Afrique noire for Le Chant du lac in 1966. He moved to France in the late 1940’s and lives there today. In the 1960s he served as the editor-in-chief of the African magazine L’Afrique Actuelle and then served with UNESCO. His stories and novels originally written in French have been translated into English, German, Czech, and Japanese. “A Child in the Bush of Ghosts” (1950)  is a ghost story, perhaps, but also a surreal vision; André Breton famously called the story “du rêve a l’état brut” (dream of the raw). WFR.com has previously reprinted his story “The Night Watchman” for online reader as well. 101 Weird Writers is proud to present this appreciation of Bhêly-Quénum and “A Child in the Bush of Ghosts,” as written by returning contributor Leif Schenstead-Harris.

— Adam Mills, editor of 101 Weird Writers

***

“I felt that the bush was not supposed to be the abode of the dead but of the living. Wasn’t I one of them?”

— Codjo, “A Child in the Bush of Ghosts”

I. Death & Dreams

It’s probably fair to say that, like other stories written by Olympe Bhêly-Quénum, this short story is fundamentally a question about nothing. Not the nothingness of, say, a story suffering from superficial writing, empty characters, and a threadbare plot. No, “A Child in the Bush of Ghosts” instead occupies itself with the full and complex perceived nothingness of death. To be precise Bhêly-Quénum’s story exposes the bizarre and tormented relationship between the living and the dead. As such it also exposes the weirdness of death, mourning, and even, in extremis, a tradition that seeks to understand literature’s own spectrality. We might say that death—a place of loss and strangeness—provides an empty centre (the question of nothing) around which Bhêly-Quénum’s phantasmagoric vision restlessly circles, dreaming itself into places necessarily unintelligible but not totally inaccessible.

At heart, the story poses a dreamlike question: what is Codjo, the titular young child—is he dead or alive? Does he abide in the world of Houêto populated by his uncle Akpoto and his parents? Or is he more properly an inhabitant of Wassaï, the paradisiacal but empty “little house of joy without a keeper” (309)? Perhaps neither of these options is the correct one. Flickering between worlds accessible by a topographical and conceptual sidestep, Codjo’s tale reveals an ambiguity to the words “dead” and “living” that shows the need for a different kind of question, a different kind of logic. For finally, if there is a weirdness to “A Child in the Bush of Ghosts,” it’s precisely here, in the ambiguity between life and death. Literature forms the weirding contact zone between states of being; it’s the threshold across which the phantasm, or ghost, steps in. At the story’s end Codjo’s father asks him “Are you dead or are you a living person in our midst?” (309). Codjo’s answer is hardly reassuring: “Nobody’s dead. Death doesn’t exist and if it does, no dead man will ever return” (309). What kind of logic is this?

II. Olympe Bhêly-Quénum…

A Beninois writer from the mid-twentieth century, Olympe Bhely-Quenum’s literary presence in the Anglophone world is at best marginal. His writing has been selectively translated: “A Child in the Bush of Ghosts” (1949) in The Weird, “The Night Watchman (Metamorphosis of an African Objet d’Art)” in Callaloo (1988), and Un Piège sans fin (1960), translated as Snares Without End (1988) and published most recently in the CARAF series of books by the University of Virginia. This marginalization is entirely unfortunate. Bhêly-Quénum’s work is, as Charles Forsdick points out, an early critique of neocolonial assumptions and the dialectic of centres and peripheries (126); moreover, it is a collection of provoking and original literature.

9782708704558FSThe most famous of Bhêly-Quénum’s work translated into English is perhaps Un Piège sans fin, a text that has mystified critics by its apparently disorganized narrative. In his introduction to the novel Abioseh Michael Porter notes that despite its clearly topical anticolonial politics Un Piège sans fin has flown under the radar of readers and critics, save a few who comment on the novel’s perceived defects—or, more accurately, on the novel’s many divergences from their expectations of realist novels. Even Dorothy Blair, translator of the novel into English, writes that “the incoherence, the unconvincing nature of some of the episodes, the lack of focus on the main character might be attributed to a deliberate attempt to propound the theme of the absurd, which has no consistency” (255). Another critic, François Salien, discounts the book as a novel entirely. Salien, Porter summarizes, cites the book’s lack of character development and its “inordinately long and incoherent second half” to conclude that the book is “an essay focusing on the emptiness of human existence” (xx). There are worse things to call the weird, I suppose.

We can certainly agree that the protagonist of Un Piège sans fin, a young man named Ahouna, connects questions of existence, identity, death, and fiction in blunt, uncompromising language. In the midpoint of the novel Ahouna, whose life has rapidly become bafflingly difficult, experiences a dramatic collapse:

I suddenly had the revelation of the futility of my existence, the vanity and vacuity of all the actions I had ever performed and was still performing. I realized the absurdity of my personality being developed with the aim of making it endure as long as possible, so prolonging its very emptiness. I was basing my life on a fiction and did not know it. Emptiness, the only thing that really exists, for the very reason that it is all around us, had become palpable. I could touch it with my finger. Trapped as I was in the heart of the absurd, there was nothing left for me but to hurl myself into the void. (85)

Un Piège sans fin has a different trajectory and theme than “A Child in the Bush of Ghosts”. Nevertheless in this charged moment it reveals themes that echo across Bhêly-Quénum’s work: emptiness, estrangement, self-reflection, and personal revelation. But here, unlike in “A Child in the Bush of Ghosts”, death’s nothingness has achieved a materiality staved off by the short story’s dreamlike displacement. Consequently the weird rush of estrangement flirts dangerously with an empty and frozen existentialism familiar from the work of continental French literature by writers such as Sartre and Camus, also writing at the same time.

Le Chant du lac (1965), Bhêly-Quénum’s sequel to Un Piège sans fin, moves to a different extreme. The sequel is a novel saddened by its own cynicism about the weird, which is here embodied by the seeming ghosts of two drowned lovers whose “song” foretells death, and who have achieved a near-divine status among local village people. In this novel, however, the weird gives way not to French existentialism but to a weary and rationalist materialism. As such its fantastic elements are explained away as natural phenomena. Yet Bhêly-Quénum doesn’t completely dismiss the weird. As Dorothy Blair points out, Le Chant du lac concludes “with the village in mourning for their dead divinities, which gives the impression that the final sympathies of the author are with the poetic, elegiac aspect of his tale, rather than with pragmatic, everyday rationalism” (258).

In later work Bhêly-Quénum’s concern with prolonged, deathly nothingness—the nothing that here as elsewhere sparks weirdness in fiction—changes again. It emerges many years later in his novel L’Initie (1979) with the theme of the abiku, a spirit child born to die and to be reincarnated over and over again in his or her mother’s womb. This theme—the spirit child—occurs in novels as different as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) and Ben Okri’s The Famished Road (1991).

III. …& The African Short Story

It goes without saying, but here it is anyway: there is no “the” African short story, and it’s wise to suspect definitive statements made along those lines. Nevertheless there are definitive trends of which the foremost is the paucity of published short stories in African mid-century writing. In broad strokes Charles Larson argues the following:

examples of African writers establishing their careers and their audience by publishing short stories in the little magazines or quarterlies and then collecting them in a volume (as many have done in the West) are not found with enough frequency to establish a meaningful pattern. (xvii)

Reasons that generally discouraged literary production (political instability, lack of access to publishing houses, gendered or economic structures of repression) especially curtailed the writing of short stories. This history is a much longer one than can be told here, but it’s important to note in passing that Bhêly-Quénum was the editor-in-chief of two journals, La Vie africaine (1962-65) and L’Afrique actuelle (1965-68), each an attempt to provide a forum for African writing in multiple genres.

Another trend worth observing is a preference for realism in African short fiction, as C.L. Innes acknowledges in her introduction to The Heinemann Book of Contemporary African Short Stories (1992). On selecting stories for an anthology of short stories by African writers up to 1983 with Chinua Achebe as co-editor, Innes writes that

Almost all the stories we read […] belonged to the realist mode and their political message was implicit rather than explicit. Where the fantastic was referred to, it was usually distanced by being offered as an experience related by one of the characters, and which the reader could take or leave—as dream, as drunken delirium, as naive superstition perhaps. But in many of the newer stories the visionary and the fantastic are offered directly to the reader with no mediation. (5)

Innes is right to note a general change. Though he is far from the only writer writing in this fashion, Ben Okri’s award-winning turn toward the fantastic in late twentieth-century Nigerian fiction indicates a rising interest in the mode, both domestically and internationally. (Okri’s incandescent “Worlds that Flourish” is also collected in The Weird, for those keeping track.) In this context Bhêly-Quénum’s short story demonstrates that quality writing in the fantastic may not have been prolific during the middle of the century—but it certainly was present.

However, Innes’ generalization must be qualified. What is it that happens in “A Child in the Bush of Ghosts” if not “an experience related by one of the characters, and which the reader could take or leave”? To dismiss this narrative style as an awkward mannerism recalls the general distrust of some Gothic critics toward ghost stories. Andrew Smith summarizes:

The ghost story has posed a problem for scholars working on the Gothic. In its unsettling of the relationship between the living and the dead the ghost story ostensibly raises some radical, putatively metaphysical, questions about identity. However, the structure of the ghost story often appears less unsettling, as its conventionality and easy-going fireside ambience creates, at least in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a mood which is antithetical to grand metaphysical debate. (123)

Well, maybe so. Innes and Smith point to a misfit between a tale’s manner of telling and the tale’s content (this would be a criticism of “mannered” fiction) that certainly holds true for much pallid, uninspired fiction. But the same formal features are present in Bhêly-Quénum’s short story. Are the child’s words the remnants of a dream? Fervid imaginings? Simple fabulation? Just as the weird is untrammeled by such worries, it also seems “antithetical to grand metaphysical debate” and allergic to magisterial pronouncements.  Perhaps what is weird here is something that exceeds such generic expectations—something that bores holes in them, removes the props that hold their conceptual doors open and pushes up on their structural arches until minute cracks, then catastrophic collapses, result.

IV. “A Child in the Bush of Ghosts”

In an essay on transformation and monstrosity Barbara Hurd writes that “What frightens us might also have the power to transform us” (90). Bhêly-Quénum’s short story supports this intuition. For although suffused with seemingly realist details and descriptions, “A Child in the Bush of Ghosts” is from the first an exercise in illogical transformations and wild emotional shifts from joy to fear—the initial clumsy knockabout between uncle and nephew a physical preliminary to the disjointed events to come. And one cannot escape the feeling that some kind of transformation has occurred by the conclusion to the story.

At the same time the source of such transformative fear seems both obvious and obfuscated: Codjo, a child “pampered and idle” (306), gets lost and sees terrifying things such as “an emaciated face, the face of a fleshless skull, which made a horrid and repugnant grimace” (305). This early vision signals to the reader the coddled boy’s obsessive fascination with death, here taking the old, familiar shape of a grimacing skull. It’s not until some time later that a transformation occurs, precipitated by the boy’s encounter with the question of nothingness. Having resolved to “grow big and to live even beyond death” (306) Codjo encounters an uncanny spectre of mortality, a skeleton. His response is significant: “In my view, it represented nothing. It was nothingness in motion, and I was a man” (306). Living “beyond death” the boy has now seemingly graduated into adulthood and, at the same time, confronted the difference between the living and the dead. In other words, he’s gotten over his fear. “I felt no emotion,” he says, “or more precisely I was not afraid since I considered it as something I was used to” (307). Accustomed to death, blithely confident, “fortified […] not with courage […] but with cockiness” Codjo meets death as “a man” (307). Nothing weird to see here—but Bhêly-Quénum is just getting started. It’s only now that strangeness begins to creep in.

Despite his excessive confidence Codjo returns to the idea of death and nothingness. This is to be expected, since the child’s seeming escape from his fears has occurred only as a result of a significant act of forgetting. As he walks with the skeleton Codjo makes a risky descent into memory:

After all, what was there to be afraid of? Holding in my hand the hand of a human skeleton? Human. That was just the word I needed. […] No, really, I was no longer afraid. I was eight years old when my grandmother and my great-grandfather stopped living. I remember having cried a great deal by their bodies, seated beside the mortal remains of these old people in their barely gnarled height during my vigil, despite my parents’ vain efforts to spare me what they called too violent shocks. Yes, I still remember: I hurled myself on my grandmother when they wanted to put her in the coffin; I took her hand and squeezed it very hard so as to communicate all my warmth to her. O the piercing coldness she left in my hands and which is still there, evermore! It was her that I felt again all along, while the skeleton kept my hand in its own. (307)

What has he forgotten? Sorrow. Mourning. Human acts that keep the dead alive. At this moment in the story Codjo isn’t separated from the dead. Instead he is pressed close, hand in hand, his body forming a ligature with a walking corpse. With such closeness his fear of nothingness departs. And yet even in this moment the memory of violently discovering death—a child hurling himself on his grandmother’s cold corpse—holds a discomforting power. Worth remembering is an early remark Codjo makes: “There is nothing I detest so much as giving unbridled expression to our sorrows” (305). Repression is a dubious coping tactic.

From this moment until his auspicious return at the beginning of his own funeral, Codjo’s experiences become even more fractured reflections on nothingness and death. (A careful reader will also find death’s mirror-twin: sexuality. Not for nothing do we have the phrase “la petite mort.”) One example might speak for many: surrounded by 77 skeletons, the child cries in a tragic and echoing voice: “I have come to visit you without misgivings. I’m not afraid of you because you used to be men; for me you still are and I don’t believe in death!” (308). His own echoing voice and the silent skeletons fail to answer his obvious consternation. What could death say? Ghosts, after all, speak very little. However a transformation is occurring anyway, unknown to the boy and unsought by him: the line between the dead and the living is disappearing.

The story must end sometime, and so the boy ultimately reduces his experiences to the most basic of descriptions: “I went for a walk, and I’ve come back with flesh and blood, body and soul, cured from the fear of death” (310). Codjo believes himself purely living, the quickened union of two dualities—flesh and blood, body and soul. But what about the duality of life and death? He does not see that he has been transformed, and carries within himself the ghosts he believes he saw. Death’s knowledge has carved a hole in Codjo; this is where his ghosts live. From here, inside his forgotten sorrow, Codjo’s ghosts proceed outward to populate the bush with a dreamlike phantasmagoria.

Codjo’s uncle, handsome Akpoto, gives us a partial explanation of why the events seem so strange to us as readers. Watching the child run through his first dream-stricken, ghost-riddled passage through the bush, Akpoto calmly says “A single step, but a big one, separated me from you, my boy. And then, of course, I had nothing to fear for you, for the bush is not dangerous” (305). The bush may not be dangerous, but it might be terrifying—especially if a child brings into it his own intimations of mortality. By the end of the story Codjo believes that the fear of death is something one can be liberated from, as if death and life were two separate states of being. Whether a reader of “A Child in the Bush of Ghosts” agrees with the boy is another thing entirely.

V. The Weird?

How does Bhêly-Quénum’s story fit into the larger conceptual framework of the weird? One way to think about this question might be to look at how the story transforms not just its characters, but how it deals with linguistic expectations. In 1937 a young Samuel Beckett announced his ambitious goal for how literature might reshape language. Beckett’s imperative may well stand for one of the dominant themes in twentieth century writing, regardless of national origin:

To bore one hole after another in it [language], until what lurks behind it—be it something or nothing—begins to seep through […]. At first it can only be a matter of somehow finding a method by which we can represent this mocking attitude towards the word, through words. In this dissonance between the means and their use it will perhaps become possible to feel a whisper of that final music or that silence that underlies All. (“Letter to Axel Kaun”)

Using similar words, China Miéville speaks of the weird as a “virus of holes, a burrowing infestation, an infestation of burrowingness itself” (1115). In Olympe Bhêly-Quénum’s work we see a project similar to Beckett’s and Miéville’s. His is an ongoing narrative effort that bores through language, one that circles the whispers of death’s nothingness; it is a language of words and absences fascinated by the ligatures between the quick and the dead. Experiences break open and become gestures pointing toward something terrible and moving, something textured but hole-y. We could do worse than to reread Codjo’s tale attuned to the stranger notes.

Here comes that weird music.

_____________________________

 

Works Cited

Beckett, Samuel. “Letter to Axel Kaun.” 1937. The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Vol. I: 1929-1940. Ed. Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 512-520. Print.

Bhêly-Quénum, Olympe. Snares Without End [Un piège sans fin]. 1960. Trans. Dorothy S. Blair. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988. Print.

———. “A Child in the Bush of Ghosts.” 1950. The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. Ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. New York: Tor, 2011. 304-310. Print.

Blair, Dorothy. African Literature in French. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976. Print.

Forsdick, Charles. “World Literature, Littérature-Monde: Whose Literature? Whose World?” Paragraph 33.1 (2010): 125-143. Print.

Hurd, Barbara. Walking the Wrack Line: On Tidal Shifts and What Remains. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2008. Print.

Innes, C.L.. Introduction to The Heinemann Book of Contemporary African Short Stories. Eds. Achebe, Chinua and C.L. Innes. Oxford: Heinemann, 1992. 1-8. Print.

Larson, Charles R. Introduction to Under African Skies: Modern African Stories. Ed. Charles R. Larson. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997. xi-xix. Print.

Miéville, China. “Afterweird: The Efficacy of a Worm-Eaten Dictionary.” The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. Ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. New York: Tor, 2011. 1113-1116. Print.

Porter, Abioseh Michael. Introduction to Snares Without End [Un piège sans fin]. Olympe Bhêly-Quénum. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988. Print.

Salien, François. “Un Piège sans fin.” Dictionnaire des oeuvres littéraires négro-africaines de langue française. Ed. Ambroise Kom. Sherbrooke: Naaman, 1983. 601-604. Print.

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