Reviewer: Peter Wuteh Vakunta, Ph.D.
La vie est un sale boulot (2009) finds a niche in the corpus of sociological novels on two counts. Primarily, the text arises out of a social context plagued by ontological problems. The backdrop against which the narrative unfolds is Libreville in Gabon. Furthermore, the text is written in a manner that puts characters at odds with societal and governmental apparatuses. The socio-cultural depth of Otsiemi’s narrative necessitates recourse to an exegetic paradigm if one is to do justice to literary criticism. The first canker that the novelist satirizes in the text is the obnoxious attitude of government officials who tend to abuse power with impunity as this excerpt illustrates: “Les flics de Libreville étaient connus pour leur brutalité de chien mal nourris. Et dans la population librevilloise, on n’appréciait guère leurs méthodes quand il s’agissait d’arrêter des petits délinquants pendant que les ouattara vidaient les caisses de l’Etat sans être inquiétés.”(107)[The cops in Libreville were notorious for acts of brutality that made them look like malnourished dogs. And the inhabitants of Libreville hardly appreciated the fact that they arrested petty criminals when the ouattara were emptying government coffers with impunity.] In a footnote, Otsiemi translates the word ouattara as ‘homme fortuné’ which could be rendered in English as “wealthy man”. Interestingly, by inserting this indigenous language word in his French language text, Otsiemi succeeds in indigenizing the language of the ex-colonizer by using French as a conveyor of African thought pattern and imagination; a phenomenon that Zabus (1991) describes as “the writer’s attempt at textualizing linguistic differentiation and at conveying African concepts, thought-patterns, and linguistic features through the ex-colonizer’s language.”(3)
A critical reading of La vie est un sale boulot lends itself to the contention according to which the African palimpsest is at work in Otsiemi’s novel, a process which Zabus (1991) describes as the African writer’s “attempts to simulate the character of African speech in a Europhone text…”(101) To put this differently, readers and critics of Otsiemi’s novel are invited to uncover the cultural layers and contesting indigenous languages in ferment behind the apparently homogenous French in the novel as seen in the following excerpt: “Un vrai ouistiti, je ne dis pas, balança Lebèque, histoire d’en rajouter. Il bosse au ministère du Commerce. Elle dit qu’elle a percé depuis qu’elle couille avec lui.”(46)[A real ouistiti, needless to say, Lebèque hurled and added that he works at the Ministry of Commerce. She says she’s been deflowered since he’s been screwing her.] Notice that the indigenous language word “ouistiti” provides not just local color but also a robust cultural substructure that undergirds Otsiemi’s narrative, even if it has a pejorative connotation given that the word alludes to the flirtatious character of the man referenced in this excerpt. This novel is a palimpsest in the sense that, behind the scriptural authority of the ex-colonizer’s language, the incompletely erased African tongue can still be perceived as seen in the example above. This innovative style of fictional writing could be described as an attempt to subvert the dominance of the ex-colonizer’s language in a post-colonial text. Arguing along similar lines, Ashcroft et al. posit that postcolonial literature emerges in its present form “out of the experience of colonization and the tension with the imperial power, and by emphasizing their differences from the assumptions of the imperial centre. It is this which makes them distinctively postcolonial. (2) In other words, colonized peoples tend to turn the reality of colonial history on its head by writing back to the imperial center from the empire. This transpires when indigenous peoples begin to write their own histories and literatures using the ex-colonizer’s language.
The particularity of Otsiemi’s fictional style is code-switching, a phenomenon which Haugan refers to as the “the alternate use of two languages, including everything from the introduction of a single unassimilated word up to a complete sentence or more into the context of another language” (cited in Omole, 58). In his attempt to transpose the speech mannerisms of Gabonese people into the French language, the novelist has recourse to a variety of linguistic codes. There is no gainsaying the fact that La vie est un sale boulot harbors an amalgam of codes—French, English, and indigenous language lexes. It is a novel in which street-talk and slang blend freely with conventional French to produce an exhilirating new code. Arguing along similar lines, Zabus observes that the “Europhone African novel is best described as a hybrid product which is looking “inward” into African orature and literature and “outward” to imported literary traditions”(4) as seen in the following excerpt: “Il a deux gosses. Et sa meuf, elle est en cloque. Ce n’est pas avec son boulot de merde qu’il arrive à les nourrir. Il est obligé de faire un peu de bizness pour arrondir les fins de mois.”(47)[He’s got two kids. And his girlfriend has a bun in the oven. It’s not with that shitty job of his that he’s going to feed them. He has to do some business to make ends meet.] In his attempt to transpose the speech patterns of members of a particular social stratum in Gabon, the novelist switches codes when he deems it necessary. Notice that the word ‘bizness’ is a calque on the English language lexeme ‘business’. Code-switching enables this novelist to transpose loanwords culled from native Gabonese languages into the Standard French in which the novel is written.
La vie est un sale boulot reads like literature of dissent in which the author adopts an anti-establishment attitude as the following excerpt suggests: “Sur indication d’Ozone, Chicano fit un demi-cercle devant le grand bȃtiment à deux niveaux sur lequel flottait le flanion de la République bananière du Gabon.”(53)[As indicated by Ozone, Chicano made a semi-circle in front of the tall two-story building on which flew the flag of the Banana Republic of Gabon.] This statement is an undisguised lampoon on the dysfunctional Gabonese government and the ineptitude of civil servants in this country. By branding Gabon ‘a banana republic’ Otsiemi registers his disenchantment with the status quo in this sub-Saharan African nation-state.
In his attempt to Africanize his novel, Otsiemi deconstructs the French language in a bid to not only achieve cultural revival but also to stave off linguistic imperialism. The technique that makes linguistic indigenization feasible in this novel is semantic shift, a technique that enables the novelist to endow well-known words with new significations as seen in the following excerpt: “La chasse aux jeunes pubères, il en avait fait son second métier.Il en avait mal engrossé dans la ville, et en avait fait ses deuxièmes bureaux. Et des deuxièmes bureaux de ce genre, il en avait pêle-mêle.”(58)[Chasing after pubescent girls had become his second job. He had impregnated quite a few in the city and had made some his concubines. He had tons of concubines of this nature.] It should be noted that the expression deuxième bureau has lost its original meaning of “second office”in Otsiemi’s text and has acquired a new semantic signification. In this context, these two words are used together to describe a mistress.
Otsiemi de-foreignizes his text by employing Africanisms as follows: “Fervent traditionaliste initié au Bwiti comme d’autres peuvent être de fervents chrétiens, Tchicot comptait passer le restant de ses jours dans son village natal, à plus de 600 kilomètres de Libreville.”(101)[Fervent traditionalist initiated into the Bwiti just as others could be fervent believers initiated into the Christian faith,Tchicot had hoped to spend the rest of his life in his native village situated 600 kilometers from Libreville.] Conscious of the fact that recourse to Africanisms such as “Bwiti” may constitute a comprehension bottle-neck to non-African readers, the novelist resorts to para-textual elucidation. In a footnote he sheds light on the signification of the lexeme “Bwiti” as follows: “Société secrète traditionnelle” which could be translated into English as “traditional secret society”. Otsiemi’s Africanization of French is evident in many ways throughout the text but the most conspicuous manifestation of this writing style is the incorporation of cultural artifacts in his narrative as this passage indicates: “Tchicot croqua une tranche de sa kola rouge qu’il gardait jalousement dans l’un des tirroirs de son bureau.”(100)[Tchicot chewed a lobe of red kola-nut which he kept jealously in one of the drawers of his desk.] In a footnote, the novelist sheds light on the signification of the word ‘kola’ as follows: “fruits du colatier” [fruit of the kola nut tree.] This pithy definition may not unravel the conundrum for readers unfamiliar with this exotic tree.
A more explicit footnote would be helpful to uninformed readers: The kola nut is the fruit of the kola tree, a genus of trees that are native to the tropical rain forests of Africa. The kola nut has a bitter flavor and contains caffeine. It is chewed in many West African cultures, individually or in group settings. It is often used ceremonially, presented to chiefs or guests. These socio-cultural aspects of La vie est un sale boulot may align the text with many other African texts that belong in the category of ethnographic novels. Another cultural element that gives this novel an ethnographic appeal is the word “yamba” as used in the following excerpt: “Mohamed était un dealer de yamba à la petite semaine. Koumba lui offrait sa protection contre trente pour cent de son petit commerce” (102) [Mohamed was a dealer in Yamba during the early part of the week. Koumba offered him protection and received thirty percent of his sales as compensation.] It should be noted that this passage is Otsiemi’s denunciation of the corrupt practices of the forces of law and order in Gabon given that Koumba is a police-officer in the novel. In a footnote, Otsiemi provides a translation for the word yamba: cannabis. The word dealer is another instance of recourse to loan-words in the novel.
The foregoing discourse lends credence to the observation that La vie est un sale boulot is a jumble of French and African language lexes as revealed in the examples above. Otsiemi has superposed two apparently irreconcilable sets of linguistic elements in his narrative—foreign and indigenous, which in vivo have remained distinct; he has indigenized the French language, thereby redefining and subverting its foreigness, as Zabus would have it(4).This new indigenized medium takes the ex-colonizer’s language hostage as seen in this excerpt: “Owoula ravala sa bile et lui serra l’os après s’être présenté” (87) [Owoula swallowed back his bile and squeezed his bone.] Notice the indigenization of the French expression “serrer l’os”. In a foot, Otsiemi notes as that “serrer l’os à quelqu’un” means “lui serrer la main” [squeeze someone’s bone: shake his hand]
Another indigenizing trope that Ortiemi employs abundantly in his novel is neologism. Neology enables the novelist to find words that convey the mindset and worldview of his characters as seen in the following excerpt: "Il te fera jobber comme un dingue pour un salaire de paria sous prétexte qu’il te donne la bouffe en case." (48)[He will make you work like a lunatic for a pittance under the pretext that he gives you grub at home.]It should be noted that the verb « jobber » is a neologism calqued on the English language noun «job ». One other telling example is the following : «Vous me connaissez, les gars. J’ai jamais macroté un copain. »(66) [You know me, guys. I have never crooked a buddy.] Otsiemi’s newly minted word, macroté, derives from the standard French verb escroquer, which translates as «to dupe» in English.
In a nutshell, La vie est un sale boulot provides readers with an opportunity to read the kind of Africanized French that is spoken in the streets and neighborhoods in Gabon’s major cities such as Libreville. The text is replete with standard French words, slangs and indigenous language words and expressions that endow it with a reasonable dose of cultural authenticity. Semantic shifts characteristic of Frangabonais enable Otsiemi to attribute his own meanings to existing French words. If up to a certain point, each postcolonial writer has to re-invent language, the situation of Francophone writers residing out of France is peculiar in that for them, French is an occasion for constant mutations and modifications. Engaged as he is in the jugglery of language, Otsiemi has elected to create his own language of fiction in a multilingual context affected by signs of diglossia. His fiction exists at the interface of French as a hegemonic language and its indigenized variant. Whether or not he has achieved the feat of decolonizing African literature remains a moot point. Much as we hail his success at enriching his novel with Africanisms and speech patterns characteristic of Gabonese parlance, we must not lose sight of the fact that La vie est un sale boulot is written entirely in French— a European language. In spite of the novelist’s impressive word-smiting evident throughout the novel, it is still an essentially French language text to which the reader is treated. For Otsiemi French is a necessary evil with which he has to come to terms. He seems to be in love with both French and his indigenous Gabonese mother tongue.
All in all, Otsiemi’s La vie est un sale boulot is a seminal novel that offers instructors and students of Francophone literature ample opportunities to embrace multilingualism/multiculturalism in the classroom setting. It is a well written work that I would highly recommend for inclusion in the General Education Core curricular reading list. The book is a breakthrough in innovative creative writing.
Aschcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Tiffin. Eds. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and
Practice in Post-colonial Literatures. London and New York: Routledge, 1989.
Omole, James O. “Code-switching in Soyinka’s The Interpreters.” Eds. Epstein, L.
Edmund and Robert Kole. The Language of African Literature.Trenton :
Africa World Press, 1998.
Zabus, Chantal. The African Palimpsest: Indigenization of Language in the West African
Europhone Novel. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1991.
About the author
Dr. Peter Wuteh Vakunta teaches French and Francophone literatures at the University of Indianapolis in the United States of America where he’s Chair of the Department of Modern Languages. He is author of several fictional and theoretical books in his discipline.
 The sociological novel, also known as the social problem (or social protest) novel, is a work of fiction in which a prevailing social problem is dramatized through its effect on characters in the novel.
 Exegesis is the critical explanation or interpretation of a text. Exegetic interpretation deals with a wide range of critical disciplines such as textual criticism, investigation into the history and origins of texts, the study of the historical and cultural backgrounds of authors, the nomenclature of text typologies as well as an analysis of grammatical and syntactical structures of texts.
 A calque or loan translation is a word or phrase borrowed from another language by literal, word-for-word translation
 A feature of language or culture regarded as characteristically African
 Gabonese French