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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Life and a Half

Sony Labou Tansi

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To purchase Life and a Half

Title: Life and a Half
Author: Sony Labou Tansi
Genre: Novel
Written: 1979 (Eng. 2011)
Length: 138 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Life and a Half - US
Life and a Half - UK
Life and a Half - Canada
La vie et demie - Canada
Life and a Half - India
La vie et demie - France
Verschlungenes Leben - Deutschland
La vita e mezza - Italia
  • French title: La vie et demie
  • Translated and with a Preface by Alison Dundy
  • With an Introduction by Dominic Thomas

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Our Assessment:

B : fervid, if ultimately too free-wheeling

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 16/12/2011 James Copnall
Die Zeit . 22/4/1983 Armin Kerker

  From the Reviews:
  • "Life and a Half is a rejection of dictatorship -- carried to astonishing lengths. (...) Labou Tansi's writing split away from the classical French norms of many of his francophone African predecessors, including Laye. The Ivorian Ahmadou Kouroma may have infused French with the cadence and images of his native language. But Labou Tansi's departure is more brutal. Alison Dundy's translation cherishes the shock value of many of the phrases (.....) The relentless satire is so angry, and so startling it is not always easy to read" - James Copnall, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Eine Inhaltsangabe will ich mir ersparen, sie dürfte wohl auch nur schwer zu erbringen sein. Dafür sei dieser Roman jedem, den Titel Thesen Tendenzen Experten afrikanischer Literatur besonders, als Lektüre angeraten." - Armin Kerker, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Life and a Half, Sony Labou Tansi's seminal 1979 novel (finally available in English, more than three decades later ...), is a frenzied work from the height of African dictatorial excess, the time of Bokassa, Idi Amin, and Mobuto (to name only the best-known of the flamboyant, sorry lot). Sony Labou Tansi's own Republic of Congo (the other Congo -- not the Mobuto-led Zaïre, but rather the one across the river, also known as Congo-Brazzaville) was never dominated by a leader who managed to achieve such international notoriety (or, at least, headlines), but ugly, repressive dictatorial rule was just as much the norm here. Life and a Half is a carefully (but also prodigally) veiled attack on his own country's situation and its leaders' excesses, but it applies, if not universally certainly near continentally (certainly at that time); not as specific in its attacks as Ahmadou Kourouma's En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages -- the apogee of African savage-dictator-lit -- it remains powerful both as indictment and creative vision.
       The novel comes with a 'Warning' rather than a preface, the author saying straight off: "Life and a Half, it's about writing absent-mindedly." ("ça s'appelle écrire par étourderie"), and there's certainly almost a feel of 'automatic writing' (as the surrealists practiced it) to the flow and flood of Sony's narrative. A story does unfold in the rush of language Sony offers, but hardly smoothly or straightforwardly; situations change abruptly, the suddenness of autocratic regime change (among other things) turning life (and conditions) upside down.
       Life and a Half begins with the Providential Guide -- as the local dictator in this fictional Katamalanasia styles himself -- brutalizing a "rag-father", Martial, in front of his family. In fact, he kills him -- but there's a hitch: the rag man defiantly insists: "I do not want to die this death" and, regardless of what the Providential Guide does, he doesn't die. At a certain point it becomes academic -- there are just lopped off pieces left, and then the Providential Guide makes sure even those are done away with (half made into "a pâté and the other half to make stew for lunch the next day") -- but a good man is hard to keep down, and Martial doesn't let the Providential Guide off so easy. Perhaps it's his guilt that gets to him, but the Providential Guide finds Martial popping up -- at least in his mind's eye, if not necessarily anyone else's -- in various manifestations at inconvenient times. And this Martial is even less easy to 'kill' with, say, a burst of machine-gun fire than the original rag-man.
       Martial's daughter, Chaïdana, just fifteen at the time, survives the Providential Guide's carnage -- and continues to be protected from his advances by whatever it is of her father that lingers on: "If you rape her, Martial will get his revenge", the Providential Guide is warned, and the threat is too real for him to entirely discount it. Eventually, Chaïdana flees and sets herself up at the Life and a Half Hotel, where she begins exacting some revenge on the regime; soon enough:

Chaïdana had finished doling out death by champagne to a large majority of the most influential members of the Katamalanasian dictatorship. Indeed, by the time the Minister of the Interior responsible for security died, there had been state funerals for thirty-six of the fifty ministers and secretaries in the Republic of Katamalanasia.
       Years pass, dictators change: Guide Henry-Tender-Heart, Guide Jean-Heart-of-Father, Guide Jean-Heart-of-Stone. The balance of power shifts, the abuse of it rarely stops:
     Time passed in Yourma as it always did. There was always a time for lead, a time for screams, a time for fear.
       One thing that can't be eradicated is Martial -- at least as symbol, and thorn in the autocrats' sides. One attempt to silence all opposition (and mention of Martial) is censorship, culminating in an enormous cultural auto-da-fé:
Tons and tons of books were burned; thousands of books -- national books, foreign books, religious books, artistic books, scientific books. Monuments and works of art were burned. In the end, the censors burned everything they laid eyes on because they didn't have time to read everything (and some functionaries from the Ministry of Censorship didn't know how to read).
       Chaïdana recalls a telegram her father had sent to a foreign power: "This should be the century of responsibility. Stop. End." But there is little interest in taking responsibility: those in power are self-serving and nothing else, and in their desperation to continue to hold that power abuse it to outrageous degrees.
       Death is not final here: Martial lingers on most powerfully, but there are numerous variations on the theme. The Providential Guide faked his own death early in his life to escape being arrested; Monsieur L'Abbé claims: "I've gone beyond the body. [...] I've also gone beyond death." And one of the dictators voluntarily goes down in spectacular fashion, shouting: "I die to save you from me !" even as he can't save them from the next dictator.
       As the Providential Guide was told early on in his career, "you're nothing if you're not feared", and Katamalanasia is a world where this has been taken to the extreme of its leaders also being nothing but feared: there's nothing else to them, and so the society exists in this strange limbo, one where everyone is essentially 'dead'. There's little sense of time advancing -- even as the novel moves across many years -- as the country is mired in its own timeless hell; indeed, life there is much as one might imagine the eternity of hell.
       Sony's writing is vivid and inventive -- a great challenge to the translator (as translator Alison Dundy also notes in her Preface) -- but most of this comes across quite well in the translation; decades after it was first published it's easy to forget how ground-breaking Sony's approach to language -- this colonial language, it should be emphasized -- was. The greater difficulties of the text -- its unexpected twists and jumps, its unusual flow (dammed up at times, then bursting forth in a mad rush) -- are inherent to it. It makes for a powerful and often fascinating if also often frustrating read. Nevertheless, Life and a Half remains more than merely a work of literary-historical significance.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 July 2011

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Life and a Half: Reviews: Sony Labou Tansi: Other books by Sony Labou Tansi under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books from and about Africa

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About the Author:

       Sony Labou Tansi (1947-1995) spent most of his life in Congo-Brazzaville. He led a theatrical troupe, and wrote numerous plays and novels.

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