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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Shameful State

Sony Labou Tansi

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To purchase The Shameful State

Title: The Shameful State
Author: Sony Labou Tansi
Genre: Novel
Written: 1981 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 119 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Shameful State - US
The Shameful State - UK
The Shameful State - Canada
L'État honteux - Canada
L'État honteux - France
Die heillose Verfassung - Deutschland
Turpe stato - Italia
  • French title: L'État honteux
  • Translated by Dominic Thomas
  • Foreword by Alain Mabanckou

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Our Assessment:

B : dark, exuberant

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 2/11/2015 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Perspectives switch rapidly (.....) These shifts happen from one line to the next and in a single sentence. The effect is compelling and helps give a wider understanding. This book showcases Tansiís incredible talent and his position, even in death, as one of Africaís important voices." - Publishers Weekly

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:

       The Shameful State works well as a title, 'shameful' applying equally well to both the fictional (but Congo-resembling) nation and the local human condition depicted here.
       "This is the story of Colonel Martillimi Lopez", the novel opens, and this 'National Lopez' is yet another third-rate dictator of an African country, concerned only with remaining in power and imposing his will (and showing he can impose it, regardless of how absurd the demand); unsurprisingly, he drives the country to (further) ruin.
       National Lopez fixates on his hernia, symbol of man and nation: even his sex is warped, and uncorrected. He's not shy about putting those herniated balls on display, either -- but then they are also a public barometer:

     "My brothers and dear fellow countrymen, my hernia is sad today." Not really sure why, but we applauded. That happens when you're in a crowd: one person does something and everyone joins in. Long live Lopez, Long live National Mom !
       The Shameful State shows the absurdity of following such a leader -- and how easy it is to fall into that trap. (The way the ruthless National Lopez treats any opposition helps, too.)
       National Lopez venerates and respects only his mother, 'National Mom', and wants to make her proud -- albeit in the only way he can, a very warped one. Where even the mother of the nation has birthed an abomination, little normalcy or innocence can be expected.
       Dismissive opposition to the old colonial power -- "the shame of the "Flemish" who have always pecked at us" -- is easy, but National Lopez faces repeated challenges from homegrown opponents too. Himself a fraud, he nevertheless insists on his own legitimacy:
     "You know, Mom, I'm a good president. I was elected by the dead and the living, with 99.9 percent of the vote
       He makes a show of being his own man, in every respect -- creating conditions for the arbitrary terror that leaves even his sycophants uncertain how best to serve him.
       A nice scene has him complain to a maitre d' that the meat he is served is too bloody; assured that: "this is civilized cuisine" he responds:
     "What one earth makes you think I'm civilized ?"
       Sony Labou Tansi constantly shifts voices and perspectives -- even from one sentence to the next and back again -- making for a dense, quick rush of a story, flooding like a river in its abrupt shifts (and the occasional eddies). It nevertheless easily, powerfully conveys this 'shameful state' -- where even National Lopez is led to wonder: "Why are people like this in this country ?" (right after he says -- of some sixty thousand protesters --: "They are anti-people: kill the whole bloody lot of them !" which might give him a clue ...)
       Early on in the text translator Dominic Thomas provides a lone footnote, explaining:
     Sony Labou Tansi's experimentation with language is a defining feature of his pioneering corpus of works. A range of devices are used, including subversions of well-known proverbs or translations of these from the original Lingala directly into French. Attempting to explain each and every translation choice would be futile.
       Thomas gamely does what he can (without further explanation), and certainly the basic feel of the text, in all its mad, contorted rush, seems authentic -- as does the sense that there's more to it, behind and in the language.
       The Shameful State isn't an easily approachable text, packing in a great deal, reveling in absurdity and excess (right down to that "twenty-eight thousand six hundred and forty cubic foot container holding all the tears contributed by the people of the fatherland" (along with sundry contributions from elsewhere) ...).
       A powerful but decidedly uneasy (in all respects) work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 March 2016

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The Shameful State: 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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© 2016 the complete review

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