Doomi Golo: The Hidden Notebooks by Boubacar Boris Diop is the first novel to be translated from Wolof, the most widely spoken language in Senegal. The novel is a series of letters that the fictional Nguirane Faye writes to his grandson Badou, who lives in exile in some unknown place and whom Nguirane has not seen in years. These letters are contained in seven notebooks that he will bury under the mango tree in the courtyard of his house in Niarela. He uses the notebooks to share lessons that he could not impart to Badou in person. Early in the book he writes:
I would have preferred to talk to you face-to-face, of course, like any storyteller worthy of that name. Then I could have made your heart beat faster and challenged you with my perplexing riddles. You would have had to look for clues buried deep under the ocean and spend many nights patiently searching for them to unlock their secrets. But, I am writing to you, since that’s my only option. I must confess that without that, I wouldn’t give a damn whether I was alive or dead.
I was drawn in immediately with the feeling of sitting around a campfire and being told tales. I could hardly put the book down for the atmosphere of sometimes cozy, sometimes fabulist storytelling—fables, parables, love stories, and quests for power. There are children that turn into monkeys, a prophet-beggar who is repeatedly killed only to return in another form, two gorillas who mistake their images in a mirror for enemies and attack themselves in a brutal scene where both eventually die, a black woman who trades one of her children as the price for being turned into a white woman. I have never read a book quite like this except much shorter tales that were read to me as a child and I had a similar experience: just one more chapter and then I’ll go to bed, I promise.
In the Third Notebook, named Playing In The Dark, Nguirane tries to answer the question he expects his grandson might want answered: Who are you? He writes this:
After so many lost battles and faded hopes, here I am now, at the mercy of the passage of time, like a hollow gourd swept away by the waves. You will understand when you read my Notebooks that mine was not what one would call a happy and fulfilling life. I have spent years literally just staggering around in the dark. No doubt it would have been better if I had steered clear of all those dreams and grandiose ideas. To spell out the brutal truth: my social status is nil, and not a single soul remembers me now. One day passes, then another and another. Each comes with its tribulations and its little sorrows. If we put them all in a row, one sunrise after another, that, apparently, is what we call time. Or a human life. Is it really that simple? No matter—each passing day brings us a bit closer to the one that blots out all the others under a thin layer of sand.
Throughout the book Diop addresses colonization and the struggle to maintain cultural identity. He says this to Badou:
I am perfectly aware, Badou, that turning one’s back on the outside world is tantamount to the kiss of death. It’s bound to be a good thing if a nation lets the winds that are blowing from all corners of the globe expand its chest, but not unless we do what we can to preserve the crucible destined to receive its breath when they are blowing. Life, after all, is not born out of the void.
He also deals with the particular role of women in resisting colonization, repeatedly declaring “shame on the nation that doesn’t listen to its little girls” and says this about their particular skill in using storytelling as an act of defiance:
Only our women dared resist, albeit not openly. They did this by composing songs with a double meaning – in a slightly altered form, we still hear them today – mocking the cowardice of their brothers and husbands in the fight against the Lion of Mbering-Saaj. Surreptitiously and with great cunning, they also ridiculed the tyrant himself while pretending to extol his courage and integrity.
Nguirane is philosophical, funny, unsparing, magical, his stories deeply rooted in African culture, language, history, and thought. And he writes irresistibly. I felt captured in the music and magic of his storytelling.
He tells his grandson about his process of writing his Notebooks and what is required of a storyteller:
A storyteller lacking in strength of character may find himself drawn to obscure places where all the doors are firmly locked. If the last word of the fable refuses to drown itself in the sea, not a single child with eyes full of wonder will hasten to breathe in its fragrance, hoping to enter Paradise.
Doomi Golo is unforgettable.
About Susan Edsall
Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >