“Segu wasn’t made for peace,” says one of the characters in Maryse Condé’s sprawling, stunning third novel. “Segu loves the smell of gunpowder and the taste of blood.” The book charts the turbulent history of the West African kingdom of Segu, and the plight of its people, the Bambara. At the same time it zones in and traces the mixed fortunes and internal struggles of key members of the aristocratic Traore family.
First published in France in 1984, then the United States in 1987, Guadeloupe-born Condé’s masterpiece is now available to a wider readership after joining the ranks of Penguin Modern Classics. In an age when publishers are quick to anoint an author and bestow classic status on any bestseller, it is refreshing to come upon a title worthy of the honour by a writer deserving of praise.
Segu begins in 1797 with a series of singular incidents. A white man is spotted approaching the gates to the kingdom. Dousika Traore, the king's most trusted court advisor, is summoned to the palace. His concubine Sira goes into labour. And Samake, a fellow council member and Dousika's arch-enemy, devises a plot to destroy him.
Condé expands on each incident and explores its consequences, and as we read on we realise how much those initial happenings serve as foreshadowing for what lies ahead.
Over the coming years, more white men appear, either with new religions or plans to plunder and colonise; Traore men give judgements and lead the way or are themselves judged and led astray; Traore women give birth to new generations; and lives are wrecked by fear, betrayal, rivalry and hostility.
After dealing with the fate of the Traore patriarch, Condé turns her attention to the trajectories of his four sons. Appalled by Segu’s endemic violence, first-born Tiekoro covertly embraces Islam, moves to Timbuktu to attend a Quranic school, then becomes an authority on Muslim affairs. Siga, the son of one of Dousika’s slaves, heads to Fez, becomes a merchant, then returns home to run his own tannery. Naba is kidnapped by slave traders, manhandled until “he no longer counted as a human being”, and shipped off to a plantation in Brazil. Youngest son Malobali rapes, loots and kills his way through the Ashanti kingdom, before finding redemption of sorts in Christianity.
These four sons and their descendants are caught up in the currents of change in Segu and buffeted by equally formidable forces outside the realm. Some are baffled at being mocked or condemned for their skin colour: “A black skin made you a creature apart. But why?”
One is sceptical of the mission his seminary is training him for: “To Christianise and civilise Africa. In other words, to pervert it?” Many are victims of war, neglect, misunderstanding, regime change or just casual cruelty. One is sentenced to death for being “a sorcerer, or a Muslim, it hardly mattered which”.
But Condé places more demands on her readers when her characters are not victims of bad deeds but perpetrators. We empathise with Tiekoro when he falls desperately for the beguiling Ayisha and doubts his love can be requited. On the next page, however, we learn he has been physically intimate with his father’s young slaves since he was 12. A couple of pages later he rapes a girl.
Malobali’s unchecked desires and brutal sprees are just as unsettling and it becomes hard to root for such “noblemen”, even when they do develop a conscience or atone for their crimes.
Fortunately, Condé’s epic novel is so well populated and so wide-ranging that we do not linger long over a sole character, a single episode or a moment of madness.
Segu is a saga, one whose many plot strands and family lines take us in and out of Africa and whose diverse and exotic secondary cast includes fetish priests and griots, lion-hunters and soothsayers, marabouts and mercenaries.
Equally varied is Condé’s prose. Harsh matters are described in correspondingly tough, terse, uncompromising language. Quieter, more contemplative scenes unfold in lyrical bursts – such as these airy phrasings: a departing soul “floated above rivers, soared over hills, breathed in without a tremor the thick mist that rose from the marshes”; above a town “floated a sort of mist, made up of the breath of the faithful praising Allah”.
Unlike Joseph Conrad's Costaguana (Nostromo) or Gabriel García Márquez's Macondo (One Hundred Years of Solitude), Condé's Segu is a real place and her novel is based on historical events. What makes the book "classic" is her seamless blend of hard fact and mesmerising fiction.
Malcolm Forbes is a freelance writer based in Edinburgh.