The Spider‐Mother’s Web
August 27, 2018
Of a writer and their work, we can at least know this: together, they make their way through the most perfect labyrinth imaginable, the path long and circular, and their destination the same as their starting point: solitude.
I’m leaving Amsterdam. Despite everything I’ve learned in this city, I still can’t decide if I know Elimane any better or if his mystique has merely grown. It would be appropriate here to evoke the paradox of any quest for knowledge: the more you discover about a little piece of the world, the clearer the vastness of the unknown and of your ignorance becomes; except that equation would only partially convey my feelings toward this man. His case demands a more radical formula, meaning more pessimistic about the very possibility of comprehending a human soul. His resembles an occluded star; it mesmerizes and devours everything that comes near. You examine his life for a time and, pulling back, serious and resigned and old, perhaps desperate even, you whisper: The human soul can’t be understood, it won’t be understood.
Elimane sank into the depths of his Night. The ease of his farewell to the sun fascinates me. The willing embrace of his shadow fascinates me. The mystery of his destination haunts me. I don’t know why he stopped speaking when he had so much left to say. But mainly, it pains me that I can’t do the same. Encountering someone who’s gone silent, truly silent, invariably prompts reflection about the meaning—the necessity—of your own words, as you suddenly wonder whether it’s all just worthless babbling, linguistic sludge.
Time to shut my mouth and pause this diary. The Spider-Mother’s stories tired me out. Amsterdam emptied me. The path of solitude awaits.
T.C. Elimane offered the African authors of my generation, who can’t be described as young for much longer, the chance to tear each other limb from limb in pious and bloody literary jousts. His book was both cathedral and arena; we entered it as if entering a god’s tomb and ended up kneeling in our own blood, offered as libation to the masterpiece. A single page was enough to assure us that we were reading a writer, a hapax, one of those celestial bodies that only appear once in the literary heavens.
I remember one of the many dinner parties we spent with his book. The discussion grew heated, and Béatrice—the sensual, dynamic Béatrice Nanga who I hoped would one day asphyxiate me between her breasts—had said, ever combative, that only the works of true writers merited venomous debate, that they alone boiled the blood like wood alcohol and that if, in an attempt to conciliate that flabby, spineless creature we call general opinion, we avoided the impassioned clashes they provoked, we were doing a dishonor to literature itself. A true writer, she had added, sparks fatal disagreements among true readers, who are forever at war; if you’re not willing to fight to the death for an author’s carcass, like in a game of buzkashī, then fuck off and go drown yourself in that warm puddle of piss you take for quality beer: you’re anything but a reader, much less a writer.
I had backed Béatrice Nanga in her dramatic charge.
T.C. Elimane wasn’t classic, he was cult. Literary mythos is a gaming table. Elimane sat at that table and laid down the three most powerful trump cards there are: first, he chose a name with mysterious initials; then, he only wrote a single book; finally, he disappeared without leaving a trace. So, yes, it was worth sticking your neck out in an attempt to grab hold of his carcass.
It was possible to doubt whether a man named T.C. Elimane had truly existed at one time, or to wonder if that was a pseudonym invented by an author to mess with (or escape) the literary world. No one, however, could have disputed the powerful truth of his book: after reading the final page, violent, pure life would come coursing back through your veins.
Knowing if Homer was a real person, yes or no, remains an interesting question. But in the end, it changes little of his reader’s marvelment; for it is to Homer, whoever or whatever he was, that the reader owes thanks for having written The Iliad and The Odyssey. Likewise, the person, hoax, or legend behind T.C. Elimane mattered little; it was to that name that we were indebted for the work that changed our perspective on literature. Perhaps on life. The Labyrinth of Inhumanity: that was its title, and we went to its pages like manatees straight to the water’s source.
In the beginning, there was a prophecy and there was a King; and the prophecy told the King that the earth would grant him absolute power but demand, in return, the ashes of old men and women, to which the King agreed; he immediately started to burn the elders of his kingdom, before scattering their remains around his palace, where, soon, a forest, a macabre forest, grew, which would be called the labyrinth of inhumanity.
How did we meet, this book and I? By chance, like everyone else. Though I haven’t forgotten what the Spider-Mother told me: chance is always merely a fate unknown to us. My first reading of The Labyrinth of Inhumanity is very recent, just over a month ago. But to say that I knew nothing about Elimane before that reading would be wrong: in high school, already, I knew his name. It was listed in The Reader’s Guide to Negro Literature, one of those ineradicable anthologies that have been used as reference books for schoolchildren in francophone Africa since colonial times.
It was 2008, my junior year at a military boarding school in northern Senegal. Literature was beckoning, and I developed the adolescent dream of becoming a poet, a completely banal ambition when you’re discovering the greatest among them and living in a country still haunted by Senghor’s cumbrous ghost; in other words, a country where a poem remained one of the most reliable tools in the arsenal of seductions. It was an era when you could pick up a girl with a quatrain, memorized or made up.
Accordingly, I began to immerse myself in poetic anthologies, in dictionaries of synonyms, rare words, rhymes too. Mine were terrible, interspersed through wobbly hendecasyllables full of “tears bereft” and “skies dehiscent,” of “hyaline dawns.” I parodied, perverted, plagiarized. I frenetically leafed through my Guide to Negro Literature. Which was where, alongside classics of black literature, between Tchichellé Tchivéla and Tchicaya U Tam’si, I first stumbled upon the unknown name of T.C. Elimane. The corresponding commentary was so distinctive from the rest of the anthology that I lingered on it. The entry read (I kept my textbook):
T.C. Elimane was born in Senegal. He received a scholarship and moved to Paris, where, in 1938, he published a book whose fate proved unusual and tragic: The Labyrinth of Inhumanity.
And what a book! The masterpiece of a young African Negro! A first in France! The novel ignited the kind of literary quarrel for which that country alone has the aptitude and the appetite.
The Labyrinth of Inhumanity counted as many supporters as it did detractors. But though there was talk of prestigious prizes destined for the author and his book, a mysterious literary scandal stopped the rumors cold. The work was pilloried. As for its young author, he disappeared from the literary scene.
Then the war broke out. After 1938, no one heard from this T.C. Elimane again. His fate remains a mystery, despite some interesting hypotheses (on this topic, see, for example, the short but edifying account by the journalist B. Bollème, Who Was the True Negro Rimbaud? Odyssey of a Ghost, Éditions de la Sonde, 1948). Besmirched by the scandal, the publisher took the book off the shelves and destroyed all its remaining copies. The Labyrinth of Inhumanity was never reissued. Today, the work is unobtainable.
It bears repeating: this precocious writer had talent. A touch of genius perhaps. It’s unfortunate that he used it in service of a portrait of despair: his bleak book nourished the colonial vision of Africa as a place of darkness, as violent and barbaric. A continent that had already suffered so much, that was suffering and would continue to suffer, was entitled to expect its authors to paint a more positive picture of it.
Those passages immediately sent me down Elimane’s dusty trail, or rather, his ghost’s trail. I spent weeks trying to find out what became of him, but the Internet didn’t tell me anything that the textbook hadn’t already. There were no photos of Elimane. The few sites that mentioned him did so in such an allusive way that I quickly understood they didn’t know any more than I did. Nearly all of them spoke of a “shameful African writer from the interwar period” without noting what, exactly, was the source of his shame. I wasn’t able to learn more about his book either. I couldn’t find a single account that explored it in depth; no studies or dissertations on it existed.
I mentioned the book to a friend of my father’s, a professor of African literature. He told me that Elimane’s fleeting existence in French letters (he made sure to emphasize “French”) prevented his novel from being discovered in Senegal. “It was written by a eunuch god. People sometimes talk about The Labyrinth of Inhumanity like it’s a sacred book. The truth is that it didn’t inspire a religion. Nobody believes in the book anymore. Maybe no one ever did.”
My search was limited by the fact that I was at that military boarding school in the middle of the bush. I stopped looking and resigned myself to a simple and cruel truth: Elimane had been erased from literary memory, but also, it would appear, from all of human memory, including that of his compatriots (though everyone knows that it’s always your compatriots who forget you first). The Labyrinth of Inhumanity belonged to the other history of literature (which is perhaps the true history of literature): that of books lost in a corridor of time, not cursed even, simply forgotten, and whose corpses, bones, and solitudes blanket the floors of prisons without jailers, and line infinite and silent frozen paths.
I pulled myself away from that sad history and went back to writing love poems in my shaky lines of verse.
In the end, my only major discovery, on an obscure online forum, was the long first sentence of The Labyrinth of Inhumanity, seemingly the sole survivor of the book’s obliteration seventy years prior: In the beginning, there was a prophecy and there was a King; and the prophecy told the King that the earth would grant him absolute power but demand, in return, the ashes of old men and women, and so on.
And now here is how The Labyrinth of Inhumanity came back into my life.
Following my first encounter with Elimane in high school, some time went by before I found myself contending with him again. Of course I had thought about him, but only on occasion and always with a touch of sadness, the way you remember stories that are unfinished or unfinishable—an old friend lost, a manuscript destroyed in a fire, a love rejected out of fear of finally being happy. I passed the baccalaureate, left Senegal, and moved to Paris to continue my studies.
Once here, I briefly resumed my research on Elimane, without success: the book was still impossible to find, even among booksellers who supposedly had impressive inventories. As for B. Bollème’s opuscule, Who Was the True Negro Rimbaud?, I was informed that it hadn’t been reissued since the mid-1970s. My studies and life as an immigrant soon steered me away from The Labyrinth of Inhumanity, a phantom book whose author appeared to have been a mere flick of a match in the deep literary night. And so, little by little, I forgot them.
The course of my studies in France led me to a dissertation on literature that quickly began to feel like an exile from the writer’s Eden. I became a lazy doctoral student, rapidly diverted from the noble path of academia by what was no longer a passing temptation but a desire as pretentious as it was certain: to become a novelist. They warned me: You might never succeed in literature. You might end up bitter! disappointed! marginalized! a failure! Yes, it’s possible, I said. The relentless “they” insisted: Maybe you’ll end up suicidal! Yes, maybe, but life, I added, is nothing more than a series of “maybes,” a slip of a word and yet it can carry so much. I hope it holds my weight but tough luck if it gives way, in which case I’ll get to see what lives or rots below. And then I suggested that “they” go to hell. I told them: No one ever succeeds in literature, so you can take your success and shove it wherever you like.
I wrote a little novel, Anatomy of the Void, which I published with a fairly small press. The book was a flop (seventy-nine copies sold the first two months, including the ones I bought out of my own pocket). And yet one thousand one hundred and eighty-two people had liked the post I put on Facebook to announce the pending publication of my book. Nine hundred and nineteen had left a comment. “Congratulations!” “Proud of you!” “Awesome, bro!” “Bravo!” “An inspiration!” “Thank you, brother. You do us proud,” “Can’t wait to read it, inshallah!” “When’s it out?” (even though I had included the publication date in the post), “How can I get it?” (also in the post), “How much does it cost?” (same), “Interesting title!” “You’re a role model for our youth!” “What’s it about?” (this question embodies the Evil in literature), “Can I order it?” “Is there a PDF?” et cetera. Seventy-nine copies.
I had to wait four or five months after the novel’s publication for it to be rescued from the purgatory of anonymity. An influential journalist, a specialist of so-called francophone literature, reviewed it in twelve hundred characters, including spaces, in Le Monde (the “Africa” section). He voiced a few reservations about my style, but his final sentence stuck me with the formidable, dangerous, actually maybe even diabolical label of “a francophone African writer full of promise.” Granted, I had avoided the terrible and fatal “rising star,” but his praise was no less murderous. It was enough to earn me, as a result, a certain kind of attention in the literary world of Paris’s African diaspora—the Ghetto, as it’s affectionately called by certain shit-talkers, including me. From that moment on, even people who hadn’t read my work, and undoubtedly never would, knew, from a tiny review in Monde Afrique, that I was the umpteenth new young writer to arrive, dripping with promise. At the festivals, meet and greets, literary fairs, and salons to which I was invited, I became the obvious addition to those irradicable roundtables titled “New Voices” or “The New Guard” or “New Writers to Watch” or whatever else was supposedly new in literature but that, in reality, already seemed so old and tired. The minor buzz reached Senegal, my country, where people began to take an interest in me because Paris had, which served as an imprimatur. From that point on, Anatomy of the Void got talked about (“talked about” not meaning read).
All the same, the novel had left me unsatisfied, unhappy perhaps. Soon I felt ashamed of Anatomy of the Void—which I wrote for reasons that I will explain later—and, as if to purge myself of it or bury it, I began dreaming of another great novel, which would be ambitious and decisive. I just had to write it.