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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Waiting for the Vote of
the Wild Animals

Ahmadou Kourouma

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To purchase Waiting for the Vote of the Wild Animals

Title: Waiting for the Vote of the Wild Animals
Author: Ahmadou Kourouma
Genre: Novel
Written: 1998 (Eng. 2001/2003)
Length: 268 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Waiting for the Vote of the Wild Animals - US
Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote - UK
Waiting for the Vote of the Wild Animals - Canada
En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages - France
Die Nächte des großen Jägers - Deutschland
  • French title: En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages
  • Translated (2001) and with an Afterword by Carrol F. Coates
  • Awarded the Prix Tropiques (1998), Grand Prix de la Société des gens de lettres, Livre Inter (1999)
  • Includes a Bibliography and a Glossary
  • Also translated (as Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote, 2003) by Frank Wynne for Heinemann/UK (British edition)

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Our Assessment:

A- : an ambitious and impressive work about 20th-century Western Africa

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 22/2/2003 David Isaacson
The Guardian . 15/3/2003 Phil Daoust
The Independent . 19/4/2003 Margaret Busby
Libération . 15/10/1998 Antoine de Gaudemar
Le Monde diplomatique . 10/1999 Abdourahman A. Waberi
The Spectator A 10/5/2003 David Caute
The Times . 15/2/2003 Steve Jelbert
TLS . 14/3/2003 James Copnall
World Lit. Today . Spring/1999 Adele King

  Review Consensus:


  From the Reviews:
  • "And yet, for all the suspension of disbelief demanded by West Africa's natural and supernatural lore, Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote is a brilliant, often hilarious, political satire." - David Isaacson, Daily Telegraph

  • "(L)yrical but bitter" - Phil Daoust, The Guardian

  • "All in all, this is a tour de force –- original, irreverent, brutal, funny, poetic -– in which history and myth are brilliantly evoked. It offers no overt solution for corruption and misuse of power, other than the proverb: 'Once you have said that the anus of the hyena smells bad, you have said it all.' " - Margaret Busby, The Independent

  • "Le portrait de l'Afrique qui surgit sous la plume féroce et pleine d'humour de l'auteur est assez dément, apocalyptique: Ahmadou Kourouma, qui ne s'avoue pourtant pas pessimiste, souligne un à un les maux qui rongent l'Afrique postcoloniale, mélange ambivalent et peu manichéen de tyrannie et de laisser-faire, de pauvreté et de gabegie, de sérieux et d'infantilisme, de corruption et de naïveté." - Antoine de Gaudemar, Libération

  • "Etonnante, souvent déroutante, la plume de Kourouma explore la complexité du champ politique et historique des Afriques récentes, tout en usant d'une architecture et d'une langue fort originales." - Abdourahman A. Waberi, Le Monde diplomatique

  • "This witty and wholly authentic chronicle of black African atrocity mockingly presents itself as a tribute to home-grown dictators, mainly of the francophone variety. (...) Kourouma’s cynical tale of megalomania and corruption brings to mind the stylistic intensity of Wole Soyinka rather than the more laid-back, empirical humour of his fellow Nigerian Chinua Achebe. Kourouma’s work is full of closely observed detail, but the detail is always at the service of the prototypical and emblematic." - David Caute, The Spectator

  • "It is a brutal and fascinating work, and the author prefers to emphasise the wealth of local culture obscured by decades of misrule." - Steve Jelbert, The Times

  • "Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote is at times riotously funny, and its satire is rarely less than effective. (...) What saves this book from becoming an exercise in popular historicisim is its abrupt yet frequently wonderful use of language. " - James Copnall, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(L)ikely to become a classic, as Kourouma is an exceptional storyteller, possessing a style that combines sophisticated literary techniques with elements of the oral tale, praise songs, and Malinke proverbs, often scatological." - Adele King, World Literature Today

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:

       Waiting for the Vote of the Wild Animals tells the story of Koyaga, who comes to be a prototypical African dictator, ruling over the "Republic of the Gulf". The Francophone West African Republic of the Gulf is, in fact, modeled on an actual country -- Togo --, and Koyaga's life and rule are clearly based on its long-time leader, Gnassingbé Eyadema. (Author Kourouma lived and worked in Togo 1983-1993.)
       Much of Waiting for the Vote of the Wild Animals is based on fact, but Kourouma presents it in a radically transformed way. He has accelerated the transformation of history into myth: the novel reads like a saga of mythical days of old, filled with the supernatural and the superhuman. Because, however, many of the events and the figures are easily recognizable from the recent past -- indeed, because many of his readers lived through the times and events described here -- it is all the more effective in conveying the outlandishness and outrageousness of recent history.
       The novel is presented in six parts. In the English translation Carrol Coates actually reverts to a Malinke term, sumu, to describe these -- meaning "ritual gathering of hunters' society". (The French original used a French term: veillées, a sort of evening get-together or vigil.) Koyaga is being honored at these sumus: his life story is recounted and commented upon, he and his exploits praised.
       It is not a straightforward fiction: "we are going to sing and dance your donsomana" Koyaga is told by praise-singer Bingo at the beginning. (A donsomana is described as a "purificatory narrative".) Kourouma impressively translates this song-and-dance to the page.
       There is some give and take in the narrative, with different voices coming to the fore, different viewpoints being presented. There are also appropriate proverbs introducing and concluding each part. There is also -- as is evident from the few quotes above -- a mixing of language, as Kourouma introduces Malinke and other African terms where appropriate. (A glossary explaining these -- as well as some of the French terms that were retained -- makes it fairly easy for the reader to make sense of what is meant.)
       Koyaga is a master hunter -- "one of the three greatest hunters of humankind" as Bingo somewhat ambiguously (at least in the English translation) describes him. His story begins with his father. Koyaga's forbears were Naked people, without social organization, without chiefs, each family living isolated in a fortified village. European ethnologists called then Paleonegritic; everyone just referred to them as "Paleos". The most impressive fighter of his generation was Tchao, who would go on to become Koyaga's father. He was also the first Paleo to fight for the Colonial power, the French, in World War I -- and the first Naked man to wear clothing. He became a hero, but when he returned to his native lands he had to choose between reverting to nakedness or wearing clothes so he could display his medals.
       Tchao's triumphs were, in fact, a victory for the colonizers. The past was done with; it meant the end for the Paleos as an independent people. Tchao died, in prison, when Koyaga was seven.
       Already as a child Koyaga was a great hunter, torn between tradition and the obligations forced upon him by the colonizers (school and the like). He went to serve in the French military, in Vietnam, and also became something of a hero. His political career began much like that of Eyadema: leading a protest by veterans against the first president of Togo (Sylvanus Olympio -- Fricassa Santos in the novel), about money and power.
       The clash that pits Koyaga and Santos against each other is vividly presented. Kourouma opts not for magical realism but magical sensationalism. From soothsaying to shape shifting, explanations are largely beyond the rational. The result is the same as it was in reality: the president is killed, the great hunter ascendant. (Koyaga does not immediately get all power, but does so soon enough.)
       Koyaga's rule is not an easy one: there are assassination attempts (which he miraculously survives), socialist and other plots, foreign powers to take advantage of, monuments to build. Koyaga is part of a brotherhood of dictators, and their various endeavours and enterprises and hardships are also described in alternately amusing and horrifying asides.
       Where Kourouma is perhaps too meticulous in presenting historical fact in his novel Allah n'est pas obligé (see our review), he strikes a good balance here -- perhaps helped by the fact that he dresses most of it up in at least a nominally fictional guise. Some of the African "leaders" are acknowledged with their actual names, but most (especially those he goes on at any length about) are given a different name (or description). Readily identifiable, beside Eyadema and Santos, are, among others:

  • Nkutigi Fondio (Guinea's Sékou Touré)
  • Tiekoroni, "the crafty little old man with the fedora" (the Côte d'Ivoire's Félix Houphouët-Boigny)
  • Emperor Bosuma (the Central African Republic's "Emperor" Jean-Bédel Bokassa)
  • the man of the jackal totem (Morocco's King Hassan II)
  • the man of the leopard totem (the Congo-Zaïre's Mobuto Sese Seko)
  • Pace Humba (Patrice Lumumba)
  • Paul II (Belgium's King Leopold II)
  • the dictator with the lion totem (Ethiopia's Haile Selassie)
       The long fourth Sumu describes what happened in many of these African countries, and how they wound up in the hands of these dictators -- and how the dictators then abused their positions. Koyaga meets with many of them, and they all also learn from each other.
       Tiekeroni shares his wisdom with Koyaga, including the observation that:
A man has reached his fullest measure and become a thaumaturge when he has freed himself from the distinction between truth and lie.
       To create a distinction between truth and lie is to open a dangerous gulf: better never to allow it. And, as Tiekeroni, points out:
Who are the individuals we call great men ? They are without any doubt those who are the greatest fabricators. (...) The greatest human literary works, in every civilization, will always be tales, legends.
       It is a notion constantly reinforced by Kourouma himself, fabricating on top of already absurd truths.
       In their insane grandeur the tyrants often seem like they could only be fictional characters; sadly, the most outrageous undertakings are often those that actually took place. Emperor Bosuma imagines the United Nations will move to his enticing hunting reserve (by "unanimous vote", of course). The man of the leopard totem "never left his country without taking the entire treasury and all the high officials of his republic", making it impossible for any of his closest associates to topple his government while he was abroad.
       Kourouma presents these cynics and despots who ruined their countries very well. Koyaga, however, remains the focus, representative for all of them, emulating almost all their excesses, whether in building palaces or suppressing opposition.
       Not all goes well for Koyaga as pressure comes to bear on him. He is the mightiest hunter, but after three decades in power not everyone is as tolerant as before. Why, at one point: French "President Mitterand recommended that African heads of state change policies and cease being dictators in order to become angelic democrats". Change does come, but Koyaga remains ever optimistic, knowing that even under the new conditions he can assert himself.

       Waiting for the Vote of the Wild Animals is a panoramic look at post-independence western Africa and the dictators that have caused so much harm and grief. Kourouma's book veers between wild fantasy and harshest reality. The presentation of the story (or stories) is impressive -- vivid, humorous, gripping. Recommended.

       Note: Waiting for the Vote of the Wild Animals apparently sold over 100,000 copies in France, and was awarded several major prizes. Kourouma's next novel, Allah n'est pas obligé (2000, see our review) was even more widely acclaimed and also won numerous prestigious prizes -- including the Prix Renaudot. Kourouma is acknowledged as one of the leading writers in Africa today.
       Waiting for the Vote of the Wild Animals was published in an English translation by the University Press of Virginia in May, 2001. They have presented the book very well: it is a solid translation (of a difficult text), with an informative afterword and bibliography. It is also an attractive volume. (It is presented as part of their admirable CARAF-series ("Caribbean and African Literature Translated from French").)
       No disrespect intended to the University Press of Virginia -- which should be commended for publishing this work -- but the success (critical and popular) of Kourouma's work in France leads one to wonder: why didn't any major American (or British) publisher publish this novel ?
       The book has been made available to the English-speaking public, and that is certainly what is most important. In fact, the University Press of Virginia may even be in a better position to keep the book in print than most for-profit publishers. Unfortunately, the university-press label, the small printing, and the limited marketing budget also bring certain drawbacks with them. Mainly: almost no one seems aware that this book exists. The press and the media seem to have taken no notice whatsoever of the book. We found no reviews of Waiting for the Vote of the Wild Animals in any major (or practically any minor) publication. In fact, the only English-language review we found -- in World Literature Today -- is of the French original, and not the translation. There may well have been some reviews in local periodicals and academic journals which we did not find, but essentially the book was completely ignored.
       One can reasonably state that Waiting for the Vote of the Wild Animals is probably one of the five most significant (and best) African novels to appear in English in 2001. Not only is it a work of considerable literary merit, it is also what must be considered an important work. That Waiting for the Vote of the Wild Animals should attract so little critical notice (and, as a consequence, is likely not come to the attention of those who might be interested in reading it) in the English-speaking world is both sad and shocking.

       Update (3/2003): British publication of the second translation of this book has led to quite a few reviews. So maybe it was just American disinterest .....

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Waiting for the Vote of the Wild Animals: Reviews: Ahmadou Kourouma: Other books by Ahmadou Kourouma under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Index of books relating to Africa

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About the Author:

       Ahmadou Kourouma was born in the Ivory Coast in 1927 and died in 2003.

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© 2002-2010 the complete review

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