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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

So Long a Letter

Mariama Bâ

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase So Long a Letter

Title: So Long a Letter
Author: Mariama Bâ
Genre: Novel
Written: 1979 (Eng. 1981)
Length: 89 pages
Original in: French
Availability: So Long a Letter - US
So Long a Letter - UK
So Long a Letter - Canada
Une si longue lettre - Canada
Une si longue lettre - France
Ein so langer Brief - Deutschland
Mi carta más larga - España
  • French title: Une si longue lettre
  • Translated by Modupé Bodé-Thomas
  • Noma Award, 1980

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Our Assessment:

B : fine, personal account of a society between tradition and modernity -- and the consequences for women

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Times . 12/8/1982 Andrew Sinclair

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is a moving book, percipient and wise, about the slow pace of emancipation for women in modern Africa." - Andrew Sinclair, The Times

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:

       Mariama Bâ's novel consists of 'so long a letter' that newly widowed Ramatoulaye writes to her good friend, Aissatou. Ramatoulaye recalls that: "Our lives developed in parallel", and they continue to do so, as both have recently lost their husbands -- "Yesterday you were divorced. Today I am a widow." Each married a man over at least some family objections, and each lost their man to a younger woman. After some thirty years of marriage -- and twelve children together -- Ramatoulaye's husband, Modou, took one of his daughter's classmates as a second wife -- and squandered most of his money and possessions on her, a cruel betrayal of Ramatoulaye and much of his family.
       Ramatoulaye is proud to be a teacher, and aware of the responsibilities she has; her husband, too, came back to serve the nation after studying in France (without getting seduced by Europe). She recalls:

     It was the privilege of our generation to be the link between two periods of our history, one of domination, the other of independence. We remained young and efficient, for we were the messengers of a new design.
       She also notes:
We all agreed that much dismantling was needed to introduce modernity within our tradition. Torn between the past and the present, we deplored the 'hard sweat' that would be inevitable. We counted the possible losses. But we knew that nothing would be as before. We were full of nostalgia but were resolutely progressive.
       On the most personal level, the battle turns out to be far more complicated. Meddling in-laws with their own agendas undermine the family unit, and both Modou and Aissatou's husband, Mawdo, give in. Ramatoulaye knows the young women share only a small part of the blame -- the girl Modou marries: "like many others, was a lamb slaughtered on the altar of affluence."
       Ramatoulaye's anger is, of course, personal -- especially now, when she sees how Modou wasted so much of their money on his second wife, leaving her and his many children practically nothing -- but her grievance is also much broader, a concern for a society that cannot value the family unit and that allows it to so easily be undermined, with the cost borne largely by the innocent. And she worries about the consequences:
     The success of the family is born of a couple's harmony, as the harmony of multiple instruments creates a pleasant symphony.
     The nation is made up of all the families, rich or poor, united or separated, aware or unaware. The success of a nation therefore depends inevitably on the family.
       This letter of grief and complaint is one of the few outlets Ramatoulaye has; she has no possibility of redress. Early on she describes the mourners: "a buzzing crowd, welcomed in my house that has been stripped of all that could be stolen, all that could be spoilt" -- because despite the occasion there are those who would sully or taken advantage. There can be no expectation of proper behavior. Later, a child is hurt by a motorist while playing in the street -- yet another case of a clash of cultures, each not so much unwilling to yield as unable to, and there not being room for both.
       So Long a Letter depicts a society uneasily torn between tradition and modernity. Ramatoulaye -- describing herself as: "a bit of a rebel" -- is the dependable figure that allows society to move forward: wife, mother, teacher. Yet she and Aissatou, and their best intentions, are undermined even by those who should be closest to them -- specifically: weak men, but also in-laws pursuing their own agendas. It does not bode well.
       Bâ concludes on a hopeful note: despite everything, Ramatoulaye avers: "hope still lives on within me". It's an encouraging ending to a rather bleak story of a strong but battered woman, but it's hard to believe that all the hurdles facing the life she envisions -- for herself, her children, and her country -- can be conquered.
       A strong story -- though a rather rough translation.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 January 2012

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So Long a Letter: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Senegalese author Mariama Bâ lived 1929 to 1981.

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