As the Crow Flies – Véronique Tadjo

As the Crow Flies (2001) is an enigma.  It would probably be prudent if I reread this 106-page novella before I attempt to write about it.  But no matter.  There is a thread that runs through this book which entangled me and a poetry that ensnared me.  Here’s hoping that talking about it will loosen my thoughts!

The author, Véronique Tadjo, addresses the reader on the first page:

“Indeed, I too would have loved to write one of those serene stories with a beginning and an end.  But as you know only too well, it is never like that.  Lives mingle, people tame one another and part.  Destinies are lost”.

The novella begins with a love affair which quickly goes wrong by the end of the 8-page first chapter.  Also, the narrative switches from the third person to the first person.  I’m familiar with Tadjo’s poetic prose, which is infused with a strong emotional presence; I read and thoroughly enjoyed her other novel, Queen Pokou.  The first chapter ends with:

There are no frontiers.

Then, the thread of this novel slipped through my fingers.  What follows is a series of unconnected vignettes of unnamed characters who live in unnamed Ivorian and Western cities.  These are told in the first person, in the second person or are directly addressed to the reader.  The characters are diverse and each has an interesting story.  There is the actor in the drama troupe; the albino who begs; a pregnant woman who dies in a gas explosion and an old beggar driven to kill a young upstart who’d attempted to share the old beggar’s corner.  A quarter through the book, I begin to lose my way amidst these characters and their inner thoughts. But then I find the thread again, the narrator of the love story reappears and she continues with her story.  But this last for two pages at most and she’s gone. Again. And the other characters and their stories continue. This time, a man returns home to care for his ailing mother, a guy sells umbrella in the rain, a dying woman spends her final night with her lover at the edge of a desert.  There are myths, fantasies and allegories.  Vignettes about seperations, deaths, longing,  an African town, and on the continent itself. I find the thread again, the narrator returns to talk of her desperate yearning for her lover. But when she leaves, this time I’m not lost. Because now I recognize what the author is doing and I’m actually enjoying it.

Peppered among the stories of these unnamed characters who are suffering the African condition or longing for home while in exile in a Western countries are thoughts like:

“I dream of my country, which obsesses me all the time.  I carry it with me all day.  At night, it lies next to me, making love to me.”

or

“It is definitely a century that hangs its head in shame.  Our elders have been called impotent, and we are accused of being ‘limp’… Someone replies to this:  ‘It is a matter of infrastructure and superstructure.  The problem must be analyzed in the specific context of the country.  A lot of progress has been made.  We are no longer the way we used to be’”

No, this novel has no plot. The thread is a weave of love but this is not a linear love story.  It is about the love of a man, the love of one’s people, the love of one’s cities, country and continent. All which grip the narrator in a choke-hold and suffocates her.  She can’t just tell her love story, for all these other loves crowd her senses and flows unto the page.  As such, there is no real end to the story and the final vignette reads:

He has lodged himself in my heart and I do not know what to do with him.  But I do not want to become a bad memory.  I feel a richness pervading me.  This love for you and for him.  Who knows?  It may rot with time… or flourish like a hibiscus in full bloom.”

Does the “he” or “him” refer to the lover?  Does the “you” refer to her neighbors and by extension, Africa?  Perhaps, it’s all of the above.  And what of the narrator?  Is it one woman or a collective of voices?  I cannot answer these questions.  And yet, the stories, the observations, the angst about Africa all felt very familiar.  I’ve walked these roads, thought these things, yearned for more,  and been haunted by this place. And my story is wrapped up in the stories and the fate of my people. Yes, I’m entangled in the thread of this narrative.

As the Crow Flies is an enigma and a challenge but do read it.

On the translation:  Superbly done by Wangui wa Goro. Tellingly, Tadjo’s characteristic lyrical and poetic style is evident in this translation

(note:  this edition of the book is part of Heinemann’s African Writers Series)

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25 comments

  1. This has helped me a lot. I lost interest in the book along the way. I’ll write an exam on it next month so I’m reading it for the second time.

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  2. I’m totally intrigued and would love to read this novella! Judging by the passages you quoted in your review Tadjo’s writing is truly beautiful.

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    • Yes, Tadjo writes really well. Poetic, searing. She gets right to the heart of the matter. There is a review of her other book, Queen Pokou somewhere on this blog.

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    • You are welcome, Marie. I’m working my way through a reading slump with novellas and so far it’s working. Plus, I’m enjoying the books.

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  3. Like you I felt I should reread the book before trying to attempt a review, but in the end tried anyway. Really fantastic review here, you’ve highlighted so well what I felt but couldn’t put into words. It really felt like it was about more than people and also about places. Really looking forward to reading more by the author at some point.

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    • Thanks, Amy. It’s such a surprise and a challenge. But then the vignettes also felt organic and natural. A collective of voices and experience. Quite an ambitious undertaking for this novella. But then she does succeed at what she set out to do.

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  4. I find that often, talking about a book does help me sort out my thoughts and figure out what I want to say! I’d say it worked for you in this case.

    The passages you quoted here are very striking. I’ve never heard of this novella before, but the writing and your description of its themes and structure have me very intrigued. Thank you for this lovely review!

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    • Thank you :). I was so unsure going into the review. As my mother often advises” just sit down and write and the words will come! LOL, it’s never that easy.

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  5. I haven’t read this book, nor had I even heard of it until your review, but all I can say now is that I really really want to find a copy and read it after that stunning first quote you posted. I tend to find that books that start with such strong openings are quite magical.

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    • It does have a strong opening. I also think that she is brave for following through on the book as it came to her and not bowing to the pressure of plot, plot, plot.

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  6. This one was already on my radar, but your thoughts have nudged it further up the TBR list once more. It sounds like the sort of book that I most love to read “in company”, so that one reader overlooks (when vignettes seem so disconnected), the next may notice.

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    • I like the “in company” concept. It will certainly apply to this book. Looking forward to your thoughts when you do get to read it.

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  7. This reads through your post as a beautiful tale of loss & exile, of a multitude of lives lived or more realistically survived & I’m not sure how accurate this is but in a way reminds me of Last Evenings on Earth by Bolano. Thanks for the post, this really appeals.

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    • I have not read any Bolano but I can say that your comment describes the book completely. I guess I did a better job than I thought I would. Thanks!

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  8. Hi Kinna, this sounds fascinating! Thank you for writing about it – although you were hesitant about being able to describe it, you did a very good job. I liked following along as you read the book, got lost, found your way again, and reached a tentative understanding 🙂

    I quite like books where I don’t understand everything, particularly if they’re short, like this. If I was faced with another 400 pages and wasn’t really sure what was going on, I might give up. But for 106 pages I can stick with it. Sounds as if you got plenty out of this one anyway! It’s good to hear about a new writer (new to me I mean!).

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    • Thank you, Andrew. I decided not to sweat over the review so much and just go with how I felt during the reading. I’m going to re-read it soon. I agree that a longer length might have frustrated me. Perhaps the author knew that and kept it short. I recommend her other novel Queen Pokou as well. There is a review of it on this blog.

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