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.”
“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)