The destiny that now draws me far away from here is still called life, but I have to admit it’s like a leap into the void. They say that before he hits the ground a man falling from a great height sees all the moments of his existence come together and drain from him in batches of images.
And for me, it’s in batches of mingled words—that the life that brought me here is melting away.
In what unfolds as one final personal war of words, echoing against the darkness that surrounds him, the speaker at the heart of Shadow of Things to Come explains what has brought him to the edge of an uncertain future. Piece by piece he pulls together the memories that comprise his twenty-one years of life, essentially setting down the details of his past and readying himself to let go of all he has ever been and known. As he recounts his story, he chooses his words carefully, holding onto them in the shifting moonlight, for his is a society in which language has been reduced to meaningless nicknames and slogans. Through a spare and cautious narrative, the image of an Orwellian nightmare slowly takes shape.
This novella by Togolese author and playwright, Kossi Efoui, is set in an unnamed African nation which has fallen under some kind of dictatorial rule in which, during the first stage—the “Time of Annexation”—people are disappeared and forced to work at a place known as the Plantation until relieved by death or madness. Once the “commodity” (oil) is discovered, everything shifts. The disappearances stop and a new future is imagined. Now, in the service of “Mother Rebirth,” an aggressive campaign begins to bring tribal forest dwelling peoples into the “modern” world—for their own good and to secure pipeline passage for the precious resource. Although Efoui has lived in self-imposed exile in France in opposition to the Gnassingbé regime, since 1992, it would be misleading to read this dystopic work as any kind of direct analogy for his homeland or any specific historical or political condition. The origin of the society his characters live in is never explored. As a result, this tale has an amorphous quality that makes it widely applicable in space and time. And all the more disquieting for it.
The speaker, from the room in which he is hiding, recalls that he was five years old when his father, a saxophonist, was spirited away by two shadowy figures. The removals appeared random. Agents would arrive with the common incantation: On account of the circumstances, prepare yourself to be temporarily removed from your nearest and dearest, and forcibly take their chosen target or targets away. But before they left, they would take all photographic evidence of the human forms they had come to retrieve. At the time it was unknown where all these unfortunate souls had been taken, only that “temporary,” like so much of the language employed, was devoid of meaning. Appropriate language was but another regulated item in a society in which compliance to an ever changing set of rules and guidelines was inforced:
Words themselves seemed to suffer the same restrictions as the circulation of approved commodities. The word ‘annexation,’ for example, was not to be heard anywhere. The way things were in my childhood, we kept silent a lot.
That degradation…says the speaker.
The loss of the speaker’s father drove his mother mad, she was soon committed to an institution and he was left in the care of Mama Maize, an eccentric woman who cared for a large group of abandoned or orphaned children, supporting herself by whatever means possible. Her goal was to pass on to them the tools, practical and emotional, that they would need to survive. Her moto was: No one’s immune from miracles.
And one day a miracle does occur. The speaker’s father returns, one of a minority of those who managed to survive removal. The speaker is nine years old by this point, The End of the Times of Annexation has been marked by celebrations of Independence and Rebirth, and when he has long given up hope of a reunion, out of the dust and shadows a man emerges still holding a saxophone case, “barely a skeleton, almost membraneless, wholly incapable of embracing—and voiceless.” The occasion is immediately recorded by a photographer.
The condition of the speaker’s father affords him a pension and a place to live in this new world order. Father and son move into this unit along with Ikko, an abandoned boy from Mama Maize’s home who is mistakenly added to the family group and becomes the speaker’s “administrative brother.” Our hero is a bright boy and this leads to his acceptance into the Spearhead Institute several years later. He is on his way to a promising future within the country’s societal structure but the confrontational atmosphere of the school puts him off. In time he finds himself skipping classes to hang out at Antique Editions, a bookstore run by Axil Kemal, a man who becomes a big brother or surrogate father, and offers an introduction to a world that runs against the norms of the rigid dictates of the state. It will be a mind opening relationship:
That’s what he was for me, the guide for my curiosity. At an age when you learn to believe in ‘thinking masters’, Axis Kemal was my laughing master and, sheltered beneath that laughter, my mind was kept safe from the diseases of truth, he said—that acne of the soul, he said.
It will also be a vital connection when the speaker has to make a decision about his own commitment to the future that is being laid out for him in a duplicitous society where what is said cannot be trusted and what is not being said cannot be fully imagined.
Shadow of Things to Come is, above all, a story about language and communication. The narrative itself is one step removed from a straight first person account—the protagonist’s reflections are being reported by an unknown third person narrator, who is listening to him, occasionally referring to him as “the speaker.” This undefined relationship, given the circumstances, adds a layer of uncertainty and potential threat. Whether he aware of his audience or not, the speaker is attentive to the power of words. To their use and misuse. He regularly comments on his ability, learned at an early age, to read the hidden intentions of others by the slightest creases in their faces. This is a skill that allows him to decipher the truths behind words, those spoken and left unsaid. But lack of communication, as with his mute and damaged father, troubles him deeply, as do the strange markings his adopted brother Ikko makes after returning from his conscripted service in the so-called “Frontier Challenge.” The tendency of people to fall back on slogans and stock phrases undermines communication and blurs the truth, but, of course, that is the point. When you can no longer trust what anyone says, one either goes with the program or looks for a way out. And to escape you may have to leave even your words behind.
Shadow of Things to Come by Kossi Efoui is translated from the French by Chris Turner and published by Seagull Books.