Las tinieblas de tu memoria negra
(Shadows of Your Black Memory)
Ediciones El Cobre, 2009, 174 pg
Donato Ndongo is from Equatorial Guinea a multi lingual country with a history of Spanish occupation. Las tinieblas de tu memoria negra is his response to that colonization as well as a coming of age story, each navigating the space between what it means to leave home, a place of tradition, and entering the world of the Catholic church and Spanish power. For those who don’t know much about Equatorial Guinea (I was one of them), Spain colonized parts of the country for several hundred years. When the story picks up in the 1950’s, Spain is in the midst of Franco’s Catholic-Nationalism dictatorship and the colonial officials, when present, hold the government line, obsessed with God and communism. In a touch of Ndongo’s humor, the narrator recounts when he was six and the priest went on about reds and Russians, all the while he misinterprets the locus of the priest’s ire, believing reds are a different people, like the Spanish are to him. It is also indicative of a tension that runs throughout the book between the traditional culture and that of Spanish, and most importantly, the Catholic church, the main emblem of the state in the narrator’s remote village. The book opens with the adult narrator telling the head of the seminary he is not going to be a priest after all. From there the chapters alternate between key encounters with tradition and with the church. The encounters are rendered in strong impressionistic language that sweeps aside cold logic in favor of a sensual prose which builds in rhythm and power. When he describes his circumcision amongst the elders of the tribe, both the excitement and the power of the moment builds until the actual circumcision and the adulation after is a release. His description of his first communion is rendered in a similar building emotion. But instead of power and mystery, he gives us comedy. The narrator, who pushed into first communion at seven, an early age, because he had been caught giving mass in his bedroom, gets so nervous that instead of honoring the Eucharist, he gets sick at the alter, embarrassing everyone and dirtying his first communion suit (in Spain at that time they were elaborate things that looked like naval uniforms). If there is a flaw to the book, it is its brevity (something I don’t say that often). The novel ends with the narrator at the age of eight or nine going off to religious boarding school to learn what the Spaniards know so he can bring it back home and help free the country. Sure, he won’t become a priest, but what happened between his leaving and that period. A minor quibble to an otherwise outstanding book.
A note of the title: the English title of the 2007 translation, while correct, I think looses a little in the translation, only because the translation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is El corazon de las tinieblas. I think the Spanish title plays with that image.