Award winning Djibouti author, Abdourahman A. Waberi (now residing in France) has set himself a challenging task with his novel, Transit, published 2003 in French, and very recently published by Indiana University Press, translated into English by David Ball and Nicole Ball. Both previously translated Waberi’s highly satirical novel, In the United States of Africa, in which the world is, literally, perceived upside-down. What are the challenges in Transit? If you know anything about Djibouti questions like the following won’t come as a surprise: How best to capture in a novel the complexity and the desolate conditions in the small African country of Djibouti? How to bring out the repercussions for individuals and groups who may be more like pawns within a political and economic international power game that Djibouti’s leaders are trying to participate in? How to create a portrait of the essence or parts thereof of the “inner soul” of the people; reflect their suffering and pain, but also demonstrate their perseverance and search for happiness? And, finally, how to achieve all this in a way that we as readers can relate to without feeling totally overwhelmed?
In the novel’s Prologue, Waberi introduces two Djibouti men in an immigration waiting area in Paris’s Roissy (Charles de Gaulle) Airport: a young, wounded ex-soldier, Bashir, and Harbi, a middle-aged opposition intellectual, rescued out of prison at the last minute. While they are waiting their minds turn back to what they had to leave behind… What follows is a series of monologues, more or less alternating, that provides the reader insights into the different facets of reality in Djibouti. Bashir and three members of Harbi’s closest family – his French wife Alice, their son Abdo-Julien and Awaleh, Abdo-Julien’s grandfather – tell their stories and reflections. Their distinct voices reveal their very different experiences and the resulting, often opposing perspectives on circumstances and realities. For example, Alice came to Djibouti as a happy young wife, who immediately fell in love with the beauty of the desert land surrounding Djibouti town while learning to adjust to a life so different from hers in France. In her monologues, she usually addresses her son to give him a better grounding in his double identity and his home. The grandfather’s voice is an important link to history, ancestors and the spirit world. The young Abdo-Julien embarks on his own path…
Central and prominent is the voice of Bashir, the orphan boy with little education, yet a sharp wit and astute observation abilities. He gives an at times hilarious running commentary on the everyday life of the simple recruits like himself, mixed in with his views on the political intrigues and battles between powerful chiefs, politicians and the prominently present French and American soldiers: a portrait of the country and its continuing challenges. Bashir’s views are to the point, cynical, even if sometimes naïve. His language is that of a simple man, full of half sentences, crude expressions and colloquialisms; all of it very difficult to transpose into English and the translators have to be congratulated for their efforts to capture the style and meaning. Bashir is not easy to understand even then and it takes some patience to follow his, often meandering and repeating story lines. Still, he addresses the reader directly and is at pains to explain historical context as well as current events – at least as far as he understands both.
The four monologues stand each on their own, alternating at different frequencies, leaving it up to the reader to build the various strands into a more integrating whole. The Epilogue picks up some of those elements and introduces at least one substantial linkage, however, some questions that I as a reader had carried with me, remained left unanswered. These notwithstanding, seen as a whole, this is a very important book with an unusual structural approach that is well suited to bring out the complexity of the subject matter. It should be of interest to anybody interested in the political realities of African’s many border and power conflicts, and the Horn of Africa region and Djibouti in particular. The translators’ Introduction is essential and very valuable to assist the reader’s understanding.