Read African Writers: The Ultimate Tragedy, by Abdulai Silá (translated by Jethro Soutar)

ultimate tragedyguinea bissauOver the course of my project this year to read a book by an author from each of Africa’s 54 countries, I’m struck by how many countries have just one novel available in translation. The Ultimate Tragedy, by Abdulai Silá from Guinea-Bissau, is one example. As Efemia Chela writes, that’s “a lot of weight to bear.” The novel also has an extended history—written in 1984, published in 1995, and published in English — translated by Jethro Soutar — only in 2017.

Silá’s novel has a more discrete three-act structure than most: it feels almost like three novels in one. In the first act, my favorite, thirteen-year-old Ndani leaves her rural home to seek work as a housegirl in the capital, Bissau. With tenacity, she achieves a position where she is renamed and continuously mistreated by her white employers. Until, that is, the mistress of the house gets religion and shifts to evangelizing mode. This section gives a vivid, engaging, and occasionally lurid picture of race and class dynamics between the colonizers and their domestic workers.

In the second act, a community leader clashes with the Portuguese official above him as he seeks to improve his community. A new school in the community brings a teacher, who takes an interest in the leader’s wife — Ndani! In the third act, Ndani faces further trials in a new context. (To reveal more would spoil too much.)

I enjoyed The Ultimate Tragedy, especially the first act, and I look forward to more literature from Guinea-Bissau — including the rest of the trilogy that this book initiates — making it into the English language.

  • Efemia Chela, Johannesburg Review of Books: “The Ultimate Tragedyleaves a lot to be desired. The book overall is unmemorable, despite its interesting wordplay; the characters are not constructed with much depth; the plot feels familiar, its story fairly typical of many African works of fiction, but less inventive than the continent’s great novels.”
  • Jessie Stoolman, Asymptote: “The novel reads like an uninterrupted conversation about what the future holds for this nation, seemingly on the verge of liberation… The Ultimate Tragedy serves in many ways as a sort of literary privilege-check, introducing histories as well as literary/linguistic styles rarely given space on an international platform.”
  • Ann Morgan, A Year of Reading the World: “Translator Southar has done deft work to encourage the learning process that this text demands. By choosing to leave numerous words in their original language and trusting to the context to elucidate them, he encourages readers to let go of the guide rope of the narrative and become comfortable with the unfamiliar.”
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