“Two and a half great men”, by Diadié Dembélé: from Mali to France, an “adventure of misery”

As the old saying goes, travel makes you young

“Two and a half great men”, by Diadié Dembélé: from Mali to France, an “adventure of misery”

As the old saying goes, travel makes you young. And it is not the writer Diadié Dembélé who will say the opposite. His first novel, Le Duel des grandmothers, featured a schoolboy from Bamako, Hamet, sent to the countryside to be with his grandmothers in order to correct his insolence as a literate city dweller. During this sweet penance, Hamet's gaze was opened to his family and the village whose traditions he learned, in wonder, to respect. He experienced an initiation from which he emerged grown.

With Two Great Men and a Half, his second book, the 27-year-old Malian author takes up the principle of the training novel, but with an older hero, Manthia, originally from a landlocked area of ​​Mali and whose itinerary is works in the opposite direction: from the rural world to the urban world and up to Europe.

Manthia is still a teenager when he finds himself thrust into the circle of adults. Accustomed to agricultural work, he contributes as much as he can to support his family, the victim of a serious reversal of fortune. But the situation remains fragile. Pushed by his father, Manthia leaves to try his luck in the capital. “This is the first time I’m leaving the village and my people. I have many times heard the showmen talking about the city and its opportunities; work in everything, water carriers, wood breakers, shed and fence builders […] The showmen say that the people of the city pay for everything and anything, as if they had no arms to take care of their tasks themselves. My father has already prepared the ground. »

Between desire and apprehension, Manthia leaves everything he knew behind: his wife, his family and his best friend, Toko, last resort and landmark.

The novel opens with the words of the young man remembering his ignorance of the world at the time of departure. An ignorance maintained by the emigrants themselves, who, through modesty and pride combined and because “a man does not complain”, choose to keep quiet about the realities they are confronted with. “Between the Assaba massif and the Senegal River, not a word is said about the adventure into the unknown. Nothing ! », laments Manthia in retrospect. He is determined, on the contrary, to tell in detail what he experienced when leaving his village without the resource of a school education but with the heavy injunction to improve the lot of his people.

A skillfully twisted language

The detention center where he is placed undoubtedly motivates his need for expression. We follow, chapter after chapter, the difficulties, humiliations and critical situations – loneliness, hunger, etc. – which he confronts and which only increase from Mali to France, to the shabby suburban home where he ends up. .

From these accumulated negative experiences – which other literary texts have also been able to take advantage of – Diadié Dembélé manages to create an “adventure of misery” whose episodes surf between gravity and humor, sadness and distancing. We find the romantic talent of an author with a cleverly twisted language, who handles neologism (“a baboonish existence”), the collision of expressions, and invents a French-soninké in his own way.

But Manthia's story nonetheless reveals a heavy toll. That of a youth to whom it is never given to choose its destiny and which must be content to comply with the decisions made by its elders. Married by authority then sent to Europe, Manthia never has a say. Clandestine, his life is reduced to daily work.

As for the authoritarianism of his elders – father, sometimes distant uncles, members of the ethnic community – it turns out to be not only the expression of traditional functioning, but in reality the consequence of an emergency: that to consolidate an economic and family structure that is increasingly eroded by financial realities. Faced with climate change which is wiping out agricultural resources and raising the threat of hunger, the youth workforce offers the community its only chance of survival. Through the individual destiny of his hero, Diadié Dembelé thus manages to support with great finesse the reflection on the migration question.

Still, we find ourselves dreaming with Manthia of the day when, finally out of the impasse, he and his friend Toko will form a duo so respectable that they will be much more than two, but two and a half great men.