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Co-Wives, Co-Widows is the first English translation of a book by Adrienne Yabouza, an author from the Central African Republic. Set in the CAR, the book is a 124-page tragicomedy that follows the lives of Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou over the course of the year in which their shared husband, Lidou, unexpectedly dies.
Though this is very much a plot-driven novel, Yabouza takes her time getting to the action. The first quarter of the book is almost entirely set-up and Yabouza uses an omniscient third person narrator to paint a picture of what Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou’s lives look like. In the book’s opening pages, we see both women venture into Bangui to vote in the presidential election. Though choosing between its five candidates is compared to “having to choose between five serious illnesses”, as the novel progresses and the election result takes longer than expected to announce, it becomes clear that something isn’t quite right.
Hopefully some chatty friends would turn up soon with their own basins of produce to sell. Then they could all have a gossip, insult their husbands, perhaps exchange some observations on democracy, which still hadn’t delivered the election results, though the president of the Independent Electoral Commission had already bought himself a speedy new 4x4.
Meanwhile, Lidou chooses not to cast his vote. His mind is elsewhere—on the erectile dysfunction he has recently started to experience and which he decides to treat with “blue miracle pills”. Shortly after taking said pills, Lidou drops dead and a bitter fight for his assets ensues. Perhaps unexpectedly, this is not a fight between Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou—who are very much united in their mourning—but between the co-wives and Zouaboua, Lidou’s greedy cousin.
Though the women put up a good fight, ransacking the house for anything valuable before Lidou’s cousin arrives, Zouaboua isn’t afraid to play dirty and he winds up bribing everyone from the pathologist to the court. What’s striking about this book—especially in comparison to the Senegalese novel about polygamy that I read a couple of weeks ago—is how loyal Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou remain to one another and how Lidou’s death brings them even closer together. Without giving away too much of the plot, their mutual support is what drives both of them to flourish in the wake of their shared husband’s death.
Co-wives, Co-widows is a pretty simple story, whose tension resolves both quickly and neatly. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing and it’s nonetheless a funny and utterly charming read. Take, for example, this reflection on Lidou’s elegy which turns into a brief meditation on the way we rewrite history.
As the injured widows were being driven back home, Zouaboua was stepping up to the mike to read Lidou’s elegy. It was composed of hollow phrases composed of hollow words. The audience has heard the same words countless times at other funeral services. The dead person was always wonderful. No one ever said, ‘The deceased was a bastard.’ The day the elected president died, the day his united and intransigent opponents die, people would hold forth about what responsible spouses, brothers, friends and citizens they were…
If the dead had all been as perfect as their funeral elegies suggested, life in the republic would have been a beautiful thing.
Such are the conventions of life and death.
This is a fun book, which took me no more than a couple of hours to get through. I enjoyed it a lot and, if you’re even a tiny bit curious, I’d urge you to give it a go.
Co-wives, Co-widows by Adrienne Yabouza, translated by Rachael McGill (Dedalus, 2021 / Cauris livres, 2015)
More books by Central African authors:
Daba's Travels from Ouadda to Bangui by Pierre Makombo Bamboté, tr. John Buchanan-Brown
The Magic Doll by Adrienne Yabouza, tr. Paul Kelly
What have you read recently?
If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or you’d like to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I’m always happy to venture further afield for a good recommendation.
You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.
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I'm intrigued. Reading this, I recalled the relationship between Mariam and Laila in A Thousand Splendid Suns, a very different story except for this bond between wives. Thank you for sharing it.