People don’t come off looking too good in Safiatou Ba’s deliciously pulpy short story collection
If you seek subtlety, don’t look in Safiatou Ba’s exhilarating L’envers du décor: Recueil de nouvelles (or, in English, Behind the Scenes: A Collection of Stories)! In this debut collection about life in Mali, Ba paints in bright colors and exclamation points. Men and women alike are stabbing, poisoning, committing adultery, sermonizing, bribing, taking advantage of the mentally ill, and — sometimes — getting their just desserts. A few — and there are just a few — are taking the moral high ground. In one story, a woman is dropped off at the hospital by her husband, apparently in labor, and returns home after it turns out to be a false alarm to find her husband committing adultery in their marriage bed. In another, a woman seeks the final solution for her profligate and would-be polygamist husband. One story opens with a woman — at the funeral of her husband — spitting in the face of his corpse and damning him to hell. Marabouts (Islamic holy men) impose wild recommendations with a range of unholy motives.
You might think the collection would be depressing (all these base motives!) if it weren’t so exciting. I audibly gasped during one story (SHE was doing THAT with HIM?!) and a few times looked around to make sure no one was reading over my shoulder, out of context (They were WHAT?!). At the same time, my copy is filled with underlined words of wisdom, like “Les hommes valent mieux que leurs pires actions” (People are worth more than their worst actions). After meeting these characters, I really hope so! I’ll definitely be back for Ba’s next outing.
So far, this collection is only out in French, and not yet for on-line purchase. If you can track down a copy, I recommend it. It’s a reminder of the wealth of African literature that doesn’t make it to Amazon or other on-line booksellers.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I know and enjoy my association with Ba in a professional capacity.