Book Review: Before the Birth of the Moon by V. Y. Mudimbe
Title: Before the Birth of the Moon
Author: V. Y. Mudimbe
Translator: Marjolijn de Jager
Country: Democratic Republic of Congo
Year: 1976 (original publication), translation 1989
Genre: Fiction, Novel
Before the Birth of the Moon by Valentin Y. Mudimbe was originally written in French and published in 1976. According to the author, it is set in the mid-sixties during the tumultuous First Republic of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), during the relatively brief reign of President Joseph Kasavubu after the murder of his former Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. During the First Republic, DRC was rife with rebel movements in various provinces. The two central characters of the novel, “The Minister” and Ya, his mistress, are wrapped up in this political turmoil.
“The Minister”, is ambitious and wishes to earn favour with the President, who is never directly named. He is married with children but this doesn’t prevent him from enjoying himself with a few mistresses. One of these mistresses, Ya, he believes he is in love with but we learn that she actually finds him irritating although she appreciates his money. Ya hails from a rural area in a province where her ethnic group is now rebelling against the national government. At the beginning of the novel, Ya has no interest in this as she has come to Kinshasa to enjoy herself. Although she originally left her village in order to avoid a marriage arranged by her father and pursue college studies, she soon left school to enjoy the dazzling city life of bars and nightclubs and found a way to live off men in exchange for sexual favours. In most English descriptions of the novel Ya is described as a prostitute but I do not think this description is correct. She is more a woman who is “kept” but she feels free to pick and choose who gets to keep her. This is why she initially decides to dump “The Minister” early in the novel because she finds him irritating. “The Minister” is heartbroken. Ya isn’t. Her real lover is her female friend who “The Minister” early on perceives as his main rival. One day, men from Ya’s village break into the apartment she shares with her friend and attack her. They bring her news that her father, who was a village chief and rebel leader, has been murdered by the national government. They demand that she get back with “The Minister” and share any intelligence she can get from him with the rebels. Now, the carefree and careless Ya, finds herself in the precarious position of spy.
Ya easily returns to the welcoming arms of “The Minister” who in the interim has seen himself elevated in the government ranks and has become an initiate in a secret society which claims to be following the ancient rites of his ancestors. This involves making a human sacrifice. “The Minister” offers Ya’s friend/lover as his sacrifice, as he sees her as the main obstacle standing in the way of him truly winning Ya’s heart. He is right because in the wake of her friend’s disappearance Ya eventually succumbs to “The Minister”‘s kindness and finds herself falling in love with him, all the while sharing the political intelligence he shares with her in confidence with the rebel leaders. Ya is set up in a posh apartment in the Ngombe commune of Kinshasa, which was originally designed by Europeans for Europeans. “The Minister” lavishes her with gifts while ignoring the financial needs of his own household. This eventually leads to tragedy when his son ends up contracting an infection from his circumcision, which “The Minister’s” wife had wanted to have performed in a hospital, but she is told by “The Minister” that that is too expensive. “The Minister” refuses to see his responsiblity for his son’s death and instead blames his wife, accusing her of witchcraft. But he soon returns to the highlife of the city with Ya, taking her to parties and introducing her to various national and international dignitaries. But it is only a matter of time before Ya’s betrayal will catch up with them both.
Mudimbe’s novel is a fascinating read. Its narrative style changes from chapter to chapter , switching from the third person, to the second person (unusual in a novel) addressing Ya, to Ya’s and “The Minister’s” first person perspective. Both Ya and “The Minister” are two characters who seem to have no real loyalties either to family, religion or ethno-cultural traditions. Ya attended Roman Catholic school and still holds the churches’ officials in reverence but this does not stop her from leading a life of debauchery. She betrays “The Minister” more out of physical fear due to the constant violence of the rebel leaders than out of loyalty to her ethnicity or father. “The Minister” seems more attracted to the wealth and prestige that his government office can give him than to any real concern for his nation. It’s not even clear if he actually believes in the power of this secret society he joins and even though he loves his son, he doesn’t offer the funds to ensure that he is circumcised in a safe and clean environment nor does he follow the traditional mourning practices of his culture. Ya and “The Minister” believe they love each other but Ya betrays the “The Minister” by spying on him and he betrays her by murdering her friend and then lying about it. As with his other novels, Mudimbe explores political realities through the lives of individuals. It appears that at the heart of many of the political problems of the First Republic of DRC, he is showing is the real problem of insincerity. It is hard to know what people really stand for or really believe in. Even one the of rebel leaders who comes to harass information out of Ya, expresses contempt for the ethnic loyalties of his fellow rebels. He’s a communist and that is where his loyalty lies, although he is working with the rebels who are organizing along ethnic lines. Such cross purposes can only end in disaster and chaos.
I highly recommend reading Before the Birth of the Moon and other works by Mudimbe, both out of an interest in fine writing and the DRC.
About the Author:
Valentin Y. Mudimbe was born in 1941 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He is the Norman Ivey White Professor of Literature at Duke University. The following biography comes from his Faculty Page at Duke University:
Newman Ivey White Professor of Literature at Duke University, V.Y. Mudimbe received his Doctorat en Philosophie et Lettres from the Catholic University of Louvain in 1970. In 1997, he became Doctor Honoris Causa at Université Paris VII Diderot, and in 2006, became Doctor Honoris Causa at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. Before coming to Duke, he taught at the Universities of Louvain, Paris-Nanterre, Zaire, Stanford, and at Haverford College. Among his publications are three collections of poetry, four novels, as well as books in applied linguistics, philosophy, and social sciences. His most recent publications include: L’Odeur du père (1982), The Invention of Africa (1988), Parables and Fables (1991), The Idea of Africa (1994), and Tales of Faith (1997). He is the editor of The Surreptitious Speech (1992), Nations, Identities, Cultures (1997), Diaspora and Immigration (1999), and editor of a forthcoming encyclopedia on African religions and philosophy. He is also former General Secretary of SAPINA (the Society for African Philosophy in North America) and co-editor with Robert Bates and Jean O’Barr of Africa and the Disciplines (1993).
V.Y. Mudimbe is a Membre Honoraire Correspondant de l’Académie Royale des Sciences d’Outre Mer (Belgium); a Member of the Société américaine de philosophie de langue française; as well as of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, and the World Institute for Advanced Phenomenological Research and Learning. He has also served as Chairman of the Board of African Philosophy, and since 2000, as the Chairman of the International African Institute (SOAS, University of London). His interests are in phenomenology and structuralism, with a focus on the practice of everyday language. He regularly teaches on French existentialism, theories of difference, phenomenology, ancient Greek geography, and African themes.
Review of the novel in The New York Times by R. McNight available online