A LEGEND REVIVED AND REVISED
A Book Review by Lindsay Barrett
TITLE; QUEEN POKOU
AUTHOR: Veronique Tadjo
PUBLISHER: Ayebia Clarke Publishing Ltd/ UK
Veronique Tadjo, Ivoirienne poet and storyteller, has performed a remarkable feat of restoration with this impressive though brief work. The great legends of African history are often treated as curiousities of anthropological research rather than as living breathing sources of contemporary reflection and relevance. In her re-telling of the legend of Abraha Pokou, founding mother of the Baoule people, Tadjo has overcome this tendency by bringing the characters of the tale to life as human beings rather than as symbols of morality and philosophical speculation. She establishes the protagonist’s provenance and origins as a princess of the Asante Kingdom with impeccable historical credibility and emotional veracity. Setting the tale sometime in recent history around the eighteenth or early nineteenth century and linking Pokou herself to verifiable ancestry as the niece and sister of known Asante kings and noblemen, she gives the legend intrinsic value as a historic rather than a fabled event. In doing this she has brought a reality from the past to life in the present as issues concerning the event’s true provenance and the motivation behind the central act of incredible sacrifice generate contemplation and reflection in the mind of the narrator and thus by extension in the mind of the reader. By using these devices of literary control as effective tools of both narration and commentary Tadjo expands the tale beyond its boundaries of myth into the realm of contemporary reportage. Here it is not a fairy tale but a narrative of actual events and as such the central and most terrifying event, the sacrifice of her infant child, is portrayed as an almost involuntary act of possible intimidation or madness rather than the heroic act of the legendary tale,
By humanizing the legend Tadjo has given it greater contemporary relevance as a story about the birth of a historic community in the West African region, the Baoule people of modern day Cote d’Ivoire. In a short prelude to the telling of the tale the author explains that she heard the story over and over again as a child and each time it was told from a fresh new perspective. The exclamation “B’áouli!” she reveals meant “The child has died!” This exclamation was attributed to Abraha Pokou after she threw her only infant son into the raging flood of the Comoe River as she led a frantic crowd of refugees from terror in Asante land fleeing to find a new home. Tadjo’s simply structured tale based on the original myth, which leads off the work draws on a narrative form that might represent the older structures of tale-telling that she refers to in her prelude. However within that form she has found room for modern characterisation and descriptive conventions that create an aura of historical truth instead of an atmosphere of fantasy. As a consequence the contemporary reader will experience the tale as a morally-driven contemplation of events that underlay the founding of a community as well as illustrating the factors that shaped the character of that community as well as its past. When this is taken into consideration then Tadjo’s questioning of the full meaning of the legend becomes the central purpose of the exercise.
An erudite and sympathetic literary scholar Prof. Kofi Anyidoho has provided an introduction to this edition of the work that points this out in a brilliant exposition of the context in which such works should be read. But even without this essay any reasonably intelligent reader should be able to gain much more than simple historical resonance from a reading of this work. As the story is examined and re-examined by Tadjo the elements of feminine responsibility for the moral standards of communal objectives, and the true role of the maternal spirit in the process of nation-building, are discussed with impressive candour. Tadjo’s ability to do this without undermining the essence of the storyteller’s art is truly remarkable. She brings up the issue of the paternity of the child and the brutality of the divine command, and reveals Abraha Pokou as a tyrant queen with a streak of vindictive cruelty in her character, along the way as she weaves the story into a complex “concerto for a sacrifice”, which is the formal description that she gives to her work. It would not be fair for this reviewer to give away all the secrets of the legend as developed in this work, but it is sufficient to indicate that Tadjo’s poetic sensibilities are complemented by her extraordinary imagination as she creates new myths on the back of an ancient fable. Her creation of the “water-queen” who can seduce both men and women and cause them to lose their minds is just one of many such mythic formulations that she deploys. She also refers to a further sacrifice of self as well as the possible execution of the father of the infant as additional tragic motifs of the tale thus raising the mythic impact of the legend to almost unimaginable heights of legendary tragedy.
At this level the story of Queen Pokou is transformed by the poet from a nation’s myth of becoming into the cautionary tale of its being. The narrator questions whether Queen Pokou’s sacrifice of her child and its consequence, the founding of the Baoule nation were truly ordained by the divine or were simply the fruit of human circumstance brought about by tyranny. Referring always back to the origins of the main protagonist Pokou the princess whose beauty made her the sinecure of all eyes but whose long wait to be a mother was like a stone in her heart Tadjo impresses the human tragedy of the call to sacrifice her son on the reader’s understanding of the dilemma that faced the heroine of the tale. After the child was sacrificed the mother either went mad or became stronger and in either case thus fulfilled her destiny to lead her people. The beauty of this work lies in its refusal to accept the presumption that there could be only one reality in the memory of the legendary queen’s sacrifice. Tadjo’s courage in reviving and revising a tale from her childhood has made it into a tale for all time.