Inongo vi Makomè’s Natives (translated by Michael Ugarte) is a book I picked up because of the cover, and kept because of the description. I am reading a lot of literature in translation lately, and Natives happens to fit into that niche obsession. It’s also one of the few African novels to be translated from Spanish to English. So interesting! The added beauty of reading books and authors that haven’t been widely translated into English is a wide-eyed sense of discovery. And, while I’m not sure how this novel received as little publicity as it did, I’m glad I got to read it as a blank slate.
Natives is a startling novel that deals with racial stereotypes, the idea of charity, classism, colonialism, immigration and sex. In its most basic form, Natives is a novel about two middle-aged, under-sexed women, who are successful in their careers, but not the bedroom. Montse suggests to her friend, Roser, that they seek out an African immigrant to pleasure them. Although Roser resists, Montse (who is also the more financially and socially successful of the two) is insistent and picks up a homeless man from Mali, living on the streets without papers, named Bambara Keita. The women convince him to become their personal prostitute, exchanging his “services” for money and essentially pimping him out for their own pleasure.
Although the back of the novel describes it as a “satire,” I found it hard to read it as anything other than alarming realism. Satire is often funny because the scenarios are unlikely to ever truly take place – in Natives the story is too viable, too real. Rich women taking a virile African lover because they have money and he doesn’t, because they have power that he doesn’t, because he is already dehumanized and they can prey upon him, because the rich and powerful always have control over those who have nothing.
The very explicit sexual scenes, paired with a smattering of sexual stereotypes, dip into the satirical and then swiftly back out when the descriptive and messy reality of sexual encounters between the three lovers are revealed.
Sex work is not illegal in Barcelona and Montse insists several times to the reluctant Roser that what they are doing is not necessarily illegal, but there is definitely an implication of it being wrong. They treat Bambara Keita as someone beneath them, making him use the servant elevator, forcing him to walk behind them, not speaking to him in public. He takes this treatment as part of the deal, he can afford food and his own apartment now, but it does not justify the women’s actions toward him. The women, in turn, justify their treatment of Bambara Keita as charity.
Montse asserts: “But you know very well we live in a culture where charity is everywhere. We invented it and put it into practice the moment we took over the world.”
And Bambara Keita, wisely, observes in turn: “‘I come look for life. Africa now not good place for make life. No work for young people, lots of poor.’ … He knew that in the culture of charity that prevailed in the West, the needy had to use those kinds of words to achieve their ends.”
So, we begin to wonder, who is truly in control of this exchange?
Racism and stereotypes come up throughout the novel, but one of the instances that stood out to me was when the women ask Bambara Keita to get an STD test due to their concerns he may have AIDS. He agrees, but then asks the same of them citing his own worry for his health. Roser is outright offended that he would dare to ask a thing of her.
Makomè comments, “We seldom accept that we might do exactly what we accuse others of doing.”
The women encourage Bambara Keita to get aggressive with them, then they coddle him with motherly affection (bordering on racism) and buy him things. They don’t hurt him or force him to stay, but without them he has no papers, he has no freedom, he has no other options aside from the street or returning home to Mali in shame. He has become enslaved without the manacles.
Since Natives was translated, I was on high alert for any narrative inconsistencies. I did find a few editorial errors (misspellings, repeated words, punctuation missteps), unintentionally, but the tone of the story was very direct, as were the characters — so I found the narration to be mostly correlative. The prose itself has a special kind of beauty (which I attribute to both the author and the translator) and overall is a work I think needs to be more widely read.
Overall Rating: 4/5
Recommended For: I’d have to REALLY know a person before I recommended this book