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The King of Kahel
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on July 5, 2013
Very interesting, exploration into a very different world. The book reads well, but can be a little confusing with a lot of characters with unfamiliar names. From my perspective it takes a neutral view on colonialism without glorifying the European or African cultures. The story is a bit absurd, particularly relative to the exploits of the main character, who I do not think had any basis in fact
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on October 9, 2014
I found myself checking information from the book on google. This is a true story but I found it hard to follow.
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on May 17, 2012
This isn't about the realization of a dream, but the journey toward it.

Despite my inability to keep the unfamiliar, unpronouncable African names separated, I am drawn to reading this book. People who can endure such physical and mental stress to the point of death so many times---their motivations fascinate me.

I wasn't disturbed by the long absence of certain characters like his love who disappeared from the scene and reappeared ages later as a ragged, sick derelict, because that is how life is woven. The daily effort to survive takes first place in priorities. I was surprised that he didn't try to find her, especially since his European legal wife had died, but he was with his son and they were always enduring some malady or other, including a deliberate attempt to poison them.

Contrast his life to ours in which we consider basics to be cell phones and GPS devices.
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on May 18, 2012
1880's, when Africa was "discovered" by a Lyonnais. Shopping full of details about this time. When Africa was still Africa, without any European influence.
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on April 6, 2011
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is an odd book, it is a biographical novel of a colonizer by a descendant of the colonized, an imagining of the inner life of a man of mystical megalomania by an eminent writer, it is a diary read and then the man imagined, and most of all it is really ambitious.

It is not completely successful at any of these things, but it is still a fascinating read. Mostly it is a work about the imperialist imagination by a cosmopolitan whose experience of imperialism is at the receiving end, about an imperialist who went native. In many places it is far from convincing, but by its end it has achieved something more than mere sympathy, but rather a potential imagining of its subject that has a feeling of truth.

Aime Olivier de Sanderval was a nineteenth century French Lyonnais chemist and industrialist who had a lifelong fascination with Africa and in 1880 attempted to conquer a kingdom for himself among the Fulani in the Fouta-Djallon highlands of what Guinea-Conakry in West Africa. During the course of which he laid the foundation for the French colony and later fell afoul of French Imperial politics. His strange adventure is recounted based on his writings by a Fulani writer from the very region. This is a very French book, and the translation is workmanlike, though also very readable. The French structure and vocabulary are easily apparent and though there are occasional infelicities it seems well done.

While reading this I was often thinking three stars, but the inherent interest of the subject will probably lead me to four, but by the time I finished it I was certain it was a high four star read that just didn't quite reach that fifth star. I would certainly recommend this one.
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VINE VOICEon November 29, 2010
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
THE KING OF KAHEL takes the French/British conqueror's dream and upends it, shaking it out kicking and screaming until all the delusions of conquest come tumbling out of its pockets. The book fictionalizes the true story of Aime Olivier Sanderval and his dreams of having a kingdom of his own in the African country of Fouta Djallon. In striving for his dream, Aime ("Yeme" in Africa) Olivier encounters Fulas such as the charming and subtle Princess Taibou, the beguiling Dalanda, and the rivals Bocar-Biro and Alpha Yaya. Sanderval endures innumerably hardships of illness, culture, and intrigue as he tries to convince Fouta Djallon to let him build a railroad. Will he ever get to the mysterious Dinguiraye, where his contacts among the Fula people seem determined to prevent him from going? Will he win out against his fellow frenchmen in government and the british, who want to seize land and empire for themselves? Will his patient long-suffering delicate wife Rose accept his absences? (The long-suffering delicate but intelligent wife adds to the satire of a man more comfortable in Arfica than he is at home--at the same time remaining tres, tres Francais.) Think of this as "The African Railroad Trilogy" (with apologies to Gordon Lightfoot, Canadian Railroad Trilogy) meets "Les Blancs" by Lorraine Hansberry. Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays: The Drinking Gourd/What Use Are Flowers?

Tierno Monenembo's prose will have you hankering for the taste of fonio (a fouta delicacy) and yearning for "Hills everywhere, orchards everywhere, prairies and flowers everywhere! Natural springs, rivers, torrents everywhere!" You may even understand how Sanderval can aspire to be a fula lord and ruler of the titular kingdom of Kahel and yet set himself apart as a white man--although his attitudes somewhat change throughout the book to the point that his own countrymen regard him suspiciously. Such, Monenembo satirically points out, are the perils of empire and colonialism. Sanderval is so charming you can buy into his wordlview and cheer for his escapes, even wish him to finish his master work "The Absolute," a philosophical love affair with the abstract that contrasts with Sanderval's real, earthly pursuits. Yet Sabderval's philosophical base leads him to overreach--however, if he was timid, there wouldn't be much of a story! A worthwhile discovery and an excellent translation by nicholas Elliott.
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VINE VOICEHALL OF FAMEon November 15, 2010
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I'm always on the lookout for new fiction from Africa, so when I saw this translation of a Guinean book was available I snapped it up. Aside from my interest in world literature, my grandparents lived in Conakry from 1960-62, so the country holds a particular interest for me. The novel as a form does not have a long history in Africa, and as a result, much of the African fiction available in the West focuses on the struggle for independence and the legacy of colonialism. This book goes further back in history to deliver a fictionalized version of the exploits of 19th-century French adventurer Olivier de Sanderval, whose personal ambitions were at least partly to blame for France's colonization of what is modern-day Guinea.

Sanderval was a prodigiously talented and wealthy man of his time, whose childhood romance with tales of exploration were the catalyst for his adult ambitions to carve a slice out of the African pie for himself (and to a lesser extent, France). He was also a prolific writer who extensively documented his travels, and the author of this novel also had access to private family archives in gathering material for the book. Unfortunately this seems like a case where having too much "true" information at one's hands actually inhibits the fiction. Far too much of the book reads like a thinly fictionalized rendering of a travelogue, in which various trials and tribulations are chronicled in a manner which becomes slightly tedious.

The book does a decent job of illustrating the complexities of Europe's colonization of sub-Saharan Africa. Rather than simply decrying European colonialism, the story illustrates the internal strife among various local potentates, as well as the policy disagreements within the French establishment. In Sanderval's attempts to lock in trading rights, right of way for a railroad, and a land-grant for his own personal fiefdom, he encounters all manner of cunning and shifty characters, both French and Fula. However, it never really manages to engage as storytelling. So, even though the author handles the colonial material with a more judicious touch than most, I kept wishing I was reading a good biographical profile of Sanderval instead. Worth a look if you've an interest in African fiction or European colonialism, but probably not a book that will interest the general reader.
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on September 12, 2010
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The King of Kahel is a story of colonialism, a French child's fantasy, and 19th century Guinea. Author Tierno Monénembo, little known in the US, won a prestigious French award for this book. Monenembo was exiled from his home country of Guinea and has lived in France since 1973.

The King of Kahel is based (loosely says the book jacket) on the exploits of French explorer, the Viscount Aimee Olivier Sanderval. As a child Sanderval's tutors exposed him to stories of faraway islands and continents. He had long dreamed of establishing his own kingdom when went to the west African area known as the Fouta Djallon (roughly the uplands of Guinea). The book jacket calls King of Kahel "a jovial Heart of Darkness", and that is an apt description of about the first third of the book as Sanderval journeys into Fouta Djallon. After many trials and tribulations, he finally reaches an agreement with the tribal leader for a trade agreements and permission to build a railroad.

That success is only the first step. Sanderval must return to France and try to convince the government to recognize his enterprise. Battling the French bureaucracy isn't easy. Sanderval finally returns to Fouta Djallon, but just when it seems he has moved closer to his goal, conditions change drastically. The French army marches in and ironically Sanderval's dream evaporates in a miasma of colonial power.

Monénembo puts the reader in the middle of the complex power struggles within Fouta Djallon. He puts a full range of local characters on display.

The book has its shortcomings - in his last trip he takes his son Georges along, but Georges disappears from the story for long stretches and it's not clear why. Sanderval assigns strong feelings (positive and negative) to his characters, but again it is not always clear why some of the characters.

On the whole, though the book is a wonderful feat of imagination. Also consider: The King of Kahel tells the story of a French colonial adventure from the white man's perspective - but it is written by an African author exiled in France. Let's hope for more translations of Tierno Monénembo's work.
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on November 10, 2010
Guinean born writer Tierno Monénembo has had access to the family archives of the real life Olivier de Sanderval, a 19th century French explorer who briefly claimed his own kingdom in the highlands of what is now Guinea. In the newly translated The King of Kahel, Monénembo uses de Sanderval to loosely base a terrifically satirical take on early French colonialism and in particular the efforts of de Sanderval in Fouta Djallon, home of the Fula people in what was eventually to become French Guinea.

The writer has lived in France since the 1970s and has long been a Francophile so perhaps this isn't the most damning African take on the horrors of colonialism and the reader's sympathies do tend to lie with the eccentric and ever-so-slightly mad endeavours of de Sanderval, not least as his motives are, on the surface, based on trade and mutual benefit with the Fula people - although of course he also dreams of his own African kingdom. Meanwhile the French bureaucracy refuse to recognize de Sanderval's efforts and continually threaten armed incursion to secure the region. Not least as the hated English are sniffing around too.

And then there's the Fula themselves. Constantly fighting between themselves and generally trusting no one - and in the case of the white explorers, with good reason. It's a great adventure with everyone undermining everyone else for their own ends and power being at the heart of it all.

We ride with de Sanderval on his first visit to Fouta Djallon, his return to Paris to realise his treaties and then back to Fouta Djallon again as the French become ever threatening. At times it can be a little confusing as de Sanderval visits neighbouring Fula provinces but that aside, it's a great adventure and a welcome translation.
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on June 26, 2012
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The King of Kahel, by Tierno Monenembo, trans. By Nicholas Elliot. ARC of ISBN: 978-09825550-7-1

Sanderval wants to be a king in Africa, more specifically Fouta Djallon, his whole life is focused on this goal. Sanderval is imaginative, whole hearted, idealistic, persistent against all odds (beligerant), a visionary and almost good intentioned, good intentioned in an arrogant "I can save the future" sort of way. To the French authorities he is quixotic in his ideas about the future, and they never really trust that his loyalty is to the French government. The Fula have no reason to trust a white man, they don't trust anyone anyway, not even each other (they have a culture of trickery) certainly not a white man. And where is Snaderval's loyalty? His loyalty is more to his own ideals and vision of the future. He believes Africa is the future. While he does believe "his culture" (actually the culture received from "Athens and Rome") is superior, he feels the Africans are the future of it, that Europeans are worn out and that climate change is going to threaten Europea in the future. He believes Africa is the future and he is the savior to bring about his vision of this future. While he does want to be king, yet this kingship that he attempts to achieve through Fula culture and Fula cooperation (albeit trickery, which is part of Fula culture) instead of with the plow of military might. Though obviously possessed with desire for his own glory and to rule, yet there is an element of respect and appreciation for the Fula expressed in his attempts to block outright invasion of the country (or is it just that Sanderval wants to be in charge, you are never entirely sure). He may believe that Africans are in an animal state, yet he does respect something about them and eventually defines himself as Fula, as one of them.

For me, a person uneducated in the colonization of Africa (other than it happened), it was a revelation as to the nature of both sides of the fence, Africa and Europe. Well, yes, I already knew Europe was an arrogant greedy plunderer, each country desiring to rule as much as it could and get rich off of it. What I didn't know is the political squabbling going on behind it, the bureaucracy involved. And I never considered the obstacles and complexities faced by the individual entering the territories of African nations.

Skip this paragraph to avoid spoiler: Maybe I'm the only one who cared . . . but I could not help but feel a bit broken-hearted for Sanderval. Succeeding finally in convincing France of the importance of Fouta Djallon, Sanderval loses it himself, loses it as the place to work out his ideals for the future. His attempts to bring about his ideals, his good intentions bring disaster to the Fula. His desire to make things better, only made things worse.

My biggest complaint about the story is that I wish I could tell which parts of it are imagined and which parts are history. The book is says it's "not a biography but a novel, freely inspired by the life of Olivier de Sanderval." Usually when I read historical fiction I read related Wikipedia articles to give myself a better idea of what is true and what is imagined and what is maybe true. There is no Sanderval Wikipedia article and the article on Fouta Djallon is very short. It would have been an improvement to have included a historical note at the end explaining which parts are true and which aren't. I see from the "Look Inside" feature at Amazon that a map was added which is important because I always struggled to envision in my mind where Sanderval was. A list of characters and places at the front would have been helpful to avoid getting lost in a sea of similar foreign sounding names.

All in all, I was charmed by Sanderval and the Fula. The book was not an easy read, but it was a great read.
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