The River Will Kill the White Man

Chapter 1

But the sun will kill the white man,
But the moon will kill the white man,
But the sorcerer will kill the white man,
But the tiger will kill the white man,
But the crocodile will kill the white man,
But the elephant will kill the white man,
But the river will kill the white man.

– Late 19th century Congolese folk song

I recognized her in line at customs, though the only photo of her ever to appear in the papers was from 1985. She was dressed like a man, like when she’d been arrested last century. Her short hair was gray now. Behind round lenses in a steely, Trotskyesque frame, glasses all nearsighted girls of her generation wore—they’d stopped, why hadn’t she?—you saw the same big empty eyes, fearful, roving. Her line was moving faster than mine. She must have read the clothes, the carriage, the carry-ons, the faces of everyone waiting to pass customs. Gauged the chances each did or didn’t have of being detained by an official. Then made a quick mental reckoning and picked the right line. This bit of work had given her a few minutes’ lead. The minutes that sometimes save your life. I lost sight of her, then found her again in the lounge. She was traveling business class, like me. I was in oil. What was she in now?

When I realized we were on the same flight, I thought perhaps we’d be seated side by side. She’d get the vague and plaintive gaze of a famous person wondering if you knew who they were. When it came to notoriety from a shocking news story, an unspeakable political act, or a catastrophic military operation, such silent questioning grew tinged with fear and shame. Alas, the cabin crew gestured us to different rows. Why alas? It was better this way. If I’d been seated next to her for several hours, I would’ve wound up asking her questions she wouldn’t have answered. If she were even the same Blandine de Kergalec who’d once made the headlines. Hard as Breton granite, the editorialists had said in their usual style. She sat down on the other side of the plane, two rows back. She was by the window. For a few moments she kept her purse on her knees, as though she had doubts about wanting to reach her destination, then slipped it under her seat. She had no book, no iPod, no DVD player. She’d spend the six hours thinking, like anyone beset by an obsession. Had she noticed I was watching her? Her way of not seeing me made me think so.

A frail figure slipped past my knees, followed by a slight sigh to my right: the tiny wisp of a creature had sat down. A runny suit streamed down his nonexistent shoulders. He introduced himself. Passengers in business class introduce themselves, to do business. He was an advisor to African presidents. Advisors to African presidents are interested in oil men, and oil men in advisors to African presidents. They practice a single profession in Africa: bleeding it dry. He looked around, checking if there was anyone else to greet. Partly bald, he’d decided to take it all the way, like a soccer player or a hip-hop star, and his shaved little skull shone like an apple over the tops of the seats. He sat down, opened up his laptop, and started making out an invoice, no doubt for the president of the country where we were headed, for 50,000 Euros. 75,000? He declined the glass of champagne the flight attendant offered. I looked to see if, on the other side of the plane, Blandine de Kergalec had accepted hers. She hadn’t. Yet a long trip lay ahead of us, and long trips always go better with champagne. We understand these things in the oil business. We’re industrial growers whose goal is the destruction of the planet. This gives us the perspective never to turn down a glass of champagne from a pretty woman in a uniform with her hair in a bun.

Night in equatorial Africa lacks delicacy. It collapses on the locals like a horse, the blackout like an added fart. I stepped from the Airbus and into a boiling inkwell. The company chauffeur drove me to Laico, where I was to stay a night before showing up at the SNPC, then on a rig. I wondered if Kergalec was staying in the same place in town. I was almost sure of it. It was a crossroads of information exchange for reporters, diplomats, and bankers. When we’d landed, she’d headed not for VIP arrivals but for customs. From discretion? In that case, she should’ve flown economy. But she was getting old. Afraid of the discomfort that, at sixty, puts one too much in mind of the coffin’s tight fit, or the tomb where our bones will lie chilled. The advisor had vanished into an official vehicle awaiting him on the tarmac.

On the boulevards, outdoor study hall. Under the streetlamps, boys were looking over their notes. They closed their books and recited their lessons in low voices, watching the Mercedes and the 4x4s of their futures at the head of a corrupt state. The air smelled of eucalyptus, sweat, trash. The hotel was atop a hill and my room atop the hotel. When I went back down for a drink at the bar, I saw Kergalec at the front desk, filling out a check-in form. What was she up to now? It’d taken her an hour and a half longer to get out of the airport and to the hotel. Did she pick the wrong line this time? She had neither the same face nor body as at Charles-de-Gaulle. It often happened to Europeans when they landed in Africa. White people went wan. Their gazes strayed. Their hair stood up on end like the devil’s horns. Their shoulders slumped under the weight of the surrounding misery that successive international development policies had served only to develop. Blandine’s navy blue shirt had come untucked from her dark brown pants. A hotel lobby is an ideal gallery for displaying the backsides of clients bent toward the receptionist. The former spy’s had a sad breadth to it, a despondent volume. It was the backside of a woman who believed in neither love nor sport any longer, who had shameful reasons for remaining on this earth.

Watches went wrong here from the humidity. Gone was the sense of time passing. It no longer did. The bar at the Laico was decorated with naïve paintings. There were sofas for people-watching. Most of the customers, including the Europeans, weren’t drinking. Stricken by a strange paralysis of the mouth. Mouths no longer opened; their owners made do staring at glasses, full or empty, and the unusual shapes dancing around them. The feminine ones in dazzling colors, the masculine ones in rare fabrics. Luxury was synonymous with coolness and silence, in contrast with the neighborhoods where it was hot and everyone was yelling. They were fleeing not discomfort, but torment; bliss and euphoria were in the eyes of those lucky enough, like us, to escape the outside world. The elevator doors opened on Blandine de Kergalec. She left the hotel. I followed her into the night, wanting to know where she was going.

Secret services should only use women in their sixties. What station chief would suspect a retiree? Spotted walking down a street, she might at worst be a local Red Cross branch director. She could keep an eye on important men at receptions thrown by her embassy, the local government, or the WHO. They’d look right past her, not give her another thought, and keep talking about the coup d’etat they were planning or the war they were wrapping up. Excellent killers, too. No one’s afraid of a woman as old as their mother or grandmother. She’d get in close, too close to miss, even if she had Parkinson’s. Unlike me, she wouldn’t be subjected to venomous glances from men and women’s welcoming smiles. On avenues crooked as a boxer’s nose, Blandine de Kergalec drew no reactions from passersby. She stepped quickly into a sea of indifference that sheltered her anonymity and eased her movements. I realized that for the first time in my life I was following a fifty-eight-year-old woman through the streets. Born on October 19, 1948, in Brest (Finistère). My only excuse: it wasn’t sexual, though I would’ve been more turned on if it were.

Kergalec seemed to be discovering the place for the first time. The proof: a map in her jeans’ hip pocket, which she unfolded under a streetlamp. Downtown was directly ahead. Was she going somewhere else? I wanted to walk up to her and, by giving her directions, learn her destination. Maps of African capitals aren’t much use. You buy them as souvenirs before going back home to Europe. Most of the streets aren’t marked and the names of avenues and boulevards change from one decade to the next, depending on what national hero is being honored or not.

Blandine raised her hand. A taxi stopped for her. There are as many taxis in Brazzaville as in New York. They’re green. They form a river in daylight, especially during the rainy season. An unmoving river, thanks to gridlock. I found another right after Blandine and told the driver to follow the car in front of us. I explained that my mother had Alzheimer’s and had left the hotel without warning; I’d almost caught up to her when she got into a taxi. The driver remained silent. The Congolese aren’t very interested in what the white man, the moundélé, has to say. They never ask questions, but answer his freely and fully. Politeness, for them, consists of speaking only of themselves. A century of colonialism and 40 years of post- have been a severe lesson in discretion for Africans. They’ve learned to avoid the white man’s confessions without asking for details, since he might discern a presumptuous curiosity, even if this no longer applies to white men like me, born in France in May ’68.

We headed into the booming jumble of the African night. Every other street was plunged in darkness. With great effort, oil lamps lit deserted ngandas. A few people in lawn chairs by the side of the road were drinking Primus or Ngok from bottles. Primus was the beer of the South; Ngok, the beer of the North. North and South were major players in this country where East and West only had bit parts. I turned my attention on the car with the former spy. Or maybe she still was one. I was becoming one. For what state? My own. My own mental state. We passed Lumumba High, or what was left of it. I wouldn’t want my name on a building that decrepit someday. Not that I had a name. Next to Lumumba, I mean. Or Kergalec. We sped toward Bakongo. The French Cultural Center: a check-in desk for Paris-bound intellectual passengers. On its white façade shone the hopes of students from the M’Boshi, Laari, Vili, or other ethnic groups, who submitted their visa applications every day. Blandine’s taxi turned on Avenue Schoelcher. A date at the Case de Gaulle? A night date, secret. With the ambassador, the first secretary, an advisor? I myself had been invited to the residence several times, to talk about hydrocarbons. In the dry season, it was a den of mosquitoes. The rainy season too. For Europeans, the most dangerous kind were anopheles, powerful malaria vectors. Lovers of light and cleanliness, they were found mainly in palaces, luxury villas, and embassies. Because of them, we had to take quinine, which made you deaf, impotent, and depressive.

Convinced the only point of Kergalec’s outing was to meet with French diplomats posted to Brazza, and having no intention of killing an hour in the backseat of a Mercedes, I’d just told the driver to turn around when, instead of turning right onto Avenue Brazza, which led to the Case de Gaulle, the car we were following kept going down the Avenue OAU. I told the driver to stay on their tail. I wondered when this night would end, if its end wouldn’t be mine too. Perhaps the ex-spy, onto my little game, was leading me to a deserted alley in the Makélékélé, the Mpissa, the Ntanaf, or the Yamamba to bump me off and make sure the coast was clear. At the EIPMF in Caen, she’d learned how to shoot a pistol and a rifle. Later, in Grenoble, instructors from the DGSE had taught her how to kill a man with knife or her bare hands. Was it time to stop this parody of a car chase, before it took a tragic turn for me? Although I knew Kergalec’s wicked history in the French secret service like the back of my hand, I refused to see this sexagenarian who probably, given her bulky white backside, couldn’t even run fast anymore, as a danger to my athletic self, upkept by several hours of squash and weights weekly. We headed down Djoué Street. I had it now: Blandine was going to Rapides, an open-air restaurant-club by the river. I knew the place from having been many times with colleagues in oil. I found the girls there more annoying than the mosquitoes, preferring the silent, lethargic courtesans standing in the city’s big hotels like sickly planters. The ones who called AIDS “Apocryphal Intercourse Discouragement Syndrome.” What was Kergalec doing at Rapides? Cruising? She got out of the taxi and didn’t ask the driver to wait. I figured she’d be there for a while. Several young black women were chatting by the entrance. I decided to pick the one I liked best, in order not to be bothered while I was watching Blandine, but I liked the one I liked best too much to leave her to another moundélé. I gave her 10,000 CFA and told her what her job would be. Africa is paying out. The girl smiled without understanding or believing what I’d told her: going by her ironic look, it was one or the other. When we entered Rapides, she put her arm around my waist and I put a hand on her shoulder. We sat down at a table not far from Kergalec and began, as agreed, to kiss each other on the lips.

Years had gone by since the last civilian massacres in south Brazza. The Congo had swallowed countless bodies, returning them in the form of fish eaten by expats and businessmen, white or black, in the city’s finer restaurants. It was quiet as the grave, especially at night. In the distance, the lights of Kinshasa looked like a refinery’s. The capital of the DRC turned its back on Brazza as though refusing the see what had long been a communist threat to it. The Congolese girl I’d hired for the night was named Tessy. The point, as I’d explained when we came in, was for us to seem an average couple in love. I asked her how her mother was doing. She seemed surprised. Had I stumbled on a whore, someone disinclined to answer personal questions? Tessy didn’t seem to be one. She wore red, pants and a jacket, a decent outfit. No blonde highlights. Or brown either, just a classy blow-dry. I even wondered if she didn’t don glasses like Blandine’s during the day, for in her great black eyes was that tender, delicate questioning unique to nearsighted women. And she’d given me her lips right away. In public. Proof of her amateurism. Her mother had been killed at Bakongo in December 1998 by a French shell that Sassou Nguesso’s Cobras, allies of our president, Jacques Chirac, had fired at the Marché Total. I said we had a new president. She said she didn’t have a new mother. I asked her if she worked in the civil service. No. She was studying philosophy at the University of Marien-Ngouabi. Her dream? To become President of the Congo, an office that had, she claimed, been monopolized by men for too long, especially M’Boshis. Let a Vili woman run the country, and you’ll see the difference. She laughed. Kergalec turned to look at us for the first time. Congolese girls in love laugh. My plan was working. I told the Vili woman that I wanted to kiss her again in order to be able to say, when she was elected someday, that I’d once French kissed the President of the Congo. She said 10,000 francs bought only one French kiss, not two. I saw I was dealing with a nonprofessional, since whores don’t have a sense of humor. Maybe Tessy really was the philosophy student she pretended to be, and one day she’d become President of the Congo.

No one showed up at Kergalec’s table. I wondered if the Breton was waiting for a man or a woman. Maybe there was no meeting. Maybe someone in France or at the front desk of the Laico had told her about Rapides, and she’d decided to go and have a drink there before bed. Tessy asked me if I liked to dance. Yes. In oil, you have to: you spend your life in Africa, without movies or shows. Oil men don’t sit around their hotel rooms at night with a book. Did I know the seven different kinds of rumbas? There were as many rumbas as there were deadly sins. Butcher’s, Soukous, Ngouabin, Kwassa-Kwassa, Ciao, Djob, Ninja Dance. Which one did I want? I asked Tessy to repeat the list and, after considering it, chose Soukous. In Kongo, the student explained, soukous meant buttocks. You can imagine the kind of rumba it was. She danced it in front of me. Who was it said philosophy was a kind of dance? Nietzsche, if my distant memories of my final year at Louis-le-Grand still served. I didn’t get such a bad philosophy score on the baccalaureate: 9/20. I had no intention of falling into a philosophical conversation with Tessy, not even to test her knowledge and verify her story. It didn’t much matter to me if she’d lied about her studies, if she studied at all. Seeing her swaying before me was enough to convince me I’d been right to recruit her.

Before meeting the Congolese girl, I’d only known one rumba, which a Zairean woman had taught me in Poto-Poto: the Butcher’s. So named because it’d been made up by a man who sold meat at the Marché Total. He did pas de deux to pull in clients. He’d raise his arms, a knife in each hand, advancing and retreating before the Laari or Vili housewives doubled over with laughter. This was 1965, before Tessy’s birth, and mine too. At the beginning of the socialist Congo, called the People’s Republic of the Congo. But in light of the place where my partner’s mother had died, I didn’t have the heart to dance the rumba of the butcher from the Marché Total, and suggested to Tessy that we sit back down. She followed me with sovereign docility.

Blandine de Kergalec had disappeared. Unlikely that she’d gone dancing. I peeked at the three dance floors. Fat white men, thin black women. Fat black men, thin blondes. No sixty year old woman in glasses and a navy blue shirt and brown pants. I’d been had like the rookie I was. Which I wasn’t, even, never having set foot in the fort at Noisy or the base at Aspretto. The former spy had spotted me the first moment at Roissy. My only consolation was that she might’ve taken me for a guy from the DGSE, but I doubted it: she’d seen me for what I was in the world of espionage, a nonprofessional. Had fun taking me on a tour of Brazza. Her meeting must’ve been on the other side of town. In Talangaï (“Look at me” in Lingala) or Maya-Maya. Maybe in the DRC. I’d definitely never see her again, the way the police detectives in The Counterfeiters of Paris (Gilles Grangier, 1961) would never find Le Dabe (Jean Gabin) after losing him at the racetrack in Vincennes. Moments like these made me happy I wasn’t part of any secret service, and wouldn’t have to report back to my immediate superior about botching my mission.

I still had to pay for Tessy’s Cokes (two 60 cl bottles) and my Primus (one 50 cl bottle), and take her back in a taxi to Moukondo, where she’d said she lived-quite a walk, every morning of the school year, all the way to Marien-Ngouabi-then head back to bed. My plane for Pointe-Noire left the next day at noon, and Friday I’d be back in the A320 for Paris. My little game was over. Oil was serious stuff. Where else would we get beauty products? We’d still be using wooden chairs in our backyards. We wouldn’t be able to pollute the planet with our cars and planes anymore. That would be the end of global warming, and future generations would lose all hope of seeing the world end in a furnace.

Kergalec came back from the bathroom where, as any sane and normally trained agent would’ve guessed, she’d gone to do the impossible: freshen up. She’d untucked her shirt from her pants. Was this sexagenarian vanity? Tessy ordered another Coke. How many liters of Coke could she down in an evening? And yet she was thin. She probably didn’t eat anything else. A black man sat down by the ex-spy. He was tall and slender like a Tutsi, and had the face of one: fine features and eyes dark with schemes. I told Tessy we should kiss again, since no one suspects a kissing couple of listening in on their neighbors’ conversations. Her straw between her teeth, she repeated that 10,000 CFA only bought one kiss, and if I wanted another, I had to give her another 10,000. I haggled, so she wouldn’t think she hadn’t asked for enough, since that would’ve spoiled the evening. I was beginning to find the bill steep. Espionage was a pricey business. I understood now where our taxes were going. I got a kiss for 7,000 francs. With the intention of making it last for the entire conversation between the Frenchwoman and the Tutsi, and thereby writing it off as several kisses, I deemed the price reasonable, and got down to work. Tessy seemed reluctant to leave her straw behind, but that was the least of my worries. Without further ado I took my soft, warm commodity into my arms. Blandine and her contact were speaking English, which for me confirmed the black man’s ethnic origins. I couldn’t hear everything they were saying, the orchestra and the singer having launched into a pulsating rendition of Chantal Kazad’s “Sey Sey,” but I understood that a meeting had been set up for tomorrow afternoon at three, at a camp north of Brazza.

Kergalec and the Tutsi, whom she’d called Joshua, rose and left Rapides. I thought it pointless to follow: I knew what I wanted to know. Or what I didn’t. I had a piece of information I couldn’t do anything with, and a Congolese girl on my arm. Tessy seemed happy we were done kissing, devoting herself anew to her Coke. Tomorrow at three, I’d be in Kouilou. My investigation would dead end in the waters of the Atlantic. I could drop Tessy off and head back to the hotel. In the taxi, Tessy took my hand. I asked her how much that cost. She pulled her hand back right away. I recalled the Congolese proverb: “Strike a child, and you will have to comfort him.” I left the young woman in front of the post office in Moukondo. Having had the time to make up, exchange cell phone numbers, and promise to see each other Wednesday, when I returned from Pointe-Noire.


Patrick Besson

Patrick Besson published his first book at the age of 17. He has since published a total of 40 books, including Dara, winner of the Prix de l'Académie Française in 1985, and Les Braban, winner of the Prix Renaudot in 1995. He is also a journalist for leading French newspapers Le Figaro, L'Humanité, and VSD.

Edward Gauvin

Writer and translator Edward Gauvin ( has received fellowships and residencies from the Centre National du Livre, Ledig House, the Banff Centre, the Clarion Workshop, and the American Literary Translators Association. He recently debuted fabulist Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud with the collection A Life on Paper (Small Beer Press, 2010). His work has appeared in Conjunctions, Subtropics, World Literature Today, The Southern Review, and The Harvard Review, and he is the Contributing Editor for Graphic Fiction at Words Without Borders. He is currently a NEA fellow and Fulbright scholar in Brussels, studying Belgian fantastical fiction.

Copyright (c) Librairie Artheme Fayard, 2009. English translation copyright (c) Edward Gauvin, 2010.