In his 1922 essay titled “Medusa’s Head,” Sigmund Freud interprets the Greek myth of Medusa and her slayer Perseus as the overcoming of a castration complex in men. Tyrant king Polydectes desires Danae, the mother of young Perseus, and challenges him to slay Medusa the Gorgon in an attempt to get Perseus out of the way as he pursues Danae. Medusa is the monstress with snakes for hair, scales on her necks and a toothless mouth, and those who meet her gaze turn to stone. Perseus succeeds in killing Medusa and brings back her head in a sack only to find that his mother had gone into hiding to escape Polydectes’ abuse. Enraged, Perseus takes out Medusa’s head from the sack and freezes the tyrant into stone. Freud writes that the one who has defeated the castrating woman (Medusa) and is armed with the “fetish” (the head) definitively ensures the mother’s victory allowing Perseus to pass from boyhood to manhood, and finally become king.
It is not clear if Sudanese writer Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin was inspired by Freud, but the theory reminds us of the story of his novel’s protagonist, the castrated slave Sundus. Sakin unleashes a tour de force in his novel, La princesse de Zanzibar, recently translated from Arabic to French by Xavier Luffin. Along the way, Sakin also gives us a love story between a slave and princess, a story of sexual pleasure between the castrated and the mutilated, and the story of two beings who thirst for freedom though not for the same reasons.
Sundus is the mute slave of the “recently blessed” Sultan and has stopped speaking because of the trauma he underwent from his castration. He and his father, Mutii, who was a former village chief were captured by the Sultan who amputated their sex and made them slaves. While the father accepts this fate as a sign of destiny, the young Sundus revolts from his condition and dreams of only one thing: to be free again.
While the reader may expect a historical novel about Zanzibar and the history of colonization, the story takes an unexpected romantic turn. It is, in fact, a love story where Sakin explores the complex pleasure between two mutilated sexes; Sundus and princess Latifa. However, Sakin dexterously handles the art of surprising the reader by blurring the lines of history and testing the limits of the fantastic so that the book never becomes a vulgar sexual chronicle. The Muslim invasion, the arrival of the Catholics, and colonialism are intertwined in a merciless narrative where neither the Muslims nor the Catholics nor the colonizers find favor in the eyes of the author.
Sultan Suleiman bin Salim is the descendant of the Omani invaders, who after driving out the Portuguese, have taken over Zanzibar. He has earned the sobriquet of “recently blessed” because of his pompous genealogy. His only daughter Latifa also inherits the same nickname. The Sultan can be said to be a do-nothing kind of king: lazy and without ambition or political vision for his island except to satisfy his culinary and sexual desires. He rules over his indolent dignitaries who in turn rule over a population of black African slaves. In fact, this “recently blessed” Sultan is so corpulent that he is not even able to wash his own backside. The author’s irony and sarcasm are quickly apparent in the narration of this book. The Sultan lives with his 99 concubines whose names he does not know as well as his daughter Latifa, the widow of a rich merchant. Like her father, the daughter is a good-for-nothing who spends her time at the local market buying jewelry and other things that are of no use to her.
Until then, the novel moves slowly through the lives of the lazy inhabitants punctuated by the author’s acerbic remarks as he takes pleasure in flaying Zanzibari royal society, both the dignitaries and the slaves. As we begin to sink into the literary torpor of this island, Sakin cleverly awakens us with the arrival of the English. At this moment the novel takes a new turn and introduces us to new characters. The Sultan becomes aware that the English are there to take over his kingdom, Latifa realizes that her life is empty, and that Sundus is in love with her.
One day, Sundus takes advantage of an attack by African insurgents with whom he is in league in order to kidnap and escape with the princess. He begins to live with these insurgents in their village. During this fugue, he miraculously regains his ability to speak. It is here that their dormant sexual desire awakens, and they realize that they can’t live without each other. Now that the former slave is free, he sets out to reclaim not only his lost penis from the village gods, but the excised sex of his beloved princess. In line with what Freud has argued, Sundus the slave wants his “fetish” penis back in order to conquer his lover and take control of his destiny as an adult.
Sakin reveals himself as a masterful storyteller whose imagination has no limits. Very few writers can boast of such insolent talent for telling a complex love story between a slave and a mistress whose roles constantly change. Sakin is a prolific and well established writer in the Arab world particularly in Sudan where he is originally from, and where he has been censored since 2011. Born in 1963 in Kassala, his roots are in neighboring Darfur and Chad. He was not always on a track to be a writer and has studied business, worked in the tax department, and been an English teacher. Accused, wrongly, of having participated in a demonstration, his books were confiscated and subsequently banned by the regime. He found asylum in Austria and has gone on to write several novels, short story collections and plays. Though his works have yet to proliferate in English, more and more French translations of his writings are being published.
French reviewers have been quick to call this ribald and risqué book an African Romeo and Juliet given the love story of Sundus and Latifa. It’s an unnecessary comparison because there is no dearth of actual African love stories but also because La princesse de Zanzibar is not as much a love story but more a narrative about resistance, exile, and freedom from slavery.