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    Impressionsof Africa

    Raymond Roussel

    Translated by Rayner Heppenstall

    and Lindy Foord

    ONEWORLD

    CLASSICS

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    ONEWORLD CLASSICS LTDLondon House243-253 Lower Mortlake RoadRichmondSurrey TW9 2LLUnited Kingdomwww.oneworldclassics.com

    Impressions of Africarst published in French as Impressions dAfrique in 1910This translation rst published by Calder & Boyars Ltd in 1966This translation rst published by Oneworld Classics Ltd in 2011Translation Lindy Foord and Rayner Heppenstall, 1966, 1983, 2001, 2011Cover image Getty Images

    Printed in Great Britain By CPI Antony Rowe

    ISBN : 978-1-84749-168-8

    All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, storedin or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form orby any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or other-wise), without the prior written permission of the publisher. This book issold subject to the condition that it shall not be resold, lent, hired out orotherwise circulated without the express prior consent of the publisher.

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    Contents

    Impressions of Africa 1Notes 242

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    Impressionsof Africa

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    4

    IMPRESSIONS OF AFRICA

    of him were two stakes, each xed to one corner of the platform andjoined by a long slack string which sagged under the weight of threeobjects, hanging in a row and clearly displayed like lottery prizes.The rst of these objects was nothing more nor less than a bowlerhat with the French word PINCE* printed in white capitals onits black crown; the next one was a dark-grey suede glove with thepalm turned outwards and a large C lightly marked on it withchalk; lastly there dangled from the string a ne sheet of parchment,covered with strange hieroglyphs and bearing as a heading a rathercrude drawing of ve gures, deliberately made to look absurd by

    their general posture and exaggerated features.Nar was a prisoner on his pedestal, his right foot held in a mesh of

    thick cords which formed an effective noose, rmly anchored to thesolid platform; like a living statue he performed slow, regular motions,rapidly murmuring strings of words he had learnt by heart. All hisattention was concentrated on a fragile pyramid, constructed fromthree sheets of bark, fastened together, which rested on a speciallyshaped stand in front of him; the base, which was turned towardshim and tilted perceptibly, served as a loom; within his reach, onan extension to the stand, lay a supply of fruit husks, coated witha greyish vegetable substance, similar in appearance to the cocoonsof larvae on the point of hatching into chrysalides. Taking a frag-ment of one of these delicate shells between two ngers, the youngman slowly drew his hand towards him, to create an elastic thread,similar to the gossamer which drapes itself about the woods in spring.

    With these invisible laments he wove a fabric, as ne and intricateas the work of a fairy, for his hands moved with unrivalled dexterity,crossing, knotting, intertwining the dream-like threads a thousanddifferent ways to merge in a graceful design. The phrases he recitedto himself helped to regulate his precise, delicate movements; theslightest mistake would have hopelessly endangered the whole workand, without the automatic guidance of certain formulae, memorizedword for word, Nar could never have accomplished his task.

    Below him, to the right, other pyramids stood near the edge of thepedestal, with their apices pointing backwards so that it was pos-sible to appreciate the full effect of the completed work; the base,placed upright and clearly visible, was delicately indicated by an

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    5

    CHAPTER 1

    almost non-existent tissue, ner than a spiders web. At the back of each pyramid a red ower, attached by the stem, drew the attentionirresistibly beyond the scarcely perceptible veil of the fairy fabric.

    Not far from the stage of the Incomparables, to the right of theactor, two posts, four or ve feet apart, supported an apparatus inmotion; from the nearer of the two jutted a pivot, around which astrip of yellowish parchment was tightly wound; nailed rmly tothe farther post to form a platform, a small square board served asa base for a vertical cylinder, which was being turned slowly by a

    clockwork motor.The yellowish band, unfurling in a single coil which stretched, un-

    broken, across the space between, wrapped itself round the cylinder,so that as it rotated on its axis, it drew the parchment continuouslytowards itself and away from the distant pivot, which was therebyforced to participate in the gyratory motion.

    A succession of crude drawings of groups of savage warriors, invarious poses, followed each other across the parchment: one col-umn appeared to run at breakneck speed in pursuit of a retreatingenemy; another lay in ambush, behind a bank, patiently awaiting theright moment to appear; here, two armies, equal in number, foughtercely man to man; there, fresh troops charged forward with greatstrides to ing themselves into the distant fray. As the reel continuedto unwind, countless new and amazing strategies appeared, thanksto the innite multiplicity of the effects obtained.

    Opposite me, at the other end of the esplanade, extended a sort of altar, with several steps leading up to it, covered with a soft carpet; acoat of white paint, veined with bluish lines, gave the whole structurefrom a distance the appearance of marble.

    On the sacred table, which consisted of a long board, tted half-way up the erection and hidden under a white cloth, could be seena rectangle of parchment, dotted with hieroglyphics, standing nextto a massive cruet, lled with oil. Beside it, a larger sheet bore thistitle in careful Gothic script: Reigning House of Ponukele-Drelshkaf ;beneath the heading a round portrait, a delicately coloured miniature,represented two Spanish girls of thirteen or fourteen, wearing on

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    6

    IMPRESSIONS OF AFRICA

    their heads the national mantilla twin sisters, to judge by the closeresemblance between their faces; at rst glance, the picture seemedto be an integral part of the document; but closer scrutiny revealeda narrow strip of transparent muslin which, adhering both to theperiphery of the painted disc and to the surface of the stiff vellum,joined as perfectly as possible the two objects, which were in factindependent of each other; on the left-hand side of the double efgy,the name SUAN was written in widely spaced capitals; underneath,the paper was covered with a genealogical table comprised of twodistinct branches, issuing in parallel descent from the two beautiful

    Spaniards who formed the top of the tree; one branch ended in theword Extinction, in letters almost as prominent as those of theheading and clearly meant for brutal effect; the other, on the contrary,a little shorter than its companion, seemed to defy the future by theabsence of any nal line.

    Near the altar, to the right of it, grew a gigantic palm of remark-able foliage which testied to its great age; a board, fastened to itstrunk, bore the commemorative phrase: Restoration of the Emperor Talu VII to the Throne of his Fathers.In the shelter of the palm, onone side, a stake had been driven into the earth and on its squaretop had been placed a soft-boiled egg.

    To the left, at an equal distance from the altar, a tall plant, oldand withering, offered a sad contrast to the splendid palm; it wasa rubber tree which had no more sap and was almost rotten. Astretcher, made of branches, lay in its shade, bearing the recumbent

    corpse of the Negro king Yaour IX, wearing the traditional costumeof Marguerite in Faust,* a pink woollen gown from which hung ashort alms purse and a thick golden wig with long plaits which fellover his shoulders and came halfway down to his knees.

    On my left, with its back to the row of sycamores, and facing the redtheatre, stood a stone-coloured building which looked like a modelin miniature of the Paris Bourse. *

    Between this building and the north-west angle of the esplanadestood a row of life-size statues.

    The rst of these represented a man, mortally wounded by aweapon plunged into his heart. His two hands clutched instinctively

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    7

    CHAPTER 1

    at the wound, while his knees buckled under the weight of his bodyas it was ung backwards, on the point of collapse. The statue wasblack, and at rst glance looked as though it had been carved out of a single block; but closer study gradually distinguished thousandsof grooves, running in every direction, though generally forminggroups of parallel lines. The work was in fact constructed entirelyfrom innumerable corset whalebones, cut and bent to suit the shapeof the moulding. Flat-headed nails, presumably with the points bentinwards, joined these pliant slats which were arranged side by sidewith such skill that not the slightest gap was left between them. The

    face itself, with all the details of its sad and agonized expression, wasmade simply out of broken fragments, carefully adjusted to reproducefaithfully the line of the nose, the lips, the arched eyebrows and theeyeballs. The shaft of the weapon, thrust deep into the heart of thedying man, gave some idea of the difculty overcome, thanks to theelegant handle, in which could be detected the outline of two or threewhalebones, cut into short lengths and bent into rings. The muscularbody, the clenched arms,