I must admit that The Death of King Tsongor was an impulsive purchase; I found it in some random bookstore and bought it on a whim. Such hasty decisions are seldom rewarded, but this isn’t the case with this amazing novel that was shortlisted for the prestigious Gouncort prize. It stands to reason that writing about it should be easy, well, it turns out that it’s not. These lasts weeks, I’ve discovered that one can’t write an article out of sheer willpower, believe me, I’ve tried.
But worry not, after some soul-searching I’ve identified the origin of my writer’s block. While researching for the article I stumbled upon a review that compared The Death of King Tsongor with Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, I suspect that such an unholy comparison shut down my brain functions for an extended period of time. But pay no heed: there’s as much Coelho in this novel as real fruit in a box of children’s cereals. Coelho fans you can turn your backs now and find the nearest exit, there’s nothing here for you.
The Death of King Tsongor tells the story of the dissolution of the mythical African kingdom of Massaba. After spending his youth fighting to expand the borders of his kingdom, Tsongor has grown weary of war and meaningless deaths. As an old man, Tsongor rules over a vast, rich and peaceful land. Everything’s looking up now: his daughter Samilia is about to marry Prince Kuame and Tsongor will finally be able to step down and rest. Unfortunately, Sango Kerim, the nomad prince, appears unexpectedly seeking Samilia’s hand in marriage. Honour and pride ensure a bloody outcome that Tsongor tries to prevent with one final sacrifice. But men can’t rule over the wheels of fate and Tsongor will be forced to witness a war that will destroy the work of a lifetime. A war like a wildfire will consume Massaba and Samilia will become the unwilling prize. Meanwhile, her youngest brother Suba will fulfil Tsongor’s last wish, travelling the land and erecting seven tombs by which Tsongor shall be remembered.
This may sound like the plot of any random epic novel, but The Death of King Tsongor is much more than that. Laurent Gaudé’s prose has a musicality that links it to classical epic poetry and a tragic quality that would awe the Greeks themselves. Reading The Death of King Tsongor you get the felling of being plunged into an archetypal story, one that’s rooted somewhere in your earliest memories. At the same time, though, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read full of memorable characters. Samilia’s quiet dignity as she walks away from the warring princes, the madness driving the warriors to battle, Suba’s conflicted feelings about his father’s legacy, even the small instances of humour that allow you to take a breath while at the same time highlighting all that’s been lost. Each detail adds up to make a riveting novel that you won’t be able to put down until the very end.