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Yekini, le roi des arènes

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Here is a book that brings together several genres together, complicating the borders between them but without dissolving any of them. This means that it’s actually possible to describe this book via those same genres, without missing the point. Yekini, le roi des arènes is then, at one time, a reportage book, a biography, a coming-of-age novel and an old-styled epic struggle of a lone hero against overwhelming odds.

Yekini is, at an immediate superficial level, the story of Yakhya Diop, a young Senegalese laamb fighter, the traditional form of wrestling from his country, that is a martial art but also a mystical experience, and which seems to be a major part of popular contemporary Senegalese masculine identity. In both fighting techniques and magical thinking, there seems to be some affinities with some Far Eastern wrestling, not only the most know form, Japanese sumô, but also Korean shireum and Mongolian bökh.

Despite the title, though, the focus of this big, thick book – almost 400 pages – is not Yekini alone. Although we can say that he is the protagonist, and that most actions of the book revolve around him, he is the central figure between two other important characters. On the one hand, Tyson, the champion which revolutionised laamb into its modernity. Or should I say post-modernity ? After all, Tyson mixes U.S.-boxing type flair with Senegalese tradition and Michael Jackson’s Thriller choreography with the “tuss”, the ritualistic dance that the fighters and his acolytes perform before the fights. On the other hand, Balla Gaye 2, the new up-and-coming champion that brings about a certain punkish attitude. As much as Yekini dethrones Tyson, so does Balla Gaye 2 wants to do the same to Yekini. It is not only a question of sports, or of generation, as the authors make sure that each of the fighter’s attitudes is profoundly mixed with the politics and culture of their “own” vision of contemporary Senegal.

It is also a reportage book because the authors use several strategies that create some distance from the central diegesis around these characters. There is a disembodied, external narrative voice, the integration of photographs, magazine covers, a comic purportedly created by a young child as a homage to Yekini in a school contest and a “cheap” comics adventure story that puts Yekini into a fantastical setting, fighting mystical figures. There are also extratextual little snippets of information that explain the rôle and placement of the artists in relation to what they saw and experienced in Senegal and in their contacts with these fighters.

These are many of the strategies in order to create materials of referentiality that point out to the historical, actual reality in which Yekini and the other fighters live. Through it, the authors create a sort of bridge between whatever changes they’ve operated in relation to reality, the fictional and poetical licences, and the actual verifiable truth. There are different degrees of “translation” of those materials – redrawn, re-integrated in the comics pages, created from scratch (like the comic-within-a-comic), which leads to an unassimilated, differentiated materiality throughout the book, complicating its relationship with that “truth”. This is especially significant in the sense that the study of the relationship of Yekini with the other styles of the fighters, more media-savvy, and educated into the financial aspects of the show, as well as with the political situation of Senegal (President’s Wade bid for continuous power, and the issues of nepotism and civil war, etc.) must obligatorily implicate aspects of the complex social reality.

History is also doubled in the figures of Yekini’s and Balla Gaye’s respective mentors, Robert and Double Less, old glories of laamb that feed their ages-old rivalry now through their apprentices. There’s a little Jedi master-padawan chemistry going on here, very contrasting between each pair.

However, Lisa Lugrin and Clément Xavier never delve too much into that. They don’t expose too much. They do provide us with enough information so we can take a position, never neutral of course, but they themselves don’t create unidirectional explanations. In fact, in relation to the laamb itself, for instance, the authors do not introduce this traditional martial art in any encyclopedic way. There are no moments where techniques or the ritual elements are presented disengaged from the actions we’re witnessing, detached from the diegesis. Laamb is preceded by rituals of several sorts : ablutions, psychical-magical attacks on the opponent, and the tuss, a dance whose goal is to both to intimidate the opponent and entertain the supporters. The fighters usually don not only their minute loin cloth (the nguimb) but also the gris-gris, an amulet they have attached to their massive chests with special herbs combinations and verses from the Koran. The authors never explore encyclopedically these aspects, they are simply part of the fighter’s life and activities. This makes the reading of Yekini, despite those heterogeneous materials quoted above, surprisingly smooth and integrated.

As I mentioned, it can also be read as a Bildungsroman. Yekini is a typical figure engaged in a “hero’s journey”. Issued from the small village of Bassoul, Yekini was somewhat an outsider to the sophisticated culture of Dakar. He grew up with a simple relationship to life, and brought to laamb an almost ascetic attitude, very different from both the previous champion Tyson, who revolutionised the practice into a super-mediatic sport, and the next in line, Balla Gaye 2 (both born in Dakar, at least a decade apart). It is this attitude – Yekini’s almost zen dedication to training, living a “clean” life, devoid of distractions, rage and media prostitution – that is found in the centre of the narrative, as it becomes a point of tension for both his opponents in the arène, and the powers that be controlling the spectacle : the sponsors, the agents and organisers, the television broadcasters and the specialised publications editors, and so on. Despite his massive size, Yekini is portrayed like a sort of David against Goliath.

However, this does not mean that Yekini is represented as a saint or an intelligent man in all his relationships. Quite the contrary, his flaws and errors are exposed, perhaps the biggest of them all the way he naïvely treats Marie-Helène, in their short-lived marriage. Why is this humongous, overpowering man capable of moving, pushing and defeating 100-plus kilos champions but not able to understand the most basic need to show, verbally and otherwise, his love for a woman that clearly loves him ? Nonetheless, this is one of the reasons why Yekini becomes an irresistible, moving figure, a little kid in the body of a giant. Quite contrasting to his adversaries… The authors don’t want to create simple antagonism between the characters, but Yekini does come across a sweet man, while Tyson seems to be a more cynical and seasoned champion, while Balla Gaye is really of a “no-future” generation.

Lugrin’s drawings, made only with pencil, are able to delve in to light and simple approaches in the their figuration, but when needed she darkens the spaces with shadows, heavy hatching, scribbles and free flowing thick lines. She is able to transmit the whole gamut of expressive emotions that go through the characters : it is amazing to see how a simple shift of an eyebrow, a small gesture or a slightly altered angle goes a long way to allow the reader to make profound inferences in the character’s morale and inner thoughts. Especially when they are not translated through words. Even there is a writer, he knows when to “write silence”, and let the bodies speak form themselves in their interaction, whether in a fight or a lover’s breakdown.

And if most of the mise en page follows a hand-drawn, but sound 2 x 3 grid, and most of its variations work within the semi-regular principle (according to Renaud Chavanne’s terminology), whenever there is a major change (including the introduction of colour in the photographs or the “internal” comic Yekini, that uses more spectacular, irregular mise en pages) it but underlines a significant moment.

Without elevating (or is it reducing ?) Yekini himself to a symbol of the societal changes that are operating in Senegal, using its particular, traditional wrestling as a metaphorical focus, Yekini, le roi des arènes nonetheless transforms the genre of biography into a charged instrument of posing questions about self-identity, national integration and the price one pays to occupy an Olympian social place.

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Chroniqué par en juillet 2014