Robert Worth writes a compelling and entertaining portrait of French spy novelist Gerard de Villiers in this week’s New York Times Magazine. I was introduced to de Villiers’ SAS series when I lived in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. No. 76 in the series is “Putsch à Ouagadougou,” and as Worth explains in his story, the book contains undeniable verisimilitude. “Putsch à Ouagadougou” was banned for many years in Burkina Faso when Capt. Thomas Sankara was president. The plot tells you why: SAS hero Malko Linge arrives in Ouagadougou to spearhead a coup d’état against a President Sankara. (I re-read large chunks of the book when I saw Worth’s article, and could not find the “camarade-president” to have a first name, but perhaps that just added to the believability of the story). At the time, like anyone else in Ouagadougou who wanted to read it, I had to ask for a contraband copy from one of the city’s many street-side booksellers who would lay their wares on a table. If you were polite, a copy of “Putsch à Ouagadougou” wrapped in a sheet of newspaper would be quietly taken out of a box below the table. That had nothing to do with the requisite sex-scenes every 25 pages or so, and everything to do with perceived propaganda against the Sankara regime.
One of the remarkable things that Worth highlights in his profile of the author, and which is also true of “Putsch à Ouagadougou,” is de Villiers’ attention to detail. I thought he had a research team that travels to these far-flung places around the globe to gather phone books, maps, photographs, anything that would make the narrative as realistic as possible. But in fact, de Villiers does the research himself, spending a couple of weeks in these places, and then returning to Paris to write.
Here’s a short list of a few of the accuracies de Villiers nails in “Putsch à Ouagadougou.”
There is a Hotel Silmande, and it is the ritziest of the hotels in Ouagadougou.
There is also a Hotel Indépendance. It exists, and so did the electrical short — described accurately by de Villiers — in the underwater light at the hotel pool that on certain days made people jump right out of the water.
A certain Colonel Joseph Ouedraengo who will take the place of President Sankara when he is toppled is exiled in Ivory Coast. OK, such a person did not exist, but if you were opposed to Sankara in the 80s, you were likely in Ivory Coast, or France.
The real life Thomas Sankara had a bodyguard who was mixed race whose name was Gilbert Guengeré. De Villiers also describes in his book a mixed-race bodyguard who was like someone out of Haiti’s Tonton-Macoutes. This one’s name is Bangaré.
And true to form, de Villiers gets the local beer correct (Flag), as well as various bars and nightclubs which existed at the time.
If you needed a manual on how to stage a coup in Burkina Faso, this book would have served quite well. Sadly, the coup against Thomas Sankara — when it happened on Oct. 15, 1987 — needed no instructions. It happened simply, staged by the man who knew Sankara best, the army captain who was always by his side, Blaise Compaore. He’s the one who organized the 1983 coup that put Sankara in power. And he remains in power in Burkina Faso today.