“While [Sylvan] was in the dining room fixing the table, he heard people screaming outside the front door. He quickly realised they were young girls but he could not understand what they were saying. He almost collapsed when he went out of the house and saw Dada, in front of a small group of small girls, bleeding. He lost control of himself. He went inside the house and rushed back. With both hands on top of his head, Sylvan didn’t know what to do or where to start! He finally stood in front of Dada with his mouth wide open but saying nothing. At that instant Dada could see Sylvan experiencing his end of the world. Sylvan did not know what to say and knew for sure he would be blamed for the incident. He also believed there was no way Mr. Masa would keep him on. For Sylvan, losing his job was also losing his status. Within a short time there were a lot of people in the compound. Sylvan recovered quickly and took the boy inside the house. Once inside, he did everything to make Dada comfortable. After a short while people dispersed and Dada was left with Sylvan.”
This slim novel follows the culture shock of city boy Dada sent into a country village in the Congo (formerly Zaire, as it is still called in this book), to become ‘socialised’ and put back in touch with his own culture, while his parents go to the US on a diplomatic posting. He is from a privileged background, has travelled around Europe and has become europeanised. The Western-educated boy has to learn to understand and deal with a society permeated by animism and magic overlain with a patina of Christianity. At first the small town of Bulungu seems tranquil enough, but unexpected perils await him (and those he comes into contact with), like the crocodiles lurking under the murky rivers. From this work, Yamusange seems like a promising writer but this one could have done with more fleshing-out. Sometimes he could have shown, rather than said – many sentences read like something from an anthropological tract rather than a novel, and it seems quite obviously written for a Western rather than a Congolese audience – of course it is no less enlightening for that, rather more so. I learnt a lot about local life and beliefs from this little book.
Just occasionally the work comes across as a little naive and contrary to at least the more recent history, and at least in the militia-ridden east of the country: “…there is no way a child could kill. I have been in Bulungu for a long time and I know children don’t kill.”
As you would expect with a self-published work, there are some typos (the “British” explorer and journalist “Henry Motor Stanley” would no doubt have had more comfortable travels than the American Henry Morton Stanley!) and you can’t help wondering how much better it would have been with editorial help.
All-in-all, a slightly disappointing, but still enlightening read.
If you want a Congolese book that can be unreservedly recommended, albeit by an outsider, you shouldn’t miss The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, or of course Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.
Frederick Kambemba Yamusangie, Full Circle, NY, iUniverse, 2003, ISBN 0-595-28294-6
The silence of snow, thought the man sitting just behind the bus-driver. If this were the beginning of a poem, he would have called what he felt inside him ‘the silence of snow’.
He’d boarded the bus from Erzurum to Kars with only seconds to spare. He’d just come into the station on a bus from Istanbul – a snowy, stormy, two-day journey – and was rushing up and down the wet, dirty corridors with his bag in tow, looking for his connection, when someone told him that there was a bus for Kars leaving immediately.
When the remote eastern town of Kars is snowbound by a blizzard, turning it into a microcosm of Turkey (and, to some extent, the world as a whole), a showdown takes place between the secularists and Islamists who are tugging at Turkey’s soul, culminating in an explosive confrontation between two imperfect worlds. Neither the heavy-handed secular authorities nor the Islamic radicals come off well, but neither are portrayed superficially or without understanding. This novel seems to become more relevant by the day, given the recent election, for this country that is a bridge between East and West, enriched by both but endlessly skewered between the two.
You can read this moving, thought-provoking novel just as a thriller if you like, but there is a variegated landscape under the snow cover and it would be a shame to miss it. This is an important book for everyone.
Incidentally, if you don’t know Turkish you might miss the puns: ‘pamuk’ means ‘cotton’, and ‘kar’ (the title of the book in Turkish) means ‘snow’, so the poet-hero of the book (Ka) should not have been surprised to find the city of Kars in the grip of a snowstorm!
PAMUK, Orhan (1952 -), Snow, translated by Maureen Freely, London, Faber and Faber, 2005, ISBN 0-571-21831-8 (originally published in Turkish, 2002)
This is a subtly magical realist novel from the part of the world which gifted us the Thousand Nights and One Night, and which is almost as beautiful as its title. It follows a few generations of an endearing and occasionally annoying Jewish Iranian family who try to evade an apparently fated bad luck. This is concentrated in Lili, who as a five-year-old watches her mother Roxanna the Angel fly away from her family (literally): “…she had been so light and delicate, so undisturbed by the rules of gravity and the drudgery of human existence, she had grown wings, one night when the darkness was the colour of her dreams, and flown into the star-studded night of Iran that claimed her.” She floated away insouciantly on the winds of inevitable Fate, and does not return for 13 years so Lili has to grow up without her. Her search for her mother and an explanation takes her through Turkey and the US, where they are finally re-united in the ‘City of Angels’.
Gina Nahai herself was born in Iran but has long lived in the United States. She wields her language like a master storyteller. Her book is wonderful escapism but at the same time so very true and meaningful. All in all, a lovely book.
NAHAI, Gina B. (1961 – ): Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith, Pocket Books, Washington Square Press, NY, 1999, ISBN 978-0-671-04283-7