“The boy first. His name was Yusuf, and he left his home suddenly during his twelfth year. He remembered it was the season of drought, when every day was the same as the last. Unexpected flowers bloomed and died. Strange insects scuttled from under rocks and writhed to their deaths in the burning light. The sun made distant trees tremble in the air and made the houses shudder and heave for breath. Clouds of dust puffed up at every tramping footfall and a hard-edged stillness lay over the daylight hours. Precise moments like that came back of the season.”
A tour d’horizon of colonialised Tanzania (Tanganyika + Zanzibar). The bulk of the book follows an expedition from the coast to the interior at the dawn of the colonial era. (The author himself is from Zanzibar). The young hero, Yusuf, encounters both the German colonialists and other tribes whom he poorly understands – he is pretty much just as much an outsider there as the Europeans. As an outsider it is good to be reminded that also to an African, other Africans can seem equally exotic. As a boy Yusuf is taken on the long journey inland by his uncle, and only eventually comes to realise that the latter is actually using him to pay off his debts. A minor quibble is that the Swahili words in the text were not glossed (my Swahili is fairly minimal!) It brings into relief the vast differences between the coastal and interior people, which splits Tanzania to this day. It is well worth reading, even if much more lightweight than my Kenyan title, Petals of Blood (coming soon!) and a little slow to get rolling.
GURNAH, Abdulrazak (1948 – ), Paradise, London: Bloomsbury, 2004 (or. publ. 1994), ISBN 9780747573999
Set in an orwellian southeast Asian country which is a not really disguised Burma (the Irrawaddy of the title sort of gives it away!) it follows the wife of the country’s military dictator (an equally thinly-disguised U Ne Win), who has the book’s title as her unlikely nickname. Since it leaps from their first meeting to their married life, where she is already sarcastic and fearful of him, you are left with the question, why did she marry him in the first place? She seems pretty jaundiced almost from the beginning of her life, certainly about all her men, the political movements she comes into contact with, and the countries where she lived (Burma, the US and even Thailand!) and the whole book is quite bleak, for which you can’t blame someone who grew up under the dictatorship or was exiled from her country. Nevertheless Law-Yone is witty and often funny.
She compares her people to a column of caterpillars who found their way onto a pot:
“Following their leader, the insects had reached the rim and were making an endless circuit round and round the lip. Not for minutes, not for hours, but for days they circled that pot, unable to break out of their roundabout, even after collapsing periodically; even after – at long last – one member would actually strike out on its own.
In the end every adventurer returned to fall back in step with the column. And on went the march – an endless looping of the loop by witless troops who’d lost their leader but were simply unable to abandon their path.”
Another more sympathetic and heart-wrenching portrait of a beaten but dignified people comes in a picture of a robbed platform vendor:
“At one big junction we were in our seats, having a snack, when we heard a commotion on the platform. One of the food vendors, a girl about my age, was standing with a tray on her head, crying her eyes out. The tray was empty, but the girl – by force of habit, apparetly – kept it balanced on her head. The effort required an erect posture comically at odds with her misery.
The face under the tray was puffy and wet. Through her sobs, she was trying to tell some sort of story to the people who’d gathered around.
‘What is happening?’ Merc asked, in her quaint Daan, of someone below.
‘She has been robbed,’ said the person on the platform, in precise English. He had a plump mole in the middle of his chin out of which grew three luxuriant hairs. ‘They have taken everything. They have taken the food, they have taken all her money. Now she fears going home because she will be thrashed.’”
A cynical and bitter portrait of a downtrodden country which deserves better.
At the same time I was reading Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin as my travel book, which proved the perfect accompaniment. At first blush, Orwell’s stint as a policeman in the British colonial government might not seem to have much to do with his masterworks, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, but Larkin shows just how ‘orwellian’ the military dictatorship was at its height.
Wendy LAW-YONE (1947 – ), Irrawaddy Tango, Evanston, IL, Triquarterly Books, Northwestern University Press, 1993, ISBN 0-8101-5142-1
A lecturer (lecher?) commits an ethical crime at his university and is sanctioned by it. He is, we assume, a White, although I don’t think this is ever spelled out. He refuses to admit his guilt but ‘goes into laager’ (as a South African would say), staying on his daughter’s isolated farm where she lives a rather idealistic 1960’s-ish lifestyle (VW Kombi included). While she looks after him, they no longer see eye to eye. She seems to see supine acceptance and resignation as the only way to survive in the new South Africa where Blacks have the power, at least partly as penance for the apartheid that was inflicted on them, and despite her terrible suffering seems more likely to get along in the new world than her fossil father.
“’Aren’t you nervous by yourself?’
Lucy shrugs. ‘There are the dogs. Dogs still mean something. The more dogs, the more deterrence. Anyhow, if there were to be a break-in, I don’t see that two people would be better than one.’
‘That’s very philosophical.’
‘Yes. When all else fails, philosophise.’”
There are two parts to the story. In the first, set in the city, he is in his own world and in control (or so he thinks). In the second, out on the farm, everything is out of his control, the Blacks are taking over, and he is incapable of understanding them. His daughter, on the other hand, is full of forbearance and fortitude, and can adapt to the changing circumstances (which isn’t to say that she isn’t traumatised by them).
The characters brilliantly symbolise the changing face of this fraught land. This is a simply written but insightful novel by a truly great writer.
COETZEE, J. M. (1940 – ), Disgrace, London, Vintage, 2008 (originally published 1999), ISBN 978-0-099-52683-4
“When… he had learned to know Don Fabrizio better he discovered in him the softness and the inability to defend himself that were the characteristics of his pre-formed sheep-noble, but also an attractive force different in tone but equal in intensity to that of the young Falconeri; moreover a certain energy tending towards abstraction, a disposition to seek the way of life which would emerge from within himself and not be grasped from others; he would remain deeply impressed by this abstract energy, although it presented itself as direct and not as reducible to words, as is attempted here; however he noticed that much of this fascination sprang from good manners and realised how pleasing a well-educated man could be, because at heart he is nothing but someone who eliminates the always unpleasant manifestations of so much of the human condition and who exercises a sort of profitable altruism (a formula in which the efficacy of the adjective made him tolerate the uselessness of the noun).” [my translation]
My favourite Italian book (and one of my all-time favourite books) is The Name of the Rose (Il nome della rosa) by Umberto Eco. But since I had to choose another title this time, I chose the historical novel The Leopard.
The Leopard is Sicilian prince Don Fabrizio and it’s set mainly at the time of the Risorgimento which resulted in the unification – in a manner of speaking – of Italy in 1870. It was written as Lampedusa was dying, and is pervaded with a strong sense of ‘end of an era’. The Leopard is in fact a pussy cat, but has to accept that the aristocratic world he knew is moving on (in fact doomed, like the realm of the pre-Olympian Greek gods), and that those more in tune with the new Zeitgeist, like his dashing nephew Tancredo, will inherit the future. Lampedusa’s view of both that old aristocracy and of the rising nouveaux riches is equivocal but subtle. Lampedusa’s one great novel truly is a masterpiece. However I found it difficult to read (in Italian). Some of the sentences seem to go on forever and (like the example above) can be a bit convoluted. Some of the anachronisms (such as a mention of World War II and Einstein) I found somewhat jarring. But apart from this personal niggle, it’s an absolutely marvellous book and an unmissable highlight of Italian literature.
Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896 – 1957), Il gattopardo, Milano: Feltrinelli, 2012, ISBN 978-88-07-81028-2 (originally 1958)