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Book 67: Malawi (English) – Smouldering charcoal (Tiyambe ZELEZA)

 

When he got to the door he hesitated to open it. He heard the children crying. Had she beaten them again? Obviously she had not expected him to come home so early. He burst into the house. The children looked up when they saw their father but did not stop crying. They had seen his empty hands. They were all herded together in the only dry part of the kitchen, semi-naked, thin little creatures, shivering, with swollen and hollow eyes, and throats that issued strange sounds from their hungry stomachs. He avoided their gaze.

 

I snapped up this paperback in a second-hand bookshop in Cape Town, which was able to tick quite a few boxes on my African to-read list.
The novel is set in Malawi – or somewhere very similar. When I first started travelling, there were two countries my long-haired generation were terrified of – Malawi and Singapore. (Don’t laugh!) Would we be assaulted by vicious immigration officials brandishing scissors, rendering us eternally and incurably Uncool? Or just denied entry as Undesirable Elements? It is no coincidence that ‘The Leader’ in this novel is similar to Malawi’s dictator of that time, Banda: ‘The leader hated long hair and beards, and anybody who sported them risked arrest for moral indecency or even subversion.’
‘Smouldering charcoal’ is basically a call for a revolution, social and political, but it is refreshingly free from polemic and quite readable. It is concerned with the unjust regime, inequality, and the (bad) treatment of women. It follows the effects of what starts with a bakers’ strike on two very different families. (In this, it is somewhat similar to my novel for Senegal which I’ve just finished, Ousmane Sembene’s Les Bouts de bois de Dieu).
Mchere is a drunken violent father (his disdain for his family shown by how he rips a page from his son’s exercise book to roll a cigarette.) No doubt following his bad example, his children are rude and it is left to his wife to try to keep the family going.
The good-natured, happily married journalist Chola starts the day happy but suffers bad luck due to country’s own misfortunes.
Following the men’s example, the women (led by good-hearted prostitutes) threaten their own strike against the sexist treatment of their men (which reminded me of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata).
The callousness of the people in power is shown when the priest and the party representative pretend to care for the people but let a child die rather than lend a car to get him to hospital.
Like several of the other African novels I’ve read, Zeleza bemoans the failed hopes and betrayal of the corrupt post-independence régimes, and adds a clarion call for social change, especially for improving the lot of women. It is both an important and very readable novel.

 

ZELEZA, Tiyambe (1955 – ), Smouldering Charcoal, Harlow, Essex, Heinemann (African Writers Series), 1992, ISBN 978-0-435-90583-5

 

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Book 63: Niger (French) – Camisole de paille = The Straw Camisole (Amadou IDÉ)

              

   ‘Mother, I’ve come to find out what’s happening. For a few days now, people have been coming and going here. Especially Old Gôro whose shadow hovers over all the marriages in the village. Have you been charged with preparing a marriage without telling me?’

                ’It’s because of you, my daughter. Only because of you’ answered the mother after a long silence.

                ’Because of me, mother? What’s it got to do with me? No one has spoken to me of marriage here, not even my friends.’

                ’That doesn’t surprise me, my daughter. That’s because it’s a matter of your own marriage’, her mother sighed.

[my translation]

 

Fatou and Karimou are lovers and want to get married, but Fatou’s mother doesn’t like him and forbids her only child from wedding him. Her parents force her to marry the ‘Koumandaw’ (the regional authority) against her will – her weak husband Old Mazou having been bribed by giving him his dream of a hajj to Mecca – but she quickly escapes him and her drought-desiccated village for the city, where she is taken under the wing by a house of kindly prostitutes and grows into an independent young woman. When Fatou and Karimou meet back in the village, they find they have grown apart. Fatou, like everyone, has to find a way of accommodating the pressures of family and of changing ways of life, and she does.

It is a slim novel, but I loved it! It’s such a shame that it (or any other of Amadou Idé’s novels) hasn’t been translated into English.

 

IDÉ, Amadou (1951 – ), Misères et grandeurs ordinaires, Ciboure, Le Cheminante, 2014, ISBN 978-2-37127-016-9

Book 62: Cameroon (English) – The Poor Christ of Bomba = Le Pauvre Christ de Bomba (Mongo BETI)

Surely it isn’t any blasphemy… oh, no!  It even fills me with joy to think that perhaps it was Providence, the Holy Ghost himself, who whispered this advice in the Father’s ear, ‘Tell them that Jesus Christ and the Reverend Father are all one.’ Especially when our village children, looking at the picture of Christ surrounded by boys, were astonished at his likeness to our Father. Same beard, same soutane, same cord around the waist. And they cried out, ‘But, Jesus Christ is just like the Father!’ And the Father assured them that Christ and himself were all one. And since then all the boys of my village call the Father ‘Jesus Christ’.

 

Here is yet another delicious and insightful African novel! It is a gentle satire of the power of the colonialists, and the Catholic Church as its choirmaster, in Cameroon in the 1930s.

Its central figure is a priest who looks just like Jesus, and shares His alternation between fire-and-brimstone sternness and mocking good humour. The naive (or is it faux naive?) narrator – at least at first – is his assistant and is totally obsessed with him.

The priest goes on a tour, after three years, of a ‘backsliding’ part of the country.

The narrator is taken in by another boy on the expedition, Zachariah, who knows how to profit from the situation and has a ‘girl in every port’. Luckily for him, they have all been corralled by the Church, since ‘Good Catholic girls’ who are engaged to be married are confined in a building called the sixa for several months and forced to do hard labour – a perfect source for some sex for the local Church men.

The missionaries have an incredible amount of power, with not only God but also the colonial powers behind them. But they are not omnipotent. The portrait of the priest is affectionate and subtle, despite the negative damage and perhaps ultimate futility of his labours. Later he comes to the realisation that the Africans do have their own spirituality and that he must respect its power.

He also becomes disillusioned with the colonial setup.

This is a wonderful send-up of the hypocrisy – or should we say failure to live up to its ideals? – of the Church in Cameroon, and a great read.

 

BETI, Mongo (1932-2001): The Poor Christ of Bomba (translated by Gerald Moore), Long Grove IL USA, Waveland Press, 1971, 2005, ISBN 978-1-57766-418-5

 

 

Book 59: Madagascar (French) – Nour, 1947 (RAHARIMANANA)

Ambahy – Night which tears and lacerates itself at the dawn of lucidities, on some eyelids that close to dreams. It gently pours me into the cold shadow which opens naked on the stones. The sun strips the world and, from modesty, the wind blows in the sands, blinding the eyes. I resume my steps and rush them ceaselessly on in all my wanderings. How slow the shadow is in reaching us… I am already only a dream, a stroke from the times that fray in fantasies. To drift in the shadows that stretch and lengthen.I stumble my breath on stones that obstruct my lungs – spit! Spit!, I stumble my steps on the beach still pregnant with darkness.

                Blood, my blood on the black sand.

[my translation]

 

Madagascar is where I would have been at the moment – sadly I had to postpone my holiday there until next year due to an outbreak of the plague there! All my best wishes for the safety of everyone there. For as long as I can remember I’ve had a fascination with Madagascar and have wanted to go there. Travelling there via literature proved even more difficult; at the time I started this reading program there were apparently NO novels translated into English. I finally settled on Nour, 1947 by Raharimanana, which was written in French (and HAS been translated into Spanish as Nur, 1947).

 

This novel is a poetic, mythologised history of the Great Red Island. It is very obvious that the author (who now lives in France) is also a poet, and very often the language is more poetry than prose, though not written in verse, so heavy is the imagery and it can be not easy to tease out the tale. Magic, mythology and history co-inhabit the story. Much of it reads like a dream (sometimes a nightmare).

The title refers to the abortive revolt of 1947 against the French colonialists. Nour is a heroine figure, who meets a tragic end when she is shot by the French, and who was loved by a WWII rifleman. It is a multiple text. Interspersed with the poetic history of the island, the story of Nour and Dziny and the bloodied revolt are diary entries from befuddled missionaries trying to civilise the ‘natives’ in the previous century.

I think of Madagascar as largely peaceful and unified, but that must be a misreading of its history. Going by this story, the red soil must be soaked with blood from inter-tribal struggles (ultimately to unify the island) and the fight against colonialism. While it is part of what is obviously a big African tradition of anticolonial.writing, Raharimanana does not spare his own countrymen either. It is tragic, violent, sometimes gory, and pessimistic. But its language and imagery are overpowering.

 

Raharimanana (1967 – ), Nour, 1947, Dijon, Motifs, 2008, ISBN 2-84261-403-8

 

 

Book 55: Mozambique (English) – Under the Frangipani (translation of A Varanda do Frangipani = The Frangipani Veranda) (Mia COUTO)

This man I am occupying is a certain Izidine Naíta, a police inspector. His way of life is adjacent to that of dogs: he sniffs at misdeeds which drip with blood. I’m in one corner of his mind, I watch him with great care so as not to disturb his inner workings. For this man, Izidine, is now me. I go with him, I go in him, I go him. I talk to whoever he talks to. I desire whoever he talks to. I desire whoever he desires. I dream of whoever he dreams.

 

Hopping across to the other side of Africa for the other big Lusophone country there…

In European terms, this would be called a magical realist novel, but from another point of view it is actually suffused with African mythology and story-telling. At its heart is a murder mystery, but it is told as a mystery (in fact, as a novel) unlike any I’ve ever read. It follows two different logics – the Western crime procedural, and the African psychological/mystical approach. There is no shortage of suspects – or of confessors – for the crime, in fact everybody owns up to it!

The novel is a house that is airy with open windows between ‘mythology’ and ‘reality’, between humans and other beings, and between the past and the present. Even the narrator is a dead man. His very murder happened in a time of transmutation – just as Mozambique was painfully becoming independent from Portugal. The powers-that-be want to turn him into a national hero, whereas all he wants himself is to be one of the grateful dead. In order to solve his own murder, the dead soldier’s spirit enters into a police investigator, who (known to the occupying spirit but unknown to the policeman) himself has only a few more days to live…

This not over-large novel packs a large number of elaborations and issues in. I loved it. Couto’s language is magical and mysterious. A bit like my Ghanaian book (Wife of the Gods), this is a murder mystery with a twist (actually, many twists), full of African spirituality and charm. What a surprising and delightful discovery! Another wonderful author to read out when (if) I ever finish this project!

 

COUTO, Mia (1955 – ), Under the Frangipani, translated from Portuguese by Daniel Brookshaw, London, Serpent’s Tail, 2008, ISBN 978 1 84668 676 4 (originally published Lisbon 1996)

Book 54: Angola (English) – The Book of Chameleons (translation of O Vendedor de passados = The Seller of Pasts) (José Eduardo AGUALUSA)

 

“Lies,” he explained, “are everywhere. Even nature herself lies. What is camouflage, for instance, but a lie? the chameleon disguises itself as a leaf in order to deceive a poor butterfly. He lies to it, saying, Don’t worry, my dear, can’t you see I’m just a very green leaf waving in the breeze, and then he jets out his tongue at six hundred and twenty-five centimetres a second, and eats it.”

 

Félix Ventura, the seller of pasts, is an albino ‘black’ whose unusual metier is to surreptitiously construct ennobling but fictional pasts for his upstart clients. He is approached by a foreigner to go the whole hog and this time forge identity documents for him as well. The subjects have to undergo something like spy training to become at home with their new ‘legends’.

He calls himself a genealogist, which is a bit like a forger calling himself a calligrapher, but an artist nonetheless (even if only of the black arts).

Of course the trouble with weaving too many lies is that it becomes ever easier to trip over and get caught out – as does Félix himself when the portrait of his ‘grandfather’ is recognised as one of Frederick Douglass!

The book has no obvious mention of the Angolan civil war, but I suppose in the aftermath of one everyone has to reinvent herself or himself…

The story is actually narrated by his house gecko (the chameleons of the English title are the clients who ‘change their colour’). I was entranced by this idea! Anyone who has lived in or visited the tropics has probably shared their space with a gecko, who observes you glued to the wall with his suction caps, occasionally tut-tutting at you… ‘In this house I’m like a little night-time god.’

Agualusa said his novel was a “tribute to Borges” and that his gecko narrator actually IS Borges.

While it’s billed as a murder mystery, it’s also a genre bender. Don’t try to pin anything down! A marvellous book, which reminds me again of how much I would have missed if I hadn’t embarked on this exciting world voyage.

 

AGUALUSA, José Eduardo (1960 – ), The Book of Chameleons, translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2008, ISBN 978-1-4165-7351-7

Book 50: Ghana (English) – Wife of the Gods (Kwei QUARTEY)

The forest was black and Darko was afraid to enter. The trees, covered from apex to root with dry, sloughing scales, beckoned him with their crackling, stunted branches. The forest floor erupted in a charcoal-colored cloud of dust as the gnarled, ragged tree roots burst from the earth and turned into massive, thrashing limbs. Swaying, the trees began to lumber toward Darko. He wanted to escape, but terror paralyzed him. He opened his mouth to scream but no sound came.

Fairly light-hearted for a murder mystery, but treating its themes with due consideration, this is a very likeable, easy-to-read novel. Yet I found I learnt a great deal about the local culture and ways of thinking from it. A ‘wife of the gods’ (trokosi) is a local girl offered to the local healer/witch doctor in expiation of some supposed transgression. That this is without the poor girl’s consent goes without saying… The not-very-nice witch doctor in this work is one of the prime suspects in the murder of a young woman who had locked horns with him in her anti-AIDS campaign, but did he do it? There are certainly one or two rather extreme AIDS remedies in this book! The hero, Detective Inspector Darko Dawson, who had moved to the capital Accra, digs up dark corners of his own past in this apparently sleepy village. He is a very likeable character, even if he does go off the rails occasionally (and understandably). I suspect this novel will be enjoyed by a much wider circle than just those who read murder mysteries. A totally enjoyable read.
Quartey was raised in Ghana but now lives in the US.

 

QUARTEY, Kwei, Wife of the Gods, New York, Random House, 2009, ISBN 978-0-8129-7936-7