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Book 88: Belgium (Flemish/Dutch) – De Intrede van Christus in Brussel = Christ’s Entry into Brussels (Dimitri VERHULST)

 

In recent years, when travelling abroad, it had struck me that I was having to explain ever more frequently that there was no civil war raging here. The disconnect between political discourse and civil life could hardly have been more obvious. Flemings and Walloons weren’t staring each other down with swords drawn; our bricklayers worked together on the same sites, and what they built stood nice and straight; the Mint Orchestra consisted of musicians from north and south, and nevertheless they could play La Finta Giardiniera in the same key; people married each other across the language borders, and in their households they fought the battle of doors and pans neither more nor less than anyone else, they found the same warmth, the same chill in each other’s arms. But the populist slogans of our loudest dog-whistlers gave some outside observes the opposite impression, and kept important investors away.

 

[My translation]

 

I had been intending to reserve Belgium in order to finally get around to reading that most prolific of thriller writers, Georges Simenon, but meanwhile I had stumbled onto this fascinating novel, and it became my choice.

It was no doubt inspired by fellow Belgian James Ensor’s famous Symbolist painting, “The Entry of Christ into Brussels, 1888”, although as Verhulst points out, the Holy Family would seem to have a special affinity with Belgium going by the number of their visitations (especially by the Virgin Mary).

Like the painting by Ensor (and Bosch before him) it has a deliciously misanthropic view of humanity. It gets off to a depressing, workaday, cynical start, not what you might expect for such an epoch-making event, with nondescript weather. The people of Brussels can speak every language – but won’t talk to one another. (And the Messiah’s return leads to a frantic search for an Aramaic speaker). Jesus’ second coming is pre-announced in the news feeds, but apparently no one believes it, certainly they don’t communicate it to anyone else. Ironically, the most worried about it seems to be the Church, over sins like priestly paedophilia.

Since the whole novel is taking the piss out of Brussels, I was expecting the Maneken Pis to put in a cameo appearance, and I wasn’t disappointed.

The Belgians’ self-deprecating nature stops the rest of the world (and Belgians themselves?) from realising what a wonderful country they’ve got. It was almost too unremittingly jaundiced for me, maybe too much for some.

If you don’t like sarcasm, steer away from this book. But in the end I loved it – the best satire I’ve read since Jonathan Swift. It is often very funny – such as the Life-of-Brian moment where despite his denials a hippie is mistaken for the returned Christ, is mobbed and ends up in an institution convinced of his divinity.

For such a slim novel, I learnt an enormous amount about Belgium (reality and stereotypes), which Verhulst calls ‘geography’s hypochondriac’.

 

VERHULST, Dimitri (1972 – ), De intrede van Christus in Brussel (in het jaar 2000 en oneffen ongeveer), Amsterdam/Antwerpen, Contact, 2011, ISBN 9789025437534

English title: Christ’s Entry into Brussels (in the year 2000 and something, or thereabouts), London, Portobello, 2014

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 39: Poland (English) – Quo Vadis (Henryk SIENKIEWICZ)

                Light from the burning city filled the sky as far as human eye could reach. The moon rose large and full from behind the mountains, and inflamed at once by the glare took on the colour of heated brass. It seemed to look with amazement on the world-ruling city which was perishing. In the rose-coloured abysses of heaven rose-coloured stars were glittering; but in distinction from usual nights the earth was brighter than the heavens. Rome, like a giant pile, illuminated the whole Campania. In the bloody light were seen distant mountains, towns, villas, temples, mountains, and the aqueducts stretching toward the city from all the adjacent hills; on the aqueducts were swarms of people, who had gathered there for safety or to gaze at the burning.

 

I found it surprisingly hard to decide what to read for Poland! Finally I defaulted to Sienkiewicz (1846-1916), who justly won the 1905 Nobel Prize for Literature. Quo Vadis (Latin for ‘Where are you going?’) is his best-known work, except perhaps in Poland itself, where his trilogy on 17th Century Polish history, With Fire and Sword, is more famous.

Now normally I try to choose a novel which will teach me as much as possible about the country it represents here. This majestic tale of the Roman Empire under the emperor Nero (in the first few years of the Christian Era) might seem to have nothing to say about Poland, which didn’t even exist at the time (and was one part of Europe which the Empire never reached), but you can see the persecution of the early Christians as a symbol of the suffering of this most Catholic of countries under the boots of its surrounding empires. Like the Christians under the Roman Empire, the Poles have had to fight long and hard to maintain their distinct culture, language and religion under constant occupation (or threat) by their neighbours, and have miraculously succeeded.

The main characters are the true-life novelist and courtesan (and finally victim) of Nero, Petronius, who seems able to control him for a time; the mad mercurial emperor himself who is infamous for having set his city alight and blaming the Christians for his crime; and the fictional young lovers Lygia and soldier Marcus Vinicius – she converts him to Christianity. If you know anything about Roman or early Christian history you know that this is not going to end well…

You get a fine feeling for the precariousness of life lived under a dictatorship (or even democracy?) under the whims of a demented despot, even for those close to the source of power. Perhaps not so irrelevent to our times after all? What a pity that this great, majestic work isn’t read enough any more.

 

SIENKIEWICZ, Henryk (1846 – 1916), Quo Vadis: a tale of the time of Nero, translated by Jeremiah Curtin, Mineola NY, Dover, 2011, ISBN 978-0-486-47686-5 (originally published in Polish 1896)