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Book 79: Senegal (French) – Les Bouts de bois de Dieu = God’s Bits of Wood (Sembene OUSMANE)

In this way the strike established itself in Thiès. An endless strike which was, for many, along the whole length of the line, a time of suffering, but, also for many, a time of reflection. When the smoke finished floating over the savanna, they came to understand that the time had finished, the time of which the old people had spoken to them, the time when Africa was a kitchen garden. It was the machine which now reigned over their country. In stopping its motion over more than fifteen hundred kilometres, they became aware of their power, but also aware of their dependence. In truth, the machine was in the process of making new men of them. It did not belong to them, it was they who belonged to it. In halting it, it taught them this lesson.

[my translation]


This novel is set in three towns along the French-built railway from Dakar (Senegal) to Bamako (Mali). As the interminable 1947 railway strike drags on, the railwaymen and their families suffer intolerably from hunger and thirst and injustices by the colonial authorities, and eventually their destitute women also become more militant. The action takes place in three cities: Dakar and the railway town Thiès (Senegal), and Bamako (Mali).
The workers’ struggle represents the larger struggle for the people to overturn the power relationship with the French colonial administration. In the end, solidarity triumphs. This is not without a terrible cost, to themselves as well. Even their own social order is challenged. Different people have different ways of attempting to deal with the situation and the colonial régime. When a relative becomes a strike-breaker he is put on trial by them, despite being an elder and so traditionally worthy of more respect. Payments for polygamous families also cause conflict. As so often in revolutions and wars, it is the women who become prominent in keeping day-to-day life functioning and in forwarding the struggle (and, it has to be said, are sadly often suppressed back into their former roles afterwards). The high point is their protest march from Thiès to Dakar.
There is the cruel irony that, although there is no water to drink, the authorities use a but water cannon to disperse the protesters (who call themselves ‘God’s Bits of Wood’).

A great study of the price people have had to pay to achieve freedom, and still have to pay to get adequate working conditions.


OUSMANE, Sembene (1923 – 2007), Les Bouts de bois de Dieu, Paris?, Pocket, 2013 (originally published 1960?), ISBN 978-2-266-24581-4

Translated into English as: God’s Bits of Wood (Harlow, Heinemann, 2008, ISBN 9780435909598)


Book 77: Zambia (English) – The Smoke that Thunders (Dominic MULAISHO)

‘So I say to you that if you have an axe, sharpen it. If you have a spear, sharpen it. If you have a gun, prime it. For the hour to win that which we cherish, even by force, has come’. He threw up his arms. ‘Yes, I am proposing violence. Violence for the cause of peace. For even as I speak, innocent people and children are dying at the behest of the colonial and racist God of destruction.’ [speech by future President Kawala]


One of those incandescent African novels about the struggle for independence, this novel was published in 1979 (the year in which negotiations in London were to lead to the end of ‘White’ rule in Zimbabwe.)
It is set in the fictional colony of Kandaha, which is not in Afghanistan but is the world’s largest riverine island on the Zambezi (I thought that was Marajó in Brazil?) between Zambia and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and bordering Victoria Falls (Mosi-oa-tunya – ”The Smoke that Thunders”). Kandaha seems to be a mixture of the two Z-countries, perhaps with a bit of apartheid-era South Africa thrown in, and is on the cusp of independence. The ‘White’ colonists are trying to create their own racist regime like Rhodesia, and their equivalent of Ian Smith is Sir Ray Norris.
Personally I felt that the characters were not very deeply drawn, and that none of the main actors were really sympathetic apart from Norris’ son (who is the opposite of his racist father – you might be able to predict what happens with his marriage and his life). Neither of the ‘Black’ leaders (Kawala and Katenga) are likeable, nor the ‘White’ ones. I found the style rather choppy (not helped by jumps from scene to scene not separated by a blank line or any other device). The plot leaps all over the place too. There are some minor inaccuracies (Scipio Africanus wasn’t an African but a Roman – he received his nickname in honour of his victory over Carthage in Africa). Also, of course it was of its time, but the racist language (and attitudes) – on both sides – was rather uncomfortable.
It was not one of my favourite novels, but is an interesting insight into feelings during the decolonisation of sub-Saharan Africa. My favourite part was Kandaha’s equivalent of Rhodesia’s Universal Declaration of Independence, with its bigotry couched in the impeccable constitutionalese of ‘WHEREAS…’ and ‘RESOLVES…’, which is very funny.
The author, Dominic Mulaisho, was a bureaucrat in the Zambian government.


MULAISHO, Dominic (1933 – 2013), The Smoke that Thunders, London, Heinemann (African Writers Series), 1979, ISBN 0-435-90204-0

Book 75: Ecuador (Spanish) – Huasipungo = The Villagers (Jorge ICAZA)

‘The Indians cling with blind and morbid love to this scrap of land which is lent to them in exchange for the work which they give to the hacienda. What’s more: in their ignorance they believe that it is their own property. You know. There they put up their thatched huts, farm their little smallholdings, raise their animals.’
‘Sentimentalities! We must overcome all difficulties no matter how hard they may be. The Indians… What? What do the Indians matter to us? To put it better… They must… They must be important TO US… Of course… They can form a very important factor in the business. The arms… The work…’
[my translation]


In 1930s Ecuador, building a road through the jungle should have brought prosperity and modernity to the local Indians, but landowner Don Alfonso only thinks of using it to increase his personal wealth. He robs them first of their labour then of their huasipungos (small plots of land allocated to tenant farmers by the hacienda/large estate owner in exchange for work), causing them to revolt and be massacred. (A more accurate spelling in English orthography would be ‘wasipungo’).
Icaza was maybe the greatest Ecuadorian author of the 1900s. ‘Huasipungo’ needs to be seen in the context of the indigenista movement (which was influential across the arts spectrum), which highlighted the oppression and struggles of the indigenous people. Its themes are exploitation by big landowners and gringos, racism (including the racism of the mixed-race mestizos against those with more Indian blood than themselves), class struggle, and the venal, collaborationist church which functions as part of the power structure and has been bribed into using the faith as a weapon against the indigenous.
The casually inhuman treatment of the natives as if they are not people is quite shocking. For example, in one incident, cattle invade the corn fields during the night. Don Alfonso thinks he’s a hero just because he had to get up in the middle of the night to do something about it! To reward himself, he rapes a powerless indigenous girl. They are basically treated like property, even the indentured labourers. These have been subjected to forced labour under the very real threat of losing their land.
Fuelled by chicha, a fermented corn drink (which is doled out to them like medicine), they are forced to drive the road through a marsh, against the engineer’s advice, leading to a horrific death.
The Ecuadorian Spanish spoken by the indigenous people is not too hard to follow, but is obviously influenced by their native Quechua which only has the vowels a, i, u, so that their Spanish loses its e and o vowels. The Indians tend to speak as a chorus almost like in a Greek tragedy. They are an integral part of the country, while the whites seem out of place and slightly ridiculous.
This important and engaging novel shows in black and white the long shadow that colonialism cast over Ecuador.


ICAZA, Jorge (1906-79), Huasipungo, Madrid, Cátedra, 2013 (originally published 1934), ISBN 978-84-376-1251-5

In English:
Icaza, Jorge: The Villagers

Book 74: Kashmir (English) – The Collaborator (Mirza WAHEED)


Captain Kadian takes a large swig from his glass tumbler, closes his eyes for a moment, smacks his lips, and says, ‘The job’s not that hard, you see, you just go down once a week or fifteen days, and the money, the money is not bad at all.’


This novel is set in Indian Kashmir, near the ‘Line of Control’ with Pakistan. Kashmir isn’t an independent country (though you suspect most Kashmiris might want it to be). When India and Pakistan gained independence, the Muslim-majority state was ruled by an indecisive Hindu maharaja who opted for India at the last moment. Open and covert warfare between Pakistan and India, and Kashmiri militants, for decades has been the consequence. Both countries claimed the state and occupy it (India the majority). India promised an independence referendum at the outset, that has never been held. Some sixty years later, no solution is in sight. The lovely valley is perhaps the world’s most likely flashpoint for a nuclear war.
In ‘The Collaborator’, brutal, drunken Indian Army Captain Kadian gives a marvellous self-justification for his actions, going through the full catalogue of rationalisations with which such people kid themselves (only). It’s their own fault that atrocities occur, can’t be helped, just part of his job, I’m just a tiny cog in the machine, it’s the law, those who whinge about human rights don’t understand, I have a family too, I didn’t kill them myself, they chose to die, it would have happened anyway, even if I agreed I couldn’t do anything.
He forces the boy narrator to ‘collaborate’ and count the fallen corpses in the typically beautiful Kashmir valley on the border (a job he considers too dangerous for his own soldiers); every day he expects to find one of his boyhood friends who had gone across to Pakistan to join the militants.
The high point is the visit of the Governor of Kashmir, who helicopters in as if on a military operation, humiliating the villagers (who had been warned by an azan ((Muslim call to prayer)) recited backwards), like the preparation for a massacre instead of a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign.
There are a lot of Kashmiri, Arabic and Hindi/Urdu words used, but unfortunately no glossary is provided and they are not always explained.
Although he is speaking of his scavenging expeditions, when the Collaborator says he is tired of it all he must be speaking for most Kashmiris.


WAHEED, Mirza (1955 – ), The Collaborator, London, Viking, 2011, ISBN 978-0-670-91895-9

Book 72: Xinjiang (Esperanto) – Loulan [楼蘭 Rōran] (INOUE Yasushi)


Within two days Loulan seemed to be a wholly unpopulated walled city. The town seemed to have suffered decades of decrepitude in those two days. This was hastened by, on the one hand, the furious blowing of the wind; earthen walls were destroyed, strata of ash-like sand were deposited on every street, and the whole town went ruinously pale. On the evening of the third day, when the wind had hardly fallen, from across the desert came a Han cavalry of several hundred riders to reside there. The depopulated walled city suddenly became filled with voices and neighing. It was on that day when the water of Lop Nor changed into yellow darkness and waves jumped noisily across the entire surface.


[my translation]


As mentioned I haven’t yet been able to find a novel by someone from Xinjiang, so to go with my Uighur short story I’ve added this book which includes the novel Loulan and the novella Fremdregionano (as well as an afterword by the translator), by the Japanese author INOUE Yasushi. Inoue was deeply interested in this region. It is an area that I’ve long been fascinated with, but I couldn’t help being disappointed with this one. Both stories read more like straight histories rather than novels. Perhaps that is almost inevitable considering the vast span of time that ‘Loulan’ covers. Loulan itself is the name of an abandoned ancient city on the southern Silk Road which has been reclaimed by the Taklamakan Desert, and also the name of its kingdom (later renamed Shanshan). It had a brief life of half a century, 2000 years ago. Its inhabitants were neither Uighurs (who arose a long time later) nor Chinese, but it seems they may have been Indo-Europeans and did speak an Indo-European language, Tocharian, so related to English. This unfortunate country was squeezed to death by the Han Dynasty Chinese on one side, and the ‘barbarian’ people they called the Xiongnu (who may have been identical to the Huns who later attacked Europe – Inoue calls them Huns ((hunnoj)) here). There was a third destructive force, the desert which finally claimed the city, and perhaps a fourth, the spirit of the Konche River which abandoned it. (Throughout history the rivers, and the mysterious salt lake Lop Nor which they fed – now notorious as the site of China’s nuclear tests, and non-Chinese are almost never allowed to visit the ruins – have moved around the Tarim Basin). In this story, the Chinese force the abandonment of Loulan in 77 BCE for another city called here Shanshan, actually Yixun (which has not been positively identified); in fact more of the tale takes place in ‘Shanshan’ than in Loulan. (Both of these are Chinese names; Loulan’s real name was Kroraina). This is on the pretext of protecting them from the Huns; Loulan becomes a Chinese military base until it is mysteriously abandoned. As Shanshan, the country remained loyal to China but had to struggle to keep the latter’s interest (and eventually failed, leaving them to the Huns). ‘Loulan’ follows how the kingdom tried various survival strategies, trying to keep both powers on side, then trying to get the Han to protect them from the Huns, all unsuccessful.

Fremdregionano takes part of this history and concentrates on one person, Han governor-general Ban Chao (sent to establish a Chinese protectorate but only temporarily successful) and is perhaps more successful for this. Even so, you don’t really get any idea of his character, let alone any character development. He died almost as soon as he returned to the Chinese capital Luoyang, and the Han abandoned what they called the Western Regions within five years.

The trouble with historical novels, while I love both history and novels, for me is that I find it annoying not knowing what is historical fact (or opinion) and what the author has fictionalised. I got the impression that very little was fictionalised, but it is impossible to be certain.

I found it rather jarring that the place and personal names were taken wholesale from the Chinese Pinyin transcription system, and then the Esperanto morphological endings added on. Even sounds that could be easily transcribed (and thus made pronounceable) in Esperanto orthography, such as ‘sh’, were left in Pinyin form. For example, Shanshan-anoj (inhabitants of Shanshan) could easily have been written ŝanŝananoj. There are some typos and (possibly controversial) neologisms. Some of the names are anachronistic (e.g. the kingdom of Former Cheshi). There are some very long quotes from the Chinese Silk Road travellers Faxian and Xuanzang and the Swedish archaeologist-discoverer Sven Hedin, all of whose full accounts are definitely worth reading if you’re interested in this area.


INOUE Yasushi 井上靖 (1907 – 1991), Loulan kaj Fremdregionano, translated from Japanese into Esperanto by Miyamoto Masao, Serio Oriento-Okcidento 20, Tokyo, Japana Esperanto-Instituto, 1984 [no ISBN].

Xinjiang (English) – Wild Pigeon (Nurmemet YASIN)

Yurts on the Karakorum Highway towards Pakistan – my photo


Coming from Kazakhstan, which was lucky (and perhaps rather surprised) to find itself liberated from Russian control when the USSR disintegrated, it’s time to hop across the border to look a the closely-related people next door who were not so fortunate. Xinjiang (Chinese for ‘New Territory’) is the largest and westernmost province of the People’s Republic of China (Kashgar is closer to Istanbul than to Beijing, and not just geographically). It has traditionally been inhabited by mostly Turkic-speaking Muslim peoples, especially the Uighurs, who call it East Turkistan or Uyghuristan, and smaller groups such as the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz (now with their own nations) who are related to other peoples in Central Asia rather than to the Han Chinese. Nobody said history is fair.  On the contrary, in recent years so many Han have moved in (colonised?) that the Uighurs may now be in a minority in their own homeland, in a similar situation to the Tibetans. (It should be said, though, that the Chinese have also been in the ‘Western ‘Regions’ for a long time, since the heyday of the Silk Road). So far I haven’t been able to get a single Uighur novel, at least in one of the western European languages I can read. Perhaps that in itself says something? So I’ve covered this huge territory with a short story by a Uighur writer, Wild Pigeon (also called Blue Pigeon, light blue being the Uighurs’ colour), and the novel Loulan kaj Fremdregionano by INOUE Yasushi.


“The air inside and outside this cage are identical, I think, but the life possible on my side of these iron bars might just as well belong to a different universe.”

Considering how much writing it was to cost its author, this is an important little work.
In a dream, a wild pigeon (perhaps from the ‘Stans to the west?) visits his relatives the domesticated pigeons (of Xinjiang?) They have given up their souls, given up even thinking about souls.
The visitor suspects that words have different meanings here, but actually they don’t. There are in fact two kinds of naivety.
The older pigeon has ‘gone over’ to the humans, and he gets his fill while others starve, defending the system. In the end it’s the pigeons themselves that do in the wild pigeon, not the humans.
Perhaps the captors’ stupidity and ignorance about the pigeons’ is shown by their idea that they could keep a male pigeon for eggs? It is such a sad, cruel, hopeless and beautifully written story that, even if not of the same quality, it reminded me of one of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales.
After the wild pigeon falls into the human trap, in the end he comes to the heartbreaking conclusion that the only thing to do is commit suicide and die with dignity. The situation really does seem hopeless. The poet Yasin was jailed by the Chinese authorities for writing this story, ‘inciting splittism’, and reportedly died in prison in 2011.

In the translation on the Radio Free Asia website, blocks of the text were repeated – I was unsure as to whether this was deliberate or a mistake.

As a postscript – The PRC has recently started using surveillance drones disguised as birds, called The Dove, especially in Xinjiang. I’m sure this is a pure coincidence.


YASIN, Nurmuhemmet (Nurmemet) (1977? – 2011?): Wild Pigeon (also: Blue Pigeon), first published in the Kashgar Literary Magazine, 2004, issue 5 (all copies of which were subsequently recalled). Translated by Dr Dolkun Kamberi, 2005, accessed 14/11/2018.

Book 68: Mali (French) – L’étrange destin de Wangrin = The Fortunes of Wangrin (Amadou Hampâté Bâ)

Among my surprises from this project has sometimes been finding where the countries come in order, when you rank them by population. I must admit to being surprised to see the countries of the Sahel, and nearby, ranked so highly in the population stakes, and fairly close together – we’ve just had Niger and Burkina Faso, here we are in Mali, and Chad and South Sudan will follow shortly. I’ve always thought of these countries as having few people with a poor, if not precarious, environmental existence, but on the contrary they obviously manage to support large populations somehow! And it was a surprise that what I always thought of as wretchedly infertile desert or semi-desert lands have larger populations than the countries round the coast, except for Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast.
Like my book for Uganda, Wangrin is not very nice character, but in this case he does have redeeming qualities (and I found this to be on the whole a far better book). Like the English and Australian outlaws, Robin Hood and Ned Kelly (respectively), his criminality is supposedly directed only against the rich and powerful (including the French colonial authorities). But he does come off as quite nasty, calculating, hypocritical and venal, with his eye always on the main chance. Perhaps most shocking is when he passes through an Eden-like town, is treated with kindness and generosity by the commandant’s interpreter and gatekeeper Romo, decides he wants the latter’s cushy job, and sets about stealing this position for himself (thereby making Romo his greatest enemy, reasonably enough) and sets up his son. As he enriches himself, his morality decreases. He enters into complots then cheats his partners in crime. Even his daughter gets used as a weapon. He is not above conjuring witchcraft against his enemies. His prayer to the spirits reveals the sort of person he wants to be:
“Breathe into me the virtue which permits the chameleon to constantly change its colour according to its surroundings in order to pass unseen.”
He can never feel secure, claiming he even sleeps with his eyes open. Nevertheless, he does have some redeeming qualities, such as his generosity to the poor (which the author emphasises in his Afterword but doesn’t come out in the tale itself – what a strange praise-singing is this novel, where ironically only the hero’s worst qualities usually appear!) It’s as if Bâ himself has been mesmerised by Wangrin, as were his other victims, one is tempted to say like the creature of a snake charmer (if it weren’t for the hero’s ultimate fate!)
He is a world champion networker. He always keeps his promises (unfortunately often of revenge). Although become poor, he dies owing nothing, money or otherwise. On the other hand I must admire him for his linguistic skills, speaking perfect Bambara (his mother tongue), Peul, Dogon, Mossi, Djerma, Hausa and, passably, Baolé and Bété (not to mention French)…
There are some great images, like this one of civil servants fearful of an official inspection:
“When the wild animals are disturbed while feasting on the spoils of the hunt, they pause for a moment and move out of the way until the danger has passed. Then they return to their repast as soon as they no longer feel fear.”
The novel is suffused with the world of the griot (praise-singer), whose qualities include:
“On the other hand, what Kountena’s guitar cords refused to him, his vocal cords and his tongue granted it to him to a large extent. He was a marvellous story-teller, singer, and at the same time an excellent mime.”
It is also full of wonderful proverbs, such as the Peul pearl “If you are led to eat the meat from an animal’s body, at least wait until it is good and fat”, i.e. “If you have to do something below your rank, it should at least be something worth doing.”
The book is also chock-full of fascinating footnotes, from which I learnt a great deal about local life. Considering how much I was reading about Ancient Rome that year, I couldn’t help noticing the similarities between Rome and Mali in their obsession with auguries taken from natural phenomena.
In the end Wangrin falls victim to the prophecy that was made of him, falls from power, is ruined, becomes a drunkard, and falls to an ignominious, stupid death. All in all, a great portrait of a flawed but fascinating character.
Coming back to that Afterword… I’m not sure if Wangrin was originally a real person, but all that I can say to Bâ’s plea that..

“generally, the historical existence of the one who gave himself the surname ‘Wangrin’ is admitted, but it is considered that I must have “romanticised” his life to some extent, even introducing, to spice up the story and give it some sort of symbolic significance, a subtle dose of oral tradition and supernatural events of my own creation.” [my translations]

… this is a perfect description of this great novel. Methinks he doth protest too much…

Amadou Hampâté Bâ (c.1900-1991), L’étrange destin de Wangrin, ou les roueries d’un interprète africain, Paris, 10/18, 1973, 1992, ISBN 978-2-264-01758-1