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Book 80: Chad (French) – Les racines du yucca = The yucca roots (Koulsy Lamko)

Exile is nothing but a series of wanderings; it has no sedentary vocation. It is all very well to celebrate wandering and its enriching virtues, but it is still nothing but a succession of repeated deaths, a slicing up of a fluid lifetime into bits of existence shared between an idyllic and tormented viewpoint, focused towards the country of one’s birth and the impossibility of rooting oneself again in another soil. Exile is a slow death, a life under suspended sentence, a life in waiting.

[my translation]

 

I have to admit I wasn’t really happy with my choice of novel for Chad. Not that there’s much choice, even in French (in English, maybe none at all). This novel isn’t actually set in Chad, but in Mexico (where the author also lives), so I learnt almost nothing about that Chad from this it, apart from reading between the lines. And I’m afraid the book itself didn’t grab me. It is basically a novel about… writer’s block. I couldn’t help feeling that it could be interesting for other writers, but perhaps not for the general public. Lamko himself seems to be aware of this; but felt compelled to write the novel anyway.

Naturally, the plot doesn’t really go anywhere. The novel’s protagonist is in fact physically allergic to paper – as great a trial for someone who wants to write, as Beethoven’s onset of deafness was to that composer. He is fighting what he calls a ‘war against the paper’.

He has an ambivalent feeling about his own motherland, calling it ‘mon pays de merde que j’adore’.

He goes to a Mayan village for therapeutic reasons, where as an African he is a spectacle for the local schoolkids and has to suffer racist comments. On top of this are the normal tribulations of the writer (at one stage he thinks is recording four hours of his book, but then finds that he hadn’t recorded it after all).

For Lamko, exile means death. The exile does not abandon his country, it abandons him, and those who deliberately exile someone know that they are effectively murdering him.

I found his interminable lists rather annoying – his symptom may be ‘impasse syndrome’, a way of dealing with or merely a result of his writer’s block.

On the recurring theme of the ‘great conversation’ between books, Lamko mentions my Algerian book ‘Nedjma’, and quotes Senegal’s Ousmane (the last book I read!)

Lamko reminded me not to read too much into the writers’ native countries; they are under no obligation to write what might be expected by a European specialist in African literature from someone from an African ‘oral’ culture. The writers may have received a French education, lived overseas, immersed themselves in the literature of many countries. As an aside, I can’t help wondering if Western publishing houses, especially since they publish so few translations from most of the world, may not choose works which reinforce their own and their readers’ stereotypes about these countries, for example the treatment of women in Islamic societies. I can’t know, if a wide selection of books haven’t appeared in a language I can read.

The yucca of the title is a symbol of tenacity (only a root needs to be put back in earth for it to flourish).

 

LAMKO, Koulsy (1959 – ), Les racines du yucca, Paris, Philippe Rey, 2011, ISBN 9782848761848

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Book 57: North Korea (English): The Guest (HWANG Sok-Yong)

The city was like a cinema screen; a flat square of city life lay out there. Watching it made Yosop himself feel as if he were no longer quite three-dimensional. The multitude of people who had created this movie for themselves had singled out Ryu Yosop, and they had no intention of ever letting him in, no matter how desperately he tried to climb into the screen.

 

So far I’ve been unable to run a novel from North Korea down to earth. I hope to be able to find one from there, even if the voice is only that of the government. In the meantime, hopefully this will suffice, and it’s certainly a worthy work. I included Hwang Sok-Yong under North Korea (Ann Morgan equally reasonably counted him under South Korea), since the book deals with the North, the author worked hard for communication between the two nations (he was jailed for seven years by Seoul for travelling to the North without authorisation – which perhaps counts as having ‘lived’ there, if you’re feeling liberal, Gentle Reader?) and he has pulled off the neat trick of being published on both sides of the DMZ. As to where he was born, he neatly evaded the issue by being born in what was then Manchuria (now part of China), and before the country was divided (or rather between divisions, since Korea has spent much of its life divided into two or three countries).
Enough justification; how about the book?
‘The guest’ is on the one hand smallpox; also the foreign viruses Christianity and Communism; and Reverend Ryu Yosǒp, a Korean now living in the US, who visits North Korea after 40 years to face up to what his brother did in the Korean War. He was involved in a massacre between Christians and Communists that formed a sort of subplot within Korean War. This elder brother dies 3 days before he was due to leave for the reunion. Reverend Ryu Yosǒp goes instead.
It must be said that there can be a bit of a tendency among Koreans to blame foreigners for their troubles, not only in the North but to some extent also in the South – and not totally without justification. (Nor do the Koreans have this tendency to themselves). But author Hwang Sok-yong is at pains to show that no side is innocent in these troubles, and that there is a need for understanding and eventually some sort of catharsis. The author saw his novel as a sort of shamanistic exorcism ceremony (shamanism is still very big in South Korea), and there is still hope for reconciliation.
Of course Korea’s great tragedy is its division since the war, and the cruel way this has separated families, almost all of whom will never get the chance to reconnect. The Guest gave me a good feeling for the awkward dance that happens when one is lucky enough to be allowed to meet those left in the North, and what it feels like in general to be a Westerner on a tour in North Korea.
It’s not always an easy read (it can be confusing as to whose voice is speaking at the time) but its literary quality is very high. The author rightly considers it vital for every voice to be heard, in a sort of literary truth and reconciliation commission.
Considering the heavy personal price that the author had to pay for this book, and his brave attempt to build a bridge over a raging river, this is a vitally important book that needs to be read to understand the Korean psyche.

 

HWANG Sok-yong (1943 – ), The Guest, translated from Korean by Kyung-Ja Chun & Maya West, New York, Seven Stories Press, ISBN 978-1-58322-751-0
(originally published Taiwan 1993 and 1996)

 

Book 53: South Yemen (English) – Two boys from Aden College (Qais Ghanem)

It was the last day of August 1967. The two old classmates from Aden College, the highest institute of learning in South Yemen, were preparing to leave for the United Kingdom.

 

Since I thought I would try to read a book from every country that has existed during my lifetime, including some that no longer do, I thought I’d try to find one from South Yemen, alias the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, a strange Communist Arab country which existed from 1963 until it reunited with North Yemen in 1989 (the same year East and West Germany reunited). It proved very difficult to find anything in English. This is the title I came up with, with the help of Yemeni exile Alia (for which much thanks!) The author was born in Aden and it’s set in the right place and time, although it’s a newish (2012) book.

I wasn’t expecting much from the boring title, which is, indeed, about two boys from Aden College (Hasan the law student and Ahmad the medical student) who move to England. Despite being self-published, it is mostly well-edited, although it slips slightly towards the end. The author, who is a doctor himself, does not explain some medical terms.

Ghanem obviously wrote the book to explain Yemeni culture (like the one that Ahmad – obviously his alter ego – wants to write), and does succeed at that.

The plot is fairly predictable in a Cain and Abel way – both good and bad. Ahmad is the good guy, Hasan goes bad. The ending, especially, falls a bit flat. Hasan’s motivations are not sufficiently described, although they could be more interesting than Ahmad’s.

Often the dialogue doesn’t read as quite natural, for example:

 

“Wow! I suspected that such things were going on, simply because I know what human nature is like, but this was a really graphic description of debauchery. Where do they find all the alcohol you talked about? Here I am dying for just one glass of wine to go with my spicy Chinese chow, and I cannot get it.”

 

Not great literature, but if you don’t expect too much it is a good introduction for Westerners into Arabic culture and vice versa, and I can’t fault Ghanem for trying so hard to build understanding between our cultures.

 

Qais Ghanem MD: Two boys from Aden College, Bloomington IN, iUniverse, 2012, ISBN 978-1-4697-9626-0

Book 49: Venezuela (Spanish) – Doña Bárbara (Rómulo GALLEGOS)

Arid lands, riven by ravines and cut by cracks. Thin cattle, with downcast eyes, were here and there, with a barely believable desperation, licking at the slopes and wastelands of this sad spot. On the ground the skeletons of those that had already succumbed were bleaching, sacrifices of the saltpeter earth which had seized them until starvation, forgetting food; and great flocks of turkey vultures hovered over the stench of the carrion.

[my translation]

 

This is the classic novel of the Venezuelan Llanos (plains, prairies, steppes). It is one of those novels where the landscape seems to be the main character. But the grasslands are peopled by several memorable characters (even if their names seem a bit TOO obvious to contemporary ears) – the saintly would-be moderniser Dr. Santos, his nemesis the barbarous Doña Bárbara, the evil cardboard-cutout gringo with the unlikely moniker of Mr. Danger, and the ’child of nature’ Marisela, on whom Santos performs an Eliza Doolittle-like transformation into a polished lady. The setting is the lawless (yes, that includes the judges and lawyers) cattle country where rustling is a way of life, sanctioned by tradition and ubiquity. There is a Machiavellian power struggle between the great landowners, especially the cousins Dr. Santos and Doña Bárbara, by fair means and foul (and fowl!) Santos’ plan to fence off the llanos is inevitable but will see the llaneros’ way of life fade into history.
Doña Bárbara is an alpha female who dabbles in magic. No doubt if it was written today we would find a more sympathetic portrayal of the women (and city folk). We shouldn’t fall into the trap of extracting a work from the time when it was written. Nevertheless, both of the women are powerful (Doña Bárbara as much so as any of the men) in what must have been a man’s world.
While Gallegos sees the inevitability of progress, he is deeply nostalgic for the disappearing way of life of which he has a profound understanding. His attitude towards the burghers of Caracas reminded me of “Clancy of the Overflow” by the Australian bush poet Banjo Paterson:

 

“…And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended
And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.
I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a stingy
ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall…”

 

While I think it would be wrong to see this as an early work of magical realism – there is plenty of magic, as practised by Doña Bárbara, in an overwhelmingly superstitions cultural world – the fact that this seminal work is so largely ignored by English readers is a tragedy that leaves a big hole in their knowledge of Latin American literature. The plot is not at all unrealistic.
The author himself is a fascinating character who became President of Venezuela.

 

GALLEGOS, Rómulo (1884 – 1969), Doña Bárbara, Madrid: Cátedra, 2014 [originally published 1929], ISBN 978-83-376-1539-4

 

Book 47: Peru (Spanish) – Lituma en los Andes = Lituma in the Andes, (translated as) Death in the Andes (Mario VARGAS LLOSA)

I felt like I had to peruse something by the great writer Vargas Llosa for his country. In a way it is a murder mystery set at the time of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) insurgency, a vicious countryside-based Marxist movement which had almost played itself out by the time I visited the country in 1994 (the book was first published the year before). Lituma is a police chief in a god-forsaken outpost in the Andes. He comes from the coast and sometimes seems to know less about his fellow countrymen from the mountains than the Danish professor in the story, or even than the present writer! His off-sider, Tomás, is a fascinating mixture of naivety and a ghastly past. To pass their time, Tomás comically retells his own murder and flight with a prostitute – the contrast between his idealism and her cynical realism really is hilarious. (Though once or twice it’s the other way round; he tells her, “This country is too dangerous to trust the banks; the best safe is your own mattress”.) These two representatives of their government in the area are not only totally alienated from the people they are supposed to protect, they are so woefully under-resourced that they live in constant fear of the Senderistas, even more so than the locals do. A ludicrous example is when a man comes from the nearby mine to ask (or rather demand) help, bearing an order from Lituma’s superiors – since the latter have almost no possibilities to communicate. Lituma is overwhelmed by the difficulties of understanding the locals’ culture and language. His post is really irrelevant to them, and they are so fearful of the Senderistas that it is almost impossible for him to learn anything from them. So, what happened to the missing people? Was it the obvious culprit, the Senderistas, the bruja (’witch’) and her bacchanalian husband, or something much more fundamental?

Right from the beginning we meet the gulf between city and country. Throughout it all, the local mountain people seem unmoved, unchanged and mute.

Lituma’s powerless is symbolised by a huayco (landslide):

 

The sky had become even darker and despite it being only early evening it was like nighttime. As if in a dream, he saw a vizcacha as big as a rabbit jump out from among the stones and run past him petrified, heading uphill; its ears were pricked up and it jumped without knowing where, finally staggering away. Lituma tried to get up but couldn’t even do that. Was it an earthquake? Was he going to die flattened by one of those boulders bounding past, rolling, leaping, colliding with each other, splitting and shattering apart right and left, thundering excruciatingly? Animals have a sixth sense, they can smell catastrophes, the little vizcacha had fled like that from its hutch because it smelled the end of the world. “Forgive me my trespasses” he cried. “I don’t want to end like this, damn it!.” He was crouching and crawling, plastered against the rock; rolling to the right, to the left and overhead, went clumps of earth, rocks of all imaginable shapes and sizes, and he felt that the rock was shuddering with the impact of the projectiles crashing and ricocheting into it. How much could it take? He had the feeling that an enormous rock, rolling down from the heights of the Cordillera, was heading straight for the rock that was protecting his back, plummeting onto it, pulverising it, and himself with it, in a second. (my translation).

 

I loved Vargas Llosa’s twist on several ancient legends – Theseus and the Minotaur (with an original variation on the ball of string!), Dionysus and his wild women, even Don Quixote. A masterful mystery, both of the missing men and of cultural misunderstanding.

 

VARGAS LLOSA, Mario (1936 – ), Lituma en los Andes, Barcelona: Planeta, 2010, ISBN 978-84-08-09416-6

 

Book 37: Sudan (English) – Season of Migration to the North = موسم الهجرة إلى الشمال (Tayib SALIH)

I read this on my own migration to the north, doing the Great North Walk from Sydney towards Newcastle. This smallish novel was another discovery for me – a wonderful work which is tragically little-known. I would have been denied its delights too if I hadn’t been looking for a title from Sudan to read. I wonder how many other unexpected delights I’ll find before I finish this project?
This was one of the several (perhaps many) books I’ll be reading which was banned in its own country (beginning with number four – To Kill a Mockingbird). In some countries, like a jail sentence for an opposition politician, a banning is a badge of honour for a book. In this case, though, it surprisingly took a quarter of a century for a Sudanese regime to get around to doing that.
The migration in the title is not to the northern part of the country, as I assumed, or to Egypt, but all the way to Europe, then the protagonist Amin returns like a prodigal son to his village. So it is partly a comparison by someone who has been a part of both worlds. He finds that the denizens of both places are full of misconceptions about the ‘other’. Aren’t we all? I remember laughing with an Uzbek acquaintance who said that Australia is the epitome of exoticism in Uzbekistan, and I said that Uzbekistan was the same for Australians!
The villagers ply him with questions about Europe (except for a mysterious stranger called Mustafa Sa’eed, who is also a ‘man of the world’ by their standards – the revelation of his story will occupy us for much of the book), and he perhaps disappoints them by revealing that deep down Europeans are basically just like them. Sometimes it seems as if we gain as much insight into life in Britain as we do into that in Sudan. Certainly Europeans can exploit Africans, but Africans can exploit Europeans too. There is plenty of naïvité to go around.
Salih’s writing is luminously beautiful. I wonder, is it even more scrumptious in the original Arabic?
A thread through the story’s landscape is the Nile – without which (like Egypt) there would be no Sudan – equally on its endless migration towards the north, and which Salih describes like some ‘Ole Man River’:

“The river but for which there would have been no beginning and no end, flows northwards, paying heed to nothing; a mountain may stand in its way so it turns eastwards; it may happen upon a deep depression so it turns westwards; but sooner or later it settles down in its irrevocable journey towards the sea in the north.” (p 69)

 

This could be a good first choice for beginning to discover African literature – insightful about Arabic and European culture (and their relationships), a fairly short, easy but great read. Highly recommended.

 

SALIH, Tayib (1929 – 2009), Season of Migration to the North, translated from Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies, Edinburgh: Heinemann, 1991, ISBN 978-0-435-90974-1

(first published in the African Writers Series, 1969)

Book 29: Tanzania (English) – Paradise (Abdulrazak GURNAH)

“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