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.
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
Book 65: Romania (German) – Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet = I would rather not have met myself today (translated as:) The Appointment (Herta MÜLLER)
I have been summoned. Thursday, ten on the dot.
I get summoned more and more often: Tuesday, ten on the dot, Saturday, ten on the dot, Wednesday or Monday. As if years were a week, it already surprises me, that after the late summer it is so soon winter.
On my big trip around almost all the countries in Eastern Europe a few years ago, one of the several in which I embarrassed booksellers by asking for something by a native that I could read for this project, one of the difficult ones was, surprisingly, Romania. No one could come up with anything in English for me. Finally in the rather charming Saxon town of Sibiu in Transylvania (I fell in love with its lidded dormer windows in the rooftops, like crocodiles peering out of a river), a German bookshop was able to come to my rescue. I thought this was an appropriate choice because a) Herta Müller wrote it in German, b) she is Romania’s only Nobel Prizewinner, c) there are actually a lot of German speakers in Romania, and d) my Romanian is rather limited. (And, e) my ancestors on the German side were also Müllers).
The original German title caused a lot of cogitation on my part, hopefully I’ve managed to twist it into equally convoluted English! The English translator avoided the issue, coming out with The Appointment, which is has the advantage of being snappy, and factually what it’s about, but loses all the unfortunate, sinister trepidation of the original. Perhaps The Summons would have been a better short title so that it didn’t sound like a mere doctor’s appointment.
The novel is set during Ceauşescu’s Communist dictatorship, during a single day, as the young woman narrator travels interminably on the tram (which is allowed to not follow a timetable, unlike her! and seems as lost as the Communist system itself) to an interrogation by the Securitate (secret police). She has a premonition that this time may be different – she’s packed a toothbrush. She originally got into trouble for the ‘crime’ of sewing ‘Marry me!’ labels onto men’s suits being exported to Italy, as a stratagem to escape from her country.
The terrifying sense of foreboding is overpowering. The ugliness of a society where everyone is watched and dissected by not only a secret police but also by one’s neighbours is really terrifying.
MÜLLER, Herta (1953 – ), Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet, Frankfurt/M., Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 2011, ISBN 978-3-596-18822-2
Translated into English as The Appointment.
This is a beautifully poetically written novel about a woman who was brought up as a man due to the bias against girls (as recounted in L’Enfant de sable – The Child of Sand), who escapes the past, as if ripping a curtain, and dramatically changes back, at the death of her father. She enters into a rather strange and fraught triangular relationship with an eccentric sister and (blind) brother. It centres on a rebellion against the sex and gender roles set in a traditional Islamic society.
The novel begins in Marrakesh with a fading storyteller (one of that sadly disappearing breed).
The narrator first encounters the sister in a hammam:
Only the main hall of the hammam is dimly lit; the other two are in darkness. In the penumbra someone blessed with good sight could just manage to make out a piece of white string from a black one. If the ambiguity of the spirit had a light, it would have to be like that. Steam clothes the naked bodies. Humidity, flowing in little grey droplets down the walls, feeds infinite discussions that continue endlessly in the chamber.
After committing a murder, she ends up in prison, quite contentedly, and voluntarily herself joins the lonely world of the blind and makes peace with the crazy mixed-up world.
By the way, the Sacred Night (Night of Destiny), during the holy month of Ramadan, is when believers’ fates are supposed to be sealed.
I was reading these words of the protagonist on the day of the Charlie Hébdo massacre in Paris and was moved:
‘… But you see, I’m like you, I love the Qur’an as superb poetry, and I’m horrified by those parasites who exploit it and who limit freedom of thought. They’re hypocrites.’
The book has strong elements of magical realism and/or mythology, and was sometimes hard to follow. But, apart from the intriguing tale, I loved its poetic language. Yet another great writer who deserves to be better known by the world at large!
BEN JELLOUN, Tahar (1944 – ), La Nuit Sacrée, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1987, ISBN 978-2-02-0-25583-7
‘“Why is such importance attached to identification cards? Since when do papers determine people’s fate?” Yussif still kept these words, which Uncle ‘Assim had once said, in his mind. Where could he now find his father-in-law, in order to be able to contradict him: “Yes, papers do determine people’s fates.” For years he had tried to rely on Uncle ‘Assim’s words. Now he had voiced what he had been frightened of all those years: that remembering would one day awaken, and he would become abruptly aware of how vain of his argument was. “Who carries whose guilt?” He carried this phrase with himself, since he had eaten and watched television together with Uncle ‘Assim , in this house in the Baladiyat Quarter, to which Sarab moved back to live with her father. For a long time he had pushed it into the back of his subconscious. Only from time to time this phrase appeared, in the last year continuously and since last night ever more strongly and urgently.
If people had their past paraded before their eyes, they disavowed it. If someone showed them documents carrying their names, they said: “Are there any people without a past?” This question was not easy to answer. “Oh past, what have you made of my life?” He could imagine how millions of men constantly repeated this phrase everywhere in the world, in east and west, north and south. Always there was a past; it was the hindrance. Whoever adopted a new name, also adopted a new past. No, this question was not as easy to answer as Uncle ‘Assim had thought. He who did not believe in the past would also not believe in the evidential power of documents. He who carries a document with him, must therefore be X, son of Y, he was born on this date, in this place, in this country; he has to add to the document the following phrase: “Who carries whose guilt?” Tell me your name, and I will tell you which history you carry with you, which history you have left behind you – or want to leave behind you.’
Iraq has just about the longest literary history of any country in the world, but I’m ashamed to say that the only other book I had read from there was from right at the other end of its timeline – the wonderful Epic of Gilgamesh. I read this one in German as, although it has apparently been translated into English, I found it hard to get. It was originally published Beirut/Casablanca, 2005, in Arabic. Anyway it’s appropriate as the author has lived in Germany for a long time. Najem Wali (نجم والي) was born in Iraq but in 1980 had to flee during the war with Iran to Germany, where he has lived ever since.
You won’t find much local Iraqi colour in this work; its themes are universal, although you could see the brothers’ identity and existential crisis as symbolic of the plight of this cradle of civilisation, which at the time of my reading was tearing itself apart and barely still existed. One of the continual refrains in the book (another is the description of the murdered girl) is the characterisation of the country as ‘The Land of the Triumphant and the Humiliated.’ Hopefully it won’t all end in a madhouse.
Wali asks the eternal question, ‘What’s in a name?’, but comes to a different conclusion from Shakespeare: Quite a lot. Here is a whole book’s worth. It is the story of two brothers, Jussif (Joseph) and Junis (John), who when they were young fell in love with the same girl. She preferred Jussif, so in revenge Junis gave her a cake with nails inside to eat and killed her. Junis opposes Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and disappears; Jussif adopts his name, identity, life and even wife. He only discovers too late that his brother is sought as a traitor. No one will believe his story, or his innocence. A dangerous struggle over names and identities follows. Even as kids, the brothers had played with their identities, with masks.
Yussif and Yunis are, of course, Koranic (and Biblical) names. (The Qur’an has surahs (chapters) named for both of these names). It is a complicated parable about names, identity, the past, and… Just what is reality?
For someone fascinated with translation, it’s interesting that the title in Arabic, s̪urat Yussif (صورت يوسف) ‘the Picture of Joseph’, which must be a play on the Koranic connection Surat Yussif (The Surah – Chapter – of Joseph) (سورت يوسف) has been cleverly translated into German not as ‘Jussifs Geschichte’ (Joseph’s Story) but as the almost identical-sounding ‘Jussifs Gesichter’ (Joseph’s Faces). For ‘Jussif’ (the name) has two faces – those of the two brothers who bear it at different times. The English title is ‘Joseph’s Picture’ (ISBN 978-1596923508), which is literal but not as imaginative as the German title.
Yussif asks the central question, ‘Who carries whose guilt?’ You are a prisoner of your past; if you adopt a new persona, you adopt a new past as well. He is totally alienated from the world. There is no truth and there is no past. Everything is a mirage (Fata Morgana). In fact, everything is a story.
A major theme is remembering and forgetting: ‘With the end of remembrance, pain comes to an end as well.’ Maybe, at least in some parts of the world, there is too much remembering, and it would be more peaceful if there was more forgetting, at least of the blandishments of history? But these separate histories are too much a part of each community’s identity for that to be able happen.
Wali’s novel is a dark, thought-provoking, well-written, exhausting and profound parable that deserves a much wider audience.
Wali, Najem (1956 – ), Jussifs Gesichter, Roman aus der Mekka-Bar, translated from Arabic to German by Imke Ahlf-Wien, Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, München, 2010, ISBN 978-3-423-13850-5, [originally published in Arabic as Surat Yussif (صورت يوسف)]
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)
I thought you might be interested in a list of my favourite discoveries from my reading challenge so far, things that I hope you will enjoy as much as I did without the efffort of having to read the whole world to discover them.
I mostly haven’t included the great classics here (such as To Kill a Mockingbird) since so many people are already familiar with them. One exception I’ll mention is Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky. I was expecting it to be as frosty and difficult to get through as a Russian winter, but instead found its relatively light style and quirky viewpoint delightful (despite the morbid subject matter).
Maaza Mengiste’s devastating Ethiopian novel Beneath the Lion’s Gaze was another unpleasant subject but a searing indictment of dictatorship and military rule.
Pamuk’s Snow was such a brilliant portrayal of Turkey’s travails at the faultline between Asia and Europe that I want to read all his works.
Please Look After Mother (or Mom, if you have a US edition) by Shin Kyung-Sook really touched my heart.
I think my biggest personal discovery so far is the Albanian Ismail Kadare (post still to come) – I definitely want to read him out!
But one of my favourites – and certainly the funniest so far – is Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Marina LEWYCKA)
“Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcée. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.”
Reviewers often claim that a book is “laugh-out-loud funny”. I don’t know if there’s something wrong with me, but I never find myself laughing out loud. But this one (along with Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books) is the exception. It is the hilarious story of a zany, dysfunctional English Ukrainian family. The eccentric father falls for a gold-digging vampish younger woman (Valentina) from Ukraine, and his two very different sibling-rivalry-smitten daughters alternate between trying to save him from himself and pecking at each other. The “eighty-four-year-old teenager” is happiest living in his own private world, “furrowing up trails of gleaming brown ideas” (take that, Chomsky!), and when his real soul-mate turns up (also from Ukraine), it turns out to be platonic (for it is a ((slightly younger)) man who is also under the spell of Valentina) but similarly obsessed with engineering inventions.
And yes, you will learn all you need to know about the history of tractors (don’t worry, it’s not very much!)
I love the Communist-style cardboard cover design of this edition! and also the wonderfully quirky title, which manages to be both pseudo-boring and intriguing at the same time. I don’t think you will forget the wonderful, quirky characters in this novel. And it’s very, very funny. This is one that I can’t recommend too highly.
LEWYCKA, Marina (1946 – ), A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, London, Penguin, 2006 (first published Viking, 2005), ISBN 978-0-141-02576-6