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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)

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Book 78: Cambodia (English) – In the Shadow of the Banyan (Vaddey RATNER)

Once again I saw the face of the Khmer Rouge soldier who’d aimed her gun at the old man’s head. It occurred to me that the look on her face, as she shot the old man, as she watched him fall to the ground, had no name. It was neither anger nor hate nor fear. It was absent of rage or anything recognizable, and I remembered thinking that she had looked neither like a child nor an adult, but a kind of creature all to herself, not altogether real, in the same way a nightmare monster is not unreal.

 

This great novel is set during the takeover of Cambodia by the communist Khmer Rouge in 1975, and the immediate horrific, unbelievable aftermath. I was an idealistic teenager at the time and I first heard about what was happening there in a Readers Digest Condensed Book of Cambodia Year Zero. It seemed that no one outside knew (or cared?) what was happening there at the time, indeed it seems as if most of the world didn’t become aware until years afterwards, perhaps from Christopher Koch’s book The Killing Fields and the subsequent movie. I felt like screaming to the world, “Why don’t you care? Why don’t you DO something?!” Of course there was nothing I could do, maybe nothing anyone could do, until the horror was finished by a Vietnamese invasion – for which they received no thanks, since everyone (not least the Cambodians themselves) suspected them of a colonisation exercise, and perhaps that is what it might have become. But even if they were only swapping one Communist regime for another (and a foreign one at that), surely it was better than the KR which murdered perhaps a third of the total population, totally emptied the cities, and tried to drag the country responsible for the glories of Angkor back to some barbaric agricultural pre-civilisation.
In this novel, the background and experiences of the heroine are very similar to those of the author. She is deprived of her privileged childhood, with one exception: the love of story-telling that she receives from her father. One constant theme in the book is this importance of telling stories. This is one reason why, despite the horrific historical setting, the story is not not 100% negative; there is still beauty to be found as well. The natural world is important, and its symbolism pervades the story.
I realised, or was reminded (as I should know) that life is a lottery. Of those sent from the city, some are lucky with the country folk they are sent to live with and with their new life, others meet tragic ends.
Like Cambodia itself, the heroine Raami survives impossible odds to survive. It turns out that survival depends on what is inside yourself.
Sadly, there is not much true idealism left in the world. It was given a bad name by fanatics such as the KR in Cambodia, the Red Guards of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the Nazis and so many others in relatively recent times. Mostly, what is left is cynicism. What the world needs is renewed idealism ALONG WITH humanity and tolerance.

 

RATTNER, Vaddey (1970 – ), In the Shadow of the Banyan, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2013, ISBN 978-1-4516-5771-5

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 73: Netherlands (Dutch) – Het Diner = The Dinner (Herman KOCH)

What struck you in the first place about Claire’s dish was the immense emptiness. Of course, I also well know that in the better restaurants quality is considered more important than quantity, but there are emptinesses and there are emptinesses. Here the emptiness, the part of the plate where there was no food to be found at all, was clearly put on a pedestal above all else, as a matter of principle.
It was as if the empty plate taunted you to say something about it, to go and make a song and dance about it, in the open kitchen. ‘But you don’t dare!’ said the plate, and it laughed you in the face.

[my translation]

 

This was only the second book I’ve read in Dutch (after Anne Frank’s diary).
Going by what seemed a boring title and plot, I wasn’t expecting much from this one (although perhaps the sinister looking lobster on the cover of my Dutch edition should have given me a hint). I couldn’t have been more wrong! I’m sure this will turn out to be one of the outstanding reads of this project.
Just as the label specifies, this acutely observed novel describes a dinner party – a particularly poisonous dinner party, with the cynical narrator and his despised bigwig elder brother, and their respective wives. The crosscurrents between the participants are fascinating. As the meal progresses, we learn that all of the diners and their family members have dark secrets, including one especially ugly one, and what the real purpose of the dinner is. We come to question who really is most sensible of the brothers. Normally you will tend to follow the narrator, but here you might or might not continue to do so. You come to realise that you have to deal with that trickiest (but fascinating) of narrative styles, the unreliable narrator. Koch plays with your viewpoint and sympathies. The scene, the meal, the restaurant’s workings and the interpersonal relationships are minutely – and cynically – observed.
It is a complete course in family – and restaurant – politics and psychology. You can throw in anthropology too – especially, is nature or nurture responsible for the boys’ behaviour?
Since the intrigue and the setting are so concentrated, I think there is the makings of a fantastic play here. (I found the movie disappointing, and why does everything have to be transposed to the US?)

I can totally recommend this surprising, uncomfortable, caustic novel.

 

Koch, Herman (1953 – ), Het Diner, Amsterdam, Anthos, 2009, ISBN 978 90 414 1368 0

Book 70: Syria (English) – In praise of hatred = Madih al-karahiya (Khaled KHALIFA)

By the end of that summer, hatred had taken possession of me. I was enthused by it; I felt that it was saving me. Hatred gave me the feeling of superiority I was searching for. I carefully read the pamphlets distributed at every meeting with the other girls and memorized whole sections of them, particularly the fatwas charging other sects with heresy. I became closer to my seven companions and grew to love them. We exchanged secrets and books describing the horrific agonies of the grave. My integration with them saved me from my desires for Ghada, who had in my mind become wretched; she was still far from the power and severity I possessed when asked my opinion on punishing those who showed contempt for religion’s doctrines. I astonished them by requesting to make a list of such girls at my school and seeking permission to disfigure them with acid for wearing tight shirts that clearly showed their breasts. Alya’s eyes shone as she asked me to be patient, as if she already knew the date we would do it.

 

Sadly, Syria has slipped a fair way down the list (which I’m trying to read in population order) from when I read this book, due to so many of its people being killed in the sickening civil war. But as it seems like the endgame is coming in the war, its time has finally come for a post. You might feel that it is set in today’s war-torn Syria, but it actually takes place in the 1980s, when a previous President Assad oversaw another terrifying massacre in Aleppo. Plus ça change…

This blistering novel is an interesting female perspective on radicalism. The young narrator is consumed by hatred. She hates not only others but even her own body, warring against her awakening sexuality; she despises her mother; sees her own family as hypocrites – since only one member of her family bothers to get up for the dawn prayers. She hates other Muslim groups that she sees as misguided. And she hates the secular but dictatorial government. She is imprisoned, both physically (in practice) and spiritually, and as much by herself as by others; not only by people, but also by institutions and by history. She can only see an enemy (and she is so like them!) – not the (invisible) good majority, only the bad in people and not the good. She fosters hatred as a weapon to gain power – as do so many around her.

When I was studying Middle Eastern history in the early 1980s, the Lebanese civil war was in full fight. My university tutor warned us that some day Syria would blow up into a far bigger conflagration, but since it was ostensibly stable and peaceful that seemed hard to believe at the time. Alas that he proved right.

This is not a happy read, but an insightful and tragic book, brilliantly written, and vital.

 

KHALIFA, Khaled (خالد خليفة‎) (1964 – ), In praise of hatred, translated from Arabic by Leri Price, London, Black Swan, 2013, ISBN 978-0-552-77613-4

(first published in Arabic 2008)

 

 

Book 69: Chile (Spanish) – Eva Luna (Isabel ALLENDE)

“Do you touch yourself with your hands?”
“Yes…”
“Often, child?”
“Every day.”
“Every day! How many times?”
“I don’t keep count… Many times…”
“That is a grave offence in the eyes of God!”
“I didn’t know, Father. And if I put gloves on, is it still a sin?”
“Gloves! But what are you saying, you fool? Are you trying to make fun of me?”
“No, no…” I murmured, terrified, working out that in any event it would be very difficult to wash my face, brush my teeth or scratch with gloves on.
“Promise that you will never do that again. Purity and innocence are the best virtues in a girl. You will say fifty Hail Marys in penitence so that God will forgive you.”
“I can’t, Father!” I replied, because I only knew how to count up to twenty.
“What do you mean, you can’t!” roared the priest, and a rain of saliva crossed the confession box and fell down on me. I ran out.
[my translation]

 

I love the magical realist novels of Isabel Allende, and I had read almost all of them, except for some reason this one. Isabel’s father was the cousin of leftist Chilean president Salvador Allende who was overthrown and killed in a CIA-backed military coup in 1973, leading to an ugly dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet. The skinny country is one of my favourites in the world – the landscapes are stunningly beautiful and I found the people lovely, so I still find it inexplicable how some of them could treat their fellow citizens so brutally during the military dictatorship.
Eva Luna is a born story-teller, a South American Scheherazade; she tells the story of her family, which she decorates with whimsical fantasies (unless she is recounting reality). She is in love with a guerrilla fighter living in the mountains. Her life passes through encounters with a Thousand and One Nights cast of strange characters.

The novel is full of bizarre and sometimes funny characters and situations. But there is so much reality in their unrealness. Despite the dark and rocky personal and political history it covers, it is made palatable – more than palatable, delicious – by the resilience and humour shown.

I didn’t find it as perfect as The House of the Spirits (La Casa de los espíritus), one of my favourite books, but the writing is beautiful and I still loved it.

 

ALLENDE, Isabel (1942 – ), Eva Luna, Barcelona, Plaza & Janes, 1991, ISBN 84-01-42268-X

North Korea (English): The Accusation: forbidden stories from inside North Korea = 고발 (’Bandi’)

Only once Mrs. Oh had left the station and made it onto the newly constructed highway did she realize that it, too, was caught up in the Class One event. The road seemed to play hide-and-seek with the railroad, the former hugging the coast while the latter sometimes ducked away inland. And the road was utterly deserted; no vehicle dared to cast a shadow there, much less individuals on foot. All traffic had met a blockade farther up; Mrs. Oh had managed to smuggle herself on only by coming via the station. What on earth was this Class One event, if both road and rail traffic had to be suspended? Were there two Kim Il-sungs paying a visit? One thing was for sure: There would be ‘cats’ stationed at each key point on the route. [from ‘Pandemonium’]

 

Here is a new and totally different collection of short stories from North Korea. Bandi (’Firefly’ – a pseudonym) is a dissident who, as far as I know, is the only published one still living in North Korea. The Afterword, detailing how the manuscript was smuggled out with the help of a relative and a Chinese visitor, is itself enthralling, though since some details were admittedly changed to protect the writer, we don’t know which of them are accurate.
As to why I didn’t choose The Accusation as my main representative work for the PDRK, I have to admit to a few niggling doubts about its authenticity. If everyone in the country is fed a diet of what we would consider propaganda and uniformity, ‘Bandi’’s literary sophistication and international writing quality surprised me a great deal. Be that as it may, I hasten to add that you mustn’t let me put you off reading it because of that. On the contrary, it is insightful, ironic, fearless, readable and of sophisticated writing, and I highly recommend it.
Since it is likely many of you will read this book (as you should!), unlike my other collection of short stories from north of the DMZ, I won’t spoil it by giving away the plots. Some of the themes include the country’s self-defeating bureaucratic madness, the way even those loyal to it suffer, and the horrible way that the innocent are punished for the ‘crimes’ of their relatives.
I’ll just mention one of the stories, Pandemonium, since it was a total twist on the usual ‘Kim Il-Sung as deus ex machina’ in ‘Korean Short Stories’. An old grandma is offered a lift by the Great Leader himself (!). She had ended up walking along the road, having given up on both train and bus since all services had been cancelled due precisely to Kim’s own travel along this route (he had selfishly chosen to travel both by road and rail, according to which section of the route was most scenic). This causes a nightmare for everyone else. In the end the supposedly grateful grandma is turned by the regime into a propaganda tool to show the Great Leader’s compassion for his people. (Pandemonium is dated 1995).
This is an important inside look into the ‘hermit kingdom’ and, whatever the truth of its back story, we are very lucky to have it.

‘Bandi’, The Accusation: forbidden stories from inside North Korea (translated by Deborah Smith), London, Serpent’s Tail, 2017, ISBN 978 1 78125 754 8
(first published in Korea 2014)