Then the guitarist began strumming the chords of another song. They do sing songs like this, Man said. It was Yesterday by the Beatles. As the three of us joined in singing, my eyes grew moist. What was it like to live in a time when one’s fate was not war, when one was not led by the craven and the corrupt, when one’s country was not a basket case kept alive only through the intravenous drip of American aid? I knew none of these young soldiers around me except for my blood brothers and yet I confess that I felt for them all, lost in their sense that within days they would be dead, or wounded, or imprisoned, or humiliated, or abandoned, or forgotten. They were my enemies, and yet they were also brothers-in-arms. Their beloved city was about to fall, but mine was soon to be liberated. It was the end of their world, but only a shifting of worlds for me. So it was that for two minutes we sang with all our hearts, feeling only for the past and turning our gaze from the future, swimmers doing the backstroke toward a waterfall.
I posted on Vietnam back in October 2014, on the long poem The Tale of Kieu, but since then I decided to limit myself to novels, so I had to re-read Vietnam. No hardship, for I discovered this wonderful book which deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
It begins with the chaotic US evacuation as Saigon fell to the communist North Vietnamese in 1975, the end of the Vietnam War as it is known in the West. The protagonist, a captain, flees to the US with his general, who little suspects that the captain is spying for the communists. He becomes enmeshed in and apparently enjoys the American way of life. The captain is split in many ways – half French half Vietnamese, a communist who lived under capitalism in South Vietnam and the US, a Vietnamese and an American. In fact he is a symbol of the split personality of Vietnam itself – North/South, Communist/Capitalist, not to mention of the US, whose double standards of the time are also on full display. There are some unforgettable scenes – the desperate last snafu days as the US fled South Vietnam, the murder, the interrogation, and the Hollywood war movie for which the captain is a reluctant and ignored consultant, and which ends up like a mini war in itself.
Nguyen’s writing is spectacular, dripping with all the irony the situation begs for (his handler is literally a ‘faceless man’, and I’m sure that a ‘sleeper’ agent would find it difficult to sleep!) It was maybe the hardest book so far to choose just one quote to showcase, I wanted to share so many! I can’t recommend it too highly.
NGUYEN, Viet Thanh (1971 – ), The Sympathizer, London, Corsair, 2016, ISBN 978-1-4721-51360 (first published 2015)
Is murder unforgivable because the only person from whom rightful forgiveness could come is no longer there?
In 1994 I went on holiday in South America. I was totally shocked that in the short time I was away, up to a million people were massacred in an intentional genocide in faraway Rwanda. I still suffer a strange feeling of guilt over that.
This novel is the story of two characters struggling to deal with the trauma from that time. The young woman, Isaro, had to flee the country for France after her parents were murdered. She comes up with the ‘modest’ research project of interviewing all the survivors and putting their stories into one book. What she does come up with is a novel, which centres on the other main character, Niko – we don’t find out that he is only her creation until right at the end. Niko is a sociopath and a mute, who has banished himself to a nose-shaped island in a lake, populated by monkeys. While he was not popular, he was a peaceful blacksmith until the day the genocidal army came and he is forced to club to death another man who may – or may not- be his own father, or else both of them will be shot; and he must decide whether to die or become a murderer in a split second. He chooses to kill and to live, and becomes the enthusiastic leader of a band of thugs.
I would have loved to have had the inexplicable explained – that is, why the genocide happened and how apparently normal decent human beings could carry out such heartless brutality on those they had lived with peacefully. I didn’t feel that I did get it. Maybe it’s some disease of collective madness that infects a group. Before we look down on the Rwandans – or Germans – or Turks – or anyone else collectively, we need to remember that few of our countries or peoples haven’t committed injustices to others (certainly my country has); and if as individuals we are sure that we would never commit such atrocities – well, can anyone who hasn’t been guilty of cruelty to a cockroach, for example, ever be certain of that? All of us are guilty if we knew what was happening in a ‘faraway African country’ and didn’t care.
Nowadays, Rwanda is doing quite well economically, and is even very progressive in some respects (banning plastic bags and percentage of women in parliament). An astonishing number of victims have even forgiven their tormentors. It has come at the price of putting a blanket over much of what happened. Nowadays, officially, people can’t call themselves Tutsi or Hutu.
I can’t imagine what it must be like every day to see someone who murdered the whole rest of your family walking the streets. I can’t blame any country for deciding that, when a choice has to be made, reconciliation or at least peace is preferable to justice, but I wish we could have both – not only due process for those who ordered the crimes, but also for the torturers, the people with the machetes, and the bureaucrats.
GATORE, Gilbert (1981 – ),The Past Ahead, translated from French by Marjolijn de Jager, Global African Voices, Bloomington & Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 2012, ISBN 9780253006660
(Originally published as Le passé devant soi, Paris, Editions Phébus, 2008)
Cupcake adjusted the bindings of her skate skis with a focused fury. Steve was dead. Eight seasons she had spent on the ice, and risk of injury and death had always ridden beside her like a passenger who never speaks until it is too late, but this death had ‘wrong’ written all over it. She had been in McMurdo during the helicopter crash of 2003, and that was bad enough, even though no one died. And then there was that pestilent journalist a year ago. Hardly anyone knew him, but still his death had cut everyone to the quick. But a coworker? Dying like that? And through malice?
Here’s one out of the box (or the freezer?), a crime thriller set in Antarctica. Of course Antarctica has no permanent population, countries or even universally recognised territories, but people have been born there (unfortunately, no authors yet, I assume, although I can’t read Emperor Penguin) and one or two people who have lived there have written books – including this novel.
Its heroine, like the author (who visited Antarctica for obviously extensive research), is a geologist, which helps her to solve the crimes. No sooner has she flown in to McMurdo station than she learns that her boss has already been arrested on suspicion of a murder he apparently hadn’t committed, and flown off the continent, and that she could be also removed at any time (luckily for her, passages out can’t be arranged that quickly).
Some might find the amount of detail on Antarctic life, the environment and the science excessive and just want the story. I couldn’t imagine many thrillers spending much time on the characters getting dressed (an involved and life-saving procedure down there). But as for me, I totally loved all this detail, which was exactly what I was looking for. It feels very authentic and I felt that I really got to know the environment and the circumstances in which the scientists (’beakers’) and support staff live and work. And as an inveterate word collector I managed to acquire a small Antarctic vocabulary (a ‘fingie’ is a new arrival). The character was likeable and authentic (perhaps excepting her James Bond-like ability to drive anything on wheels – or tracks – at the drop of a hat!)
A few minor quibbles – the editing falls into a crevasse once or twice, and I can’t imagine these rough people not swearing a lot! The accent given to the Australian character was terrible, maybe closer to Scottish.
In Cold Pursuit is sadly out of print. I totally enjoyed it, also as a change from the fairly heavy classics and world novels I’ve been reading lately. Thanks to the Wollondilly Library (southwest of Sydney) and our wonderful inter-library loans librarian Anne for chasing down the copy for me.
ANDREWS, Sarah, In Cold Pursuit, New York, St Martin’s Press, 2007, ISBN 0-312-34253-5
But Priest’s blood is on my hands and under my fingernails, and his cord has been severed. I told myself that those cords would be cut by me or another. It didn’t matter who, because it was going to happen. We are mere instruments of fate, we soldiers. All those people were shot and would have been shot and we were the walking, running, screaming dead, but it matters that I killed them. The cup must be passed and the poison must be drunk, but that doesn’t mean you have to drink it. The cup was in my hands and I could have cast it back in their faces and died. That would have been better. Oh God, that would have been better. But I drank it. And I passed it and I took the communion of devils. What kind of God would listen to my prayers? Not in this field, not among the blood of devils. I have lived. I have been spared. There’s still time to escape.
We have all heard of countries terrorised and traumatised by the nightmarish, upside-down world of child soldiers, but to experience what it is like in reality – and to be one – you must read this book. Beneath the Darkening Sky covers many of the same ugly themes that we have seen (e.g. in Cambodia) and will see again in some other countries, but like them turns them into compulsive reading through the beautiful language of great literature.
South Sudan became the world’s newest country but has had little peace or good news even since then. The interminable (civil) war of this Christian/Animist south, with the oil resources, against northern, Muslim, Sudan for independence both devastated the land and prevented any development. But no sooner did it finally win freedom than the various ethnic groups started fighting among themselves.
The author was nine when rebel soldiers attacked his village and kidnapped all the children taller than an AK47 to become child soldiers. Tulba was an inch shorter; he eventually fled the country to live in Australia. But he wrote this brilliant first novel of what might have happened to him if fate had made him an inch taller.
Like the Khmer Rouge for example, the rebels claim to be creating Utopia but actually make only hell on earth. Obinna’s new life is a daily nightmare interspersed with dreaming. It is soaked in casual, self-defeating brutality. The most mercy people can expect (like his friend Priest, in the quote above) is a quick death. Obinna grows down, instead of up.
Among other horrors, the boys are used by the cowardly soldiers to walk in front of them through minefields. When one of them does step on a mine, the scene is described in movie-like slow motion (which felt like watching a crash test dummy flailing about in a car).
Like any great novel about a horrible time (similarly to In the Shadow of the Banyan, for Cambodia), the tragedy is not unrelieved. I found the fake ambush especially funny.
Traumatising as it is, I highly recommend this novel. It is narrated in short staccato sentences like machine gun fire. I can’t wait to read his second book, “When Elephants Fight”, and hope Tulba will be able to write more books.
While I was reading this, there was a documentary series on the Vietnam War on TV. I was struck by what one American Vietnam veteran said: “I only killed one person in Vietnam; the rest were objects.” This novel gives a devastating portrayal of the desensitisation of the killers, of the deadening, dehumanising objectification of death. As Obinna says: “They don’t get to choose to live and I don’t get to choose to kill”.
TULBA, Majok, Beneath the Darkening Sky, London, Oneworld, 2013 (first published by Penguin Australia, 2012), ISBN 978-1-78074-241-0
Today the sun has set. It will set again tomorrow. But you are not here to see it. That is the difference. Even the birds and the insects that sing, they sing the same way as they sang when you were here. But now that you are not here to hear them, that makes the difference. Suns will set, birds will sing, insects will sing, but the difference is in the ears that will hear them. Today your ears are not here to hear them with me. Your blood is not here to tell me what all the songs of the forests of the farm say.
‘Bones’ is the story of the vain search of a woman (Marita) for her son, gone to fight in the guerrilla war against the racist white Rhodesian regime that was to lead to Zimbabwe. Everyone seems to be obsessed with her. Her story is told by Janifa (who has been wooed by her son); the herbalist Marume; Chisaga, the white farmer’s cook (about whom we get a totally different impression from his own words than from Janifa’s); ‘the unknown woman’ at the mortuary who Marita tries to give a decent burial; and the more omnipresent view of ‘the spirits’. The farm owner is foul-mouthed and hated even if probably far from the worst that could have been pictured. What is might be his real name is never revealed, but he is called Manyepo “because you think we are always lying to you”.
The novel is all the more powerful because Hove doesn’t spell out or labour the differences between blacks and whites, or the history between them. They are there, but they are there for us to extract. Hove’s anger and revolutionary fervour are there and we feel them, but as if it were the heat from a furnace under the floor:
“A people that fears death will never enjoy freedom from the heavy chains of being called boys by people of the same age, men and women.”
If you expect a novel about a revolutionary war to be about men fighting the unjust regime, ‘Bones’ is not like that. It is about those left at home, and is told mainly through the women’s voices. And what shines through is that they are at least as heroic as the male soldiers. It is, as far as I can judge, another masterly success of a male writer writing about women with understanding, compassion and admiration.
The language of the novel, which is apparently rooted in Shona idiom, is quite wonderful, not poetic but as controlledX as poetry, majestic as a religious text but hypnotically readable, and scattered with delicious proverbs and phrases (I can’t tell if they are traditional or original), e.g. “A closed mouth is a cave in which to hide”. ‘Bones’ was yet another discovery of a great novel and a great writer who deserves far wider acclaim. One of the Heinemann African Writers Series, it is not very weighty (I read it in one day, coincidentally on Robert Mugabe’s 93rd birthday) but it is concentrated brilliance.
Published in Harare!
HOVE, Chenjerai (1956 – 2015): Bones, Harare: Baobab Books, 1988, ISBN 0-908311-03-6
She realized, suddenly, standing there, that all those years she had lived in that house, with the acres of bush all around her, and she had never penetrated into the trees, had never gone off the paths. And for all those years she had listened wearily, through the hot dry months, with her nerves prickling, to that terrible shrilling, and had never seen the beetles who made it. Lifting her eyes she saw she was standing in the full sun, that seemed so low she could reach up a hand and pluck it out of the sky: a big red sun, sullen with smoke, like a shining plow disc or a polished plate, ready for plucking. She reached up her hand; it brushed against a cluster of leaves, and something whirred away. With a little moan of horror she ran through the bushes and the grass, away back to the clearing. There she stood still, clutching at her throat.
Nobel laureate (2007). Doris Lessing is an amazing writer. The breadth of her writing genres is breathtaking. She was born in Persia (now Iran), grew up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), which qualifies her to represent that defunct country, whose racisim would have been anathema to her, and later lived in Britain. Apart from needing to give Rhodesia some representation, as one of the countries that has existed during my lifetime, Lessing is simply too important to ignore, although modern Zimbabwe is so different that I wanted to choose a ‘Black’ writer to represent it (hence, ‘Bones’ by Chenjerai Hove).
This, her first novel, is a murder mystery which begins and ends with the crime, while all the rest of the book fleshes out what caused the killing. The victim, Mary, is a city girl who should never have left her satisfactory urban life but (due to the needling of her contemporaries) marries an eternally struggling farmer, Dick Turner, who seems congenitally immune to success, and she buries herself on his isolated farm. So isolated are they that she does not even know about the war. The (distant) neighbours despise these ‘poor whites’, who in turn hold themselves aloof from them. Dick treats his land a bit better than the other rapacious ‘Whites’, likewise his ‘Black’ labour force (although partly because of the difficulty of acquiring and holding onto them). But Mary becomes an ever more virulent racist – yet we can understand (although not sympathise) because we have seen how she has come to be this way. Despite this, she is drawn into a highly charged relationship with her final male servant (having driven off a string of predecessors), Moses, who she had once abused.
Mary’s mental disintegration stands as a symbol for the inevitable breakdown of the racist Rhodesian regime. Lessing masterfully describes her boring life, yet I couldn’t keep from eagerly turning the pages. I would definitely say this is one of the best novels I’ve ever read.
LESSING, Doris (1919 -2013 ), The Grass is Singing, New York, HarperCollins, 2008, ISBN 9780061673740
Before midnight, the old man’s leaf fell gently from the tree on the moon. It was a most gentle death. Hush. And the soft falling of the withered leaf didn’t even tease the well of Karin’s emotions, nor did it puncture the lacrymatory pockets. She didn’t cry, didn’t announce the departure of the old man’s soul to anyone until the following morning. She stayed by him, keeping his death all to herself. She lay by him in reverent silence, he dead, she alive – but you couldn’t have told the difference, so quiet was she beside him.
This is the first novel in the Blood in the Sun trilogy.
It is basically an in-depth study of the evolving relationship between the Somali orphan Askar and Misra, an ethnic Ethiopian lady who comes to look after him. It takes place at the time of the largely forgotten Ogaden war (1977-8) between Somalia and Ethiopia. The Ogaden Desert is inhabited by Somalis but was (and is, after the Ethiopians reconquered it with the help of their then sponsor the USSR and its allies), occupied by Ethiopia. In what looks like a continuing theme for the world’s twilight nations, or regions, “it is easier ridding yourself of a colonialist from beyond the seas than it is to oust an African one.” (for ‘African’, insert ‘Asian’ or any of the other possibilities). However, I’m not convinced that Namibia should have been listed as an exception – by the time of the setting, the German colonialists were long gone, but the future Namibia was finding it very difficult to escape from its neighbour South Africa.
As is usual in war, Misra is accused of treason. Meanwhile, Askar’s relationship with her becomes both intimate and testy. He feels that he is faced with the impossible choice of having to betray either her or Somalia. Farah explores the psychology of this complicated link.
It took a long time for the significance of the title to be revealed, but maps become a symbol of the way that ‘truth’ is not one and unchangeable, just as the country’s borders are not immutable. It is not as easy to pin down as it should be. Going back to the map, the one hanging on your wall probably has something called ‘Somalia’ (and something called ‘Ethiopia’) separated by nice confident red lines. But one country blends into another, both in space (geographically and culturally) and time (historically). Since we started drawing neat lines across the landscape, it has never been the case that everyone belonging to a certain people will always find themselves on the ‘right’ side of the border. And as for Somalia itself – all nicely coloured yellow on my map – it currently doesn’t exist as a single entity. Somaliland (the part colonised by the British rather than the Italians) is de facto independent, as is Puntland, while violence-torn Somalia proper is in fact the most tenuous part of the land.
At the time I read it I was in the mood for something with a faster and more intricate plot. But it is a very good and thought-provoking novel.
FARRAH, Nuruddin (Nuuradiin Faarax) (1945 – ), Maps, New York, Arcade, 2016, ISBN 978-1-62872-585-8