“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
A simple young man travelled at the height of summer from Hamburg, his home town, to Davos-Platz in the Grisons. He went for a visit of three weeks.
So starts a laboured journey up into the Alps and down into the depths of the human condition. The Magic Mountain is a sort of utopia (or dystopia, since everyone there is sick!) set in a sanatorium in Switzerland. These Olympian heights give Mann (with his suitably encompassing surname) the chance to philosophise on many aspects of life and death. It’s like an Alpine Hotel California, or some weird religious cult (whose god is hypochondria), with the difference that here intellectual inquiry is fostered rather than quashed. Perhaps it’s closer to Hilton’s Shangri-La in Lost Horizon, at least it’s up in the mountains! It is a dense novel of ideas and seems to cover all the big questions like life, love, time and death. Nowadays it seems like no one likes to think about death and sickness, but they are inevitable facets of human existence and ignoring them won’t make them go away.
This is another fairly long work which took ages for me to get through. The long convoluted sentences made it somewhat difficult for me to read in German.
An easier read from Germany is Siddhartha (Hermann HESSE), one of my very favourite books. In a parallel with The Life of Brian and Jesus, at first it seems that Siddhartha is going to be the Buddha, until you find that the latter is another character in the novel. Its majestic prose is to die for.
Mann, Thomas (1875 – 1955), Der Zauberberg, Fischer Taschenbuch, 2008, ISBN 9783596901241
Book 17: East Germany (’German Democratic Republic’) (German): Nachdenken über Christa T. = The Quest for Christa T. (Christa WOLF)
Occasionally I’ll throw in a bonus book for a place you won’t find on the current list of lands in the United Nations. Some of these will be ghost nations, like the late and mostly unlamented East Germany. The title should properly be translated as Reflections on Christa T.
The German word ‘nachdenken’ literally means to think about (or after). And it is the word which opens the book in German.
“To reflect, to think – about her. Of the attempt to be oneself. That is what is found in her diaries, which are left to us, on the loose pages of the manuscripts which have been discovered, between the lines of the letters I am acquainted with. They have taught me that I must forget my memory of her, Christa T. The colouring of memory misleads you.
So do we have to give her up for lost?” (My translation)
Christa T., the subject of this loving portrait, is an extraordinary, ordinary young woman who dies at 35 of leukaemia (heartbreakingly, she is only too aware that she will be one of the last to die of this disease). The narrator first introduces her when a self-sufficient girl appears at her school. She comes to admire her.
In retrospect, the punctuated coming-and-going relationship could be seen as symbolic of the relationship between the Germanies.
The narrator turns Dostoyevsky on his head: “I see now that unhappiness makes people alike, but happiness doesn’t, it makes them individuals”. (123)
She spends her last years planning and building a wonderful little hilltop, lakeside house, but barely gets to live in it. It seems to stand as a symbol of her promising, unfulfilled life.
I couldn’t help feeling that the narrator knows too much about her subject, more than any other human being could possibly know about someone’s inside, even than a spouse or family member. Perhaps a better vehicle for this (almost) omniscience would have been a third person viewpoint. It feels like a biography of a famous writer but with a great deal of speculation. Nevertheless, this is a great book and a fantastic psychological portrait of a candle in the wind.
Wolf, Christa (1929 – 2011), Nachdenken über Christa T., Suhrkamp, 2007, ISBN 9783518459133