“It’s a coup d’état!” Gouama sobbed. “They’re overthrowing me. They’re taking my power. My God, I’m not president any more. It’s not true! It’s impossible! Don’t shoot, I’m the president. The pres…”
My generation was a bit sad when this central West African nation changed its name from Upper Volta (which was a sort of synonym for ‘back of beyond’) to Burkina Faso (’Land of the Incorruptible’). Fortunately they didn’t touch the name of the world’s coolest-sounding capital, Ouagadougo. The Burkinabé seem to be very popular with visitors, but they do know a lot about coups.
This great novel could have justly been called “The Come-uppance”. It is a cynical look at the corruption and brutality of a 10-year African dictatorship in the country of Watinbow. ‘Father-founder of the Nation’ Gouama is corrupt, nepotistic and violent, and superstitious (being willing to have two people killed in a grisly manner to supposedly safeguard his rule). His particular specialty is bumping off his opponents using ‘accidents’ (the sabotaged parachute drop of the title was his way of getting rid of two coup plotters). He is stupidly fond of humiliating even those on whom he is dependent, like his army chiefs of staff. When his Chief of Staff Kodio leads a coup against him, his presidential guard, emasculated by his suspicion, is incapable of (and/or unwilling to) defend him. The incredulous Gouama is dragged from under his silken mosquito net by his brother. He flees, or rather is hustled, to the border, apparently not being recognised by any of his subjects, and receives some lessons from his people about what they really thought of him (though it later becomes apparent that he saw nothing to interest him except an abattoir, a kangaroo court and a lynch mob). Like bullies generally, he turns out to be a wimp – pitiful, pathetic and risible. Deliciously, he is told by his police to ‘fous le camp’ (’Get lost!’) Tricked and abandoned by his ‘friend’, the president of a neighbouring country, and by the former colonial power, he ends up grovelling at his trial. Fortunately the despicable dictator gets his just deserts and you can’t help cheering as he gets humiliated by his ex-subjects and ex-friends overseas. (There is though the sad thought that his overthrower will no doubt end up being of the same ilk).
This ought to be compulsory reading for all of the world’s dictators and would-be dictators, and for all of those who suffer under them. And it’s very worth reading for all of us.
ZONGO, Norbert (1949 – 1998), Le parachutage, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2006, ISBN 2-296-01712-6 (Collection: Ecrire l’Afrique)
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)]
Lakhdar has escaped from his cell.
At dawn, his silhouette appears on the landing; everyone lifts their heads, without any great emotion.
Mourad stares at the fugitive.
“Nothing out of the ordinary. You will get caught.”
“They know your name.”
“I don’t have any ID cards.”
“They’ll come and nab you here.”
“That’s enough. Don’t discourage me.”
The first book I ever read in French was “L’Etranger” (“The Stranger/Outsider” by the pied-noir (Frenchman who lived in Algeria) Albert Camus, a rather existentialist novel about another pied-noir who kills another man. My teacher chose it as a fairly easy read, and its shock lives with me to this day. Later I read his “La Peste” (about an outbreak of the plague in Oran.)
But this time I wanted to read something by an Arab Algerian. In a way Nedjma is both a complement and an antidote to L’Etranger. In Camus’ work the Arabs are a mere background effect, like the heat, and if one of them gets shot it seems almost meaningless there, just as today a terrorist couldn’t care less whether he is killing Christians or Muslims. In Yacine’s mythologised story of Algeria, on the other hand, it’s the French who are almost irrelevant.
It’s possible to get a feeling of why the Algerian war for independence was so brutal and callous on both sides. The war seems almost forgotten today but it was a seminal event. France treated Algeria very differently from most of its other colonies – it was to become part of La Métropole, north of the Mediterranean, and its départements were just like those of the mainland; and it was heavily colonised. The struggle for independence was very long and bloody until President De Gaulle shocked the French by giving in and granting freedom.
This major work of Algerian literature is set during the time of the French colony. The novel centres on the métisse (mixed-race woman) Nejma (’Star’), as a symbol of Algeria, and the dangerous lives of the four lovers who revolve around her.
I have to admit that I found the free-form French very difficult. Sometimes a single sentence will run over two pages! I was beginning to despair of my French, but now I feel a bit better after reading my much easier book from Burkina Faso. ‘Nejma’’s circular plotting, ending back at the beginning, also makes it hard to follow – sometimes I felt like a caged animal. (The snappy beginning which I quoted above is not typical!) Even though it was hard work, I know it would well repay reading again, and it is written in beautiful French.
YACINE, Kateb (1929 – 1989), Nedjma, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1996 (originally published 1956), ISBN 978-2-02-028947-4
Book 35: Argentina (Spanish) – El beso de la mujer araña = The Kiss of the Spider Woman (Manuel PUIG)
In her we see that she has something outré about her, that she’s a woman like no other. She seems very young, hardly more than twenty-five, the petite face a little catlike, the nose small and pert, the form of her face is… round rather than oval, the forehead wide, the cheeks large too but then falling to a point, like those of a cat.
This one was due to a late change in plans. I was going to write about Borges’ amazing Ficciones which is a collection of fantastic, deep and intricate short stories, but now I’ve decided to see if I can find a novel from every country to read. (I was also accepting short stories and epics, so I’ll have to choose a couple of new titles for some countries I’ve already read to catch up).
While this is certainly a novel, in a way you could consider Puig’s book as a series of short stories, linked by a framing narrative as in the Thousand Nights and One Night for example, although the frame is much more prominent here. (Only one and a bit of these stories made it into the great movie of this novel -filmed for some reason in Brazil, though the book is set in Buenos Aires – the first one, a story of a Nazi romance, along with a short appearance by the Spider Woman herself. As far as we are concerned, the Spider Woman is the gay man Molina, and he intoxicatingly relates the stories, in the manner of film synopses, to his cellmate, Valentín. For we are in prison, although it takes a while for us to realise this (unlike in the movie, where the bars are the first thing we see); Molina is in for “corruption of minors”, Valentín is a political prisoner. Each of them is a cosmic mistake: one a woman in a man’s body, the other a martyr who doesn’t want to be a hero. Each of them in fact, with differing degrees of willingness and success, attempts in turn to entrap the other. Molina, who has been apolitical until now, surprisingly turns out to be the stronger of the two.
When one of the pair is released, the authorities’ notes on the minutiae of his actions, as detailed as those of an entomologist studying a spider, are chilling.
One thing I found a little strange is the extensive Burton-like footnotes about the theoretical and psychological aspects of homosexuality, which go on for pages and were presumably placed by the author. Somehow they don’t seem necessary or appropriate in a novel.
Kiss of the Spider woman is a tour de force of storytelling and dialogue, powerful and thought-provoking.
PUIG, Manuel (1932 – 1990), El beso de la mujer araña, Barcelona, Biblioteca de Bolsillo, 1994 (first published 1976), ISBN 884-322-3026-X
People called me Minke.
My own name… for the time being I need not tell it. Not because I’m crazy for mystery. I’ve thought about it quite a lot. I don’t yet really need to reveal who I am before the eyes of others.
Toer really should have won a Nobel Prize for this cycle (set during and centred around the future Indonesia’s the struggle for freedom and identity), hopefully he will one day! Toer seems to be unread in modern Indonesia (despite being considered its greatest author) – for most of the time he was banned, now I guess he just seems irrelevant since (in this book) he was writing about the relationship between the Indonesians and the Dutch, and the struggle for independence and dignity, a battle which is long won and far in the past. Perhaps people still believe the blandishments against Toer from the Suharto era. This is a huge shame as it is a beautiful book, if a little melodramatic. The story of the book’s gestation in itself is amazing beyond belief. Even the translator, Max Lane (the Australian ambassador in Jakarta) did not escape unscathed.
1. This Earth of Mankind = Bumi Manusia
In the first book the hero of the first three (at least) of the cycle, Minke, awakes to the injustice of the colonial Dutch East Indies. As an intelligent and sensitive observer, he is inevitably hindered by a civilisation which he largely feels a part of and admires but which will not accept him, as a ‘native’. The young Javanese noble also finds the first of what will be a series of lovers through the quartet, a beautiful Eurasian who symbolises his aspiration to take the best of both his worlds. The portrait of his powerful, resilient mother-in-law is wonderful.
Toer, Pramoedya Ananta: This Earth of Mankind, translated by Max Lane, New York, Penguin, 1996, ISBN 0 14 025635 0
(first published in Indonesian in Jakarta, 1980 and in English in Australia 1982)
2. Child of All Nations = Anak Semua Bangsa
The hero of This Earth of Mankind, Minke, has become a journalist but has realised from his European mentors that he, like his countrymen, knows little about the true situation in his country, less in fact than people in Europe do. The novel follows his gaining of political consciousness as he sets out to educate himself about his land. He becomes a (perhaps naive) admirer of the political movements in Japan, China and the Philippines, so far ahead of his own land.
The title comes from page 169: “In humility, I realized I am a child of all nations, of all ages, past and present. Place and time of birth, parents, all are coincidence: such things are not sacred.” Well, that is true in the broadest sense, that we are all subject to the accidents (coincidence) of our birth; but Minke (like all of us) is very much a child of his time and place.
Toer, Pramoedya Ananta: Child of All Nations, translated by Max Lane, New York, Penguin, 1996, ISBN 0 14 025633 4
(first published in Indonesian in Jakarta, 1980 and in English in Australia 1984)
3. Footsteps = Jejak langkah
Perhaps the most political of this quartet, it follows Minke’s stumbling realisation of the need for his people to organise in order to gain freedom, to speak and write in what would become known as Indonesian and to think of themselves as (eventually) Indonesians. It portrays the emergence of this political man his influences, mistakes and setbacks. Sadly all his ideas seem to come from others – the Dutch colonisers, the Japanese, the Indos (mixed Dutch-Indonesians), the local Chinese and other minority groups, rather than from himself, but it is fascinating to trace someone’s political awakening and sources. He races through several marriages as fast as he does through political ideas and organisations. Towards the end, as he speeds towards disaster, Minke’s path crosses with the petty official Pangemanann (with two n’s, as he constantly emphasises to underline that he is in bed with the Europeans).
Toer, Pramoedya Ananta: Footsteps, translated by Max Lane, New York, Penguin, 1996, ISBN 0 14 025634 5
(first published in Indonesian in Jakarta, 1985 and in English in Australia 1990)
4. The House of Glass = Rumah kaca
The Dutch colonial official Pangemanann, having appeared at the end of Footsteps, takes over as narrator (he puts Minke away and then ‘solves the problem’ in a rather shocking way). He is entrusted with keeping an eye on the indigenous organisations (which are springing up like mushrooms) that might cause problems for the colonial authorities, but goes beyond that to use ‘divide and rule’ tactics to try to keep them weak. But he is a torn individual since he knows that his efforts will fail, and furthermore he is a personal admirer of Minke and other independence figures. And he still tries to see himself as a moral figure, despite his awareness that he is losing not only this morality, but also his person and his family, to drink. While few of us are as aware of the currents of history in which we swim, or have such a writ to try and influence them, he shows the folly of trying to swim against the tide of history.
Toer, Pramoedya Ananta: The House of Glass, translated by Max Lane, New York, Penguin, 1996, ISBN 0 14 025679 2
(first published in Indonesian in Jakarta, 1988 and in English in Australia 1992)
“If you had been on that jury, son, and eleven other boys like you, Tom would be a free man,’ said Atticus. ‘So far nothing in your life has interfered with your reasoning process. Those are twelve reasonable men in everyday life, Tom’s jury, but you saw something come between them and reason. You saw the same thing that night in front of the jail. When that crew went away, they didn’t go as reasonable men, they went because we were there. There’s something in our world that makes men lose their heads – they couldn’t be fair if they tried. In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins. They’re ugly, but those are the facts of life.’
‘Doesn’t make it right,’ said Jem stolidly. He beat his fist softly on his knee. ‘You can’t just convict a man on evidence like that – you can’t.’
‘YOU couldn’t, but THEY could and did.’
A heartbreakingly beautiful book about justice (and the lack thereof) – like everyone else the US falls short of its ideals, but surely that’s better than not having those ideals in the first place. It’s a reminder that without some brave people to stick up for what’s right, the world would be even more screwed up than it is now. It is a desperate call for us as ordinary people to be heroes and to stand up for what is right, even if necessary against the prevailing order in our society and our own narrowly selfish interests, so that a better world will prevail. The judgement comes as a total shock, almost physical, and it will leave you moist-eyed!
Lee, Harper (1916-2016): To Kill a Mockingbird, London: Vintage, 2004, ISBN 9780099466734