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Book 107: Palestine (English) – Mornings in Jenin (Susan ABULHAWA)


So it was that eight centuries after its founding by a general of Saladin’s army in 1189 A.D., Ein Hod was cleared of its Palestinian children. Yehya tried to calculate the number of generations who had lived and died in that village and he came up with forty… Forty generations of living, now stolen. Forty generations of childbirth and funerals, weddings and dance, prayer and scraped knees. Forty generations of sin and charity, of cooking, toiling, and idling, of friendships and animosities and pacts, of rain and lovemaking. Forty generations with their imprinted memories, secrets, and scandals. All carried away by the notion of entitlement of another people, who would settle in the vacancy and proclaim it all – all that was left in the way of architecture, orchards, wells, flowers, and charm – as the heritage of Jewish foreigners arriving from Europe, Russia, the United States, and other corners of the globe.

This is a novel of bewilderment and betrayal.
In the year of the creation (or recreation) of Israel, 1948 – called here by the Palestinians the ‘year without end’ – the Abulheja family is bombed out of their home and village, and forced to live in the squalid Jenin refugee camp. One of the Israeli soldiers, Moshe, steals their baby Ismael (a name as close as you can get to ‘Israel’) for his infertile wife, renames him David, and they lovingly raise him as a Jew.
His mother goes crazy. As the hopelessness of the Palestinians’ cause drags on, Jenin becomes more permanent with the years. Youssef meets and is abused by the Jewish soldier who is his brother (now David), and his outrage leads him to join the PLO though he later leaves it, cuts himself off from his family and becomes more radical. Will he become a terrorist?
Most of the story is related through the eyes of the third child, Amal, the daughter born in Jenin. She later moves to the US where, although appreciative of the more comfortable and peaceful lifestyle there, can’t help feeling somewhat resentful of those born into a luckier world free from suffering.
Understandably, there is a lot of resentment expressed at the Palestinians’ unfair treatment. Why should they have to pay for the Germans’ sins against the Jews? Why should the latter treat the people living there so cruelly, throw them out and not even let them visit their ancestral homes?
Like in any good novel, the characters measurably change during the story. It’s a sign of hope that real people can change too, for the better.
The novel is interspersed with quite a few quotes from non-fiction sources documenting the history.
I only noticed one typo, but it was a whopper. On page 285 the azan (Muslim call to prayer: I proclaim that there is no god except Allah) is quoted in Arabic, but ‘illa’ (except) is left out which leaves an unintentionally blasphemous remainder!
Despite the roles the characters seem to be forced into by the political situation, there is still hope that they can recover their humanity and empathy. And for me both of these are what is most absent in the region at the moment and the only hope for the future. And thankfully Mornings in Jenin, which is mostly but not entirely seen from the Palestinian side, ends with a glimmer of hope for reconciliation. It is a beautifully written, powerful novel which won’t leave you as a bystander.

Abdulhawa, Susan (1970 – ), Mornings in Jenin, London, Bloomsbury, 2010, ISBN 9781408813553

Book 106: Israel (English) – To Know a Woman (Amos OZ)

He sat at the wheel of the car until almost two o’clock in the morning, with the doors locked, the windows rolled right up, the lights out, the radiator grille almost projecting over the edge of the cliff into the void. His eyes, once they were accustomed to the dark, were spellbound by the breathing of the pelt of the sea, swelling and sinking again and again with the expansive yet restless respiration of a giant whose slumbers are periodically punctured by nightmares. At times a sound escaped like an angry gust. At others it sounded like a feverish panting. And again there rose the sound of breakers in the night, gnawing at the coastline and retreating with their booty to the deep. Here and there ripples of foam glistened on the dark pelt. Occasionally a pale milky beam passed high above among the stars, perhaps the quivering of a distant coastguards’ [sic] searchlight. As the hours passed Yoel had difficulty distinguishing between the murmur of the waves and the throbbing of the blood inside his skull.

A jaded, washed-up ex-spy just wants to get out of the game and get on with his life. But is anyone ever allowed to be an ex-spy?
Yoel tries to live retiringly while striving to understand and get on with the women in his life, all of whom seem to be stronger characters than him – his prickly, incomprehensible (to him) daughter living with a syndrome that is apparently epilepsy, his mother and his mother-in-law, and his attractive neighbour (too good to be true?) – not to mention his wife who died in a bizarre accident (or was it?)
He tries to be reasonable with his daughter despite her goading of him but seems to make no headway.
Despite his best efforts to keep out, his former life keeps intruding. He still keeps his old spy habits (such as making sure he parks nose out, ready for a quick getaway). The estate agent Kranz, who also suddenly comes into his life, seems nosy and suspiciously helpful – we can’t help asking ourselves whether those over-eager to help him are plants?
Eventually he is forced to come back into Mossad against his will, and when he refuses to do a messy job, his substitute gets killed in Bangkok – his feelings of anger and survivor’s guilt are so easy to identify with. It seems that he (and Israeli Jews in general?) are compelled to be forever grateful for their homeland – and to be inescapably obligated towards it. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but perhaps Yoel’s unsuccessful relationship with his women is also a metaphor for Israel’s seemingly impossible relationship with its incompatible neighbours.
Oz is someone else whose work I must read more of. Sadly this great Israeli writer, commentator and peace activist died not long before I read his work.

Oz, Amos (1939-2018), To Know a Woman, translated from Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange in collaboration with the author, London, Vintage, 2001 (first published 1991), ISBN 9780099913405.

Book 104: United Arab Emirates (English) – The Sand Fish (Maha GARGASH)

Noora heard their talk, too: “Which is the bride?” She knew it was hard to tell. She looked the same as Lateefa and Shamsa, tented from head to toe in their abayas, faces hidden under their shaylas, both legs dangling on one side of their donkeys. She also knew she was a bride who was not arriving as a bride should. There was no family to deliver her and not a hint of celebration. But she did not care. She just wanted a chance to be alone so that she could ponder the design of her new life.

The Sand Fish is set in Dubai in the 1950s, before everything changed and it became an oil-fuelled, glitzy, super-modern glassed city, powered by expatriate labour, on the surface at least (one wonders how much has changed behind closed doors in Arab society).
Feisty 17-year-old Noora lives in an isolated area; mother dies, her father is losing it; so her brother (who is 14) becomes de facto family head – such is sexist society – and arranges her marriage with a businessman who is rich but much older. And she becomes his third wife. Her brother (as an adult) is 100% awful.
The novel is a great portrayal of the bleakness and discomfort of a polygamous marriage. The wives hate each other (and there is an interminable power struggle between them). Their lives seem to me like slavery – ironically, it is the cheeky slave girl Yaqoota who seems to be the freest in the household.
I found it a bit unbelievable that no one realised it was the husband, not his plurality of wives, who was infertile – but perhaps it is (or was) the sexist society that considered male infertility unthinkable, or at least unmentionable. Noora didn’t seem to me to be the most intelligent of heroines – much of the time I felt I was way ahead of her and it’s hard to believe she didn’t see the situation that was being set up to get the husband a child. But I had to ask myself, why should all protagonists be clever and knowledgeable, when not everyone in the real world is? Especially if they are forced to be cloistered away by their society.
Not the greatest nor the worst book I’ve ever read, but well worth it for a glimpse into the past (or is it?) of the glitzy modern Dubai.

Gargash, Maha, The Sand Fish: a novel from Dubai, NY, Harper, 2009, ISBN 978-0-06-174467-9

Book 99: Dominican Rep. (English) – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot DIAZ)



His otherworldly advice was too terrible to consider. Exile to the North! To Nueva York, a city so foreign she herself had never had the ovaries to visit. The girl would be lost to her, and La Inca [Oscar’s grandmother] would have failed her great cause: to heal the wounds of the Fall, to bring House Cabral back from the dead. And who knows what might happen to the girl among the yanquis? In her mind the U.S. was nothing more and nothing less than a país overrun by gangsters, putas, and no-accounts. Its cities swarmed with machines and industry, as thick with sinvergüencería as Santo Domingo was with heat, a cuco shod in iron, exhaling fumes, with the glittering promise of coin deep in the cold lightless shaft of its eyes.


Here is one of several novels I’ve come across which have been bestsellers (or even cult novels), which haven’t really grabbed me. When that happens, I tend to blame myself. Maybe it was spoiled by hearing the revelation about Díaz’s personal misdemeanours shortly before starting it, but I didn’t really enjoy this book. I’m willing to admit that maybe I should give it another go. But there are so many great novels still to read and I still have about a hundred to read for this project!

The ‘hero’ Oscar is a fat nerd doomed to unpopularity, one would tend to assume because of his appearance and personality, but he himself thinks it is because he has been smitten by an old family fujú curse. But you can’t help admiring his resilience.

A large part of the story is actually about his hot sister, who is also a real character.

Oscar is a Tolkien fan (the only thing he has in common with me), but for him the DR dictator Trujillo is worse than Sauron. Maybe it was easier for Middle Earth to overthrow the Dark Lord than for the Dominicans to get rid of Trujillo, who was supposed to have created the perfect dictatorship. (Speaking of which, my preferred novel about the DR is La Fiesta del Chivo ((The Feast of the Goat)) by Mario Vargas Llosa, although he is not a Dominican, about this assassination). Trujillo’s sister is a character in Díaz’s novel.

There are lots of Dominican Spanish words, too many of which are not defined, although they certainly add colour to the text! (The unglossed ones in the quotation above are: country, prostitutes, shamelessness, cutie).

But don’t let me put you off – I’m sure many people will love the novel (it’s obvious that many did). It is often funny, the slangy language is alive and the characters are sculpted in high relief. Maybe it’s time to give it another chance myself…

DÍAZ, Junot (1968 – ), The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, London, Faber and Faber, 2008, ISBN 978-0-571-17955-8 

Book 97: Jordan (English) – The Cry of the Dove (Fadia FAQIR)

I woke up early in the morning, washed and changed, had group breakfast with the nuns, then went for a long walk, down the valley, then up the mountain. My only companions were the amulet hanging around my neck and my reed pipe. I would watch how the sea woke up when touched by the morning light, its colours changing from grey, to coral, to gold, then to turquoise like my grandmother’s necklace, which was a string of beads encased by silver. The sun would fight the darkness of the sea. The sunlight would win the day, filling the air with light. The dark-blue sea, exhausted, grew mossy green around the edges.

The heroine Salma is a Jordanian Bedouin woman. She committed what was in her society an unforgivable sin: she had sex outside marriage and became pregnant, and was subsequently disowned by her own family. She is placed under protective custody, and her own girl is taken from her. Her life is under constant threat of what I believe should be called a dishonour killing (since for me it brings nothing but shame to the murderer’s family and society).

She seems to be able to find no happiness in her life. She feels hopeless, despairing, and deracinated She calls herself “a rootless wind-blown desert weed.” In exile, Salma has a bleak, jaundiced and negative view of England (and of Jordan) – she doesn’t really seem to try to fit in. She is nowhere at home. She seems to be constantly miserable and even appears to have a death wish.

Maybe the only happiness she ever found was in the half-way house of Lebanon (as in the quote above).

Salma is continually obsessed with her lost girl (what about her boy and her husband?) and finally goes back to find her. Without giving anything away, somehow the novel’s ending seemed to me to be impossible – but probable. 

For me one of the best things about the book is the beautiful cover – a gorgeous blue mosque with a lonely woman. One of the reasons I avoid e-books…

Like Salma, the author Fadia Faqir also grew up in Jordan and moved to England. Salma has both a Jordanian/Lebanese past and an English present, which alternately come together but are not totally stitched – there are patches missing (such as the moment when she falls in love in England). I also felt that as a learner, Salma’s ‘pidgin’ English was not believable. My apologies for harping on this theme, but I get constantly annoyed when authors and filmmakers try to portray the speech of characters who have English as a second language or are learners as being fluent, or making unlikely mistakes, and when there are no communication difficulties between speakers of different languages (even with aliens!)

However, I don’t want to be too critical of a book that was touching and insightful. It is definitely worth reading.

Fadia (al-)Faqir فادية الفقير‎ (1956 – ), The Cry of the Dove, New York, Black Cat, 2007, ISBN 978-0-8021-7040-8

Book 94: Greece (English and French) – Zorba the Greek (Alexis Zorba) = Βίος και Πολιτεία του Αλέξη Ζορμπά (Nikos KAZANTZAKIS)

He threw himself into the dance, clapping his hands, leaping and pirouetting in the air, falling on to his knees, leaping again with his legs tucked up – it was as if he were made of rubber. He suddenly made tremendous bounds into the air, as if he wished to conquer the laws of nature and fly away. One felt that in this old body of his there was a soul struggling to carry away this flesh and cast itself like a meteor into the darkness. It shook the body which fell back to earth, since it could not stay very long in the air; it shook it again piteously, this time a little higher, but the poor body fell again, breathless.


Many people (myself included) have a friend who is their exact opposite, a yang to a yin, someone who is stimulating to talk to and observe precisely because they think and act differently to ourselves. Zorba the Greek is that friend to the narrator, who is a thinly disguised Kazantzakis.
This must be one of the most absorbing portraits of a people, and of a man (who is the apotheosis of that people), in literature.
The bookish narrator, Kazantzakis’ alter ego, learns to live for the moment (what we would now call mindfulness?), and teaches the man he teasingly calls the ‘bookworm’ to ‘dance’. He is always needling the narrator about his ‘books’. Zorba teaches him to understand himself, and the importance of happiness.
It has to be said that he is not always admirable, but he seems always captivating. Zorba only dabbles in being a capitalist (first mining then raping a forest) – but his heart isn’t in this get-rich-quick project (maybe this is symbolic of the Greek economy?) He is like some ancient Greek hero (he is so like Odysseus!) or even god (such as Zeus) – both admirable and flawed (he has even committed atrocities).
He cheats some monks in order to ‘acquire’ a forest to fell. (Isn’t Greece already deforested enough?) Zorba never seems untrue to his nature. He lives for the moment, and the day – nothing is permanent (Kazantzakis’ Buddhist subtext is interesting for such a Christian country). The narrator is interested in Buddhism and has some of its cool detachment but can’t help but be drawn to his charismatic, hedonist friend. Zorba is a mixture of a child, a philosopher, a sensual hedonist, and an iconoclast. He is contradictory, extraordinary, but always believable. He has been everything: (according to himself) a: quarry-man, miner, peddler, potter, comitadji, santuri-player, passa-tempo hawker, blacksmith, smuggler; has married several times, been imprisoned, travelled everywhere… He retains the sense of wonder at everything that the first man must have had, or a child. He asks simple yet profound questions about it like an ancient Greek philosopher.. He is comic, philosophical, brave, sensuous. and a wonderful story-teller.
One of my favourite scenes was the funny expedition up to a monastery. Their shared business venture all ends in ‘the full catastrophe’, also very funny, but somehow in the end it doesn’t matter very much…

Yes, but…
I can’t agree with Zorba’s anti-learning (and, by implication, Kazantzakis’ equivocation about it). If he didn’t despise book-learning he wouldn’t have had to try to reinvent geometry to find ropeway angle. After all, the Greeks themselves are famous since ancient times for their prowess in geometry.

Much as I totally loved the book, I have to admit that the 1964 movie was better in one way – because the narrator is changed from an urban Greek to a repressed Englishman, which makes the contrast between him and Zorba even more startling. So it is a case of the Greek Vs the Geek. (From his amazing performance, it is impossible to believe Anthony Quinn as Zorba isn’t a Greek!)

I was fascinated to find that the larger-than-life Zorba was based on a real friend of Kazantzakis, Alexis Zorbas. According to an interesting (but hero-worshipping) study (1), most of the incidents in the novel – the plot to despoil the monastery forest, the dilettante mine, the trip to communist Russia, the death in the Balkans – were accurate, as was the character of Zorba(s) (and of the narrator/Kazantzakis). The chronology was different, and there were a few other changes (such as their initial meeting).
I loved this novel so much that no sooner had I finished it than I started reading it again. It has added itself to my faves list.


KAZANTZAKIS, Nikos (1883 – 1957), Zorba the Greek, translated into English by Carl Wildman, London, Faber and Faber, 2008, ISBN 978-0-571-24170-5
KAZANTZAKI, Nikos: Alexis Zorba, translated into French by Yvonne Gauthier, Paris, Pocket, 1981, ISBN 3-266-02311-X
Originally published in Greek 1946

(1) ANAPLIOTES, John: The Real Zorbas and Nikos Kazantzakis, translated by Dr. Lewis A. Richards, Amsterdam, Adolf M. Hakkert, 1978

Vietnam (English) – The Sympathizer (Viet Thanh NGUYEN)

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)

Book 86: Rwanda (English) – The Past Ahead = Le Passé devant soi (Gilbert GATORE)

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)

Book 85: Antarctica (English) – In Cold Pursuit (Sarah ANDREWS)


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

Book 84: South Sudan (English) – Beneath the Darkening Sky (Majok TULBA)

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