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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

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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 74: Kashmir (English) – The Collaborator (Mirza WAHEED)

 

Captain Kadian takes a large swig from his glass tumbler, closes his eyes for a moment, smacks his lips, and says, ‘The job’s not that hard, you see, you just go down once a week or fifteen days, and the money, the money is not bad at all.’

 

This novel is set in Indian Kashmir, near the ‘Line of Control’ with Pakistan. Kashmir isn’t an independent country (though you suspect most Kashmiris might want it to be). When India and Pakistan gained independence, the Muslim-majority state was ruled by an indecisive Hindu maharaja who opted for India at the last moment. Open and covert warfare between Pakistan and India, and Kashmiri militants, for decades has been the consequence. Both countries claimed the state and occupy it (India the majority). India promised an independence referendum at the outset, that has never been held. Some sixty years later, no solution is in sight. The lovely valley is perhaps the world’s most likely flashpoint for a nuclear war.
In ‘The Collaborator’, brutal, drunken Indian Army Captain Kadian gives a marvellous self-justification for his actions, going through the full catalogue of rationalisations with which such people kid themselves (only). It’s their own fault that atrocities occur, can’t be helped, just part of his job, I’m just a tiny cog in the machine, it’s the law, those who whinge about human rights don’t understand, I have a family too, I didn’t kill them myself, they chose to die, it would have happened anyway, even if I agreed I couldn’t do anything.
He forces the boy narrator to ‘collaborate’ and count the fallen corpses in the typically beautiful Kashmir valley on the border (a job he considers too dangerous for his own soldiers); every day he expects to find one of his boyhood friends who had gone across to Pakistan to join the militants.
The high point is the visit of the Governor of Kashmir, who helicopters in as if on a military operation, humiliating the villagers (who had been warned by an azan ((Muslim call to prayer)) recited backwards), like the preparation for a massacre instead of a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign.
There are a lot of Kashmiri, Arabic and Hindi/Urdu words used, but unfortunately no glossary is provided and they are not always explained.
Although he is speaking of his scavenging expeditions, when the Collaborator says he is tired of it all he must be speaking for most Kashmiris.

 

WAHEED, Mirza (1955 – ), The Collaborator, London, Viking, 2011, ISBN 978-0-670-91895-9

Xinjiang (English) – Wild Pigeon (Nurmemet YASIN)

Yurts on the Karakorum Highway towards Pakistan – my photo

 

Coming from Kazakhstan, which was lucky (and perhaps rather surprised) to find itself liberated from Russian control when the USSR disintegrated, it’s time to hop across the border to look a the closely-related people next door who were not so fortunate. Xinjiang (Chinese for ‘New Territory’) is the largest and westernmost province of the People’s Republic of China (Kashgar is closer to Istanbul than to Beijing, and not just geographically). It has traditionally been inhabited by mostly Turkic-speaking Muslim peoples, especially the Uighurs, who call it East Turkistan or Uyghuristan, and smaller groups such as the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz (now with their own nations) who are related to other peoples in Central Asia rather than to the Han Chinese. Nobody said history is fair.  On the contrary, in recent years so many Han have moved in (colonised?) that the Uighurs may now be in a minority in their own homeland, in a similar situation to the Tibetans. (It should be said, though, that the Chinese have also been in the ‘Western ‘Regions’ for a long time, since the heyday of the Silk Road). So far I haven’t been able to get a single Uighur novel, at least in one of the western European languages I can read. Perhaps that in itself says something? So I’ve covered this huge territory with a short story by a Uighur writer, Wild Pigeon (also called Blue Pigeon, light blue being the Uighurs’ colour), and the novel Loulan kaj Fremdregionano by INOUE Yasushi.

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“The air inside and outside this cage are identical, I think, but the life possible on my side of these iron bars might just as well belong to a different universe.”

Considering how much writing it was to cost its author, this is an important little work.
In a dream, a wild pigeon (perhaps from the ‘Stans to the west?) visits his relatives the domesticated pigeons (of Xinjiang?) They have given up their souls, given up even thinking about souls.
The visitor suspects that words have different meanings here, but actually they don’t. There are in fact two kinds of naivety.
The older pigeon has ‘gone over’ to the humans, and he gets his fill while others starve, defending the system. In the end it’s the pigeons themselves that do in the wild pigeon, not the humans.
Perhaps the captors’ stupidity and ignorance about the pigeons’ is shown by their idea that they could keep a male pigeon for eggs? It is such a sad, cruel, hopeless and beautifully written story that, even if not of the same quality, it reminded me of one of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales.
After the wild pigeon falls into the human trap, in the end he comes to the heartbreaking conclusion that the only thing to do is commit suicide and die with dignity. The situation really does seem hopeless. The poet Yasin was jailed by the Chinese authorities for writing this story, ‘inciting splittism’, and reportedly died in prison in 2011.

In the translation on the Radio Free Asia website, blocks of the text were repeated – I was unsure as to whether this was deliberate or a mistake.

As a postscript – The PRC has recently started using surveillance drones disguised as birds, called The Dove, especially in Xinjiang. I’m sure this is a pure coincidence.

 

YASIN, Nurmuhemmet (Nurmemet) (1977? – 2011?): Wild Pigeon (also: Blue Pigeon), first published in the Kashgar Literary Magazine, 2004, issue 5 (all copies of which were subsequently recalled). Translated by Dr Dolkun Kamberi, 2005 https://www.rfa.org/english/uyghur/wild_pigeon-20050627.html, accessed 14/11/2018.

Book 67: Malawi (English) – Smouldering charcoal (Tiyambe ZELEZA)

 

When he got to the door he hesitated to open it. He heard the children crying. Had she beaten them again? Obviously she had not expected him to come home so early. He burst into the house. The children looked up when they saw their father but did not stop crying. They had seen his empty hands. They were all herded together in the only dry part of the kitchen, semi-naked, thin little creatures, shivering, with swollen and hollow eyes, and throats that issued strange sounds from their hungry stomachs. He avoided their gaze.

 

I snapped up this paperback in a second-hand bookshop in Cape Town, which was able to tick quite a few boxes on my African to-read list.
The novel is set in Malawi – or somewhere very similar. When I first started travelling, there were two countries my long-haired generation were terrified of – Malawi and Singapore. (Don’t laugh!) Would we be assaulted by vicious immigration officials brandishing scissors, rendering us eternally and incurably Uncool? Or just denied entry as Undesirable Elements? It is no coincidence that ‘The Leader’ in this novel is similar to Malawi’s dictator of that time, Banda: ‘The leader hated long hair and beards, and anybody who sported them risked arrest for moral indecency or even subversion.’
‘Smouldering charcoal’ is basically a call for a revolution, social and political, but it is refreshingly free from polemic and quite readable. It is concerned with the unjust regime, inequality, and the (bad) treatment of women. It follows the effects of what starts with a bakers’ strike on two very different families. (In this, it is somewhat similar to my novel for Senegal which I’ve just finished, Ousmane Sembene’s Les Bouts de bois de Dieu).
Mchere is a drunken violent father (his disdain for his family shown by how he rips a page from his son’s exercise book to roll a cigarette.) No doubt following his bad example, his children are rude and it is left to his wife to try to keep the family going.
The good-natured, happily married journalist Chola starts the day happy but suffers bad luck due to country’s own misfortunes.
Following the men’s example, the women (led by good-hearted prostitutes) threaten their own strike against the sexist treatment of their men (which reminded me of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata).
The callousness of the people in power is shown when the priest and the party representative pretend to care for the people but let a child die rather than lend a car to get him to hospital.
Like several of the other African novels I’ve read, Zeleza bemoans the failed hopes and betrayal of the corrupt post-independence régimes, and adds a clarion call for social change, especially for improving the lot of women. It is both an important and very readable novel.

 

ZELEZA, Tiyambe (1955 – ), Smouldering Charcoal, Harlow, Essex, Heinemann (African Writers Series), 1992, ISBN 978-0-435-90583-5

 

Book 64: Sri Lanka (English) – Reef (Romesh GUNESEKERA)

Should you read the blurb on the cover before reading a novel? I can’t help blaming my slight disappointment with ‘Reef’ on the blurb, and its shortlisting for the 1994 Booker Prize. Don’t get me wrong – the story itself is very readable and well-written. But it is quite lightweight and to compare it to Greene, Naipaul, Narayan and even Shakespeare’s Tempest (as in the quoted reviews) seems quite ridiculous. The blurb touts it as a love story – well the protagonist Triton doesn’t get any (unless you include mentoring). In fact it’s basically about his love for being a super house boy, for a marine biologist – although it’s obvious from his intelligence and fast learning that he will have a lot more to offer the world. He seems to totally miss the dangerous currents swirling around him in the ‘real world’ of the island. The endangered reef that the scientist is studying is obviously a symbol for the fraught political situation facing the country.
Its language is simple but sensuous:

Most of all I missed the closeness of the tank – the reservoir. The lapping of the dark water, flapping lotus leaves, the warm air rippling over it and the cormorants rising, the silent glide of a hornbill. and then those very still moments when the world would stop and only colour move like the blue breath of dawn lightening the sky, or the darkness of night misting the globe; a colour, a ray of curved light and nothing else. The water would be unbroken like a mirror, and the moon would gleam in it. At twilight when the forces of darkness and the forces of light were evenly matched and in balance there was nothing to fear. No demons, no troubles, no carrion. An elephant swaying to a music of its own. A perfect peace that seemed eternal even though the jungle might unleash its fury at any moment.

There are pearls to admire such as the Sri Lankan take on the Biblical flood legend.
As one who has experienced how bizarre Christmas is in Sri Lanka (even more so than here in Australia), I couldn’t help laughing at the experimental cooking of the turkey, with the Professor’s scientific input and Triton’s instinct.
Or is the novel like a reef, and did I just miss the profundities hiding beneath the surface? Perhaps I should re-read it… which will be no hardship.

 

GUNESEKERA, Romesh (1954-), Reef, London, Granta, 2014, ISBN 978-1-78378-030-3

 

Book 62: Cameroon (English) – The Poor Christ of Bomba = Le Pauvre Christ de Bomba (Mongo BETI)

Surely it isn’t any blasphemy… oh, no!  It even fills me with joy to think that perhaps it was Providence, the Holy Ghost himself, who whispered this advice in the Father’s ear, ‘Tell them that Jesus Christ and the Reverend Father are all one.’ Especially when our village children, looking at the picture of Christ surrounded by boys, were astonished at his likeness to our Father. Same beard, same soutane, same cord around the waist. And they cried out, ‘But, Jesus Christ is just like the Father!’ And the Father assured them that Christ and himself were all one. And since then all the boys of my village call the Father ‘Jesus Christ’.

 

Here is yet another delicious and insightful African novel! It is a gentle satire of the power of the colonialists, and the Catholic Church as its choirmaster, in Cameroon in the 1930s.

Its central figure is a priest who looks just like Jesus, and shares His alternation between fire-and-brimstone sternness and mocking good humour. The naive (or is it faux naive?) narrator – at least at first – is his assistant and is totally obsessed with him.

The priest goes on a tour, after three years, of a ‘backsliding’ part of the country.

The narrator is taken in by another boy on the expedition, Zachariah, who knows how to profit from the situation and has a ‘girl in every port’. Luckily for him, they have all been corralled by the Church, since ‘Good Catholic girls’ who are engaged to be married are confined in a building called the sixa for several months and forced to do hard labour – a perfect source for some sex for the local Church men.

The missionaries have an incredible amount of power, with not only God but also the colonial powers behind them. But they are not omnipotent. The portrait of the priest is affectionate and subtle, despite the negative damage and perhaps ultimate futility of his labours. Later he comes to the realisation that the Africans do have their own spirituality and that he must respect its power.

He also becomes disillusioned with the colonial setup.

This is a wonderful send-up of the hypocrisy – or should we say failure to live up to its ideals? – of the Church in Cameroon, and a great read.

 

BETI, Mongo (1932-2001): The Poor Christ of Bomba (translated by Gerald Moore), Long Grove IL USA, Waveland Press, 1971, 2005, ISBN 978-1-57766-418-5