“Do you touch yourself with your hands?”
“Every day! How many times?”
“I don’t keep count… Many times…”
“That is a grave offence in the eyes of God!”
“I didn’t know, Father. And if I put gloves on, is it still a sin?”
“Gloves! But what are you saying, you fool? Are you trying to make fun of me?”
“No, no…” I murmured, terrified, working out that in any event it would be very difficult to wash my face, brush my teeth or scratch with gloves on.
“Promise that you will never do that again. Purity and innocence are the best virtues in a girl. You will say fifty Hail Marys in penitence so that God will forgive you.”
“I can’t, Father!” I replied, because I only knew how to count up to twenty.
“What do you mean, you can’t!” roared the priest, and a rain of saliva crossed the confession box and fell down on me. I ran out.
I love the magical realist novels of Isabel Allende, and I had read almost all of them, except for some reason this one. Isabel’s father was the cousin of leftist Chilean president Salvador Allende who was overthrown and killed in a CIA-backed military coup in 1973, leading to an ugly dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet. The skinny country is one of my favourites in the world – the landscapes are stunningly beautiful and I found the people lovely, so I still find it inexplicable how some of them could treat their fellow citizens so brutally during the military dictatorship.
Eva Luna is a born story-teller, a South American Scheherazade; she tells the story of her family, which she decorates with whimsical fantasies (unless she is recounting reality). She is in love with a guerrilla fighter living in the mountains. Her life passes through encounters with a Thousand and One Nights cast of strange characters.
The novel is full of bizarre and sometimes funny characters and situations. But there is so much reality in their unrealness. Despite the dark and rocky personal and political history it covers, it is made palatable – more than palatable, delicious – by the resilience and humour shown.
I didn’t find it as perfect as The House of the Spirits (La Casa de los espíritus), one of my favourite books, but the writing is beautiful and I still loved it.
ALLENDE, Isabel (1942 – ), Eva Luna, Barcelona, Plaza & Janes, 1991, ISBN 84-01-42268-X
Book 60: Ivory Coast (French) – En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages = Waiting for the wild Beasts to Vote (Ahmadou KOUROUMA)
He had gone back up into the Sahel and the Sahara, his native land, and had gone back to the great tribal wandering. And he had fully recovered. It is only the desert which heals despair. For the desert is endless spaces, the silence of the sand dunes, a night sky enamelled with thousands of stars. An environment which faultlessly saves those who have profoundly lost hope. In the desert, it is possible to cry without fear of making a flood overflow a wadi. Nowhere is nature so favourable for meditation as the desert. That is why all the great prophets were born in the deserts.
This is the story of Koyaga, the eternal president-cum-dictator of the ‘Gulf Coast’. His story is an amalgam, and a peerless sendup, of several dictators – Ivory Coast’s own Houphouët-Boigny, ‘Emperor’ Bokassa of the Central African Republic/Empire, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now Congo DR), Eyadema of Togo. It is narrated mainly by a griot (praise-singer/minstrel/musician/historian/king’s fool) in a deliciously satirical, pseudo-sycophantic way. The great nationalist leader began his career as a stooge of the French colonialists, fighting for them in Indo-China, and when the president of his newly-independent country refuses the returning soldiers their pensions, Koyaga overthrows him. He becomes one of those dictators (like Houphouet-Boigny) who shout their anti-Communism so as to receive massive aid from the West. But with the fall of the Iron Curtain their usefulness to the West is at an end and they are forced to undergo democratic elections – and to re-invent themselves once again.
To European eyes it might seem like a sort of magical realism, yet here the unbelievable comes out as somehow more credible than the evident. For example, instead of the blatant obviousness of Koyaga ‘escaping’ from a prison where he was already permitted to come and go by his friend the prison director, and that he arrived in the capital disguised as a poultry seller (rather than as a white cock) – these are two banal for the legend, which would have magic warfare (and counter-magic from the to-be-assassinated president). For Koyaga is a shape-changer (such as you might find in Norse mythology). And prophecies, as usual, find fulfillment when you try to avoid them.
Kourouma’s novel is the story of Ivory Coast in particular and Africa in general. It is a scathing critique of a continent that has been betrayed by its leaders, who continue to inflict colonialism on their people in another form. Long but rich, it is another classic which I cannot recommend highly enough.
KOUROUMA, Ahmadou (1927-2003), En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages, Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1998, ISBN 978.2.02.041637.5
[English translation: KOUROUMA, Ahmadou, Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote, London, Vintage, 2004, ISBN 9780099283829]
To him, Kurdishness meant growing old as a gypsy on the streets and highways of the world. Kurdishness meant driving your motorcycle like a man possessed, never looking back. It meant putting your foot on the pedal and, like a prisoner escaped from Hell, never having to ask what had happened in the Hell you left behind. Kurdishness was tantamount to a disease in which you spent your entire life trying to forget Hell.
It seems appropriate to be posting on Kurdistan just as the Kurdish region in northern Iraq is voting on whether to become an independent nation. The Kurds seem to be the biggest ethnic group in the world without their own independent country (perhaps excepting Punjab?), although this was (yet another of) the Allies’ broken promises after the First World War. A century later, they have managed to establish a de facto semi-autonomous state in northern Iraq, where they may hold an independence referendum today (25th September) and have also fought into control of much of northern Syria). However, in Turkey, where most Kurds live, the situation doesn’t seem as promising for them. This is about where Kurdistan might come in order if it were an independent country – who knows, perhaps it will be one day, since the Kurdish region in northern Iraq has achieved semi-autonomy and reasonable success (so it’s appropriate that Iraqi Kurdistan should be the standard-bearer for my little project).
I Stared at the Night of the City is apparently the first Kurdish novel to be translated into English – just in time for me! And it is great. The author, Bakhtiyar Ali, was born in Iraqi Kurdistan but now lives in Germany.
Appropriately, for a country that does not exist except in hopes, this is a novel all about the imagination. Ann Morgan, writing during her own reading project, was taken by the idea of books ‘talking to each other’, as am I. I was reading this one at the same time as Isabel Allende’s Eva Luna, which is also about the imagination. I think this must have the cheekiest start to any novel I’ve ever read. The narrator (and through him, the author) seems to be constantly playing with you, taunting you, contradicting your expectations, trying to shock you.
The plot ricochets back and forth and between a circle of friends led by the poet Ghazalnus (‘ghazal writer’) on the one hand, and on the other, the ‘Barons’ who live in a corrupt ‘independent’ enclave of ‘Baronistan’, in an unnamed city (they are Kurds who undermine their own culture, afraid of artists & thinkers). Their leader, the ‘Baron of the Imagination’, tries to get the resistant Ghazalnus to build a dream ‘city of the imagination’ there which can be shown off to visitors, to hide the grim reality of the city.
The tale is related by the multiple unreliable authors from the two bands (including a former torturer and a weaver of magical carpets, and two ‘Magellans’), and spans a long period of time around which it jumps backwards and forwards.
On the whole, I felt conflicted about this novel. I definitely felt that it’s too long (that may be because I was also bogged down in my massive Kazakh tome at the same time). It seems a little too self-conscious and abstract – the characters seemed a bit symbolic to me. A more minor niggle is that not many of the Kurdish words are explained – it is not one of the world’s better known languages, and personally I love glossaries of exotic words and concepts! On the other hand I loved its quirkiness. It has some wonderfully memorable quotes: “Real love is not the desire to sleep with your beloved, but the desire to die with her.” “Lovers do not die – they turn into books or flowers.” “There are two types of paradise in the world: the paradise God gives to man, and the one that man gives to God. He who cannot give a paradise cannot receive it.” “We need to examine the details because, contrary to the proverb that says ‘the Devil is in the detail’, we believe that generalisations are the Devil’s work: it is the angel who pays attention to the detail”.
You can understand a Kurd like the Baron of Imagination being obsessed with maps – those abstract symbols of the world which draw lines where none exist (and which have not yet drawn one around an entity called ‘Kurdistan’).
The novel is like a combination of a magical realist and a postmodernist novel, but like nothing I’d ever read before. It presents a passionate argument for artistic freedom. I found it confusing book, but with often wondrous prose. I’m glad I chose to give the Kurds a space, otherwise I might have missed this intriguing novel. Let’s hope that not for much longer will the Kurds have ‘no friends but the mountains’. Any people could be proud of this work, especially one who was forbidden to name itself and whose very language was banned in more than one country until quite recently. I would definitely re-read it and I’m sure I will get much more out of it the second time, now I know what it was on about!
ALI, Bahdiyar (بەختیار عەلی,) (1960 – ), I Stared at the Night of the City, translated from (Sorani) Kurdish by Kareem Abdulrahman, Reading, Periscope, 2016, ISBN 9781859641255
Book 54: Angola (English) – The Book of Chameleons (translation of O Vendedor de passados = The Seller of Pasts) (José Eduardo AGUALUSA)
“Lies,” he explained, “are everywhere. Even nature herself lies. What is camouflage, for instance, but a lie? the chameleon disguises itself as a leaf in order to deceive a poor butterfly. He lies to it, saying, Don’t worry, my dear, can’t you see I’m just a very green leaf waving in the breeze, and then he jets out his tongue at six hundred and twenty-five centimetres a second, and eats it.”
Félix Ventura, the seller of pasts, is an albino ‘black’ whose unusual metier is to surreptitiously construct ennobling but fictional pasts for his upstart clients. He is approached by a foreigner to go the whole hog and this time forge identity documents for him as well. The subjects have to undergo something like spy training to become at home with their new ‘legends’.
He calls himself a genealogist, which is a bit like a forger calling himself a calligrapher, but an artist nonetheless (even if only of the black arts).
Of course the trouble with weaving too many lies is that it becomes ever easier to trip over and get caught out – as does Félix himself when the portrait of his ‘grandfather’ is recognised as one of Frederick Douglass!
The book has no obvious mention of the Angolan civil war, but I suppose in the aftermath of one everyone has to reinvent herself or himself…
The story is actually narrated by his house gecko (the chameleons of the English title are the clients who ‘change their colour’). I was entranced by this idea! Anyone who has lived in or visited the tropics has probably shared their space with a gecko, who observes you glued to the wall with his suction caps, occasionally tut-tutting at you… ‘In this house I’m like a little night-time god.’
Agualusa said his novel was a “tribute to Borges” and that his gecko narrator actually IS Borges.
While it’s billed as a murder mystery, it’s also a genre bender. Don’t try to pin anything down! A marvellous book, which reminds me again of how much I would have missed if I hadn’t embarked on this exciting world voyage.
AGUALUSA, José Eduardo (1960 – ), The Book of Chameleons, translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2008, ISBN 978-1-4165-7351-7
This is a subtly magical realist novel from the part of the world which gifted us the Thousand Nights and One Night, and which is almost as beautiful as its title. It follows a few generations of an endearing and occasionally annoying Jewish Iranian family who try to evade an apparently fated bad luck. This is concentrated in Lili, who as a five-year-old watches her mother Roxanna the Angel fly away from her family (literally): “…she had been so light and delicate, so undisturbed by the rules of gravity and the drudgery of human existence, she had grown wings, one night when the darkness was the colour of her dreams, and flown into the star-studded night of Iran that claimed her.” She floated away insouciantly on the winds of inevitable Fate, and does not return for 13 years so Lili has to grow up without her. Her search for her mother and an explanation takes her through Turkey and the US, where they are finally re-united in the ‘City of Angels’.
Gina Nahai herself was born in Iran but has long lived in the United States. She wields her language like a master storyteller. Her book is wonderful escapism but at the same time so very true and meaningful. All in all, a lovely book.
NAHAI, Gina B. (1961 – ): Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith, Pocket Books, Washington Square Press, NY, 1999, ISBN 978-0-671-04283-7