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
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
What struck you in the first place about Claire’s dish was the immense emptiness. Of course, I also well know that in the better restaurants quality is considered more important than quantity, but there are emptinesses and there are emptinesses. Here the emptiness, the part of the plate where there was no food to be found at all, was clearly put on a pedestal above all else, as a matter of principle.
It was as if the empty plate taunted you to say something about it, to go and make a song and dance about it, in the open kitchen. ‘But you don’t dare!’ said the plate, and it laughed you in the face.
This was only the second book I’ve read in Dutch (after Anne Frank’s diary).
Going by what seemed a boring title and plot, I wasn’t expecting much from this one (although perhaps the sinister looking lobster on the cover of my Dutch edition should have given me a hint). I couldn’t have been more wrong! I’m sure this will turn out to be one of the outstanding reads of this project.
Just as the label specifies, this acutely observed novel describes a dinner party – a particularly poisonous dinner party, with the cynical narrator and his despised bigwig elder brother, and their respective wives. The crosscurrents between the participants are fascinating. As the meal progresses, we learn that all of the diners and their family members have dark secrets, including one especially ugly one, and what the real purpose of the dinner is. We come to question who really is most sensible of the brothers. Normally you will tend to follow the narrator, but here you might or might not continue to do so. You come to realise that you have to deal with that trickiest (but fascinating) of narrative styles, the unreliable narrator. Koch plays with your viewpoint and sympathies. The scene, the meal, the restaurant’s workings and the interpersonal relationships are minutely – and cynically – observed.
It is a complete course in family – and restaurant – politics and psychology. You can throw in anthropology too – especially, is nature or nurture responsible for the boys’ behaviour?
Since the intrigue and the setting are so concentrated, I think there is the makings of a fantastic play here. (I found the movie disappointing, and why does everything have to be transposed to the US?)
I can totally recommend this surprising, uncomfortable, caustic novel.
Koch, Herman (1953 – ), Het Diner, Amsterdam, Anthos, 2009, ISBN 978 90 414 1368 0
By the end of that summer, hatred had taken possession of me. I was enthused by it; I felt that it was saving me. Hatred gave me the feeling of superiority I was searching for. I carefully read the pamphlets distributed at every meeting with the other girls and memorized whole sections of them, particularly the fatwas charging other sects with heresy. I became closer to my seven companions and grew to love them. We exchanged secrets and books describing the horrific agonies of the grave. My integration with them saved me from my desires for Ghada, who had in my mind become wretched; she was still far from the power and severity I possessed when asked my opinion on punishing those who showed contempt for religion’s doctrines. I astonished them by requesting to make a list of such girls at my school and seeking permission to disfigure them with acid for wearing tight shirts that clearly showed their breasts. Alya’s eyes shone as she asked me to be patient, as if she already knew the date we would do it.
Sadly, Syria has slipped a fair way down the list (which I’m trying to read in population order) from when I read this book, due to so many of its people being killed in the sickening civil war. But as it seems like the endgame is coming in the war, its time has finally come for a post. You might feel that it is set in today’s war-torn Syria, but it actually takes place in the 1980s, when a previous President Assad oversaw another terrifying massacre in Aleppo. Plus ça change…
This blistering novel is an interesting female perspective on radicalism. The young narrator is consumed by hatred. She hates not only others but even her own body, warring against her awakening sexuality; she despises her mother; sees her own family as hypocrites – since only one member of her family bothers to get up for the dawn prayers. She hates other Muslim groups that she sees as misguided. And she hates the secular but dictatorial government. She is imprisoned, both physically (in practice) and spiritually, and as much by herself as by others; not only by people, but also by institutions and by history. She can only see an enemy (and she is so like them!) – not the (invisible) good majority, only the bad in people and not the good. She fosters hatred as a weapon to gain power – as do so many around her.
When I was studying Middle Eastern history in the early 1980s, the Lebanese civil war was in full fight. My university tutor warned us that some day Syria would blow up into a far bigger conflagration, but since it was ostensibly stable and peaceful that seemed hard to believe at the time. Alas that he proved right.
This is not a happy read, but an insightful and tragic book, brilliantly written, and vital.
KHALIFA, Khaled (خالد خليفة) (1964 – ), In praise of hatred, translated from Arabic by Leri Price, London, Black Swan, 2013, ISBN 978-0-552-77613-4
(first published in Arabic 2008)
“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)
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]
Book 55: Mozambique (English) – Under the Frangipani (translation of A Varanda do Frangipani = The Frangipani Veranda) (Mia COUTO)
This man I am occupying is a certain Izidine Naíta, a police inspector. His way of life is adjacent to that of dogs: he sniffs at misdeeds which drip with blood. I’m in one corner of his mind, I watch him with great care so as not to disturb his inner workings. For this man, Izidine, is now me. I go with him, I go in him, I go him. I talk to whoever he talks to. I desire whoever he talks to. I desire whoever he desires. I dream of whoever he dreams.
Hopping across to the other side of Africa for the other big Lusophone country there…
In European terms, this would be called a magical realist novel, but from another point of view it is actually suffused with African mythology and story-telling. At its heart is a murder mystery, but it is told as a mystery (in fact, as a novel) unlike any I’ve ever read. It follows two different logics – the Western crime procedural, and the African psychological/mystical approach. There is no shortage of suspects – or of confessors – for the crime, in fact everybody owns up to it!
The novel is a house that is airy with open windows between ‘mythology’ and ‘reality’, between humans and other beings, and between the past and the present. Even the narrator is a dead man. His very murder happened in a time of transmutation – just as Mozambique was painfully becoming independent from Portugal. The powers-that-be want to turn him into a national hero, whereas all he wants himself is to be one of the grateful dead. In order to solve his own murder, the dead soldier’s spirit enters into a police investigator, who (known to the occupying spirit but unknown to the policeman) himself has only a few more days to live…
This not over-large novel packs a large number of elaborations and issues in. I loved it. Couto’s language is magical and mysterious. A bit like my Ghanaian book (Wife of the Gods), this is a murder mystery with a twist (actually, many twists), full of African spirituality and charm. What a surprising and delightful discovery! Another wonderful author to read out when (if) I ever finish this project!
COUTO, Mia (1955 – ), Under the Frangipani, translated from Portuguese by Daniel Brookshaw, London, Serpent’s Tail, 2008, ISBN 978 1 84668 676 4 (originally published Lisbon 1996)