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Book 83: Rhodesia (English) – The Grass is Singing (Doris LESSING)

She realized, suddenly, standing there, that all those years she had lived in that house, with the acres of bush all around her, and she had never penetrated into the trees, had never gone off the paths. And for all those years she had listened wearily, through the hot dry months, with her nerves prickling, to that terrible shrilling, and had never seen the beetles who made it. Lifting her eyes she saw she was standing in the full sun, that seemed so low she could reach up a hand and pluck it out of the sky: a big red sun, sullen with smoke, like a shining plow disc or a polished plate, ready for plucking. She reached up her hand; it brushed against a cluster of leaves, and something whirred away. With a little moan of horror she ran through the bushes and the grass, away back to the clearing. There she stood still, clutching at her throat.

 

Nobel laureate (2007). Doris Lessing is an amazing writer. The breadth of her writing genres is breathtaking. She was born in Persia (now Iran), grew up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), which qualifies her to represent that defunct country, whose racisim would have been anathema to her, and later lived in Britain. Apart from needing to give Rhodesia some representation, as one of the countries that has existed during my lifetime, Lessing is simply too important to ignore, although modern Zimbabwe is so different that I wanted to choose a ‘Black’ writer to represent it (hence, ‘Bones’ by Chenjerai Hove).
This, her first novel, is a murder mystery which begins and ends with the crime, while all the rest of the book fleshes out what caused the killing. The victim, Mary, is a city girl who should never have left her satisfactory urban life but (due to the needling of her contemporaries) marries an eternally struggling farmer, Dick Turner, who seems congenitally immune to success, and she buries herself on his isolated farm. So isolated are they that she does not even know about the war. The (distant) neighbours despise these ‘poor whites’, who in turn hold themselves aloof from them. Dick treats his land a bit better than the other rapacious ‘Whites’, likewise his ‘Black’ labour force (although partly because of the difficulty of acquiring and holding onto them). But Mary becomes an ever more virulent racist – yet we can understand (although not sympathise) because we have seen how she has come to be this way. Despite this, she is drawn into a highly charged relationship with her final male servant (having driven off a string of predecessors), Moses, who she had once abused.
Mary’s mental disintegration stands as a symbol for the inevitable breakdown of the racist Rhodesian regime. Lessing masterfully describes her boring life, yet I couldn’t keep from eagerly turning the pages. I would definitely say this is one of the best novels I’ve ever read.

 

LESSING, Doris (1919 -2013 ), The Grass is Singing, New York, HarperCollins, 2008, ISBN 9780061673740

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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)

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

Book 50: Ghana (English) – Wife of the Gods (Kwei QUARTEY)

The forest was black and Darko was afraid to enter. The trees, covered from apex to root with dry, sloughing scales, beckoned him with their crackling, stunted branches. The forest floor erupted in a charcoal-colored cloud of dust as the gnarled, ragged tree roots burst from the earth and turned into massive, thrashing limbs. Swaying, the trees began to lumber toward Darko. He wanted to escape, but terror paralyzed him. He opened his mouth to scream but no sound came.

Fairly light-hearted for a murder mystery, but treating its themes with due consideration, this is a very likeable, easy-to-read novel. Yet I found I learnt a great deal about the local culture and ways of thinking from it. A ‘wife of the gods’ (trokosi) is a local girl offered to the local healer/witch doctor in expiation of some supposed transgression. That this is without the poor girl’s consent goes without saying… The not-very-nice witch doctor in this work is one of the prime suspects in the murder of a young woman who had locked horns with him in her anti-AIDS campaign, but did he do it? There are certainly one or two rather extreme AIDS remedies in this book! The hero, Detective Inspector Darko Dawson, who had moved to the capital Accra, digs up dark corners of his own past in this apparently sleepy village. He is a very likeable character, even if he does go off the rails occasionally (and understandably). I suspect this novel will be enjoyed by a much wider circle than just those who read murder mysteries. A totally enjoyable read.
Quartey was raised in Ghana but now lives in the US.

 

QUARTEY, Kwei, Wife of the Gods, New York, Random House, 2009, ISBN 978-0-8129-7936-7

 

Book 47: Peru (Spanish) – Lituma en los Andes = Lituma in the Andes, (translated as) Death in the Andes (Mario VARGAS LLOSA)

I felt like I had to peruse something by the great writer Vargas Llosa for his country. In a way it is a murder mystery set at the time of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) insurgency, a vicious countryside-based Marxist movement which had almost played itself out by the time I visited the country in 1994 (the book was first published the year before). Lituma is a police chief in a god-forsaken outpost in the Andes. He comes from the coast and sometimes seems to know less about his fellow countrymen from the mountains than the Danish professor in the story, or even than the present writer! His off-sider, Tomás, is a fascinating mixture of naivety and a ghastly past. To pass their time, Tomás comically retells his own murder and flight with a prostitute – the contrast between his idealism and her cynical realism really is hilarious. (Though once or twice it’s the other way round; he tells her, “This country is too dangerous to trust the banks; the best safe is your own mattress”.) These two representatives of their government in the area are not only totally alienated from the people they are supposed to protect, they are so woefully under-resourced that they live in constant fear of the Senderistas, even more so than the locals do. A ludicrous example is when a man comes from the nearby mine to ask (or rather demand) help, bearing an order from Lituma’s superiors – since the latter have almost no possibilities to communicate. Lituma is overwhelmed by the difficulties of understanding the locals’ culture and language. His post is really irrelevant to them, and they are so fearful of the Senderistas that it is almost impossible for him to learn anything from them. So, what happened to the missing people? Was it the obvious culprit, the Senderistas, the bruja (’witch’) and her bacchanalian husband, or something much more fundamental?

Right from the beginning we meet the gulf between city and country. Throughout it all, the local mountain people seem unmoved, unchanged and mute.

Lituma’s powerless is symbolised by a huayco (landslide):

 

The sky had become even darker and despite it being only early evening it was like nighttime. As if in a dream, he saw a vizcacha as big as a rabbit jump out from among the stones and run past him petrified, heading uphill; its ears were pricked up and it jumped without knowing where, finally staggering away. Lituma tried to get up but couldn’t even do that. Was it an earthquake? Was he going to die flattened by one of those boulders bounding past, rolling, leaping, colliding with each other, splitting and shattering apart right and left, thundering excruciatingly? Animals have a sixth sense, they can smell catastrophes, the little vizcacha had fled like that from its hutch because it smelled the end of the world. “Forgive me my trespasses” he cried. “I don’t want to end like this, damn it!.” He was crouching and crawling, plastered against the rock; rolling to the right, to the left and overhead, went clumps of earth, rocks of all imaginable shapes and sizes, and he felt that the rock was shuddering with the impact of the projectiles crashing and ricocheting into it. How much could it take? He had the feeling that an enormous rock, rolling down from the heights of the Cordillera, was heading straight for the rock that was protecting his back, plummeting onto it, pulverising it, and himself with it, in a second. (my translation).

 

I loved Vargas Llosa’s twist on several ancient legends – Theseus and the Minotaur (with an original variation on the ball of string!), Dionysus and his wild women, even Don Quixote. A masterful mystery, both of the missing men and of cultural misunderstanding.

 

VARGAS LLOSA, Mario (1936 – ), Lituma en los Andes, Barcelona: Planeta, 2010, ISBN 978-84-08-09416-6