“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 65: Romania (German) – Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet = I would rather not have met myself today (translated as:) The Appointment (Herta MÜLLER)
I have been summoned. Thursday, ten on the dot.
I get summoned more and more often: Tuesday, ten on the dot, Saturday, ten on the dot, Wednesday or Monday. As if years were a week, it already surprises me, that after the late summer it is so soon winter.
On my big trip around almost all the countries in Eastern Europe a few years ago, one of the several in which I embarrassed booksellers by asking for something by a native that I could read for this project, one of the difficult ones was, surprisingly, Romania. No one could come up with anything in English for me. Finally in the rather charming Saxon town of Sibiu in Transylvania (I fell in love with its lidded dormer windows in the rooftops, like crocodiles peering out of a river), a German bookshop was able to come to my rescue. I thought this was an appropriate choice because a) Herta Müller wrote it in German, b) she is Romania’s only Nobel Prizewinner, c) there are actually a lot of German speakers in Romania, and d) my Romanian is rather limited. (And, e) my ancestors on the German side were also Müllers).
The original German title caused a lot of cogitation on my part, hopefully I’ve managed to twist it into equally convoluted English! The English translator avoided the issue, coming out with The Appointment, which is has the advantage of being snappy, and factually what it’s about, but loses all the unfortunate, sinister trepidation of the original. Perhaps The Summons would have been a better short title so that it didn’t sound like a mere doctor’s appointment.
The novel is set during Ceauşescu’s Communist dictatorship, during a single day, as the young woman narrator travels interminably on the tram (which is allowed to not follow a timetable, unlike her! and seems as lost as the Communist system itself) to an interrogation by the Securitate (secret police). She has a premonition that this time may be different – she’s packed a toothbrush. She originally got into trouble for the ‘crime’ of sewing ‘Marry me!’ labels onto men’s suits being exported to Italy, as a stratagem to escape from her country.
The terrifying sense of foreboding is overpowering. The ugliness of a society where everyone is watched and dissected by not only a secret police but also by one’s neighbours is really terrifying.
MÜLLER, Herta (1953 – ), Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet, Frankfurt/M., Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 2011, ISBN 978-3-596-18822-2
Translated into English as The Appointment.
Only once Mrs. Oh had left the station and made it onto the newly constructed highway did she realize that it, too, was caught up in the Class One event. The road seemed to play hide-and-seek with the railroad, the former hugging the coast while the latter sometimes ducked away inland. And the road was utterly deserted; no vehicle dared to cast a shadow there, much less individuals on foot. All traffic had met a blockade farther up; Mrs. Oh had managed to smuggle herself on only by coming via the station. What on earth was this Class One event, if both road and rail traffic had to be suspended? Were there two Kim Il-sungs paying a visit? One thing was for sure: There would be ‘cats’ stationed at each key point on the route. [from ‘Pandemonium’]
Here is a new and totally different collection of short stories from North Korea. Bandi (’Firefly’ – a pseudonym) is a dissident who, as far as I know, is the only published one still living in North Korea. The Afterword, detailing how the manuscript was smuggled out with the help of a relative and a Chinese visitor, is itself enthralling, though since some details were admittedly changed to protect the writer, we don’t know which of them are accurate.
As to why I didn’t choose The Accusation as my main representative work for the PDRK, I have to admit to a few niggling doubts about its authenticity. If everyone in the country is fed a diet of what we would consider propaganda and uniformity, ‘Bandi’’s literary sophistication and international writing quality surprised me a great deal. Be that as it may, I hasten to add that you mustn’t let me put you off reading it because of that. On the contrary, it is insightful, ironic, fearless, readable and of sophisticated writing, and I highly recommend it.
Since it is likely many of you will read this book (as you should!), unlike my other collection of short stories from north of the DMZ, I won’t spoil it by giving away the plots. Some of the themes include the country’s self-defeating bureaucratic madness, the way even those loyal to it suffer, and the horrible way that the innocent are punished for the ‘crimes’ of their relatives.
I’ll just mention one of the stories, Pandemonium, since it was a total twist on the usual ‘Kim Il-Sung as deus ex machina’ in ‘Korean Short Stories’. An old grandma is offered a lift by the Great Leader himself (!). She had ended up walking along the road, having given up on both train and bus since all services had been cancelled due precisely to Kim’s own travel along this route (he had selfishly chosen to travel both by road and rail, according to which section of the route was most scenic). This causes a nightmare for everyone else. In the end the supposedly grateful grandma is turned by the regime into a propaganda tool to show the Great Leader’s compassion for his people. (Pandemonium is dated 1995).
This is an important inside look into the ‘hermit kingdom’ and, whatever the truth of its back story, we are very lucky to have it.
‘Bandi’, The Accusation: forbidden stories from inside North Korea (translated by Deborah Smith), London, Serpent’s Tail, 2017, ISBN 978 1 78125 754 8
(first published in Korea 2014)
The city was like a cinema screen; a flat square of city life lay out there. Watching it made Yosop himself feel as if he were no longer quite three-dimensional. The multitude of people who had created this movie for themselves had singled out Ryu Yosop, and they had no intention of ever letting him in, no matter how desperately he tried to climb into the screen.
So far I’ve been unable to run a novel from North Korea down to earth. I hope to be able to find one from there, even if the voice is only that of the government. In the meantime, hopefully this will suffice, and it’s certainly a worthy work. I included Hwang Sok-Yong under North Korea (Ann Morgan equally reasonably counted him under South Korea), since the book deals with the North, the author worked hard for communication between the two nations (he was jailed for seven years by Seoul for travelling to the North without authorisation – which perhaps counts as having ‘lived’ there, if you’re feeling liberal, Gentle Reader?) and he has pulled off the neat trick of being published on both sides of the DMZ. As to where he was born, he neatly evaded the issue by being born in what was then Manchuria (now part of China), and before the country was divided (or rather between divisions, since Korea has spent much of its life divided into two or three countries).
Enough justification; how about the book?
‘The guest’ is on the one hand smallpox; also the foreign viruses Christianity and Communism; and Reverend Ryu Yosǒp, a Korean now living in the US, who visits North Korea after 40 years to face up to what his brother did in the Korean War. He was involved in a massacre between Christians and Communists that formed a sort of subplot within Korean War. This elder brother dies 3 days before he was due to leave for the reunion. Reverend Ryu Yosǒp goes instead.
It must be said that there can be a bit of a tendency among Koreans to blame foreigners for their troubles, not only in the North but to some extent also in the South – and not totally without justification. (Nor do the Koreans have this tendency to themselves). But author Hwang Sok-yong is at pains to show that no side is innocent in these troubles, and that there is a need for understanding and eventually some sort of catharsis. The author saw his novel as a sort of shamanistic exorcism ceremony (shamanism is still very big in South Korea), and there is still hope for reconciliation.
Of course Korea’s great tragedy is its division since the war, and the cruel way this has separated families, almost all of whom will never get the chance to reconnect. The Guest gave me a good feeling for the awkward dance that happens when one is lucky enough to be allowed to meet those left in the North, and what it feels like in general to be a Westerner on a tour in North Korea.
It’s not always an easy read (it can be confusing as to whose voice is speaking at the time) but its literary quality is very high. The author rightly considers it vital for every voice to be heard, in a sort of literary truth and reconciliation commission.
Considering the heavy personal price that the author had to pay for this book, and his brave attempt to build a bridge over a raging river, this is a vitally important book that needs to be read to understand the Korean psyche.
HWANG Sok-yong (1943 – ), The Guest, translated from Korean by Kyung-Ja Chun & Maya West, New York, Seven Stories Press, ISBN 978-1-58322-751-0
(originally published Taiwan 1993 and 1996)
Three final images flashed across Serenity’s mind as he disappeared into the jaws of the colossal crocodile: a rotting buffalo with rivers of maggots and armies of flies emanating from its cavities; the aunt of his missing wife, who was also his longtime lover; and the mysterious woman who had cured his childhood obsession with tall women.
I know the title sounds misleading, but this novel isn’t about Ethiopia (once known as Abyssinia), but Uganda. (This is sort-of-explained by the narrator’s father (Serenity) thinking that the ancient land called Abyssinia should really be the modern land of Uganda, but I wasn’t sure exactly what Isegawa was thinking of here – obviously not Homer’s “blameless Ethiopians”).
When I was growing up just about all we heard about Uganda was about its crazy dictator, Idi Amin Dada, who was an endless source of both jokes and horror to the rest of the world (Uganda seemed a safely small and remote place). A great novel (and film) about his time is The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden. Obviously being a bigoted buffoon doesn’t stop someone from being powerful (I’m writing this on Donald Trump’s inauguration day). But I should say that although I haven’t visited Uganda – I’m hoping to, perhaps on my next trip – those who have been there seem to universally find the country beautiful and the people great, and say that it’s one of their favourite African countries.
Isegawa is a fluent writer who spins an interesting tale of a family interwoven with Uganda’s turbulent history. However, I have to admit that I couldn’t get my hooks into this novel. None of the characters are really sympathetic, and the narrator (Mugezi), especially, although he is an understandable product of his unattractive parents (the family is like a microcosm of a dictatorial regime), is not a nice piece of work – an admirer of the Idi Amin at the beginning (later he acquires a bodyguard called Amin who “was reprisal himself”), with pretty racist opinions of the local Indians whom the dictator expelled from their country, who seems to despise almost everyone and resorts to some ugly stratagems to get ahead in his quest to gain control. The complete modus operandi of the despot is on display – intimidation, bullying, censorship, torture, protection, power struggles and lies. He seems to hate everyone and even contemplates using his would-be fiancée as a means of getting revenge on his father.
Although Isegawa wrote the book in English, it was first published in Dutch in the Netherlands where he was living then (he since moved back to Uganda.
As others have said, the novel strangely amoral, I’d say even sometimes immoral. It’s also often quite earthy, as you might gather from the opening quotation above (but not magical realist, as I first thought). Nevertheless, it is quite readable. I just wish there was someone in it I could like…
Isegawa, Moses (1963 – ), Abyssinian Chronicles, New York, Vintage, 2001, ISBN 0-375-040613
[originally published in the Netherlands 1998 as Abessijnse kronieken]
‘“Why is such importance attached to identification cards? Since when do papers determine people’s fate?” Yussif still kept these words, which Uncle ‘Assim had once said, in his mind. Where could he now find his father-in-law, in order to be able to contradict him: “Yes, papers do determine people’s fates.” For years he had tried to rely on Uncle ‘Assim’s words. Now he had voiced what he had been frightened of all those years: that remembering would one day awaken, and he would become abruptly aware of how vain of his argument was. “Who carries whose guilt?” He carried this phrase with himself, since he had eaten and watched television together with Uncle ‘Assim , in this house in the Baladiyat Quarter, to which Sarab moved back to live with her father. For a long time he had pushed it into the back of his subconscious. Only from time to time this phrase appeared, in the last year continuously and since last night ever more strongly and urgently.
If people had their past paraded before their eyes, they disavowed it. If someone showed them documents carrying their names, they said: “Are there any people without a past?” This question was not easy to answer. “Oh past, what have you made of my life?” He could imagine how millions of men constantly repeated this phrase everywhere in the world, in east and west, north and south. Always there was a past; it was the hindrance. Whoever adopted a new name, also adopted a new past. No, this question was not as easy to answer as Uncle ‘Assim had thought. He who did not believe in the past would also not believe in the evidential power of documents. He who carries a document with him, must therefore be X, son of Y, he was born on this date, in this place, in this country; he has to add to the document the following phrase: “Who carries whose guilt?” Tell me your name, and I will tell you which history you carry with you, which history you have left behind you – or want to leave behind you.’
Iraq has just about the longest literary history of any country in the world, but I’m ashamed to say that the only other book I had read from there was from right at the other end of its timeline – the wonderful Epic of Gilgamesh. I read this one in German as, although it has apparently been translated into English, I found it hard to get. It was originally published Beirut/Casablanca, 2005, in Arabic. Anyway it’s appropriate as the author has lived in Germany for a long time. Najem Wali (نجم والي) was born in Iraq but in 1980 had to flee during the war with Iran to Germany, where he has lived ever since.
You won’t find much local Iraqi colour in this work; its themes are universal, although you could see the brothers’ identity and existential crisis as symbolic of the plight of this cradle of civilisation, which at the time of my reading was tearing itself apart and barely still existed. One of the continual refrains in the book (another is the description of the murdered girl) is the characterisation of the country as ‘The Land of the Triumphant and the Humiliated.’ Hopefully it won’t all end in a madhouse.
Wali asks the eternal question, ‘What’s in a name?’, but comes to a different conclusion from Shakespeare: Quite a lot. Here is a whole book’s worth. It is the story of two brothers, Jussif (Joseph) and Junis (John), who when they were young fell in love with the same girl. She preferred Jussif, so in revenge Junis gave her a cake with nails inside to eat and killed her. Junis opposes Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and disappears; Jussif adopts his name, identity, life and even wife. He only discovers too late that his brother is sought as a traitor. No one will believe his story, or his innocence. A dangerous struggle over names and identities follows. Even as kids, the brothers had played with their identities, with masks.
Yussif and Yunis are, of course, Koranic (and Biblical) names. (The Qur’an has surahs (chapters) named for both of these names). It is a complicated parable about names, identity, the past, and… Just what is reality?
For someone fascinated with translation, it’s interesting that the title in Arabic, s̪urat Yussif (صورت يوسف) ‘the Picture of Joseph’, which must be a play on the Koranic connection Surat Yussif (The Surah – Chapter – of Joseph) (سورت يوسف) has been cleverly translated into German not as ‘Jussifs Geschichte’ (Joseph’s Story) but as the almost identical-sounding ‘Jussifs Gesichter’ (Joseph’s Faces). For ‘Jussif’ (the name) has two faces – those of the two brothers who bear it at different times. The English title is ‘Joseph’s Picture’ (ISBN 978-1596923508), which is literal but not as imaginative as the German title.
Yussif asks the central question, ‘Who carries whose guilt?’ You are a prisoner of your past; if you adopt a new persona, you adopt a new past as well. He is totally alienated from the world. There is no truth and there is no past. Everything is a mirage (Fata Morgana). In fact, everything is a story.
A major theme is remembering and forgetting: ‘With the end of remembrance, pain comes to an end as well.’ Maybe, at least in some parts of the world, there is too much remembering, and it would be more peaceful if there was more forgetting, at least of the blandishments of history? But these separate histories are too much a part of each community’s identity for that to be able happen.
Wali’s novel is a dark, thought-provoking, well-written, exhausting and profound parable that deserves a much wider audience.
Wali, Najem (1956 – ), Jussifs Gesichter, Roman aus der Mekka-Bar, translated from Arabic to German by Imke Ahlf-Wien, Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, München, 2010, ISBN 978-3-423-13850-5, [originally published in Arabic as Surat Yussif (صورت يوسف)]
Lakhdar has escaped from his cell.
At dawn, his silhouette appears on the landing; everyone lifts their heads, without any great emotion.
Mourad stares at the fugitive.
“Nothing out of the ordinary. You will get caught.”
“They know your name.”
“I don’t have any ID cards.”
“They’ll come and nab you here.”
“That’s enough. Don’t discourage me.”
The first book I ever read in French was “L’Etranger” (“The Stranger/Outsider” by the pied-noir (Frenchman who lived in Algeria) Albert Camus, a rather existentialist novel about another pied-noir who kills another man. My teacher chose it as a fairly easy read, and its shock lives with me to this day. Later I read his “La Peste” (about an outbreak of the plague in Oran.)
But this time I wanted to read something by an Arab Algerian. In a way Nedjma is both a complement and an antidote to L’Etranger. In Camus’ work the Arabs are a mere background effect, like the heat, and if one of them gets shot it seems almost meaningless there, just as today a terrorist couldn’t care less whether he is killing Christians or Muslims. In Yacine’s mythologised story of Algeria, on the other hand, it’s the French who are almost irrelevant.
It’s possible to get a feeling of why the Algerian war for independence was so brutal and callous on both sides. The war seems almost forgotten today but it was a seminal event. France treated Algeria very differently from most of its other colonies – it was to become part of La Métropole, north of the Mediterranean, and its départements were just like those of the mainland; and it was heavily colonised. The struggle for independence was very long and bloody until President De Gaulle shocked the French by giving in and granting freedom.
This major work of Algerian literature is set during the time of the French colony. The novel centres on the métisse (mixed-race woman) Nejma (’Star’), as a symbol of Algeria, and the dangerous lives of the four lovers who revolve around her.
I have to admit that I found the free-form French very difficult. Sometimes a single sentence will run over two pages! I was beginning to despair of my French, but now I feel a bit better after reading my much easier book from Burkina Faso. ‘Nejma’’s circular plotting, ending back at the beginning, also makes it hard to follow – sometimes I felt like a caged animal. (The snappy beginning which I quoted above is not typical!) Even though it was hard work, I know it would well repay reading again, and it is written in beautiful French.
YACINE, Kateb (1929 – 1989), Nedjma, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1996 (originally published 1956), ISBN 978-2-02-028947-4