Then the guitarist began strumming the chords of another song. They do sing songs like this, Man said. It was Yesterday by the Beatles. As the three of us joined in singing, my eyes grew moist. What was it like to live in a time when one’s fate was not war, when one was not led by the craven and the corrupt, when one’s country was not a basket case kept alive only through the intravenous drip of American aid? I knew none of these young soldiers around me except for my blood brothers and yet I confess that I felt for them all, lost in their sense that within days they would be dead, or wounded, or imprisoned, or humiliated, or abandoned, or forgotten. They were my enemies, and yet they were also brothers-in-arms. Their beloved city was about to fall, but mine was soon to be liberated. It was the end of their world, but only a shifting of worlds for me. So it was that for two minutes we sang with all our hearts, feeling only for the past and turning our gaze from the future, swimmers doing the backstroke toward a waterfall.
I posted on Vietnam back in October 2014, on the long poem The Tale of Kieu, but since then I decided to limit myself to novels, so I had to re-read Vietnam. No hardship, for I discovered this wonderful book which deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
It begins with the chaotic US evacuation as Saigon fell to the communist North Vietnamese in 1975, the end of the Vietnam War as it is known in the West. The protagonist, a captain, flees to the US with his general, who little suspects that the captain is spying for the communists. He becomes enmeshed in and apparently enjoys the American way of life. The captain is split in many ways – half French half Vietnamese, a communist who lived under capitalism in South Vietnam and the US, a Vietnamese and an American. In fact he is a symbol of the split personality of Vietnam itself – North/South, Communist/Capitalist, not to mention of the US, whose double standards of the time are also on full display. There are some unforgettable scenes – the desperate last snafu days as the US fled South Vietnam, the murder, the interrogation, and the Hollywood war movie for which the captain is a reluctant and ignored consultant, and which ends up like a mini war in itself.
Nguyen’s writing is spectacular, dripping with all the irony the situation begs for (his handler is literally a ‘faceless man’, and I’m sure that a ‘sleeper’ agent would find it difficult to sleep!) It was maybe the hardest book so far to choose just one quote to showcase, I wanted to share so many! I can’t recommend it too highly.
NGUYEN, Viet Thanh (1971 – ), The Sympathizer, London, Corsair, 2016, ISBN 978-1-4721-51360 (first published 2015)
Convinced that all women, even those who seem truly attached to their husbands or determined never to let themselves be dishonoured, can be seduced, that those who remain indifferent to the first manifestations of love by a man, insensible to beauty, to the birth or standing of a would-be lover, deaf to his supplications or to the language of rich presents, would be unable to resist the charm of philtres. Vidaho had successively put everything into play in order to conquer Doguicimi.
When it came time to read my novel from Benin, I was thrown into a slight panic when I realised that what I had bought was not the novel I had chosen, Doguicimi by Paul Hazoumé, but a collection of literary essays on it! The novel itself seemed to be out of print, at least in French. If I was to go reading countries in order, I’d have to wait while I got a copy of the actual novel (or another one). One of the many perils of ordering books online. (Not long before, I had ended up with an Armenian book with the right title, but that turned out to be a collection of short stories, not the novel I wanted). Finally my second-hand copy arrived, covered in obscure pencil notes that I had to erase before I could read it. But I did have my chosen book.
Set in the old kingdom of Dahomey, it tells the story of how the king is so determined to go to war that he ignores the ancestors (whose wishes are transmitted via the ‘devins’ – soothsayers). His advisor Toffa is captured in the resultant debacle and is treated by definition as a traitor. Toffa’s wife is the feisty Doguicimi. Everyone is surprised that she doesn’t get done away with for speaking out, but it turns out Vidaho, the heir to the throne, has become secretly enamored of her and becomes obsessed with getting her, while Doguicimi remains steadfastly loyal to her captive husband at great personal risk till her horrible self-sacrifice. Personally, I found it hard to understand why she was so attached to him considering the way he had treated her! I suppose it is tradition and the need to be respected; perhaps her name (which is explained halfway through to mean something like ‘cite me as an example’ has something to do with it.
The people’s opinions about the Whites, who are starting their encroachment on the region, are fascinating – what the latter see as their strengths, the former see as their weaknesses. There is obviously what we would now call racism from both sides, but it is easy to understand the feeling against outsiders trying to take control of their land. By modern standards, the arrogance of the ruling class, especially, of Dahomey comes off as unpleasant.
It took me a long time to read (510 pages, plus rubbing out time!) but I learnt a fascinating amount about the culture of ancient Dahomey (renamed Benin after independence) from this book. It is a classic of early indigenous African writing and a rare chance to see this time through their eyes.
HAZOUMÉ, Paul (1890 – 1980), Doguicimi, Paris?, Francopoche, 1978, ISBN 978-2706806711
HAZOUMÉ, Paul, Doguicimi: The First Dahomean Novel, translated from French by Richard Bjornson, Washington DC, Three Continents, 1990, ISBN 9780894104060
And then the season we were in let us to keep ourselves apart no longer. In December, everything is flowering and everything smells lovely; everything is young: spring seems to join into summer, and the countryside, long waterlogged, long oppressed by sullen clouds, everywhere takes its revenge, bursts: the sky is never clearer, nor more resplendent: birds sing, they are drunk; joy is everywhere, everywhere it explodes and in every heart it resounds. It was that season, the beautiful season, which swelled my breast, and the tam-tam too, I confess, and the festive air of our walk; it was the beautiful season and everything that it contained – and that it did not contain – that it expanded profusely! – which made me dance with joy.
This was one of the first works of Francophone literature from Africa. It is perhaps not a very deep novel, but I found it a pleasant read. It certainly came as a relief after the last French novel I read, Les Racines du Yucca from Chad – much easier to read and much less boring. In fact it might be a good first novel to read in French for someone learning the language but wanting an adult book. It is based heavily on the author’s own life. It is the fairly ordinary story of a boy growing up in a traditional village, who is sent off to school in the capital Conakry and finally in France (against the opposition of his clinging mother). She was a sorcerer, in a good way – since the crocodile was her totem, she was immune from its attack. His father was a blacksmith. He later regrets not having asked about the local customs during his happy childhood in Guinea, for which he feels deep nostalgia. To tell the truth, nothing really out of the ordinary or exciting happens. What a relief after the tragic stories from Rwanda and South Sudan! Even the colonial situation (Guinea was still under French rule at the time) seems to have barely any influences. Not such an unusual story even in real life, and to tell the truth I’m surprised it’s still considered one of the classics of Francophone African literature, but still I enjoyed it.
LAYE, Camara (1928-1980), L’Enfant Noir, Paris, Plon, 2015, ISBN 978-2-266-17894-5
Translated into English as The Dark Child or The African Child.
Is murder unforgivable because the only person from whom rightful forgiveness could come is no longer there?
In 1994 I went on holiday in South America. I was totally shocked that in the short time I was away, up to a million people were massacred in an intentional genocide in faraway Rwanda. I still suffer a strange feeling of guilt over that.
This novel is the story of two characters struggling to deal with the trauma from that time. The young woman, Isaro, had to flee the country for France after her parents were murdered. She comes up with the ‘modest’ research project of interviewing all the survivors and putting their stories into one book. What she does come up with is a novel, which centres on the other main character, Niko – we don’t find out that he is only her creation until right at the end. Niko is a sociopath and a mute, who has banished himself to a nose-shaped island in a lake, populated by monkeys. While he was not popular, he was a peaceful blacksmith until the day the genocidal army came and he is forced to club to death another man who may – or may not- be his own father, or else both of them will be shot; and he must decide whether to die or become a murderer in a split second. He chooses to kill and to live, and becomes the enthusiastic leader of a band of thugs.
I would have loved to have had the inexplicable explained – that is, why the genocide happened and how apparently normal decent human beings could carry out such heartless brutality on those they had lived with peacefully. I didn’t feel that I did get it. Maybe it’s some disease of collective madness that infects a group. Before we look down on the Rwandans – or Germans – or Turks – or anyone else collectively, we need to remember that few of our countries or peoples haven’t committed injustices to others (certainly my country has); and if as individuals we are sure that we would never commit such atrocities – well, can anyone who hasn’t been guilty of cruelty to a cockroach, for example, ever be certain of that? All of us are guilty if we knew what was happening in a ‘faraway African country’ and didn’t care.
Nowadays, Rwanda is doing quite well economically, and is even very progressive in some respects (banning plastic bags and percentage of women in parliament). An astonishing number of victims have even forgiven their tormentors. It has come at the price of putting a blanket over much of what happened. Nowadays, officially, people can’t call themselves Tutsi or Hutu.
I can’t imagine what it must be like every day to see someone who murdered the whole rest of your family walking the streets. I can’t blame any country for deciding that, when a choice has to be made, reconciliation or at least peace is preferable to justice, but I wish we could have both – not only due process for those who ordered the crimes, but also for the torturers, the people with the machetes, and the bureaucrats.
GATORE, Gilbert (1981 – ),The Past Ahead, translated from French by Marjolijn de Jager, Global African Voices, Bloomington & Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 2012, ISBN 9780253006660
(Originally published as Le passé devant soi, Paris, Editions Phébus, 2008)
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
Before midnight, the old man’s leaf fell gently from the tree on the moon. It was a most gentle death. Hush. And the soft falling of the withered leaf didn’t even tease the well of Karin’s emotions, nor did it puncture the lacrymatory pockets. She didn’t cry, didn’t announce the departure of the old man’s soul to anyone until the following morning. She stayed by him, keeping his death all to herself. She lay by him in reverent silence, he dead, she alive – but you couldn’t have told the difference, so quiet was she beside him.
This is the first novel in the Blood in the Sun trilogy.
It is basically an in-depth study of the evolving relationship between the Somali orphan Askar and Misra, an ethnic Ethiopian lady who comes to look after him. It takes place at the time of the largely forgotten Ogaden war (1977-8) between Somalia and Ethiopia. The Ogaden Desert is inhabited by Somalis but was (and is, after the Ethiopians reconquered it with the help of their then sponsor the USSR and its allies), occupied by Ethiopia. In what looks like a continuing theme for the world’s twilight nations, or regions, “it is easier ridding yourself of a colonialist from beyond the seas than it is to oust an African one.” (for ‘African’, insert ‘Asian’ or any of the other possibilities). However, I’m not convinced that Namibia should have been listed as an exception – by the time of the setting, the German colonialists were long gone, but the future Namibia was finding it very difficult to escape from its neighbour South Africa.
As is usual in war, Misra is accused of treason. Meanwhile, Askar’s relationship with her becomes both intimate and testy. He feels that he is faced with the impossible choice of having to betray either her or Somalia. Farah explores the psychology of this complicated link.
It took a long time for the significance of the title to be revealed, but maps become a symbol of the way that ‘truth’ is not one and unchangeable, just as the country’s borders are not immutable. It is not as easy to pin down as it should be. Going back to the map, the one hanging on your wall probably has something called ‘Somalia’ (and something called ‘Ethiopia’) separated by nice confident red lines. But one country blends into another, both in space (geographically and culturally) and time (historically). Since we started drawing neat lines across the landscape, it has never been the case that everyone belonging to a certain people will always find themselves on the ‘right’ side of the border. And as for Somalia itself – all nicely coloured yellow on my map – it currently doesn’t exist as a single entity. Somaliland (the part colonised by the British rather than the Italians) is de facto independent, as is Puntland, while violence-torn Somalia proper is in fact the most tenuous part of the land.
At the time I read it I was in the mood for something with a faster and more intricate plot. But it is a very good and thought-provoking novel.
FARRAH, Nuruddin (Nuuradiin Faarax) (1945 – ), Maps, New York, Arcade, 2016, ISBN 978-1-62872-585-8
In this way the strike established itself in Thiès. An endless strike which was, for many, along the whole length of the line, a time of suffering, but, also for many, a time of reflection. When the smoke finished floating over the savanna, they came to understand that the time had finished, the time of which the old people had spoken to them, the time when Africa was a kitchen garden. It was the machine which now reigned over their country. In stopping its motion over more than fifteen hundred kilometres, they became aware of their power, but also aware of their dependence. In truth, the machine was in the process of making new men of them. It did not belong to them, it was they who belonged to it. In halting it, it taught them this lesson.
This novel is set in three towns along the French-built railway from Dakar (Senegal) to Bamako (Mali). As the interminable 1947 railway strike drags on, the railwaymen and their families suffer intolerably from hunger and thirst and injustices by the colonial authorities, and eventually their destitute women also become more militant. The action takes place in three cities: Dakar and the railway town Thiès (Senegal), and Bamako (Mali).
The workers’ struggle represents the larger struggle for the people to overturn the power relationship with the French colonial administration. In the end, solidarity triumphs. This is not without a terrible cost, to themselves as well. Even their own social order is challenged. Different people have different ways of attempting to deal with the situation and the colonial régime. When a relative becomes a strike-breaker he is put on trial by them, despite being an elder and so traditionally worthy of more respect. Payments for polygamous families also cause conflict. As so often in revolutions and wars, it is the women who become prominent in keeping day-to-day life functioning and in forwarding the struggle (and, it has to be said, are sadly often suppressed back into their former roles afterwards). The high point is their protest march from Thiès to Dakar.
There is the cruel irony that, although there is no water to drink, the authorities use a but water cannon to disperse the protesters (who call themselves ‘God’s Bits of Wood’).
A great study of the price people have had to pay to achieve freedom, and still have to pay to get adequate working conditions.
OUSMANE, Sembene (1923 – 2007), Les Bouts de bois de Dieu, Paris?, Pocket, 2013 (originally published 1960?), ISBN 978-2-266-24581-4
Translated into English as: God’s Bits of Wood (Harlow, Heinemann, 2008, ISBN 9780435909598)