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Book 58: Australia (English) – Voss (Patrick WHITE)

Time to pop in at home on the way to my next exotic destination!
If you asked many Australians who is their country’s best writer, or especially their favourite one, I doubt if many of them would say Patrick White. In fact not so many of them have read him; he has a reputation for being difficult, and there are so many other great Australian writers, who are easier to read to boot! (It seems like Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet is the default choice for Australia). But I felt the compulsion to give him a go, and now was my chance.
This classic by Australia’s only Nobel Literature Prize winner is a fictionalised account of the last journey of Ludwig Leichhardt, who mysteriously died on his last audacious expedition trying to cross the continent from east to west. It seems to be a close portrait from what we know; White’s Voss (despite his Norwegian-sounding name) is, like Leichhardt, also a German, a loner, more comfortable in the bush than in society, a good bushman but an equivocal leader (as shown by a mutiny), who tried to maintain good relations with the Aborigines (two of whom travelled with him, and from whose skills he undoubtedly profited).

He himself, he realized, had always been most abominably frightened, even at the height of his divine power, a frail god upon a rickety throne, afraid of opening letters, of making decisions, afraid of the instinctive knowledge of mules, of the innocent eyes of good men, of the elastic nature of the passions, even of the devotion he had received from some men, and one woman, and dogs.

The back story of Voss is his unrequited romance-by-letter with a young Sydney girl, despite his cruelty to her (not least in deserting her for his doomed expedition):
With rough persistence he accused her of the superficiality which she herself suspected. At times she could hear her own voice. She was also afraid of the country which, for lack of any other, she supposed was hers. But this fear, like certain dreams, was something to which she would never have admitted.
I did enjoy Voss, which was a great psychological study of a loner who flees society and a loner who stays at home, and the surprising, tenuous but strong bond between them.
Time to finally get around to reading Cloudstreet!

 

WHITE, Patrick (1912-1990), Voss, Sydney, Vintage, 2012, ISBN 978 1 74275 688 2
(first published 1957)

 

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Book 53: South Yemen (English) – Two boys from Aden College (Qais Ghanem)

It was the last day of August 1967. The two old classmates from Aden College, the highest institute of learning in South Yemen, were preparing to leave for the United Kingdom.

 

Since I thought I would try to read a book from every country that has existed during my lifetime, including some that no longer do, I thought I’d try to find one from South Yemen, alias the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, a strange Communist Arab country which existed from 1963 until it reunited with North Yemen in 1989 (the same year East and West Germany reunited). It proved very difficult to find anything in English. This is the title I came up with, with the help of Yemeni exile Alia (for which much thanks!) The author was born in Aden and it’s set in the right place and time, although it’s a newish (2012) book.

I wasn’t expecting much from the boring title, which is, indeed, about two boys from Aden College (Hasan the law student and Ahmad the medical student) who move to England. Despite being self-published, it is mostly well-edited, although it slips slightly towards the end. The author, who is a doctor himself, does not explain some medical terms.

Ghanem obviously wrote the book to explain Yemeni culture (like the one that Ahmad – obviously his alter ego – wants to write), and does succeed at that.

The plot is fairly predictable in a Cain and Abel way – both good and bad. Ahmad is the good guy, Hasan goes bad. The ending, especially, falls a bit flat. Hasan’s motivations are not sufficiently described, although they could be more interesting than Ahmad’s.

Often the dialogue doesn’t read as quite natural, for example:

 

“Wow! I suspected that such things were going on, simply because I know what human nature is like, but this was a really graphic description of debauchery. Where do they find all the alcohol you talked about? Here I am dying for just one glass of wine to go with my spicy Chinese chow, and I cannot get it.”

 

Not great literature, but if you don’t expect too much it is a good introduction for Westerners into Arabic culture and vice versa, and I can’t fault Ghanem for trying so hard to build understanding between our cultures.

 

Qais Ghanem MD: Two boys from Aden College, Bloomington IN, iUniverse, 2012, ISBN 978-1-4697-9626-0

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

 

Book 45: Malaysia (English) – Garden of Evening Mists (Tan Twan Eng)

Movement high above us, higher than the heron, caught our attention. We both raised our faces to the sky at the same time. Aritomo pointed with the handle of his walking stick, looking like a prophet in an ancient land. In the furthest reaches of the eastern sky, where it had already turned to night, streaks of light were fanning out. I did not know what they were at first, but when I realised what I was looking at, a sigh misted from between my lips.
It was a storm of meteors, arrows of light shot by arches from the far side of the universe, igniting and burning up as they pierced the atmospheric shield. Hundreds of them burned out halfway, flaring their brightness just before they died.
Standing there with our heads tilted back to the sky, our faces lit by ancient starlight and the dying fires of those fragments of a planet broken up long ago, I forgot where I was, what I had gone through, what I had lost.

 

A rather tetchy retired High Court magistrate, lone survivor of a Japanese concentration camp during the Second World War, eccentrically decides to build, in memory of her sister who did not survive, a Japanese garden in the Cameron Highlands. She has a fascinating love-hate relationship with Japan, Japanese and Japanese culture, and although she is reluctant to admit to this love it is obvious in the way she lets it occupy her life. Even to the extent of volunteering for a sort of torture at the hands of a Japanese. To learn how to build her memorial she has to apprentice herself to a local Japanese settler, once Emperor Hirohito’s gardener. (One of the few obvious boo-boos is that a Japanese would call a deceased emperor by their reign name, not their given name, after their decease). I love books that connect some of the ‘smaller’ cultures of the world, as it were underneath the main current of world history. My favourite work in this genre is Amitabh Ghosh’s In an Antique Land, but this touching novel, with its surprising connections between Malaysia, Japan and South Africa is definitely up there. It is about flawed people living in a flawed world, trying their hardest to come to terms with the difficulty of existence.

 

ENG, Tan Twan (1972 – ), The Garden of Evening Mists, Newcastle upon Tyne, Canongate, 2012, ISBN 978-1-78211-017-0

 

Book 29: Tanzania (English) – Paradise (Abdulrazak GURNAH)

“The boy first. His name was Yusuf, and he left his home suddenly during his twelfth year. He remembered it was the season of drought, when every day was the same as the last. Unexpected flowers bloomed and died. Strange insects scuttled from under rocks and writhed to their deaths in the burning light. The sun made distant trees tremble in the air and made the houses shudder and heave for breath. Clouds of dust puffed up at every tramping footfall and a hard-edged stillness lay over the daylight hours. Precise moments like that came back of the season.”

A tour d’horizon of colonialised Tanzania (Tanganyika + Zanzibar). The bulk of the book follows an expedition from the coast to the interior at the dawn of the colonial era. (The author himself is from Zanzibar). The young hero, Yusuf, encounters both the German colonialists and other tribes whom he poorly understands – he is pretty much just as much an outsider there as the Europeans. As an outsider it is good to be reminded that also to an African, other Africans can seem equally exotic. As a boy Yusuf is taken on the long journey inland by his uncle, and only eventually comes to realise that the latter is actually using him to pay off his debts. A minor quibble is that the Swahili words in the text were not glossed (my Swahili is fairly minimal!) It brings into relief the vast differences between the coastal and interior people, which splits Tanzania to this day. It is well worth reading, even if much more lightweight than my Kenyan title, Petals of Blood (coming soon!) and a little slow to get rolling.

 

GURNAH, Abdulrazak (1948 – ), Paradise, London: Bloomsbury, 2004 (or. publ. 1994), ISBN 9780747573999

Book 27: South Africa (English) – Disgrace (J.M. COETZEE)

A lecturer (lecher?) commits an ethical crime at his university and is sanctioned by it. He is, we assume, a White, although I don’t think this is ever spelled out. He refuses to admit his guilt but ‘goes into laager’ (as a South African would say), staying on his daughter’s isolated farm where she lives a rather idealistic 1960’s-ish lifestyle (VW Kombi included). While she looks after him, they no longer see eye to eye. She seems to see supine acceptance and resignation as the only way to survive in the new South Africa where Blacks have the power, at least partly as penance for the apartheid that was inflicted on them, and despite her terrible suffering seems more likely to get along in the new world than her fossil father.
“’Aren’t you nervous by yourself?’
Lucy shrugs. ‘There are the dogs. Dogs still mean something. The more dogs, the more deterrence. Anyhow, if there were to be a break-in, I don’t see that two people would be better than one.’
‘That’s very philosophical.’
‘Yes. When all else fails, philosophise.’”
There are two parts to the story. In the first, set in the city, he is in his own world and in control (or so he thinks). In the second, out on the farm, everything is out of his control, the Blacks are taking over, and he is incapable of understanding them. His daughter, on the other hand, is full of forbearance and fortitude, and can adapt to the changing circumstances (which isn’t to say that she isn’t traumatised by them).
The characters brilliantly symbolise the changing face of this fraught land. This is a simply written but insightful novel by a truly great writer.

 

COETZEE, J. M. (1940 – ), Disgrace, London, Vintage, 2008 (originally published 1999), ISBN 978-0-099-52683-4

Book 4: Indonesia (English) – The Buru Quartet (Pramoedya TOER)

People called me Minke.

My own name… for the time being I need not tell it. Not because I’m crazy for mystery. I’ve thought about it quite a lot. I don’t yet really need to reveal who I am before the eyes of others.

 

Toer really should have won a Nobel Prize for this cycle (set during and centred around the future Indonesia’s the struggle for freedom and identity), hopefully he will one day! Toer seems to be unread in modern Indonesia (despite being considered its greatest author) – for most of the time he was banned, now I guess he just seems irrelevant since (in this book) he was writing about the relationship between the Indonesians and the Dutch, and the struggle for independence and dignity, a battle which is long won and far in the past. Perhaps people still believe the blandishments against Toer from the Suharto era. This is a huge shame as it is a beautiful book, if a little melodramatic. The story of the book’s gestation in itself is amazing beyond belief. Even the translator, Max Lane (the Australian ambassador in Jakarta) did not escape unscathed.

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1. This Earth of Mankind = Bumi Manusia
In the first book the hero of the first three (at least) of the cycle, Minke, awakes to the injustice of the colonial Dutch East Indies. As an intelligent and sensitive observer, he is inevitably hindered by a civilisation which he largely feels a part of and admires but which will not accept him, as a ‘native’. The young Javanese noble also finds the first of what will be a series of lovers through the quartet, a beautiful Eurasian who symbolises his aspiration to take the best of both his worlds. The portrait of his powerful, resilient mother-in-law is wonderful.

 

Toer, Pramoedya Ananta: This Earth of Mankind, translated by Max Lane, New York, Penguin, 1996, ISBN 0 14 025635 0

(first published in Indonesian in Jakarta, 1980 and in English in Australia 1982)

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2. Child of All Nations = Anak Semua Bangsa
The hero of This Earth of Mankind, Minke, has become a journalist but has realised from his European mentors that he, like his countrymen, knows little about the true situation in his country, less in fact than people in Europe do. The novel follows his gaining of political consciousness as he sets out to educate himself about his land. He becomes a (perhaps naive) admirer of the political movements in Japan, China and the Philippines, so far ahead of his own land.
The title comes from page 169: “In humility, I realized I am a child of all nations, of all ages, past and present. Place and time of birth, parents, all are coincidence: such things are not sacred.” Well, that is true in the broadest sense, that we are all subject to the accidents (coincidence) of our birth; but Minke (like all of us) is very much a child of his time and place.

Toer, Pramoedya Ananta: Child of All Nations, translated by Max Lane, New York, Penguin, 1996, ISBN 0 14 025633 4

(first published in Indonesian in Jakarta, 1980 and in English in Australia 1984)

 

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3. Footsteps = Jejak langkah
Perhaps the most political of this quartet, it follows Minke’s stumbling realisation of the need for his people to organise in order to gain freedom, to speak and write in what would become known as Indonesian and to think of themselves as (eventually) Indonesians. It portrays the emergence of this political man  his influences, mistakes and setbacks. Sadly all his ideas seem to come from others – the Dutch colonisers, the Japanese, the Indos (mixed Dutch-Indonesians), the local Chinese and other minority groups, rather than from himself, but it is fascinating to trace someone’s political awakening and sources. He races through several marriages as fast as he does through political ideas and organisations. Towards the end, as he speeds towards disaster, Minke’s path crosses with the petty official Pangemanann (with two n’s, as he constantly emphasises to underline that he is in bed with the Europeans).

Toer, Pramoedya Ananta: Footsteps, translated by Max Lane, New York, Penguin, 1996, ISBN 0 14 025634 5

(first published in Indonesian in Jakarta, 1985 and in English in Australia 1990)

 

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4. The House of Glass = Rumah kaca
The Dutch colonial official Pangemanann, having appeared at the end of Footsteps, takes over as narrator (he puts Minke away and then ‘solves the problem’ in a rather shocking way). He is entrusted with keeping an eye on the indigenous organisations (which are springing up like mushrooms) that might cause problems for the colonial authorities, but goes beyond that to use ‘divide and rule’ tactics to try to keep them weak. But he is a torn individual since he knows that his efforts will fail, and furthermore he is a personal admirer of Minke and other independence figures. And he still tries to see himself as a moral figure, despite his awareness that he is losing not only this morality, but also his person and his family, to drink. While few of us are as aware of the currents of history in which we swim, or have such a writ to try and influence them, he shows the folly of trying to swim against the tide of history.

Toer, Pramoedya Ananta: The House of Glass, translated by Max Lane, New York, Penguin, 1996, ISBN 0 14 025679 2

(first published in Indonesian in Jakarta, 1988 and in English in Australia 1992)