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Vietnam (English) – The Sympathizer (Viet Thanh NGUYEN)

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)

Book 90: Benin (French) – Doguicimi (Paul HAZOUMÉ)

 

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.

[my translation]

 

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

English translation:

HAZOUMÉ, Paul, Doguicimi: The First Dahomean Novel, translated from French by Richard Bjornson, Washington DC, Three Continents, 1990, ISBN 9780894104060

Book 82: Zimbabwe (English) – Bones (Chenjerai HOVE)

Today the sun has set. It will set again tomorrow. But you are not here to see it. That is the difference. Even the birds and the insects that sing, they sing the same way as they sang when you were here. But now that you are not here to hear them, that makes the difference. Suns will set, birds will sing, insects will sing, but the difference is in the ears that will hear them. Today your ears are not here to hear them with me. Your blood is not here to tell me what all the songs of the forests of the farm say.

 

‘Bones’ is the story of the vain search of a woman (Marita) for her son, gone to fight in the guerrilla war against the racist white Rhodesian regime that was to lead to Zimbabwe. Everyone seems to be obsessed with her. Her story is told by Janifa (who has been wooed by her son); the herbalist Marume; Chisaga, the white farmer’s cook (about whom we get a totally different impression from his own words than from Janifa’s); ‘the unknown woman’ at the mortuary who Marita tries to give a decent burial; and the more omnipresent view of ‘the spirits’. The farm owner is foul-mouthed and hated even if probably far from the worst that could have been pictured. What is might be his real name is never revealed, but he is called Manyepo “because you think we are always lying to you”.
The novel is all the more powerful because Hove doesn’t spell out or labour the differences between blacks and whites, or the history between them. They are there, but they are there for us to extract. Hove’s anger and revolutionary fervour are there and we feel them, but as if it were the heat from a furnace under the floor:

 

“A people that fears death will never enjoy freedom from the heavy chains of being called boys by people of the same age, men and women.”

 

If you expect a novel about a revolutionary war to be about men fighting the unjust regime, ‘Bones’ is not like that. It is about those left at home, and is told mainly through the women’s voices. And what shines through is that they are at least as heroic as the male soldiers. It is, as far as I can judge, another masterly success of a male writer writing about women with understanding, compassion and admiration.
The language of the novel, which is apparently rooted in Shona idiom, is quite wonderful, not poetic but as controlledX as poetry, majestic as a religious text but hypnotically readable, and scattered with delicious proverbs and phrases (I can’t tell if they are traditional or original), e.g. “A closed mouth is a cave in which to hide”. ‘Bones’ was yet another discovery of a great novel and a great writer who deserves far wider acclaim. One of the Heinemann African Writers Series, it is not very weighty (I read it in one day, coincidentally on Robert Mugabe’s 93rd birthday) but it is concentrated brilliance.
Published in Harare!

 

HOVE, Chenjerai (1956 – 2015): Bones, Harare: Baobab Books, 1988, ISBN 0-908311-03-6

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

Book 80: Chad (French) – Les racines du yucca = The yucca roots (Koulsy Lamko)

Exile is nothing but a series of wanderings; it has no sedentary vocation. It is all very well to celebrate wandering and its enriching virtues, but it is still nothing but a succession of repeated deaths, a slicing up of a fluid lifetime into bits of existence shared between an idyllic and tormented viewpoint, focused towards the country of one’s birth and the impossibility of rooting oneself again in another soil. Exile is a slow death, a life under suspended sentence, a life in waiting.

[my translation]

 

I have to admit I wasn’t really happy with my choice of novel for Chad. Not that there’s much choice, even in French (in English, maybe none at all). This novel isn’t actually set in Chad, but in Mexico (where the author also lives), so I learnt almost nothing about that Chad from this it, apart from reading between the lines. And I’m afraid the book itself didn’t grab me. It is basically a novel about… writer’s block. I couldn’t help feeling that it could be interesting for other writers, but perhaps not for the general public. Lamko himself seems to be aware of this; but felt compelled to write the novel anyway.

Naturally, the plot doesn’t really go anywhere. The novel’s protagonist is in fact physically allergic to paper – as great a trial for someone who wants to write, as Beethoven’s onset of deafness was to that composer. He is fighting what he calls a ‘war against the paper’.

He has an ambivalent feeling about his own motherland, calling it ‘mon pays de merde que j’adore’.

He goes to a Mayan village for therapeutic reasons, where as an African he is a spectacle for the local schoolkids and has to suffer racist comments. On top of this are the normal tribulations of the writer (at one stage he thinks is recording four hours of his book, but then finds that he hadn’t recorded it after all).

For Lamko, exile means death. The exile does not abandon his country, it abandons him, and those who deliberately exile someone know that they are effectively murdering him.

I found his interminable lists rather annoying – his symptom may be ‘impasse syndrome’, a way of dealing with or merely a result of his writer’s block.

On the recurring theme of the ‘great conversation’ between books, Lamko mentions my Algerian book ‘Nedjma’, and quotes Senegal’s Ousmane (the last book I read!)

Lamko reminded me not to read too much into the writers’ native countries; they are under no obligation to write what might be expected by a European specialist in African literature from someone from an African ‘oral’ culture. The writers may have received a French education, lived overseas, immersed themselves in the literature of many countries. As an aside, I can’t help wondering if Western publishing houses, especially since they publish so few translations from most of the world, may not choose works which reinforce their own and their readers’ stereotypes about these countries, for example the treatment of women in Islamic societies. I can’t know, if a wide selection of books haven’t appeared in a language I can read.

The yucca of the title is a symbol of tenacity (only a root needs to be put back in earth for it to flourish).

 

LAMKO, Koulsy (1959 – ), Les racines du yucca, Paris, Philippe Rey, 2011, ISBN 9782848761848

Book 77: Zambia (English) – The Smoke that Thunders (Dominic MULAISHO)

‘So I say to you that if you have an axe, sharpen it. If you have a spear, sharpen it. If you have a gun, prime it. For the hour to win that which we cherish, even by force, has come’. He threw up his arms. ‘Yes, I am proposing violence. Violence for the cause of peace. For even as I speak, innocent people and children are dying at the behest of the colonial and racist God of destruction.’ [speech by future President Kawala]

 

One of those incandescent African novels about the struggle for independence, this novel was published in 1979 (the year in which negotiations in London were to lead to the end of ‘White’ rule in Zimbabwe.)
It is set in the fictional colony of Kandaha, which is not in Afghanistan but is the world’s largest riverine island on the Zambezi (I thought that was Marajó in Brazil?) between Zambia and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and bordering Victoria Falls (Mosi-oa-tunya – ”The Smoke that Thunders”). Kandaha seems to be a mixture of the two Z-countries, perhaps with a bit of apartheid-era South Africa thrown in, and is on the cusp of independence. The ‘White’ colonists are trying to create their own racist regime like Rhodesia, and their equivalent of Ian Smith is Sir Ray Norris.
Personally I felt that the characters were not very deeply drawn, and that none of the main actors were really sympathetic apart from Norris’ son (who is the opposite of his racist father – you might be able to predict what happens with his marriage and his life). Neither of the ‘Black’ leaders (Kawala and Katenga) are likeable, nor the ‘White’ ones. I found the style rather choppy (not helped by jumps from scene to scene not separated by a blank line or any other device). The plot leaps all over the place too. There are some minor inaccuracies (Scipio Africanus wasn’t an African but a Roman – he received his nickname in honour of his victory over Carthage in Africa). Also, of course it was of its time, but the racist language (and attitudes) – on both sides – was rather uncomfortable.
It was not one of my favourite novels, but is an interesting insight into feelings during the decolonisation of sub-Saharan Africa. My favourite part was Kandaha’s equivalent of Rhodesia’s Universal Declaration of Independence, with its bigotry couched in the impeccable constitutionalese of ‘WHEREAS…’ and ‘RESOLVES…’, which is very funny.
The author, Dominic Mulaisho, was a bureaucrat in the Zambian government.

 

MULAISHO, Dominic (1933 – 2013), The Smoke that Thunders, London, Heinemann (African Writers Series), 1979, ISBN 0-435-90204-0

Book 75: Ecuador (Spanish) – Huasipungo = The Villagers (Jorge ICAZA)

‘The Indians cling with blind and morbid love to this scrap of land which is lent to them in exchange for the work which they give to the hacienda. What’s more: in their ignorance they believe that it is their own property. You know. There they put up their thatched huts, farm their little smallholdings, raise their animals.’
‘Sentimentalities! We must overcome all difficulties no matter how hard they may be. The Indians… What? What do the Indians matter to us? To put it better… They must… They must be important TO US… Of course… They can form a very important factor in the business. The arms… The work…’
[my translation]

 

In 1930s Ecuador, building a road through the jungle should have brought prosperity and modernity to the local Indians, but landowner Don Alfonso only thinks of using it to increase his personal wealth. He robs them first of their labour then of their huasipungos (small plots of land allocated to tenant farmers by the hacienda/large estate owner in exchange for work), causing them to revolt and be massacred. (A more accurate spelling in English orthography would be ‘wasipungo’).
Icaza was maybe the greatest Ecuadorian author of the 1900s. ‘Huasipungo’ needs to be seen in the context of the indigenista movement (which was influential across the arts spectrum), which highlighted the oppression and struggles of the indigenous people. Its themes are exploitation by big landowners and gringos, racism (including the racism of the mixed-race mestizos against those with more Indian blood than themselves), class struggle, and the venal, collaborationist church which functions as part of the power structure and has been bribed into using the faith as a weapon against the indigenous.
The casually inhuman treatment of the natives as if they are not people is quite shocking. For example, in one incident, cattle invade the corn fields during the night. Don Alfonso thinks he’s a hero just because he had to get up in the middle of the night to do something about it! To reward himself, he rapes a powerless indigenous girl. They are basically treated like property, even the indentured labourers. These have been subjected to forced labour under the very real threat of losing their land.
Fuelled by chicha, a fermented corn drink (which is doled out to them like medicine), they are forced to drive the road through a marsh, against the engineer’s advice, leading to a horrific death.
The Ecuadorian Spanish spoken by the indigenous people is not too hard to follow, but is obviously influenced by their native Quechua which only has the vowels a, i, u, so that their Spanish loses its e and o vowels. The Indians tend to speak as a chorus almost like in a Greek tragedy. They are an integral part of the country, while the whites seem out of place and slightly ridiculous.
This important and engaging novel shows in black and white the long shadow that colonialism cast over Ecuador.

 

ICAZA, Jorge (1906-79), Huasipungo, Madrid, Cátedra, 2013 (originally published 1934), ISBN 978-84-376-1251-5

In English:
Icaza, Jorge: The Villagers