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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

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Book 79: Senegal (French) – Les Bouts de bois de Dieu = God’s Bits of Wood (Sembene OUSMANE)

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.

[my translation]

 

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)

Book 78: Cambodia (English) – In the Shadow of the Banyan (Vaddey RATNER)

Once again I saw the face of the Khmer Rouge soldier who’d aimed her gun at the old man’s head. It occurred to me that the look on her face, as she shot the old man, as she watched him fall to the ground, had no name. It was neither anger nor hate nor fear. It was absent of rage or anything recognizable, and I remembered thinking that she had looked neither like a child nor an adult, but a kind of creature all to herself, not altogether real, in the same way a nightmare monster is not unreal.

 

This great novel is set during the takeover of Cambodia by the communist Khmer Rouge in 1975, and the immediate horrific, unbelievable aftermath. I was an idealistic teenager at the time and I first heard about what was happening there in a Readers Digest Condensed Book of Cambodia Year Zero. It seemed that no one outside knew (or cared?) what was happening there at the time, indeed it seems as if most of the world didn’t become aware until years afterwards, perhaps from Christopher Koch’s book The Killing Fields and the subsequent movie. I felt like screaming to the world, “Why don’t you care? Why don’t you DO something?!” Of course there was nothing I could do, maybe nothing anyone could do, until the horror was finished by a Vietnamese invasion – for which they received no thanks, since everyone (not least the Cambodians themselves) suspected them of a colonisation exercise, and perhaps that is what it might have become. But even if they were only swapping one Communist regime for another (and a foreign one at that), surely it was better than the KR which murdered perhaps a third of the total population, totally emptied the cities, and tried to drag the country responsible for the glories of Angkor back to some barbaric agricultural pre-civilisation.
In this novel, the background and experiences of the heroine are very similar to those of the author. She is deprived of her privileged childhood, with one exception: the love of story-telling that she receives from her father. One constant theme in the book is this importance of telling stories. This is one reason why, despite the horrific historical setting, the story is not not 100% negative; there is still beauty to be found as well. The natural world is important, and its symbolism pervades the story.
I realised, or was reminded (as I should know) that life is a lottery. Of those sent from the city, some are lucky with the country folk they are sent to live with and with their new life, others meet tragic ends.
Like Cambodia itself, the heroine Raami survives impossible odds to survive. It turns out that survival depends on what is inside yourself.
Sadly, there is not much true idealism left in the world. It was given a bad name by fanatics such as the KR in Cambodia, the Red Guards of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the Nazis and so many others in relatively recent times. Mostly, what is left is cynicism. What the world needs is renewed idealism ALONG WITH humanity and tolerance.

 

RATTNER, Vaddey (1970 – ), In the Shadow of the Banyan, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2013, ISBN 978-1-4516-5771-5

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 76: Guatemala (Spanish) – el Señor Presidente = The President (Miguel Angel ASTURIAS)

‘The sea looks the same as in the moving pictures, only bigger.’
Camila had heard about the moving pictures which were being shown at the Hundred Doors, close to the cathedral, but she had no idea what they were like. However, after what her cousin had said, she could easily imagine them as she stared at the sea. Everything in motion. Nothing stable. Pictures mingling with other pictures, shifting, breaking in pieces to form a new image every second, in a state that was not solid, not liquid, nor gaseous, but which was the state of life in the sea. A luminous state. Both in the sea and in the moving pictures.

 

This is a stunning portrait of a dictatorship. It is a place of betrayal – no one can trust anyone (especially not the President!) The whole country is at the whim of one mercurical person. He acts like a cat toying with a mouse. He runs a state of lies, where the weapon is false accusations – the ‘truth’ must be made to fit what is convenient for the regime. On the one side is his cruelty; on the other, sycophancy.
One of the most chilling sections is a frightening interview with the incoherent, drunken president:

 

‘Do you know, Miguel, that the man who discovered alcohol was looking for an elixir to produce long life?’
’No, Mr President, I didn’t know that,’ the favourite hastened to reply.
’That’s odd’.
’It would be odd, certainly, for a man of such wide knowledge as you, Mr President, who has every right to consider himself as one of the foremost statesmen of modern times, but not for me.’
His Excellency dropped his lids over his eyes, to shut out the chaotic vision of his surroundings that his alcoholic state was presenting him with at the moment.
’M’m, yes, I do know a lot!’

[my translations]

 

While anyone familiar with any of the world’s too numerous dictatorships will find so much that is familiar here, mirrored in the highest literary style, it also reminded me of Trump’s White House – and I find it impossible to imagine anyone with a more towering egoism.
All in all, a chilling, masterly novel.

 

ASTURIAS, Miguel Angel (1889 – 1974), El Señor Presidente, Guatemala, Piedra Santa, 2000, ISBN 99922-5-024-0

In English: The President.

Book 74: Kashmir (English) – The Collaborator (Mirza WAHEED)

 

Captain Kadian takes a large swig from his glass tumbler, closes his eyes for a moment, smacks his lips, and says, ‘The job’s not that hard, you see, you just go down once a week or fifteen days, and the money, the money is not bad at all.’

 

This novel is set in Indian Kashmir, near the ‘Line of Control’ with Pakistan. Kashmir isn’t an independent country (though you suspect most Kashmiris might want it to be). When India and Pakistan gained independence, the Muslim-majority state was ruled by an indecisive Hindu maharaja who opted for India at the last moment. Open and covert warfare between Pakistan and India, and Kashmiri militants, for decades has been the consequence. Both countries claimed the state and occupy it (India the majority). India promised an independence referendum at the outset, that has never been held. Some sixty years later, no solution is in sight. The lovely valley is perhaps the world’s most likely flashpoint for a nuclear war.
In ‘The Collaborator’, brutal, drunken Indian Army Captain Kadian gives a marvellous self-justification for his actions, going through the full catalogue of rationalisations with which such people kid themselves (only). It’s their own fault that atrocities occur, can’t be helped, just part of his job, I’m just a tiny cog in the machine, it’s the law, those who whinge about human rights don’t understand, I have a family too, I didn’t kill them myself, they chose to die, it would have happened anyway, even if I agreed I couldn’t do anything.
He forces the boy narrator to ‘collaborate’ and count the fallen corpses in the typically beautiful Kashmir valley on the border (a job he considers too dangerous for his own soldiers); every day he expects to find one of his boyhood friends who had gone across to Pakistan to join the militants.
The high point is the visit of the Governor of Kashmir, who helicopters in as if on a military operation, humiliating the villagers (who had been warned by an azan ((Muslim call to prayer)) recited backwards), like the preparation for a massacre instead of a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign.
There are a lot of Kashmiri, Arabic and Hindi/Urdu words used, but unfortunately no glossary is provided and they are not always explained.
Although he is speaking of his scavenging expeditions, when the Collaborator says he is tired of it all he must be speaking for most Kashmiris.

 

WAHEED, Mirza (1955 – ), The Collaborator, London, Viking, 2011, ISBN 978-0-670-91895-9

Book 73: Netherlands (Dutch) – Het Diner = The Dinner (Herman KOCH)

What struck you in the first place about Claire’s dish was the immense emptiness. Of course, I also well know that in the better restaurants quality is considered more important than quantity, but there are emptinesses and there are emptinesses. Here the emptiness, the part of the plate where there was no food to be found at all, was clearly put on a pedestal above all else, as a matter of principle.
It was as if the empty plate taunted you to say something about it, to go and make a song and dance about it, in the open kitchen. ‘But you don’t dare!’ said the plate, and it laughed you in the face.

[my translation]

 

This was only the second book I’ve read in Dutch (after Anne Frank’s diary).
Going by what seemed a boring title and plot, I wasn’t expecting much from this one (although perhaps the sinister looking lobster on the cover of my Dutch edition should have given me a hint). I couldn’t have been more wrong! I’m sure this will turn out to be one of the outstanding reads of this project.
Just as the label specifies, this acutely observed novel describes a dinner party – a particularly poisonous dinner party, with the cynical narrator and his despised bigwig elder brother, and their respective wives. The crosscurrents between the participants are fascinating. As the meal progresses, we learn that all of the diners and their family members have dark secrets, including one especially ugly one, and what the real purpose of the dinner is. We come to question who really is most sensible of the brothers. Normally you will tend to follow the narrator, but here you might or might not continue to do so. You come to realise that you have to deal with that trickiest (but fascinating) of narrative styles, the unreliable narrator. Koch plays with your viewpoint and sympathies. The scene, the meal, the restaurant’s workings and the interpersonal relationships are minutely – and cynically – observed.
It is a complete course in family – and restaurant – politics and psychology. You can throw in anthropology too – especially, is nature or nurture responsible for the boys’ behaviour?
Since the intrigue and the setting are so concentrated, I think there is the makings of a fantastic play here. (I found the movie disappointing, and why does everything have to be transposed to the US?)

I can totally recommend this surprising, uncomfortable, caustic novel.

 

Koch, Herman (1953 – ), Het Diner, Amsterdam, Anthos, 2009, ISBN 978 90 414 1368 0