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Book 84: South Sudan (English) – Beneath the Darkening Sky (Majok TULBA)

But Priest’s blood is on my hands and under my fingernails, and his cord has been severed. I told myself that those cords would be cut by me or another. It didn’t matter who, because it was going to happen. We are mere instruments of fate, we soldiers. All those people were shot and would have been shot and we were the walking, running, screaming dead, but it matters that I killed them. The cup must be passed and the poison must be drunk, but that doesn’t mean you have to drink it. The cup was in my hands and I could have cast it back in their faces and died. That would have been better. Oh God, that would have been better. But I drank it. And I passed it and I took the communion of devils. What kind of God would listen to my prayers? Not in this field, not among the blood of devils. I have lived. I have been spared. There’s still time to escape.

 

We have all heard of countries terrorised and traumatised by the nightmarish, upside-down world of child soldiers, but to experience what it is like in reality – and to be one – you must read this book. Beneath the Darkening Sky covers many of the same ugly themes that we have seen (e.g. in Cambodia) and will see again in some other countries, but like them turns them into compulsive reading through the beautiful language of great literature.

South Sudan became the world’s newest country but has had little peace or good news even since then. The interminable (civil) war of this Christian/Animist south, with the oil resources, against northern, Muslim, Sudan for independence both devastated the land and prevented any development. But no sooner did it finally win freedom than the various ethnic groups started fighting among themselves.

The author was nine when rebel soldiers attacked his village and kidnapped all the children taller than an AK47 to become child soldiers. Tulba was an inch shorter; he eventually fled the country to live in Australia. But he wrote this brilliant first novel of what might have happened to him if fate had made him an inch taller.

 

Like the Khmer Rouge for example, the rebels claim to be creating Utopia but actually make only hell on earth. Obinna’s new life is a daily nightmare interspersed with dreaming. It is soaked in casual, self-defeating brutality. The most mercy people can expect (like his friend Priest, in the quote above) is a quick death. Obinna grows down, instead of up.

Among other horrors, the boys are used by the cowardly soldiers to walk in front of them through minefields. When one of them does step on a mine, the scene is described in movie-like slow motion (which felt like watching a crash test dummy flailing about in a car).

 

Like any great novel about a horrible time (similarly to In the Shadow of the Banyan, for Cambodia), the tragedy is not unrelieved. I found the fake ambush especially funny.

 

Traumatising as it is, I highly recommend this novel. It is narrated in short staccato sentences like machine gun fire. I can’t wait to read his second book, “When Elephants Fight”, and hope Tulba will be able to write more books.

 

While I was reading this, there was a documentary series on the Vietnam War on TV. I was struck by what one American Vietnam veteran said: “I only killed one person in Vietnam; the rest were objects.” This novel gives a devastating portrayal of the desensitisation of the killers, of the deadening, dehumanising objectification of death. As Obinna says: “They don’t get to choose to live and I don’t get to choose to kill”.

 

 

TULBA, Majok, Beneath the Darkening Sky, London, Oneworld, 2013 (first published by Penguin Australia, 2012), ISBN 978-1-78074-241-0

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Book 68: Mali (French) – L’étrange destin de Wangrin = The Fortunes of Wangrin (Amadou Hampâté Bâ)

Among my surprises from this project has sometimes been finding where the countries come in order, when you rank them by population. I must admit to being surprised to see the countries of the Sahel, and nearby, ranked so highly in the population stakes, and fairly close together – we’ve just had Niger and Burkina Faso, here we are in Mali, and Chad and South Sudan will follow shortly. I’ve always thought of these countries as having few people with a poor, if not precarious, environmental existence, but on the contrary they obviously manage to support large populations somehow! And it was a surprise that what I always thought of as wretchedly infertile desert or semi-desert lands have larger populations than the countries round the coast, except for Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast.
Like my book for Uganda, Wangrin is not very nice character, but in this case he does have redeeming qualities (and I found this to be on the whole a far better book). Like the English and Australian outlaws, Robin Hood and Ned Kelly (respectively), his criminality is supposedly directed only against the rich and powerful (including the French colonial authorities). But he does come off as quite nasty, calculating, hypocritical and venal, with his eye always on the main chance. Perhaps most shocking is when he passes through an Eden-like town, is treated with kindness and generosity by the commandant’s interpreter and gatekeeper Romo, decides he wants the latter’s cushy job, and sets about stealing this position for himself (thereby making Romo his greatest enemy, reasonably enough) and sets up his son. As he enriches himself, his morality decreases. He enters into complots then cheats his partners in crime. Even his daughter gets used as a weapon. He is not above conjuring witchcraft against his enemies. His prayer to the spirits reveals the sort of person he wants to be:
“Breathe into me the virtue which permits the chameleon to constantly change its colour according to its surroundings in order to pass unseen.”
He can never feel secure, claiming he even sleeps with his eyes open. Nevertheless, he does have some redeeming qualities, such as his generosity to the poor (which the author emphasises in his Afterword but doesn’t come out in the tale itself – what a strange praise-singing is this novel, where ironically only the hero’s worst qualities usually appear!) It’s as if Bâ himself has been mesmerised by Wangrin, as were his other victims, one is tempted to say like the creature of a snake charmer (if it weren’t for the hero’s ultimate fate!)
He is a world champion networker. He always keeps his promises (unfortunately often of revenge). Although become poor, he dies owing nothing, money or otherwise. On the other hand I must admire him for his linguistic skills, speaking perfect Bambara (his mother tongue), Peul, Dogon, Mossi, Djerma, Hausa and, passably, Baolé and Bété (not to mention French)…
There are some great images, like this one of civil servants fearful of an official inspection:
“When the wild animals are disturbed while feasting on the spoils of the hunt, they pause for a moment and move out of the way until the danger has passed. Then they return to their repast as soon as they no longer feel fear.”
The novel is suffused with the world of the griot (praise-singer), whose qualities include:
“On the other hand, what Kountena’s guitar cords refused to him, his vocal cords and his tongue granted it to him to a large extent. He was a marvellous story-teller, singer, and at the same time an excellent mime.”
It is also full of wonderful proverbs, such as the Peul pearl “If you are led to eat the meat from an animal’s body, at least wait until it is good and fat”, i.e. “If you have to do something below your rank, it should at least be something worth doing.”
The book is also chock-full of fascinating footnotes, from which I learnt a great deal about local life. Considering how much I was reading about Ancient Rome that year, I couldn’t help noticing the similarities between Rome and Mali in their obsession with auguries taken from natural phenomena.
In the end Wangrin falls victim to the prophecy that was made of him, falls from power, is ruined, becomes a drunkard, and falls to an ignominious, stupid death. All in all, a great portrait of a flawed but fascinating character.
Coming back to that Afterword… I’m not sure if Wangrin was originally a real person, but all that I can say to Bâ’s plea that..

“generally, the historical existence of the one who gave himself the surname ‘Wangrin’ is admitted, but it is considered that I must have “romanticised” his life to some extent, even introducing, to spice up the story and give it some sort of symbolic significance, a subtle dose of oral tradition and supernatural events of my own creation.” [my translations]

… this is a perfect description of this great novel. Methinks he doth protest too much…

Amadou Hampâté Bâ (c.1900-1991), L’étrange destin de Wangrin, ou les roueries d’un interprète africain, Paris, 10/18, 1973, 1992, ISBN 978-2-264-01758-1

 

 

 

Book 37: Sudan (English) – Season of Migration to the North = موسم الهجرة إلى الشمال (Tayib SALIH)

I read this on my own migration to the north, doing the Great North Walk from Sydney towards Newcastle. This smallish novel was another discovery for me – a wonderful work which is tragically little-known. I would have been denied its delights too if I hadn’t been looking for a title from Sudan to read. I wonder how many other unexpected delights I’ll find before I finish this project?
This was one of the several (perhaps many) books I’ll be reading which was banned in its own country (beginning with number four – To Kill a Mockingbird). In some countries, like a jail sentence for an opposition politician, a banning is a badge of honour for a book. In this case, though, it surprisingly took a quarter of a century for a Sudanese regime to get around to doing that.
The migration in the title is not to the northern part of the country, as I assumed, or to Egypt, but all the way to Europe, then the protagonist Amin returns like a prodigal son to his village. So it is partly a comparison by someone who has been a part of both worlds. He finds that the denizens of both places are full of misconceptions about the ‘other’. Aren’t we all? I remember laughing with an Uzbek acquaintance who said that Australia is the epitome of exoticism in Uzbekistan, and I said that Uzbekistan was the same for Australians!
The villagers ply him with questions about Europe (except for a mysterious stranger called Mustafa Sa’eed, who is also a ‘man of the world’ by their standards – the revelation of his story will occupy us for much of the book), and he perhaps disappoints them by revealing that deep down Europeans are basically just like them. Sometimes it seems as if we gain as much insight into life in Britain as we do into that in Sudan. Certainly Europeans can exploit Africans, but Africans can exploit Europeans too. There is plenty of naïvité to go around.
Salih’s writing is luminously beautiful. I wonder, is it even more scrumptious in the original Arabic?
A thread through the story’s landscape is the Nile – without which (like Egypt) there would be no Sudan – equally on its endless migration towards the north, and which Salih describes like some ‘Ole Man River’:

“The river but for which there would have been no beginning and no end, flows northwards, paying heed to nothing; a mountain may stand in its way so it turns eastwards; it may happen upon a deep depression so it turns westwards; but sooner or later it settles down in its irrevocable journey towards the sea in the north.” (p 69)

 

This could be a good first choice for beginning to discover African literature – insightful about Arabic and European culture (and their relationships), a fairly short, easy but great read. Highly recommended.

 

SALIH, Tayib (1929 – 2009), Season of Migration to the North, translated from Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies, Edinburgh: Heinemann, 1991, ISBN 978-0-435-90974-1

(first published in the African Writers Series, 1969)