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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 60: Ivory Coast (French) – En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages = Waiting for the wild Beasts to Vote (Ahmadou KOUROUMA)

He had gone back up into the Sahel and the Sahara, his native land, and had gone back to the great tribal wandering. And he had fully recovered. It is only the desert which heals despair. For the desert is endless spaces, the silence of the sand dunes, a night sky enamelled with thousands of stars. An environment which faultlessly saves those who have profoundly lost hope. In the desert, it is possible to cry without fear of making a flood overflow a wadi. Nowhere is nature so favourable for meditation as the desert. That is why all the great prophets were born in the deserts.
[my translation]

 

This is the story of Koyaga, the eternal president-cum-dictator of the ‘Gulf Coast’. His story is an amalgam, and a peerless sendup, of several dictators – Ivory Coast’s own Houphouët-Boigny, ‘Emperor’ Bokassa of the Central African Republic/Empire, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now Congo DR), Eyadema of Togo. It is narrated mainly by a griot (praise-singer/minstrel/musician/historian/king’s fool) in a deliciously satirical, pseudo-sycophantic way. The great nationalist leader began his career as a stooge of the French colonialists, fighting for them in Indo-China, and when the president of his newly-independent country refuses the returning soldiers their pensions, Koyaga overthrows him. He becomes one of those dictators (like Houphouet-Boigny) who shout their anti-Communism so as to receive massive aid from the West. But with the fall of the Iron Curtain their usefulness to the West is at an end and they are forced to undergo democratic elections – and to re-invent themselves once again.
To European eyes it might seem like a sort of magical realism, yet here the unbelievable comes out as somehow more credible than the evident. For example, instead of the blatant obviousness of Koyaga ‘escaping’ from a prison where he was already permitted to come and go by his friend the prison director, and that he arrived in the capital disguised as a poultry seller (rather than as a white cock) – these are two banal for the legend, which would have magic warfare (and counter-magic from the to-be-assassinated president). For Koyaga is a shape-changer (such as you might find in Norse mythology). And prophecies, as usual, find fulfillment when you try to avoid them.

Kourouma’s novel is the story of Ivory Coast in particular and Africa in general. It is a scathing critique of a continent that has been betrayed by its leaders, who continue to inflict colonialism on their people in another form. Long but rich, it is another classic which I cannot recommend highly enough.

KOUROUMA, Ahmadou (1927-2003), En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages, Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1998, ISBN 978.2.02.041637.5

 

[English translation: KOUROUMA, Ahmadou, Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote, London, Vintage, 2004, ISBN 9780099283829]

 

 

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)

 

Book 54: Angola (English) – The Book of Chameleons (translation of O Vendedor de passados = The Seller of Pasts) (José Eduardo AGUALUSA)

 

“Lies,” he explained, “are everywhere. Even nature herself lies. What is camouflage, for instance, but a lie? the chameleon disguises itself as a leaf in order to deceive a poor butterfly. He lies to it, saying, Don’t worry, my dear, can’t you see I’m just a very green leaf waving in the breeze, and then he jets out his tongue at six hundred and twenty-five centimetres a second, and eats it.”

 

Félix Ventura, the seller of pasts, is an albino ‘black’ whose unusual metier is to surreptitiously construct ennobling but fictional pasts for his upstart clients. He is approached by a foreigner to go the whole hog and this time forge identity documents for him as well. The subjects have to undergo something like spy training to become at home with their new ‘legends’.

He calls himself a genealogist, which is a bit like a forger calling himself a calligrapher, but an artist nonetheless (even if only of the black arts).

Of course the trouble with weaving too many lies is that it becomes ever easier to trip over and get caught out – as does Félix himself when the portrait of his ‘grandfather’ is recognised as one of Frederick Douglass!

The book has no obvious mention of the Angolan civil war, but I suppose in the aftermath of one everyone has to reinvent herself or himself…

The story is actually narrated by his house gecko (the chameleons of the English title are the clients who ‘change their colour’). I was entranced by this idea! Anyone who has lived in or visited the tropics has probably shared their space with a gecko, who observes you glued to the wall with his suction caps, occasionally tut-tutting at you… ‘In this house I’m like a little night-time god.’

Agualusa said his novel was a “tribute to Borges” and that his gecko narrator actually IS Borges.

While it’s billed as a murder mystery, it’s also a genre bender. Don’t try to pin anything down! A marvellous book, which reminds me again of how much I would have missed if I hadn’t embarked on this exciting world voyage.

 

AGUALUSA, José Eduardo (1960 – ), The Book of Chameleons, translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2008, ISBN 978-1-4165-7351-7

Book 49: Nepal (English) – Buddha’s Orphans (Samrat UPADHYAY)

Here I am at country number fifty, about a quarter of the way through my quest!

 

Raja’s mother had abandoned him on the parade ground of Tundikhel on a misty morning before Kathmandu had awakened, then drowned herself in Rani Pokhari, half a kilometer north. No one connected the cries of the baby to the bloated body of the woman that would float to the surface of the pond later that week.

 

I couldn’t help being a little disappointed with this book. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy it very much. I just didn’t feel that, despite being a full-length novel, it had the depth of Upadhyay’s “Arresting god in Kathmandu”, a collection of short stories that I found as wonderful as its title. Upadhyay was apparently the first Nepalese writer to be translated into English. It was after reading “Arresting” that I felt I needed to read more of his work, and chose this one when I changed the intention of my reading criteria to exclude short stories.

This is one of those luscious subcontinental family sagas I love so much. It centres on two Nepalis who we first meet as boy (Raja) and girl (Nilu). Only the boy, Raja, is a true orphan – the book starts with his mother drowning herself. He is taken in by a homeless man, Bokey Ba, and a footpath corn seller, Kaki; as he grows, the once unwanted boy becomes the object of a tug-of-war among those who care for him.

Nilu is only an orphan in the sense that she ends up despising and being estranged from her alcoholic, snobbish mother Muwa. Raja and Nilu become friends, are separated, fall in love, marry, separate, come together again…

The story takes place against the background of Nepal’s tumultuous recent history, beginning under the unpopular ‘King M.’ and following through his overthrow. Raja has a part, but only a very minor one, in the events – perhaps foreshadowed by Bokey Ba’s trying to dump him in the palace (leading to his name), and Raja’s chewing on a button with the King’s portrait. Raja takes part in demos against the monarchy without telling his wife, though she spies him at one. When their young son is taken gravely ill she is held up by a demo (which Raja isn’t at) and he dies. This leads to their estrangement.

I found it a totally enjoyable read, so please don’t let my slight tinge of disappointment put you off. I suspect Upadhyay might become one of the great subcontinental writers; as to whether his forte is in fact in short stories rather than novels, well, I’ll just have to read more of him to find out, which will be no hardship!

 

UPADHYAY, Samrat (सम्राट उपाध्याय) (1963 – ), Buddha’s Orphans, Boston/NY, Mariner, 2011, ISBN 978-0-547-46990-4

 

Book 40: Iraq (German) – Jussifs Gesichter = Yussif’s Faces (صورت يوسف) (Najem WALI) (نجم والي)

‘“Why is such importance attached to identification cards? Since when do papers determine people’s fate?” Yussif still kept these words, which Uncle ‘Assim had once said, in his mind. Where could he now find his father-in-law, in order to be able to contradict him: “Yes, papers do determine people’s fates.” For years he had tried to rely on Uncle ‘Assim’s words. Now he had voiced what he had been frightened of all those years: that remembering would one day awaken, and he would become abruptly aware of how vain of his argument was. “Who carries whose guilt?” He carried this phrase with himself, since he had eaten and watched television together with Uncle ‘Assim , in this house in the Baladiyat Quarter, to which Sarab moved back to live with her father. For a long time he had pushed it into the back of his subconscious. Only from time to time this phrase appeared, in the last year continuously and since last night ever more strongly and urgently.

If people had their past paraded before their eyes, they disavowed it. If someone showed them documents carrying their names, they said: “Are there any people without a past?” This question was not easy to answer. “Oh past, what have you made of my life?” He could imagine how millions of men constantly repeated this phrase everywhere in the world, in east and west, north and south. Always there was a past; it was the hindrance. Whoever adopted a new name, also adopted a new past. No, this question was not as easy to answer as Uncle ‘Assim had thought. He who did not believe in the past would also not believe in the evidential power of documents. He who carries a document with him, must therefore be X, son of Y, he was born on this date, in this place, in this country; he has to add to the document the following phrase: “Who carries whose guilt?” Tell me your name, and I will tell you which history you carry with you, which history you have left behind you – or want to leave behind you.’

[my translation]

 

Iraq has just about the longest literary history of any country in the world, but I’m ashamed to say that the only other book I had read from there was from right at the other end of its timeline – the wonderful Epic of Gilgamesh. I read this one in German as, although it has apparently been translated into English, I found it hard to get.  It was originally published Beirut/Casablanca, 2005, in Arabic. Anyway it’s appropriate as the author has lived in Germany for a long time. Najem Wali (نجم والي) was born in Iraq but in 1980 had to flee during the war with Iran to Germany, where he has lived ever since.

You won’t find much local Iraqi colour in this work; its themes are universal, although you could see the brothers’ identity and existential crisis as symbolic of the plight of this cradle of civilisation, which at the time of my reading was tearing itself apart and barely still existed. One of the continual refrains in the book (another is the description of the murdered girl) is the characterisation of the country as ‘The Land of the Triumphant and the Humiliated.’ Hopefully it won’t all end in a madhouse.

Wali asks the eternal question, ‘What’s in a name?’, but comes to a different conclusion from Shakespeare: Quite a lot. Here is a whole book’s worth. It is the story of two brothers, Jussif (Joseph) and Junis (John), who when they were young fell in love with the same girl. She preferred Jussif, so in revenge Junis gave her a cake with nails inside to eat and killed her. Junis opposes Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and disappears; Jussif adopts his name, identity, life and even wife. He only discovers too late that his brother is sought as a traitor. No one will believe his story, or his innocence. A dangerous struggle over names and identities follows. Even as kids, the brothers had played with their identities, with masks.

Yussif and Yunis are, of course, Koranic (and Biblical) names. (The Qur’an has surahs (chapters) named for both of these names). It is a complicated parable about names, identity, the past, and…  Just what is reality?

For someone fascinated with translation, it’s interesting that the title in Arabic, s̪urat Yussif (صورت يوسف) ‘the Picture of Joseph’, which must be a play on the Koranic connection Surat Yussif (The Surah – Chapter – of Joseph) (سورت يوسف) has been cleverly translated into German not as ‘Jussifs Geschichte’ (Joseph’s Story) but as the almost identical-sounding ‘Jussifs Gesichter’ (Joseph’s Faces). For ‘Jussif’ (the name) has two faces – those of the two brothers who bear it at different times. The English title is ‘Joseph’s Picture’ (ISBN 978-1596923508), which is literal but not as imaginative as the German title.

Yussif asks the central question, ‘Who carries whose guilt?’ You are a prisoner of your past; if you adopt a new persona, you adopt a new past as well. He is totally alienated from the world. There is no truth and there is no past. Everything is a mirage (Fata Morgana). In fact, everything is a story.

A major theme is remembering and forgetting: ‘With the end of remembrance, pain comes to an end as well.’ Maybe, at least in some parts of the world, there is too much remembering, and it would be more peaceful if there was more forgetting, at least of the blandishments of history? But these separate histories are too much a part of each community’s identity for that to be able happen.

Wali’s novel is a dark, thought-provoking, well-written, exhausting and profound parable that deserves a much wider audience.

 

Wali, Najem (1956 – ), Jussifs Gesichter, Roman aus der Mekka-Bar, translated from Arabic to German by Imke Ahlf-Wien, Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, München, 2010, ISBN 978-3-423-13850-5, [originally published in Arabic as Surat Yussif (صورت يوسف)]

 

 

Book 38: Algeria (French) – Nedjma (Kateb YACINE)

Lakhdar has escaped from his cell.

At dawn, his silhouette appears on the landing; everyone lifts their heads, without any great emotion.

Mourad stares at the fugitive.

“Nothing out of the ordinary. You will get caught.”

“They know your name.”

“I don’t have any ID cards.”

“They’ll come and nab you here.”

“That’s enough. Don’t discourage me.”

[my translation]

 

The first book I ever read in French was “L’Etranger” (“The Stranger/Outsider” by the pied-noir (Frenchman who lived in Algeria) Albert Camus, a rather existentialist novel about another pied-noir who kills another man. My teacher chose it as a fairly easy read, and its shock lives with me to this day. Later I read his “La Peste” (about an outbreak of the plague in Oran.)

But this time I wanted to read something by an Arab Algerian. In a way Nedjma is both a complement and an antidote to L’Etranger. In Camus’ work the Arabs are a mere background effect, like the heat, and if one of them gets shot it seems almost meaningless there, just as today a terrorist couldn’t care less whether he is killing Christians or Muslims. In Yacine’s mythologised story of Algeria, on the other hand, it’s the French who are almost irrelevant.

It’s possible to get a feeling of why the Algerian war for independence was so brutal and callous on both sides. The war seems almost forgotten today but it was a seminal event. France treated Algeria very differently from most of its other colonies – it was to become part of La Métropole, north of the Mediterranean, and its départements were just like those of the mainland; and it was heavily colonised. The struggle for independence was very long and bloody until President De Gaulle shocked the French by giving in and granting freedom.

This major work of Algerian literature is set during the time of the French colony. The novel centres on the métisse (mixed-race woman) Nejma (’Star’), as a symbol of Algeria, and the dangerous lives of the four lovers who revolve around her.

I have to admit that I found the free-form French very difficult. Sometimes a single sentence will run over two pages! I was beginning to despair of my French, but now I feel a bit better after reading my much easier book from Burkina Faso. ‘Nejma’’s circular plotting, ending back at the beginning, also makes it hard to follow – sometimes I felt like a caged animal. (The snappy beginning which I quoted above is not typical!) Even though it was hard work, I know it would well repay reading again, and it is written in beautiful French.

 

YACINE, Kateb (1929 – 1989), Nedjma, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1996 (originally published 1956), ISBN 978-2-02-028947-4