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
‘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.
’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!’
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.
By the end of that summer, hatred had taken possession of me. I was enthused by it; I felt that it was saving me. Hatred gave me the feeling of superiority I was searching for. I carefully read the pamphlets distributed at every meeting with the other girls and memorized whole sections of them, particularly the fatwas charging other sects with heresy. I became closer to my seven companions and grew to love them. We exchanged secrets and books describing the horrific agonies of the grave. My integration with them saved me from my desires for Ghada, who had in my mind become wretched; she was still far from the power and severity I possessed when asked my opinion on punishing those who showed contempt for religion’s doctrines. I astonished them by requesting to make a list of such girls at my school and seeking permission to disfigure them with acid for wearing tight shirts that clearly showed their breasts. Alya’s eyes shone as she asked me to be patient, as if she already knew the date we would do it.
Sadly, Syria has slipped a fair way down the list (which I’m trying to read in population order) from when I read this book, due to so many of its people being killed in the sickening civil war. But as it seems like the endgame is coming in the war, its time has finally come for a post. You might feel that it is set in today’s war-torn Syria, but it actually takes place in the 1980s, when a previous President Assad oversaw another terrifying massacre in Aleppo. Plus ça change…
This blistering novel is an interesting female perspective on radicalism. The young narrator is consumed by hatred. She hates not only others but even her own body, warring against her awakening sexuality; she despises her mother; sees her own family as hypocrites – since only one member of her family bothers to get up for the dawn prayers. She hates other Muslim groups that she sees as misguided. And she hates the secular but dictatorial government. She is imprisoned, both physically (in practice) and spiritually, and as much by herself as by others; not only by people, but also by institutions and by history. She can only see an enemy (and she is so like them!) – not the (invisible) good majority, only the bad in people and not the good. She fosters hatred as a weapon to gain power – as do so many around her.
When I was studying Middle Eastern history in the early 1980s, the Lebanese civil war was in full fight. My university tutor warned us that some day Syria would blow up into a far bigger conflagration, but since it was ostensibly stable and peaceful that seemed hard to believe at the time. Alas that he proved right.
This is not a happy read, but an insightful and tragic book, brilliantly written, and vital.
KHALIFA, Khaled (خالد خليفة) (1964 – ), In praise of hatred, translated from Arabic by Leri Price, London, Black Swan, 2013, ISBN 978-0-552-77613-4
(first published in Arabic 2008)
When he got to the door he hesitated to open it. He heard the children crying. Had she beaten them again? Obviously she had not expected him to come home so early. He burst into the house. The children looked up when they saw their father but did not stop crying. They had seen his empty hands. They were all herded together in the only dry part of the kitchen, semi-naked, thin little creatures, shivering, with swollen and hollow eyes, and throats that issued strange sounds from their hungry stomachs. He avoided their gaze.
I snapped up this paperback in a second-hand bookshop in Cape Town, which was able to tick quite a few boxes on my African to-read list.
The novel is set in Malawi – or somewhere very similar. When I first started travelling, there were two countries my long-haired generation were terrified of – Malawi and Singapore. (Don’t laugh!) Would we be assaulted by vicious immigration officials brandishing scissors, rendering us eternally and incurably Uncool? Or just denied entry as Undesirable Elements? It is no coincidence that ‘The Leader’ in this novel is similar to Malawi’s dictator of that time, Banda: ‘The leader hated long hair and beards, and anybody who sported them risked arrest for moral indecency or even subversion.’
‘Smouldering charcoal’ is basically a call for a revolution, social and political, but it is refreshingly free from polemic and quite readable. It is concerned with the unjust regime, inequality, and the (bad) treatment of women. It follows the effects of what starts with a bakers’ strike on two very different families. (In this, it is somewhat similar to my novel for Senegal which I’ve just finished, Ousmane Sembene’s Les Bouts de bois de Dieu).
Mchere is a drunken violent father (his disdain for his family shown by how he rips a page from his son’s exercise book to roll a cigarette.) No doubt following his bad example, his children are rude and it is left to his wife to try to keep the family going.
The good-natured, happily married journalist Chola starts the day happy but suffers bad luck due to country’s own misfortunes.
Following the men’s example, the women (led by good-hearted prostitutes) threaten their own strike against the sexist treatment of their men (which reminded me of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata).
The callousness of the people in power is shown when the priest and the party representative pretend to care for the people but let a child die rather than lend a car to get him to hospital.
Like several of the other African novels I’ve read, Zeleza bemoans the failed hopes and betrayal of the corrupt post-independence régimes, and adds a clarion call for social change, especially for improving the lot of women. It is both an important and very readable novel.
ZELEZA, Tiyambe (1955 – ), Smouldering Charcoal, Harlow, Essex, Heinemann (African Writers Series), 1992, ISBN 978-0-435-90583-5
“It’s a coup d’état!” Gouama sobbed. “They’re overthrowing me. They’re taking my power. My God, I’m not president any more. It’s not true! It’s impossible! Don’t shoot, I’m the president. The pres…”
My generation was a bit sad when this central West African nation changed its name from Upper Volta (which was a sort of synonym for ‘back of beyond’) to Burkina Faso (’Land of the Incorruptible’). Fortunately they didn’t touch the name of the world’s coolest-sounding capital, Ouagadougo. The Burkinabé seem to be very popular with visitors, but they do know a lot about coups.
This great novel could have justly been called “The Come-uppance”. It is a cynical look at the corruption and brutality of a 10-year African dictatorship in the country of Watinbow. ‘Father-founder of the Nation’ Gouama is corrupt, nepotistic and violent, and superstitious (being willing to have two people killed in a grisly manner to supposedly safeguard his rule). His particular specialty is bumping off his opponents using ‘accidents’ (the sabotaged parachute drop of the title was his way of getting rid of two coup plotters). He is stupidly fond of humiliating even those on whom he is dependent, like his army chiefs of staff. When his Chief of Staff Kodio leads a coup against him, his presidential guard, emasculated by his suspicion, is incapable of (and/or unwilling to) defend him. The incredulous Gouama is dragged from under his silken mosquito net by his brother. He flees, or rather is hustled, to the border, apparently not being recognised by any of his subjects, and receives some lessons from his people about what they really thought of him (though it later becomes apparent that he saw nothing to interest him except an abattoir, a kangaroo court and a lynch mob). Like bullies generally, he turns out to be a wimp – pitiful, pathetic and risible. Deliciously, he is told by his police to ‘fous le camp’ (’Get lost!’) Tricked and abandoned by his ‘friend’, the president of a neighbouring country, and by the former colonial power, he ends up grovelling at his trial. Fortunately the despicable dictator gets his just deserts and you can’t help cheering as he gets humiliated by his ex-subjects and ex-friends overseas. (There is though the sad thought that his overthrower will no doubt end up being of the same ilk).
This ought to be compulsory reading for all of the world’s dictators and would-be dictators, and for all of those who suffer under them. And it’s very worth reading for all of us.
ZONGO, Norbert (1949 – 1998), Le parachutage, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2006, ISBN 2-296-01712-6 (Collection: Ecrire l’Afrique)
Book 65: Romania (German) – Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet = I would rather not have met myself today (translated as:) The Appointment (Herta MÜLLER)
I have been summoned. Thursday, ten on the dot.
I get summoned more and more often: Tuesday, ten on the dot, Saturday, ten on the dot, Wednesday or Monday. As if years were a week, it already surprises me, that after the late summer it is so soon winter.
On my big trip around almost all the countries in Eastern Europe a few years ago, one of the several in which I embarrassed booksellers by asking for something by a native that I could read for this project, one of the difficult ones was, surprisingly, Romania. No one could come up with anything in English for me. Finally in the rather charming Saxon town of Sibiu in Transylvania (I fell in love with its lidded dormer windows in the rooftops, like crocodiles peering out of a river), a German bookshop was able to come to my rescue. I thought this was an appropriate choice because a) Herta Müller wrote it in German, b) she is Romania’s only Nobel Prizewinner, c) there are actually a lot of German speakers in Romania, and d) my Romanian is rather limited. (And, e) my ancestors on the German side were also Müllers).
The original German title caused a lot of cogitation on my part, hopefully I’ve managed to twist it into equally convoluted English! The English translator avoided the issue, coming out with The Appointment, which is has the advantage of being snappy, and factually what it’s about, but loses all the unfortunate, sinister trepidation of the original. Perhaps The Summons would have been a better short title so that it didn’t sound like a mere doctor’s appointment.
The novel is set during Ceauşescu’s Communist dictatorship, during a single day, as the young woman narrator travels interminably on the tram (which is allowed to not follow a timetable, unlike her! and seems as lost as the Communist system itself) to an interrogation by the Securitate (secret police). She has a premonition that this time may be different – she’s packed a toothbrush. She originally got into trouble for the ‘crime’ of sewing ‘Marry me!’ labels onto men’s suits being exported to Italy, as a stratagem to escape from her country.
The terrifying sense of foreboding is overpowering. The ugliness of a society where everyone is watched and dissected by not only a secret police but also by one’s neighbours is really terrifying.
MÜLLER, Herta (1953 – ), Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet, Frankfurt/M., Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 2011, ISBN 978-3-596-18822-2
Translated into English as The Appointment.
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.
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]