Nepal: tall tales

January 31, 2012

 

Reading a book from every country in the world would be nigh on impossible without the schemes and initiatives that exist to promote the work of emerging authors on the global literary stage. The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program is one of the most established of these, and it was on the list of its alumni, who hail from more than 140 countries, that I came across Ajit Baral.

Even with the exposure from IWP, Ajit Baral’s English language collection of Nepalese folk tales was not easy to come by. In fact, I had to get it shipped from India via Penguin when the usual online retailers drew a blank.

Luckily Baral’s lively retelling of 31 largely oral folktales never before rendered in English is worth the effort. Illustrated by Nepalese cartoonist Durga Baral, they present a vibrant picture of some of the myths, legends, themes and cultures that have shaped the Himalayan nation.

Irreverent, funny and occasionally disturbing, the stories evoke a world full of contradictions, frustrations and marvels. Gods walk the earth, bickering and betting, ghosts steal people’s coats, rats get married and tigers talk.

Some of the tales, like the story about the old man who tries to cheat death and learns the hard way why endless life is not a good thing or the yarn about the vain Uttis tree that falls over a cliff in shock when it is insulted and is left clinging on for all eternity, have an Aesopian quality and seem to serve to explain some of life’s mysteries.

Others, like the story about the scheming barber who ends up being burnt to death when his plans backfire, seem more calculated to raise a laugh at a crook getting his just deserts.

Yet these are largely not moral tales. In fact it is rare that the good win out over the bad. If there is a common theme, it is the punishment of short-sightedness, dullness and stupidity and the rewarding of cunning and quick-wittedness — that and pushing coins up animals’ bottoms to make them appear to pass money, which happens in a surprisingly high number of these tales and which I’m at a loss to explain. If anyone from Nepal (or elsewhere for that matter) can offer a reason for this I’d be intrigued!

All in all, though, it’s the qualities that make for a good storyteller that carry the day — as must have been the case for the people who first told these tales, those who passed them down, and for Baral, who opens them up to a new audience today.

The Lazy Conman and Other Stories by Ajit Baral, illustrated by Durga Baral. Publisher: Penguin India (2009)

Turkey: mystic union

January 29, 2012

 

You could be forgiven for thinking that Turkey has only produced one writer in recent years: bestseller and Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk. He was certainly the top tip in the Turkish recommendations I got for this blog and, never having read him before, I was very tempted to join the party.

Then I stumbled upon a copy of Elif Shafak’s latest novel in Foyles and, intrigued by the biog’s claim that she is the most widely read woman writer in Turkey, I decided to leave Pamuk to his adoring public (at least for this year) and give Shafak a go instead.

It cost me a bit of googling to be sure that Strasbourg-born Shafak qualified as my Turkish entry. Having lived in the US, UK and Turkey, the feminist-leaning writer — whose second English-language novel The Bastard of Istanbul led to her being charged with ‘insulting Turkishness’ (the case was dropped before trial) — seems more of a citizen of the world than of any particular country. According to her website, she prides herself on writing that feeds off ‘journeys and commutes between cultures and cities’.

Shafak’s latest book reflects this. Weaving together the story of non-practising Jew Ella, a housewife-turned literary agent’s assistant in Massachusetts, and a novel about the friendship between Sufi poet Rumi and wandering dervish Shams of Tabriz in 13th century Anatolia that she is given to assess, the narrative tests modern Western culture against medieval Muslim mysticism and finds it wanting. As Ella becomes engrossed in the text and in a correspondence with its author, she finds herself forced to re-evaluate her assumptions and priorities, with dramatic results.

There’s a lot to like about the book: it’s well-written, it’s insightful, and it’s painstakingly researched. It raises some interesting points about the fundamental commonality of world religions — religious wars, the novel-within-the-novel’s author Aziz suggests at one point, may arise from nothing more than ‘mistranslation’.

But there is an uneasiness at the narrative’s heart that is hard to ignore. As Ella and, especially, the 13th century mystics become increasingly absorbed in their quest for spiritual perfection and the true, muscular love of the title, there is insufficient weight given to the sacrifices their quest entails — the child bride left to curl up and die in a corner, the son whose loyalty is curdled into bitterness by neglect.

In addition, the perspective leaps between characters, particularly inside Aziz’s novel, necessitate some awkward repetition of events. This can be irritating, as can the character of Shams of Tabriz, who trots out one parable too many on occasion.

Nonetheless this is an enjoyable read and — judging by the sales figures and rave reviews elsewhere — clearly one that has struck a chord with many readers. Drop me a line if you’re one of them. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak. Publisher (this edition): Penguin (2011)

There can be few more fertile topics for a story than the reading of a will. For writers such as George Eliot and Henry James — to name but two — revealing how a deceased character has distributed his or her belongings is fraught with possibilities for drama, intrigue and dastardliness.

Often such scenes form the foundation for satire on the hypocrisy of families and the hollowness of human relationships, as professions of love and loyalties are stripped away to reveal naked greed. But it’s rare that these lampoons once rigged up are then dismantled to reveal the depth and subtlety that Cape Verdian writer and lawyer Germano Almeida achieves in this slender book.

Teetering on the grotesque at points, the narrative begins with the shock revelation that Senhor Napumoceno da Silva Araújo, a staid and respectable businessman in São Vicente, has left his warehouse empire to his previously unheard of lovechild rather than the nephew whose hard work and innovation helped him build it up. The discovery comes at the end of the reading of the 387-page will the tycoon has left to explain himself, and upon which the rest of the book is largely based.

What follows is a riotous, witty and at times anarchic account of da Silva Araújo’s life, which straddles the archipelago’s break from Portuguese rule in 1975. Told in a lively voice that roams in and out of characters’ thoughts, dipping between registers as it goes, the novel reads like a good gossip with the town’s best storyteller — one who has an eye for the ridiculous and makes no bones about dishing the dirt on his contemporaries’ ‘hanky-panky’ and hollow airs and graces.

Occasionally the fluid structure can make the narrative tricky to follow. Zooming between the near and distant past, with dialogue represented in the midst of the description as a kind of half-digested reported speech, and paragraphs that often stretch over several pages, the text has a breathless, chaotic feel.

Almeida knows what he’s doing though: pulling together the threads like a craftsman erecting a ship in a bottle, he reveals da Silva Araújo’s character in all its wistful complexity. The ending is extraordinarily poignant. Vulnerable, pathetic and yet somehow noble, Senhor da Silva Araújo quietly assumes the stature of the tragic hero — drawing on a legacy that stretches back to Miller, Shakespeare, Sophocles and Aeschylus, and yet is all his own.

The Last Will & Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo by Germano Almeida (translated from the Portuguese by Sheila Faria Glaser). Publisher (this edition): New Directions

Argentina: the big fight

January 25, 2012

In the red corner we have book blogger Ann Morgan, fresh from a year of reading women and apprehensive about taking on a beefy, testosterone-drenched book about boxing.

In the blue corner, weighing in at 256 pages, it’s Martín Kohan’s Seconds Out, a novel built around the controversial 1923 world title fight between American champion Jack Dempsey and Argentine challenger Luis Angel Firpo, and backed by world literature heavyweight Richard Lea (he of the Guardian‘s World literature tour).

A hush falls as the first round begins. The combatants close in. Morgan attempts a jab at the book’s narrow focus only for Out to parry the blow with a series of dialogues about Mahler and Richard Strauss’s careers and friendship, meditations on the role of the media and the passage of time, a suspicious death, considerations of photography, popular culture and the role of the critic, and a remarkably detailed description of a game of dice.

Morgan is clearly shaken, but she stands her ground and eyes her opponent, looking for a chink in the armour. She thinks she sees it and goes in for the kill, blasting the book for its simplicity of style, its spare prose, which surely makes it devoid of subtlety?

Out ducks, feints and counters with a rich, complex structure, drawing in the thoughts of the fighters, the referee, the photographer, the judge, a rookie journalist more than 50 years later, two critics, and an elderly cellist. These it places with vigorous clarity, such that even through all the shifts in time and perspective, we never lose track of who’s in the driving seat.

Out continues its onslaught, powering its points home. If it gets a little carried away with the rhythm of its own rhetoric at times and spins out its combinations longer than strictly necessary, who can blame it? It’s clear Out is no slugger: we are watching a master at work.

The referee steps in. Morgan is down but not out. She retires to her corner to pull herself together for the last round. She comes out fighting, but before she has a chance to land a blow, Out serves up a sucker punch, packing its constituent parts into one muscular denouement that fuses its disparate worlds and blows Morgan clean out of the ring.

It’s a knockout.

Seconds Out by Martín Kohan (translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor). Publisher (Kindle edition): Serpent’s Tail (2010)

Russia: cold comfort

January 24, 2012

‘How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand one who’s cold?’

I’m being a bit self-indulgent here given the hundreds of excellent and intriguing contemporary Russian novels out there. But the truth is, I’ve been wanting to read this book nearly half my life, ever since one of my A-level English teachers described how she’d spent one Christmas absorbed in it in her teens.

I’m not the first to feel this way. When it was published in the journal Novy Mir (New World) in November 1962, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn‘s portrait of life in the Siberian Gulag, which drew on his own eight years imprisonment in labour camps, flew off the shelves, causing the magazine to sell out, whipping up international outrage and eventually leading to his deportation on the grounds that he opposed the principles of the Soviet Union. (He was allowed back and award the Nobel Prize in the end, but not for long time.)

One of the Ronseal school when it comes to titles, the novel does exactly what its name suggests: it follows one prisoner, Ivan Denisovich (or Shukhov), through a single day. Yet this window of time and experience becomes the prism through which Solzhenitsyn diffracts the Gulag system, separating out its psychological, political, emotional and sociological impact on the prisoners, the guards and the wider world for all to see.

When your world is shrunk to a single punishing routine, little things come to matter very much: the mittens you hide under your pillow, the piece of bread squirreled into an inner pocket, the trowel concealed in the wall because it is slightly better than the others and will help you work faster. Dignity and identity also shrink but are not extinguished: they persist in your pride at not scrounging, in playing fair with your peers, in finding little loopholes through which to gain an extra portion by rendering someone a service.

Likewise, the guards are diminished and hardened by their daily efforts to limit and control the existence of others. Meanness glimmers in the thermometer placed in a sheltered corner so that it never drops below the -41 degrees that would enforce a day off work and in the carelessness that sees prisoners hauled out of bed again and again to be recounted.

The narrative reflects this shrinking, slipping into the present second person now and then, as though the reader is a new arrival whom Shukhov has taken under his wing and is showing the ropes. So engrossing is the text (which features on the Translators Association’s list of 50 Outstanding Translations from the Last 50 Years), that it can be quite jolt to find yourself looking up and realising you are not in the Gulag anymore.

All of which is doubly impressive because, really, this is a novel that shouldn’t work. If Solzhenitsyn had submitted it to the weekly workshop on my UEA Creative Writing master’s course, I can imagine the group sitting round, shaking its head, telling him that though the prose was well-written, there was a fundamental problem with the plot. ‘A man getting up, going to work, going back and going to bed is not a story,’ we would have told him. ‘Nothing happens. Nothing changes. Try again.’

What we would have missed is that the change that this book brings about is in its readers. Through immersing us in the details of the Gulag life and making us feel what it is like to have to bank all your happiness and comfort on the ability to secure an extra minute’s rest or a slurp more of cold gruel, Solzhenitsyn bridges the barrier between the imprisoned and the free.

How can a man who is warm understand one who’s cold? Well perhaps he can’t. But he could try reading this book.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (translated from the Russian by Ralph Parker). Publisher (this edition): Penguin Classics (2000)

Saudi Arabia: girl power

January 22, 2012

When I started this project to read a book from each of the world’s 196 sovereign states in 2012, I knew that translation would be one of the key issues I would encounter. But I little imagined that the process might cause the sort of public row that blew up around Rajaa Alsanea’s Girls of Riyadh.

First published in Lebanon in 2005 (the book was banned in Alsanea’s home country until 2008), the novel was written in a range of Arabic dialects, each reflecting the background of the different characters portrayed. The difficulty of rendering this in English and getting across some of Saudi Arabia’s cultural idiosyncrasies led to a three-way tug of war between translator, author and publisher, resulting in translator Marilyn Booth seeing her version reworked against her will.

Given the furore, it might have been simpler to leave Girls of Riyadh on the e-shelf and go for one of the more universally accepted translations on my list. But I was intrigued: the more I heard about this book, the more I wanted to read it and when I came across a rash of online reviews hyping the book as a ‘Saudi-style Sex and the City, I knew I was going to have to try it out for myself.

The reviews were half right. Written in the form of weekly emails by an anonymous female narrator, who is two parts Carrie Bradshaw, one part Belle de Jour and one part Mary Wollstonecraft, the book follows the lives, loves and liaisons of four young women in Saudi Arabia’s wealthy elite or ‘velvet class’. Moneyed and manicured, the girls are nevertheless bound by the tight social, religious and legal codes of their society, in which women are forbidden from revealing, expressing or asserting themselves outside their own all-female circles.

Faced with a world in which they are often not permitted so much as to sign their names or have coffee with a male friend without being arrested and interrogated, and yet are able to access all luxuries and comforts, as well as Western cult classics such as Clueless and, yes, Sex and the City, these girls of Riyadh lead schizophrenic lives. They conduct their love affairs in secret and remotely, they create fake personas online and they wear low-cut designer pieces under their abayas, which they queue up to change back into in the toilets on flights back from London, Paris and the States.

Now and then some of the transitions between stories and timeframes are a little clunky and the feisty narrator has a tendency to rant. There are also certain bits of exposition and explanation about Saudi society and culture, which feel shoehorned into the narrative and probably aren’t essential for readers to understand it. I sometimes found myself wishing that Alsanea had trusted her Western readers to follow her a bit more.

All this feels minor, however, when set against Alsanea’s achievement of exploding the single biggest weapon in the armoury of repressive regimes: that of making the oppressed group faceless and voiceless. Here, we are presented with four (five if you count the narrator herself) vivacious, witty, intelligent individuals, who despite the restrictions placed upon them attack life with energy and verve. We see educated girls testing the barriers that hem them in and brokering their own peace, or otherwise, with the codes with which they have been raised. And we see a marginalised group beginning to flex its muscles in the virtual sphere and discover the potential of the internet to help people visualize and effect changes such as those seen across much of the Arab world in 2011.

Isn’t this a tad more meaty and daring than Sex and the City? Yu-huh. Is the English text a pale imitation of its original form? I’m in no position to judge (perhaps you can tell me?). Is it better that this version is available to Western readers than nothing at all? Absolutely.

Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea (translated from the Arabic by Rajaa Alsanea and Marilyn Booth). Publisher (Kindle edition): Penguin (2008)

Libya: desert life

January 19, 2012

Few countries can have been written about more than Libya over the past year. In the wake of the collapse of the Gaddafi regime and the shockingly public demise of its leader, it seemed an obvious choice to go for a writer who tackled the oppression and terror that gripped the country during the decades of totalitarian rule.

Among the excellent suggestions of titles made to me by Libyan Dr Fuzi El Mallah and Cairo-based blogger M Lynx Qualey were two such books by 2006 Man Booker Prize nominee Hisham Matar, and I was very tempted to go with them.

But then it struck me that the side of Libya we have all seen splashed across the headlines is probably only part of the story. I wondered what else there was to this country that I felt I knew so much about.

Further down El Mallah and Qualey’s list, the answer presented itself in the form of Ibrahim Al-Koni‘s lyrical and mysterious The Bleeding of the Stone. Set in the 1930s in the deserts of southern Libya, the novel follows the ‘lone bedouin’ Asouf, who is instructed to keep watch over a series of ancient caves and wallpaintings that he has known all his life after archaeologists discover them. Charged with giving tours to Westerners and other visitors, Asouf witnesses the encroachment of the modern world on the fragile and beautiful, yet fierce, landscape that he has grown up in, until at last he himself falls victim to the unthinking rapaciousness of those who intrude upon his homeland.

Al-Koni’s sense of the connection between man and nature, his painstaking evocation of the practices and rituals of the desert dwellers, and his poetic descriptions of the landscape, where the sun clothes the desert ‘in the red mantle of its rays’, reminded me of some of the works of Thomas Hardy. The description of the decimation of the gazelles by the cruel tourist Cain, for example, whose greed for fresh meat drives him to take a Land Rover out the better to shoot down whole herds, could have come from one Hardy’s more vehement denouncements of the inroads of the industrial revolution into traditional rural life:

‘Poor gazelle! He doesn’t see how this devilish machine is a betrayal of nature, breaching the rules of noble conflict and seeking to win the day through the ugliest trickery.’

Like Hardy, Al-Koni evokes a spiritual relationship between man and his natural environment, a relationship that requires respect, reverence and balance for its continuance. Asouf, much in the same vein as Hardy’s Tess, is part animist, part pantheist, with a sprinkling of local myths and formal religious rituals thrown in. To him, both Christian and Muslim visitors to the site appear identical, all pausing before the majestic cave paintings with the same wonder. The text, too, is eclectic in its frame of reference, something that Al-Koni takes care to establish from the start with a quote from both the Quran and the Bible at the beginning of the first chapter and extracts from Greek tragedies and ancient Chinese philosophers throughout.

In contrast to Hardy, however, Al-Koni pushes the spiritual aspect of the natural world into the realm of magical realism, introducing a series of strange interludes in which gazelles speak and waddan (the ancient desert sheep that roam the mountain ranges) assume mystical powers. How many of these happen in reality and how many proceed from Asouf’s own lonely imaginings and delusions is never clear, yet they all work to further the sense of wonder and wistfulness for a shrinking way of life that pervades the text.

From the ‘Emerging Voices’ banner under which my edition was published, I assumed that Al-Koni must be a relatively new writer still earning his spurs. It was only that later that I discovered to my shame that he is one of the leading authors writing in Arabic today. From what I’ve read, he is a master of his art, easily equal to the best English language writers. He deserves to be much more widely read in the West.

The Bleeding of the Stone by Ibrahim Al-Koni (translated from the Arabic by May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley). Publisher (this edition): Interlink Books (2002)

Djibouti: states of mind

January 17, 2012

Alright, hands up. Who read the title as In the United States of America first time round? I know I did. It’s only a few letters’ difference, but, as I discovered with this book, that’s all a talented writer needs to turn the world on its head.

Djiboutian-French author Abdourahman A. Waberi reverses reality in this French Voices Award-winning novel. Africa is the world superpower, and while its Silicon valley and cultural hubs boom it must find a solution to the ills of the ‘coconut-skinned’ Caucasians, ‘who are not people like you and me’ and who immigrate to the continent in their droves escaping war, famine and disease in holocaust-ravaged Europe and the badlands of North America.

Switching between the experience of one such refugee and the story of an adopted white girl, Malaika, who, having grown up in the first-world Eritrean capital Asmara, sets out to salve her conscience and ‘desire to conjugate near and far’ by travelling to look for her birth-mother in the Paris slums, the novel challenges you to look at the world afresh, highlighting the flaws and inconsistencies in even the most innocent-seeming preconceptions.

There’s a lot of scope for comedy. I couldn’t stop laughing as I read about ‘the pagans of the Baltic islands (who practised cannibalism)’ , ‘the clownsuit called Switzerland… subjected to ethnic and linguistic warfare for centuries’ and the ‘Arafat Peace Prize’. The extract from the phrasebook that Malaika takes with her to France, with its footnotes lamenting the illogic and inelegance of the French language, is priceless. Even the introduction of the unfortunate Swiss refugee on the first page made me smile at its cultural arrogance – all too familiar the other way around:

‘Let’s call him Yacuba, first to protect his identity and second because he has an impossible family name’.

The humour is of course only the outriding breeze of a gale of indignation and righteous anger about the skewed perspective that the ‘developed’ world has on its neighbours. Rehearsing commonplace arguments and platitudes in reverse, the narrative voice highlights the cruelty hidden in complacency and self-satisfaction, mining government speak, journalese and interior monologues to reveal the hypocrisy that runs through our dealings with the world.

Often, Waberi achieves his effects by tweaking existing texts and using facts in reverse. His description of the United States of Africa as ‘so insular and so intoxicated with itself [that] hardly 14 per cent of its citizens have a passport’, for example, echoes familiar statements about another USA and packs extra punch by being close to the truth – although for quite other reasons.

This mingling of fact and fiction made me glad that I had not stuck to my intention of reading French texts in their original language. I would definitely have struggled with this one.

As it was, I found my lack of knowledge of African geography and culture meant that there were plenty of references (alongside the hundreds of nods to European and North American culture and politics) that passed me by. I’m not generally a fan of reading extraneous information in footnotes, believing that books should be accessible on some level to anyone who picks them up as they are, but I did feel that I would have benefited from more world knowledge with this one.

What I did get, though, was fascinating and challenging. And I felt somewhat vindicated in my efforts by the ‘solution’ that blinkered, partial Malaika fumbles her way towards at the end, while recognising the patronising, Afrocentric terms in which it is couched (and in which such statements are commonly framed the other way about):

‘translate… all the great literature of the world into French, English, German, Flemish or Italian. And you must insist that the children of Europe discover not only the Bible and the Torah, but the jewels of all civilizations, near as well as far. If narratives can bloom again, if languages, words, and stories can circulate again, if people can learn to identify with characters from beyond their borders, it will assuredly be a first step towards peace.’

I can’t argue with that.

In the United States of Africa by Abdourahman A. Waberi (translated from the French by David and Nicole Ball). Publisher (this edition): University of Nebraska Press (2009)

 

One of the lovely things about trying to find a book to read from every country in the world is the connections you make along the way. I’m continually delighted by the thoughtfulness of the people who stop by this blog and take time to comment and make suggestions of titles I could include or ways that I could find interesting books.

So I was particularly touched when one visitor, Rafidah, offered to go to bookshops in Malaysia and Singapore on my behalf and post me some titles. Intrigued (and a little nervous) to see what she would come up with, I waited for the parcel to arrive.

As it turned out, I had no need to worry. Rafidah could hardly have chosen a more appropriate (or enjoyable) book than Ripples and other stories by English language writer Shih-Li Kow.

Styled as a collection of short stories, and shortlisted for the 2009 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the book is actually more like a novel in which moments in characters’ lives are explored as they weave in and out of each others’ existences, tracing a web of associations that stretches across Malaysian society and out around the world.

The structure reminded me a little of David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, except that Kow is much fleeter of foot, giving momentary glimpses and snatches of experience where Mitchell offers weighty helpings of exposition. Her supreme talent is her ability to portray voices, which she establishes with gutsy and outrageous Aunty So and So in the opening story ‘One Thing at a Time’ and maintains in various forms throughout.

What comes across is Kow’s great love for and interest in people. This is evident in her painstaking attention to detail and the way she is able to depict the conflicting motivations that send her characters ricocheting off each other throughout the book. So we hear of the hypocrisy of the houseproud woman who looks on dengue fever as a lower class disease, the paranoia of the city worker for whom sanity constitutes a myriad of niggling worries and fears, and the complex reactions of the neglected child who finds a kind of love in the attentions of a paedophile.

Often, in fact, the camera is pointed at some small detail while the major events take place on the edge of the scene, almost out of focus, as in the case of ‘News from Home’, where Josie spends the entire letter to her estranged brother talking about the death (and afterlife) of their mother’s cat.

Also interesting are the shifts between genres. Realism jostles with fairy tales, ghost stories, magical realism and much more. We find stories set in the afterlife and stories where characters have shapeshifting faces or the ability to swallow cats whole, alongside riffs on meetings, walks in the park and the rivalry of street traders. The result is a rich and full picture of human experience in which the doors of perception swing open and closed between reality and the weird landscape of the psyche.

To my mind, the key to the collection is not the title piece ‘Ripples’, which focuses on an encounter with a photographer and a discussion of how you capture a moment, but ‘A Gift of Flowers’, a story in which a bouquet is passed from one person to another until part of it ends up back with the original purchaser, potentially with life and death consequences.

This sense of the way we impact on one another and how minute details can change the world is at the heart of Kow’s work, and is what makes Ripples and other stories an engrossing and memorable read. Thanks Rafidah.

Ripples and other stories by Shih-Li Kow. Silverfish Books (2008)

 

Malawian artist Samson Kambalu begins his account of his childhood and rise to international recognition with a prologue remembering the day he and his Scottish fiancée notified the High Commission in Malawi of their intention to get married. Asked if he was doing this to get a British passport, Kambalu answered ‘Not really’ to the great indignation of the consul, who informed him crossly: ‘The answer is NO, OK? The answer is NO’.

The following 335 pages illustrate why that ‘Not really’ stands.

One of eight children born into a Christian family in the then-dictatorship of Malawi or ‘the abyss of the fourth world’ as he calls it, Kambalu grew up in the shadow of his intellectually ambitious yet ultimately frustrated clinical officer father, the Jive Talker of the title. Posted to remote locations all over the impoverished sub-Saharan country, the Jive Talker took refuge in alcohol and Nietzsche as his career crumbled and his family and their peers suffered ever greater privations until at last Kambalu’s parents died of AIDs-related illnesses around the turn of the millennium.

Yet this is no self-pitying catalogue of woes. Told with wit and flair, Kambalu’s account paints a picture of a vital place full of creativity and interest. Life there is a precarious business and the world is cruelly indifferent to individuals’ sufferings (‘Anybody who survives Malawi deserves to be called Superman’, he remarks at one point), yet it is a world Kambalu describes with dignity and humour.

This humour often tips over into the deeply touching, as when Kambalu remembers his friend Joe Bugner’s reaction to the news that he had secured a place at the highly competitive, state-funded, English-style boarding school Kamuzu Academy, known as the ‘Eton of Africa':

‘You are the man. In future all that is wrong with the world you will only see on TV,’ which was a pretty poignant remark considering there was no TV in Malawi at the time.

Far from being a purely personal account though, The Jive Talker is in many ways a history of Malawi too, with much of the political and social development of the country over the last few centuries woven into the narrative. The description of the cultural split caused by the arrival of 19th century missionaries, which saw the country change from a matriarchal society in which family members were known only by their shared clan name into a patriarchal society where everyone had to have his or her own Christian name is fascinating, as are Kambalu’s reflections on the Banda regime.

The most interesting aspects of this episodic (and occasionally rambling) narrative, though, are the powerful insights into Kambalu’s development as a conceptual artist and the creation of the philosophy of Holyballism, which made his name. Described with such intensity that they sometimes take on an almost magical realist quality, these passages reveal the alchemy by which Kambalu was able to assimilate the conflicting cultures he grew up with and broker some sort of peace with his past — no mean feat.

The Jive Talker: Or, How to Get a British Passport by Samson Kambalu. Publisher (Kindle edition): Vintage Digital (2008)

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