March 11, 2012
With the announcement of the Orange prize longlist this week, the usual round of questions and criticisms began. Shouldn’t the list be more international? Why is there so much historical fiction on it? How come Penelope Lively missed out? And who on earth thought Emma Donoghue deserved to feature for a novel first published in 2008?
It can all make you rather tired. In fact, until recently I didn’t pay much attention to book award lists, regarding them as little more than a marketing ploy to shift books by a lucky cohort of writers that seemed to change very little from year to year.
Then I took the plunge into my project to read one book from every country in the world in 2012 and all that changed. As I struck out from the familiar shallows of British, American and postcolonial literature, I found that book prize lists gleamed like guiding beacons on a vast and sometimes turbulent ocean. Often they were my only way of telling whether something was likely to be any good.
So when Fay, who is shadow judging the Man Asian Literary Prize on her blog, stopped by to share her thoughts on some of the contenders, I was grateful to be able to add Tahmima Anam’s longlisted The Good Muslim to my Bangladeshi options.
Jumping back and forth between the early seventies, early eighties and, once, the nineties, the novel explores the fallout of the Bangladesh Liberation War, which saw the country split from Pakistan in 1972. Told mostly through the eyes of Maya Haque, a woman doctor who returns to the home of her mother, deeply religious brother and his neglected son after an absence of seven years, it reveals the different ways that people cope with trauma and the harm that silence or incomplete communication between those with close ties can do.
Anam writes eloquently about the predicament of the intelligent, professional woman in a society where meekness, marriage and motherhood are the order of the day. As in several of the other books I’ve read so far this year, modern medicine provides the frontier for the meeting of traditional and western values as reticent characters find themselves forced to turn to Maya in cases of extreme need.
The writing works best where it traces the friction generated as these two worlds collide. Anam has a particular talent for showing how memories and emotions intrude into seemingly unconnected practicalities, providing a motive for actions that would otherwise seem inexplicable.
Some of the peripheral characters are a little awkwardly drawn and there occasionally seems to be a step or two missing in the emotional transitions. The scene where Maya takes her nephew to buy shoes and storms out of the shop in a huff, for example, left me feeling slightly nonplussed.
Nevertheless, this is an assured and compelling tale that deserves a wide audience — and one which I would never have found without the Man Asian Literary Prize (shadow) jury’s help. It is proof of the need for prize organisers to take care that their lists truly reflect the best eligible work, wherever it comes from.
The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam (Canongate Books, 2011)
March 8, 2012
The power of compelling storytelling has been demonstrated this week. Within hours of the release of Invisible Children’s KONY 2012 film urging the world to ‘stop’ Joseph Kony, leader of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army, by lobbying for his arrest, the subject was trending on Twitter, clogging up Facebook feeds and scoring Youtube hits in the millions.
The premise of the film is simple. Director Jason Russell exposes the atrocities of the rebel group, which has recruited and brutalised 30,000 children since its inception in 1987, through the story of one former child soldier, Jacob, whom he met while visiting the country as a student nine years ago. The sucker punch comes in the form of a description of the actions of Joseph Kony to Gareth, Russell’s young son, who, on hearing about the deeds of the ‘bad guy’ for the first time, declares that we must ‘stop him’. The issues are so simple and clear-cut, it seems, that even a four-year-old child can grasp them.
However, I suspect Italian journalist Roberto Saviano, author of Gomorrah, which blew open the workings of the Neapolitan mafia in 2006, would advocate a different approach.
Like Russell, Saviano has a personal stake in the story he is telling. In fact, he grew up in the area and watched acquaintances, friends and even his own father suffer at the hands of the Camorra, which metes out a level of violence that Saviano claims has hurled the region into a covert civil war.
His passion for his topic is evident. He knows the power of the personal story every bit as well as Russell does and uses it again and again to bring home the horror of life in the region. We hear of teenagers caught in the crossfire, priests executed for speaking out, beheadings, burnings, flayings, and even the clan member killed by having his mouth and nose stuffed with sand. Indeed, Saviano goes much further than Russell in his attempt to paint a vivid picture, having witnessed the aftermath of brutal murders many times. ‘I believe the only way to truly understand, to get to the bottom of things, is to smell the hot breath of reality, to touch the nitty-gritty,’ he writes.
The individual accounts, though, are only one aspect. Packed with facts, figures, names and details — the result of years of painstaking research — the book traces the web of power in which the region is entangled, revealing how the Camorra controls 50 per cent of Naples’ shops, as well as Campania’s rubbish collections, milk distribution, music festivals, factories, construction, the merchandise it ships all over the world and even parts of the global fashion industry. Saviano’s aim, he says, is to ‘pull the threads of the economic knot one by one to arrive at the criminal head’.
He also contextualises his accounts, providing a rounded picture of Camorra life — from the complex codes that govern the clans’ relations with women and religion to the bizarre copy-cat effect that films like The Godfather have had on the gangsters. At times, he almost seems to feel compassion for the clan bosses, who enjoy a brief reign in the full knowledge that they will soon be overthrown and murdered, writing of the ‘suffering and solitude of a man who must always think he is about to be killed’.
Set against this are the ambulance-chasing reports of the world’s media, which arrived to cover a particularly bloody conflict between clans in 2005. Ignorant of the context and character of the world they are covering, the journalists tear through the streets in search of ‘the worst possible story in the shortest possible time’. In extreme cases, their camera lenses seem to accelerate the horror, goading the gangsters to even greater shows of machismo and ‘the war kills quickly, out of respect for the reporters’. The desire to condense what is a complex and far-reaching crisis into a simple narrative of goodies versus baddies appears to do more harm than good.
Not long after the publication of the book, the Camorra set a bounty on Saviano’s head and he was forced to go into hiding, where he remains to this day. No doubt, if someone asked him if he would like to ‘stop’ the Camorra, he would say yes. But his book shows that the only way we can hope to tackle such entrenched and widespread criminality is by tracing the roots of the problem, understanding its context and the complicity of everyone involved in it, including ourselves.
Arrest one clan boss and there’ll be another one tomorrow. And, who knows, he may be worse.
Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano (translated from the Italian by Virginia Jewiss). Publisher (this editon): Pan Books (2008)
March 6, 2012
Apparently, there are people who take books back to bookshops. When I was studying for my Creative Writing MA, a visiting publisher told us that after Vernon God Little won the 2003 Booker Prize there was a rash of returns up and down the country in protest at DBC Pierre’s expletives.
No doubt if Ahmadou Kourouma’s Allah is not Obliged had enjoyed a similar prominence when it was published in the UK, a similar thing would have happened. Riddled with obscenities and swear words in both Malinké and English (French in the original), many of which are hurled directly at the reader, this story of life as a ’small-soldier’ in West Africa packs a vicious punch, not least because it is narrated by Birahima, a 10-year-old boy.
Most squirm-inducing of all are Birahima’s repeated descriptions of himself and his community as ‘Black Nigger African Natives’. Seeing this most incendiary of words exploding again and again on the opening pages, I was reminded of what my Togolese author, Tété-Michel Kpomassie, wrote about his first encounter with the term:
‘It was the first time I’d ever been called that, though I’d long ago realized that when someone having a dispute with a black man calls him “rotten nigger” or “filthy nigger” or some such name, it’s always some embittered neurotic trying to work off frustrations that have nothing at all to do with the “nigger”.’
Kpomassie’s observations hold true here. In fact, as the narrative progresses and Birahima unfolds his gut-wrenching story of running away from life with his abused and disabled mother only to be co-opted into one guerrilla group after another in Liberia and Sierra Leone, witnessing torture, massacres, rape and butchery along the way, the reasons for his aggressiveness become clear. His linguistic assaults are as much about a war with himself as they are about a war with the world, and reveal his struggle to assimilate all he has seen, thought and felt.
The shock factor is only one side of it. Pithy and waffle-free, Birahima delivers a refreshingly concise and even wry account of West Africa’s recent political history with some piquant insights along the way: ‘The woman is always wrong. That’s what they call women’s rights’; ‘Refugees had it easier than everyone else in the country because everyone was always giving them food’. He even reveals the unacknowledged glamour that the life of the small-soldier seen from the outside may have for many deprived children, for whom a taste of power, respect and good food contrasts favourably with the destitution and helplessness of everyday existence.
The voice can get a little wearing now and then. In particular, the repeated bracketed definitions from the Larousse and Petit Robert dictionaries, which, Birahima explains at the beginning, he is using ‘to make sure I tell you the life story of my fucked-up life in proper French’ feel like a bit of a missed opportunity. While Kourouma does work the odd observation out of them now and then with Birahima’s alternative definitions of ‘torture’ — ‘corporal punishment enforced by justice’ — and ‘humanitarian peacekeeping’, there are too many straight definitions for this device to pay its way.
Nevertheless, the book is a startling and fresh insight into a situation most of us can thankfully only guess at, as well as a masterclass in characterisation. It deserves to be read widely. Outraged readers should be bombarding the returns desks in their droves.
However if the second-hand copy I bought through Amazon is anything to go by, that is unlikely to happen. Inside the front cover there is a ’withdrawn’ stamp from the Bournemouth Library Service; since the library bought the book in 2007, not enough people have read it to justify keeping it on the shelves. Now that is something worth getting angry about.
Allah is not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma (translated from the French by Frank Wynne). Vintage (2007)
March 4, 2012
When you’re trying to read a book from every country in a year, you realise how conservative the big UK publishers are. Sure, they have one or two big-name non-British/American writers on their lists — the Achebes, Rushdies and Roys — but if you’re looking for books from beyond the post-colonial sphere, you’re going to have to turn to the small presses.
These come in all sorts of packages: some are based at universities, others span several offices around the world. Still others operate out of back rooms, garages and garden sheds, getting by purely on the dedication of the one or two people who run them, often while juggling full-time jobs.
The size of these presses means that they tend to be fleeter of foot than their lumbering commercial cousins and better able to develop distinctive lists. They might focus on literature from particular regions, on certain topics, or by specific sorts of writers. Or they might champion a particular ethos or style of writing.
Dalkey Archive Press is one of these. According to its website, places ‘a heavy emphasis upon fiction that belongs to the experimental tradition of Sterne, Joyce, Rabelais, Flann O’Brien, Beckett, Gertrude Stein, and Djuna Barnes’.
Given these criteria, it’s easy to understand what attracted the Dalkey Archive team to Belgian writer Francois Emmanuel. Filled with rich images and startling perspectives, his collection of short stories Invitation to a Voyage recalls the modernist tradition, diffracting the everyday through a prism of strangeness to show it to the reader afresh.
Subterfuge and hidden motives are the lifeblood of many of the pieces. We see the private detective hired to investigate a classical violinist with whom he gradually falls in and out of love and the informer (or is he a madman?) sent to infiltrate a literary organisation (or is it an asylum?) and report back to a shadowy ‘organization’.
Sometimes the deception may be self-delusion, through which a character must break in order to achieve peace (unsurprising, perhaps, coming from a writer who is also a psychotherapist). The most powerful example of this is in the final story, ‘On Horseback upon the Frozen Sea’, a chilling retelling of the Bluebeard tale in which the narrator recounts the strange disintegration of a female friend after she rents a country house with a mysterious locked room.
Emmanuel is adept at sketching complex situations using only a few details. The description of the woman’s landlord in the garden ‘cutting, snipping, clipping, scarifying’, for example, tells us all we need to know about the unnamed fears giving her sleepless nights.
On occasion, though, these details can become too diffuse, making the narrative hard to follow and generating an effect similar to the frustration that the private detective’s commissioner describes in ‘Love and Distance: A Fragmentary Report’: ‘one believes one is looking through a wider and wider lens, but one sees only the lens, the irisations, the dust motes on its surface’. This is not helped by the breathless punctuation, which leaves the early stories hopping with commas (the opening eight-page piece has only one full stop) and makes it hard to resume the thread if you have to look up from the book for anything. Perhaps this is deliberate, but it is a risky strategy because it threatens to derail the largely very enjoyable flow of the stories.
Interestingly, for all their linguistic experimentation, the universe of the works has a strangely old-fashioned feel. Emmanuel first published this collection in 2003, so it would be unfair to expect it to reflect the full force of the digital era. Nevertheless, the world he presents seems immune to the shifts in thought and interaction that the information superhighway had already instigated by then. Reading the collection, you could almost be back in the worlds of Joyce and Djuna Barnes.
No doubt I’ll read more Dalkey Archive books this year, so it will be interesting to see how some of their more recent titles compare. In the meantime though, old-fashioned or not, the world of Francois Emmanuel lingers in my mind.
Invitation to a Voyage by Francois Emmanuel (translated from the French by Justin Vicari). Dalkey Archive Press 2011
March 3, 2012
I have a confession to make: I’ve never been to a book group. In fact they fill me with dread.
I’m not quite sure why. Maybe the workshop process on my master’s course inoculated me against any desire to sit in rooms talking about books with all but a very few close friends or maybe it’s that I prefer to organise and express my thoughts through writing rather than speaking. More likely it’s because I’m not actually very good in groups — I have a bad habit of disengaging and clamming up when a line of conversation makes me impatient or gets pulled in too many directions.
Nevertheless it’s clear from people I speak to and visitors to this blog that book groups are a valuable way for readers to share their enthusiasm for literature and to discover works that might otherwise have passed them by.
This is particularly true in a place like London, where people of all sorts of cultural and national backgrounds can meet and mingle to swap ideas. So when an old university friend told me that she had particularly enjoyed a novel by young writer Alejandro Zambra that she read for her book group recently, it seemed like the perfect suggestion for my Chilean book.
Spanning a single night, The Private Lives of Trees follows aspiring-novelist-turned-literature professor Julian as he waits for his wife Veronica to come home from her drawing class. His stepdaughter Daniela is in bed and he is telling her a bedtime story, but, as the hours pass and the idea of Veronica’s return becomes an increasingly forlorn hope, the comfortable domestic scene snags and unravels, sending Julian groping through a gallery of memories and paranoid projections in an effort to stave off the horrid realisation that his life is changed for good.
Zambra’s skill lies in making a non-event — Veronica’s failure to appear — the central action of the novel. Normally books in which very little happens suffer from a lack of tension for which their rich arrays of literary insights struggle to compensate. Here, however, the drama builds, tautening the sinews of the narrative in line with Julian’s nerves as he strains to hear the familiar sound of his wife coming through the door.
For all its tension, the book also manages some flashes of comedy that vary the register nicely. This is helped by the arch narrative voice, which hovers half in and half out of Julian’s head and tantalises the reader with startling statements delivered in a cavalier, off the cuff way — ‘For now suffice it to say that during those years Julian pretended not to have a family’ it informs us at one point before sweeping on to other matters.
One or two of the devices are a little stale. The section where Julian tells himself what would happen ‘if this were a novel’, for example, has been done too many times by other writers for it to retain the dramatic irony it needs.
For the most part, though, this is an engrossing story told by an inventive and subtle writer in a sharp and skilful translation. I enjoyed it very much. Perhaps it’s time I thought about giving book groups a go…
The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell). Open letter (2010)
March 1, 2012
I knew I had to read Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s book as soon as I saw his Wikipedia entry. Being forced to join a snake cult after a childhood run-in with a jungle python would be more than enough of a life story for most people. But then to set yourself the goal of running away to Greenland after you found a book on the place and saw that it had no snakes and no trees in which they might hide? And to succeed? I had to find out more.
I was more than a little apprehensive, though. In my experience, people who have extraordinary tales to tell are often terrible at putting them across, the bravado and impulsiveness required for having adventures not usually sitting well with the diligence and reflection required for good writing.
Luckily, Kpomassie proved to be an exception: not only is An African in Greenland, his account of his ten-year odyssey to meet and live with ‘the little men of the North’, told with warmth, humour and humanity, it is also exceptionally skilfully written (it won the 1981 Prix Litteraire Francophone).
Having travelled his way up through Africa and Europe, learning languages as he went by correspondence courses and working in whatever jobs he could find, Kpomassie has the talent for looking at any society he finds himself in with an outsider’s eyes. This pays dividends when it comes to describing the customs of his tribe in Togo — where the second-born twin is considered senior because he or she sends the first one out as a scout, where chickens are used in healing rituals, and where teenage boys find extraordinary uses for desiccated lizards — and in Greenland.
At times, Kpomassie’s descriptions of the widespread promiscuity and alcoholism he discovered in southern Greenland and the reactions of the Inuits to the ‘first black man’ to visit them are startlingly frank. Open and ready to think the best of those he encounters, despite his early traumas with the python worshippers, Kpomassie describes the world with enthusiasm and honesty, revealing many of its marvels and flaws.
Yet the book is a testament not only too Kpomassie’s positivity and determination and the wonder of the world but to the warmth of humankind. In fact, his descriptions of the many spontaneous offers of accommodation, help and support he received during his journey remind me of the generosity I’m repeatedly encountering from book lovers around the globe as I pursue this project to read a book from every country in the world this year. The book and the extraordinary story it tells are proof that with energy, hope and a little bit of luck, almost anything is possible.
Tété-Michel, I don’t know where your travels are taking you now, but if you’re ever passing through south London dinner’s on me.
An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie (translated from the French by James Kirkup). Publisher (this edition): New York Review Books (2001)