Equatorial Guinea: public service announcement

May 24, 2012

We interrupt this blog to bring you a public service announcement: libraries are in trouble and I’m beginning to realise why. In the first five months of A Year of Reading the World, I’ve noticed a worrying trend. Many of the second-hand books I’ve ordered for this project have turned out to be copies that have been withdrawn from libraries around the UK. Sometimes that’s because the library itself is closing, but more often than not it’s clear from the smattering of date stamps on the fly-leaf that it’s because these largely excellent translations from remote corners of the globe are rarely borrowed and read.

All the same, nothing could have prepared me for what happened when I opened Donato Ndongo’s Shadows of Your Black Memory to find a sticker as blank and pristine as the day the book first appeared on the shelves at Grangetown Library. This novel, written in a small African nation that has yet to build its first bookshop, painstakingly translated by Michael Ugarte because of his admiration for it, and picked out by some unknown visionary person in Cardiff Council Library Service to be made freely available to the people of Wales, had not been borrowed once. [Since publishing this post I have had confirmation from Cardiff Council that they no longer stamp library books, however the pristine condition of the book made it clear that it had been read very little if at all.]

Set during the last year of Spanish rule in Equatorial Guinea, the novel reveals the thoughts of a young African as he traces the story of his attraction to and eventual rejection of the priesthood and the Roman Catholic Church. Held up as the great white hope of his community and his Spanish missionary mentors alike, the protagonist is forced to confront the damaging influence that colonialism and religion developed in an alien cultural framework have had on him and his nation. This, he discovers, is the only way he can ever hope to find some kind of lasting independence and peace.

Ndongo’s presentation of his hero’s internalisation of the political struggles that grip his country is extraordinary. Raw, vivid and shocking, his frank portrayal of the tortured emotional, sexual and intellectual development of the young man speaks eloquently, particularly when it comes to the self-loathing engendered in him as he tries to espouse the creeds and value systems of his country’s colonial rulers:

‘I identified with the martyrs’ early sufferings, a little like mine but infinitely more sublime, and I so yearned to have their faith, integrity, constancy, because more than anything, I wanted to be like them; yet I couldn’t, I would never be. In the soul of a little black boy like me, an animal in the wild, the vices of my primitive race were locked in, just as Father Amadeo had told me in confession’.

Ndongo further dramatises his hero’s wrestles with ‘the inexorable and inextricable absurdity of successive centuries’ in his use of language. The narrative roves restlessly back and forth between the first and second person reflecting the protagonist’s fractured sense of self, while the commencement of the book at ‘Chapter Zero’, in which he announces his intention to give up training for the priesthood, underlines the process of psychological unmaking and remaking he must go through simply to emerge as ‘a man among others’. Similarly, the way correspondence and speech are woven into the prose without the usual markers and separations emphasises the extent to which the protagonist internalises the expectations of those around him. By the end, I was left in no doubt that this was one of the most linguistically subtle, inventive and complex books I’ve read so far this year.

But back to that blank sticker. Fear not: this is not a lecture about using your local library. For one thing, I’m hardly in a position to talk – I haven’t taken a book out in more than two years. On an idealistic level, I believe that books should be available to everybody in libraries whether we take them out or not.

Sadly, though, we live in an era of cuts and quotas, where books that don’t get borrowed enough get banished and where libraries that don’t get used enough are closed. It’s the age-old law of supply and demand and it’s hard to argue against when you’ve got cancer care units in need of funds and schools teaching pupils in Portakabins.

I’m not sure what we do about it. Still, I can’t help being saddened at the thought of all these great books that have travelled through so many hands and minds to get to us sitting pristine and untouched in public buildings up and down the land. And I can’t help worrying that that bold person in the Cardiff Council Library Service will go for something a little closer to home when it’s time to choose the next round of titles. Or, worse, that he or she will decide not to bother getting more books at all.

Shadows of Your Black Memory by Donato Ndongo, translated from the Spanish by Michael Ugarte (Swan Isle Press, 2007)

11 Responses to “Equatorial Guinea: public service announcement”

  1. alua said

    In my experience libraries don’t always stamp these stickers though – some just scan the books and give you printed return dates or just let you check online when books are due.

    Which probably still doesn’t mean that this book has been read or the general situation is any less bleak.

    I wonder though: does that book have a summary on the back? Often what has kept me from checking out some books is that many editions – particularly anything hardcover – are just the book and nothing else (no blurb) and one just can’t tell if it would be of any interest or not (in particular if it’s a completely unknown item/author).

    I think the digital age might save some of these books – I would like to read this, but probably it’s not all that easy to get hold of (I imagine few libraries have it) but if one could just have an easily accessible online library… especially if that library directly linked to more information about the work/author or reviews!

    P.S. I’m done with exams & just have to enter marks and prepare to mail out the scripts. Once I’m done I’ll catch up on what I missed of your posts this month – so expect some more comments from me soonish!

    • Great stuff. Congratulations on getting through the exam scripts – just in time to enjoy the warm weather.

      You’re right that libraries sometimes don’t stamp for taking books out, however this book was in such pristine condition that it was clear it had never been read before. The pages were as crisp as anything.

      There is a brief summary on the back and a more full description on the inside. Good point about hardcovers generally though. Maybe publishers need to think more carefully about this or maybe libraries should do more to signpost books that don’t have clear covers?

      And yes, I like your thinking on the digital library front.

      Really look forward to hearing more soon

  2. I agree with Alua – my library never stamps books anymore – everything is done electronically. I find that quite sad as I liked knowing how often books were taken out. Sorry to hear that so many books are being sold from the libraries – I do my best to check as many out as possible.

    • Great to hear from you. Yes, Cardiff Council has confirmed that their libraries scan rather than stamp, however the book was in such mint condition that I’d be surprised if it had ever been read.

      I salute your library usage. Hmmn. Time to dust off the library card methinks…

  3. LindseyJoy said

    Thanks for the comment & what an awesome challenge! I can’t wait to look through your book list! :)

    • Thanks very much – let me know if you have any suggestions…

      • LindseyJoy said

        Right now my book club is reading the novel “cutting for stone” about an Ethiopian surgeon. I don’t know if this falls into your “rules” but I’m pretty sure the author is Indian and spent most of his life (early life?) in Ethiopia. It is REALLY good (probably my fave of the year so far) & I can’t wait to finish it!

      • LindseyJoy said

        AH! I just saw its already on your list :) haha…oh well, I guess that’s my confirmation ;)

      • Thanks – it’s good to know you’re enjoying it. I still haven’t made final decision about Ethiopia…

  4. alua said

    Still wanted to add something (I’m nearly done with my catch-up commenting, sorry!): not knowing anything about Equatorial Guinea I read through this post and then I got to the end, when I realised I can read this in the original language!

    Do you know what the Spanish title of the work is? I would actually love to see original titles included in your posts, both to make the fact that we are dealing with translations more visible (the infamous issue of the “translator’s invisibility”) as well as for readers that can and want to read the originals to be able to find them more easily.

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