Ghana: a new conquest

November 19, 2012

As a friend reminded me when I put a call out for Ghanaian suggestions on Facebook, Ghanaian literature has been part of my life almost since the beginning. I can still remember the Anansi tales being read to me in my first years of school, as we all sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the teacher at story time.

As an adult, however, I’ve not kept up with literature from the country, so when I found details of Journey by Dr Gheysika Adombire Agambila on the Writers Project of Ghana website, I had no means of knowing whether the novel was likely to be any good. I couldn’t help being a bit put off by the rather lack-lustre design of the book jacket, which features footprints going across sand under a weirdly beige sky. Alright, so we all know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but when you haven’t got much else to go on, it’s hard not to look for clues somewhere. On the strength of what I could see in front of me, I was tempted to stick with the first suggestion on my list, Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, which, the internet told me, was likely to be good and, by the way, has a fabulous cover.

But Armah’s classic was published in 1968. Surely I should try to read something a little more contemporary if I could?

Then I noticed that Journey was championed by the African Books Collective, which has delivered a series of good reads to this project throughout the year. Maybe there was more to this 2006 novel than met the eye?

Journey recounts the coming of age of Amoah, a teenage school leaver keen to make his mark on the world. Sex and girls are high on the adolescent’s list, as are going to live with his uncle and getting a job in Accra, far away from his grandfather’s traditional village. But as reality bites, Amoah begins to lose his prefect’s swagger and realise there is more to life in contemporary Ghana than his neo-colonialist boarding school could hope to prepare him for.

This is a book that thrives on oppositions. Whether he’s pitting old against young, educated against illiterate, rich against poor, Christian against Muslim, male against female, or science against superstition, Agambila delights in testing the boundaries of ideologies and cultural mores by letting them fight it out in the arena of his narrative.

Humour is the biggest weapon in his arsenal. From sharp, language-based jokes, such as the unfortunate Schola’s letter to Amoah at ‘sukool’, in which she tries to make him see that they are ‘swimming in the same boat’, to killer one-liners – the observation, for example, that ‘if acne affected older people, they would have found a cure for it by now’ – Agambila makes great comic capital out of his material. Amoah is at the heart of this. Filled with the arrogance of youth and yet touchingly naive, he is forever coming a cropper in his desire to ‘take advantage of promising situations': drinking himself silly instead of intoxicating the girl he hopes to seduce, lending money to a friend who will not pay it back, and finding his plans scuppered by the systems of a society he has not yet taken the time to understand.

This vulnerability makes Amoah very likeable and gives Agambila leverage to tackle some of the book’s more challenging themes, such as the long shadow that British rule has cast upon the country. Many of these struggles play out in Amoah’s mind as we see him scorning the ‘hopeless bush students’ at his school and reflecting that a porter is ‘so strong he would have fetched enough money to build a house and marry several wives in the days when humans were bought and sold’, but becoming furious at his grandfather’s nostalgia for colonial rule. Similarly, while he sneers at the traditions and beliefs of the villagers in Tinga, Amoah is unable to help superstitions about witches creeping into his mind when he walks out late at night. Educated to be disdainful and distrustful of the culture he is rooted in, he struggles to find a way to assimilate the contradictions within him, playing out a national drama on a personal level.

At times the pacing can be problematic. Agambila has a tendency to put us in scenes and keep us there in real time. While this works brilliantly with comic set pieces such as the dance Amoah attends at the hotel near his school, it becomes less compelling when it comes to descriptions of the hero’s bathing rituals. In addition, the latter half of the narrative could do with some tightening to keep the momentum up right to the end.

On the whole, though, there is a lot to like in this book. Sharp, funny and insightful, it is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read – a worthy successor to the crown of Anansi in the kingdom of my imagination.

Journey by Gheysika Adombire Agambila (Sub-Saharan Publishers, 2006)

How do you choose one book from a nation of 1.2 billion people – a country that is one of the most culturally rich and diverse in the world and a country, that, as I discovered when I was lucky enough to visit West Bengal last year, is so varied in its constituent states, let alone across its 1,269,219 square miles, that it makes a nonsense of the term ‘nationality’ as it is commonly understood?

I’m afraid I still don’t have the answer to this question. I struggled with it long and hard. As the suggestions of Indian writers poured in from visitors to this blog I did my best to research and weigh up each one. All to no avail: the more I looked into the many excellent and intriguing Indian authors whose names I’ve heard this year, the more impossible it seemed to limit my selection to just one work. An Indian friend of mine kindly posted my dilemma on Facebook and yet more names flooded in. The truth was, I could have spent a decade reading Indian literature and still barely have scratched the surface of the literary delights this country has to offer.

One thing I did know: I wanted to read the work of an author who was prized and celebrated in India rather than one who had made his or her name outside the country. As Tim who recommended Kushwant Singh just this week put it, ‘rather a lot of the “Indian” writers beloved of the international literati seem to live in London or New York’. Talented though many of these authors are, they didn’t chime in with what I was looking for: I wanted to read the work of someone who wrote primarily for Indian readers.

With this in mind, one among the many comments I’ve had about Indian literature stood out. It was from Suneetha:

‘I am from India, and I note that both the suggestions in comments and your list for India reads are those written originally in English. I have to say these are just second best to what regional literature we have here in over 23 official languages and a couple of hundreds of other languages spoken across the country.’

This struck a chord with me. After all, if I was looking for an Indian writer who wrote to be read by his or her compatriots, surely I should choose something written in a regional language, rather than the international lingua franca of the country’s colonial past? And so it was that I plumped for a novel by one of Suneetha’s favourite authors: the much decorated Malayalam novelist and filmmaker M T Vasudevan Nair.

Kaalam (Time), which won Nair the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1970, follows Sethu Madhavan as he leaves home for college and tries to make his way in the world. The expectations of his rural village rest on his shoulders and his excellent academic record seems to promise him a bright future. Yet, as the years pass and Sethu staggers from one failure to another, consoling himself with a series of hopeless love affairs, his potential seems to tarnish and warp and he grows disgusted with his life. At last, obliged to return to the family home he has spurned for so long, he is forced to face up to himself.

MT (as he is known) excels at presenting experiences that are at once universal and very specific to his characters’ time and place. Readers everywhere will recognise the adolescent Sethu’s embarrassment at his relations’ eccentricities – his aunt who lies scantily clad on the verandah, for example, and his mother who grumbles whether anyone is listening or not – and his desire to hide his poverty from his friends, as well as the perennial graduate’s dilemma of needing experience to get a job and a job to get experience.

What makes MT’s portrayal of these relatively commonplace rites of passage is his insight into the inconsistencies and contradictions that wrestle beneath the surface of all of us as we seek to move through life. From Sethu’s exasperated interior monologue in the face of an interview panel, to his stilted encounter with a friend who left education long before him and is now married and running a company, the author is a master of the tricks we use to disguise our shortcomings and the way casual questions and pleasantries can strike a person to the bone. This is particularly evident in MT’s depiction of his protagonist’s dealings with women: Sethu’s delight in the ‘illusionary obstacles’ that mask the impossibility of his feelings for teenage Thangamani and his wild justifications of his cruelty to his first love Sumitra both point to the self-delusion that keeps him crashing blindly, wilfully on.

These insights are couched in scintillating descriptions, which make the novel a joy to read. There is the loveless married couple for whom ‘words had become brittle showpieces in a glass case, to be used only on special occasions’, the minutes that ‘swam before [Sethu's] eyes like bubbles distilled from the indistinct colours of sunset clouds’ and, perhaps my favourite of all, Sethu’s numbed reaction to his mother’s death: ‘The news stood just outside his mind like a traveller in search of shelter’.

The editorial decision not to explain culturally specific terms in the text but instead to confine their definitions to a rather incomplete glossary at the back means that readers from other parts of the world may find it hard to work out some of the roles of and connections between characters. There are also some gremlins in the e-edition, which mean that odd words have been misrepresented, making for some rather strange sentences that have to be read twice to tease the proper meaning out.

These glitches in no way hampered my enjoyment of the novel, though. If anything, the initial confusion I felt over the interrelationship of the characters is an added bonus: it means that I will have to read the novel again now that I’ve got them sussed. I’m already looking forward to it.

Kaalam by MT Vasudevan Nair, translated from the Malayalam by Gita Krishnankutty (Orient Blackswan, 2012)

Norway: reality bites

February 2, 2012

Before Coetzee’s Youth and Orwell’s Aspidistra; before Amis’s Jim got lucky and the artist revealed himself as a young man; even before Somerset Maugham wrote Of Human Bondage, there was Knut Hamsun ‘s Hunger. Published in Norway in 1890 and only translated into English 30 years later, this slight novel might have long sunk into the eternal slush pile, were it not for its extraordinary power and the fact that it contains the essential ingredients of many of the great 20th century bildungsromans to come – at times surpassing them all.

The story is simple enough: an unnamed and destitute writer wanders around the nation’s capital, railing against the cruel circumstances that make him unable to earn enough to eat. Half-mad with hunger, he goads himself into fruitless attempts at scribbling and doomed schemes to raise a penny or two, struggling along the edge of existence and endurance until he is at last forced to find some escape.

Chief among the problems that writing such coming-of-age novels throws up (as I discovered to my cost when I had a bash at one a few years ago) are the issues of making such a self-obsessed protagonist likeable and dealing with the fact that his (it usually is a he) main problem is often that he doesn’t have enough going on. Humour is the common get-out-of-jail-free card for writers such as Coetzee, Amis, Salinger and even Orwell, but Hamsun jumps another way.

Delving into the wounded psyche of his anti-hero he uses the likeability problem as an opportunity for generating poignancy, holding his character hostage to a self-imposed chivalry code that sees him unable to accept help and unable to walk past someone in need. The result of these repeated bungled encounters is a maddening, perverse and yet pitiable figure, for whom we can’t help feeling sympathy, even as he blunders on into the territory of the deranged, far beyond what most of the later greats dare to try – at one stage even toying with autocannibilism.

The endings are often another problem in such novels. Necessarily involving some sort of rebellion, transformation or shift in relation to all that has gone before, they can often have the wriggling, impatient feeling of a child scrawling ‘The End’ and scampering off to the next thing, bored now he has said all he had to say.

Does Hamsun get past this with his final solution? I’m not sure. I think he and Coetzee could have had a rewarding chat about the options here.

But, of course, Coetzee wasn’t even a glint on his grandfather’s ink stand when Hamsun was writing this and wouldn’t be for another 50 years. None of the great, modernist stream-of-consciousness works and bildungsromans of the 20th century had been realised when Hamsun created the paranoid interior monologue he spins out so skilfully in his first translated book.

I wonder how many of them would have existed in their present forms if Hamsun hadn’t picked up his pen.

Hunger by Knut Hamsun (translated from the Norwegian by George Egerton). Publisher (this edition): Dover (2003)

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