October 28, 2014
As those of you who’ve followed this blog for a while will know, translation (or the lack of it) is probably the single biggest obstacle literary explorers have to face. With only a handful of texts from many countries making it into English – the globe’s most published language – each year, the literary offering from many parts of the planet available to Anglophone readers is negligible, if not non-existent.
This can affect classics and national treasures every bit as much as lesser known works. During my Year of Reading the World, for example, I was shocked to discover that the great Mozambican novel Ualalapi by Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa (named one of the top 100 African books of the 20th century) had not been published in English. I was lucky to read a manuscript translation and discover Khosa’s towering warrior-leader hero, Ngungunhane, that way. But for the moment, unless they also read Portuguese, Anglophone bibliophiles have no official way of meeting him.
So when fellow book blogger Marina Sofia tipped me off about a long overdue translation of a novel by another internationally celebrated writer, I was determined to take a look.
Coming some 86 years after the original, Michelle Bailat-Jones‘s rendering of Swiss author Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz‘s Beauty on Earth makes the work widely available to English-language readers for the first time (there is an anonymous 1929 translation, but it is only stocked in a very few libraries and diverges from the French-language version in several key respects).
The story turns on the arrival of Cuban emigrant Juliette in a small European mountain village following the death of her father. The plan is for her to stay with her uncle, a café owner called Milliquet, until she turns 21, but before long Juliette’s unsettling beauty has stirred simmering resentments and tensions in the community, setting a train of events in motion that can only end in disaster.
As Bailat-Jones observes in her ‘Translators note’, the narrative voice is one of the most curious and distinctive aspects of the book. Part Greek chorus, part omniscient witness, it veers between every perspective and none, swooping in and out of people’s minds and concerns – not to mention pronouns and tenses. At times it has an almost hypnotic feel, with the repetition of key phrases giving the text a compelling timelessness, as though its events are taking place in an eerie eternal present.
This sense of timelessness is heightened by the creative portrayals of action, colours and scenery in the book, which give it the air of an intricate landscape painting set before our eyes. Small details are rendered with fine brushwork. We read, for example, of how ‘a ladder of sunshine had descended from a hole in the sky, like a boat throwing a rope to someone cast overboard'; of a leaf ‘wrinkled up [...] like a duck’s foot'; and of how, when one of the characters smashes a mirror, ‘a star is made in the glass and his view of us vanishes’.
Meanwhile, flashes of light come in the form of shockingly precise observations on the human experience, revealing in language as clear as glass how ‘one has to kill impossible things inside oneself’ and how vehemently we deny the approach of our own ruin.
Inevitably, the experimental use of images and words means that occasionally the events described take some time to come into focus, leaving us momentarily bewildered and unsure as to exactly what is going on. In addition, the ponderous pace of some of the scenes – in which the narrative eye can linger on the cutting and consuming of bread and cheese, for example, for several sentences – sparks the occasional flicker of impatience.
Taken as a whole though, the accretion of these details builds up a mesmeric picture so that, in the final pages, we are able to step back from the canvas and appreciate the full effect. Beautiful.
Beauty on Earth (La beauté sur la terre) by Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, translated from the French by Michelle Bailat-Jones (Onesuch Press, 2013)
December 21, 2012
‘You should easily be able to find something from Madagascar,’ said a friend a few months ago. ‘It’s massive.’
Massive though the world’s fourth-largest island nation may be, its literature is not widely translated. In fact, there’s so little out there that, seeing the gap on my list, Sophie Lewis, Editor at Large at And Other Stories, offered to lend a hand. She sent me her translation of a short story, ‘Za’, by Francophone Malagasy writer Jean-Luc Raharimanana. The story on its own would not be enough – it had developed into a novel but this was not yet translated; however, she would contact Raharimanana to see what else he could suggest.
The next day Lewis was back with the news that not a single Malagasy novel had been translated into English. Given what I’ve found to be the case with several other Francophone and Lusophone African countries this year, this didn’t surprise me a great deal, but Sophie was shocked – so much so that she’s determined to do something about it and is keen to hear about Malagasy novels that might be suitable for And Other Stories to translate and publish (please put your suggestions at the bottom of this post).
In the meantime, however, there was only one book that fitted the bill for my purposes: Voices from Madagascar, edited by Jacques Bourgeacq and Liliane Ramarosoa.
Published in 2002, the anthology brings together prose and poetry from more than 15 writers, including Raharimanana, in an effort to address the lack of translated Malagasy literature (which its editors claim stems from the country’s political isolation during its Marxist era and the fact that none of its publishers distribute abroad). Presented in parallel with the original French texts, the works range from bleak, violent tales such as David Jaomanoro’s ‘Funeral of a Pig’, in which a son orchestrates a brutal attack on his mother, through to bombastic, witty pieces like Lila Ratsifandriamanana’s ‘God Will Come Down to Earth Tomorrow!’, in which the world anticipates a visit from the Almighty.
There is a great deal of anger in this book, particularly in the early stories. This comes through in hard-hitting, personal pieces such as Raharimanana’s ‘Case Closed’, which sees an abused woman forced to aid a trafficker by sewing drugs into her baby’s corpse, as well as sharp, satirical stories like ‘The President’s Mirror’, in which writer Bao Ralambo goes to town on the fickleness and narcissism of the title character. There are also more rounded, extended works like Jean-Claude Fota’s ‘Walk No Work’, which depicts brilliantly the mental disintegration of a bright graduate in the face of continual rejection and lack of opportunity, recalling such bildungsromans as Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and MT Vasudevan Nair’s Kaalam.
In addition, the collection provides some fascinating glimpses of Malagasy customs and mores. The shocking tradition of insulting a corpse to honour it at a funeral, for example, crops up several times, while there is an almost magical sense of the clash between the old and the new in stories such as Narcisse Randriamirado’s ‘Grandmother’. We also witness the way that many customs are weighted against gender equality in ‘In the Top’ by Alice Ravoson, which sees a woman strive to put herself through university in the face of family expectations that she will remain tied to domestic life.
As is nearly always the case in an anthology like this, some pieces come across better than others. While there is a lovely, poetic quality to much of the prose writing – no doubt owing to the fact that many of the writers work in both forms – it sometimes tips over into opacity and vagueness. The unrelenting shock and violence of the early pieces may also put some readers off, which is a shame as the collection broadens out beautifully.
Overall, though, as a tasting platter of Malagasy literary talent, this is a flavourful and moreish offering. Reading it adds to the sense of how many great works we must be missing because of the lack of cultural exchange to date. It’s surely high time that changed, so go on, tell me: what Malagasy novels should we English-language types be reading?
Voices from Madagascar ed. Jacques Bourgeacq and Liliane Ramarosoa (Ohio University Press, 2002)
October 25, 2012
I thought this one might defeat me. As far as I could see, there was not – nor had there ever been – a single novel, short story collection or memoir published in English translation by a writer from the Comoro Islands. No matter who I asked or how charmingly I smiled at the Google homepage, the answer was always the same: nada. It seemed I had come to the end of the road.
In despair, I mentioned the dilemma to my colleague – the same colleague who came up trumps with the Niger book. A few weeks later he was back with, in his words, ‘possible gold’. He’d found a CV online of Anis Memon, a lecturer in French and Italian at the University of Vermont. It stated that in 2005 he’d done a translation of Le Kafir du Karthala by Mohamed Toihiri, the Comoros’ permanent representative to the United Nations and, according to Simon Gikandi’s Encyclopedia of African Literature, the country’s first published novelist. Perhaps if I contacted Memon, he might be able to dig out the manuscript for me?
I fired off an email and received a modest response from Memon. He said he couldn’t vouch for the quality of the translation as it was a personal project he’d undertaken when Mohamed Toihiri was a visiting lecturer one year at Memon’s grad school. The two had spent quite a bit of time together and as a result Memon had decided it would be good practice for him to try and translate one of the writer’s novels. Still, if I wanted to look at the manuscript, he’d see if he could find it for me.
A nail-biting wait ensued. The way I saw it, Memon’s translation was probably my one chance of reading a Comorian novel in English. I just hoped he was better at backing up and archiving his files than I was.
Luckily, that turned out to be the case and when I next checked my emails while on holiday in Spain, the file was waiting for me. The Kaffir of Karthala was mine to read.
Beginning on the day Dr Idi Wa Mazamba discovers he has terminal cancer, the novel tells the story of one man’s struggle to free himself from the conventions, patterns and prejudices that have dogged his life. Liberated by the knowledge that his days are numbered, married Mazamba embarks on an affair with a French woman, Aubéri, and comes to look at the world around him with new eyes. Yet this fresh vision brings with it a heightened awareness of the racism, corruption and contradictions that riddle society. Appalled by the hypocrisy he encounters, Dr Mazamba hatches a plan to challenge the status quo while he still can.
Toihiri is a clear-eyed writer, who excels at presenting complex situations in concise, memorable ways. Whether he is describing the inequality of living conditions in Chitsangani – ‘a neighbourhood where the Middle Ages and the Third Millennium went hand in hand’ and where ‘here one slept on a mat of fleas, there one got ill from hyper-cleanliness’ – or the double standards that see foreign nationals and the ‘generous partner’ donors who pull the political strings behind the scenes receiving top treatment while patients in Mazamba’s hospital can not afford drugs, Toihiri’s descriptions are precise and fearless.
Often, they are very funny too. Ranging from witty anecdotes to satirical attacks, such as the summary of the political career of Marshal Kabaya – ‘at first Minister of Sand in Your Eyes, he was then promoted, following a shuffling of the cabinet, and became the Minister of State in Charge of the Occult Sciences’ – they puncture pomposity and pretence wherever Toihiri sees it. Meanwhile, the writer balances these descriptions with a wry affection for some of the customs on the archipelago that keeps the narrative from becoming overly bitter, as when Mazamba explains the rivalry between the islands to Aubéri:
‘In Ngazija and Mmwali they say that the Anjouanese are poisoners, that they’re skinflints, morbidly jealous, that you mustn’t even look at their women otherwise they’ll arrange to have you thrown off a bridge; we actually say a lot of nonsense about each other.’
Perhaps the most fascinating passages of the book for readers unfamiliar with Comorian culture, like me, are those surrounding marriage traditions in Mazamba’s home village. There, the concept of the ‘great wedding’, a huge celebration which each man is expected to save for and go through once in his life, regardless of whether he is already married to another woman or not, holds sway. And when Issa, Mazamba’s best friend, allows himself to be flattered into going through a great wedding with a canny teenager, the folly of the institution is laid bare.
Occasionally, Toihiri’s desire to encapsulate contradictions and struggles in punchy imagery runs away with the narrative. Muslim Mazamba and Jewish Aubéri’s first physical encounter, for example takes place in a church during a trip they both conveniently have to take to apartheid-riven South Africa. Reading the descriptions of Mazamba breaking his Ramadan fast with Aubéri’s bodily fluids under the shadow of a crucifix, I couldn’t help feeling the author was labouring the point. In addition, the final stages of the plot, during which Mazamba is unexpectedly manoeuvred into a position of influence that enables him to take radical action, rely too much on coincidence and luck to be entirely credible.
But then I’m writing this having just read a translation that until a couple of months ago existed only on the hard drive of an academic I’ve never met more than 3,000 miles away. Hmmn. Perhaps anything is possible after all…
The Kaffir of Karthala (Le Kafir du Karthala) by Mohamed Toihiri, translated from the French by Anis Memon
September 28, 2012
It was as if she’d read my mind. In fact, I’d just finished Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Sand Child and was preparing to post on it when her comment came in.
Shafiqah1 wasn’t the only Ben Jelloun fan to have visited the blog. Back when I first asked the world’s book lovers to tell me what I should be reading late last year, litlove also put in a vote for the writer.
However, what finally made me pick The Sand Child from the cluster of fascinating-sounding Moroccan titles on the list was a recommendation of a very different kind, from a person who doesn’t technically exist.
The Sand Child is the novel Doria, the gutsy teenage heroine of my French choice Just Like Tomorrow, is reading when we first stumble into her tough life on the Paradise Estate in a part of Paris the guidebooks never mention. As I liked Doria, I thought I would probably get on well with a book she enjoys. I also loved the idea of books talking to and about one another, signposting me from one to the next like clues on a massive literary treasure hunt.
And if I needed anything else to persuade me, Doria’s pithy précis of the book was more than enough to make me want to read it:
‘It’s about a little girl who got brought up as a boy because she was the eighth daughter in the family and her father wanted a son. Plus, at the time when it was set, you didn’t have ultrasound or contraception. No kids on sale or return, you get me.’
As Doria suggests, gender issues are at the heart of the novel. Like several other stories I’ve read from relatively conservative Islamic countries, the book is startling in its explicitness and the fearless way it tackles taboos. Focusing on the lonely and troubled Ahmed, who was raised to despise femaleness as a ‘natural infirmity’ that threatens the family’s future because women are forbidden by law to inherit more than a third of their father’s wealth, the narrative presents a complex picture of gender dysphoria that reveals the narrowness of society’s definitions. As Ahmed him/herself explains, ‘the huge ordeal through which I am passing has meaning only outside those petty, psychological schemata that claim to know and explain why a woman is a woman and a man a man’.
Even more engrossing, however, is the picking apart of storytelling that Ben Jelloun weaves through the text. Frequently interrupted by a tour guide-cum-storyteller and various listeners, characters and even literary figures from other tales, the narrative becomes a battleground of interpretations, speculation and suspicion. Just as Ahmed is both male and female, victim and aggressor, transgressor and conformist, so the story veers between truth and falsehood as a range of would-be narrators squabble over its meaning, providing alternative endings and even, at one stage, burning the original text. It is as though plurality and ambiguity are the only things of which we readers can be sure, a sentiment explored by the Blind Troubadour, who weighs in towards the end:
‘Besides, a book – at least that’s how I see it – is a labyrinth created on purpose to confuse men, with the intention of ruining them and bringing them back to the narrow limits of their ambitions.’
Such elusiveness might be maddening in the hands of another writer, but in Ben Jelloun’s it is intriguing, amusing and even beautiful. In fact certain images, such as the description of adopting another identity being like putting on ‘a wonderful magic jellaba, a cloak cut out of the sky and studded with stars’, reach out from the hubbub of the novel’s voices to stop you in your tracks, like rare treasures mixed in among the knick-knacks at a bustling bazaar.
The overall effect is rich, engrossing and challenging. Readers wanting a quiet meander along well-trodden paths are probably best advised to steer clear. But if you don’t mind being pushed, jostled, pulled in all directions, spun round and tumbled into the odd ditch, then this is the book for you.
The Sand Child (L’enfant du sable) by Tahar Ben Jelloun, translated from the French by Alan Sheridan (Quartet Books, 1988)
August 3, 2012
This book had lots going for it. The British Centre for Literary Translation’s director Dr Valerie Henitiuk, a Canadian national, told me it was one of the best translations she’d come across. In addition, as a Quebecois classic, it would be the first French-Canadian novel I’d ever read. And it was feminist literature – something I’ve had a fascination with ever since my year of reading women opened my eyes to some of the riches in this frequently overlooked field of writing. Nevertheless, even with all this promise, I could not have imagined the treat I had in store.
Split into three parts, Nicole Brossard’s Mauve Desert takes storytelling and translation apart from the inside. The first section follows 15-year-old Mélanie as she speeds across the Arizona desert in her mother’s car, ‘moving forward in life, wild-eyed with arrogance’, while also fleeing the insecurity, awkwardness and tenderness of life at her lesbian mother’s motel. Next, the middle part catalogues the experience of Maudes Laures, who finds Mélanie’s story in a second-hand bookshop and spends two years obsessing over its meaning and the actions of its characters and author, Laure Angstelle. The final section is Maudes Laures’s translation of Mauve Desert, which is at once similar to and very different from the original text.
Rich, ambiguous and fluid, Brossard/Angstelle’s writing sweeps the reader into the heart of teenage longing, using fine details to evoke intense experience. Long, sultry afternoons around the pool consist in the glint of wet tiles and the snaking of a hose pipe, while the rush of speeding through the desert shimmers on the horizon and in the dizziness of dehydration. Deliberately ambiguous, ‘both in focus and out of the frame’ as Mélanie describes her driving experiences, the narrative opens up a vast landscape of multivalency so that we can often never be sure exactly what is taking place. ‘Reality had a meaning, but which one?’ reflects Mélanie at one point.
As Maude Laures discovers, this confusion is precisely the point. While she strives to get to the heart of the text that has obsessed her, picking apart places, characters and events, and even at one stage imagining an encounter with Laure Angstelle herself in which she berates and interrogates the author over her treatment of one character, she finds herself dazzled by ‘the inexorable light that transforms lives of flesh into the bare bones of narrative’. As she records and analyses conflicting assertions that she finds in the text and her discourse with it, some sort of truth emerges like a line drawn through a cluster of points on a graph, tying trends and outliers together into a kind of coherent whole.
Yet, as Laures’s translation in the final section shows, this whole will not be the same for any two readers. Filtered through her consciousness and the result of her interaction with the novel, Laures’s rendering of the text (here of course given another layer by virtue of having been translated in reality by Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood), is a new work. It picks up fresh angles and possibilities in the story and even adds things not in the original, as well as sometimes making passages awkward and stilted. Mélanie’s brush with some aggressive road-users is a good example:
Original: ‘At the junction of Route 10 and Route 25 are dozens of motorcycles, guys smoking as they look at the sky. Two girls are talking. One of them flashes me a peace and love sign while the other one, barely set back in the spatial plane, gives me a violent f**k with her finger, then with her fist. I press on the accelerator. I know reality. Fear, it doesn’t matter when you accelerate; fear vanishes like a dark spot in the rearview mirror.’
Translation: ‘At the junction of Route 10 and Route 25, a gang of bikers are smoking with their noses in the air. Two girls are talking, a bottle of beer in hand. One of them flashes me a victory sign and the other one, barely set back in the spatial plane, violently “up-yours” me with her middle finger, then the whole fist up. I accelerate. I know reality. Fear is nothing, it’s nothing when one is fast so fast. Fear faints dark spot in the rearview mirror.’
This exploration of the mysterious alchemy of translation and the anxieties around the authenticity of such renderings – as Laure Angstelle puts it in her imaginary dialogue with Maude Laures: ‘How am I to believe for a single moment that the landscapes in you won’t erase those in me?’ – is utterly engrossing. It is without question one of the most innovative things I’ve ever read.
However, it does come with a health warning for e-reader fans. While normally a Kindle enthusiast, I would encourage anyone planning to read this to do so on paper. Flicking back and forth between the third and first sections to compare the two versions of the novel is maddening on-screen, whereas it would be a breeze in a hard copy.
Alternatively, of course, you could buy yourself an e-version and a paperback and read it like that. It’s certainly worth it.
Mauve Desert (Le Désert Mauve) by Nicole Brossard, translated from the French by Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood (Coach House Books, 1990, 2010)
July 19, 2012
I heard about this book through a class I’ve been attending on free speech and translation, run by English PEN. The final session was set to involve a visit from translator Sarah Ardizzone (née Adams), who was going to talk about how she worked with writer Faïza Guène’s heavily inflected, Moroccan-street-slang-laden French to create the English version of the novel Just Like Tomorrow.
The work piqued my interest for another reason too: having read Leïla Marouane’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris for my Algerian book, I was curious to see how another novel set in the French capital’s North African community but this time written by a French-born author might compare to it. Would reading this book help me to draw that ever more elusive line between where one country’s literature stops and another’s begins?
Just Like Tomorrow follows 15-year-old Doria as she copes with life on the city’s grim Paradise estate. Her father has recently left her mother for a younger wife in Morocco and the two women now live on the bread line, depending on the income from Doria’s mother’s precarious cleaning job and their own abilities to make do and mend. Caught between the disapproval of their conservative neighbours and the shallow complacency of a series of social workers, Doria has nothing but her wit and verve to keep her from becoming just another statistic on the French authorities’ books.
Sadly, Sarah Ardizzone was unable to make the class, which was a shame because it would have been fascinating to hear about the process by which she converted Guène’s prose into a sort of light Jafaican (or Multicultural London English as it’s more formally known). Translating dialects can be tricky at the best of times – and a questionable decision can be very distracting – but here Doria’s narrative voice, peppered with ‘innit’s, ‘you get me’s and ‘back in the day’s, is thoroughly engaging and believable. The only sticking points come occasionally in the form of cultural references, which veer between British romance author Barbara Cartland (unlikely to be known to many urban teenagers), TV programme The Price is Right and French gameshow Fort Boyard, as though final decisions about the framework of Doria’s translated world haven’t quite been made – although these may have been carried over from the original.
The success of the voice is central to the book, because it is Doria’s wry, fearless, fresh vision and killer putdowns that make the novel. So much so, that I’m struggling to choose which of the many great oneliners to share with you. There’s the cashier who is ‘so flat you could fax her’, the absent father now known to his daughter as ‘Mr How-Big-Is-My-Beard’, and, perhaps my favourite of all, Doria’s succinct explanation of the Arabic term ‘insh’Allah’:
‘She played that wild card, AKA ‘insh’Allah’. It doesn’t mean yes or no. The proper translation is “God willing”. Thing is, you never find out if God’s willing or not…’
The humour, however, never clouds our vision of the hardships Doria and her mother face. If anything, it enhances the picture by making us indignant that such vibrant individuals should be forced to endure the sneers of snobs and racists, the harsh treatment of shady employers and the patronisation of officials. Guène brings this home through a series of small, yet telling scenes – such as Doria’s struggle to scrape enough money together to pay for sanitary towels at the local shop’s checkout and her recollection of the day she unwittingly went to school in a second-hand pyjama top, bearing the English phrase ‘Sweet Dreams’.
Does her perspective on Paris differ from the attitude of Marouane’s protagonist to the city? Well, perhaps, in as much as he might be described as being on the fringes of French culture looking longingly in at what he thinks he sees, while Doria is very much in the thick of the less-than-perfect reality.
Such questions seem to pale into insignificance, however, in the face of the fact that this is simply a fabulous, and thoroughly engaging book. Its portrait of a divided society, full of contradictions, tensions and hope will enthrall, challenge and resonate with readers – wherever they are in the world.
Just Like Tomorrow (Kiffe kiffe demain) by Faïza Guène, translated from the French by Sarah Ardizzone (Definitions, 2006)
June 16, 2012
This was a recommendation from one of the newest book bloggers on the block. Based in Redeyef, Tunisia, English teacher Ali Znaidi set up Tunisian Literature (in English) in May 2012 to plug a gap in the blogosphere, which seemed to have nothing in English dedicated specifically to Tunisian writing.
Providing news, book reviews and other information, Znaidi aims to raise awareness about his country’s literature. It therefore seemed natural to turn to him for a recommendation for this project – particularly as, from what I could find out, Tunisian literature is relatively rarely translated, compared to literature from many other Arab countries.
Znaidi confirmed what I suspected about the scarcity of Tunisian texts in English, but he came back with several suggestions. Of these, I went with Talismano by French-language writer Abdelwahab Meddeb.
Told by a Tunisian writer living in Paris (much like Meddeb himself), the 1979 novel, which the author reworked in 1987, is built around an imagined return to Tunis, Fez and the other cities of the narrator’s youth. As he wanders for a period of roughly 24 hours through streets built half from memory and half from fantasy, the protagonist tests the boundaries of experience and writing itself, by turns engaging in the sensual, riotous and often shocking events he encounters and stepping back to comment on the world and his place in it.
Culture and identity are central threads. As the writer walks through his ‘maze of discovery’, he records the impact that colonialism and the different communities that migrated to the region have had on the places he sees, mingling aspects of Islamic and Judao-Christian culture with ancient myths and secularism to create a heady, bustling and often bewildering text.
A polymath par excellence, Meddeb reaches for cultural references the way an experienced chef works with rare herbs and spices, adding complex layers of flavour and piquancy to his creation. From Dante, Hesse and Joyce, to the Koran and ancient Egyptian theology, the text is broad and full in its scope – a book more of the world than of any particular time and place.
Some of the references are clearly deliberately obscure, however, the experience of reading the novel as a Brit with very little knowledge of Tunisian culture added another layer of disorientation: there were times when I was not sure whether my missing things was part of the author’s design or a function of my own cultural blind spots.
This becomes clearer as the narrative unfolds, carrying with it a series of knowing commentaries on writing and the author’s craft. Perhaps the most telling of these comes right at the end in the Epilogue:
‘We have confided through writing, but without giving you a foothold, have strained your eyes with our arabesque of words, have recommended the circuits of our journey, have warned you of the fissure in all that meets the eye, have unsettled you on high moral grounds, have ruined you among the most robust constitutions, have dusted myself off, vanished into thin air, have found my way inside you through the least perceptible slit’.
No wonder then that extracting coherent meaning from the narrative sometimes feels like trying to scale a glass wall.
This can make for a frustrating reading experience, particularly in the early stages. However if you allow yourself to surrender to the narrative, and let it flow over you, carrying with it its tide of impenetrable allusions, you may be surprised by the insights and recognitions that flash suddenly from it like gems buried in the shifting sand of the seabed.
Beautiful, maddening, disturbing and strange, this is a book for the intrepid armchair adventurers out there. It is not a comfortable ride, but when you reach the end and look back along the route you’ve travelled, you get one hell of a view.
Talismano by Abdelwahab Meddeb, translated from the French by Jane Kuntz (Dalkey Archive Press, 2011)
May 12, 2012
The line between truth and fiction is often blurry. And, as Norbert Zongo discovered in 1981, the distinction can be a matter of life and death.
In what is probably one of the most gripping prefaces ever written, the journalist and novelist describes his interrogation by the Burkinabé special police about his novel The Parachute Drop. The ordeal, which marked the start of three months of solitary confinement and a career of persecution and assassination attempts, was, he says, ‘like the beginning of time for me, the day my life began to melt like butter on a hot skillet’.
Zongo’s maltreatment was testament to the incendiary power of his work. Set in the fictional African state of Watinbow (which has striking parallels with Blaise Compaoré’s Burkina Faso), the novel draws a complex portrait of a tyrannous dictator as he scrabbles to retain his power in the face of growing unrest. Paranoid, fickle and vain, ‘Founding President and Clairvoyant Guide’ Gouama is prepared to sanction anything from the assassination of his most loyal followers to barbaric witchcraft rituals involving the severed body parts of his subjects if he can be persuaded it will keep him in control.
His advisers take full advantage of this, manipulating the president into actions that bring about his downfall and send him into hiding in the rural extremities of his land where he is helped by many of the activists he treated most harshly when in power. Chastened and challenged, the deposed president resolves to mend his ways, but as he attempts to begin assembling forces to mount a counter-coup, it becomes clear that his fleeting remorse is far too little too late.
The novel’s comments on the mechanics of establishing and maintaining a dictatorship are fascinating. From the ‘politics of drinking’, whereby subjects are distracted from their dissatisfaction with Bacchanalian festivals timed to coincide with the feast days of the old calendar, to Gouama’s cynical instruction to his speech writer to ‘pay lip-service to liberation movements throughout the world’ and include ‘whatever will help our image on the outside’ in his address to an international convention, Zongo’s portrait is terrifying and damning.
However, far more extraordinary than this is the humanity that the writer is able to reveal in his protagonist, despite the anger he feels at this representative of ‘Africa’s moral cripples’ and the ‘world of intolerable paradox’ and cruelty that he and his peers perpetuate. This comes to the fore when Gouama is thrown on the mercy of the farmers, fishermen and dissidents in the bush, but it matures into something approaching dignity towards the end. As Gouama faces his demise, we are in the extraordinary position of pitying and even occasionally admiring him.
This capacity to evoke empathy and celebrate the humanity of his enemies demonstrates Norbert Zongo’s outstanding qualities as a writer, journalist and human being. It makes his death in a car bombing (one of the Compaoré regime’s favoured methods of silencing its critics) in 1998 all the more tragic. I am ashamed not to have heard of him before.
The Parachute Drop by Norbert Zongo, translated from the French by Christopher Wise (Africa World Press, Inc, 2004)