Kazakhstan: an epic struggle

December 20, 2012

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This was a recommendation from Kazakh nationals studying at Durham and Exeter universities. The institutions kindly put out calls to their international students after hearing that I was struggling to fill in a few of the gaps on the list earlier this year.

Kazakhstan was one of these. Although I had been in touch with novelist Ilya Odegov, whose short story ‘Old Fazyl’s Advice’ is on Words Without Borders, none of his books are available in English yet – he is working with a translator so should hopefully have a novel coming out soon.

The Kazakh students at opposite ends of the country, however, were unanimous in their recommendation of The Nomads, a trilogy by Ilyas Yesenberlin (1915-1983). In fact, Aigerim in Exeter went further, not only pointing me to a site where I could download an Exxon-sponsored translation of the first book for a small registration fee, but also sending me a link to a subtitled trailer for Myn Bala: Warriors of the Steppe, a Kazakh film on a similar theme that came out this year (see below). She called it the ‘greatest movie of Kazakhstan’ and hoped very much that I would be able to find a full-length subtitled version to watch (I hope so too – it looks gripping).

But back to The Nomads. Focusing mainly on the 18th century, book one in the trilogy, The Charmed Sword, tells the story of some of the great battles that swept the territory that is now Kazakhstan. Depicting the cruelty and calculation of many of the tyrants that tussled for it during the second millennium – among them Genghis Khan and Timur – the narrative reveals the harshness and beauty of life on the plains and the source of the desire for an independent Kazakh state.

As the opening address from Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev suggests, national pride and identity are central themes in the book. The idea that ‘only the creation of a united and powerful Kazakh state could save the people’ runs through the novel, clashing with the cynical ‘divide and rule’ strategy of rulers such as wily Khan Abulkhair, who fuels infighting among the steppe tribes and his own family to keep control of them.

In this world of betrayal and suspicion, only the ruthless survive. Indeed, the narrative is awash with accounts of extreme violence and cruelty – from the 13-year-old boy indoctrinated to order the execution of his own mother, to the lover who is tied behind his horse and sent to what should be a brutal death with the flick of a whip.

Yet moments of beauty and some wonderful insights into steppe customs shine through too. We discover how to train hunting eagles, for example, and witness the politically pivotal storytelling competitions in which zhyrau-songsters vie to sway the crowd with their conflicting versions of events.

The sheer volume of characters, events and information in the narrative can make it tricky for someone ignorant of Kazakh history, like me, to follow. Now and then, caught up in a welter of names and incidents, it is difficult to work out exactly who is fighting and what they are doing it for.

This isn’t helped by the language problems that riddle this anonymous translation. Although certain metaphors and statements strike home, there are numerous grammatical errors and odd word choices that cloud the meaning of the more involved passages. At times, readers will find themselves lost in the maze of a sentence, searching for a subject that does not appear. There are also one or two moments where the narrative seems to jump like a scratched record, as though something is missing.

The text, such as it is, however, reveals a work of great passion and importance. This epic story opens a rare window on the history of a region that, even in this age of global communication, remains closed off to most English-language speakers. Perhaps now, 15 years after this translation came out, it’s time for another edition.

The Nomads by Ilyas Yesenberlin, translated by ? (Ilyas Yesenberlin Foundation, 1998)

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It’s official (well, as official as these things can ever be): there are no novels, short story collections or memoirs by writers from Guinea-Bissau available in English translation. I know, because I checked. In fact, it wasn’t just me checking, but a whole army of people, working in, living in or studying the country – as well as several others with no particular connection to it – who kindly helped me with the search.

These included Professor Peter Aaby, director of the Bandim Health Project, who has lived and worked in the country for 35 years; Yema Ferreira, a bilingual Angolan writer and blogger, who spent ages sifting through Portuguese-language sites and other sources (she found a couple of titles that had been translated into French, but none that had made it into English); and a PhD student doing a doctorate on Guinea-Bissauan literature who I bumped into on Twitter and who assured me that there was nothing translated – although she might well consider translating something in future.

All the same, in amongst the barrage of queries that have flown back and forth from my computer bearing the words ‘Guinea-Bissau’ in recent months, one translated title kept cropping up: Unity and Struggle by Amilcar Cabral.

When I first heard about this collection of speeches and writings by the leader of the Guinea-Bissauan and Cape Verdean independence movements, I discounted it. I didn’t really see how an anthology of this type could be counted as a story and, besides, Cabral was assassinated some eight months before Guinea-Bissau declared its independence, making the book’s claim to be counted as a Guinea-Bissauan work problematic.

However, in this case circumstances made the decision for me. In the absence of any other available G-B literature in English, I decided I would have to give it a go and see what sort of story – if any – might emerge from the pages of this book.

Bringing together Cabral’s writings from a period of more than 25 years, right up to his death in 1973, the collection sets out the author’s vision for a free and vibrant Lusophone Africa. Including everything from funeral tributes to notable African leaders and rousing speeches to his countrymen and women, to addresses to the UN and circulars directed at different factions among the Portuguese colonialists, the anthology reveals the damage that occupation does to a country and sets out the, often radical, steps the writer believes will lead to liberation.

Cabral’s passion shines through on every page. A master of rhetoric, he speaks rousingly against the racist ideology that led to the subjection of his people – ‘this tradition of scorn for the African and of belief in the congenital incapacity of this “big child”‘ – as well as against the sexism and petty divisions that initially hampered his compatriots’ attempts to band together against their oppressors. He pulls no punches when it comes to the Portuguese either, whom he dismisses as coming from ‘a small country, the most backward in Europe’.

At times, his words take on a Messianic register, as when he enjoins his listeners to refrain from the distractions of getting married and having children until the struggle for independence is won. However, his belief in violence as being central to the restoration of his people’s sense of agency is perhaps more Old Testament than New, as his ‘Homage to Kwame Nkrumah’ demonstrates: ‘For us, freedom fighters, the finest flowers with which we can garland Kwame Nkrumah’s memory are the bullets, the shells, the missiles of every kind that we fire against the colonialist and racist forces in Africa’. In addition, some of Cabral’s observations on culture are questionable. While arguing strongly that art, literature and philosophy are central to a nation’s expression of its identity, he seems embarrassed by some aspects of African culture and occasionally seems to be apologising for the ‘staggering simplicity’ of his compatriot’s proverbs and traditions – perhaps demonstrating how entrenched the colonial mindset can be, even in those seeking to root it out.

Cabral’s passion for his work is only one side of the coin. Meticulously researched and reasoned, his arguments rest on a robust and largely watertight foundation. This sometimes takes the form of pages and pages of statistics about the economics, education systems and healthcare facilities of certain regions under Portuguese rule as compared with those of other countries. However there are also some memorable soundbites that leap out to shock and outrage the reader, such as his observation on the double standards operating in fellow Portuguese colony Angola:

‘The setting up of each European family costs Angola one million escudos. For an African peasant family to earn that much money, it would have to live for a thousand years and work every year without stopping.’

Inevitably, such weighty helpings of data mean that the book can be heavy-going. In fact, reading it through from beginning to end is in many ways perverse, as Cabral probably never envisaged these very immediate and time-specific addresses would be collected in such a way.

However, for those who persevere, a powerful picture emerges of a man who gave his life, in every sense, to a cause. His collection stands as a Bible for all subjected peoples around the world and a monument to the activist behind it, who never got to see the realisation of his dream. It is a sobering thought that, nearly 40 years after Guinea-Bissau gained its independence, the literature that its greatest champion regarded as key to its expression of national identity is not available to readers in much of the world. We still have a long way to go.

Unity and Struggle: speeches and writings of Amilcar by Amilcar Cabral, translated from the Portuguese by Michael Wolfers (Monthly Review Press, 1982)

Tuvalu: how to make it rain

November 17, 2012

There’s tough and then there’s Tuvalu. The number of messages I’ve sent about this place –the third least populous nation on Earth after Vatican City and Nauru – over the past year is probably nearing the 50 mark. And though many of the people I contacted were willing to help, there was no getting round the fact that there was simply very little to suggest.

Somewhere along the way, however, I got in touch with scholar, writer, photographer, restorer of antique radio equipment, and community volunteer Peter McQuarrie. Though based in New Zealand, McQuarrie is married to a Tuvaluan and has connections with the Tuvaluan community in Auckland. He promised to ask around and duly came back with the suggestion of Tuvalu: a history, a book written by 17 Tuvaluans and published in 1983, a few years after the nation declared its independence.

As I explained to McQuarrie, I have tended to disregard history books so far during this quest, regarding them as being some way out of the scope of literature. However, the collaborative nature of the work, and the fact that it chimed in with the genre of national-identity stories I’d already discovered in Pacific works like Luelen Bernart’s The Book of Luelen and Sethy John Regenvanu’s Laef Blong Mi, made me hesitate. In the end, I decided to give it a go.

Written by people drawn from all walks of life on the nation’s nine islands during a series of workshops run by the University of the South Pacific, this collection of essays and personal accounts paints a picture of Tuvaluan life stretching back as far as folklore, hearsay and patchy historical records allow and reaching up to the time of writing. The pieces are divided by subject, with the writers tackling different aspects of the country’s culture, such as creation, religion, land, singing and dancing, and independence, in an effort to tell the story of their newly minted nation.

As in several other Pacific Island works I’ve read this year, the writers often make little distinction between factual and symbolic truth. The accounts rove back and forth between myth and history, mingling tales about cannibals and magical eels with maps, diagrams, and explanations about the islands’ names, geography and politics. Indeed, the fantastic and the factual sometimes seem to blend together, with anecdotal accounts about chiefs who could charm fish and the story of the old woman who knew how to make it rain:

‘Taia Teuai, an old woman who died in 1982, was generally recognised as having inherited from her grandparents the power to make it rain. Shortly before her death she explained how she did it:

‘”If there is a long drought then I will make the rain fall. First I go to the bush to gather coconut leaves and flowers with which to weave myself a garland. Later, towards sunset, I put oil over my body and wearing a clean dress and with a garland on my head go down to the beach to meet a team of ‘rain-makers’. These are little clouds sailing towards the setting sun. I look at them and dance, and sing a song such as this one:

‘”Little clouds, little clouds!/Bring rain to me,/To moisten my body.

‘”In about three days time there would be heavy rain. This sort of rain can easily be recognised because the drops are much thicker than those of ordinary rain.”‘

This blending of anecdote and historical research gives rise to some wonderful insights into Tuvaluan life. We learn, for example, how to hitch a ride on a turtle’s back – apparently the trick is to hang on without getting your fingers jammed between the neck and the shell or too near the mouth – as well as the islanders’ rather alarming traditional methods of dealing with troublemakers, which involve a leaky canoe without a paddle. We also discover the toll that Western influences have taken on the nation, from the blackbirders who came to kidnap people to work in the Peruvian mines in the 19th century, through to the suppression of dancing and singing by the missionaries, and the ravages of world war two – during which the Americans destroyed 22,000 of Nanumea’s 54,000 coconut trees building their defensive airfield.

The subject matter may be varied, but through all the accounts runs a sense of the gravity of the task the writers are undertaking. This is established from the first page, with the foreword from prime minister Tomasi Puapua, who describes the book as being of ‘considerable significance in the history of the young nation of Tuvalu’ because the accounts are, for the first time, ‘written by Tuvaluans interpreting events as they themselves see them’. This is perhaps most movingly borne out in Enele Sapoago’s brief essay ‘Today and Tomorrow’ at the back of the book, which describes in fresh and passionate terms what independence means.

That said, it’s hard not to feel the hand of the non-Tuvaluan workshop leaders on the shoulders of the writers at points. The essay form becomes stilted and awkward at times, and the later chapters dealing with events leading up to independence feel very dutiful and dense, and are often hard to read. In addition, it is difficult to ignore the fact that most of the historical source material the writers have to work with necessarily comes from the jottings of Western visitors to the archipelago. I sometimes found myself wondering who exactly the writing – carried out in English – was intended for.

Nevertheless, there’s no question that this is an important book. As the first concerted effort of Tuvaluans to tell their story, it is informative, passionate and sometimes surprising. Nearly 30 years on from its publication, it’s surely time we had some more.

Tuvalu: A History by Simati Faaniu, Vinaka Ielemia, Taulu Isako, Tito Isala, Laumua Kofe (Rev), Nofoaiga Lafita, Pusineli Lafai, Kalaaki Laupepa (Dr), Nalu Nia, Talakatoa O’Brien, Sotaga Pape, Laloniu Samuelu, Enele Sapoaga, Pasoni Taafaki, Melei Telavi, Noatia Penitala Teo, Vaieli Tinilau, ed Hugh Laracy (Institute of Pacific Studies, 1983)

Tanzania: family politics

October 11, 2012

When one publisher recommends the work of another, you know you’re likely to be on to a good thing. And so, when Lynette Lisk, commissioning editor of the Heinemann African Writers Series, told me that she admired the work of Bloomsbury-published Abdulrazak Gurnah, I lost no time in looking him up.

Spanning 100 years, Gurnah’s 2005 novel Desertion weaves together the threads that lead a young Tanzanian man, Rashid, to leave his homeland in the early sixties and make his life in England. It starts in the dying months of the 19th century, with the scandalous love affair of Rashid’s grandparents – an unconventional English traveller and a shy local woman – before darting forward to Rashid’s childhood in the mid-20th century and on past the declaration of Tanzania’s independence to his lonely and wistful middle age. Steered by Rashid himself, who writes much of the story, with an interjection from his brother Amin and a poem from his sister Farida, the narrative brims with questions and observations about identity, nationality, belonging and love.

Gurnah is a writer with an eye for the thousand little human foibles that can combine to clog up and alter the course of a life. Whether he is describing Rashid’s great-grandfather Hassanali’s hesitance and self-effacement, born out of the ridicule he recognises in the eyes of those who visit his shop, the double-think that allows the British colonisers to despise corruption in others and yet practise it themselves, or the rituals and cruelty that stand in for intimacy between siblings, Gurnah is forever revealing the processes that mould and set personalities.

This perceptiveness extends to larger social structures too. Through the patterns Gurnah traces, we learn the limitations of the social codes surrounding courtship marriage that stymie Rashid’s grandmother’s life and the effect of the gross under-provision of schools for girls. Crucially, however, these observations are not delivered through authorial tirades but lived and enacted by the characters so that it is only when we sit back and think about the story that we realise the wider implications of what we are reading.

Alongside this runs a lively discussion about storytelling, which erupts into the narrative as Rashid begins to question the version of events he presents. Speculating, contradicting himself and imagining where he does not know, Rashid rehearses his family’s history, increasingly aware of the possibilities in fiction, both in the choices he makes as a writer and in the scope the form offers to process, assimilate and remake the past.

Fiction also presents Gurnah with the opportunity to unpack the legacy of colonialism in a far more inventive and impactful way than essays might afford. While his portrait of the British Victorians sitting on the veranda swapping racist ideology well into the night ‘to make themselves feel significant and present in the world’ is compelling, his description of Rashid’s lonely arrival in a Britain leaves a lasting impression. It also buys him the leverage to reach forward in time and challenge assumptions that still underpin much of social interaction today:

‘In time I drifted into a tolerable alienness. Living day to day, this alienness became a kind of emblem, indeterminate about its origins. Soon I began to say black people and white people, like everyone else, uttering the lie with increasing ease, conceding the sameness of our difference, deferring to a deadening vision of a racialised world. For by agreeing to be black and white, we also agree to limit the complexity of possibility, we agree to mendacities that for centuries served and will continue to serve crude hungers for power and pathological self-affirmations.’

For all its sociological and historical observations, though, this is first and foremost an engrossing and deeply moving novel. It is a book to get lost in, led by an expert storyteller, who wins our trust and piques our interest from the very first page. I’ll be looking up more of Gurnah’s works when this year’s literary adventures are over. Wonderful.

Desertion by Abdulrazak Gurnah (Bloomsbury, 2005)

This was another pick from Thomas Slone’s storeroom at Masalai Press in California. Charting Sethy John Regenvanu’s memories of his early life, his experience of being the first boy from Uripiv island to go away to school, his work towards his country’s declaration of independence in 1980 and his time as a minister in its new government, Laef Blong Mi (or My Life) documents a key period in Vanuatu’s history. It weaves together political events and Regenvanu’s own story, with the help of the author’s photographs, to reveal the personal and social impact of gaining sovereignty and what it means to build a nation from the ground up.

The narrative brims with cultural insights, particularly in the early sections. From learning the lost art of fishing with black sea slugs to discovering the rituals of a Vanuatuan circumcision ceremony, the reader encounters a whole host of information about traditional life on the islands. Despite having a total population of fewer than 250,000 people, the archipelago is divided into a series of communities that differ enormously from one another – so much so that when Regenvanu went away to school on mainland Efate he was the only pupil there who spoke his language.

However, perhaps most striking of all is the revelation that Regenvanu, having no official birth date and finding himself obliged to ‘pinpoint when [he] had begun’ by the Franco-British colonial administration, plumped for the date 1 April 1945, both from a sense of lightheartedness – because this is the Western April Fools’ Day – and because this is the day the UN was founded.

This sense of the interconnectedness of his own story with national and international events is a theme throughout the book. From a young age, as the possibility of independence beckoned, Regenvanu felt the desire to use his education to help lead his compatriots ‘out of our former status of being non-persons in our own land to becoming proud citizens of the new nation of the independent Republic of Vanuatu’. He writes passionately about his belief in the state and its potential, as well as the importance of holding to the ‘spirit of struggle and unity of purpose’ that fired the early years.

Nevertheless, Regenvanu, who is also a church minister, is clear-eyed about the challenges the new nation faced. Contending with everything from black magic practised by opponents  to a widespread lack of self-belief engendered by decades of colonialism – not to mention the interference of the occasional American millionaire set on using his wealth to create his own ‘Utopian dream’ from the fragile, new nation – Regenvanu likens his task in some of the ministerial posts he held to ‘trying to force the negative and positive ends of an electric pole together’. Sometimes this was almost literally the case, as when Regenvanu found himself in a tug of war with the representative of a rebel faction, who was trying to hoist an illegal flag in the midst of an attempted coup.

Inevitably for an autobiography Regenvanu’s views are partial and shaped by his political standpoint and beliefs. Some of the later chapters also get a little too caught up in technicalities that clearly still rankle for the writer but mean little to a reader at this remove of time and distance.

However it is hard not to be impressed by Regenvanu’s integrity and evident desire to work for the good of his people and nation. Coming from a country where politics can often seem to be more about the advancement of personal agendas and careers than about effecting meaningful change, it was humbling to read the words of someone who saw his time in power as a chance to improve the lives of his compatriots. His story is a powerful reminder of what aspiration, education and determination can achieve.

Laef Blong Mi: From village to nation by Sethy John Regenvanu (Institute of Pacific Studies and Emalus Campus, University of the South Pacific, 2004)

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