The names of certain countries seem bound up with the conflicts that shaped them. For many in the West words such as Bosnia, Sudan and Libya will conjure up the images of death and destruction that flickered on our TV screens throughout recent decades.
The magnitude of these events and the time it takes to translate and distribute books mean that many of the most powerful translated novels still coming out of these countries deal directly with war and its legacy. So we find a harrowing portrait of the expulsion of ethnic Russians from Tajikistan in Andrei Volos’s Hurramabad and a startling child’s-eye view of the Bosnian War in Sasa Stanisic’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone.
However, as I discovered when I read my Angolan choice for this project, not all literature from recent war zones strikes a mournful note.
Published in 2008 by now sadly defunct Aflame Books, Ondjaki’s The Whistler, the slender first novel from the author who made his name on the world literature stage with Good Morning Comrades, brims with joy and belief in rejuvenation. It chronicles the arrival of a man with a haunting whistle in a sleepy village. Taking up residence in the church, the mysterious visitor fills the neighbourhood with his tunes, which are so beguiling they even charm the pigeons.
The effect of the music on the village’s human inhabitants is more impressive still. Cutting through the ‘general torpor’, the melodies unsettle and invigorate the largely elderly residents so that each in his or her way breaks free from the predictable patterns of daily life. The narrative culminates in an orgy of sensation, colour and delight, leaving behind a changed community where the inhabitants have a fresh appreciation of their own potency and the rich possibilities of life.
Ondjaki has a great eye for the contrary details that create character. The novel bustles with intriguing individuals who loom from the page: from the town oddball with his penchant for defecation in the open air to the put-upon gravedigger who refuses to leave his post at the cemetery despite no-one having died for years.
Zany and dream-like, the narrative almost takes flight into poetry on several occasions. This creates some extraordinary images, although it can make the throughline of the plot hard to follow.
The novel is so exuberant, however, that this hardly matters. As Ondjaki’s letter to his friend poet Ana Paula Tavares (published at the end of this edition) makes clear, his main concern is with creating a powerful impression rather than a conventional story.
He achieves this. The book is imaginative, passionate and extraordinary. And, when considered in the context of the 500,000 people killed during Angola’s 27-year civil war, it’s peculiarly moving too.
The Whistler by Ondjaki (translated from the Portuguese by Richard Bartlett). Aflame Books, 2008