Book of the month: Tesfaye Gebreab

A few months ago, Delina posted the following comment on this blog:

 I’m from Eritrea. First of all, I LOVED your project, it’s brilliant! And second, I noticed that for Eritrea you read books written by Eritrean diaspora. While that’s interesting too, I want to suggest some books that may provide the perspective of someone who lived most of their lives here. I don’t think you can find them easily in London so I would like to send you copies through some relatives who live in London. I hope that’s ok. The books I have in mind are:

Two weeks in the trenches by Alemseged Tesfai
The Nurenebi File by Tesfaye Gebreab (translated into English by Alemseged Tesfai)

Let me know what you think!

I was intrigued for several reasons: Delina’s kindness and enthusiasm; the idea of reading books rarely available to readers like me; and the fact that, as Delina rightly pointed out, I had found it impossible to find anything I could read by a writer based inside Eritrea back when I read the world in 2012.

There’s a good reason for this: Eritrea has long been one of the globe’s most isolated and restricted countries. Two years before my quest, it was judged by Index on Censorhip to be the country with the least press freedom in the world; even journalists inside North Korea had marginally more leeway than those based in this east African nation. Even now, Reporters Without Borders ranks it second to last in the World Press Freedom Index.

As a result, when Delina’s package arrived, containing copies of the titles she had recommended with personal dedications to me by their authors, along with a postcard from Delina bearing an Eritrean stamp, I lost no time in exploring what I quickly knew would be my next book of the month.

Billed as a novel, The Nurenebi File by Tesfaye Gebreab translated by Alemseged Tesfai is an ambitious work. After a brief prologue describing an encounter that sparked the aim of telling ‘the history of one hundred years spread out […] like the camel caravans of Denkalia, Semhar, Barka, Halhal, Mensa’e, Habab, Senhit…’ the main narrative begins in the famine of 1888, when its title character is a small child. It then follows his fortunes and those of his descendants as they grapple with the many traumas and outrages visited on their region in the following century.

In his foreword, translator and fellow novelist Alemseged Tesfai (author of the other book Delina sent me) describes the hesitation he felt at taking on this project, which required him to work between this third language, Amharic, and his second language, English. His concerns were also echoed by Delina in an email she sent to me after the books arrived, in which she warned me that there may be errors and typos because of the difficulties surrounding publishing in Eritrea and said she hoped I wouldn’t be put off by these.

In actual fact, the text is largely sound. Although there are odd slips and a few word choices that feel questionable (but may of course be accurate reflections of the sense in the original), the narrative is in much better shape than many books I’ve encountered by first-language English speakers.

The challenges The Nurenebi File presents to readers raised on mainstream anglophone literature are of a different order (and say as much about the limited circulation of the world’s stories as they do about this work).

Firstly, this book does not obey the conventions that underpin the majority of novels in the English-speaking world. It veers between registers, plunging into political discussion, picking fights with other accounts and commenting on prevailing assumptions about Eritrean history. Passages that would not be out of place in an academic textbook sit alongside sections that ring with bombastic praise for Eritrea’s resistance fighters. There are photographs of many of the individuals and groups mentioned.

What’s more, although Nurenebi’s disappearance, and the efforts of his descendants to find out what happened to him and carry on his legacy form a guide rope that helps lead the reader through the pages, there is an uncertainty to the status of the narrative that makes it difficult for those unfamiliar with its context to know how to take it. It is unclear whether the prologue is written in Gebreab’s voice, describing a real-world encounter, or from the perspective of an unnamed fictional narrator who takes it upon themself to tell this story.

There are extremely powerful passages that will speaker to any reader. Many of these concern Nurenebi’s personal story, but that is not always the case. The account of the brutal amputation of the right hands and left feet of 461 Medri Bahri (Eritrean) men who fought on the Italian side against Emperor Menelik is extraordinarily harrowing and vivid. What’s more, there are many telling reflections on the effects of colonialism and the way oppressed people can sometimes become conditioned to further their own persecution, welcoming enemies as liberators. Inconsistent though the storytelling style may be, the whole work is charged with an urgency to communicate that bursts through at these key moments, sweeping the reader along.

But perhaps the biggest challenge Anglo-American readers face with this book is something that the story itself exists to challenge: the sheer unfamiliarity of these events to the majority of people around the world. This book, as translator Tesfai states, ‘has brought forward forgotten or shelved chapters from Eritrean history’. If that is true for Eritreans it applies tenfold to readers from other traditions.

Reading it, I was struck anew by how cumulative our sense of history is. We don’t encounter stories about the past in isolation but in the context of thousands of other narratives that have informed our cultural compasses and references throughout our lives. Consequently, when we come across a fact-based account in which none of the figures are familiar, few of the place names call associations to mind, and hardly any of the events connect to episodes we have heard of before, we struggle.

This is precisely why books like this and translations like Tesfai’s are important – and why I am so grateful to Delina for going to such trouble to get this story to me. In a world in which certain narratives are amplified and broadcast ubiquitously while many others are sidelined, silenced or erased, it is vital that accounts such as this expand, challenge and reshape our awareness of events.

This book does not obey the conventions of the European novel form, but then why should it? As the narrative makes clear, European influences have served the community it stems from appallingly. It is surely fitting, then, that in Tesfaye Gebreab’s hands this venerable export from the global north should be twisted, broken and refashioned into something that serves the Eritrean community. If readers like me struggle to keep up, then that is our problem.

The Nurenebi File by Tesfaye Gebreab, translated from the Amharic by Alemseged Tesfai (Books and Media Center, Asmara, 2021)

8 responses

  1. You make an important point, amongst many important points! Reading from within a country is so different to reading from an expat lens. Thanks for sharing about this book, even though most of us will never be able to read it.

  2. What a great final paragraph there! I sometimes struggle with books from certain countries because they are so unfamiliar to my sensibilities, but, as you say: 1) that is my problem rather than theirs, why would they need to conform to a haphazard Western or Northern standard? 2) there are simply not enough of those kind of reads out there.

  3. I know publishers are in business primarily to make money, but that said, I wonder how many outstanding books beyond the Anglo-American sphere never reach us, because they will be deemed to be unpopular/unprofitable/obscure/difficult to read …. and so on. We will never know. But at least one made it. Thanks for the review and your ideas on obscure books.

  4. Thank you for letting us know about this book! Also, thank you for putting into words some thoughts I have been having too: the way we are taught history in Europe (that is what I know at least, I suspect it is similar in many places) is place-specific. That in itself is not the problem, we cannot know everything and starting by teaching the things that affect us directly does make sense. The problem arises when it is conveyed to us that it is all there is to know, that it is a kind of universal narrative that gives us the key to understanding everyting. But of course that is not true, as you aptly point out.
    And there is a lack of access to other narratives, even to other facts. Which is why your blog and your work is so important! Thank you!

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