Book of the month: Roland Rugero

 

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It’s always a joy to hear of new publications of works from countries that have little or no commercially available literature in English translation.

The east African nation of Burundi is a prime example. Back during my project to read a book from every country in the world in a year, I could find no fiction translated from either French or Kirundi, the nation’s two official languages at the time (English was made an official language in 2014). In the end, I was indebted to the Burundian academic Marie-Thérèse Toyi, who generously couriered me a copy of her self-published English-language work Weep Not, Refugee so that I could read a novel from her homeland.

Until this month, that book was the only fiction I had read from Burundi. But now, thanks to a new publication brought out by Phoneme Media, that has changed.

Christopher Schaefer’s translation of Roland Rugero’s second novel Baho! is, according to its publisher, the first full-length work of fiction by a Burundian author to be translated into English. Certainly my research supports this claim (although I’d love to hear from you if you know differently). As such, the book is something of a landmark and another welcome step in the much-needed drive to bring more Francophone African literature into the world’s most-published language.

The novel centres around a misunderstanding in a fictional rural region, called Kanya. When mute teenager Nyamuragi’s attempts to ask directions are misunderstood as an attempt to rape a local girl, his community is thrown into uproar. As feelings spill over into a desire for mob justice, the fragile peace of the area is shattered, revealing the fault lines left by the nation’s recent traumatic past.

This is a striking and surprising book. With snatches of story and backstory told from diverse perspectives, as well as numerous digressions on big questions such as the purpose of art and how the fact that Kirundi has the same word for ‘tomorrow’ and ‘yesterday’ may elucidate the characters’ relationship with time, the book bristles with insights into the culture in which it is set. I was particularly struck by a passage that explores how the violent events of the recent past have ruptured and warped the language, making people reach for ever more outrageous things to swear by because ‘with all this death among us, […] speech has become divided, multiplied, and fragmented. Its unity has been irreparably shattered. So we no longer believe in the curse or the consequences it invokes.’

There is a directness and freshness to some of the writing, which reminds me of certain passages of Weep Not, Refugee in which Toyi, much like Rugero, seems to reach from the text to grab readers by the shoulders and make us listen. Although the 1993 genocide is not much mentioned and, as Schaefer points out in his ‘Translator’s Note’, the words ‘Hutu’ and ‘Tutsi’ appear only once in the book, the sense that trauma has remoulded society underpins each page. We see it in the way people’s judgment is ‘clouded by the violence’ and ‘the obsessive fear of rape has haunted this country’s women’.

Other historical influences pervade the text too. We see the fusion of colonial and indigenous culture in the way Rugero weaves and sometimes smashes together the French literary tradition, Biblical references, and Burundian oral tales and proverbs. Kirundi peppers the text and numerous passages reveal an inventive approach to structure and narrative – an example being the chapter at the market, which is told purely in unattributed dialogue, so that it seems that we as readers are standing in the press of the crowd, able only to make out a series of disembodied shouts and comments.

That said, not all of the book is successful. Even taking into account the author’s assertion to Schaefer that he has deliberately mimicked the Burundian oral tradition of shifting perspectives and the trait of sometimes overwhelming listeners with contradictory information in conversation, the narrative makes for a patchy and sometimes frustrating read.  Although some of the imagery is arresting, there are a number of odd descriptions and awkward word choices (whether Rugero’s or Schaefer’s) that obscure and muddy the sense. A number of sentences are so cluttered with adjectives that it feels like trying to pick your way through an obstacle course. The ending is also a little bald.

But perhaps much of this is fitting in a novel that centres around a misunderstanding, in which communication is examined and found wanting. In testing the limits of the novel form with the weight of structures it does not often bear, Rugero is doing important work – and it is inevitable that there will be a few creaks and cracks along the way.

Problems aside, there is no question that this book is a welcome addition to the English-language world. By virtue of its very existence, it opens the way for the creation and dissemination of more stories from regions and communities that are too often overlooked. As I know from my conversations with writers like Marie-Thérèse Toyi , the mere existence of books by a compatriot can give an aspiring storyteller courage to try to express themselves in words. May there soon be many more.

Baho! by Roland Rugero, translated from the French by Christopher Schaefer (Phoneme Media, 2016)

Book of the month: Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

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One of the delights of this project – and a key reason that I continue the blog more than three years after my year of reading the world came to an end – is the fact that I still receive large numbers of book recommendations from bibliophiles all over the planet.

It’s a great joy to hear from enthusiastic readers and to learn about so many tempting stories. However, because I sometimes get several such messages a day, it means that the already gargantuan list of reading suggestions that I gathered during my project is still growing faster than I can tackle it (and that’s not to mention all the books that I have to read for research and reviewing, as well as those titles that sometimes leap out from bookshop shelves, grab me by the scruff of the neck, march me to the checkout and force me to read them there and then).

All the same, the recommendations do not go to waste. I often check back through them and select titles to buy. And so it was that, a few weeks ago, I came upon Dust by Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, my latest book of the month.

The novel was suggested in 2015 by Kerem_Kerem, who also recommended Taiye Selasi’s excellent Ghana Must Go. Having read each of them, I’m not surprised that this reader liked them both – they share several plot devices and themes, not least the ambition to diffract national stories through the prism of a single family’s experience. Indeed, there’s even an endorsement from Selasi on the cover of my edition of Dust, which was published in 2014.

Both novels have received considerable praise from critics. But it seems to me that Owuor is less well-known in the UK than Selasi. As a result, I decided to write about her book.

As in Ghana Must Go, the narrative of Dust is kickstarted by a death. In this case, it’s the violent death of Odidi, a man in the prime of his life, who is shot in the street in Nairobi on the night of the 2007 elections. Bewildered by the news, his fragmented family reconvenes at Wuoth Ogik, the remote farm in northern Kenya where he and his sister, Ajany, grew up. There too, appears Isaiah William Bolton, the son of a British man who knew Odidi’s parents. What follows is a troubling, moving and engrossing story, in which the characters attempt to piece together the shards of what they know into a picture of the past that they can all recognise.

This is a book in which multiple stories are told on almost every page. One of Owuor’s greatest achievements is that she reveals repeatedly how multi-faceted human beings and the things they create are. This is nowhere more evident than in her presentation of Kenya, a place that is at once the site of great suffering and corruption, but also of extraordinary love, forbearance, beauty and humour.

Insights leap from the page, frequently launched from only a handful of well-chosen words: ‘After Mboya, Kenya’s official languages: English, Swahili, and Silence’; ‘as long as there was enough to move the day, beyond a grumble, people really didn’t care to know why their lives had become harder’; in the wake of the violence that splintered it, Kenya is a nation ‘that is gluing its cracked shell together again’.

The book is often very funny too. Owuor is a great conjurer of characters, from the ever-hopeful Babu Chaudhuri, who continues to advertise for a shop manager 46 years after he first intended to pack it in and move to England, to the wily Trader who circulates around the country, bartering stories, information and whatever comes to hand. My favourite is Aaron, a police officer posted to an isolated station in the rural north, and made at once ridiculous and pitiable through his loneliness.

Owuor’s writing is at its most beautiful when it treats of the desert landscape, where the ‘wind lumbers past like an ancient wizard’ and the dusk comes ‘plodding in and scarring the sky with yellow-orange trails’. The place is soaked in imagination. Indeed, as we follow the characters over the rocky terrain, it often seems as if we are wandering through a vast psyche rather than a physical region.

That said, the writing isn’t always this good. Poorly rendered similes and unfortunate word choices crop up here and there, and at times the prose seems as uneven as the landscape it describes. In addition, the multiplicity of stories and ideas Owuor explores occasionally clogs the text, giving odd passages a congested and sometimes confusing feel.

In the final analysis, though, I can’t help but admire Dust. Its scope is impressive, its revelations frequently breathtaking and its perspective unfailingly humane. It is a rich, slow read – one to savour over a number of days rather than to race through in an evening. But if you invest the time, the novel will reward you. I’m very glad Kerem_Kerem recommended it.

Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Granta Books, 2014)

Picture by Enzinho83 on Flickr.com

News from Madagascar

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Towards the end of my year of reading the world, I made an appeal. I’d been shocked to discover that not a single novel from Madagascar had ever been translated into and published in English, obliging me to fall back on the anthology Voices from Madagascar, edited by Jacques Bourgeacq and Liliane Ramarosoa, as my read from the nation.

It seemed astonishing to me that the world’s fourth-largest island nation, which is home to more than 22 million people, should have no full-length books available in the planet’s most published language, particularly as the short stories and extracts in the anthology proved that it had many great writers. So I called for your help: which Malagasy novels should be translated? I asked.

For a long time, I didn’t hear much. I finished the project and went on with writing my book. Perhaps Madagascar was just one of those places that the anglophone publishing industry would continue to fail to reach, I thought sadly.

Then, almost a year after that post, I received an email from a US-based translator called Allison Charette. She said she had stumbled upon this blog and had been particularly drawn to the post on Madagascar. As a French-to-English translator, she was keen to do something about the lack of literature from the nation in translation, but she didn’t know where to start. Did I have any contacts or ideas for where she could go from here?

I made a few tentative suggestions from my own, very minimal knowledge of the situation and wished her luck. She had set herself an enormous task, I felt.

This year, Allison Charette was back in touch with extraordinary news. She had not only found a novel from Madagascar to translate, but had secured a PEN/Heim translation grant and was working to bring the book into English, with high hopes that it would secure a deal with a US publisher soon.

I caught up with her over Skype a few months back and she filled me in on what had happened since we were last in contact.

After speaking to Sophie Lewis at And Other Stories, the publisher who helped me in my search for a Malagasy book, and Susan Harris at wonderful online international literature magazine Words Without Borders, Charette threw herself into reading books that she might translate. But there was a problem:

‘I started getting out as many [French-language] Malagasy books as possible from my library. The more I read, the more I went “Oh, I need to do this. They’re fantastic!” and I started translating. Then I realised I knew absolutely nothing about the culture whatsoever, so I tried to email the authors, but they were unreachable. So I decided, well, let’s go to Madagascar.’

At the point where many people might have been tempted to give up, Charette redoubled her efforts. She persuaded Swiss NGO Humanium, which had just announced a partnership with Madagascar, to allow her to go and be their in-country representative for a while, using their contacts to arrange a homestay that would enable her to research the country’s literature in her spare time.

During the five weeks she spent there, she discovered the reason for the lack of responses to her messages to authors: as its electricity supply is very unreliable, Madagascar still operates largely offline, meaning that email communication is patchy.

In person, however, it was a different matter. Charette was welcomed warmly and met more than two dozen local authors, who were keen to share their work. Despite the island’s logistically difficult publishing situation, which means that writers have traditionally self-published in small print runs and supported themselves by other means, she went home with a whole suitcase of books.

It wasn’t long before one title in particular caught her eye: Beyond the Rice Fields by Naivo, a historical novel exploring the controversial and sensitive subject of slavery in Madagascar. Despite the shocking subject matter (Malagasies are usually reluctant to talk about this chapter of their nation’s past, which many regard as shameful) and Madagascar’s relatively low literacy rate, the book had sold well at home.

What’s more, according to Charette, the author’s style, blending local and Western characteristics, made the book a particularly strong candidate for translation: ‘He has done an incredibly good job of mixing Malagasy ways of storytelling, which are based on the oral traditions, with something that Westerners will understand,’ she says.

Now, with the endorsement of the PEN/Heim grant and interest from publishers, Charette hopes it won’t be long before her rendering of Naivo’s work is available for English-language readers to enjoy, becoming the first ever novel from Madagascar to be published in the anglophone world.

And the good news doesn’t stop there: inspired by her efforts, Words Without Borders has devoted its December issue to Madagascar, carrying a range of fabulous translated extracts, as well as an essay on the nation’s literature by Charette, who is this month’s guest editor. If you’re keen to sample Naivo, there’s a piece of his work there. And if you have time, I’d really recommend ‘Abandoning Myself’ by Magali Nirina Marson (also translated by Charette) – a spine-tingling read.

Charette hopes this will open the door for many other Malagasy works to make it into English. She already has her eye on several more books she’d like to translate. And her ambitions go far beyond simply sharing Madagascar’s rich literature with a wider audience. In time, she hopes her efforts – and those of other translators and publishers engaged in bringing work into English from underrepresented nations – will help broaden and complicate the rather simplistic way that a lot of us English speakers talk and think about books from many parts of the planet.

‘If we can flood the market with enough African books, whether they’re in English originally or translations, then maybe people will stop talking about “African literature”,’ she says. ‘If I can start getting books from Madagascar to the public, this is one more way of helping this problem.’

Photo: ‘Char à Zebu’ © Franck Vervial on flickr.com

Book of the month: Christopher Mlalazi

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As those of you who followed this blog during my year of reading the world back in 2012 will remember, Africa is by far the most difficult continent to get published literature in English from. Not only is there a serious lack of translation (which meant that I often had to resort to unpublished manuscripts and even had to have something translated specially by a team of volunteers in one case), but in countries where English is widely spoken there are often very few publishers and weak networks for getting books out. The result is that very few stories written by African authors make it onto bookshop shelves in places like Britain and America.

Luckily, there are organisations working to change this. The African Books Collective (ABC) is one such – for more than 20 years, it has distributed African literature around the world and now represents 147 publishers from 25 nations in the continent. It came to my rescue several times during my quest and was the means by which I discovered Weaver Press, the Harare-based publisher behind Tendai Huchu’s The Hairdresser of Harare, which I read for Zimbabwe.

I very much enjoyed that book, so when the ABC’s Justin Cox told me about a new book from Weaver Press, Christopher Mlalazi’s They are Coming, I was keen to take a look.

Set in Lobengula Township in Bulawayo, northern Zimbabwe, the novel reveals the personal cost of the traumatic events in the nation’s recent past. It is told through the eyes of Ambition, a young boy whose family is thrown into disarray when his older sister, Senzeni, runs away from home to join the pro-Mugabe youth militia. Switching between 2004 and the time of the 1977 War of Independence, the narrative traces a series of old grudges and scores, revealing how violence begets violence on both a domestic and national level.

Mlalazi’s skill shines through in the little details. Every so often, his spare prose is illuminated by a glorious image, bringing the narrative alive and plunging us into the heart of the scenes he describes. There is the national flag streaming above the Green Bombers militia so that they look ‘as if they’re accompanied by a brightly coloured bird’, for example, and the group of people scattered by police tear gas ‘as if they’ve been flung hither and thither by a giant hand’.

This fine observational detail accompanies a host of strong female characters – a recurring trait in much of the African literature written by men that I have read. From the irrepressible prostitute MaVundla, who does not scruple to abuse and exact revenge on clients who do not pay, to the angry Senzeni herself, the narrative is thronged with women determined to assert themselves.

When set against the multitude of threats that render daily life perilous – including economic breakdown, political spies, guerrilla attacks and witchcraft (it is widely believed, for example, that new underwear can be used to cast a spell that will make a woman menstruate to death) – this intransigence is admirable. As Ambition’s mother observes, ‘this isn’t about politics, […] it’s about survival.’

That’s not to say that this is a perfect book. The nuts and bolts of the narrative creak. Tenses slip, conversations meander, and the various revelations of the narrative tumble into view rather clumsily. Now and then, the stripped-back prose reads more like a synopsis than a rounded, fleshed out novel.

In addition, the question of who Mlalazi is writing for crops up a few times. Having been a fellow on the University of Iowa’s prestigious International Writing Program and a Guest Writer of the City of Hanover, among several other accolades, Mlalazi clearly has an eye on the international audience, meaning that he sometimes shoehorns in rather chilly exposition in an effort to keep us all up to speed. His writing works best when he treats as locals, trusting us to infer what we need to know. (The section where he gives us directions to Jiba village, for example, is great because it allows us to put off our foreignness and entertain the illusion that we are residents of Plumtree district.)

Despite these problems, however, this is a refreshing and brave book. It is an illuminating view from a section of world society that usually goes unheard. As an imaginative account of the trials and challenges facing ordinary people under Mugabe’s rule, it is valuable. Weaver Press must be applauded for continuing to put out such works in the face of many obstacles. Let’s hope there are lots more to come.

They are Coming by Christopher Mlalazi (Weaver Press, 2014)

 

The Gambia: a clamour of voices

I learnt a valuable lesson during the hunt for this title: if you’re looking for suggestions of books to read, contacting national writers’ associations may not always be the wisest option. No sooner had Cherno Omar Barry, general secretary of the Writers’ Association of The Gambia, kindly sent my request out to the organisation’s members than my inbox was flooded with emails from writers advising me to read their books. One person even asked if I was in The Gambia at the time of writing as, if so, he would hand deliver me a manuscript to make sure I got it safely.

Excellent though I’m sure many of the suggestions were, the fact that they were being recommended by the authors themselves meant that I had no reliable way of choosing between them. In my experience, it’s rare that you find an author who doesn’t think you should read his or her book, and the enthusiasm with which writers advocate their creations is often no indicator of the quality of the work.

However, in amongst the flood of messages, there was one apparently impartial suggestion. It was from Joy, who recommended Folk Tales and Fables from The Gambia by Dembo Fanta Bojang and Sukai Mbye Bojang. I googled the book and, finding it was also championed by the African Books Collective – whose publications I have enjoyed consistently throughout this project – I decided to give volume one a go.

Written in response to a realisation that traditional fireside storytelling is dying out in The Gambia, the work brings together stories told by the authors’ grandmother and great-grandmother, as well as tales from friends and neighbours, in a lively anthology. Magic and myth jostle with creative explanations of rituals and natural phenomena to create a fascinating world, in which hares and hyenas can be brothers-in-law, cats go on pilgrimage to Mecca, and severed heads boss heroes about from the branches of trees.

There are some mind-bending events and images along the way. From the marvellous depiction of a herd of violin-playing goats descending on the field of the helpless landowner in ‘The obstinate farmer of Njaiyen’ to the drowned boys who are transformed into a pumpkin and served up by their unwitting mother in ‘The Hassan half brothers’, the stories are frequently surprising. Indeed, many of them are shocking in the cruel and unusual violence they portray – in ‘Lolly the Witch’, for example, we hear about how a cunning boy outwits a cannibal enchantress, who takes delight in tricking and devouring her daughters’ suitors, with a pile of human faeces and a bag of eyes. Similarly, the stories don’t hold back from outrageous, physical humour, with farting playing a pivotal role in several tales – Waahou is even knocked dead by another character’s legendary flatulence in ‘The three men of Tangana’.

The tales are so diverse, ranging from naturalistic human stories through to outlandish, magical fables, that it’s hard to generalise about them. However, if I had to pick a recurring theme it would be the idea that it is impossible to transcend your nature for ever. We see this in the first story, ‘Burr Njai takes another wife’, in which the donkey queen, having transformed herself into a woman to marry a human king, is at last forced to change back and rejoin the herd. The idea also drives the plot in ‘Samba Becomes Friends with Gaindeh Njiai’, in which a lion and a man realise it is impossible to maintain a childhood friendship, and ‘The Cow, Hyena, Lion and Hare Share a Home’, in which an attempt at a peaceful, cross-species community fails.

Interestingly for a work inspired by traditional local storytelling, this book is perhaps the most international and modern I’ve read to date in terms of the way it was put together. As Bojang and Bojang explain in their introduction, the final version was shaped by comments from fellow Creative Writing and New Media Google group members and readers on the peer-review writers’ site Authonomy.

For all the feedback, however, there are still one or two editorial choices that jar. The decision to include stock photographs of some of the animals mentioned in the stories is a strange one. In addition, although Bojang and Bojang have clearly made an effort to make the narratives read well, there are some abrupt endings, changes of direction and omissions that leave the reader foundering. The blunt, pragmatic language of the stories, while often adding to the humour, also sometimes misses the mark. Waahou’s fatal pondering as to whether Fusall has ‘any bad odour left in his anal system’, for example, raises a laugh for the wrong reasons.

All in all, though, this is an entertaining and illuminating collection. It is sad to think that many of these stories, which surely would be even richer in the hands of a skilled narrator around the fireside one Gambian night, are now rarely told.

Folk Tales and Fables from The Gambia (volume 1) by Dembo Fanta Bojang and Sukai Mbye Bojang (Educational Services, Gambia, 2011)

Morocco: feminine endings

Shafiqah1 put a comment on the blog earlier this week. ‘Please read Tahar Ben Jelloun, any of his works, if you are enjoying Francophone Literature, I promise you won’t regret it!’ she wrote.

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)

Mali: truth to tell

This book has been on the list since I started preparing for this project. First published in 1973, Amadou Hampâté Bâ’s The Fortunes of Wangrin won the 1974 Grand prix littéraire d’Afrique noire and has long been hailed as one of the classics of Francophone African literature. Nearly 40 years later – as far as I can make out – it is still one of the few Malian prose works available in English translation (although I’d love to hear about others if you know of more books that should be added to the list).

The narrative purports to be an account of the life and times of teacher-turned-civil servant and all-round hustler Wangrin, as told to Bâ by the man himself shortly before his death. Working in Mali during the first half of the 20th century – when the country was under French rule – Wangrin quickly learns to play his peers and colonial employers off against one another for his own ends. Deft, resourceful and at times maddeningly slick, Wangrin rises to prominence and prosperity, until at last his ambition, enemies and the prophecy of ruin spoken on his birth conspire to bring him low once more.

Wangrin is an extraordinary creation. Presented as an almost mythic figure in the way his birth is portrayed and declaimed, this ‘profoundly strange human being with so great a mixture of good qualities and faults that, at a mere glance, it was impossible to describe him’, as Bâ writes in his Foreword, fascinates and bewilders his contemporaries and the reader alike. Whether he is undercutting the European millet trade, capitalising on the guilt of two brothers eager to give their relative a proper burial, outsmarting a corrupt official in the courtroom, or beating thugs in a fight, Wangrin is mesmerising. Indeed, his influence extends even to his author, who, whenever Wangrin’s antics teeter on the callous, is quick to leap to his protagonist’s defence, reminding us of his humanity to the poor and weak and the fact that in the Mali of the time ‘it was either destroy or perish, play tricks on others or be their helpless victim’.

The narrative’s colonial setting bears this assertion out. Ranging from wry jabs at the French administration, such as the list of ‘mannerisms that adorn French utterances’ and must be learnt by Malians if they are to converse with ‘white-Whites’, through to scathing portraits of cruelty and prejudice – among them the official who ‘would have been a blessing if he hadn’t had the unfortunate habit of cracking his whip across the backs of a couple of people and taking two or three others to jail who were guilty of the terrible crime of not having saluted their Commandant from twenty-five yards’ – Bâ’s criticism of the regime is unrelenting. Small wonder that in this compromised society, where educated Malians like Wangrin are recruited to spy on and cheat their peers for their European masters, canny citizens play the French at their own game and put their personal interests first.

Yet perhaps the biggest conflict of all lies not within the narrative itself, but on its margins. Sniping at each other across the body of the text are Bâ’s dogged insistence on the veracity of the account and the prevailing critical opinion that the work is largely fictional, embodied in my edition in Abiola Irele’s Introduction, which argues that ‘the essential consideration here must surely be not the exactitude of the recollection but the evocative power of the account’.

That would just about stand had Bâ not been needled into writing an impassioned Afterword in response to his book’s initial reception, in which he insists on the truth of what he has written:

‘Although the existence of the man who chose to call himself Wangrin is generally accepted as a historical fact, they [critics] think I “romanticized” his life somewhat and even added a subtle sprinkling of oral tradition and supernatural events of my own making in order to flesh out the story and give it a patina of symbolical significance.

‘I’ll repeat once more, then, for anyone who still might be in doubt, that I heard everything relating to the life of the hero […] from Wangrin himself, in a Bambara often poetic, full of verve, humor, and vigor, to the soft musical accompaniment of his griot Dieli Maadi. To this very day I recall with emotion Wangrin’s voice against the background of a guitar.’

There may very well be more to this than meets the eye. If I had more knowledge of the context of the work and Bâ’s writing, I might discover that, far from the impassioned appeal it appears, this is yet another turn of the screw on the part of a witty author who is every bit as ingenious as the character he describes.

As it stands, though, for the reader coming to the text with no prior knowledge as I did, the clash between the Introduction and the Afterword is deeply uncomfortable. It was enough to make me refrain from using the word ‘novel’ when talking about the book. To do so felt as though I would be favouring an imposed and largely Western reading of the work at the expense of its author’s intentions. It left me troubled. But perhaps that’s precisely what Bâ set out to do.

The Fortunes of Wangrin (L’Etrange destin de Wangrin) by Amadou Hampâté Bâ, translated from the French by Aina Pavolini Taylor (Indiana University Press, 1999)

Liberia: breaking the taboos

This book was recommended to me by Justin at the African Books Collective when I dropped by the their stall at the London Book Fair back in April. I’m glad he brought it to my attention as the subject matter and cover – which makes the book look a bit like a self-help manual – mean that I probably would never have chosen it on my own.

Written by Dr Mardia Stone, a Liberian obstetrician and gynaecologist living in the US, the book is an account of her homosexual half-brother Konkai’s diagnosis and struggle with AIDS in the late eighties and early nineties. Charting her sibling’s decline and death back in the days when very little was known about the killer disease, Stone confronts her and her family’s fears and prejudices, weaving in and challenging the attitudes to homosexuality that she and her relatives grew up with in Liberia and discovering a capacity for love that breaks down social barriers.

Stone’s unflinching honesty and direct style make the book. From reflections on death and mortality through to confessions of her and her other siblings’ tendency to laugh at their brother and sweep his sexuality ‘under the carpet’ in the years before his illness, the book is fearlessly frank as well as touching and tender. At times this can make for shocking reading, as when Stone writes about Konkai’s deliberate promiscuity without protection after his diagnosis when his anger and pain were at their peak.

Stone’s frankness  also paves the way for some refreshingly open discussion of the approach to homosexuality in many African countries: ‘You will sometimes hear African people say that Africans, for the most part, are not homosexuals because culturally or traditionally most Africans know nothing about homosexuality. […] It is still taboo in many countries. Yet, I have seen a number of African homosexuals living “in” and “out of the closet” in Africa,’ she writes. Indeed, as Stone explains in her preface and again at the end of the book, a large part of her motivation for writing her brother’s story came from a sense that, because of this reticence, ‘Africans themselves are not writing their stories, everybody else is writing for them’.

In addition to its personal and cultural discussions, the book is also a valuable documentation of a key moment in the history of modern medicine. Having been a hospital doctor in New York during the eighties, Stone writes powerfully about the fear she and her colleagues felt when they first encountered patients with the newly discovered HIV/AIDS virus. Her account of her first exposure to a pregnant woman with the disease is particularly compelling:

‘The woman was immediately isolated. A stack of disposable gowns, masks, shoe covers, gloves and hats were placed in front of her room door. No one dared to enter without being properly suited. We looked like astronauts ready to enter a space shuttle every time we entered her room wearing our protective biohazard suits. Some of us even doubled [sic] gowned, double booted and wore triple hats and masks. We were that fearful. None of us wanted to go into her room alone so we always arranged to see her in pairs or as a group.

‘In the course of caring for our patient, I had to draw her blood. The very thought of this routine procedure was terrifying. […] Terrified, I searched for a fellow resident to assist me, hold my hand and give me encouragement. No one agreed and no one was ‘available’. Even the nurses seemed to be on the snail track to Timbuktu, and because I had a heavy load of over twenty patients that day, I put on my brave face and with a brave heart entered the room alone, in my space suit.

[…]

‘”You people make me feel like a demon,” [the woman] said in response. “Why do you treat me this way? I may have AIDS, but I am a human being. I feel bad enough already and I am hurting because I may lose my baby. Is there no compassion left in any of you?”‘

Occasionally, the directness of the writing leads to assertions that some readers will find uncomfortable. In particular, the discussion of Konkai’s early abuse as a child by a young adult in Liberia and the role this may have played in the development of his identity and sexuality, while no doubt worth exploring, is muddy and at points seems to conflate homosexuality and paedophilia. However, as this seems at odds with Stone’s views elsewhere in the book, it’s possible that this is down to slightly awkward expression of these ideas rather than deliberate intention – it’s interesting to note the disclaimer at the beginning that states the work ‘is not a pronouncement on any debates about the nature of sexual orientation’. The closing sections of the book could also have done with some cutting.

All the same, this does not detract from the fact that this is a brave and often deeply moving book. Few would argue with Stone’s central discovery in the midst of Konkai’s cruel deterioration that ‘compassion is the key to our human experience’. A welcome voice from a part of the world where such subjects rarely get put into words.

Konkai: Living between two worlds by Mardia Stone (Cotton Tree Press, 2011)

Zambia: what price education?

This 2000 novel by Binwell Sinyangwe, another pick from Heinemann’s African Writers Series, promised something I hadn’t come across in any of the books I’ve read so far this year: a story centring on the hardships facing women in rural Africa written by a man.

Its premise is disarmingly simple. At the start, widow Nasula has less than three weeks to find the 100,000 kwacha she needs to pay for the next stage in her only daughter’s education, after more than a year of trying to get the money together. The rest of the narrative portrays the extreme lengths she goes to in an effort to raise the funds that are her daughter’s only hope of escaping a life of poverty.

In many ways, this is a profoundly feminist book. Dedicated to the memory of Sinyangwe’s wife Grace, the narrative reveals ‘the unfairness of the life of a woman’, returning again and again to Nasula’s desire for her daughter to be able to ‘carve a decent living that would make it possible for her not to depend on a man for her existence’. These hopes spring from Nasula’s memories of her own bitter experience of marriage and ill-treatment at the hands of her in-laws, recollections that bring out some of Sinyangwe’s best rhetoric:

‘Nasula had not forgotten. She would not forget. How could she? They had turned her into a servant, a slave in a chief’s palace. They had turned her into a stream in which to wash and kill the stink of their humanity. They had turned her into the hunter’s flat stone on which to sharpen their spears and axes. Into icisongole [a hard-shelled fruit] to play iciyenga [a game like jacks] with during the day, a fruit to be eaten at by the chief during the night. Into a source of laughter.’

Sinyangwe heightens our sense of Nasula’s plight with his repeated references to the common hardships facing many Zambians during the nineties. With the end of government grants, poor rains and the spread of HIV/AIDs, these are ‘the years of havelessness’ for rural and urban workers alike, in which many who previously prospered, and to whom Nasula turns for help, struggle to survive.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this material would be woven into a two-dimensional sob story. Instead, Sinyangwe rises to the challenge, imbuing his narrative with the vigour, vibrancy and ingenuity of his heroine. As we watch Nasula undertake the marathon walk to her in-laws, sleep in the city market to protect her possessions and challenge criminals and corrupt officials single-handedly, it’s impossible not to admire her.

If the narrative is occasionally a little overwritten, with a few too many adjectives fighting for space, the power of the plot more than makes up for it. So much so, in fact, that in the gripping final chapters, it’s easy to forget that what we are reading is not an account of some grand odyssey but the story of one woman’s attempt to secure a basic necessity for her child. It’s humbling to remember this as the narrative draws to its close – and more effective than any sob story could ever be.

A Cowrie of Hope by Binwell Sinyangwe (Heinemann, 2000)

Cameroon: joking aside

Just as one writer can become the go-to wordsmith for a particular nation in the eyes of the rest of the world (see my post on Afghan literature below), so one book can become so famous that we forget the author ever wrote anything else. In the case of Mongo Beti, I was all set to read The Poor Christ of Bomba, the 1956 novel banned in Cameroon for lampooning the religious and colonial authorities. Several people had recommended it and it seemed like an obvious choice.

But, as I was googling around Beti, I stumbled upon a description of his slightly later humorous book, Mission to Kala. Intrigued at the thought of reading my first African comic novel, I decided to give it a go.

Told by Medza, a self-confessed ‘professional failure’, the novel describes the summer he fails his baccalaureat and undertakes a trip to a remote village to escape his father’s wrath. Charged with bringing back his neighbour’s wife, who has absconded to the region, the young man sets out to recover his community’s honour. But he has not reckoned on the welcome his distant relatives have in store for him and, finding himself celebrated as a celebrity and erudite man of the world, he begins to gather the gumption he needs to face his terrifying father and make his own way in the world.

Beti’s instinct for comedy is up there with the best of them. From the bathetic chapter introductions, of which the penultimate one is my favourite – ‘in the course of which the reader will become convinced that the final climax of this story is at last in sight – a conviction which is, most unfortunately, mistaken’ – to hilarious set pieces such as the white-knuckle bus ride which anticipates The Italian Job when the vehicle ends up hanging over a precipice, the book is bursting with rib ticklers. Perhaps the funniest sequence of all is when Medza finds himself beseeched to impart his great insights into Western learning to the villagers and, having exhausted his paltry stock of knowledge fairly quickly, is forced to improvise.

The comedy is heightened by Peter Green’s 1958 translation, which often sees him reaching into the PG Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh lexicon and pulling out phrases such as ‘a really barbarous howler’ and ‘Oh the greedy beast!’ It would be interesting to see how a contemporary translator might render Beti’s words differently and whether this would alter the feel of the book at all.

As in his more famous novel, Beti has serious points to make. These focus largely on colonialism, religion and the questionable choices of parents, as one of the most powerful passages towards the end of the book demonstrates:

‘We were those children – it is not easy to forget – and it was our parents who forced this torment upon us. Why did they do it?

‘We were catechized, confirmed, herded to Communion like a gaggle of holy-minded ducklings, made to confess at Easter and on Trinity Sunday, to march in procession with banners on the Fourteenth of July; were militarized, shown off proudly to every national and international commission.

That was us remember?

‘Ragged, rowdy, boastful, nit-infested, cowardly, scab-ridden, scrounging little beasts, feet swollen with jiggers: that was us; a tiny squeaking species adrift in the modern age like poultry in mid-Atlantic. What god were we being sacrificed to, I wonder?’

Arresting though these passages are, they sit oddly with the jovial tone of the rest of the book. Reading them is a bit like watching a dinner party guest explode into a rant in the middle of a witty anecdote, leaving you unsure when it’s OK to start laughing again. Similarly, one or two of the set pieces Beti seeds in early in the novel fail to materialise, making Medza’s claims that he ‘can’t remember’ how certain things turned out feel like a bit of a fudge.

Overall, though, this novel was a great joy to read and had me laughing nearly all the way through. I’m already looking forward to getting acquainted with Beti’s other works when I’ve finished reading the world. And you can’t get a much better recommendation than that.

Mission to Kala by Mongo Beti, translated from the French by Peter Green (Mallory Publishing, 2008)