Index Freedom of Expression awards


Last night Steve and I had the honour of being guests at Index on Censorship’s gala award ceremony at the Barbican Centre in London. Set up in 2000, the Freedom of Expression Awards celebrate some of the bravest and most creative champions of free speech around the planet, and highlight the sinister efforts of numerous regimes and other organisations to censor and silence dissent – an issue I encountered many times during my Year of Reading the World.

The evening combined a number of wonderful experiences. It was the first time we had ever been in the Barbican’s cinema and lush garden room, where we relished sipping something bubbly and looking at the artwork Index has commissioned from cartoonists around the world in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack. I particularly liked the picture by Burkinabé cartoonist Damien Glez, which showed a small boy with one tiny, squashed speech bubble next to a massive, bloated and suited bureaucrat or politician, whose robust pronouncements filled the rest of the page.

It was also the first time I had seen comedian Shappi Khorsandi perform live. She was hosting the event and spoke with great wit and humour about her family’s experience of fleeing Iran after her father published a satirical poem. ‘A fatwa is the Iranian equivalent of an Oscar,’ she quipped.

But by far the most powerful experience of the night was hearing about the nominees in each of the four categories – Journalism, Campaigning, Digital Activism and Arts –and listening to the winners’ speeches. From Kenyan women’s rights activist Amran Aboundi, who dedicated her award not only to those she has helped on the Somali border but also to the people who have threatened her because of her work, to Moroccan rapper El Haqed, who has been imprisoned three times and finished his speech with a performance of one of his hits, the people honoured were an extraordinarily inspiring bunch.

We heard from Saudi documentary maker Safa Al Ahmad – who defied the laws restricting women’s movements to make the film Saudi’s Secret Uprising – about the preciousness of facts in a society where the media is the mouthpiece of the state (you can watch her film below). Meanwhile Angolan journalist and activist Rafael Marques de Morais spoke bravely about the court action he must face in his home country, where he is being sued by numerous powerful figures whom his work has exposed. The experience would only empower him further he said.

Closer to home, Hungarian journalist Tamás Bodoky, founder of, talked about the need for investigative journalists to ‘position ourselves outside the mainstream media’ because most outlets have come to ‘represent the interests of local oligarchs’. In addition, exiled Azeri journalist Idrak Abbasov won a special award in recognition of the dangers that he and many of his colleagues face under the vicious crackdown on free expression in Azerbaijan, where several journalists have been murdered in recent years.

By the time actor Simon Callow stepped on stage to end the evening by speaking about his long-term support for Index and to appeal for donations, no one was in any doubt as to the huge amount of work that has to be done to win and safeguard freedom of expression in every society.

After all, there are plenty of places where even writing a blog post like this is a risky business. And the distance between those places and those of us living in so-called ‘free’ societies is smaller than we might like to think.

Photo by Steve Lennon

A Luxembourgish artist’s story


Back in October, I received a rather unusual invitation. It was to a private view of Inside Out, an art exhibition at the Luxembourg embassy – or Luxembourg House as it’s known – in London. Not being an aficionado of Luxembourgish art, I was nonplussed at first. Then my eye caught the name of the painter whose work would be on show: Robi Gottlieb-Cahen, the writer/artist who generously sent me the manuscript of his trilingual Minute Stories (since published by Éditions Phi) so that I could have something to read in English from Luxembourg back in 2012.

Delighted at the chance to meet the man himself, I headed over to Wilton Crescent in Knightsbridge one evening after work. After hanging my coat up in a side room under an imposing picture of Queen Elizabeth II, I made my way into a high-ceilinged space lined with a series of artworks painted in Gottlieb-Cahen’s distinctive style – created by layering acrylic paint, ink and other pigments and then using acid to craft the image (you can see examples on Gottlieb-Cahen’s website).

I spent some time wandering among the works, admiring their eerie beauty and sometimes disturbing darkness, and it wasn’t long before I recognised the artist from the photograph on his exhibition leaflet. There he was, standing beneath the painting pictured above, engaged in an animated conversation.

I went over and introduced myself. Gottlieb-Cahen greeted me warmly and we spent several minutes reminiscing about the projects that brought us together and discussing his latest work.

The darkness I’d identified in the paintings was a central theme, he explained. Although he was a very positive, upbeat person, a lot of his works portrayed suffering, some of them drawing on the experiences of his relatives, many of whom were killed during the Holocaust. He did, however, always try to include some suggestion of hope in his creations.

‘My wife says for me it’s either psychotherapy or painting,’ he said with a grin. ‘I choose painting.’

He chooses words sometimes too. When I asked about his writing, Gottlieb-Cahen told me he had recently finished another collection of short stories, which he was hoping to place with a French publisher. Like Minute Stories, this collection featured some of his artwork alongside the text, although there were more words and fewer pictures than in the previous book.

As I said goodbye, he promised to email me one of his recent pieces. This he did a few days later and, testing my school-girl French to its limits, I read ‘Souvenir d’un pantalon à anges’ (Memory of a pair of angel trousers), a quirky story about a liaison that goes wrong when an innocent question leads the narrator to reveal the cruel and obsessive war he has been waging against slugs in his back garden.

Like Gottlieb-Cahen’s paintings it contains a mixture of lightness (in the form of many laughs) and more sinister elements. If it’s representative of the rest of the collection, French-language readers have a treat in store when Gottlieb-Cahen finds a publisher.

Meanwhile, if you’re in central London and fancy checking out his artwork yourself, Inside Out remains at Luxembourg House until 9 January 2015. Just email londres.amb[at] to make an appointment to see it.

Picture courtesy of Robi Gottlieb-Cahen

A new title hits the shelves


One of the exciting things about reading the world was the number of unpublished manuscripts I got to sample during the project. From the crowd-sourced translation of Olinda Beja’s A casa do pastor, which I read for Sao Tome & Principe after nine volunteers generously converted it into English for me, and Mozambican literary giant Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa’s Ualalapi, to Ak Welsapar’s The Tale of Aypi  – the first book ever to be translated directly from Turkmen but still, sadly, without an Anglophone publishing deal – I was repeatedly surprised and delighted by the extraordinary works I had the privilege of discovering.

People often ask me whether any of these works are going to make it into the shops. I hope so, is the short answer. Certainly many of them deserve to – not least because they are often one of the few, if not the only, English-language translations of literature in existence from particular nations. I would be delighted if this project meant that some of these exciting stories had a chance to break into the world’s largest publishing market.

So you can imagine my pleasure when I heard today that Robi Gottlieb-Cahen’s Minute Stories has come out through Editions Phi.

Now, I have  to confess that A Year of Reading the World has nothing to with Gottlieb-Cahen’s success – the book was already slated for publication when Claudine Muno, frontwoman of Luxembourgian band Claudine Muno and the Lunar Boots, helped me find it. Still, it’s great to hear of the first AYORTW manuscript making it into print – particularly from Luxembourg, which has very little literature available in English.

Gottlieb-Cahen’s fascinating collection of tiny stories of no more than two or three sentences written in three languages and accompanying paintings by the author will give many readers a chance to sample literature from a nation they might not otherwise have the opportunity to read a book from. Congratulations on your achievement, Robi!

And for details of more AYORTW titles coming to bookshops or e-retailers near you, watch this space…

Picture from Editions Phi

Honduras: the look of love

This was a recommendation from Kathy. In response to my half-way appeal for countries I had yet to find books from, she contacted her friend Erik, who had spent some time living in Honduras.

The familiar response came back that there wasn’t much literature in translation from the country. Erik’s first choice would have been Ramón Amaya Amador’s Prisión verde but as far as he knew – and as far as I’ve been able to find out – this is not available in English. In the absence of anything by Spanish-language authors that I could read in translation, Erik suggested artist and writer Guillermo Yuscarán, whom he described as a ‘quasi Honduran author’.

The quasi refers to the fact that Yuscarán was actually born in the US with the name William Lewis. It wasn’t until 1972 that he came to Honduras, fell in love with the place and eventually made it his home, even going so far as to take a Honduran name. Given my general rule of thumb that a writer has to have spent enough time in a country for it to be part of their life story in order for their work to be eligible to represent that nation on the list, Yuscarán definitely fitted the bill.

Written during his first visit to Honduras and illustrated by the author, Points of Light paints a disturbing and enchanting picture of the country that stole Yuscarán’s heart. By turns brutal and whimsical, the stories shimmer with the hopes and dreams of a multitude of characters engaged in the struggle to survive. There is the chronically ill boy Raimundo who sings in the town and on the buses to feed himself and his siblings, the prostitute Lia who dies in childbirth on the beach, and the poor child Vicente who wants to reach the moon down from the sky. Through them all, moves the blind man Toribio, a magnetic figure who draws the stories together and provides a series of almost other-worldly insights.

Yuscarán’s direct and often apparently simple style is well-suited to telling the stories of characters who are thwarted by life. His portrait of Miguel, for example, a disabled man who was abandoned in Tela at the age of two – ‘a piece of bait for life to strike at’ – and now lives in a shack on the beach, forever cut off from the girls he would love to get to know, is devastating in ‘The Milk of Human Kindness’. Similarly, the discussions between Toribio and a terminally ill child in ‘Emilio Aguilar’ capture of world of feeling in a very few words.

But that’s not all. A strong artistic sense runs through the book, bringing out the richness, beauty and possibility of even the bleakest existences. We see it in the vivid descriptions of the colours of the natural world – the sunrise’s ‘spidery pattern of oranges and yellows for Lia’s song and Pablito’s dreams to ride on’, for example – and in the awakening sensibility of the many artists who people the narratives. While gringo Memo (a self-portrait, perhaps?) ‘had always wanted only to see what was real, no matter how painful or overwhelming’, Vicente experiences the marketplace as being ‘alive with color […] each person [..] a spark of light leaping in and out of a great painting’. And when the painter Soledad, who sees ‘the truth of colour in all things’, completes his magnum opus of a great bird on a wall looking out to sea, his creation takes on an extraordinary life of its own:

‘That night, The Great Bird moved its head, then blinked one eye; the massive wings fluttered. Far out at sea, a fog bank moved rapidly toward shore, sliding across the water to the sheer cliff walls. As the fog passed, dissipating into mist, Soledad saw the moon over Tela, shining downward like some enormous beacon. His eyes widened as the sphere suddenly became transparent, before filling with liquid colours, shades he saw as his own cosmic fluids – his own blood – in transformation: rich incandescent blues and greens; a kaleidoscope of oranges and yellows becoming livid pink, then violet, then crackling into sprays of porous magenta. Blinded by the brilliance, Soledad closed his eyes.’

Though there are many great moments, some of the stories lack momentum. ‘Dona Lina Catero’, for example, in which an old woman goes about her business, waxing lyrical to the village youngsters, is more of a portrait. Similarly, ‘Son of Esquipulas’, the final story in the collection, feels more like a mosaic of incidents rather than a single coherent piece.

Overall, though, it’s hard not to be struck by the freshness of the vision in the writing. Forty years on, with his place in Honduras’s cultural hall of fame assured, Yuscarán’s first book retains its power to surprise, sadden and transcend. It is in many ways a love letter to the country he would adopt. On the strength of it, it’s hard to see how Honduras could not embrace him.

Points of Light by Guillermo Yuscarán (Nuevo Sol Publicaciones, post 1989)

Slovenia: expect the unexpected

Guernica Press may not have been able to help with my Latvian query in time for the end of the year, but it came up trumps for Slovenia. As Mike explained when I emailed to ask about Nora Ikstena’s work, the company was just in the process of publishing a novel by Slovene author Luka Novak. It was called The Golden Shower or What Men Want – would I be interested in seeing a copy?

Not only was the title intriguing (if a little disconcerting), but Luka Novak sounded like quite a character in his own right. The co-host of a popular Slovenian TV cookery show and programme director of the Slovenian Book Fair, he ran a publishing house for 20 years, as well as launching what is apparently Eastern Europe’s first ever concept store. He also ran for Mayor of Ljubljana in 2006, speaks six languages, and has translated 20 books, including Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, into Slovenian.

Phew. I had to see what this one-man cultural extravaganza’s novel was like.

The book starts when a middle-aged psychiatrist and his younger actress girlfriend arrive in Provence, France, for a holiday, which he intends to spend writing a book of cultural essays. It’s not long, however, before their plans start to go awry and the couple, along with Orada, the doctor’s Bosnian masseuse neighbour back in Ljubljana, and a German mythology professor, find themselves caught up in a covert cultural, religious and political movement that aims to take over and remake the world in its own image.

Novak is great at making his characters reveal their inconsistencies through their actions and the stories they tell about themselves. From the brilliant portrait of procrastination in the early chapters, where the psychiatrist is always on the point of sitting down to write his essays but finds himself forced to seek refuge in glass after glass of rosé, to the constant shifting of ground that characterises his arguments with Larisa  during which the pair wander miserably around picturesque French towns, neither getting to do what they want to, with the fact of their childlessness only a Freudian slip away – the novel is full of instances of self-deception and people interacting at cross purposes.

This is helped greatly by Novak’s witty voice. Whether his characters are asserting the opinion that ‘in Ljubljana they’re incapable of making a coherent croissant’ or expressing home truths about the Bosnian War there is a pithiness to his writing that makes for absorbing reading. This is coupled with a series of great cameo characters. I particularly enjoyed the German couple at Ducasse’s country inn, who have planned out every minute of their holiday, barring the ‘five percent spontaneity they generously afford themselves on every trip’.

The humour is important because it buys Novak considerable slack when the narrative rises into the realms of the surreal, tugging at its moorings like a hot air balloon. Watching the plot move into farce after 80 pages or so  with kimono-sporting monks, religious SWAT teams, gender-morphing musicians and the President of Slovenia all dropping in under the watchful eye of the mysterious aesthete, Contractor  is disconcerting and would no doubt be off-putting if the novel weren’t so enjoyable to read.

The same is true of the clamour of philosophical and religious references in the narrative. These centre around Contractor’s desire to reconstruct religious tableaux for the modern age in an effort to create what is variously described as ‘a commercial for a better world’, a ‘pornographic invitation to rebellion’ and the basis for the ‘alteration of people’s very sensibility’. The whole thing might be unbearably pretentious in another writer’s hands, but in Novak’s it’s quirky, intriguing and odd.

That said, the book is not without its frustrations. Even with the general rule of thumb (broken occasionally with the story of the German mythology professor) that the chapters alternate between the experiences of the psychiatrist and Orada, it’s often hard to know where you are. I spent the beginning of several sections straining to catch a familiar reference so that I could work out who I was reading about  a tricky extra complication when you’re dealing with a plot that embraces randomness. In addition, there are some abrupt shifts that leave us scrabbling to catch up. In one paragraph, for example, Orada is watching the Venezuelan police seize an accomplice on the beach; in the next, Contractor is stopping his motorbike in some woods. It’s left to us to infer that Orada hopped on behind him.

All in all, though, this is an enjoyable and surprising novel. No doubt the plot and the subject matter will be too wacky for some readers, but if you give yourself over to it, the narrative sweeps you along, delivering a good helping of insights, thrills, spills and laughs along the way. Apparently, Novak is working on a second novel, this time about the mysterious death of an eccentric pianist-performer in 1980s Paris. I’m intrigued to see what that will entail…

The Golden Shower or What Men Want (Zlati Dez ali Kaj Hoce Moski) by Luka Novak, translated from the Slovenian by Urska Charney (Guernica Editions, 2012)

Kiribati: crossing boundaries

I emailed a lot of people during the search for this book. Some of the messages bounced. Others disappeared into the ether, never to be seen again. But lots of people did get back to me, usually to tell me one or both of two things: that there was no Kiribatian prose that they could think of and/or that there was someone I should contact at the university/library/community project across the way who might know more.

This impromptu game of e-tag led me through Guam, New Zealand, Kiribati itself, Samoa, Fiji, Hawaii and the States, until at last I emailed Sudesh Mishra, an associate professor in the school of creative and communication arts at Deakin University in Australia. He suggested that I look up Teweiariki Teaero and gave me his email address at the University of the South Pacific. Perhaps the poet would have a prose manuscript I could read.

I dropped Teaero a line. He replied the very next day to say that while no novel, short story collection or memoir by a writer from Kiribati existed, his anthologies On Eitei’s Wings and Waa in Storms contained prose pieces as well as poems. Would I be interested in reading one of those?

Curious to see how this mixing of genres worked, I asked which collection contained the greatest amount of short stories. A few weeks later a copy of Waa in Storms arrived.

Bringing together Teaero’s poetry, prose, drawings and paintings, the anthology comprises work from a particularly dark period in the author’s life, during which his parents fell seriously ill, his youngest daughter was hit by a car, and his home community on the atoll of Tarawa was shaken by a series of vicious child rapes. Melding depictions of particular moments and more general reflections on extreme emotions with anecdotes, satirical sketches and occasional rants about island life, the pieces present a rich and layered picture of Teaero’s year.

The use of language in the book is fascinating. While some pieces, including all the prose work, are written entirely in English, others, such as ‘Te Faika’, mix together verses in the Kiribatese language and verses in English. Yet others are written exclusively in Kiribatese. Teaero explains in his introduction that the reasons for this are tied to his desire ‘to express an idea as vividly as possible… [whether] this comes through the use of English, Kiribatese, visual image or any combination of the three’.

For the author, it seems, the three modes of expression have different strengths when it comes to certain ideas and emotions. Although it’s impossible for an English-language reader like me to tell what the subject matter of most of the Kiribatese work is, a note at the end of ‘E Kaaki Baina Te Ang’ (‘Teaia, Tarawa. 18th August 2000. The day my father passed away’) suggests that some of it at least contains extremely personal reflections on the writer’s emotional and family life, while many of the English pieces are outward-looking, focusing on politics, ecology and the wider community.

The inclusion of background details at the end of most of the pieces adds a fascinating layer of meaning to the collection. While some reveal the inspiration for the work, others such as the note, ‘Composed while sitting on the sand dunes in Sigatoka town. 28th January 2001,’ at the end of ‘Sad Parade’ introduce a powerful sense of immediacy to the act of writing, as though we are reading the story of the composition as much as the pieces themselves. And then there are the quirky observations that raise a smile and introduce a huge amount of warmth into the collection, such as the postscript to ‘Size Unlimited’:

‘Suva. 5th December 2000. Composed in the Botanical Gardens of USP. The frogs were very happy, hopping about and croaking joyously every-merry-where! Perhaps they were having an early Christmas party.’

Teaero’s writing seems, for the most part, disarmingly simple. He uses this to great effect in satirical stories such as ‘Merrily Verily Messing with Missing Milkfish’, where the sing-song, childlike tone of the piece is a great tool for sending up corrupt government officials. It can also pay dividends in poems such as ‘Tab-ulous Reunion’ where the almost banal heaping of platitudes on a former teacher builds in a mysteriously moving way. At times, however, the work does feel a little bald, particularly at the end of some of the prose pieces, where Teaero steps out from behind the narrative to appeal for a range of reforms, from equipping the police with breathalyzers and planting more trees at the local hospital to greater transparency in politics, as though he does not trust the story to speak for itself.

But perhaps most interesting of all is the fact that the distinction between poetry and prose in the collection often seems rather meaningless. Several of the poems read as stories, while prose pieces such as ‘Island Time’ and ‘Crowded Buses’ read more as poems that happen to be written in full sentences that stretch across the page. In addition, much of the work incorporates visual aspects, with font sizes and weights and the shape of the poems on the page adding emphasis. Just as outside events and Teaero’s life experiences bleed into and mingle with the works, so the forms mix with and change each other.

The result is a distinctive and memorable collection. Organised into four ‘Waves’, which loosely chart Teaero’s progress through what he calls his ‘annus horribilis‘ in the introduction, the work pulls together to tell a story of suffering and change. It is in many ways every bit as much a narrative as the novels, short story collections and memoirs I’ve read so far this year – and a striking challenge to the system of categorization I’ve used to talk about literature for much of my life.

Waa in Storms by Teweiariki Teaero (Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific, 2004)

Luxembourg: a mission and a half

I had an email from Andrew in Ireland. Back in 2004, when the European Union expanded from 15 to 25 states, he undertook a project to read a book from each member country. He got round them all, with one exception: when it came to Luxembourg there was nothing he could get hold of to read in English.

It’s not surprising that Andrew found getting literature from the world’s only sovereign grand duchy difficult: with three official languages (French, German and Luxembourgish), there’s enough to do translating documents so that all of the country’s 500,000 or so citizens can read them without looking further afield.

Nevertheless, Andrew did give me something to go on. In the course of his research, he’d heard about a Luxembourgish writer called Claudine Muno who had published a novel in English in 1996, at the age of just 16. By all accounts it was out of print.

I looked Muno up. It turns out she’s continued to be something of a trailblazer and is now frontwoman of the Luxembourgish folk-pop band Claudine Muno and the Luna Boots. Crossing my fingers, I left a message on the group’s Facebook page, asking if Muno could tell me how I could get hold of her book.

Muno replied. She was sorry to say that her novel was completely unavailable – she and her editor only had one copy each left. However, she did have a recent audiobook with young writers reading extracts from their work, some of them in English – would I be interested in that?

And so it was that during a drive down to Cornwall, my long-suffering boyfriend and I listened our way through Write Out Loud, a mixture of Luxembourgish, French, German and English pieces read in the same earnest tones that I remembered members of the Creative Writing Society (many of them dressed in black and sporting berets) adopting at open-mic nights at university.

It would have been tempting to claim this as my Luxembourgish book and leave the quest there. However, given that the prose extracts in English probably only amounted to a total of five minutes’ listening time, this would have felt a bit like cheating. So, taking a deep breath, I sent an email to 19-year-old Joshi Gottlieb, the mastermind of the project and the writer on the CD whose quirky, oddball style I’d most enjoyed.

Gottlieb came back with the manuscript of a book by Robi Gottlieb-Cahen, who did the cover illustration for Write Out Loud. Written throughout in three languages (English, French and German), the book looked set to be published by Éditions Phi  in February 2013. I sighed with relief. I may even have whooped in triumph: at last, I had my Luxembourgish book.

Minute Stories is a collection of micro-tales – many of them no more than a sentence long – each of which has been paired with one of Gottlieb-Cahen’s paintings. As Jean-Marie Schaeffer explains in her introduction, ‘here, one single person holds both the pen and the brush’, creating ‘fundamental indecision in the relation between pictorial and narrative identities’.

In some cases, the link between the two works is clear. There is the visual joke of a picture of a woman with her arm thrown back undercut by a comment about shaving underarm hair and – my personal favourite – a sentence about someone who will not stop talking accompanied by a nightmarish painting of a clownish face, which evokes that feeling of being cornered by someone you’d really rather not speak to perfectly.

Some of the other associations are less obvious. While it is clearly Gottlieb-Cahen’s intention to challenge readers to find their own meaning in the interplay of the words and images, the obscurity of some of the connections can be frustrating. The picture of a naked buxom woman above a sentence about shoelaces, for example, left me scratching my head.

This sense of uncertainty permeates the stories too, many of which deal with loneliness, loss, leaving and ‘the art of not understanding each other’. We are repeatedly invited to question the identity of the narrators – are they Gottlieb-Cahen or someone else altogether?  In addition, the informality of their grammar and punctuation, which gives them the feel of text messages or notes scribbled in someone’s diary, and the occasional bracketed references to the places where the events happened make them seem like moments snatched from everyday life.

There is also the question of the relation of the text’s three languages to each other. Although the English version of the text is printed first on each page, one or too minor syntactical oddities suggest that it is not Gottlieb-Cahen’s first language. This made me wonder how the stories were written. Did Gottlieb-Cahen work in one language and translate into the other two? Or did he generate each version independently?

The web of questions grows as the book progresses, wrapping the reader in a cat’s-cradle of ideas. Gottlieb-Cahen keeps this light and playful with regular bursts of bathos and wit, which challenge the hushed reverence that often seems to be the expected response to art books. The result is a fascinating and exuberant exploration of pictures and words and our relationship to them. Well worth the effort it took to find it.

Minute Stories by Robi Gottlieb-Cahen (slated for publication by Éditions Phi in 2013)

Malawi: a story from the fourth world


Malawian artist Samson Kambalu begins his account of his childhood and rise to international recognition with a prologue remembering the day he and his Scottish fiancée notified the High Commission in Malawi of their intention to get married. Asked if he was doing this to get a British passport, Kambalu answered ‘Not really’ to the great indignation of the consul, who informed him crossly: ‘The answer is NO, OK? The answer is NO’.

The following 335 pages illustrate why that ‘Not really’ stands.

One of eight children born into a Christian family in the then-dictatorship of Malawi or ‘the abyss of the fourth world’ as he calls it, Kambalu grew up in the shadow of his intellectually ambitious yet ultimately frustrated clinical officer father, the Jive Talker of the title. Posted to remote locations all over the impoverished sub-Saharan country, the Jive Talker took refuge in alcohol and Nietzsche as his career crumbled and his family and their peers suffered ever greater privations until at last Kambalu’s parents died of AIDs-related illnesses around the turn of the millennium.

Yet this is no self-pitying catalogue of woes. Told with wit and flair, Kambalu’s account paints a picture of a vital place full of creativity and interest. Life there is a precarious business and the world is cruelly indifferent to individuals’ sufferings (‘Anybody who survives Malawi deserves to be called Superman’, he remarks at one point), yet it is a world Kambalu describes with dignity and humour.

This humour often tips over into the deeply touching, as when Kambalu remembers his friend Joe Bugner’s reaction to the news that he had secured a place at the highly competitive, state-funded, English-style boarding school Kamuzu Academy, known as the ‘Eton of Africa’:

‘You are the man. In future all that is wrong with the world you will only see on TV,’ which was a pretty poignant remark considering there was no TV in Malawi at the time.

Far from being a purely personal account though, The Jive Talker is in many ways a history of Malawi too, with much of the political and social development of the country over the last few centuries woven into the narrative. The description of the cultural split caused by the arrival of 19th century missionaries, which saw the country change from a matriarchal society in which family members were known only by their shared clan name into a patriarchal society where everyone had to have his or her own Christian name is fascinating, as are Kambalu’s reflections on the Banda regime.

The most interesting aspects of this episodic (and occasionally rambling) narrative, though, are the powerful insights into Kambalu’s development as a conceptual artist and the creation of the philosophy of Holyballism, which made his name. Described with such intensity that they sometimes take on an almost magical realist quality, these passages reveal the alchemy by which Kambalu was able to assimilate the conflicting cultures he grew up with and broker some sort of peace with his past — no mean feat.

The Jive Talker: Or, How to Get a British Passport by Samson Kambalu. Publisher (Kindle edition): Vintage Digital (2008)