Central African Republic: tales of yore

I knew this was going to be tricky when Catherine Teya, president of the Central African Republic Association of Europe (SEWA Europe), struggled to suggest a book from CAR that I could read in English. However, it wasn’t until I did a bit more detailed research into the state that I began to understand quite what the challenges were.

Riddled with unrest and pockets of lawlessness since it gained independence from France in 1960, CAR is one of the planet’s least developed and most isolated countries. Indeed, as award-winning photojournalist Spencer Platt explains in his 2008 dispatch from the country, it has to all intents and purposes been abandoned and forgotten by the rest of the world. With frequent coups and attempted coups forcing crisis after crisis on its impoverished citizens, most of whom will not live to see their 45th birthdays,  it’s small wonder that very few books by writers in the country have made it into print in recent decades, let alone been translated into English.

However, although she was unable to recommend anything directly, Catherine Teya was nothing if not helpful. She sent me a number of links that might assist me in my quest, among them the website of Solidarité Franco Africaine, which features an overview of Central African writers. Perhaps one of these might have been translated in to English, she suggested.

As luck would have it, sloshing about in Amazon’s dankest recesses, I stumbled on a 1970 translation of a novel by Pierre Makombo Bamboté, one of the writers on Solidarité Franco Africaine’s list. There was no information, no summary and no picture. The book was in an ‘unknown binding’ and I could tell nothing about it beyond the date the English version was published, its title and the number of pages it had. Still, given the lack of anything else to go on, it had to be worth a shot.

First published in French in 1966, Les Randonnées de Daba (or Daba’s Travels from Ouadda to Bangui as the English version has it) follows young Daba as he leaves his parents’ village to visit friends and relatives around CAR and further his education. Moving between the Westernised milieu of his French boarding school and the rich rural traditions of the communities he stays with during his holidays, Daba develops a love for his country, as well as a desire to explore the rest of the world – and has some gripping adventures along the way.

Daba’s is a culture where storytelling is part of the furniture. From the very opening lines, in which Daba’s mother tells the tale of the will-o’-the-wisp bird, fielding her son’s comments and chiding him for questioning her skill as a narrator, the power of the oral tradition is clear. This comes across in the novel too: the text is frequently interspersed with stories told by adults the boy meets and the narrative itself has an organic feel, as though Bamboté is sitting just across from us, developing the story as he goes along.

This instinct for storytelling also manifests itself in the evocative descriptions that fill the book. Whether he is describing the ‘sparkling white wings of insects, looking like thousands of stars, [that] glittered in the headlights’ on a drive through the jungle, the way a crocodile’s tail ‘would suddenly spank the water and send a great sheet of white spray up into the air’, or Daba’s eerie sense of being followed when returning home from a day spent tracking lions with his friends, Bamboté is a master of transporting his readers into the midst of the places he describes.

Indeed, for all its exotic crocodile hunts and days off school because of prowling panthers, the book has a profoundly nostalgic feel. This is partly down to the author’s skill, which makes us yearn for a place we have probably never been (the presence of Daba’s French penfriend Guy throughout much of the book suggests that it was probably aimed at a European rather than a CAR readership), but it is also because of the look and feel of the book. With its illustrations sprawling over the pages like jungle creepers and the smell of its old pages, it reminded me of the books my mother gave me from her own childhood.

Now, 42 years after it was published, Daba’s Travels from Ouadda to Bangui and the handful of Bamboté’s other translated novels offer a rare window on a much-neglected and surely now much-changed corner of the globe. I wonder how long it will be before English-language readers get a chance to take another look.

Daba’s Travels from Ouadda to Bangui (Les Randonnées de Daba) by Pierre Makombo Bamboté, translated from the French by John Buchanan-Brown (Pantheon, 1970)

Dominica: myth making

An unusual picture today, but I couldn’t resist showing you how colourful this book was inside. I found it after a search for a Dominican writer other than  Jean Rhys, who is far and away the most famous literary daughter the small island has produced. Her widely read classic Wide Sargasso Sea – the story of the early life of Bertha Rochester, the first wife of  Mr Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre – is rightly celebrated and studied as a work of great merit and skill. If I hadn’t already read it and several of Rhys’s other novels, I would have jumped at the chance. But I’m only reading writers I’ve never read before this year and, besides, I was curious to see what else Dominica had to offer.

My search took me to an intriguing website called the Dominica Academy of Arts and Sciences, which hosts a microsite dedicated to Dominican writers dotted around the world in an effort to build links and enrich the local literary scene. Several of the writers listed, all of whom, as far I could make out, no longer live in Dominica, sounded interesting.

But then I saw The Snake King of the Kalinago on the list. It was apparently a reinterpretation of one of the island’s traditional creation myths, as told by the children in Grade 6 at Atkinson School, Bataka, Dominica. Having heard of some other children’s writing schemes in countries where the publishing industry is still relatively small-scale, such as the Unbound Bookmaker Project in the Marshall Islands, I was intrigued to see what a book produced through one of these initiatives might be like.

Bringing together history and ancient myth, the storybook tells of an unusual relationship between Bakwa the giant snake king and the Kalinago people of the island. Having proclaimed himself guardian of the people, Bakwa stands up to the French settlers of centuries past, but his anger and the bows and arrows of the islanders are no match for the guns and swords of the Westerners. Facing defeat, Bakwa retreats to his cave to sleep, only to wake again when the world is finally at peace.

The imaginative use of everything from natural landscape features to historical events really makes the story sing. Using a rock formation on the shore that looks like a giant staircase as the setting for Bakwa’s first emergence from the sea, the myth is literally grounded in the island. This is complemented with some beautifully quirky descriptions, such as the invaders’ galleons on the horizon looking like ‘three massive fish on the sea’, and the vivid illustrations, which are taken from Yet We Survive: the Kalinago People of Dominica – Our Lives in Words and Pictures edited by Mary Walters.

Coupled with this, and giving the work a touch of childish authenticity, is that wonderful shrugging impatience children have when they are uninterested in an aspect of a story and keen to get to the main action. Bakwa, we learn, decided to make his home on Dominica simply because ‘he was no longer comfortable in the sea’. Nuff said. No doubt several of our novelists could learn a thing or two about concision from these young writers.

Nevertheless, I did find myself wondering about the process by which this book was generated. Was this story created as a group exercise orchestrated by a teacher/editor? Was it stitched together by a grown up from a series of individually written pieces? The acknowledgements shed very little light on this and I felt a little frustrated as a result. Without an understanding of the process, it seemed hard to draw conclusions about the finished book as I had no idea whether I was dealing with work primarily by children or a skilled editing job.

Still, the book made me smile. It’s certainly brightened up the shelf. And if the exercise, whatever form it took, prompts even one of those students to put more words on paper in future, it’s got to have been a good thing.

The Snake King of the Kalinago by Grade 6 of Atkinson School, Bataka, Dominica (Papillote Press, 2010)

Romania: he ain’t heavy…

Over the last decade, the world’s been going crazy for collaborative novels. Whether it’s ambitious, international ventures such as Penguin’s abortive A Million Penguins blog or lighthearted projects between two or three people, more and more writers are taking advantage of the opportunities the internet offers to work together.

Joining forces with a writer you’ve never met before is one thing, but what about working with someone you’ve known all your life? How would you pick your way through the labyrinth of your relationship to produce something intelligible and entertaining for a reader who’s never met you and knows nothing of the thousand jokes, frustrations and secrets you’ve built up between you over your time on Earth?

It sounds like a minefield to me, so when Bucharest UN Information Centre officer Cristina got in touch through a friend to recommend The Baiut Alley Lads by award-winning author Filip Florian and his younger brother Matei, I had to see how they’d tackled it.

Set in the 1970s and 1980s during the communist era, the novel paints a powerful picture of life in a totalitarian society as seen through children’s eyes. The brothers play versions of themselves in the book, narrating alternative chapters and frequently casting the reader in the role of parent/referee as they correct and challenge each other’s versions of events. ‘What guarantee do I have, as a younger brother, that Filip is not mixing everything up again?’ laments Matei at one point.

This playful combativeness is nowhere more apparent than in the brothers’ accounts of the make-believe worlds they retreat into when reality becomes too grim. In a universe where ‘trolleybuses really could change into bison’ and fantastical events make ‘the world stir from its givenness’, anything can happen and there can be no definitive version of truth. ‘Brothers can write a book together, but they cannot meet the same angels and pixies at the same time’, observes Filip.

This fluidity of truth crashes up against the rigid structures of the regime with surprising and often joyful results. Unconcerned by Communism, except where it touches their own lives, the boys see politics as a matter of whether or not you are allowed to play in goal or buy sweets. Instead of the Homeland and the Party, there are the crosspatch school teacher and the peaked cap of the officer who visits their mother.

Now and then, the free movement of the narrative between imagined, ‘real’, past and present worlds can be disorientating. For a British reader with little knowledge of Romanian history like me, this was compounded by my ignorance of a lot of the events sketched into the background. With my cultural compass of very little use, it was difficult to relax into the flow of the narrative as I was continually straining to catch references on and beyond the edge of my awareness.

This of course was one of the book’s joys too. It opened a closed world and brought the reality of life there home to me. I came away with a huge admiration for the skill of both Florians and a fresh respect for what collaborative art can achieve.

Hmmn. I wonder if either of the brothers Morgan would be up for a joint venture…

The Baiut Alley Lads by Filip & Matei Florian, translated from the Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth (University of Plymouth Press, 2010)

Bosnia and Herzegovina: out of the mouths of babes

Novels in children’s voices tend to be the Marmite of literature. While some people love the fresh, quirky insights that pepper works such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Emma Donoghue’s Room, others find them contrived, suspect and twee. Usually for such works to be in with a fighting chance of success, the child narrators must describe traumatic events beyond their understanding, creating a poignant gap between their generally upbeat interpretation of reality and the sad truth.

Saša Stanišić’s English PEN-championed How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone comes from this stable. Presenting the Bosnian War of the early-mid nineties through the eyes of young Aleksandr Krsmanoviæ, the book is a striking portrait of the way conflict ravages homes, lives, and psyches and the personal implications of events watched on TV screens hundreds and thousands of miles away.

Much like Hwang Sok-Yong’s The Guest, the novel intercuts periods of reflection and domesticity with scenes of extreme violence, revealing the psychological rifts that trauma inflicts. The difference is that where Hwang puts his outrages into the mouths of characters and ghosts, Stanišić rumples the chronology of the novel, sending the adult Aleksandr ricocheting back and forth between his memories and his inability to process them.

When they work, the time shifts and child’s voice, which is also varied with a third-person narrator, allow for some telling comment on the cruel illogic of war. The young Aleksandr walks us through the absurd hypocrisy of concepts such as enforced ‘voluntary repatriation’ and ‘our language which we’re not allowed to call Serbo-Croat anymore’ more succinctly and memorably than any adult would.

There are also some extraordinarily tense scenes and some powerful experimental passages. I particularly liked the chapter recording some of Aleksandr’s attempts to phone every house in Sarajevo in search of his long-lost childhood friend Asija.

Occasionally, though, the shifts become a little wearing and overly disorientating. This is not helped by wonky formatting in the e-edition, which means that chapter headings are split between pages for much of the second half of the book.

Some of the more surreal scenes towards the end also fall a little flat. The passage where the young Aleksandr has a long dialogue with the river in which he is fishing, for example, while indicative of his retreat into fantasy in the face of horror, is hard work.

Nevertheless, this is a powerful and, for the most part, compelling book. Its unflinching presentation of the extremes of human suffering makes for some gripping sequences, which will stay with me long after I’ve archived the book away into the great e-library in the sky. And my tweeness radar barely beeped once.

How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Saša Stanišić (translated from the German by Anthea Bell). Publisher (Kindle edition): Grove Press (2008)