Edinburgh: extreme storytelling

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For the past three years, I’ve spent a portion of August in Edinburgh. In fact, twelve months ago I was there to speak at two events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival – a wonderful experience.

But even when I don’t have an official reason for going, these days I tend to feel the call of the north when the brief British summer glimmers into view. And, marvellous though the book festival is, I have to confess that another extravaganza in the Scottish capital has first claim on my heart: the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Running since 1947, the annual four-week celebration of all things performance-related is the largest arts festival in the world. This year sees more than 50,200 performances of 3,269 shows from 48 countries taking place across the city.

The variety is extraordinary. If you want to witness South African dancers transforming themselves into a 16-legged beast, you can find that in After Freedom Productions’ I Am Rhythm. If politics is your thing, you could take yourself along to a garden shed in South College Street and get involved in the reading of the 2.6m-word Chilcot report into the Iraq War (or you could have done until it ended after 284 hours and 45 minutes last weekend). And if it’s comedy you’re after, you can take your pick from the hundreds of aspiring stand-up comics and famous names gurning from posters fixed to every lamp-post, phone box and – likely as not – person who stands still too long on the Royal Mile.

The venues are as different as the acts they house. While specially erected tents accommodate some of the bigger shows, numerous shops, businesses, bars and institutions throw open their doors to host performers in their basements, back rooms, lecture theatres and garages. This year, there are 294 performance spaces operating in the city – among them a venue in Blackwell’s bookshop.

Depending on what you choose to go to, you could find yourself wandering the halls of Edinburgh university, scrambling into the store room of a shop, or squeezing into a police box or camper van (both of which have been used for shows in previous years).

As I writer, I always find the Fringe hugely inspiring. I love the energy and excitement. I relish the inventiveness of the performers, and the weird and wonderful characters you encounter both on and off stage.

But perhaps the most exciting thing about it all for me is this: for all their diversity, each of the 3,269 shows is an attempt to communicate something. Every time the house lights go down in venues large and small, someone is trying to tell a story that will hold the attention of a frequently tired, sometimes rowdy and occasionally downright difficult audience for an hour.

Meeting this challenge every day for the best part of a month requires performers to have guts, energy and a creative approach. This may involve mining episodes from their lives for material, as comedian Alice Fraser does in her show The Resistance, which draws on her childhood in her Holocaust-survivor grandmother’s ramshackle home in Sydney. They may get the audience to take part in the action, as happens in the moving and wonderful play Every Brilliant Thing, in which members of the public are drafted in to play characters in the story.

They may take a historical episode and use it as the framework for their performance, as magician David Narayan does in The Psychic Project, a show based on American studies into the possibility of using mind readers as spies in the late-twentieth century. Or they may make it up as they go along, the way that improv-comedy group Austentatious do with their hilarious improvised performances of a never-before-or-since-read Jane Austen novel inspired by a title provided by a member of the audience.

Not every show works (although I should say that I enjoyed all four of the above). But in many ways, that is beside the point. The attempt to communicate is what counts, the daring to take the conch and step to the front of the stage.

As I return to my desk this week and attempt to pick up the threads of the draft of my next novel, the stagefolk of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival will be my inspiration. They will remind me that though storytelling can sometimes be a messy, intimidating business, it is also a great wonder and privilege because of the opportunity it offers human beings to connect.

None of the joy and power that has filled my last few days would have been possible without the bravery, determination and ingenuity of those performers, who each found their own ways to share their stories. What matters is finding the gumption to try.

Photo of posters and fliers at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (2012) by Jim Forest on Flickr.com.

Finland: a walk on the wild side

As I’ve found repeatedly during the course of this project, some books select themselves. In the case of Arto Paasilinna’s The Year of the Hare, the sheer number of people who recommended it made it the only choice. Everyone I spoke to who had anything to say about Finnish literature wanted me to read this book.

The narrative follows Vatanen, a washed-up hack, who finds himself stranded when his photographer drives off and leaves him after their car hits a hare on their way to an assignment. Alone in the woods with nothing but the wounded animal for company, he decides to break with his joyless existence and takes off on a madcap adventure that sees him fighting forest fires,  dragging a cow out of a swamp, evading the police, and pursuing a bear to the edge of the White Sea.

This is a deeply funny book with its comedy working on several levels. Paasilinna engineers delightfully ludicrous scenarios – from the crazed bulldozer driver who ploughs his machine out to its doom in the middle of a frozen lake and then sits on its roof cursing onlookers and appealing for rescue, to the genteel woman politely picking hare droppings out of her soup. But he also excels at capturing the knots and non sequiturs in which people tie themselves up – none more so than Vatanen’s wife, whose reaction when she finally gets him on the phone is priceless:

‘If this is looking for a divorce, it won’t work, I can tell you! I’m not letting you off that way when you’ve ruined my life – eight years down the drain because of you! Daft I was to take you!’

The comedy is only one side of it, though. Beneath the robust surface of the jokes and the delicious, picaresque plot, which sees new intrigues erupting in every chapter, moves the swell of a much more profound coming to consciousness. Stripped of the trappings of his lacklustre, urban existence, Vatanen has the space to work out what he really needs for a fulfilling life. His discovery of the simple truth is quietly beautiful:

‘There was a half-moon, and the stars were glimmering faintly in the frozen evening. He had his own world, this one, and it was fine to be here, living alone in one’s own way.’

This undertow of self-discovery pulls the narrative along, making the more random episodes – which occasionally feel like short stories rather than chapters in a novel – skim effortlessly along its currents. With the hare as a kind of yardstick for his emotional state, Vatanen sounds the depths of experience. The result is joyful, surprising and touching – definitely one I’ll be reading again.

The Year of the Hare (Janiksen vuosi) by Arto Paasilinna, translated from the Finnish by Herbert Lomas (Peter Owen Publishers, 2009)

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)

Zimbabwe: cut and dried

I first heard about this novel when I stopped by the African Books Collective’s stall at the London Book Fair last month. Acting as a non-profit distribution outlet for 124 independent African publishers from 21 countries, the organisation has its finger on the pulse of much of the continent’s best contemporary work. So when they tipped me off about Weaver Press in Zimbabwe and recommended The Hairdresser of Harare by new talent Tendai Huchu, I knew I had to give it a go.

The novel follows single mother and hairdresser extraordinaire Vimbai as she struggles to keep her head above water in the swirling currents and rip tides of contemporary Zimbabwe. Challenged by the arrival in the salon of gifted male colleague Dumisani, Vimbai feels her reputation as the city’s best hairdresser slipping and battles to retain her position as ‘Queen Bee’. However, enmity quickly turns to love when Dumisani moves in as her lodger and life would be all-but perfect, were it not for the swelling tide of political unrest and Dumisani’s secret that must eventually tear Vimbai’s dreams apart.

The witty, conversational tone is what makes the book. Reading Vimbai’s comments about the one-upmanship between Harare’s salons, where ‘destroying a competitor’s reputation was all part of the game’, and her top tips on pleasing customers, feels like being an apprentice standing beside her as she initiates you into her art snip by snip. There is a deliciously bitchy, back-room-gossip flavour to some of the observations too, as when Vimbai describes the salon owner and her daughter: ‘neither mother nor daughter had necks. Shame’.

The liveliness of the voice and the strength of the characters mean that Huchu succeeds in foregrounding them against the extraordinary societal collapse that normally dominates the stories we in the West hear about Zimbabwe. While details – such as the bricks of money needed to buy the simplest things, the street children who make a living from selling their places in interminable queues, the corpses disinterred for their clothes, and the packs of tampons regarded as precious gifts – provide stark reminders of the sinister politics at work, the novel is about people who, far from being faceless victims, are determined to live to the full.

When national events do come crashing into the narrative, as in the case of the salon’s supplier and long-term friend Trina who is hounded out of the shop and told ‘Go back to Britain, you white pig’ by a VIP customer, they do so through personal encounters and become all the more powerful for it.

The cultural differences between Britain and Zimbabwe mean that the revelation of Dumisani’s secret (which I’ll try not to ruin for you) will probably have contrasting effects on many readers from the two countries. The book itself corroborates this, with several often very funny comments about the difference in attitudes the two countries have towards the issue.

While this may mean many British readers struggle to empathise with all Vimbai’s thought processes (and may realise the truth long before she does), it does nothing to lessen the fascination of watching her grapple with a social taboo. Huchu handles this nicely with the help of  Vimbai’s ex-philosophy student brother, who enables him to rehearse several involved arguments without them sounding too forced in this otherwise light narrative. Nevertheless, I did find Vimbai’s shift in stance towards the end a little abrupt.

I could also have done with fewer cliffhanger ends to chapters. As it stands, every section ends with a titillating sentence where Huchu leans out of the book, thrusting the next chapter at readers as though he is anxious they will wander off and try something different if he doesn’t keep up the hard sell.

He should trust the strength, wit and engaging power of his work more. The novel is addictive, funny, thought-provoking and brave. If you’re looking for engrossing, funny summer reading with more depth than the average bear, the answer’s right here.

The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu (Weaver Press, 2010)