Book of the month: Namwali Serpell

Some weeks ago, I had an email from R. Like many over the past couple of years, they’d had a tough time and found solace in reading. Having been keen to expand their horizons, they had embarked on an international quest, using the List on this blog as a source of ideas and supplementing these with their own discoveries when they felt like it or didn’t like my choices (the best way to use this website, if you ask me).

Their favourite read not featured on my list was The Old Drift by Zambian author Namwali Serpell. I decided to give it a try.

Spanning more than a century, a large cast of characters and numerous countries, The Old Drift is a proudly ambitious book. Similar in scope to The Eighth Life, which R also enjoyed, the novel begins in 1904 with a small pioneer settlement near Victoria Falls, and traces how the connections and traumas forged in that messy collision of people ricochet down the generations. Over its course we meet, among many others, blind British tennis player Agnes who marries across the colour bar, a philandering doctor intent on finding a vaccine for AIDs, the Zambian astronaut who never was, and a woman covered in hair.

Stylistically, the novel is something of a Trojan horse. On the face of it, the form and storytelling are familiar, recalling many of the sweeping, colonial narratives authored in decades past in the global north. Yet this one has a difference: there is a bite to the tone and a zing to the wit that undermines that familiar structure and forces the reader to look again at many of the prejudices and assumptions that might have passed unexamined in such stories before now.

Recalling the telling historical commentary of writers such as Abdulrazak Gurnah, Serpell explodes any notions of glory that may yet be attached to empire in the reader’s mind. The pioneers in her book are a ragtag, brutal bunch, most of whom, having failed elsewhere, decided to ‘go where pale skin and a small inheritance went further’.

The risk with big-canvas stories such as this is that the scale overwhelms the individual elements; yet Serpell does not fall into this trap. She inhabits her vast range of characters – even the unsympathetic ones – with powerful humanity. Her depiction of Agnes’s sight loss is moving, as is her portrayal of the way her husband, Ronald, edits his homeland’s history to present the version he believes she wants to hear:

‘During his time at university, Ronald had learned that “history” was the word the English used for the record of every time a white man encountered something he had never seen and promptly claimed it as his own, often renaming it for good measure. History, in short, was the annals of the bully on the playground. This, he knew, was what Agnes would expect to hear. So Ronald skipped the real story: the southern migration of the Bemba tribe from the north in the seventeenth century, the battles with other tribes and the bargains with Arab slave traders that had left only a straggling group of warriors wandering the great plateau with its many lakes, carting around a wooden carving of a crocodile, their chitimukulu’s totem, until one day, in the valley at the base of a circle of rocky hills, they came across a sapphire lake, shiwa, with a dead crocodile, ng’andu, on its shores – a sign that they should settle there. Instead Ronald began the story with a white man, one he knew Agnes would recognise from her Grandpa Percy’s stories.

‘”No!” she exclaimed. “The most famous man who ever lived in Africa? He died there?”‘

Serpell is well versed in the challenges of blending history and fiction: it’s astonishing how many national events she weaves through the narrative, from the painful struggle towards independence and the subsequent oppression under Kenneth Kaunda’s United National Independence Party to democratisation and economic struggles, before stretching forward into a nightmarish near-future where the very notion of independence itself is under threat.

Occasionally the research sits a little too close to the surface of the narrative (although when it comes to episodes such as Edward Makuka Nkoloso’s Zambian Space Programme – complete with training techniques such as rolling aspiring astronauts downhill in oil drums – it is joyous). Partly, this is because the book appears to be outward-facing – written for readers beyond Zambia’s borders – with the result that Serpell sometimes explains customs, attitudes and context that she would probably leave unglossed for those closer to home. It would be nice to see her demand a little more of her readers instead of taking such good care not to leave us confused.

This generosity can sometimes slow the pacing, particularly in the final chapters when events seem to demand an acceleration in the telling (at least according to the norms of European novel structure). The mosquito chorus that punctuates each section, though witty and playful, also sometimes slows the pace.

At its best, however, the novel is sublime. Absolutely engaging, mightily imagined, funny, heartfelt and fearless. Thanks, R, for this worthy and welcome addition to my list!

The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell (Hogarth Books, 2019)

Picture: ‘Safari on Rails, met Rovos Rail dwars door Afrika …’ by Martha de Jong-Lantink

Tonga: empire line

When my fiancé Steve saw my Tongan book he said: ‘Cor, that’s a good, manly title, isn’t it?’

I looked glum. Manly or not, the rather pugnacious sound of A Providence of War by Joshua Taumoefolau was one the reasons that I’d been trying to avoid having to read this book for some months. The others concerned its length – a cool 600 or so pages – and the fact that it was self-published. (Alright, so I’ve been pleasantly surprised by most of the self-published books I’ve read so far this year, but doing without those layers of quality control that usually come with traditionally published works is always a gamble.)

But the truth was, there really wasn’t much else to choose from. In fact, Taumoefolau’s novel, the first in a planned series of epics, had been the sole recommendation for Tonga from the Multicultural Services Team at Auckland Libraries, which ran a Pacific books festival called ‘Pasifika’ this March.

At last, having exhausted most other lines of inquiry I could think of, I decided I’d been dodging the novel long enough. I went to lulu.com and used my school German to navigate through the checkout and get my very own copy winging its way to me.

Beginning in AD 1120, when the Tu’i Tonga Empire was at the height of its powers, the novel follows warrior Crown Prince Talatama as he travels to the domain’s farthest corners on King Tu’itatui’s business. After years of turbulence and trouble from rebellious overlords on the remotest islands, peace and prosperity seem to reign. Yet beneath the calm surface of the ocean realm, trouble is stirring. It is up to Talatama and his small band of followers from the region’s many diverse groups to risk everything to defend his father’s sovereignty in the face of a plot that threatens to destroy not only the empire but history itself.

Swashbuckling doesn’t begin to cover it. Bristling with battles, betrayals, secret pacts, mass murder, rape, pillaging, riddles that must be solved on pain of death, sorcery, volcanic eruptions and even cannibalism, this is a book of action. As in several other Pacific island stories I’ve read this year, we see myth and reality blending together in the shape of magical characters such as the witch Mo’unga, who has the power to summon sharks to finish off her opponents, and Talatama’s ally Maui Atalaga, a mortal descendant of the god Maui. These characters introduce magic to the narrative so that the novel straddles historical fiction and fantasy and is a surprisingly gripping read.

Yet this is more than a rollicking yarn. Based on meticulous research by the author into archaeological finds in the region and such historical documentation as exists about the empire, the book – though necessarily fictional because of the lack of formal records from the era – is an attempt to record and build pride in Tongan heritage, as Taumoefolau explains in his ‘Historical Note’:

‘My personal fascination with the Tu’i Tonga stems from a personal connection to ancient ancestry. Taumoefolau, my great-great-grandfather, from whom my surname has its origin, was the grandson of the 37th Tu’i Tonga, Ma’ulupekotofa who inherited the title around A.D.1770’s [sic]. Thus, from a lineage of father to son, I am able to connect a line back to the very characters that appear in this story.

‘But in a greater vein, my passion for this ancient period  is fuelled by two aspects: the nature of its obscurity, an epoch so coloured with grandeur yet so remote in the living memory of my people who never had the benefit of written records, and the goal of glorifying our legends and tales through the medium of historical fiction in hope that these stories and their heroes are not forgotten, but remembered.’

As a result, the novel carries several fascinating insights into Pacific customs. We learn, for example, about the origins of the kava ceremony, which was apparently introduced to the empire by King Tu’itatui as a way of educating people about the importance of respect, reverence and loyalty. And we hear more Pacific creation myths – this time more fluently woven into the narrative than is sometimes the case in books from the region.

Taumoefolau’s writing is at its best in action scenes, where it is usually lean and muscular like the warriors it describes. Elsewhere, his prose can become overwritten and awkward. Too many chapters begin with a weather report when they should plunge straight into the drama and some of the sex scenes in particular are a touch cringeworthy – I found myself writing ‘hmmn’ in the margin next to the description of Mahina being ‘completely drunk with [Talatama’s] manly tang’. In addition, as the extract above suggests, some of the phrasing is odd and the occasional malapropism creeps in.

However, these are mostly things that a professional editor would have sorted out. Structurally, the book is sound and Taumoefolau marshalls his large cast of characters with all their attendant sub-plots well. As a whole, it is surprisingly enjoyable – and all the more impressive for being apparently a lone Tongan prose voice on the world-literature stage.

A Providence of War by Joshua Taumoefolau (Lulu, 2009)