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 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)

Niger: a great saga

I knew Niger was going to be a tough nut to crack when, in response to my searching for ‘Nigerien literature’, Google asked me whether I meant ‘Nigerian literature’ instead. Although I did eventually track down the names of several Francophone authors from the country, among them Abdoulaye Mamani, Amadou Ousmane and Idé Oumarou, none of their work seemed to have been translated into English.

This may be because, as AS Kindo Patengouh argues in his 2005 paper Literary production in Niger: The case of the novel, in this very ethnically diverse country only 30 percent of the population read and write French, meaning that the audience for works in the country’s official language, in which most if not all Nigerien novels are written, is relatively small. As such, it is probably difficult for the works to make enough of an impact to attract notice from further afield.

There was an outside possibility in the shape of Harmattan, a novel about child marriage in Niger, by Belfast-born Gavin Weston, who lived and worked in the country for several years during the mid-eighties. However, any whisper of an argument that the book might count as Nigerien literature for my purposes was silenced when my copy arrived bearing an endorsement from Kellie Chambers at Ulster Tatler, declaring it the harbinger of ‘a new era in Northern Irish literature’.

Reluctantly, I added the book to next year’s to-read mountain. There had to be something out there available in English by a storyteller more closely linked to Niger itself.

Then a colleague volunteered to see what he could turn up. Clearly, his research skills are better than mine because, within a couple of hours he was back with a possible solution. It wasn’t a Nigerien novel. But in many ways it was something even more exciting: the transcription of an epic story told by a Nigerien griot over the course of two evenings in the appropriately named village of Saga at the beginning of the 1980s.

Ten years in the transcribing, translating and annotating, Nouhou Malio’s account of The Epic of Askia Mohammed tells of the life and times of Mamar Kassaye (also known as Askia Mohammed), who ruled the Songhay empire between 1493 and 1528. Switched for his mother’s servant’s child when he is born to protect him from his uncle, who has killed all his older siblings because of a prophecy that one of them will kill him, Mamar grows up in a brutal and brilliant society. He dedicates himself to spreading Islam and prosecutes a holy war across the region, fathering a dynasty and leaving a legacy of brave and bloodthirsty deeds that ensures his life is the stuff of legend six centuries after his death.

Mamar’s world is at once strange and oddly familiar. Levitating cities and uncanny enchantments fill the text, while shocking deeds, such as cutting a horse’s tendons in a fit of pique and laying a trap to bury a rival alive, are narrated so matter-of-factly as to feel distant, as though the emotional compass of the epic is calibrated very differently from our own. Yet, every so often a line, image or event will strike a surprising parallel with the modern Western world. I particularly liked the description of the group of griots spreading rumours about Amar Zoubami’s prowess in the run up to a competition to win the hand of the richest woman in Gao – by the sound of it, it would have given the snappiest PR team a run for its money.

Throughout the narrative, the meticulous work that editor and translator Thomas Hale and his team of transcribers and scholars have done to preserve the character of Malio’s performance as faithfully as possible is clear. This comes across in the unusual use of repetition, both of individual words and complete phrases, which creates a strong sense of the rhythm and drama of the rendition. It is also clear in the ellipses, which mark words and lines that could not be made out on the recording.

Rather than give in to the temptation to create a polished, complete work at the expense of absolute fidelity to the original account, as I suspect Camara Laye may have done in The Guardian of the Word (my Guinean pick), Hale and his team present exactly what they heard. When it works best, it is as though we are sitting in Malio’s hut, moving up to let someone past and so missing the odd line. The flip side, of course, is that certain passages can be quite fragmented and hard to make sense of, although Hale has done his best to make up for this with a plot summary at the beginning.

Overall, this is a fascinating, if occasionally frustrating, read. At times bewildering and shocking, it is also enthralling. And despite the incompleteness of the text and the cultural mores that can leave the Western reader fumbling for the meaning, there are moments of magic where the pages seem to be stripped away and we are transported to sit in that village two miles south of the Nigerien capital Niamey, listening to a story told more than 30 years ago.

The Epic of Askia Mohammed recounted by Nouhou Malio, translated from the Songhay by Thomas A Hale (Indiana University Press, 1996)