Book of the month: Tesfaye Gebreab

A few months ago, Delina posted the following comment on this blog:

 I’m from Eritrea. First of all, I LOVED your project, it’s brilliant! And second, I noticed that for Eritrea you read books written by Eritrean diaspora. While that’s interesting too, I want to suggest some books that may provide the perspective of someone who lived most of their lives here. I don’t think you can find them easily in London so I would like to send you copies through some relatives who live in London. I hope that’s ok. The books I have in mind are:

Two weeks in the trenches by Alemseged Tesfai
The Nurenebi File by Tesfaye Gebreab (translated into English by Alemseged Tesfai)

Let me know what you think!

I was intrigued for several reasons: Delina’s kindness and enthusiasm; the idea of reading books rarely available to readers like me; and the fact that, as Delina rightly pointed out, I had found it impossible to find anything I could read by a writer based inside Eritrea back when I read the world in 2012.

There’s a good reason for this: Eritrea has long been one of the globe’s most isolated and restricted countries. Two years before my quest, it was judged by Index on Censorhip to be the country with the least press freedom in the world; even journalists inside North Korea had marginally more leeway than those based in this east African nation. Even now, Reporters Without Borders ranks it second to last in the World Press Freedom Index.

As a result, when Delina’s package arrived, containing copies of the titles she had recommended with personal dedications to me by their authors, along with a postcard from Delina bearing an Eritrean stamp, I lost no time in exploring what I quickly knew would be my next book of the month.

Billed as a novel, The Nurenebi File by Tesfaye Gebreab translated by Alemseged Tesfai is an ambitious work. After a brief prologue describing an encounter that sparked the aim of telling ‘the history of one hundred years spread out […] like the camel caravans of Denkalia, Semhar, Barka, Halhal, Mensa’e, Habab, Senhit…’ the main narrative begins in the famine of 1888, when its title character is a small child. It then follows his fortunes and those of his descendants as they grapple with the many traumas and outrages visited on their region in the following century.

In his foreword, translator and fellow novelist Alemseged Tesfai (author of the other book Delina sent me) describes the hesitation he felt at taking on this project, which required him to work between this third language, Amharic, and his second language, English. His concerns were also echoed by Delina in an email she sent to me after the books arrived, in which she warned me that there may be errors and typos because of the difficulties surrounding publishing in Eritrea and said she hoped I wouldn’t be put off by these.

In actual fact, the text is largely sound. Although there are odd slips and a few word choices that feel questionable (but may of course be accurate reflections of the sense in the original), the narrative is in much better shape than many books I’ve encountered by first-language English speakers.

The challenges The Nurenebi File presents to readers raised on mainstream anglophone literature are of a different order (and say as much about the limited circulation of the world’s stories as they do about this work).

Firstly, this book does not obey the conventions that underpin the majority of novels in the English-speaking world. It veers between registers, plunging into political discussion, picking fights with other accounts and commenting on prevailing assumptions about Eritrean history. Passages that would not be out of place in an academic textbook sit alongside sections that ring with bombastic praise for Eritrea’s resistance fighters. There are photographs of many of the individuals and groups mentioned.

What’s more, although Nurenebi’s disappearance, and the efforts of his descendants to find out what happened to him and carry on his legacy form a guide rope that helps lead the reader through the pages, there is an uncertainty to the status of the narrative that makes it difficult for those unfamiliar with its context to know how to take it. It is unclear whether the prologue is written in Gebreab’s voice, describing a real-world encounter, or from the perspective of an unnamed fictional narrator who takes it upon themself to tell this story.

There are extremely powerful passages that will speaker to any reader. Many of these concern Nurenebi’s personal story, but that is not always the case. The account of the brutal amputation of the right hands and left feet of 461 Medri Bahri (Eritrean) men who fought on the Italian side against Emperor Menelik is extraordinarily harrowing and vivid. What’s more, there are many telling reflections on the effects of colonialism and the way oppressed people can sometimes become conditioned to further their own persecution, welcoming enemies as liberators. Inconsistent though the storytelling style may be, the whole work is charged with an urgency to communicate that bursts through at these key moments, sweeping the reader along.

But perhaps the biggest challenge Anglo-American readers face with this book is something that the story itself exists to challenge: the sheer unfamiliarity of these events to the majority of people around the world. This book, as translator Tesfai states, ‘has brought forward forgotten or shelved chapters from Eritrean history’. If that is true for Eritreans it applies tenfold to readers from other traditions.

Reading it, I was struck anew by how cumulative our sense of history is. We don’t encounter stories about the past in isolation but in the context of thousands of other narratives that have informed our cultural compasses and references throughout our lives. Consequently, when we come across a fact-based account in which none of the figures are familiar, few of the place names call associations to mind, and hardly any of the events connect to episodes we have heard of before, we struggle.

This is precisely why books like this and translations like Tesfai’s are important – and why I am so grateful to Delina for going to such trouble to get this story to me. In a world in which certain narratives are amplified and broadcast ubiquitously while many others are sidelined, silenced or erased, it is vital that accounts such as this expand, challenge and reshape our awareness of events.

This book does not obey the conventions of the European novel form, but then why should it? As the narrative makes clear, European influences have served the community it stems from appallingly. It is surely fitting, then, that in Tesfaye Gebreab’s hands this venerable export from the global north should be twisted, broken and refashioned into something that serves the Eritrean community. If readers like me struggle to keep up, then that is our problem.

The Nurenebi File by Tesfaye Gebreab, translated from the Amharic by Alemseged Tesfai (Books and Media Center, Asmara, 2021)

Book of the month: Ahmet Altan

Writing is hard. There’s the problem of finding ideas rich enough to spin stories out of, the battle with self-doubt, the struggle to maintain focus, the financial insecurity and the frequent tangle with rejection. For most of us who write in English, however, the challenges largely end there.

The same is not true for writers in many other languages. With the skewed international market favouring anglophone books, making a living is frequently even more difficult for authors in other tongues. In addition, those in regimes hostile to freedom of expression often have to contend with attempts to limit their work and their lives, an experience all too familiar to the author of my latest Book of the month.

I first heard about Turkish writer Ahmet Altan a few weeks ago when I read an article by him in The Author, the UK’s Society of Authors’ members’ magazine. The piece was a striking account of what it is like to write inside a prison cell. The celebrated novelist and former newspaper editor is something of an expert on the topic: he has spent much of the last 18 months in detention for charges including ‘giving subliminal messages in favour of a coup on television’, ‘membership of a terrorist organisation’ and ‘attempting to overthrow the government’.

I was gripped by Altan’s writing. Deeply personal and yet so lyrical that it almost tipped over into poetry at times, the article was a defiant assertion of the power of the imagination in the face of tyranny. I lost no time in seeking out one of Altan’s novels to read in English.

Endgame, translated by Alexander Dawe, has been called a Turkish noir novel by several reviewers. The premise makes it clear why: a writer retires to a remote community only to find himself plunged into intrigue when the place reveals itself to be a hotbed of jealousy and murder. Having been turned into a killer himself, he sits alone in the centre of the town, awaiting the dawn and arrival of those who will surely come to seek revenge for what he has done. The novel spans this night, taking us back over the events that have led him to this point.

So far, so dark and thrillerish. Indeed, the early pages contain many passages that could cheerfully sit in any number of mystery novels written around the world. From the suspenseful evocation of the sinister and controlling Mayor Mustafa, to loaded hints about strangers being unwelcome and rumours of shady activity surrounding the ancient church on top of the hill, where treasure is thought to be hidden, the text is rife with mechanisms calculated to keep the pages turning. There are also a number of local details that are as intriguing as they are disturbing – the hitmen who are so nonchalant that they arrive in minibuses, for example.

Yet, as is so often the case when we English speakers try to shoehorn stories from elsewhere into our prefabricated boxes, the fiction label ‘noir’ (reportedly popularized by crime fiction editor Barry Gifford in the 1980s) risks squashing this novel out of shape in prospective readers’ minds. For one thing, the pace is by no means always commensurate with the and-then-and-then-and-then of much genre fiction. The narrative meanders at times, digressing to consider existential questions or stepping back from events to see them with a distance that creates room for fresh insights. Take, for example, the narrator’s response to witnessing a man being shot dead in the local coffee shop:

‘You’re sitting there reading the horse racing pages and some guy comes and blows your brains out.

A brain picturing galloping horses was suddenly splattered over the coffeehouse floor, sending imaginary horses racing through the grass. I could see the jockeys in colourful outfits riding on their backs. All of the hopes and schemes, frustrations and desires, jealousies and passions that had resided within the folds of that brain were then washed away with a bucket of water.

The sum of a man’s memory had been destroyed.’

There is beauty and wistfulness in much of the writing. The opening sequence, for instance, in which the protagonist claims to be able to see the town’s sleeping inhabitants’ dreams escaping out of windows and chimneys to frolic together is touching. The same is true of insights such as: ‘We can’t fit a whole person into one life. This life we live is too small for all desires.’ These are the kind of observations that resonate across cultures and genres, and stay with you long after plot and character detail are gone.

Some aspects of this book will be challenging for those used to mainstream anglophone fiction. The frequent references to God and sin are striking; although the protagonist claims not to be a believer, he frequently rails against the creator, often chiding Him for placing him in a badly plotted novel. In addition, the earthy and occasionally misogynistic presentation of women may be off-putting for some – the narrator has no hesitation in indulging in a little objectification now and again. There’s also the challenge of unfamiliar pacing, which sometimes sees Altan lingering over a scene or idea that an English-language writer might hurry through and visa versa.

Such wrinkles in alignment are almost inevitable, however, when it comes to encountering literature from elsewhere. Indeed they are often part of the joy. And if it’s joy you’re looking for, this book has plenty to offer. Funny, thoughtful, savage and audacious, this is a novel that will enthrall and surprise. Like its author, it cannot be constrained within boundaries set by others. It is entirely itself.

#AhmetAltan #FreeTurkeyMedia Find more information on the campaign to free Ahmet Altan here.

Endgame (Son Oyun) by Ahmet Altan, translated from the Turkish by Alexander Dawe (Canongate, 2015)

Picture: ‘prison‘ by Raffaella on flickr.com