Tanzania: family politics

When one publisher recommends the work of another, you know you’re likely to be on to a good thing. And so, when Lynette Lisk, commissioning editor of the Heinemann African Writers Series, told me that she admired the work of Bloomsbury-published Abdulrazak Gurnah, I lost no time in looking him up.

Spanning 100 years, Gurnah’s 2005 novel Desertion weaves together the threads that lead a young Tanzanian man, Rashid, to leave his homeland in the early sixties and make his life in England. It starts in the dying months of the 19th century, with the scandalous love affair of Rashid’s grandparents – an unconventional English traveller and a shy local woman – before darting forward to Rashid’s childhood in the mid-20th century and on past the declaration of Tanzania’s independence to his lonely and wistful middle age. Steered by Rashid himself, who writes much of the story, with an interjection from his brother Amin and a poem from his sister Farida, the narrative brims with questions and observations about identity, nationality, belonging and love.

Gurnah is a writer with an eye for the thousand little human foibles that can combine to clog up and alter the course of a life. Whether he is describing Rashid’s great-grandfather Hassanali’s hesitance and self-effacement, born out of the ridicule he recognises in the eyes of those who visit his shop, the double-think that allows the British colonisers to despise corruption in others and yet practise it themselves, or the rituals and cruelty that stand in for intimacy between siblings, Gurnah is forever revealing the processes that mould and set personalities.

This perceptiveness extends to larger social structures too. Through the patterns Gurnah traces, we learn the limitations of the social codes surrounding courtship marriage that stymie Rashid’s grandmother’s life and the effect of the gross under-provision of schools for girls. Crucially, however, these observations are not delivered through authorial tirades but lived and enacted by the characters so that it is only when we sit back and think about the story that we realise the wider implications of what we are reading.

Alongside this runs a lively discussion about storytelling, which erupts into the narrative as Rashid begins to question the version of events he presents. Speculating, contradicting himself and imagining where he does not know, Rashid rehearses his family’s history, increasingly aware of the possibilities in fiction, both in the choices he makes as a writer and in the scope the form offers to process, assimilate and remake the past.

Fiction also presents Gurnah with the opportunity to unpack the legacy of colonialism in a far more inventive and impactful way than essays might afford. While his portrait of the British Victorians sitting on the veranda swapping racist ideology well into the night ‘to make themselves feel significant and present in the world’ is compelling, his description of Rashid’s lonely arrival in a Britain leaves a lasting impression. It also buys him the leverage to reach forward in time and challenge assumptions that still underpin much of social interaction today:

‘In time I drifted into a tolerable alienness. Living day to day, this alienness became a kind of emblem, indeterminate about its origins. Soon I began to say black people and white people, like everyone else, uttering the lie with increasing ease, conceding the sameness of our difference, deferring to a deadening vision of a racialised world. For by agreeing to be black and white, we also agree to limit the complexity of possibility, we agree to mendacities that for centuries served and will continue to serve crude hungers for power and pathological self-affirmations.’

For all its sociological and historical observations, though, this is first and foremost an engrossing and deeply moving novel. It is a book to get lost in, led by an expert storyteller, who wins our trust and piques our interest from the very first page. I’ll be looking up more of Gurnah’s works when this year’s literary adventures are over. Wonderful.

Desertion by Abdulrazak Gurnah (Bloomsbury, 2005)

Eritrea: heart and home

This was a recommendation from an Eritrean friend of mine. She had read Sulaiman Addonia’s The Consequences of Love not long after it came out in 2008 and enjoyed it. If I was looking for Eritrean literature in English, this was her top tip.

I had my reservations: a brief scan of Addonia’s biography revealed that, although he was born in Eritrea to an Eritrean mother, he has spent very little of his life there, having fled to Sudan and subsequently Saudi Arabia as a young child. He now lives and writes in London – could his work really be counted as Eritrean?

Then I thought about my friend’s own story. Like Addonia, she was driven from Eritrea, which has long been in the grip of a regime so oppressive that Reporters Without Borders ranks the country below North Korea for press freedom. The danger is such that my friend has been unable to visit her family there since she left, and her mother has never met her son-in-law and grandchild as a result. I began to wonder if such stories of separation and displacement were not as much a part of Eritrean life as the experiences of those who’ve stayed put.

Exile is also central to Addonia’s novel, which is set in the late 1980s, towards the end of Eritrea’s bitter 30-year war with Ethiopia. Like its author, the central character, 20-year-old Naser, has spent his teenage years in Saudi Arabia. Yet, although he has escaped the perils of conflict, he finds himself hemmed in by a whole range of other restrictions in Jeddah, where religious police scour the streets for people who break the strict behaviour codes, lovers are flogged and executed in Punishment Square and the vitriolic sermons of the blind imam blare through the city.

Lonely and anxious for the mother he left behind in Eritrea, Naser faces a life of isolation, until a mysterious, veiled woman drops a love letter at his feet one day. But in a society where communication between unmarried men and women is banned, it will take all Naser and his secret admirer Fiore’s courage and ingenuity if they are to give their happiness a chance.

Naser’s world is one where direct emotional expression is outlawed. Whether they are yearning for their homelands or pining for lovers, he and his cronies must shroud and sublimate their feelings so as to avoid chastisement at the hands of the ever-watchful authorities.

Such repression in this ‘world of black and white’ can have surprising results as blocked emotions and impulses play out through other means. There is Jasim’s café – where wealthy older men coerce the waiters, including Naser, into being their sexual partners until they get married and have a legitimate outlet for their libido – and there is the thriving trade in banned books, including Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North (my Sudanese pick), through which the characters live vicariously from inside the country Jasim describes as ‘the biggest prison in the world’. In addition, creativity blossoms, in the shape of Fiore’s drawings, the lovers’ impassioned letters, and the inventive means by which they get messages to one another. As Naser puts it, ‘caged emotions make poets out of all of us, even the illiterate’.

Caged emotions also make for a compelling story. In this tale of ‘love before sight’, the scene where Fiore is finally able to remove her hijab and the lovers come face to face after months is very moving. The sky-high stakes also make for a nail-biting conclusion, although, for my money, the final unravelling is too heavily foreshadowed to come as a surprise. However other readers may feel the dramatic irony creates a tension all its own.

Taken as a whole, though, this is a thoroughly engrossing and often beautifully written portrayal of what happens when regimes and laws run counter to human needs and emotions. As Naser puts it, it is the story of an individual’s struggle to ‘do what it takes to get a life that is rightfully [his]’ – a struggle that, by the sound of it, many Eritreans know all too well.

The Consequences of Love by Sulaiman Addonia (Vintage Digital, 2008)

India: an impossible choice

How do you choose one book from a nation of 1.2 billion people – a country that is one of the most culturally rich and diverse in the world and a country, that, as I discovered when I was lucky enough to visit West Bengal last year, is so varied in its constituent states, let alone across its 1,269,219 square miles, that it makes a nonsense of the term ‘nationality’ as it is commonly understood?

I’m afraid I still don’t have the answer to this question. I struggled with it long and hard. As the suggestions of Indian writers poured in from visitors to this blog I did my best to research and weigh up each one. All to no avail: the more I looked into the many excellent and intriguing Indian authors whose names I’ve heard this year, the more impossible it seemed to limit my selection to just one work. An Indian friend of mine kindly posted my dilemma on Facebook and yet more names flooded in. The truth was, I could have spent a decade reading Indian literature and still barely have scratched the surface of the literary delights this country has to offer.

One thing I did know: I wanted to read the work of an author who was prized and celebrated in India rather than one who had made his or her name outside the country. As Tim who recommended Kushwant Singh just this week put it, ‘rather a lot of the “Indian” writers beloved of the international literati seem to live in London or New York’. Talented though many of these authors are, they didn’t chime in with what I was looking for: I wanted to read the work of someone who wrote primarily for Indian readers.

With this in mind, one among the many comments I’ve had about Indian literature stood out. It was from Suneetha:

‘I am from India, and I note that both the suggestions in comments and your list for India reads are those written originally in English. I have to say these are just second best to what regional literature we have here in over 23 official languages and a couple of hundreds of other languages spoken across the country.’

This struck a chord with me. After all, if I was looking for an Indian writer who wrote to be read by his or her compatriots, surely I should choose something written in a regional language, rather than the international lingua franca of the country’s colonial past? And so it was that I plumped for a novel by one of Suneetha’s favourite authors: the much decorated Malayalam novelist and filmmaker M T Vasudevan Nair.

Kaalam (Time), which won Nair the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1970, follows Sethu Madhavan as he leaves home for college and tries to make his way in the world. The expectations of his rural village rest on his shoulders and his excellent academic record seems to promise him a bright future. Yet, as the years pass and Sethu staggers from one failure to another, consoling himself with a series of hopeless love affairs, his potential seems to tarnish and warp and he grows disgusted with his life. At last, obliged to return to the family home he has spurned for so long, he is forced to face up to himself.

MT (as he is known) excels at presenting experiences that are at once universal and very specific to his characters’ time and place. Readers everywhere will recognise the adolescent Sethu’s embarrassment at his relations’ eccentricities – his aunt who lies scantily clad on the verandah, for example, and his mother who grumbles whether anyone is listening or not – and his desire to hide his poverty from his friends, as well as the perennial graduate’s dilemma of needing experience to get a job and a job to get experience.

What makes MT’s portrayal of these relatively commonplace rites of passage is his insight into the inconsistencies and contradictions that wrestle beneath the surface of all of us as we seek to move through life. From Sethu’s exasperated interior monologue in the face of an interview panel, to his stilted encounter with a friend who left education long before him and is now married and running a company, the author is a master of the tricks we use to disguise our shortcomings and the way casual questions and pleasantries can strike a person to the bone. This is particularly evident in MT’s depiction of his protagonist’s dealings with women: Sethu’s delight in the ‘illusionary obstacles’ that mask the impossibility of his feelings for teenage Thangamani and his wild justifications of his cruelty to his first love Sumitra both point to the self-delusion that keeps him crashing blindly, wilfully on.

These insights are couched in scintillating descriptions, which make the novel a joy to read. There is the loveless married couple for whom ‘words had become brittle showpieces in a glass case, to be used only on special occasions’, the minutes that ‘swam before [Sethu’s] eyes like bubbles distilled from the indistinct colours of sunset clouds’ and, perhaps my favourite of all, Sethu’s numbed reaction to his mother’s death: ‘The news stood just outside his mind like a traveller in search of shelter’.

The editorial decision not to explain culturally specific terms in the text but instead to confine their definitions to a rather incomplete glossary at the back means that readers from other parts of the world may find it hard to work out some of the roles of and connections between characters. There are also some gremlins in the e-edition, which mean that odd words have been misrepresented, making for some rather strange sentences that have to be read twice to tease the proper meaning out.

These glitches in no way hampered my enjoyment of the novel, though. If anything, the initial confusion I felt over the interrelationship of the characters is an added bonus: it means that I will have to read the novel again now that I’ve got them sussed. I’m already looking forward to it.

Kaalam by MT Vasudevan Nair, translated from the Malayalam by Gita Krishnankutty (Orient Blackswan, 2012)

Sri Lanka: seismic shifts

There was an obvious choice for Sri Lanka. Having won the prestigious DSC Prize for South Asian Literature this January, Shehan Karunatilaka’s cricket novel Chinaman seemed a shoo-in. I’d even bought a copy and added it to the pile of books waiting for me in the corner of my living room before I began to have doubts. After all, shouldn’t I try and get something a little more off the beaten track? Something written in one of Sri Lanka’s official languages rather than the English of the nation’s colonial past?

I went back to the drawing board and fired off an email to DK Agencies, an Indian bookseller that specialises in literature from South Asian countries. It wasn’t long before I was looking at an impressive list of Sri Lankan titles in translation from Tamil and Sinhala. Choosing felt a bit like trying to order a dish from a menu in a language you don’t understand — particularly as, unlike titles released by Western publishers, the books on the list had very little information about them available on the web. Crossing my fingers, I plumped for Sunethra Rajakarunanayake’s Best Sinhala Novel State Literary Award-winning novel Metta.

Three weeks later, the book arrived, wrapped in a makeshift envelope constructed of two A4 sheets of paper. Regular AYORTW visitor @alualuna informs me that this is quite normal, but for me it simply seemed to add to the intrigue of the whole thing – especially as the package had partially ripped open in transit. This novel really did seem to have taken a tortuous route to get to me.

The book tells the story of Varnasi, her mother Manoramya and Sasha, the man who has set them against each other, as an earthquake hits Sri Lanka during a ceasefire in the recent civil war. While normal life crumbles around them, Sasha and the two women are forced to assess the barriers they have put up against each other, unearthing truths and secrets that have kept them apart and seeking a resolution that, for Varnasi at least, draws on the Buddhist concept of Metta – which, as translator Carmen Wickramagamage explains in her Afterword, is commonly inadequately explained as ‘loving compassion’.

The prejudice that separates people is a key theme in the novel. One of its most compelling parts – the opening section which portrays Sasha’s uneasy position as a consultant-cum-liaison officer for international NGOs – reveals the suspicions that divide the community. Viewed as a ‘peacewallah vulture’ by the warring local factions, Sasha is held at arm’s length by the Western workers and is perpetually wary of getting caught up in some cultural misunderstanding that might lead him to be dismissed, had up for sexual harassment, or worse.

Similarly, the foreigners themselves seem trapped in their own bubble, numbed by flitting from one conflict to the next. ‘They don’t feel the pain of our injuries because they have already seen too much pain in the places they have been’, muses Sasha before urging one of the young woman not to remain in her job too long because she’ll ‘never be able to return to a normal life’.

This insight into human fears and insecurities, gives Rajakarunanayake the tools to unfold the subtle shifts in emotion between Varnasi and her mother as they cower beneath a table through the night. It also enables her to reveal some powerful insights into what it is like living through a natural disaster when all the rules about property and propriety are shivered into dust (the references to the prevalence of rapes and sexual assaults in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, for example, were particularly disturbing).

The earthquake does more than rearrange the three main characters’ lives: it disrupts the narrative structure too. No doubt a lot of this is intentional. Rajakarunanayake makes much of the metaphorical potential of the earthquake – it even changes the shape of the island – so it’s hardly surprising that the text itself undergoes an abrupt transformation.

That said, the book needs some closer editing. Several ideas are restated too often, particularly as the narrative shifts between the three characters. Some of the practical details of the resolution Rajakarunanayake reaches for are also a little questionable and would probably not stand up to medical scrutiny.

I was also tripped up by the strange Postscript, in which Varnasi claims half the story never happened. I’d be interested to know from Sri Lankan literature buffs whether this and the ‘In a Nutshell’ summary at the start of the book are part of a wider tradition in Sinhala literature or innovations of Rajakarunanayake’s own making.

Nevertheless, I was fascinated by what Rajakarunanayake has achieved here. While creating something very specific and personal, and unlike anything I’ve read before, she expresses broad truths. These reach beyond the Sri Lankan coastline to show people to themselves the world over. The printed copy might have struggled to reach me, but its writer had no trouble at all.

Metta by Sunethra Rajakarunanayake, translated from the Sinhala by Carmen Wickramagamage (The Three Wheeler Press, 2011)