April was a proud month for A Year of Reading the World. The Scotsman published an article about it, UNESCO featured it on its list of World Book Day initiatives and I got to write a piece for the Guardian books website about some of the highlights and challenges of armchair adventuring so far.
One of the best things about all the excitement was the flood of new visitors it brought to my little corner of the web and the book leads they brought with them. A couple of them even solved countries I thought would be tricky in a single message.
Writer Mark Staniforth was one of these people. He had recently written his own post on a book from Chad as part of the excellent Africa Reading Challenge and was more than happy to share the details with me. As I had made up my mind from my preliminary research that getting a book in translation from this impoverished and troubled country (the Fund for Peace even goes so far as to call it a Failed State) was going to be a mission, Staniforth’s lead seemed too good to be true.
It seems I wasn’t the only one conscious of Chad’s bad rap. Writer and politician Joseph Brahim Seid, who was Minister for Justice until two years before his death in 1980, was clearly sensible of it too – so much so that he sets out to give a very different account of his homeland in his slender short story collection Told by Starlight in Chad.
As the title and romantic preface suggest, the book paints an idyllic picture of rural life in the war-torn country. Drawing on scenes from Seid’s childhood, snatches of folklore and history, and the author’s own imaginings, the tales weave a rich tapestry that is by turns deceptively simple and strange.
Often, there is a fable-like quality to the stories, which, though set ‘in the days when miracles and wonders were still common among us’, frequently contain lessons readers can apply to the modern world. We hear of creation myths that summon pride in the beauty and long history of the country and its peoples, disputes among animals that are strangely reminiscent of human politics, and an ancestor’s shadow that continues to haunt the Bulala warriors to this day.
Some of the morals and conclusions are intriguingly alien to the Western eye. ‘Nidjema, the Little Orphan Girl’, for example, sees an abused runaway return to endure her foster mother’s beatings because ‘in this life happiness consists in being virtuous’. However, there are points of contact. The last story of ‘The Misanthropic King’, for example, in which King Choua passes his powers to his people only for them to end up under a tyrant once more, is a fascinating dissection of the steps by which a democracy becomes an oligarchy and then a dictatorship in the absence of proper accountability and controls.
As the book goes on, more and more characters emerge from the stories. However, there is a strangely faceless, flat quality to many of the groups and people in the tales, as though they are types instead of fully realised individuals. This may be partly explained by the eulogy to the oral tradition that begins the final story:
‘As far back in time as men can remember, albeit they forget very fast, the oral tradition is there to remind them constantly of events that happened before they were born. Its elasticity and capacity for changing and evolving allows the tradition to yield to the exigencies of the moment; it adapts according to the place and the time in which the individuals live. And thus it guarantees the orderly continuation of custom, linking the past to the present and the present to the future.’
This evocation of the flexibility of the oral tradition inevitably shows up the somewhat stilted quality of some of Seid’s tales. Caught between the spoken stories the author remembers affectionately and the written canon of his formal education, they feel like butterflies pinned to the page: trapped forever in a particular form and robbed of the fluid motion that is also part of their essence. They are fascinating specimens, but you can’t help feeling they are, for the most part, display models rather than living, breathing creations. The real heartbeat of Chadian storytelling, it seems, throbs elsewhere.
Told by Starlight in Chad by Joseph Brahim Seid, translated from the French by Karen Haire Hoenig (Africa World Press, Inc, 2007)