Ecuador: righteous anger

Novels with messages are hard to do well. Even the best writers can become worthy bores when they set out to change people’s minds about something, turning their rounded characters into two-dimensional puppets jerking on the strings of their social and political beliefs.

No wonder then that my heart sank when I saw the phrase ‘great novel of social protest’ in the foreword to the rather ancient edition of The Villagers by Jorge Icaza, which winged its way to me from one of the independent sellers on Amazon. Clearly this was going to be a barrel of laughs.

At first glance, a summary of the plot seemed to back up my misgivings. Set in the remote Ecuadorian jungle, the novel describes landowner Don Alfonso Pereira’s project to build a new road through the swamps, documenting the hardships and mistreatment of the indigenous ‘Indian’ tribes forced to sacrifice their labour, lands and lives to the endeavour. Cheated, abused, starved and exploited by the magnates who buy and sell them with the territory, the Indians endure more and more extreme sufferings, until at last one of them, Andres, is pushed over the limit when his partner Cunshi dies, sparking a rebellion with tragic results.

What makes the book great, however, is Icaza’s ingenious approach to his subject matter. Starting the novel with insolvent Don Alfonso undergoing an uncomfortable interview with his creditor uncle, the author turns us through 180 degrees, shifting our sympathies from the harassed landowner to the people he exploits so that by the end of the book we are as impatient for Don Alfonso’s overthrow as the Native Americans are.

Much of this is achieved by the shocking descriptions of callous treatment and cruelty throughout the book. Numerous incidents stand out, from the wet-nurse forced to leave her baby to starve to death while she feeds Don Alfonso’s granddaughter, to the worker pulled to death by ropes thrown round him in an attempt to drag him out of quicksand. In addition, sadistic figures dominate the narrative, such as the one-eyed foreman who has free reign to practice his quack medicine on his charges. His remedy for malaria is particularly nasty: whipping sufferers to run until they collapse and then feeding them a mixture of brandy, herbs, urine from a pregnant woman, lemon juice and ground guinea pig excrement.

Icaza’s insight into the human psyche helps him add depth to these visions of horror, revealing the lies people tell themselves and each other in order to be able to treat fellow human beings like dirt. He shows how greed masquerades as progress and callousness dresses itself up as discipline in the minds of the oppressors. Perhaps most memorable of all is the role of the church in perpetuating the fear and poverty of the Indians, oozing hypocrisy at every pore, as in the scene where Andres goes to try to find a plot in the graveyard for Cunshi and has the pricing structure of the different areas explained to him by the priest:

‘These unpainted wooden crosses belong to the poor cholos and Indians. As you can easily understand they are a little far from the sanctuary, and the prayers sometimes reach them and sometimes don’t. God’s mercy, which is infinite” (the priest made another bow and another salute with his birreta and with his eyes) “has destined these unhappy souls to go to Purgatory. You, my dear Chiliquinga, know what the tortures of Purgatory are like. They’re worse than those of Hell.’

At times, the narrative can be a little hard to follow. While Andres and Cunshi are fully realised, many of the rest of the Native Americans remain shadowy, faceless figures who don’t step off the page. This is exacerbated by Icaza’s stylistic fondness for strange streams of dialogue, in which a myriad of unidentified voices comment on an event as it happens.

But these are small quibbles. All in all, though, this is an extraordinary novel, which forces the reader to confront the chilling capacity of an ordinary person to delude him or herself into sanctioning horrific acts. It reaches beyond the specific social issues of its time to reveal truths about humankind and still resonates 80 years on from its publication. A powerful reminder of what storytelling can do.

The Villagers (Huasipungo) by Jorge Icaza, translated from the Spanish by Bernard Dulsey (Arcturus Paperbacks, 1974)

Burkina Faso: true lies

The line between truth and fiction is often blurry. And, as Norbert Zongo discovered in 1981, the distinction can be a matter of life and death.

In what is probably one of the most gripping prefaces ever written, the journalist and novelist describes his interrogation by the Burkinabé special police about his novel The Parachute Drop. The ordeal, which marked the start of three months of solitary confinement and a career of persecution and assassination attempts, was, he says, ‘like the beginning of time for me, the day my life began to melt like butter on a hot skillet’.

Zongo’s maltreatment was testament to the incendiary power of his work. Set in the fictional African state of Watinbow (which has striking parallels with Blaise Compaoré’s Burkina Faso), the novel draws a complex portrait of a tyrannous dictator as he scrabbles to retain his power in the face of growing unrest. Paranoid, fickle and vain, ‘Founding President and Clairvoyant Guide’ Gouama is prepared to sanction anything from the assassination of his most loyal followers to barbaric witchcraft rituals involving the severed body parts of his subjects if he can be persuaded it will keep him in control.

His advisers take full advantage of this, manipulating the president into actions that bring about his downfall and send him into hiding in the rural extremities of his land where he is helped by many of the activists he treated most harshly when in power. Chastened and challenged, the deposed president resolves to mend his ways, but as he attempts to begin assembling forces to mount a counter-coup, it becomes clear that his fleeting remorse is far too little too late.

The novel’s comments on the mechanics of establishing and maintaining a dictatorship are fascinating. From the ‘politics of drinking’, whereby subjects are distracted from their dissatisfaction with Bacchanalian festivals timed to coincide with the feast days of the old calendar, to Gouama’s cynical instruction to his speech writer to ‘pay lip-service to liberation movements throughout the world’ and include ‘whatever will help our image on the outside’ in his address to an international convention, Zongo’s portrait is terrifying and damning.

However, far more extraordinary than this is the humanity that the writer is able to reveal in his protagonist, despite the anger he feels at this representative of ‘Africa’s moral cripples’ and the ‘world of intolerable paradox’ and cruelty that he and his peers perpetuate. This comes to the fore when Gouama is thrown on the mercy of the farmers, fishermen and dissidents in the bush, but it matures into something approaching dignity towards the end. As Gouama faces his demise, we are in the extraordinary position of pitying and even occasionally admiring him.

This capacity to evoke empathy and celebrate the humanity of his enemies demonstrates Norbert Zongo’s outstanding qualities as a writer, journalist and human being. It makes his death in a car bombing (one of the Compaoré regime’s favoured methods of silencing its critics) in 1998 all the more tragic. I am ashamed not to have heard of him before.

The Parachute Drop by Norbert Zongo, translated from the French by Christopher Wise (Africa World Press, Inc, 2004)