Democratic Republic of Congo: bewitched

I stoogled upon Frederick Yamusangie’s website when doing a bit of preliminary research into literature from the DRC earlier this year. Born in what was then Zaire (the country reclaimed its name in 1997 after the ousting of President Mobutu), the Congolese writer studied Communication Engineering at the University of Kent and now lives in the UK, where he has self-published several poetry anthologies and his novel Full Circle. As it turned out, after several more hours of searching and sending out queries, he is one of the very few DRC writers to have work available in English today.

It’s hardly surprising when you consider what the Francophone nation has been through. Home to the planet’s deadliest conflict since World War II, Africa’s second-largest country has seen more than 5.4 million of its people die as a result of the fighting since 1998. Despite being rich in natural resources, DRC is the state with the second-lowest GDP per capita in the world. Small wonder then that promoting a publishing industry does not figure very high in many people’s priorities there.

With so little to go on, it seemed perverse not to give Yamusangie’s novel a try. And so, swallowing those die-hard qualms about self-publishing – which have turned out to be misplaced in several cases this year – I downloaded the book and set to.

Full Circle follows city boy Dada, who is sent to live in the village of Bulungu and learn about his culture when his father leaves the country to take up a diplomatic post in the US. The community seems pleasant enough at first, but as time goes by Dada discovers dark secrets and deep rifts beneath its peaceful surface that threaten to destroy him. Will secular Dada survive this superstitious minefield? Will his peers accept him as one of their own? And will the shapeshifting human-crocodiles in the nearby river get to carry out their wicked plans?

Yamusangie presents a nation divided by money. On one side sits Dada, who, because of his privileged upbringing, has ‘more knowledge of Western Europe than his own country’ and has never travelled in Zaire before. On the other is the rural population with its strong tribal traditions, loyalties and beliefs. At the start of the book, Dada is convinced that he knows enough about his culture and could ‘live in the USA[…] and still know how to relate to [his] own people’. Yet as the book goes on, he discovers he has much to learn.

The customs Dada discovers are eclectic and sometimes surprising. Magic, superstition and animistic beliefs weave through everything and are treated as part of normal life. When Dada goes for lunch at his teacher Mrs Betika’s house, for example, she tells him not to worry about a snake in the henhouse because it is the reincarnation of her auntie. Indeed, enchantments are big business, with many of the local spiritualists jostling to corner each others’ shares of the market and even plotting to murder a newcomer who seems to be too successful for his own good. The discussions of these customs and how they fit with the prevailing religion of Christianity, as well as the pressures on young people to abandon the old ways are fascinating, as are the glimpses into the rites of the secret society that tries to recruit Dada.

At times, however, the author’s sociological and historical insights hi-jack the narrative and send it hurtling off on long detours, sometimes threatening to derail it. This is not helped by an increasingly outlandish plot, which is sometimes held together with rather flimsy logic. For example, the reasons the police give for releasing Dada when he is accused of murdering a friend – that a child would never admit to doing such a thing and that children are incapable of killing anyone – are rather questionable.

It’s a shame, because there are some great moments in the story. The scene where the dead boy’s relatives converge on Dada’s guardian’s house seeking revenge is gripping. And by using a quote from that most famous of Congo-based novels, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Yamusangie makes his ambitions for the book clear.

With some robust editing and another eye on the work, he might have got there. As it stands, though, this is a fascinating and surprising book that opens up a little-known part of the world to English-language readers. It is rough round the edges, as many self-published books can be, but it contains some good things. I’m glad I chose it.

Full Circle by Frederick Yamusangie (iUniverse, 2003)

Iran: gender politics

I was tempted to choose Nasrin Alavi’s We are Iran as my Iranian book. Compiled from a series of blogs translated from Farsi, this book – or blook – caused a great deal of controversy when it burst on to the literary scene in 2005, purporting to provide Western readers with an unprecedented survey of contemporary Iranian thought. However, the book had had a fair bit of attention in the media and something about the way the texts in it had been curated for the Western eye made me hesitate – probably entirely unfairly, given that arguably every text in translation has been selected and prepared with English-language readers in mind.

Then I heard about Shahrnush Parsipur. Something of a trailblazer throughout her life, from being one of the first female students at the University of Tehran through to becoming one of Iran’s best-known and most innovative novelists, Parsipur captured my imagination. Her epic novel Touba and the Meaning of Night, which was published in 1989 just three years after Parsipur’s release from prison, caused controversy for its exploration of religion and gender power relations, as well as its departure from the literary style common before the 1979 Iranian Revolution. It finally became available in English translation in 2006, the year after the much-vaunted We are Iran. I was going to have to take a look.

Spanning the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the novel presents an alternative reading of the history of Iran through the eyes of one woman, Touba, who grows up, marries, divorces, remarries and grows old during the course of it. As dynasties rise and fall and the world moves towards its bloodiest war, Touba embarks on a struggle for supremacy in her own life, finding herself drawn towards Sufism as a possible escape from the oppressive rules and judgments of a society that increasingly forces her to be a prisoner within the walls of her house.

Right from the opening passage, in which a scantily clad teenage Touba cleans the courtyard pool under the disapproving gaze of her tenant’s wives, Parsipur sets out the limitations imposed on women as a central theme in the book. Sometimes, as when Touba’s father reflects that bringing strange women into his home to work might be dangerous because ‘they might participate in some perverse activities with one another’, this is done with wry humour.

More usually, however, it has a much darker side. This initially reveals itself when 14-year-old Touba narrowly escapes a beating from her first husband for going out for a walk alone and later becomes painfully obvious in the story of the raped girl who, on revealing she is pregnant, is killed by her uncle Mirza Abuzar and buried under a tree in the garden. Touba’s reaction to the news is telling:

‘She was filled with the sense of guilt. She wanted to ask Mirza Abuzar why he had not discussed the matter with her. Then she thought, if he had mentioned it, would she have done anything? A living girl who has a bastard child in her is hateful and defiled. The same girl, however, if she is killed like this, will be chosen to be among the Pure Ones. She was realizing that she probably would have done nothing for the girl, or could have done nothing. She tried to put herself in Mirza Abuzar’s place. She truly felt sorry for him.’

Parsipur’s ability to think her way inside her characters like this means that the narrative is far from a one-sided polemic on the oppression of women. Even the most difficult of characters, such as the sinister Prince Gil and the sullen child Ismael who harbours murderous intentions towards Touba because of his anger at the loss of his parents, are presented as rounded and complex individuals with insight and thought processes that often surprise.

This multiplicity of perspectives and Parsipur’s use of elements of magic in her storytelling, give the narrative a sense of plurality that cuts across time and space. Often, in the embedded stories and mini-tales that Parsipur weaves into the novel, it seems as though the author is digging back into the past to gain the depth and distance that will allow her to tell contemporary truths.

The pacing is strange at times, partly due to the sheer scope of the story, which contains so many characters that the editors saw fit to list them all at the start of the book. As a result, the narrative moves in fits and starts, lingering over details only to jerk forward, sometimes skimming over incidents that seem to deserve more attention. This can be frustrating and leaves you glancing back over your shoulder now and then as a major character whizzes past into oblivion, like the stop you expected to get off at the moment you realise you’ve unintentionally caught the fast train.

On the whole, though, there can be no question that this is a towering achievement. Packed with insights, historical detail and rich compelling storytelling, the translation of this epic work opens up a world quite different from the one many English-readers will be used to. A rich addition to anyone’s bookshelf.

Touba and the Meaning of Night (Tuba va ma’na-ye shab) by Shahrnush Parsipur, translated from the Persian by Havva Houshmand and Kamran Talattof (The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2006)

Bhutan: what goes around…

What people don’t tell you when you set out to read the world is that the research can take almost as many hours as the reading. Googling, emailing groups and individuals for recommendations, checking that suggestions meet the criteria, trying to decide which book to go for – it all takes time. So it’s always a joy when an expert on a particular country’s literature helps me out.

Ngawang at the Writers Association of Bhutan is one of these wonderful people. When I contacted the group through its blog, he sent me a list of five writers, together with four suggestions of titles. Of these, I chose The Circle of Karma by Kunzang Choden, partly because Ngawang described it as ‘one of the best books by a Bhutanese author’, but also because it is the first book by a Bhutanese woman published outside Bhutan, which makes it something of a milestone in South Asian literature. I was very excited when it arrived from India, vacuum-packed in cellophane.

The novel follows the life of Tsomo, a young girl from rural Bhutan who, not content to settle for a life of domestic drudgery, sets out to explore the world. Forced to be an outsider because of a mysterious illness that gives her a permanently distended belly, Tsomo works her way into northern India, drawn by the friendships she makes, a growing fascination with the Buddhist masters and communities that thrive in the Himalayan foothills, and a desire for peace.

The raw deal facing women in rural South Asian society is a major theme. Right from the opening chapters – in which the young Tsomo, unable to convince her father to educate her alongside her brothers, decides that being born a woman must be a punishment for bad karma from previous lives – the book portrays a world in which misogyny, sexual abuse and injustice are daily realities.

Women are by no means passive victims, however. One of the strengths of the book is its portrayal of the series of exuberant and warm friendships Tsomo makes throughout her life with other women. Many of these relationships, such as her bond with Dechen Choki – a young woman Tsomo saves from being raped repeatedly by their supervisor when they are working as manual labourers – are founded on the women’s shared experience of adversity.

This salvaging of positives from suffering is one of the many Buddhist tenets woven through the book. With much of its narrative taking the form of parabolic episodes through which Tsomo learns truths about the world and herself, the novel almost reads like a manual for progression to enlightenment at points.

What makes it work is Choden’s gift for evocation, both of place and of experience. Her descriptions of the rugged spiritual terrain Tsomo covers in her quest for peace and her moments of ecstasy reminded me of other great religious works, such as Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, particularly in the passages concerning Tsomo’s pilgrimages to sacred sites such as Bodhgaya and Kathmandu:

‘Once there they looked for the Boudhanath chorten, the Great Stupa, the starting point for every Bhutanese pilgrim in Nepal. From the moment they arrived at the chorten, Tsomo felt its awesome presence everywhere. The eyes on the chorten seemed to look deep into her soul and she felt humbled and almost afraid. She felt she could not hide anything from those eyes and yet at the same time, she was drawn to them in a strange way.’

Now and then the narrative gets bogged down in explaining the many religious and social customs that fill the book. This no doubt owes something to Choden’s decision to write her novel in English – a sign that she intended her story to be read outside Bhutan by people who may not be familiar with the country’s culture. Occasionally passages on topics such as why formal marriage is not common in rural communities and the ritual of overfeeding guests can read more like anthropological essays than chapters in a novel.

Mostly, though, this is a fascinating and absorbing book. Reading it drew me into this little-known world even more profoundly than I suspect visiting a hundred Buddhist gompas in the Himalayas would. A rare treat.

The Circle of Karma by Kunzang Choden (Zubaan/Penguin India, 2005)

Vatican City: gospel truth?

Vatican City was always going to be a challenge. With an area of 0.2 sq miles and fewer than 900 citizens, it is the world’s smallest independent state. It’s also one of the most unusual – Vatican City nationals are made, not born (hardly surprising, given that the majority of its residents, barring a few Swiss Guards, are Roman Catholic priests) and the state is thought to be the only country in the world where you can take out money from a cash machine by following instructions in Latin.

All this made getting a novel, short story collection or memoir out of the place look doubtful. I was beginning to think I was going to have to resort to a papal bull just for the sake of having something to read.

Then I google-stumbled (gumbled – I think this should be a word) across an intriguing-sounding book called Gone with the Wind in the Vatican or Shroud of Secrecy, as my edition has it. Claiming to be the first treatise of written protest from within the Church since Martin Luther’s theses in 1517, the book is a sort of collective memoir-cum-exposé published by an anonymous group of Vatican prelates, calling themselves the Millenari, in Italy in 1999.

One of the group, Monsignor Luigi Marinelli (whose anagrammatic last name makes you wonder quite how many other people were in the Millenari), has since acknowledged his involvement in the book’s production. He has been investigated by the Roman Rota, the Vatican’s court, which also sought to recall the book from Italy and restrict its publication in translation – a controversial move, given that Italy is a separate sovereign state. Clearly, I had to see what all the fuss was about.

Right from the start (in the subtitle, in fact), the book sets out its mission to tell ‘the story of corruption within the Vatican’ and propose measures to help the secretive and hierarchical institution ‘cleanse what has become a festering wound’. It then proceeds to allege that almost every kind of malpractice and intrigue – blackmail, fraud, sexual favours, masonic links, spying, drug abuse, and even Satanic rituals – is rife among the elite clergy at the top of the Holy See, leaving those who want to advance their careers no option but to play the same game.

Crucially, unlike many works that criticise the Church, the book is written from a standpoint of belief both in Christian theology and in the potential of the institution. In fact, the authors go out of their way to demonstrate their faith, larding the text with quotations from scripture and even likening themselves to biblical prophets. At times, this repeated self-justification takes on a panicky air – although this is perhaps not surprising when you consider the power of the institution they are up against.

The most compelling passages of the book centre on the descriptions of the mechanisms within the ‘dictatorship’ of the Holy See and the way ‘the diplomacy of the Vatican immediately influences any states with which it has diplomatic ties’. At times cynical and sardonic, the narrative voice cites numerous instances of favouritism and petty rivalries advancing the careers of unsuitable (and often unqualified) candidates and blighting the prospects of deserving clergy. Perhaps most chilling of all are the allegations surrounding the way those high up in the hierarchy control and manipulate the Pope for their own ends:

‘To create a power vacuum at the top, they encourage the Pope to immerse himself in apostolic visits. […] Once back in Rome, bewildered and dazed by the rush of the crowd, ears still ringing with delirious hosannas, it is virtually impossible for the Pope to discover the intrigues of the court. […] When the Pope returns, steeped in glory, he is too tired and distracted to notice the insidious conspiracies hidden in the documents he signs. Everyone drafting the documents knows that the aging Pope won’t absorb the notes on the report.’

Perhaps because this is ‘a book of many voices’, the tone of much of the work is inconsistent, veering between the declamatory, the technical and the downright sensational. While some of the instances cited involve names and verifiable information, many of the anecdotes included are anonymous, and written more in the tone of salacious gossip than hard fact, so much so that I found myself wondering whether the writers’ assertions about favouritism said more about their frustrated hopes for their own careers than about the mechanisms themselves. There are also numerous references to miracles and revelations that non-Catholics will find hard to credit.

Nevertheless, as a window into a closed and mysterious world, this is a fascinating book. Accurate or not, it is also clearly a very brave work. No doubt it’s one of the more unusual texts I’ll encounter this year.

Shroud of Secrecy: The story of corruption within the Vatican (Via col vento in Vaticano) by The Millenari, translated from the Italian by Ian Martin (Key Porter Books, 2000)

Jamaica: divine retribution

This was a recommendation from novelist and blogger Stephanie Saulter. She said that as I’d enjoyed Gaiman’s American Gods she thought I might like this ‘wonderfully dark fantasy that weaves folk tales and superstition into a real-life story of betrayal, deprivation and alienation’. I was intrigued.

Set in the fantastical town of Gibbeah – where birds attack humans and certain houses assume magical powers – Marlon James’s debut novel John Crow’s Devil examines the lengths that fear and hearsay will drive people to. When the self-proclaimed ‘Apostle’ York strides into the midst of a church service to drag the drunkard Hector Bligh, known as ‘the Rum Preacher’, from the pulpit, many see it as the wake-up call their sleepy community needs. But as the Apostle assumes control and begins to preach an erratic gospel of fire, brimstone, vengeance and violence for all those who do not stick to the path of righteousness, a darker truth emerges that tips the town into a spiral of hell.

James excels at portraits of outsiders. All his major characters harbour some secret suffering that sets them apart from the community and on course for the collision that blows the narrative into the stratosphere in the closing stages of the book. There is the self-loathing and prudish church administrator Lucinda, the fanatical and warped Apostle, the lonely widow who harbours the Rum Preacher, and of course guilt-ridden Bligh himself.

James puts these individual stories against a backdrop of suspicion and narrow-mindedness – ‘a town that preferred things black or white’ where ‘church people, through their stares, created a boundary of shame that few climbed over’. Oscillating between a more detached third-person narrative style and a collective, community voice, he weaves a web of whispers that evokes small-town gossip-mongering in all its terrifying yet seductive fullness:

‘Yes baba! Rumour jump from her yard and race down the street and stop at Mrs Fracas house, then Mrs Smithfield house where it pick up two more story, then it hop and skip and jump from one yard to the next, then it race to the grocery shop where it bounce and bounce like American ball. And every time rumour bounce, the story pick up something new.’

This use of multiple, characterful voices combines with superlative, supple writing that is more than equal to the horrors it unfolds – among them one of the most graphic and powerful flogging scenes going. What in another writer’s hands might descend into cheap sensationalism here grows in stature and subtlety with every twist of the knife. An outstanding piece of work. Thanks for the tip-off, Stephanie.

John Crow’s Devil by Marlon James (Macmillan Caribbean, 2008)

Afghanistan: blood and guts

It was harder than I expected to find an Afghan book that wasn’t by Khaled Hosseini. Not that I’ve got anything against Khaled Hosseini, but as he has become the go-to Afghan writer in the UK I was keen to see what else a curious reader could turn up from this much reported and yet strangely mysterious land.

I contacted the Afghan Women’s Writing Project for ideas. They sent back some intriguing suggestions, several of which are on the list, however as most of the books they mentioned were either stories that had been told by women to non-Afghans and written down or accounts by Western journalists and soldiers of their experiences in the country, I didn’t feel they quite met my criteria.

I even had a brief exchange with a Canadian soldier-cum-food blogger who is serving out in Afghanistan at the moment. He told me the writer he’d read in preparation for his trip was… Khaled Hosseini.

In the end, a mixture of googling and reading reviews turned up Prix Goncourt-winning The Patience Stone by French-Afghan writer Atiq Rahimi. Skipping the introduction (by Khaled Hosseini) I plunged right in.

Set ‘somewhere in Afghanistan or elsewhere’, this slender novella portrays the struggles of a nameless woman as she tries to care for her comatose husband in a city torn apart by war. As militants roam the streets, bombs fall and the front line shifts to her neighbourhood cutting her and her children off from basic supplies, she battles to stick to the strict regime of prayer prescribed by the Mullah and to keep the wounded man clean and stable.

But as the days creep by measured out in the names of God she must recite 99 times for each of her 99 prayer beads every day and punctuated here and there by bursts of fear and sudden atrocities nearby, the woman is tested to her limits. With the power dynamics between her and the man who used to control her strangely reversed and the buildings around her crumbling, she begins to assert herself, spewing forth all the bitterness, frustrations and secrets that have walled her in for years.

The novel is stylistically striking. Told through a sort of floating consciousness that remains in the sick man’s room as the woman comes and goes and accords the same attention to the activities of the spider in the roof beams as to the human characters, the narrative has a weirdly detached air, which often makes the descriptions read like stage directions.

This creates a powerful contrast with the volleys of emotion that engulf the woman as she speaks in extraordinarily graphic terms of her physical, mental and sexual sufferings, caught up in tenderness and hate. It also makes for great suspense in the scenes where we wait in the room to discover what is happening outside, beyond our gaze, as in the passage where the woman goes to discover the grisly fate of her neighbour’s male relatives:

‘The women walk off across the rubble. They can no longer be heard.

Suddenly, a howl. From the woman. Horrified. Horrifying. Her footsteps stagger over the flagstones, stumble through the ruins, cross the garden and enter the house. She is still screaming. She vomits. Weeps. Runs around the house. Like a madwoman.’

At first the novel’s stylistic framework makes for moments of awkward exposition. With no omniscient narrator and no first-person thought processes through which to explain the backstory, Rahimi has to rely on the woman rehearsing the events that have led up to the start of the novel out loud to the unconscious man. This jars in the initial pages, but soon becomes natural and, as the woman’s thoughts and emotions become more volatile, even develops into the novel’s central trope.

Rahimi’s transformation of his narrative’s weakness into its strength, mirroring his central character’s journey, is impressive. I was gripped and moved by his ability to make something so telling and immediate out of stylistic constraints that might have been alienating and pedantic in another writer’s hands. It made me very glad I wandered off the beaten track.

The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi, translated from the French by Polly McLean (Vintage Digital, 2010)

Equatorial Guinea: public service announcement

We interrupt this blog to bring you a public service announcement: libraries are in trouble and I’m beginning to realise why. In the first five months of A Year of Reading the World, I’ve noticed a worrying trend. Many of the second-hand books I’ve ordered for this project have turned out to be copies that have been withdrawn from libraries around the UK. Sometimes that’s because the library itself is closing, but more often than not it’s clear from the smattering of date stamps on the fly-leaf that it’s because these largely excellent translations from remote corners of the globe are rarely borrowed and read.

All the same, nothing could have prepared me for what happened when I opened Donato Ndongo’s Shadows of Your Black Memory to find a sticker as blank and pristine as the day the book first appeared on the shelves at Grangetown Library. This novel, written in a small African nation that has yet to build its first bookshop, painstakingly translated by Michael Ugarte because of his admiration for it, and picked out by some unknown visionary person in Cardiff Council Library Service to be made freely available to the people of Wales, had not been borrowed once. [Since publishing this post I have had confirmation from Cardiff Council that they no longer stamp library books, however the pristine condition of the book made it clear that it had been read very little if at all.]

Set during the last year of Spanish rule in Equatorial Guinea, the novel reveals the thoughts of a young African as he traces the story of his attraction to and eventual rejection of the priesthood and the Roman Catholic Church. Held up as the great white hope of his community and his Spanish missionary mentors alike, the protagonist is forced to confront the damaging influence that colonialism and religion developed in an alien cultural framework have had on him and his nation. This, he discovers, is the only way he can ever hope to find some kind of lasting independence and peace.

Ndongo’s presentation of his hero’s internalisation of the political struggles that grip his country is extraordinary. Raw, vivid and shocking, his frank portrayal of the tortured emotional, sexual and intellectual development of the young man speaks eloquently, particularly when it comes to the self-loathing engendered in him as he tries to espouse the creeds and value systems of his country’s colonial rulers:

‘I identified with the martyrs’ early sufferings, a little like mine but infinitely more sublime, and I so yearned to have their faith, integrity, constancy, because more than anything, I wanted to be like them; yet I couldn’t, I would never be. In the soul of a little black boy like me, an animal in the wild, the vices of my primitive race were locked in, just as Father Amadeo had told me in confession’.

Ndongo further dramatises his hero’s wrestles with ‘the inexorable and inextricable absurdity of successive centuries’ in his use of language. The narrative roves restlessly back and forth between the first and second person reflecting the protagonist’s fractured sense of self, while the commencement of the book at ‘Chapter Zero’, in which he announces his intention to give up training for the priesthood, underlines the process of psychological unmaking and remaking he must go through simply to emerge as ‘a man among others’. Similarly, the way correspondence and speech are woven into the prose without the usual markers and separations emphasises the extent to which the protagonist internalises the expectations of those around him. By the end, I was left in no doubt that this was one of the most linguistically subtle, inventive and complex books I’ve read so far this year.

But back to that blank sticker. Fear not: this is not a lecture about using your local library. For one thing, I’m hardly in a position to talk – I haven’t taken a book out in more than two years. On an idealistic level, I believe that books should be available to everybody in libraries whether we take them out or not.

Sadly, though, we live in an era of cuts and quotas, where books that don’t get borrowed enough get banished and where libraries that don’t get used enough are closed. It’s the age-old law of supply and demand and it’s hard to argue against when you’ve got cancer care units in need of funds and schools teaching pupils in Portakabins.

I’m not sure what we do about it. Still, I can’t help being saddened at the thought of all these great books that have travelled through so many hands and minds to get to us sitting pristine and untouched in public buildings up and down the land. And I can’t help worrying that that bold person in the Cardiff Council Library Service will go for something a little closer to home when it’s time to choose the next round of titles. Or, worse, that he or she will decide not to bother getting more books at all.

Shadows of Your Black Memory by Donato Ndongo, translated from the Spanish by Michael Ugarte (Swan Isle Press, 2007)