Ethiopia: home rule


There are several strong contenders out there for Ethiopia, but Maaza Mengiste’s Beneath the Lion’s Gaze was one of the first to catch my eye. I wasn’t the only one to like the sound of the critically acclaimed debut novel – the day after I finished it, Bradley stopped by the blog to say he was reading and really enjoying it. Clearly the book was a popular choice.

Drawing on the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, which forced Mengiste’s family to flee Ethiopia, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze traces the fall out of national events in individual lives. The narrative focuses on the family of an eminent Addis Ababa doctor, Hailu, who is struggling to keep his terminally ill wife alive against her wishes and who fears that his youngest son Dawit may be the next wounded revolutionary brought into the hospital for him to treat. At the start of the novel, Hailu has cast-iron confidence in his sense of right and wrong, born of years of making life-and-death decisions; yet, as society unravels around him, the lines begin to blur and when a horrifically tortured girl is brought to him to be patched up, Hailu finds his old certainties crumbling.

Like A Long Way Gone (my Sierra Leonean choice) the novel contains some of the most extreme descriptions of physical violence going. From brief glimpses, such as the pregnant woman ‘pleading at the foot of a man with stones for eyes and a plunging bayoneted rifle in his hand’, to extended scenes, including the interrogation of the small boy Berhane, the book bristles with outraged testimonies to the cruelty of its era – many of which will stay with readers long after they turn the final page.

Mengiste’s writing is excellent throughout. Perhaps the best proof of this for a child of the 1980s like me is the way that she manages to bring home the famines that ravaged rural Ethiopia throughout much of the final decades of the 20th century – and flooded Western TV screens, almost normalising images of extreme hunger for an entire generation. Through the eye-witness accounts of Dawit’s friend, Mickey, Mengiste cuts through the complacency that time and familiarity breed to shame readers with the horror of what happened once again:

‘This is how a man tills his land: behind cattle that are tied to one end of a plow that he uses to dig and lift and turn the ground. He holds a stick in one hand and the end of the plow in the other. At the end of that stick is a rope that he uses to whip the animals when they tire from the hot sun and the lack of water and simple hunger. A man works like this every day, every month, year after year, behind his cattle, his hand attached to a plow that has dug its own imprints into his calloused palms. He speaks to no one but himself, he hears nothing but his own slavish grunts as he pushes his plow into dirt, willing a crop to grow from unforgiving ground, praying daily for more rain. But it didn’t rain in 1972 in the north, my friend, and the farmer had no crops. The rains did not come as they should, and when the rains failed, the crops failed, and when the crops failed, the farmer grew hungry, and when he grew hungry, his cattle also grew hungry, because a farmer will feed his cattle before himself. When the cattle began to die, the farmer gathered his family and tried to walk to the nearest village, the nearest aid shelter, the nearest anywhere where he could hold out his proud hand and beg for food. But everyplace he went was the same as what he had left. They are starving here in Wello, Dawit. They are starving in Tigre and Shoa. We have lived in the city and we have forgotten about these people.’

Mengiste stretches these observations over a finely crafted plot, like canvases on a frame. Drawing in each character, the story moves from conflict to conflict, ratcheting up the tension with every chapter. I found myself gripping the Kindle in fear on several occasions – particularly in the scene where the soldiers come to search Hailu’s house for Dawit.

This solid structure means that the book can take the weight of the many larger questions its author heaps upon it. We find ourselves engaged in religious debates about where the line between accepting God’s will and working to ameliorate your situation should be and political reflections on the conditions needed to effect a revolution. In addition, we witness the events that can turn friendship into hatred, and discover a range of unsettling facts about life in post-revolution Ethiopia – such as the bullet fee families had to pay to receive the body of anyone shot by the authorities.

This is the sort of book that has the power to seem to stop time while the hours fly past. Gripping and thought-provoking, it sweeps you along to the final pages with just the right mix of emotional engagement and historical context. I’ll be adding Mengiste to the post-world watch list – I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.

Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste (Vintage Digital, 2010)

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)

Indonesia: talking about revolution

The further I get into this project to read the world, the more I appreciate the challenge facing translators working with books written in societies very different from my own. Not only must they endeavour to create engaging and faithful reflections of the original texts, but they must often also find a way of explaining objects, customs and even whole belief systems that may have no counterpart in their target audience’s culture without turning the narratives into anthropological essays.

Some, like May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley, the translators of Ibrahim Al-Koni’s The Bleeding of the Stone, choose to tackle this with a brief notes section at the back, to which readers can defer for help decoding terms they may not have come across before. In other cases, as with Rajaa Alsanea’s Girls of Riyadh, cultural and linguistic differences lead to a substantial reworking of the translated text, with controversial results.

Few books, however, can have required more fancy philological footwork than YB Mangunwijaya’s Durga/Umayi. Not only does this novel satirise most of the major political events in Indonesia from the 1930s to the late 1980s, but it also draws on the region’s shadow-play tradition, weaving a number of Indonesia’s myths into the text. On top of this, as translator Ward Keeler explains in the introduction, Mangunwijaya has helped himself to all the different dialects of Indonesian spoken in the country, creating his own ‘zany style that is without precedent in Indonesian or Javanese literature’. Phew.

The basic premise — thank goodness — is relatively simple. Central character, Iin, a young woman opposed to the ‘cooking-cleaning-cuddling view’ of her sex, finds herself with a front-row seat at most of Indonesia’s key historical events, from before the time of independence from the Dutch, through the Japanese occupation of the 1940s and the horrific communist massacres of the 1960s and beyond.

Mirroring the events shaping her nation, Iin morphs from a young idealist into a hardened globe-trotter, cutting cynical deals that will never benefit the people she used to care for most and changing her dress, manner and even her face and body to fit each new scenario. Like the beautiful goddess Durga of the title — who finds herself transformed into the monstrous Umayi when she refuses to have sex with her husband Lord Guru in public — Iin loses her identity in her effort to assert herself.

As with all great satirists, Mangunwijaya has an eye for the ridiculous and a talent for plunging pride into bathos. So we hear of ‘the Nippon Armed Forces who were undefeated but then were’ and the lament of the peasant farmers: ‘Oh God, when is this freedom era going to end, begging your pardon’. Again, like the best satire, this merciless stripping back of pretension and propaganda proceeds from deep, humane anger at the injustices heaped upon normal people, which bubbles up through the text, aerating and stirring the narrative.

For all its brilliance, however, this novel does come with a health warning. Delightful though Mangunwijaya’s ‘verbal high jinks’ can be, they demand a lot. Sentences spiral off across page after page, leaving the reader trailing behind them, struggling to keep hold of subjects and objects, nevermind the overall sense. At times, searching in vain for a main clause, I found myself wondering if I had any idea what was going on at all, as though the language was forcing me to share the bewilderment of the Indonesians as regime change after regime change sweeps their land.

This is not a book to curl up with. It’s a book to concentrate on and frown at and read bits of several times over. The effort it is worth it though: this is easily one of the most inventive, urgent and passionate texts I’ve read. It’s also a testament to what skilled translators, the neglected heroes of the world literature scene, can achieve. Hats off to you, Ward Keeler.

Durga/Umayi by YB Mangunwijaya (translated from the Indonesian by Ward Keeler). Publisher (this edition): University of Washington Press (2004)