Croatia: from our own correspondent

I was all set to read something by Dubravka Ugresic for my Croatian book when a Serbian colleague who reads a lot of literature from the region burst my bubble – surely I could find something more interesting from Croatia, she said. Never one to turn down a challenge (how do you think I ended up trying to read a book from every country in the world in a year in the first place?), I decided to give it a shot. But given that Dubravka Ugresic was the frontrunner in the recommendations I’d had so far, I was going to need some help.

My first port of call was the British-Croatian Society. In response to my appeal for books I could read in translation, their secretary put me in touch with Susan Curtis-Kojakovic, director of Istros Books, a company set up in 2010 to publish literature from South-east Europe in English. I was in luck: they had published a Croatian novel only that week.

Our Man in Iraq by Robert Perišič is the story of a Croatian journalist, Toni, who faces the sack when the ill-qualified reporter he has sent to cover the war in Iraq for his newspaper becomes increasingly erratic before disappearing altogether. Obliged to fabricate his colleague’s articles, all the while struggling to hold together his increasingly fragile relationship with his actress girlfriend, Toni begins to draw on his memories of Croatia’s own conflict, unaware of the ridiculous lengths he will have to go to try to save his career.

The Graham Greene reference in the title (it would be interesting to know whether this was in the original or added for the benefit of English readers) is more fitted to the novel’s witty tone than its content. Unlike in Our Man in Havana, our hero is not the bewildered novice parachuted into a remote corner of the world and forced to make the best of it, but the bungler who sent him. Given the gravity of the situation in Iraq, this reversal, which keeps the war-zone correspondent a shadowy, mysterious figure for whom we can’t feel too anxious, is probably necessary for the comedy to work. Still, it’s striking to see a comic novel set, partly – albeit indirectly – in Iraq.

Perišič’s wit is complemented by his insight into the dynamics of human relationships. This comes across most strongly in his descriptions of the ebb and flow of Toni’s interactions with his live-in girlfriend Sanja. ‘Part of our love (and understanding) thrived on nonsense,’ explains Toni, going on to portray the fluctuations in their daily conversations with just the right mixture of perceptiveness, self-deprecation and bathos – a tone which also enables him to launch into passages of detailed commentary about the personal and social affects of the Croatian War of Independence without losing the reader.

There are one or two problems with the text. In particular, though funny when Toni’s terrible impression of an English TV chef is transliterated in all its auricular weirdness, the editorial decision to represent regional accents or dialects with regional English accents is very disconcerting. We find Toni’s mother talking in uneven Scots, while a man from his home village sounds as though he might be more at home strolling through the East End.

These jar, however, because the novel is, for the most part, so well done. It is a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking story, which, while recalling some of the comic greats that have gone before, add its own brave, quirky and refreshing perspective to the tradition. An unexpected delight. I’d like to read more.

Our Man in Iraq by Robert Perišič, translated from the Croatian by Will Firth (Istros Books, 2012)

Vietnam: war of words

I first heard of this book in a comment at the bottom of an article on the Guardian books website. Opinionated, witty and weird, these reader discussions can often say more about the people writing the comments than the literature they are debating. However, every now and then someone adds something that really makes you think.

In this case, the topic was books about the Vietnam War. Journalist Mark Hooper had posted his top ten but, as the first commenter remarked, had neglected to include any books by Vietnamese authors. Hooped responded to say that the article was about Vietnam books that claim to be ‘the best book on the Vietnam War you’ll ever read’. He had of course read The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh, but the book jacket only said sober things like ‘a classic’ and ‘a triumph’ and so it didn’t qualify for the list.

I hadn’t read The Sorrow of War so I decided to give it a go. Given Hooper’s comments, I was surprised when my edition arrived to find the cover sporting a quote from the Independent saying that the novel ‘takes its place alongside the greatest war novel of the century, All Quiet on the Western Front‘ – surely by default that meant it was claiming to be the best Vietnam War book you’ll ever read?

I wondered briefly about popping up to the books department to try and track down this Mark Hooper and ask him what he thought he was playing at. But the article was more than four years old and besides I still had nearly 100 books to get through before the end of the year. I decided I’d better get on with the reading.

Drawing on Bao Ninh’s own horrific experiences during the conflict (he was one of only 10 survivors out of a brigade of 500), the novel tells the story of Kien, a war veteran struggling to piece his life together after 11 brutal years on the front line. Haunted by the memories of what he has seen and thoughts of his teenage life before the war, Kien wanders through the city of Hanoi and a society he no longer recognises. But until he finds a way to express and work through his experiences, peace will remain another world.

Ninh’s writing is exceptional. Blowing apart clinical descriptions of battle procedure with violent blasts of extreme experience, he captures the mixture of detachment and horror that characterises Kien’s mental state. The episodes he recounts – among them the violent rape and murder or three young girls by US troops and the drowning of a wounded man in a flooding ditch – are among the most graphic and shocking I’ve come across but they are never gratuitous and, even after more than 10 years of embedded reporting from the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are startlingly fresh. Working with the eerie descriptions of phantoms and monsters that mark the protagonist and his terrified comrades’ ‘drift over the edge from logic’ after months in the Jungle of Screaming Souls, they capture ‘how cruelly [the young soldiers] were twisted and tortured by war’.

For all its anger and violence, however, the novel contains striking moments of beauty. The most bewitching of these involve Phuong, Kien’s childhood sweetheart, who, like him, is irrevocably altered by the conflict. Wistful and raw, these evocations of first love break in upon the narrative like rays of sunshine through the jungle canopy, making their surroundings seem all the more dark and threatening.

The chronology of the novel is complex, with the storyline shifting ground repeatedly so that the past and present all seem to inhabit a sort of formless now, reflecting Kien’s imprisonment in his vivid memories. In the hands of another writer, this might be frustrating, but in Ninh’s it is extraordinary, particularly in the final third, where the way events spiral in on Kien’s most painful recollection draws the book to a devastating close.

If we needed an argument for the importance of translation, it is here in this subtle, gripping, angry and tender depiction of the personal consequences of war. Striding across the arbitrary fronts of race and nationality, Bao Ninh speaks to the heart of human loss and longing. In a world where western journalists write lists of novels that tell only one side of this bitter story, his work should be read much more.

The Sorrow of War (Than Phan Cua Tinh Yeu) by Bao Ninh, English version by Frank Palmos from translation by Phan Thanh Hao (Minerva, 1994)

Iraq: getting a perspective

There were quite a lot of contenders available in English for Iraq. Perhaps that’s not a surprise, given that the country has been in and out of Western headlines for more than the last 20 years. Still, it was good to know that the traumatic occurrences of recent decades had not disrupted storymaking in the region – or so I thought until I read this book.

The Madman of Freedom Square – the first commercially published short story collection by Hassan Blasim, co-editor of Arabic literary website Iraq Story – paints a brutal, yet layered picture of the effects of international events on individual lives in and around post-invasion Iraq. Often starting or ending with a mutilated corpse, the tales trace the connections that bind people to one another and reveal the psychological wounds that result when these ties are ripped apart. There are the refugees reduced to animal cruelty when the truck they are locked in is abandoned, the patriotic songwriter turned atheist who wanders the streets railing against God and existence only to meet a gruesome end, and the underground collective that roams Baghdad making art out of its murder victims.

More than anything, this is a book about the function of storytelling. From the very first tale, ‘The Reality and the Record’, in which a traumatised man tries to tell the right story to secure asylum at a refugee centre, the text interrogates the act of narrating, as though trying to identify its weak points and secret guilt.

Sometimes – as in ‘An Army Newspaper’, an account of an unscrupulous editor who gets trapped in his lies when the dead soldier whose work he has passed off as his own continues to submit reams of manuscripts – storytelling takes on monstrous, nightmarish proportions. At other points, as with the sensational anecdotes spread by gossipmongers in the wake of bomb blasts in ‘The Market of Stories’, it seems a low, self-indulgent exercise, a sort of ‘primitive tribal gibberish which tries to hide behind tasteless and gory laughter’.

That story, however, also holds something of a key to the text’s uneasy relationship with its own function. According to the narrator, it may have its roots in Iraq’s history:

‘Since the fall of Saddam Hussein there have been incessant calls for writing to be intelligible, realistic, factual and pragmatic. […] They claim that the writers of the past made the readers defect, whereas in fact for hundreds of years there were no readers in the country, in the broad sense of the word. There were only hungry people, killers, illiterates, soldiers, villagers, people who prayed, people who were lost and people who were oppressed. Our writers seem to have grown tired of writing for each other.’

It’s important to note, of course, that these are the narrator’s words rather than Blasim’s own. Nevertheless, the question of who narrates, who listens and the value of telling at all rankles throughout the book, inviting the reader to look beyond it to the man writing in Arabic in Finland – Blasim’s home since 2004 – and wonder who exactly these words are for.

Underpinning this unease are repeated comments on the world-altering properties of perspective, with many of Blasim’s narrators suffering from mental illness, trauma or profound emotions that render their accounts suspect. The most powerful example, however, comes in ‘The Virgin and the Soldier’, an account of two young lovers doomed to a horrific death when they are accidentally locked in at the sewing factory where they work at the start of a holiday:

‘In reality there was nothing in the factory but army uniforms, but the government’s aim was to make the UN inspectors suspect that the factory was used for prohibited military purposes. […]

On that morning the American satellite pictures could not of course detect the muffled screams on the second floor. The screaming was hardly audible, and desperate. From the end of a world that was dying it reached the sewing room, which was empty and looked like a dreary sunset over an abandoned city.’

Too much distance, Blasim seems to be suggesting, and we become unable to empathise with fellow human beings, like satellites monitoring the Earth from the exosphere. And yet, even as he writes this, the author draws us in to the heart of the events he describes, immersing us in their brutal, bloody and heartbreaking immediacy.

Some of the stories end less successfully than others and there are one or two twists that miss their marks, but overall this is a powerful and thought-provoking work that transports readers to the extremes of human experience – and a mental terrain most of us are lucky enough never to have to  travel through. If Blasim needed proof of the validity of storytelling, he has written it.

The Madman of Freedom Square by Hassan Blasim, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright (Comma Press, 2011)

Uganda: tough choices

I was in two minds about this one. Everyone I’d spoken to about Ugandan literature, from writer Musa Okwonga to the folks at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, had come back with the same recommendation: Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino (or Defence of Lawino, depending on which translation you read).

The only issue was that the work was a narrative poem, rather than a prose piece. While I was planning to consider narrative poetry from countries where novels, short stories and memoirs in English were in short supply, I found the idea of opting for poetry when there were prose options available difficult.

In the end, flying in the face of one of the most unanimous recommendations I’ve had so far this year, I decided to add the p’Bitek to the list but to choose a novel. Oh God, I thought as I spiralled Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa down on to my Kindle, please be good.

Set in the 1970s and 1980s, this ambitious novel tells the story of post-independence Uganda’s turbulent struggle for peace and identity through the eyes of Mugezi. Growing up in an abusive household before, during and after the Amin years, he witnesses the impact of national events on those around him and, through the choices he makes, reveals how individuals internalise and play out the currents of politics in their own lives.

The idea of a single person or part of something standing for the whole is a running theme in the novel. Whether it’s Mugezi’s parents’ disastrous wedding night, during which the happy couple have to be helped to consummate their union by the bride’s aunt, which ‘in many ways typified the whole of their marriage’, or Mugezi’s emulation of ‘St Amin’ in his stealth campaign to take revenge on his violent mother by a series of unpleasant pranks planned with military precision and despotic flair – at least in the days before his admiration of the dictator is ‘killed by the murderous light of truth’ – synecdoche is the order of the day.

Unusually for a novel written in English, the book was first published in translation – in Holland, where Isegawa has lived since 1990. This is particularly striking  when you consider the author’s love of putting language through its paces. From the very first sentence – ‘Three final images flashed across Serenity’s mind as he disappeared into the jaws of the colossal crocodile’ – he reaches for creative forms and tropes to surprise, intrigue and emote.

Perhaps the most striking example is his description of Mugezi’s aunt’s gang rape by soldiers, in which the clinical report of the duration of the event, the precise number of thrusts and touches she endured and the quantity of bodily fluids produced communicates the emotional toll the ordeal took far more effectively than any subjective description could.

Now and then, the ambitious scope of the novel causes problems. There is so much context to explain that the work is hi-jacked by odd passages of socio-political exposition and the narrative feels distended by this, like a python that has swallowed but not yet fully digested a large meal. Similarly, the expansive cast of characters woven through Mugezi’s experiences give parts of the novel a baggy feel.

But the positives far outweigh the negatives. The book is funny, shocking and vibrant by turns, throbbing with anger and hope. Isegawa has made history his story, and that is no mean feat. How the work compares with Song of Lawino, I’ve no idea – I’ll have to read that next year and find out…

Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa (Picador, 2011)

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)

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)

Burundi: diaspora power

The chances of finding a Burundian book in English were looking slim. There were novels and non-fiction books out there, but they were all in French. None of them seemed to have made it through the translation net into the English-language market.

Having exhausted my googling powers, I decided to turn to the Burundian diaspora for help and fired off an email to the United Burundian-American Community Association in the hopes that its members might be able to point me in the direction of some literature that fitted the bill.

I got quite a few emails back. Several suggested analytical books by Western academics charting the causes and consequences of the civil war that ravaged Burundi for much of the mid-late twentieth century. Interesting though I’m sure these are, they weren’t quite what I was looking for. Others mentioned books in French – again, close but no cigar.

One person even asked me to help them finish a book they were writing about their own experiences in Burundi. As I have slightly less than two days to get through each book for this project, I thought this might be pushing it slightly and had to decline.

Then I had an email from Edouard. An old classmate of his from Burundi had published two novels in English. Her name was Marie-Thérèse Toyi. He hoped this helped.

It certainly did. After a bit more searching, I found contact details for Toyi, who is now based at Benson Idahosa University in Nigeria, and emailed her to ask how I might be able to get hold of one of her books as they were not commercially available online. She kindly offered to courier one to me. A few days later, I was holding a battered copy of her novel Weep Not, Refugee complete with a greeting from the author written inside the cover.

Following the fortunes of Wache Wacheke Watachoka, a Burundian boy growing up in a refugee camp because of the ethnic war between the Hutus and Tutsis in his homeland, the novel explores ‘the overpowering burden of forcing oneself to live in a foreign land where you are most undesirable’. As Wache grows up and has to confront the absurdity of the ‘nose complex’ (a widespread belief that the shape of the nose distinguishes Hutus from Tutsis) that has torn his country apart, the narrative reveals the cruel partiality that governs much of everyday life for the most vulnerable and exposes the injustices against which displaced people have to fight simply to stay alive.

The episodic narrative comes across with freshness and immediacy, at times reaching out of  the pages of the book to grab the reader by the scruff of the neck:

‘Just for you to have an idea what it was like, take a cup of ground red pepper, pour it on your bleeding wound and you will have a little idea what it was like. If you have no wound, well, we cannot discuss again, because there are things which you will never be able to understand.’

This can be very compelling, particularly when it comes to reflections on the powerlessness of refugees in lands where their rights exist ‘only in the heart of the person [they are] dealing with’, the indignity of living on handouts, the injustice of imprisonment and the cruel arbitrariness of ethnic conflicts. The section where Wache at last returns to Burundi and, at the age of 26, enrols in school only to find that he has become an alien in his own land is particularly memorable.

At times, the declamatory style and the heaping of tragedy upon tragedy (while no doubt true to many people’s experiences) is hard to swallow. However, this may say more about me as a privileged Westerner than it does about the book.

All the same, I couldn’t help wishing that Toyi had trusted her story and characters to speak for themselves throughout rather than feeling the need to harness them to drive home her appeal to the reader to help improve the lot of displaced peoples at the end. This is the only part of the book that feels forced and it stands out because the experiences and reflections narrated in the rest of the novel are far more persuasive than the closing rhetoric.

Nevertheless, this is a fascinating and valuable insight into a situation most of us cannot begin to imagine. It gives a voice to people whose stories we mostly hear second-hand from Western charity appeals and reporters. It was a great privilege to read it and it will stay with me for a long time. Many thanks to the UBACA, Edouard and Marie-Thérèse Toyi.

Weep Not, Refugee by Marie-Thérèse Toyi (Emhai Printing & Publishing Company, 2007)

Angola: the meaning of life

The names of certain countries seem bound up with the conflicts that shaped them. For many in the West words such as Bosnia, Sudan and Libya will conjure up the images of death and destruction that flickered on our TV screens throughout recent decades.

The magnitude of these events and the time it takes to translate and distribute books mean that many of the most powerful translated novels still coming out of these countries deal directly with war and its legacy. So we find a harrowing portrait of the expulsion of ethnic Russians from Tajikistan in Andrei Volos’s Hurramabad and a startling child’s-eye view of the Bosnian War in Sasa Stanisic’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone.

However, as I discovered when I read my Angolan choice for this project, not all literature from recent war zones strikes a mournful note.

Published in 2008 by now sadly defunct Aflame Books, Ondjaki’s The Whistler, the slender first novel from the author who made his name on the world literature stage with Good Morning Comrades, brims with joy and belief in rejuvenation.  It chronicles the arrival of a man with a haunting whistle in a sleepy village. Taking up residence in the church, the mysterious visitor fills the neighbourhood with his tunes, which are so beguiling they even charm the pigeons.

The effect of the music on the village’s human inhabitants is more impressive still. Cutting through the ‘general torpor’, the melodies unsettle and invigorate the largely elderly residents so that each in his or her way breaks free from the predictable patterns of daily life. The narrative culminates in an orgy of sensation, colour and delight, leaving behind a changed community where the inhabitants have a fresh appreciation of their own potency and the rich possibilities of life.

Ondjaki has a great eye for the contrary details that create character. The novel bustles with intriguing individuals who loom from the page: from the town oddball with his penchant for defecation in the open air to the put-upon gravedigger who refuses to leave his post at the cemetery despite no-one having died for years.

Zany and dream-like, the narrative almost takes flight into poetry on several occasions. This creates some extraordinary images, although it can make the throughline of the plot hard to follow.

The novel is so exuberant, however, that this hardly matters. As Ondjaki’s letter to his friend poet Ana Paula Tavares (published at the end of this edition) makes clear, his main concern is with creating a powerful impression rather than a conventional story.

He achieves this. The book is imaginative, passionate and extraordinary. And, when considered in the context of the 500,000 people killed during Angola’s 27-year civil war, it’s peculiarly moving too.

The Whistler by Ondjaki (translated from the Portuguese by Richard Bartlett). Aflame Books, 2008

Mozambique: uncharted territory

I was preparing a post about Mia Couto’s Under the Frangipani when Miguel popped a comment on The List that took the wind out of my sails. He told me that I should read Paulina Chiziane’s Niketche for Mozambique ‘because it’s a cliché to only read Mia Couto and she needs more attention’.

Horrified at the thought that I might be turning into a literary cliché, I swallowed my reluctance to add yet another book to this year’s tally and googled Chiziane.It took quite a bit of digging before I came across a company called Aflame Books that seemed to have published an English language translation of Niketche. Keen to get hold of a copy, I sent them an email.

A few days later a message came back from translator and company founder Richard Bartlett. He was sorry to say that Aflame Books had gone bust before it managed to publish Niketche and only a third of the book had ever been translated. He was a big fan of Mozambican literature, but the only writer he could think of whose work was available in English was… Mia Couto. He did, however, have an unpublished translation of a novel called Ualalapi by Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa if I’d be interested to take a look?

A cursory internet search told me that this Khosa fellow was really rather a big cheese in Mozambican literary circles. Not only had Ualalapi won the 1990 Grand Prize of Mozambican Fiction, it was also included on the list of Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century drawn up in 2002. This I had to see.

Told in six installments, partly through the eyes of Nguni warrior Ualalapi, the novel portrays the rise and fall of the legendary leader Ngungunhane, who presided over the region now known as Mozambique until the Portuguese  conquered it in the nineteenth century. Graphic and startling, it lays bare the bloody realities of tribal warfare and colonialism, revealing the personal and societal costs of the human desire for power over others.

Myth-making is a big theme. Delighting in unpacking Ngungunhane’s national significance as a symbol of resistance against imperialism, Khosa plays conflicting accounts of the leader off against one another. Charismatic and ruthless, Ngungunhane remains something of an enigma, driven by the impossible longing to be ‘the first protagonist and the only one that History will record while men will be on the earth’.

This running preoccupation makes his final speech before he boards his captors’ ship, in which he envisages the horrors of the colonial and post-colonial eras and imagines the Portuguese forcing children ‘to speak of my death and call me criminal and cannibal’, all the more striking. He exits the narrative to take up his place alongside Oedipus, King Lear and Okonkwo as one of the world’s towering tragic heroes.

Some fantastical events add to the novel’s mythic quality: from the woman whose menstrual blood floods a village, to the strange prophesies that come to pass. These are expressed with lively and at times wonderfully earthy imagery. So we hear of the gossiping servants leaving a house ‘with bags full of words that they were throwing to the wind’ and the shrugging acceptance that no-one is perfect: ‘who is the man who has not snot in his nose?’

Being one of the few people ever to read this powerful classic in English was a huge privilege. It felt like getting a glimpse through a keyhole into a locked garden full of astonishing plants flourishing out of my reach. It made me sad to think of all we must miss in our little English-language bubble and angry that Mozambican literature in so commonly spoken a language as Portuguese is not more widely translated and read.

I am very grateful to Richard Bartlett for sharing the manuscript and to Miguel for forcing me to raise my game. What other Mozambican literature should be translated into English? Leave a comment and let me know.

Ualalapi by Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa (translated from the Portuguese by Isaura de Oliveira and Richard Bartlett). First published by Associacao dos Escritores Mocambicanos (1987)

Côte d’Ivoire: if you are easily offended, keep reading

Apparently, there are people who take books back to bookshops. When I was studying for my Creative Writing MA, a visiting publisher told us that after Vernon God Little won the 2003 Booker Prize there was a rash of returns up and down the country in protest at DBC Pierre’s expletives.

No doubt if Ahmadou Kourouma’s Allah is not Obliged had enjoyed a similar prominence when it was published in the UK, a similar thing would have happened. Riddled with obscenities and swear words in both Malinké and English (French in the original), many of which are hurled directly at the reader, this story of life as a ‘small-soldier’ in West Africa packs a vicious punch, not least because it is narrated by Birahima, a 10-year-old boy.

Most squirm-inducing of all are Birahima’s repeated descriptions of himself and his community as ‘Black Nigger African Natives’. Seeing this most incendiary of words exploding again and again on the opening pages, I was reminded of what my Togolese author, Tété-Michel Kpomassie, wrote about his first encounter with the term:

‘It was the first time I’d ever been called that, though I’d long ago realized that when someone having a dispute with a black man calls him “rotten nigger” or “filthy nigger” or some such name, it’s always some embittered neurotic trying to work off frustrations that have nothing at all to do with the “nigger”.’

Kpomassie’s observations hold true here. In fact, as the narrative progresses and Birahima unfolds his gut-wrenching story of running away from life with his abused and disabled mother only to be co-opted into one guerrilla group after another in Liberia and Sierra Leone, witnessing torture, massacres, rape and butchery along the way, the reasons for his aggressiveness become clear. His linguistic assaults are as much about a war with himself as they are about a war with the world, and reveal his struggle to assimilate all he has seen, thought and felt.

The shock factor is only one side of it. Pithy and waffle-free, Birahima delivers a refreshingly concise and even wry account of West Africa’s recent political history with some piquant insights along the way: ‘The woman is always wrong. That’s what they call women’s rights’; ‘Refugees had it easier than everyone else in the country because everyone was always giving them food’. He even reveals the unacknowledged glamour that the life of the small-soldier seen from the outside may have for many deprived children, for whom a taste of power, respect and good food contrasts favourably with the destitution and helplessness of everyday existence.

The voice can get a little wearing now and then. In particular, the repeated bracketed definitions from the Larousse and Petit Robert dictionaries, which, Birahima explains at the beginning, he is using ‘to make sure I tell you the life story of my fucked-up life in proper French’ feel like a bit of a missed opportunity. While Kourouma does work the odd observation out of them now and then with Birahima’s alternative definitions of ‘torture’ — ‘corporal punishment enforced by justice’ — and ‘humanitarian peacekeeping’, there are too many straight definitions for this device to pay its way.

Nevertheless, the book is a startling and fresh insight into a situation most of us can thankfully only guess at, as well as a masterclass in characterisation. It deserves to be read widely. Outraged readers should be bombarding the returns desks in their droves.

However if the second-hand copy I bought through Amazon is anything to go by, that is unlikely to happen. Inside the front cover there is a ‘withdrawn’ stamp from the Bournemouth Library Service; since the library bought the book in 2007, not enough people have read it to justify keeping it on the shelves. Now that is something worth getting angry about.

Allah is not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma (translated from the French by Frank Wynne). Vintage (2007)