Namibia: marital ties

I started reading this book while sitting in a television studio waiting to be interviewed about A Year of Reading the World by Isha Sesay for her NewsCenter show on CNN International. I was quite nervous and sitting at the newsreader’s desk with lots of cameras and screens with my face on them leering down at me wasn’t the most relaxing of places to be reading, so it’s a testament to the power of Neshani Andreas’s storytelling that The Purple Violet of Oshaantu managed to draw me in all the same.

Published in 2001 and already considered a classic, the novel follows Mee Ali and her friend Kauna as they struggle against the patriarchal structures of society in rural northern Namibia. When Kauna’s abusive and unfaithful husband Shange dies suddenly, the women feel the full force of the way society is weighted against them and it is left to Mee Ali to help her companion rise above the waves of prejudice, avarice and cruelty that threaten to wash her away.

Andreas excels at capturing the little details that tell us everything we need to know about a character’s emotional state. From the incongruous reactions that show mental turbulence, as when Kauna laughs hysterically in the wake of discovering her husband’s body, to the flashes of insight that strike through everyday conversations, shedding light on secrets and fears, the narrative is full of riches. I particularly liked Mee Ali’s description of Kauna’s in-laws’ responses to her sensible suggestion that they should wait for doctors to determine the cause of Shange’s death instead of jumping to conclusions: ‘They looked at me as if I had another head, that of a cow perhaps. Did I look foolish?’

These insights make Andreas’s portrayal of the injustice of women’s lot very powerful. Interspersing the narrative with accounts of the extreme suffering inflicted on wives in the community, such as the public breakdown of Mee Namutenya when her husband takes a second wife and Mee Sara’s persecution by witch doctors on the death of her husband, Andreas presents a controlled and compelling argument against the practices that have so long been justified as tradition. Perhaps the most memorable of these concerns Mee Ali’s indignant reaction to the way her own happy marriage to Michael is viewed by her community:

‘Now this. “Oh, he doesn’t beat you? You are lucky.” I am really tired of it all. Yes, Michael is a good man and I am grateful for that. I just don’t know what people want me to do. Kneel down at his feet and say, “Thank you, Michael, for marrying a low class”? I am not lucky. I simply do not deserve to be treated like a filthy animal.’

Yet although the village women police and persecute each other through gossip, there is nevertheless an underlying sense of community and mutual support that erupts to the surface now and then with joyous results. Chief among these moments is the time when Kauna screws up her courage to ask her neighbours to come and do okakungungu [join together to work on her land] so that she can get her field dug before the rains come. The subsequent scene when the women respond to her call is incredibly moving.

Occasionally the time shifts can be a little disorientating. In addition, the long chunks of dialogue sometimes make the narrative feel more like a play script than a novel.

As a whole though, this is a powerful and important work by a writer who deserves her place among Africa’s literary greats. It certainly helped to calm my nerves.

The Purple Violet of Oshaantu by Neshani Andreas (Heinemann, 2001)

Swaziland: teenage rebellion

The tiny Kingdom of Swaziland doesn’t sound too promising when you’re on the hunt for world literature. According to the CIA World Factbook, it has the globe’s lowest life expectancy, with those born in 2011 only predicted to live an average of 31.88 years – just a year older than I am now.

Given such a bleak backdrop, I assumed any story I did find would be pretty solemn. So when The Modern Novel recommended Sarah Mkhonza’s self-published memoir Weeding the Flowerbeds, I was in for a surprise.

Recalling Mkhonza’s time boarding at Manzini Nazarene High School in the seventies, the book reflects on life in southern Africa in the years after Swaziland declared independence from British rule. With Apartheid and racism enshrined in the statutes of all the region’s nations, there is much for young girls Bulelo (Mkhonza), Sisile and Makhosi to struggle against, but there is also a wind of change blowing that promises more opportunities and possibilities for young women than ever before.

As in John Saunana’s novel The Alternative (my Solomon Islands book), boarding school with its British structures and legacy is a microcosm of the struggles the nation faces as it tries to shape an identity independent of its colonial past.  From the prejudice against Zulu and the very anglocentric reading lists – including Shakespeare, the Victorian classics and The Flies of the Lord as one confused English teacher calls the book he has to give lessons on – to the continued religious efforts to teach the ‘saga of the cross […] to the children of Swazis who still believed in muti [magic] and sangomas’, Bulelo is surrounded by the attitudes of the old regime.

Mkhonza treats this with a great deal of humour, recalling how she and her classmates ‘wondered what the United States of England was like’. She is also refreshingly honest about the way she and her fellow students ‘used the power of the underdog toward white people’, bamboozling their British-born teachers with dialect and slang. This is nevertheless tempered with a great deal of affection for many of the staff and the opportunities her education gave her: ‘This is why you are reading this book,’ she writes at one point. ‘We had some very good teachers who were dedicated to teaching us’.

The memoir really comes alive in the passages where Mkhonza recalls her female friends and the challenges facing them as young women, a subject to which Mkhonza has devoted much of her adult life and because of which she was forced to leave Swaziland in 2003. Among the more serious accounts of the mistreatment of women in wider society, there are some wonderfully funny stories of the sisterly bond developed over boyfriends, whose letters came secretly to PO Box 315 Manzini (I wonder what would happen if we wrote to that address now?), and the covert reading of Drum magazine. Indeed, the brusque problem-page advice of Agony Aunt Dolly is too good not to share:

‘You are stupid if you think the man loves you and you are still in high school. You are stupid when you think an older man can love you better than his wife. If you have sex with him, you will become pregnant, and that will be the end of you.’

Powerful episodes aside, though, the narrative often lacks tension and a throughline to drive it forward. At times, particularly when Mkhonza reflects on the boredom that characterises much of school life, we can feel as though we are plodding with Bulelo from class to class and, like her, begin to wonder exactly why we are bothering. There are also some quirks with the writing style, which skips between the past and present tenses in a way that is too erratic for it to be deliberate.

Many of these problems could have been ironed out with the help of a sensitive editor, something that Mkhonza, as a self-publishing writer, was probably obliged to do without. As it stands, though, this is an intriguing and witty, if inconsistent, account of how a significant moment in Swaziland’s history played out in young lives. It is full of hope, and worth reading for Aunt Dolly alone.

Weeding the Flowerbeds by Sarah Mkhonza (Sarah Mkhonza, Xlibris, 2009)

Mauritius: travellers’ tales

This was a second-hand recommendation. It was posted on the A Year of Reading the World Facebook page by Michael Walkden, who said he’d recently met Natasha Soobramanien, a writer of Mauritian descent, and asked her to recommend a book for his project (intriguingly, he didn’t say what his project is – if you’re reading this, Michael, I’d love to hear more). She’d suggested Benares by writer and film director Barlen Pyamootoo and he thought he’d pass the tip on.

I was doubly grateful for the recommendation when, on researching the novel, I discovered that it was very short. So short, in fact, that in most editions it is published with another novella, In Babylon. This would certainly help to keep me on target to read one book every 1.87 days. In fact, I reckoned I could probably read the whole thing in a single journey to work.

The doors beeped shut on the East London line and I plunged into Pyamootoo’s tale of two men who set out to find a couple of prostitutes in Port Louis to bring back to their village of Benares for the night. Driven into town by trusty friend and former mill worker Jimi, the pair meander around the red-light district, paying visits to several formidable madams before finally managing to engage two women to accompany them home. As the car takes them back through the benighted landscape and the men and women sound each other out through small talk, a wider discussion opens up about identity, companionship and the loss of the old ways of life.

Pulling out of Canada Water station, I made a note in the margin about the details that bring the narrative alive: the brothel with the beds with concrete bases, the narrator’s friend Mayi’s eyes ‘rolling and blinking like a wanted man’s’, the lights of smugglers’ boats flashing out at sea.

These give Pyamootoo license to dwell on ostensibly simple and even mundane exchanges, using them to chart the minute shifts in dynamics that keep the drama and tension in the scenes. This only breaks down once – when the narrator stops the car to go into a restaurant and buy some cigarettes. Here, the flat transaction feels like an unnecessary interlude, although it may serve to point up the subtle transformation taking place in the car.

This, as I realised while changing lines at Highbury & Islington station, concerns the slow seep of the background into the foreground. While the descriptions of the billboards and buildings sites around the capital start off as almost incidental details, the development and commercialisation of much of the island at the expense of its poorest communities – as evidenced by the closure of Benares’s mill – come to underpin the novella.

Each of the characters gradually reveals vulnerabilities and insecurities that derive from the breakdown of the old structures. The only way to bridge these gaps is to tell stories, as the narrator discovers when he embarks on a wistful account of his journey to the other Benares, a sacred city in India where many Hindus go to die in the hope of attaining paradise: ‘I thought to myself that stories must be what we travel for, to have something to tell the people we love’, he reflects.

Pyamootoo’s writing about this ‘feeling of opening up to the world, of becoming part of some sort of network’ is so compelling and seductive that I finished the last 10 pages of the novella sauntering along the pavement away from King’s Cross, oblivious to the commuters shoving past me. I hadn’t expected the story to be so beautiful and so surprising. It made me sad to turn the last page. If only every journey to work could be like this.

Benares by Barlen Pyamootoo, translated from the French by Will Hobson (Canongate, 2004)

Zambia: what price education?

This 2000 novel by Binwell Sinyangwe, another pick from Heinemann’s African Writers Series, promised something I hadn’t come across in any of the books I’ve read so far this year: a story centring on the hardships facing women in rural Africa written by a man.

Its premise is disarmingly simple. At the start, widow Nasula has less than three weeks to find the 100,000 kwacha she needs to pay for the next stage in her only daughter’s education, after more than a year of trying to get the money together. The rest of the narrative portrays the extreme lengths she goes to in an effort to raise the funds that are her daughter’s only hope of escaping a life of poverty.

In many ways, this is a profoundly feminist book. Dedicated to the memory of Sinyangwe’s wife Grace, the narrative reveals ‘the unfairness of the life of a woman’, returning again and again to Nasula’s desire for her daughter to be able to ‘carve a decent living that would make it possible for her not to depend on a man for her existence’. These hopes spring from Nasula’s memories of her own bitter experience of marriage and ill-treatment at the hands of her in-laws, recollections that bring out some of Sinyangwe’s best rhetoric:

‘Nasula had not forgotten. She would not forget. How could she? They had turned her into a servant, a slave in a chief’s palace. They had turned her into a stream in which to wash and kill the stink of their humanity. They had turned her into the hunter’s flat stone on which to sharpen their spears and axes. Into icisongole [a hard-shelled fruit] to play iciyenga [a game like jacks] with during the day, a fruit to be eaten at by the chief during the night. Into a source of laughter.’

Sinyangwe heightens our sense of Nasula’s plight with his repeated references to the common hardships facing many Zambians during the nineties. With the end of government grants, poor rains and the spread of HIV/AIDs, these are ‘the years of havelessness’ for rural and urban workers alike, in which many who previously prospered, and to whom Nasula turns for help, struggle to survive.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this material would be woven into a two-dimensional sob story. Instead, Sinyangwe rises to the challenge, imbuing his narrative with the vigour, vibrancy and ingenuity of his heroine. As we watch Nasula undertake the marathon walk to her in-laws, sleep in the city market to protect her possessions and challenge criminals and corrupt officials single-handedly, it’s impossible not to admire her.

If the narrative is occasionally a little overwritten, with a few too many adjectives fighting for space, the power of the plot more than makes up for it. So much so, in fact, that in the gripping final chapters, it’s easy to forget that what we are reading is not an account of some grand odyssey but the story of one woman’s attempt to secure a basic necessity for her child. It’s humbling to remember this as the narrative draws to its close – and more effective than any sob story could ever be.

A Cowrie of Hope by Binwell Sinyangwe (Heinemann, 2000)

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)

Denmark: office politics

The Exception by Christian Jungersen was one of several books suggested by Danish book blogger Christina Rosendahl. I was grateful for the tip-off as Danish-to-English translations are not particularly common and my knowledge of the literary scene in Denmark is, well, probably slightly less extensive than my grasp of 18th century marquetry.

In actual fact, Rosendahl’s words about this novel weren’t the most glowing of recommendations – she said it was ‘quite good’. However, the subject matter intrigued me, and, as it’s a thriller, I thought it might make a welcome contrast with some of the other books I’ve been reading this year.

The story turns around four women working at the Danish Centre of Genocide Information. Tasked with collating, curating and archiving data about the world’s atrocities, they come under strain from a series of pressures to do with budget cuts, politics and their own loyalties and foibles that skew and twist the office dynamics. But when two of them receive death threats, the working environment takes a turn for the poisonous and it’s not long before the barbarity they document comes crashing into their comfortable lives.

Office dynamics are Jungersen’s speciality. Adept at isolating and revealing the mechanisms that enable people to be ‘so dishonest with themselves that they aren’t even aware of what they are doing’, he lays bare the steps by which ordinarily decent people can victimise and bully a colleague, all the while believing they are doing nothing wrong. This is rendered all the more impressive by the split narrative, which sees the story told through the eyes of all four women, and the weaving in of theories about the psychology of those who commit acts of genocide, which enables Jungersen to draw interesting parallels with the mental violence perpetrated in the office.

Jungersen gets round the problem of having to shoehorn a lot of background information and theorising into the novel by having several of the characters write articles about the psychology of genocide. This emphasises the ‘cognitive dissonance’ through which they are able to hold several conflicting ideas in their heads at the same time, acting cruelly while maintaining a belief in their own goodness – just as they write pieces about the mental mechanisms of ‘evil’ without applying them to their own lives.

Nevertheless, he labours the point a little towards the end, even quoting a section from one essay twice in case the reader has somehow missed the comparisons he is drawing. Similarly, although generally well handled, one or two of the more outlandish twists in the plot – which, without giving too much away, brings a Serbian war criminal into the orbit of the women’s workplace – are a little hard to swallow.

By and large, though, this is a gripping, thought-provoking and intelligent piece of work. It makes us question the patterns we  play out in our day-to-day lives and acts as a powerful warning against the sort of lazy pack mentality that can be all too easy to slip into. It was a jolly good pageturner too.

The Exception (Undtagelsen) by Christian Jungersen, translated from the Danish by Anna Paterson (Phoenix, 2007)

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)

Gabon: mother courage

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Gabon. It’s not a country that we in the UK hear much about. In fact, a quick search of the BBC website shows that only a handful of stories have mentioned the place in the last 12 months – and most of them were to do with the African football Cup of Nations.

With nothing to go on, it seemed to make sense to return to a trusted source for a steer on what to read. And so I picked out Daniel Mengara’s Mema from Heinemann’s African Writers Series, a collection which introduced me to the excellent Bessie Head a month or so ago.

I was in for a surprise. Told by a son in memory and praise of his ostracized mother, this is one of the most unusual books I’ve read.

The novel records the downfall of Mema (mother) as she runs up against the strict codes and mores of rural Gabonese society. Left to fend for herself in her in-laws’ village after her meek husband dies, the fearless and even fearsome woman, who has a habit of settling disputes with a machete, finds the whispers and suspicions that have dogged her throughout her marriage swell to fever pitch until she is separated from her children and must watch her son go off alone ‘into the new world that the white man was slowly creating for us’ because it is ‘the only way out’.

Mema’s world is a world of storytelling and rhetoric. When problems crop up, they are dealt with through a medzo or village meeting, during which the most persuasive speakers – usually the old women – carry the day. ‘Tales were what made people wise’ in this milieu of ‘psychological games and scare tactics’, the narrator explains, adding that ‘it was up to the youngsters to show cleverness by getting out of the tale the wisdom that they needed’.

The impact of growing up in a world where everyone is expected to be a literary critic and stories are the way of getting things done, is clear from the narrator’s doubts about what he is doing with his own act of telling:

‘Is it because I have travelled across the seas to the white man’s land that I have decided to desecrate my mother’s memories by telling them to strangers who will not even care to read her story to the end? Strangers who may not like what I have to say or may hate me for daring to say it? And how could strangers understand what I have to say? What will they do when the story of my mother proves too much for them and starts to haunt them, eating them from the inside?’

The novel’s portrayal of the power of women is equally intriguing. While making clear that the society he describes is ostensibly patriarchal, the narrator shows how women maintain control behind closed doors. ‘The lion had to be kept roaring for the sake of appearance’, he explains, but ‘when a woman was angry, nothing in the village worked’. The most striking demonstration of this is played out in the description of the rituals surrounding deserting wives in the region. Form dictates that the husband, who has usually been deserted on the grounds of cruelty, must go to apologise and beg his spouse back from his in-laws,. However if a husband is slow to do this the village women will launch a campaign of non-cooperation with their partners to force his hand.

For all the power women wield collectively, though, the radical Mema finds that individuals who don’t conform face a lonely road. Shunned for displaying masculine traits and daring to use mimbiri (witchcraft) to try to heal her dying husband, she is forced out of society and must carve out her own road for herself and her child.

In the wake of her death, only her son’s fierce admiration remains, fuelling this passionate elegy, which cannot fail to resonate with readers. Angry, abrupt, strange and moving, Mema’s tale is as haunting as its narrator describes. I was consumed and challenged by it. In its turn it will give me food for thought for a long time to come.

Mema by Daniel Mengara (Heinemann Educational Publishers, 2003)

Botswana: mind over matter

Mention the words ‘Botswana’ and ‘books’ in the same sentence these days (at least in the UK), and you’re almost certainly talking about Alexander McCall Smith. His No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series has been a smash hit since it burst on to the scene in 1999.

Unfortunately, as I discovered with Mia Couto in Mozambique, the trouble with such run-away successes, no matter how well-deserved, is that they tend to eclipse all other work from or about a particular country in the UK literary market. Their authors become the go-to wordsmiths for writing about a particular place and we forget that there might be other quite different texts out there.

This is bad for contemporary writing as it makes publishers less keen to scout for works to bring into the UK, but it takes its toll on classic literature too. There are some literary giants that we simply don’t hear about. For me Botswanan novelist Bessie Head was such a one.

Partly autobiographical, Head’s 1974 novel A Question of Power, tells the story of a mixed-race South African woman, Elizabeth, who comes to Botswana with her young son to make a new life. Desperate to shake off the abuse she witnessed and suffered in her homeland, ‘a country where people were not people at all’, she looks forward to a simpler existence filled with community life and working the land. It’s not long, however, before Elizabeth’s demons catch up with her and she is forced to confront the fact that much of the misery and sickness she grew up with has taken up residence in her own mind.

The book is one of the most powerful and vivid depictions of mental illness going. Dramatised through two characters, Dan and Sello, who come to visit Elizabeth at night, the narrative takes us through the rugged country of psychological dysfunction, charting its crushing lows and dizzying highs.

Head finds an impressive range of tangible metaphors to capture both ‘the grandeur of this view of life’ and the ‘sensation of living right inside a stinking toilet’ that accompany psychosis. So we hear how ‘a wide corridor opened up in [Elizabeth’s] mind’ and how at one point Sello appears to be ‘sitting at a switchboard plugging in the lines to all the beautiful people’, in addition to the visions of extreme violence and sexual cruelty that turn Elizabeth’s life into a waking nightmare.

Interspersed with these powerful periods of insanity are a series of interactions with the local community in which Head’s powers of observation and sense of the ridiculous combine to create a series of memorable cameo characters who all point to larger truths about the world. Chief among these is the ‘half-mad Camilla woman’, a Dutch volunteer at the community garden project Elizabeth joins who, in love with her own beneficence, is unable to look past her prejudices to meet people on their own terms. ‘Elizabeth’s nativeness form[s] the background to all her comments’ and when she comes to pronounce on Dutch literature, her true colours are revealed:

‘ “In our country culture has become so complex, this complexity is reflected in our literature. It takes a certain level of education to understand our novelists. The ordinary man cannot understand them…”

[…]

‘And she reeled off a list of authors, smilingly smug. It never occurred to her that those authors had ceased to be of any value whatsoever to their society.’

While excelling at tracing the steps by which psychotic episodes blow up and play out – the description of Elizabeth’s initial meltdown in the local radio shop, for example, is outstanding – Head makes a point of keeping the line between the real and the illusory blurred. This forces the reader to partake of Elizabeth’s bewilderment and share her conviction for much of the book than many of the things she sees are real.

This can give rise to flashes of frustration, but most readers will quickly come to trust Head’s obvious skill and give themselves over to her narrative. By the end, there can be no doubt of Head’s immense giftedness and her deserving of every bit as much recognition as other more widely read texts. An outstanding book.

A Question of Power by Bessie Head (Heinemann Publishers, 1974)

Brazil: Goethe the ‘dirty old man’

From one Portuguese-language country with very few novels available in translation we jump to another that has a whole heap of them (by British standards, at least).

With so many exciting recommendations on the list, Brazil was a tough choice. In the end, I plumped for House of the Fortunate Buddhas because of the intriguing circumstances of its inception: Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro was commissioned to write one in a series of books inspired by the seven deadly sins. I was curious to see whether a novel written to order in such a way would turn out to be any good. And I wanted to see how Ribeiro handled the vice he chose to write about: lust.

As with the other Dalkey Archive book I’ve read so far this year (Francois Emmanuel’s Invitation to a Voyage), voice is this novel’s driving force. Prompted to record her story by a terminal illness, Ribeiro’s fearless narrator, a self-confessed ‘queen of lectures’, recalls her heyday in the 1940s and 50s. She focuses on her and her friends’ many and varied sexual exploits ‘at a time when everything was more difficult for women’, attacking the social mores that straitjacket desire and force people to ‘live according to rules and patterns for which no human was made’.

This disarming frankness extends to literary conventions too. Unafraid to share her opinions on any subject, the narrator weighs into many of academia’s leading lights, calling Lacan’s work ‘con games’, Goethe ‘a real fucker who died a dirty old man’ and Freud ‘the greatest waste of genius since Plato, the son of a bitch’.

Similarly forthright about her own blindspots and limitations, she questions her own utterances and literary skill with urgency and humour. ‘This testimony isn’t a novel, it doesn’t even have a plot – although the novels of Henry James barely had one, now that I think about it,’ she says at one point.

This unflinching engagement with the world and her place in it, enables the narrator to venture confidently where others fear to tread. The narrative is filled with exceedingly graphic accounts of sex in all its forms, which succeed because they are free from the coyness amd awkwardness that send other writers fumbling for euphemisms and clichés.

Ribeiro’s ability to inhabit the female universe is impressive. The voice is powerful, believable and peppered with details that will have many women nodding wryly in recognition. Only occasionally did I find some of the claims about the power dynamics between the sexes hard to swallow and sense a slight Tiresian wistfulness in the descriptions of men as ‘poor machos chained to a bunch of strange expectations’.

In general, this is an engrossing and persuasive performance by a leading writer on the world literary stage. With its narrator’s bold depiction of her – perhaps Utopian – vision for ‘a world of sex without problems’, it brims with generosity, fellow-feeling and a desire to improve the lot  of humankind. The issue, it suggests, may not lie with the unbridled expression of sexual desire, but with the concept of sin itself.

Perhaps this is simply the passionate manifesto for free love it appears to be. Or maybe, on some ‘con game’, Lacanian or Freudian level, the artist Ribeiro is protesting that the basis of his commission is ultimately flawed.

House of the Fortunate Buddhas by Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro (translated from the Portuguese by Clifford E Landers). Dalkey Archive Press, 2011