Category Archives: African authors
Posted by Edward Colley
‘We don’t want to hear it’ is a cry shared by
over-sensitive souls and despots
In these days of hurt feelings, so-called snowflakes, the perpetually offended and those who see a slight or an infringement of their rights at every turn, it is sobering to reflect on the experiences of lives in less tolerant societies where issues such as freedom of expression or no-platforming are entirely in the hands of a government or military regime rather than a disgruntled student body or an online petition.
As the pressure group PEN International points out, writers and journalists around the world are targeted – and in some cases hounded and murdered – for their peaceful pursuit of free expression.
“Authoritarian governments are becoming increasingly emboldened and are targeting writers and journalists in ever greater numbers. Some are paying a heavy price for merely carrying out their work,” said Salients Tripathi, Chair of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee.
I’ve been researching this topic after reading about the experiences of a Kenyan who was incarcerated, tortured and jailed on a trumped up charge fundamentally because his attitude didn’t tally with that of the authorities.
Wahome Mutahi’s Three Days on the Cross, published in October 1991, is presented as a fictional account of everyday brutality by the security forces in Moi regime Kenya. But the scenes of torture at the hands of members of the notorious Special Branch are drawn directly from the author’s own experience following his arrest in October 1986.
Mutahi (1954 – 2003), a journalist and novelist widely read in East Africa, was known to be opposed to the brutal regime of his country. In 1986, during a clampdown on intellectual activities he was arrested and jailed. He was charged with neglecting to report a felony thus being guilty of sedition.
His captors said he knew people who were publishing seditious material – material critical of the government. The allegations were false; he didn’t know anyone engaged in such activities – he was a journalist on The Nation, just writing.
Special Branch officers went to his Nairobi office one Sunday morning and took him to the city’s Nyayo House, a respectable-looking office building for the police. But in its basement were interrogation rooms, cells and barbaric torture chambers. He was held there for 30 days accused of being involved in an organised movement.
In conversation with Paul Theroux (recounted in Dark Star Safari), Mutahi recalled telling his accusers: “If you have evidence against me, take me to court. That made them very angry. They stopped talking to me. They stripped me naked and beat me – three men with pieces of wood. They demanded that I confess.
“Then they stood me in my cell and sprayed me with water. My cell was about the size of a mattress. They soaked me – water was everywhere. Then they locked the door and left me.”
In the windowless cell Mutahi could not tell if it was day or night. “I was still naked and really cold, standing in the water, in the darkness. I don’t know how much time passed – maybe 12 or 15 hours.”
Then the door suddenly opened and he was brusquely asked if he had anything to say. He said no and was left again for a long time before the door opened once more and the same question was fired at him, eliciting the same response.
“I came to a situation where I was living in a nightmare. I hallucinated. I saw food in patches on the floor.” Waking from a fitful, troubled sleep, Mutahi was desolated to find himself ankle deep in water and shivering, not able to stand or sit. “My feet were rotting. I was on the point of a breakdown. I thought of suicide. When a week passed they must have thought I was dying because they put me in a dry cell.”
But the interrogation continued. He was blindfolded and taken to another room. After many sessions, Mutahi realised he was weakening and that he would rather serve a specific sentence than suffer not knowing when his confinement would end. And so he signed a ‘confession’. “I was given 15 months. It was something definite – not torture any more.”
Everyone who found themselves in such situations, said Mutahi, eventually pleaded guilty under interrogation, “provided they didn’t go insane first.”
The term ‘snowflake’ is pejorative and unhelpful especially when applied generally to students and millennials (though some of the more extreme proponents of safe spaces and no-platforming perhaps deserve a little ribbing).
Nevertheless it’s clear that there is an increasing tendency to shy away from some of the less pleasant realities: law students excused lectures on sexual abuse for example or medical trainees allowed to opt out of witnessing distressing procedures.
Such over-sensitive souls refuse to hear an opinion contrary to their own and in this, in a horrible irony, they link to those despots around the world who find ideas with which they disagree frightening and threatening. They don’t want to hear – and for them the solution is not a safe space but a torture chamber.
Want to learn more?
The world of literature abounds with tales of love triangles but I’ve never before come across one involving rivalry for the affection of a whale. Yes I do mean whale as in marine mammal.
How can anyone be jealous of a whale you might wonder? Well this one is special. She’s a large Southern Right who swims each year close to the coast of South Africa on her migration from waters close to Antartica to warmer climes further north. The path takes her near to Hermanus on the southern cape, home to a man who’s become rather attracted to her: The Whale Caller.
This is a man so enchanted with these creatures that he’s perfected the arm of using a kelp horn to communicate with them. One in particular, that he names Sharisha, seems to respond to his calls, showing off by loptailing and rolling and blowing in time with the horn. He becomes rather obsessed with her, sinking into despondency when she swims away, not to return for months.
On the morning of her departure, the Whale Caller is at the rocks to bid her an emotionally charged farewell.
Sharisha responded with her own love calls. She rocked in the water in a mating dance. The Whale Caller stood up and rocked on the rocks. He raised his left leg, turned and twisted on one spot, then sampled the foot down. He did the same with the right leg. he repeated the dance in rapid success for a long time, whilst blowing the sounds of the whining winds. ….Sharisha did not seem to tire either. She was creating a whirlwind on there water by making a complicated combination of rocking, breaching and lobtailing.
As the Whale Caller progresses he becomes the object of affection of a woman from Hermanus. Saluni is the village drunk, a wild-looking woman with missing teeth and laddered stockings, who seems to be everywhere he goes. Despite her disapproval of the Whale Caller’s obsession with Sharisha, the pair end up as an item sharing a tiny dwelling he calls the Wendy House.
It’s rather one sided relationship. Throughout the novel the Whale Caller experiences conflicting emotions — he tries to love Saluni but every time the lure of Sharisa proves too strong. Saluni tries every trick in her book to win over this man — seducing him, tantalising his taste buds with window shopping in grocery stores — but it’s to no avail. His mind is filled with Sharisa. Saluni decides to change tack, she will not be beaten by a creature she sees as nothing more than “a big fish”. As she executes her revenge the becomes significantly darker: blindness, a catastrophic storm; desperate attempts to save a beached whale and a murder all ensue.
It’s this vengeful element which occupies the second half that won me over to the novel. Until then The Whale Caller felt somewhat unbelievable as well as repetitive. But Zakes Mda turns up the emotional dial, showing how love can so easily become malice. The Whale Caller irritated me early on. How could he not see that the love of a living, breathing real woman was infinitely better than a few tricks by a whale whom he sees for just a few months a year? But then we begin to feel his genuine pain and sorrow at what happens to his beloved Sharisha and his sense of a personal responsibility.
The Whale Caller isn’t simply a love story albeit a rather unusual one. It’s also a reflection on man’s relationship with nature. The Whale Caller has a genuine love for these creatures and despises the tourists who flock to Hermanus to watch them for a short time before heading to their next destination. It’s good news for the local businesses but the visitor’s desire for thrills threatens the very thing they have come to watch. Whale watching trips become so popular the government has to introduce regulations to ensure boats don’t get too close to the whales. The Whale Caller feels a sense of foreboding at what this portends dismay.
There is no doubt that this boat-based whale watching will be abused. And no-one will be out there at sea to enforce the regulations. Soon the ultimate prize for a boat trip will be the touching of a whale. … As far as he is concerned these boat-based whale watchers are no different from the whalers of old. They might as well carry harpoons and tryputs in those boats.
it’s a prescient warning and one which can apply just as much to other situations in which man and nature come together. African safaris are now unfortunately spoiled in many cases by enthusiastic mini bus drivers who crowd around a lion and her cubs, hemming them in and edging ever closer so the tourists on board can get their Instagram shot.
I’m not pretending to be holier-than-thou. I’m just as fascinated by seeing these magnificent creatures but have no desire to get so close that it frightens them nor do I have any interest in petting baby cheetahs and ‘tamed’ leopards. Nature deserves respect, not to be treated like some interactive display in a theme park. A sentiment with which I suspect Zakes Mda would heartily agree….
The Whale Caller was published by Penguin Random House South Africa in 2005 and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize. It’s the fifth novel by Zakes Mda, who was born in the Eastern Cape of South Africa but spent his early childhood in Soweto. He is a prolific writer whose work has been translated into twenty languages. he is based on Ohio, USA, where he is a professor. The Whale Caller was released as a film in 2017 . I read this book because it was recommended by an assistant in a bookstore in Stellenbosch, South Africa when I walked into the shop in December 2017 and asked for recommendations of local authors. It proved a good decision…
Books frequently have deeper resonance for me when I read them in the country in which they are set. This was particularly true in the case of Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist, a 1974 Booker prize winning novel set in South Africa. Last year as I drove across the vast dry plains of the Klein Karoo, empty but for a few isolated farms, we were looking upon a landscape which is a key point of reference in this novel.
Gordimer’s novel is a character study about a rich, white South African capitalist who buys a 400-acre farm as a tax dodge and a love nest for assignations with his mistress. Mehring soon becomes absorbed in the mechanics of running a farm, making excuses to get away from business meetings and social occasions so he can spend more time on his land. He believes he is a good steward of his land and a fair and generous employer.
We see him in a very different light however.
His shoes and the pale grey pants are wiped by wet muzzles of grasses, his hands, that he lets hang at his sides, are trailed over by the tips of a million delicate tongues. Look at the willows. The height of the grass. Look at the reeds. Everything bends, blends, folds. Everything is continually swaying, flowing rippling waving surging streaming, fingering. He is standing there with his damn shoes all wet with dew and he feels he himself is swaying….
Although The Conservationist concentrates on one man, it’s clear that Gordimer sees Mehring as a representative of a particular type of South African. One who reads the signs that change might coming but has no desire to take any action himself to end discrimination or improve the lot of his workers. He simply doesn’t see there is any need for change. If ever he needs a signal that he is wrong and that hold on the land is but a tenuous one, it is the body of a black man that refuses to remain buried. The corpse is the real possessor, the real guardian of the land; not Mehring.
I respected what Gordimer was doing but can’t say I particularly enjoyed the book.
If you’d like to see another view of this book, take a look at Lisa’s review at anzlitlovers.
About the author: Nadine Gordimer is one of South Africa’s most respected authors. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. Over a career spanning some 60 years she dealt with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid in South Africa. She was active in the anti-apartheid movement, joining the African National Congress during the days when the organization was banned, and gave Nelson Mandela advice on his famous 1964 defence speech at the trial which led to his conviction for life. Gordimer’s writing dealt with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid in South Africa.
The book: The Conservationist was joint winner of the 1974 Booker Prize, sharing the honour with Stanley Middleton’s Holiday.
Why I read this book: It is one of the few remaining titles on my Booker Prize project.
When Yaa Gyasi published her debut novel Homegoing, she collected an astounding array of awards and accolades.
Homegoing won the NBCC’s John Leonard First Book Prize and NPR’s Debut Novel of the Year; was named a New York Times 2016 Notable Book and one of Time‘s Top 10 Novels of 2016. Oprah picked it as one of her 10 Favourite Books of 2016. With all those commendations I was expecting a very special novel.
Homegoing was certainly an ambitious undertaking, tracing multiple generations of descendants across two continents and four centuries. Holding the narrative together is the issue of slavery which casts its shadow over not just those individuals who are captured but also those who are responsible for the trafficking of humans. It’s an issue that sadly still resonates in the 21st century. Only last week the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported that nine African and Asian men had been taken into safety, suspected of being the victims of slavery aboard British scallop trawlers.
Yaa Gyasi’s portrayal of the effects of fate and the physical and mental scars that last through the generations, is breathtaking in its scope. But I still couldn’t help feel disappointed by the book overall.
The main problem is actually the broad scope of Homegoing. It opens in a village on the Gold Coast (we know the area today as Ghana), home to the Asante tribe and its powerful leader “Big Man”. When a British slave trader takes a fancy to his beautiful daughter Effia Otcher, Big Man sees an opportunity to cement relationships with the British rulers and get one up on the rival Fante tribe. Effia goes to live in a fort overlooking the sea. Under the castle, the dungeons are stuffed with slaves awaiting transit to Americas and the Caribbean. Unknown to Effia, among them is her older half-sister Esi Asare, captured during a raid on her own village. Effia stays behind in Africa, protected as the wife of a British official while Esi, once her father’s darling, is transported to America.
Each chapter of the novel is narrated from the perspective of a descendant of either Effia or Esi, one representative for each generation, via chapters that alternate the two bloodlines alternate right up to the 21st century.
And there you have the crux of my difficulties with this novel. Every chapter starts in a new location and time and introduces us to a completely new set of people with only a few references connecting one generation’s narrative to its predecessor. Gyasi does a superb job of creating characters that resonate but it seemed that no sooner had I warmed to this individual and picked up the threads of the history of their family, the ongoing rivalry between Asante and Fante tribes and subsequently the fight for freedom and equality among the enslaved in the USA, then it was onto the next chapter. I appreciated Gyasi wanted to give a panoramic perspective but it meant she had little time to develop any theme in depth. She touches on ideas but then glances away before they really have time to mature or for her to say anything remarkably new. Reading the book made me feel I was experiencing a continuous supply of appetisers instead of a full meal of a novel
To overcome the problem of such a discontinuous narrative and avoid Homegoing becoming more of a series of linked stories than a novel, Gyasi relies heavy on recurring symbols like the stone pendant the sister’s mother gives to each girl. Effia’s pendant is passed from generation to generation but Esi’s stone is dropped into the filth and excrement of the castle dungeon into which she is thrown upon her capture and is never recovered, a metaphor for the way slavery removes the individual’s connection to their past and robs them of their heritage.
I realise I am sounding very negative about this novel which is unfortunate and misleading. I did enjoy the book, most particularly because some of the characterisation was excellent. I also gained new insights about the ways in which tribal conflict played a significant role in facilitating the capture of individuals to feed the slave trade. Gyasi more than convinced me that she’s a talented author but I’m equally confident this is not the best she is capable of producing. I’m going to watch with interest what she does next.
About the author: Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana but moved with her parents to the United States when she was two years old so that her father could complete his PhD studies. Homegoing was inspired by a 2009 trip to Ghana, after completing her sophomore year at Stanford, her first trip to the country of her birth since leaving the country as an infant.
About the novel: Gyasi started to write Homegoing shortly after graduating from Stanford, when she worked at a startup company in San Francisco. She continued working on it while studying for her MFA at Iowa university. It took Gyasi six years to write the novel. She received several offers from publishers but ultimately went with Knopf who gave her a seven-figure advance.
Why I read this book: I asked for this book as a Christmas present two years ago having heard so much about it but then didn’t get around to reading it until I joined a new book club this month which had chosen it for their December meeting.
In the northern hemisphere the consumer frenzy otherwise known as Christmas is in full flood. It’s been blissful to get away from it for a while on our holiday in South Africa. We haven’t escaped it completely since there are some decorations in a few of the hotels but we have been spared wall-to-wall Christmas advertising and the continuous looping of renditions of “Oh I Wish it Could be Christmas Everyday” on the radio and in store so-called entertainment systems. I don’t mean to sound a misery, I just hate all the hype.
Far more enjoyable to travel the roads of the Western Cape among the vineyards, fruit farms and ostrich farms of the interior or stopping off at magnificent bays along the coastal route. We splashed out on a treat this morning with a helicopter ride over Cape Town, Table Bay mountain and the peninsular that stretches to the southern most point in Africa. That photo above doesn’t begin to capture the magnificence of this scenery.
But enough of the travel commentary I hear you say, this is meant to be a blog post about books and reading. How right you are so without further delay I shall do what I am meant to do with these nsnapshot posts: capture what I was reading/watching/ about to read when the page of the calendar turned to December 1, 2017.
Usually on holidays I race through books but not this time. Of the three novels I brought with me I’ve only read one so far — The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan. I chose it from my bookshelves purely at random after my more thoughtful way of deciding which books to pack for the trip just resulted in frustration. I simply couldn’t make up mind and with time running out I just went to my shelves of unread books, closed my eyes and pledged to read whatever my hand touched. It was an ok read – as you can see from my review I thought it improbable at times – but I won’t rush to read anything else by Tang. My copy now has a new home in a bookcase at a hotel in Stellenbosch in the wine region.
I’m almost halfway through my second book which is my 45th Booker Prize winner — The Conservationist by the Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer. I chose this because she is from South Africa and the book is set in that country so what could be more appropriate than reading it during my holiday? This is a novel I started reading about a year ago but struggled to get into at the time so put it aside. Second time around I’m finding it far more interesting. It’s a character study of a businessman who buys a farm in the Johannesburg area and becomes more engrossed in his land than anything else in his life, including his teenage son.
Thinking of reading next…
Awaiting me at home is another Booker winner, How Late it Was How Late by James Kelman which I began to read a few weeks ago but decided it wasn’t a style to suit my current mood so put it aside. It’s related in a strong Glaswegian voice which takes a bit of getting used to.
I’m going home with two new acquisitions after a little venture into a delightful bookshop in the university town of Stellenbosch. The owner was more than happy to spend time chatting about African authors and then picking out local authors for me. I could have walked away with more than two books but unfortunately my suitcase doesn’t have space available.
The Whale Caller is the fifth novel written by South African writer Zakes Mda. It is about a man named Whale Caller who develops a strong attraction to whales; especially a whale he names Sharisha. As the story progresses, he meets a woman named Saluni, with whom he falls in love but finds he cannot abandon the love he has toward his beloved whale, Sharisa. Apparently this has been adapted into a highly successful film.
The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena by Elsa Joubert has been voted as one of the hundred most important books published in Africa during the last millennium and has won three major South African literary awards. Although it is a work of fiction, the novel is based on a true South African story about a woman’s experience of the apartheid era during which she is forcibly resettled in townships hundreds of miles from her home. Her anger was shared by thousands, exploding first in Sharpeville, then in Soweto and to other parts of the country. It sounds an astonishing book.
The state of my personal library
One of my goals for 2017 is to enjoy the books I already own and to reign back on acquiring yet more. I started 2017 with 318 unread books. I’m now at 287, somewhat higher than I would like but at least it’s not growing.
Nothing! Unless you consider watching the wind rustle the trees as watching…..
And that is it for this month. My next post in this series will be coming at the start of another year. Until then, happy reading everyone.
We start this month’s Six Degrees of Separation with Stephen King’s It. But first I have a confession. Not only have I not read this book, I have never read anything by Stephen King. I know he’s a master storyteller but I have a low tolerance level of anything horrific so never had much interest in his work.
If I were ever to overcome my fear and pick up a Stephen King novel, I doubt that it would be It, based on the fact that it’s about a town where children are terrorized by an entity that takes on the form of a clown. Apparently some of the key themes are the power of memory, childhood trauma and its recurrent echoes in adulthood.
A traumatic childhood is the key element in my first link: Emma Donague’s multiple award-winning novel Room. Inspired by the true life case of Josef Fritzl in Austria, Room tells the story of a five-year-old called Jack, who is held captive in a single room with his Ma. He has never been outside. The room is his entire world. Despite its subject matter Donaghue has said that Room is not a horror story or a tear-jerker, but a celebration of resilience and the love between parent and child.
For my second link I’m heading to a different room for another story about resilience in the face of challenges. In The L Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks, Jane, an unmarried, out-of-work rep actress is turned out of the family home when she becomes pregnant following an affair with an actor. She moves into a dingy room at the top of a smelly boarding house in London, inhabited by bed bugs and a mix of exotic characters. Ultimately her time in the L-shaped room is just a phase in her life before she finds happiness and independence. The people she leaves behind are not so fortunate however; they are so steeped in poverty that they have little hope of escape.
There doesn’t seem much hope of escape either for the characters in the novel that provides me with my third link: Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens. In the Victorian era if you couldn’t pay your bills you could end up an inmate of the Marshalsea prison. It was nigh on impossible to pay off the debts because inmates were not allowed to work. Such becomes the fate of William Dorrit who moves his entire family into the Marshalsea when he becomes a bankrupt. His youngest daughter Amy (the Little Dorrit of the title) is born within its walls but like her siblings is sent out to work while her father grows increasingly proud of his status as the prison’s longest-serving resident.
Father Dorrit was fortunate that his children’s efforts meant he never ended up in the prison’s most fetid section, known as the “Common Side”, where inmates were highly likely to die from starvation or fever. Such is the fate that faces Tom Hawkins, the rakish protagonist of the fourth link in my chain: The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson. He can save himself if he can solve the mystery of who killed another prisoner but he also has to keep out of the way of the brutal governer and his henchman.
Tom is a gambler, a drinker and a womaniser but like all rakes he has a charm that entices. The figure of the lovable rogue and the bad boy abounds in literature so I am spoiled for choice for my fifth link. I’m plumping for a book that featured a handsome, narcissistic young man who indulges in every pleasure and virtually every ‘sin’: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Wilde of course was one of the ‘bad boy’s himself, and his book so offended the moral sensibilities of British book reviewers, many of them said he should be prosecuted for violating public morality. He did end up going to prison, for gross indecency.
Wilde was not the first – and certainly not the last – writer to be imprisoned. Some like the Marquis de Sade were accused of sexual offences; others like William S. Burroughs and Paul Verlaine for violent assualt. Still more writers have been incarcerated for their political beliefs and their refusal to stay silent. Petals of Blood by the Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o so incensed his country’s government because it criticised the newly-independent nation, that they imprisoned him without charges. His arrest provoked a worldwide protest and led to his adoption by Amnesty International as a Prisoner of Conscience. He left Kenya upon his release after a year in custody.
And so we end on a sombre note. Having started with a fictional horror I somehow ended up with a real-life situation that I find truely frightening: imprisonment without trial and due process of law.
Six Degrees of Separation hosted by Kate of Books Are My Favourite and Best is where we start with one book and link in stages to six other books to form a chain. I’ve adopted my own rule to link only to books that I’ve read, even if that was many many decades ago.
I approached J. M Coetzee’s Booker Prize winning novella The Life & Times of Michael K hoping against hope it would be easier to penetrate than the last novel I read by him: The Schooldays of Jesus. I found the latter simply baffling as you can tell from my review. The Life & Times of Michael K fortunately proved more straightforward though I can’t say that reading it was a wholly satisfying experience.
It started in a promising fashion with the introduction to Michael, a simple man who has spent his childhood in institutions and works as a gardener in Cape Town. Michael tends to his mother, a domestic servant to a wealthy family. Michael is a man deformed by a hare lip, a disfigurement which makes people look down on him. They view him as a simpleton, as a doctor later explains:
He is a simpleton, and not even an interesting simpleton. He is a poor helpless soul who has been permitted to wander out on the battlefield, if I may use that word, the battlefield of life, when he should have ben shut away in an institution with high walls, stuffing cushions or watering the flower beds.
Lacking in intellectual power he might be but Michael is a good son who wants to do right by his mother. When she becomes very sick and decides she wants to return to her birthplace, he quits his job so he can take her home. But the country has descended into civil war and martial law has been imposed so he cannot get the proper permits for travel out of the city. He builds a shoddy rickshaw in which he pushes his mother through the streets and onto the main highways out into the countryside. It’s an arduous journey. The roads are full of armed convoys from whom they must hide and other travellers who want to steel their possessions. At night they have to sleep hidden among straggling roots and wet bracken with only cold food to eat. His mother’s health declines further but when she dies Michael resolves to carry on alone to deliver his mother’s ashes.
He finds the farm at Prince Albert where his mother once lived but it is abandoned and desolate. Soon, Michael is living in a dug-out, communing with nature, making a garden where he grows melons and barely surviving. His melon-growing might have been highly allegorical but if so its significance was rather lost on me.
Every so often Michael’s quiet and happy existence is disrupted by a war he feels is nothing to do with him. He finds himself in and out of prison and labour camps that have sprung up all over the country, forced to work, and to answer questions he does not understand. His act of defiance is to rejecting the food his captors give him and then to escape, managing to return to the apartment where he and his mother lived in Cape Town. He is still the mute and simple man he was at the beginning, he acknowledges. But he has learned some things from his experiences. One was how to be a better farmer.
The mistake I made, he thought, going back in time, was not to have had plenty of seeds, a different packet of seeds for each pocket…. Then my mistake was to plant all my seeds together in one patch. I should have planted them one at a time spread out over miles of veld in patches of soil no larger than my hand, and drawn a map and kept it with me at all times so that every night I could make a tour of the sites to water them.
And that he is happiest when left alone. Everywhere he goes there are people who want to exercise their form of charity upon him, asking him questions.
They want me to open my heart and tell them the story of a life lived in cages. They want to hear all abut the cages I have lived in as if I were a budgie or a white mouse or a monkey. … When my story was finished people would have shaken their heads and been sorry and angry and plied me with food and drink;women would have taken me into their beds and mothered me in the dark. … I have escaped the camps; perhaps, if I lie low, I will escape the charity too.
That reflection and Michael’s interpretation of his experiences represented the flaw in this book for me. They come in the final pages of the novel and feel totally out of character. We’re now far removed from the man described by a doctor in the labour camp as ”an original soul . . . untouched by doctrine, untouched by history . . . evading the peace and the war . . . drifting through time”. Michael along the way acquires sufficient deep insight to ask searching questions and pass comments about whether his time in a camp is a process of self-education.
I understood this was a novel about passive resistance to oppression and about survival but Coetzee had me perplexed by his ending with its last-minute imposition of a “message”. He makes Michael ask: “Is that the moral of it all…that there is time for everything? Is that how morals come?”. Completely out of character, clumsy and unnecessary. Spoiling an otherwise reasonable yarn.
About the book: The Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee was published in 1983 by Secker and Warburg. My copy is a paperback edition published by Vintage in 2004. The novel won the Booker Prize in 1983.
About the author: John Maxwell “J. M.” Coetzee was born in South Africa in 1940. Apart from his fictional writings he is also an essayist, linguist, translator. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003. He relocated to Australia in 2002, becoming an Australian citizen four years later. He has an impressive record with the Booker prize, the first author to receive the prize twice ( the other was Disgrace in 1999 (reviewed here). His novel Summertime, was shortlisted and was hotly tipped to win but ultimately lost out to Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. He made the longlist in 2003 for Elizabeth Costello, 2005 for Slow Man and again in 2016 with The Schooldays of Jesus.
Why I read this book: Quite simply I read it because it was one of the books I hadn’t got around to on my Booker prize project
The Monster’s Daughter is an impressively ambitious debut novel by South African born Michelle Pretorius. Many first-time authors would have steered clear of multiple points of view, a plot which shifts between South Africa during the Boer War of the early 1900s and the post apartheid rainbow nation of 2010 and deals with issues of race, obsession and police corruption. But Pretorius dives in fearlessly to deliver a novel that blends historical thriller, sci-fi and police procedural genres.
It begins somewhere in the open landscape of the veld. As war rages between Britain and the Dutch Boers, a doctor in a British concentration camp begins conducting genetic experiments on female prisoners. Two children survive as freaks of nature: Benjamin and Tessa, white skinned, with remarkable piercing eyes and a genetic make up that makes them look far, far younger than their actual ages.
More than 100 years after their birth, Alet Berg, a female police constable, turns up in the backwater town of Unie in disgrace after an affair with a senior officer. Only the intervention of her father, a former high-ranking police officer, has saved her from dismissal. The townspeople don’t like her drinking and swearing, her colleagues don’t rate her and she resents the way she is relegated to menial tasks. Her chance comes when she is called to a remote farm where the body of a woman has been discovered burned beyond immediate recognition. Despite opposition from her commanding officer, Alet is determined to play a part in the investigation. As it proceeds, she is taken into the violent past of her country and that of her father during the apartheid era and the country’s clandestine involvement in the independence wars in Rhodesia and Mozambique.
Threaded throughout the investigation is the story of the two children created in an experiment to design the perfect race. Tessa is adopted by a white British soldier turned farmer and his black wife who rescued the baby from the concentration camp. They and their daughter have to keep moving from place to place in order to survive in a country which forbids inter-racial relationships. As an adult, Tessa keeps moving, changing her name and residence many times over to avoid Benjamin who has fallen in love with her and believes she belongs to him. Thwarted in love, he becomes hard and cold, believing God has chosen him to be his instrument to eliminate oddities like him.
He could never get over the feeling that God was watching him, controlling him, withholding what he desired most until he did as he commanded. Though it had turned from a sharp pain to a dull ache the longing for Tessa was still with him every waking moment.
The Monster’s Daughter is powerful and atmospheric novel set in a context that is unsettling. The experiments that produce Tessa and Benjamin are precursors to those conducted by Mengele in 1940s Germany; then we have the brutal attitude of the British towards the Boers whose farms they raze under Kitchener’s Scorched Earth directive; and , coming into more recent history, the massacre at Soweto. Pretorius is clearly not afraid to delve into contentious social and political issues, showing how some ANC supporters were also culpable of acts of violence in their campaign against oppression.
The question of race features prominently as you’d expect given the history of this country. Pretorius makes it evident that there are no easy resolutions to the tensions created in the past. After Apartheid is made illegal, and the Truth and Reconciliation Committee begins its work to investigate human rights violations and consider amnesties, the resentment remains between white and black South Africans.
These blacks claim they were so oppressed. Let me remind you, nobody in this country has been more oppressed than the Afrikaner in the Boer War, or has everyone forgotten that? Our people suffered more for this land than the blacks ever did. ~but we didn’t go out killing everybody. We rebuilt the nation. We didn’t need to become terrorists or thieves or murderers to do it.
This is a novel that deals with complex moral questions but it doesn’t do so at the expense of characterisation. The individuals who people its pages are not mere ciphers spouting predictable positions, they are flesh and blood who laugh and love in the most difficult circumstances. Alet – as we’ve come to expect in fictional detectives – is a flawed individual but I warmed to her. She rubs people up the wrong way, makes mistakes but every time she’s knocked down she gets back on her feet to prove her opponents wrong.
The Monster’s Daughter isn’t without its flaws. There were so many characters I lost track at times and the final few paragraphs which summarise Alet’s future were unnecessary I thought. I do want to feel the characters I’ve come to know have a life after the book ends but that doesn’t mean I want it all tied up in a neat bow.
On the whole however I did enjoy this book and experiencing a promising new writer.
About the Book: The Monster’s Daughter was published by Melville House in July 2016. The paperback is published in July 2017 by Melville House.
About the Author: Michelle Pretorius was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa. She gained an MFA in fiction writing from Colombia College Chicago and is currently studying for her PhD at Ohio University. The Monster’s Daughter is her first novel.
Why I Read This Book: I enjoy fiction from Africa and I love the country of South Africa. So when the publishers asked if I’d be interested in reading this, it wasn’t too difficult a decision. My thanks to Melville House and Michelle Pretorius for giving me many pleasurable hours.
This week’s Top Ten Tuesday hosted by Broke and Bookish gives me carte blanche to write about anything that takes my fancy. I know many bloggers and readers have a goal this year to broaden their reading horizons by selecting authors from different parts of the world. I’ve been making slow but steady progress down that path for the last few years so I thought this week I would take you all on my reading journey via 10 books I’ve discovered. I’ve selected novels that either a strong sense of the country or culture or that provide an insight into its history.
We start our journey in Asia …
- India: I had so much choice here. In the end it was a toss up between Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry or The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee. Mistry takes us into the heart of Mumbai at a time (1971) when the country was in the midst of internal upheaval and the Prime Minister uses her secret police to undermine the forces that threaten to disrupt the whole fabric of India. In the end I plumped for The Lives of Others which takes a similar path of portraying a family caught up in political turbulence. Mukherjee’s tale takes place a decade earlier than Mistry’s novel at a time when Communist forces were trying to de-stablise the country. I chose this novel because I had no idea about that aspect of India’s history but I also enjoyed the way Mukerjee showed how the breakdown in the political world was mirrored by a breakdown in the structure of one family.
- Japan: Norwegian Wood by Murakami Huraki is an exquisitely written novel about love and despair but I chose this because it portrayed a different side of life in Japan. This is not the Japan of kimonos and geishas, of rituals and codes of behaviour but a world seen through the eyes of its young people. Huraki sets much of this novel in Tokyo in 1969, taking us through the student world of late night bars and all night cinemas with not a karoke microphone in sight.
- China: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Saijie. I knew before reading this novella that intellectuals were considered abhorrent by the Maoist regime in the 1970s and often lost their lives as a result. But I didn’t know that the regime also tried to ‘re-educate’ them by sending them off to live with the peasants in the countryside. Saijie’s novel follows two young boys despatched to a remote village where instead of being cleansed of all tainted ideas, they instead discover new ones through the novels of Balzac, Hugo and Flaubert that they have to hide from the authorities.
Let’s pick up our suitcases and make a brief stop in South America …
- Colombia: The Armies by Evelio Rosero Diago. As you sip your next cup of coffee spare a few moments to think about the country from which many of those beans originate. Diago’s novel is set at a time when citizens of Colombia live in fear of armed gangs and drug dealers who hide out in the hills. They may be killed or they may have been made to ‘disappear’. This is what Ismael −a retired teacher – fears has happened to his wife when he returns home to find the place deserted. The result is a deeply moving story about a man who cannot seek safety for himself until he knows the truth about his wife.
And now we’re en route to Africa …
- South Africa: I was tempted to go for Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, a classic text set just before the introduction of apartheid but decided instead on a book that shows a completely different side of the country. Fiela’s Child by Dalene Matthee is set well before the apartheid era but the issue of colour is still very much part of this novel about a white boy who goes missing from his woodcutter family and is found many years later living as the child of a native family. It’s a story that poses a question of which bond is stronger – that of the birth family or the family who raise and nurture the child?
- Republic of the Congo: Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou. This short novel brings some light relief from the serious issues with which a lot of African fiction is concerned. It’s set in a seedy bar and features the host of characters to be found propping up the bar and boring the pants off the other customers with their hard luck stories. In between we get some insights into their thoughts on life in the Congo, the delusional nature of the nation’s male population and the distrust of politicians and the nature of African politicians. It’s great fun to read and to try and spot Mabanckou’s numerous allusions to other texts.
And finally we land in Europe …
- Finland: White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen. Until I picked this up from the Pereine Press catalogue I had no idea that Finland had experienced a devastating famine in the late 1860s. This novella holds nothing back in relating the misery caused by that event and the desperate lengths to which its citizens will go to save themselves. One of them – a peasant farmer’s wife from the north – is the focus of the novel. She abandons her dying husband and sets off on foot through waist-high snow with her two young children. You read this with a sense of dread about what awaits her.
- Hungary: Satantango by László Krasznahorkai. This is an equally grim though fascinating book which exposes the way evil materialises to take advantage of poor and desperate peasants already suffering the misery of an oppressive political regime. Not a book that will make you happy but it will certainly make you thankful not to be living under such a regime.
- France: L’Assommoir by Emile Zola. Paris, the ‘city of lights’, had its dark side in the nineteenth century. Behind the magnificent facades and glittering wealth were people living in abject poverty amid open sewers and overflowing drains. They dreamed of a different life but – according to Zola’s theory of naturalism – their inherited flaws of character or the environment around them would always bring them down. Zola always bases his novels on meticulous research so you can be sure all the detail of living conditions is far from exaggerated.
- Italy: Inspector Montelbano series by Andrea Camilleri. I’m going to end with something which could be considered light reading compared to most of the titles in this list. Ask people to name anything associated with Italy and though some will mention ‘art’, ‘heritage’ it won’t be too long before you hear ‘wine’ and ‘pasta.’ Food and Italy are inseparable which probably explains why Andrea Camilleri devotes so much time to describing the meals eaten by his lead character Inspector Montelbano. Few pages go by without a scene where the Inspector pops into his favourite trattoria for lunch – not for him your typical working day lunch of a sandwich while sat at the computer. This is a full blown three course affair. When he gets home at the end of a long day chasing criminals it’s to find his housekeeper has prepared him something delicious for supper. Camilleri is pretty mean to his readers by listing all these fabulous sounding meals but the tourist board of Sicily must be thrilled because the Montelbano books are guaranteed to make you want to dig out that passport and head for the island.
|How are your reading travels going?
If you also are trying to broaden your reading this year, do share your experience. Perhaps you found some other gems for the countries I’ve mentioned. If you need inspiration take a look at the recommendations of bloggers who have written guest posts about the literature from their country – you’ll find them all on the View from Here page.
This week’s Top Ten topic is about books we consider to be underrated and hidden gems. My list is a bit of a cornucopia, comprising of a smattering of historic fiction, literary fiction and works by authors from Africa and South America. All hyperlinks are to my reviews.
Let’s start in Brazil with Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis, an author little known of outside of South America but is a familiar name to every schoolchild in Brazil (he’s required reading in the education system). It is supposedly an autobiography written by Bento Santiago, a lawyer from Rio de Janeiro, in which he describes his early life, his years of happiness married to his childhood sweetheart and then the heartbreak when he thinks she has betrayed him. Whether this is the truth is uncertain because Bento isn’t exactly a reliable narrator nor one who can be trusted to stick to the point. He can be in the middle of describing the grande passion of his life and then suddenly switches to commenting on ministerial reshuffles and train travel. A great choice for readers who like quirky novels.
Moving on to Africa, first up is Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a novel deemed so dangerous by the Kenyan government that they imprisoned the author. What was so incendiary about this novel? Quite simply because it turned the spotlight on the authorities for their betrayal of ordinary people in Kenya, promising them the earth when the country gained independence but then when the rains failed, the crops died and people faced starvation, they ignored their calls for help. A powerful novel that sadly depicts a situation happening in too many parts of the world.
From Ethiopia comes All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu which I picked up on a whim while at the Hay Literary Festival a few years ago. This is a book about love but also about the lengths to which someone will go to build a new life for themselves, even if that means leaving their homeland and their identity.
By complete contrast The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso offers a tale of rivalry and hostility between two very stubborn women who live next door to each other in Cape Town. Many of the scenes are hilarious but this is a novel which also asks searching questions about racial tension and the possibility of reconciliation between the different sectors of South African society.
And finally from Africa we get Wife of the Gods by the Ghanian author Kwei Quartey. The plot revolves around the murder of a young female medical student but the novel does far more than offer a well-paced detective story. This is a tale which takes us to the dark side of Ghana’s culture where young girls are offered as trokosi (or Wives of the Gods) to fetish priests and villagers still believe in the power of medicine men to assuage vengeful gods.
If those titles have given you a taste for fiction from Africa – or indeed from anywhere in the world except your own country, but you don’t know where to begin – your saviour will be The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by Michael Orthofer. This offers profiles of the literature on a region by region and country by country basis and a multitude of author names to explore.
Changing direction totally I offer one of the best historical fiction novels I have read in several years. Antonia Hodgson’s debut novel The Devil in the Marshalsea takes us into the heart of the notorious squalid and disease ridden Marshalsea prison for debtors. Reading this, you can almost smell the place such is the power of Hodgson’s narrative. Her protagonist Tom Hawkins ends up in the Marshalsea because he has too much of a liking for gambling and women. The question is whether he will leave the prison alive or dead.
I couldn’t possibly create a list of under-rated gems without mentioning Holiday by Stanley Middleton. I know it seems strange to think of a Booker prize winner as a hidden gem but this winner from 1974 is one that few people seem to know. Middleton himself also seems to have disappeared from the public consciousness. This despite the fact he wrote more than 40 novels. Holiday is a quiet novel in a sense because the action, such as it is, is all inside the head of the main character. Edwin Fisher, a university professor takes a spur of the moment holiday at the seaside where he reflects on the breakdown of his marriage. It’s a well observed story of a man who is more an observer than a participant in life.
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan was also a contender for the Booker prize. This is a novel about a community and the individuals within it that feel the effect of the collapse of Ireland’s economic boom. It’s a novel that almost never saw the light of day. It had been rejected by numerous publishers but was rescued from yet another reject pile by an intern who raved about it and persuaded her employers to give it a go. It then went on to make the long list for the Booker Prize. What happened to the intern is not known but I hope she got a permanent job for showing such great intuition.
And finally, a novel that should have won the Booker in 2013 but sadly the judges felt otherwise. Harvest by Jim Crace is a beautifully written lyrical novel set in a period in history where a traditional way of life where people rely on the land to make a living is ruptured in the name of “Profit, Progress, Enterprise”.