Category Archives: Africa

Around the world in 10 books

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.

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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.

10 under rated books

10gemsThis 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”.

 

That’s my list – now it’s your turn  

What books have you read that you’d consider to be under-rated or hidden gems?

African authors to watch?

The longlist for the annual  Etisalat Prize for Literature has just been announced – this is a prize for first time authors from Africa so if you don’t recognise any of the names on this list, don’t panic.

As always South African and Nigerian writers dominate – maybe that has something to do with the fact English is widely spoken in those countries making it easier to get published? I know I’ve found it hard to get translations of authors from some of the smaller countries.  Eligible authors must hold citizenship in an African nation though they can be resident anywhere in the world.

The longlisted titles are:

We have to wait until March next year to discover the winner. There could be some gems here – maybe one of these authors could be the next Chimamande Ngozi Adichie.

Top ten Tuesday: book club recommendations

The Broke and Brookish this week is looking for suggestions for book club reading.

This wouldn’t be an easy one for me since our book club has rather wide ranging tastes – each person chooses a book so it reflects their taste rather than necessarily what the club as a whole likes. We went down the path of chick lit for a while turned me off but I’ve been introduced to some new authors in other month so it’s almost balanced out. For me a good book club read is one that has plenty of issues and dimensions that can lead to a good discussion – I want more than someone saying “I picked this because I thought it would be fun” and that’s all they can say about the book (believe me it has happened). The book choice doesn’t have to be particularly weighty but something to at least get your teeth into.

If I had my wishlist it would include:

book-club-recommendations

I’ve gone for a mixture of styles, subjects and country of origin of the author (too many book clubs seem to focus only on Western literature).

  1. The Many by Wyl Menmuir reviewed here. A Booker long listed title from 2016 that I thought superb. It keeps you guessing about what the main message is.
  2. Another Booker 2016 candidate – and one I would dearly have loved to see win – is Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing which traces the effect of Communist rule on three musicians. It’s an epic that stretches across centuries and countries. Not always easy to grasp it had tremendous emotional power. Reviewed here 
  3. The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw. Set in Japan, a wonderful elliptical story in which a professor of law tells a story about his father’s fascination with traditional Japanese jigsaw puzzles.It’s a metaphor for how our lives are constructed by fragments. Reviewed here 
  4. The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien. Set in a remote Irish village it examines what happens when a dictator on the run from atrocities he committed in his country attracts the attention of a lonely housewife. This book will have you thinking about actions and consequences and forgiveness.  Reviewed here 
  5. From Korea comes a book that was a knock out bestseller and not just in Korea. Please Look After Mom  by Shin Kyung-sook looks at the mother-child relationship which is thrown into question when an elderly mother goes missing in an underground station while on her way to visit her children. As they search for her they discover secrets about her life and uncomfortable truths about their own attitudes.Reviewed here 
  6. Possession by A. S Byatt was my choice when I joined the book club. I wasn’t sure I had make the right choice until the meeting but surprisingly we had a great discussion about the different forms possession can take -whether for artifacts f the past or for another individual. Reviewed here
  7. Holiday by Stanley Middleton.Who is he I can hear you asking. Not surprised really.Despite having written more than 40 novels he has more or less disappeared from our radar. A pity. This is a short novel from 1974 in which a middle aged man facing a crisis is his marriage takes a spur of the moment holiday at the seaside. It’s the same resort he visited year after year as a child when his parents took him for their annual holiday. Reflections of those times  days mingle with more recent and more bitter memories. Good for discussions around nostalgia and relationships. Reviewed here 
  8. L’Assommoir by Emile Zola. It’s not the first book in Zola’s Rougon-Marquet series of 20 titles but this doesn’t matter too much. Read it for its superb rendition of life on the breadline in nineteenth century Paris. You can, if your book club is of an academic mind, get into all kinds of discussion about Zola’s theory of naturalism and inherited conditions. Reviewed here
  9. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Chances are that your club has already read Half a Yellow Sun which is an earlier novel by Adichie. Americanah gives a view of life for a girl who leaves Nigeria – one of the people who achieves the dream – only to find its not what she expected. Can she make a new life or do the ties that bind back to the homeland prove stronger? It’s a novel about choices you make to fit in with a new way of life and how experience changes you. It might sound rather sombre but there are some outstandingly funny scenes in a hairdressing salon. Reviewed here
  10. Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan: We hope this never happens to anyone. But it does. What if you were one of the passengers in a ferry or cruise liner that is sinking. You’ve got yourself into a lifeboat and are now waiting for rescue. But days go by, water and food supplies dwindle. Who gets to live in those circumstances?  Who deserves to die?  And who has the right to make those decisions?  Those questions lie at the heart of Charlotte Rogan’s debut novel. This isn’t the best written novel I read in 2013 but it was one that stimulated a lot of discussion in our book club meeting. Reviewed here 

Those are just some of the books I’d suggest. What would your recommendations be?

How to read short story collections?

20booksof summerMy list of titles for 20booksofsummer includes two short story collections. The Thing Around my Neck is a collection by Chimamanda  Ngozi Adichie that I picked up in the Oxfam stand at the Hay Festival.  At a library sale I found a copy of An Elegy for Easterly by the Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah which earned her the Guardian first book award in 2009.

Both have been on my ‘to read’ pile for about three years so I thought it was time to pay them some attention. Problem is that I’ve never been much of a fan of short stories. I’ve read only one other collection so I don’t know how best to approach reading these two books. I’m hoping those of you who are more regular readers of this form can come up with some recommendations on how to get the most out of reading the collections.

Do I start at the beginning and just work through the stories in the order in which they appear? Or do I begin with the titular story on the basis that this could have special significance – was it chosen because it sets the tone for the collection perhaps? Or do I just choose randomly?

Is it best to dip in and out of the collection, mixing it up with another book? If I do that I’m concerned I might lose the flow but then if I just read one after the other will they start to blur into one?

So far I’ve just glanced over both of these books and have liked what I’ve seen so far. I don’t want to spoil the experience. All advice will be welcomed.

Snapshot May 2016

morris dancersI could pretend that I was up at dawn to greet the first of May in the time honoured way, followed by a bit of a caper around the village maypole. I did neither of these. Nor did I go and watch any Morris Men in action or take part in a May Queen parade. No doubt these things were going on somewhere in the UK today though I suspect there were more people heading to the shopping malls than the village green.

So what was I doing on the first of this month??

Just Finished

I finally got around today to finishing Devoted Ladies by M.J Farrell (otherwise known as Molly Keane), a novel which shocked readers at the time because it featured a lesbian relationship. I’d read about two thirds of it by the time I took off for my long trip to USA but it hadn’t grabbed my interest so I left it behind. Today when I picked it up I found it a lot more interesting and I could see why Keane has such a strong following. I still feel the book sagged in the middle and I wanted a lot more about the tense relationship and battle of wills between Jane and Jessica and less about two cousins Piggy and Hester who live in a run down country house in Ireland. I’m glad however I didn’t give up on it if only because of the way in the final pages Keane showed even a faintly ridiculous figure like Piggy could not forever tolerate being the butt of everyone’s jokes. If this is an indication of  Keane’s ability to create deep and complex characters, I’ll be keen to look for more of her work.

On the Horizon

I’m toying with opening The Gathering by Anne Enright, which won the 2007 Booker Prize. It was her fourth novel and somewhat of a surprise winner – although the unanimous choice of the judges it had been considered an outsider.  This is a novel in which the Hegarty siblings gather in Dublin for the wake of their brother Liam, an alcoholic who killed himself. His sister Veronica uses the opportunity to look through her family’s history to try and make sense of his death. I’ve read the first few pages just to get a feeling for the book and have fallen in love with the immediacy of Enright’s style.

My other option is another Booker prize winner, Life & Times of Michael K by J. M Coetzee which was the 1983 winner. It’s a short work which traces a journey made by Michael K, a poor man with a cleft lip, from Cape Town where he works as a gardener to his mother’s rural birthplace.  Along the way he encounters hardship and hostility. I’ve read only one other book by Coetzee (Disgrace which also won the Booker prize) and loved his style so am hoping Michael K will prove just as rewarding.

Voices from the Commonwealth

letstellthisstoryThe Commonwealth Short Story Prize gives writers from countries not often seen outside their home nation, a chance to reach a global audience. Let’s Tell This Story Properly is a collection of 16 stories from the 10,000 entries the award has attracted in the last three years. The selected stories represent some of the “most promising and original” entries and ones that evoked a strong sense of place according to the publishers. They take us from Asia to Africa and from the Caribbean to South Pacific.

As with most anthologies the selection ranges considerably in subject, style and quality. With many of them I experienced the same feeling I get with many short stories, namely that they end just when they are beginning to get interesting. Some I didn’t connect with at all, others I wondered why the writer felt there was a story to tell, but there were some that felt fresh in approach yet technically accomplished.

My favourites were Elbow by Khadija Mgardie from South Africa about a young orphan boy struggling to make his way in Johannesburg only to find that prejudice comes in many shades of black and Fatima Saleh, the story of a Sudanese refugee in Kenya who takes revenge after she is the victim of a gang rape.

Pride of place however goes the Ugandan author Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, the winner of the prize in 2014 with a story from which the title takes its collection. Let’s Tell this Story Properly is a tightly written and subtly humorous tale of a Ugandan widow living in Manchester, UK who discovers a web of deception about her husband and her marriage. When we first meet Nnam she is alone in her apartment, beginning the process of clearing out all signs of her husband. We begin with humour: Nnam feels she has to strip off her clothes in order to the clean up – an appropriate response given her husband “died in the bathroom with his pants down. He was 45 years old and should have pulled up his pants before he collapsed. The more shame because it was Easter. Who dies naked on Easter?” When Nmam travels back to Uganda for the funeral, the story takes on a more dramatic form.

If you want to find out for yourself how good this is, you can read the story on the commonwealth writers website here.

End Notes

Let’s Tell This Story Properly, edited by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, is published by Dundurn. My copy was provided by the publishers.

Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

crythebelovedcountryIn Cry, The Beloved Country Alan Paton expresses his love for South Africa and his fear for the future of his homeland. His anxiety proved prophetic. In 1948, a few months after the novel was published, the country’s governing National Party implemented the apartheid  system of racial segregation which remained in place until 1994.

Paton sees a deterioration in relations between South Africa’s white and black inhabitants which he believes may have reached a point of no return. While he populates his novel with white South Africans characters who exhibit enlightened attitudes to the country’s black population, he fears that by the time whites as a whole understand the injustices experienced by African blacks, it will be too late. South African blacks will have already reached an irreconcilable level of hatred.

Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and the custom gone …  cry aloud for the man and children bereaved. Cry, the beloved country, these things are not yet at an end.

Paton uses multiple voices to dramatise the differing attitudes within the country and examine the causes for the breakdown. One of the factors he points to is the destruction of the tribal system and the failure to replace it  with anything that had the same cohesive effect.

Alongside the breakdown in human relationships, Paton points to a fracture in man’s relationship with the land they inhabit. The novel opens in the remote village of Ndotsheni, in the Natal province of eastern South Africa. It’s presented as an idyllic place yet by the second paragraph Paton’s tone has changed to show how the lush green of this setting is fragile. “Keep it, guard it, care for it, for it keeps men, guards men, cares for men. Destroy it and the man is destroyed”, implores his narrator. What Paton shows is how this appeal has been ignored and instead, the land has been exploited in the rush for gold. Its young people have deserted the farms,  flocking to Johannesburg in search of work only to be sucked up by its noisy, polluted, over-crowded streets and exposed to prostitution, crime and destitution.

Paton relays his message through a dramatic rendering of multiple and dissonant voices and through individual stories. The novel homes in on one man in particular, Kumalo – a simple, devout Zulu clergyman in Ndotsheni who travels to Johannesburg to help his sick sister. While in the city  he hopes to find news of his son and brother, both of whom disappeared after they left Ndotsheni for the city.

What he discovers leaves him disheartened and alienated. He finds his sister living a life of prostitution and alcohol, his brother has become corrupted by a love of power and his own importance and his son is accused of being an accessory to the murder of a young white man campaigning to improve conditions for black Africans. Kumalo sees evidence everywhere of the breakdown of community and values, of the exploitation of workers in the gold mines and the gaping racial and economic divisions that are threatening to split his country.  Returning to his village he begins a friendship with James Jarvis, a white farmer, the father of the murdered man. In his grief over his dead son, Jarvis re-examines his attitudes towards the country’s black population and begins to act to improve life for those who live hear his farm. Together both fathers reach an understanding and they vow to build on the ruins of the tragedy.

What impressed me about this novel wasn’t simply that it is written so beautifully, or that his characters are so well-rounded but that Paton doesn’t simplify the issues or offer any easy solutions. He provides a portrait of goodness, through people like Kumalo’s clergyman friend in Johannesburg, to balance the darkness. His ending suggests there is hope if somehow, someday more people can come together like Jarvis and Kumalo to work as one for their country. But he also acknowledges that it will take individual courage to overcome fear and take the first steps necessary for mending a broken nation. As Kumalo sits alone in the mountains on the day of his son’s execution, he sees darkness engulfing the land but he also sees that the dawn of black emancipation must come. It will not happen in his lifetime but come it will just as the morning dawn “has come for a thousand centuries, never failing.”  And then they can sing “for all the people of Africa, the beloved country, Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika, God Save Africa.”

 

Cry, the Beloved Country is a novel of social protest but it is also a cry for one’s land, for justice and for hope. It’s as powerful now as it was when I first read it more than thirty years ago.

Disgrace by J M Coetzee [Booker prize 1999]

DisgraceIf ever proof was needed that it’s possible to have a thoroughly distasteful protagonist and yet be totally engrossed in their story, look no further than J. M Coetzee’s Disgrace.

This novel, which earned Coetzee his second Booker prize win, features David Lurie, a university professor in Cape Town. He’s a white South African in his early fifties, intelligent and good looking but somewhat out of synch with his newly post apartheid country. His field of expertise is modern languages but that specialism has been abolished as part of a nationwide rationalisation of educational resources. He is allowed to run just a single course (he choses the Romantic poets) and the rest of the time is spent lecturing in what he considers the preposterous world of ‘communications skills’. Lurie views his students with disdain, seeing them semi-illiterate products of a mediocre education system and lacking a basic grounding in the context and sources of the literature which they are studying.

If his academic life is stalling he considers he is rather more successful in his private life. As he describes it:

For a man of his age, 52, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.

That ‘solution’ of which he is proud is a weekly visit to a prostitute with whom he believes he has more than just a financial relationship.  Such an arrangement doesn’t stop him embarking on an affair with Melanie, a girl half his age and one of his students.  Lurie tries to elevate this to a grander plane by arguing it is the duty of attractive women like Melanie to share their beauty.  “She does not own herself. Beauty does not own itself” is one of his mantras. But actually Lurie is a predator and this is a pretty unpleasant seduction. He plies the girl with drink until she is unable to withstand his advances and almost refers to himself as “Daddy” when he is with her.

Denounced and called to account by the university he admits guilt but steadfastly refuses to repent or to indulge in the public handwringing apology the university believes is necessary. He resigns, abandons his home and seeks refuge with his daughter Lucy on her smallholding somewhere in the Eastern Cape. There they are subjected to a savage attack and a fire which causes a deep rift between father and daughter.

Lurie cannot comprehend his daughter’s response to the attack. Why won’t she report it to the police? It’s clear one of the attackers is connected with a black farmer whose property lies along side her own but why doesn’t Lucy want the man confronted? Even more puzzling is Lucy’s attitude that her rape is an equal exchange for the way white settlers treated the black indigenous population. What if, she asks, is rape “the price one has to pay for staying on? Perhaps that is how they look at it; perhaps that is how I should look at it too. They see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors. Why should I be allowed to live here without paying? Perhaps that is what they tell themselves.”

Lurie’s previous feelings of complacency are shaken by his daughter’s willingness to accept her fate particularly because his own resources have been diminished.  His good looks were destroyed in the fire, robbing him of his sexual identity. His much cherished idea of finishing an opera about Byron now seems irrelevant. In a move that seems to suggest he is seeking atonement he throws himself into work at a local animal clinic, helping to deal fatal injections to unwanted and homeless dogs before chucking them into the incinerator. He also begins a relationship the woman who runs the clinic. He doesn’t really desire her, in fact describing her as ‘remarkably unattractive’, but seems to view their love making sessions on the floor as some kind of benevolent act towards a single, lonely woman. The price he pays in a sense for his previous egotistical attitude towards the opposite sex.

This is a novel which clearly has some big ideas; ideas about race, about colonial guilt and responsibility. Running through it is also a theme about the balance of power. In the new South Africa, a different relationship exists between black and white, one in which the latter understand sacrifices of their old power may be required. For Lurie the chain of events which began in Cape Town brings him to an insight into the suffering of others and a shift in his relationship with Lucy. he can no more tell her how to live her life than the white population can dictate to the black South Africans.

‘How humiliating,’ he says finally. ‘Such high hopes, and to end like this.’

‘Yes, I agree, it is humiliating. But perhaps that is a good point to start from again. Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept. To start at ground level. With nothing.’

Lurie is talking about his own situation here but his comments could also be a reflection on the new reality of life in South Africa.

It’s a dark novel in which the political and the personal coalesce.  There are no resolutions here, the problems of the character’s lives are still open by the time we reach the final page. Coetzee’s sparse style brings an emotional distance even though he deals with hugely emotive issues. Particularly impressive for me was that Coetzee makes us understand Lurie’s  arrogance even if we don’t endorse his beliefs and shows us by the end of the novel that it’s possible to sympathise with a man who starts out as a thoroughly unsympathetic human being.

In short, a wonderful novel that has be keen to read more of Coetzee’s work.

 

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma [2015 Booker shortlist]

The FishermenIn the small town of Akure in Nigeria, an ambitious father dreams of the illustrious futures awaiting his sons. Ikenna the eldest at 15, is destined to be a pilot, Boja a lawyer, Obembe the family’s medical doctor and nine-year-old Ben, a professor. Even David, barely three years old, had his future mapped out as an engineer. Only the youngest child has an unchartered future but as a girl, to her father she didn’t count.

Mr Agwu’s plans  crumble when his employer transfers him to a bank in the north of the country. Freed from their father’s strict control, they take to fishing in the river surrounding Akure despite its dark history as a place of floating corpses and mutilated bodies. It’s here they encounter Abulu, a deranged, malodorous creature.

He reeked of sweat accumulated inside the dense growth of hair around his pubic regions and armpits. He smelt of rotten food and unhealed wounds and pus, of bodily fluids and wastes. He was redolent of rusting metals, putrefying matter, old clothes, ditched underwear…… But these were not all: he smelt of immaterial things. He smelt of the broken lives of others, and of the stillness in their souls.

Abulu predicts Ikenna will be killed by one of his fishermen brothers, a prophecy which dogs the boys’ lives and from which tragedy ensues.

This is a coming-of-age tale of brotherly love and the disintegration of a family, of how a good and noble man is punished for his pride and a loving mother is unhinged. It’s a tale of the fight between the choices we make and the choices we’re believed we’re forced to take.

In parallel we have the story of Nigeria itself.  Chigozie Obioma has called The Fishermen a wake-up call to his home country, a  “dwindling nation” which he portrays as a country whose promise, like that of Agwu’s sons, is never fulfilled. Brother turns on brother and independence descends into civil war. The hope that rides on the popular politician MKO Abiola is destroyed when election results are rigged and he ends up in military detention. As Ben, the story’s narrator, reflects many years after the event:

Hope is a tadpole.

The thing you caught and brought home with you in a can but which despite being kept in the right water, soon died.

I know little about Nigeria’s history but I didn’t need it in order to enjoy this novel enormously.  Chigozie Obioma blends traditional techniques of novel writing with African story-telling traditions, sprinkles his text liberally with songs and snatches of conversation in Igbo and Yoruba and references to Igbo culture and superstitions. The above average quota of symbols and metaphors give it a distinctively writerly feel. Every chapter opens with a metaphor which draws a parallel between a family member and an animal or creature: father is an eagle; Ikenna a sparrow, mother a falconer etc. Its a technique that could easily be tediously over-elaborated – a case of form over substance – but the point is not to simply decorate the story but to draw out a dimension of that individual’s character, showing their true nature and the forces that drive their actions.

That doesn’t mean this is a novel without flaws. Obioma does tend to get totally carried away with his verbal cleverness sometimes, opting for the highly descriptive when a more simple form of words would suffice. Adjectives proliferate, some more successfully inventive than others.  A description of dusk as a “crepuscular awning” I can buy, less so body odour as a “corporeal convoy” and I’m still struggling to make sense of “the egg-white days of our lives”.

But The Fishermen is still a wonderfully vivid and heart breaking tale. I have a feeling even if Obioma doesn’t win the Booker Prize with this debut novel, that we’ll be hearing a lot more of him in the future.

End Notes

The Fishermen by  Chigozie Obioma is published by One, an imprint of Pushkin Press. Born and raised in Nigeria, Obioma now lives in Michigan, USA.

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