Some authors get so totally focused on conveying a message that they seem to forget their novel should also be entertaining. Reading Between Tides by the Congolese author V.Y Mudimbe was impossible to finish as a result.
It’s a novel written from the perspective of Pierre Landu, a black African Catholic priest who is experiencing doubts about his faith. He is struggling to accept that his religion is truly meeting the needs of his countrymen at a time when the country is experiencing a crisis. Fearing that God is on the side of the colonial oppressors and not on the side of those who seek liberation, he rejects the priesthood to join a Marxist revolutionary force. When the book opens he is undergoing a tough training regime designed to turn him into a Marxist guerrilla and to ‘re-educate’ himself. But his fellow fighters are not convinced by the level of his conviction in their cause. And it becomes clear Landu has his doubts too about this new life he has chosen.
The plot sounded reasonable when I chose it as part of my World Literature project but it became evident within just a few pages that this would be hard going. Between Tides is full of tedious passages of self examination by Landu written in a declamatory style more suited to polemic than fiction.
Weariness. Despondency. Slogans sanctify acts that in other circumstances we might not consider hopeful. How can we accept this pretty patchwork of murderous phrases, hiding their freight of corpses! I would like to hear words that sprang from naked reality!. Once again I measure the gap between them and me. Echoes — which long since ceased to rouse me — fad in my ears; the positive nature of violence, the dialectic of history, the ineluctable application of the historical law of thesis and antithesis. the bloodshed for idealogical purity! The dialectic of the master and the slave. The class struggle.
I don’t want books that are so easy to read they barely tickle my brain cells. But neither do I want to waste my brain trying to get even a glimmer of understanding of what the author means. In the end reading Between Tides became a chore and I just couldn’t continue.
Mudimbe was born in the Belgian Congo, formerly called Zaire but now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He entered a monastery in his youth but left it to pursue an academic career looking at the forces that shaped African history. He left the Congo for the USA in 1979, subsequently building a career at Stanford University and Duke University. Between Tides is the second of his novels to be translated into English. It was awarded the Grand Prize for International Catholic Literature when first published in 1975.
Set some time in the 1970s, All Our Names is told via two narrators. One is Helen, a young, white social worker with the Lutheran Relief Services in Laurel, a fictitious American mid-western town and the other is Isaac, an Ethiopian boy who arrives in the town on a student visa.
Volunteering to help Isaac acclimatise to his new life, Helen falls in love with the enigmatic young man though she knows little about him. His file notes are scant, his folder contains only “a single loose leaf of paper. . . . There was no month or date of birth, only a year. His place of birth was listed only as Africa, with no country or city. The only solid fact was his name, Isaac Mabira, but even that was no longer substantial: Any name could have filled that slot, and nothing would have changed.” Isaac is thus an enigma to Helen — a man “made of almost nothing, not a ghost but a sketch of a man I was trying hard to fill in.” The truth about his identity and his past are slow to emerge. Isaac is not even his real name it transpires, but an identity borrowed from a friend at university in Kampala so he could escape from a country where the “ecstatic promises of a socialist, Pan-African dream” have faded into civil war and unrest. He’d made his way from Ethopia to Uganda via Kenya, along the way shedding the 13 ancestral names his father had given him. Through the course of the novel we learn that he replaced these with new names, sometimes being referred to as Langston and other times as the Professor and finally Isaac.
The real Isaac is a boy from the slums of Kampala. The pair met at the university campus, a place both were too poor and ill-connected to join officially so they are forced to hang around on its fringes. Isaac ( the real one) is a charismatic figure, an idealist who is determined to make his mark on the world and to play a part in his country’s future. The colonial era is over but the time of the dictators is looming and like many young Africans Isaac is swept up in the excitement of its possibilities. Impetuous by nature he taunts the rich students, plasters the corridors with posters and eventually stokes a small revolt, which spirals out of control. His more cautious friend Langston trails in his wake, dreaming only of a future as a writer. When Isaac’s idealistic fervour takes him further down the revolutionary path, an attempted coup and resulting brutal actions, mean the parting of the ways for the two friends. Isaac remains in Uganda building his reputation as a paramilitary leader while Langston, a born survivor, flees, his assumed identity ensuring their names remain interchangeable while their lives cease to coexist.
His identity is further stripped from him when he encounters the reality of life in a small town not yet ready to open its minds to the idea of racial equality. One day Helen plans to take him to a diner in town that “was never officially segregated, but I couldn’t remember anyone who wasn’t white eating there, either.” Anticipating trouble, before she leaves to pick him up, she “wrote down on a piece of paper, in case I forgot it later: ‘We have every right to be here.'” But the people at the diner don’t agree. At first the waitress is sent over to ask if maybe they would like to get their food to go. And then when Isaac says, “No. We would rather eat it here,” she returns with their orders: Helen’s on the standard cream-colored plates, and Isaac’s on a “stack of thin paper plates barely large enough to hold the food.”
It’s a salutary reminder that their affair, so far kept hidden from Helen’s work colleagues and her mother, will need to remain a secret. Since neither of them can be who they truly want to be, the book depicts a world in which people’s names and identities can be another casualty of violence and oppression.
Mengustu portrays these issues in a tone that is reflective and restrained. Long on mood but short on details, many elements of this novel remain an enigma, so we are left to decide for ourselves what happens to the lovers.
Dinaw Mengestu was born in Ethiopia though emigrated to America when he was a child. Now an English professor at Georgetown University, “All Our Names,” is his third novel. I had never heard of him when I happened on a copy at the Hay Literary Festival. After skimming the first page I had a feeling this would be one book I would enjoy. And so it proved. I’ve seen a few reviews where critics have commented that they didn’t think All Our Names was actually his best work. That’s just made me even more determined to find the earlier work.
It took me almost two years to get around to reading We Need New Names, the first novel by an author from Zimbabwe to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. I’m glad I made it. NoViolet Bulawayo’s book has a tremendously memorable narrative voice, thought provoking themes and characters so vividly drawn they practically jumped out of the page to shake your hand. I was reading this while on holiday and could look up from my shady spot across the Zambezi River to the very landscape in which the novel is set, imagining Darling and the friends and family in her town just beyond the trees.
The Zimbabwe depicted in the novel is a country in the midst of crisis. Its people long for ‘real change’ but they and their country are “falling apart” (a direct reference to Chinua Achebe’s novel). Their opinions count for nothing at the ballot box and hopes for real change die when the same order is re-elected, leaving them once again scratching for a living by selling trinkets and relying on aid agencies who dole out sweets and toys and meagre food items in return for freely taking photographs insensitive to the fact that the people they capture are embarrassed by their torn and dirty clothes. Not surprisingly the poplin this land hold onto a dream that one day they can get out of this land.
Look at them leaving in droves, the children of the land. Those with nothing are crossing borders. Those with strength are crossing borders. Those with ambitions are crossing borders. Moving, running, emigrating, going, deserting, walking, flying, fleeing — all to countries whose names they cannot pronounce.
Not that just any country will do as their destination. In one of the games played by thirteen year old Darling and her friends they each have to choose a country.
Everybody wants to he the USA and Britain and Canada and Australia and Switzerland. Nobody wants to be rags of countries like Congo, like Somalia, like Iraq, like Sudan, like Haiti and not even this one we live in — who wants to be in a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart.
Darling has been sent to live with her grandmother in a shanty town called Paradise while her mother treks to the border every few months to sell carved animals and beads to tourists. Her father went off to the capital in search of work but hasn’t been seen for years. Darling runs riot with her friends Godknows, Bastard and Chipo, stealing guavas, singing Lady Gaga songs and playing Find Bin Laden. It’s fun but anything but carefree. Chip though only 13 years old is carrying her grandfather’s child, Aids is rife and partisans begin attacking white settlers.
Darling does leave the country though her new life in the environs of Detroit (otherwise known to Darling as Destroyedmichygen) doesn’t turn out the way she expected nor the happiness she anticipated. It brings her new challenges as she struggles to adjust to her new environment. She makes new friends eventually (some of the funniest sections of the book are when she and her friends watch porn films with the sound turned off so they can make the accompanying grunts and groans themselves). Not entirely at home in her new world however, she tries to retain her connection to Paradise home only to be rejected by her old friends. Hers is not a unique experience she believes. Thousands of Africans left their land with hope for the future, only to find they are welcomed with restraint not open arms.
When we got to America we took our dreams, looked at them tenderly as if they were new born children and put them away. We would not be pursuing them. We would never be the things we wanted to be. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers. We dropped our heads because we were no longer people. We were now illegals.
Although We Need New Names is Darling’s story, in a broader sense it is the story of a nation and of the immigrant experience and of the superficiality of aid agency attitudes. Bulawayo presents this in a narrative that is often poetic and always alive and confident.
This was Bulawayo’s debut novel, born out of a short story that won the Caine prize. for African writing It will be fascinating to see what she does next.
We Need New Names is published in UK by Chatto & Windus
NoViolet Bulawayo (the pen name of Elizabeth Zandile Tshele) was born in Zimbabwe in 1981, a year after the country gained independence. At the age of 18 she left for America, settling in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She gained her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Cornell University in 2010.
An occasional round up of miscellaneous bookish news you may have missed (and often I missed them too)
Prize for African literature announced
I was so focused on the announcement of the Man Booker Prize long list that I overlooked an announcement about the lesser known Caine Prize for African Writing. This has been running since 2005 and commemorates Sir Michael Caine, the former Chairman of Booker plc who chaired the Booker Prize management committee for almost 25 years. The award celebrates the short story format and is open to writers of African origin . This year’s winner is Okwiri Oduor from Kenya with My Father’s Head, a story about loss and memory as a women working in comes to terms with her father’s death. You can read the winning story and the shortlisted entries on the Caine Prize website. If you prefer to listen rather than read, they are all available as podcasts – click here to get the details.
How far would you travel to get to a Book Club?
There is a person featured in this article who travels 100 kilometres every two weeks just so he can participate in his club. Makes me feel guilty now about all the meetings I missed at the book club which is just 8 miles down the road from my home.
A boost for world literature
Ever since I started my world literature project, I’ve been bemoaning the lack of availability of books by authors from outside the western world. From Los Angeles comes news of a new publisher that is taking some small steps to rectify this. Unnamed Press has made its mission to publish new, international authors who may not fit into the traditional mould. So far they have published works from Estonian, Bangladeshi and Mexican writers. If only the larger companies could follow suit.
Finding authors from some of the countries on my Reading the Equator challenge has turned out to be extremely challenging. Of all the tough nuts to crack, the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly known as Zaire) has been one of the hardest.
This is the second largest country in Africa and has the fourth largest population. But any thoughts I harboured that this would result in a rich vein of literature from which to choose, quickly disappeared. What I had overlooked was the turbulent history of this nation. In the 1870s it was the target of exploration and then exploitation as a colony under Belgian control. Then, upon independence in the 1960s, it began experiencing internal turbulence and political upheaval. In more recent years, a bitterly-fought war with eight of its neighbours cost hundreds of thousands of lives. With all that, plus a high incidence of death from malnutrition and malaria, it’s little wonder that publishing literature isn’t high on the list of the country’s priorities.
Only a small handful of Congolese are published writers; most of them as poets. Novelists are scarce; I could find just two people who have had anything published in English — Sony Lab’Ou Tansi and Frederick Yamusangie. Tansi’s 1988 novel The Antipeople is described by the New York Times as “… an urgent, sardonic narrative….brings us face to face with despair and death, and proposes no solutions except, perhaps, the constancy of love.” But since it would take a few weeks before I could get a reasonably priced copy, I opted to read Yamusangie’s novella Full Circle, which was at least published in the UK where Yamusangie now has his home.
I wasn’t far into the text before the flaws of this book become apparent. Spelling errors, incorrect punctuation, inconsistent use of tenses; all issues that the scrutiny of an editor would easily have remedied but can all too easily creep creep through in self-published books. If ever there was a book that cried out for a fresh pair of eyes, this was it.
It’s a shame because there is a kernel of a good story in Full Circle. It follows the fortunes of Dada, the 10-year-old son of the Zairian Ambassador to the United Nations. When his father leaves to take up his new post in New York, Dada is despatched to live with an uncle in the village of Bulungu. The idea is to help prepare the boy for a future political career by embedding him in a community to learn about the culture and way of life of his native land. The experience is a culture shock for the boy who until now “has more knowledge of Western Europe than his own country.” He is completely unprepared for the privations of Bulungu — a shack instead of an indoor bathroom, the lack of street lighting, the absence of cars. He also has to learn the rules of his new community and learn to make friends.
The community he comes to appreciate is one that holds strong moral values about kinship and respect for one’s elders. Dada discovers this is also a superstitious community, one that believes the local river is inhabited by spirits who, when roused, take the form of child-snatching human crocodiles. It feels odd at first to him but he quickly realises this is just part of the normal way of life in Balungu, not anything to get worked up about. And so at lunch with his teacher one day he is told not to worry about the snake in the henhouse; it’s simply a reincarnation of her aunt.
Beneath the surface of calm in this community however are deepening divides between factions who want to exert control even to the extent of forming secret societies whose power will extend well beyond the Congo, even to America. Dada is the innocent who gets caught up in their struggle.
I gained some interesting insights about the customs and beliefs of this region by reading this book. Unfortunately, the plot became increasingly bizarre and unbelievable. Yamusangie ‘s inexperience is evident when he tries to disentangle Dada from false accusations he has killed a schoolmate and his narrative degenerates into a confusion of actions and the introduction of completely new characters right in the final pages.
Yamusangie opens his book with a quote from another novel set in the Congo — Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. If this is the status to which he aspires, I think he has a long way to go.