A weekly round up of miscellaneous literary news you may have missed.
Another prize was announced this week, this time for a fictional work by an Arabic author. The International Prize for Arabic Literature went to the Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi for his modern-day twist of the Frankenstein tale set in Baghdad. Saadawi said Shelley’s novel inspired him to use different narrative techniques as a way of expressing the conflict that besets his home country.
Frankenstein in Baghdad features Hadi Al Attag, a Baghdad resident who trawls the city streets in search of dead victims from the country’s long-running conflict. He sews the flesh together to create a new body, a figure he calls “what’s its face.” His creation then goes on a mission to avenge the deaths of those people whose body parts gave it life.
If that plot summary has whetted your appetite, you’ll be glad to know that as part of his prize, Saadawi gets to see his novel translated into English. Timing of this is unclear though since the rights are still being negotiated.
You can read more in an interview with Saadawi for The National.
World Book Capital
The people of Nigeria were in celebratory mood last week as one of its principal cities, Port Harcourt, started its year as the UNESCO World Book Capital for 2014.
I was perplexed when I first saw mention of World Book Capital. It was instantly evident what this could mean. A city with a higher than average number of bookshops? Or a significant centre for book publishing? Neither of my first ideas proved anywhere near the truth. Apparently World Book Capital is is an initiative launched in 1996 to recognise the efforts of cities who have active programs to promote books and reading.
Cities around the world bid to become hosts for a year; their bids are evaluated on aspects such as levels of involvement from writers, publishers and booksellers, the range of activities planned and the steps taken to ensure freedom of expression for writers. Last year it was the turn of Bangkok in Thailand to host a year long program of events; next year it will move to Incheon in South Korea. Port Harcourt in Nigeria gets to be this year’s host after beating off competition from Moscow, Oxford and Lyon in France, becoming the first World Book Capital City in sub-Saharan Africa. The government of Port Harcourt is looking to the event to boost literacy in the state where building work is underway on seven new libraries . You can read more about their hopes in this report about the opening ceremony.
Literature about Africa
The Telegraph newspaper in the UK recently published a list of what they claimed to be the 10 best novels set in Africa. There are very few surprises here.
Unsurprisingly Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun makes the cut as does Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. While it’s good to see indigenous authors on the list, and there are some authors I’m not familiar with that have piqued my interest I would question some of the choices like Alexander McCall Smith’s Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency. It’s a fun book and it does bring the colour of Botswana to life but I wouldn’t consider it to be great, and certainly doesn’t stack up against Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing or Alan Paton’s Cry My Beloved Country, neither of which made the list. Making a list like this is for sure not an easy task when you’re trying to represent a whole continent with all its diversity. But I do wonder if they went just a bit for the obvious?
If any of you have read literature about Africa, what do you think of this list? Did they miss anyone out that you think should really be included?
Most of this week has been devoted to my journey into world literature, choosing the authors and books I want to read for my Reading along the Equator and Reading along the Prime Meridian challenges. I’ve now identified authors for three of the 21 countries (Colombia, the Congo and England) and shortlisted some authors for another five. It’s proving difficult to track down novels in English for some of the countries though (or at least ones that are available at an affordable price).
I also made a start on reading some of these authors with a novel from the Republic of the Congo (confusingly there is a separate country called Democratic Republic of the Congo), chosen for my Given the region’s history of colonial subjugation, human rights issues and civil war , I expected that Congolese literature would be on the dark side, full of concerns about repression, identity and a the clash of modernity with tradition.
What I hadn’t expected was the quirky humour of Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass — a novel I found by chance in a library book sale. Mabanckou is one of a small number of authors from the region who have gained international attention in recent years. While he’s a controversial figure because of his belief that Africans need to take some degree of responsibility themselves for slavery, in Broken Glass he steers clear of geo-political issues and focuses instead on the lives of a colourful cast of characters
Broken Glass is the nickname of a narrator who is a regular customer at the Credit Gone Away bar, a seedy joint much frequented by men who believe they’ve been much wronged by their familes. Broken Glass is asked by the bar’s owner to begin documenting the history of his establishment and the stories of his customers. They’re all eager to oblige, seeing this as an opportunity to put the record straight and to achieve a degree of fame. So we meet ‘Pampers’ who was falsely accused of sexually molesting his daughter (his name comes from the fact he has to wear nappies because of injuries sustained during repeated sexual attacks in prison) and ‘Printer’ who was once a designer suit-wearing manager but is now a penniless heavy drinker.
Their stores are told in a fast-pace, almost stream of consciousness style,with few full stops, paragraph breaks or capital letters. Far from being pretentious however, this style feels completely natural and real, as if we are on a bar stool with Broken Glass as he downs yet another glass of red wine. Mabanckou has a wonderful flair for mockery – early on in the book we’re introduced to a Prime Minister who is so jealous of a new catchphrase coined by his Minister for Agriculture that he orders his entire staff he find him one that’s even better and then plots his revenge:
the Prime Minister promised in the next reshuffle the Minister for Agriculture would be given the portfolio for Culture, all you had to do was cross out the first four letters of ‘agriculture.
I’m hoping the rest of the book lives up to the promise of the first 50 pages or so….