Harmattan: A cold-dry trade wind that blows across the West African subcontinent from the Sahara to the Gulf of Guinea during the winter months bringing dust storms, low humidity and an increased risk of fire outbreaks. This is the trademark wind of the dry season.
As Gabriela Babnik’s novel Dry Season opens, we find a 62 year-old Slovenian woman, Ana, lying in bed with a 27 year-old Bukinabé man, and it is immediately clear that her path to reclaim herself will defy conventions. But then, as we come to know her, we realize that she has long been resistant to the constraints of convention. Ana and the young man, Ismael, are not yet lovers, despite the fact that they awake in the same bed. Their first encounter is uncertain, tentative. Across the boundaries of age, race, class, and culture, they have been drawn to each other with their own dark histories lying twisted inside. As these two disparate individuals take turns addressing the reader – that is the most accurate way of describing the manner in which their stories are uncoiled – we gradually begin to learn more about their pasts and their feelings toward one another.
Ismael and his friend are targeting tourists to rob when he first spots Ana. He is drawn to her but does not see her as a potential mark; he does not sense that she is carrying much of monetary value. It is something else, though he is not entirely certain what that is. For Ana, her attraction to black men is rooted in an earlier time in her life: a chance encounter and subsequent affair with a Sudanese man that has left an unfilled and aching space in her memory. It is not clear that she knows, or is ready to confront, what she truly hopes this young man can heal in her:
“But this sleeping man in front of me was from another time. He had a god drawn on his face. I wanted to say that earlier but it slipped my mind. As I was walking toward him from the other side of the avenue, I felt a strong desire for him to touch the secret territory inside me. Ever since I gave birth thirty years ago, I knew I had to put it aside for a while. I mean touching the silky surface of blades of grass with my palm or licking honey slowly from a metal spoon and then looking at my face in it.”
Ana admits that she has literally walked out on her life in Ljubljana, a life she sees as reduced to the design of illustrated throw pillows, trapped an inherited house with a view of the garden. She is haunted by the suicide of her distant mother, the decline and end of her marriage, the return of her long absent father, and the descent into madness of her only child. Behind all of this is a persistent pain, a bitter groundlessness borne of the fact that she was adopted from an orphanage. It colours, perhaps even distorts, a sense of abandonment that no person, place or career can fill. Her escape to Africa is a deliberate attempt to fill this void.
As Ismael takes up his side of the narrative in turn, it becomes evident that these two unlikely lovers share some common demons. His father is unknown to him and this status defines him and his mother in the village in which they live. They are subject to open shaming and abuse until the day when they are finally rescued and removed to a longed for but equally uncertain life in the big city. They take up residence for a while with a man he calls Baba, and who becomes, over time, a sort of surrogate father whose albino son, Malik, will grow to be both a friend and a recklessly dangerous influence. But in the meantime, Ismael’s increasingly unstable mother will flee to the streets. Together they beg on the roadside and sleep under a bridge until his mother is suddenly killed when he is seven years old.
“Not long before they told me that a lorry had run her over – that it was really her, and not one of the night women or morning women – we had grown apart. Or maybe she had grown apart from me, I am not sure. It is possible that I was a burden to her. In our village seven-year-old boys are already responsible for themselves. They bite into green fruit, never meet their mama except in dreams, and eventually get used to her not being around and start paying attention to the things that are around.”
Suspended between an aborted childhood and a tenuous adulthood, Ismael seeks to fill the mother-shaped hole in his life through several women who look after him for a time. He is eager, hungry to learn to read and write, but his opportunities are limited by his circumstances. He drifts back to the street scene, takes on odd jobs, works for a while fixing up old cars, and eventually falls into the pattern of robbing tourists with his friend Malik. Ana is, for him, a respite, possibly even a path out of a life marked by poverty, loneliness, neglect, and extreme brutality.
Dry Season is, in no small way, a sharp break from what one might expect from the literature of a small central European country. Eschewing a linear narrative and conventional storytelling, we are confronted with an unusual blend of metafictional devices – the fact that the action is occurring within the context of a novel is evoked repeatedly, as is a magical realism common in so much African literature, as a way of seeing and accepting ghosts and magic in the world. It is not the Balkan Wars but the tumultuous recent history of Burkina Faso that forms the critical political backdrop. Sex and sexuality are presented with an overt frankness, from the innocent masturbatory explorations of a young boy to the full fleshed desires and needs of a mature woman. Loneliness drives both Ana and Ismael to seek refuge in one another’s bodies, where they find, for a time at least, an intensely passionate release.
The open relationship between a white woman and a black man less than half her age does not go unnoticed on the streets of Ouagadougou. Ana, as the outsider, is forced to confront the reality of the African society against the mythology that has drawn her to the continent and into Ismael’s arms. Once the veil begins to drop in the aftermath of an attack on a cab in which they were riding, she says:
“I was wrong about you, Ismael. I thought you were a quiet, withdrawn fellow, who still walks in a world of timelessness, of gods, of moral certainties and natural laws, and even such constraints as religion and gender, but now I see you are one of them, one of the bandits.”
“I am not what you think. I am a man who walks on a reddish road, the man you saw from the cab. I saw you seeing him. You thought, how backward they are, poor things, they learn on the ground, make love on the ground, eat off the ground, but that ground, that earth, which you take in your hand and let crumble through your fingers, it is all we have.”
She finds herself relying on the assistance of street children, who in turn taunt and mock her. She depends so closely on Ismael to be her guide and protector that she easily loses her way in his absence. The risks that they both ultimately face are significant and potentially devastating. There is no escape to a magical wonderland. Especially when the true trauma, the denied reality, lies inside rather than outside of the person longing to escape.
This novel is a demanding and startlingly rewarding read. Both Ana and Ismael have stories that they urgently need to share, that are weighing them down. Both stories contain hidden corners that must be turned, secrets that are difficult to bear. The narrative threads move back and forth in time, building on past experiences repeatedly to flesh out more detail. The novel that is being created in the present moment, if you will, becomes a space of self-examination and revelation for the two narrators. The separate strands become entwined, creating the effect of a tightly braided cord that then begins to fray as the relationship falls apart. The magic fades but the telling grows increasingly surreal, leading up to an exhilarating and shocking revelation in the final pages.
Another stunning release from UK-based Istros Books, Dry Season will be released on November 16, 2015.
This review has been posted on the blog of the Free Word Centre in London.
In partnership with Istros Books, the Free Word Centre is hosting an evening with Gabriela Babnik and translator Rawley Grau on Monday, November 9, 2015. See details here.