Weighing the power of words: The Crocodiles by Youssef Rahka

Lion that eats my mind now for a decade knowing only your hunger
Not the bliss of your satisfaction O roar of the Universe how am I chosen
In this life I have heard your promise I am ready to die I have served
Your starved and ancient Presence O Lord I wait in my room at your Mercy.
– Allen Ginsberg, The Lion for Real

A lion stalks the pages of Youssef Rakha’s intense, compelling novel, The Crocodiles. The fabled beast appears at the outset, waiting in Beat Poet Allen Ginsberg’s living room in the opening stanza of his magnificent poem, “The Lion for Real”, and wanders, in and out of the novel – a prose poem of simmering power – as it unwinds itself across 405 numbered paragraphs, tracing a torturous path from the first stirrings of poetic assurance within a trio of young men in the 1990s to the doomed protests of the Arab Spring.

crocodilesAs revolutionary fervor sweeps the the streets of Cairo in the first months of 2012, this ingenious work imagines an attempt to document the events that transformed the lives of the narrator and his two close friends, Paulo and Nayf, between 1997 and 2001 – more specifically, the years delineating the creation and eventual dissolution of The Crocodiles Group for Secret Poetry. The driving motivation is a desire to make sense of the forces that bound and ultimately destroyed the group, an attempt to place this “premature” endeavour within the broader context of the artistic and political currents of the Egyptian counterculture of the day, and draw connections, if any, to the events presently erupting in the streets. Obsessed with an apparent intersection of incidents and individuals, real and illusory, our narrator, the self-styled chronicler, now nearing 40, is intent on pulling together his recollections, to put ghosts to rest while, if possible, tapping into the emotional void he now carries inside.

His account begins with a startling image that has, over time, taken on mythological importance in his mind. As his poetic cohort, Nayf, celebrates his 21st birthday, just hours before birth of The Crocodiles is announced on June 20,1997; Radwa Adel, a poet and activist from an earlier generation, jumps to her death from the balcony of relative’s Cairo apartment. As the series of reflective paragraphs unfold, she and her life become a refrain, one of the pivot points around which the narrative turns, as it loops back and forth, weaving and winding its way through a tale of the disintegration of youthful intellectual ideals against a backdrop of sex, drugs, ill-fated love affairs, and translations and re-translations of the poets of the Beat Generation. At the heart of this relentlessly reflective exercise is the question of the power of literature to grasp at some truth, and its value, if any, in a world of in the throes of political upheaval.

In the years leading up to the official announcement of The Crocodiles Group, the core members are charged with reckless youthful enthusiasms. The fair-skinned photographer Paulo falls hopelessly in love with a manipulative married woman, handsome Nayf becomes enamoured with the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, and the narrator, known to his fellow Crocodiles by the appellation Gear Knob, is, if less ambitious in some ways, most dedicated to the spirit of Secret Poetry, and, as such, “most capable of following what was happening.”

Through the shifting lens of memory, infused with a bitter nostalgia, the narrator-poet, gathers his recollections, picking up threads with the benefit of hindsight or, as he describes it, his “hypothetical vantage point” – that perspective from which lines of confluence, elements of cause and effect, appear to crystallize. Looking back, he outlines probable connections but, rather than following them methodically from point A to point B, he brings up images, speculates, alludes to incidents and events, continually circling back in time to orchestrate a contextual panorama rich with writers, lovers, and friends. The fragmentary nature of the narrative creates a dreamy effect that can catch the reader off guard with moments of dark sensual ferocity and a tension that builds with increasing allusions to the event that will finally shatter the Crocodiles forever. And throughout it all, that lion – allegorical, symbolic and, in the end hauntingly, devastatingly real – is a persistent presence.

“It seems to me now – from my hypothetical vantage point in a future that dangled before us, unperceived, up until 2011 – that the lion was the supreme secret: the lion that appeared to Nayf. With a clarity unavailable at the time, it seems to me that its appearance was not the only mythical event to have occurred. And though it was for sure the only clearly supernatural event, I myself never for an instant doubted the reality of the lion. Just that, with distance, I’ve become convinced that it was not the only strange thing. Ghosts crouched atop our destinies all the while. At times they took the form of an idea or incident, just like the poem that comes from its author knows not where: vapors, risen from a vast number of life’s liquids mixed all together without rhyme or reason, and distilled into one rich drop.”

The Crocodiles is an exhortation on the power and legacy of words, the fragile volubility of meaning. As an extended prose poem it builds on repeated images, themes and refrains to create a rhythm and energy that is sustained and steadily heightened as it makes its way to an anguished, passionate close. Cairo – contemporary and vital, mystical and violent – comes alive on these pages even as a lion, the lion as revolution, roars in the streets. This a rewarding, remarkable read.

And, from my own western “hypothetical vantage point”, as Egyptian poets, writers and journalists increasingly fall under censorship, serious threat, charges and imprisonment, this novel seems ever more timely than when it was first published close on the heels of the Arab Spring. I can’t help wondering where the lion is, that is, the lion as God.

Youssef Rakha is a novelist, reporter, poet and photographer living in Cairo. He curates a website The Sultan’s Seal which features writing in both Arabic and English, along with photographic features. The Crocodiles is translated by Robin Moger and published by Seven Stories Press.

Never forgetting, not forgotten: A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa

“Our capital is full of mysteries. I’ve seen things in this city that would be too much even in a dream.”

The pages of A General Theory of Oblivion, by Angolan writer José Eduardo Agualusa, are populated by a colourful array of characters who, for the most, seem to be intent on forgetting, or being forgotten. None succeed. Their seemingly disparate life stories will turn, twist and eventually intersect as threads are dropped, picked up, retraced and woven into a tale that teems with magic against the backdrop of decades of brutal conflict and corruption that marked Angola’s painful emergence from colonialism.

oblivionAt the heart of this story is Ludo, a painfully agoraphobic Portuguese woman who, following the death of her parents, is cared for by her sister, Odette. When Odette marries a mining engineer, Ludo moves, along with the newlyweds to Luanda, the capital city of Angola. On the streets, the struggle for Independence is already underway, but Ludo does not venture out, she even shirks away from the windows and views the sky with terror. The cause of her nearly life-long fear of open spaces is finally explained in the final chapters of the book, but until that time her retreat from human contact and her obsessive, paranoid exile provides an anchor to the violent political drama that swirls, directly and indirectly, around her.

When Ludo’s sister and brother-in-law suddenly disappear, the anxious woman is left alone in their luxury apartment with the sole company of an albino dog named Phantom. Before long, a threatening incident leads to a man’s death on her doorstep, filling Ludo with both horror and guilt. She responds by constructing a wall across the hallway outside her apartment door, effectively barricading herself off from the outside world where Independence is about to be declared. She embarks on a bizarre hermetic existence that will last for 30 years. Over the course of that time, she will eat everything she can grow or get her hands on. She will burn the furniture, floorboards and the better part of the extensive library for fuel and heat, and start scribbling her thoughts on the walls when she runs out of journals and paper. Her eyesight will fade and, eventually, her beloved dog will die. But remarkably, stubbornly, she survives, passing a seemingly endless flow of days and nights:

“The city asleep, and her struggling to remember names. A patch of sun still burning. And the night, bit by bit, and time stretching out aimlessly. Body weary, and the night turning from blue to blue … But there was no one, not anywhere in the world, waiting for her. The city falling asleep and the birds like waves, and the waves like birds, and the women like women, and her not at all sure that women are the future of Man.”

Beyond the walls of Ludo’s dwelling, Agualusa traces the criss-crossing adventures of a number of people caught up in the ongoing conflicts that mark the unstable years following Independence. We have, among others, a Portuguese missionary who miraculously escapes fatal injury in an intended execution, an intelligence officer turned detective, a journalist who specializes in investigating disappearances, and a former prisoner who becomes a successful business man. Toss in a second life among a tribe of wandering shepherds, street kids, merciful nurses and a dancing hippo and you have a rich, magical tapestry that ultimately merges back at Ludo’s door where the elderly woman, is, by this time, living with a young orphaned boy who had arrived as a thief and ended up staying, providing a human companionship and support she had rarely known in her life.

A General Theory of Oblivion reads with an element of allegory or fairytale – the fateful intersections may seem too neat, too coincidental. The number of competing characters required to facilitate the convergence of the story lines can seem complicated; there may be a tendency – especially if one is interrupted in the reading as I was by an inopportune winter head cold – to lose track of who’s who for a moment. But the energy is so infectious, the woman at the core is so endearing, despite or perhaps because of her extreme neurotic behaviour, that the book succeeds in creating awe where, in the hands of another author, it might simply feel false and contrived.

Of course, it is essential to remember that magic is not a device as much as a way of being in the world for many authors from Africa. Last year I listened to the recording of a delightful interview from the Blue Metropolis Festival in Montreal with the young Angolan writer Ondjaki, who spoke about his cultural worldview, arguing that his own magic realism isn’t imaginary, rather it is intrinsic to how people think and how they tell stories in his country: “Fiction doesn’t happen to me. Fiction happens to Angola… no one will say ‘what a powerful imagination!’ You’ll get, ‘what neighbourhood did it happen in?’ ”

That kind of approach to storytelling drives this novel. The horror of the era it covers is not downplayed or ignored but it is met with tremendous spirit and resilience, and in a world obsessed with threats and fear, that cannot help but feel magical, even unreal.

Translated by Daniel Hahn, A General Theory of Oblivion is published in North America by Archipelago Books.

What no love can heal: Dry Season by Gabriela Babnik

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.

dry-season-cover_54aff6fb99d92_250x800rAs 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.”

He counters:

“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.

Other kinds of exile: The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs by Damon Galgut

“Lives are meant to be separate and apart; when the borders break and we overflow into one another, it only leads to trouble and sadness.”

Last month I had worried about easing back into reading following my recent unexpected cardiac arrest, but, in fact, August went well. September has proved much more difficult. I have picked up so many books I thought I wanted to read only to be unable to get beyond a few pages. So it is probably no surprise that I retreated to the comfort zone of re-reading a book by one of my favourite authors. I chose this book on the expectation that a new paper edition was due to be released today in Canada but from reports of the distributor being low or out of stock, the reality of actually seeing it on the shelves may be a long way out. Too bad because when you know a writer has many excellent books to his or her credit it is a shame to see only one, the latest or best known, in stock. Fortunately this title is readily available electronically.

pigsThe Beautiful Screaming of Pigs is the second full length novel by South African writer Damon Galgut. Originally released in 1991 it eventually dropped out of print and, when a new edition was issued in 2005 following the Booker shortlisting of The Good Doctor, Galgut took the opportunity to revise the book, wanting to address his longstanding feeling that the rhythms of the language sounded “discordant”. The result, for whatever it is worth, is a novel that embedded itself into my consciousness with the first reading, and proved to be even richer and more deeply affecting with the second.

Set against the backdrop of the first free elections in Namibia in 1989, 20 year-old Patrick Winter and his mother are heading to the land that he had, only a year before, been fighting for on behalf of the South African Army. That experience has clearly left him emotionally traumatized. He is dependent on Valium to sleep and cope with recurring panic attacks. For his mother the trip is an opportunity to visit her young black lover, the latest of a long string personal explorations she has flirted with since her divorce from Patrick’s father. As the story unfolds he will reflect on his childhood, the horror of his time in the army, his ambiguous feelings about his own politics, and the emerging recognition of the nature his sexuality.

The novel opens as Patrick and his mother arrive at the Afrikaner farm where she grew up and he spent many a summer vacation. His brittle grandmother fusses over his physical and mental health, cannot understand why they are heading north, and stubbornly insists on referring to Namibia as South West Africa, the name by which it was known going back to its years as a German colony. Here Patrick will begin to reveal his family background, his closeness to his mother and his alienation from his rugged, athletic, big game-hunting father and older brother.

When his brother Malcolm joins the army and is killed in a motor vehicle accident, the loss tears the fragile family apart. Patrick and his mother move out, unraveling the tightly wound expectations of marriage by which she had been bound. As she tries to reframe herself with a series of dramatic passions and obsessions, her son is placed in the awkward role of picking up the pieces behind her. So when his own obligation to the army arises, despite the sure knowledge that he is entirely unsuited for the task at hand, he enlists promptly hoping to get his two year commitment out of the way. He won’t last two years, nor will he be able to put the experience behind him.

As he awakes that first morning to a familiar noise on the farm he makes a striking observation about his state of well-being in an unforgettable passage. Outside a pig is being slaughtered:

“There is no sound on earth like the sound of a pig dying. It is a shriek that tears at the primal, unconscious mind. It is the noise of babies being abandoned, of women being taken by force, of the hinges of the world tearing loose. The screaming starts from the moment the pig is seized, as if it knows what is about to happen. The pig squeals and cries, it defecates in terror, but nothing will stop its life converging to a zero on the point of that thin metal stick.”

As a child, the spectacle of a pig being killed never failed to draw him with a fascinated horror. On this day his reaction takes on a different note:

“It was a sign of my state of mind or soul that on this particular morning the screaming of the pig sounded almost beautiful to me. It didn’t evoke violence or fear, but a train of gentle childhood memories.”

After the reverie of a walk around the farm and a hearty breakfast, Patrick and his mother head for Namibia. When they finally reach Windhoek and meet Godfrey in the township where he lives, Patrick is surprised to find that his mother’s lover is not quite what he had imagined and is, in reality, only a few years older than he is. They learn that a white activist who had been working with SWAPO (the South West African Peoples’ Organization) has just been assassinated and Godfrey must attend to details for his funeral and an election rally. This necessitates a further trip on to Swakopmund, a detour that places Patrick in a position to question his own political resolution and bravery, especially poignant in light of the fact that on the border he was engaged in fighting the very forces he is now helping Godfrey support. His mother’s enthusiasm soon wanes into boredom as, for her, the shine starts to come off her latest passion.

Woven into the account of their few days in Namibia, is Patrick’s chronicle of his experiences in the army, beginning with the early days of tedium as the young soldiers pass empty days in their tents “playing cards, writing letters, telling jokes. An old scene, as old as the first village.” Patrick is keenly aware that he does not quite fit into this world of testosterone charged energy. He is hopelessly reminded of the way he felt sidelined as his father and brother tossed a rugby ball on the lawn or boasted about their hunting conquests. He senses a brotherhood of men to which he will never belong. It is not until a young Afrikaner named Lappies arrives that he finds a kindred spirit, makes a friend, and maybe – although he doesn’t realize it at the time – falls in love. Once fighting descends on the camp and strikes with a vengeance; horror, fear and death take their toll. When Patrick’s friend is killed, his grasp on sanity begins to slip. Galgut pulls the reader right into his young narrator’s shattered mind in one of the most intense descriptions of a mental breakdown I have ever read. It happens in fits and starts. Patrick tries to hang on, stubbornly, foolishly until his condition deteriorates to the point that he finds himself hospitalized, first in Pretoria and then in Cape Town. He is discharged from the army.

In the hospital his parents visit. Their responses to their shocked and emotionally injured son are true to form. His father travels to see him Pretoria where he sits awkwardly, shifting from ”buttock to buttock” unable to find anything meaningful to say. His mother has been busy acting in a play and does not make her appearance at his bedside until he is back in Cape Town. She visits him daily and talks about herself. It is here that she will first tell him about Godfrey, hoping to impress or shock him. He has no answer but he remembers the small drama.

“At that moment a shaft of light, blued by the rain, fell on her face: like the actress she was, she turned towards it, finding her spot. Then she smiled, and the smile became a laugh: a round, silvery sound, like a coin, which fell from her throat and tinkled down onto the ground.”

Patrick’s few days in Namibia will not answer all the questions he carries into the shifting sands of the desert one year after his breakdown. But he will emerge from the visit with a sense that it is time for him to define his own sense of personal space and figure out who he is. Borders – those lines between countries defended by force, defined by politics, and blurred between people – feature throughout this novel. True to form, Galgut allows these spaces to exist for the reader to explore. He is a writer of remarkable restraint, a storyteller who matches spare tight prose with simple moments of vivid intensity. In The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs he has created a haunting, intelligent, unforgettable portrait of the relationships between people at a time of great upheaval and impending change in Southern Africa. As Namibians queue with excitement to mark their ballot toward the end of the novel, Godfrey tell Patrick that maybe someday his own country will see the same. That day will still be more than four years away.

What it means to be grown up: Thirteen Cents by K. Sello Duiker

“Grow up. Fast. Very fast. Lightening speed. Everything is always like that. Quick. You must act quickly. Understand quickly. Otherwise someone will fuck you up nicely. They’ll beat you up so that you must always remember.”

Meet Azure. Standing shoeless on of the cusp of manhood, thirteen or about to turn thirteen, he is not really sure when he was born. Both his parents are dead. Murdered. He has made his way from Johannesburg to Cape Town – a mean and ugly Cape Town – where he sleeps near the swimming pool in Sea Point or, later, when that option is denied him, under a bridge in Green Point, home to a wretched collection of thugs and gangsters.

13centsHe makes money primarily picking up tricks, engaging in degrading, often rough sex with closeted married men. He is hardened, tough, able to endure these encounters with a detached resignation. Yet when he looks inside, when he faces the more invisible persistent fears that haunt him as he wanders though the city, past the train station, up Long Street, into the Company’s Gardens; we see what he truly is – a child on the street. His is a coming-of-age story that is relentless, ruthless and, in the end, remarkably redeeming.

As Thirteen Cents, the debut novel by K. Sello Duiker opens, he has taken to looking after nine year-old Bafana, a boy who has run away from home, his life on the streets a drug fueled choice. Azure lectures him on his addictions. The only drug he himself has any interest in marijuana when he can afford it.

“I’m not his father, I say to myself. That laatie is getting under my armpit, under my soft spot. I mustn’t let that happen, I tell myself. I’ve seen too many kids disappear. There’s no point in getting too close.”

Azure knows where to find discarded food, has a few trusted “grown-up” contacts, many of whom will turn out not to be the allies he had thought. In a slice of Cape Town in which each man or woman has to look after themselves first, judging character is a slippery exercise. One that can be brutal, if not fatal, if the shifting rules are not understood or respected. His one friend from home, Vincent, a man who is beholden to the same rules but somewhat older and wiser, manages to impart to young Azure an unusual vision that will ultimately prove more valuable than money or any other form of protection.

In the meantime, his greatest liability is one he cannot control. He has black skin and blue eyes. Hence the name, pronounced he informs us, Ah-zoo-ray. It is a gift he holds from his beloved mother which is stolen when Gerald, the powerful thug currently holding sway over the homeless population, renames him Blue.

“… I can never look at myself too long in the mirror as my blue eyes remind me of the confusing messages they send out to people. I wear my blue eyes with fear because fear is deeper than shame.”

Race is a currency of power in the community in which he has found himself. Gerald who is a coloured man, trading on his lighter skin, straight hair and reputation of exceptional violence, is especially drawn to and maddened by those blue eyes. The punishment he extracts on our young hero is by far the most persistent, horrific, and devastating aspect of this gritty tale. He is beaten, locked up, starved, and abused for days on end for no apparent rational pretext. But the emotional abuse, the attempt to undermine his self worth cuts deeper:

“Why do you feel sad? I ask myself. Because my mother didn’t love me. Gerald is cruel. That is the ugliest thing anyone has ever said to me. It is worse than having a bus crush you. I think of my mother and I feel confused. No. She loved me, I tell myself. And I loved her, no matter what Gerald says.”

As much as Azure/Blue holds to the conviction that he is almost a man, must not cry, must hold within himself the emotions a man can not afford to admit; he continually talks with frustration about “grown-ups”. Their ways allude him, anger him and ultimately drive him on a mission of self healing driven by an almost supernatural desire to destroy all that is trying to destroy him.

As Thirteen Cents moves into its final chapters, the story takes on a folkloric, mythical tone. The stark hyper realism of the earlier account crosses the threshold of magical realism. To escape the horrors existing for him in the city below, Azure makes the first of two ascents up the slopes of Table Mountain where he will spend several nights, have dreams and visions and find, we are led to believe, the beginning of a path out of the life in which he had found himself trapped. The voice that lingers, long after the book is closed, is one of resilience, one of hope.

Sadly his creator could not hold to that same strength. K. Sello Duiker was born in Soweto, South Africa in 1974, raised in middle class black family. His university educated parents wanted to secure a good education for their son. After achieving a degree from Rhodes University he studied briefly in Cape Town where drugs and mental illness disrupted his academic career. He would draw on his experiences in the city to write Thirteen Cents and his other major work, The Quiet Violence of Dreams (TQVOD). Recognized as one of the first important young black voices emerging in post Apartheid South Africa, he ended his own life in 2005 at the age of 30.

The edition of Thirteen Cents that I read, published as part of the Modern African Writing Series of the Ohio University Press, includes an introduction by Stellenbosch University professor of English, Shaun Viljoen which provides an exceptionally helpful context for the placement of Duiker’s work in the evolution of contemporary South African literature along with a glossary of the expressions and slang, mostly Afrikaans, employed throughout the text.

I have not, to date, read many black South African writers, but I brought a selection of titles back from my recent visit to the country. Duiker has long been on my radar and all 600 pages of TQVOD has been stting on my bookshelf for more than a year. I am glad I went back to this novel first, standing as it does in a pivotal context for black South African literature and look forward to reading more of the young voices that have emerged in recent years.

For another positive review of this powerful book, see my friend Penny’s blog.

School Days: Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga

“Our Lady of the Nile: how proudly the school stands. The track leading to the lycée from the capital, winds its way through a labyrinth of hills and valleys and ends, quite unexpectedly, in a twisting climb up the Ikibira Mountains – which geography textbooks call the Congo-Nile range, for want of any other name.”

NileThis first novel by Rwandan born French writer Scholastique Mukasonga imagines life in an exclusive girls’ school high in the mountains of Rwanda close to the source of the Nile. Created by the Belgian Catholic church to nurture and prepare the daughters of wealthier Rwandan families for a future that befits their pedigree in the now independent nation, the lycée offers a well rounded education for a young lady and protection from the undue attentions of the opposite sex. Being a virgin, or at the very least not pregnant, is still key to securing a good marriage. And keeping watch over this small community is a blackened statue of the Virgin Mary enshrined nearby, practically assisted by a rigid Mother Superior, several sisters and a chaplain with a lecherous eye for his female charges. Lessons cover academic subjects, languages, religious studies and finishing school skills such as cooking and sewing.

Our Lady of the Nile opens at the beginning of a new school year. Land Rovers, limousines and buses arrive to deposit students. As one might expect, the girls form alliances, engage in gossip, develop crushes on the French male teachers. Assuming a dominant role among her third year classmates is Gloriosa, the big boned, intimidating daughter of a high ranking Party official. In the Hutu dominated nation, her greatest scorn is reserved for the two Tutsi girls admitted under the quota requirements, Virginia and Veronica.

As the year progresses it becomes clear that for all the Catholic school’s efforts to civilize the young ladies, traditional superstitions, beliefs, and customs have a strong hold over the students at the lycée, blending in with Christian faith and fear. For Veronica in particular, another element comes in to play. An eccentric white man who lives nearby on a crumbling estate, lures her into his obsessive fantasy about the Ancient Egyptians and his belief that the Tutsi are their direct descendants. In her vanity she is willing to entertain his delusions. Virginia is skeptical and uncomfortable by her friend’s willingness to assume a queen’s role and seeks instead to assuage disturbed spirits.

Of course underlying racial tensions are never far from the surface. One student, Modesta, with a Tutsi mother and Hutu father, is caught between the two. She likes to confide in Virginia but cultivates a place of security by playing Gloriosa’s lapdog. Although the Rwandan genocide is still years off at the time this story is set, violence is a real and present threat and each side is aware of where their fate lies and it all comes down to a question of race:

“Because there were two races in Rwanda. Or three. The whites had said so; they were the ones who discovered it. They’d written about it in their books. Experts came from miles around and measured all the skulls. Their conclusions were irrefutable. Two races: Hutu and Tutsi, also known as Bantu and Hamite. The third race wasn’t even worth mentioning.”

As Our Lady of the Nile unfolds, life at the lycée and the adventures of some of the girls in this tiny African nation are sketched out at a slow, simmering pace. However, because each chapter tends to deal with a distinct event, the novel has the feel of interlinked short stories. I did enjoy this book, it reads well with moving, often funny, passages, but the overall effect is somewhat disjointed. I found it too easy to put it down and not pick it up for a day or so. A little more consistency and tension would have helped propel the story toward what is a shocking and violent end.

witmonth15Translated by Melanie Mauthner, the tone is graceful and clear. But I have to say that there was one moment that set the reading experience off and had me wondering where the editor was. Told from an omniscient third person perspective throughout, there is one paragraph that falls into the first person plural, in the first half of the novel. The effect is jarring. One of those times that, as a reader, one wants to have a peek at the original text.

* Our Lady of the Nile was longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award (BTBA) 2015

And her name was Good: Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk

“Poor Agaat. What has my life been? What has her life been? How can I ever reward her for coming this far with me here on Grootmoedersdrift? How does one compensate somebody for that fact that she allowed herself to be taken away and taken in and then cast out again? And to be made and unmade and remade. Not that she had a choice. I even gave her another name.”

This is a variation on the refrain that haunts Milla de Wet’s thoughts as she lies, paralyzed in the advanced stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease, completely dependent on her black servant turned caregiver Agaat to attend to her every need. As Marlene van Niekerk’s magnificent novel begins, the two women are reduced to communicating through eye movements. Eventually even that will be impossible. But Milla’s mind is sharp and brittle in her confined waking hours and Agaat, stalwart and efficient to the end, knows her mistress well. Too well.

AgaatFrom this claustrophobic perspective a remarkably expansive and complex novel of Apartheid South Africa unfolds. Van Niekerk, a nominee for the 2015 International Booker Prize, achieves this by deconstructing the traditional farm novel and weaving together a complex, poetic and devastatingly powerful epic. It is almost impossible to find the words to adequately capture the experience of reading Agaat (or The Way of the Women as it was published in the UK) without resorting to hyperbole. It is, quite simply, an inspiring, unforgettable novel. One that invites and rewards careful reading.

Despite the rolling fields and pastures, river and mountains, this is an intensely focused novel. It is not easy to exist with Milla trapped inside her immobile body, or to listen as she bitterly dissects and dismantles her life – alternately self righteous and regretful – addressing herself in the second person. It is not comfortable to be swept into the stream of consciousness of her internal ramblings that mix obsession over her current state of being with the flotsam and jetsam of her farm woman’s domestic life. Or to discover, through her notebook journals, the details of Jakkie’s childhood and, eventually, Agaat’s early years in her home. By masterfully weaving together these four distinct narrative streams in each chapter, van Niekerk creates an enduring portrait of the complexities of power as they play out within families, between races, and in a country that is in an increasingly volatile political state.

My well marked copy!
My well marked copy!

As the story is fleshed out, we meet Milla in 1948, as a young woman engaged to the dashing Jak de Wet, a trophy husband of sorts, handsome but ill suited to the farming life. Their marriage is increasingly volatile and strained, with both playing their own counterproductive roles out to the bitter end. For many years the couple is unsuccessful in their efforts to conceive. That is where Agaat comes in. The daughter of one of the labourers on her mother’s farm, she is born with a withered arm and, as a result, is subjected to horrific abuse in her early years. Milla imagines a heroic role for herself in rescuing the rejected child and bringing her into her home against the protests of her husband and the sidelong glances of her neighbours. For years Milla treats Agaat as a surrogate daughter – in so far as a segregated society will allow – teaching her to read and write, to explore and appreciate nature, and to master the fundamentals of animal husbandry. And then, suddenly, she discovers she is pregnant. Before the baby arrives, Agaat’s role is abruptly shifted. She is moved into an outside room and a maid’s uniform with strict expectations. But when little Jakkie arrives Agaat, barely more than a child herself, becomes the loving and compassionate caregiver that neither of his parents can ever manage to be.

As the end is approaching Milla is forced to weigh and reevaluate her own life and the fate to which her actions have tethered Agaat. As often as she questions her actions, it is not clear that she can ever stand back from herself and see the big picture. She is, in the end, complicit in maintaining the Afrikaner social order that Jak so proudly believes in even if, in her own mind, she is a martyr. Agaat is at once the angel in the wings, servant and nanny; and the witch still bound to her “primitive” ancestry. She has been molded and created by Milla, but her thoughts remain hidden. Not until the closing pages of the novel is her side finally revealed in the dark and heartbreaking bedtime story she that she and Jakkie shared when he was small.

Originally published in Afrikaans, the translation by Michiel Heyns is simply brilliant. Van Niekerk is first and foremost a poet and her language is filled with allusions to music, children’s rhymes, and literature. The scent of fennel, colours of flowers and foliage, the calls of birds and nosies of farm animals, the guttural g’s of Afrikaans all add to the multidimensional experience of reading Agaat. As Heyns points out in his Translator’s Note: “Agaat is a highly allusive text, permeated, at times almost subliminally, with traces of Afrikaans cultural goods: songs, children’s rhymes, children’s games, hymns, idiomatic expressions, farming lore.” The ultimate result appears effortless, mediating the boundaries where necessary but maintaining a distinct cultural experience. An interview with Heyns in Words Without Borders is an informative and entertaining exploration of the text and the translation experience that is highly recommended for interested readers.

Agaat is bookended with a Prologue and Epilogue in Jakkie’s voice. It is 1996 and he is flying home from Canada because his mother is near death at the beginning and returning after the funeral at the end. He left South Africa in 1985 to escape the political conditions in his native country, and, one suspects, his parents. As I write this, I am about to fly from Canada to South Africa myself for my first ever visit. I am aware of the fraught tensions that continue to run through the country, most recently arising in the literary community. I will be carrying the many complex currents that run through this important novel with me as I leave.