War and remembrance: This Is the Place to Be by Lara Pawson

The key thread running through Lara Pawson’s fragmented, fresh, and frightening memoir, This Is the Place to Be, is an honest account of her years working as a journalist for the BBC in Africa between 1996 and 2007. However, it is much more than that. The epigraph is an extended quote from James Baldwin about androgyny and identity, about the way we are not male or female, black or white, but rather one within the other. Her opening admission (and this book is essentially a series of admissions that unfold, fold, and circle back on themselves) takes off from this observation, reading:

When I was about seven the owner of a watch and clock shop mistook me for a boy. Twenty-four years later, a Nigerian man, following my radio reports from Angola, mistook me for a Nigerian. Omolara was what he called me.

Identity and identification. The personal and the political. These are the forces that push this honest, sometimes conflicted, often unsettling account forward.

The book had its genesis as a piece composed for a sound installation called ‘After A War.’ Pawson’s contribution, Non-Correspondence, was presented as a 22,000-word looping monologue inspired by her experiences as a witness to war in Angola and the Ivory Coast—experiences that she found could not be isolated from other aspects of her life. A series of conversations and encounters over the following year or two led to the expansion of the original work into a book, an intensely personal collection of reflections, insecurities, emotions, and memories. The format is non-linear and, in keeping with the development of the project, it retains the feeling of an extended conversation to which we, as readers, are invited.

Second guessing her confessions and questioning the reliability of her memory heightens the immediacy and conversational feel. There is a sense of self-consciousness that lingers behind the intimate revelations, and a willingness to acknowledge a mixture of emotions as she recounts her experiences at home and abroad, in youth and in the present day. Life is messy. She is not afraid to admit this.

The corruption, devastation, and futility of war form the central focus of this book, but what Pawson manages to bring to light through her accounts and anecdotes is the complexity of sentiments that arise when one is close to the action in the dangerous, yet privileged, position of a correspondent. There is a curious exhilaration, and an attachment to the people. However, she is still an observer, there with a job to do, and home is, ultimately, elsewhere. She will admit that she was, for a time, infatuated with the idea of settling in Luanda taking on the life of a revolutionary , recalling fondly the first time she was called camarada. But, in the end, she must leave. She was disillusioned with mainstream media and the sense that she was contributing to the exploitation of the pain of others. And worried about becoming inured to it:

Another reason I left Angola was because I was afraid that I was becoming too thick-skinned. I didn’t want stop being shocked by what I saw and by what was happening. I was also feeling increasingly unhinged.

Letting go is not easy. Returning to life in London is not smooth. In many respects, This Is the Place to Be is a love song to Angola. She confides that there are times when she wishes she was still in Luanda: “Moments when I still get desperate pangs for the place.” Her affection for the country is palpable, its lasting impact at times unexpected. She tells us:

When I came back to the UK, I started reading books by Samuel Beckett. I had read bits of his work before, in my early twenties because I ought to, but it was only after experiencing real conflict that I got any kind of handle on the man. The way I see it, Angola taught me Beckett.

Against and woven into her experience in war zones are memories of childhood and youth, reflections on race and class, and anecdotes about her marriage and her social idiosyncrasies. The insecurity of identity—being mistaken for a boy, for a transwoman, for Jamie Lee Curtis—is another recurring theme. (Here her observations were of particular interest to me, given the themes that drive my own memoirish experiments.) Although it may sound that all this would make for a disjointed read, the result is quite the opposite. There is an ebb and flow between ideas that link this series of admissions. By allowing the fragments to flow in a manner that retains a natural and organic quality, the tangential transitions in time and place occur in much the same way they do when we are engaged in conversation with one another.

The fragmentary memoir seems to be an increasingly popular means of telling stories from life. However, it only works when it is not forced or contrived. Pawson leaves room for humility, for guilt, for insecurity. This keeps her book real. As the end nears, the intensity builds. We trust her. We are invested. And she leaves us where her heart lies. In Angola.

This Is the Place to Be is published by CB Editions.

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.

Uncovering a treasure in translation – Ondjaki

“Is that what tales from before were like a long time ago?”
“Yes, son.”
“So before is a time Granma?”
“Before is place.”
“A place really far away?”
“A place really deep inside.”
-Ondjaki

Last week I had the pleasure of reading Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by the young Angolan author Ondjaki. This exuberant, magical tale re-imagines a dramatic event set in the community of Bishop’s Beach in the city of Luanda in the early years of Angolan Independence. The country’s first President, Agostinho Neto, has died and a curious, threatening project is rising on the beach. The Soviets are constructing a Mausoleum to the deceased President and, it is rumoured, the surrounding neighbourhood is scheduled to be demolished.

indexOur unnamed narrator is a young boy who lives with his grandmother in a community where a cluster of eccentric granmas are important and valued elders. Together with his friends Pi (known as 3.14) and Charlita, he embarks on a mission to save the day drawing on a worldview informed by spy movies, Spaghetti Westerns and Portuguese language soap operas. A colourful cast of supporting adults round out their adventure including Comrade Gas Jockey who mans a station with no fuel, crazy Sea Foam who is rumoured to have a pet alligator, the Cuban doctor Rafael KnockKnock and a Soviet official christened Gudafterov by the children as a result of his awkward use of the local language.

I learned of this book through the CBC radio program Ideas. In this extended interview, recorded live at the Blue Metropolis Festival in Montreal this spring, Ondjaki spoke of his childhood from which so much of this fantastic tale is derived. He insisted that in his early years, the socialist presence was simply a fact of life – they had a lack of electricity and running water – but it was normal and his childhood was happy. He talked with infectious enthusiasm about his family, his very early introduction to literature and fondness for Marquez, and the deeply ingrained understanding of the magical in the reality of everyday life in cultural mindset of his homeland. Within the week I had obtained and read the book. The tale was every bit as engaging and entertaining as I had expected.

But the greatest find for me personally is the small Canadian publishing house Biblioasis behind Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret. This book belongs to their small and select series of books in translation. Although he is recognized as one of the rising stars of African literature, Ondjaki’s work is not widely available in English to date. Biblioasis has published two of his novels, both translated by Stephen Henighan. I am very impressed by the results. A work like this depends so heavily on playing with language. Puns and intentional misrepresentations that work in Portuguese have to be re-imagined to work well in English and fortunately the translator was able to work closely with the author to bring the work to life with all its magical energy intact. As a Canadian I am embarrassed that I am only just discovering Biblioasis. I definitely intend to explore more of their offerings, both in their international series and in their English language Canadian titles.