“One night, Fanon and I went dancing”: Elaine Mokhtefi, “Algiers, Third World Capital: Freedom Fighters, Revolutionaries, Black Panthers”

We walked in the Casbah, exchanged tales of the various struggles, and felt kinship: we were fellow militants and the future was ours. The Algerians had done it and so could they. (p. 54)

Between the end of colonial oppression and the beginning of post-colonial dictatorship, there was a brief moment of time when it seemed that the world might be made anew. Elaine Mokhtefi had a ringside view of that moment – the 1960s – in a place where it all seemed to come together – Algiers. Jewish-American, “anti-colonialist, antiracist, socialist” (p. 20), swept up in the student-led World Government movement after World War II, traveling to a France that she “had fallen in love with … even before stepping on board the ship that had carried me across the Atlantic” (p. 8), Mokhtefi eventually found her place in the successful, FLN-led movement for Algerian independence. She first helped the FLN in lobbying the United Nations in New York and, upon independence, moved to Algiers to work as a journalist and translator (often with or for the new government). As post-Independence euphoria withered into post-colonial infighting, military coups, and suspicion, Mokhtefi found herself out of favour with the regime, and sent back to France (where she was persona non grata for her support for the Algerian struggle).

Algiers, Third World Capital chronicles the years in between, when Algiers was a hub and a sanctuary for liberation movements worldwide, as it tried to navigate its own way through the world as the capital of a newly-independent African nation. The book features a somewhat unlikely central cast: the Black Panthers. The wing of the Black Panther party led by Eldridge Cleaver lived in Algeria for three years, from 1969 – 1972. Mokhtefi was instrumental in getting the Black Panthers sanctuary in Algiers, and then, subsequently, arranging for Cleaver’s escape (and stay) in Paris. Much of Algiers, Third World Capital is centred around Cleaver and the Black Panthers’ engagement with the Algerians, in the context of broader third world and liberation politics around the world.

This, perhaps, gives the book one of the most diverse and eclectic cast of characters one cam imagine: senior Algerian liberation and government figures – from deposed President Ben Bella to liberation veteran Mokhtar Mokhtefi (whom Elaine marries); the Black Panthers, at the moment of the damaging split between Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton; famous French figures, from Godard (who speaks of himself in the third person, and refuses to help Mokhtefi in finding safety for Cleaver in Paris) to Jean Genet, who disabuses Cleaver of his illusions about “French democracy”), with cameos by Sartre and de Beauvoir. Indeed, this is perhaps the most striking part of the book. Where else, for example, would you find such an anecdote about Frantz Fanon?

He [Fanon] once asked me what I wanted in a relationship. When I answered, “To put my head on someone’s shoulder,” he was adamant: “Non, non, non: stay upright on your own two feet and keep moving forward to goals of your own.” (p. 41)

But while Algiers, Third World Capital is a ringside view, it makes no pretence to be a detached view. In a manner reminiscent of, say, C.L.R. James’ Black Jacobins, Mokhtefi has picked a side, and makes no secret of it:

On November 1, 1954, All Saints’ Day, twenty-two brave fighters launched a series of attacks against French colonial targets across Algeria. Under the name National Liberation Front (… FLN), they called upon all Algerian nationalist organizations, all partisans of independence, to join them. They called on France to negotiate. This was the start of a nasty, deadly eight-year war, which pitted a technologically advanced, well-armed European nation (the fourth most powerful military establishment in the world) against a ragtag army of peasants and barely literate villagers.

Minister of the Interior Francois Mitterand reacted with force: “Algeria is France … the only negotiation is war.” And so the repression began. France dispatched thousands, then hundreds of thousands of troops, both conscripted and enlisted. Close to two million Frenchmen took part in the war as soldiers or police. Torture was systematic. Tens of thousands of men and women were arrested on any pretext and subjected to waterboarding (la baignoire), electric shocks on the genitals, broken bottles thrust into the anus, and summary executions. For France it turned into a “race war”, the ever-burgeoning population their obsession. Children and adolescents – Algeria’s future generations – were eliminated, wiped out, shot, starved, maimed.

Tallies of the number of people killed vary: of a population of nine million, it is estimated that between 300,000 and 500,000 died. According to French sources, over two million men, women, and children – one-quarter of the indigenous population – were herded into concentration camps. Their villages, their crops, and their herds were burned and slain. To quote the historian Alistair Horne, the camps “varied from resembling the fortified villages of the Middle Ages to the concentration camps of a more recent past.”

On the eve of independence, the 500,000 books in the University of Algiers library went up in flames. The fires were lit by the dean of the university and the head librarian, who fled, along with 900,000 other settles, across the Mediterranean to France: they torched the books “so as not to leave them for the FLN.” In Algiers, Oran, Constantine, the bodies of cleaning women, their traditional robes stained with their own blood, lay in the streets. Official buildings were bombed. The Radiology Department of the Mustapha Hospital in Algiers was demolished. Classrooms were destroyed, and whole schools burned. By the time of independence, 2.5 million children suffered from tuberculosis or rickets. According to the International Red Cross, 50 percent of the population was destitute, hungry, and sick. (p. 22)

Like Fanon, Mokhtefi draws a clear distinction between the colonial violence of the French regime (unjustified), and the liberation-struggle violence of the FLN. Unlike Fanon, however, Mokhtefi (perhaps understandably) does not actually spell out the argument, leading to the impression – at times – that the violence committed by her side is either glossed over or simply ignored. This appears at its starkest in her account of Eldridge Cleaver, who was known to repeatedly – and viciously – beat his wife. Mokhtefi acknowledges this (on more than one occasion), but throughout the book, this seems to take little (if anything) away from her estimation of Cleaver; indeed, she expresses more outrage about Cleaver’s mis-description of his time in Algeria in his memoir than about his proclivity towards domestic violence. This strikes a sharp and discordant note in an otherwise stirring story that has liberation and emancipation at its heart.

Algiers, Third World Capital is best read alongside Henri Alleg’s The Algerian MemoirsLike Mokhtefi, a Westerner, Alleg came to Algeria via France, and became a part of the liberation struggle; and like Mokhtefi, he too had his own moments of danger and (ultimately) exile. But Alleg’s memoirs end with Independence; Mokhtefi takes us further, into the post-colony.  Together, the two books capture both the illusion and the eventual disillusion of the revolutionary freedom struggles of the mid-20th century.

Other reviews: The GuardianThe New Statesman; The Publishers’ Weekly; Public Books.

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“How does a body manage to endure the weight of his memory?”: Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s The Secret History of Costaguana

I have discovered what undoubtedly comes as no surprise to anyone: that stories in the world, all the stories that are known and told and remembered, all those little stories that for some reason matter to us and which gradually fit together without us noticing to compose the fearful fresco of Great History, they are juxtaposed, touching, intersecting: none of them exists on their own. How to wrest a linear tale from this? Impossible, I fear. (85)

Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo – set in the 19th century, in a fictitious Latin American country called Costaguana – begins with an Author’s Note. Here, Conrad explains the “inspiration” behind the novel: a story that he heard when he was traveling in either the West Indies or the Gulf of Mexico (Conrad can’t remember which) in 1875 or 76, and an autobiographical volume that he found in a second-hand bookshop twenty-five years later. What gave Conrad the confidence to invent an entire nation, complete with history, society, and conflict, set in the middle of a very real part of the world, on the basis of such … thin material? After the work of Edward Said, we now know that the power exercised by European nations at the height of the era of Empire translated into presumptions of knowledge. Nostromo was simply one strand in a web of discursive practices that constructed the non-Western world in a certain way, the basis of which was invariably an unarticulated set of stereotypes, prejudices, and assumptions.

In the Author’s Note, Conrad then went on to employ a more familiar trope: he invented a fictional book called “A History of Fifty Years of Misrule”, written by a fictional person called Don Jose Avellanos, and noted that “that work was never published–the reader will discover why–and I am in fact the only person in the world possessed of its contents.” Here, then, you have that disarming disclaimer: it is not Conrad who is the author of the story, it is a “local source.” Conrad is merely the transcriber. As noted above, this trope is a familiar one, and it performs a function – to use a word that whose meaning will become clearer later on – of “refraction.” On the one hand, it asks us to suspend belief and assume narrative authenticity, by telling us that the actual story belongs to a “native.” At the same time, it gives that actual writer – in this case, Conrad – a fiction of authority, by ascribing to him the role of detached editor rather than involved author. Through this device, we are then expected to take the events described at face value, rather than through the double-distorted lens of foreign eyes.

All this, of course, operates within the realm of fiction, but – as Said explained in Culture and Imperialism – European fiction is inextricably linked with the practices of Imperial rule (not least in implicitly legitimising it), and Conrad’s own position on the subject is ambivalent (as The Heart of Darkness demonstrates most starkly). Nostromo, at its heart, involves an asymmetrical assumption of authority: authority assumed by Conrad to tell the story of a tumultuous Latin American nation, that could be a stand-in for any one of the countries of the region, and based upon a second assumption – that his subjects cannot write back.

It is that second assumption that is challenged by Juan Gabriel Vasquez in The Secret History of Costaguana. Its central premise will remind readers of Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, once described as “a rebuke to Albert Camus’ The Outsider.” The Meursault Investigation rewrites the story of The Outsider from the perspective of the brother of the nameless Arab that Meursault shoots towards the end of the novel. In The Secret History of Costaguana, we are informed that “Costaguana” is actually Colombia, and that Joseph Conrad – struggling with writers’ block and financial troubles – “stole” the story after conducting detailed interviews with Jose Altamirano, who had fled from Colombia during the tumultuous secession and birth pangs of Panama. Altamirano – the first-person narrator – is now determined to “write himself back into history.” The Secret History of Costaguana is Latin America’s answer to the Imperial conceit of Nostromo, like The Meursault Investigation is Algeria’s answer to the colonial arrogance of The Outsider.

Vasquez’s novel chronicles the bloody conflict between the conservative and liberal factions of Colombia,  their fraught relationship with the province of Panama, and the conflict around the building of the Panama Canal, that would ultimately lead to an American-sponsored uprising, and the birth of independent Panama. The story is told through the eyes of Jose Altamirano, who travels to Panama in search of an unknown father, and despite his best attempts to live an “apolitical” life, is ultimately – and inevitably – caught in the eye of the political storm. For much of the book, the action turns around the catastrophic French attempt to build the Canal, an attempt that would end in failure and ignominy. One of the major protagonists, however, is Miguel Altamirano, Jose’s father, who has been (effectively) “hired” to provide favourable press for the French:

I discovered that over the course of two decades my father had produced, from his mahogany desk – bare but for the skeleton of a hand on a marble pedestal – a scale model of the Isthmus. No, model is not the word, or perhaps it is the applicable word to the first years of his journalistic labors; but starting from some imprecise moment (futile, from a scientific point of view, to try to date it), what was represented in my father’s articles was more a distortion, a version – again the damned little world – of Panamanian reality. And that version, I began to realize as I read, only touched on objective reality at certain select points, the way a merchant ship only concerns itself with certain ports. In his writings, my father did not fear for a moment changing what was already known or what everyone remembered. With good reason, besides: in Panama, which after all was a state of Colombia, almost no one knew, and most of all, no one remembered. Now I can say it: that was my first contact with the notion, which would so often appear in my future life, that reality is a frail enemy to the power of the pen, that anyone can found a utopia simply by arming himself with good rhetoric. In the beginning was the word: the contents of that biblical vacuity were revealed to me there, in the port of Colon, in front of my father’s desk. Reality real like a creature of ink and paper: that discovery, for someone of my age, is of the sort that shakes worlds, transforms beliefs, makes atheists devout and vice versa. (105)

Gran Colombia

At one level, of course, this is a simple – albeit effective – reminder that “fake news” was around long before the era of Donald Trump, and deployed by the “liberal” West for its own, cynical purposes. But I think that Vasquez operates at at least two further levels here. The first is a writing-back to Conrad (and Conrad’s ilk). Descriptions that “touch on objective reality at certain select points” (and it is worthwhile to remember, for the analogy that follows immediately afterwards, that Conrad was a seaman himself), and help “found … a utopia simply by arming [oneself] with good rhetoric” are accurate accounts of precisely what Orientalist writers were doing.

The paragraph quoted above is then followed up with this:

Let’s clear this up once and for all: it’s not that my father wrote lies. Surprised and at the same time full of admiration, over the first few months of life with my father I began to notice the strange illness that a few years back had begun to guide his perception and, therefore, his pen. Panamanian reality entered his eyes as if from a stick for measuring water depth from the shore: it folded, it bent, folded at the beginning and bent afterward, or vice versa. The phenomenon is called “refraction”, as more competent people have told me. Well then, my father’s pen was the largest refractive lens of the Sovereign State of Panama; only the fact that Panama was in itself a place so prone to refraction can explain why nobody, I mean nobody, seemed to notice. At first I thought, as any respectful son would, that the fault was mine, that I had inherited the worst of distortions: my mother’s cynicism. But I soon accepted the obvious.

To parse this, I think it might be worthwhile to take a step backwards: part of Vasquez’s intellectual project is also to write back against the dominant style of the 20th-Century Latin American boom writers, embodied most famously by his Colombian counterpart, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In more than one public interview, Vasquez has repudiated Marquez’s style, and the broader project of magical realism. Here, for example, is what he said:

I want to forget this absurd rhetoric of Latin America as a magical or marvelous continent. In my novel there is a disproportionate reality, but that which is disproportionate in it is the violence and cruelty of our history and of our politics. Let me be clear about this. . . . I can say that reading ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ . . . in my adolescence may have contributed much to my literary calling, but I believe that magic realism is the least interesting part of this novel. I suggest reading ‘One Hundred Years’ as a distorted version of Colombian history.

It is surely no coincidence that the word “distortion” occurs both in Jose’s description of his father’s literary project, and Vasquez’s description of One Hundred Years of Solitude. As the novel progresses, Miguel’s narrative begins to fall apart like a house of cards; and it is difficult not to see how, at an intertextual level, The Secret History of Costaguana tells us that magical realism is an insufficient – and maybe even dishonest – way to tell the Latin American story.

This should not be taken to suggest that The Secret History of Costaguana is written in some grimly realist style where – in the words of P.G. Wodehouse – “nothing happens until page 350, when the moujik decides to commit suicide.” Vasquez’s style is wry, ironic, humorous, and savage. It reminded me of Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound (without the magic), but even more, of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (not least because both writers deal with American imperialism, separated by six decades). Here, for example, is a description of one of the tragedies surrounding the construction of the canal:

After the fire, “sixteen Panamanians were admitted to the hospital with breathing troubles”, wrote my father (the breathing trouble consisted of the fact that they were not breathing, because the sixteen Panamanians were dead. (160)

Or again, in describing his father:

The reason: at that moment he had acquired, definitively now, the famous Colombian illness of SB (Selective Blindness), also known as PB (Partial Blindness) and even as RIP (Retinopathy due to Interests of a Political nature). (145)

Perhaps the closest analogy that I can think of from the region is Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War at the End of the World. The difference is, however, that in its choice of setting, Llosa’s novel still feels at a distance. The Secret History of Costaguana – in dealing with the timeless theme of imperialism – resonates; and nowhere more than towards the end, where the Americans’ cynical support of the Panamanian uprising in order to secure their interests in the Panama Canal reminds one of a century’s worth of similar interventions, continuing to this day.

After all, as Jose wryly notes, in words as current today:

I wondered how to live in peace, how to perpetuate the happiness I’d been granted, without noticing that in my country these are political questions. Reality soon disabused me. (205)

 

 

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Filed under Allusion and Inter-textuality, Juan Gabriel Vasquez, Latin American Fiction, Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory

“If light had a sound, it would be Salia’s voice…”: A round-up of African Writing

For the last few months, I have been editing a series of interviews titled 100 African Writers of SFF,  over at the Strange Horizons magazine. While the interviewees are writers of science fiction and fantasy, the conversations have been naturally broad-ranging, involving discussions of contemporary African writing that goes much beyond SFF. Some of the references have been tantalising enough for me to track them down, and buy and read the books themselves. Quick notes follow:

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossoms is a sensitive, empathetic – and, ultimately – tragic novel, set in the outskirts of Abuja (and sometimes transitioning to the conflict-torn city of Jos). Binta Zubairu, the novel’s protagonist, is a fifty-five-year-old widowed grandmother, survivor of a loveless marriage and the violent loss of her oldest child, and long reconciled to a cloistered existence and a slow exit from the world. All that changes when Hassan Reza, the local gang-leader and drug-dealer, jumps the fence intending to rob her, but falls in love with her instead. Through the course of their transgressive relationship, always teetering on the edge and threatening to come undone, either through the public discovery of Binta’s defiance of social norms or through Hassan’s one-brush-too-many with the law, Ibrahim brilliantly depicts both the suffocating, one-sided sexual repression that corrodes a conservative society, and its inevitable flip side – political violence.

For all its sensitivity, there is very little of the sentimental in Ibrahim’s novel. His account of human relationships is grimly realistic. Love is portrayed in all its messiness, confusions, and petty betrayals, a distinctly earthy emotion. And yet, there is a strangely suppressed lyrical quality to the prose, that almost struggles to make itself heard:

She dreamt like sepia. Like rust-tainted water running over the snapshots of her memories, submerging her dreams in a stream of reddish-brown. (p. 76)

This is immediately followed by memories of blood and violence (recollecting the murder of her son), as though to give way to lyricism is almost to insult the reality of the world (“What poetry after Auschwitz?”). In the riven worlds of Abuja and Jos, where even bare life cannot be taken for granted, love is not – and cannot be – an exception.

Other reviews: The Guardian;  The African Writer

Odafe Atogun’s Taduno’s Song: Also out of Nigeria, here comes a much bleaker and darker novel. Taduno’s Song is a thinly fictionalised story about the legendary Fela Kuti, the Nigerian composer and singer who critiqued both colonialism and the post-colonial State through his music, and was violently targeted for it.  The eponymous Taduno is a dissident singer, who is exiled by the President of his  repressive one-party State. On returning from exile, he finds that his existence has been completely erased from the memories of his fellow-citizens, and even from the memory of the regime and the President – who, suspecting a trick, has decided to hold his partner in secret custody until he is found. With his vocal cords damaged in an earlier police beating, Taduno struggles to recapture his voice and regain his identity, so that he can save his partner. The quest takes him through the city of his childhood and youth, the neighbourhoods that knew and now disown him, the mansions of the rich and the squares of the homeless, and the underground prisons of “Mr. President.”

The austere, pared-back prose and imagery of Taduno’s Song, with its small cast of characters, its refusal to identify its setting in any concrete manner, and its grimly linear trajectory, is reminiscent of Kossi Efoui’s The Shadow of Things to Comeanother “dictator novel” from nearby Togo. The novel’s minimalism sharpens the focus on its single, key theme – the limits of human resistance to concentrated power. Like Season of Crimson BlossomsTaduno’s Song is also a novel tinged with tragedy – but also like Season of Crimson Blossoms, its sensitive account of how an individual struggles against power prevents it from being overwhelmed by tragedy, even if the outcome seems foreordained.

Other reviews: The Financial TimesIndirect Libre.

Out of South Africa, Nthikend Mohlele’s Rusty Bell is something altogether different. This is a coming-of-novel, whose combination of exuberance, self-deprecation, and linguistic pyrotechnics reminded me of Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write About This Place. The narrator – a young, black, South African man – takes us through noisy post-Apartheid South Africa, predominantly through a series of exchanges with his psychiatrist (no, it’s not written as a metaphor for the nation), but also through failed love-affairs, parental discord, and a surprise narrative appearance by a cat. Jagged, unorganised, and almost aphoristic at times, the prose shines brokenly like sunlight reflected off shattered glass. In the midst of which, however, you find passages like this:

Frank could have been a great banker, one of the greatest, if he hadn’t been born at the wrong time and with the wrong skin colour. His acumen with money, his softest of hearts, did not earn him a cushioned life in the South Africa of then and of now. There was a measured pride about him, though, a discreet pride in how he chose to love a world that showered him with doubt and disdain. For as long as I can remember, my father worked as a delivery man for Almond S. Spender Pharmaceuticals, criss-crossing Johannesburg’s avenues, responding to ailments of suburbs and, for extra income, weekend shifts transporting ‘Urgent Medical Samples’ for hospitals.

It was from this – what he called life’s tragic pranks – that he managed to put me through school, that chinks appeared in his quiet pride, fissures that made his thoughts drift, prompting that heavy sigh and yearning: ‘I would have loved to fly aeroplanes, Michael.’ He later joined Harmony Gas & Fuels as a man who fought to be master of his life, but who instead helplessly watched as life and history drained all that was supposed to make life pleasurable, a drop at a time. His was a life not lived, but leaked away, soundless, in the single-roomed tin shack we called home.

As far as love goes – untainted, ocean-current love – none comes close to the one I witnessed in our one-room shack in Alexandra. It was not the kind depicted in lifestyle magazines: of walks along sunny boulevards, boat cruises on blue oceans, nose rubbing in restaurants. It was not, though it had a poetic glow, love spoken about by forlorn poets, not one of horse riding and romantic bicycle excursions into the countryside, not burdened by visits to the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal. It was a love that had learned to ridicule lack, a brazen kind of feeling, resolute, daring even, so ahead of earthly imperfections that it seemed otherworldly: that silent hand holding of theirs, that drinking from one coffee mug when sugar was in short supply…”

This is beautiful writing. It is as though every word has been strained through a sieve.

I came across an excerpt from Rusty Bell and a short story by Ihrahim in a remarkable book called Africa39, which I found lying around in Blossoms Bookshop at Bangalore, last summer. Africa39 is a 2014 collection of thirty-nine short stories or novel excerpts from African writers “South of the Sahara.” The quality is stupendously high, and the collection has a beautiful Introduction by Wole Soyinka, who refers to Mandela’s frisson-inducing line about how reading Chinua Achebe made “the prison walls fall down”, and follows it up with this lush description:

One of my favourite browsing grounds remains, unrepentantly, the garbage dump, or, to put it more elegantly – the flea market, especially of books. Those rows and jumbled stalls and trestles of broned, dog-eared second-hand books, pages frayed with age, evocative of contemplative, even escapist hours in the company of unknown faces, redolent of distant places and exotic adventures both of mind and body – such musty, unruly way stops have the edge, for me, even over the fragrance of newly-minted volumes on tidy rows of antiseptic shelves, with careful labelling under subject matter, author, geography etc. You never know what you will find in the flea market!

To an Indian, this resonates, doesn’t it?

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Filed under Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, African Writing, Nigeria, Nthikend Mohlele, Odafe Atogun

2017 in Books

It is perhaps rare that you discover a new favourite poet and favourite prose writer in the same year. In 2017, I discovered Zbigniew Herbert and Binyavanga Wainaina. The contained charge of the former and the exuberant word-craft of the latter would have been enough to make this year memorable. In addition, though, I discovered outstanding Filipino writing while traveling to the country, came across more remarkable African writing (this reading year, perhaps, was defined by African writing) and – because of my continuing role with The Strange Horizons magazine – read much more speculative fiction than I would otherwise have inclined to make time for.

Among many discoveries, one stood out: this year, I read some writers who performed some truly dazzling pyrotechnics with language: they made language something physical, something that leapt and danced and sang and consumed you. One was Filipino. Another was Zimbabwean. A third was Indian. And the most brilliant of all was a Kenyan.

Here, as always, is my year-end list, and a rough rating (out of five). The usual riders apply (also note: categories overlap. For example, I read three books of SF by Indian writers, whom I have placed in the SF category instead of the Indian Fiction category).

Indian Fiction

  1. Benyamin, Goat Days (****): This novel – about the travails of a Malayali immigrant to an unnamed Gulf country who ends up herding goats after a case of mistaken identity – became a cult classic in Kerala, and its uncompromising, almost savage, realism tells you why.

African Fiction

  1.  Ngugi wa’ Thiong’o, The River Between (****): Last year, I read and loved The Wizard of the Crow. This year I read and loved The River Between. Similar to Things Fall Apart in its treatment of colonialism and its shattering impact on indigenous practices, I actually found it to be a deeper and more moving treatment of the issues (reviewed here).
  2. Amos Tutuola, The Palm-Wine Drinkard (***): The timeless classic that I finally got around to reading this year. Short, not always comprehensible (to me), but I could vaguely see what he was trying to do, and an enjoyable read nonetheless.
  3. Dambudzo Marechera, The House of Hunger (*****): One of the stand-out books of the year for me. I came across Marechera while editing a series of interviews of young African SF writers. His prose leaps and burns like tongues of flame. “My dreams still clung defiantly to the steel wire of old memories which I no longer had the power to arrange clearly in my mind.” (Reviewed here.)
  4. Jennifer Makumbi, Kintu (****): This novel is huge in Uganda, and on reading it, it’s easy to see why. Epic in sweep and scope, with the ambition of One Hundred Years of Solitude as well as its magical-realist elements (Yes, I know, cliched comparison), and the literary quality to pull it off. Highly recommended.
  5. Patrice Naganag, Mount Pleasant (***): In terms of the quality of prose, perhaps not quite up there with the novels mentioned above, but nonetheless, a very interesting novel set in colonial Cameroon, on the cusp of far-reaching changes, with multiple narrators and some very moving moments.
  6. Naivo, Beyond the Rice Fields (****): Published this year, the first novel from Madagascar to be translated into English. Like The River Between and Things Fall Apart, it too deals with colonialism and its impact on the structure of indigenous society, and heightens the moral conflict by focusing on practices that seem intuitively abhorrent to our sensibilities. Much recommended. (Reviewed here 

African Non-Fiction

  1. Binyavanga Wainaina, One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir (*****): No description would do this justice. This memoir about growing up in post-colonial Kenya was, quite simply, the best book I read this year, and one of the best I’ve ever read. Read it. (Reviewed here)
  2. Obi Nwakanma, Christopher Okigbo 1930-67: Thirsting for Sunlight (****): A moving and brilliant biography of the great Nigerian poet, Christopher Okigbo, who was tragically killed while still in his 30s, fighting in the Biafran War. One fascinating thing I learnt from this novel was how some of the great figures of 20th century Nigerian writing – Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and Christopher Okigbo – among many others – were contemporaries at University College, Ibadan, and remained lifelong friends.

The Philippines

  1. Jose Rizal, Noli Me Tángere (***): The Filipino national novel, whose publication had its author executed and also partly triggered the Filipino revolution against Spain. Not a bad riposte to those who say, with Auden, that “poetry achieves nothing.”
  2. F. Sionil Jose, Dusk (Rosales Saga, #1) (***): Takes up the Filipino story at the point at which Rizal leaves off, dealing with the advent of American colonialism, and the doomed struggle of the Filipinos against the American invasion, told through the eyes of a Filipino family.
  3. Miguel Syjuco, Ilustrado (***): This one’s set in contemporary Philippines and the United States, although its title – Ilustrado – is a nod to the group of early Filipino intellectuals such as Rizal, who attempted to create a national consciousness. A bitter-sweet story, well-told, with an absolutely gut-wrenching twist at the very end.
  4. Nick Joaquin, The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic (*****): The stand-out book among the four Filipino works that I read. Joaquin does magnificent things with language, and most of his short story are crafted like fine crystal. As the Preface puts it: “His command of voice, language, and form is absolute. Some of his sentences are like labyrinths that if you pulled a string through, you get this architectonic surety, a marvel… almost maddeningly Manileno, subversively religious, pitch-perfectly bourgeois, preternaturally feminist, historically voracious, Joaquin’s work has a fatality – it simply is.” Strongly recommended. (All four books reviewed here.)

Middle-East and North Africa

  1. Omar Robert Hamilton, The City Always Wins (****): A thinly-fictionalised account of the Egyptian revolution from an actual participant. Very gripping, and an interesting choice of form – first-person narrative interspersed with staccato news bulletins, almost like gunshots.
  2. Habib Sarori, Suslov’s Daughter (***): An interesting Lebanese novel that deals with the faultline between the political left and political Islam in the Middle-East.
  3. Ghada Samman, Farewell, Damascus (***): An unabashedly feminist novel set in the Damascus of the 1960s, with marriage, divorce, and the freedom of women at its heart.

Latin America: Fiction

  1. Machado de Assis, Epitaph of a Small Winner (****): By times hilarious, and by times very dark, this Portuguese novel set in colonial Brazil has some elements of the Spanish Latin American works that I’m more familiar with, but at the same time, is different in unexpected ways. Recommended.

Latin America: Essays

  1. The Paris Review, Latin American Writers at Work (****): A collection of Paris Review interviews featuring Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Mario Vargas Llosa, Luisa Valenzuela and others. As you’d expect, a very powerful and intense read. What struck me was how closely many of these readers were involved with political movements on the left.

Europe: Fiction

  1. Elena Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (The Neapolitan Novels #3) (****): After reading the first two novels of the Neapolitan quartet, I took a year-long time-out to recover. Then I came back and read Books 3 and 4 in two nights. Elena Ferrante, what I can I say?
  2. Elena Ferrante, The Story of the Lost Child(The Neapolitan Novels, #4) (****): See above.
  3. Dubravka Ugresic, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender (*****): With a title like that, how can you be a disappointed? A beautifully broken, almost-aphoristic novel about the aftermath of the Balkan Wars, and the agony of exile. An added bonus are references to Brodsky and Shklovsky, among others. “Here, in Gustav-Meyer Allee, on Saturdays and Sundays, the country that is no more, Bosnia, draws its map once again in the air, with its towns, villages, rivers, and mountains. The map glimmers briefly and then disappears like a soap bubble.” (Reviewed here)
  4. Elena Ferrante, The Days of Abandonment (****): My last book of the year. It didn’t hit me as powerfully as the Neapolitan Quartet, but as ever, there were moments of incoherently painful resonance.

Poetry

  1. Zbigniew Herbert, The Collected Poems, 1956-1998 (*****): I discovered Prague with Zbigniew Herbert, walking around its streets with a copy of the book tucked under my arm, reading it on the sidewalks, in Milan Kundera’s old cafe, by the riverside, and on Petrin Hill. I cannot recall the last time I had a reading experience so distilled and so intense. (Reviewed here)
  2. Mahmoud Darwish, I Don’t Want This Poem to End: Early and Late Poems (*****): Nothing needs to be said.
  3. Ghada Samman, Arab Women in Love & War: Fleeting Eternities (****): Ghada Samman is one of the most interesting intellectual personalities to come out of the mid and late-20th century middle-east, and this book of poems reflects that.

 

Miscellaneous

  1. Alexandra Berlina (editor), Viktor Shklovsky: A Reader (*****): I love everything about Victor Shklovsky – his writing, his literary theory, his intense, passionate life. This Reader, which brings together a chronological collection of his writing, was a brilliant find. The book was full of gems, two of which imprinted themselves in my mind: “Bits of landscape melted into – burned themselves into – Mayakovsky’s poems.  The poet was quiet, sad, ironic, calm. He was sure – he knew – that the revolution would happen soon. He looked at the things around him the way one does then the thing is about to disappear”; and, “all I had instead of a sculptor’s talent was quiet rage and three minutes of inspiration.” (Reviewed here)
  2. Stuart Jeffries, Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School (***): A solid and accessible introduction to a philosophical school that has always fascinated me – the Frankfurt critical theorists. Ranges from Walter Benjamin to Jurgen Habermas, and places them in the context of the anti-semitism of the 20th century, the Second World War, and the post-war liberal order.
  3. Said Samatar, Oral Poetry and Somali Nationalism: The Case of Sayid Mahammad ‘Abdille Hasan (****): I came across this book from a very weird source – by learning that Sofia Samatar’s father was a respected academic, and had worked on oral poetry. It was a great find – a very interesting account of the role of poetry in building Somali nationalism, almost like a non-fiction version of an Ismail Kadare novel.

Speculative Fiction

  1. Ian McDonald, River of Gods (***): I reviewed this for The Mithila Review. An imaginative near-future novel set in a Balkanised India rent apart by religious conflict and water-wars, but with some flaws when it comes to convincing world-building.
  2. L. Timmel Duchamp, The Waterdancer’s World (***): A solid effort by the veteran writer, tackling themes such as pregnancy and childbirth, which are often neglected by contemporary SF. (Reviewed here).
  3. Prayaag Akbar, Leila: A Novel (****): Brilliant, haunting, terrifying novel about an India that is looming over the horizon … or is already here. Echoes of Atwood, but really, a stand-alone work (Reviewed here)
  4. Basma Abdel-Aziz, The Queue (****): Another one on the Egyptian revolution – this one a dark, pessimistic tale about a “Gate” that comes to life and rules a nameless city, forcing people to form a never-ending queue about it. Instantly recognisable. (Reviewed here)
  5. Yoon Ha-Lee, Ninefox Gambit (The Machineries of Empire #1) (***): A far-future galaxy held together by consensus-reality. Characterised by some truly stunning imagery, and world-building complex enough to want to make me wait for a sequel.
  6. Emma Newman, After Atlas (****): A chilling – and brilliant – near-future SF story involving the complete loss of personal privacy.
  7. Becky Chambers, A Closed and Common Orbit(Wayfarers, #2) (***): A sensitive exploration of that perennial SF theme – the human/AI relationship.
  8. Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad (****): A powerful, visceral novel abut escape from slave-state America; imagines the existence of an actual “underground railroad” (which was a 19th-century metaphor for escape routes).
  9. Tricia Sullivan, Occupy Me (***): More interesting (this time near-future) stuff involving humans and AI, this with a sweep that suddenly exploded into galactic proportions.
  10. Lavie Tidhar, Central Station (****): One of my favourite SF works from this year – a set of short stories set around Central Station, a space-port located above historical Tel Aviv, and involving some very beautiful and moving reflection on what it means to be human.
  11. Deepak Unnikrishnan, Temporary People (****): This is like an SF version of Benyamin’s Goat Days. A book about the experiences of Malayali immigrants to the gulf, but through the darkly playful lens of magical realism. What really stands out is how Unnikrishnan treats language – malleable, ductile, and with infectious exuberance. Recommended. (Reviewed here)
  12. Tashan Mehta, The Liar’s Weave (****): A rollicking SF novel set in 1920s Bombay, featuring astrologers and forest-worlds, with some excellent imagery. (Reviewed here)

 

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“… like shards of water and streams of glass”: Binyavanga Wainaina’s “One Day I Will Write About This Place”

I have always enjoyed reading writers’ memoirs, writers’ diaries, and writers’ thinly-autobiographical fiction. Some of my favourites include Octavio Paz’s Labyrinth of Solitude, where I found acute and subtle portraits of the character of a nation; Chinua Achebe’s There Was A Country, where I discovered a haunting political elegy; Dambudzo Marechera’s The House of Hunger, where I met a stinging literary critique of Negritude and Ngugi wa’ Thiong’o’s idea of language and literature; and Jack Kerouac’s Lonesome Traveler, where I traveled second-hand through some of the most brilliant landscapes imaginable.

In Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write About This Place, I found all this and more.

One Day I Will Write About This Place is a story about growing up in newly-independent, post-colonial Kenya. Wainaina tells two stories: the fraught relationship between democracy and the post-colony (not just in Kenya, but in other African countries as well) through the course of the late-20th century, and his own circuitous, round-about and peril-filled journey to becoming a writer of repute and influence. “Uganda, my mum’s country, fell down and broke. Crutch!”, he writes in the opening pages; and that could be an image for the book: falling, breaking, patching up, refusing to fall, falling, breaking again. From Kenya under Daniel arap Moi to South Africa on the cusp of dismantling apartheid to Uganda recovering from the wounds of civil war to Kenya again during the pivotal elections of 2002, Wainaina moves through bits of countries and pieces of the self, always afraid of being hijacked by patterns”, as he and his comrades seek “new ways to contort, rearrange, redesign ourselves to fit in.”

Right from the first scene – a recollection of a backyard football game from childhood – we are put on notice that this will be something out of the ordinary:

She twists past Jimmy, the ball ahead of her feet, heading for me. I am ready. I am sharp, and springy. I am waiting for the ball. Jimmy runs to intercept her; they tangle and pant. A few moments ago the sun was one single white beam. Now it has fallen into the trees. All over the garden there are a thousand tiny suns, poking through gaps, all of them spherical, all of them shooting thousands of beams. The beams fall onto branches and leaves and splinter into thousands of smaller perfect suns.

Wainaina’s memoir bursts at the seams with such rich, exultant, and alive use of language. You rarely feel as if you’re merely reading; rather, it is as though all five senses are activated: you can taste the writing when you read “there is an ache in my chest today, sweet, searching, and painful, like a tongue that is cut and tingles with sweetness and pain after eating a strong pineapple”; you can hear it when you read “his voice carrying Yemeni monsoons and bolts of cloth“; you can smell it when he writes, “life has urgency when it stands around death. There is no grass as beautiful as the blades that stick out after the first rain”; you can see it with all the clarity of a vision when he writes “street upon street of Kenyan shops and textile factories stand disemboweled by the death of faith in a common future“; you can feel your skin in this remarkable passage:

She pours me a drink, she laughs, and I find myself laughing too, like we did when we were young. Twin Salvation Army marching bands on a hot dry Sunday in my hometown, Nakuru, Kenya. They bang their way up the sides of my head and meet at some crossroads in my temple, now out of rhythm with each other. I am thirsty with the effort of them, but my body is an accordion, and can’t find the resolution to stand.”

And sometimes, when the prose has a peculiar quality of motion, you can feel more than one thing: “Russet is an emotion inside me that comes from reading things about horses and manes, and many hairs tossing, and autumn, a set of impressions, movements, lights. These are my concerns.” Wainaina recalls, as a child, contemplating his own thirst after the game of football, and being unable to match the word (“thirst”) to something concrete. “Words, I think, must be concrete things. Surely they cannot be suggestions of things, vague pictures: scattered, shifting sensations?” This brings to mind Italo Calvino’s observation about words as “foretastes of things barely glimpsed, not possessed, presumed.” Just as that is an apt account of Calvino’s writing, so is it of Wainaina’s: his language s never descriptive, but always suggestive, possessing a movement that never allows you to see a thing clearly and see it whole, but rather, as an ensemble of “scattered, shifting sensations.” Or, in his own words, when talking about the landscape from a car window:

I am disappointed that all the distant scenery, blue and misty, becomes more and more real as I come closer: there is no vague place, where clarity blurs, where certainty has no force, and dreams are real.

In Wainaina’s writing, you always remain in that vague place – and delightfully so. The writing is not only suggestive, but atmospheric, almost physical in its suggestiveness:

The song comes to a full stop. A full three seconds of silence as rumba momentum builds. The choral voices are now a sheet of frenzied rubber, Kenya streeeeectches and bleats, held together by the military trumpets and cash crop exports, the future, only the future, laboring bodies, a railway, a mpresident.

The result is that even the darkest of themes (and darkness is inevitably, given the subject matter) are handled with the lightness of what Colm Toibin would call “breath on glass.” The style is a complete contrast from, for example, Chinua Achebe’s elegy to Biafra in There Was A Country, even though both writers are talking about similar issues, at times: betrayed democracy, political violence, widespread dehumanisation in the post-colony. If sadness is the defining quality of Achebe’s work, it is wryness that characterises Wainaina’s. There is a refusal to take anything too seriously – neither the self, not politics, nor the nation. What we get, then, is a treatment that is almost savage in its mockery:

Moi and his cronies are on the radio daily. It is in the papers every day. These are dark days, we are told. There are dissidents everywhere. We have to all unite and silence the dissidents. From the radio, we know that foreign influenzes are invecting us, secret foreign influenzes are infringing us, invincing us, perferting our gildren, preaking our gultural moralities, our ancient filosofies, the dissidents are bushing and bulling, pringing segret Kurly Marxes and Michael Jagsons, making us backsliding robots, and our land is becoming moonar handscapes. They took the rain away, the Maxists, the Ugandans, wearing Western mini sguirts and makeup, they are importing them, inserting invected people, these dissidents, like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and that man called Raila Oginga Odinga.

There is a similarity here with Emile Habiby’s The Adventures of Saeed the Pessoptimist. Habiby’s chosen mode of dealing with the dispossession of the Palestinian people is not grim realism, an elegiac lament, or even satire; but it is a wry, mild, almost gentle self-effacement that, in its deconstruction of the senselessness of violence and cruelty, is no less sharp:

The big man sent his own men to surprise me at my stall one noon. They led me off to prison after charging me publicly with having disobeyed the compulsory stay order. My going to Shafa Amr to buy melons, they said, had threatened the integrity of the state. Whoever, as they put it, transported red melons in secret could also carry radishes secretly and there was, after all, only a difference in colour between red radishes and hand grenades! And red was not, under any circumstances, the same as blue and white. With a watermelon, moreover, one could blow up a whole regiment if grenades were hidden inside it. “Don’t you see that, you mule?”

“But I cut the melons open with a knife so the buyer can see,” the “mule” responded.

“Oh! Knives too, eh?” they exclaimed.

But just like Habiby, there are moments when Wainaina abandons the self-effacing, almost playful tone, and essays a sudden foray into seriousness. These moments occur when he talks about the IMF-mandated dismantling of Kenya’s public education system, about the tribalism that dominates politics, and about how Kenyans – especially Kenyan artists – are forced to represent themselves to the Western world (a subject that he has also dealt with in this wildly famous essay). Their rarity invests them with a moral force, a gravity that compels the reader to pause, think, and then read again. And then Wainaina goes back to image, metaphor, and suggestion, reminding us that even the deepest of wounds can be written about without anger, without mourning, without even irony, but something else altogether:

Wood rots. Wood will not bend in heat. Wood burns and crumbles. Early this century. The searing heat of Belgium’s lust in the Congo insists on new metallic people. We, in Kenya, don’t understand the lyrics – we don’t speak Lingala – but this music, this style, this metallic sound has become the sound of our times.

Or:

Our schooling machine – nationwide, merit-based, proud, and competitive – Kenya’s single biggest investment – is falling apart, and the new season sounds like Band Aid. It’s all over CNN. Open mouths and music, thousands and thousands of white people throwing food and tears and happiness to naked, writhing Africans who can’t speak, don’t have dreams, and share leftovers with vultures.

This should not give the impression, however, that One Day I Will Write About This Place is limited to the troubles of the post-colonial era. Many of the books best moments are celebratory – whether it is celebrating a South African singer, the instant of hope in South Africa ’94, Wainaina’s winning the Caine Prize, or the optimism that seeps through even during factionalised Kenyan elections. Indeed, as Wainaina writes, “if there is a miracle in the idea of life, it is this: that we are able to exist for a time, in defiance of chaos.”

But above all else, what makes this book is its use of language, the wizardry that Wainaina has in putting words together in an assemblage that make them feel more real than life itself. “None of us has her voice,” he writes about his mother. “It tingles.  If crystal were water made solid, her voice would be the last splash of water before it set.” He might well have been describing his own writing.

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“Dragging with us a heavy burden of unspoken words…”: Dubravka Ugresic’s “The Museum of Unconditional Surrender”

“I have no desire to be witty. I have no desire to construct a plot. I am going to write about things and thoughts. To compile quotations,” wrote a temporary exile a long time ago. His name was Victor Shklovsky.

  • Dubravka Ugresic, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender

In his essay on Milan Kundera, “To Forget History“, Johannes Lichtman writes that “while the struggle of man against power is still the struggle of memory against forgetting, this struggle is not nearly as compelling, to Kundera, as man’s struggle to reshape his own past into a livable present.” Lichtman reads Kunder’s famous line – that the struggle of man against power is still the struggle of memory against forgetting – into the domain of the personal, where individuals struggle against the pull of memory so as to shape their past into a liveable present, as against its more traditional reading, where power is the State, and the struggle is to remember.

Memory and forgetfulness, the search for meaning, the need to arrange one’s life into a coherent pattern in the face of shattering events – these are at the heart of Dubravka Ugresic’s The Museum of Unconditional Surrender. With the Yugoslav War as its fulcrum, and theme of exile shaping its form and structure, Museum is an arrangement of disparate, even contradictory genres – memoir, aphorism, reminiscence, quotation, realism, magical realism – “things and thoughts” compiled in no particular order. “Rilke once said that the story of a shattered life can only be told in bits and pieces…”, one of the characters says, in one of the many instances where Ugresic quotes one of Rilke, Joseph Brodsky, or Victor Shklovsky. From life in pre-war Yugoslavia to exile in Germany, Museum, the story of exiles, is told in bits and pieces. “There is no reason why a well thought-out story should resemble real life; life strives with all its might to resemble a well thought-out story,” Ugresic says, quoting another writer (Isak Babel). Museum is a conscious exercise in the failure of either life or the story to approach anything like a “well thought-out” sequence.

From this melange, however, a few clear themes emerge. The first is Lichtman’s interpretation of Kundera’s line – the urge to forget memory in order to rearrange one’s past “into a livable present.” “In the verbal album arranged for her friends,” writes Ugresic of one of her characters, “Mirek’s picture had been touched up on its journey from Zagreb to the American suburbs. The not quite five seven Mirek had grown into six foot Miroslav; the colour of his eyes had changed from brown to blue, and an ordinary Zagreb youth had become an unforgettable lover and the imaginary property of the participants in the hen party. Like shooting stars long since extinguished, here, on the other side of the sky, Mirek shone in his full glory.” This is reminiscent of that moment in Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz, where the protagonist reshapes a brutal wartime rape into a romantic love story, to make the past and the present but more bearable. But, like Fuentes, Ugresic is merciless about the futility of the effort: “… memory resembles a library in alphabetical disorder, and with no collected works by anyone,” she quotes Brodsky, to make the point that “the conviction that we are somehow remembering the whole thing in blanket fashion, the very conviction that allows the species to go on with its life, is groundless.”

The Museum of Unconditional Surrender is a book about exile, and it is for the exile that the two contradictory readings of Kundera’s aphorism become two sides of the same coin. There is the urge to forget in order to rearrange one’s life into a coherent pattern: “…the conviction that we are somehow remembering the whole thing in blanket fashion, the very conviction that allows the species to go on with its life…”; and there is also, of course, the urge to remember – to remember what was left behind:

“Here, in Gustav-Meyer Allee, on Saturdays and Sundays, the country that is no more, Bosnia, draws its map once again in the air, with its towns, villages, rivers, and mountains. The map glimmers briefly and then disappears like a soap bubble.”

Dubravka Ugresic

There are echoes of Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah here, and echoes also of Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun, where Palestinian exiles recreate their cities in the refugee camps of Shatila and Shabra; closer home geographically, that urge to remember – against an “official standard” that seeks to erase – is reminiscent of the work of Ismail Kadare, where “maps in the air” are the only defences against the erasure of the map of reality. But while Kadare is ambivalent about the enterprise, Ugresic is as skeptcial about the effort of collective memory as she is of individual forgetfulness:

“But if the country has disappeared, then so has collective memory. If the objects that surrounded us have disappeared, then so has memory of the everyday life that we lived. And besides, memory of the former country is tacitly forbidden. And when the ban is one day lifted, everyone will forget… There’ll be nothing left to remember,’ I say.”

In this world, then, what are we left with? Ugresic’s tentative – and hesitant – answer, at times, seems to be “art” (“… because the invention of reality is the job of real literature”):

“In a way I think that Nina moved completely into literature. She wandered through the pages of Bely, Bulgakov and Platonov as over the sea and she does not wish to come into port.”

At another point, one of her characters makes the sentiment clear:

What is art, Richard?” “I don’t know. An act which is certainly connected with mastering gravity, but which is not flying.”

This sense of art as means of partial – but only partial – escape from a personal and political reality that is defined by its oppressiveness comes through most vividly in one of the most striking passages in the book, a passage that combines the starkest realist imagery of Danilo Kis with Kadare at his yearning best:

“We lived in a town where the flats were small and the ceilings low; where people were immobile as salamanders, because they were born and died in the same flats; where family histories were remembered and preserved like cheap souvenirs from which the dust was regularly brushed, where even old flags were kept, because one never knew when they might be needed… we lived surrounded by inhabitants whose genetic code was clear and simple: how to survive. We lived in a town where people walked slightly sideways (and looked sideways, like rabbits), their cheek always on the alert because you never knew what side a slap might come from. We lived in a town where hatred was cultivated like a house plant (like an ugly, dusty, eternally green rubber plant). We lived in a town of dark corners, where lives were spent quickly, because they were cheap; where hatreds never quite healed over, and loves were lukewarm; where the curtains on windows were always drawn (so that our neighbour shouldn’t peer into our dinner plates) and always slightly parted (so that we could keep an eye on theirs). We lived in a town where lives were nothing but brief biographies, and life’s turning points just an insignificant touch-up… presumably that is why ‘we walked ten centimeters above the ground.’ In our language that sentence signified a distinction between people. And while the majority endeavoured to keep their feet firmly ‘on the ground’, we defended our right to those… ten centimeters. Being involved with literature helped us for years to maintain a light step.” 

But here again, even as she opens up a window of momentary possibility, in the same breath, Ugresic closes it. She finishes the paragraph by observing that “later we would come down to earth. It would turn out that the force of gravity was after all insurmountable.” Soon after that, she writes of the lives of the seven women characters who attempted to “walk ten centimetres above the ground”, that:

“Before, we used easily to add pictures, colours, symbols to a reality from which we could expect a lot. Now that reality had become dry, which is perhaps how it had always been, but our imagination too lost its moisture… with time we learned that life usually offers the cheaper variant, we no longer had the energy ourselves to illuminate the pictures and words with our own inner glow…”

The Siege of Sarajevo

In our personal quest for meaning, we try and cheat memory to reconstruct an imaginary, bearable past – and we fail. In our political quest for meaning, we try and cheat power to keep memory alive – and we fail. We seek sanctuary in literature from these failures – where we fail a third time, when “the intransigence of reality… [triumphs over] plasticity of language.” [Charles Segal]. So then what remains of meaning? Ugresic’s choice of form – unpolished, unpatterned, doubling and tripling back upon itself, unconcerned with spatial or temporal coherence – suggests that the attempt to force existence into a pattern is itself misplaced. The Museum of Unconditional Surrender possesses an artistic integrity of its own – but that integrity stems from that very acknowledgment of failure. And that, perhaps, is the only – and unsatisfying – answer that Ugresic is willing to give. “But to me he gave tattered remembrance,” she has one of her characters declare. The Museum of Unconditional Surrender gives us tattered narrative, a “story [that] broke, burst, slipped away and twisted like deceit itself” – but for all that, a story. And that, perhaps, is the only consolation.

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Reading the Philippines

I have spent the last ten days traveling in the Philippines – a place that, until now, had never been on my mental or literary map. Geographically, I had gotten close before, with Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound (Indonesia) to the South, and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathiser (Vietnam) to the East. I had had a passing interest in phases of late-20th century Indonesian and Vietnamese history. The Philippines, however, had remained a mental blank; apart from a single occasion when my father had told me about the dictatorship – and overthrow – of Ferdinand Marcos.

All that changed, however, with a dip into its literature, which – as literature always does – unfolded world after world with each successive novel. During my time on the Islands, I gathered that there were three crucial historical moments in recent Filipino history: the 1890s, which saw a successful indigenous challenge to three centuries of colonial-catholic Spanish rule, and an unsuccessful struggle against its immediate successor, the United States; the 1940s, when Intramuros, the old city of Manila, was utterly destroyed by American bombs, soon after which the Philippines gained independence from the United States; and the ushering in of the 21st century into Manila, a sprawling metropolis that was – and is – home to a smorgasbord of cultures, ethnicities, races, languages, and dialects, and continues to exist in an uneasy relationship with its former colonisers. And, after all, as the Foreword to Nick Joaquin’s book of short stories notes, “for the Philippines, an archipelago geographically fragmented, linguistically fissured, occupied by not one but two invaders heralding a fierce but frayed republic dominated by the oligarchic spoils of our split, postcolonial selves – in a land tectonically and climatically doomed to dissolution – for the Philippines, perhaps it is only through its fictions that it can conceive itself a unity.”

In different ways and to different extents, these three moments feature in the four Filipino novels that I read. Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere is the Filipino national novel, the compulsory starting point for all forays into Filipino literature. Noli Me Tangere (1887) is called not only the first Filipino novel, but also the novel that created “the Philippines” as a nation. It was written by Jose Rizal, one of a group of ilustrados – Filipinos educated in Europe, and the intellectual leaders of the incipient independence movement. Chronicling the abuse of the Spanish friars (who more or less ruled the Philippines), the novel had such an impact that Rizal was eventually executed (in 1896) – an event which, in turn, triggered the revolution against Spain.

If we keep its political impact to one side, and examine it as a piece of literature, Noli Me Tangere feels a decidedly uneven work. The plot is simple enough: it tells of a deadly conflict between Crisostomo Ibarra, an ilustrado recently returned after seven years in Europe and determined to work for the progress of his country, and Father Damaso, a villainous Franciscan friar bent upon Ibarra’s destruction. Revolving around these two principal characters and their struggle is an ensemble of sub-plots and subsidiary personages: the rivalry between the Franciscan and Dominican orders, the tension between the secular Spanish authority and the religious orders, the subordinate status of the “Indios” (Filipino natives), the constrained, Catholic-influenced social and sexual mores of the time, and so on. And Rizal has a sharply deadpan sense of humour, which, at times, makes for some magnificent satire. In the opening pages, for instance, we are treated to this:

“In those days Captain Tiago was considered the most liberal of men, and it was known that the doors of his house, like those of his country, were closed to no one but tradesmen or perhaps a new or daring idea.” (p. 5)

And:

“Short, light-skinned, round of body and face thanks to an abundance of fat, which according to his admirers comes from heaven and according to his enemies from the blood of the poor, Captain Tiago appeared younger than he actually was…” (p. 34)

A little way into the novel, however, the enormity of its themes appear to overwhelm the author into abandoning the humorous style for something much more turgidly serious. This is punctuated by numerous references from the Greek and Roman histories, that seem forced at the best of times – almost as if it was a composition for a classics examination. However, as the Introduction warns us, we should avoid the temptation of judging Noli Me Tangere from the vantage point of 2017, and the 130 years of literature that has been written since 1887; quite possibly, both the references, as well as the political disquisitions that are scattered throughout the novel, were fresh and new for their time. For example, the lengthy debate between Ibarra and another character called Elias, where the latter is trying to persuade the former to adopt the method of armed revolution against Spain, while the former – still a moderate – counsels incremental reform – might seem worn out and trite after having seen the same conflict play out for decades in every part of the world and in every decolonisation struggle; for 1887, perhaps, it was something entirely original (I had a similar feeling while watching the anti-capitalist oration in Ibsen’s Enemy of the People).

But even despite that, and quite apart from its centrality to Filipino history, as a piece of literature, Noli Me Tangere remains an important, novelistic account of its times, fulfilling (one of) the goals of literature – to bear witness.

F. Sionil Jose’s Dusk (1984) takes on where Noli Me Tangere left off. At the cusp of being defeated by the insurgent Filipino revolutionary forces, Spain “sold” the Philippines to the United States, and left. What followed were three years of the Filipino-American War (1899 – 1902), during which 250,000 Filipinos died. Dusk, the first volume in a five-part series, features the tribulations of a farming family during the course of the transition from fighting the Spanish enemy to the American enemy. We see a cross-section of the People that is similar to the ones depicted in Noli Me Tangere: Spanish priests, soldiers, Filipino ilustrados, the Indios working the land; unlike Noli Me Tangere, however, which was told from the perspective of an ilustradoDusk is written form the point of view of Istak Samson, the son of a farmer who is initially taken in and educated by a priest, but is dismissed by the priest’s successor, when he accidentally sees the latter making love to the local Captain’s daughter.

Soon after that, Samson’s family is forced to vacate their farm on the orders of the priest; when Samson’s father goes to reason with the priest, finding the latter cold, vengeful and bent upon his family’s destruction, he is seized by a fit of rage, and murders him. Thus begins the family’s long flight from “Spanish justice”, as they flee into the heart of the Philippines, crossing forests, mountains, and rivers, to escape the pursuing soldiers. During the course of their travel through the land, the insurgents rise up against Spain and defeat the forces of the Empire – only to find themselves under the new rule of the Americans; and at that point, Samson finds himself forced to choose between the life of the farmer (which he desires) and the life of the nationalist (which is compelled upon him).

Dusk is written in simple – and intense – prose, the form moulding itself around the lives of its characters. It also has one of the best literary indictments of colonialism that I have ever read:

“I should worship, then, not a white god but someone brown like me. Pride tells me only one thing: that we are more than equal to those who rule us. Pride tells me that this land is mine, that they should leave me to my destiny, and if they will not leave, pride tells me that I should push them away, and should they refuse this, I should vanquish them, kill them. I knew long ago that their blood is the same as mine. No stranger can come battering down my door and say he brings me light. This I have within me.”  (p. 143)

Miguel Syjuco, Ilustrado (2010): After the heaviness of Noli Me Tangere and Dusk, this is a very different kind of novel. Crispin Salvador, a famous Filipino novelist, living in self-imposed exile in New York, is unexpectedly found dead in his room. The draft of his latest novel – The Bridges Ablaze – a damning indictment of the Filipino high families’ historical links to crime, and with which he intended to restore his lost reputation – is missing. Was it this novel that was the cause of his death? His Filipino student – and the narrator of the novel – certainly thinks so, as he embarks on a quest to find the missing draft of the last novel, and also to piece together Crispin’s life for a biography. And so begins a darkly noir adventure through the United States and Manila, punctuated by excerpts from Crispin’s inexhaustibly diverse oeuvre of writing, and flashbacks of various kinds.

Ilustrado’s style is reminiscent of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathiser (although Syjuco’s novel came first). There is the same taut sense of pace, the same half-detached, half-savage treatment of the immigrant experience, the same flair for the short, crystalline, devastating sentence (“Like those phrases, we’re a collection of clichés, handy types worn as uniforms over our naked individuality.” (p. 25); and, “betrayal had wound its way between us like barbed wire (p. 141)), those same, rare moments, where the playfully savage tone is dropped for an instant of something deeper and more serious (“He seemed to understand my thirst for those obscure things that I didn’t yet possess as part of me.” (p. 73) and “Poets lie, though beautifully. Don’t make things new, make them whole.”) – and lastly, those few, long passages of sustained, almost distilled intensity:

“It was January 1970 and we had our fists raised against Marcos. When you’re like that, you observe yourself from outside your body, enjoying the sight of you engaged in heroism among a crowd of fellow heroes. Mutya just went and lay down on the street. I wanted to stop her, but I was being pinned by a cop. The tank pushed toward her. The street shook. The tank didn’t slow. A few feet from her small body, it stopped. All of us watching nearly became Catholic again. Three soldiers got out. They dragged her, screaming, to the side. I should say, it was they who were screaming. Mutya didn’t say a word. They beat her. She lost her teeth and nearly lost her child. It was then that we found out that the baby was a girl. In the hospital, I stood by Mutya’s side, crying, and asked her what had gotten into her head to do such a thing. She said she’s been thinking of the dedication Jose Rizal wrote for Noli Me Tangere. Imagine?! That part about sacrificing to the truth everything. Death was nothing if her country was dying.”

Crispin paused and looked very sad.

“Truly, romantic bullshit, in retrospect,” he said. “And yet…” He wagged his finger. “And yet, ‘No lyric has ever stopped a tank,’ so said Seamus Heaney. Auden said that ‘poetry makes nothing happen.’ Bullshit! I reject all that wholeheartedly! What do they know about the mechanics of tanks? How can anyone estimate the ballistic qualities of words? Invisible things happen in intangible moments. What should keep us writing is precisely that possibility of explosions. If not, what then? A century and a decade ago, Rizal’s prose kindled revolution. They didn’t have tanks during that time, see? But when he wrote both his great Noli and El Filibusterismo, he was more concerned about the present than the future, and far more concerned with both those than about the past. An important clue to writers like you. Rizal’s books were good, but their lyrics on the page were most certainly futile against the Guardia Civil, not to mention tanks. But their lyrics in the hot head and swelling heart of a young reader, well, Mr. Heaney, there by the grace of God goes your tank buster.

“Now, a hundred and ten years into the future, our present, it’s as if nothing else has been written in our sunburned isles since. Oh, sure, they broke the mold with Rizal, Mr Malay Renaissance Man himself. Like China’s Sun Yat-sen. Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh. Rizal’s books are the literary and historical touchstone, so we still like to crow about our revolution, the first democratic republic in Asia. How it was stolen by American backstabbing and imperialism. We talk as if we were actually there! Aiming our Remingtons. Pow! Planting our machetes in the Spanish cabezas. Shhlock! These are our greatest accomplishments and saddest tragedies. Since then, has nothing else happened?”

The sun had disappeared. The footpath’s lampposts were far away, remote, like moons fractured by the branches of the trees. Leaves and twigs brushed our faces. The city seemed but a rumor. (p. 205 – 6)

What’s different from The Sympathiser is that Syjuco tries a number of stylistic pyrotechnics, which don’t always work (the numerous shifts in narrative voice can get annoying), and even drag the novel down at times. However, the ending is a sheer punch in the gut, the most unexpectedly devastating twist imaginable, and that alone – apart from everything else – makes this novel worthwhile.

Nick Joaquin’s The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic (centennial edition, 2017): This set of short stories (and one play, A Portrait of the Filipino as Artist) is an utterly brilliant read. The Foreword observes – and in my view, this is perfectly put – that:

“His style has a term: Joaquinesque. His command of voice, language, and form is absolute. Some of his sentences are like labyrinths that if you pulled a string through, you get this architectonic surety, a marvel… almost maddeningly Manileno, subversively religious, pitch-perfectly bourgeois, preternaturally feminist, historically voracious, Joaquin’s work has a fatality – it simply is.” (ix)

An instance of this unique style is the interminable sentence, whose clauses run into each other, overleap each other, join, part, and join again, and all the while communicating a dense, rich, almost intoxicating sense of place. For example:

… and of his home in Malaga, and of the fountains in Granada – and the intimate streets there: the families gathered on benches by the wayside, and girls’ eyes flashing from behind grilled windows as he rode past with the muleteers to the market, while up on the Sierra Morena were the cypresses and bandits among them and an old, old, bearded hermit brooding in a cave, and down in Ronda the weeds ate the mute circus of the Romans and he and he had come upon some shepherds gathered in silence to roast a lamb but he was fifteen and had no silences, no stillness within him and so went sailing down the Guadalquivir on a raft with two boys, past Cordoba with its conquered Arabic ramparts, past the vineyards and the convents, past the orange and olive groves and deep at last into the shining marvel of Seville, its minarets swarming in the sky and spilling doves and hours – the gypsies everywhere, sailors and merchants everywhere, silks and spices everywhere, taverns and palaces everywhere, with tapestries gorgeous upon their windows, for the king was rising forth in a glory of gold flags and brocades, the jeweled majas crowding on the balconies to drop roses and wave their fans, and himself munching figs and boiled chestnuts and feeling happy, very happy, until in Sanlucar the river ended, the glory ended, youth ended among the whores, and he had gone to Cadiz where the ships were, their tall wings whispering of the flawless worlds in the West but the fishing-fleet had taken him to Palma, where it smelled of clams, and to Tarragona, where it smelled of goats, and he had ended up in Toledo, among the lazarillos, playing thief and pimp and beggar amidst the busy gloom of the wintry imperial city, not having cared to go home to Malaga where now – alas! – he would never return again… (p. 20 – 1)

Joaquin’s short stories are a cross between the half-eerie half-detached tone of Borges, and the relentless wit of Oscar Wilde. They chronicle Manila’s Spanish colonial past, with all its Hispanic undertones, its American-dominated early-20th century, and the post-War devastation. Archbishops rub soldiers with has-been revolutionary leaders, street boys share the pages with new-age religious cults, and in every story there is just that slightest, spine-chilling hint of the fantastic, the other-worldly. And through these stories, Joaquin explores Filipino nationalism, Spanish colonialism, American Imperialism, youth, love, and old age in a shattered Manila, and so much more. As the Foreword – once again – puts it: “His unapologetic, Calibanic choice of English is both rebuke to the occupier and revenge upon it… the Romanism of Chaucer is archaic, but the Romanism of Joaquin is current: it’s about grief under empire.” (xii – xiii)

The last piece in the book – the play – is strikingly different. It reads akin to something by Brian Friel – an intense, melancholy musing on loss and parting, accomplished through tense, taught dialogue, stretched as though on a bowstring. As the bombs of World War II begin to fall, two old women live with their father in their revolution-era Intramuros house, determined to resist all attempts to force them to sell it and move, even at the cost of bankrupting themselves. A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino is about the claims of the past upon us, written in the “grief under empire.” As one of the women tells a powerful politician who has come to try and persuade them to move – an old, revolutionary friend of their father’s, but who gave up the struggle and joined politics – “the sublime is always ridiculous to the world, senator.” (365 – 66)

But not to the world of Nick Joaquin, or to the world that he gives to us in this striking and beautiful collection.

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