“The will to be different”: Kirsty Bell’s Undercurrents: A Story of Berlin

City-writing is always a challenge, and writing about one of the most over-determined cities of the world is particularly challenging. For example, what is left to write about Paris that can still unsettle a reader’s sedimented expectations, after all the novels, memoirs, and films? How is one to write about Paris so that the account will not seem one or more of trite, repetitive, intentionally contrarian, or just trying-too-hard-to-be-fresh (for an answer, see Eric Hazan’s A Walk Through Paris!)?

In Undercurrents: A Story of Berlin, Kirsty Bell take another approach towards documenting the political geography of one of those heavily over-determined cities: Berlin. When you say “Berlin”, the mind already conjures up a host of images: the Wall, of course, occupies disproportionate mental real estate, but there’s also Rosa Luxemburg’s revolutionary Berlin, Berlin of the poets and artists in the Weimar era (the Berlin of Berlin Alexanderplatz), Nazi Berlin (Berlin of the bunkers), 1960s hipster (West) Berlin, and finally, the Berlin of contemporary imagination: a palimpsest with each era written over the previous one, but a palimpsest that comes before you – as in the case of Paris – more or less fully-formed.

In this context, however, Bell weaves together a personal memoir of loss and a broken marriage, the history of her own century-and-a-half old house on the banks of the Landwehr Canal, and the modern history of Berlin itself (indeed, the name Undercurrents is both literal and metaphorical: literal for the number of canals and rivers that flow through and underneath Berlin, and metaphorical for all things beneath the surface, whether it is the history of one human life, or the history of a city). The book thus moves through three frames: Bell’s life in Berlin, the story of a house and those who lived in it, and the story of a city, with each intersecting with, and informing, the other two. There is, of course, a risk in this approach, a conflation in which individual events may get imbued with a significance that they do not seem to merit, or world-historical events uneasily forced into the frame of an individual life, and this risk is especially great when thinking about a city like Berlin, where memory – and its suppression – plays such a crucial role. But for the most part, Bell succeeds in avoiding these traps, holding the frames in tension – albeit generative tension – with each other.

Through the history of the house and its inhabitants, we get an impressionistic view of the economic, social, and cultural development of Berlin over a century-and-a-half: for example, Bell contextualises the seemingly “neutral” architecture of old Berlin buildings – a “front half” that has more light, and a “back half” that has less – within the industrial era, where the back half was rented out at lower rates to (predominantly migrant) workers, while the front half was rented out to wealthier Berliners. Although the idea was to place the rich and poor in proximity with each other, the effect, of course, was a hardening of class divisions.

The Landwehr Canal, primary site of Undercurrents. Photo by Lienhard Schulz.

Then there are the house’s owners: tracing that genealogy through Berlin’s city archives, Bell finds – to her discomfiture – that within the same family that owned the house in the early-20th century, one of two brothers was a paid-up member of the Nazi party even before Hitler’s ascent to Chancellorship, while the other remained absent from all National Socialist records. Through genealogy, Bell explores the impact of the Nazi years upon the city (“Each family, each individual was forced to define their priorities in the face of a regime which allowed for no weighing up of personal ethics or differentiation” (p. 147), and its lasting impact ever since, in terms of memory and trauma. It is in these parts of the book that Bell is at her most empathetic – and evocative: “The Berliners who survived the war years were trapped in a victim-perpetrator quandary where innocence was sucked down into the muddy waters of complicity and ankles were bound by implication.” (p. 184)

Historical vignettes – and characters – walk off and on Bell’s stage. Radiating outwards from her home, we learn about the ruined Anhalterbahnof station, which was once the pride of industrialising Germany, gateway to both North and South – but also the place from where the death trains set out for the concentration camps during the Holocaust (a memorial plaque near the ruin testifies to this). But moreover, as Bell tells us, right behind the ruined station was the Hotel Exelsior, from whose rooms Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht started and edited the newspaper of the Spartacus League. Historical eras separated by just over a decade, but a world apart: through the medium of (political) geography, the book moves a little judderingly between times and places, mirroring Berlin’s own discontinuous history. As Bell notes about Berlin’s relationship with history: “Many bridges to the immediate past were broken and only certain parts were allowed to be remembered.” (p. 190)

The ruins of Anhalterbahnof, with the former Hotel Exelsior – now an apartment block – behind. Photograph by Tonythepixel

The only somewhat unconvincing parts of the book involve various references to feng shui, and spiritual energy that Bell tries to weave into her three frames. It is at these places that the personal and the intimate threatens to overwhelm the narrative somewhat: the importance of feng shui to Bell’s ability to make sense of her own life notwithstanding, its extension to the two other frames – house/neighbourhood/canal, and Berlin itself, feel unwieldy, and occasionally forced.

Ultimately, the success of a “city-book” of this kind – I feel – turns upon how it makes you feel when you walk upon the streets of the city itself. I spent two days wandering up, down, and around the Landwehr Canal while reading Undercurrents. It was a deeply immersive experience: whether in the field around Gleisdeieck station (beautifully described by Bell as a place whose “success lies in its suggestion of activities but non-proscriptive layout” (p. 283), by the canal (“No sunrise over the mountains or sunset at the lake can outshine the sweet dawns and dusks over the canal’s spring and autumn foliage”, (p. 38) Bell quotes), or by the ruins of the Anhalterbahnof, it made Berlin past and Berlin present come alive in different ways (I felt like I could almost see Rosa Luxemburg through the glazed windows of the former hotel), an experience both heightened and deepened by Bell’s three frames, and her evocative language. Undercurrents shows you that for a city like Berlin, the ocean of stories never really dries up!

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“Nothing is whole or holy, least of all African literature”: They Called You Dambudzo, by Flora Veit-Wild

I first read (and reviewed) Dambudzo Marechera’s The House of Hunger a few years ago, and fell in love with this strange, indefinable, and incandescent piece of work. His observations on language – and the use of English by outsiders (master’s tools/master’s house) to serve their purpose – were acute and brilliant, and there was something iconoclastic about the way he took on legendary figures such as Ngugi in his claim that “if you are a writer for a specific nation or a specific race, then fuck you.”

Over the years, in my foray into literature from the African continent, Marechera’s name cropped up repeatedly, a long shadow (even though the man himself died young – in the 1980s – of AIDS). So when I heard about the existence of “They Called You Dambudzo”, a memoir by Flora Veit-Wild, I picked it up immediately, and ended up reading it in an extended twenty-four hour sitting. It reminded me of some of the other great literary biographies and memoirs in the field: Obi Nwakanma’s “Thirsting for Sunlight” (about Christopher Okigbo, who also died young), and Binyavanga Wainaina’s “One Day I Will Write About This Place.

Flora Veit-Wild is a German professor of African literature, the editor and executor of Marechera’s “literary estate” (so to say), and also – as it turns out – was romantically involved with Marechera while living in Zimbabwe in the 1980s. This gives the memoir a particularly unique flavour: Flora Veit-Wild plays the roles of biographer, critic, and lover – all at once – while also negotiating the whole range of issues that come with being a White person writing about a Black writer. For the most part, she walks the line very well.

In the first part of the memoir, we get a snapshot of Veit-Wild’s childhood and youth in post-war West Germany, her revolutionary activities during the 1968 student uprisings, the black-listing of her and her husband from academic jobs because of their association with militant student radicalism, and their final departure to a newly-independent Zimbabwe to – in a sense – rebuild their lives. This part of the memoir may not be all that interesting to those focused on Marechera, but I found it a fascinating window into what it meant to be a left-wing radical student in post-war Europe, and the price that was paid by those who were genuinely committed to the political cause (or, a range of causes – from being anti-Vietnam war to campaigning for the Zimbabwean freedom struggle).

Flora Veit-Wild

The first part of the memoir also informs the rest of it: Veit-Wild’s intense engagement with – and ultimately estrangement from – revolutionary politics creates an “elective affinity” between her and Marechera, who was one of those few Zimbabwean writers who didn’t buy into the nationalist project upon Zimbabwe’s independence, and stood outside it as a critic – a position that triggered his own estrangement and alienation from the post-colonial Zimbabwean literary scene.

Veit-Wild’s account of her romance with Marechera is the most intriguing part of this memoir. Marechera as an individual does not come out of it particularly well – indeed, his behaviour towards both Veit-Wild and Veit-Wild’s husband, Victor – both of whom allow him to stay at their home for an extended period – is full of emotional blackmail and verbal violence, which at times makes for difficult reading. This seems to be a courant with Marechera’s personality in general, and his behaviour towards the world at large – simply distilled and amplified in the context of his intense personal relationship with Veit-Wild and Victor. However, the really interesting part is not that; it is that this period coincides with Marechera’s most fruitful literary output, some of which is inspired by his equation with Veit-Wild. Veit-Wild herself switches between the roles of lover and critic – for example, at the height of their romance, he sits down with her for an extended interview about his literary “philosophy” and style, with both of them seemingly able to seamlessly transition into this more arms-length, “professional” relationship. What is equally interesting is that through Veit-Wild’s eyes, we get an entirely fresh perspective into some of Marechera’s most famous poetry, which was written for her – or at least, written with her in mind. I don’t think I know of any other memoir with this unique positioning – where the memoirist is the subject’s literary critic and lover, at the same time!

The final part of the memoir follows Marechera’s death of AIDS (it turns out that he probably passed on HIV to both Veit-Wild and Victor), Veit-Wild’s return to Germany and her taking up a Humboldt University professorship, her guardianship of Marechera’s literary through editing and publishing work left unfinished or unpublished upon his death, and her own struggle with clinical depression. As a story of a complete life – or rather, three complete lives, if you count Marechera and Victor – this is an account that is filled with generosity, warmth, and humanity.

Perhaps the only issue where the memoir stumbles a bit is Veit-Wild’s engagement with the question of race. As I write at the beginning, Marechera is Black; Veit-Wild is White. There are fraught issues here that cannot be brushed aside. Veit-Wild seems to move between being almost *too* self-aware about this, to not being self-aware *enough*. At particularly difficult moments, she appears to dismiss the issues too quickly; and at other – seemingly more innocuous times – agonise at great length about the racial equation between them. This is understandable, but it does add a few jarring notes to an otherwise beautiful memoir.

But perhaps that is the point. After all, as Marechera wrote, “nothing is whole or holy, least of all African literature.”


See also: “On Dambudzo Marechera: The Life and Times of an African Writer“, by Helon Habila; Me, Dambudzo: A Personal Essay“, by Flora Veit-Wild.

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Filed under African Writing, Zimbabwe

2021 in Books

It is the end of 2021. Here, as always, is a brief summary of the books I read this year, organised (inadequately) by geography and genre, and even more inadequately, by a rough rating system.

A. Continent: Africa

  1. S.O. Kenani, For Honour and Other Stories (****): A set of compelling, dark – and sometimes – brutal short stories set in Malawi. This was my first introduction to Malawian fiction. Longer review on Goodreads.
  2. Ayesha Haruna Attah, The Hundred Wells of Salaga (*****): One of my favourite reads of the year: this novel of colonialism and resistance from Ghana has one of the most memorable protagonists I’ve ever come across. It also has some of the most beautiful lines I read this year. Full review on blog.
  3. Mukoma wa Ngugi, Unbury Our Dead With Song (*****): A gorgeous novel set around the Ethiopian musical form, the tizita, and one man’s hunt for its roots. Review on blog.
  4. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, The Dragonfly Sea (*****): Very different from Dust – this one moves between the Kenyan island of Pate, China, and Turkey, and is a coming-of-age story; but like Dust, so atmospheric, and filled with lines to die for. Review on blog.
  5. Peter Kimani, Dance of the Jakaranda (****): A generational novel, moving between the building of the railroad that created the colony of Kenya, and the fraught moment of Kenyan independence – and about how the choices made by one generation echo down to the next and the next. Has one of the most moving passages on migration and exile that I’ve ever read. Full review on blog.

B. Continent: Asia

  1. Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Committed (****): The sequel to The Sympathizer – with the action now moving to France – manages to somehow be even more darkly funny, even more visceral, and even grimmer than the original. Longer review on Goodreads.

C. Continent: South America

  1. Ariel Dorfman, Darwin’s Ghosts (*****): A brilliantly unique novel about colonialism, told from the perspective of photographs (yes!). If you’re expecting something along the lines of Heading North, Looking South or Death and the Maiden – well, prepare to be surprised. This is more Laurent Binet meets all the Latin American magical realists. Longer review on Goodreads.
  2. Machado de Assis, 26 Short Stories (***): Epitaph of a Small Winner was a brilliant novel, but I found this story collection a little … uneven.

D. Continent: Europe

  1. Laurent Binet, Civilisations (****): A fascinating alt-history novel about Columbus failing in his voyage and, instead, the Incas and the Aztecs “conquering” Europe, with everything reversed. Really, really good. Longer review on Goodreads.
  2. Laurent Binet, HHhH (*****): A fictionalised account of the real-life assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s right-hand man, by two Czech partisans in Prague. Binet tells this brilliantly: even though you know what happened, this one has you on the edge of your seat till the last page. Also, such a deeply moving account of courage in the face of impossible odds.
  3. Danilo Kis, The Attic (***): I loved A Tomb For Boris Davidovich, but The Attic felt very, very inaccessible (pun not intended!) – a glossary at the end hinted that there were a whole bunch of inter-textual references (especially to Serbian history and culture) that I was missing, so I think this is more of a me thing than the book thing.
  4. Ismail Kadare, Agamemnon’s Daughter: A Novella and Stories (***): Kadare is one of my favourite novelists, but this is not one of my favourite collections: a little too violent and a little too on-the-nose at times. Longer review on Goodreads.
  5. Dubravka Ugresic, Baba Yaga Laid an Egg (***): I loved The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, but I have to say, this contemporary retelling of the Baba Yaga legend went over my head a bit.
  6. Simon Sebag Montefiore, One Night in Winter (*****): An absolute page-turner of a historical novel, set in Stalin’s Soviet Union, and the machinations that follow when a children’s prank goes horribly wrong. This was *spine-chilling* at various points, and the ending was strangely moving.
  7. Leonardo Sciascia, The Knight and Death and One Way Or Another (***): Yet another one of those cases – there were a lot this year – where I bought an author’s second book because I loved the first one (in this case, Equal Danger), but the second one didn’t quite land in the same way. I suspect that it’s because there is a *lot* of thick context at work in this set of novella and short stories, regarding mid-20th century Italian history, politics, and culture, and without any signposting, it gets a little hard for a non-Italian to find their bearings. I could *tell* that a lot of references – especially in One Way Or Another – were passing clean over my head.
  8. Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You (****): I actually liked this a lot. In an uncomplicated way.
  9. Michael Frayn, Copenhagen (*****): Re-reading this masterpiece is an annual tradition. I never fail to tear up at the end.
  10. Benjamin Labatut, When We Cease To Understand The World (****): All kinds of pyrotechnics in this one – from the history of cobalt blue (including an eerie Nazi history) to Grothendiek to Schrodinger to Heisenberg – it’s as if Michael Frayn was writing this on drugs!

E. Region: Middle-East

  1. Hoda Barakat, Voices of the Lost (****): The legendary Lebanese writer’s latest offering has one of the most intriguing premises I’ve ever come across: a person writes a letter, and leaves it somewhere unsent; another person finds it, which prompts them to write their own letter, which they leave somewhere unsent; and so on, for six people; part two is the same stories, told from the perspectives of those who were meant to receive the letters, but never do; and part three is from the p.o.v. of the postman. This book didn’t *always* come together, but it’s worth a read just for the premise. Longer review on Goodreads.
  2. Sonallah Ibrahim, Warda (*****): One of my utter favourites of the year. Warda straddles two historical epochs – the contemporary middle-east and the Dhoofar Revolution in Oman of the 1960s and 70s (a revolution that has been almost erased from history); and the story revolves around eponymous Warda, a revolutionary who disappeared during the Dhoofar struggle, but whose shadow continues to haunt the present. This was utterly moving.

F. Science Fiction

  1. S.B. Divya, Machinehood (****): A compelling, near-future science fiction novel about an almost totally gig-ified economy, and a mysterious organisation advocating for the rights of machines. Longer review at Strange Horizons.
  2. Adam Roberts, Purgatory Mount (****): Extremely cerebral and extremely sharply-written, as we expect from Roberts.
  3. Aliya Whitely, Skyward Inn (*****): I don’t quite know how to describe this. In a good way.
  4. Octavia Cade, The Impossible Resurrection of Grief (*****): A beautiful, haunting novella about climate change, the terrain of physical – and other kinds – of loss, and the nameless melancholy (or the “twilight” of the soul that Amjad Nasser wrote about) that comes with losing something without quite knowing what it is that you’ve lost. As an added bonus, you’ll learn a lot about jellyfish.
  5. Adrian Tchaikovsky, Shards Of Earth (****): Operatic science fiction from one of the modern greats, about the relationship between humanity and a super-intelligent – and seemingly super-violent – race of “Architects”.
  6. Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams (*****): A classic, but one that has aged extremely well. This series of vignettes is set in worlds like ours, with one crucial difference: time works in a different way in each. One of the stand-out reads of the year. Longer review on Goodreads.
  7. Arkady Strugatsky, One Billion Years To The End of the World (*****): Utterly insane.
  8. Iain M Banks, Surface Detail (****): I had a bit of a return-to-the-Culture phase in the middle of this year, starting with Surface Detail. This one has arguably one of the most fascinating premises in the series – that with the uploading of consciousnesses, civilisations start to invent literal “hells” – which then enter into a virtual “war” with the no-hells side, with the future of the afterlife at stake. Longer review on Goodreads.
  9. Iain M Banks, Excession (*****): This is, by some stretch, my favourite Culture novel (so far). When Banks keeps the Hollywood set-piece space battles to a minimum, and focuses instead on the big ideas and AIs chuntering with one another, he can be so uniquely compelling. This one really put the “opera” in space opera.
  10. Iain M Banks, Look To Windward (****): The most haunting of the Culture novels. The premise – where a Mind (the Culture AIs) lets a star be destroyed – and billions of lives lost – for the greater good, and then has to watch the light from the supernova reach its home-world eight hundred years later – is near-cosmic in its melancholy. Slightly conflicted about the ending, which did not seem to be entirely earned.
  11. Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed (*****): A re-read of the old classic after a gap of fifteen years, and my gosh, what an experience it was to come back to this one as an adult! Full review on blog.
  12. Becky Chambers, A Psalm for the Wild-Built (****): A post-anthropocene novella: what happens if humanity does survive the climate catastrophe – and learns all the right lessons from it? Full review on Strange Horizons.
  13. Una McCormack, The Autobiography of Mr. Spock (*****): An “autobiography” of my favourite Star Trek character, by my favourite Star Trek author – what’s not to love? Spock’s voice comes through beautifully in this.
  14. Essa Hansen, Azura Ghost (*****): The sequel to the wonderful Nophek Gloss, due in March 2022 (I read an ARC). Hansen juggles multiple universes as if they were fireballs, without ever dropping a single one. Like the best of science fiction, Azura Ghost asks the questions that we often fear to ask ourselves: about the extent of our responsibility in this world, what it means to choose, the limits of empathy, and the inevitability of loss; and like the best of science fiction, it asks them both at the scale of the cosmos, and at the level of a single human heart. The novel’s ambition is upheld by soaring prose, which does full justice to the scope of Hansen’s imagination. 
  15. Alastair Reynolds, The Prefect (****): My first Reynolds, and it was excellent. The moral stakes were reminiscent of some of the best moments in Iain M Banks (I was reminded of Look To Windward on more than one occasion), and The Prefect combines that with a whodunnit/detective story in the mould of After Atlas. The most fascinating part of the book is the political structure of the Glitter Band (direct democracy via instant polling on ten thousand “habitats”), and my only complaint is that I *really* wish that the book explored the political structure of these ambiguous utopias a little bit more.

G. Fantasy

  1. Yaroslav Barsukov, Tower of Mud and Straw (****): A bleak and atmospheric novella, part-Gothic part-Tower of Babel retelling; recommended. Longer review on Goodreads.
  2. Ahmed Naji, Using Life (***): An absolutely wild – if sometimes borderline chaotic – fantasy novel set in near-future Egypt. I’d recommend this for the sheer originality – and for the fact that the author spent two years in an Egyptian jail for “obscenity” (fantasy writers don’t often get imprisoned!).
  3. Nghi Vo, Empress of Salt and Fortune (****): An enjoyable novella about tyranny, revolution, and its consequences.
  4. E.J. Beaton, The Councillor (****): A lush and vivid court-fantasy set in what appears to be an alt-medieval Italy, with a sprinkling of magic and some battle scenes to die for (not literally). Stacks up favourably against writers such as Guy Gavriel Kay.
  5. Aliette de Bodard, Fireheart Tiger (****): Another really good novella that deals with unequal power relations in the political and the personal domains, and what happens when the two clash.
  6. Fabio Fernando, Love: An Archaeology (****): A collection of richly-imagined – and very intelligent – fantasy and horror stories, set in and around (but not exclusive to) Brazil.
  7. Suyi Davies Okungbawa, Son Of The Storm (****): An enjoyable and original West-African-inspired fantasy story. Full review at Strange Horizons.
  8. Katharine Addison, Witness for the Dead (****): A finely-crafted and very engaging novel; it looked nailed-on to be a five-star all the way through until the last thirty pages, when a somewhat rushed ending left me with the slightest hint of dissatisfaction. I will note that I have not read the other novel set in this universe – The Goblin Emperor – and that might have taken away from my enjoyment a bit.

H. Hindi Literature

  1. Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, Rashmirathi (*****): Even on an n-th re-read, this epic poem about the life of Karna never fails to move.

I. Indian Literature (in English)

  1. Krupa Ge, What We Know About Her (****): Published this year, a deeply thought-provoking novel about music, history, constrained lives, and the pull of the past upon the present.

J. History

  1. Alice Baumgartner, South To Freedom (*****): A meticulously researched and movingly written account of the American slaves’ attempts to escape to freedom south of the border, to Mexico. Longer review on Goodreads.
  2. Sudhir Hazareesingh, Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Touissant Louverture (****): A granular – if at times slightly dense – biography of Touissant, and an excellent companion to Black Jacobins. Longer review on Goodreads.
  3. H.A. Hellyer, A Revolution Undone (***): An interesting – if at times, somewhat ambiguous – account of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, and its aftermath. Longer review on Goodreads.
  4. Mark Goodale, A Revolution in Fragments: Traversing Scales of Justice, Ideology, and Practice in Bolivia (*****): A brilliant study of the social movements that led to the framing of the plurinational Bolivian Constitution of 2009, and the struggles around the fulfilment of its promises. Even more poignant after the coup of 2019 and the return of MAS. One of the stand-out reads of the year. Longer review on Goodreads.
  5. David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire (*****): An authoritative history of the Mau-Mau rebellion. Meticulously researched, and told with a detachment that makes the story all the more chilling. And yes, the British do not come out of it well.
  6. Daniel Branch, Kenya: Between Hope and Despair, 1963 – 2011 (*****): Thorough, comprehensive, and detailed.
  7. Michaela Wrong, It’s Our Turn to Eat (*****): Occasionally disjointed, but overall, a tautly-written book that tells a compelling story about political corruption in contemporary Kenya.

K. Political Economy

  1. Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (*****): One of those perspective-altering books. Goodale traces the rise of coal, and its dominance as a function of the attempts of the early capitalists’ to break the power of labour – and the consequences that still reverberate to this day. Longer review on Goodreads.
  2. Eden Medina, Cybernetic Revolutionaries (*****): A brilliant account of the doomed Project Cybersyn, Salvador Allende and Stafford Beer’s famous attempt to merge democratic management of the economy with cybernetics. This is a book about what-could-have-been – and maybe, after the recent Chilean elections, of what-still-could-be! One of the reads of the year. Longer review on Goodreads.
  3. Leslie Kern, Feminist City: A Field Guide (****): As the name suggests. An interesting – if at times too American and Euro-centric – book.
  4. Pablo Sendra & Richard Bennett, Designing Disorder: Experiments and Disruptions in the City (*****): A brilliant set of essays on political geography and urban spaces.
  5. Thea Riofrancos, Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador (*****): In many ways, this excellent book does for Ecuador what Mark Goodale’s book does for Bolivia: position the recent history of Ecuador – including the framing of its progressive Constitution – within the global debate on extractivism and resource exploitation. Poignant and moving at times, and immensely frustrating (the story, not the writing) at others. Essential. Longer review on Goodreads.
  6. Ellen Meiksins Wood, Empire of Capital (*****): A controversial – yet excellent and lucidly written – history of capitalism.
  7. Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch (*****): I know the historical account in this book has been criticised, but I found it to be a really excellent read that linked the origins of capitalism in Western Europe with the history of the witch-hunt, and the sexual division of labour. Longer review on Goodreads.
  8. Manu Saadia, Trekonomics (****): A really entertaining political-economy account of what makes the Star Trek universe work, and how post-scarcity isn’t simply a get-out-of-jail-free card.

L. The Natural World

  1. Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures (*****): This is a stunning book about fungi, their unique ways of being, and their importance to the ecosystem. From lichens that can survive sub-zero temperatures to truffles hunted in the wild, from the blurring of boundaries between individual and group identity to the “wood wide web”, this is a beautifully written piece of work, and has spared what I think will be a lifelong interest in fungi.
  2. Godfrey Smith-Peter, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (****): This one did for me with respect to octopi what Sheldrake’s book did with respect to fungi: a the birth of a lifelong fascination. Longer review on Goodreads.

M. Essays

  1. Josef Czapski, Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp (*****): A book whose title does a better job of describing it than any summary can.
  2. Alaa abd-el Fattah, You Have Not Yet Been Defeated (*****): Alaa’s prison essays – written between 2011 – 2021, chronicling the Egyptian Revolution and its aftermath – are, quite simply, some of the best pieces of writing I’ve read in recent times. This would be the one book from 2021 that I would ask everyone to read. Full review at The Wire.

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Re-reading The Dispossessed

As with many other people, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed was both a gateway into science fiction for me as a child, as well as a very early political textbook. The bleak egalitarianism of Anarres, the striking contrasts with Urras, the scenes of the general strike, and the character of Shevek himself – all these stayed with me for many years, even as the details grew hazy in memory. Earlier this year, I returned to the book, after the passage of a decade and a half. It was a fascinating experience to come back to such a formative piece of work as an adult, and now with a long-standing interest in philosophical anarchism. Of course, The Dispossessed is canon; it’s been analysed extensively over the last fifty years. I don’t intend to add more words to that corpus, so this post is essentially a set of reflections upon re-reading the book.

For me, the most striking part of The Dispossessed is the level of detail with which Le Guin constructs the anarchist society upon Anarres, much of which – I think – has held up particularly well over the decades. At various points in the book – whether as vehicles for advancing the plot, or just as passing mentions in conversations or through the narrative voice – the spheres of production, reproduction, and distribution are all touched upon: from urban infrastructure to art, from supply chains to the naming of children – it’s all there. Much of the discussion, indeed, speaks to radical political texts and arguments that (at least in some cases) were contemporaneous with – or written after – The Dispossessed.

For example, in one of the first descriptions of the urban centre of Abennay, we are told that: “Abennay was poisonless: a bare city, bright, the colours light and hard, the air pure. It was quiet. You could see it all, laid out as plain as spilt salt. Nothing was hidden.” (p. 84) This reminded me powerfully of Pablo Sendra and Richard Sennett’s book, Designing Disorder: Experiments and Disruptions in the City. Sendra and Sennett speak of “publicising infrastructure” as an element of radical urban design, or to “unblackbox infrastructure through architectural design.” (Sendra & Sennett, p. 65) The basic idea is to mitigate differences in power that arise out of urban infrastructure being kept out of sight – and opaque – to those who actually live in the city, and to provide the collective with a measure of control over where the resources are coming from and how they are used. Le Guin does not, of course, get into the technicalities of the urban architecture of Abennay, but the novelist’s task is suggestion, and in that sense, the words “you could see it all, laid out as plain as spilt salt … nothing was hidden” indicate how the anarchist foundations of Anarres also constitute the – literal – foundation of its cities. While Verso has published Designing Disorder in 2020, the original – solely authored by Sennett – was published in 1970 – four years before The Dispossessed. I can’t but help wondering if Le Guin was inspired in some way by the Sennett’s radical infrastructural proposals.

The art of Anarres is equally interesting. Shevek’s intense reaction upon attending his first concerts in Abennay sets in motion a chain of thought that leads us to this observation: “Thus, architecture had developed, early and freely, a consistent style, pure and plain, subtle in proportion. Painting and sculpture served largely as elements of architecture and town planning. As for the arts of words, poetry and story-telling tended to be ephemeral, to be linked with song and dancing; only the theatre stood wholly alone, and only the theatre was ever called “the Art” – a thing complete in itself.” (p. 131) This reminded me immediately of Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s book, Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology – also, coincidentally, published in 1970! While that book is primarily about science, its core point – that the division (and hierarchy) between “intellectual” and “manual” labour, where the former is sought to be abstracted from social relations – is a construction of capitalism, applies equally to the distinction between artistic and manual labour. Sohn-Rethel’s proposal for a world in which intellectual labour is “re-embedded” – so to say – within the social relations of production appears to have been accomplished with respect to art on Anarres, as the quoted passage shows (although there is some chafing about it). Once again, I wonder if these ideas – then in wide circulation among leftists and radicals – formed part of the base upon which Le Guin built Anarres.

A third feature of Anarres is that de-growth is very evidently a part of material life – and not just something determined by the harshness of the terrain. The origins of the term “de-growth” are, of course, much more recent (in SF, the idea has been most recently articulated in Becky Chambers’ A Psalm for the Wild-Built). We are told this early on when the complex organicism of Anarres is described, as well as its apparent liberation from the commodity form and the capitalist imperative of ceaseless growth. There is, therefore, a strong political economy thread running through The Dispossessed, and I thought it made a particularly vivid re-appearance later on, after the protest marches on Urras: “.. the revolutionists in Nio, they come from the same tradition. They weren’t just striking for better wages or protesting the draft. They are not only socialists, they are anarchists; they were striking against Power” (282) Now, there is of course an open question about whether “power” has been abolished on Anarres (and evidently, insofar as public opinion constitutes a power structure, The Dispossessed is quite clear that it has not), but Le Guin’s clarity here about the distinction between reforms within capitalism (better wages etc) that have historically been the end-goal of mainstream trade unionism on the one hand, and the quest to transform social relations altogether, which has been part of the tradition of more radical unionism, is fascinating (needless to say, socialists would disagree with the accusation that their own manifestos are limited to better wages and having the draft abolished).

The Dispossessed also deals with questions around the institutionalisation – and putrefaction – of revolution. Shevek-the-rebel is always in an ambiguous position because of who – or what – he is rebelling against. In one of the most moving passages in the book, he thinks to himself that “he could not rebel against his society because his society, properly conceived, was a revolution – a permanent one, an ongoing process” (p. 147). I had a somewhat funny mental association while reading this: I found myself thinking of the Mexican political party, PRI – Partido Revolucionario Institucional – whose name literally translates to “the Institutional Revolutionary Party”. But somehow, it fits perfectly – Anarres has become an institutional revolution which formally denies to its citizens the moral authority to revolt, because how do you rebel against the Revolution, how do you question power when your interlocutor has disavowed power itself? Indeed, I think that The Dispossessed’s sub-title – “An Ambiguous Utopia” – has to do not so much with the harshness of life on Anarres, as it has to do with the tension between the idea of freedom upon which Anarres is built, and the freedom to rebel that it nonetheless denies to is citizens.

My final point is a mildly critical one: there is one respect in which I think that The Dispossessed is not particularly convincing, and that is in its treatment of gender relations. I mean, in particular, the gender relations on Urras: Urras is an advanced capitalist society – I’d put them at around 2050/2100 in earth equivalent – but the gender relations there are borderline feudal, and feel almost caricatured at times. We have known, of course, that one of the features of the 20th century was that discrimination – whether gender-based, racial, or otherwise – moved from being formal and direct to being structural, institutional, and indirect. Urras, I think, would have been a far more convincing foil to Anarres had gender relations been treated with the same subtlety that the rest of the world-building was.

But overall, I think it’s striking how much of The Dispossessed continues to hold up, how well it has aged, and how much of it continues to feel relevant – a true sign of a classic. Its highlight-reel of lines is truly memorable: “Men always have theories and things always have to fit them” (179); “… separation is educational alright, but your presence is all the education I want” (210); “We make justice here or nowhere” (243); “If you evade suffering, you also evade the chance of joy” (275); and of course, the devastating “Weigh it in the balance with the freedom of one single human spirit,” he said, turning to her, “and which will weigh heavier? Can you tell? I cannot.” (289)

I can think of no other writer whose finest line also doubles up as a comprehensive critique of methodological utilitarianism!

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Reading Kenya

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, The Dragonfly Sea: The Dragonfly Sea is the story of Ayaana, who grows up with her mother, Munira, and a father that she adopts – Muhidin – on the island of Pate, off the Kenyan coast. Her life changes when – on the basis of DNA tests – it is found that she is one of the distant descendants of a Chinese naval expedition that was wrecked off the coast of Pate seven hundred years ago. As part of their cultural diplomacy, the Chinese declare her a cultural ambassador – someone who can “walk the space between the past and the present, so that the future could be shared” (p. 154), and finance her education in China. But meanwhile, things are not well on Pate, when Muhidin’s recently-returned son – and now married to Munira – is renditioned as a suspected terrorist, and their fragile family is torn apart. While Ayaana’s time in China – and a brief, perilous sojourn in Turkey – changes her, she too will return to a very changed Pate Island.

Readers familiar with Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s previous novel, Dust, will quickly recognise the familiar qualities of her writing: atmospheric writing (“Each port had a distinctive smell, as if the sea distilled the climate, hopes, and experiences of each place into a unique essence. Kilindini. Top note, earth, fire, moon flowers, and blood; middle note, salt, putrefying seaweed, and rust; bottom note, wood, twilight’s sun warmth, sweat (182 – 3)); a deep sense of place (“Outside, East African botanical exiles – the flame trees of Xiamen had exploded into red flower, and in the late light these looked like giant lanterns (357)); prose that engages all the senses (“Imagine the world as a salt road, and yourselves as slugs crossing it…” (120)); and sentences crafted like jewels (“Cartography not of possession, but of, how odd, belonging…” (478)). At the same time, The Dragonfly Sea paints upon a much larger canvas than the contained, Kenyan narrative-scape of Dust: from Pate Island to Mozambique to China to Turkey and back again – and all though, with the sea being its own character – The Dragonfly Sea communicates a sense of immensity, radiating outwards from the sometime-city-now-almost-ghost-town of Pate: “My town lives inside the ghost of a city that was the centre of the world.” (242)

At the centre of the story is Ayaana, a protagonist to whom you lose your heart to immediately; in many ways, as she navigated the world, Ayaana reminded me of Kirabo in Jennifer Makumbi’s The First Woman and Wurche in Ayesha Haruna Attah’s The Hundred Wells of Salaga. Owuor gives us an equally memorable supporting cast around her, from Munira and Muhidin to the emotionally lacerated Chinese ship-captain Lai Jin, and of course, the sea itself: most of Ayaana’s character itself is revealed not through interiority, but through engagement with these characters as they enter, cross, recross, and – sometimes – exit the stage of her life; by the end, it is more than sufficient to bear the narrative burden that Owuor places upon it, and the ending is a triumph.

Peter Kimani, Dance of the Jakaranda: Peter Kiman’s Dance of the Jakaranda is a generational story, along the lines of Jennifer Makumbi’s Kintu or Namwalli Serpell’s The Old Drift. It moves between 1902 and 1962 Kenya: at the time when the great railway line that formed the heart of the British colony was being constructed (with the help of Indian labour), and the years leading up to Kenyan independence. At the centre of the story is Jakaranda Hotel at Nakuru, built by Ian McDonald (“the Master”), former Commissioner of the Protectorate, for a wife who would never live there; at the time of Independence, we find Rajan Salim – a musician, and – as it turns out – the grandson of Babu, one of the initial Indian emigrants brought to build the railway, and McDonald’s bete noire – playing to packed crowds at the Jakaranda Hotel; soon, however, the chaos around Independence will engulf Nakuru and Rajan as well, and lead to the opening up of a particularly dark past involving McDonald, Babu, and the assassinated preacher Turnbull.

Dance of the Jakaranda moved adroitly between timelines, carefully revealing how events of the past ripple into the future (in that sense, apart from the books I mentioned above, it reminded me even more of Hamid Ismailov’s The Devil’s Dance, which moved between Stalin’s purge of the Uzbek intellectuals in the 1930s, and social and cultural upheaval in the Central Asian Khanates a century before. The two stories are similar in how they skilfully depict the faint – yet unmistakable – ways in which events set in motion echo in unexpected ways through the generations. Dance of the Jakaranda is also, of course, a novel about colonialism: that is inevitable given the times that it is set in. On this Kimani is, as one would expect, unsparing: one of the things I learned from it was how the British intentionally introduced infectious diseases to wipe out the animal stock of of the Masai herdsmen, and reduce them to wage labour, so that they could be conscripted into work on the railway line.

But perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this book is its choice of protagonists: Babu and Rajan are Indians in Kenya (an immigrant, and then a third-generation Kenyan-Indian). Writing involving Indians in Kenya – given our intertwined histories – is, of course, not new (think of Joginder Paul’s Land Lust), but this is perhaps the first novel I’ve read by a Kenyan where the story of colonialism and independence is seen through Indian eyes. And this is wonderfully done: Kimani writes with great empathy, sensitivity, and humaneness about what has often been a fraught history. Indeed, one of the most moving passages in the book captures that history in a single, beautiful image:

But what has truly put Nakuru on the world map is the wilflife sanctuary around the Jakaranda, and the annual festival held every December to coincide with the migration of the flamingos, the alien birds that inhabit the lake that gave the township its name. The birds’ first recorded exodus out of town coincided with the expulsion of the Indians, which many believe was the birds’ expression of solidarity with the community. (347)

Mukoma wa Ngugi, Unbury Our Dead With Song: Mukoma wa Ngugi’s Unbury Our Dead With Song is a love letter to music, to all that it can do – and all that we long for it to do. At the heart of the story is the Ethiopian musical form, the tizita. Told from the eyes of the Kenyan tabloid journalist, John Thandi Manfredi, the story opens at an underground Nairobi bar where a competition is held to determine the best tizita singer of the world. Haunted by what he hears at the bar, John persuades his editor to let him travel to Ethiopia to interview these practitioners of the tizita, and get to the root of what makes this music what it is.

While reading Unbury Our Dead With Song, I was reminded repeatedly of an image from Virgil’s Aeneid: that of a shoreline that recedes every time you sail towards it. This story takes us to the limits of words and of language; then, at the place where words end, to sounds and to music – and then to the ending point of music itself, with something still left over, a gap that still remains. As John describes a tizita performance: “… a place where the music is as true as speech, as true as a conversation with all its starts and hiccups and silences as one searches for meaning, or the right words” (155). Tizita, too, is a searching-without-finding, a suggestion of something but without grasping it. Indeed, on more than one occasion, John – and his interlocutors – can only make sense of it through the language of loss:

“I have many answers, but here is one,” she said as I laughed. “Tizita is of a love lost a long time ago – before you are born. Let me put it this way, “Malaika” is the song the original Tizita singer sang when the wounds of losing love, country, parent, sibling – of losing life while still alive – were still fresh. All those losses over years become something you pass on from generation to generation – the moss of all those broken hearts and loss gathered in song. “Malaika” is the fresh wound; the Tizita is the scar. “Malaika” has a face; the Tizita is faceless, or rather, it has so many faces that it is faceless. (95)

Or:

“I told you before. Containment. The Tizita – it is private, a private love or sorrow that joins the public ocean of tears. We mourn and celebrate together and privately at the same time. A good Tizita walks that line – if you show off, you undo that balance. The people feel what they have lost, no need to slap them in the face with it. Besides, what can you tell an erupting volcano of the hotness of the lava?” (p. 133)

Or:

“Think about the first death – the Tizita, to me, for me, is that sound of the first death, the recognition and the surprise and the realization; that first consciousness that realized it was going to be no more – and it wanted to leave a message in a bottle that becomes me and you … all I can say is, you can walk for a very long time and get to where you are going, but all along, little bits of yourself are left along the way, and you get to where you are going, and there is no going back without stepping on yourself, and there is no going forward without eventually tearing your entrails out of your body.” (p. 184)

One of the important ideas that contribute to this characterisation of titiza is that of containment. “The explosion is in the containment” (96), John is told. There is a holding back, a bordering, a going-there-but-not-quite; and this is because the gap between expression and feeling will remain no matter what, even when you substitute language with music. Thus, beauty lies not in futile attempts to express feeling, but in knowing when to stop and how far to go. In that sense, much of the story of Unbury Our Dead With Song reminded me of the poetry of Zbigniew Herbert, which exemplifies the idea of containment so well. In fact, there is one line from Herbert’s poem, Damastes Nicknamed Procrustes Speaks, which – I think – tells us what Unbury Our Dead With Song is fundamentally about: “he would like to remain faithful/ to uncertain clarity.” The tension within the phrase “uncertain clarity” characterises Ngugi’s novel, and it is in that tension that we find its most beautiful lines and moments.

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“A list of quiet things”: The Hundred Wells of Salaga, by Ayesha Harruna Attah

Ayesha Harruna Attah’s The Hundred Wells of Salaga is the story of two women: Aminah, who grows up in the village of Botu, part of a little community that lives under the fear of slaver raids; and Wurche, the daughter of an ambitious local noble who has designs on the throne of Salaga. When Aminah’s village is destroyed by raiders, she is forced away from her home and her society, and into a long journey that will take her to Salaga, city of a hundred wells. There, her life will intersect with Wurche, who is seeking for a way out of a loveless marriage, forced upon her for political reasons. But soon, something bigger than itinerant slave raids and the internal politics of Salaga will come to shape the women’s lives: the looming inevitability of colonialism.

The story of the Hundred Wells of Salaga – set in (what is now) Ghana, on the eve of colonial conquest – might feel a bit like a cross between Maryse Conde’s Segu (Wurche’s storyline) and Leonora Minamao’s Season of the Shadow (Aminah’s storyline). Indeed, the book does belong in a long traditions of novels set in societies on the verge of being torn apart by colonialism. But what makes The Hundred Wells of Salaga unique is its characters: the people who walk across the novel’s stage are achingly, painfully human, both at their finest, and at their worst. To take just one example: looking for release from a brutal marriage with the Dagbon prince Adnan, Wurche finds it with a man called Moro. This would ideally make Moro a positive, sympathetic character – and from Wurche’s perspective (at least in the beginning), he is; only, there’s one problem: Moro’s a slave trader (albeit one who takes no pleasure in the job). Wurche’s act of rebellion – which would otherwise give the reader a sense of (perhaps unearned) catharsis – is thus laced with the constant, background awareness of Moro’s active participation in an unimaginably brutal enterprise.

At the heart of the novel is undoubtedly Wurche herself, who has got to be one of the most memorable protagonists I’ve come across in recent times. Layered, complex, ambiguous, flawed; sometimes actor and sometimes acted upon; sometimes rebelling against oppression and sometimes being an oppressor; limited – like all of us – and struggling against those limits, sometimes with success but often unsuccessfully (again, like all of us), Wurche elevates this novel to an incandescent pitch. We feel deeply invested in her fate, even as her actions sometimes alienate and sometimes revolt.

Ayesha Harruna Attah, photo via Wikipedia

Probably the novel’s only unambiguously good character, Aminah is an excellent foil to Wurche. Her seeming passivity may give an initial impression of a character that is non-too-clearly fleshed out – but this would be a mistake. Lacking Wurche’s privileges, Aminah cannot move through the world like an actor; her survival – and eventual freedom – depends on her flattening her personality, and becoming as unremarkable as it is possible to be. But even so, we see enough – a glimpse and a flash – to know that underneath the facade is a personality every bit as full as that of Wurche’s.

Around the two women, there is a galaxy of memorable characters who leave an impression, no matter how short, or how walk-on, their roles are: the fathers, who allow their daughters freedom – until it becomes politic to deny it; the brother who would rather farm than fight; the German soldier who is aware of his country’s crimes, but is complicit nonetheless because the alternative is too difficult to contemplate; Moro, who is similarly aware of the slave trade’s awfulness, but complicit for the same reasons; we get sympathetic – yet unsparing – portraits of each of these characters. Nothing is excused, and nothing is justified – but there is an understanding of what they do what they do, a messy entanglement of institutional pressure and personal agency that leads human beings into deeper and deeper moral quicksand.

I finished the novel in two sitting – it would have been one, had life not intervened. From the first page, the book pulls you in, leaving you painfully, terrifyingly drawn into the fates of the characters, seeing the world through their eyes. And if that were not enough, it has one of the most devastating concluding lines that I’ve ever read.

A magnificent achievement.

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2020 In Books

This year saw a significant shift in my reading, triggered by the fact that I published my debut science fiction novel, The Wall, and spent most of the year working on its sequel. Being a genre writer shapes your reading preferences in a very specific way: you begin to actively look out for, and read, novels that share the stylistic or narrative commitments of your own, and you also find yourself reading more broadly in the genre, to gain a sense of what it looks like. So, in 2020, a large part of my reading was science fiction and fantasy, and I feel it ended up becoming a little too skewed. That’s something I’ll try to correct in 2021. Because of writing commitments, I also read less than in previous years, and hardly blogged all year. With the sequel – and the duology – set to be completed in ten days, that’s another thing to correct in the coming year.

Here, as always, the books I read this year, with the usual flawed rating system. I’ve talked about my SFF reading separately as well, in my Slack newsletter. You can find links to all the books on my Goodreads Page.

Africa

  1. Maaza Mengiste, The Shadow King (****): A memorable and haunting re-telling of the WW2-era Ethiopian war of independence from colonial Italian rule, from the perspective of its women participants.
  2. Jennifer Makumbi, The First Woman (*****): A beautiful and searing coming-of-age story set in 1970s Uganda, following its protagonist, Kirabo, as she makes her way through childhood, school, and then college, in a changing and often hostile world. One of the stand-out reads of the year.

The Middle East

  1. Isabella Hammad, The Parisian (****): Hammad’s novel takes us to pre-nakba Nablus, and is a very vivid story about Palestine in the 1920s – an era that has been relatively unwritten about.
  2. Ibtisam Azem, The Book of Disappearance (****): Azem’s novel – in which all the Palestinians presently living in Israel and Palestine literally vanish overnight – could also be called speculative fiction, but I’m including it here to avoid front-loading that category even more.
  3. Adel Kamel, The Magnificent Conman of Cairo (***): The title is a good guide to the novel. This is a classic of Egyptian literature. It didn’t always land for me, but there were moments of darkly comic brilliant, and you can see why it was as influential as it was.

Europe

  1. Victor Serge, Conquered City (***): I love Victor Serge to bits, but this one – about a Soviet city torn apart very soon after the revolution – just didn’t do it for me. I felt bogged down at various points, and the momentary flashes of brilliance didn’t make up for that.
  2. China Mieville, October (****): Mieville’s fictional reconstruction of the Russian Revolution is nothing short of spectacular – this is thrilling narrative prose, brilliant characterisation, and a deeply moving ending.

India

  1. Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, My Father’s Garden (****): A deeply enjoyable and humorous set of three inter-connected short stories, set in small-town India, with its protagonists coming to terms with the world, and with their own sexuality.

Non-Fiction/History

  1. Pyotr Kropotkin, The Great French Revolution (*****) : The legendary anarchist’s look back at the French Revolution, a hundred years on, is a ride and a half. His acerbic, drily witty style is an absolute delight to read, and his central thesis – that the revolution’s radicalism was repeatedly betrayed by an ascendant middle class – holds up well.
  2. Eric Hazan, A People’s History of the French Revolution (****) : I am a long-time fan of Hazan – his political-geography Paris books were my guides when I was in the city – and this is a characteristically excellent account, albeit far too easy on Robespierre.
  3. Kavita Punjabi, Unclaimed Harvest: An Oral History of the Tebhaga Women’s Movement (*****): A brilliant feminist oral history – in the mold of Alessandro Portelli – of the forgotten Tebhaga movement, where – at the cusp of independence – farmers in Bengal demanded two-thirds of the produce. Another stand-out of the year.

Poetry

  1. Nazik al-Mala’ika, Revolt Against the Sun (trans. Emily Drumsta) (*****): I’ve loved Nazik al-Mala’ika ever since I read the poem Love Song for Words, and here, finally, is a collection of her translated poems. Emily Drumsta’s Introduction is a jewel – she contextualises al-Mala’ika’s life, her poetic and political preoccupations, and the larger context of a woman writing poetry in Iraq in the mid-20th century. The Introduction also does to a tee what all great Introductions do: it makes you understand and love the poems even more.

Science Fiction/Fantasy

  1. Guy Gavriel Kay, A Brightness Long Ago (***): In my early 20s, I probably knew entire dialogues from GGK novels by heart. It’s probably a sign of how much taste can change that his latest – which, in theory, I should have loved, as it took us back to the same setting as the brilliant Tigana – did very little for me. Nothing wrong with the novel – it’s vintage GGK – but I guess I’ve just moved on.
  2. Nancy Kress, Sea Change (***): An interesting cli-fi novel(la), focused on the agribusiness and food security aspect of it; the heavily US-centric nature of it was probably why I didn’t enjoy it as much as I otherwise would.
  3. Ursula Le Guin, The Word for World is Forest (*****): Yes, I finally read this. What else is there to say?
  4. Fonda Lee, Jade City (****): The first book in the Green Bone saga, centred around the clash between rival clans for control over jade, and its political economy. Jade City has received rave reviews across the board, and it is a very solid work of fantasy – world-building, pacing, characters, action sequences – all of it is delivered with great competence.
  5. Seth Dickinson, The Traitor Baru Cormorant (*****): I waited far too long to read this book, and when I did, it went straight to the top of my all-time list. I’ve raved about this everywhere, but one final time: epic fantasy focused on the political economy of colonialism and empire, and featuring the best darn slow-burn romance you will ever read.
  6. Seth Dickinson, The Monster Baru Cormorant (*****): The sequel. See above.
  7. Seth Dickinson, The Tyrant Baru Cormorant (****): Book 3 kinda slipped in parts, but the ending was solid enough to get things back on track and set up a spectacular finale.
  8. Tamsyn Muir, Gideon the Ninth (*****): Another extraordinary novel, the kind that comes along rarely (and I read Baru and Gideon back to back). “Lesbian necromancers in space” is how it’s billed, but of course it is a lot more than that – I think it’s the sheer, unabashed wickedness of the writing that really gets you.
  9. Tamsyn Muir, Harrow the Ninth (***): I’ll be absolutely honest and admit that I did not understand what was happening in the sequel.
  10. Samit Basu, Chosen Spirits (****): A best-of-all-possible dystopias with a sliver of hope, set in a near-future Delhi (always a draw!).
  11. Berit Ellingsen, A Tale of Truths (****): A fun fantasy novella that involves the discovery of the heliocentric model of the galaxy!
  12. Ken Liu, The Hidden Girl and other Stories (****): A collection of excellent short stories from Ken Liu that shows why he continues to be one of the most highly-regarded voices of the genre right now.
  13. Yoon Ha Lee, Phoenix Extravagant (****): I am a huge fan of Lee’s Hexarchate SF series. Phoenix Extravagant is an altogether softer novel, and its fantasy, loosely modeled on the Korean/Japanese war. I especially loved how art – and artists – were at the centre of this novel, something you don’t always see in fantasy.
  14. Yoss, Red Dust (****): Yoss is back! The Cuban biochemist punk rocker SFF writer – and an eternal favourite – has another crazy romp through the galaxy, and you can bet that biological absurdities abound in this book whose main character is called… Raymond Chandler.
  15. Kate Elliott, Unconquerable Sun (****): Gender-swapped Alexander the Great in space, a compulsive read (finished it in two 3AM sittings), and excellent military SF all around.
  16. Annalee Newitz, The Future of Another Timeline (****): A really unique time-travel novel where the central premise involves rescuing women’s right to abortion.
  17. Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Gods of Jade and Shadow (****): Dark-ish fantasy set in 1920s Mexico, and involving a lot of god-like stuff. The prose style – a kind of Gothic with a LatAm touch – was especially compelling.
  18. Iain M. Banks (***): The opening novel of the Culture series is probably also my least favourite. Incredibly tedious in parts, brilliant in parts.
  19. Lavanya Lakshminarayan, Analogue/Virtual (****): A set of inter-connected vigenettes set in a dystopic near-future Bangalore divided into its two halves, the virtual and the analogue.
  20. R.B. Lemberg, The Four Profound Weaves (****): A delightful little novella with an atmospheric prose style, featuring trans elders and weaving.
  21. Susanna Clarke, Piranesi (****): A book that’s polarised opinion. I didn’t quite know what to make of it. The middle part was outstanding. The beginning and end were a little… unintelligible.
  22. Adrian Tchaikovsky, The Doors of Eden (*****): Possibly the best genre novel I read all year. The novel is lyrical, haunting, and has an arc that literally spans the universe. Read this.
  23. Rebecca Roanhorse, Black Sun (****): A solid and enjoyable fantasy novel set in pre-Columbian America.
  24. Essa Hansen, Nophek Gloss (*****): A pretty scintillating hard-SF debut, set in a deliciously imagined multiverse, and featuring a truly memorable protagonist.
  25. Iain M. Banks, Use of Weapons (****): The third Culture novel. It starts to get better.
  26. Zelda Knight & Ekpeki Donald, The Dominion Anthology: Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora (****): A solid collection. Some familiar names, some new ones, and some of the stories – like Eugen Bacon’s – will stay with you for a long time.
  27. Andres Eschbach, The Hair-Carpet Weavers (****): My last read of 2020. I have many mixed and complicated feelings about this novel, a German SF classic. You’ll hear about them in the newsletter!

Have a happy 2021, filled with books!

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“There are plans you make in life which then hurt when they actually happen”: Jennifer Makumbi’s The First Woman

“Stories are critical, Kirabo,” she added thoughtfully. “The minute we fall silent, someone will fill the silence for us.”

In 2017, I read and loved Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu, a wonderful piece of historical fiction spanning the pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial history of Uganda. Makumbi’s seamless ability to move between great political events and deeply personal stories, and her ability to contextualise each in terms of the other, made Kintu a uniquely beautiful read. The First Woman is Makumbi’s second novel, and for me, it surpasses even Kintu.

The First Woman is the story of Kirabo, who grows up in her grandparents’ home in the village of Nattetta in the 1970s. She has never known a mother, and her father – Tom – is absent from her childhood, working in Kampala. As a child, Kirabo feels herself splitting up into two selves: her own body, and another self that occasionally leaves her to fly around the village, looking down upon herself and upon others. Searching for a solution, she makes a secret visit to Nsuuta, a blind, old woman whom everyone calls a witch, and who has an old, nameless feud with Kirabo’s grandmother. Nsuuta tells Kirabo that her other self is “the first woman”, who lived at a time before women had been subjugated by men (“the original state”) – and it is this “first woman”, who occasionally continues to make a home in a few bodies, that is now struggling for liberation and expression. Kirabo asks Nsuuta to get rid of her second self – but unknown to her, her clandestine visits will trigger the release of an ancient family conflict that will envelop all its members, and dog Kirabo’s own footsteps as she begins to make her way into the world.

The First Woman is divided into five sections: “The Witch”, “The Bitch”, “Utopia”, “When the Villages Were Young”, and “Why Penned Hens Peck Each Other.” “The Witch” section introduces us to Kirabo, and the cast of characters around her: her grandfather Miiro, her grandmother Alikisa (although only Nsuuta calls her that), Nsuuta herself, assorted family members, Kirabo’s childhood crush Sio, and her close friend Giibwa – and of course, Kirabo’s second self as well as her absent mother, both of whom are characters in their own right. “The Bitch” takes up the story with Kirabo’s father, Tom, taking her to Kampala to live with him, the hostile reception that Kirabo is accorded by Tom’s second wife, Nnambi, and the intervention of her aunt, Abi. “Utopia” – the name is at least partially ironic – takes us to St Theresa’s Girls’ School, a prestigious boarding school originally established by missionaries (of course), and now a highly sought-after private school. In the backdrop of heightened political conflict, and the violent ouster of Idi Amin, Kirabo grows up quickly, coming to terms with feeling out of place because of her childhood upbringing, finding her own place, and meeting Sio again, but now as a teenager. “When the Villages Were Young” takes us back forty years and two generations, to colonial 1930s Uganda, when Alikisa and Nsuuta were growing up best friends in the village, and tells the story of their origins, from their eyes. “Why Penned Hens Peck Each Other” finally brings us back to the present, and to Nattetta, where the choices that Alikisa and Nsuuta made ring down the decades, and entwine with the choices before Kirabo and the decisions she makes about her own life.

As I read The First Woman – I finished it in three feverish sittings – I was reminded of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. This is not merely because The First Woman, too, is framed around the theme of female friendship – and how that friendship evolves within the context of both patriarchy and class – but also because of how deftly and how hauntingly it lays bare an important insight: that however much we may struggle against them, the web of institutions within which we live our lives will always place limits upon our horizons. Kirabo’s “two selves” is the starkest illustration of this, the web of constraints made flesh – and Kirabo’s desire to get rid of her second self, which is what triggers her first visit to Nsuuta – indicates that often, the struggle itself is exhausting. A conversation between Nsuuta and an older Kirabo, in the middle of the book, reveals this conflict at the heart of their relationship: “Being rebellious is not something I can afford“, Kirabo tells an angered Nsuuta, and that “there are ways of playing with fire without getting burnt.” Nsuuta’s own fate – a consequence of too much rebelling, according to the village – perhaps exerts its own pull upon Kirabo, whose own resistance – as she articulates it herself – is of a more contained kind (enabled, no doubt, by the fact that the 1970s are very different from the 1930s).

But the web of constraints is also visible in the behaviour of the men in The First Woman. There are three prominent male characters in the book – Kirabo’s grandfather Miiro, her father Tom, and Sio. None of these three men are crude patriarchs, of the kind who seek to use their social power to actively subordinate and suppress women. Miiro, in fact, goes out of his way to ensure that Kirabo has as much freedom as he can give her; Tom’s patriarchal impulses are at their worst in his treatment of his second wife, but even there, it is he who gives way in their conflict, and it is he who ensures Kirabo’s own further education; Sio belongs to the generation where ideas of equality are no longer entirely alien, and his treatment of Kirabo – at least in the beginning – reflects the struggles of a man coming to terms with that changed world. Nonetheless, while Miiro, Tom, and Sio are not actively bad persons, throughout the book, and to varying degrees, they do actively bad things to the women with whom they share social and private space. Sometimes, this is followed by (partially sincere) apologies, which everyone sees through (“How Zungu. You go and hurt someone and then when it comes to apologizing you help yourself to crying as well.”), and sometimes – as in the case of Miiro, who is perhaps the most sympathetic male character in the novel – a wry acknowledgment that within the web of constraints, this is as far as he can go and all that he can do, limited and insufficient though it is.

Tellingly, however, Makumbi does not turn The First Woman into a story only about patriarchy. Like Ferrante, she is keenly conscious about class, and how it intersects and feeds off patriarchy. In The First Woman, class creeps in not only through Kirabo’s experiences at St. Theresa’s, but also in one of the central female friendships of the novel, between Kirabo and Giibwa. Kirabo – who finds herself sidelined at St. Theresa’s – is nonetheless in a position of power in Nattetta, and as she and Giibwa grow up, their class differences colour and taint their friendship in unpredictable – and ultimately – tragic ways. As Giibwa says, in one of the most memorable dialogues of the novel:

‘Kiraboo, Kirabo,” Giibwa sighed exhaustion. “Fellow woman? Me and you? How? Look, not all women are women. Some women, like you, are men. You go to school, get degrees, then get jobs and employ women like me to be women for you at home. Some women, like me, are children.

The conflict between Kirabo and Giibwa thus complicates a central insight that Nsuuta communicates to Kirabo at the beginning of the story. “My grandmothers called it kweluma,” she says, “that is when oppressed people turn on each other or on themselves and bite. It is as a form of relief. If you cannot bite your oppressor you bite yourself.” Nsuuta – who has seen this in her own life – communicates this as a form of warning, and then is forced to watch helplessly as the tale repeats itself, generations on – because not all oppressions are equal.

Here again, thus, The First Woman tells us how, so often, the best will and the strongest heart in the world is not always able to transcend the crushing weight of institutions, and that if anything needs to be dismantled and rebuilt, it is those institutions – and not human nature.

So at one level, The First Woman is a story of rebellion, of its limits, and how oppressive institutions ultimately cage and constrain both those whom they subordinate and those whom they empower, although in very different ways. But at the same time, The First Woman is not simply reducible to structures. Like the best fiction, it creates a character who is truly memorable. Kirabo is human, very human, and her travails immediately capture readers: throughout the novel, I found myself following her journey with an almost terrifying sense of involvement: I cheered internally every time she overcame a barrier, I felt a sense of dread every time she was (I knew!) on the cusp of making a bad decision, and by the end, her fate – and the fate of those around her – felt deeply personal. Perhaps the reason why this is so is because, with Kirabo, Makumbi has achieved a character who does have a series of choices before her, constrained though they might be, and each choice – readers can see – is going to open up a path, or close it, in a world that is no longer actively hostile, but nonetheless continues to lay down a whole set of snares and traps. It is this that makes Kirabo’s journey so very compelling: in some way – to use a fraught term – if feels universal, or as universal as something can feel in our riven world.

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2019 in Books

This year’s reading was dominated by speculative fiction (even more so than usual). The reason for this is that after many years of being a reader – and a fan – 2019 was the year I tried to become a writer. Throughout the year, I worked on a science fiction novel that, which was finally completed at around ten minutes to midnight on December 31, and sent to my publisher. So I made a conscious choice throughout the year to immerse myself in SFF, to blend the worlds of writing and reading (if that makes any sense!).

The list follows, in its usual format, and with the usual caveats.

A. Science Fiction and Fantasy [SFF]

  1. Achala Upendran, The Sultanpur Chronicles (***): One among a raft of interesting recent editions to SFF in a partially-recognisable Indian fantasy world, with Indian characters.
  2. Ivor Hartmann (ed.), AfroSF V. 3.0 (*****): The third instalment in the AfroSF series of short stories lives up to the reputation of the series – some brilliant new short work here.
  3. Tasha Suri, Empire of Sand (****): I enjoyed this book as a work of fantasy, and for its nuanced treatment of themes like consent, which are rarely examined in the genre. I’m more circumspect about its marketing as “Mughal fantasy”, as the links appear to be somewhat … tenuous.
  4. Marlon James, Black Leopard, Red Wolf (****): James’ foray into SFF upsets all kinds of classic tropes and conventions of the genre; an extremely difficult book, and one that has polarised opinion, but it worked for me (reviewed here).
  5. Tarun Saint (ed.), The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction (***): Some hits, some misses (reviewed here).
  6. Tade Thompson, The Rosewater Insurrection (****): Thompson’s swashbuckling trilogy set around an alien power touching down in modern-day Lagos, continues to entertain with this second instalment (reviewed here).
  7. N.K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season (***).
  8. N.K. Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate (****).
  9. N.K. Jemisin, The Stone Sky (***): Better late than never, I guess, coming to this storied trilogy? Perhaps inevitable after all that hype, but though I enjoyed this, it didn’t exactly change my life. Somewhat strangely, I liked the second novel the best.
  10. Anne Leckie, Ancillary Justice (****): Another iconic novel that I came to late. Like everyone says, this one really bends your mind and forces you to examine a host of internalised assumptions with which you approach the world. And oh, there is a sentient spaceship!
  11. Sue Burke, Semiosis (***): A worthy addition to the whole plants/humans sub-genre of SFF.
  12. Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312 (***): My first Robinson; it was, as you would imagine, quite an experience. I enjoyed it, of course, but also felt that at times the combination of history, politics, space travel, and economics made it a little too dense. But it did set me looking up what the Mondragon Cooperative was all about, so that’s a bonus!
  13. Lavie Tidhar, Unholy Land (****): Tidhar never disappoints. This novel, set in an alternate history where the Jewish people were given a slice of Uganda to build their country (an actual proposal at a time) turns into an alternate history of Israel/Palestine – by turns gripping, humorous, and terribly sad.
  14. Ada Palmer, Seven Surrenders (***): I did not enjoy the second instalment of the Terra Ignita series. I felt, on more than one occasion, that I was being talked down to as a reader, and the obsession with the classical Western philosophical/historical canon – in an ostensibly global novel – became extremely jarring after a point.
  15. Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation (***): Yet another late arrival to a modern-day classic! An enjoyable read, although it did not stay with me for too long.
  16. Yoon Ha-Lee, Raven Strategem (*****).
  17. Yoon Ha-Lee, Revanant Gun (*****): Following on from Ninefox Gambit, the second and third novels of the Machineries of Empire series make it by far the best SFF series I read this year, and amongst the best I’ve ever read. I couldn’t recommend this highly enough: its universe – that is based on the idea of “consensus reality”, and resistance to it – manages to combine technical virtuosity with epic scale and sweep. Your heart soars when you read this series – like the best of fantasy.
  18. Ken Liu (ed.), Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation (****): This edited collection shows you exactly why, by common consensus, China is the place where the most exciting modern SF is coming from. The stories here are diverse and varies, but maintain an amazingly high degree of technical skill – and political awareness woven into the narrative. My favourite was probably ‘Folding Beijing’, a story that continues to haunt me.
  19. Ken Liu, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories (****): Liu himself, of course, is a darn good writer (his short story was the basis for Arrival), and this collection shows you why. What stands out is his versatility – from murder mysteries to haunting space opera – it’s all here.
  20. Terry Pratchett, Night Watch (****): Yes yes, I know. I should have read this years ago. Well, better late than never.
  21. Yoon Ha Lee, Hexarchate Stories (****): If you are a sucker for the Machineries of Empire series, this set of short stories – that gives you the backstories of important characters and a novella-sequel at the end – is like essential drug supply. Otherwise, it will make no sense.
  22. Amal el-Mohtar and Max Goodwin, This Is How You Lose The Time War (*****): God. This time-travel-love-story just has some of the most straight-up stunning prose that I’ve read all year. In fact, I don’t think I’ve read a better love story in a long while – the way it expands the world into a universe, while making it all intelligible. I’ve lost count of the sheer number of passages I marked out in delight. Read this book.
  23. Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire (****): Martine’s debut novel – as you would expect – is a rich and complex blend of political and social Sci-fi, set in a space-empire. Shades of Asimov here, as it features a protagonist coming in from the margins, but Martine is of course very much her own writer.
  24. S.B. Divya, Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse (***): From a contaminated Bangalore to deep space to a Hunger Games-style battle for survival in a near-future USA, Divya’s little vignettes stand out for their elegance and craft.
  25. Margaret Atwood, The Testaments (***): To be honest, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale felt quite a let-down.
  26. Imraan Coovadia, A Spy in Time (***): A fascinating contemporary addition to the time-travel genre, moving between Johannesburg, Rio de Janeiro, and the end of days; and telling us – in the gentlest way possible – that time travel is (also) about race (reviewed here).
  27. Chen Qiufan, Waste Tide (***): Back to China: this novel is set in an island off the continent, which has become the worldwide hub for the processing of digital waste. A science fiction novel about the violence of global supply chains and of local resistance (reviewed here).
  28. Suyi Davies, David Mogo, Godhunter (****): A really fun novel set in contemporary Lagos, with rival gods in the Yoruba pantheon being pressed into service in an apocalyptic war (reviewed here).
  29. Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust (****): Barring one very problematic narrative theme, and the occasional deus ex machinaThe Book of Dust revived the old magic of the His Dark Materials series that La Belle Sauvage had (for me) entirely failed at. Just for a ride down memory lane, and the termporary recreation of that incredible magic – HDM shaped my childhood perhaps more than any other book – this was worth it.
  30. Ted Chiang, Exhalation (****): A set of long-short stories from Ted Chiang, often revolving around time paradoxes. Technically brilliant, and very good storytelling as well.
  31. Tade Thompson, The Rosewater Redemption (***): For me, the closing instalment in the series didn’t quite hit the heights of books 1 and 2.

B. African Writing 

  1. Marye Conde, Segu (****): The classic novel of First Contact, about last days of the Bambara Empire (that spanned present-day Mali), and of a West African society disintegrating under the twin forces of Islam and colonialism. A beautiful read (reviewed here).
  2. Leonora Miano, Season of the Shadow (****): Another haunting first-contact story and the prelude to the Middle Passage, set in present day Cameroon, but this time the tyrants and the destruction comes not from beyond the sea, but from within. Some of the scenes in this (brief) novel are still in my mind (reviewed here).
  3. Namwali Serpell, The Old Drift (****): A grand, sweeping history of modern-day Zair; by times exhilarating, by times tragic, and with the strangest twist of SFF at the very end.
  4. Maaza Mengiste, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze (****): Another beautiful novel, this time set in the Ethiopian Revolution of the 1970s, with some of the most powerfully drawn characters I’ve come across this year.
  5. Joginder Paul, Land Lust (****): Well, Joginder Paul is Indian, but the book is set in Kenya, and was written based on his experiences living in Kenya, so I’m placing it here. A set of delightful – and delightfully sad – short stories about the intertwined lives of Indians and Kenyans in a newly-independent country.
  6. Zeyn Joukhadar, The Map of Salt and Stars (****): With maps (!) as the common underlying theme, this novel beautifully weaves together escape from modern-day Syria with an older story of migration and adventure; heartbreaking, but also uplifting.
  7. Chigozie Obiama, An Orchestra of Minorities (***): One of those strongly hyped-up novels that just didn’t do it for me; I felt the weight put on the narrative device (no spoilers) was a weight it could not bear.
  8. Abdourahman A. Waberi, Passage of Tears (***): A surrealistic drama/murder mystery set in Djibouti. Enjoyable in parts, confusing in others.
  9. Ibrahim Abdel Megouid, Clouds over Alexandria (*****): Picked this up after seeing it mentioned in the ArabLit Quarterly. This is an absolutely stunning novel. It is set in 1970s Egypt – at a time of student unrests and revolutionary protests against Anwar Sadat – and captures the hope, the madness, the despair – and ultimately, the tragedy – of the time, and of its student protagonists, in a truly unforgettable and heartbreaking way.
  10. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Dust (****): The last book I read in 2019 was amongst the most intense. Dust is set in contemporary Kenya, begins with an assassination, and then takes us on a journey through Kenya’s past, starting with the Mau Mau rebellion and the birth of the country. Owuor weaves together the personal and the political in a beautiful and haunting manner.

C. Polish Writing

  1. Narcyza Zmichowska, The Heathen (***): Part of my reading on my trip to Poland; one of the first feminist Polish – and indeed, European – novels, written in the mid-19th century, and interesting just for that reason.
  2. Antoni Libera, Madame (*****): A tears-running-down-your-eyes hilarious Polish novel of an eighteen-year old schoolboy who falls in love with his thirty-two year old Piano teacher, just when communism is extending its suffocating grip over Warsaw in the 1950s. What a read.
  3. Ryszard Kapusciski, Nobody Leaves: Impressions of Poland (***): Sketches from the legendary journalist. I tried to get into the feel of things by reading this on long train rides in Poland, but to be honest, it didn’t quite work for me.
  4. Olga Tocarczuk, Flights (***): Tocarczuk, of course, won the Nobel Prize this year. I enjoyed parts of this book and its aphoristic character, which – I feel – is ideally read in bursts.
  5. Jacek Dahnel, Lala (***): By times funny, by times sad coming-of-age story in contemporary Poland (all books reviewed here).

D. German Writing

  1. Alfred Doblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz (***): Part of my Germany-travel reading (of course). This is, of course, the classic novel of Berlin on the eve of fascism, a city drawing its last breath before the fall. Fascinating – and more than a little disturbing.
  2. Christopher Isherwood, The Berlin Novels (***): See above. The two novels here provide another glimpse of Weimar Berlin, and that great efflorescence of art and culture before the onset of Nazism.
  3. Klaus Mann, Mephisto (****): The iconic novel of compromise and betrayal in Nazi Germany. Mann’s Hendrik Hofgen – who begins as a leftist and ends as a Nazi collaborator in order to secure power and riches – is a brilliant, haunting character – above all, because he is so human, and makes us feel – disturbingly – that we might well make the same choices in the same situation. And the most disturbing part: to the end, Hofgen is able to justify it all to himself, reason it out by saying “better me than an actual Nazi in my position”, and “I’m working within the system to help.” Where else have we heard such justifications?
  4. Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days (****): Reminiscent in many ways of Victor Serge (see below), this novel is almost a snapshot of the tragedy of 20th-century Europe – moving from anti-Jewish pogroms to Red Vienna to besieged Moscow, and finally, post-World War II Germany; taking us through anti-semitism, Nazism, and Stalinism. The narrative device (again, no spoilers) is particularly fascinating in what it does with time and the past; the prose is magnificent (all books reviewed here).

E. Other European Writing

  1. Victor Serge, Unforgiving Years (****): One of the stand-out novels of the year, for me. Serge writes of two ex-communists on the run, chased across Europe – and then Mexico – by Stalinist agents; but in doing so, he writes a dirge to the ideals of the Russian Revolution, and their decay in the Soviet Union. The prose is hypnotic (reviewed here).

E. Miscellaneous

  1. Hamid Ismailov, The Devil’s Dance (*****): Another stand-out novel. One of the first Uzbek novels to be translated into English – and banned in its home country – The Devil’s Dance tells the story of the doomed generation of Uzbek writers and intellectuals that were killed in the Stalinist purges of the 1930s – alongside another story, set in the Khanates a hundred years ago, at a time of great social and cultural upheaval (reviewed here).
  2. Abdulla Quodiry, Days Gone By (****): Ismailov’s novel made me go look for his progatonist, the real life Abdulla Quodiry, and read his novel. Days Gone By was so popular in Uzbekistan in the 1920s when it was published, that parents named their children after Quodiry’s protagonists. You can see why – the story mixes adventure, love, and the national history of Uzbekistan in a skilful and gripping narrative.

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Reading Germany

I spent the last ten days of September traveling through Germany. I carried with me a few of novels – most of them set in and around the Weimar Republic, a period that has always fascinated me – to read on the long train journeys.

Klaus Mann, Mephisto 

Mephisto

This fact above all others – that he was not a Jew – struck Hendrik all of a sudden as immensely comforting and important. He had never in the past estimated the true worth of this considerable and unsuspected advantage.

I first came across Mephisto in a classroom – the book was banned in West Germany after World War II, at the instance of the heir of Gustaf Grudgens – the man it was supposedly based on. Many years later, on reading the novel, I could easily see why Grudgens’ family was outraged. Mephisto – which was written in 1936, while Mann was in exile – tells the story of the moral degradation of Hendrik Hofgens, who starts out as a left-leaning playwright and actor in Weimar Germany, but ends up neck-deep in complicity with the Nazi regime. Hofgens is not himself a Nazi, or even sympathetic to the Nazis; however, his personal and professional insecurities, and overweening ambition, drive him to make a series of compromises, each one more damning than the last, until he becomes the Director of the Berlin theatre and the personal protege of the Nazi Prime Minister, while his former friends are either exiled or executed. At each step, Hofgens convinces himself that his collaboration is necessary to mitigate the worst facets of the regime, that he can at least do some good from the inside, and that in any event, better him in that position than a committed Nazi. But by the end, with his anguished cry, “every regime needs the theatre!“, it is clear that all his justifications have crumbled, and that he stands revealed as nothing more than a collaborator.

The book’s name comes from Hofgen’s most successful role, and which launches him on the path of (Nazi) stardom – Mephistopheles, from Goethe’s Faust. The allusions, of course, are obvious; and they stand out with particular poignancy when Nicoletta, one of his more principled colleagues, tells him: “It was good, Hendrik. I knew you could do it. Mephisto is your great role.” Mephisto is filled with such scalpel-like lines. For example, of Hofgen’s decision to anonymously finance the dignified burial of of Otto Ulrichs – another former colleague, who stays true to his left-wing beliefs (“When you have witnessed those horrors, you have only one choice,” he said. “You can either kill yourself or go back to work with greater dedication than before.” He went back to work.“) – and is executed for it – Mann writes (as the narrator), “this was the last and only thing Hendrik Hofgen could still do for his friend Otto Ulrichs – or the last affront he could inflict on him.”

Hofgens, however, is not the only target of Mephisto, although he is its main one. The theme of collaboration generally – the collaboration of the privileged, who do have a choice in the matter – runs through the book. Mann is more sympathetic, for example, to Hans Miklas – the working-class actor who becomes a foot-soldier of the Nazis (and is ultimately swallowed up by them), than he is to Dr. Ihrig, the left-wing commentator who writes Marxist screeds in financial newspapers, because “the serious side of life prevailed in the commercial section, but in the pages where no serious businessman ever cast an eye, a Red Pope could be allowed to let off steam.

And of course, Mephisto presents stark descriptions of the Nazis’ rise to power, descriptions that will no doubt be familiar to many:

Life was fun under the dictatorship. Strength through joy was the watchword. There were nation-wide celebrations and festivals. The Saar was German – a national celebration … Germany left the League of Nations and regained sovereignty over its defense – an enormous national celebration. Every breach of a treaty – Versailles, Locarno – produced a national celebration, and so did the obligatory plebiscites that followed. The persecution of Jews was a prolonged national celebration, as was the pillorying of those women who committed “race profanation” with them. So was the persecution of Catholics, about whom one learned for the first time that they were never much better than the Jews and who were slyly brought to trial on “currency offences” involving ridiculously small sums, while the leaders of the regime hid enormous fortunes abroad. And finally, a long-drawn-out national celebration surrounded the persecution of “reaction”, a term designating nothing very precise. Marxism had been “eradicated,” but was still a danger and an excuse for mass trials. German culture was now “Jew-free” but, as a result, had become so dreary that no one wanted to know anything more about it. Butter was becoming scarce, but guns were more important… did the people not begin to tire of so many dubious carnivals? Perhaps they were already weary. Perhaps they were already groaning. But nothing could be heard above the din blasting forth from megaphones and microphones.

All in all, Mephisto paints a terrifying picture of a nation at a time when fascism is on the rise, when its victory seems inevitable (which it was), and its reign unending (which it wasn’t). But perhaps more than that, its value lies in showing us how easily individuals become collaborators with the regime, and how fragile a thing conscience is.

Christopher Isherwood, The Berlin Novels: Mr. Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin

Berlin Novels

Their passion, their strength of purpose elated me. I stood outside it. One day, perhaps, I should be with it, but never of it. At present, I just sat there, a half-hearted renegade from my own class, my feelings muddled by anarchism talked at Cambridge, by slogans from the confirmation service, by the tunes the band played when my father’s regiment marched to the railway station, seventeen years ago.

Christopher Isherwood witnessed the rise of the Nazis while living in Berlin. In the Berlin Novels, through a series of character sketches, he portrays the last days of the Weimar Republic, and a city that will soon be taken over by fascism. The first novel, Mr. Norris Changes Trains, follows the travails of Arthur Norris, as seen through the eyes of the first-person narrator, Bradshaw. Norris, a purported left-wing sympathiser, is also a hustler, a con-man, a congenital liar, and perpetually short of funds – qualities that render loyalty a fickle thing in the Berlin of 1930, where the leftists and the Nazis battle for control over an increasingly dysfunctional government, and where things change so rapidly that a Nazi electoral defeat in November and a “majority of over 100,000 in Berlin” for the leftists is followed by the Reichstag fire just a few months later.

Mr. Norris Changes Trains is set in the same time period, and has a cast of characters that is similar to Mephisto: spineless opportunists, grimly determined – and doomed – leftists, and of course, the “ordinary people” who profess a distaste for violence, but are alarmingly susceptible to its attractions when it is targeted against “Jews … business rivals, and the Marxists, a vaguely defined minority of people who didn’t concern them, had been satisfactorily found guilty of the defeat and the inflation, and were going to catch it.” And, like Klaus Mann in his descriptions of the rise of fascism (“Life was fun under the dictatorship“), Isherwood points out its celebratory nature, how it fills people with enthusiasm – an enthusiasm that, on its surface, appears entirely genuine and authentic:

Our street looked quite gay when you turned into it and saw the black-white-red flags hanging motionless from the windows against the blue spring sky. On the Nollendorfplatz people were sitting out of doors before the café in their overcoats, reading about the coup d’etat in Bavaria. Goring spoke from the radio horn at the corner. Germany is awake, he said. An ice-cream shop was open. Uniformed Nazis strode hither and thither, with serious set faces, as though on weighty errands. The newspaper readers by the café turned their heads to watch them pass and smiled and seemed pleased … they smiled approvingly at these youngsters in their big swaggering boots who were going to upset the Treaty of Versailles. They were pleased because it would soon be summer, because Hitler had promised to protect the small tradesmen, because their newspapers told them that the good times were coming. They were suddenly proud of being blonde. And they thrilled with a furtive, sensual pleasure, like schoolboys…

One difference between the two novels, though, is that Isherwood is far more concerned with the human (a luxury perhaps afforded to him by a time and distance that was not available to the exiled Mann, writing in 1936). Mr. Norris Changes Trains is focused on human relationships as much as it on fascism, and Isherwood’s touch is deft (“We sat round the elegant little dinner-table like three people absorbed in a difficult chess problem…” and “We regarded each other with the amusement of two people who, night after night, cheat each other at a card game which is not played for money…”); he has an acute sense of self-awareness (“His eyes measured me for the first time. No, he was not impressed. Equally, he did not condemn. A young bourgeois intellectual, he thought. Enthusiastic, within certain limits. Capable of response if appealed to in terms of his own class-language. Of some small use: everybody can do something. I felt myself blushing deeply.”); and he does not judge – not even Norris, whose weaknesses and foibles turn into something far more dangerous in the time and place that he is in. Mr. Norris Changes Trains is a novel about fascism, but it is also a deeply human novel.

Goodbye to Berlin, the second of the two novels, presents a set of short character sketches of Berliners – again – on the eve of the Nazi takeover: a thinly-disguised version of Isherwood interacts with con-(wo)men (a recurring theme in his writing), ill-fated Jewish tradesmen, upstanding, educated and intelligent Germans who have internalised Nazi ways of thought, non-Nazi Germans – the gamut. Nazism itself lurks in the background, until at last it comes to the fore with the Reichstag Fire, and the narrator’s own departure from a Germany that he knows is swiftly doomed. On the eve of the Russian Revolution, Victor Shklovsky describes the poet Mayakovsky as wandering around Moscow, trying to fix everything in his memory, as one does when one is seeing something for the last time; Isherwood expresses a very similar sentiment in the closing lines of the book:

I catch sight of my face in the mirror of a shop, and am horrified to see that I am smiling. You can’t help smiling, in such beautiful weather. The trams are going up and down in the Kleiststrasse, just as usual. They, and the people on the pavement, and the tea-cosy dome of the Nollendorfplayz station have an air of curious familiarity, of striking resemblance to something one remembers as normal and pleasant in the past – like a very good photograph.

No. Even now I can’t altogether believe that any of this has really happened …

Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days

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A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days.

Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days is a most unusual novel. Set in four places – a little Polish town, pre-war Vienna, Stalin’s Moscow, and post-war Berlin, End of Days is a story of mid-20th century Europe caught up between Nazism and Stalinism. In some ways, End of Days is similar to Victor Serge’s Unforgiving Years: in its four cycles, and in (a few of its) protagonists, who begin as idealistic communists, but ultimately find themselves outlawed and hunted by the very Party that they have given their lives to building.

But its form is very different: the story is told through the eyes of one woman – the child of a Jewish mother and a Christian father – and in each cycle, she dies (suffocating as a child in a cradle, committing suicide as a young woman, killed by the Party…). Each cycle, however, ends with speculation: what if this one event had turned out differently, and she had not died? The next cycle, then, takes up the story as if she hd not died. This gives End of Days a uniquely haunting quality, and the never-quite-far presence of death constantly reminds the reader of the fragility of human existence, especially when faced with the totalising ideologies of anti-semitism and Nazism, and Stalinism.

More than that, what End of Days succeeds brilliantly at is the hugely difficult task of telling world-historical events through the lens of a single life – a life with its individual sum of joys and sufferings, triumphs and defeats, rootedness and wandering, and – ultimately – loss. Through the protagonist’s infancy, her youth in Vienna and her first brush with the Communist Party (“Had not they, the Communists, made it their business to even out the gradient so that everyone could stand freely without falling, without pushing, shoving, being pushed or shoved, free – and without fear?”), her falling in love (“Only after she had fallen in love with him had she realized what a great longing she’d always had to be knowable to another person: to be one with herself, and at the same time with another.“), their travel to Moscow and her husband’s persecution and murder by the Party (“Would a truth take her farther than a lie? And which of the many possible truths or lies should she use?“), and her last days in Berlin, End of Days is about the human being, the human being who retains an indisputable core of existence outside and independent of the reach of ideology. And so, through the series of politically-induced tragedies that rack the alternate lives of the protagonist throughout the novel – tragedies that warn us of the perils of totalising ideology – it is this quality that continues to linger in the memory long after the reader has put down the book:

One evening after a meeting, she had told H. about her Sisyphus, and he had talked to her about his plays. A few days later the two of them went together to a gathering of so-called revolutionary writers, and suddenly everything that had been separate for so long and separately had made no sense fell into place. After all what did having a world view mean if not learning to see? Was it possible to change the world if you found the right words? Could the world be changed only if you happened to find them?

And finally, reading Erpenbeck’s novel in between Mephisto and The Berlin Novels was an interesting experience for another reason: in Mann’s and Isherwood’s work, the communists appear as the opponents of the rising Nazis: this gives their cause a heroic tint, and the communists themselves – in both novels – are portrayed as principled resistors (as they undoubtedly were), willing to risk torture and death for an ideal, but never complicity with the regime. End of Days shows us that very communist dream going sour in victory, with its doctrinaire rigidity, show-trials, and the totalisation of the Party; Erpenbeck too begins with the communists as idealists and dreamers, in pre-war Vienna:

No, youth no longer existed so one could squander one’s youth, or simply wait for the years to pass until one could eventually slip into old age as into rags that others had worn to shreds. It no longer existed for being ground down to make up for the failings of an older generation. Now the point of youth was to be thrown away: for a new world such as the world had never seen before.

But by the end, we are probably left wishing that time had stopped when it did in Isherwood and in Mann, before the “new world” really revealed itself.

Alfted Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz

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This probably sounds heretical, but I’m not quite sure what to make of Berlin Alexanderplatz, acknowledged to be one of the greatest literary works of the 20th century. The story is set in Berlin 1929, and follows the travails of Franz Biberkopf, who has just come out of prison after serving time for manslaughter. Despite his efforts to stay “decent”, Bibkerkopf finds himself being inexorably dragged back into the underworld, with its routinised violence and mayhem: and thus begins the bildungsroman (as Walter Benjamin labels it), in and around Weimar Berlin, through its streets, alleys, bars, and working-class districts, at a time when the atmosphere is tense with the oncoming confrontation between the communists and the Nazis.

The book, though, is not a linear narrative, but meanders in all conceivable directions: digressions, interior monologues, clashing registers, streams-of-consciousness – all combine to render the prose anything but linear. In an illuminating Afterword, the translator sums it up thus: “… the way of greater chaos, absorptiveness, allusiveness, speed, a kind of interiority that is indistinguishable from exteriority (and of course, vice versa).” This, of course, is not unfamiliar – I’ve read a very similar analysis of by Edward Said of Elias Khoury’s Little Mountain – but reading the Afterword did help me appreciate that for its time (1929) what Berlin Alexanderplatz was doing was fresh and innovative, and – more importantly – it broke new ground by deliberately adopting not just the perspective, but also the register of the Berlin working class (and Berlin, as a city, was just coming into its own at the time).

For me, I found the initial portions of the novel – particularly dense with very particular Berlin geography – to be difficult going; the middle portion of the book was much better – the characters sharply realised, their relationships and their travails intriguing and moving, along with brief flashes of narrative wisdom – but things once again seemed clogged towards the end, with interior monologue taking over. I also found myself put off just a little by the gratuitous – and seemingly pointless – amounts of violence, although one will probably argue that Doblin was only depicting reality! I would have come away considerably less impressed were it not for the Afterword, which really helped to contextualise the book’s historical importance; it left me wondering that Berlin Alexanderplatz is probably one of those novels that needs to be read with an awareness of its context, both in the history of Germany, as well as in literary history.

(For a longer and more detailed review, see Max Cairnduff’s blog.)


All – or at least most – of these books deal with Germany on the cusp of the 1930s. And reading them, I was struck by what now, with the benefit of hindsight, seems like a historical inevitability (the rise of the Nazis), at its time, simply – was not. It is one thing, of course, to read historical accounts of the strength of the German left wing in the 1920s; but it is only in reading these novels that you get a sense of how finely poised the struggle was, how much popular support the German left had (especially from the working classes), and how little it would have taken for things to go the other way; there is a particularly poignant moment towards the end of Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, where the narrator’s landlady is “adapting” herself to say “Heil Hitler” – and the narrator wryly remarks that she’s probably forgotten that she voted communist at the last election.

Is there a lesson here?

Perhaps only that what today feels like living in the midst of an inevitability may not be so either.

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