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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh! Knives too, eh?” they exclaimed.

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

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

Or:

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

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

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

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

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

  • Dubravka Ugresic, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender

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

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

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

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

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

Dubravka Ugresic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Siege of Sarajevo

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

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Hisham Matar and V.S. Naipaul

“All the books on the modern history of the country could fit neatly on a couple of shelves. The best amongst them is slim enough to slide into my coat pocket and be read in a day or two. There are many other histories, of course, concerning those who, over the past three millenia, occupied Libya: the Phoenicans, the Greeks, the Romans, the Ottomans, and, most recently, the Italians. A Libyan hoping to glimpse something of that past must, like an intruder at a private party, enter such books in the full knowledge that most of them were not written by or for him, and, therefore, at hear, they are accounts concerning the lives of others, their adventures and misadventures in Libya, as though one’s own country is but an opportunity for foreigners to exorcize their demons and live out their ambitions.”

  • Hisham Matar, ‘The Return

 

Brilliant… true autobiography arises when a man encounters something in life which shocks him into the need for self-examination and self-explanation. It was natural that a sojourn in India should provide this shock for Naipaul… the experience was not a pleasant one, but the pain the author suffered was creative rather than numbing… tender, lyrical, explosive and cruel.”

  • John Wain in The Observer, on the blurb of V.S. Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness

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“No, it is not the ‘end of history’”: Henri Alleg’s Algerian Memoirs

“We came to the crossroads where he was to leave us, as we got of the cart, he turned to us, raising his finger like a grandfather giving his grandchildren a lesson: ‘Listen to me and always keep in mind what I am telling you today. France has three enemies – the English, the Bolsheviks and the Jews! Don’t ever forget it!’ As the carriage drove away in a cloud of dust, Alfred let out the laugh that he had been holding back. ‘If only this idiot had known,’ he said, ‘that he had in you his three enemies sitting right beside him in his wagon.”

Like many others, I read Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth in college, and was horrified – yet strangely fascinated – by his prescription for pure, cleansing, anti-colonial violence. Henri Alleg’s Algerian Memoirs describes the crucible in which Fanon was shaped, and in its own way, a journalistic, dispassionate way, helps to make sense of the polemics in The Wretched of the Earth.

Henri Alleg himself was born in France, but went to Algeria in 1939 as an eighteen-year old, and was involved with the Algerian independence movement thereafter. Joining the Communist Party of Algeria, he also founded – and ran – the Alger Republicain, described by him in the Memoirs as the only newspaper at the time that opnely advocated anti-colonial policies. Alleg was eventually arrested, and tortured by the French authorities, and his description of his torture in a tract called La Question caused a storm in France, was censored, and is credited with significantly accelerating the freedom movement. This, in itself, would have made for a full life, but the Algerian Memoirs recounts more than that: beginning with the early years, the onset of World War II, the determination of France to hold on to Algeria after the end of the War, the massacres, the increasingly violent freedom movement, Alleg’s own conviction and imprisonment, his eventual escape from a prison in France, independence and how quickly it soured, and eventual exile again. By any account, we would have to live three or four lives to begin to approach the fullness of Alleg’s!

The consistent theme that emerges out of the book is the brutality and racism of French colonialism. It is a particularly salutary time to be reminded of it. Over the last year, French culture, and the French way of life, have been rightly held up as ideals to strive for, and to protect and defend. But a book like Alleg’s reminds us that the same culture that produced Voltaire habitually tortured anti-colonialists through “the use of sticks and bottles shoved up the anus“; the authors of the Declaration of the Rights of Man belonged to the same society that massacred thousands of civilians demanding independence at the very time the Nazis were defeated in Europe; and that the principles that defined the French nation were never applied to the Algerians, until independence was seized by force of arms. These are well-worn points; but in light of French legislation that expressly required schools to recognise the “positive role” played by French colonialism in North Africa, and the present discourse which seems to deny the constitutive role played by colonialism in both the material and cultural shaping of Europe, memoirs like Alleg’s – once again – are a reminder that we cannot pick and choose our histories.

This is not to say that Alleg’s work is free of its own biases. As a card-carrying communist, he goes to extreme lengths to defend the French Communist Party’s quietism – and in fact, opposition – to Algerian independence. For Alleg, the Communist Party has been misunderstood, its pragmatism mistaken for an indefensible commitment to the continuation of colonialism. History – I think correctly – has not been so charitable.

That blind spot apart, Alleg is a compelling and reliable guide. The journalist’s eye for detail is complemented by – in the tradition of C.L.R. James – an absence of any faux pretences to neutrality. Alleg is anti-colonialist and a leftist, and never bothers to hide the fact that his world-view and assessment is shaped by those ideological forces. And over and above that, he has a sharp sense of humour, one that has not been dulled by decades of repression and censorship. He recalls an event, for instance, when:

“One night, an over-hasty police superintendent exhibited a seizure notice signed by the Prefect of Algiers for an issue that neither he nor his superiors could have read since it was yet to be printed. Despite the grotesque insistence of the police, looking for material proof of the non-existent offence, the staff categorically refused to print a newspaper that was condemned in advance to be seized.”

Asides like these – humorous, but darkly so – are scattered throughout that book, lightening it – and the readers – of some of the burdens that such accounts must inevitably inflict. It’s a burden which, one feels, Alleg needs to get off his own shoulders, by forcing himself to remember the funny side of things:

“One of my friends, Antoine Reynaud, who held a high position in the administration of the post office before his arrest, was talking with an FLN militant from Dra El Mizan in Kabylie. ‘I know it well,’ said Reynaud, ‘I supervised the installation of telegraph poles from Dra El Mizan to Boghni and beyond.’ ‘Oh! You’re the one who installed them. Nice to meet you! I’m the one who cut the connections after 1 November.’”

And who could grudge him that. In a life spent working on a magazine while having “to take refuge in the bathroom, the only relatively safe space, and take the copy to the shop on the other side of the avenue, which was intermittently sprayed by machine-gun fire”; while having to play a constant game of language with the censors, because “using the term ‘patriots’ and ‘moudjahidine’ to describe those who had taken up weapons was obviously prohibited. Since we refused to call them ‘rebels’, ‘bandits’ or ‘fellagha’ – the vocabulary of the newspapers – we were reduced to speaking of action conducted throughout the country by mysterious ‘armed men’. But the readers were not fooled. It was also forbidden to mention the fighting in Tunisia and problems related to the political situation of the country. The same was true for Morocco. Ultimately, we had to give up our effort to cover Tunisia and Morocco when our special correspondents were expelled from both countries”; and of course, a life spent living in a country where the colonisers “complained of the noise they had to endure living near a police station. The screams kept them up at night“: one would take one’s humour where one finds it.

It is almost trite now to quote Chinua Achebe: ‘Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’ Alleg is a historian of the lions. An imperfect one, but there are few, probably, who have greater authority to recount the history of the hunt.

A brilliant interview with Alleg can be found on Jadaliyya.

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