Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Madagascar: Beyond the Rice Fields, by Naivo

I was delighted when this newly published book turned up in our local library. It is described as the first Malagasy novel to be published in English. I'm not sure what that means as it was initially published in France and appears to have been translated from French. So I suspect that is "Malagasy" as in "from Madagascar" rather than "Malagasy" as in "written in the Malagasy language".

At any rate, it is a fascinating view of the little known history of Madagascar. Set in the nineteenth century, at the time of King Radama I and his successor Queen Ranavalona I, it tells of the life of Tsito, a young boy from the forest people, who is captured and enslaved, and of Fara, the daughter of the man who purchases him. It is a time of great turbulence in Madagascar. Tsito falls in love with Fara, but as a slave, he is not able to fulfil his love. However, eventually he is able to gain his freedom. He becomes a skilled craftsman, and even travels to Chatham in Kent to learn English methods of shipmaking. In the meantime Fara and her family fall victim to a sweeping wave of repression against the newly ascendant Christian religion, and against others who are suspected in any way of disloyalty to the crown, or of sorcery.

The book is dense with plot and many characters, and was at times tricky to follow. I found myself flipping back to check on earlier happenings, and also turning to the glossary and historical summary at the end of the book. Nevertheless, I was riveted by this view of a world that I was unfamiliar with, knowing of Madagascar only through wildlife documentaries.

Naivo is the pen name of Naivoharisoa Patrick Ramamonjisoa. The book was translated from French by Allison M. Charetteand published by Restless Books in October 2017.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Burkina Faso: The Parachute Drop, by Norbert Zongo

I was delighted to come across the Global Anthology, a website which highlights a piece of literature from every country in the world. Many countries are represented by links to short extracts, but the entry for Burkina Faso linked to a pdf the entire text of Norbert Zongo's The Parachute Drop (though lacking the introduction mentioned by Ann Morgan in her review). This downloaded beautifully to my newly acquired e-reader so I took it on holiday last week so that I could finish off the "B" countries.

Norbert Zongo was an investigative journalist. Though the novel is set in the fictional African republic of Watinbow, it has been suggested variously that the novel is a thinly disguised critique of Togo, or of Burkina Faso itself. I suspect that in discussing the misuse of power by African leaders in newly independent countries, it is applicable to quite a few African countries. Gouama, the 'Founding President and Clairvoyant Guide' of Watinbow is a deeply flawed and ruthless person, who imprisons Marxists, and students suspected of being Marxists, assassinates former loyal friends, and believes in sorcery, so that he uses the body parts of those he has had killed for bizarre rituals.

However, he is in some ways naive, and finds himself manipulated by advisors he had trusted, so that he loses power in a military coup, and finds himself stranded deep in the countryside, trying to reach safety in the form of the neighbouring country, where he believes the president will come to his aid and assist him to regain power. In the course of his arduous journey, he is assisted by local farmers and fishermen, some of whom turn out to be the very students he had earlier imprisoned, and who had managed to escape execution.

I found the portrait of Gouama surprisingly sympathetic, showing both his evil side and his humanity and, at times, good intentions. The students who assist him, however, come across as more one-sided. While both colonial governments and the new leaders of African independence (whether civilian or military) are shown as deeply flawed, the Marxists are shown as good people who care for the needs of the poor and who believe that "development" means nothing unless the people have better healthcare and enough food to eat. While this may be the case, I feel that there are flawed individuals involved in any political movement, and that Marxist governments are no better (though sometimes no worse) than other types of government in this respect.

Nevertheless, though it was clear early on that the book was written to convey a political message, I found it an engrossing story.

The Parachute Drop was translated by Christopher Wise, and originally published by Socialist Stories.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Mauritius: The Last Brother, by Nathacha Appanah

Nathacha Appanah is a French Mauritian of Indian origin, and worked there as a journalist before moving to France in 1998.

"The Last Brother" is set in the final years of World War II, although the young protagonist, a boy named Raj, does not know what is happening outside his island home. When a flash flood sweeps away his two brothers, Anil and Vinod, he and his parents leave their village to cope with their grief, his father taking up a new job as a prison guard. Raj, a victim of his father's savage beatings, spends time in the prison hospital, where he meets and befriends David, a young Jewish boy.

David is one of a group of European Jews who had taken ship for Palestine to escape Hitler. However the British, who were in charge of Palestine at the time, would not allow the ship to land, and the passengers were interred on the island of Mauritius for the duration of the war, where 127 of them perished.

All this is in the past when Raj, now a seventy year old man, narrates the events of those days. He carries a deep burden of guilt, and of regret for the lost David, his only friend after his brothers' death. The story benefits from the dual perspective - the simplicity of the child to whom the events happened, with the more reflective view of the old man looking back. Lyrical and poignant,it has been translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan, and published by Maclehose Press.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Chile: Camanchaca, by Diego Zúñiga

I have been intrigued by the area of Northern Chile that surrounds the Atacama Desert, the dryest place on earth, every since discovering that my great grandmother's brother, a Scottish mining engineer, settled there in the late 1800's. So when I read of this book, the author's first novel, I ordered it.

When it arrived I found a very slim volume of a little over a hundred pages, many of which carry only a few lines of text. The book tells of its teenage narrator, living with his mother in Santiago, invited by his father in the northern city of Iquique to visit him and take a road trip with him. The camanchaca is a low sea fog that is the only source of moisture in the desert. The story is told in fragments as if seen through fog, fragmented, elusive and with its outlines blurred.

I found the narrator a somewhat unappealing character - overweight, with bad teeth, uncertain about life. But the writing is compelling, with a sense of mystery about it, which is never quite solved. A quick, but not necessarily easy, read, which I found myself appreciating very much. The author was born in 1987, so it will be interesting to see what path his writing takes in future.

Camanchaca is translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, and published in 2017 by Coffee House Press.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Cape Verde: The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araujo, by Germano Almeida

I knew little about the Cape Verde Islands before reading this book, apart from the fact that I have a CD of songs by the "barefoot diva" Cesaria Evora, who comes from there. It turns out that the islands are somewhat different to the rest of Africa. They were uninhabited until discovered by the Portuguese in the 15th century. It was ideally situated for the Atlantic slave trade, and its modern population has a mixture of Portuguese, Moorish, Arab and African heritage.

This was an easily readable book. The title character has been single all his life,a comfortably off business man and appeared to be a model of rectitude. But when he dies, he leaves a will of some three hundred pages, which reveals his life story, including the existence of an illegitimate daughter. This is rather unwelcome news to his nephew, who had expected to inherit his uncle's estate.

As the book proceeds, the daughter, Maria da Graca, and nephew Carlos, gradually learn more of their uncle's life, along with the reader. It is a rich picture of a life. The blurb suggests that the book moves along a blurry line between farce and tragedy. But one thing made me uncomfortable about this book - the description of the conception of Maria da Graca. Despite her mother saying "it wouldn't have happened if I hadn't wanted it", the description suggests that she had little choice in the matter, in fact it was uncomfortably close to a rape scene between an employer and a powerless employee. The book was originally written in 1991, and perhaps it didn't seem a problem then, but today this scene is disturbing.

The book was translated from the Portuguese by Sheila Faria Glaser and published by New Directions in 2004

Friday, March 02, 2018

Brazil: The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao, by Martha Batalha

Crow Blue, the first book I read from a Brazilian author, had large parts set out of the country. And when Martha Batalha's newly translated book appeared in our library, it looked intriguing, so I thought I would give it a go.

Euridice Gusmao and her elder sister Guida are two very different people, growing up in Rio de Janeiro in the 1940s, the daughters of Portuguese immigrant merchants. Guida reads womens magazines and styles her sister's hair. Euridice is a talented musician and dreams of fame and fortune. One day Guida disappears. Euridice gives up her ambitions to marry and live the conventional life of a wife and mother. But Euridice is bored. The book tells the story of the various projects Euridice adpots to inject some interest into her humdrum life. And what happens when Guida turns up again with her young son? (But without her husband).

I found the book entertaining and amusing. The reader cannot but feel sympathetic towards the spirited Euridice, and wish that she had lived in more enlightened times, when she might have better fulfilled her potential. For although all her schemes occupy her for a time, ultimately she does not have the means to carry any through to its completion. Perhaps her final project, writing a book, will have a better outcome? We are left to wonder...

The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao was translated from the Portuguese by Eric M B Becker and published by Oneworld Publications in 2017.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

United Kingdom: Elmet, by Fiona Mozley

The United Kingdom is a tricky one (in fact, I've considered splitting it up and reading a book each for England, Scotland and Wales). It's not, of course, that there is a lack of choice but that there is too much choice. I wanted something that could only come from the UK - not a generic "modern big city" sort of book. The Booker Prize long-listed Elmet seemed to fit the bill.

It is set in rural Yorkshire, in the vale of Elmet, the site of the last independent Celtic kingdom in England. Here Daniel and his sister Cathy live with their father apart from modern life, in a house that Daniel's father has built by hand. They live by hunting and fishing. But even though they wish it, they cannot keep themselves apart from the outside world. Though Daniel's father is tender with his children, violence lurks inside him. And men in the outside world are threatened by their presence, and want to control their lives. A terrible denouement is coming.

It's a powerful and unsettling book but also very lyrical. Cathy takes after their father and prefers the outdoors. Daniel likes the indoors and their idiosyncratic schooling with Vivien, a neighbour. He is watchful and observant. Even so, I found him puzzling as a narrator, and couldn't quite decide if the "voice" of the book, with its impressive and precise vocabulary, was true to what he might have learnt in his year or so of being schooled this way. The other thing that I found a little unrealistic was that everyone wanted to solve their issues without the intervention of the police. But some of the events that took place would surely attract very prompt police intervention in the modern world, and this didn't happen. Or perhaps it did, just not within the time frame of the story. At any rate, as the story unfolded, I was totally gripped by the narrative, and by the beauty of the language and description.

Fiona Mozley grew up in York and is studying for a degree in medieval history. Elmet is her debut novel and is published by John Murray (Hachette UK), 2017.