Saturday, October 05, 2019

Libya: The Return, by Hisham Matar

If I was to describe the ideal author for this world reading project, it would be someone born and raised in their native country, still largely resident there, and writing a book set in that country. So I was initially a little put off when I borrowed this book from the livrary, only to read on the blurb that he was born in New York (his father was a minor Libyan diplomat there at the time), and while he returned to Tripoli at a young age, his family left Libya when he was eight. Most of the rest of his childhood was spent in Cairo until he left for boarding school in the UK, and he has spent most of his adult life in London.

It's an arrogant demand, though. I quickly found on starting the book, that Matar regards himself as Libyan through and through. And the view of Libya that the book provides makes it clear that my ideal author is an unlikely construct. Under the 42 year reign of the dictator Muammar Qaddafi, a large proportion of the country's writers and intellectuals were thrown in prison for their opposition to his regime. Many of the author's own family met this fate. His father was abducted in Cairo and imprisoned in Libya. His eventual fate remains unknown. Two of Matar's uncles and two of his cousins were also imprisoned at the same time and released only after many years. The book describes how that wrote poetry in prison. Paper was bought from guards, some of whom could be bribed, and the poems were passed from prisoner to prisoner, but always had to be destroyed, often before reaching their intended recipient. So very few of the poems written in prison survive. If this was the fate of the poems, short enough to be memorised in some cases, how much more difficult would it be to write a novel under these conditions?

Hisham Matar has written two novels - his debut, In the Country of Men, was short listed for the Man Booker Prize - but The Return is non-fiction, a gripping account of his search to find out the fate of his father. This search remains, in the end, unresolved. But along the way, besides a good deal of information on Libyan politics, a light also shines on culture, art, and the importance of family.

The Return was published in the UK in 2016 by Viking, am imprint of Penguin Books Limited, and was also published in the USA.

Friday, October 04, 2019

Colomiba: Fruit of the Drunken Tree, Ingrid Rojas Contreras

I had read a book by a Colombian author early on in my world literature journey, but it was set throughout in Argentina. So it seemed appropriate to try again with something actually set in Colombia, and I found this in our local library.

It is set at the height of the time when the country is riven by violence and the name of the drug lord Pablo Escobar is on everyone's lips. Seven year old Chula and her older sister Cassandra live in an upper class gated community in the capital, Bogota, but outside their neighbourhood life is not so safe.

Petrona is a teenager from the city slums, where her family has fled after being forced off their farm in the conflict. Chula's mother hires her as a live-in-maid, and Chula tries to befriend her. At first Petrona speaks little, and Chula makes a game of counting the syllables in each sentence that Petrona speaks. Gradually Petrona warms to Chula, but there are other forces in her life, and the escalation of political violence leads them towards disaster.

Quite a few of the books I have read in this project have a background of violence. While the events described in this book were devastating, it was saved from being all gloom and doom by the perspective of the seven year old, which seemed to lighten the tone enough to make it more bearable to read. It is narrated from Chula's perspective as an older teenager herself, so has the benefit of both a child's perspective, and the viewpoint of the older Chula who is able to make sense of what happened.

While the story is a novel, it draws heavily on the personal experience of the author. Ingrid Rojas Contreras was born and raised in Bogota, Colombia and now lives in California. Fruit of the Drunken Tree was published by Doubleday, New York in 2018.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Poland: Flights, by Olga Tokarczuk

Flights is an extraordinary book, winner of the Man Booker International Prize in 2018. Is it a novel,or a collection of essays? It seems to be both at the same time, and more - a collection of meditations on migration, travel and the human body.

Apparently the Polish title comes from the name of an old sect who believed that by being constantly in motion they would outwit the devil. This belief surfaces in one of the stories, in which a Russian woman suddenly leaves her home for several days, spending her time travelling back and forth on trains, and encountering an apparent madwoman, who carries this belief about constant motion.

In other fragments, Chopin's sister carries his heart back to Poland, a seventeenth century Dutch anatomist discovers the Achilles tendon by dissecting his own amputated leg, and a retired professor gives lectures on Greek antiquities to cruise passengers.

Some of the stories seemed only obliquely related to the main theme, but somehow I found them always engrossing. And I was delighted to come across a few references to New Zealand!

Flights was translated from Polish by Jennifer Croft. The edition I read was published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, in 2018 in New York.

Burundi: Small Country, by Gaël Faye

Although this book is described as a novel, it seems to have a lot in common with the life of the author. The protagonist, Gabriel (a name suspiciously similar to Gaël), was born in Burundi to a French father and a Rwandan mother. Gabriel is ten at the outset of the book in 1992, and leads a comfortable life in an ex-pat neighbourhood. That is soon to change as civil unrest breaks out both in Burundi and in neighbouring Rwanda, where an unthinkable genocide creates havoc in the lives of Gaby's Rwandan grandmother, aunt and cousins.

Burundi is supposedly a democracy but one in which it is dangerous to be elected president if the army are opposed. To a ten-year-old, the difference between Hutu and Tutsi, the two tribes between which violence breaks out, is hard to understand. The book opens with Gabriel's father explaining: they have the same country, the same language, and the same God. So why are they at war? "Because they don't have the same nose".

Seen through the perspective of a ten year old, the book recounts shocking atrocities. Nevertheless the prose is lyrical throughout, with a startling beauty to it. Eventually like the author, Gabriel and his small sister Ana are evacuated to France, although without their parents. Many years later Gabriel returns, and is reunited with his mother.

The author however moved to France with his family, including his mother, in 1995, and according to the blurb on the book, still lives in Paris. However in this article, he describes moving to Kigali in Rwanda with his part Rwandan wife. Small Country is his first novel. It won the Prix Goncourt des Lyceens in 2016. Small Country is translated from French by Sarah Ardizzone and published by Hogarth (part of the Penguin Random House group) in 2018.

Monday, September 09, 2019

Chad: The Plagues of Friendship, by Sem Miantoloum Beasnael

Chad was not an easy country from which to find a book to read. Eventually I came across this novel, and it took me a while to get through it. I read part way, and abandoned it for a while, then came back to it, at which point I had lost track of the plot enough that I started again.

The second time was easier, perhaps because I was better prepared for the fact that the English was not that great, and that there were plenty of rants about the corruption of Africans in positions of authority. The problem with the English is that the book was written in English, by someone for whom English is not his native language, even though he had higher education in America. I suspect it would have flowed better if it had been written in his native tribal tongue (of which it appears that there are a multitude in Chad) and then translated by a competent translator. An example of an error which totally changed the meaning "emphasise" when it appeared that what was meant was "empathise".

The story is supposedly told by one Nainlaou initially, but then transitions into being a written account delivered to him as told by his friend Njeleulem. However I found it hard at times to follow whose perspective was currently being told. Nainlaou, Njeleulem and Ngarbel, among others, attend school together, grow up, obtain scholarships to study in various foreign countries and return to Africa to obtain positions in various government and development organisations. Apart from that there is not a lot of plot in the sense of a true narrative arc, more of a collection of events along the way. In the book's favour, it does reveal quite a bit about Chadian culture, both in tribal villages and in the cities. There is eventually, a denouement of sorts, although it comes suddenly and rather unexpectedly - I couldn't see enough foundations laid to make the ending a coherent outcome, and it was somewhat depressing (no spoilers, though all is revealed in the blurb on the back cover).

All in all, it's not a book that I would particularly choose to read if there had been other choices available, but it could perhaps have been redeemed by some really good editing. I suspect it was self-published - I haven't heard of the publisher, 1stBooks (United States).

Sem Miantoloum Beasnael was born in Doha, Chad in 1948. He trained as a high school teacher and taught in Chad before undertaking post graduate studies in Ghana. In 1989 he went to Dallas Theological Seminary (USA) and while in the United States also graduated from the Writer's Digest School. He taught African literature and culture in Dallas, and also taught French, philosophy, history and geography, before returning to Chad to help found the Evangelical University of Chad.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

St Lucia: Omeros, by Derek Walcott

For the small Caribbean island of St Lucia, I turned to poetry. Omeros, however, is not a typical poetry book, being a narrative in verse of 325 pages. For that reason, I was happy to count it as fiction. Although it is structured almost throughout in three line rhyming stanzas, the rhyme is not obvious. Normally when I read poetry, I linger over the language and read and re-read parts to appreciate them better. Wth prose, particularly novels, I prefer to read straight through, for the story.

In this case, I attempted to read the book as I would a prose novel, but I found that often the language slowed me down, as I paused to ponder a metaphor, or to make sense of a passage where the phrasing to fit the poetic structure obscured the meaning slightly.

The book has been described as a recasting of the Odyssey in a Caribbean setting. It is not however, a direct retelling - rather, a new story, or several interlinked stories, in which the author uses mythical tales for their themes and resonances. So we have two Caribbean fisherman, Achille and Hector, vying for the affections of the beautiful Helen, but there is no war fought over Helen - at one point, Omeros (Homer) appears to ask "do men still fight wars" and the answer is yes, but not for love, not for beauty.

The fisherman Achille makes a journey back in time, back to Africa, where he sees the tragedy of the slave trade, but it is not clear whether this is a real or a dreamed journey.

The book shifts about quite a bit and needs close reading to keep track of its shifts - Major Plunkett, an old soldier living on the island with his wife, muses on his past, and old wars in Europe make an appearance, along with London and the peaceful Irish spot of Glen da Lough (whose significance I did not quite follow).

In the end it returns to St Lucia and the hordes of tourists that crowd its villages and beaches, gaping at the local colour and capturing everyday life in photos as "picturesque".

I enjoyed the book but I do feel that the modern reader is unused to the genre of epic poetry, which leaves one somewhat unsure of how best to read it.

Derek Walcott was born in Saint Lucia in 1930 and was awarded the Queen's Medal for Poetry in 1988.He lived in St Lucia and Boston, and died in 2017. He was also an accomplished painter - the cover images of this book were painted by the author. Omeros was published in 1990 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Nauru: Legends, Traditions and Tales of Nauru, compiled by Timothy Detudamo

Nauru is a tiny island nation in Micronesia, with a population of around 11,000 to 12,000. That does not allow for a large choice of literature. Fortunately our local library has an excellent Pasifika section, in which I found this compilation of legends and stories, along with some cultural information.

Head chief Timothy Detudamo put this collection together from oral sources in 1938. Nauru has changed a good deal since then. It became very wealthy for a brief time, when western nations descended on it to mine phosphate from centuries of guano deposits. Unfortunately the wealth was largely squandered. These days it is largely known for its use by Australia as a place to house would-be refugees arriving by boat from South East Asia.

Thus the foresight in transcribing these tales becomes even more important. I thought I knew quite a bit about the culture and languages of various Pacific Islands but it turns out that what I knew was really quite small. The islands with which I am more familiar - the Cook Islands, Samoa, Tonga - are Polynesian islands, but Micronesia is quite different. The names in the book, and the terms that had been left in their native language, looked quite unfamiliar, and there were aspects of the culture that are different to Polynesian culture. For instance, the Nauruans practised fish farming - they caught small fish of a certain species, and used them to stock ponds where they grew them to an edible size.

The stories here are fairly simple on the whole, and somewhat repetitive. Strife between different tribes features strongly. There is a glossary at the back of the book but often the only explanation given is "a type of food" or "a type of plant", which could be figured out from the context of the story, so it rather left me wanting to know more.

Nevertheless, I found this slim volume an intriguing introduction to a culture of which I knew very little. Legends, Traditions and Tales of Nauru was published by IPS Publications, University of the South Pacific, in 2008.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Seychelles: Echoes from the Oasis, by A R Tirant

My reading has slowed down, and blog posting has slowed down even more, as I have had a busy year so far. I have a few books in the queue for posting and will try to catch up in the next few days.

The Seychelles is a remote group of islands in the Indian Ocean. It was unpopulated until the French settled it, taking with them African slaves to work the plantations there. In 1814 the French and British were battling for trade routes to India, and a treaty was signed, making the Seychelles a British colony.

Echoes from the Oasis is set a hundred years later, in the years just before and at the start of World War I. The country's French Catholic roots are still a strong influence. Anna Savy is a young Catholic girl, the eldest daughter of a plantation overseer. When she is called to assist in the difficult birth of a younger sibling, she swears off the expected marriage. Her way out is to become a nurse, although that is a career usually reserved for lower class women. However,she falls in love with Louis, the son of the plantation owner.

The book is filled with events: a smallpox epidemic that hits the island, Louis's father's amibitions to expand into shipping cause a deadly enmity with another islander, and war also brings tragedy. Still, I thought the book could be shorter with tight editing, as there was a good deal of repetition of Anna's feelings and emotions, and of explanations of the cultural milieu at the time. Catholic angst causes Anna a good deal of trouble. The genre is historical romance and the book felt rather like woman's magazine fiction at times. (I'm not sure if women's magazines publish much fiction these days, favouring stories about "celebrities", but when I was younger, they were full of it.)

Nevertheless, the story was an enjoyable read and I learnt quite a bit about the history of a country that I was not familiar with until now. Apparently this book is planned as the first of a series and it was left quite open-ended, so there was plenty of room for follow-up. There is no "happily ever after" just yet, but perhaps that will come in book two, or book three.

A.R. Tirant was born in the Seychelles in 1958 and worked as a nurse in Victoria Hospital, Mahé (where Anna also worked in the story). She emigrated to England in 1995. I couldn't find a publisher on my copy of the book, although I did find a printer - amazon.co.uk - so it appears that this may be a self-published book. It is also available in Kindle format and was first published in 2014.