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.