Saturday, May 23, 2020

Angola: The Society of Reluctant Dreamers, by Jose Eduardo Agualusa

Near the start of this project I read Jose Eduardo Agualusa's book "A General Theory of Oblivion", but that was before I started posting summaries of the books I read on my blog.

Recently I spotted his latest book at the library and as I had enjoyed the previous one, decided to read that as well. I really liked this book and it's rather unusual narrative. Daniel Benchimol, a reporter, finds a waterproof camera floating in the sea. It turns out to contain images of a woman who has been appearing in his dreams. He discovers that the woman is Moira, a Mozambican artist famous for a series of photographs depicting her own dreams.

Daniel contacts Moira and they meet. Meanwhile his daughter has been arrested as one of a group of young protesters against the current political regime.

The idea of dreams, both in the sense of what happens when we sleep, and in the sense of visions and hopes for the future, binds this book together. It is about the power of art, and of working together. It is both a beautiful and lyrical fantasy, and a powerful political document.

I found myself wondering about the history of the country and the current political situation - if, as it seemed from this book, it is still under a dictatorship, then how could the book get published when the author still lives in the country? So, I suspect that the government depicted in the book is fictionalized, but I will need to do more research before being sure of that.

Jose Eduardo Agualusa was born in Huambo, Angola. His previous book "A General Theory of Oblivion" won the International Dublin Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. "The Society of Reluctant Dreamers" was translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn and published by Harvill Secker in 2019.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Gabon: Awu's Story, by Justine Mintsa

I'm looking at a big stack of books waiting to be returned to the library. Finally our libraries are open again. In the meantime I had plenty to get on with, both books I had borrowed before lockdown and ones that I had purchased and not got to yet. I was happy to have managed to get a library copy of Hilary Mantel's "The Mirror and the Light" just a day or two before the library shut, and at over eight hundred pages it kept me quite busy especially since I was still working, from home over the internet.

Another library book I had borrowed just before lockdown was much slimmer - Justine Mintsa's "Awu's Story". It's not much over 100 pages, and the translator's introduction alone, where she comments on the cultural background and significance of the book, takes up nearly thirty pages. So it would be unreasonable, I suppose, to expect great depth in that space, and indeed, I felt the character's were rather one dimensional.

Still, there is much of interest here. Awu is the second wife of a village schoolteacher, Obame Afane. She is taken as his second wife because his much loved first wife, Bella, is childless. (That is, in a polygamous marriage). She longs to be loved in the same way as he loves Bella. But this is not to be for many years.

Eventually Obame Afane retires, and travels to the city to try and obtain his pension. Bureaucracy makes this a long drawn out and difficult process. And after his death, in tragic circumstances, Awu is subjected to humiliating traditional rituals to which widows in Fang society are customarily subjected.

As a novel, I would have appreciated more complexity, and found myself not particularly emotionally involved with the characters. But as a cultural document, I found the book interesting. There seems to be little literature from Gabon, a French speaking country (along with traditional languages), published in English, so I was glad to be able to find something.

Awu's Story was translated by Cheryl Toman and published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2018.