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.

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