Chaka by Thomas Mofolo

Chaka is a fictionalised account of the life of the C19th Zulu king Shaka. It’s unusually early for an African novel, originally published in 1925 but existing in manuscript in some form as early as 1910.

I wasn’t entirely looking forward to reading it. It has started to really bother me when those who rose to power and built empires through force are presented as Great Men, as admirable or heroic. Qin Shi Huang, Alexander the Great, Napoleon: these men were ruthless megalomaniacs who glorified themselves through the misery of others. But we are fascinated by power, and there’s never a shortage of people who are willing to read history through rose-tinted bifocals. Hell, the Russians are even doing their best to rehabilitate Stalin.

I assumed that Chaka would do the same; but part of the reason I enjoyed it so much is that, on the contrary, its portrayal of Shaka is absolutely excoriating. He is presented as a handsome man of great courage and physical and military prowess; but also as capricious, cruel, violent and terrifyingly, unswervingly power-hungry. In fact the scale of his violence, against his own people as well as his enemies, would seem ridiculously exaggerated, if you’d never heard of Stalin, or Mao, or Idi Amin.

Which isn’t to say that the novel is historically accurate. It doesn’t even pretend to be; it’s told very much in a mythic, folkloric style rather than a historically realist one, and it takes substantial liberties with the history for the sake of telling a good story, to the point of inventing major characters — including Chaka’s love interest and a sorcerer who provides him with his power. His life story is tweaked and manipulated to bring out the themes of ambition and power, and present him with decisions which are loaded with symbolic resonance. I would normally shy away from comparing a writer to Shakespeare — just too much baggage — but as a piece of myth-making based freely on a historical source, it really reminds me of Macbeth or King Lear.

I wasn’t immediately gripped by it, but as the action ramped up and Chaka developed into a more and more extreme character, I thought it was electrifying.

Chaka is my book from Lesotho for the Read The World challenge; a quick hat-tip to the translator, Daniel P. Kunene.

» The Chaka Print cloth ticket is from Trevira’s collection of cloth tickets on Flickr. She explains:

These large gummed labels – known as cloth tickets – were attached to bales of printed cotton cloth for export from Britain (read ‘Manchester’ in many cases). They were designed by British artists who depended on information from company agents in the various territories for subjects that were intended to be appealing for their markets.

It is used under a CC by-nc licence.


  • "These large gummed labels – known as cloth tickets, shippers tickets, or bolt tickets – were attached to bales of printed cotton cloth for export from Britain (read 'Manchester' in many cases). They were designed by British artists who depended on information from company agents in the various territories for subjects that were intended to be appealing for their markets.

    Most of these probably date from around the 1920s to the 1950s (but I could be wrong) and were intended for the African market. "

    ( tags: design labels Africa )


  • Interesting stuff — no doubt the Americans would say one-sided, but nonetheless. The more I read about the US military in Iraq the more I get the sense that it had become dysfunctional; a kind of inward-looking, bureaucratic self-serving entity semi-detached from the US government/politics. No doubt there are plenty of thoughtful officers who have learned some hard lessons over the past few years in Iraq and Afghanistan, though. For all I know they're applying them already.
    ( tags: US Iraq military )

Wildlife Photographer of the Year at the NHM

I made my annual trip to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum. Which was, as always, well worth a visit. Obviously I recommend you visit it in person, because little jpegs don’t do the pictures justice, but if you can’t do that, you can see all the pictures online here.

Picking your own favourites is part of the fun of going to any exhibition, I think, but that’s even more true at WPotY, because you can compare your own choices to those of the judges. And my perennial complaint is that they tend to give the overall prize to a portrait shot of a large charismatic mammal: lots of elephants and lions and leopards. Yawn. Don’t get me wrong, those are fabulous beasties, but there’s a whole world of beautiful and curious lifeforms out there.

Well, this year, the winning shot is, once again, a portrait of a large charismatic mammal; but for once I have no complaints at all. Because the winning photograph, of a wolf jumping over a gate, is absolutely jaw-dropping. I have my quibbles with some of the other choices; I would have picked the booby or the whale as the winner of the underwater section ahead of the pike picture, for example. But for the overall winner, I think they were spot on.

» Fantail, a picture of a bearded tit landing on the ice, is the winner in the Creative Visions of Nature category. © Esa Malkonen.

Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands by Jorge Amado

Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands is a novel about a cooking teacher whose first husband is a charming lowlife, who is always disappearing in search of wine, women, song and roulette, and her second marriage to an upright, responsible, devoted pharmacist who, for all his good qualities, is duller and more reserved. Especially in bed.

Having read the long and mildly tedious Island Boy, I picked it up in the hope it would be a bit more fun. It’s fiction, it’s Brazilian, all the blurbs on the cover go on about it being exotic, sexy, tropical, the work of a great story-teller… all the kind of joyous clichés you’d hope for from the country that gave us Elza Soares, Ronaldinho and the caipirinha. I don’t only want to read books reinforce national stereotypes, but in a wet London November, a bit of Brazil seems quite tempting.

And more importantly, it was recommended by a friend. So after some of the deeply obscure, hit and miss books I’ve read for the Read The World challenge, I was hoping for something juicy and enjoyable. Something that was not likely to feel like a chore.

Sadly it didn’t quite hit the spot. Not because it doesn’t have all those Brazilian clichés: it starts with a character dying unexpectedly during carnival while dancing in full drag, and the whole book is full of gamblers and whores and serenades, and sex and food, and humour and social satire, and a bundle of other things besides. Just reading my own description of it almost makes me want to read it again; but the actual experience of reading it wasn’t so great.

Not that it’s a bad book, but it didn’t ever quite grab me; and after 550 pages, any book that you’re not actively enjoying is going to seem like a bit of a chore. I’d be hard pressed to identify any very glaring problems with it. The characters seemed a trifle two-dimensional — particularly the two contrasting husbands, who might as well be called Id and Superego, or Apollonian and Dionysian — and the plot is perhaps stretched a bit thin; but it might just as well be that I wasn’t in the right mood for it and tried to read too much of it when I was half asleep. So while I’m not about to give it a glowing endorsement, I wouldn’t want to be too negative, either. Pathetically wishy-washy, I know.

» NOM NOM NOM is © Capitu and used under a CC by-nc licence.


  • 'enjoy this mesmerizing, behind the scenes (and skin) look at a mouth talking. Speech researcher Christine Ericsdotter captured the image at 50 frames/second over 20 seconds with a quick-snap x-ray camera.'
    ( tags: x-rays speech )
  • As someone with bad pastry karma (and hot hands), I just have to try this pastry recipe. '… I was expecting her to say, "You begin by taking some cold butter and work it into the flour. But she started by saying, "You take butter. And you take water. You put them in a bowl. Then you put it in the oven for 20 minutes and let everything boil until…" which, of course, stopped me mid-swallow of my Côte du Rhone. I almost started choking.'
    ( tags: pastry recipes )


  • Interesting piece by Danny Finkelstein about just how little attention the voters are paying to politics, most of the time: 'In his invaluable book on the last election campaign, Smell the Coffee, Michael Ashcroft provides the result of polling he commissioned to track the impact of Conservative campaign activity. For two months in the run-up to polling day, voters were asked: “Has there been anything in the news about what the Conservative Party has been saying or doing that has caught your eye this week, whether on TV or radio or in the papers?” Most of the time the proportion who could think of nothing hovered around 90 per cent.'
    ( tags: politics )


‘Points of View’ at the British Library

I just visited the slightly uninspiringly titled ‘Points of View’ exhibition at the British Library, which is an exhibition of nineteenth century photography. I’ve been very impressed with the BL’s temporary exhibitions since they moved to the new site; they obviously have an absolutely staggering amount of stuff in their collections and they do a good job of displaying it, with a thoughtful selection of material and lots of interesting information.


Not all subjects are equally interesting, of course — I glazed over a bit going round their exhibition of modernist pamphlets — but C19th photography has a broader appeal. It starts with the early history, Fox Talbot and all that, and then the rest of the exhibition is arranged thematically: travel, portraits, science, industry and so on. I liked the way they manage to provide plenty of variety: some pictures chosen for artistic merit, others for historical, social or technical interest, and some a bit quirky, like spirit photographs taken by spiritualists. Or the staged picture taken by an Indian Army officer of an officer being woken by his manservant after a drunken night before.


One thing that is striking is the explosive speed with which photography became popular: from Fox Talbot’s early experiments in the early 1840s, it was a major commercial enterprise within ten years, and being used in every conceivable way all across the world, from Brazil to the Himalayas, within twenty. Perhaps that isn’t surprising — the advantages are obvious — but when photographs were taken with fragile glass plates which had to be chemically prepared immediately before use in a portable darkroom, it is still remarkable.

The exhibition is kind of huge, but it’s also free, so you could always take a break halfway round and go for a cup of tea and a bun.

» ‘A Fisherman at Home‘ is from Peter Henry Emerson’s Pictures From Life In Field And Fen, a photographic record of life in East Anglia published in 1887.

The other picture is a section of ‘Mussucks for crossing the Beas River, Kulu‘, taken in India by Samuel Bourne in 1865. The ‘mussucks’ are inflated bullock hides used to cross the water.

A passing thought on the Nutt business

Politicians are always quick enough to invoke ‘scientific advice’ when they want to deflect responsibility for an unpopular policy decision, like the availability of different treatments on the NHS, or the mass slaughter of animals during a foot and mouth outbreak. And as long as they actually are acting on good scientific advice, fair enough.

But if you’re going to hide behind scientists when it’s convenient… well, the flip side of that is that if you later choose to ignore the advice of your carefully chosen independent scientific advisors, you should have the guts to stand up and explain why.

» If you don’t know what I’m talking about: a government minister sacked an (unpaid) senior drugs advisor, a professor of psychopharmacology called David Nutt, for giving a lecture saying that the government’s drug policy ignored the scientific evidence. You can download the lecture as a PDF here; it is worth reading.

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