Who Needs a Story? — Contemporary Eritrean Poetry in Tigrinya, Tigre and Arabic

Who Needs a Story? is my book from Eritrea for the Read The World challenge. Given that the country only gained independence in 1993 after a 30 year war, it’s not really surprising that the anthology is dominated by patriotic poems about the Eritrean struggle.

Unfortunately, most of them read as very generic examples of the type: you would at most have to change a few place names for them to work equally well for any national conflict of the past 100 years. Which is ironic because the entire purpose of the anthology is, pretty explicitly, to demonstrate a distinctively Eritrean literature to the world and to help a new country to take its place among the literary community of nations.

It’s possible, of course, that the original poems had more literary merit, and a more distinctively Eritrean flavour, which went missing in translation. But it’s not obvious.

However, in among the boring patriotic poems were some more interesting bits and pieces. There are some poems on other subjects: love, parenthood, salt. And one or two poets managed to find interesting thing to say about the war, or at least more interesting ways to say them. I thought this was one of the better ones, by Mohammed Mahmoud El-Sheikh (Madani):

Letter from Aliet

My dear friends,
I’ve been fighting so long here
That all the birds have died
And my gun has grown into my shoulder.
I sing for all of us denied
Our basic rights and a decent wage.
I won’t beg for freedom or stop singing.

We’re taking Barentu tonight
And meeting like a groom and bride —
Not with the usual ceremony
But with guns
Singing, bullets for kisses
And shrapnel to caress us
All over our beautiful bodies

Come to the end of brutality
By exploding on top of the enemy.

My dear friends —
No more rooms of our dreams gone up
In the smoke of self-perpetuating
Politicians pretending
They will back our cause.

We’ll make it
On our land and for our land:
Sunlight aglow in good work’s sweat,
Farmers who wed the art of peace,
The wounded under their triumphal arch
And the trigger locked
In the revolution’s palm.

» The photo ‘tanks destroyed in the war’ is © Carsten ten Brink and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong

Paradise of the Blind is a Vietnamese novel which was apparently a bestseller in 1988 when it was originally published, in a relatively liberal moment in that country’s recent politics, but has since been banned for Duong’s unflattering portrayal of the Communist party. I’m embarrassed to admit, I had no idea that Vietnam was still a communist state. In fact, most of my associations with Vietnam are, now I think about it, drawn entirely from American war movies. So if nothing else, this book has done a little to redress that balance.

It is told mainly in flashback; Hang, a young Vietnamese woman working in a textile factory in the Soviet Union as an ‘exported worker’, is travelling across Russia on the train to visit her uncle in Moscow and remembering her childhood. Her family has been torn apart by communist land reforms, or more precisely by a feud resulting from her uncle’s behaviour as a party official during those reforms.

I’ve mentioned before that I find these novels from communist countries weirdly nostalgic. It’s not nostalgia for communism itself, which I didn’t experience. But all the imagery of communism, the breadlines, dysfunctional communal living, petty bureaucracy, the political jargon, the dangerous black market consumer goods, it all reminds me of my childhood, when the USSR was still the Great Other, and when all these images were a lively strand of popular culture.  It seems a little odd to lump communism in with Smash Hits and The Karate Kid, but that’s the way my head works.

My own quirks aside, it’s a striking and interesting novel about family relationships, and Vietnamese culture, and above all, the way that an all-consuming, inhuman political system drags down the daily lives of its citizens, and capriciously interferes with the most modest, simple human ambitions: marriage, education, livelihood.

It’s not what you’d call a cheerful book. But I would broadly recommend it.

Paradise of the Blind is my book from Vietnam for the Read The World challenge.

NB. A couple of housekeeping notes. I always feel the translators deserve a mention, even if I have nothing in particular to say about the translation, so a hat tip to Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson. And on the transliteration of Vietnamese names: Wikipedia renders the author’s name with a few more diacritics, as Dương Thu Hương. I decided to stick with the version used on the title page.

» The photo is © Rosino and used under a CC by-sa licence.

The Bleeding of the Stone by Ibrahim Al-Koni

The Bleeding of the Stone is a Libyan novel about Asouf, a Bedouin man living a hermit-like existence out in the desert, herding goats and occasionally guiding foreigners to see the rock paintings on the walls of the wadis.

Asouf has a spiritual relationship with the desert and particularly with an animal called the waddan, the Barbary Sheep*, that lives in the mountains. Two hunters arrive who want him to find the waddan for them, and the book intercuts the story of their interaction and flashbacks to Asouf’s earlier life.

So it’s a book about deserts, and man’s relationship with nature, and spirituality and religion, and environmentalism, and the effects of solitude.

Apart from getting slightly confused by the order of events — careless reading on my part meant I thought something was a flashback when it wasn’t, which made the ending distinctly unexpected — I enjoyed this book a lot. I read it in the garden on an appropriately hot afternoon (hot by South London standards, admittedly, not by Libyan standards), and it was short enough to read pretty much at one sitting. It was atmospheric and rather moving. I think the reference on the back cover to Al-Koni being ‘a master of magical realism’ is a bit peculiar, but I’m willing to forgive it, because I have been guilty myself of describing any novel where anything slightly peculiar happens in a vaguely exotic country as ‘magical realism’.

The Bleeding of the Stone is my book from Libya for the Read The World challenge. And, incidentally, for the Arabic Summer Reading Challenge.

» The photo is Ägypten, posted to Flickr by and © ursulazrich.

* The book’s endnotes actually translate waddan as moufflon, but as far as I can gather from Wikipedia this is not strictly accurate; the mouflon is a different species of wild sheep found in Asia. Although the French for Barbary Sheep is mouflon à manchettes (sleeved mouflon, roughly), so it may be an error via French. Incidentally, in one of those classic ironies of environmentalism, the Barbary Sheep which is portrayed in this book as threatened by hunting and is indeed now rare in North Africa, has been introduced for the purposes of hunting to Spain where it is spreading and causing environmental damage.

City of Arches by Vivian Child

A slightly odd one, this, or at least slightly unexpected. I keep various lists of possible books for the Read The World challenge, and City of Arches was on one of them as a book from St Vincent and the Grenadines. But while I must have known what sort of book it was when I made a note of the title, by the time I ordered it I was under the impression it was a childhood memoir. Perhaps because of the subtitle, Memories of an Island Capital.

In fact it’s more like one of those local history books written by enthusiastic amateur historians. It’s based on a collection of newspaper articles about notable local buildings and their history. So I now know a lot more about the typical architecture of St Vincent: arched arcades and hooded sash windows are the most notable features, but also balconies and decorative fretwork and so on.

If it was only about architecture it might be pretty hard going, but there’s enough of the history and human interest stuff to make it an enjoyable read — especially since it’s only 150 pages of large type with lots of illustrations. A typical entry is something like this:

This attractive house was built around 1926 in typical Kingstown style by Mrs. Jennings (née Rosalind Constantine) from Calliaqua, while her husband was absent, working with the railways in Nigeria.

The builber was Jim Campbell. At that time it stood on its own extensive grounds with fruit trees, and pastures with cattle, sheep and fowl. The only house nearby was the estate house on top of the little hill where Mr John Hazell lived for many years.

The house is of plastered stone construction, although the upper storey has has a wooden gallery partly closed in on the front an supported by arches below. The inside wall of the gallery is painted a beautiful shade of blue.

Enclosed on two sides by the upstairs gallery the spacious living room walls are decorated with a hand painted, coloured design of blurred crossing diagonals, and old and unusual feature. Note the practical and graceful outside stone staircase, a feature often seen in the older suburban and rural homes.

Mr Jennings retired in 1932 and the couple lived out their lives in this comfortable home, disturbed only when rioters in the 1930s hid the goods they had stolen from the stores of Kingstown among the bushes near their home.

The house is now the residence of Mrs. Carol Saunders, Mrs. Jennings foster child. Her husband, Mr James Saunders was a clerk in a business and they had three sons.

It’s a rather wonderful mixture of architectural description, completely mundane biography and just a few intriguing details that hint at the real emotional lives of the inhabitants: a husband away in Nigeria, rioters, a foster child. Since I have no connection to St Vincent and no particular interest in its architectural heritage, I found myself reading it like some kind of austere modernist novel: lots of fragmentary narratives that never quite resolve into anything more than the sum of its parts.

» The photo of Back Street West is © Karl Eklund. It’s not the most flattering picture you’ll ever see of St. Vincent, but it does demonstrate the colonial style of architecture with arched arcades and hooded sash windows.

Belated World Cup food blogging: Algeria

I wasn’t going to do World Cup food blogging for the Algeria gam, because I was out that night at a friend’s house, but as it happens I did a somewhat appropriate dish yesterday because I happened to have the right ingredients. It’s lamb meatballs in an aubergine sauce, and it’s based on a couple of dishes from Claudia Roden’s Tamarind and Saffron. I don’t actually know which part of North Africa or the Middle East they were from, but it’s close enough.

I know it looks a bit underwhelming in that snap from my phone, but actually it was nice; the aubergine made a sort of creamy sauce and it was quite a delicate sort of dish.

The meatballs are just lamb mince with egg and a bit of cumin and allspice; the sauce is roasted, mashed aubergine with a bit of yoghurt. And, you know, some of the brown lamby bits deglazed from the pan and some salt and pepper.

England vs Algeria: my diagnosis

England are suffering from the world’s biggest collective case of the yips.* It seems like the only explanation for how much worse these players become when they pull on an England shirt.

Sigh.

* Well, not quite the biggest: that must be the one that afflicts the All Blacks every four years at the Rugby World Cup.

Happy Bloomsday.

His heart astir he pushed in the door of the Burton restaurant. Stink gripped his trembling breath: pungent meatjuice, slop of greens. See the animals feed.

Men, men, men.

Perched on high stools by the bar, hats shoved back, at the tables calling for more bread no charge, swilling, wolfing gobfuls of sloppy food, their eyes bulging, wiping wetted moustaches. A pallid suetfaced young man polished his tumbler knife fork and spoon with his napkin. New set of microbes. A man with an infant’s saucestained napkin tucked round him shovelled gurgling soup down his gullet. A man spitting back on his plate: halfmasticated gristle: no teeth to chewchewchew it. Chump chop from the grill. Bolting to get it over. Sad booser’s eyes. Bitten off more than he can chew. Am I like that? See ourselves as others see us. Hungry man is an angry man. Working tooth and jaw. Don’t! O! A bone! That last pagan king of Ireland Cormac in the schoolpoem choked himself at Sletty southward of the Boyne. Wonder what he was eating. Something galoptious. Saint Patrick converted him to Christianity. Couldn’t swallow it all however.

— Roast beef and cabbage.

— One stew.

Smells of men. His gorge rose. Spaton sawdust, sweetish warmish cigarette smoke, reek of plug, spilt beer, men’s beery piss, the stale of ferment.

» photo of JJ is from the Réunion des musées nationaux.

England vs USA: my diagnosis

My overall feeling was that there just wasn’t a critical mass of players in that team whose game lends itself to composed possession football. Gerrard and Lampard can’t do it on their own.

So for example, I’m a big fan of Aaron Lennon, and I think he could be an important player for England at this tournament, but he’s not someone who you would immediately associate with patient, methodical build-up play. The same goes for SWP.

I thought the best period of control England had in the friendlies was in the second half of (I think) the Japan game, when Gerrard, Lampard and Joe Cole were all on together; the more of those kinds of players you have on the pitch, the more likely it is that there will be a pass available, the more likely you are to maintain possession.

Not that they have to be midfielders, of course: I think England missed Rio Ferdinand, not for his defending, but for his willingness to carry the ball out of defence and link up with the midfield. And of course Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson can help; so can the forwards, particularly Rooney. But I think the midfield was a problem. Given how well Rooney played alone up front for his club last season, I would have been tempted to play a 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 with Joe Cole taking Heskey’s place. Or just to play Joe Cole on the left wing.

The good news is that Gareth Barry should be back for the next game, which will help.

World Cup food blogging: USA

Well, that was a bit depressing: not so much because of the result, but the tendency to revert to long balls hoofed up the front, the lack of involvement of England’s wingers, the lack of controlled possession in midfield… all the usual England failings, in fact. Not to mention the further undermining of confidence in England’s goalkeepers. Ho hum.

However, World Cup food blogging must carry on. And so, my USA-themed food: cornbread and creole fried shrimp. The cornbread recipe I used was this one. Partially because it’s a British recipe, so I can weigh my ingredients rather than all that measuring quantities by the cup that American recipes do. And partially because it suggests substituting yoghurt for buttermilk, which is what I was planning to do anyway. I cut down the quantity of chillies slightly and cooked it in a pre-heated cast iron frying pan, though. It turned out rather nice, I must say:

The shrimp was a bit of an improvised recipe; I covered the prawns in a homemade creole-type seasoning mix — chopped thyme, dried oregano, paprika, crushed garlic, a dribble of pepper sauce, black pepper — and left for a couple of hours (the duration of the Nigeria-Argentina game, in fact).

Then I basically did the standard flour-egg-breadcrumb thing except with a mixture of cornmeal and cornstarch instead of breadcrumbs, and deep-fried them. Came out looking quite impressive:

But actually, although it tasted OK, the coating was a bit coarse and not very crispy. I don’t do a lot of deep-frying, so I don’t really know why… oil not hot enough? I think if I tried to do a cornmeal based coating again, I would use a wet batter rather than dry cornmeal coating. You live and learn.

I’d definitely do the cornbread again, though. Yummy.

So, roll on Algeria!

Fuck BP

I find it rather depressing that the British papers have decided to start defending BP against Barack Obama. I should have seen it coming: it’s never a surprise to see journalists and politicians rally to support the rich and powerful in their hour of need.

Personally I think it’s a good thing that BP is getting a kicking. I don’t know whether they were negligent or just unlucky, but one way or another they have created an environmental catastrophe. If they and every other big company really believed that these kind of accidents represented a genuine threat to their profitability, maybe they would all spend a little more of their vast wealth to make sure that it can’t ever happen again.

On the other hand, if Obama really wants to prove that his concern is the environment and not the midterm elections, it’s not enough to attack BP. He needs to follow it up by giving the same treatment to Chevron, the company that poisoned the inhabitants and fucked up the environment of thousands of square miles of Ecuadorean rainforest. And then he and rest of us need to look at the situation in Nigeria.

The way these companies crap all over the third world shows that they will cut any corner in the search for profit, as long as they can get away with it. Well, this time, BP managed to shit on the doorstep of the most powerful country on earth, and they’re getting the response they deserve.

The Fortunes of Wangrin by Amadou Hampaté Bâ

The Fortunes of Wangrin is my book from Mali for the Read The World challenge.

It’s a novel — or at least it seems to be universally described as a novel, despite the fact that Hampaté Bâ says in the Afterword:

I don’t know why, even is spite of the specific assertions contained in the Foreword, some people continue to ask themselves whether this narrative is fiction, reality, or a clever mixture of both…

I’ll repeat once more, then, for anyone who might still be in doubt, that I heard everything related to the life of the hero, from the account of his birth (a story told by his parents), through the relationship with the animist world, the various predictions, and so forth, all the way to the downfall caused by commercial bankruptcy, from Wangrin himself, in a Bambara often poetic, full of verve, humour, and vigour, to the soft musical accompaniment of his griot Diele Maadi. To this very day I recall with emotion Wangrin’s voice against the background of a guitar.

[…] I rounded off the information already at my disposal by visiting everyone who had frequented him… I have made up no event or circumstances whatsoever. Every single story was told by the people in question or by someone in their circle, either griot, houseboy, or friend.

Which is interesting case. Because it does read like fiction, stylistically; I certainly read it that way and was surprised to learn that it wasn’t. It is told as a single coherent narrative with the kind of omniscient third person narrator normally associated with fiction. To use a television analogy, it is more like a dramatisation of real events than a documentary. And I don’t think it is like a biography in the standard sense, a work of history intended to establish the true events of a person’s life.

Rather, it is a work of oral history — unsurprisingly, perhaps, since Hampaté Bâ was an ethnologist and folklorist. It has the qualities of a good storyteller telling the story of their own life: not perhaps outright fabrication, but just enough massaging and selection and elision and exaggeration to turn the messiness of reality into something beautifully moulded and polished. It’s like a memoir told in the third person.

And Wangrin is certainly an interesting character; the son of a prominent family, he was sent to the colonial school to learn French and worked as an interpreter, which put him in position as the literal and symbolic intermediary between the French colonial administration and the native population, able to play off both sides against each other. Which he did, enriching himself in the process. So a bit of a crook, then, even if a likeable one.

His position between the French and the Africans makes this book a fascinating look into the functioning of colonial life; one of the more striking things for me was how thin the layer of bureaucracy seems to have been: a very small number of French administrators on their own out in the bush, in charge of a large population of people of various languages and religions with whom they share neither culture nor language. And that makes the interpreter a rather more important figure than the title suggests.

I certainly recommend the book. Like so many of these books in translation, it had a few too many endnotes for my taste, and the edition I read had some truly awful typography inflicted on it* — but I can hardly blame Hampaté Bâ for that.

* The front cover and the page headers are set in Lithos Bold, a typeface which is a typographic cliché for black/African literature, despite being based on Greek inscriptions, so that’s at the very least unimaginative; but worse, the chapter headings use a numeral in Lithos Bold and then a chapter heading and an ornamental initial in Papyrus, another typeface used to give a generic impression of the exotic, and a rather ugly one at that.

» The masks are from the Réunion des Musées Nationaux. I just found themby putting ‘Mali’ into the search engine, and thought they were particularly striking.

iPhone 4 quickie

Apple’s publicity seems to be focussing on the video chat, and that’s all very Jetsons and everything, but I don’t suppose I would often find myself in a situation where I wanted to video chat with another person who also had an iPhone 4 and we were both in WiFi hotspots.

But I’m really really keen to have a look at this new 326ppi display. If displays are genuinely crossing the threshold where they no longer look pixelated, where they look like real print, well, that is very exciting. And ingrate that I am, I immediately want to know: when am I going to be able to buy a great big 326ppi monitor for my computer?

Football advertising

As all the sportswear manufacturers unveil their big ad campaigns in the run-up to the World Cup, the one which has been the biggest hit is Nike’s epic Write the Future.

And don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly impressive, if only for the sheer amount of money thrown at the screen. And while it’s conceptually and narratively a bit chaotic, it has some amusing moments and striking images. But it’s all about fame and glory and money and glamour and even more fame. It is the self-importance of football writ large. I miss the days when ads used to make football look, you know, entertaining. Even fun.

So I prefer this one, for Puma:

Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika

So, the World Cup is almost upon us, and inevitably our attention has been narrowed in on the nervy minutiae of squad selections and injury worries and tactical arguments. So before the action starts, can I just take a moment to say how fucking marvellous it is to see the World Cup being hosted in Africa.

I do understand that there are commercial and practical reasons why the USA and Japan both got to host the tournament before an African nation, but it’s not particularly edifying to watch a desparate FIFA trying to break America like some bloated, bombastic Robbie Williams.

How much nicer it is to see the World Cup finally go to the third great heartland of football, somewhere where the locals will be hugely excited to have it. And having seen the ICC manage to host a cricket tournament in the West Indies without any Caribbean atmosphere, let’s hope that the clammy corporate hand of FIFA doesn’t manage to drain all the Africanness out of the experience.

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