My Country, Africa: Autobiography of the Black Pasionaria by Andrée Blouin

I read this for the Read The World challenge as my book from the Central African Republic, which is where Andrée Blouin was born — although she didn’t actually live there for very long.

Her father, Pierre Gerbillat, was a French businessman with a transport company in what was then French Equatorial Africa. He saw Andrée’s mother, Josephine Wouassimba, dancing in a local village and decided he wanted to marry her. Although she was already promised to somebody else, he offered such a large dowry that her parents were persuaded.

He was forty; she was thirteen. And although they were married according to local custom, they were not actually married under French law — not only that, he was already engaged to a Belgian woman, who he married very soon. And after briefly juggling two wives, he left Josephine and sent Andrée to an orphanage for mixed-race children run by nuns in Brazzaville. She was at the orphanage from the age of three until she was seventeen, when she managed to escape, literally by climbing over the wall.

Then she worked as a dressmaker, and had a sequence of relationships with white men, before getting involved in the campaign for independence, first in Guinea and then the Belgian Congo, where she was Chief of Protocol for the newly independent Republic of the Congo for the very brief period before Mobutu overthrew the government and she had to flee the country, and move to France.

So she’s an interesting subject. Although the stuff which is most obviously notable about her — the politics — was not actually the most engaging part of the book, for me. The most powerful section is about severity of the orphanage, and the sheer cruelty of the nuns; and throughout the book the racial dynamics are particularly thought-provoking.

She was a mixed-race child at a time when they were so rare that they were shipped of to special orphanages and coerced to marry each other, to reduce their disruptive impact on society. And it made her even more of an outsider that she was cut off from normal African society for her entire childhood.

Then as an adult, she was a beautiful mixed-race woman who, despite having suffered at the hands of white institutions and individuals, was apparently only drawn to relationships with white men; one of whom she lived with, and had a child with, even though he was so racist that he would not allow her mother into their house.

And I don’t think she makes any comment herself about whether her partial whiteness made it easier or harder for her to be a woman taking a prominent role in the politics of independence, but it must have been relevant one way or another.

So there’s plenty of interesting material here. And it’s well written, for which the credit may go to Jean McKellar, who is credited as a ‘collaborator’; I don’t know exactly what that means in this case. It’s also out of print, though, and unless it sounds like it’s particularly relevant to your interests, I don’t think it’s so amazing that you need to seek it out.

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2014

I got 19 species this year, which equals my previous best.

blue tit × 4
great tit × 3
long-tailed tit × 2
coal tit × 1

chaffinch × 3
greenfinch × 1

dunnock × 2
robin × 3
nuthatch × 1

blackbird × 2
redwing × 1
song thrush × 1

ring-necked parakeet × 3
great-spotted woodpecker × 1
magpie × 2
carrion crow × 2

pigeon × 7
woodpigeon × 1

sparrowhawk × 1

It’s the first time I’ve seen redwing during the count; on the other hand no goldfinch(!) or goldcrest, wren, siskin, starling.

Epitaph of a Small Winner* by Machado de Assis

I’ve already read a book from Brazil for the Read The World challenge, but I really enjoyed this so I thought I’d add it to the blog-pile.

I can’t remember why I picked this up, but I *really* enjoyed it. It’s a C19th novel which is ‘surprisingly modern’ — in scare quotes because that seems to be the default description and I don’t disagree, but I’m slightly uneasy about using ‘modern’ as a term of praise or even description.

It’s ‘modern’ because it’s written from the perspective of a dead man who makes lots of authorial asides, in a generally light tone, broken up into very short chapters (mostly less than a page), with self-referential stuff and intertextual commentary. In other words, it plays with form more than most C19th novels. But rather than comparing it to the modernists and post-modernists, it seems just as natural to refer back; not just to the inevitable Tristram Shandy, but things like Tom Jones and Byron’s Don Juan, which both have ‘authorial’ asides and interjections.

Anyway, that kind of quibbling aside: the application of the style to a very solidly C19th plot, about the lives and loves of the upper-middle classes, worked brilliantly for me. It was apparently just what I needed.

*A note on the title: in Portuguese it’s actually called Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, and some English translations give it the same title: The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas. I can’t really see why they felt the need to change it for this translation†, and it’s also bloody annoying when you’re shopping for a copy until you realise that it’s all the same novel, but there you go.

†A 1950s one by William S Grossman, incidentally.

21 Immortals by Rozlan Mohd Noor and Ripples by Shih-Li Kow

These are a couple of books from Malaysia which I read for the Read The World challenge, both picked because I thought they would make a change compared to some of what I read for the challenge. For a start, they’re both contemporary works, rather than the 20, 30, 40 year old books I often end up reading. And 21 Immortals: Inspector Mislan and the Yee Sang Murders is a crime novel, while Ripples and other stories is, obviously, a books of short stories.

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21 Immortals was a silly choice, really. Not because of the book itself, which is fine I guess, but because I have never understood the appeal of crime fiction (or indeed the even more depressing genre, ‘true crime’). I’m just not very interested in the grisly murders themselves or the police procedural/CSI stuff. The Malaysian setting gave it some novelty value, but otherwise it was a pretty standard example of the genre and so it largely left me cold.

Ripples is more my usual thing: more ‘literary’, anyway. The stories are interlinked, each picking up some detail or character from the story before, and they are surprisingly varied in style: some are low key stories about the details of everyday life, others have more overtly dramatic subjects or are fantastical tales. Not all of them are equally successful, but there was plenty here to keep me reading, at least. At least with short stories, if you don’t like one much, there’s always another one along in a minute. And if this review seems a bit vague and non-commital: well, the truth is that it has been a few days since I finished Ripples; and although I quite liked it while I was reading it, it didn’t leave a profound impression.

So, slightly underwhelming choices for Malaysia, but hey-ho, on to the next thing.

» ‘Summer Storm over Kuala Lumpur’ is © Trey Ratcliff and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

London Film Festival debrief, 2013

So, I saw five films this year. Some quick notes:

Story of my Death [Història de la meva mort].

The LFF said:

Albert Serra’s teasing period-piece sees Casanova and Dracula meeting as Enlightenment reason gives way to the dangerous passions of the Romantic era.

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Which sounded like it might be fun, if perhaps a bit silly. Maybe a trifle camp. In fact it was surprisingly boring.

I like the fact that artier films can allow themselves to be a bit slow-paced, and a use longer takes and longer shots: if nothing else it makes a change from the freneticness of commercial cinema. But allowing yourself to be leisurely, and give the characters room to breathe, doesn’t mean that every scene has to be like that, that every shot has to carry on for several seconds longer than necessary. And if you are going to make a film like that, and it ends up being nearly two and a half hours long, it starts to feel a little bit self-indulgent.

The director said in the Q&A afterwards that he’d never seen any genre films because he wasn’t interested in them, which explained why his handling of the Dracula scenes was so artless; artless mainly in a bad way.

On the positive side: it often looked good, and among the completely amateur Catalan cast, Casanova in particular was excellent.

Portrait of Jason

The LFF said:

Shirley Clarke’s cinéma-vérité masterpiece about a gay African-American cabaret performer and prostitute revealingly restored.

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This is a black and white documentary from 1967; Jason Holliday is interviewed in his apartment about his life as a house boy, prostitute, hustler and would-be cabaret performer as he gets steadily drunk and stoned. He is the only person we see; he replies to questions from off-camera and spins yarns which may or may not be strictly true. It’s very rough-looking; the restorer spent years looking for a good quality print before finding that what was marked as out-takes in the archive was in fact the edited film, which is complete with conversations between the director and the cameraman, moments when the screen goes black, shots out of focus and so on. But apparently there are pages and pages of editing notes to prove that this is a very carefully crafted version of roughness.

I enjoyed it, Jason is a fascinating, charming and rather tragic figure, and the style is interesting too.

My Fathers, My Mother and Me

Paul-Julien Robert’s quietly devastating documentary revisits the former residents of the experimental 1970s free-love commune in which he grew up.

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Paul-Julien Robert didn’t know who his biological father was until he was 12, in 1991, when the Friedrichshof commune was dissolved and as part of the fall-out the various children were given blood tests to determine paternity. In this documentary, he talks to his mother, to the various men who were potential fathers, and to the other children who lived there with him. It is fascinating stuff, especially because the leader of the commune, Otto Muehl, was obsessed with documenting the life there, so the interviews are intercut with lots and lots of footage of the commune in action.

It starts out seeming fun and quirky; slightly bonkers, but free-spirited, well-meaning and optimistic as well. But it gets steadily darker, as it gradually becomes clear that a free-love commune built on the eradication of the nuclear family is not in fact a great environment for raising children. Not, at least, if it is being run by a controlling egomaniac.

It’s fascinating on all sorts of levels, not least the disconnect between the adults’ experience of the commune and the children’s. Apparently it was only really when making the film that he felt able to talk openly about his childhood, and there are some particularly painful conversations with his mother.

Grigris

A Chadian street photographer’s romantic interest in a would-be model lands him in a murky criminal underworld in this smart thriller.

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To be pedantic about it, he’s not actually a ‘street photographer’ as I would understand it; he’s not taking candid shots of urban life. He takes photos for ID cards and the like. He’s also a nightclub dancer with a withered leg.

The thriller-y bits could have been edited a bit more snappily, perhaps, but basically I enjoyed this. It usually looks good, it has plenty of plot, which is sometimes a bit lacking at the kind of films I tend to go to at the festival, and the central performances are good. And a pretty girl and some good dance sequences.

The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas [Η Αιώνια Επιστροφή Του Αντώνη Παρασκευά]

A dark satire on current Greek woes that sees a failing TV personality stage his own kidnapping, only to start to unravel as he holds himself hostage.

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This is an almost silent film. Paraskevas is holed up in an empty hotel alone while the world thinks he has been kidnapped, and for most of the film the only dialogue is from the TV news and videos he is watching. He is already perhaps a little unstable to have thought this was a good idea, but the solitude pushes him further over the edge and the initially comic tone turns darker.

It’s genuinely funny in the funny bits, and the turn to the dark works as well. There are perhaps a couple of mis-steps along the way, but generally I really liked it. Christos Stergioglou is great in the central role; there’s an almost Buster Keaton quality to the way he manages to be silently expressive with a mournful and impassive face.

Slavery by Another Name by Douglas A. Blackmon

This is a grim but fascinating book. Obviously I knew that black people in the southern states of the US had a pretty rough time of it in the period between the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement, what with disenfranchisement and segregation and lynching. But I didn’t appreciate that slavery re-emerged and continued right up to the 1940s.

How it worked was this: a black man would be arrested and charged with some minor offence like vagrancy or carrying a concealed weapon, and ordered to pay a fine plus costs, which would be more than they could afford. Their debt would then be paid off by a company or an individual, and the black man would be sent to work off the money he ‘owed’.

And even that legal process was a complete sham, so the effect was that any black man could, at any time, be picked up off the streets and sold into forced labour on plantations or in coal mines or whatever, where they would be shackled, kept in appalling conditions, thrashed regularly, and if they tried to escape they would be hunted down with dogs. And if they had nominally worked off the debt they owed, their ‘masters’ could always claim they had incurred costs and extend their time at will — not that anyone seems to have been checking the paperwork anyway.

I suppose what I found so shocking is that this isn’t just analogous to slavery: it’s the full slavery experience. There’s even an argument that these men were treated even worse than antebellum slaves, because at least those slaves were valuable assets that their owners could sell or use as collateral for loans. The debt slaves were effectively rented rather than owned, and it was no particular financial loss to their renters if they died. And die they did, particularly in the mines, by their dozens.

There were many thousands of African Americans living in these kinds of explicit forced labour; and that is on top of the much larger number living as sharecroppers and similar exploitative arrangements.

It makes for interesting, depressing reading. And it provokes all kinds of thoughts about power and race and America and so on, but one broad conclusion I would pick out is this: major societal change is hard and slow. Perhaps the situation could have changed faster, with more political will from the North and the federal government, but there was no enthusiasm for another huge internal conflict on the subject of race, and the one serious attempt to crack down on forced labour petered out as the scale of the problem became clear.

But even with all the political will in the world, it would surely have taken decades to normalise the situation of black people in the south as full citizens. Which is something we should bear in mind when we blithely talk about intervening in other countries with enormously entrenched social problems.

Another thought that occurs to me: it’s kind of interesting that Washington DC has a holocaust museum rather than a slavery museum. There’s nothing wrong with a holocaust museum — they could have both! — but it does seem like it might be easier to confront the horrors of a a great sin and a great tragedy when they happen in another country rather than your own.

And that in turn provokes a line of thought about my own country’s history, and to what extent the British have come to terms with the murkier implications of having been an empire. But that will have to wait for another day, I think.

Para Vasco: poemas da Guiné-Bissau / For Vasco: poems from Guinea-Bissau

This is my book from Guinea-Bissau for the Read The World challenge. Although ‘book’ is almost overselling it; it’s a pamphlet really. A total of twelve poems by nine poets, and even with an introduction, acknowledgements and the poems in both English and Portuguese, it’s only 44 pages.

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But the choices were limited; the only real alternative was a book of the collected speeches and writings of Amílcar Cabral, the politician and guerrilla leader who campaigned for independence for Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. Which probably would have been interesting, but I took the cheaper, lazier option and bought this instead.

There are some strong thematic threads running through the poems: the forest, freedom fighters, saudade, eroticised women, slavery, nationalism. If I had been told they were all written by the same poet over a long period, that wouldn’t surprise me; although there may be stylistic differences that are flattened out in translation.

Presumably that thematic similarity is at least partially an artefact of the selection process. But apparently the country’s intellectual tradition grew out of politics: the book is dedicated to Vasco Cabral* ‘who has been called the first Guinean intellectual’ and who, as well as being a poet, was freedom fighter, political prisoner and then government minister of the independent Guinea-Bissau. And in the forty years since independence (almost exactly: the anniversary is the Tuesday after next) there has been a civil war, so the theme of political violence hasn’t lost its relevance.

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As always with parallel texts, it was interesting to see some of the translation decisions, even without knowing any Portuguese. For example, one poem was broken up at different points in the English from the original — i.e. the white space appeared a couple of lines later in the translation — which seems weirdly arbitrary, but it would be fascinating to hear the reasoning behind it.

Anyway, it was worth reading, I think; some of the poems worked better than others, in translation at least, with Hélder Proença the pick of the bunch.

*no relation to Amílcar, as far as I can tell.

» The top image is of the Buba river in Guinea-Bissau. It’s from the US Geological Survey and therefore public domain. The second is of Vasco Cabral at the UN-OAU Oslo conference on Southern Africa (i.e. on apartheid), in his role as Administrative Secretary of the African Party for the Liberation of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), six months before independence in 1973. It is © the UN and used under a by-nc-nd licence.

Mirabella and the Pearl of Chulothe by Laila Al Bellucci

This is my book from Oman for the Read The World challenge. It’s a YA fantasy novel set in an English boarding school, so it’s a slightly odd choice for my purposes; but there weren’t many good alternatives, and it was cheap on kindle, so I thought I might as well read it.

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It’s not very good. For a start it’s unoriginal; that isn’t a disaster in itself, but the book’s other weaknesses are its prose style, plotting, characterisation, world-building, atmosphere, and dialogue. It’s even very badly edited.

Yes, (Saudi) Minister! A Life in Administration by Ghazi Algosaibi

This is my book from Saudi Arabia for the Read The World challenge. I was looking for Saudi novels, and found Algosaibi because, as well as being a government minister and then ambassador, he wrote poetry and novels; one of which, An Apartment Called Freedom, was translated into English. What intrigued me enough to buy this memoir is that some of his books were banned in Saudi Arabia, including An Apartment Called Freedom — which was published while he was the Saudi ambassador to the UK and Ireland, a post he continued in for another 8 years.

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That’s a weird situation, right? I guess it’s not necessarily actively hypocritical to keep serving a government which has banned one of your books, but there is certainly a tension there. So, that was intriguing, as I say.

And I just thought it might be interesting to read an insiders’ view of what is after all a very unusual country: one of the last full-blown monarchies, a virtual theocracy, a regional superpower, a brutally oppressive state given unswerving support by the US, the home of the holiest places in one of the world’s great religions, a sparsely populated desert state that became wealthy very quickly by an accident of geology.

Unfortunately, this book was written with his civil servant/diplomat hat on, and it is a very civil, very diplomatic memoir which confines itself strictly to his professional life and fastidiously avoids anything too controversial. Many of the aspects of Saudi society that seem intriguing to an outsider are completely ignored: the treatment of women, for example. And he doesn’t even mention the banning of his own books. I suspect the bans were more symbolic than real for the kind of elite circles he moved in: any of his chums who wanted to read them could just pick up a copy when they were out of the country. But even that symbolism is interesting, and it would have been interesting to read what he had to say about it.

Still, it was about as readable and interesting as one could hope for from the professional memoir of a technocrat. It’s written in a lively manner with plenty of (suitably tame) anecdotes, and although it comes across as slightly self-serving, I can believe he was a genuinely effective administrator: hard-working and pragmatic, keen to be well-informed, careful to keep in contact with the end users of whichever project he was running, whether railways or electrification or the health service.

Not everything I hoped for, then, but quite interesting.

» ‘Suspension Bridge, Wadi Laban, Riyadh’ is © KhanSaqib and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.