The Whistler by Ondjaki

I have read several books recently that felt like a bit of a chore, so the first point to make about The Whistler is that it is gloriously short. With the help of generous amounts of white space the publishers have padded it out to 100 pages, but it’s probably more like 60 pages of actual text. I’m not a fan of short stories and I’m usually suspicious of very short novels, but this time I was in the mood for it: how nice to get a book finished in a couple of short sittings.

It’s about a man with an extraordinary whistle; except actually the whistler himself hardly appears. It’s really the story of a village reacting to the whistler’s arrival; and his whistling has a remarkable effect on people. We’re in magical realism territory here.

The story is light on plot but strong on atmosphere; it’s dreamy and wistful and gently funny. I guess in the end it might be a tiny bit insubstantial, but I found it very likeable. And it’s nice to read African fiction which isn’t about civil war or dictatorship or colonialism, important though those subjects are, but instead about people’s normal desires and concerns on a human scale.

He arrived in October, at the same time as the enduring and silent rains of that village. His hair fell along the thin sides of his face, his clothes were completely soaked and heavy, his eyes barely open from such amazement: it was a rain as soaking as any other, but without the natural gift of making a noise as it fell. He believed he was in the midst of an intense snow storm, and opened his mouth. He had never experienced a rain like this.

He put his bag on the steps. He looked, still with that soaked gaze, at the pigeons that surrounded the church. They flapped around him, alighted n the windows and took to the air again. It was only them that made a noise; only their noise could be heard. Further in the distance was a donkeys’ retreat. It is true, gathered donkeys: grey, fat, content and ambling.

He went into the church with a small step, without making a noise. The day was still young and the first mass had already taken place. He breathed the air around him, felt a delicate religiousness penetrate his lungs and his heart. The beauty of the architecture, the light filtering through the stained-glass windows, the morning and the moment, the absence of the Padre, led him to begin whistling. He discovered, with the end of the first notes, that this was one of the best places in the world for the whistling of melodies.

The Whistler by Ondjaki (trans. Richard Bartlett) is my book from Angola for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo is © Jose and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence. It has no particular relevance except that it was taken in Angola and I like it.

Argentina, Angola, and Africa

Argentina played the most beautiful football yesterday in thrashing Serbia and Montenegro. That’s the kind of play that you watch the World Cup to see – great individual flair combining in a great team performance. Great goals, great skills. It was like a highlight reel. The only thing it lacked to be a true all-time classic was a great opposing team.

You don’t win the World Cup by playing beautiful football in the group stages, of course. No team produces that kind of quality every time they play, and they’ll face tougher opposition. For the time being, you just have to watch and marvel and take joy in the moment.

I also enjoyed watching Angola scrap out a 0-0 draw with Mexico. We’re always told that Americans will never accept football because it’s too low-scoring and they won’t watch sports that end in a draw; and to be fair, it’s not a lot of fun watching a scoreless draw between Fulham and Middlesborough. But on the right day, between the right teams, 0-0 can be a brilliant and exciting result.

And I always like to see the African teams doing well. There aren’t many circumstances in which African countries get to be portrayed in a positive light, let alone compete with the world’s richest countries as equals, but football is one of them. The great African players – Eusebio, Weah, Eto’o – are legends. The assumption always seems to be that an African team couldn’t win the whole tournament, and there’s not (yet) an African footballing superpower to compete with Brazil, Argentina, Italy and Germany, but over the past few World Cups, they’ve consistently produced at least one team that has mounted a serious challenge. And as more and more African players play in the top European leagues, they’re only going to get better. Who knows what they would have achieved already if so many of their countries weren’t having to deal with poverty, corruption and war.

The consensus seems to be that this time, the best teams in Africa haven’t made it to the World Cup, and that the two strongest teams, Ghana and Ivory Coast, were very unlucky in the draw for the groups. So probably this isn’t their year. But as long as they’re in the competition, I’ll be cheering them. Against everyone except England, obviously.

EDIT:Hooray for Ghana, who just whupped the Czechs. That was such a fun game to watch. If they play like that again I’d certainly back them to beat the USA in their third group game, which would probably mean they qualify for the knock-out stages.

FIFA London Cup 2006

I was thinking the other day that it’s surprising and slightly disappointing that, while London is covered in England flags for the World Cup, you don’t see many flags from other countries. Something like 25% of people resident in London were born outside the UK, so there must be plenty of people supporting just about everywhere.

But I went to a friend’s house in Oval yesterday. Oval is ‘Little Lisbon’, the Portuguese centre of London, and Portugal were playing their first World Cup game that evening against ex-colony Angola. Everywhere were people wearing Portugal shirts, or the Portugal strip, or Portugal scarves, or waving the Portuguese flag. It was great. There was even some banter between Angolan and Portuguese fans on the bus (at least I think it was banter, but I don’t speak Portuguese).

I love that. I loved the fact that when South Korea won some key match at the last World Cup – beating Italy maybe? – hundreds of Koreans turned up in Trafalgar Square singing and waving Korean flags.

I suppose a comment about England’s first game is in order. it wasn’t that encouraging, let’s be honest. But we got the three points; we’re clear at the top of the group; it’s a marathon not a sprint; it’s a game of fourteen halves; it’s still a while until the fat lad sings.