America’s Prisoner: The Memoirs of Manuel Noriega by Manuel Noriega and Peter Eisner

Political memoirs should probably always be approached with a healthy scepticism. This one was written by a man in prison for drug-trafficking, so I approached it with a lot of uncertainty; especially since I don’t know enough about the politics of Central America in the 80s.

The book does provide some help in the form of Peter Eisner, the American journalist who ghost-wrote the main text, based on interviews with Noriega, and added an introduction, footnotes and endnotes which (as agreed in advance) Noriega did not have any say over. So that provides some useful context.

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Noriega’s version of events is that he was nothing but a patriot, working for the good of the people of Panama, trying to avoid getting caught up in the shitshow of Nicaragua and Honduras, and trying to keep on the good side of both the Americans and the Cubans. He also says that the US invasion of Panama was based on nothing but political expediency, that the drug charges against him were trumped up, and that the Americans were up to their eyeballs in every nasty, dirty, shady thing that happened in Central America, including drug-running.

Now a lot of his accusations are clearly true; but of course that doesn’t mean it’s all true. So, for example, given the stuff we know the CIA and the DoD were getting up to in Central America — most famously, but not only, Iran-Contra — pretty much any accusation against them starts sounding plausible. And of course the invasion was political: the fact that they ousted an uncooperative government 12 days before the Canal Zone was due to be handed over to Panamanian control doesn’t seem like a coincidence. And the idea that they did it because Noriega was a Bad Man? Well, given the kinds of regimes the US propped up in Latin America, they clearly had a very high tolerance for brutal dictatorships when it was convenient. But then you can say the same about, say, Saudi Arabia and Iraq: support for the Saudis undermines any claim to a foreign policy designed to spread democracy, freedom and human rights; but whatever the real motivations for invading Iraq, that doesn’t alter the fact that Saddam Hussein was a genuinely terrible figure.

For what it’s worth, Eisner’s conclusion is that Noriega was clearly guilty of a lot of things — like rigging elections and intimidating the opposition — but that Panama was still comparatively stable and peaceful compared to most of its neighbours. And that if Noriega was running drugs, the trial did a poor job of proving it; it relied on testimony from informants within the US prison system who were rewarded for their testimony with reduced sentences, and potentially damning evidence about American government involvement was ruled either secret or inadmissible.

Who knows. I mean, somebody probably does, and if I did the research I might have a clearer idea; but I found the book interesting, even without knowing what to make of it. The tangled politics of the region, and the extent to which the US government was caught up in it, is fascinating. Presumably, now we’ve moved on from the Cold War to the War on Terror, the CIA is less involved in Central America than it used to be, but who knows what they’re now getting up to in, say, Yemen. Or Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey…

[Oh, yeah, I forgot to say: this is my book from Panama for the Read The World challenge.]

The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyŏng, translated by JaHyun Kim Haboush

This is a properly remarkable book. It is, as the subtitle explains, ‘The Autobiographical Writings of a Crown Princess of Eighteenth-Century Korea’. Lady Hyegyŏng* was married into the royal family; she married Sado, the Crown Prince, when they were both nine years old. Sado never became king — he was executed in 1762 at the age of 27 — but their son inherited the throne as King Chŏngjo. Remarkably, Hyegyŏng outlived him as well, and three of these four ‘memoirs’ were written after 1800, during the reign of her grandson King Sunjo.

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So she had a long and eventful life, and it makes for fascinating reading. It’s sometimes a little difficult keeping track of who’s who: there’s a large cast of characters, the court intrigues are confusing, and the family relationships are complicated by the fact that the kings and princes have children by multiple women; some wives, some consorts. And because I’m unused to Korean names they all sound a bit the same to me. But it has a list of characters and some family trees, which helped.

The other complication is that these are four separate memoirs which overlap with each other. So the first (‘The Memoir of 1795’) is closest to the modern idea of a memoir, starting with her childhood and covering most of her life, but it carefully avoids any details about the single most important event: the execution of Prince Sado. The execution of the crown Prince by his father is so politically charged that she only alludes to it in the vaguest terms. Then the memoirs of 1801 and 1802 are more directly political; public advocacy aimed at defending the reputation of her father and brothers, who had fallen out favour after the death of Chŏngjo. And in the Memoir of 1805, she finally returns to the story of Sado, explaining that 40 years of silence has allowed false versions of events to take hold, and she believes it is important to tell what really happened.

And the story of Prince Sado is extraordinary. I don’t want to give all the details; I’m sure I enjoyed this book more because I was surprised and shocked by it. But the central fact of his execution is this: he was suffering from some kind of mental illness, and it progressed to the point that he was thought to be a credible threat to the life of the king. But because he was royal, custom forbade any method of execution that would disfigure the body, and poison would have implied he was a criminal; so he was shut into a rice chest and left to starve to death.

As you might imagine, this event traumatised the entire royal family in various ways; hence it being taboo to talk about it for four decades after it happened.

But although it was an extreme example, it also gives a hint of the brutality of court life. There are an awful lot of people who get banished to remote islands, or tortured or executed; usually for saying something which is perceived to be disloyal. That ‘disloyalty’, at least at this cultural distance, often seems to be based on terrifyingly slight nuances of speech.

So I found it fascinating as a portrayal of a time and place, and the whole story is positively Shakespearean.† But it is also much more readable than you might expect. If you skipped the two middle memoirs it would be a positive page-turner; not that they aren’t interesting, but they are harder work.

The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyŏng is my book from South Korea for the Read The World challenge. I’d still like to read some contemporary Korean fiction, it seems like a really interesting country at the moment. But this caught my eye, and I’m glad I read it. It’s fascinating.

*Or Hyegyeong, in the newer Revised Romanization which is the official standard since 2000 (this is all according to Wikipedia, obviously). Similarly, Chŏngjo = Jeongjo, etc. The book was published in 1985, so it uses the older McCune–Reischauer system. 

†Genuinely, it was reading books like this, whether about historical kings or modern dictators, that helped me see Shakespeare’s plays in a new light; I always read them as psychological studies, family dramas that just happen to be set against a more glamorous background. But life in the court of an absolute ruler, like Stalin or King Yǒngjo or Elizabeth I, is really not a normal family situation. Unfortunately I only arrived at this insight after I finished studying Shakespeare at university.

» The portrait is of King Yǒngjo, Prince Sado’s father. I took it from Wikipedia.

Red Love: The Story of an East German Family by Maxim Leo

This is the family history of three generations of Germans. The author’s grandparents were young during WWII; one grandfather fought in the French Resistance, the other seems to have been a lukewarm Fascist, but both ended up being inspired by the promise of the new socialist East Germany that was going to rise out of the ruins of the war. Then his parents grew up as products of the GDR, and he was a young man when the Berlin Wall came down.

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He’s got plenty of good material, and it’s well-written*, so if it sounds like the kind of thing you might like, you’ll probably like it.

* Apart from some slightly clunky tense shifts; he opens chapters in the past tense to establish the scene then switches to the present tense for the bulk of the text. Maybe it works better in German.

» The photo, ‘KULTUR, BERLIN GDR 1984’ is © phillygdr and used under a CC by-nc licence.

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.

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.

The Blue Sky: A Novel by Galsan Tschinag

A book from the perspective of the youngest child of a family of nomadic Tuvan sheep herders in Mongolia. Apparently it’s the first book of an autobiographical trilogy,* along with The Gray Earth and The White Mountain.

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It’s set in the communist Mongolia of the 40s, although the politics is something remote in this book: both because the family is literally remote from the centres of power, and because it is seen through the eyes of a child, for whom it is much less important than the day to day life with the sheep. Still, the influence hangs over them: the father has been assigned quotas he has to meet, in wool and wolf hides and other things, that interfere with the proper management of the herd; the older siblings are taken away to be educated in town; and even the idea of becoming a prosperous farmer is dangerous because it risks being labelled a kulak.

Apparently the conflict between communism and the traditional way of life features more directly in the next volume, when the boy goes to school. Which actually sounds like a more interesting subject to me, so perhaps I’ll pick up a copy at some point.

Most of the book is from the very narrow perspective of a small child: his world is barely wider than his extended family and their cluster of yurts. So the book is about family dynamics: the tension between his father and uncles, the boy’s relationship with his parents, his grandmother and his dog; and about the details of daily life: the food, the sheep, the landscape, the weather.

All of which is interesting in a cultural/ethnographical sort of way; more importantly, it’s well written and evocative.

The Blue Sky was translated from the original German by Katharina Rout. It is my book from Mongolia for the Read The World challenge.

* That’s the author’s own description. But the book is also described as a ‘novel’. So I don’t know what the balance of autobiography and fiction is.

» The photo, ‘typical summer day’, is © Kit Seeborg and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Survival in the Killing Fields by Haing Ngor and Roger Warner

Survival in the Killing Fields is my book from Cambodia for the Read The World challenge. Haing Ngor was a doctor in pre-revolutionary Phnom Penh. That alone was enough to make him a target for the Khmer Rouge, but he managed to survive their regime through lies, determination, judgement and blind luck. Later he made it to America, was cast in the film The Killing Fields, and won an Oscar for best supporting actor.

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Which is a remarkable story, and superficially one of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity; except that really, even an Academy Award is no kind of compensation for forced labour, torture, exile, and the death of most of your family. And in the Epilogue written for this edition, 15 years after the original publication, we learn that Ngor had a pretty rough time of it in the US — which I guess you have to say is not surprising, given all he’d been through, that he was living as a refugee with limited English, and that frankly he seems to have been a somewhat difficult man even before the psychological scarring of the Khmer Rouge years. The final tragic twist is that he was shot dead outside his home in Los Angeles in what was probably but not definitely a normal, non-political robbery.

So it’s a dark book. It would be difficult to read except that the matter-of-fact way that it’s told keeps it from being as harrowing as it might be.

In some ways I would have liked to read a non-Khmer Rouge book for Cambodia, because it seems a pity to always see these countries through the lens of their most spectacular historical traumas. But I’m glad I read this, even so. In some ways all these political atrocities start to blur together, all endless variations on a theme — torture, paranoia, propaganda, casual violence — but somehow they all have their own distinctive local flavour. The Khmer Rouge see to have been characterised by a particularly nasty combination of anti-intellectualism, viciousness and incompetence.

» The photo is a shot from the film.

Whispering Death: The Life and Times of Michael Holding by Michael Holding with Tony Cozier

I enjoy watching cricket, so when looking for books from the West Indies for the Read The World challenge, it occurred to me that a few cricketers must have written books. But I had previously resisted that temptation; because it seemed like an unimaginative choice and, let’s face it, because sporting memoirs tend to be pretty dull.

But in a moment of weakness I ordered Michael Holding’s autobiography from 1993. Holding is one of my favourite cricket broadcasters these days: he seems like a thoroughly nice man, he talks well about cricket, and his rumbling Jamaican accent is one of the great voices in broadcasting. And Tony Cozier, who is a great radio commentator, is a good person to have as a ghostwriter.

Sadly, this book is indeed fairly dull. It’s not a bad book — in fact it’s probably better than average for a sportsman’s memoir — but it’s not one of the rare examples that transcends the genre. There are all kinds of ways one of these books could stand out: it could be funny, or psychologically insightful, or gossipy and indiscreet. But instead this is just a solid, professional bit of writing. Perhaps some of the opinions expressed were controversial at the time, by the mild standards of sporting controversy; but it’s no Ball Four.

In the last chapter, he mentions in an offhand comments that he has three children by three different women, only one of whom had been his wife; and you suddenly get a sense of all the things he hasn’t been telling you. Not that I particularly need to know about his love life, but it’s part of a broader professional discretion. And ‘discreet’ is not the most exciting quality in a memoir.

Michael Holding is from Jamaica, but Whispering Death is my book for Barbados, where Tony Cozier is from. Mainly because there are lots of good choices for books from Jamaica and not so many from Barbados.

To Sir, With Love by E.R. Braithwaite

I knew that To Sir, With Love was a book about a black Caribbean man struggling with racial prejudice in 1950s London, so I was quite amused that the opening — his description of travelling on a bus full of East End women — reads so much like a white colonial Briton describing the natives of a third world country. It’s the combination of effortless cultural superiority and an anthropological eye.

The women carried large heavy shopping bags, and in the ripe mixture of odours which accompanied them, the predominant one hinted at a good haul of fish or fishy things. They reminded me somehow of the peasants in a book by Steinbeck – they were of the city, but they dressed like peasants, they looked like peasants, and they talked like peasants. Their cows were motor-driven milk floats; their tools were mop and pail and kneeling pad; their farms a forest of steel and concrete. In spite of the hairgrips and headscarves, they had their own kind of dignity.

They joshed and chivvied each other and the conductor in an endless stream of lewdly suggestive remarks and retorts, quite careless of being overheard by me – a Negro, and the only other male on the bus. The conductor, a lively, quick-witted felllow, seemed to know them all well enough to address them on very personal terms, and kept them in noisy good humour with a stream of quips and pleasantries to which they made reply in kind. Sex seemed little more than a joke to them, a conversation piece which alternated with their comments on the weather, and their vividly detailed discussions on their actual or imagined ailments.

There was another particularly fine example of the type later on the book:

I did not go over to him: these Cockneys are proud people and prefer to be left to themselves at times when they feel ashamed.

It could be a conscious literary decision to subvert expectations, but firstly Braithwaite doesn’t particularly strike me as that kind of writer — he’s generally pretty direct — and also I can imagine a white British writer with a similar educational background writing in much the same way; like Orwell’s representation of the proles in 1984.

In other words it’s partially a class thing; Braithwaite was from a very educated background; both his parents went to Oxford, which I assume was pretty rare in Guyana at the start of the C20th, and he studied in New York before serving as a pilot in the RAF during the war and then doing a Master’s degree at Cambridge. But then race is always partially about class. The class structure is one of the ways that racial status can be monitored and enforced. And it was only because of Braithwaite’s race that he was doing what no similarly educated white Briton would be doing: working as a teacher in a grotty East End secondary school. He was rejected from all the engineering jobs which he was better qualified to do, often on explicitly racial grounds in the days when it was legal to tell people that to their faces, and fell into teaching because it was the only option available.

So that’s the set-up: educated, well-dressed black man takes a job teaching in a run-down East End school full of problem teenagers. And if you’ve ever seen a movie where an inspiring teacher goes to work in a deprived inner city school, you pretty much know how the rest of it plays out: he is stern but wise and passionate, and he overcomes their initial hostility and prejudice to teach them the value of education and good manners, and above all he teaches them self respect. And he in turn learns his own lessons, about not being such a snobby prude (although he doesn’t learn the lesson that if you’re a grown man writing about fifteen and sixteen year old girls, there are only so many times you can mention their breasts before it starts to seem a bit creepy).

I’m being a bit glib; there is a lot that’s interesting about this book, and it’s well written. But when I say it’s like a Hollywood movie: it really does read like that. And of course you wonder if it’s too good to be true. Clearly he is an impressive man, and I can believe he was an inspiring teacher, and I expect the broad outlines are all true… but for something which claims to be non-fiction, it just seems like it was written by someone who was willing to burnish the truth for the sake of a good story.

It’s not that I fetishise historical accuracy for its own sake — I don’t have much objection to things like characters being composites of several people — but I do worry that I’m getting a less perceptive, less insightful book if too many if the complications and contradictions have been tidied away.

To Sir, With Love is my book from Guyana for the Read The World challenge. I seem to have been harder on it than I really intended. I think it’s probably fairest to say it’s a good book which has aged badly. But there’s still plenty to like about it.

From the Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe

From the Land of Green Ghosts is an autobiography. Pascal Khoo Thwe is from the Padaung ethnic minority in Burma — best known for the brass neck-rings worn by the women which elongate their necks — and was brought up with both the local animist traditions and Catholicism; the two religious traditions seem to have coexisted rather more easily than a strict reading of Catholic theology might allow.

He went to a Catholic seminary but later decided he didn’t want to be a priest, and instead went to university in Mandalay, where he studied for a couple of years before witnessing some of the political uprising of of 1988 and the government’s brutal response. He was briefly a political activist before it became clear that the revolution had failed, when he was forced to flee across country, initially to the area held by the longstanding ethnic Karenni rebellion and then across the border to Thailand. Eventually, thanks to an earlier chance meeting with a Cambridge professor visiting Mandalay, he was offered the chance to go to England to study literature at Cambridge.

The early parts, about a childhood in the backwoods of Burma with traditional customs and a Catholic education, are interesting and atmospheric; but it really comes into its own with the uprising. He was a relatively unpolitical youth confronted by staggering government violence, and he communicates something of the shock and the anger.

I’ve read quite a lot of books about dictatorships and government repression and civil war and so on as part of the Read The World challenge — mainly I think because it’s a subject that appeals to English language publishers — but this is one of the better ones. Above all because Khoo Thwe is a good writer. But what I particularly like is that it’s the opposite of self-aggrandising. He’s clearly a fairly impressive individual; at various times his actions show intelligence, courage and resourcefulness. But he constantly undercuts any hint that he’s the hero, even of his own story; he presents himself as naive, uncertain, and always at the mercy of events.

I’m not suggesting this is mock humility; I’m sure he genuinely felt those things. And after all, it’s basically a story of failed revolution and exile, although that’s hardly his fault. But another writer might have been less willing to be so frank, and the story would have been less interesting as a result.

From the Land of Green Ghosts is my book from Myanmar/Burma for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo is from Burma but admittedly only tangentially relevant. Lion Taming For Beginners 101 is © Taro Taylor and used under a CC by-nc licence.

The Devil That Danced on the Water by Aminatta Forna

Aminatta Forna’s father was a doctor, then activist and politician in Sierra Leone, rising to be Minister of Finance for a while before resigning in public protest at corruption in the government. But she was born in Scotland to a Scottish mother while her father was studying medicine there.

Unfortunately politics in Sierra Leone was a dangerous business. We learn at the very start of the book that, when she was ten, her father was arrested and she never saw him again, but exactly what happened to him emerges over the course of the book, so even though it is in fact a matter of historical record, I suppose the polite thing to do is to issue a MILD SPOILER ALERT before I go on to talk about it.

So, as I was saying, her father (along with fourteen other men) was arrested and charged on trumped-up charges of treason, inevitably found guilty, and hanged. They had supposedly been conspiring to blow up a government minister — an explosion at his house did take place but appears to have been staged for the purpose.

After that Forna moved to the UK permanently, but even before that she had moved frequently between Sierra Leone and the UK according to her father’s fluctuating political fortunes. That in itself would be an interesting subject for a memoir, of course, a mixed race girl with a childhood split between the UK and Africa in the 60s and 70s; but inevitably her father’s story dominates the book, and the second half is the story of her return to Sierra Leone decades later to learn as much as she can about the details of her father’s trial.

I’ve actually been putting off reading this book because it sounded a bit depressing. But once again it reinforces the basic truth: my enjoyment in books is much more dependent on the quality of the writing than the subject matter. I got pleasure from reading this book, despite everything, because it is very well written. The childhood stuff particularly; she’s good at capturing the limited understanding of a small child caught up in a complicated, adult situation.

I thought the second part, her return to Sierra Leone as an adult to investigate her father’s trial, was less interesting. Just because it’s incredibly predictable, really. It was a political show trial organised by a dictator, and it followed the familiar pattern: forced confessions, a jury stuffed with political partisans, a cowed judiciary, ‘witnesses’ motivated by self-interest or fear, the accused denied access to a lawyer. Of course I can understand why Forna felt driven to find answers, but whereas her account of her childhood is full of individual, unique details, the second part just feels weirdly like you’ve read it before. Still interesting, still worth reading, but not as engaging as the first part.

Anyway, here’s a  little extract, from a period when her father is in prison and she is living in London with her stepmother and her siblings.

I used to walk down a road, any road, and say to myself: If I can just hold my breath until I get to the end of this street Daddy will be released from prison. Or, if I was crossing a bridge and a train went underneath, I wished my father would be freed. Sometimes I’d stand there until train after train had gone by, eyes closed, amassing wishes. Three times over three years, as I cut the first slice of cake, I used my special birthday wish so I could have him back. I wished on the full moon and the new moon, and then any moon at all. At Christmas, if I found the silver sixpence Mum hid in the pudding, I wished for my father’s freedom. I wished for nothing else.

As time went on I increased my challenges: to reach the end of the road with my eyes closed without bumping into anyone or anything; to leap every other paving stone, dancing between them, promising myself that if I could make it ten yards, or twelve, or fifteen, I would somehow, miraculously earn his freedom. gradually I upped the ante: I’d work my bike up to speed then aim the front wheel at a pothole or a speed bump. If I don’t fall off, if I can stay in the saddle, then they’ll let him out of prison. Alone in the flat one afternoon I stood in the galley kitchen passing my hand as slowly as I dared across the ice-blue flame of the gas ring, once, twice, thrice, until the smell, like burnt bacon rinds, rose from the scorched ends of my fingernails.

[…]

There’s a good reason exile was once used as a punishment. It is life apart, life on hold, life in waiting. You may begin full of strength and hope, or just ignorance, but it is time, nothing more than the unending passage of time that wears down your resilience, like the drip of a tap that carves a groove in the granite below. Exile is a war of attrition on the soul, it’s a slow punishment, and it works.

The Devil That Danced on the Water is my book from Sierra Leone for the Read The World challenge. Incidentally, although this book is clearly about the politics of a particular country, the name of that country doesn’t appear on the cover once: there are four references to ‘Africa’ and none to Sierra Leone. I know that we have an unfortunate tendency to lump all of sub-Saharan Africa into one entity, but you might hope that the publisher would make some sort of effort even if no-one else does.

» BP Gas Station in West Africa, 1967 and Lansana Kamara (centre) at his store/pub in Kabala, Sierra Leone (West Africa), 1968 are both © John Atherton and used under a CC by-sa licence.

The Sands of Oxus by Sadriddin Aini

The Sands of Oxus is my book from Tajikistan for the Read The World challenge. Which is a bit of a cheat, in fact. Aini’s Tajikistan credentials would seem to be impeccable: according to Wikipedia, he is ‘regarded as Tajikistan’s national poet’. He wrote the first Tajik novels and a Tajik dictionary. He was a member of the Central Executive Committee of the Tajik SSR, the president of the Writer’s Union of Tajikistan, and the president of the Tajikistan Academy of Sciences. However, rather annoyingly for my purposes, he didn’t actually live there. He was born, and spent his whole life, in what is now Uzbekistan. He was ethnically Tajik, but not geographically.

This seems rather typical of Central Asia; my book from Uzbekistan, The Railway, was written by someone who was actually born in Kyrgyzstan. The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years is my book from Kyrgyzstan, but it’s set in Kazakhstan. I guess it’s partially because the Silk Road historically created a mixed, mobile population; and more recently because it was all part of the Soviet Union, and people moved from one SSR to another for all kinds of reasons, sometimes by choice and sometimes under duress.

If I come across a book which is a more perfect fit for Tajikistan, I might read that as well, I suppose. But The Sands of Oxus will do for now. It is the first volume of Aini’s autobiography; it covers his childhood in rural Uzbekistan — in what was then (1878-90) the Emirate of Bukhara. The book ends with him leaving to study at a madrasa at the age of twelve.

It’s a straightforward chronological autobiography told, at least in this translation, in fairly plain prose, but I found it very interesting; mainly for what you might call historical/ethnological reasons. It’s a vivid portrayal of life in a small village in Central Asia in the 1880s; the farming, the food, the customs. It’s occasionally a bit didactic — there are a few incidents which carry a suspiciously neat message — but not annoyingly so. The broadly political stuff, about venal magistrates, ignorant village mullahs, ruthless tax collectors and the arrogant aristocracy, might I suppose be influenced by his revolutionary politics as an adult and indeed the fact he was writing in Stalin’s USSR. Not that any of it is inherently implausible.

Reading it, it seems like an incredibly timeless world: the cycle of planting and harvest, Ramadan, a summer festival, circumcisions, marriages, funerals. There is no mention of any modern technology at all, not even the telegraph or the steam engine. It must have already seemed ancient by the time this book was written in 1949.

Here’s a fairly random sample:

Each year when the mulberries began to ripen, my father used to move us from Mahallayi Bolo to Soktaré. The year that the Shofirkom canal was choked with sand and Mahallayi Bolo was left without water, we moved to Soktaré early, even before the mulberries began to fruit.

In Soktaré my brother and Sayid-Akbar Khoka began to study with the village khatib, and I played in the many streams and canals with other boys my age. My father decided not to move back to Mahallayi Bolo that winter, since drinking water was scarce there and had to be drawn from a village well and carried to the house. Accordingly, he demolished our tumbledown living quarters and built a new house of mud brick, with a storeroom, a kitchen porch, a cattle stall and a barn for hay. Usto Khoja assisted him with the construction, and Ikrom Khoja and Muhyiddin helped as far as they could in mixing the mud; but despite his father’s pestering, Sayid-Akbar refused to help, claiming that he wanted to be a calligrapher and if he soiled his hands with mud and bricks they would be spoiled for the pen.

That year I and my playmates Haid Khoja, the nephew of Ibrohim Khoja, and the daughters of Usto Khoja, spent most of our spare time with Tūto-posho, who would tell us strange and wonderful tales. She knew by heart the stories of Rustam, Isfandiyar, Siyavush, and Abu Muslim, and would repeat them for us endlessly. We would each bring her bread, mulberry raisins, or some other delicacy to entice her to talk. She would lie back with pillows under her head and legs, and tell us stories.

Certainly worth a read.

» The images are two sides of a 5000 tenga note from Bukhara in 1920. So the period isn’t quite right, but I like the pictures, so why not. From the British Museum.

The Running Man by Gilbert Tuhabonye

I bought The Running Man* as my book from Burundi for the Read The World challenge. I can’t say I was particularly looking forward to reading it, though, because the blurb on the cover — How the voice in my heart helped me survive genocide and realise my Olympic dream — just sounds a bit TV movie of the week. Clearly there’s an interesting story there, but it doesn’t inspire confidence that it will be a well-told story.

I’ve read enough boring sporting autobiographies that I approach the genre with scepticism. Admittedly, it should be pretty hard to make genocide boring, but then you might think the same about playing in the World Cup, and plenty of footballers have managed that.

But I was pleasantly surprised. It is interesting and engagingly written (with the help of ghost writer Gary Brozek); and not just the more dramatic stuff, but about growing up in rural Burundi. It’s not a literary masterpiece, and I don’t think it offers any startling insights into either genocide or elite middle-distance running, but it’s a good story simply and well told.

The blurb is slightly misleading, in that Tuhabonye never actually competed in the Olympics, although he came attended an Olympic development training camp in Atlanta prior to the 1996 games and came very close to qualifying. On the other hand, if the Olympic part is slightly overplayed, the genocide bit is even more remarkable than you might imagine; he was the only survivor of a particularly brutal massacre and the details of his experience are just staggering.

* US title: This Voice in My Heart: A Runner’s Memoir of Genocide, Faith, and Forgiveness. I assume it’s the same book otherwise despite the different emphasis, although I suppose they may have toned down the religious content for the UK edition.

» The photo of Gilbert Tuhabonye meeting Chuck Norris is from his own website. Because, well, why not.

This is Paradise! by Hyok Kang

Or to give it its full, bookshop-friendly title: This is Paradise! My North Korean Childhood, written by Hyok Kang with the French journalist Philippe Grangereau, and translated by Shaun Whiteside.

When I was looking for books from North Korea for the Read The World challenge, I was quite surprised I could only find two actually by North Koreans. The DPRK is such a bizarre Cold War relic that you might think there would be more interest in it. I guess reading about North Korea just doesn’t seem as important as reading about the Soviet Bloc did back in the old days.

Reading the reviews, it sounds like the other book, The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, is probably the better of the two, but it seems to be focussed on life inside the labour camps. I decided to read This is Paradise! because it is about a more normal childhood in rural North Korea. Normal in North Korea being batshit insane by the standards of anywhere else.

Still, it wasn’t quite what I expected; I thought it would mainly be about the political aspects of living in a communist personality cult: the parades, the synchronised gymnastics, the patriotic hymns, the giant floodlit statue of the Dear Leader, the propaganda. All of which does feature, particularly at the start of the book, but because of the period it covers (Kang was born in 1986), it is overwhelmingly about the famine. Even a mad personality cult struggles to maintain its energy in the face of millions of deaths. Not that there is much sign of the state losing its iron grip on the population, but everyday life becomes completely dominated by the famine, which is apocalyptic in scale. It is like reading Solzhenitsyn’s descriptions of scrabbling for nourishment in the gulag, except it’s not a gulag, it’s a whole town, a whole community — except of course for the party officials.

The official slogans changed as the famine ravaged the country. At the very beginning, in 1995, the cadres encouraged us o accept what was called a ‘forced march towards victory’. The term referred to the ‘forced march’ undertaken by Kim Il-Sung and his partisans during the war against the Japanese occupying forces. The following year, the battle-cry was ‘Let us speed up the forced march towards the final victory.’ When the hunger had reaches its worst, another new slogan appeared: ‘Let us not live today for today, but let us live today for tomorrow’. By now, the poorest people had been reduced to eating boiled pepper leaves or bean leaves. Some families came to us to beg us for left-over tofu that my mother cooked, or even the whitish liquid produced when it was being made. They drank it mixed with saccharine. After a certain period of time their faces swelled up. When I saw people with puffy faces tottering towards the house, I knew that was what they were coming for. Shortly after that we too had to start eating pine bark.

The end of the books is about the family’s escape, firstly into China and then through Vietnam and Laos to Cambodia, from which they went to South Korea.

It is a remarkable story. It’s not especially well written, though. It would be unfair to call the prose ‘bad’, but it is a very plain, methodical recital of events. It has very little in the way of descriptive detail and very little emotional content or insight. Definitely worth reading for the content, though, if not for the prose.

From Tajikistan to the Moon by Robert Frimtzis

From Tajikistan to the Moon is a self-published memoir. Rather glamorously self-published, too, compared to the current trend for self-publishing via print-on-demand, in that it’s a proper hardback with an embossed cover. Frimtzis was born in Beltz (i.e. Bălţi) in what is now Moldova, although when he was born there it was part of Romania and from 1940 onwards it was part of the Soviet Union.

Frimtzis was ten when Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941. Although of course they couldn’t know the full scale of the Holocaust, they knew enough about the anti-semitism of the Nazis that his family took the decision to flee eastwards. After hundreds of miles on foot, keeping ahead of the German army and under aerial attack, they got onto the train network in Ukraine and carried on to Tajikistan, where they had relatives.

After the war they managed to get themselves smuggled out of the USSR through Romania and Austria to Italy, and then after some time in the refugee camps, to immigrate to America. There he studied hard, became an engineer, and eventually contributed to the Apollo programme — hence the moon part of the title.

So he has an interesting story to tell. He’s not the world’s greatest prose stylist, but at least it’s plain, straightforward prose; if it’s occasionally a bit clunky, at least it’s not painful in the way that bad literary prose can be. It kept my attention.

For me, the most interesting part of it is the refugee narrative; his experience as an internal refugee within the Soviet Union, then in an Italian refugee camp, and continuing with his struggles to adapt in the US, where he was self-conscious about his outsider status and his bad English as he worked to carve out a place for himself within American society. Which he eventually did very successfully. The more stable his life becomes in America, the less interesting the book becomes; even though he worked on some truly fascinating projects in his professional life, I don’t think he really brings that to life. He doesn’t manage to explain what was interesting about the work itself.

From Tajikistan to the Moon is my book for Moldova for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo is of crew in the Apollo Lunar Module Mission Simulator… which I think is actually the wrong bit of equipment. Frimtzis was in charge of the team working on the Apollo Mission Simulator, which I think is the simulator for the command module rather than the lunar lander. But I really like the picture, so  it’s close enough.

Of Water and the Spirit by Malidoma Patrice Somé

Full title: Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman. Somé was kidnapped at the age of four and taken first to a Jesuit-run boarding school and then a seminary, where he was a victim of physical and sexual abuse. At the age of 20 he fled the seminary and walked back to his home village. When he saw his family for the first time in 16 years, he could no longer speak his native Dagara and had lost touch with his native culture; so he underwent the long, harrowing ritual initiation that boys normally go through at 13.

He then realised that his calling was to go out and teach the western world about traditional wisdom; the book ends with him leaving the village again. He went to university and earned a few degrees, and he now seems to work on the New Age lecture circuit and in the men’s movement.

I have to say, as I read the introduction which explains this stuff, my heart sank. The cocktail of academic jargon, self-help, the supernatural and purple prose could have been specifically designed to annoy me. But, to be fair, once he gets going, it is pretty interesting. He never completely shakes off the tendency to flowery prose…

The sun had already risen. A few scattered clouds were speeding across the empty zenith as if running away from the threat of the burning disc.

… but the academic and self-help stuff is much less intrusive. And the supernatural is after all the main subject of the book. As I was reading his descriptions of magical experiences he had before his abduction, all of which happened before he was four, I wondered whether all the impossible things he was witnessing were explicable by his extreme youth, and the embellishing powers of memory. But his experiences during the initiation as an adult are every bit as remarkable.

Assuming that he’s not just a professional bullshitter who made all this stuff up because he knows it is marketable — and I’m not really suggesting that’s the case, although it did occur to me as a possibility — his visions/experiences were extraordinarily complex, specific and precise. Since I’m not a believer in the supernatural, I couldn’t help speculating about what kinds of psychological and physiological effects might have created these experiences — quite fruitless, of course, since we only have one very specific perspective on what happened and I don’t have that kind of expertise anyway.

Really, that’s not the point, anyway; I’m not reading with the book to argue with it. What I would hope to get out of this kind of book is some kind of insight into the traditional culture of the Dagara. And there certainly is some interesting material about the rituals, about the use of divination, the decision making of the elders and so on. But the magical experiences themselves weirdly didn’t ring true to me.

I know I’m the worst person in the world to judge the authenticity of shamanic experience, but when I’ve read stories from oral cultures before I’ve always been struck by the genuine weirdness of them, a lack of the kind of narrative logic I expect. I don’t get that from this book; for all the impossible things happening, they sort of read like a version of shamanic experience as imagined by a westerner. Perhaps that’s unsurprising, given the relatively small proportion of his life Somé actually spent in his home village compared to the time spent elsewhere. He is inevitably as much a product of French colonial education and western universities as he is of Dagara culture. Or perhaps he is consciously targeting it at a western readership. Or, very likely, my idea of what a shamanic experience ought to be like is completely wrong.

One way or another, it’s certainly interesting. Of Water and the Spirit is my book from Burkina Faso for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo, ‘decorated potteries for sale at the market along the Niger riverbanks near Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’ is from the Smithsonian. There’s not much connection to the book, but I liked the picture.

Born in Tibet by Chögyam Trungpa

Born in Tibet is the story of Chögyam Trungpa’s early life in Tibet, as told to Esmé Cramer Roberts. He was a year old when some monks turned up and announced he was the eleventh Trungpa Tulku and hence the supreme abbot of the Surmang monasteries in eastern Tibet; at twenty he managed to escape the Chinese occupation and make his way to India.

So the book really has three main subjects: his traditional religious education, the increasing impact of the Chinese on Tibetan life, and the adventure/survival story of escaping cross-country into India. The escape is remarkable, since it involves dozens of people trying to secretly cross some of the most difficult terrain in the world; but the portrayal of traditional life in a Tibetan monastery is what interested me most.

It is slightly ironic that many westerners treat Buddhism as a kind of antidote to organised religion, because this was organised, institutional religion on the grand scale: an elaborate formal hierarchy, large, expensively appointed buildings with hundreds of people, elaborate rituals, explicitly supernatural practices like divination, all supported by large scale land ownership and tributes offered by the local population. It’s rather how I imagine the middle ages in Europe must have been: a basically peasant population loomed over both by the houses of feudal aristocrats and by the abbeys and monasteries of the great religious orders.

The fact that comparison sounds like a criticism says something about the glowing image of Tibetan buddhism — mainly I guess down to the personal qualities of the current Dalai Lama — and the bad image of medieval Catholicism. The reasons for which are more tangled, although the largely Protestant history of the English speaking world is clearly relevant. Personally I have a soft spot for medieval monasticism; and my scepticism about human nature means I bet there were a few Tibetan monks over the centuries who were, let’s say, more worldly than they should have been.

Though it has to be said that Chögyam Trungpa was not living the life of a Medici pope. His life in Tibet seems to have been austerely lived and completely devoted to spiritual practice. The childhood in particular sounds tough; being taken away to a monastery at three and spending pretty much all his time from then on in study and devotion.

Anyway, it is fascinating stuff.

Our travelling party was organized with a good deal of pomp. There were thirty monks on horseback and eighty mules to carry the baggage. I was still only twelve and, being so young, I was not expected to preach long sermons; mostly I had to perform rites, read the scriptures aloud, and impart blessings. We started from the highlands and traveled down to the cultivated land; I was able to see how all these different people lived as we passed through many changes of scenery. Of course I did not see the villagers quite as they were in their everyday lives, for wherever we went all was in festival, everyone was excited and looking forward to the special religious services, so that we had little time for rest. I missed the routine of my early life, but found it all very exciting.

When we visited Lhathog, the king had to follow the established tradition by asking us to perform the religious rites according to ancient custom. We were lodged in one of the palaces, from where we could look down on a school that the Chinese had recently established. A Communist flag hung at the gate, and when it was lowered in the evenings the children had to sing the Communist national anthem. Lessons were given in both Chinese and Tibetan, including much indoctrination about the benefits China was bringing to Tibet. Singing and dancing were encouraged and I felt that it was a sign of the times that the monastery drum was used to teach the children to march. Being young myself I was keenly interested, though this distortion worried me; a religious instrument should not have been used for a secular purpose, nor for mere amusement. A detachment of Chinese officials sent from their main headquarters at Chamdo lived in the king’s palace together with a Tibetan interpreter, while various teachers had been brought to Lhathog to organize the school, which was one of many that the Chinese were setting up in all the chief places in Tibet. The local people’s reactions were very unfavourable. In the town the Communists had stuck posters or painted slogans everywhere, even on the walls of the monastery; they consisted of phrases like ‘We come to help you’ and ‘The liberation army is always at the people’s service.’

Born in Tibet is my book from Tibet for the Read The World challenge. Chögyam Trungpa wasn’t actually born in what is now the Tibet Autonomous Region; when the Chinese took over Tibet, large chunks which were culturally Tibetan were assigned to different provinces.

We ourselves always considered that the people who speak Tibetan and ate roasted barley (tsampa) as their staple food are Tibetans.

Which is good enough for me.

» The top thing is a ration ticket for 500 g of cereals, issued by the People’s Liberation Army – Tibet Military Region. It’s from 1996, so not even remotely contemporary with this book, but sort of an interesting object, I think. From the British Museum. The C18th Tibetan scroll painting is from the V&A.

The Country Under My Skin by Gioconda Belli

The Country Under My Skin is a memoir of the Nicaraguan revolution. Belli grew up in a wealthy family but joined the Sandinistas, working secretly for the resistance until she had to flee the country and live in exile until the Sandinistas took power and she could return to Nicaragua. It’s not just a political memoir, though; it is also the story of her marriages and love affairs.

She is clearly a remarkable woman — an award-winning poet, incidentally, as well as everything else — and it is fascinating to read an insiders view of a revolution. She became a prominent figure for the Sandinistas in a PR role, and so she met with people like Fidel Castro, and her portrayals of these powerful men are interesting as well. And it is well-written, which makes all the difference.

I think it’s particularly good when it’s actually in Nicaragua: her life as a disaffected young woman who got married too young to the wrong person, the story of her political awakening, the process by which you join a clandestine organisation, and all the secret meetings and codewords and being followed by the police. Then the period is exile is rather less interesting, before it picks up again with the actual revolution and the immediate aftermath.

I do have some slight reservations, though. These are mainly about her particular perspective. When I got to the end of the book, I realised that it was a book about a revolution and a war which didn’t actually feature any fighting: she was in exile during the revolution itself and she was a bureaucrat in the capital during the war against the Contras. Obviously an autobiography can only tell one person’s story, and this is hers; but it does create the image of a revolution which was all discussing ideas, giving press conferences, writing pamphlets, and delegations to foreign conferences. There is plenty of death in the book, as one after another of her friends, colleagues and lovers get killed, but it all happens offstage.

Similarly, she may be passionately committed to relieving poverty in Nicaragua, but she is never poor herself and she doesn’t spend much time in contact with the poor. I don’t blame her for being from a privileged background, but it is a rather atypical perspective. At one stage when she is working with the resistance, the police clearly suspect or know that she is working for the Sandinistas, but they don’t arrest her and take her away to be tortured as they do so many other people, because, she thinks, of her wealthy family and her society connections.

That’s the nature of books, though: they tend to be written by the kind of people who write books. It’s certainly worth reading, though.

The Country Under My Skin is my book from Nicaragua for the Read The World challenge.

» Un pueblo unido jamás será vencido! is © Burkhard Schröder and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Island Boy by Tom Davis

…or to give him his full title: Sir Tom Davis, Pa Tuterangi Ariki, KBE. The ‘Pa Tuterangi Ariki’ bit was a title he got by marriage; the knighthood was all his own. Davis was the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands from 1978-87, and Island Boy is his autobiography. He was undoubtedly an impressive individual — he studied medicine in New Zealand, then took the job of Medical Officer of the Cook Islands, where he modernised a decrepit colonial medical service; then he sailed his young family in a small yacht from the Cook Islands to Boston to study public health; did some medical work in Alaska; then he took various research jobs in the US, including research on physiological adaptions to extreme conditions for the army and the nascent space program; raced sports cars; then returned to the Cook Islands to enter politics as a free market ideologue, eventually becoming Prime Minister.

So there’s lots of good material. However, although Davis wrote perfectly well, he was not a dazzling prose stylist, or a man with a gift for anecdote, and he clearly had no intention of sharing anything very personal; he mentions two marriages, a divorce and several children during the book but gives absolutely no details at all. So what you get is a straightforward, by the numbers autobiography which is often interesting but also often a bit of a chore. I don’t think he was terribly introspective, to be honest. His obituary, which I found while trying to learn more about his title, says (among more flattering stuff):

A driven and ambitious man, he was sometimes seen by his peers as arrogant and conceited.

And that does ring true. He is certainly really quite dismissive of most of his political colleagues and opponents.

I ordered Island Boy as my book from the Cook Islands for the Read The World challenge, before realising that the Cook Islands wasn’t actually on my list of countries, which is based on UN membership. But the list isn’t that rigid, and having bought it I may as well count it.

» The picture, Avarua Market, is © Daniele Sartori and used under a CC by-nc licence.

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight is an autobiography about growing up in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. It’s about growing up in a war — Fuller was only eleven at the time of independence — and about the last throes of white colonialism and a dying way of life.

Her parents had been living in Kenya, but after Mau Mau they moved to Rhodesia, where Ian Douglas Smith had declared that there would never be majority rule, and fought to keep at least one part of Africa under white rule. Then after Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, and their farm was taken by the new government, they moved first to Malawi and then to Zambia. It reminded me of travelling in Zimbabwe nearly twenty years ago, and meeting these white people from South Africa and Zimbabwe and Zambia who seemed to have a shared identity as white Africans that had no real connection with national borders. It’s not just whites in Africa who often have an ethnic identity which doesn’t fully coincide with their nationality, of course.

You don’t have to have any sympathy with the ideal of white rule in Africa to find something melancholy in a story of people being left stranded by the tide of history, their way of life disappearing around them, and this is rather a sad book; as well as the war and the politics, the family suffer more personal losses, with several children dying young and the mother turning more and more to alcohol. But there’s a lot of humour and colour along with the gloom.

She writes well. She has a good ear for dialogue, an eye for the absurd, and her portrayal of her parents’ attitudes to race (and indeed her own childhood attitudes) is unsparing but nuanced. She doesn’t whitewash anything but she’s not interested in demonising her family either.

Here’s a little fairly randomly chosen extract:

We stop at the SPCA in Umtali and collect a host of huge dogs, and then we collect dogs abandoned by civil-war fleeing farmers. These dogs are found tied to trees or staring hopefully down flat driveways, waiting for their nonreturning owners. their owners have gone in the middle of the night to South Africa, Australia, Canada, England. We call it the chicken run. Or we say they gapped it. But they gapped it without their pets.

One day Dad says to Mum, ‘Either I go, or some of those bloody dogs have to go.’
‘But they don’t have anywhere to go.’

Dad is in a rage. He aims a kick at a cluster of dogs, who cheerfully return his gesture with jump-up licking let’s-playfulness.

Mum says, ‘See? How sweet.’
‘I mean it, Nicola.’

So the dogs stay with us until untimely death does them part.

The life expectancy of a dog  on our farm is not great. The dogs are killed by baboons, wild pigs, snakes, wire snares and each other. A few eat the poison blocks left out in the barns for rats. Or they eat cow shit on which dip for killing ticks has splattered and they dissolve in frothy-mouthed fits. They get tick fever and their hearts fail from the heat. More dogs come to take the place of those whose graves are wept-upon humps in the fields below the house.

We buy a 1967 mineproofed Land Rover, complete with siren, and call her Lucy. Lucy, for Luck.

‘Why do we have the bee-ba?’
‘To scare terrorists.’

But Mum and Dad don’t use the siren except to announce their arrival at parties.

I read Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight as my book from Zimbabwe for the Read the World challenge. As it turns out, although Alexandra Fuller’s parents spent pretty much their whole lives in Africa and she was conceived in Rhodesia, she was born during about the only two year period when they were living in England… but I’m going to count it anyway.

» The photo, ‘Ritsa and Baobab Tree, Rhodesia, 1973‘, has no direct connection to the book, except that it’s a picture I found on Flickr taken in the 70s in Rhodesia. It is © Robert Wallace and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis is an autobiographical graphic novel* about growing up in Iran. I think it might be the first graphic novel I’ve read — certainly the first critically acclaimed one. So I’ve sort of been wondering what it does or doesn’t gain from being drawn as well as written… and haven’t really reached a conclusion.

So first things first: it certainly does work. It’s a vivid portrayal of day-to-day experience, initially under the Shah but mainly after the Islamic revolution, and including a period of living away from her family in Europe. Politics and religion are inescapable and a constant presence, but it is full of the intimate details of everyday life: the music, the clothes, family, flirtation, and all the little ways that they try to accommodate or avoid the regime. The narrative is unsurprisingly full of tragic events, but it is also funny and honest.

satrapi

But what the format brings to it; well, this book has a kind of directness. The pictures are very simple, cartoonish rather than any attempt at visual realism, and the quantity of text is relatively limited compared to what you would have in a prose memoir. So the overall effect is a very direct, stripped-down quality. I guess you might call it a naive style. Of course, that’s a quality of this book in particular rather than due to the graphic format.

Anyway, well worth reading.

* i.e. it’s an autobiography in comic strip form. I suppose by the logic of the terminology, that makes it a graphic autobiography. But that sounds confusing as well. *shrug*

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