Crossing the Atlantic Ocean in Search of Happiness by Amadou Ndiaye

This is my book from Mauritania for the Read The World challenge. It tells the story of Baba, a teenager who risks his life in a crowded refugee boat to start a new life in Spain.

boat

A geographical aside: the book kept talking about taking a small boat from Mauritania to Spain, which seemed staggering. It eventually became clear that the boats from Mauritania go to the Canary Islands rather than the Spanish mainland: a still-terrifying 500 miles across the Atlantic rather than the 1300 miles I was imagining.

It’s a self-published novel by a Mauritanian student who studied in the US on a Fulbright scholarship. According to the blurb, ‘Amadou is one of the first students from his country to write a fiction novel’. And I hate to be negative about a first novel written in the author’s second language*, but it’s not a good advertisement for self-publishing.

It’s badly in need of a copy-editor, which is mildly annoying but forgivable. More importantly, it’s not well-written.The dialogue, characterisation, plotting… it’s all just clumsy and obvious. Which is a great pity, because this is exactly the kind of subject that is badly underrepresented in fiction; if someone could write a really good novel about the experiences of illegal African immigrants to Europe, I would be thrilled to read it.

I don’t know if Ndiaye would have done better for his first novel to have written about the experiences of a Mauritanian student studying in the Appalachians, which would also be a potentially interesting subject, I would think.

Anyway, despite its weaknesses, I’m glad this book exists; the boom in self-publishing is really helping me with reading around the world.

* Third? Fourth? I’m guessing he would have one of the African languages, plus French and maybe some Arabic?

» The photo is © UNHCR/L.Boldrini.

The Bleeding of the Stone by Ibrahim Al-Koni

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Told by Starlight in Chad by Joseph Brahim Seid

Told by Starlight in Chad is a collection of stories by Chadian writer Joseph Brahim Seid, translated from French by Karen Haire Hoenig. I’ve tagged this post with ‘short stories’ but they aren’t really short stories in the literary tradition: they are fables or folk tales in the oral tradition. I’m not sure whether they are all traditional stories or new ones, or how true they are to the way the stories might be ‘told by starlight’.

In some ways the material seems very familiar — wicked stepmothers, magic purses, and beautiful princesses — although the stories feature hyenas and gazelles rather than foxes and rabbits. Sometimes the stories end with a moral or an explanation of the ‘and that’s why we do so-and-so’ type, and sometimes they are, as far as I can tell, just stories.

Just to give you an idea of the style, here’s the opening to a story called Bidi-Camoun, Tchourouma’s Horse.

A very long time ago, in the days when miracles and wonders were still common among us, a little prince was born in the kingdom of Lake Fitri. Tchourouma was his name; noone knew the reason why. His father loved him dearly and his mother adored him. At a very young age, they had given him as a gift Bidi-Camoun, a splendid chestnut horse. When Tchourouma had barely reached his fifteenth year, his gentle mother died, snatched away by a cruel disease in her chest, which neither the skill of the fakihs, the fetish doctors nor the Bulala witchdoctors could cure. In memory of his beloved wife, the Sultan retained a great deal of affection for the child. He took him lion hunting and on walks around the lake which is the sanctuary of the ancestral spirits and the safeguard of the kingdom. Devoured with envy by the King’s great fondness for his son, the women of the harem devised plots to kill the child….

All quite interesting and quite enjoyable, though I can’t say I was completely grabbed by it. Told by Starlight in Chad is my book from Chad for the Read The World challenge.

» The picture of rock art in Chad, “Round head” paintings, is © Franck Zecchin and used under a by-nc-sa licence.

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