Dante International by Sharon Kasanda

Dante International is my book from Namibia for the Read The World challenge.

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A few months ago, I picked a detective novel for Malaysia because I thought it would make a good change to read newly released genre fiction rather than decades-old literary stuff. This is what I said about that book:

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.

Apparently I do not learn from my mistakes.

Dante International is not actually a detective novel — the central character is not a sleuth — but it is a crime novel/thriller; women are being murdered in Windhoek and suspicion falls on their boss, an attractive, sexually incontinent self-made businessman called Dante Dumeno.

It was readable enough, I guess, but not really my kind of thing. And I had some problems with the portrayal of Dante, who is a manipulative bullying sexual predator… but apparently we’re supposed to find that attractive in a bad-boy sort of way?

» The photo is Onymacris marginipennis (Breme, 1840), © Udo Schmidt and used under a CC by-sa licence. It’s a beetle from Namibia.

The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison and Skipping Without Ropes by Jack Mapanje

I was searching around for a book from Malawi for the Read The World challenge, and found very cheap second-hand copies for sale of these two books of poetry by Jack Mapanje. And since poetry books are generally very short by nature, I thought I might as well buy both. Since I’ve read some fairly dreadful poetry as part of this challenge, it was especially encouraging that Skipping Without Ropes was published by a major poetry publisher, Bloodaxe Books. And I was drawn to The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison because it had birds in the title. Yes, I really am that predictable. Also, if you want me to buy your wine, put a picture of a bird on the label.

And on the subject of birds, the ones in question were almost certainly the species pictured above, African Pied Wagtail. Attractive little beastie, isn’t it. Apparently, they form large communal roosts, one of which was on the wire mesh over the courtyard of Mikuyu prison when Mapanje was locked up there for three years, without charge, for writing poetry which annoyed the regime. Quite a lot of his time in prison was apparently spent mopping up wagtail shit. He was released in 1991 after pressure from writers and human rights activists and moved to the UK; he currently teaches creative writing at Newcastle University.

And he writes well. His poetry is dense, allusive, with telling details and attention to the sounds and rhythms of the language. I wouldn’t say he was suddenly my new favourite writer but he is, as I hoped, a proper poet; in a completely different class to some of the writers I’ve read for the Read The World challenge. You can read, and hear him read, some of his poetry at the Poetry Archive; ‘Scrubbing the Furious Walls of Mikuyu’ seems like an obvious place to start.

I actually read the books in reverse order, because his later book, Skipping Without Ropes, arrived first. His later poems seemed to me to be more relaxed, both emotionally and stylistically. I think on the whole I preferred the earlier stuff: angrier, more tightly wound and densely written. The later poems are probably smoother and more polished, but sometimes wander a bit too close to prose for my tastes. But there’s plenty of good stuff in both.

» The photo, African Pied Wagtail (Motacilla aguimp), is © Arno Meintjes and used under a CC by-nc licence.

Poceza m’Madzulo by Julius Chongo and Ernst Wendland

Or to give the full title: Poceza m’Madzulo: Some Chinyanja Radio Plays of Julius Chongo with English Translations by Ernst R. Wendland. Poceza m’Madzulo means ‘evening story time’, apparently, and was the name of a show broadcast in Zambia from 1967-77. They aren’t really what I would call plays: they are solo storytelling performances. Apparently he did write scripts for them but the broadcast version always differed somewhat from the prepared text; this book is based on transcriptions of the actual broadcast.

Some are the kind of thing I would think of (rightly or wrongly) as traditional African stories: Hare has been stealing chickens but he tricks Hyena into taking the blame for it. Others are more contemporary in their subject matter: stories about young men who leave the village to go and find work in the big town so they can afford to buy bicycles and record players. The division between the traditional and modern isn’t clear-cut; there’s a story about two men returning from working at the mines who are tricked out of all the wealth they are bringing back with them by a witch who turns them into wild pigs. You can imagine basically the same story being told a hundred years earlier with a different social context.

The stories are enjoyable, and these kind of things always work better if they are reproduced with all the quirks of verbal performance; tidying them up and turning them into a plain prose narrative tends to suck some of the life out of them. So that’s all good. My major problem with the book is actually with the presentation, not the content. Each story is given first in Chinyanja and then English, but to make it easier to cross reference the translation with the original, every sentence is numbered.

(251) But Hare merely said “Listen folks! (252) I told you that I’d bring a dance on Saturday. (253) Now what have you done about it, isn’t this the very dance I was talking about?! (254) What kind of dance do you want?! (255) ((That was Hare, stoking up the fire, ahi-hi, hgha!))

As you can imagine, this is incredibly irritating. You might think you would get used to it, but I didn’t — it just made reading the book a lot more like hard work. Why they couldn’t just number each paragraph, preferably in the margin… but there you go.

Still, that’s a pretty inevitable part of the Read The World challenge; I’ve been reading a lot of books published by niche publishers and university presses, and they tend to focus their limited resources on the content, rather than design. If only their were more people in the world like Robert Bringhurst, who published both a very good book about typography and his own (beautifully typeset) translations of the oral poetry of the Haida people of British Columbia.

» The photo — Zambian Women Hold Bags of Tilapia Fingerlings — has no connection to the book at all apart from the fact it was taken in Zambia. But I thought it was a nice image and a brilliant title. There are actually some great photos of Africa from the 60s and 70s on flickr, like this one, but they are all of white people.

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.

Chaka by Thomas Mofolo

Chaka is a fictionalised account of the life of the C19th Zulu king Shaka. It’s unusually early for an African novel, originally published in 1925 but existing in manuscript in some form as early as 1910.

I wasn’t entirely looking forward to reading it. It has started to really bother me when those who rose to power and built empires through force are presented as Great Men, as admirable or heroic. Qin Shi Huang, Alexander the Great, Napoleon: these men were ruthless megalomaniacs who glorified themselves through the misery of others. But we are fascinated by power, and there’s never a shortage of people who are willing to read history through rose-tinted bifocals. Hell, the Russians are even doing their best to rehabilitate Stalin.

I assumed that Chaka would do the same; but part of the reason I enjoyed it so much is that, on the contrary, its portrayal of Shaka is absolutely excoriating. He is presented as a handsome man of great courage and physical and military prowess; but also as capricious, cruel, violent and terrifyingly, unswervingly power-hungry. In fact the scale of his violence, against his own people as well as his enemies, would seem ridiculously exaggerated, if you’d never heard of Stalin, or Mao, or Idi Amin.

Which isn’t to say that the novel is historically accurate. It doesn’t even pretend to be; it’s told very much in a mythic, folkloric style rather than a historically realist one, and it takes substantial liberties with the history for the sake of telling a good story, to the point of inventing major characters — including Chaka’s love interest and a sorcerer who provides him with his power. His life story is tweaked and manipulated to bring out the themes of ambition and power, and present him with decisions which are loaded with symbolic resonance. I would normally shy away from comparing a writer to Shakespeare — just too much baggage — but as a piece of myth-making based freely on a historical source, it really reminds me of Macbeth or King Lear.

I wasn’t immediately gripped by it, but as the action ramped up and Chaka developed into a more and more extreme character, I thought it was electrifying.

Chaka is my book from Lesotho for the Read The World challenge; a quick hat-tip to the translator, Daniel P. Kunene.

» The Chaka Print cloth ticket is from Trevira’s collection of cloth tickets on Flickr. She explains:

These large gummed labels – known as cloth tickets – were attached to bales of printed cotton cloth for export from Britain (read ‘Manchester’ in many cases). They were designed by British artists who depended on information from company agents in the various territories for subjects that were intended to be appealing for their markets.

It is 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.

The Wah-Wah Diaries by Richard E. Grant

This is Grant’s account of making Wah-Wah, his first film as director. Grant grew up in Swaziland and the film is about growing up there, so I read it as my book from Swaziland for the Read The World challenge.

For me, the book is mainly interesting for its portrayal of film-making, which is fascinating but sounds very very stressful: complicated, expensive, highly time-sensitive, and requiring the juggling of dozens of cast and crew, all of whom have other work commitments.

The film was a French co-production, for the sake of getting the right funding and tax breaks; and Grant had an exceptionally bad relationship with his French producer, who comes across in the book as startlingly incompetent and badly-suited to her job. In fact I suspect her first reaction on reading it was probably to call her lawyer.

It was slightly odd to be reading a making-of book for a film I haven’t seen, but it was an engaging read. I’ll keep an eye out for the film.

(and by the way, is it me or does Julie Walters look really weird in the poster?)

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