Friday, December 31, 2010

Durrell's Sicilian Carousel

Lawrence Durrell spent a good part of his life in the eastern Mediterranean, and most of his best work is set there: The Aexandria Quartet, of course, and one of my personal favorites, Reflections on a Marine Venus, also his most accomplished political work, Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, the novels Tunc and Nunquam, and more. I naturally had high expectations for his book on Sicily. It was a bit disconcerting to start reading it and discover that he had never visited Sicily before the visit that is the occasion of this book, published in 1977 when Durrell was 65. He has been living alone in Provence since the death of his wife, and the passing of another old (female) friend, long resident of Sicily and long-entreating Durrell to visit, inspires him to leave his country house and go, too late to see his old friend Martine. Durrell is one of my very favorite writers and I open any of his books confident that the experience will be rich and pleasing, but still the realization that he has signed up for the "Sicilian Carousel," a guided group bus tour, comes as a bit of a shock: Durrell on a tour?

But the master, old, is still a master, and disarmingly humble at the same time. He does not pretend to be anything other than an older gentleman, alone now, and traveling with a group (he is recognized by several people along the way). He cannily fictionalizes the trip, which gives him liberty to send up some of his companions; the odious character is made more odious (and is the subject of a probably fantastic yarn at the end), the widowed, retired British officer with whom he buddies up is affectionately caricatured (he pores over the cricket scores at breakfast), the inevitable comely young German woman is sexed up a bit for some disruptive fun and the English, French and Italians are regarded in all their stereotypical glory.

Durrell has also studied, presumably for the trip although he doesn't say so, the classical history of the island and particularly the Hellenistic period (his love of Greece is deep and broad and he sees Greece everywhere in Italy). The tour concentrates on classical ruins, about which Durrell knows a good bit more than the guides although he is generous in giving credit when credit is due. Some of his expositions about the temple sites are the best passages in the book. He has some interesting remarks about the hybrid character of Sicilian architecture (a sensitivity to architecture runs through all of Durrell's work).

The book is late and slight. Recommended for Durrell completists and also not a bad background book for someone planning an archeological trip to the island. There is no deep insight into Sicilian society or any real attempt to develop Sicilian characters.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Onuora Nzekwu's Blade Among the Boys

Onuora Nzekwu is an Igbo intellectual from Kafanchan in northern Nigeria. He published several novels in the 1960s, the early post-colonial period and a time of great cultural ferment in Nigeria and other West African countries (the glory days of Chinua Achebe's African Writer's Series, including the present novel).

This period of Nigerian literature is preoccupied with cultural, social and religious themes. The urgent issue of the time is the construction of a new African identity, one that reestablishes traditional African mores and values while recognizing the importance and influence of the much larger world into which post-colonial Africa is thrust. It is a didactic literature with one eye on the edification of the youth and another on the image of Africa in the outside world. These novels have a certain innocence even as they typically portray lives of poverty and hardship; there is a deep sense of community and family that is no longer such a strong motif. They are also often philosophical, as young protagonists must make existential choices: the old ways or the new, the village or the city, Africa or "the West."

I've read quite a few of these fascinating documents now, and Blade Among the Boys is a very high-quality example of the genre. It is well-written and complex, artfully ambiguous and, like the best African writing of the time, a cautionary tale about character as destiny (I think this quality of moral parable has deeper roots in the rich African tradition of folktales and maxims). Patrick Ikenga, also from Kafanchan, is in line to inherit the post of ceremonial religious leader of his extended family, but his immediate family are also Catholic converts and he dreams of becoming the first Igbo priest. He does not realize the starkness of this choice. Indeed he shows curiosity and enthusiasm for the traditional rites even as he keeps alive his ambition for the priesthood. A talented young man, Patrick even appears to have a chance to bridge his two worlds.

Subtle flaws in Patrick's character, combined with the after all unbridgeable dilemma of two religious traditions, one native and one imposed, warp the life of this smart and competent person until his loss is total. Patrick likes the pomp and circumstance of Catholicism. He is vain. He is also selfish and not particularly a paragon of virtue, but he doesn't realize this. Even with these flaws he could have had everything he wanted if only he chose the traditional path. Fatherless, he lacks real guidance and is subject to the caprices of his paternal uncles who have more authority over his life than his long-suffering mother.

A particularly good aspect of the novel is the way the author weaves together the issue of cultural identity with the issue of sexuality. In turning away from traditional marriage and disregarding his mother's need for a son who is a father he causes grievous harm to himself and to people who he loves. In the end he is cast out of both worlds, literally walking out the door into a life unknown. It is a classic ending for a novel.

Related novels discussed in this blog are Francis Selormey's Narrow Path; Cheikh Hamidou Kane's Ambiguous Adventure; Nkem Nwankwo's Danda; Asare Konadu's A Woman in Her Prime; Chukuemeka Ike's The Potter's Wheel; Cameron Duodu's The Gab Boys.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Marlon James' Book of Night Women

This blog is a reader's journal, going back now for four years' worth of novels. I only read books that I want to read. Usually they're either African novels, Irish novels, or novels that are getting good press or awards and that look like they're up my alley. The point is they're pretty much all novels that I enjoy (ones that are to my taste), and they're also mostly quite good, since they passed through a least a filter or two to get read by me and posted about here. Every now and then, though, a novel comes along that shows what a really good book is like. It stands out all the more from standing out in this group of good, personally-selected books. Marlon James' The Book of Night Women (2009, Riverhead Books) is one of these standouts.

This is an excellent novel that anyone with any interest in African-American literature or in the literature of Atlantic slavery must read. Set on a sugar plantation in Jamaica in the late 1700s it tells the story of Lilith, a young slave whose green eyes are a legacy of her father, a white overseer. It is a coming of age story as Lilith must learn what it is to be a woman, a black, a slave and a half-caste. She learns all of these things over the course of several years when she becomes a "big house" slave, learns about her family history, and lives through a bloody slave revolt. The story is riveting and I will resist the temptation to go over much of it here. I would much prefer that you buy the book and enjoy it for yourself.

Over the past several decades a great deal of research on the slave trade and on the communities of slaves and slave-owners has opened up this lost world to historians and novelists alike. Toni Morrison and Maryse Conde are two novelists who have pioneered reconstructive and reimagined work with this material, and they also happen to be two of the best writers working in North America today. Now Marlon James indisputably joins their company with his passionate dedication to getting it as right as possible. (Edward P. Jones' The Known World was the subject of an earlier post here, there is also a post on the period piece Sab by Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda.)

James has written this book using a seemingly omniscient narrator whose identity is revealed at the end of the book. This narrator uses an impressive reconstruction of the black Caribbean patois of the time. Reading the first page I thought I was in for a murky Faulkneresque experiment but in fact James pulls off the ambitious linguistic job ably. His research is most impressive, from African vodun to the structure of plantations and even the sailor brogues of the lowly white slavedrivers sounds startlingly authentic.

He also avoids, apparently without effort although in fact the effort must have been intense, sentimentalizing the blacks or presenting two-dimensional whites. Miss Isobel, the brilliant, psychotic Creole mistress, is one of the most memorable characters I've read in a long time, and the relationship between Lilith and Robert Quinn the Irish overseer captures expertly the hopelessness of both "lovers," stumbled in to an impossible love.

Really don't miss this one.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Chloe Aridjis's Book of Clouds

I don't remember how I came to put Chloe Aridjis's Book of Clouds (2009) into the Stack, probably on the strength of a glowing notice somewhere. It is her first book, a fictional memoir of a woman in her twenties who spends five rather desolate years in Berlin from 2002 to 2007. It is full of observations of the city and of Germans, but the real topic is the ennui of an intelligent young woman who is solitary, who appreciates melancholy, who is content to drift but not so content as to have no self-doubts. She works for an elderly historian who does Walter Benjamin-like explorations of the city's forgotten spaces, and she has a brief relationship with a meteorologist who speaks eloquently about clouds. She is chronically disengaged, however, and her experiences are taken in as observations even when they are personally challenging (getting lost in the dark underground, making love).

This detachment is expressed in a cool, elegant, matter-of-fact prose. This is a book written "in the zone," the author maintains an atmosphere, channeling style from the emotional portrait of the low-affect narrator. It is a good, fast read even as it evokes a slow pace of life. Aridjis and her narrator both grew up in Mexico City and there is a Latin sense of the surreal that is nicely understated; she tends to think people are in disguise. I hope that her critical success with this book inspires her to write something more substantial because she does write very well.

Synge Travels in Ireland

I enjoyed the Irish Revival playwright J. M. Synge's The Aran Islands, the subject of an earlier post, enough to follow-up with Serif Press's very nice 2005 edition of In Wicklow, West Kerry and Connemara, originally published in 1911. The book includes engravings done by Jack Yeats, son of the painter J. B. Yeats and brother of W. B. Yeats, to accompany the original.

A good playwright must have the very finest ear for dialogue and it is this talent that makes Synge's Irish travel writings so good. In the first part of the book he is traveling in the Wicklow Mountains northwest of Dublin and paying particular attention to the local patois. Synge was accused of troweling things on a bit, for example with this alleged quote from a Wicklow village woman: "Glory be to His Holy Name, not a one of the childer was ever a day ill, except one boy was hurted off a cart, and he never overed it. It's small right we have to complain at all." The author of The Playboy of the Western World, which caused riots at its premier for its searing caricature of marginalized Irish, is a legitimate object of suspicion, but I doubt he is distilling his material in a misleading way. In any event the flavor of the speech is clearly authentic and very charming to read.

The members of the Irish Revival were upper class people in a poor country, and most, like Synge, were Anglo-Irish. They were taken seriously as the gentry tend to be and the last section on Connemara was originally published as dispatches in the Manchester Guardian. Here we meet Synge the social reformer, getting in to quite detailed work on suggestions for the economic development of the "congested districts," meaning areas (mostly western, Irish-speaking areas) where there was not enough employment for the population. Synge is impressively perceptive and criticizes the governments' attempts to introduce new industries while ignoring some traditional ones (such as gathering kelp), showing how the Dublin bureaucrats had simply failed to think of the local industries as possibly worthwhile. He also criticizes the exploitation of poor workers and urges more economic justice as a necessary part of economic development. A worthy document that stands the test of time.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Colum McCann's Great World Spins

Let the Great World Spin (2009)is the third novel by Colum McCann, an Irishman who teaches at Hunter College and is a long-time New York City resident. He has the great idea to write a novel about various NYC denizens, their lives intertwining, on or about August 7th 1974, the day that Philippe Petit walked between the still-unfinished twin towers of the World Trade Center, two days before the resignation of Richard Nixon and eight months before the fall of Saigon. McCann has written a novel of social realism in the grand style, focused on a mother-daughter team of prostitutes in the Bronx, an Irishman who befriends them as part of his mission as a socially-active monk, his brother, and a group of women who have lost sons in the war in Vietnam. It is a novel of straightforward depiction; there is no mystery, no murder, no farcical or ingenious plot tying the novel together. 9/11 is left alone to resonate by itself, which it surely does.

This is a very ambitious book, and it reads well. I didn't leave it alone much until I was through with it. There is a ferocious focus on race mostly through the development of the stories of Tillie and Jazzlyn, multiple generations of the chronic underclass. The toll of the war, fought by conscripted soldiers, on families apolitical and otherwise is also a major theme. The novel belies the fashionable idea that modern novelists are lost in postmodernist, meta-narrative games; here we have nothing but earnest engagement.

Having said all that, I have my hesitations with this novel. The prose is good enough and one would not want to overwrite with this kind of material but the canvas is so large and ambitious that at times McCann can be heard grinding the damn thing out, executing the concept. Also the book is not quite the "novel of the city" that it purports to be: McCann is interested in human actions and responses and the reader looking for lyrical cityscapes will be disappointed. NYC is not quite one of the characters, seldom rising to more than stage and background. Nonetheless I do recommend this novel as an excellent example of latter-day social realism.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Francis Selormey's Narrow Path

The Narrow Path (1966) is #27 in Heinemann's African Writer's Series. It appears to be straightforwardly autobiographical, recounting the misadventures of Kofi (meaning he who was born on Friday) as he attends a series of Catholic schools in coastal Ghana in the 1930s and 40s, following his itinerant headmaster father, a loving but hardworking and strict man; also the childhood story of the book's author Francis Selormey (1927-1983). It serves as a document of life in rural Ghana at the time, without much commentary on larger issues or indeed much reflection. It is typical of the genre, recounting a strict regime that included corporal punishment and at times dire consequences for youthful transgressions, neither of which seemed to extinguish the protagonist's penchant for mischief, of which there is plenty.

The themes are: coming to terms with a strict father whose excesses reflect the hardships of earlier times; life as the headmaster's son and the new kid on the block; coming of age and attendant crises with honesty, school, money and romance; and the tensions that define the life of a young African student in the post-colonial era, caught as he is between traditional life and the brave new world opening up before him. Subjects of previous posts here that are relevantly similar are the much more philosophical (and Muslim) Cheikh Hamidou Kane's Ambiguous Adventure (1962), the very similar but more intense Chukwuemeka Ike's The Potter's Wheel (1973), and the more recent and far more edgy El-Nukoya's Nine Lives (2007). For more of the persistent theme (also ubiquitous in Asian fiction) of the youth who is caught up (in this case) in the contingencies of rural west African culture check out Nkem Nwanko's Danda (1964), Buchi Emecheta's The Slave Girl (1977) and the excellent Ben Okri's The Famished Road (1991). The Narrow Path is worth reading for some local color and for impressive verisimilitude but a slight volume in the context of the AWS.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

O'Hanlon's Irish Antibildungsroman

Ardal O'Hanlon's 1998 novel Knick Knack Paddy Whack (the American title of his novel; the original title is The Talk of the Town, which was thought to have too many resonances, I'm guessing, with The New Yorker magazine for yanks), is that very rare book that didn't have to make it through my Stack. I was on vacation in Elk Rapids, Michigan, and finished the books I'd brought along when I spotted it at a book sale in the very beautiful little public library in that very beautiful little town.

O'Hanlon is a stand-up comedian and a television actor who is best known for his role as Father Dougal McGuire in the situation comedy Father Ted (I've never seen it). There are the usual glowing blurbs on the jacket but the book appears to be very little-known. It is written well enough (it's good but not great), but I think it is too squarely in the same ecological niche as too many other contemporary Irish novels to stand out. Of course that's what makes it interesting to the aficianado.

That niche is the Irish antibildungsroman. Boy meets girl, boy gets drunk and falls down, boy alienates/batters/loses/murders girl. There are violent political undertones, grinding poverty, kamikazee alcoholism, small-town gossip that ruins lives, and a titanic psychological war with Catholicism. The Irish, damaged beyond repair by the English, are now their own worst enemies.

All of these elements are present here. The protagonist Patrick Scully is in his late teens and experiencing that most painful phase when the lucky ones go to college and other worlds and in the process turn away from their old mates, now revealed as losers. Things are bad for him but not as bad as he thinks; his own hopelessness is what knocks him down. Maybe: the ultimate facts are kept ambiguous, to good effect. What is clear is that Patrick has lots of talent but through a combination of bad luck and his own internalized crookedness he is doomed. He compares unfavorably to his father, his brother, and his best friend, and in the claustrophobic world of small-town Ireland that is poison for an ambitious young man.

The book got me thinking about the antibildungsroman and how many of these books I've posted about here. O'Hanlon had a role in a movie production of Patrick McCabe's The Butcher Boy (1992), and although this is just speculation on my part I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he had thought of the book (his first and only, so far as I know) as a result of that experience. The basic trajectory is very similar. It also brings to mind Eamonn Sweeney's underrated Waiting for the Healer (1997) and is, in both its ideology and plotting, similar to Dermot Bolger's The Journey Home (1990). Sean O'Reilly's The Swing of Things (2005) tackles similar issues. Ken Bruen's 2004 The Guards is in some ways most similar of all as both writers are eager to share their impressions of popular Irish youth culture.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Synge's Aran Islands Journal

J. M. Synge was primarily a playwright, best known for his play The Playboy of the Western World, and one of the leading lights of the "Irish Revival" movement of the late 1800s-early 1900s. The Revival fixed on the Aran Islands as representing the pure, Irish-speaking world it sought to revive, and Synge, an Anglo-Irishman whose uncle had served as the Protestant clergyman to the islands almost fifty years before, went to Aran off and on during the years 1898-1902 to study the Irish language (his Irish is good). He was also an assiduous collector of stories, poems and other folklore, an activity greatly respected and eagerly supported by the islanders. He published The Aran Islands in 1907, the same year that Playboy was first produced at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

It is a fine little book, 136 pages filled with stories, both Synge's stories of his experiences and many stories told to him by islanders. There is no politics, no irony, no discussion of Synge's life before or after his time there, nothing about the Irish Revival. There is a great deal of discussion of the Irish language and much trenchant observation of the hard life on the islands, the dangers of putting to sea in the curaghs (large rowing boats), and vivid scenes of island life abound. The islanders are fascinated by Synge and expect him to entertain them, while he is quick to record everything he can about the "fairies," but it is clear that he achieved a measure of intimacy with these very rough people that few if any other outsiders have ever accomplished. An ancient stone lookout seat high on Inishmaan (an anglicization of Inis Meain, "middle island") is to this day known as Synge's Seat.

A nice little gem of a book, very little known. My Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics 1992 paperback edition has excellent footnotes and an extensive introduction by Tim Robinson (I always read the text before the introduction of any book, but in the case of non-fiction maybe that's not quite so important; in any event Robinson's apparatus is worth reading). Synge scholars can also identify sources here for several of the plays. Indispensable for the Irish literature enthusiast and certainly one of the best popular sources on the Arans.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Deposition of Father McGreevy

I really had no idea about either Brian O'Doherty or about his 1999 novel The Deposition of Father McGreevy. I'm pretty sure the book was on one of those "customers who liked this book might like these other books" advertising sidebars on Amazon. As I got into it it was so far into the "Poor Mouth" aesthetic that I thought it might have been deliberately self-parodic, but cover blurbs by Frank Conroy, Jim Harrison and James McCourt confirmed that this is an earnest exercise in the more gothic (as in "Southern Gothic") mode of Irish literature - a melancholy terrain even at its sunniest, let alone frozen in the dark as it is here. (See earlier posts on Hard-Boiled and Crazy Irish.)

In this case we have an unnamed, Irish-speaking village, somewhere above a town in the mountains above the Kerry Peninsula, that is slowly dwindling to an end. The year is 1939. Father McGreevy faces the closing of his parish after 30 years among the villagers. He is well-intentioned but conservative and obtuse enough to fail them when they can no longer withstand the pressure of the outside world. He bears more responsibility for the calamities he recounts than he knows. Innocent people, as so often happens in Irish literature, are condemned to the worst kind of disgrace, lives thrown away, families destroyed.

So, of course, I liked it. Plowed on through once I got hooked. I enjoyed the occasional footnotes, mostly biographies of Irish notables who are glancingly mentioned in the text (although including them was kind of an odd decision). The writing is generally good, in the tough-guy realist style. The atmosphere is satisfyingly oppressive for the Irish literature enthusiast. It is, though, somewhat over the top and I recommend it for readers who are already enthusiasts of the Irish novel and/or hard-bitten tough-guy stuff. Don't hand this one over to Grandma until you've checked it out for yourself.

It was also a pleasure to learn more about Brian O'Doherty. O'Doherty, Roscommon-born, has had several distinguished careers, both as a sculptor and conceptual artist and as an executive in the USA for the National Endowment for the Arts and other organizations. In 1972 he changed his name to Patrick Ireland to protest the "bloody Sunday" killings in Derry that year, and worked under that name until the peace accords of 2008. He comes to novel-writing late, but this one was nominated for the Booker. Very interesting and talented person.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Aravind Adiga's White Tiger

I'm trying not to be influenced by the blurbs (seven pages of them?) festooning my Free Press trade paperback first edition copy, complete with "Reading Group Guide," of Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, winner of the 2008 Booker Prize. The book, a first novel by an Indian-born writer who has lived in Australia, Britain and the US, was predictably hyped to the stars. (I still take the Booker seriously and I always check out the books. Sad to say I pay no attention to the Nobel. The Booker is also politicized, not to mention parochial, but neither of those flaws necessarily means the books aren't good.) The comparison to Russian literature is inevitable, the blurbs mention Dostoevsky, Gogol and Gorky but Gary Shteyngart's excellent Absurdistan, the subject of an earlier post, came to my mind. Both books illuminate the extravagant excesses of globalization in Asia with the kind of black comedy that comes from righteous rage. Then I noticed that Shteyngart wrote one of the blurbs on the back cover - so did I think of Shteyngart on my own?

In an interview published at the end of the book Adiga mentions the excoriating, sulphorous African-American novels of the mid-20th century: Ellison, Baldwin and Wright. Going with that I would mention contemporary African fiction as one of the most active venues of the alienated man. Another post here discusses the Nigerian El Nukoya's Nine Lives, a book with close similarities to this one.

Anyway, news flash, the book is really good. It is indeed "compulsively readable." It's angry and funny - "satire" is the technical term. It's a fast read and part of its spell is the way Adiga puts everything out on the surface as we fast-forward along through the life story of Balram Halwai, the twisted and unreliable narrator. He has asserted his humanity through transgression, which is a fine old existential theme in itself, but the real game (as in the 19th century Russian novel) is to persuade the reader that the societal pressures (notably the economic and political ones) on the anti-protagonist make his transgressions understandable, and to at least entertain the idea that they may be, as the antihero himself believes, justifiable.

In this case the target is the surreal disparity of wealth in turn-of-the-century India. The workers building luxurious condominiums live in fetid slums next door. Justice is for sale and the rich not only flout the law but openly pawn the lives of their servants, who fear not only for themselves but their families; to be a servant even to the well-meaning rich is to be held hostage mafia-style. To top the situation off, this clearly untenable circumstance is directly tied to the identification of the wealthy professional class with the West, very conspicuously the English-speaking West. Demagogic populists, meanwhile, are winning elections. "Someday the brown-skinned and yellow-skinned people will be in charge," fulminates the murderously angry narrator, "and then heaven help the rest of you." The message is made more pointed by the writer's lucid and sardonic understanding that the beast within is the same as the beast without.

But it's also really funny. If it wasn't it wouldn't work. It's a book that may even be around for the long term, so masterful is the blending of real provocation with fine black humor.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Babylon Down Under

David Malouf's Remembering Babylon (1993) is the first novel I've read by this Australian writer, but it won't be the last (there is quite a buzz around his latest, The Great World, so that will go in the Stack). Malouf, who has published eight novels, is also a working poet and his prose is interesting, original and stylish without feeling overwritten. For a reader already impressed with the quality of contemporary Australian literature discovering Malouf is not a revelation, just a confirmation of the great vitality of the Australian literary stage. He is certainly squarely in this tradition, focused on the confrontation with nature and the Other, and on the experience of displacement and violence, that are instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with Australian literature and cinema.

Remembering Babylon
is the story of Gemmy Fairley, the lowest of the low of London street urchins, accidentally set to sea and then marooned at the age of thirteen to spend sixteen years living with the aborigines whose language and way of life he adopts. The novel concentrates on his experience after stumbling out of the bush and taking up life with Scottish settlers in a remote highland area of Queensland. Gemmy is something of an idiot savant, damaged from a life of suffering but possessed of rare knowledge, kind and gentle but an inevitably disruptive presence.

In fact Malouf's real interest is in the Scottish settlers and their responses to Gemmy as a symbol, or really an incarnation, of the outback. The tension builds as settlers polarize into those who would launch genocidal attacks on the "blacks" and those who, to say as much as can be said, wouldn't. The situation is a familiar one and the reader is engaged by the drift towards a violent climax, but Malouf is a serious artist and artfully defies the expectations he has invited.

I should mention the treatment of the bee dance as analogy: the apiary-keepers know that the bees must communicate information somehow, but they don't know how the bees do it. Aborigines (excuse me, I have no personal experience of Australia and confess I don't know if "aborigine" is a term in acceptable political form) have ancient systems for learning about places, a product of long history traversing large areas (there is a good discussion of this in Bruce Chatwin's Songlines). Gemmy has some insight into aboriginal sense of place, but it is so alien to the Scottish, who come from an urban environment of coal mines and tenements, as to be quite literally invisible to them (just as Gemmy makes them disappear, for him, by ignoring them). I liked the way Malouf revealed just enough of this: like a blues guitarist who only plays a few, well-expressed notes.

Malouf is a first-class writer and I look forward to reading more of his work.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Michio Takeyama's Harp of Burma

My Charles Tuttle edition of Howard Hibbett's 1966 translation of Michio Takeyama's Harp of Burma (1946) was in a box of books that Tony Hunt gave me when he moved a few years ago, I think. I had no idea what it was, but I put it in the Stack after reading J. G. Farrell's The Singapore Grip (1978), the last novel in Farrell's "Empire Trilogy." It occurred to me that this book was about Japanese soldiers fighting the British in Burma, and therefore in the same army that captures Singapore in 1939, the event at the center of The Singapore Grip. So I queued it up.

A charming and thoughtful book, written originally for children, by a Japanese specialist in German literature who publicly warned against the Nazis and who wrote this book in the countryside of occupied Japan, his Tokyo house having been destroyed in air raids. It is short, 132 pages organized around three sections, basically three overlapping stories. Captain Inoye, the young commanding officer, is a music teacher and choirmaster, and he develops the esprit de corps of his unit by teaching the men to sing. These soldiers are in dire circumstances, slogging through mountain jungle far from home punctuated by deadly combat skirmishes against usually superior British forces, culminating in their surrender after the surrender of Japan and their transport to a prisoner of war camp in Malaysia. In 1956 the director Kon Ichikawa had a popular hit with his film version The Burmese Harp.

Their music helps them in all sorts of ways, even at one point to avoid a major battle that would certainly have killed most of them. Above all they have high morale as the music has taught them to function as a group. A pivotal character is Private Mizushima, the company harpist and a wily and courageous infantryman who is already a hero when he sets off to try to help talk down another group of Japanese soldiers who are entrenched on a rocky peak and refuse to surrender. One appealing point here is the discussion of surrender, it's clear that most units surrendered when they were convinced that Japan had done so, and the infamous holdouts were much fewer in number.

The book also spends a good deal of time with Burmese Buddhism, a variant of the conservative Therevada tradition, and a community that is under great siege from the villainous generals who rule "Myanmar" today. This is intertwined with a discussion of moral obligation for Japanese soldiers, with a number of characters openly wondering if imperial Japan lost its spiritual bearings. An antiwar message delivered with modesty and charming color.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Nina Vida's Texicans

I was flattered when Nina Vida, the author of seven well-regarded novels, sent me a copy of The Texicans last year. Subsequently we became facebook friends and I added her blog to my blogroll. Now her revisionist Western, set in 1840s Texas, has finally made it through the Stack. Of course I don't know what to expect with submitted novels. Most of the books that get into the Stack are chosen by me, not the other way around. But I'm definitely open to suggestion, I add books that people mention to me, that are on lists of various kinds, that sound from a description like they might be up my alley and so on. That someone else thought that I might like a book is as rigorous a filter as any, really.

And I did like The Texicans. It is a didactic, revisionist Western that makes sure to keep the reader entertained, written for story, and wearing what is clearly a good deal of research lightly. She presents European settlers as such, not as homogenized American cowboys, and she does not shy away from either the negative aspects of the Europeans nor the violent circumstances they encounter, notably violent and sadistic Comanche Indians. The Texas Rangers have deteriorated, following the end of the Mexican-American War and Texas's annexation by the US, into paramilitary bands that lynch blacks, hunt Indians and persecute Mexicans: right-wing vigilantes. There are slave-holding settlers from the South, and well-to-do Mexicans as well as poor Mexicans live in the same communities, more or less, as the whites.

The protagonist, Joseph Kimmel, is Jewish, and a curious character. He is intensely moral, brave, hardworking. He is also something of a masochist and a pushover. Like many people with personal boundary problems, he doesn't really like people too much; they inevitably inflict pain, it seems. But once involved he is ferociously loyal. His sense of duty prevents him from following his own desires, especially his desire for Aurelia, a Mexican woman with traditional herbalist knowledge who has been cast to the winds by a cholera epidemic. He remains with Katrin, an Alsatian refugee who he initially marries to save from a Comanche chieftain.

A master at this sort of thing is Annie Proulx, another contemporary is Louis Erdrich. They are bounded on one hand by the new revisionist Westerns (the avatar is Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, but the genre's purest expression is Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian), and on the other by the vibrant post-colonial North American woman's novel (For example Toni Morrison, one of the continent's greatest living writers, and Barbara Kingsolver, whose influence surpasses her fame).

Nina Vida's technique is very much to show rather than to tell, and the psychology of her characters comes to us only through their actions. All are virtuous, but none are entirely sympathetic. They are used to rough justice and suffering and don't expect much from one another. It is not a character-based novel, it is a story. Readers of historical novels, students of the West, and enthusiasts for the contemporary American novel will find much to admire.

Monday, May 31, 2010


When G. bought me Farrar, Straus and Giroux's edition of Natasha Wimmer's 2008 English translation of Roberto Bolaño's 2666, I hesitated to dive into it. Not because I didn't want to read it, but the opposite: it was a book that I wanted to read with care (Bolaño's last work and his self-described magnum opus), and it is gargantuan: this very nice, even loving, edition comes as three volumes in a box, and runs to 893 pages. But G. knew how much I'd loved By Night in Chile (2000) and The Savage Detectives (1998) and asked what was I waiting for? Then I thought that I'd read it one volume at a time, putting the next volume in the Stack as I finished the first one (like I'm doing with Beckett's Trilogy right now). But when I finished the first volume I just kept going, actually I couldn't put it down until I had devoured the whole thing, and I think that that is the right way to read it and probably the way Bolaño would have wanted it to be read. Certainly each section is meant to be appreciated in relation to the others, and above all to the central section about the (actual and ongoing) murders of women in Ciudad Juarez, which Bolaño here calls Santa Teresa.

Saint Theresa of Avila is a 15th century Spanish Catholic mystic who writes about her ecstatic experiences of being penetrated by Jesus's shafts of light. Bolaño gives us the endless litany of murders of women, mostly young (as young as 10 and 12 in fact), mostly workers in the maquiladoras (factories) run by multinationals in and around Ciudad Juarez, located near the US border in the Sonora Desert. They are usually raped. They are very often strangled, and there are patterns of mutilation that suggest a serial killer, but the serial killer or killers is mixed in among a larger group of murderers, including the usual run of homicidally possessive boyfriends, violent gangs of narcotraficantes, etc. The police detectives occasionally pick off the perpetrator without much trouble, at other times they hang murder charges on suspects in order to appear to be making progress (they beat suspects for days during "interrogations"). Even so half or more of the hundreds of murders go unsolved.

Obscene violence of this magnitude must indicate, Bolaño thinks, "the secret of the universe." Perhaps better to say the secret of our moral and spiritual condition. The meaning of our lives, or at least the potential for our lives to have meaning, confronts us in the form of our in-"humanity." Bolaño wants to limn the connection between ordinary citizens and those who actually transgress the farthest boundaries of compassion. The man raping, torturing and murdering a 12-year-old girl (or anyone) approaches the meaning of life at the other extreme, and the victims, like Saint Theresa, can also be seen to be experiencing the extremity of being. The writer too can pursue true being (true meaningfulness) as a writer by going to this place. The only possible absolution can only be real action resulting from recognition of collective guilt.

This gets to Bolaño's obsession with the Nazis and the Holocaust. This preoccupation of his can seem almost quaint 65 years after WWII, in these anti-American days, and I am only speculating about the psychological dynamic Bolaño had with the Nazis. But I think he identified Hitler's National Socialist movement, more than colonialism's feral capitalism, with the right-wing ideology he saw in Latin America: totalizing and yet nihilistic, a vehicle for impunity, something driven more by passion than expediency. Bolaño suggests that the violence in Ciudad Juarez is the identical wave of violence surging through the world as the one that swamped Europe in the 1940s, still sloshing across Mexico now by way of the guerras sucias in Patagonia in the 1970s and the escuadrillas de muerte of Central America in the 1980s.

The devil, for Bolaño, comes from within. He presents a straightforward diagnosis of the Ciudad Juarez murders: endemically corrupt local police and politicians work for money, and the wealthy and the dangerous are protected by an attitude that accepts no responsibility for actually confronting injustice. The situation is to be maintained. In fact, the murdered women are part of the "raw material" of the place: they are used by the maquiladoras and then used by local predators and even the police, lawyers, journalists and others make a living to some degree from their victimization. A homicidal system, in short.

The novel is also Bolaño's ultimate statement about the role of the writer in society, another of his grand obsessions. For one thing, he rejects the ideal of the writer as a kind of little god, setting up a self-contained world with a definite "message," and he challenges the conventional reader who expects this tidily finished product. Maybe, after all, there is no god, and maybe the world doesn't make sense. The most valuable insight of existentialist philosophy (Kierkegaard and Nietzsche) is that true morality is only possible against the background of a purely amoral universe, with its profusion of coincidence, absurdity, randomness and, yes, cruelty and heartlessness. Everything in Bolaños's universe ties together, but in the most capricious, absurd, tragic and really funny ways. One of the things I like most about Bolaño is his insistence on showing us the universe as it really is. Bless me if the son of a bitch isn't bringing the Enlightenment to Latin American literature, an achievement that puts him in league with Borges (no one is in league with Cervantes).

Which brings me to the title, 2666. It is a date, a year. A year when things will happen, things as outrageous as what is happening now (there are characters in Bolaño's writings who don't care to stay up drinking all night, who aren't potentially available for sex. It's just that Bolaño has no interest in such people). The mind boggles and can't place a value on this date, 656 years from my writing these words, imagine the world of 1354, some of you can do that better than others: what significance does it have for us? Bolaño is addressing the beat of the butterfly's wings that ultimately causes a universe to disintegrate. Yes, there is causation, yes, there is holism: but the cosmic joke is that it is all well outside of control, and wisdom is the realization that that is a source of humor, and a further level of wisdom is that that does not divest anything of its moral significance. Quite the contrary. When I die and go to the gates of heaven Saint Peter is going to let me in, and you know why? Because I think it's funny! I think that all of that suffering is funny - that is, I can see the humor in it. So God thinks that she might have a beer with me. And that is it. That's the secret of existence.

There is a young detective in 2666, Lalo Cura (la locura: the crazy thing, the craziness, the crazy circumstance). A boy of 19 or 20, chosen by the chief of the bottomlessly corrupt police by virtue of the toughness of his origins, he reads textbooks on police forensics and wants to know what has really happened, unlike most of his colleagues. If you blink you might miss the fact that he is the bastard son of one of the two protagonists of The Savage Detectives (almost certainly Arturo Belano, Belaño's alter ego). The Savage Detectives is to 2666 what V. is to Gravity's Rainbow, an experiment and exploration. The other similarity between the two writers is a paranoia, or a priceless evocation of paranoia, that is supremely provocative by virtue of being burlesque.

The great writer, like the great detective, is the person who can confront the sordid reality of our condition, protected by no god, absent of any justice in the metaphysical sense, and bring the facts back from an impossibly difficult expedition and lay them before us. Thus we are presented with the opportunity for our own redemption.

One last observation: Bolaño achieves his cosmopolitan texture honestly. Mexico, Italy, Spain, Great Britain, the US: his evocation of place appears effortless but is the opposite. With just a word or two about a street or a quick meal he somehow summons whole cultures, great depths of variety evoked with tiny details. In The Savage Detectives there was a sense that his persuasive conveying of place was a result of his own vagabondage, and I think that's true; in 2666 we can see that a tremendous amount of research went into the production of the manuscript. This is yet another expression of Bolaño's humility in the face of reality: reality, something a thousand times more bizarre, compelling, obscene and important than anything that anyone could make up. This is the lesson of history.

What a blessing to have this funny earnest writer who gives and gives and gives.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Cheikh Hamidou Kane's Ambiguous Adventure

Cheikh Hamidou Kane's L'aventure ambigue (1961; Grand Prix Litterature d'Afrique Noire, 1962) is another volume from Heinemann's historic African Writers Series. It is Kane's first novel and his most significant work (he spent much of his later life as an administrator for the Senegalese government), written while he was a philosophy student in Paris in the 1950s. It is autobiographical at a deep level, as the protagonist Samba Diallo is born of a high-status family (the "Diallobe"; Kane is of a Fulani political family), receives a traditional Koranic education (i.e. memorizing the Koran) as a child and is then sent to receive a "Western" education in Paris for the anticipated benefit of his society: all in common with Kane himself.

The novel is highly didactic, consisting mostly of dialogues between Samba Diallo and his elders, teachers, and a family of African acquaintances in Paris. The language is elevated and elegant (my Heineman edition is an English translation by Katherine Woods), and the movement from childhood through college and final return to Africa is artfully handled with a sometimes dream-like atmosphere and some nice descriptions of the African sky. Having said that, it is patently a vehicle for a sustained discussion of the relationship of the materialist "West" and traditional religious philosophy. In this case that religion is Islam, which makes the book timely for contemporary readers but also separates it from much of the African literature of the time in that it lacks some of the specificity of place (and ethnicity) one finds in other period works.

There is a psychological undercurrent here that I have not seen mentioned in any of the few scanty discussions of the book I can find by Googling around: the fact that the young man is sent by his elders to a faraway place where he loses his cultural bearings must have been a source of resentment. This after years at the Koranic school where his beloved teacher is very free with corporal punishment which here as in other African novels is presented in graphic detail but not obviously censured. Thus the reader must wonder if some of the internal conflict which is the subject of the book is displaced anger about the denial of self-determination experienced by a tribal scion. I note too that the narrative is coolly controlled and there is never any direct expression of anger, even as the book ends with the young protagonist's apparent death.

Meanwhile the overt message is that the loss of godliness, both in terms of religious dogma and personal spirituality, is too high a price to pay for the worldly advances of Western technological materialism. Of course this is an entirely conservative message. It is also a problem specific to sophisticated, educated elites in the post-colonial world - it is the problem of the college student. Thus the novel does not appear, from my attenuated, strange perspective, as progressive as it must have to African and French readers of the 50s and 60s.

If the status of religion in modern society is a serious interest, this book is an intelligent discussion of that. It also is written at a fine, elegant level. But it is ultimately an evangelical tract and a bit idiosyncratic compared to most of the novels in the African Writers Series.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Undead Beckett, Pt. I

Samuel Beckett has long been one of my "culture gods" (as my poetry professor A. McA. Miller used to say), but it's been years since I read him, so I added the Grove Press omnibus edition of the Trilogy (Molloy, 1951; Malone Dies, 1951; The Unnamable, 1954) to the Stack. Beckett would appreciate that after all these years I don't remember if I actually ever read The Unnamable, and I've definitely got the whole thing mixed up with Watt (1954). I'm rotating the three novels through, so as to consider each on its own, and I'll add Watt to the Stack after I've done with The Unnamable.

In my memory there was a desperately marginalized man shuffling down the mean streets to his doom. And that's not far off from what I find reading Molloy. Sometimes rereading is deflationary, but in this case I find myself thrilled, at the end of the first novel, to be reading Beckett again. He's a marvelous writer, fearless and soulful, technically brilliant. His obsession (and one can see this of course in his plays) is narration. Narration is the structural point where the integrity or lack thereof of the writer is displayed: it is both the linchpin of creativity and the insuperable block to artifice, at least spiritually. Beckett is a supreme artist who cannot bear the hypocrisy of artifice, even as he loses himself in it. Two interrelated effects that are at the center of Beckett's art are distance and unreliability.

There is a signature effect of distancing in the way Beckett presents his characters (narrators). They are presented to us as if totally unfiltered, internal, scatological monologues and all, but in their very perversity there is a license to step back from them, a dehumanizing that presents itself as pure subjectivity. In fact his characters dangle before us like marionettes, mercilessly pilloried like the sinners in Hieronymus Bosch. It is the Narrator, after all, who is our true companion; we accompany Satan, not Job. In this he brought to my mind Flann O'Brien; there is a kind of radical flatness to the world he creates, like a cartoon panel with a minimalist landscape.

At the same time Beckett is the master of the Unreliable Narrator. Not even: the reader is shown early and often that the narrator is perverse, wicked, the subject of the examination. Once this relationship is established there are no end of metanarrative tricks to be pulled - the principal fun of reading Beckett. I thought of James Hogg's incredible Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

Which brings me to another point, I don't know what I thought of this thirty years ago reading Beckett as a student: this most modernist of postmoderns is in a major confrontation with Catholicism. I love the list of questions Moran is considering at the end of the book ("5. Does it really matter which hand is employed to absterge the podex?"). And of course this gets to the contextual difference that I have now as a reader, which is this blog itself: with my focus on Irish literature, I come back to Beckett particularly vigilant about his Irish identity, which mattered little to me thirty years ago. And he is (notwithstanding his obligatory exile, and that he wrote these books in French and then translated them himself into English - not back into English)as Irish as they come. His minimalist landscape is in fact an Irish landscape; his pathetic characters are Molloy, Moran, Malone, Murphy - all one.

The question arises as to his relationship with Joyce. Joyce was a mentor and influence, there is no escaping the issue. It is fatuous at best to attempt a comparison (who was "better"?), but the tortured relationship with the English language is central to both writers. English must be pushed and pulled and violated, it is like the flesh pulling down the spirit. And like the body, eventually the language pulls one in entirely and makes of one a thing. For a brief erotic interlude at least. Ach, how dare I elevate my language? Ego is another big question with both Joyce and Beckett. And me and you. And so it is time to go (my mother said some of these posts are too long anyway). But I will be watching with satisfying anticipation Malone Dies' progress through the Stack.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Bloody Footnote: Thomas Flanagan's "The Year of the French"

I heard about Thomas Flanagan's The Year of the French (1979) from some list or other of "100 Best Irish Novels." Turns out that Flanagan is an Irish-American, the Irish have a charming (I find) penchant for simply appropriating any American culture that is Irish enough to the mother country. Hey Ireland: feel free to appropriate me at any time!

Anyway, here we have a fictionalization of the French invasion of Ireland in 1798. A larger force tried to land in 1796 but was turned back by adverse winds. In 1798 Napoleon also was invading Egypt. Wolfe Tone and the French general Humbert extracted promises from the Directory that a larger force would follow if the first invasion achieved success with a popular uprising, but that never materialized. It's tempting to speculate about what might have happened if the French had managed to drive the English off of the island, but on reflection I doubt that the English would ever have given up the fight to retain colonial control over Ireland, or could ever have lost it.

It was a sideshow to the Napoleonic wars, and a pathetic one at that. The Irish had not, and perhaps could not have, achieved the level of military and political organization needed to drive off the English and keep them off. Humbert ended thinking that the Irish were a rabble who deserved the genocidal massacres that followed the rebellion (he and his French soldiers were repatriated under the "rules of honorable warfare"; the Irish peasant fighters were cut down unmercifully, and against the orders of the supreme English commander Cornwallis, their leaders tarred, hanged, and their bodies left on the gibbet to rot).

But Wolfe Tone and Jean-Joseph Humbert worked tirelessly to obtain a small army from the Directory to try to spread the revolution. Humbert gambled that with victory in Ireland he might show up the vainglorious Napoleon with his mad Egyptian adventure. It would be easy to dismiss this book as masculinist literature, with its fictionalization of desperate military campaigns written at the level of the technical maneuvers of field officers, but that would be an unjust error. One of the main points of the book is that professional officers, if they might survive the barrages of the field, had little in common with the peasant boys whom they swept up in their campaigns. Indeed, an honorable end to a campaign from an officer's point of view required a considerable sacrifice of men. The sensibility is reminiscent of Tolstoy's War and Peace (written almost a century after the events it immortalizes), another novel of intellectual learning and one where my standard jape has been "it's better at the war than at the peace."

When, after finishing the novel (never read an introduction before reading a novel!), I read Seamus Deane's introduction my New York Review Books paperback edition, I was taken aback to read that the novel was made into a TV-movie in the 1980s on the basis of its' supposed illustration of the violence and futility of Republican militancy. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is a searing indictment of English rule, a stand-out in an immense genre that is obsessed with little else.

But this is far from a war novel alone. It is an immensely learned disquisition on the social and political circumstances of Ireland at the end of the 18th century. It is inevitably somewhat didactic - if you have no intrinsic interest in Irish history you ought not to be here - but it is rich in character and with a deep humanity that reflects years of immersion in the subject combined with a writer's detachment that few might sustain. There are quite a few representative characters - Protestant gentry, landed Catholics, clergymen, rebels, riffraff and heroes. An obvious favorite of the author is Owen McCarthy, Irish-language poet, itinerant teacher, womanizer, brawler and drunkard, famous throughout the Irish-speaking population for his verses but just another bog-trotting paddy to the English. It's good to see a character come to life and start to walk off with the author's book. And there are a good half-dozen other characters who are nearly as finely wrought.

Flanagan went on to add two more novels to make an historical trilogy, The Tenants of Time (1988) and The End of the Hunt(1994), on the strength of this one I'll try the next. Highly recommended, one of the best historical novels I've read. I have to add that while I was reading this G. threw me a bookmark from her extensive collection, this one from the "America's Disabled Veterans": "If you think you can't/ You really must/ In God and our soldiers/ Please keep the trust/...With luck and joy be/ With all who know/ That what you reap,/ Is what you sow." Incredible!

Let me also salute the series New York Review Books Classics, one of the best republishing efforts in the USA in the past 50 years.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

El-Nukoya's "Nine Lives": The Ghost of Nigeria Present

I don't remember how I spotted El-Nukoya's novel Nine Lives (2006; ANA/Jacaranda Prize, 2007). I think I was looking at some Nigerian fiction at Amazon and it came up as a "customers who have bought x might like y" suggestion. It's very important for a serious reader to be willing to explore, to invest in chance suggestions, references and even books that just have covers that look interesting (a reason for bookstores in an age when one can get every book that one knows that one wants on-line).

"El-Nukoya" is a Yoruban/Arabic phrase meaning "to select," as in the right path of life, but the cover art promises noirish underground adventure and the novel delivers. It's a neat trick, and a classic one, that the author has here: in the end El-Nukoya's book is critical and moralistic, but I mean at the very end as in the last page or so of this 490-page page-turner. Are all the juicy bits just a vehicle for the underlying evangelism, or is the evangelist moral a useful justification for giving us hundreds of pages of juicy bits? Only El-Nukoya knows for sure. In any event this first novel also shrewdly aims for a middle-brow audience that likes the sort of action that one finds in genre novels (racy romance for the ladies, tough-guy stuff for the guys).

The inescapable trope of African fiction is the bildungsroman, as African characters must suffer and, if they are among those to prevail, learn to be tough. Here we have the story of Olupitan Ogunrinu, smart and talented but out of the village, and his treacherous and tortured, if relentless and fantastic, rise to the top of Nigerian society. At first I wasn't sure of this rough novel, with its' numerous typos and its' somewhat wooden prose, but I ended charmed by it, a real potboiler with lots of sex and intrigue including all sorts of misbehavior from the feckless and disloyal Olupitan. He is a soul in danger, and his devilish compacts seem to damn him. He squanders his poor father's money by flunking out of college and decamping to the US, abandoning his family for years, and even worse things; a bit of business with a religious totem is a grave enough transgression that I thought the whole story would eventually turn on it, but nothing, it seems, is beyond redemption if we turn to God.

An obvious comparison is with Chris Abani, whose Graceland (2004) is the subject of an earlier post here. Abani, the author of several novels, is more technically accomplished than El-Nukoya, but his subject is the corruption of modern Nigerian society. El-Nukoya is deeply involved with this reality as well, of course, but he is more turned inward, and the real issue is the confrontation of the protagonist with his own strengths and weaknesses. For Abani, who writes from exile in California (and who was a victim of political torture in his homeland), Nigeria is stigmatized; El-Nukoya (who also studied in the US) makes it very clear that from his point of view the US, say, or anywhere else is no more safe from sin than Nigeria.

Abani is interesting to an American reader because of his interest in the cultural intersection of the two worlds. El-Nukoya stays tightly focused on his hero's misadventures during the American section and we are not served up any real impressions of that country. This may reflect some prudence on the part of an author who is already dealing with a densely-plotted narrative that spans decades and has dozens of characters. On the other hand there is lots of texture and atmosphere in the Nigerian passages, particularly the ones set in the world of the urban college students.

The most accomplished aspect of Nine Lives, though, is the limning of the little-boy-lost character of Oliputan. He makes bad decisions based on worse judgements, caves in to many of his own most craven weaknesses, and does many good people wrong, but the reader never comes to see him as the bad guy. He forms an obsession of hatred for an upper-class rival and cultivates this resentment for years, but the moral is clear enough that the weight is his to give up. At the same time he is a fantasy character, improbably endowed with an irresistible attraction for women and with the talent to become one of the wealthiest men in the country, only on the condition that he transgress his dignity in the pursuit of the initial capital: your basic hip-hop story.

Anyway I'm glad I encountered this book, it has whet my appetite for some more recent Nigerian fiction. From some subsequent googling around I think I'll try the Ivorian Ahmadou Kourouma's Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote, the Senegalese Boubacar Boris Diop's Murambi Book of Bones, and the Nigerian Chimamanda Adichie's Purple Hibiscus. A serious reader ought to be a sucker for a good title: another way to find something good.