Thursday, July 21, 2011

Bolano on a planet around a Distant Star

One of the most interesting things about Roberto Bolano is that, as one excavates and uncovers his reimagined history of violence in the 20th century, the novels keep being written earlier. That is, the first Bolano novel I read (and posted on) was By Night in Chile which was published in 2000, one of the last works of this novelist who died in 2003. After that I read The Savage Detectives, published in 1998 but translated into English only in 2007. Then I went for the masterpiece 2666, "released" in 2004 and translated into English in 2008. At this point a complete devotee, I then read Nazi Literature in the Americas and was impressed to learn that it was published early, in 1996, although Chris Andrews' English translation appeared in 2008. The reason that this is impressive is that it appears that Bolano had generated his alternative world, not that different from this none, early: he always had a vision of what he wanted to do.

Even so it is fascinating to read Distant Star, published 1996 and translated by Chris Andrews 2004, and exhilarating (I can't think of any other word) to see the scarey, radical coherence of his vision from very early in his novelistic project (Bolano was criticized for straying from the purity of his early obscure-poet vision and for writing popular novels). In Distant Star he fleshes out an idea that is presented in the end of Nazi Literature in the Americas, but the publication dates lead us to think that Bolano saw all of his arch-satirical narrative very early on.

The last Borgian "entry" in Nazi Literature in the Americas is the story of Carlos Ramirez Hoffman, young Pinochet loyalist who stages a party in his apartment where his bedroom is decorated with pictures of his victims; in addition to being a poet he sees himself as an artist of the existential arts of political torture and murder. Central to this is his seduction of the Venegas sisters, scions of a wealthy and liberal family.

Dark Star elaborates the story of this character, here known as Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, who changes his name to Carlos Wieder and who stages the party (his victims include the Garmendias sisters, now frankly murdered by Weider). The hapless protagonist of Dark Star is drawn in to a plan to track Weider down and kill him. Killing him is something of an act of exorcism here, but it is unsuccessful: there will be no freedom from the history of violence that is washing over the world.

Weider was a poet who worked in the medium of sky-writing, perfect for the ephemeral, willfully-obscure presentation that Bolano thinks is essential for honest poetry. Weider is a fascist assassin and a poet: tracking down obscure poems and obscure murders are similar obsessions. Most people will just forget both the poems and the killings as they fade into the air.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Half of a Yellow Sun

When I posted not long ago on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus (2003) I found that novel to be well-constructed and a persuasive account of bourgeois Igbo life in contemporary Nigeria. It was impressive as an homage to Chinua Achebe and explored the same elemental themes of Nigerian conflictedness. Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) is much more ambitious and positions C.N.A. (at a level that Purple Hibiscus, for all its merits, did not) as potentially a novelist of historic importance and not just a Very Good Writer, of which Nigeria currently has quite a few.

It is an historical novel of the Biafran War (1967-1970) when the Igbo nation, tired of violent reactionary pogroms against the culturally strong Igbos from Hausas and other less dominant groups, tried to secede from Nigeria, declaring their southeastern homelands "Biafra." As anyone who lived through those years will recall, Biafra's almost total lack of international support (both the West and the USSR supported oil-rich Nigeria) resulted in a fearsome famine that was perhaps the first major famine to be widely televised across the developed world (not that that helped Biafra). The iconic famished infant with distended stomach, stick-like limbs and glassy eyes first became part of our collective conscience then.

C.N.A. writes again from the point of view of the Igbo bourgeoisie: Odenigbo is an Igbo nationalist professor at the university town of Nsukka. His lover is the beautiful sociology professor Olanna, the daughter of well-off parents. His houseboy is Ukwu, of humble origins but with good potential. Olanna's sister, Nainene, is harder and more cynical than Olanna, the businesswoman their parents wanted. Nainene's lover is Richard Churchill, expat Englishman who has come to see himself as a Biafran partisan and citizen.

The narrative circles around this core group of people as the war emerges and runs its course. The structure is a spiral: these comfortable people slowly and then precipitously see their lives deteriorate as the Biafran cause unravels. The author has compassion for her characters and doesn't take us to a horrorshow (although a novel of this time and place would be well-justified in taking that course), but the death, debasement and destruction are presented starkly enough to serve as the document the novel is written to be.

Several reviewers have mentioned Tolstoy, C.N.A. merits that, I think, by virtue of her erudition in the actual nature of the fighting, the politics and the neighborhood lifestyle of several classes of Nigerians. War and Peace is admirable in the sure handling of war and battle, and C.N.A. also gives careful attention to this material. The 543 pages kept me coming back during an otherwise very busy week, both emotionally and intellectually absorbing. We do indeed have a major talent on our hands.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The real Saint Patrick

This is the first time I've posted on two books together. They are a new edition of John Bagnell Bury's 1905 The Life of Saint Patrick and His Place in History republished in 2008 by Paraclete Press with excellent annotations, including boxes with explanatory and background material and quotations, by Jon Sweeney under the title Ireland's Saint: The Essential Biography of St. Patrick, and a 1998 Image/Doubleday edition of Patrick's Confession and the Letter to Coroticus, Patrick's only known writings, translated by John Skinner with a forward by John O'Donohue.

The real Patrick had very little to do with either snakes or drinking, but what is known about his life is positively cinematic and I'm surprised more novelists and film-makers haven't taken a crack at it. The son of a Latin-speaking, provincial Roman magistrate in western England, he was carried off by Irish (most likely Pict) slavers sometime around 405 AD, aged seventeen, and spent the next six years in Connaught, in the northwest (then as now with a reputation for natural isolation), mostly herding sheep. He then, by his own account, made his toilsome way by foot back to the east coast of Ireland (presumably having walked away from his servitude, although what his servitude amounted to is uncertain), where he took ship (after an initial rejection: a distinctly dramatic touch) and sailed, apparently, to Gaul (modern day France) and there had even more adventures as he and the vaguely threatening crew found themselves in the middle of a desolate wilderness, where Patrick performed a little magic involving a heaven-sent herd of pigs, before Patrick could, apparently, flee from the sailors. Finally making his way to the appropriate Church fathers, he obtains leave to proselytize the faith in Ireland, and begins the long trip back to his ancestral home and the preparations to return to Ireland.

All of that, mind you, is mere prelude to his return to Ireland and his role as self-appointed point man for the church (with quite a few more miraculous acts of magic along the way) for 12 years until his death circa 440, having firmly established the Roman church in Ireland. Late in his tenure as Bishop of Ireland he fell out of favor with the ecclesiastical authorities in England (it may have been a turf fight)and wrote for them the Confession, the basic source for the story of his life. It is more of an apologia than a confession as most would understand those terms: Patrick is at pains to convey all of the hardship and sacrifice he has endured in the service of the Church. He presents himself as someone with no interest in worldly power or things.

Bury points out that Patrick was relatively unlettered for a man of his rank owing to the exigencies of his life and probably insisted on speaking the local language. This may explain why his only two extant writings are Latin documents, written for official purposes to possibly unsympathetic readers, and why both are chronicles of hardships and injustices borne by Patrick and his followers. That is, the man may not have been as self-promoting as these writings make him appear. He wasn't a fluent writer of Latin, probably he rarely wrote anything at all unless forced to put pen to paper. The Letter to Coroticus was written after some of Coroticus' men had raided one of Patrick's ordination ceremonies where young men and women pledged chastity and service to God. Apparently the young men were killed and the young women sold into slavery. Patrick wrote the letter to denounce Coroticus (a Christian himself) and sent it back to England where he hoped it would be widely read. There is no record of its effectiveness.

Bury is at pains to show that, while Ireland was never formally part of the Roman Empire, Roman influence was certainly felt there by the fourth and fifth centuries. In fact people who lived on the other side of the Roman frontier were keenly aware of the great power, both hard and soft, that dominated their world. It would be a mistake to imagine a serenely pagan Ireland insulated from Latin influence, a temptation as Irish history tends to be romanticized. As to the pagans, local kings were sophisticated in dealing with Patrick and the Church, making deals and compromises; several of Patrick's monasteries were built on land provided by pagan kings, and any number of his converts were connected to ruling clans. The Druids, legendary pagan shamans, are said to have battled with Patrick in contests of magic (and the occasional assassination attempt). Patrick meets magic with magic, putting spells and hexes on his antagonists (he never shies from cursing his foes). We will never know what all that actually amounted to (movie directors: help yourselves!), but no doubt these episodes involved politics as much as potions.

In the end Patrick must be seen as an essentially conservative figure. He built up a system of monasteries and ministry that was within the catechistical bounds and under the ultimate control of the Roman Church (although the early Irish Church has a greater monastic component than is found in other regions, no doubt because there was a local culture that was already congenial to such behavior). He was an excellent organizer, a tireless trouper and with the visionary's single-mindedness. Part of his motivation had its origins in his early years as a slave; he probably didn't understand completely his own feelings towards the Irish (who were ethnically divided, in any case, between the Scottish Celts in the north and the Picts in the south). It is ironic that the actual life story of this very serious man is more fantastic than the facile legends that have grown around his name.

I strongly recommend Sweeney's annotated edition of Bury which is loaded with good information. Skinner's translation of the Confession and the Letter is clear, but there is almost no critical apparatus and John O'Donohue, who wrote the very brief forward, has a spacey Jungian vibe which is pleasant but uninformative.

Related topics of earlier posts include Thomas Cahill's essential How the Irish Saved Civilization, Ciaran Carson's recent translation of the Tain Bo Cualnge, and Philip Freeman's entertaining 2006 The Philosopher and the Druids (Freeman has also written a biography of Patrick).

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Jude Dibia Unbridled

Unbridled (2007) is the Nigerian writer Jude Dibia's second novel. His first novel Walking With Shadows (2005;I have not read it) garnered attention as perhaps the first Nigerian novel to have an openly gay male protagonist. Dibia has since built up a reputation as one of a new generation of African novelists who write about traditionally "taboo" topics. He told an interviewer that he wanted to tell stories that "people are not bold enough to tell."

Unbridled won the 2007 Ken Saro-Wiwa Award and I probably noticed it on a list of contemporary Nigerian novels somewhere. On the back cover of my Jacana Media edition (it was originally published by Blacksands Books) it mentions that Dibia writes about gay relationships, so when I started reading this novel about an ill-used and long-suffering young Nigerian woman I anticipated a coming-out story, but no, this time the protagonist is not gay. She is an incest victim who is passed off to uncaring relatives and escapes to England only to find that her internet suitor, a white Englishman, is also abusive. She must reach down deep and find the resources to achieve autonomy.

Another surprise, for me, came about halfway through the book when I was checking to see how many pages it had and noticed in the "about the author" note that Dibia is male. I had assumed, reading the first half, that the author was a woman. Ngozi/Erika is entirely convincing, and the unflinching insight into how a certain amount of violence and exploitation is, apparently, essential to male nature is conveyed in language that is recognizable as the bitter tone of ill-used women.

Dibia writes about people, how they behave around each other and the conversations that they have. He can depict friendship and malice with equal deftness. He is not, at this point in his writing career, a writer of any great elegance or beauty, but his story is absorbing and the pace does not flag. An impressive accomplishment from a young Nigerian writer of great promise.

Other examples of books by the new generation of Nigerian writers that have been the subjects of posts on this blog are Chris Abanis' Graceland (2005), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus (2003), which deals with very similar issues as Unbridled, and El-Nukoya's Nine Lives (2007).

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Roddy Doyle Plays That Thing

It's a surprise to realize just now that I read the first of Roddy Doyle's Henry Smart trilogy, A Star Called Henry (1999), back before I started this blog. (Doyle has called the trilogy "The Last Roundup.") That book, with its historically accurate and realistic account of the Irish "Easter Rising" of 1916 from the point of view of an Irish republican combatant, is quite vivid in my mind. The seizure and subsequent siege of the General Post Office in Dublin was memorably depicted. I think that that novel ranks with two other novels of historical and social realism that I've posted about here, James Plunkett's Strumpet City (1969), an account of the earlier dockworker's strike, and Thomas Flanagan's excellent The Year of the French (1979), a novelization of the ill-fated revolt of 1798.

In this second installment, Oh, Play That Thing! (2004), Doyle takes his project in a different direction. The project here is not so much historical fictionalization as it is a popular invocation of the spirit of a time and place, in this case the US in the 1920s and 1930s. Historical characters are freely woven into the story and the choice is made to pursue an epic story over any pretense to believability. Henry Smart is run out of New York by the local gangsters and almost run out of Chicago as well before he catches the eye of a young Louis Armstrong, who can use a white companion as he struggles with the racial barriers of the early 1920s pop music scene. Later on Smart is again saved, this time by Henry Fonda on location in Monument Valley: think E. L. Doctorow or T. Coraghessan Boyle.

Doyle has been criticized for trivializing the Henry Smart story in this way, but I think that his choices are defensible (although I don't think that Oh, Play That Thing! is as good a novel as A Star Called Henry). First, Henry Smart becomes, as Doyle widens his canvas, more of a symbolic character, a kind of embodiment of Irish toughness as a contribution to America. He's a caricature for sure, tough and rough and irresistible to women, a magnet for jealous mobsters, and pursued by shadowy Irish assassins who are (for somewhat under-motivated reasons) intent on hunting him down to the ends of the Earth. As to that, and secondly, Doyle finds Jazz Age America an intoxicating, phantasmagorical, you-can't-make-it-up kind of place, which it is, and so he decides to just let it rip. There's a little too much tough-guy masochism, and maybe one run too many at evoking the delerium of the hopping jazz club. Not Doyle's best but worth reading, I will certainly go on and read The Dead Republic (2010), the last of the trilogy.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Nazi Literature in the Americas

Previous posts on the blog have discussed (in the order that I read them of course) Roberto Bolano's By Night in Chile (1998), The Savage Detectives (2000), and 2666 (2000). Knowing those books made for a deeper appreciation of Nazi Literature in the Americas (1996). The student of Bolano sees first that he has recurrent themes and interests (poetry and the Nazis being the most prominent if improbable combination). Then it emerges that there are connections among the texts (a young police recruit in 2666, for example, is the bastard son of one of the protagonists of The Savage Detectives). Finally with Nazi Literature in the Americas the scope of Bolano's ambition becomes clear: he has created a parallel world, a fictional history, and interwoven that world with his and ours. The effect is to heighten the power of the fictional world and the ideas that have generated it: as it bleeds over into reality, Bolano's vision seems to establish a greater claim than most fiction does to being an authentic part of reality, an actuality. It is an unsettling effect; there is more moral urgency in Bolano than in almost any other contemporary writer of fiction I can think of.

Ironically the writer than one inevitably thinks of when reading this book is Jorge Luis Borges, that most detached and cerebral constructor of puzzles and games. Nazi Literature in the Americas is a compendium of potted biographies, some only a page or two long, some upwards of twenty pages, of fictional American (North and South) writers and their works. Some are completely obscure (literary obscurity is a strong fetish for Bolano), others are prominent and widely read. Some are poets, some are prose writers, some are genre writers and some are polemicists. The word "Nazi" is construed loosely: there are white supremacists and supporters of military dictatorship but also some whose "Nazism" is little more than conservative Christianity or reactionary nationalism.

Borges delighted in this sort of thing, inventing bibliographies and non-existent essayists and mixing them in with real people and books. Bolano does it throughout his works, The Savage Detectives has pages-long lists of poets and "journals" so obscure that only one mimeographed copy might exist, and 2666 mingles Bolano's invented incidents with the real history of the murders of women in Ciudad Juarez. While fictive scholarly apparatus is a "post-modern" trope it actually traces back in Spanish literature to Cervantes, with Don Quixote's displacement into the fantasy world of the picaresque and his glimpse of the printing press setting up the book in which he lives.

The endless appetite for reading, at times almost a mania for literate closure, that is pervasive in Bolano is also portrayed in Borges (for example in "The Library of Babylon" or "Funes the Memorious").

As an estadounidense reader I was impressed by the depth and breadth of Bolano's erudition for USA literature: he obviously loves the genre writing of the tough guy detectives but also the inventiveness of science fiction and he has apparently read everything from Gertrude Stein and Eudora Welty to Wallace Stevens and Wallace Stegner: about what one could reasonably expect of a typical English lit professor at a North American university (who was hip, of course, to poetry and the Beats).

Meanwhile there is The Theory, or at least my theory of The Theory. Bolano, I think, sees World War II and particularly the Nazis as an epochal upwelling of violent evil that then washes across the globe and the decades like a great wave. He seeks to explicate the violent history of Latin America, from the Cold War military governments of the 70s through the Central American political viciousness of the 80s up to the culture of homicide in contemporary Mexico as manifestations, aftershocks or tsunamis, of this great evil. Part of the message of Nazi Literature in the Americas is that this evil energy persists among us, close by and banal, nearer to eruption than we think.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Fardorougha the Miser

William Carleton (1794-1896) was an Irish Catholic who converted to Protestantism, a middle-class man who presented himself as of Irish peasant stock. This contradictory character came to fame in 1830 with the publication of Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry. With several other writers of the pre-famine early 19th century such as John Banim (1798-1842) and Gerald Griffin (1803-1840) he is part of what is sometimes called the "Pre-Yeats Revival," as these writers were, like their mostly Anglo-Irish counterparts a century later, concerned to develop a distinctly Irish literature (although they wrote for the most part in English). In my view they are interesting as a window onto an Ireland that disappeared during the horrific 1840s.

Carleton is an Irish version of a character who frequently turns up in African and African-American literature, and who I encounter here in Puerto Rico. He is loyal to his country and its people but he is deeply conflicted. He has taken pains to "civilize" himself (I read the novel before researching him and I would have guessed he was Anglo-Irish), taking on the burden of the colonizer's education and language. He wants to contribute to moral uplift, but in practice this means condemnation of the self-destructive mores of the poor and oppressed people he aims to reform. Like members of the later Irish Revival such as Synge he was criticized for being too rough on the Irish. I recognized some of my colleagues at the University of Puerto Rico who are much rougher on the students than we extranjeros.

In the present novel we have two moral teachings. First there is the tragedy of the title character Fardorougha O'Donovan, who brings terrible suffering and near-destruction on his beloved son through his pathological relationship with money. Second there is some acute commentary on the moral decadence of the "ribbonmen" or "white boys," members of secret societies that evolved to enforce Irish notions of justice in the face of English legal oppression and then devolved, as such groups tend to do, into vehicles for gangsterish violence. Even in his discussion of these groups and their loss of moral bearings Carleton makes points that have universal application.

The novel is also fine for dialogue rendered in the period patois with lots of Irish phrases woven in and even occasional footnote translations. Apparently Carleton wrote an essay on Irish cursing and I am certainly going to try to get a copy of that. He has the love for the language that we expect from the Irish writer even though his own narrative voice is a somewhat overbearing faux-elevated English.

Other books related to this period of Irish history that have been subjects of previous posts here are Thomas Flanagan's The Year of the French and Seamus Martin's Duggan's Destiny.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Malone Dies

Just about a year ago I posted here about Samuel Beckett's Molloy (1951), the first of the "Trilogy" that continues with Malone Dies (1951) and The Unnamable (1953). Then I put my Grove Press omnibus edition back in the Stack, and when I'm done writing this today I'll put it back in for another cycle. It's been very satisfying to reread these intense and excellently-written novels. Molloy made a bigger impression on me than Malone Dies, but the writing of Malone Dies entranced me after a while. I read someone somewhere saying that these books are best read in short bursts, but I found that Malone Dies gained structural cohesion when I read it fast (of course Beckett is challenging our conventional notions about structure and narrative: that's a big part of his exercise). I thought, reading this one, that these books are a great illustration of the fact that an artist needs a great deal of formal mastery before they can then break with traditional forms, that being one of the keys to modern poetry and to Modernists such as Joyce and Picasso.

As with Joyce, Beckett's Irish identity and sense of the Irish relationship to the English language makes him an inherently subversive writer; the subversiveness of the Irish Modernist is striking as an act of cultural subversion above all, and one that bears little similarity to typical cultural nationalism. Beckett's entire career, certainly including his plays, can be understood as a sustained interrogation (to use a litcrit phrase) of the idea of the narrator. The narrator is often simultaneously obliterated and globalized as the boundary between narrator and narration is blurred out through the technique of submerging the story in the subject (or something).

In the Trilogy this is achieved by a not-quite stream of consciousness depiction of the thoughts of destitute, deranged, and in the present case dying men, or one man who is variously represented by characters with Irish names starting in "M." Malone, who tells us he is dying on the first page, roams around a great deal of mental territory as he slips in and out of lucidity, and as his situation deteriorates. Sometimes it seems as if he is telling us about everything but himself and his condition, but this seems true to life as a depiction of the consciousness of someone in his condition. Beckett uses pathology as a device to open up dark and universal elements of soul, a technique that makes for difficult but rewarding reading.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Arrow of God

Chinua Achebe's first three novels are sometimes called "The African Trilogy." They are Things Fall Apart (1958), No Longer At Ease (1960) and Arrow of God (1964). I read Things Fall Apart (probably the most widely read African novel) some time ago, I have not read No Longer At Ease. Most of Achebe's writing (and he has published a great deal of work) deals with the impact of the British colonization of the Igbo lands of northern Nigeria on traditional culture there and particularly with the loss of authority of African priests under pressure both political and religious. Both Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God present tragic protagonists who embody this authority, and in both books the human weaknesses and character failings of these men are presented as important elements contributing to societal collapse. This discussion of African weaknesses in confronting colonization, always in microcosm, is key to Achebe's success in illuminating the catastrophic 20th century history of the region: it is intellectually fruitful, provocative, and gives Achebe moral authority both in Nigeria and in the outside world (I was surprised to discover that Achebe, 81 this year, continues working as a member of the faculty at Brown University).

Arrow of God is denser with detail than Things Fall Apart, with a good deal more technical discussion of the rituals and concepts underlying Igbo religious customs and with a larger and more fleshed-out cast of characters. Ezeulu, priest of Ulu, the titular deity of a small and remote group of villages, nobly resists cooptation by the heavy-handed and not particularly competent British authorities. He is secure in his own identity and standing, a believer in his own authority and function. This gives him the instincts needed to resist usurpation but also clouds his ability to recognize that his tradition is under genuine threat. He commits two errors, first by sending one of his sons, Oduche, to become a Christian (Ezeulu sees this move as essentially strategic) and second by refusing to perform the ceremony needed to authorize the yam harvest while he is detained by the British, two overreaches that have disastrous consequences.

Achebe, who never patronizes his own culture, shows how rival priests (each with their own deity) function as political agents (what appear to be religious contests of magic have roots in disputes over farmland), and have shallower roots than their rhetoric implies (the religious disposition of Ulu goes back, not to the beginning of time, but to organizing against African slavers decades before). A cultural system, like an ecosystem, is deceptively fragile. Thus Achebe wields a double-edged sword: Britain is called to account for its immensely destructive imperial policies, but Africans are confronted with their own guilt for failing to criticize themselves and adapt to modern challenges.

Two contemporary Nigerian novels that each, in different ways, continue Achebe's examination of cultural erosion and that have been the subjects of posts here are Ben Okri's The Famished Road (1991) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus (2003).

Friday, January 21, 2011

Boubacar Boris Diop's Book of Bones

As it happened I was attracted to the title of Boubacar Boris Diop's 2000 novel Murambi, The Book of Bones, and the high tone of that title (Murambi, le livre des ossements; translated into English by Fiona Mc Laughlin 2006 and published by Indiana University Press) is maintained throughout this excellent short novel. It is the best entry yet in a young genre of novels and memoirs that document the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when, following patterns of ethnic violence that emerged in Rwanda in the 1950s, elements from the poorer, majority Hutu group systematically killed somewhere around 800,000 of the socioeconomically dominant Tutsis.

G. and I had recently been really engaged by the 2004 movie "Hotel Rwanda," directed by Terry George and starring Don Cheadle as Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who sheltered hundreds of Tutsis during the genocide. That movie led to us getting a copy of Shake Hands With the Devil, the 2003 memoir by Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, UN commander in Rwanda in 1993-4 (and the basis for the character played by Nick Nolte in the film). Before that I had noticed (again because of the title) We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, an actual fax message and the title of Philip Gourevitch's 1999 anthology of oral histories (and where the world first heard the story of Paul Rusesabagina).

Meanwhile in 1998 Fest'Africa, an African cultural festival based in France, organized a trip for ten established African writers to go to Rwanda with the expressed purpose of documenting and memorializing the genocide in African literature. Monique Ilboudo of Burkina Faso, Tierno Monenembo of Guinea, and Veronique Tadjo of Ivory Coast are members of "the expedition" who have subsequently published books, as well as this one from Diop.

The Book of Bones explores the possibility and responsibility of literature in the face of evil and suffering. The narrator, Cornelius, was an expatriot on Djibouti during the genocide and returns four years later. His own assurance about who and what he is, and his attitudes towards his country and what has happened, are tested as he finally confronts his own family's history. Diop also devotes the last quarter or so of this 181-page book to a discussion of French policies, which he not surprisingly depicts as cynical in the extreme.

A very good book, I recommend it if you are interested in this difficult subject matter.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in 1977 in Nigeria, the daughter of Igbo academics. She moved to the United States in 1996. Thirty-three years old today she is the author of two very well-received novels, Purple Hibiscus (2003) and Half of a Yellow Sun (2006). She was the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship in 2008.

Purple Hibiscus is an accomplished first novel, expertly put together and well-written. It also hits quite a few of the tropes of contemporary African literature. I've been reading African (largely Nigerian) novels of the 60s and 70s over the past couple of years, many from Chinua Achebi's African Writers Series. In fact my novel before last was Onwora Nzekwu's Blade Among the Boys which has strikingly similar themes. It's interesting to see how much is the same and what has changed. The potential for cruelty inherent in a paternalistic society stands out as a motif of the West African novel from the 50s through today (Adichie is evoking Achebe's own seminal novel Things Fall Apart, 1958). The Nigerian novelist has also consistently tried to expose the role of the Christian church in the cultural excesses of colonialism (this theme is shared with the Irish writer). On the other hand the increasing menace of a strong national government, corrupt and militarized, is characteristic of more recent novels (Chris Abani, El-Nukoya).

Purple Hibiscus is structurally the coming-of-age story of narrator Kambili, a 15-year-old girl surviving through a time of family crisis, but at its core the book is a study of "Papa" Eugene, Kambili's father. He is a wealthy, self-made businessman, fanatically Catholic and dangerously conflicted. His religious righteousness has led him to cut off his own father and others. Out of the village, he rejects his own roots completely. He is motivated by powerful feelings of anger, guilt and shame. Eventually this evolves into monstrous behavior. It is impressive how well filled-in a metaphor for the modern Nigerian nation Papa is while still serving as a convincing portrayal of one man's pathology. The book is unabashedly vascular: everything is a symbol of everything else.