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.