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.