Saturday, November 30, 2013

Pakistan: "Moth Smoke" by Moshin Hamid

Given a choice, I will typically pick a first novel as my introduction to any writer. Moshin Hamid is well-known now in the U.S. for The Reluctant Fundamentalist but I skipped that book (and later movie) in favor of his first novel, Moth Smoke

Many first novels are assembled like furniture from IKEA; they have all of the parts but the edges show and things seem a bit wobbly when you are done. This book is nothing like that. It is like a very fine piece of furniture, with dovetail joints tightly interlocked and the finish perfectly smooth.

This level of craftspersonship is seldom achieved these days in furniture -- or in writing -- and it is a deep pleasure to see it in this book, first published in 2000. Here, the joinery is the intersplicing of a main narrator, Daru, and various "witnesses" to his immediate crisis. The narrative voice changes with every chapter, and while some commentators found that confusing, I reveled in the challenge and admire the inventiveness.

The action occurs from April through mid-summer of 1998, as Pakistan conducts its first nuclear weapons tests, following hard on "the neighbors." (India also conducted tests in spring 1998.) The metaphor of moth smoke arises from the inevitable "moth to flame" attraction between Daru and Mumtaz, whose stories are as interlocked as is the joint above -- and who share another kind of joint  as well, hash mixed with tobacco cigarettes.

With so much smoking going on, ash "fallout" is everywhere in the story, whether real ash from the joints; a simulacrum of ash, from the scales of smashed wings as Daru invents a game of "moth badminton"; or metaphorical ash, from the dangerous liaison Daru establishes with Mumtaz, his best friend's wife. In the end, there are no winners, only mutually assured self-destruction.

The story is a Fitzgeraldian (as in F. Scott and Gatsby) look at what Hamid calls "the soft underbelly of the upper crust, the ultimate hypocrisy in a country with flour shortages" (p. 214). It is also a musing, possibly even an allegory, on the overall disintegration of Pakistani society in the 20th century. There are scenes of political corruption, rise of the "fundos" or fundamentalists, and general lawlessness, including thefts during the long-awaited monsoon and a brawl in the middle of a cinema, all of which draw Daru's not-very-critical eye.

Most noticeable is Daru's own descent into a drugged stupor, including pain-killers after serious injury and ultimately heroin, no longer just hash, mixed into the cigs.  One wonders if the "everyman" middle-class, locally educated, Daru is standing in for masses of Pakistanis who are caught, as he is, between a powerful, economic elite with almost no conscience and a rising, revolutionary sentiment.

If that is part of Hamid's message, Pakistan is likely to be in for wrenching social change, painful for its own citizens and, with its current standing in world politics, for many, many others as well. Given the prologue referencing a war of succession following the death of a Muhgal emperor, and the closing section about that war's winner and the struggle for succession at his death, I suspect much more than a story of adultery and drug abuse is at the heart of Moth Smoke

Friday, November 29, 2013

China: "Wild Ginger" by Anchee Min

Anchee Min grew up near Shanghai in the 1960s and 70s, and writes in Wild Ginger of the so-called Cultural Revolution that marked (marred) her youth. I appreciated the opportunity to read what amounts to a first-hand account of the stark realities of that era in China.*

Wild Ginger uses personal stories to weave a political theme, but I found the work predictable from the moment we learn that the title character is given an unusual (for its time) name. Her mother sees an inner fire in her, and she does indeed burn fast and hot. She ultimately somewhat consumes her loyal "tree" friends Maple and Evergreen.

In this project, I've read several works that use the trope of blighted love to depict a failed nation. Agamemnon's Daughter and This Earth of Mankind both took that approach. Each clinically describes both the politics and the love story. Kadare, in his first person-narrative of totalitarianism in Albania, keeps an emotionless tone that reflects of the lack of feeling in the country overall. That very lack marks the degree to which the regime succeeded. Toer's account of Indonesia circa 1890 reads like a narrated tale, told from memory, which it was. Both of those works are by men. Perhaps it is coincidence that both are, in some sense, bloodless and clearly more about the political than the personal.

By women, I've read this book, Krik? Krak? about Haiti, and the work about Iran, Children of the Jacaranda Tree. Danticat's prose in the short story called Krik? Krak! is spare and retains the voice of the characters. It is an epistolary tale even though the letters are never sent. It is stark and moving. The imagery remains long after the covers close. This is literature similar to Kadare and Toer.

For my (admittedly somewhat naive) tastes, both Wild Ginger and Delijani's work about Tehran are "overwritten."  It is as if the authors were showing off for peers in a creative writing course. As a trivial example, Delijani uses the word susurrus not once, which would be fine, but three times in a few hundred pages.  More substantively, going back to my flippant depiction of literature as fiction that "ends badly" (see blog about Ireland), Delijani's book does not qualify. It is almost terrifyingly realistic to begin, but ends with two lovers going off hand in hand.

Min's work could have been literature, but she picks up the story of Evergreen and Maple a few decades after Wild Ginger's dramatic final act. There are green shoots from those charred trunks. This is likely realistic. The Cultural Revolution did end, and China has made ever-so-tentative steps toward a state without images of Mao in every household, "re-education camps," and neighborhood snitches. Nonetheless, the book would have been more powerful without the epilogue in which the trees left standing finally lean toward each other. This book SHOULD have been literature. 

I wonder if women writers feel compelled to offer happy endings in order to gain readers. If they do, does that mean women (or at least, women who buy books) find it difficult to cope with the difficulties of life, without having a fantasy close?  Have we been conditioned by Disney, Harlequin, and "chick lit" to lay down our money only when there is a tidy resolution that promises a better future?  Are we really not strong enough to accept reality in the fictional world?

Even more, is the purpose of fiction and or literature to entertain (Disney) or to inform and enlarge our perspective about the world?  I'm increasingly preferring the second choice. I do still read for entertainment, but I'm starting to demand more reality and less fantasy. While the truisms about sun after storms, lights at the end of tunnels, and silver inside of clouds are usually true, I fear that offering such respite from powerful emotions raised in fiction dilutes the impact of the storm itself. If we are to learn and understand, we need powerful emotions.***  Let them happen, good and bad.

* Note 1:  If you are interested in other works about China, and other parts of China, you might want to check out Reading the World by John Brookes. He read a book from each of the country's provinces. He also has a blog.

** Note 2: The official name is Islamic Republic of Iran. I'm using Islamist because it means "moral conservatism, literalism, and the attempt to implement Islamic values in all spheres of life" (The Free Dictionary online). 

*** Note 3: John Dirkx is a leader in this field of inquiry. For one of his takes on the topic, see "Nurturing Soul in Adult Learning." It is a classic academic article but will give you some idea of the issues involved and it is free.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Iran: "Children of the Jacaranda Tree" by Sahar Delijani

This work, by an Iranian woman born in prison in 1983, depicts what could be only a small slice of the traumas the people of that country have experienced in my lifetime.  Children of the Jacaranda Tree presents, literally, the birth of a generation of people seeking a positive future for this long-embattled land. Some of the children in the novel--born in the early 1980s--participate in the roughly six-month Green Movement in the latter half of 2009 and into early 2010.

Delijani writes viscerally of the realities of daily life, from child birth through death, and always from a woman's point of view. She describes tactile sensations, scents, tastes, visions, and sounds in direct terms. The opening section tells of the birth of the infant Neda in a hospital where her mother has been emprisoned by the Islamist forces that took over the country (from 1979 onward).

Neda brings, for one brief month, joy to the women who share her mother's cell. The women bicker and fight before the infant's arrival, bond to help the new mother, and then to console her when the guards remove the infant to her grandparents' home.

Other women in the cell also have children. Most of the mothers are eventually freed and remain in touch in Tehran. Their lives--and their children--meet. And here is the symbolism of the jacaranda tree, which even I get. The specific tree of the title grows in one family's courtyard, and it is under this tree that many of the women's children play at various times, and where they hear of their parents' struggles and sacrifices for a more liberal, free, even democratic Iran.

We see two children of this generation at the end, in exile in Turin, Italy as they discover how their paths have crossed in the past. The Green Revolution was repressed, but these two, at least, remain hopeful that there will someday be a way to live in Iran. 

The week that I read this book I also read in the New York Times about a new generation of "boat people" escaping through Indonesia to Christmas Island. They are not particularly successful because Australia, which controls the island, sends them to detention centers in Papua New Guinea or the Republic of Nauru. Some people in the article are refugees from Iran -- suggesting that there is still much progress to be hoped for there, whether for religious freedoms, eocnomic opportunity, civil rights, or political expression.

Delijani's work helped me understand the desparation that could drive someone to spend thousands of dollars on a very uncertain voyage to try to reach a better place.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Namibia: "Born of the Sun" by Joseph Diescho

In his novel of Namibian life, Born of the Sun, Joseph Diescho shows a compressed history of colonization and liberation of this southern African nation. He writes in his preface that his intent is, among other things, to "portray a vivid picture of African rural life," in which he succeeds admirably. He also says he has deliberately used some words about that life, such as hut and krall (a small stockaded community, as below) that have become imbued with derogatory meaning.  Maybe in 1988, at the time of publication, that was the case, but for me, neither has negative connotations now (but then, I'm fairly clueless about connotations sometimes).

Namibia is toward the end of the African continent, bordered by South Africa to the south and Angola and a tiny bit of Zambia to the north. It has a long dry coastline--not at all tropical--and an interior desert. Rainfall is sparse and concentrated. As told in the book, people herd goats and cattle and tend small plots, usually maintained by women.

The book starts with a section called "Relations."  We learn of rural village life, from the birth of  Muronga's son, to a council sitting in judgement of a woman accused of adultery when her man was away working in the mines. Village life follow customs and traditions handed down from elders. While he prays to the God of Our Forefathers, Muranga seeks additional powers from the Christian god via the German-established Catholic mission. Being catechized, baptized and married will bring good fortune, he thinks, because baptized people receive favors. As this section ends, the villagers learn they are to be taxed by the white colonizers (South Africa). They have no money and little need for it in their village.

Muronga and a friend apply to work in the mines to the southeast. We follow their journey through newly independent (as of 1966) Botswana, to the gold mines in South Africa. There, in a multi-chapter segment called "Between Rock and Gold--Resistance," he learns of African communities far from his own in Malawi, Zambia, and Tanzania, all of which had become politically independent from Britain. 

He also learns what the white people of South Africa think of him and his fellow mine workers under the system of apartheid.

"Muronga has always known and appreciated discipline. He is not afraid of hard work, but this work isn't so much hard as it is demeaning--deliberately demeaning...How can one man treat another with such contempt?  Didn't Pater Dickmann say God expects people to love one another...and treat one another as they themselves would like to be treated? Perhaps, though, the supervisor has a different God from Pater Dickmann's?...To Muronga, this is the only logical explanation for the [mine] supervisor's behavior. Certainly he couldn't wish to be treated as he treats others!" (p. 182)

After the miners organize a work-stoppage that is ultimately unsuccessful, Muronga participates in a mostly peaceful protest. He and his fellows are arrested and taken to Pretoria. An Afrikaaner policeman yells at them and "Muronga does not understand . But he sees that the words coming from the white man's mouth carry anger and hatred, and his eyes convey a sense of thirst to kill and destroy." (p. 236)

He is brutally interrogated and beaten in the South African prison and deported, via Botwana, to South West Africa (as Namibia was known then). I won't tell you the tale's end but the last section is called "Difficult Decisions."  In it, Muranga tells his colleagues in the struggle,

"We must tell our people how other black people have shaken off the yoke of oppression by the white people. We must motivate our people to our struggle for freedom. But we must also tell our people honestly that the road to freedom will be hard. We have no guns, we have no cars, we have no airplanes. But we have the will. And with this will, this strong will to be free,  one day we will be to determine our own future and free to rule ourselves." (p. 267-268).

In fact, it took decades from the time this story was set. Namibia gained independence in 1990, in a protracted guerilla-led war against South Africa.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Gabon: Contes du Gabon/Tales from Gabon (French edition)

I last used French regularly circa 1990. This project seemed like a chance to reinvigorate some languishing skills. As it happens, my choice of this book in French coincided with media announcements that bilingualism delays the onset of ...oh, you know, that disease that affects your memory....

Gabon is in western Africa, just south of the equator. It is forested near the coast then rises to an upland area and has savannah in the eastern and southern portions. The site I consulted for geographical details says the country is a little smaller in area than the U.S. state of Colorado. In looking for images for this post, I decided I need to practice some eco-tourism and visit someday (although I'd have to avoid the bush-meat trade - but that is a different issue).

The tales in the book, said to be based on Gabonais folklore, have been adapted by French and Gabonais teachers for use in French language instruction in Gabon. This particular copy of the book belonged to a middle school in Libreville, the nation's capital, although the copy came to me from a seller in Paris that I found through

Most of the tales follow the format of an Aesop's fable, with talking animals who interact and then present a moral lesson. There are genies and some magical transformations.  I cannot tell if the Aesop's form is original to the stories or adopted for classroom use. I'd love to hear from anyone who might be familiar with some of these stories before their translation into a school text.

In the stories, the animal actors range from gorilla and elephant to python and a kind of bird with a long tail. The moral lessons are elegant.  In one, a boy has caused havoc in the jungle; he calls himself the hurricane. The animals decide to teach him a lesson, and while the elephant fails through brute strenth, the clever tortoise uses a little guile. She (tortoise is a feminine noun in French) offers the boy palm wine then, when his head is spinning, tells him to climb aboard for a ride home. She tells the boy to place his hand in the small space between her shell and body, so he will stay on. Then she retreats into her shell and the boy is trapped. When the youth calls out for help, none of the animals will go to his aid because he has been so destructive of their forest home. The message is "Without friendship, even the strongest will fail."

A particularly poignant tale is about a young mother, with a baby still in arms. The woman has trouble cultivating her garden because the baby is fussy. A female gorilla speaks to the woman and offers to cuddle the baby, telling the maman that she must keep it a secret. Well, the woman tells her husband, and the consequences are tragic.  The lesson is that keeping secrets is vital. To that, I would add that thoughtless use of firearms is a really bad idea.

The tale of the green snake echoes some of the story of Diata from Mali. A king has two wives and favors one. That wife's son is lame. The other wife is jealous and spiteful. One day when drawing water, the favored wife discovers a green snake in her calabash. The snake seems to be communicating to her with its eyes: Trust me. So, she carries it back to the village. There, others are frightened by the snake and want to kill it but she says, "no, stop."  The snake then pierces the skin of her son. By not stopping the snake, the young mother performed the one act that would break a spell and the snake becomes a genie who can heal her son's lameness.

There are other French-language books of tales for parts of Africa once colonized by France - Mozambique, Benin, Togo - and regions of the French "DOM-TOM" such as the Ile de Réunion, Guadaloupe, Martinique and elsewhere (DOM-TOM is Départements d'Outre Mer et Territoires d'Outre Mer, or overseas states and territories).  Maybe my memory will survive 4.5 years longer if I collect some of those as part of this project. I found I really enjoyed trying out my 6th-grade French!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Ghana: "Black Gold of the Sun" by Ekow Eshun

Ekow Eshun traveled to Ghana, land of his parents and where he lived for a short time as a young child. His book Black Gold of the Sun is his memoir, including that journey and the experiences leading up to it. We learn of what he endured as the sole African boy in his suburban London school  and of his family's heritage in Ghana. We all have a family story; his is particularly relevant to life in our times, whether in the U.K. or the U.S.

In the course of his journey, he visits the capital of Accra, coastal communities including Cape Coast and Elmina, and the interior along the western side, including a stop near a wildlife park, and then north to the border with Burkina Faso. He writes directly and honestly of his observations and experiences in city and countryside, resort or uncomfortable lodging. He doesn't sugar-coat his experiences at all nor does he over-dramatize.

Not surprisingly, a main theme in his explorations is slavery. Some examples from the text:

"At twelve years old, my ambition was to become an astronaut. But I had another, less lofty aim. I wanted to be recognized for myself instead of simply as my father's son or, at school, as representative of All the Black People in the World" (p. 91).

"Reading yet another call for black people to 'know their past' made me think of Ghana, where seventy-five different languages were spoken by a collection of ethnic groups who'd spent most of their history at war with each other. Then I tried to multiply those divisions across the fifty-four countries and 800 million inhabitants of this huge continent" (p. 102).

"The oldest and largest of the European forts, Elmina [on the coast], marked the epicentre of the slave trade in Ghana. The castle was the reason I'd travelled to Elmina. I wanted to see the site of slavery for myself." (p. 107)

Centuries before the awful "Atlantic Trade," Eshun writes that in Ghana,

"Owning slaves was a symbol of power. Rich noblemen kept them by the hundred to farm their land, defend their homes and bear their children. In Asante during the eighteenth century, a third of the population was made up of slaves. They provided the army. They worked the fields and the gold mines....Under Asante law, a female slave could marry her master or her master's son....Their children would be born free, and it was forbidden for any citizen to disclose the family background of another....the descendants of slaves could find themselves fully integrated into Asante society."  (p. 137)

"Africans sold Africans by choice, because they stood to gain from it. For centuries they'd practised a trade between themselves that was similar to serfdom. Perhaps, when the Europeans arrived, they imagined that Atlantic slavery was just an extension of that system." (p 140)

And for me, a thought-provoking statement that will spur me to do more research about slavery in various culture. Eshun writes,

"The advent of white people introduced the ideology of race to slavery. Europe justified its brutality on the basis of its 'natural' superiority to black people. In doing so, they set in place a notion of genetic inequality that still remains central to white self-belief."  (p. 141)

I despair some days about the extent to which so many people still believe in genetic inequality, despite repeated demonstrations from science, humanities, philosophy, religion and other fields that the notion is just flat wrong. I am curious about whether it is only a European notion. I've read hints that there might be beliefs in genetic superiority in at least some Asian cultures. More reading ahead.

Black Gold of the Sun is a fascinating combination of travelogue and consciousness raising book. I recommend it to anyone.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Egypt: "Autumn Quail" by Naguib Mahfouz

Autumn Quail is a sort of Egyptian Hamlet, without the ghost. The main character, Isa, is a rising bureaucrat when a coup occurs (1952) at the start of the Egyptian independence movement. He is tried by the new government and convicted of taking bribes. Thenceforth, he cannot make up his mind about anything. He speaks about his "split personality" between what he knows he ought to do, and what he feels like doing, which is exactly nothing.

He remains loyal to the deposed King Farouk and spends his time in cafes, clubs, and with prostitutes. Relatives and friends offer advice and to help find him a job. He enters a loveless -- even feeling-less -- marriage because the woman has money. One friend stages what we'd call these days an "intervention" to get Isa to stop gambling so much. He changes nothing. After four years of this aimlessness, his "wake up call" is the discovery that just after his ouster, he fathered a child with a "Corniche girl" (prostitute), who has since married someone who cares for her and the girl. This revelation awakens his long-dormant feelings and sense that he has responsibilities, but the novel leaves the reader uncertain about how this might change any of his (in)actions. We see him last in a midnight conversation with younger man who supports the new government. The man leaves, and Isa thinks, "I could catch up with him...if I didn't spend any  more time hesitating."  Isa leaps up awkwardly and hurries after him.

As someone who really doesn't "get" symbolism, I probably missed the point of this novel. The preface from the translators says, "Isa is of course a symbol of all that the immediate past stands for." They add further that the pursuit of the young man at the end is a sign that Isa is going to catch up to the times, as well. I'm glad I read the preface.

I did find fascinating the depictions of relations between men and women within the novel, which are so different from what we hear about in Egypt now. In our terms, in the early 1950s, things were very "western." Isa's fiancee in the beginning is allowed to meet privately with him, although at formal events such as betrothal ceremonies and funerals, women are separated from the men. Later in the book, an older woman and her grown daughter visit Isa in order to buy a house from him. They are accompanied by a male real estate agent but no one else. Isa follows girls on the streets in order to watch their legs.  One photo of one 1954 street scene shows an example that supports Mahfouz's text, and the fellow on the bike might even be watching the girl's legs.

The title of the book comes from a visit Isa makes to Alexandria in the months after his downfall.

 " could see the sea in the distance, where October had bewitched it, exchanging it into a daydream. You could see the bevies of quail as well, swooping in to land, exhausted at the end of their long, predestined, illusorily heroic flight" p. 66.

Maybe Isa is the quail, exhausted at the end of a long, illusorily heroic flight. Maybe the revolution is the long flight. I cannot say -- though I find that passage and others to be quite beautifully written.

Quotation from 1985 edition from the American University in Cairo Press. Mahfouz published this book in 1962.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Mali: "Guardian of the Word" by Camara Laye

This book, Guardian of the Word, started me thinking about national boundaries. Or state boundaries, as in the many straight lines in the U.S. Who decides? How? Why? What causes things to change, other than war? Here, it is mostly war.

This book is a re-telling of the foundation story of the Mali Empire, part of which is part of present day Mali, after boundaries drawn and drawn by colonial administrations, disputes and resolutions. I am counting this book as Mali, but the Mali Empire, at its largest extent, included all of The Gambia, parts of Mali and parts of present day Mauritania, Senegal, and Guinea, and a tiny bit of Niger far to the east. Laye is from Guinea but lived in Senegal in his later years and died in Dakar.

In this adaptation of a classical tale from a griot (Guardian of the Word, or story teller with some functions as magician and king's herald) Laye tells of fabled king Sundiata, whose empire started around 1235. The book starts well before Sundiata's birth, with two young men who learn the secret to conquer a buffalo that is trampling villages in the region around DÔ. This secret involves some sorcery and augeries; of course, with these powerful forces behind them, the young men prevail and fulfill their commitment. As part of that, they accompany a girl, called Songolon, to the city of Niani, now in Guinea.

There, Songolon is married to the ruler Maghan Konfara, and within a not-at-all-pleasant scene, conceives a child who is baptized with three names and blessed with three totems: the lion of his father (Diata), and the buffalo and panther of his mother. When he matures, those totems shape his honorific, as Songolon is elided to Sun, to yield Sundiata, which means "Songolon's Son [of] the Lion." One note said his title should be written Sunjata, which is closer to how an English speaker would write the sounds of the Manden word.

At his birth, soothsayers predict that this boy, called Diata, will be a great king. Nonetheless, he does not walk until age 6 or 7. This forecast, plus Maghan Konfara's preference for Sogolon, creates jealousy in the heart of another of the king's wives and mother of an older prince. Among the palace women, she foments systematic ridicule of Diata for his lameness and she and her followers taunt him and his mother. The scene where he rises and walks for the first time is very compelling, carrying hints (for Western readers) of the sword of King Arthur as a stave is pulled from the blacksmith's shop to aid Diata in rising and of the labors of Hercules, given the effort and strength Diata expended, as shown vividly in Laye's prose. The onlookers switch from contempt to pride when observing Diata's tremendous accomplishment.

When Diata is 12, King Maghan dies and Diata's older half-brother ascends the throne and remains much under the influence of his jealous and petty mother. So, Diata, his mother, and siblings (including a adopted half-brother, born of another of the kings' wives) begin a six-year exile. In this time, Diata and his family live in several kings' palaces, ever moving eastward. They end up about 1,400 miles from where they started, near the city of Gao (in Mali). He gains much experience along the way, hunting and participating in skirmishes fighting bandits. He develops friendships with young men in his age group in many kingdoms. And the childless King of Mema makes him a viceroy and heir to his own throne.

Diata is sought by a delegation, asking him to return the Manden territory to reconquer it from an oppressor tyrant, Sumaoro of Sosso. Sumaoro had assassinated rival kings from surrounding territories and put their heads on pikes (and preserved their skin as a prayer mat!) as lessons to others. Diata's half-brother first tried to appeasement, by requiring his own sister to marry the tyrant, who already had 300 wives. Then the half-brother ran away, leaving the Manden people completely in the power of the invader. Using her "feminine wiles" the half-sister seduces Sumaoro and learns the secrets that will be his undoing. She later has an opportunity to share those with her childhood playmate, Diata.

To fulfill his destiny, Diata called on the allies he met during his exile and together they built a powerful army. They fight Sumaoro's army in the great battle of Kirina. There, Diata uses the device he learned from his half-sister and weakens Sumaoro, who hides in a cave, where he is ashamed of all his deeds.

With this victory over the tyrant, Diata becomes king of Manden. Each of Diata's allies received from his hand territory to govern, making Sundiata emperor and hence founder of the Mali Empire. There are celebrations in music and dance to honor his name  (a modern version might sound like this). The griots offer praise to Sundiata and each of his allies.

Laye writes, 

"In short, Sundiata gave the Empire its political and social framework, a religious life with the peaceful coexistence of Islam and Animism--a political framework that had been the one build up by his ancestors...Sundiata was the first great Mansa of Mali. With his arrival, carefree others gave birth to happy children, and desolation, the sign of Sumaoro's passage through the savanna, gave place to prosperity which burst forth everywhere." (p. 218).

That empire endured, at least in name, until around 1610, when the last emperor of Mali died and the territory split among three sons.

So what came next?

In the 17th century, Bamana warriors from the north attacked the former capital of Niani, as that group established its own empire. The Bamana ruled into the 19th century until defeat at the hands of El Hadj Umar Tall, of Senegal. In turn, his heirs fell to the French around 1890 as they amassed control over "French West Africa." Around 1960, independence movements yielded what are now Mali, Senegal, Mauritania,  Burkina-Fasso, Guinea, Cote d'Ivoire, Benin, and Niger.

Indonesia: "This Earth of Mankind" by Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Our household is heavily influenced by my spouse's work as historian of France, so my "contact" with Indonesia consisted of stories from friends -- one played the gamalon on the island of Bali for a time; a few dive in region -- and the Kurt Weill song, Surabaya Johnny. Reading this book pushed me to study up, in part because of the roles played in the book by the multiple cultures and historical ties within this complex nation.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer narrated This Earth of Mankind in the 1970s while imprisoned after a 1965 coup attempt alleged to have been incited by the Indonesian Community Party. Toer had friends who were members of the party, so he was in prison for 14 years. Max Lane, the translator, worked in the Australian Embassy until relieved of his duties in Indonesia for making the work available in English in 1981.

This is the first novel of a quartet that Toer narrated, then wrote, about Indonesia's move from Dutch colony toward independence. The language is direct--as befits a story told aloud--and the book is dense with specific scenes that engage the listener/reader and move the story along, including dialogue and description, whether from a train window or the interior of a wealthy person's home.

To provide a bit of the back story, people on these many (many!) islands had established trade links with India and China "several centuries BCE" per Wikipedia. Before the Roman Empire, residents were Buddhist or Hindu. Islam arrived centuries later, in the 1200s. The Portuguese started colonizing in 1512, bringing Catholicism to some, then the Dutch and Protestantism took over around 1800 and stayed until World War II. So, now, this nation has residents of at least four main religions and heritage that includes people from various islands of the region, Malaysian, Javanese, Madurese, and others, plus European from various countries, Chinese, Japanese, and many other languages, cultures, and traditions.

The narrator of This Earth of Mankind is a young high-caste Javanese man, who starts the tale around 1890. He begins with stories of the wonders of science and learning, which he experiences at the elite Dutch school he attends because of his abilities and his social status. He speaks "high Javanese," school-style Dutch, Malay, and more. At various turns in the story, the language used is specified, as it indicates social relations and status held by the speaker and listener.

The young man is called Minke, and the book explains the origins of that nickname. He lives in lodgings in Surabaya, far from his family.  He is also a budding entrepreneur, securing commissions for European-style furniture from area residents and paying a retired French mercenary to make the pieces. He is liked by many in his orbit, including his landlady, the furniture maker, his teachers, but not necessarily by the European classmates or by those of "mixed" heritage because he is full Javanese.

Minke first loves, based on her image on the postage stamp, the young (10 years old) Queen of the Netherlands, who is also queen of Dutch East Indies, as the country was known at the time. Shortly after we learn all this, he meets an "Indo" girl, Annelies, whose mother is a strong-willed and very smart, largely self-educated woman called Nyai (equivalent to concubine, and how she wants people to address her). Later we learn Nyai's story, sold by her parents to be the mistress of a Dutch merchant, who is Ann's father. Indo is the term for people whose genetic heritage includes Europe and "native" (the narrator's term).

All of these threads--the French furniture maker, Annelies and her family, her father's life before Indonesia, Minke's schooling and teachers, his parents and their status, the Dutch colonial administration, the landscape and cityscapes, and more--are deftly blended into a rich image of life there in the early 1890s. Rather than a tapestry, a better metaphor is batik, where wax is used to prevent dye from adhering to the fabric, then removed, and other wax designs and dye added: Layer after layer carefully applied, dyed, removed.

The last color applied in this design is black. Based on "beautiful documents written by expert scribes and clerks with their indelible black ink, that soaked halfway through the thickness of the paper" (p, 327), Minke learns that Ann (whom he has married) is to be sent away by order of far-distant Dutch courts that did not, of course, consult anyone in Indonesia. She will be sent to her father's legitimate son in Amsterdam, whom the courts have appointed as her guardian and notably, financial trustee. Their marriage is declared invalid because Ann is still very young and her "guardian" did not approve ... and all of this because Ann's father acknowledged her as his child, so that she would inherit from his mercantile success (which is actually the result of Nyai's business acumen, but she is native and has no rights).

The legalities get convoluted, but the feelings are raw. When confronted by Dutch power in the face of the complete lack of "native" rights, Minke asks himself how delicate, fragile (mentally unstable -- but that is my judgment) Ann, raised as an Indo in Surabaya can survive cold, hard intolerant, Protestant (as shown in the novel) Amsterdam, with no one she knows and loves around her? Maybe if I read book 2 in the quartet, I'll learn. For now, "The sound of the carriage wheels grinding over the gravel could be heard faintly fading away into the distance, finally disappearing. Annalies was setting sail for where Queen Wilhelmina sat on the throne" (p. 359). To quote Minke's prologue, "That eternally harassing, tantalizing future. Mystery! We will all eventually arrive there--willing or unwilling, with all our soul and body...whether the future is a kind or a cruel god is, of course, its own affair" (p. 15).

Quotations from translation by Max Lane, Penguin Books, 1990.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Sri Lanka: "Bone China" by Roma Tearne

This book, Bone China, has been in the TBR stack for some time, because long-time friends lived in Sri Lanka before I met them. Their stories piqued my interest in the country; I bought the book on sale a few years ago and have been keeping it for the right mood to read.  No more excuses!

The author writes about a family from 1939, when the island of Ceylon was part of the British Empire, through the 1990s, decades after the establishment of Sri Lanka. At least one theme is the role of women in shaping a family's destiny. This role is handed on from mother, to daughter-in-law, to granddaughter, and eventually to great-granddaughter, just as the the mother's exquisite china collection, which she has inherited, is carefully (mostly) preserved for future generations.

The de Silvas are a high-caste, Catholic Tamil family with connections to the British administration.The parents and five children start out in an elegant home in the midst of tea plantations in the hills. The family endures ever-declining fortunes as the father gambles away his wife's property, the nation obtains independence from Britain in 1949, and riots and murders begin, marking the start of civil strife between ethnic Tamils and Sinhalese. First the family moves to the capital, Colombo, and then individual members emigrate, some to England, one to Venice. All of the characters are extremely well-drawn, even a mynah bird that offers a multi-voiced Greek chorus to the family's life.

As an example of Tearne's prose, consider these three journeys home from school.  First, September 1, 1939, two boys, ages 15 and 13, leave their British-style day school in the hills.

"The long fingers of sun shone pink and low in the sky as they left the driveway of Greenwood for the very last time. Rain had fallen earlier, dampening the ground on this ordinary afternoon, one so like the others, in their gentle upcountry childhood. The air across the valley was filled with the pungent scent of tea, rising steeply as far as the eye could see. In the distance the sound of the factory chute rattled on, endlessly processing, mixing and moving in time to the roar of the waterfall. The two boys wondered on, past the lake brimming with an abundance of water lilies, past clouds of cream butterflies, and through the height of the afternoon, their voices echoed far into the distance" (p. 24).

In the early 1960s, the wife of one of those boys, shortly after settling in Brixton, remembers fetching her grammar-school aged daughter from school back in Sri Lanka the prior year.

"They would walk towards the station...Meeka begging for some ambarella, or mango rolled in chili power and salt,,.the the train would begin to move and there below them, a little way from the rocks, would be the sea. Miles and miles of endless golden sand, miles and miles of blistering beach. Only mad dogs would be out on it. And the sea would swish and the cold breeze would waft in through the carriage...." (p 208)

Finally, a description of Meeka's journey home, a young adolescent in London, a "latch-key child," as we'd say.

"[She] joined forces with Gillian and Susan and Jennifer, and roamed the streets of London whenever she could. It was 1966...They walked along the embankment eating ice creams, and they ran amok in the British Museum. All in all they had a wonderful time. It was in this way that Anna-Meeka began to understand the city, this adopted home of hers...The smell of the Underground soot and the sight of the river from the top of a double-decker bus were part and parcel of her life now. Sri Lanka was nothing to do with her. It belonged in some other life" 
(p. 263)

The last section of the book focuses on Meeka, now around 40, with an 18-year old daughter and a life filled with music, a lush garden, and growing friendships. Sri Lanka is still gripped by the civil war. but she begins to think about a visit as going home. One hopes she makes it there and that the sea and the clear tropical skies bring the sense of completion she seeks.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Ireland/Northern Ireland: House of Splendid Isolation by Edna O'Brien

Long ago, after reading House of Mirth, I told my spouse--only partially in jest--that literature means a well-written book that ends badly. Still, a bad (sad) ending can be the right one for the characters developed. House of Splendid Isolation is an example of literature where the end is exactly as it should be, based on the internal logic of the characters and their circumstances.

I selected the book because one of the central figures is a member of the Irish Republican Army. That IRA dominated the news in my youth, and I've read that 3,500 people died in the period called "The Troubles."

In this book, an IRA member is hiding in a house in Ireland (the south, to him), which he believes to be empty when he breaks in.  It turns out that the widow who owns the home is back in residence, and a key part of the book revolves around their interactions.

Josie, the widow, expects to die. She writes in her diary, "Being in this sort of situation sharpens everything. I notice how cold for instance the frame of my glasses were this morning and I saw each blade of grass outside the window, nodding or still, and the hills so soft and hazed, the near hills and the far, hills that I both loved and hated, spoke to or wept to..." (p. 84).

The IRA operative leaves her a note.

"No one knows or cares about our struggle. They think we're cowboys or animals or worse. You think it too...For one minute look at it from my side...Not to grow up in hate, not to have been Papist leper scum, not to have been interned at fourteen and fifteen and sixteen, not to have been in the Crum and Longkesh [prisons] and waiting to go on the blocks, now that would have been out of this world. To be an ordinary bloke with a wife and kids--I just can't imagine it...I have one wish--I am afraid I don't pray--that all the deaths have not been in vain." (p. 121-122).

She thinks a bit later about a conversation they had, "The words he had used--Justice . . . Identity . . . Community. What did those words mean? What value had they against the horrors of crime?" (p. 123). 

That is the central question of the novel, unanswered at the end and perhaps still.