Monday, April 12, 2010

I took my own advice and ordered from Africa Book Centre's sale, and a lovely parcel has arrived with SPRING WILL COME by William N. Zulu and MORE THAN A CASUAL CONTACT by Jeremy Cronin.

I am a fan of woodcuts, linocuts and the like. There is such a fineness of detail that appeals to my eye. Not that many South Africans work with woodblocks. The most well-known is probably John Muafangejo, following his death other artists are establishing themselves, and William Zulu is one of them. This is his autobiography and since I grew up in the same area he did, I am looking forward to dipping in. Coincidentally, the artist Sophie Peters is worth looking at if you are interested in this kind of thing.

Jeremy Cronin made a huge impression on me as a teenager with his first collection, INSIDE (1983). It was the height of apartheid when I first read him and we were living through a state of emergency. So many people were detained without trial, and Cronin's work seemed entirely relevant.

I saw your mother
with two guards
through a glass plate
for one quarter hour
on the day that you died.

'Extra visit, special favour'
I was told, and warned
'The visit will be stopped
if politics is discussed.
Verstaan - understand!?'
on the day that you died.

I couldn't place
my arm around her,
around your mother
when she sobbed.

Fifteen minutes up
I was led
back to the workshop.
Your death, my wife,
one crime they managed
not to perpetrate
on the day that you died.

He is now the South African Deputy Minister of Transport.

Monday, April 05, 2010

This coming Wednesday we will have more news on the 2010 Commonwealth Writers' Prize, but in the meantime, Marie Heese and Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani are this year's queens of the shortlists - below are the full Africa regional shortlists if you've missed them over the past month (other regions available here)

The shortlisted writers for Africa's Best Book are:
Trespass by Dawn Garisch (South Africa)
The Double Crown by Marié Heese (South Africa)
Eyo by Abidemi Sanusi (Nigeria)
Refuge by Andrew Brown (South Africa)
Kings of the Water by Mark Behr (South Africa)
The shortlisted writers for Africa's Best First Book are:
Come Sunday by Isla Morley (South Africa)
Jelly Dog Days by Erica Emdon (South Africa)
Harmattan Rain by Ayesha Harunna Attah (Ghana)

Now, anyone who works with books from across the continent will tell you that South Africa and Nigeria dominate the African publishing scene (followed by Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania), but I was struck by the excessive proliferation of South African and Nigerian titles on the list this year (2009 was not much better, to be honest)! Luckily, I was visiting South Africa last month as the shortlists were announced and in the hopes of reading a few before the final announcement, I picked up one or two of the shortlisted titles - more on those later.


Sunday, March 28, 2010

Apologies for the enforced silence. I was learning all there is to know about extremely colicky babies. Of course my dear little person is now a toddler, so I am as much in the dark as ever about raising a child, but at least I am beginning to carve out a few hours for myself with more regularity. I hope to keep up with a couple of blog posts a week to start, and see how things go. Thank you all for being so patient. Normal service will now resume!

I am breaking myself in gently here - starting with a children's picture book. Appropriate both because it is where I left off when I took my little sabbatical, and also because the daughter loves hippos and this is the story of how hippo came to spend her days in the water and her nights on land.

HOT HIPPO by Mwenye Hadithi and Adrienne Kennaway is one of a series of picture books exploring how animals developed their various characteristics. I am not sure whether Mwenye Hadithi himself actually exists. "Hadithi" means "story" in Swahili, and is the East African equivalent of "anonymous" and no doubt the root of the name has some grounding in the Arabic "hadith", roughly meaning "information." I suspect this is a pen name, and - aha! - the title page shows the text is by Bruce Hobson.

Hippo was hot. He sat on the river bank and gazed at the little fishes swimming in the water. If only I could live in the water, he thought, how wonderful life would be. So he walked and he ran and he strolled and he hopped and he lumbered along until he came to the mountain where Ngai lived. Ngai was the god of Everything and Everywhere...

Adrienne Kennaway has produced the most wonderful watercolour illustrations of a plump, round hippopotamus which cannot fail to engage, and the book is full of gentle humour. I adore this book. It is my favourite of the series and I can't recommend it highly enough. I would imagine it is most suitable from about 4, but even my 21 month old likes looking at the pictures. At 17 months I found her, mouth agape, in front of the bookshelf and knew exactly which book she wanted to read!

Strangely, HOT HIPPO goes in and out of print (it is not available in South Africa at the moment, for example) I consider it a classic and think it should remain permanently available. If you live where it is unavailable, consider ordering it from Africa Book Centre, which posts worldwide, and give yourself brownie points for supporting an independent bookshop. In fact, to celebrate 21 years in business, they currently have 30% - 70% off more than a thousand titles, but only until the end of the month.

More meaty adult titles to come...

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

I have had a very poorly little person on my hands, although you'd think that the baby who has insufficient air to feed, would also have insufficient air to scream, but no.

Considering small children led me to thinking about upcoming Christmas celebrations and gift giving. I thought I'd highlight ten (random number, but there you have it) children's books written by/about Africans that I think would make excellent gifts. If they appeal, I hope you'll have time to order them by the big day ( if your local independent cannot supply).

My first choice is an all-time favourite FLY, EAGLE, FLY: AN AFRICAN TALE! - a retelling of the famous story of James Aggrey's The Eagle That Would Not Fly. Retold in this edition by an Anglican priest, Christopher Gregorowski and set in the Transkei. The illustrations by the South African author and artist, Niki Daly, are phenomenal, perfectly pitched to the tone of the text:
A farmer went out one day to search for a lost calf. The little herd boys had come back without it the evening before. And that night there had been a terrible storm.

He went to the valley and searched. He searched by the riverbed. He searched among the reeds, behind the rocks and in the rushing water.

He wandered over the hillside and through the dark and tangled forests where everything began, then out again along the muddy cattle tracks.

He searched in the long thatch grass, taller than his own head. He climbed the slopes of the high mountain with its rocky cliffs rising to the sky. He called out all the time, hoping that the calf might hear, but also because he felt so alone. His shouts echoed off the cliffs. The river roared in the valley below.

He climbed up a gully in case the calf had huddled there to escape the storm. And that was where he stopped. For there, on a ledge of rock, close enough to touch, he saw the most unusual sight - an eagle chick, very young, hatched from its egg a day or two before and then blown from its nest by the terrible storm.

He reached out and cradled it in both hands. He would take it home and care for it. And home he went, still calling, calling in case the calf might hear.
The eagle is raised among chickens and so believes itself to be one, until a visitor to the village reminds it how to be an eagle.

Gregorowski hoped, in the telling of this tale, to encourage and inspire his dying 7-year old daughter, Rosalind. The foreword by Desmond Tutu captures this feeling: "We are not mere chickens, but eagles destined to soar to sublime heights; we are made for freedom and laughter and goodness and love and eternity, despite all appearances to the contrary. We should be straining to become what we have it in us to become; to gaze at the rising sun and lift off and soar."

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It would be particularly suitable for children ages six and up, and also for adults learning English as a second language as, while the language is simple, the concepts are mature.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sadly, Miriam Makeba has died. I will always remember her for her role in the fantastic musical KING KONG (very difficult to get hold of these days). Watch her perform the extraordinary When I've Passed On here and the more well-known Pata Pata here. What a voice!

An online reading and discussion of Doris Lessing's THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK starts next week. Nigerian British writer Helen Oyeyemi is one of the official readers (Thanks to Danielle and Kimbofo for drawing my attention to this).

The London African Film Festival starts in a couple of weeks; I am so jealous of those of you who live in the capital!

This year's longlist for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction has been announced. Unfortunately, their website hasn't been updated with this information yet, but the full list is available on The Book Depository website. It is wonderful to see a serious prize like this develop (this is only in its second year) precisely because it raises the profile of arabic writers in the English speaking world. Unfortunately, much of the work is not available in English yet, and I'm ashamed to say that the only writer's name I recognize is Ibrahim Al-Koni. The Libyan author has produced an astonishing number of titles, yet very few are available in translation, which seems unfortunate. The American University in Cairo Press translates quite a few Arabic language titles each year, if you are interested.

"...Congo's crisis is not unprecedented, nor is it unrivalled. To people who know the continent, there's something of an arbitrary quality as to how one crisis seizes the public imagination and others go ignored." The excellent journalist and writer Michela Wrong pens a short piece for The Guardian/Observer (thanks to The Scarlett Lion for the link). Personally, I would have preferred a much longer piece - Wrong is a thoughtful and thought provoking writer with great integrity. She has a new book out next year on Kenya, which I look forward to immensely. It is currently listed on Amazon as It's Our Turn to Eat: How One Man Broke Tribal Ranks to Fight Government Greed in Kenya although whether this will be the final title, who knows.

"Bile did not grow up dreaming of being a pirate. He comes from a family of fishermen whose livelihood was destroyed, he says, by the arrival of industrial trawlers from Europe." An alternative view of piracy in the Gulf of Aden by Daniel Howden in The Independent on Friday.

Friday, November 14, 2008

This has been a two-steps-forward-three-steps-back kind of week with The Daughter: she has found her toes, thinks those interesting other appendages (hands) might be hers, and most cutely learned to kiss. But we are back to screaming through every feed, and the health visitor is concerned at her weightloss (we have to go back again next week to monitor her). My absence from the blog can be simply explained as exhaustion, and general lack of access to the computer - it is hard to blog with a child who cries if you put her down. Temporary growing pains I hope.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

It has been a long day, so rather than post a review, here's the latest meme doing the rounds (Loads of people have posted this, but I read it first on A Work in Progress, so thanks to Danielle).

The rules are: Open up the nearest book to page 56. Write out the fifth sentence on that page, and also the next two to five sentences. The CLOSEST BOOK, not your favorite or most intellectual.

The people of the kingdom heard that their beloved prince was dying and they came in their multitudes to the palace. The women swarmed there in their hundreds. They brought their children with them.They left their farms, their marketplaces, their homes, and they came and sat in silence outside the palace, and kept vigil. They brought lamps which they kept alight all night, and all day, as if the light of the lamps somehow sustained the life of their much-loved prince.

This extract from Ben Okri's STARBOOK which arrived by post today - I mooched it off Bookmooch.

Consider yourself tagged, if you're interested!

Monday, November 03, 2008

A delicious parcel has arrived from the AFRICA BOOK CENTRE (as always, since I haven't read them yet, descriptions are from the publishers):
AFRICA WRITES BACK: THE AFRICAN WRITERS SERIES AND THE LAUNCH OF AFRICAN LITERATURE - James Currey. 17 June 2008 is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart" by Heinemann. This provided the impetus for the foundation of the "African Writers Series" in 1962 with Chinua Achebe as the Editorial Adviser.'{The book} is therefore not only the story of a publishing enterprise of great significance; it is also a large part of the story of African literature and its dissemination in the latter half of the twentieth century.
I'm really looking forward to reading this, as I've been collecting and reading the AWS for ages. Most of the originals are now out of print, although Heinemann keep a small selection available.
This should be a fascinating story.
A suave urban swindler invites himself to the sleepy hinterland of Nyanyadu where he dupes a well-meaning but naive local notable into a deceitful partnership. Pretending to be a modern-day Moses on a mission to save the people, CC Ndebenkulu is nothing more than a con man whose artifice exposes one man's obsession with instant riches. Set in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands of rural South Africa, The Rich Man of Pietermaritzburg is an enchanting tale of neurotic ambition that unfolds against the backdrop of the systematic destruction of the African peasantry and the loss of their land and liberties.
Nyembezi's book was named one of Africa's 100 Best Books of the 20th Century. This is the first time it is available in an English translation, thanks to the sterling efforts of Aflame Books.
PLOT LOSS - Heinrich Troost
When Harry van As returns to work in Pretoria, the city of his childhood, he seems to be at sea in a vastly changed hinterland of shifting surfaces. Gone is, for example, the white middle-class respectability. Instead of an apartheid stronghold, he finds a pulsating African metropolis. Or is it just the company he keeps – a rainbow spectrum of friends and colleagues of origins and persuasions that would have been anathema in the stifling city of his youth.
It is the returning to Pretoria theme that appeals with this one.I'm looking forward to seeing how he describes the city.
The well-loved words of Ecclesiastes take on new life and meaning in the sun-baked rural setting of a South African homestead. Sowing, planting and reaping through the temperamental wet and dry seasons, going to market, day-to-day dealings with neighbours and acquaintances, love and hostility, the joy of celebration and sadness of mourning with family and friends - Jude Daly shows an ageless world in miniature, jewel-like detail and colour. Accompanied by familiar text from the King James Bible.
This is a children's picture book which I just liked the sound of.

They should keep me going for a while, as my TBR pile teeters...

Sunday, November 02, 2008

I often come across small news items related to African literature/writers, or pieces that I just find interesting. On the whole, they never make it into posts, so I thought I'd start collecting them into one weekly round-up which I'll post on weekend days. This week's offering:

"Abdul-Lateef sits in the shade at the front of his shop, a glint in his eye and a week's growth of beard on his cheeks. With care, he weighs out half a dozen dried chameleons, wraps them in a twist of newspaper and passes the packet to a young woman dressed in black..." Tahir Shah describes a visit to Fes.

The latest issue of FARAFINA is out, guest edited by Laila Lalami:
I have often noticed that whenever one hears about “Africa,” whether on the news, or in music, or in arts, or in literature, the inevitable focus is always the portion of the continent that is geographically south of the Sahara desert. For instance, the “plight of Africa,” that favourite headline of European and American newspapers, usually refers to AIDS or child soldiers or foreign debt or whatever new cause hipsters find fit to embrace at the moment. When African music is written about outside of the continent, it is usually in terms of Youssou N’Dour, or Fela Kuti or Miriam Makeba. African art, as curated in places like The Metropolitan Museum in New York, means only artwork produced south of Senegal to the west and Sudan to the east. I have also noticed that those of us from the Northern parts of the continent are regularly thrust under the headings of “Arab” and “Islam,” to the exclusion of all others."
Chris Abani wins a PEN/Beyond Margins Award for his latest book SONG FOR NIGHT (Akashic) - read an extract here. "The reader is led by the voiceless protagonist who, as part of a land mine-clearing platoon, had his vocal chords cut; a move to keep these children from screaming when blown up, and thereby distracting the other minesweepers".

An interesting article on the post-apartheid novel with male protagonist, from Jane Rosenthal found here: "
...noticeably, in none of these novels is there any sort of racial sharing of the new South Africa. Apartheid persists, even in fiction it seems. How dour and dire is this?"

And more on South Africa: Shaun De Waal reviews titles on Thabo Mbeki's legacy for the country here. "
It's not a great stretch to see the arms deal, and what went wrong with it, as a key factor in the Mbeki presidency's slide into secretiveness, paranoia and denialism, not to mention its vicious attitude towards any dissent or revelations of wrongdoing".


Friday, October 31, 2008

I've been reading TELLING TALES edited by Nadine Gordimer, a collection of short stories by 21 writers from around the globe who gave their pieces without fees so that "profits from the sale of the book could go to HIV/AIDS preventative education and ... medical treatment." It is quite a line-up of literary luminaries, but I've just focused on the African writers.

Down the Quiet Street by Es'kia Mphahlele describes an amusing tale of a police officer who discovers criminal activities (or not) taking place under his nose in the form of funeral processions. He, and we, are left guessing. Charming. Mphahlele's famous DOWN SECOND AVENUE describes people I knew as a teen, so I have a soft spot for him, and am very sorry to hear that he died on Monday.

The far darker Death of a Son by Njabulo S. Ndebele follows a couple dealing with grief and its effect on their relationship when their young child is shot by patrolling soldiers. Now, I should have felt a connection to this story. Military vehicles patrolled our township in exactly the same manner, and in fact I remember a baby killed by a stray bullet while his mother did nothing more sinister than sit on her verandah. And yet, I felt the heart was lacking from this story - it was hard to make a connection with the characters. For me, flawed by slightly stilted writing.

Chinua Achebe's Sugar Baby was wonderful! I have only read his novels, rather than his short stories, but on the basis of this offering will search out the book from which it is extracted: GIRLS AT WAR AND OTHER STORIES. It surprises with subtle humour in the rather unlikely subject of food scarcity during the Biafran War - what do you do in these circumstances if you have a sweet tooth and feel deprived?!
Cletus and I made the journey on the following Saturday and found Father Doherty in a reasonably good mood for a man who had just spent six nights running at the airport unloading relief planes in pitch darkness under fairly constant air bombardment...

I spoke up first. I had a problem with hay fever and would like some antihistamine tablets if he had any in stock. "Certainly," he said, "most certainly. I have the very thing for you. Father Joseph has the same complaint, so I always keep some." He disappeared again and I could hear him saying: "Hay fever, hay fever, hay fever" like a man looking for a title in a well-stocked bookshelf, and then: "There we are!" Soon he emerged with a small bottle. "Everything here is in German," he said, studying the label with a squint. "Do you read German?"
"Nor do I. Try taking one thrice daily and see how you feel."
"Thank you, Father."
"Next!" he said jovially... (pp.139-140)
As to the obsession with sugar (or the lack of it) you'll have to find a copy for yourselves!

Gordimer's own offering, The Ultimate Safari, threw me for a loop and therefore warrants its own post. More later.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

It is hard to feel sympathy for Isa ad-Dabbagh, as it is always hard to feel sympathy over an extended period for anyone who feels relentlessly sorry for themselves. Naguib Mahfouz's AUTUMN QUAIL begins with Egypt's 1952 Revolution. Isa is dismissed from government on corruption charges and arrives home to his mother's questions:
Fortunately she did not know anything. Walking slowly around the house, he thought about how expensive it was. He couldn't possibly keep it now. Two years' salary, even added to what was left in the bank of the umdas' gifts, wouldn't last longer than two years. All those objects decorating the entrance, the reception room, and the library were "gifts" too. Certainly the crooks outnumbered the people who had been dismissed for crookedness. He was guilty, though, and so were his friends: what had happened to the good old days? Gifts were forbidden, after all, a mark of corruption. But this sudden loss of everything, just when he was on the threshold of a senior position, which would have led to the minister's chair! How could you live in a world where people forgot or pretended to forget, where there were so many others who gloated over the whole thing with unfeeling malice, where hard-won honors were being stripped away and vices trundled out and exposed, unfurled like so many flags? (p.60)
And so he goes one: whinge, whinge whinge through page after page. Don't get me started on corrupt and bullying (or worse) officials, South African history is littered with them. I have no time for the oft repeated excuses of "I didn't know" or "It wasn't me." Isa describes it as "...the harsh circumstances which often forced us to do things we didn't like doing" and pointing out that everyone around him did the same.

As his life spirals out of control, mirrored by political events in the country (the nationalization of the Suez Canal; the invasion of Egypt), Isa slouches from gambling table, to drinking den, using up his savings and in the process treating women abominably and generally irritating friends and family who are baffled by his behaviour. He is unable to make decisions about his future because he is so mired in the past and his perceived unjust dismissal (even though he is the first to admit the corruption charges are justified) both from work, but also by his fiancee's family. Just as we begin to lose patience, Mahfouz delivers an understated masterstroke to the plot. It would spoil the book for anyone who might read it (nor, to be honest, am I sure I could adequately describe it) so I won't discuss it here. Let's just say that instead of feeling I'd like to deposit the book at the first charity shop I came to, I now want to read it again. Immediately.

Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988 and died in 2006. Hisham Matar recalls attending a soiree with Mahfouz here.

I selected this book for the Africa Reading Challenge.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Any time friends or family visit, I take them around Canterbury Cathedral. It is to Anglicans what Rome is to Catholics - the mother church, and seat of its head. But apart from its religious significance it is a great architectural gem with a fascinating history - in many ways the history of England is reflected in its walls in microcosm (Along with St. Martin's Church and St. Augustine's Abbey it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site). After a while I thought why not sign up to volunteer there since I practically live there anyway! I was on the waiting list for over a year before I was accepted on the assistant training course. By then I'd discovered I was pregnant but decided to do it anyway, bump and all, as I wasn't sure when I'd get the opportunity again. It was the most amazing experience - four months of lectures ranging from ecclesiastical history to the monarchs of England, monastic life to stained glass windows, through architecture down the ages and on to stone care of visitors. I loved every minute of it, despite an exam at the end! Now I'm on a two year probationary period after which I can train to be a Cathedral guide if I wish. The fabulous thing is that there are always ongoing lectures plus the Cathedral archives to explore in order to broaden your knowledge, so it is like an ever-expanding study module. I love the whole thing. Once a week I sling The Daughter on my front and stand around with a sash on, attempting to look friendly and approachable, answering any questions visitors might have (she just looks cute, or falls asleep).

Recently we've had a few interesting events happen there. First, the hosting of the Lambeth Conference. A left-over reminder is a giant Archangel Rafael whose wings are made up of paper cutouts of the hands of all the hundreds of bishops and archbishops who attended - each drew around their palms and some wrote on their profferings. It is quite charming, and was made by the children who attend Sunday School at the Cathedral. A nifty idea. Last month we had a week of apprentice stonemasons chipping away in the nave as they studied under Canterbury's master stonemasons. If you shut your eyes, you could transport yourself back to the 14th Century when the last major work on the Cathedral was carried out, and imagine the building site mourners at the Black Prince's funeral must have had to pick their way through. And just a couple of weeks ago the Cathedral nave was transformed into a theatre for the world premier of Sebastian Barry's new play, Dallas Sweetman. Barry follows a long line of distinguished playwrights commissioned to set a play in the Cathedral: John Masefield, T.S. Eliot and Dorothy Sayers among them. I enjoyed an afternoon of watching actors in rehearsal hurl themselves with reckless abandon from the stage, robes swirling.

Yesterday I woke to find the electricity off. No explanation has yet been given, but the outage covered a large swathe across this area of Kent affecting parts of Canterbury, Blean, Herne Bay and Whitstable. No heating, no light, no radio, no television, no telephone, no internet connection. When I left for the Cathedral in the afternoon it had been off for more than ten hours, and The Daughter and I were both a little chilly, the temperature inside the house having dropped close to four degrees. The Cathedral, unaffected, thawed us out. It is an awe-inspiring place. I hope you make pilgrimage there, should you visit the city.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

A new play by the wonderful Nigerian playwright Dipo Agboluaje is on at The Unicorn Theatre in London. I'm late to listing this, so sadly you only have two days of shows left. If you're London-based, KNOCK AGAINST MY HEART (a retelling of THE TEMPEST) is well worth a look and is certainly something I would have hot-footed over to see if it weren't for the baby. Agboluaje has been steadily making a name for himself in contemporary drama, and this new piece looks most interesting, a collaboration with Brazilian company Nós de Morro.

Watch a trailer for the show here.

You can hear him interviewed by Steven Luckie here.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Breastfeeding The Daughter means I'm mostly reading books that are not too heavy (as in weight, rather than subject matter), and that require little effort in keeping track of plots despite only bite-size reading portions. I mentioned RUNNING FOR THE HILLS by Horatio Clare a few posts ago, and this is beautifully written - who knew a childhood hill-farming in Wales could have so many similarities to a childhood on a rural mission station in KwaZulu?! Lots of echoes there. I also thoroughly enjoyed THE BRIGHT SIDE OF DISASTER by Katherine Center. Although the UK cover makes this look remarkably chick-litty, it happens to be a rather hilarious account of first-time (and single) parenting. I don't usually go for this sort of thing, but it was perfect as first-time-mum-reading. If you've ever wondered what actually having a baby and living with it full-time is like (only funnier), then this is the book for you.

I also tackled CINNAMON CITY: Falling for the Magical City of Marrakech by Miranda Innes. I mean this in a positive sense, but CINNAMON CITY is perfect plane/train/holiday reading. By this I mean books that carry you along most enjoyably without requiring too much effort on the part of the reader. If you enjoy books about people setting up house amongst lemon groves in Spain or olive groves in Italy, then you'll probably love this. Other types of books which complement it are Taschen's style and photography books like AFRICAN STYLE or AFRICAN INTERIORS: beautiful coffee table books, but not related in any way to average lifestyles in Africa. The comparison is drawn simply to say that Innes's book is an enjoyable and interesting account of renovating a house in a foreign country, with all the angst and excitement that entails, but it is not a book about Marrakech or its people in any real sense. The cover description only serves to highlight this:
"Want to escape to a place where the sun always shines? Where passionate music, magic potions and the drama of Africa are cooled by the genius of Arabic culture?"
Oh retch. Where do they find these blurb writers?!


Friday, October 10, 2008

Thanks to the Africa Reading Challenge hosted over at siphoning off a few thoughts, I've finally managed to prioritize reading the fantastically named MY MERCEDES IS BIGGER THAN YOURS by Nkem Nwankwo. Onuma in fact swans around in a gold Jaguar, rather than a Mercedes, but that's just nit-picking - the Mercedes appears several times throughout the book in the hands of other drivers as a status symbol. At one point Onuma, sans Jaguar, refuses to take public transport because of the drop in status he feels this shows, and a lift he is offered in an aquaintance's Mercedes rankles hugely. Nwankwo's satirical take on changes in Nigerian civil life was published in 1975 and is long out of print. It has a couple of psychedelically orange-coloured ladies on the cover looking heavenwards towards a floating Mercedes emblem (if I can ever figure out how to scan and upload images, I'll be sure to show you this one!). Nwankwo produced two books of stories for teens and his first novel DANDA (1964) before this title. His third novel THE SCAPEGOAT (1984) was, I understand his last. All of these books are now out of print.

I must admit the opening page nearly put me off the entire experience, and is frankly well deserving of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award (look away now if you think you might be offended!):
Once upon a time a young man was savouring the pleasures of a new car. He was thinking that there were really occasions when a car seemed to drive itself as it were, seemed to respond to some remote stimulus independent of the driver. It had its moments of cursedness, of course, when it whined and snorted for no particular reason, then there were moments of heavenly smoothness when it floated on the crest of some intangible wave.
It was like when you have gone into a woman. Some of the time is taken up with clumsy flopping about; trying futilely to find the perfect position and rhythm. Then there are moments of complete synchronization of limbs which seem to come about without effort. There is then an access of energy and the two bodies seem to fuse into one through some mysterious alchemy of blood. Desire and the explosions of joy in tidal waves originating from impulses as mysterious as they are arbitrary. (p.1)
Okaaaay. A little over the top! Judicious editing would have helped this book along - unfortunately for the reader there are similar passages dotted about throughout the book although I suppose these serve to remind us that all Onuma is interested in (other than accruing wealth and status) are cars and women. The quotation above continues:
He would soon be home. Already familiar landmarks were flashing by: occasional clusters of giant trees, the scene of childhood escapades, wooden stores and brothels that stood where once, in his memory, had been wide lawns and friendly trees. Hard-boiled as the young man was, or thought he was, the prospect of the clearing in the forest he knew as home never failed to move him deeply. Involuntarily he broke into a song of praise to home.The song and the exhilaration of spirits and the effortless drive through the balmy twilight almost brought tears to his eyes. He waved to a number of naked children who were grubbing about by the wayside. He failed to notice their nakedness and squalor. He saw them only through the haze of his happiness. My people! My country! he thought. His sense of well-being seemed an augury of a happy return. (p.2)
Why not have left out the first sexed-up bit and simply opened with the second quotation? The latter quotation illustrates why the book is worth reading, capturing homecoming after years of living elsewhere perfectly.

So it is that Onuma, having made some money in the urban metropolis, returns to his home village after a fifteen year absence, to prove how well he has done to both the family and the extended community. Pride (as always) comes before a fall, however, and the story follows what happens as Onuma gets caught up in showing off rather than simply enjoying the pleasures of home. Nwankwo's descriptions of rural village life are grittily observed and make the book worth reading. Local politics rears its ugly head, as do issues related to family ties, and of course all of this is tied up with the fate of the golden jaguar...

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