Monday, September 25, 2006

Even the dogs are quiet. They no longer bark up any trees because they must save their strength. They must walk, walk, all the way to the aid stations. Barking no longer has any meaning. They must walk, walk, walk.

. . . He reasons with himself in vain to remain stoic - he is unable to find an acceptable, even bearable, outcome for his life.

. . . Did he have a choice? Who had a choice? Even the dogs were silent. Nevertheless, there remain plenty of things for him to see, plenty of books to read, plenty of graves to dig or to watch over, plenty of babies to care for. This country has been despoiled, dismembered, desiccated. He is dis-patriated. Nevertheless there remain so many things to do: take care of the babies, help the columns of foreign aid workers distribute food, medicine, set up tents; also to act as an interpreter because he speaks four European languages with ease. Act as an interpreter. As for the rest - the moment of his death, that is - that will have to wait.

. . . Hell is not in the future, he says to himself, hell is here. Hell is where I live, he continues, before my eyes, in the eyes of my kin, those who died for a thousand unheard of reasons, like those shut away in the edifices of their fears. Like those processing into the foreign aid centers. Hell is an impregnable fortress, an unconquerable virus. It is Gehenna in the tropics where Hades, Satan, and their associates dance. It is Carnival behind the masks of Ogun, Baron Samedi, and the fat Mamawata. After fire comes flood, or rather its opposite, drought.

. . . Now he had finished the greatest part of his work. He had taken care of dying babies, he had buried hundreds of victims, he had sung and read as well. He had carefully avoided kissing any girls. He had acted as an interpreter for many an organization. He had done far too much work. It was now up to him to decide what was to follow in the events of his life . . . One sepia-colored morning, under the punctual sun, he took his own life. (extract from "Vortex", Waberi pp.76-79).
Last week I read one of the most unutterably depressing books in existence: THE LAND WITHOUT SHADOWS by Abdourahman A. Waberi. First published in 1994 (in French) it won the Grand Prize for the Francophone short story, administered by the Belgian Royal Academy of French Language and Literature and the Henri Cornelus Foundation. An english translation of one of the stories was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2000. This is the first english translation of the book as a whole, and is some of the finest writing about war.

It is a difficult book. I struggled, grappling with strange sentence structures, bizarre allusions, odd stories, and frequently a lack of plot entirely. Our reading group was universally deeply disturbed by it. But Waberi's account of Djibouti's experience of war led to wider discussion of dislocation, devastation and destitution. Assuming of course that this translation is worthy and reflective of the original writing, Waberi writes a book rich in its use of language. Far richer and denser, in fact, than many other writers of contemporary fiction. It is a book that has stayed with me all week, haunting my thoughts (to my great surprise, because I did not enjoy reading it at all). I confess that without the reading group as motivation to complete it I would have given up. Despite that, I am now going to reread it, this time with a dictionary in tow.

This week's African Nonfiction Reading Group has had a change of venue and date. We will now meet Tuesday September 26th (i.e. tomorrow) at 6:30pm in the "soft space" of the newly refurbished Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank, which is on the right as you enter the building. Discussing Michela Wrong's I DIDN'T DO IT FOR YOU.



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