Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Let me start by saying that I enjoyed almost everything about the Hay Festival. There is no doubt that it has expanded hugely since its humble beginnings, but that is no bad thing if the array of authors present continues to stimulate and challenge. Food was a bit of a problem on the festival premises, as what you get for what you pay is absolutely extortionate, but you can wander into town for something more reasonable. There is a definite lack of reasonably priced accommodation in Hay-on-Wye for the huge numbers of people attending (some hotels are booked out four years in advance), but this is not the festival's fault. Hay-on-Wye is after all a small town which caters perfectly well for guests the rest of the year. We stayed with friends an hour or so's drive across the Black Mountains, which made for views of spectacularly lush green scenery on our way to and from the festival each day.

My first event was with the marxist philosopher and scholar Terry Eagleton, Professor of Cultural Theory at the University of Manchester. His work on literary theory has probably been read by most students studying at British universities today. Discussing his new book THE MEANING OF LIFE he ranged widely across several philosophers from Aquinas to Schopenhauer, trying to answer the question "What is the meaning of life?" Not "purpose" or "function" but meaning. Like many of the speakers I heard over the next few days, the theme of well-being and sufficiency over happiness emerged. Eagleton argued, in response to a question, that it is desire which makes us unable to be happy with the sufficiency of things, for desire cannot be fulfilled. I rather liked his closing image of life as a jazz band. You can download the podcast for a fee.

Helon Habila and Ngugi wa Thiong'o in conversation were next (download the podcast). One of the things I was reminded of in listening to these two is the issue of accents, translation and linguistics. Here we have two of the finest writers in english living today, yet when you hear them speak, both have strong Nigerian and Kenyan accents respectively. So often I have seen people's eyes glaze over at hearing an African accent, but this really is a peevish and shameful response. You cannot assume that someone is not educated or literate because they do not speak with an english or american accent. While I believe people know this intellectually, I'm not sure that in practice they are always quite so patient at allowing themselves to get used to an unfamiliar accent, and come across dismissive instead.

Habila talked of time as a filter and writing through research and memory. His first book, WAITING FOR AN ANGEL was written in the wee hours of each morning, when he was still living in Nigeria, and he said he found it easier to write. His latest MEASURING TIME written four years later in the UK, was much harder, and involved calling home to Nigeria to ask questions, hear how people speak and remind himself of tastes and smells. He talked of how he "survived on books" when he was younger.

In writing MEASURING TIME he started with one character, but soon found he would be unable to make one person experience all he intended for the character, and so they became the twins, Mamo and LaMamo - one staying home in the village, the other off fighting in the war; like one character, but shared. Habila identifies most strongly with the twin who stays behind in the village. He mentioned that when he was younger he wrote a biography of the chief of his village, so he felt a connection with Mamo's staying home and writing a history of his people.

He read an extract from MEASURING TIME beautifully:
After the closure of the school Mamo found himself with time on his hands and without much means of using it apart from taking long walks in the afternoon. He took walks not only to kill time, but also to avoid his father's constant looming presence in the house, and the inane laughter of the widows whenever they came to visit...With no work to prepare for in the mornings, the hours seemed to have grown twice as long and Mamo would sometimes wake up in the morning and almost panic when he thought of the long, lonely day ahead of him - he'd sit on the bed for hours, his back propped up against the wall, watching the thin rays of the morning sun streaming into the window. He missed the drab routine of meeting the students and listening to Ms. Lipstick and Mr. Bukar gripe about their lives. Outside, in the yard, Auntie Marina would be talking to the goats and chickens as she fed them. On good days he walked her to her farm and passed the hours under a tree reading a book or sleeping, but often he left her early, before the fresh invigorating morning air had turned hot and painful and hard to breathe.

He waited for something, anything, to happen, and as he waited he measured time in the shadows cast by trees and walls, in the silence between one footfall and the next, between one breath and the next, in the seconds and minutes and hours and days and weeks and months that add up to form the seasons. The rainy season ended in October, the wind turned dry and harsh, the leaves on the trees and cornstalks turned brown and brittle. Farmers brought home the harvest; the hunters set the hills on fire and chased the game up to the summit. At night the hilltops became incandescent with color - like a painting, the fires snaking around the contours of the hills, their orange reflected by the low clouds that hung over the hills like a backcloth... (pp.138-139)
More tomorrow on Ngugi. Today I am off to London to give a lecture on "Conflict in Africa."

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Anonymous litlove said...

Oh I'd love to hear Terry Eagleton speak! I have that book, so I must read it and post on it!

4:54 am  

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