Wednesday, 23 April 2014
This book comes with a promise of something different from the usual book that one can pick up; it is a story told by the chameleon. This lizard will tell the story of what happens, from its point of view, whilst hanging from the various walls of a house in Angola. Inside this house, past histories are re-arranged, false genealogical ancestors can be found, and all with all the accompanying paperwork, for a price.
I fear that I might not do this novel justice in its content and underlying subtext. I don’t think I know enough about the political history of Angola to fully appreciate the analogies that Agualusa as trying to twist into the text, although I was very aware that there were many there to be found. For example, one character goes off to find the gravestones of his newly invented ancestors, and another, a character with a political background, having been given a false grandparent with a famous status in the city, roundly complained that the local school should be renamed to reflect the importance of the said politician. It seemed not to have occurred to this political figure that everything he as saying, everything he as basing his on importance on, was based on a lie. It just suited him at the time. I have no doubt whatsoever, that wherever in the world you are reading this, you will be able to recognise somebody in the public arena with the same outlook. What I don’t know is whether the author put himself in danger by writing in this style. If he did, then his bravery is paradoxically counterpointed by the idea that the chameleon should be the author. The lizard keeps telling us how much of a coward it is.
As for the book itself, it is an easy flowing, without any overt political overtones, without, seemingly, any morals with which to warn us of; easy to follow text that saunters along quite happily until the end, when we get an ‘oooh’ moment. That surprise is not so much the content, but the very fact that it was there. It really snuck up on me, but like most of these times, it serves to link all the strands of the plot and finishes the story, neatly tied up with no loose ends. In lots of ways, an ordinary, run of the mill novel, but, as I said at the beginning, I fear I’m missing many more subtle points that are lying under the headline text. Therefore, I do apologise anyone from the region who is exasperated with me, and to the author too for my nondescript review; please don’t let me put you off, the talking lizard is waiting to tell you a tale...
Thursday, 17 April 2014
In the time of Shakespeare, when his actors were all male, the younger men and boys were given the female roles. That, in itself, is not too confusing for his audience. Add to the plot that the female character has to be disguised as a boy, so the boy is now dressed as a girl, dressing as a male. Now, bring it all up to date, give that role to someone like Eddie Izzard, in all of his transvestite glory, and we now have complete confusion – but something we might all want to watch and revel in all the complexity. Finally, let’s ship all this mix to a Caribbean Island and try and follow...
What we have in this book is a blend of travelogue, memoir, and history of the island, all bound together by the author’s return to the island of her birth, in readiness for the carnival at the end of the week. But the confusion begins almost from the very beginning. The early chapters tells of her childhood years; thus beginning the history element, and we meet characters who we can presume we will follow throughout the book, but we won’t. The following chapters will take a theme of a mask for the carnival and will give us a synopsis of why it’s appearing in the carnival, the history, the people that will don these masks, the geography of the island where the mask originated. I’m sure you get the gist... So, having settled into the new format, we are then shifted back to the carnival itself, but little time is spent at the actual festivities, only a chapter. We will finally get a narrative of the day after the event. The only thing we don’t get is a plot, a story, a tugging of our emotions. There is simply no part of the text that leaves a ‘what happens now’ sense of excitement.
I do understand what the author has tried to do; intertwine the history of her life, with her island and bring it all into a contemporary setting. However, for me, it has dismally failed. If it had been a travelogue, it would have been fine, albeit sketchy, as a history book, it would have been lacking, as it only scratches the surface of the complexities of the island’s mysterious past. As a memoir, it isn’t! As a work of fiction, it perhaps gives a literary licence to play with facts, landscapes and characters. The trouble is, because it is being so many different things at the same time, it just ends up confusing in every element. So I’ve no idea whether the information in the text is true, myth or fictional. Similar, I think, to watching Eddie Izzard, playing a Viola, in Twelfth Night. Confusing, distracting, and leaves the audience wondering just what we were supposed to take away from the prose. Certainly, what you see – in this case, on the front cover – is not what you get once you delve further. Shame, really.
Written with all due respect to Eddie Izzard – I have only used his name and character for illustrative purposes of this blog and no opinion regarding his character is suggested, inferred or presumed in any other way.
Tuesday, 15 April 2014
Warning! Do not attempt this book until you have time to finish it. Once picked up, it is incredibly difficult to put it down until the end. Written, I am told, by an Algerian army officer, who has written under a female assumed name so as to avoid censorship from his superiors, this novel takes us through a multitude of emotions and circumstances.
We follow the life of Younes, or Jonas, taken from an Arab birth to be brought up in the Jewish community. We will follow his life until its conclusion and we will be submerged in the conflicts, both mental and physical between the rich and the poor, and Jew and Muslim (with a smattering of Christianity). French rule competes with independence, interspersed with an internal power struggle. Into this mix, we can add the growing pains of a young man, the angst of unrequited love and the benefits, or otherwise, of a groups of close friends with whom life’s toils are shared. I don’t think I’ve forgotten anything.
So, how has it all fitted it all in? By bombarding us with page after page of quality text! Using both descriptive landscaping and by engaging us with the main protagonists, we are, in short, thrust into the lives of the characters and we are allowed, very quickly, to decide the friendliness (or otherwise) of each in turn. As far as I’m concerned, I did want to know the fate of each one; nobody fell to the wayside. The book is also complete, inasmuch as we are told how each character finishes up. There are no loose ends, and we are allowed to close the book having got all the information we want.
Technically clever, Khadra wastes little time or words throughout. We are expected to understand there is an inherent tension between religions and levels of poverty, but as the international world might fail to know how, why and when the independence conflict started, we are told, at the appropriate time, in about four pages. Enough to learn and understand, but brief enough so as not to get bogged down with the politics. The text remains very readable and easy to follow.
As I travel through my world of authors, I have no doubt that I will want to veer off and read another novel from the same writer; this is the case in this instance. Algeria is made out to be an interesting place, the people complex and the lifestyle worthy of further exploration. And if any other Algerian authors come to the standard of Khdra, producing work of this quality, then I can’t wait to return for a second helping!
Tuesday, 8 April 2014
Phew! You will need your wits about you for this one. From the 2009 Nobel Prize winner, Herta Muller, we are taken to the time of Nicolae Ceausescu, and the dictatorship that formed the early part of her life.
As I was being raised in the 1960’s, I was given the impression that everywhere ‘East’ was grey, overcast, gloomy and dull. Muller’s writing certainly gave credence to this perception. Everybody was downtrodden, living in fear and without hope. Although this is set two decades later, the impression remains unchanged.
The story revolves around a group of four students, from the provinces, who further their education within a university setting in the city. What begins as an omnipotent narrative soon becomes a diary type memory of events from one on these young people. As each journey unfolds, intertwined with each other, the despair for the future of each begins to seep off the page and into the psyche of the reader. We are told of the intervention of the state in all that they did, from the secret policeman, who offered advice, veiling threats; constantly telling all the students that they are lucky to have him for their protection, to the dog at his heel, that had the same name, but tore the heels and trouser legs as soon as his master gave the order. As the students left for their predetermined jobs, decided by the state the friends decide that when they write to each other, they would place a single hair in the envelope to determine whether the post had been intercepted – it generally was, with the state keeping a firm grip on all that was said, thought and written. The story goes on to conclude the tale of each protagonist, and we, as readers, are told about, among other things, the process of emigration and the way the country operated under the dictatorship.
The writing itself is quite riveting; you can find yourself turning pages almost without realising. But there are no particular points where the story explodes, rather the opposite; it implodes within the character’s lives often. However, Muller does tend to wander off the direct line of prose, and brings in occasional allegories, reverting to hypothetical scenes to explain the present, but not for long, there is really little need to digress.
It is a difficult book to read, as I’m sure it was to write, but that doesn’t make it less of a story. The subject matter is tough the language regarding the subject is tough and the prose itself is difficult to stay with. This is not bedtime reading as I promise you will not keep up, thus failing to grasp its importance. And I do think it important that work like this is out there. How can we learn the mistakes without reading, digesting and responding to this historical warning, being shouted long and hard from the rooftops.
Published by Granta Books, London
Sunday, 6 April 2014
A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear
This story has taken us to Kabul in the late 1970’s and straight back to the time when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan with an iron rod. This is not a tale that will tell us of the geography of the country, nor will it tell of landscaped vistas, or the political background to the tale; we are thrown straight in. So be ready.
The translators notes in the copy I have, tell me that the literal translation for a labyrinth in Afghan is ‘A Thousand Rooms’ – you will certainly enter a labyrinth when you turn the first page here; an excellently told tale of a terrible tale, but well worth reading.
In a tightly written story, we spend the time with a young man who has met security police, after curfew, having had a night with friends and alcohol. Add a youthful arrogance to the mix, and we have a chap beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. Rescued by a stranger, a lady, he is hidden in her house, along with her brother, until escape from the country can be organised. Well, that’s the plot, but certainly not the story.
Rahimi explores how and why the young man appears to be defying authority, and why he certainly can’t go home and expose his family now. The lady has a tale to tell as to why she is alone, we hear of her absent husband, and her hidden brother has been secreted for reasons that we will find out as the story goes on. It does all sound very dramatic and exciting, but in fact we are hearing the tales of ordinary people trying to live in extraordinary circumstances; fear being part of their everyday lives.
As the story progresses, events begin to happen that a reader would perhaps question; is the plot becoming too whimsical? ‘Would that really happen like that?’ you might ask. But I think you will be so sucked in to the lives of these few protagonists that you will almost forgive the author the literary licence he appears to have taken to move the plot along. Until the end, when you will understand that it is just as it really would be...you will need to find and read this book for a full explanation.
This book is an education at many different levels. The treatment of women by the Taliban at that time is one thread. The ramifications that can be expected when young men fail to meet the standards set by the Taliban are also explained and explored. Three different men, three different endings...
All in all, it is a very well written tale, tight, no words wasted and still written with a twist in the tale that is in keeping with the subject; enough to keep us page turning right up to the end. It is not an action packed, shoot ‘em up type of story, and there is no undue or unnecessary violence, none the less, the fear leaps out of every sentence spoken, every bang on the door, every shout from the courtyard. But beware! You might well give an involuntary start if someone knocks on your door while you are reading this...