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Reviews in Brief

by Stacy Hardy.

 

Our Lady of the Nile
Scholastique Mukasonga (transl. Melanie Mauthner)
Archipelago Books, 2014

In Our Lady of the Nile, Scholastique Mukasonga plunges her reader into a looming dreamscape where an elite Catholic girls’ school has become a microcosm for a society on the brink of war. Here, the jagged terrain of adolescence is a canvas for uncanny scenes full of tears and laughter, discovery and concealment, faith and doubt, beauty and brutality.

First published in French in 2012, and now deftly translated by Melanie Mauthner, the novel contains echoes of both Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, but is closer to Werewere Liking’s Amputated Memory in its dark, often startlingly beautiful musicality.

Set in Rwanda in 1962, it’s a book full of foreboding. Violence threatens but never explodes. No one dies but there is death all around – or rather, people carry death within them. The characters, suspended somewhere between childhood and adulthood, caught between French and Kinyarwanda, and trapped between the conflicting traditions of colonial Christian faith and Rwandan pagan beliefs, are ciphers for people and events that have already passed but are still to come.

The result is a coming-of-age novel in which no one grows up, a historical novel in a place where history is denied (as one character, referencing Hegel, tells us, “History meant Europe, and Geography, Africa.”) and a war story that plays out in classroom bickering and playground spats.

It’s a book that refuses easy beginnings and ends. Each chapter is itself a short story made from dizzying and intricately beautiful snapshots – historical, spiritual, fabulist and cinematic. It’s a book of overlapping realities and cross-cultural collisions, of flows, tributaries, deltas, passages, swaps and floodplains. As Mukasonga writes in the final passage of the opening chapter:

Upon returning to the lycée, Veronica opens up her geography book. It’s quite tricky to follow the course of the Nile, she has no name to start off with and then there are too many. She seems to have multiple sources, she hides in a lake, resurfaces, turns white, then gets lost in a swamp, while her Blue brother appears somewhere else.

Veronica realises that someone is peering over her shoulder, staring at the open page of the textbook with her.

‘So, are you looking for the way back to where your people came from, Veronica? Don’t worry, I’ll pray to Our Lady of the Nile that the crocodiles carry you there on their backs, or rather in their bellies.’

Veronica would be forever haunted by Gloriosa’s laugh, especially in her nightmares.”

 

A Man: Klaus Klump
Gonçalo M. Tavares
(transl. Rhett McNeil)
Dalkey Archive Press, 2014

In all four books of his “Kingdom” series, Angolan-born writer Gonçalo M. Tavares delivers a devastating indictment of enlightenment and its failed meta-narratives of “progress” and “freedom”, via a critical analysis of the West and its historiography, pathologies and futurology.

A Man: Klaus Klump, the first book in the series but the last to be translated into English, is focused on war. Written in shards of detached minimal prose cut through with beautifully brutal images, the book seems at once horrifying and bland, menacing and whitewashed, as if we are skirting something so fucked it almost has no sensation on the page:

“A country’s flag is a helicopter; gasoline is necessary to keep the flag aloft; the flag isn’t made of fabric, but of metal; it waves less out in the wind, facing nature.

Let’s move on to geography, we’re still in a place that precedes geography, in the pre-geographic period. After History there is no more geography.

The country is unfinished, like a sculpture. Look at its geography: it lacks terrain, this unfinished sculpture. The neighbouring country invades to complete the sculpture: warrior-sculptors.

Massacre as seen from above: sculpture. Bodily remains could be the beginning of other projects.”

These concentrated bursts of cynicism, rancour and frustrated lyricism are not simply minima moralia. Tavares doesn’t just mourn capitalism’s faceless violence. Rather he demands that we meet its technologically advanced onslaught with our own imaginative engagement, reaching beyond desensitisation towards an awareness as bloody and chaotic as all we desire to leave behind. Like the character Alof, a musician who plays his flute even as the world around him implodes, Tavares continues to sift for beauty and humanity amid the debris of a failed language:

“Alof had just vomited, a disgusting smell wafting from his mouth, and Klaus laughed.

At a moment like this you think of your barber.

Alof suddenly took a flute from the black bucket.

You’re not going to play like this, your mouth is disgusting.

I am going to play like this, said Alof. He held the flute for the first time in months and, his stomach turning from the taste of his mouth, he began to play.”

 

Where the Bird Sings Best
Alejandro Jodorowsky
Restless Books, 2014

Hollywood owes a great debt to Alejandro Jodorowsky. For the last 40 years its studios have shamelessly plundered the incendiary Chilean filmmaker’s aberrant imagination. David Lynch’s Dune, George Lucas’s Star Wars and Ridley Scott’s Alien are among the many American science fiction features that have liberally borrowed images, ideas and even whole scenes from Jodorowsky’s vision, without so much as a nod in his direction.

In 1974, leveraging the cult success of his surrealist masterpieces, the hallucinatory Mexican Western El Topo and the transcendent The Holy Mountain, Jodorowsky set out to make what would have been one of the most ambitious movies ever realised: a 20+ hour-long adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Drawing on his experiences in the politically charged Mexican avant-garde of the 1970s, Jodorowsky wanted to create a film that would change not just cinema, but the world. Using Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction epic as a basis, he assembled more than 3 000 beautifully crafted storyboards that presented a radical critique of violence, exploitation, oppression and colonialism and a utopian vision of communal, personal and spiritual liberation. Hollywood refused to take Jodorowsky’s dream seriously but held onto his storyboards, which have since been used as a blueprint for the aesthetics of the American sci-fi blockbuster.

Disillusioned with the limitations of the conservative film industry, Jodorowsky returned to comics and fiction as mediums capable of containing his limitless imagination. The results are his legendary Incal and Metabarons trilogies, created with French artist Mœbius, as well as a series of Spanish novels that earned him a reputation as a major Latin American author.

Following American director Frank Pavich’s documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, which premièred at Cannes in 2013, there’s been a renewed interest in Jodorowsky in the West. Adventurous digital publisher Restless Books has capitalised on this to release an e-book of Where the Bird Sings Best, the first of Jodorowsky’s novels to be translated into English. Loosely autobiographical, it is a tour de force in the truest sense of that term, a sweeping tale of personal, philosophical, and political struggles that forces a reconsideration of the tropes of nationality and citizenship, displacement and exile, religion and spirituality and love and beauty. While there are echoes of Gabriel García Márquez in its magical realist settings and sweeping epic narrative, Where the Bird Sings Best is closer to a Sony Labou Tansi novel in its carnivalesque spirit, violently dismembered language, virulent anti-naturalistic aesthetics, speculative vision and radical politics.

Translations of two other popular Jodorowsky novels, the anarcho-socialist El niño del jueves negro (The Son of Black Thursday) and the psycho-sexual Albina y los hombres perro (Albina and the Dog Men), are set to follow, and an English graphic novel is also in the works. As Kanye West, who is always the first to jump on any bandwagon, said on his recent Jodorowsky-inspired “Yeezus” tour, “I don’t know if … y’all ever heard about Jodorowsky, the director … Y’all don’t know who the fuck he is … Everybody copied off him … And there’s gonna be [more] fuckers in a few months dancing all sloppy off him.”

Mr Happy And The Hammer Of God & Other Stories
Martin Egblewogbe
Ayebia Clarke Publishing, 2012

The setting of Martin Egblewogbe’s debut collection of short stories is mostly in Accra but the space it occupies is Achille Mbembe’s postcolony: “a reality that is made up of superstitions, narratives and fictions that claim to be true in the very act through which they produce the false, while at the same time giving rise to both terror, hilarity and astonishment”. It’s a time-space characterised by different, intersected and entwined threads and themes in tension with one another. Stuck between ghettoisation and globalisation, bureaucracy and chaos, tedium and crisis, exhaustion and acceleration, the characters in these stories have long abandoned ontological questions, preferring to escape into wild flights of existential and metaphysical fancy.

The first eight stories, collected under the typically witty pidgin phrase “They call am ‘lie lie fight’”, combine the poetic and the narrative to create a world where elegance and uncertainty riff against the just plain fucked up. In “To-morrow” the narrator, stuck in a perpetual present where he has “heard it all, over and over and over and over again. War! Victory! Defeat! Cancer! Pain! Love! Resurrection!”, attempts to escape a tomorrow he can never arrive at anyway. In “Small Changes within the Dynamic” we are treated to a sardonic parody of our contemporary reality show-obsessed media culture that’s both grossly disturbing and excruciatingly seductive. “Twilight” is a Kafkaesque meditation on death that leaves both the narrator and the reader wondering, “what has it all been about?”

The second section, titled “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”, contains the epic title story about a man who continues to seek psychiatric treatment for a sickness he knows is actually a “disease of the soul, a problem striking him from the Otherworld”. Integrating the sublime and the mundane, it’s a darkly surreal tale that rides on the unknown yet keeps its plot intact, dragging us through a distorted society that we can’t understand but with writing that ensnares us.

Provocative yet tender, Egblewogbe’s stories are unwaveringly contemporary. They demand to be read now-now.

covers together

 

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