The Barefoot Woman – Scholastique Mukasonga (tr. Jordan Stump)

Barefoot Woman

“Don’t bear any children, because when you bring them into this world you’re giving them death. You’re not bearers of life anymore, you’re bearers of death.” (p22)

Reports vary on the extent of the Rwandan genocide that occurred in 1994, depending upon the source the numbers fall between 500,000 and one million deaths. An estimated 70% of the Tutsi population were slaughtered, along with 30% of the Pygmy Batwa people.  Tutsi writer Scholastique Mukasonga had settled in France two years prior to the genocide, later leaning that twenty seven of her family members had been massacred.

Prior to fleeing to Burindi and then onto France, Scholastique Mukasonga and her family were displaced, along with a large number of other Tutsi people, to the Bugesera district of Rwanda, an underdeveloped and harsh region. It is the experiences of this life in exile that is the subject of her latest work to be translated in English, ‘The Barefoot Woman’ (tr. Jordan Stump). These tales form an homage to her slain mother, the central driver of each of the ten chapters.

Mama, I wasn’t there to cover your body, and all I have left is words – words in a language you didn’t understand – to do as you asked. And I’m all alone with my feeble words, and on the pages of my notebook, over and over, my sentences weave a shroud for your missing body. (p9)

A powerful, moving and heartbreaking opening to a book that shakes you on almost every page, this is a story of exile, survival, of extremely inhumane acts against the Tutsi. The simple things in life become something to celebrate, to share with her readers, celebration for things we take for granted, like the home;

An inzu (and I’ll keep its name in Kinyarwanda, because the only words French gives me to describe it sounds contemptuous: hut, shanty, shack…). There are precious few houses life Stefania’s left in Rwanda today. Now they’re in museums, life the skeletons of huge beasts dead for millions of years. But in my memory the inzu is not that empty carcass, it’s a house full of life, of children’s laughter, of the young girls’ lively chatter, the quiet singsong of storytelling, the scrape of the grinding stone on the sorghum grains, the bubbling of the jugs full of fermenting beer, and just by the front door, the rhythmic pounding of the pestle in the mortar. How I wish the lines I write on this page could be the path that leads me back to Stefania’s house! (pg 30-31)

A simple foodstuff, like bread, has a raft of associated rituals, memories and actions, a whole chapter alone is dedicated to ‘bread’. And there is the sharing of traditions;

Sorghum is harvested in July, at the start of the dry season. But before that, when the heads have already formed but the grains aren’t quite dry yet, my mother celebrated Umuganura. Umuganura is the name of the festival and also of the sorghum paste you have to eat for the occasion. There was no question of harvesting before the whole family had eaten the first sorghum paste, in accordance with the ritual. No ethnologist had told us that what we were doing was celebrating the first fruits of the harvest, but we knew that Umuganura marked the start of a new year, that this was the time to make wishes so the year ushered in by the sorghum would bring us good fortune. Back then, we knew nothing of the white people’s New Year’s Day. (pgs 43-44)

Colonisation, and the role of the Belgians, their introduced customs, plants, the fact that the Huta authorities were put in charge by the Belgians are also peppered throughout the work;

In the Rwanda of the Belgians or President Kayibanda, joining the church was the surest, smoothest path to “civilization.” In seminaries and convent schools, the clothes, the food, the bedding, everything – or almost – was just like the white people’s. If you were properly fervent in your obedience to the rules of conduct and piety that were imposed on you, then without too much effort you could enter the much-envied ranks of the evolved people. (pgs 90-91)

This collection of what it means to be ostracised, exiled, highlighting numerous small details of not only colonisation, but also the humiliation of extradition in your own country. Details such as the state of one’s feet, the Tutsi in exile worked barefoot, therefore their feet were worn, damaged, cracked. In school they were branded lesser citizens due to the state of their feet! (Hence the book’s title).

Scholastique Mukasonga’s first novel to be translated into English, ‘Our Lady of the Nile’ (tr. Melanie Mauther), was shortlisted for the Dublin Literary Award in 2016 and made the longlist of the 2015 Best Translated Book Award. And instead of a fictionalised account of life as a Tutsi exile, here is a collection on memories, but memories that are not only brutal or shocking, such as the horrific incidents of rape, but also delicate stories of pride, resistance and survival.

A moving and educational work from a voice that has rightfully been published in numerous languages, this is another poignant work from Scholastique Mukasonga and one that should be more widely read. If only the stories of the horrors that exiled people suffered under their original country’s regimes, or more stories of the brutality of colonisation were published, maybe a little more compassion from our world leaders would be forthcoming.

Review copy supplied to me courtesy of the publisher.

Minute-Operas – Frédéric Forte (Translated by Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Monk, Michelle Noteboom & Jean-Jacques Poucel)

Recently I have been posting a few thoughts about books from members of the Oulipo (“The Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle”) and thought it relevant to repost my thoughts on the 2016 NLTA National Translation Awards for Poetry shortlisted ‘Minute-Operas’ by Frédéric Forte.
Frédéric Forte was elected a member of the Oulipo in 2005, shortly after the publication of ‘Minute-Operas’, and two of his other works appear in the recently published ‘All That Is Evident Is Suspect- Readings from the Oulipo 1963-2018’, “99 Preparatory Notes to 99 Preparatory Notes” (tr. Daniel Levin Becker) and “The Pitch Drop Experiment” (tr. Ian Monk).
My original post was back in 2016 and the author was kind enough to visit and comment:
It’s such a pleasure to be read so far from France, very heart-warming…
By the way, the minute-operas are also 3 inches long in the original version, just by chance. Designing the form, I measured a Jacques Roubaud’s sonnet (in one of his Gallimard books) as a benchmark, and it was… 7,62 cm long, which appears to be 3 inches exactly! Very incredible when the work goes this way.
Thanks again for your time and commitment.
This in response to my comment:
Each poem is “Staged” on the page, where a “simple vertical line of 3 inches (I measured the line thinking it would more likely to be in centimetres, but inches it was, I wonder if this is part of the translation or a US audience too?) separates, what Forte calls the stage and the wings”.
Reading more Oulipoen works I have revisited ‘Minute-Operas’ and am still amazed by the typographical delight and the stunning array of word games. If you are interested in the works of the Oulipo this is one to add to your collection – my mind hasn’t changed in 2 and a half years.

Messenger's Booker (and more)

First up from the American Literary Translators Association, 2016 National Translation Awards longlist for Poetry (geez that’s a mouthful), is Minute-Operas by Frédéric Forte (Translated from the French by Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Monk, Michelle Noteboom & Jean-Jacques Poucel).
Stepping into Frédéric Forte’s work is like stepping into a vast sparse gallery space, open space around you, take time to ponder what your eye has been drawn towards. Broken into two sections, “Phase one – January – October 2001” and “Phase two – February – December 2002”. Each section containing 55 “poems” or creations.
Each poem is “Staged” on the page, where a “simple vertical line of 3 inches (I measured the line thinking it would more likely to be in centimetres, but inches it was, I wonder if this is part of the translation or a US audience too?) separates, what Forte calls the stage and the wings”. Typographically the word…

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In Every Wave – Charles Quimper (tr. Guil Lefebvre)

ineverywave

Every day is the day you died. (p43)

As the blurb advises us “a man loses his daughter while swimming one summer’ and this very short novella is a lament, a letter or confessional to a very young daughter lost under tragic circumstances. An event that becomes “just a line or two in the local paper. A tragic accident, a momentary distraction with fatal consequences.” But for our writer that day is relived over and over again, and it is the day where his search for his daughter, in every drop of water, “behind every rock, in every bush, in every wave” begins.

Our protagonist takes his grief into isolation, and the opening two pages bring forth a raft of images;

My voice has changed and it keeps catching me off guard. It isn’t mine anymore. It isn’t even a voice anymore. More like the rasping, creaking sound of a raven or locust. (p10)

Besides the usual associations of bad luck, ravens also connect the material world with the world of spirits, In Greek mythology they are associated with Apollo and were his messengers into the moral world. In Christian lore they protect the bodies of Saints. And locusts are associated with plague proportions, destroying every living thing. Such vivid imagery in a few short sentences.

Our writer of this lament takes his grief to sea, a search for the missing body of his drowned daughter’s body. Gestation is associated with the sea, “as time passes, somewhere deep beneath the surface, the ocean’s belly swells with a rumbling, palpable electric charge.” (p10)

Childhood games are associated with the macabre, “I draw a hopscotch court on the deck with the chalk of my bones. It runs from heaven to hell.” (p62)

Filled with recollections, looping revisits to the fateful day of his daughter’s disappearance, where the memories change, this is a deeply affecting tale of ceaseless grief. A grief that our writer takes into isolation and scribbles, later with a compass tip and squid ink, covering his skin. His grief, his memories, his guilt, all physically become himself.

Looping from the present, to memories of his daughter, and the period between her death and his launching a vessel to sea, this work wholly embodies his grief. Our protagonist explains to his daughter his life since the fateful day where a moment of distraction leads to tragedy. His personal and marriage breakdown, his withdrawal from society, his visions. Akin to an epic poem, every sentence contains a link to her memory.

Did you know that in some very dry countries they string nets among the clouds in the mountaintops? The fog gets trapped in the nets, then trickles down to the villages below.
You’re like one of those nets stretched out inside me. (p61)

In every incarnation of water, he sees his dead daughter, in tears, in drinking water, in rivers, in puddles, in rain, in the sea.

The sheer size of the sea, where our writer searches for his daughter’s body, becomes the sheer size of his grief.

Elias Canetti, in his non-fiction work ‘Crowds and Power’ (translated by Carol Stewart) gives this explanation of the sea as a symbol;

The sea is multiple, it moves, and it is dense and cohesive. Its multiplicity lies in its waves; they constitute it. They are innumerable; the sea-farer is completely surrounded by them. The sameness of their movement does not preclude difference of size. They are never entirely still. The wind coming from outside them determines their motion; they beat in this or that direction in accordance with its command. The dense coherence of the waves is something which men in a crowd know well. It entails a yielding to others as though they were oneself, as though there were no strict division between oneself and them. There is no escape from this compliance and thus the consequent impetus and feeling of strength is something engendered by all the units together. The specific nature of this coherence among men is unknown. The sea, while not explaining, expresses it. (p80)

In this novella the sea represents the writer’s grief.  “It is dense and cohesive”, “never entirely still”, “there is no escape from this compliance”.

An extremely powerful soliloquy that addresses every parent’s fear, losing a child, in a poetic and powerful manner, this is a work that is deeper and more complex than its apparent parts. A very short book that demands re-reading. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see this debut work appear on the Best Translated Book Awards longlist and will be eagerly awaiting Charles Quimper’s later writings.

A review copy of this novella was provided by the publisher QC Fiction, a publisher of contemporary Quebec fiction translated into English.

Life A User’s Manual – Georges Perec (tr. David Bellos) – the tables and lists

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To continue my posts about literature that has unusual, or strict, structures. I’ve been fascinated by the works of the Oulipo for some time, and I eagerly awaited the publication, in late 2018, of ‘All That Is Evident Is Suspect; Readings from the Oulipo 1963-2018’, edited by Ian Monk and Daniel Levin Becker. Naturally the book contains a few references to Georges Perec and his novel ‘Life A User’s Manual’. The “game” continues as I further explore the constraints, rules etc. that Perec employed when writing this book.

‘All That Is Evident Is Suspect; Readings from the Oulipo 1963-2018’ contains writing from the (current) forty-one members of the Oulipo. The piece ‘Un bilboquet d’ébène á boule d’ivoire’ (translated as “Ebony Cup and Ivory Ball”) by Marcel Bénabou, “subtly encloses a phonetic equivalent of its author’s last name”,(note, I’ve made the reference bold and underlined in the title). This is apparently a “trick borrowed from Perec’s ‘Life A User’s Manual’, whose text contains echoes of the names of all the Oulipians at the time” of publication.

So a digging around is required, another game to play with Perec’s novel (translated by David Bellos), let’s start with the members of the Oulipo in 1978 the year the book was published in France:

Noël Arnaud (Founding Member)
Marcel Bénabou 1970
Jacques Bens (Founding Member)
Claude Berge (Founding Member)
André Blavier (Foreign Correspondent)
Paul Braffort 1961
Italo Calvino 1974
Ross Chambers 1961
Stanley Chapman 1961
Marcel Duchamp 1962
Jacques Duchateau (Founding Member)
Luc Etienne 1970
Paul Fournel 1972
Latis (Founding Member)
François Le Lionnais (Co-Founder)
Jean Lescure (Founding Member)
Harry Mathews 1973
Michèle Métail 1975
Georges Perec 1967
Raymond Queneau (Co-Founder)
Jean Queval (Founding Member)
Jacques Roubaud 1966
Albert-Marie Schmidt (Founding Member)

Twenty-three names that could be echoed within “Life A User’s Manual”, however Perec may have not used his own name for the “game” so I could potentially only be looking for twenty-two.

For interest (and completeness) sake let’s add the remaining members of the Oulipo (joined after 1978)

Michèle Audin 2009
Valérie Beaudouin 2003
Eduardo Berti 2014
François Caradec – 1983
Bernard Cerquiglini 1995
Frédéric Forte 2005
Anne F. Garréta 2000
Michelle Grangaud 1995
Jacues Jouet 1983
Hervé Le Tellier 1992
Étienne Lécroat 2012
Daniel Levin Becker 2009
Pablo Martín Sánchez 2014
Clémentine Mélois 2017
Ian Monk 1998
Oskar Pastior 1992
Pierre Rosenstiehl 1992
Olivier Salon 2000

Even the Wikipedia entry for Perec’s novel contains an explanation of the lists he used in composing the work, however I again refer to ‘All That Is Evident Is Suspect; Readings from the Oulipo 1963-2018’, and specifically the entry by George Berge written in 1967 “Letter to Jacques Rouband & Georges Perec”.

Dear Friends,

If our project concerning the use of orthogonal Latin squares is still on the table, as I hope it is, I think one of you will need to take the initiative to convene the sub-sub-co-committee. In the meantime, however, I am sending an extremely rare specimen, found recently by Parker for n = 10: (p32)

Perec

Using my previous post about the 10×10 grid employed for Perec’s novel  , we can see a strong resemblance between George Berge’s letter and the structure of Perec’s novel.

However instead of a simple “ten texts…in which there appear ten characters” with “two attributes, denoted by a capital letter and a lowercase letter”, Perec created a complex system of forty-two lists of ten things. Forty of the lists are broken into ten groups of four, with lists 41 and 42 being “couples”, to add complexity to the puzzle, list 39 is “Manque” (lack) and list 40 is “Faux” (false), these lists were simply numbers 1-10, however if Perec consulted the “Faux” bi-square and found, for example, a “6” in a given cell, he would ensure that the chapter corresponding to that cell would do something “false” when including the particular fabric, colour, accessory or jewel the bi-squares for the lists in group 6 had assigned to the cell/chapter in question.

Confused?

Here is the “List of Lists”

PerecLists

PerecAndList

Thanks to “Ex Libris: Architecture + World Literature” blog (blogs.cornell.edu) for the lists, there was a lot of internet trawling to find them. I have used the official Oulipo site for the list of current members (and members joining dates) at http://www.oulipo.net/

Hoping the “clues” I have posted here lead to further revelations when reading Perec’s novel, you might be able to spot which list is being used in which chapter!!! One day I may get to the riches and anomalies contained in “The Fifty-first Chapter” the only one oddly named (the rest are simply “Chapter xxx”) and the lists that it contains, or maybe the list of 107 “Stories narrated in this manual”…maybe not, after all it’s just a game.

EDIT – I had missed one Oulipien from the list (that’s what happens when you transpose) – apologies to François Caradec (even though he’s deceased), I’ll make up for it by looking at his ‘Dictionary of Gestures’ (tr. Chris Clarke) sometime in the future.

Life A User’s Manual – Georges Perec (translated by David Bellos)

 

UserManual…play is essentially a separate occupation, carefully isolated from the rest of life, and generally is engaged in with precise limits of time and place. There is a place for play: as needs dictate, the space for hopscotch, the board for checkers or chess, the stadium, the racetrack, the list, the ring, the stage, the arena, etc. Nothing that takes place outside this ideal frontier is relevant. To leave the enclosure by mistake, accident, or necessity, to send the ball out of bounds, may disqualify or entail a penalty.
Roger Caillois “Man, Play and Games” (translated by Meyer Barash) p6

Georges Perec’s ‘Life A User’s Manual’ is a place for play, a 580-page game, ninety-nine chapters structured “with precise limits of time and place.”

Here is a work that can be examined on many many levels, today I have chosen to look at the structure of the book, the “play”.

Imagine a building, (possibly) nine storeys high, with a basement, an entrance hall, stairwell, lift and various apartments, no need to image too hard, at the conclusion to the novel there is an outline;

LifeUserMan

Let’s break these rooms down a little further, ten sections, over ten storeys in height, 10×10 – one hundred evenly sized squares:

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I would love to add a credit to the creator of this “map” however all sources (Pinterest etc) do not quote a source.

Let’s now remove the façade from the building and take a snapshot of the detail in each of the squares.

Enter the stairwell, up to half way (the square marked “1” on the image above), you are a knight, the chess piece, and from here you are to move in an ‘L’ shape, you will either move two squares sideways and then one square up or down, or two squares up or down, and then one square sideways. Let’s make this a little easier, as I made my way through the book, I highlighted the completed squares on a printed grid using a different colour each time I completed a part of the book.

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Perec’s novel is a giant chess game, in fact it is many games, chess, a jigsaw puzzle, solitaire, and then there are games within the games;

Let is imagine a man whose wealth is equalled only by his indifference to what wealth generally brings, a man of exceptional arrogance who wishes to fix, to describe, and to exhaust not the whole world – merely to state such an ambition is enough to invalidate it – but a constituted fragment of the world: in the face of the inextricable incoherence of things, he will set out to execute a (necessarily limited) programme right the way through, in all its irreducible, intact entirety.
In other words, Bartlebooth resolved one day that his whole life would be organised around a single project, an arbitrarily constrained programme with no purpose outside its own completion. (p117)

At the novel’s core, and he does sit near the centre of the building, is Bartlebooth and his mission to paint five-hundred watercolours at various locations on the planet, have the paintings made into jigsaw puzzles, which he will complete and then return those paintings to their place of origin and have them reduced back to blank paper. “A fragment of the world” that is futile, “A single project, an arbitrarily constrained programme with no purpose outside its own completion.”

Throughout this journey, there are hundred and hundreds of asides, games played in rooms, crossword puzzles, futile meditations, hints for the reader to solve the unsolvable, and a cast of thousands (well probably 100’s, there is a 59 page Index listing all of the references, it forms part of the game – as well as a checklist for “some of the stories narrated in this manual”).

As the reader travels into the depths of a painting, or along with an historical story, you are stopped in your tracks and returned to the concrete world of 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, the building where you will need to move as the knight into another space, and another puzzle.

Sometimes Valène had the feeling that time had been stopped, suspended, frozen around he didn’t know what expectation. The very idea of the picture he panned to do and whose laid-out, broken-up images had begun to haunt every second of his life, furnishing his dreams, squeezing his memories, the very idea of this shattered building, laying bare the cracks of its past, the crumbling of its present, this unordered amassing of stories grandiose and trivial, frivolous and pathetic, gave him the impression of a grotesque mausoleum raised in the memory of companions petrified in terminal postures as insignificant in their solemnity as they were in their ordinariness, as if he had wanted both to warn of and to delay these slow or quick deaths which seemed to be engulfing the entire building storey by storey; Monsieur Marcia, Madame Moreau, Madame de Beaumont, Bartlebooth, Rorschach, Mademoiselle Crespi, Madame Albin, Smautf. And himself, of course, Valène himself, the longest inhabitant of the house. (p127)

The book contains such oddities as family trees, newspaper articles, map titles, visiting cards, shop signs, chessboard diagrams, advertisements, to name only a few items, keeping the playfulness bubbling along.

Ahhh, but there are one hundred squares, and only ninety-nine chapters? Yes, there’s a blank square, a missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle, how could a user’s manual on life be complete?

Returning to Roger Caillois;

Thus games are not ruled and make-believe. Rather, they are ruled or make-believe. It is to the point that if a game with rules seems in certain circumstances like a serious activity and is beyond one unfamiliar with the rules, i.e. if it seems to him like real life, this game can at once provide the framework for a diverting make-believe for the confused and curious layman. Once easily can conceive of children, in order to imitate adults, blindly manipulating real or imaginary pieces on an imaginary chessboard, and by pleasant example, playing at “playing chess.”
“Man, Play and Games” (translated by Meyer Barash) p9

I urge you to step into 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, dressed as a knight of course, head up the stairs, and take your instructions from Georges Perec, you’ll enter a second reality!

Compass – Mathias Enard (translated by Charlotte Mandell) – 2017 Man Booker International Prize

Compass1

Early in Mathias Enard’s Prix Goncourt winning novel “Boussole”, translated as “Compass”, our protagonist Franz Ritter references Marcel Proust’s “À la recherche du temps perdu”, translated as both “Remembrance of Things Past” or more recently as “In Search of Lost Time”, the second volume of such, “A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs”, also winning the Prix Goncourt in 1919.

Using “The Literary 100, A Ranking of the most influential novelists, playwrights, and poets of all time” by Daniel S. Burt” (published by Checkmark Books 2001), as a reference tool, Proust comes in at number 17;

“In Proust’s hands childhood, memory, the complexity of society, and sensibility gain a new subtlety that makes previous treatment primitive in comparison.” (p 63)

Similarly, Enard’s novel breaks ground, referencing memory, complex societies, sensibility and subtlety, unlike any other work on the 2017 Man Booker International Prize list, in fact unlike any work published in the last year.

A novel that takes place in the course of a single night, whilst our protagonist the musicologist Franz Ritter, fighting insomnia, relays his memories, the merging of the Orient and the Occident, and his desires for the unattainable Sarah.

I had slept like a log in a neat little inn in the heart of a village that had seemed to me (maybe because of the fatigue of the journey or the dense fog on the roads snaking between the hills coming from Graz) much more remote that the organizers had said, slept like a log, now’s the time to think of that, maybe now I should also find a way to tire myself out, a long train trip, a hike in the mountains or a visit to seedy bars to try and get my hands on a ball of opium, but in the Alsergrund it’s not very likely I’ll fall upon a band of Iranian teriyakis, opium-smokers: unfortunately Afghanistan, victim of the markets, exports mostly heroin, an even more terrifying substance than the pills prescribed by Dr Kraus, but I have high hopes, high hopes of finding sleep, and if not in time the sun will certainly get around to rising. (p 38)

Throughout there are borders everywhere, Europe to the Orient, the unrequited love Franz has for Sarah, Tehran, Damascus, Aleppo, Turkey and moving to the “far east”. All presented in the long rambling style readers of Enard’s first English published novel, “Zone” (also translated by Charlotte Mandell), would be familiar with. This time not a single sentence work, however an internalised monologue from a struggling man.

You have to be Heine to be able to outline in this way, in ten lines, the story of a defunct love; the fine, witty Henri Heine, as Théophile Gautier calls him, Heine who asks him, as the hashish-smoker is about to leave for Constantinople, in Paris at a concert of Liszt’s, with his German accent full of humour and mischievousness: ‘How will you manage to talk about the Orient when you’re actually there?’ A question that could have been put to all travellers to Istanbul, so much does the journey diffuse its object, disseminating and multiplying it in reflections and details until it loses its reality. (p88)

This complex, but thoroughly engaging work, is a journey into the seduction of the Orient; “The Orient is an imaginal construction, an ensemble of representations from which everyone picks what they like, wherever they are.” A novel that contains stories within stories, as Franz reads old emails, research papers, dwells on moments of joy, sadness. The historical lessons, for example the revolution in Tehran, containing the players the Shah of Iran and the Ayatollah Khomeini, abound. The present-day war in Syria not far from the surface and referenced a number of times.

We remained travellers, closed in the self, capable, possibly, of transforming ourselves in contact with alterity, but certainly not of experiencing it profoundly. We are spies, we make the rapid, furtive contact of spies. (p 233)

Whilst thoroughly engaging throughout, this is not a book that can be easily reviewed, a mere reader like myself, falling deep in the shadows of Enard’s greatness and knowledge. One suggestion I do have, is to play the musical works referenced by the musicologist Franz Ritter as you are reading, publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions have put together a playlist at their blog  personally I simply searched each work as it was referenced and hit “play” (the joys of modern technology!) A novel that is very much of our times (although a retrospective journey of memory);

It’s strange to think that today in Europe one so easily places the label “Muslim’ on anyone who has a last name that’s Arabic or Turkish. The violence of imposed identities. (p 327)

The acknowledgements at the conclusion of the book, including “To the Syrian people”.

This night of insomnia, this search for the turning points in his life, the search for Orientalism becomes “A mystical search without any god or transcendence other than the depths of the self…” (p445). Very much like the referenced Proust this journey of Franz Ritter’s is one that will linger for a very long time, a love story, with a person, with a region, with a country, with a culture, this is a deep and significant contribution to literature in translation.

Personally, I think this is the standout work on the 2017 Man Booker International Prize list, a book that will be remembered for many years to come. If they are rewarding literary merit then surely this should be a certainty to lift the prize, if they are looking at promoting literature in translation, then things become a little shakier, as it is not a simple read, a straightforward narratively driven book, but this is a book for our times. I could easily use the “Literary 100” quote and simply replace Proust with Enard, well maybe not the childhood part as much… “In Enard’s hands childhood, memory, the complexity of society, and sensibility gain a new subtlety that makes previous treatment primitive in comparison.” (p 63)

 

Black Moses – Alain Mabanckou (translated by Helen Stevenson) – 2017 Man Booker International Prize

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The lomglist of France’s pre-eminent literary award, the Prix Goncourt, contained fifteen works in 2015, with two of those books now appearing on the Man Booker International Prize longlist in 2017. Mathias Enard’s “Compass’ (originally titled “Boussole” and now translated by Charlotte Mandell) eventually took out the award with “Black Moses” (originally titled “Petit Piment”, ‘Small Pepper”) making the final eight titles, however not the final four. The Prix Goncourt going through three selection processes before the winner is announced.

For interest sake, here are the four titles that made the final selection listing, Nathalie Azoulai “Titus n’aimait pas Bérénice”, Mathias Enard “Boussole”, Héde Kaddour “Les Prépondérants”, and Tobie Nathan “Ce pays qui te ressemble”. Maybe a few of these will make their way into English over the coming years!

Alain Mabanckou’s “Black Moses” takes place both in and not far from the coastal City of Pointe-Noire in the Republic of Congo, on the central west coast of Africa.

Our protagonist is an orphan, named “Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko” or “Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors”, a name given to him by Papa Moupelo, the priest at the orphanage in Loango where he grows up.

The orphanage is ruled with an iron fist by the Director Dieudonné Ngoulmoumako, and once the country falls to a Socialist revolution the much-loved priest Papa Moupelo no longer arrives at the orphanage and his room is emptied, a sign being erected on the door;

MEETING HUT FOR THE NATIONAL
MOVEMENT OF PIONEERS OF THE SOCIALIST
REVOLUTION OF CONGO

Of course religion disappears, and the corruption begins, the nephews of the Director, on his father’s side are promoted, on his mother’s side left to their current jobs.

It does not fall to everyone to become a section leader of the Union of Socialist Youth of Congo. The government sifted through the applications carefully, taking account of the ethnic origin of the candidates. As the northerners were in power – in particular the Mbochis – the leaders of the USYC were also Mbochis, an ethnic group which represented a scant 3.5 per cent of the national population. In other words, Dieudonné Ngoulmoumako had had to fight to fix the appointment of his three nephews, who were not Mbochi from the north, but Bembé from the south. In fact he had only partly got what he wanted because although they accepted his request, the political leaders of the Kouilou region suggested he go halves: his nephews could be section leaders, but under the command of the two nothereners, Oyo Ngoki and Mokélé Mbembé, who in turn would be accountable to the national division at the annual congress in Brazzaville, to be attended by the President of the Republic himself. (pp26)

The story becomes a tale of propaganda, and censored histories and a potted history of Communist rule in Congo and Angola, through Moses reciting the President’s speeches or through his interactions with the adults in the orphanage;

Suddenly serious, she adjusts her glasses: ‘I am the fruit of that one-night encounter, during which my mother may have said nothing, since she spoke no Spanish, and my father kept silent too, as he spoke neither French not any one of the dozens of languages of our country. My father, I’m told, was tall, handsome, with light brown eyes. I get my light skin from him; when I was young I was both teased and envied for it. People made fun of it because you could see straight away I wasn’t as black as the Congolese girls, so I had to be a bastard, “a Cuban”, which meant my mother must have gone with some soldier either because she wanted to have a child who was less black, or because she was secretly working as a prostitute near the military camps on the border, but I favour the first possibility. Yes, she did want to have a child with lighter skin, because at the time that represented a kind of superiority, it was silly, but it was all part of the complex we had about white people, anything white was superior, everything black was doomed, with no future, no tomorrow, are you still with me, Moses my friend…?’ (pp64)

A book that is split equally into two sections, the orphanage to begin with and then the streets of Pointe-Noire to conclude, we follow “Black Moses (or “Little Pepper” if you prefer his other nickname and the original title) through a disadvantaged life. Note – there is a small closing section, however in order not to give away spoilers I will not give details here.

An enjoyable read this is a book filled with references to anti-heroes throughout literature;

Behind the twins and the Tékés, I noticed the silhouettes of the three strange men we called ‘The Three Mosquiteers’, because they draped themselves in mosquito nets from dawn to dusk, convinced that the mosquitoes of the Côte Sauvage were only targeting them.

The Three Mosquiteers? There were four of them actually, if you counted their accomplice, the one-legged stammerer, though he didn’t cover himself with a mosquito net like the others. Since his other leg was missing, the stammerer couldn’t use one of his arms to arrange the mosquito net as it was busy compensating for the absence of his left leg. If he had had the full complement of limbs, he’d have done as the other three Mosquiteers did. That was the evening I realised that we in fact had four Mosquiteers with us, and the fourth, the one-legged stammerer, the youngest and most hot-headed of them, was only fourteen years old… (pp117)

Even the street gangs are open to corruption; “Now I understood why they ‘worked’ less and less and had taken a bit of a bourgeois turn.” (pp137), this is not simply a political or emotionally difficult story, it is also a story littered with joyful, humorous anecdotes;

‘Little Pepper, I’ll be frank with you: I think you need help. Your situation isn’t just serious, it’s completely and utterly desperate…’

For years he would continue to sing this refrain, as my memory problems affected my gait and I started to walk in zigzags because it completely slipped my mind that the shortest route from one point to another is a straight line, which is why, as they say around here, drunkards always come home late.

Using a few details of the biblical Moses’ story, abandoned orphan, exile, and other references that could be spoilers, and mixed with the tale of Robin Hood, a renegade here working for the prostitutes of the east and the “poor”, and blended with a tale of a nation moving from French to Communist rule, this is a very readable novel. The downside being it is yet another African novel set in an orphanage, for some strange reason these seem to be the African works I come across when dabbling with translated works from that continent.

Through a coming-of-age story it is also a metaphor for the maturation of a nation, Black Moses’ story is playful, horrific, enjoyable and moving, all at the same time and it is also a story that contains a glimmer of hope.

Can it win the 2017 Man Booker International Prize? Given the lack of African representation in recent years it may garner a few sympathy votes, but I see it as one of the solid entries that is filling the middle of the pack, just a little short of lifting the main gong. Whilst I rate it highly on my list of longlisted books read to date, I feel it will fall short on the night the winner is announced. Only time will tell…