Saturday, 29 January 2011

MY KENYA DAYS by Wilfred Thesiger

I found this randomly in the bottom of a cupboard. Wilfred Thesiger is apparently a fairly famous explorer. Born in 1910, he travelled very widely throughout his life, to areas then wild and untouched.

It is almost like he got in just under the wire: when there were still wild areas of the world that weren't online, or at least on a National Geographic special. This book is written when he is 84, and he clearly feels cramped in our smaller and more interconnected world.

At first glance he would appear to be a typical product of a certain kind of privilege: born in Africa, to a father in the Colonial Service, then Eton, Oxford and a life of travel across Africa and the Middle East, producing books with exceptionally dubious titles: ARABIAN SANDS, VISIONS OF A NOMAD, THE MARSH ARABS. One feels that one gets the picture. However, let me tell you, the picture is not at all what one would think.

He was miserable at Eton and Oxford, and you gets the impression that he scrabbled to get back to Africa like a drowning man. He travelled always on foot (and we're talking across the DESERT, chaps. Across the wilder bits of the African savannah) for months at a time. He travelled, and often lived for long periods (like years) with local people. He was in short, entirely, and amazingly, bush.

Also amazingly, he has managed to write a rather boring book about it. Given this kind of source material, this is quite a feat. It is mostly just an account of dates and places, and people's names, without very much life to them. The rather unfortunate title MY KENYA DAYS gives you a sense of the kind of novelistic ambition we have here. Or don' t have.

It gets most interesting, actually, when he talks about his current life. He is living with some of his travelling companions, Kenyan men, and their families. He eats goat stew every day, sleeps in a room with five other people, and seems terribly happy. He rather charmingly rambles on in old man style about their various dogs, and the funny things they do, and the children: Sandy, Talone, and Bushboy. He talks about how lonely he would be in the flat he still owns for some inscrutable reason in Chelsea, and ends the book with this: “It is here, among those whose lives I share today, that I hope to end my days.”

An impressively original man. One of his books is called THE LIFE OF MY CHOICE, and I kind of felt that I could see that he really he is one of those few who actually do make their own choices.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

ABSENT by John Eppel

I found this a very touching little novel.

It begins like this: “When George J George mistook his white Ford Escort for the moon, he knew that his time was up. He would turn his face to the evening star and, guided by the nests of whitebrowed sparrow-weavers, keep walking.”

This actually gives you quite a neat little sense of the novel; it's absurdity, it's sweetly comic nature, and the way it combines urban and rural, or old and new, Zimbabwe.

Mr George is an English teacher at a private school in Bulawayo. He has started drinking, and is eventually fired when a school boy prank means he hangs a portrait of Ian Smith up where a portrait of Mugabe should be, right before a government visit. His problems only really begin however when he backs his uninsured old car into the spanking new 4x4 of a government minister's mistress. He cannot pay for the damage, and so in a surreal turn of events the mistress, Beauticious, is able to take possession of his house, and he becomes her domestic servant. He is occasionally arrested, when the police chief needs a free English lesson, and becomes weaker and weaker – the implication is he has some kind of cancer of the colon. A small, silent child is abandoned outside the house, and he cares for her. He is able to deduce where she comes from, and determines to walk her back there. He burns all his identity documents and sets off with the child, using his deep knowledge of and love for the bush to guide him. He manages to return the child, and takes himself off to the bush fort where his grandmother was born, to die.

Here's the last lines: “By the time he arrived at Fort Mangwe he was literally crawling on his bloodied hands and knees. The ruin was surrounded by whispering grass. He managed to climb over the low stone wall into what remained of the enclosure where his grandmother had been born, and there he died. George had done his duty.”

This makes ABSENT sound like a rather dark book, and it's not. It's mostly written with a comic edge. Eg. “The verges on either side of the road were teeming with grasses of every variety, testimony to a good rainy season, and a bankrupt municipality.”

This small novel operates on a very lage number of levels. On one level, its a vicious satire on the new economic elite of Zimbabwe: Beauticious and the minister are presented with appalling clarity, with their BMWs they can barely drive, their refusal to return anything they hire, and their sense of entitlement, and on some level the novel could be read as being entirely about the patronage culture.

It could also be read as some kind of arc of the white experience in Africa. The book makes a very confident claim to a coherent white African identity, and let me tell you, that is not something you meet everyday. The passage of his family's silver into the hands of Beauticious is clearly a metaphor that just keeps on giving. The long trek through the bush that George knows and loves so well, back to his family's beginnings, is another.

George is constantly giving English lessons, to Beauticious' children, to the police chief, and the figures of Lear and Hamlet loom large across the story. There is something here about the importance of great books, across all ages and continents, from Europe to Africa. There's also something about retaining your own sense of meaning in the face of general collapse. In this context, George's almost suicidal determination to save one small child who he doesn't even know is curiously touching, and stands as a rebuke to the Zimbabwe he is living in. The last section, where they follow the white-browed sparrow weaver's nests into the bush and towards her home, is very sweet, and very sad.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

THE BOY NEXT DOOR by Irene Sabatini

THE BOY NEXT DOOR tells the story of one Lindiwe, who is mixed race (coloured, in Zimbabwean terms), and lives next door to a white boy named Ian. We are first introduced to the pair as teenagers in the 1980s in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city. Lindiwe is fascinated by Ian, in part because he is suspected of having set his abusive step mother alight, and the 1980s sectin of the novel ends with an aborted attempt by Lindiwe to run away with Ian to South Africa. We move forward some years to find Lindiwe at University. Ian re-enters her life and she is once again fascinated by him. We discover that she became pregnant by him on their trip to South Africa and, keeping it a secret from him, left the baby with her mother. Ian and she become a couple, and take that young boy back. We follow the ups and downs of their relationship, and the growth of their child, into the late 90s.

This book is very successful in recreating the Zimbabwe of the 1990s. This is a period that I actually remember, so it is something I can speak of with confidence. It is however a very 80s kind of 90s, if you know what I mean. Which perhaps you don't. What I mean is this book begins in the 1980s, and the war and the Gukurahundi cast a very long shadow over the book as a whole. This gives the book very much the feel of a book of the older generation. It joins Mukiwa, say, as book for people older than me. I've long noticed that Zimbabweans are divided into those that remember the war, and those that don't. Most books are written for and about people that do, and suggest that the war is the defining episode of Zimbabwean history.

In THE BOY NEXT DOOR we don't go forward past 2000, and into the real Zimbabwean apocalypse. Perhaps because Ms Sabatini had already moved to Switzerland, where she now lives, by that time. For people of my generation, the collapse is of course the defining event.

As I mentioned previously in this blog, I went to a talk by another contemporary Zimbabwen author, Bryony Rheam, who felt that one reason she was finding it hard to be published internationally was the fact that publishers abroad wanted a story that ticked the boxes of political and social comment they expect from Zimbabweans – as if people are not leading private lives in collapsing countries! Ms Sabatini manages to tick boxes left and right.

So, I felt the Zimbabwean scene was well evoked, and the story fairly compelling – the surprise of a child, and the attempt to find a way to live together, all made me want to keep reading. The central mystery, of who set the stepmother alight, is never terribly interesting nor is it neatly resolved, and there's a very unfortunately dubious attempt to get parents' involvement in the war (yawn) to run as theme defining childrens' lives in the present. Here's an excellent, accurate review in the Independent. I wish theatre reviewers would be half as helpful.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen (contd)

The New York Times called FREEDOM “a masterpiece,” and I've seen it frequently referred to as the first great American novel of the 21st century. On the other hand, some critics think it's not all that. I personally think it is all that.

I freaking LOVED this novel. As you could perhaps have predicted from my last post, written intemperately when I was only on page 38. Having now read all 561 pages, I'm here to report that FREEDOM is indeed a very fine novel. That it is also a bestseller goes some distance to restoring my faith in human nature that has been damaged previously in this blog by such painful episodes as PROMISES, PROMISES and THE REVERSAL.

FREEDOM tells the story of a marriage. It begins when Patty and Walter meet as undergraduates in Minnesota (Walter, I must point out, attends my undergrad Macalester). Patty is initially attracted to Walter's best friend, the womanising musician Richard. She eventually marries Walter, as he is madly in love with her, and is a kind and caring man. They build a house in a neighbourhood on the up, have two children, and a relatively happy life. Patty struggles to understand her children as adolescents, is bored with staying at home, and has an affair with Richard. Walter becomes increasingly angry about what he perceives as the world's descent into environmental cataclysm. Eventually the marriage crumbles. Patty has an unsatisfying relationship with Richard, Walter has a satisfying one with his young assistant, and then they get back together again.

This novel is wonderful in a number of ways.
1)It's funny. See first post.
2)It's accurate. For example, on a failing actress:
As if to compensate for her shortness, Abigail went long with her opening speech – two hours long – and allowed Patty to piece together a fairly complete picture of her life: the married man, now known exclusively as Dickhead, on whom she she’d wasted her best twelve years of marriageability, waiting for Dickhead’s kids to finish high school, so that he could leave his wife, which he’d then done, but for somebody younger than Abigail; the straight-man disdaining sort of gay men to whom she’d turned for more agreeable male companionship; the impressively large community of underemployed actors and playwrights and comics and performance artists of which she was clearly a valued and generous member; the circle of friends who circularly bought tickets to each other’s shows and fund-raisers, much of the money ultimately trickling down from sources such as Joyce’s checkbook; the life, neither glamorous nor outstanding but nevertheless admirable and essential to New York’s functioning, of the bohemian.
3)The man can manage a long sentences like there is no tomorrow. Or like he is a Victorian. See 2).
4)It covers an almost mindboggling amount of ground: cotemporary environmental issues, good and bad relationships, sibling rivalry, child-parent relationships, profiteering in the Iraq war, local governance, neighbourliness. It really is bizarrely both a domestic novel and a state-of-the-nation novel

The book comforted me by making me feel that life is long, and most people make a lot of mistakes in it.

I can conceivably see where you might find this book irritating: it is very much about middle class America. There is a big and slightly weird focus on sex as the ultimate determinant of a relationship, and on sibling rivalry as an explanation for all later relationships, which does seems a bit like someone might have had a bit too much therapy.

That said, I still thought it was wonderful.

Friday, 7 January 2011

FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen

I have only just begun this book, but I love it.

Let me give you a sample, describing a small girl:
. . . smitten with books, devoted to wildlife, . . . . not so pretty as to be morally deformed by it . . .

I freaking love it. Or this, description of a young middle class mother pushing her pram through her gentrifying neighbourhood:
Behind her you could see the baby-encumbered preparations for a morning of baby-encumbered errands; ahead of her, an afternoon of public radio, the Silver Palate Cookbook, cloth diapers, drywall compound, and latex paint; and then Goodnight Moon, then zinfandel. She was already fully the thing that was just starting to happen to the rest of the street.

And this, off hand, about a middle aged mother:
Merrie, who was ten years older than Patty and looked every year of it, had formely been active with the SDS in Madison and was now very active in the craze for Beaujolais nouveau.

Thursday, 6 January 2011


This is probably the most insular book I have ever read in my life.

This was a proud title previously held by Antonia Fraser's MUST YOU GO. While respecting that lady's grief, I find her unbearably irritating: the endless annoying name dropping, made more annoying still by the cosy assumption that we all knew to whom the names referred. References to stupid restaurants made more irksome by an assumption that we all knew these stupid restaurants. In short, a book as if the whole world is London, and north west London at that. THE FINKLER QUESTION is absolutely a book in this maddening mould.

Essentially, it tells the story of one Julian Treslove, whose two best friends, Finkler and Libor have both recently been widowed, and who are both Jewish. After a dinner with these two, Treslove is mugged, and believes that the mugger says to him: “You Jules” or “You Ju” or “Your Jew”. Cue a lot of stupid contemporary literature word games, at the end of which Julian decides he must be Jewish, or wants to be Jewish. He starts living with a Jewish woman, and is absorbed into Jewish culture. The characters increasingly feel that anti-semitism is growing, and eventually Libor kills himself, Finkler decides he must defend Israel at last, and Julian has a breakdown. I get irritated just writing down the plot outline.

I'm going to go ahead and tell you that I thought this book was borderline racist. It's been a long time since I read a book so obsessed with ethnicity, and I don't approve of it AT ALL. Maybe it's a Zimbabwean thing. I grew up fighting the good fight in post-Independence Zim very much against that very idea: that you are your ethnicity; that your relationships are or should be bound by your ethnicity; and that your ethnicity has deep importance. I guess I'm still the adolescent I was, because I still don't approve of all this ethnic talk ONE BIT. As if being born Jewish or Gentile or black or white is some fundamental thing we all have to bow down to and be defined by on every level. Total crap.

Also, total self-absorption. He repeatedly says things like “You can divide the world into two halves: those that hate Jews and those that want to be Jewish.” REALLY? I think I'm pretty clear that there might just be a few people in Rwanda, say, who are too busy hating each other for their colour to hate them for their religion. And that's true in many, many other countries. I seriously hadn't even heard of the supposed 'Jewish stereotypes' he (repeatedly) refers to.

It was like talking a bath in someone's navel. Revolting. This is particularly so because the book seems bizarrely unaware of the fact that some other ethnicities in London might also have a few teensy weensy little issues: like, what's least safe walking down the street a) Arab b) Black c) Jewish. Yes, it's not c). There's much apparent debate about the Palestinian issue, which is in fact no debate at all.

Lastly, there are lots of unbelievable weak jokes. Eg: The Finkler Question, instead of The Jewish Question. Oh, the comedy. Oh, my sides ache. Perhaps weak jokes from a clever writer are supposed to charmingly irreverant, or post-modern. Or how about just weak.

Seriously, I can't believe this piece of crap won the Booker. I almost gave up on this thing on page 102, and I am still bitter that I didn't. That's a few hours of my life I'll be regretting on my death bed.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Julius Chingono 1946-2011

Many thanks to Writers International-Zimbabwe and amaBooks for posting news of the sad passing of Zimbabwean poet and short story writer Julius Chingono.

Born in 1946, Chingono was the son of a farmworker, and worked for most of his life as a blaster on the mines. Made redundant in 1999, he worked intermittently as a rock-blasting contractor. WIN - Zimbabwe gives a fine description of his work: "His often deceptively simple poetry was written with compassion and clarity, feeling deeply as he did for the hardships of the poor and marginalised, while his honesty, humour and ironic eye made him a sharp and witty observer of those who abused their station through corruption and hypocrisy." His full obituary can be read here.

The finest tribute to a man is always his work.


An underpaid clerk
came back
from lunch
picking his teeth clean
with a matchstick
to impress a co-worker,
the girl at the switchboard
whose lunch was
steak and chips
Yet his meal was
a half-hour long nap
and half a litre of water
from a tap
in the park.


His eyes are see-through.
Through them I see
a yawning empty bread bin
a fridge stands
by its chilling emptiness
a stove, cold,
sits huddled in a corner
finds nothing to warm up
for mice swept the pantry
before seeking refuge
in refuse pits
in the neighbourhood.
Cockroaches left jackets
on hangers of webs
bills are forming
a small mound
on a formica table.

Yet - whenever I ask
How he is doing
he replies:
'Fine. And you?'

For many more examples, look here, and if you want to hear the man himself, reading his work, please listen here.


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