Sunday, November 22, 2009

26. "Incidents at the Shrine" by Ben Okri

Title: Incidents at the Shrine
Author: Ben Okri
Genre: Short Stories
Publishers: Vintage
Pages: 136
Year of First Publication: 1986 (this edition, 1993)
Country: Nigeria

Incidents at the Shrine is a collection of eight short stories by Ben Okri, the 1991 Booker Prize winner (with Famished Road). These eight short stories touch on different aspects of life within Nigeria and in the World at large. Though the stories are varied, a common theme threading through this novel is the magical reality that underlies Okri's writing.

In 'Laughter Beneath the Bridge', the Biafran war is told from the viewpoint of a ten year old boy. If it had never occurred to you that wars could also affect the emotional life of younger children then read this short piece. Children and women had most often being cited as the victims of war but the emphasis has mostly been placed  on their geographical and psychological dislocation. However, this short piece tells of how this ten-year old boy lost a girl he loves, but couldn't tell her, to the ravages of war simply because she was from the rebel tribe and could not speak properly the soldiers' language.

In 'Converging City' we meet Agodi, a Christian, as he goes through series of disasters and losses including the loss of his shed, wife, children and mind. However, this short piece tells more than just Agodi and his troubles. It also tells of a military leader or head of state, who, fearing another coup d'état, as a result of vision he had in traffic, decided to relinquish power to elected civilian government; and there is a midget who goes about advertising his protective prowess through physical demonstrations of his strength. What happens when Agodi the Christian meets Ajasco Atlas, the Indian trained ex-wrestler?

A depressed Taxi driver (a Nigerian perhaps) chanced upon the a quarter of a million pounds left behind by a 'big' Nigerian (perhaps a politician) whilst on his way to Marks and Spencer. 'Disparities' is about this Taxi driver who is not fitting in into the culture or who has not
"... acquired the most ritual trappings of culture" (page 38).
This story, and in fact most of the stories in this collection, reads like an allegory. The parallelism between the story and the helplessness of life in general for many Africans comes clear from the lines:
"... Then I remembered the briefcase. Hungry, wet haunted by the faces of the anguished Nigerian, I shouted: 'There is a quarter of a million pounds floating in the river'. ... The Thames soon swarmed with a quarter of a million pirates, rogues and hassled people who had long since had enough. They bobbed and kicked, a riot on the waters, for a leather briefcase that would open up a feverish haven of dreams and close up, for ever, the embattled roomful of desires. ..." (page 50)
'Incidents at the Shrine', the title of the collection, is a very deep story that speaks on more levels than it reads. As is, it tells of a man who was pursued by images and had to run to his village to meet the Master Image Maker, who would solve all his problems but even then, not fully. To me it is more allegorical, representing the suffering age and its maddening appendage. What then are the incidents at the shrine?
'The world is the shrine and the shrine is the world' (page 60).
Thus, the incidents in the world are the problems faced by Anderson or Ofuegbo or Azzi or Jeremiah. They are unseen but their effects are clear. When they become visible, they are only to the problem-bearing ones and none else and that even though they wouldn't go, it is best to attack it head on as Anderson did.

Though the blurb explained 'Hidden History' as the decay of a British inner city, I only read it, like the others, allegorically; specifically as the history of Africa with its dictators and leaders being the List Maker and the generations who came later as the latter-day freedom-fighting Africans: those that had come to challenge the List Makers, after they had
'one by one shamefully, like disgraced people left' (page 82).
Even though the later generations
'...had inherited the myth of the street of hate' (page 87/88),
they had also come to drive the List Maker
'... into a corner' (page 88).
Other stories in the collection include: Masquerades, Crooked Prayer and The Dream-Vendor's August. What is a child's view of life in a semi-modern African home where the father is prevented, by Christianity and perhaps Westernisation, from taking on another wife even though his wife cannot bear him a child but still goes ahead to impregnate a no-body? This is the depth of Okri's novels. He tackles issues from unlikely sources and his novels are almost always like an open architecture: it has several threads of understanding. I really enjoyed this novel especially the ones that seemed more spiritual and magical.

Okri's ability to weave stories interesting stories with the capability of virtually arresting the attention of the reader is supreme. I really enjoyed it and would recommend this novel unreservedly. I know you would like it.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

25. "In the Heart of the Country" by J.M. Coetzee

Title: In the Heart of the Country
Author: J.M. Coetzee
Genre: Novel (Dystopian, Lust, Murder)
Publishers: Vintage
Pages: 151
Year of First Publication: 1977 (this edition, 2004)
Country: South Africa

"Today my father brought home his new bride."
This is the sentence that set the novel, In the Heart of the Country, in motion and around which every deed in the novel revolves. Set in one of South Africa's remote farming communities, the novel, written in the first person's narrative style and in the present tense and set in the form of journal entries with numbered paragraphs, tells the story of how an old and psychotic virgin, Magda, killed her father and her father's black mistress, Klein-Anna, whom she describes as the new bride, but who in actuality was the wife of Magda's father's servant, Hendrik.

In the novel, Magda writes of killing her father in two very different scenarios. In the first scenario, she kills her father together with his mistress with a hatchet, whereas in the second instance she shoots him and left him to his eventual death.

Magda consistently rues about her inability to love and be loved, her ugliness, her frustration of having not had sex and not knowing how it feels like to have it and therefore having not become a woman like Klein-Anna, though she is far older than her and usually referred to her as 'child'. However, Magda's active mind, romanticized and lusted after Hendrik always thinking of how Hendrik was going to have sex with her forcefully and it wasn't after the death of her father that she allowed Hendrik to humiliate her sexually and even in her humiliation she begged for more: to be satisfied. But did all these happened?

Pain and pleasure was one of the themes the novel explored. However, in all of these pleasure seemed to be a faint thing and even where they occurred they were overcome with pain. This characteristic made the novel  dystopian and distressful:
"Pleasure is hard to come by, but pain is everywhere these days, I must learn to subsist" (page 38).
Each paragraph is like a jigsaw puzzle which, in most cases, tells of a different activity than the preceding entry, but which together forms the complete story of Magda and her fantasies. The borderline between psychosis and reality was so blurred that it was in the end that it is seen that perhaps Magda's father wasn't dead and that she is alone in the middle of a vast countryside home shut behind a series of bolted rooms all alone and ruing.

Even though the novel provides the life account of a psychotic unmarried woman who has a "hole that has never been filled..." there are several instances where the book provides the psychology behind human behaviour, which I found it hard to have been conceived by a lonely mad woman. For instance concerning her father's love for his servant's wife she stated that:
"...the truth is that he needs our opposition, our several oppositions, to hold the girl away from him, to confirm his desire for for her, as much as he needs our opposition to be powerless against that desire. It is not the privacy that he needs but the helpless complicity of watchers. " (page 37).
However, psychosis and genius have had little point of departure. In the Heart of the Country being the second of Coetzee's novels I have read, after Dusklands, makes certain aspect of his writing clearer to me. His use of sounds: alliteration, assonance and rhyme are very unique though subtle. Coetzee's writings also depict him as someone who have enough knowledge in many different fields of study.  He provides examples of issues from varied fields ranging from Music, to Mathematics, Physics, Psychology and many others. Only about ten percent of the novel involves dialogue.

Whilst I was reading this novel, an idea struck me: what if this is an allegory of man's suffering on earth? This novel is highly recommended and though I have not read his more popular novels, I believe Coetzee is worth a reading.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Wall

It fell
Because there was no base
Because the top was too heavy

It fell
Because what we see do not matter
It is what we do not see that matters most

It fell
Because it was neither built
In our hearts nor in our minds

It fell
Because it was not there
Because it was a phantom of a wall

copyright 2007 by Nana Fredua-Agyeman

Saturday, November 07, 2009

24. Cloth Girl by Marilyn Heward Mills

Title: Cloth Girl
Author: Marilyn Heward Mills
Publishers: Cassava Republic
Genre: Novel (Love, Tradition, Life)
Pages: 371
Year of First Publication: 2006 (this edition, 2008)
Country: Ghana

Set in the Gold Coast between 1937 and 1952, Cloth Girl is a story about love, distress, heartbreaks and regrets. Cloth Girl is a story about a fourteen-year old girl trapped in a polygamous marriage for which tradition and convention demand that she remains silence and counts her marriage as a blessing, for what a woman should expect from marriage is not love, but children and a husband to take care of her children.

Seizing their chance to be associated with the prominent Bannerman family, the Lamptey family accepted  marriage proposal from Lawyer Bannerman for fourteen year old Matilda. At such a young age and being a woman, Matilda did not have a say in her marriage, though it concerned her life. However, Matilda, who was to become a second wife to this prominent Gold Coast lawyer with degrees from Cambridge could not construct a complete sentence in English and had to compete with lawyer's first wife, sophisticated Julie, a woman who was out of touch with tradition and so would not accept her as her husband's second wife, and hence a co-wife, for lawyer's attention, affection and love.

Whilst Matilda's life was unfolding before her, Alan Turton, a British citizen serving in the colony was also having serious marital problems with his wife, Audrey Turton, who was determined not to be happy with life in the colony. Audrey hated Alan, for bringing her into this cesspool of uncivilised people who urinates into open gutters, eats food infested with flies and who are infected with unnamed diseases; into a place where the weather is so hot and the earth so barren. Audrey hated everyone who was in the colony, or related to it. For instance, she hated the King of England for even deciding to civilised these people who cannot be civilised, Hitler for embarking on the World War, just when they (she and Alan) were about to set sail to England, the people in the colony for needing to be civilised in the first place. Later, she resorted to heavy drinking and smoking.

However, Matilda's and Audrey's lives were to meet at a point that was to determine their individual destiny. How could the life of a girl whose command of the English language is so poor that she grins foolishly at every word that is uttered and who lives at Jamestown, a typical Ga settlements, give hope to a hopeless and drunk wife of the ADC to the governor, a woman who had walked on the verge of madness and lives in the European quarters and who moves among the glitterati of the colony including the Governor of the colony?

This is how complicated Marilyn's debut novel is. It is absorbing, suspenseful, and  a difficult-to-put-down novel. Marilyn's description of the traditional Lampteys, the semi-western Bannermans, and the western Turtons and her command of tradition are indicative of someone who has been on both sides of the divide and understands both with equal measure. In the novel, Matilda's father was a sidelined figure as is the case in most families that practice the matrilineal inheritance system in Ghana. In such an inheritance system, a man is responsible for his sisters' children so that whilst Matilda's blood father, Owusu, was alive and around, Saint John, Matilda's mother's brother, served as the father figure for Matilda, giving her up for marriage and attending to familial issues that require the attention of a man.

This is a very beautiful story of life in a polygamous marriage well told by someone who has done here work well. The story elicits the right emotions, taking the reader through an emotional roller-coaster: at one breadth hating Audrey whilst sympathising with Alan and at another time having a reverse of these emotions. It was easy to pity Matilda through until she allowed herself to be misled (though not entirely her fault).

Whereas Cloth Girl tells the marriage and life story of Matilda (and Audrey) it is also a story about two women who want freedom, respect and love in very diverse forms. This is a book I would highly recommend to all those who love to read and all those who enjoyed Buchi Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood. My only problem with the novel is that sometimes I think Matilda's thoughts were a bit deep for a 14-year old, but even so it did take nothing from the enjoyability of the novel for the 1930s were the period where people take on family responsibilities earlier and women, especially, were encourged to mature early for marriage. Also, I believe the publishers could have done more considering the numerous blunders they committed, such as an O with an accent on the top as a symbol for inverted commas ('). On one occasion the reader had to jump a page to continue a sentence and later come back.
______________________
Cloth Girl was shortlisted for the Costa Awards Debut Novel of the Year in 2006.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Horrorscope

we die twice:
when we are dead
and when we finally die!

Over the horizon…

Harbinger hoppers of damnable doom
Darken the sank-sun heavens
The green-earth shrivels into ashes

Fallow feast of fire
Embalms our grasshouse in teary wool
Explosions in our cooking pots
Our fireplace goes raining
And survivalist vultures swirl
In a satisfying dinner dance

Human hearts in scavenging jaws;

Death harvesters
With scrotum eyes
In rage’s mortal companionship
Define the shrine for our spice-sacrifice

The storms feast from our foundering boat
The mother-toad’s spawned eggs
Feed the hatching fishes;

One-third, one-half, one
All buried beneath a black earthen boil
To produce tasteless tubers—
Human humus post-humously honoured
In yield to kiss spectral lips

…those cowries
Two to keep our eyes open
Four for the barrel to shatter our hearts
…and our hearts are shattered
…and our eyes closed

Our hollow ribs blow death’s deep horn
Our horrible deaths dribble the soulless Horn.

(As seen through the Horrorscope)

by Nana Fredua-Agyeman                                              
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