Saturday, July 27, 2013

251. Ama - a Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade by Manu Herbstein

Ama - a Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade (374; Techmate) by Manu Herbstein won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Best First Book in 2002. It explores, boldly, one of the darkest moments of human history when human beings (blacks from Africa) were traded like articles or farm animals. Assessed for defects - muscles, clear eyes, etc. - and for profitability. Thus, in that period, black men and women were no different from livestock - in treatment and in conception. 

Manu Herbstein painfully peels off the gangrenes from our necrotic wounds to show us our painful complicity as Africans in our own enslavement and therefore our debasement. To this extent Manu is in league with Ayi Kwei Armah, who in his books - Two Thousand Seasons and The Healers - showed how far we went as Africans, how lowly we bowed, how stupidly we grovelled, and how greedily we participated in our own destruction. Armah called the chiefs who stupidly surrendered our sovereignty for perks of mirror, Schnapps, and shiny clothing, Ostentatious Cripples. In Manu's work, there were such chiefs. Though this theme should have been a fodder ground for African novelists, it has hardly been touched and those who did preferred to romanticise the Africa of the time, thus narrating half the story. What most writers care to write about are the effects of the slave trade and not the event itself - at least not the entire chain of events. And those who do are academicians who only discuss it in essays and academic writings thus taking the story away from the larger majority to whom such academic discourse remains a mystery. It is in the light of this that Manu's well-researched novel plays an important and significant role in the telling of this horrific story, this stain in human history.

The story follows one character Nandzi, a Bekpokpam girl, who was captured by the Bedagbam slave hunters in present day northern Ghana, as part of hundreds of slaves who had to be sent to the King of the Asantes as payment for the annual tax placed on them by the latter after a defeat in a war. Thus, as Nandzi moved from her home village to Yendi and then from there to Kumase, the capital of the Asante Kingdom, her story - which is synonymous to the story of the slave trade - unfolds in graphic details. In Kumase she was given as a gift to the Asantehemaa (the Queenmother of the Asantes), where she worked as a servant girl and where the name Ama was given her. But a misfortune befell her when after the death of the ailing king, the young one who succeeded him, Osei Kwadwo, fell in love with him. To avoid embarrassment to the kingdom, she was sold to the slave traders along the coast to be shipped across the sea. Thus, Manu's story is more than the story of the Atlantic slave trade. It is also about the internal slavery that existed among ethnic groups of the time. For Ama was first an internal slave to the Asantes before she was sold to the Dutch and would have forever remained so had it not being her poor judgement.

Another important issue this book raises was those macabre traditions that existed at the time like beheading of people - mostly non-royals - upon the death of a king, for burial. Here Manu's dexterity in bringing images alive with his precise words, made these macabre and grisly parts difficult to read. However, they are also important and contribute to the story of the slave trade; for they show how far we have come as a people.

The role the autochthons played in the slavery enterprise were not limited to the supply of men, but also included its funding, and even directly buying and selling of slaves to support their acquired taste for those foreign goods the slave ships bring in when coming to load the slaves. This is clear in the case of Augusta, a black woman who was neck-deep in the trade herself. Also, some of the people - chiefs and elders and other denizens - worked to keep the slave trade bourgeoning and physically fought those who opposed them. An instance of this occurred in another location, possibly on the more western part of Africa (Senegal). Tomba, the son of a man who himself had escaped from chains and a woman whom the man had saved from being transported as a slave, had worked to prevent several potential slaves from being shipped abroad. Consequently, he established a village with these freed slaves and together attacked every ship that docked at the village to purchase men and women and children as slaves. With time the business became unprofitable as ships docked less and less. However, the people of the village - unhappy with this decline in trade and wealth - enlisted the help of a captain of a ship that had come to dock, attacked Tomba and his men with sophisticated weapons and arrested them as slaves. 

The conditions in the dungeons, where the captured men and women were kept, the persistent rape of the women, beating of the women who resisted, the conditions on the slave ships, the conditions they met the on the ship, and the work the slaves are put to were discussed in their heart-wrenching details. The diseases and the deaths were more than a person should bear, yet it became their lives. Ama was raped by several men as she made her way from her native village to the Edina where the Elmina Castle was (is) located. First she was raped by Abdulai, leader of the the slave hunters who took her from her home; then by Akwasi Anane, a drunk Asante who was to watch over them as they journeyed to Kumase; then by Jensen, who became the new Mijn Heer after the death of Debruyn; and Jesus Vasconcellos, when she was taken to Brazil. And there were those who took her, and to whom she gave herself, because there were no other choices to be made. This included De Bruyn, who took her as his partner, renamed her Pamela, lived with her for several years, thought her to read and write and do maths, and was ready to marry her before his sudden death; and Captain David Williams - captain of the slave ship The Love of Liberty, when she planned for their escape. Some reviewers discussed Ama's treatment as a metaphorical representation of Africa in general and women in particular. Here Ama becomes that Africa raped by its European invaders, colonisers, and neo-colonisers, and also by its Eurocentric and parochial Africans whose thoughts are filled with the satisfaction of their personal needs, regardless of the means. Today, there still are the Tombas and Amas fighting to liberate the continent from the shackles of economic slavery, and the Augustas and Tomba's opponents who work to benefit themselves. 

The role of Christianity in entrenching slavery cannot be overlooked. In fact, no matter how one looks at it, it will be difficult to deny that Christianity was deeply embedded in the enslavement of the people and the slave trade itself. It is exceedingly shocking that the irony was lost to the slaves who took up the religion. However, Ama - having learnt how to read and write, noticed the irony that existed in that religion including the part of the Lord's Prayer "as we forgive those who trespassed against us..." (P. 230). Even though the missionaries were preaching the love of God towards man, they asked blacks to be meek. Thus, it created and entrenched the idea that the black man was not the man God was referring to in the bible, for even in the presence of God there was discrimination and the relegation of blacks.

This relation between the white and the blacks regarding culture and how the blacks were aping the whites is the theme of Kobina Sekyi's The Blinkards and The Anglo-Fante Short Story. However, in no one did this cultural buffoonery reach an apogee of disastrous proportions than in Reverend Philip Quaque, a chaplain at the Cape Coast Castle. This historical figure, as are many of the characters in this story, would not speak in his native language - Fante - and would not respond when spoken to in it. He considered English as a divine and civilising language. In fact, he considered his native Fantes who weren't Christians and who could speak no English as pagans and their names heathenish. To complete this absurd transformation he married a white lady. Also, like the character in Sekyi's play, most families saw the marriage of their daughters to the white men as key to success and like in the case of Taguba, sometimes mothers kidnapped and sold their daughters into such unions. However, this obsequious grovelling before the white man was not restricted to only the supposedly free folks but also those in his chains exhibited such reverential tendencies. Sometimes even the oppressed (the shackled and manhandled slaves) still grovel and marvelled at the white man's beauty and intelligence.
"Me broni," said another to a young seaman, "wo ho ye fe se anoma," meaning, "My precious white man, you are as beautiful as a bird" [228]
There were several sources of disunity among blacks that worked against them; sources, which are as germane to our unity and development today as they were at the time of slavery. The first is the role of language. With almost every ten slaves [my speculation] speaking a different language and none capable of understanding the other, this Babel of tongues worked against them. Thus, when Ama worked to free the slave ship from the captain, it was this which acted as a barrier to their freedom. Unable to understand each other, the escape was botched and the culprits punished so severely that some died and were fed to the sharks and others lost parts of their bodies; Ama for instance, lost an eye when one of the hooks at the end of the whip hooked onto it and came out when it was forcefully pulled. However, upon reaching Brazil, faced with a common Portuguese language they were able to come together for a common purpose.

Another source of disunity arose from their diversity: that is, the usual suspicion one person holds against the other because one cannot comprehend what the other is saying. In this way, consensus building and making a decision became a problem. Each unit - a unit being people who could understand themselves - worked for its own good but in the end led to nothing because it was working sometimes against the whole. 

The other source of disunity lay in favour-seeking: for the fear of repercussions and punishment, to seek favour and promotion from their masters, there were those other slaves who were more inclined to do the bidding of their masters even to the detriment of their people and sometimes, most often after a rise in rank, would do more than what they have been instructed to do to please their masters. These others were more likely and did indeed betray all plans of escape whenever they came to be in the know.

Race or colour also became a matter of importance, which affected the unity of the people even in their new country. For instance, the slaves who had been ferried earlier into the Americas thought themselves better than the new arrivals; claiming that they are more civilised 
"Don't call me brother, woman. I am not an unseasoned guiney bird like you," he replied. "Now stand in line so that master can look at you properly." [295]
Similarly, those who were born in captivity, especially the Mulatto breeds, considered themselves better than the rest and were more inclined to serve the interest of their white side than their black side, though they were never treated any better by the white men. This quest and eagerness among people to be superior to their kin even when they are facing a common enemy was addressed in Bessie Head's Maru
And if the white man thought that Asians were a low, filthy nation, Asians could still smile with relief - at least, they were not Africans. And if the white man thought Africans were a low, filthy nation, Africans in Southern Africa could still smile - at least, they were not Bushmen. [6]
Linked to race is the monarchic system of governance, which also encouraged the slave trade. The monarchical structure puts people into either inferior or superior class. Thus, in England and Portugal mere white wasn't a guarantee of a better treatment. These non-royals and mistreated people also looked at blacks and say we are better than them, creating a situation where there is no remorse for maltreatment but a justification. For Africans, this royalty and monarchy encouraged the arrest and sale of 'inferior' tribes and non-royals of the same tribe into slavery.

Overall, Ama was hardworking and resourceful; she loved freedom too. She helped whomever she could. Yet she was never free to do anything; she was always under somebody's command, as a slave - sexual and non-sexual.

The language in this novel is effective and fits the era being discussed. Interspersing the narrative are proverbs - common in most African languages and with African people - and folkloric tales. Manu's diction and descriptions did not make the period as antiquated and backward as one might have expected. For instance, he talks of inns and hostelries in a remote area of current Ghana in the 18th Century. There was also talk of international trading (at Kafaba), customs and exports.

This is a well-researched novel, filled with historical figures and events that one would not help but shiver at the enormity of human wickedness, the depths to which man could fall. For this is just the story of one individual - Nandzi (or Ama or Pamela). Take this and multiply it by the millions and millions of people who were transported across to those lands and those who died on the way and it is only then would one understand the importance of what Manu has done; for
African slaves were sold in Lisbon as early as 1441. The European discovery and colonisation of the Americas set the scene for the transatlantic slave trade, which lasted from early in the sixteenth century until the second half of the nineteenth. The slaves were all African. So too were many of those who sold them. The buyers and shippers were almost all Europeans. In the course of three hundred years, upwards of ten million black men, women, and children arrived in the Americas as unwilling migrants. Millions more died on the journey to the Atlantic coast, and at seas. [Epigraph to the section Americas, 203]
My only problem is that some places - though not widespread - were somewhat preachy. The telling of this story itself evokes deep imagery of wickedness, evil, and the moral failure of the time and therefore I believe those statements were not very needed. In addition, there were one or two dramatic events like Ama fainting upon seeing Tomba again, after their separation at the place where they were sold. However, this also set the scene for a beautiful love story at a subplot level. Regardless of these, which are not necessarily a failing, this book deserves to be read by all. It should be an important part of Africa's literary canon.

However, there are some questions that bothered me when reading this and which we will need to discuss:
  1. Would the slave trade have ended if it had not been banned in Europe? That is, would and could Africans have worked to ending it? 
  2. Did we as Africans ever realise that slavery was bad?
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About the author: Manu Herbstein, a civil and structural engineer by profession, was born in Muizenberg, near Cape Town, in 1936 and educated at the University of Cape Town. His Jewish grandparents, he writes, had "emigrated to South Africa in the 1890s. Two from Russia, one a Litvak, her husband a Romanian, whose name I bear."

Manu Herbstein has lived and worked in England, Nigeria, India, Zambia, and Scotland, and now lives in Ghana. He first visited the slave castle at Elmina, Ghana, which features in this novel, in 1961. He has returned many times since and says that the experience never fails to move him.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

#Quotes: Quotes from Manu Herbstein's Ama - A Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade

No one knows what the elephant ate to make it so big. [40]

The Tail of the elephant may be short ... but it can still keep the flies away. [40]

[A]t another's hearth, you do not have the same freedom you might have in your mother's kitchen. [71]

Chapel. You don't know what chapel is? That is their room where they go to worship their gods. It is in the charge of the chaplain, who is like a fetish priest for them, an Okomfo you know, except that he does not know how to dance. ... Sometimes the chaplain tells them stories which he says comes out of a special book. That books is one of their main fetishes. Mijn Heer tried to tell me some of the stories when we were married. Some were not bad, but most were rubbish. I told him he should listen rather to our Ananse stories, they are much more entertaining and there is always a lesson to be learned from them. [136]

De Bruyn had tried to fit her feet into a pair of his late wife's shoes, but the foot of a female slave who has walked many weary miles on her own tough soles is very different from that of the idle lady wife of a Director General of the Westindische Compagnie; and so, under her spreading skirt, Ama's feet remained unshod. [142]

Van Schalkwyk had a reputation in the Castle as something of a dirty old man. His penchant for making accidental body contact with female slaves and, believing no know else to be watching, for grabbing their buttocks or their breasts, had not gone unobserved. He was inhibited, however, from taking a concubine by fear of the consequences of breaching Company rules, by fear moreover that his status in the Castle would be undermined and by the certainty that eternal damnation would be his reward for fornication. Minister Van Schalkwyk led a secret life of unconsummated sexual fantasy. [143]

A lonely man, Quaque, too. He despises his own people for the heathens that they are. He is really a kind of black Englishman. He says the English tongue was sent by heaven as a medium for religion and civilisation. On that account he will not use his native Fanti and indeed he claims he can no longer speak it or understand it. [151]

He sees every female slave as just a vagina on two legs, she thought bitterly, not for the first time. [170]

She seems a sensible wench. However I must tell you that I disapprove in principle of teaching slaves and others of the labouring classes more than the bare minimum they need to perform their duties. It is in general prejudicial to their morals and happiness. It persuades them to despise their lot in life, rather than making good servants of them. Instead of wearing their yoke with patience, they become ill-mannered and intractable. [174]

Curiosity is unbecoming in the female sex. This girl's curiosity surely comes from your teaching her to read. An ability to read is prejudicial in any woman, in a slave doubly and triply so. It opens them to ideas unsuited to their station in life. [176]

If you examine the weapons closely you will soon discern the reason. Warfare is endemic on this part of the coast. Most of the slaves who come to us are prisoners of war. If we did not sell arms and ammunition, there would certainly be less warfare and the supply of slaves might dry up. There is, however, a distinction between between the quality of arms required for such local warfares as will ensure us a steady supply of slaves, and weaponry that might pose a threat to ourselves. Beyond that we do of course exercise some discrimination in the choice of our customers: we would not want even weapons of inferior quality turning up in the hands of potential enemies. [177-8]

"Maame," said Ama, "I saw the slaves arrive"
"Well?"
"I watched them with Mijn Here's telescope. I looked at their faces, one by one, as they came up from the bridge."
Augusta turned her head to look at Ama.
"And so?" she asked coolly. [178-9]

Sunday 10 a.m. Conducted morning service at 8 a.m. Gave thanks to God for the successful prosecution of this little adventure. Some ninety males, females and children were captured in the battle. Ten bodies were found and an unknown number escaped into the forest. The leader called Captain Tomba, was captured. He is reported to have put up a courageous and prolonged resistance, but that might well be an exaggeration designed to enhance the reputation of the victors. I have retrieved the four-pounder, resisting pressure to sell it to the local chief. Five of the attacking force succumbed and one of my men was slightly wounded. [216]

She chatted away to Tomba as she worked. Not since Sami's abduction had he felt the gentle touch of a woman's hand. He warned himself not to permit this woman's kindness to undermine his stern resolve to have no part in his own oppression; but then he weakened. What choice did he have, after all? [250]

The Angolans left immediately after the Mass. They had all been baptised en masse before leaving the shores of their native land. Each carried a certificate of baptism in the form of an imprint of the royal crown of Portugal, burned into the skin of their breasts with a red hot iron. This brand, Jacinta told Ama bitterly, served also as a receipt for export duty paid to the Portuguese King. [308]

Until we learn to read and write, we will never be able to defeat them and regain our freedom. But tell me, where did you get the book? [314]

Our greatest enemy is not the whites. It is our own disunity. They know that, of course, and they encourage it. Their Christian religion is one of the weapons they use to divide us. That, by the way, was why I disturbed you when you told me the book you were reading was their Bible. [326]
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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

250. The Cardinals with Meditations and Short Stories by Bessie Head

Gradually Bessie Head is becoming my most read author. It all started after the Writers Project of Ghana held its twitter discussion on her book A Question of Power. I had earlier read the book (and two others: A Woman Alone and Maru), even before it was chosen and had had it reviewed on this blog. However, the discussion got me thinking about that woman, her beautiful spirit, her audacious writings, and her sense of humour even in the midst of dire adversity. Thus, I picked three of her books, including Tales of Tenderness and Power and When Rain Clouds Gather.

The Cardinals with Meditations and Short Stories (1993; 141) contains a novella and seven short stories and meditations. It is a story about the effects of racial discrimination and how it breaks down families and flings their members about to the ways of the storms of life. In The Cardinals, set in South Africa, not only are the lives of the natives battered by poverty and destroyed by lack, politics, and racial discrimination and abuse, but even within the blacks there is a class system. The semi-privileged blacks do not commingle with the pool of blacks sprawling in their polythene littered slums. They think of themselves as better, perhaps next after the white folks. Johnny a young man, who himself had to escape the negative influences which emanates from such surroundings from people struggling to make a living at all cost, finds himself fall in love with a girl of such privileged class. This relationship resulted in a pregnancy. But the girl's parents had a different life for her; she must marry within her class and the pregnancy must be hidden from Johnny and the baby given up for adoption.

Years later Mouse (or Miriam) finds herself in a newsroom as a reporter where she met Johnny. The two became close, though the relationship was an uneasy one; their conversation was filled with tension but also with love. Mouse who had moved from the slum into several foster homes and had tutored herself had developed into an extreme introvert and it is the effect of what her environment had done to her that Johnny had to contend with.

Some of stories in the meditations and short stories section are poetic in their rendering. They capture Bessie Head's feelings towards Africa; her hatred or dislike for politicians and religion. It also shows her practical approach to life, cutting through problems and difficult situations with her razor-sharp logic. They are also about her inner struggles of self-discovery, her purpose in life, and above all her unwillingness to be controlled, that is an inward search for freedom that would manifest outwardly in her freedom to exist and choose.

However, the meditations and the short stories also alluded to her loneliness and her loveless life and her brief contact with love. She yearned for something but that thing was far away from her. She wanted love and her internal conflicts. Bessie talked about her relationship with a man who himself lives a double life and who wanted their relationship to be kept secret, and though she loved this man completely, she complied. She described him as 
a man who has great need of their bodies, yet being so intensely proud, he cannot bear to be a slave of the sex organs. There is in him a vicious pleasure in forming a relationship with a woman and then abruptly and ruthlessly destroying it. [Where is the Hour of the Beautiful Dancing of Birds in the Sun-wind?, 132]
The point of convergence between the novella and the meditations (or short stories) is the commonality in the traits, experiences, struggles, and expectations between Mouse (Miriam) and Bessie Head. 

The writing in this is uniquely Bessie Head. It has all the metaphors and her keen sense of observation. She showed acute understanding of people and her environment. Her hatred for labels also came through. She disliked being bogged down by them. However, if there should be any label, then it should be of her making or choice.
Who am I? What am I? In past and present, the answer lies in Africa; in part it lies within the whole timeless, limitless, eternal universe. How can I discover the meaning and purpose of my country if I do not first discover the meaning and purpose of my own life? Today there are a thousand labels. One of them is 'crazy crank'. I do not mind being a 'crazy crank', as long as I am sure that I am a crank of my own making, as long as I resist environmental, societal, and political attempts to control and suppress my mind. [A Personal View of the Survival of the Unfittest, 127]
The meditations are Bessie's personal views of the world and of its issues. And any Bessie fan could include this into Bessie's works. However, I enjoyed the meditations (short stories) better than the novella. The turn of phrase is surprising and there are several beautiful lines in there. A recommended reading.
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Sunday, July 21, 2013

#Quotes: Quotes from Bessie Head's The Cardinals (with Meditations and Short Stories)

You have a beautiful soul that was nurtured on a dung heap. [22]

I was thinking a while ago, Johnny, that half the trouble in the world is caused by the difficulty we have in communicating with each other. It's practically impossible to say what you really mean and to be sure that the other person is understanding you. Word communication is dependent on reason and logic but there are many things in life that are not reasonable or logical. A jazz musician can say something to me in his music but it would be quite beyond me to translate into words what he is communicating through music. What he has to say touches the most vital part of my life but I can only acknowledge his message silently. [24]

Do you think life will care about you if you do not show that you care about it? [37]

They pursued their love with a wild abandon, unprotected against the treachery of the insecure foundation on which it was based and too young to bridge the gap that would suddenly and unexpectedly fling them miles apart.

The greatest crime in this world is to be a moral coward. [49]

People don't fall in love these days. The movies have made that kind of thing stale. They have robbed us of our capacity to feel through feeding us with cheap sensation. Ask any man and he will tell you that he can't kiss his wife because she wants him to kiss her the way Richard Widmark kisses. [56]

A human life is limited so it has to identify itself with a small corner of this earth. Only then is it able to shape its destiny and present its contribution. This need of a country is basic and instinctive in every living being. [62]

The whole principle of living and learning is dependent on what is going on in the mind. The mind is like a huge, living tapestry. Everything we see, hear, learn and experience gets being imprinted on it. As we grow we begin to see that we can correlate those impressions into a definite pattern and so we call that our life. [65]

Life's one hell of a joke. It dresses us up with insatiable yearnings and high-flying ambitions and then flings the fact of our insignificance in our faces. Half of us fall for the joke and start the mad rush after the big prizes. Some, like you and me can't fall for the joke. We've been hit too hard at too early an age. [73]

Half of humanity is running like hell away from slavery while the other half is chasing behind, figuring out ways and means of maintaining the slave system. [75-6]

Above all the necessities of life, human beings need love and it is often the one thing most denied to them. [79]

You are young and might prefer to believe that love is moonlight and rosy sunsets. It is not. It is brutal, violent, ugly, possessive and dictatorial. It makes no allowances for the freedom and individuality of the loved one. Lovers become one closely knit unit in thought and feeling. Should you eventually find that this love is beyond your capacity or that you cannot rise to its demands, you may leave but please make sure that you go to some place where I will never be able to find you. [89]

Once a man involves himself with women there's always some kind of retribution. They're the most vengeful creatures on this earth. [99]

There's only one way to make yourself shock-proof. Do not be impressed by evil and do not be impressed by good. [100]

The task of the writer is to serve humanity and not party politicians and their temporary fixations. But it's a hard path to follow. I'm having headaches over it because I'm too intensely aware of the pressures and issues and yet at the same time wish to retain my right to think for myself. [100]

She was hardly conscious of her agonised cry as his hard kisses ravaged her mouth. For her it was like a dissolution of body and bones; with only a heart left; a pulsing heart awash in an ocean of rushing tornadic darkness; helpless at its own forward rushing... [115]

Life is not in bits and pieces. It is a magnificent, rhythmic, pulsating symphony. [116]

Life is a treacherous quicksand with no guarantee of safety anywhere. We can only try to grab what happiness we can before we are swept off into oblivion. [118]

Not now, not ever, shall I be complete; and though the road to find you has been desolate with loneliness, still more desolate is the road that leads away from you. It is as though pain piles on pain in an endless, unbroken stream, until it is the only reality. What do they do, those who love? [Africa, 121]

The only reason why I always admit pain is that it seems the only constructive emotion. [Africa, 122] 

A basically timid and cowardly person dare not presume to speak for others. He can only speak for himself. [A Personal View of the Survival of the Unfittest, 125]

There were once highway robbers, who said: 'Your money or your life!' Today, they say: 'Your politics or your life!' [A Personal View of the Survival of the Unfittest, 126]

Who am I? What am I? In past and present, the answer lies in Africa; in part it lies within the whole timeless, limitless, eternal universe. How can I discover the meaning and purpose of my country if I do not first discover the meaning and purpose of my own life? Today there are a thousand labels. One of them is 'crazy crank'. I do not mind being a 'crazy crank', as long as I am sure that I am a crank of my own making, as long as I resist environmental, societal, and political attempts to control and suppress my mind. [A Personal View of the Survival of the Unfittest, 127]

All life flows continuously like water in the stream and I am only some of the water in the stream, never able to gauge my depth. The hours, the years, the eternities slip by too quickly, moving, changing, never the same thing. I move with this current to the ocean only to be flung back again to the stream. The cycle seems unending, repetitive. [Where is the Hour of the Beautiful Dancing of Birds in the Sun-wind?, 128]

The holy order of doing the right thing is incompatible with love, which does all the wrong things. Love can never learn to choose the woman who has the highest price, or whose father possesses the greatest number of cattle. Love strikes the outcast, the beggar, the stranger, and leaves the dull, dead, complacent conformer to his safety. [Where is the Hour of the Beautiful Dancing of Birds in the Sun-wind?, 129]

The body is a positive thing, and love without a body is negative, useless, purposeless. [Where is the Hour of the Beautiful Dancing of Birds in the Sun-wind?, 132]

A woman is a maker of pottery, feeling life with her hands, keeping it whole, moulding it from the depths upwards. Her vision is constant, unchanging. [Where is the Hour of the Beautiful Dancing of Birds in the Sun-wind?, 135]
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Read the review here

Friday, July 19, 2013

249. The Karamazov Brothers by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Karamazov Brothers (870; 1880)* is the second book by Fyodor Dostoevsky I have read, in addition to Crime and Punishment. The book counts towards two reading challenges: the Year of Russian Literature and Top 100 Books to be Read in Five Years. In this book, which happened to be the author's last work, Dostoevsky traversed several grounds and themes and perhaps knowing (or through serendipity) completely and fully invested himself and his knowledge in this book. I am not sure of this, but The Karamazov Brothers could be a cauldron of a major part of Dostoevsky's ideas. In effect, this author-researcher, this psychologist of a novelist, this student of human nature and thoughts, produced a seminal work, worth studying in different fields of social sciences, in this novel. Thus, to describe The Karamazov Brothers as a novel is an understatement. It does the book a huge injustice and undermines its quality. This is a compendium of human thoughts, psyche, and behaviour, morality, God and Devil, good and evil, societal decadence, belief and non-belief, the hereafter, and more.

The story is narrated by an unnamed character who lives in a monastery and in the town - Skotoprigonyevsk - where the Karamazov brothers and the patriarch, Fyodor Pavlovitch, live. Though this unnamed narrator reports directly what he saw and heard, he could possibly be described as a quasi-omniscient narrator. For he knew and reported more than a mere third person could possibly have known. The Karamazovs were sensualists and were ruled by it; and they lived their lives with reckless abandon. They were neither at the top of Russian society nor at the bottom. The patriarch began with nothing, struggled to earn some income, through marriage, and through hard work built up his wealth. But the patriarch was also egoistic and thought not about anyone more than himself, including his children. The Karamazov sons - Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha - were therefore bereft of familial love and unity, from having lived in diverse families. As sensual as the Karamazovs were, they were also prone to act on whims and when gripped by a single idea, remained its slave until that idea was realised.

These variables collided when Fyodor and Dmitri both fell in love with a young woman, Grushenka - who was herself carrying the poison of a rejected. The struggle between the father and son in the matter of who would earn this young woman's love set the premise for the novel and the events that lie therein. It is this struggle for love, this obsession on both sides, that would define the future of the Karamazovs. For there would be murder and a man would be charged for it, and another would fall into psychosis. 

Through this the author discussed several issues germane to the Russian society of the times and of today, for issues of human psyche, thoughts, belief, and behaviour do not change with the times. The questions are relevant even when the times change. Dostoevsky creates scenarios, experimental situations, drops in a variable or two and analyses how the specimens would react to the experimental conditions and through this discusses life and its purpose, God and his existence. It is clear that to Dostoevsky the novel is a means to interrogating life and seeking answers, explanations, and reasons from life's complexities. He builds a theory in the telling of his story.

For instance, Dmitri - the eldest of the Karamazov is reckless, unrestrained in speech and behaviour, and diametric; Ivan is an intellectual and the philosopher who can argue on both sides of issues but has a dark hidden spot in his heart; Alyosha dropped from school to become a novice monk. His naivety and innocence is equal only to his kind heart. And the patriarch is a buffoon who preferred making fun of himself in public. Yet from within this diverse family emanates discussions of the presence or absence of God, immorality and immortality (life after death), and the role of the church in the state. Thus through these incongruent characters Dostoevsky discusses both the merits and demerits of having the church morphing into a state,  arguments for and against the existence of God and his importance, and more of such dipolar views.

In studying the human behaviour and psyche, Dostoevsky analyses the inner and outer being and which dominates the other. For instance, he showed that though one may be sordid, slothful and sloven in his appearance, he could have an inner being that is pure, gentle, matured, and priceless. Example is Dmitri, whose inner life became clearer during his trial for parricide and Nikolay Ilyitch Snegiryov, the disgraced captain whom Dmitri beat out of rage. On the other hand, Ivan, respected by all for his gentle manners, and Smerdyakov, trusted by all, later proved to be far from what their appearances suggested. Dostoevsky has an almost unparalleled ability to describe human anguish and the ontogenesis of evil and ponerology itself. The gradual development of Dmitri's near psychotic state arising from his singular obsession of love towards Grushenka was superb, in its treatment. Can an idea - its realisation, its execution - lead one to damnation? Dmitri's his love for Grushenka bred a deadly jealousy for anybody including his father Fyodor leading almost to a parricide. And this is where Dmitri's duality comes clear. For whereas he was not afraid of what he says, even those things that would implicate him in his fathers death, he was afraid to giving information that would make him dishonourable in the sight of his betrothed, Katerina Ivanovna. It is that which led the description 
You have to deal with a man of honour, a man of the highest honour; above all don't lose sight of it - a man who's done a lot of nasty things, but has always been, and still is, honourable at bottom, in his inner being. [518]
Thus, there is a clear disconnect between the inner and outer beings of Dmitri resulting from that single obsessive and possessive idea. Dmitri also suffered because he couldn't lie. Or couldn't hide his feelings. For if he were cunning even for a second he might have come out of his problem unscathed. But he was not! Mitya (Dmitri) spoke freely and with reckless abandon. He spoke from his heart without the restraint of those who know of their guilt; even of things that the heart conceives but the hand cannot implement. Thus, with a bit of censure, an ounce of cunning and deception and an ability to restraint his feelings he would have survived. But isn't his unrestrained behaviour a virtue? Isn't restraint, deception; censure, vice? For isn't it deceptive and therefore lies if one thinks of A and speaks B? So Mitya suffered for his frankness, his virtues, and his honesty.

Ivan and Alyosha's discussions on the existence or otherwise of God was based on both the logical and the scientific. According to Ivan it is inconceivable for a mind that perceives the world in only three dimensions of Euclidian geometry to conceptualise the existence of God. He argued that though he accept the existence of God, he does not accept his world in relation to the suffering of the innocent, children, and sometimes animals. Ivan discussed justice on earth, justice for the present evil and justice at some remote infinite time and space. People who play wickedness, who wreak havoc on the innocent (including children) must be made to face justice; however, the class system has shown that if one were an aristocrat there will be no such justice and if one were to have a good lawyer one may go free though one might have committed a grievous crime. For instance, Ivan questions why people - including children - face tribulations for some future harmony. He argues that an unfair, unjust, evil world was not a necessity for heaven and that's why he might accept God but will not accept the world he has created. He saw it as unnecessary for for an evil world to be a conduit to eternal peace or eternal suffering. That for a God to create a world where children and the innocent and the unprotected could suffer and be tortured only for them to be resurrected and be judged to heaven (harmony) or hell (suffering) is unjustifiable. That no man should create such a world; so why should God of whom it is said "Thou art just, o Lord" do that? And yet children pray to him and address him "dear, kind God", even in their suffering. He argues that man could not accept eternal happiness built on the foundation of the unexpiated blood of little children (victim).

However, the crunch of Ivan's argument, which is also a central part of The Karamazov Brothers, is his invocation and discussion of the parable of the Grand Inquisitor. This parable of the Grand Inquisitor is set during the period of the Spanish Inquisition with Christ having come back to earth and performing his miracles. He is arrested by the ninety-year old Grand Inquisitor who imprisons him pending his sentence of auto-da-fé. However, the GI visits Christ in prison and holds a conversation with him centring more on why Christ is not necessary at this point in time. Using the Grand Inquisitor, Ivan showed how God, through his demonstration of freedom, left many a man to their doom only to be rescued by the church. The parable of the GI is based on the three temptations of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Gospels of the New Testament. For instance, on Jesus' refusal to turn stone into bread, the GI informed him that in refusing this, he left the majority of the people to their doom. For how many of them could live without food? In doing that, he set the kingdom of God for a few to the detriment of the masses. The section discusses the idea of an infallible man with divine powers to act God on earth; whose words are final. Like the entire story, this section is also ambiguous, diametric in spirit, and amenable to different interpretations. For instance, The Grand Inquisitor was at once an atheist and Satan and Alyosha (to whom this is being told) was almost Christ-like. Further, whereas the GI blames God for handing over a thing as harmful as freedom to man, knowing that freedom is man's burden, he also blamed the inhumane and power-seeking posture of the GI, who has assumed for himself a God-position on earth and who know well enough that he is leading the masses to him (possibly the Devil) but not to God. In fact, the GI would have crucified Jesus Christ again.
But man seeks to worship what is established beyond dispute, so that all men would agree at once to worship it. For these pitiful creatures are concerned not only to find what one or the other can worship, but to find something that all would believe in and worship; what is essential is that all may be together in it. This craving for community of worship is the chief misery of every man individually and of all humanity from the beginning of time. For the sake of common worship they've slain each other with the sword. They have set up gods and challenged one another, 'Put away your gods and come and worship ours, or we will kill you and your gods!' And so it will be to the end of the world, even when gods disappear from the earth; they will fall down before idols just the same. [278]
Nothing is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering. [279]
The GI concluded that the three temptations Christ refused contained miracle, mystery, and authority - the forces or power required to conquer and hold the conscience of men captive. The GI says 
Hadst Thou taken the world and Caesar's purple, Thou wouldst have founded the universal peace. For who can rule men if not he who holds their conscience and their bread in his hands? [282]
According to Ivan and Father Zossima, the church with its ethics provide the moral compass that direct society away from crime. Thus, the non-belief in God and church erases the idea of sin and crime, making any act permissible and it is this permissibility introduced into the weaker mind of Smerdyakov by Ivan that spelt Dmitri's doom. Dostoevsky, through Father Zossima (the mentor of Alyosha), discusses the concept of modern freedom embedded in individuality and self-aggrandisement and communality in Christ. Arguing that today's kind of freedom leads to trouble and catastrophe.
They have science; but in science there is nothing but what is the object of sense. The spiritual world, the higher part of man's being, is rejected altogether, dismissed with a sort of triumph, even with hatred. The world has proclaimed the reign of freedom, especially of late, but what do we see in this freedom of theirs? Nothing but slavery and self-destruction! For the world says: 'You have desires and so satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the most rich and powerful. Don't be afraid of satisfying them and even multiply your desires.' That is the modern doctrine of the world. In that they see freedom. And what follows from this right of multiplication of desires? In the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; in the poor, even and murder; for they have been given rights, but have not been shown the means of satisfying their wants. [346]
The devil as a physical manifestation (or projection) of Ivan's thoughts played a role in this beautiful work. As events unfolded and Ivan, realising the extent of his role in the crime, lapsed into psychosis, he began seeing the devil, who held conversations with him, using Dmitri's ideas to debate him. The devil explains (or argues) why his existence is required. He says that without him life will be monotonous that he was commanded to be so there would be events and things that are irrational. He says that life will be one tedious and endless church service without suffering. He defends himself that his destiny was carved out for him; such that unlike Mephistopheles, he only desired good but receives only bad; that somebody (probably God) takes all that is good whilst he is blamed for all that is bad. That though there is the secret that will make him do good they won't show him lest the 
indispensable minus disappear at once and good sense reigns supreme throughout the whole world. [728]
There were also issues of existentialism and socialism. For instance, does Mitya accepting to be sentenced for all the suffering babes he saw who had no one to care for them and saying that we must care and be responsible for all an indication of his socialist stand and his condemnation of us as a people? Issues of existentialism run subtly or overtly through the stories. They are found in the addresses of both the defence and prosecution lawyers. In Fetyukovitch's defence of Dmitri, he says, in proving that evidence, real evidence not conjectural and anecdotal evidence, is all that is required to prove guilt
That's what I call evidence, gentlemen of the jury! In that case I know, I see, I touch the money, and cannot deny its existence. [821]
Just as the book is a duality of ideas, of belief and non-belief, of the presence and absence of God, there was also the opposite of this Thomasian phenomenon of seeing expressing itself into believing. On the two occasions that they appear, they were narrated by Ivan. The first instance this appeared was in the parable of the Grand Inquisitor where Ivan told Alyosha that one need not to see to believe; that he who believes after seeing has already made up his mind to believe in the first place and that any good atheist could find several reasons to explain what he was seeing.
One who does not not believe in God's people will not believe in God's people. He who believes in God's people will see His Holiness, even though he had not believed in it till then. Only the people and their future spiritual power will convert our atheists., who have torn themselves away from their native soil. [323]
In the other instance where such anti-existentialist discussion cropped up, it was Ivan's phantasmagorical doppelganger who appeared to him in the form of the devil and held discussions with him. During these encounters the devil used Ivan's own arguments against him. Responding to an issue of belief, the Devil says
Besides, proofs are no help to believing, especially material proofs. Thomas believed, not because he saw Christ risen, but because he wanted to believe, before he saw. [715]
Prior to this meeting with the Devil, Ivan in his earlier discussions had categorically stated that one need not see to believe; that belief in itself is a decision made prior to seeing.
It is not miracles that dispose realists to belief. The genuine realist, if he is an unbeliever, will always find strength and ability to disbelieve in the miraculous, and if he is confronted with a miracle as an irrefutable fact he would rather disbelieve his own senses than admit the fact. Even if he admits it, he admits it as a fact of nature till then unrecognised by him. Faith does not, in the realist, spring from the miracle but the miracle from faith. If the realist once believes, then he is bound by his very realism to admit the miraculous also. The Apostle Thomas said that he would not believe till he saw, but when he did see he said, 'My Lord and my God!' Was it the miracle forced him to believe? Most likely not, but he believed solely because he desired to believe and possibly he fully believed in his secret heart even when he said, 'I do not not believe till I see.' [24]
 The Karamazov Brothers is a criticism of the morality of Russia of the time. It is Russia with its extremes; these extremes did exist and manifest within the same time and space. And the pendulum swung from pole to pole. Dostoevsky also brought out the discriminatory class system embedded in feudal Russia at the time - the difference between peasants and the educated elite or aristocrats. This created two somewhat distinct strands of conversations: the peasant-like conversation, which concentrated on equality and the unfairness of the Russian class system, including such discussants as Smerdyakov and Snegiryov; and the aristocratic talk which mostly concentrated on the presence or otherwise of God.

Dostoevsky's dramatic characterisation is interesting and brings out, albeit comedic, the exact situation he is describing. His descriptions of people, places and spaces is so vivid that the picture easily builds in the reader's mind. He provides the minutest detail down to 'half-eaten piece of bread, and a small bottle with a few drops of vodka' on the table. Also making the narrator remind the reader of earlier events was helpful; especially for such a long story, this helped the reader to keeping track of events that are relevant as the story progresses.

This is a beautiful novel. It has a lot more than just a story in its pages. Personally, I think this novel is under-hyped. For what it is worth, more noise should have been made about it, especially since we make useless noise about novels of inferior quality. If you have not read this novel, you are losing out.
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Notes:
i. *Version published by Wordsworth Classics and translated by Constance Garnett
ii. Read Quotes I and II from The Karamazov Brothers
iii. Dmitri vs Rodya: Rodya was the main character in Crime and Punishment. There are some similarities, and of course differences, between these two characters. Both Rodya and Dmitri were gripped by a single idea; for Rodya, it was the idea of an ordinary and extraordinary man. And both came to grief from that. Even in TKB the idea of ordinary and extraordinary man came to the fore, somewhat:
"Didn't you know?" he said laughing, "a clever man can do what he likes,"
In C&P Rodya committed the crime; he killed the Ivanovna sisters but because of his universal kindness attested to by many, no one believed him and each wanted to keep him from jail. Thus, his outward appearance saved him. Testaments from witnesses gave him a lessened sentence though he didn't defend himself. Mitya, on the other hand, didn't commit the crime but his demeanour, his poor outward behaviour made him guilty in the eyes of the people and all believed that he was a criminal even when he put up a strong defence of an honour unknown to them.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

#Quotes: Quotes from Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Karamazov Brothers [II]

But man seeks to worship what is established beyond dispute, so that all men would agree at once to worship it. For these pitiful creatures are concerned not only to find what one or the other can worship, but to find something that all would believe in and worship; what is essential is that all may be together in it. This craving for community of worship is the chief misery of every man individually and of all humanity from the beginning of time. For the sake of common worship they've slain each other with the sword. They have set up gods and challenged one another, 'Put away your gods and come and worship ours, or we will kill you and your gods!' And so it will be to the end of the world, even when gods disappear from the earth; they will fall down before idols just the same. [278]

For the secret of man's being is not only to live but to have something to live for. [278]

Nothing is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering. [279]

Hadst Thou taken the world and Caesar's purple, Thou wouldst have founded the universal peace. For who can rule men if not he who holds their conscience and their bread in his hands? [282]

From the house of my childhood I have brought nothing but precious memories, for there are no memories more precious than those of early childhood in one's first home. And that is almost always so if there is any love and harmony in the family at all. Indeed, precious memories may remain even of a bad home, if only the heart knows how to find what is precious. [318]

One who does not not believe in God's people will not believe in God's people. He who believes in God's people will see His Holiness, even though he had not believed in it till then. Only the people and their future spiritual power will convert our atheists., who have torn themselves away from their native soil. [323]

Everywhere in these days men have, in their mockery, ceased to understand that the true security is to be found in social solidarity rather than in isolated individual effort. But this terrible individualism must inevitably have an end, and all will suddenly understand how unnaturally they are separated from one another. [335]

[A] crime committed with extraordinary audacity is more successful than others. [336]

They have science; but in science there is nothing but what is the object of sense. The spiritual world, the higher part of man's being, is rejected altogether, dismissed with a sort of triumph, even with hatred. The world has proclaimed the reign of freedom, especially of late, but what do we see in this freedom of theirs? Nothing but slavery and self-destruction! For the world says: 'You have desires and so satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the most rich and powerful. Don't be afraid of satisfying them and even multiply your desires.' That is the modern doctrine of the world. In that they see freedom. And what follows from this right of multiplication of desires? In the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; in the poor, even and murder; for they have been given rights, but have not been shown the means of satisfying their wants. [346]

They maintain that the world is getting more united, more and more bound together in brotherly community, as it overcomes distance and sets thoughts flying through the air. Alas, put no faith in such a bond of union. Interpreting freedom as the multiplication and rapid satisfaction of desires, men distort their own nature, for many senseless and foolish desires and habits and ridiculous fancies are fostered in them. They live only for mutual envy, for luxury and ostentation. To have dinners, visits, carriages, rank, and slaves to wait one is looked upon as a necessity, for which life, honour and human feeling are sacrificed, and men even commit suicide if they are unable to satisfy it. We see the same thing among those who are not rich, while the poor drown their unsatisfied need and their envy in drunkenness. But soon they will drink blood instead of wine, they are being led on to it. I as you, is such a man free? I knew one 'champion of freedom' who told me himself that , when he was deprived of tobacco in prison, he was so wretched at the privation that he almost went and betrayed his cause for the sake of getting tobacco again! And such a man says, 'I am fighting for the cause of humanity.' [346-7]

Fathers and teachers, I ponder, 'What is hell?' I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love. [356]

[F]ools are made for wise men's profit. [393]

The jealous are the readiest of all to forgive, and all women know it. The jealous man can forgive extraordinarily quickly (though, of course, after a violent scene), and he is able to forgive infidelity almost conclusively proved, the very kisses and embraces he has seen, if only he can somehow be convinced that it has all been 'for the last time', and that his rival will vanish from that day forward, will depart to the ends of the earth, or that he will carry her away somewhere, where that dreaded rival will not get near her. Of course the reconciliation is only for an hour. For, even if the rival did disappear next day, he would invent another one and would be jealous of him. [426]

No, no, I've no money. And, do you know, Dmitri Fyodorovitch, if I had, I wouldn't give it to you. In the first place I never lend money. Lending money means losing friends. [434]

I don't talk about holy things. I don't want to be holy. What will they do to one in the next world for the greatest sin? [652]

You have uttered my thought; they love crime, everyone loves crime, they love it always, not at some "moments". You know, it's as though people have made an agreement to lie about it and have lied about it ever since. They all declare that they hate evil, but secretly they all love it. [653]

Many people are honest because they are fools. [666]

Besides, proofs are no help to believing, especially material proofs. Thomas believed, not because he saw Christ risen, but because he wanted to believe, before he saw. [715]

[H]e wrote when drunk what he had planned when sober. [791]

You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially memory of childhood, of home. People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one's heart, even that may sometime be the means of saving us. [868]
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Version translated by Constance Garnett and published by Wordsworth Classics.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

#Quotes: Quotes from Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Karamazov Brothers [I]

It's impossible, I think, for the devils to forget to drag me down to hell with their hooks when I die. Then I wonder - hooks? Where would they get them? What of? Iron hooks? Where do they forge them? Have they a foundry there of some sort? The monks in monastery probably believe that there's a ceiling in hell, for instance. Now I'm ready to believe in hell, but without a ceiling. It makes it more refined, more Lutheran, that is. And, after all, what does it matter whether it has a ceiling or hasn't? But, do you know, there's a damnable question involved in it? If there's no ceiling there can be no hooks, and if there are no hooks it all breaks down, which is unlikely again, for then there would be none to drag me down to hell, and if they don't drag me down what justice is there in the world? Il faudrait les inventer, those hooks, on purpose for me alone, for, if you only knew, Alyosha, what a blackguard I am. [22-3]

It is not miracles that dispose realists to belief. The genuine realist, if he is an unbeliever, will always find strength and ability to disbelieve in the miraculous, and if he is confronted with a miracle as an irrefutable fact he would rather disbelieve his own senses than admit the fact. Even if he admits it, he admits it as a fact of nature till then unrecognised by him. Faith does not, in the realist, spring from the miracle but the miracle from faith. If the realist once believes, then he is bound by his very realism to admit the miraculous also. The Apostle Thomas said that he would not believe till he saw, but when he did see he said, 'My Lord and my God!' Was it the miracle forced him to believe? Most likely not, but he believed solely because he desired to believe and possibly he fully believed in his secret heart even when he said, 'I do not not believe till I see.' [24]

The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and to himself. The man who lies to himself can be more easily offended than anyone. You know it is sometimes very pleasant to take offence, isn't it? A man may know that nobody has insulted him, but that he has invented the insult for himself, has lied and exaggerated to make it picturesque, has caught at a word and made a mountain out of a molehill - he knows that himself, yet he will be the first to take offence, and will revel in his resentment till he feels great pleasure in it, and so pass to genuine vindictiveness. [43]

Man cannot commit a sin so great as to exhaust the infinite love of God. Can there be a sin which could exceed the love of God? [52]

I am sorry I can say nothing more consoling to you, for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is labour and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps, a complete science. [59]

The socialist who is a Christian is more to be dreaded than a socialist who is an atheist. [69]

As a thing falls, so it lies. As a thing once has fallen, so it must lie for ever. [93]

Beauty is a terrible and awful thing! It is terrible because it has not been fathomed and never can be fathomed, for God sets us nothing but riddles. [114]

My rule has been that you can always find something devilishly interesting in every woman that you wouldn't find in any other. Only, one must know how to find it, that's the point! That's the talent! [147]

'But she has been crying - she has been wounded again,' cried Alyosha
'Never trust a woman's tears, Alexey Fyodorovitch. I am never for the women in such cases. I am always on the side of the men.' [212]

Hysterics is a good sign, Alexey Fyodorovitch; it's an excellent thing that she is hysterical. That's just as it ought to be. In such cases I am always against the woman, against all these feminine tears and hysterics. [212]

Schoolboys are a merciless race, individually they are angels, but together, especially in schools, they are often merciless. [224]

For our children - not your children, but ours - the children of the poor gentlemen looked down upon by everyone - know what justice means, sir, even at nine years old. How should the rich know? They don't explore such depths once in their lives. [224]

You know, when children are silent and proud, and try to keep back their tears when they are in great trouble and suddenly break down, their tears fall in streams. With those warn streams of tears, he suddenly wetted my face. He sobbed and shook as though he were in convulsions, and squeezed up against me as I sat on the stone. "Father," he kept crying, "dear father, how he insulted you!" And I sobbed too. [226]

And I shall not weep from despair, but simply because I shall be happy in my tears, I shall steep my soul in my emotion. I love the sticky leaves in spring, the blue sky - that's all it is is. It's not a matter of intellect or logic, it's loving with one's inside, with one's stomach. [252]

I think everyone should love life above everything in the world. [252]

You know, dear boy, there was an old sinner in the eighteenth century who declared that, if there were no God, he would have to be invented. S'il n'existait pas Dieu, il faudrait l'inventer. And man has actually invented God. And what's strange, what would be marvellous, is not that God should really exist; the marvel is that such an idea, the idea of the necessity of God, could enter the head of such a savage, vicious beast as man. So holy it is, so touching, so wise and so great a credit it does to man. [256]

[I]f God exists and if He really did create the world, then, as well know, He created it according to the geometry of Euclid and the human mind with the conception of only three dimensions in space.Yet there have been and still are geometricians and philosophers, and even some of the most distinguished, who doubt whether the whole universe, or to speak more widely, the whole being, was only created in Euclid's geometry; they even dare to dream that two parallel lines, which according to Euclid can never meet on earth, may meet somewhere in infinity. I have come to a conclusion that, since I can't understand even that, I can't expect to understand about God. I acknowledge humbly that I have no faculty for settling such questions, I have a Euclidian earthly mind, and how could I solve problems that are not of this world? [256-7]

I think if the devil doesn't exist, but man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness. [261]

Yours must be a fine God, if man created Him in his image and likeness. [261]

In every man, of course, a demon lies hidden - the demon of rage, the demon of lustful heat at screams of the tortured victim, the demon of lawlessness let off the chain, the demon of diseases that follow vice, gout, kidney disease, and so on.

"Is it Thou? Thou?" but receiving no answer, he adds at once. "Don't answer, be silent. What canst Thou hast to say, indeed? I know too well what Thou wouldst say. And Thou hast no right to add anything to what Thous hadst said of old. Why, then art Thou come to hinder us? For Thou hast come to hinder us, and Thou knowest that. But dost thou know what will be tomorrow? I know not who Thou art and care not to know whether it is Thou or only a semblance of Him, but tomorrow I shall condemn Thee and burn Thee at stake as the worst of heretics. And the very people who have today kissed Thy feet, tomorrow, at the faintest sign from me will rush to heap up the embers of Thy fire. Knowest Thou that? Yes, maybe Thou knowest it." [273-4]
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Version translated by Constance Garnett and published by Wordsworth Classics.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Additions to the Library

Planet Books, Lusaka Zambia
One thing I like to take with me from any journey (outside Ghana) is a book. I buy books at airports and at identified bookshops in the countries. In Zambia I buy books at Planet Books located within the Arcades Shopping Mall, Lusaka. I have always been surprised at the wide-range of titles one could get at Planet Books. Though their floor space is incomparable to that of EPP Bookshop at Legon, they have by far more titles including several Man Booker books and other important titles not easily found in Ghana. The downside is that their stock of general African fiction is poor and when available are generally expensive. On the other hand, they have some quintessential African titles. What therefore makes such difference? There seem to be a dearth of excellent titles - literary fiction, poetry anthologies, essays, and others - in Ghana. Sorry, I am drifting from the main issue. The following are the books I have purchased:
  • The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. [1943; 704]. Any reader and blogger knows that blogs do have influence on people's choice of books. I have followed A Guy's Moleskine Notebook for a while and it was a blogpost of his on this book that convinced me that I should read it. Consequently, I named the book was as one of the books to look out for this year. In addition, Ayn Rand was a Russian and therefore the book will count towards the Year of Russian Literature reading challenge.
  • Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. [1957; 1070]. For similar reasons as above. It is believed that the publication of these two books brought success to Miss Rand.
  • Indaba, My Children by Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa. [1964; 696]. When I listed this book on my Top 100 Books to be Read in Five Years, I never considered availability. I thought time would deliver them onto my lap. Yes, to some extent time has. However, when I first realised how difficult the books on the list are to come by, I became disillusioned. Then came a change in job, and different demands (on my time including travelling) and this book. From the blurb: 
Whenever the names look like being forgotten and the memories overwhelmed by the events of time, the preservation of cultural traditions assume a new, more vital importance. Believing that the tales he learned from the elders gave direction to his life and motivated him to further his knowledge of his people's history, Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa, though the ancient art of storytelling, takes on that commitment to preserve, promote and revive the past. [Canongate Books, 1998]

Friday, July 12, 2013

248. When Rain Clouds Gather by Bessie Head*

When Rain Clouds Gather (AWS Classics, 1968; 199) is Bessie Head's first novel published five years after she moved from South Africa to Serowe, Botswana, where most of her stories, including this, are set. The story is largely about the lives of the people as they work to earn a living on the deserts and droughts of that part of Botswana. It is about their fears, their hopelessness, their struggle to improve their lots and their impotence.

The men in Golema Mmidi are cattle rearers; the women, crop-growers. They are faced with a unique problem, drought. Makhaya, a political ex-convict, running from the oppression in neighbouring South Africa finds his way into Golema Mmidi. Gilbert, a British had returned to the village with his head full of ideas, on how to turn the lives of the people in the village around and make them practice their agriculture in a way that would be more profitable and sustainable. Paulina had moved from the northern part of Botswana to Golema Mmidi after the death of her husband. And Dinorego is an old man whose influence is wide and understands change. All these are progressive-minded individuals who wanted change. But they must first overcome anti-progressive traditions and individuals who are bent to be the only beneficiaries of good things. Specifically, they must confront and defeat Chief Sekoto's brother Matenge - a man of whom it would be an understatement to describe as the devil's incarnate. They must also fight unfounded long-held traditions like the type of crops grown, land ownership, mode of grazing cattle and others if they are to move from a weather-dependent agriculture to an all-year round agricultural systems that are profitable and sustainable.

One could argue that in this story, Bessie Head's vision that a story should be about a people and damned black, damned white, was realised.
If I had to write one day I would just like to say people is people and not damn White, damn Black. Perhaps if I was a good writer I could still write damn White, damn Black and still make people live. Make them real. Make you love them, not because of the colour of their skin but because they are important as human beings. [Let me tell a story in Tale of Tenderness and Power, 17]
For she wrote a story that is about people. Gilbert, though British, settled in the village, lived the lives they were living, and work to make an impact on their agricultural system from within. However, before he could make any of his desired changes, he worked to understand the people, their culture and their tradition. Thus, she explicitly showed that villainousness is colour blind. One is not evil because one is white or black. One is evil because one has allowed himself to be evil. This could also have been the case because of the political status of Botswana as a protectorate and therefore never witnessing the atrocities of the kind that drove Makhaya to cross the border. Similarly, one would have thought that Makhaya, having suffered denigration and abuse at the hands of White folks in South Africa, would have behaved retributively towards Gilbert or that the relationship would have been an uneasy one. However, the cordiality of their relationship, the ease with which they got on right from the start is indicative of the fact that the political problems in South Africa then was a colour problem only as far as the policies affected or discriminated against them. It was not a natural hatred between blacks and whites, so that had there not ab initio been any racially divisive policies, there would have been peaceful coexistence.

Bessie showed how backward the power chieftaincy offers, not the institution itself, could be. Matenge, because he was the chief of Golema Mmidi worked hard to thwart every progressive effort that threatened his privileged position as the sole beneficiary of progressive changes. For instance, he saw no reason why anyone should have his roof covered with zinc sheets apart from him. Or why the Gilbert's cooperative society deposed him as the sole cattle dealer in the village, thus ripping him of all the super-normal profits he used to make. In every society for that matter there are the Matenges and those of Gilbert's cohorts; the few oppressive haves and the oppressed masses of have-nots, the former appropriating resources away from the latter; the Solomons and the God. One characteristic of the Solomons is that even when educated, knowledge (or wisdom) is secondary to material possessions. However, though the Gods are greater than the former, they walk with no shoes, in rough cloth, wandering up and down the dusty footpaths in the hot sun, with o bed on which to rest their heads.

However, Bessie was not entirely against traditional life. She talked positively on the social capital it affords and how easy it is to get people to toe a line once you have convinced the right people and showed them evidence. As an Africanist, of sorts, she believed in togetherness but togetherness that lead to progress. For instance, the cooperative mode of operation - farming, cattle-rearing - was placed above the capitalist approach of skyscrapers. This belief in an alternate governance system is seen in Gilbert who, coming in from such a capitalist country, did not express any such inclinations but sought to improve on the communal mode of property ownership which results in the Tragedy of the Commons and is therefore unsustainable - financially and environmentally.

Bessie used the weather and climatic conditions to represent the life of the people. The drought represents their hopelessness and an opportunity to change. It kept them in a poverty trap so that every now and then their savings - in the form of cattle - is lost, taking them back to where they began. The rain represents blessings that mitigates their hardships. But only for awhile.  However, Bessie showed that change and progress is universal but could not be attained seredipitously but only when people put their minds to it and work together as a unit towards it. The unity of purpose is what ensures progress. It also means the identification and confrontation of the common enemy. Sometimes this calls for having faith, believing that the rains would fall even when the rain clouds have not gathered.

When Rain Clouds Gather shows Bessie's realist approach to writing. She understands her motif and with her keen observation cuts through the heart of the issues flawlessly. It is recommended.
_____________________
* Bessie Head would have been 76 years on July 6, 2013. This is to celebrate the author. This post and others are in celebration of the author who suffered much.
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