Monday, April 30, 2012

159. SHORT STORY MONDAY: Almost Cured of Sadness by Vuyo Seripe

Almost Cured of Sadness was published in the Caine Prize for African Writing 2010, A Life in Full and other stories.

Lisa is flirtatious. She lost her virginity at fourteen and at eighteen she had had an abortion. Later, she was raped by a man she couldn't identify because she was drugged. But Lisa, like most teenage girls who wouldn't listen to their parents and would shout back at every advice given, blamed her mother for turning out as she did. She hated her mother and so she moved out of her house to live on her own.

She entered a design school and the rape incident became the subject of all her designs: 
For lingerie assignment, Lisa designed padlocked panties and bras which would be made of a type of material which flattened the chest and hips to hide all feminine features. ... She had all the models wear masks from horror movies with all the outfits sewn up with a technique that made them look torn and the material was dyed to look bloody.
She failed all her design courses and passed the sewing courses. She met Hennie at the Gallery she worked for. Hennie was a painter who was not satisfied with his current work and want to quit and concentrate on painting. The two - Lisa, black; Hennie, white - were not loved by their friends. Lisa's friends considers Hennie to be dull, pessimistic and a sloth; they claimed she loved him because he is white. Hennie's white friends also regard Lisa as a different species, something that hurt Lisa so much that she decided not to attend any party that friend would organise. But the two loved each other regardless of their personal differences and incessant quarrels. Because Lisa kept two jobs, she allowed Hennie to move in, and concentrate on his paintings.
Almost Cured of Sadness is a young woman's attempt to cast away her demons and create a new life for herself. It is a bold attempt at starting all over a life that went off-course even before it started. It shows how sometimes a badly handled teen angst could lead to disaster and that it will take a conscious effort from the individual to get things back on track.
From the author's page: I am a writer and artist based in Johannesburg. I am a keen observer of South Africa’s emerging urban cultures with a focus on fiction writing, research, and content development for publications. My writing skills extend to suit corporate internal and external communication needs. I am currently working on a collection of short stories focused on urban themes to be published as soon as I find a capable publisher willing to invest in raw talent. (Source)

Saturday, April 28, 2012

158. The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith's The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (Anchor Books, 1998; 235) is an interesting detective story set in Botswana. It is unique, in that it brings both the old and the new together. It is not superfluous with its description of Africa as a tomb for the death and the dying and only inhabited by wild animals as is wont of most novels about Africa, even by Africans themselves. In this novel, there is a sort of convergence between the modern and the traditional and the country is presented as a country in transition. Too often, novels, novellas and short stories set in Africa or about Africa are pathetic and pathos-seeking. They tend to address the extremities, ranging between negatives stereotypes and idyllic romanticism. It's as if the larger chunk of the people do not exist: it is either saintly or devilish.

In this story Mma Ramotswe is a detective and the only female detective in the whole of Botswana. As an only child, her father, who had worked at the mines until he ran back home out of fear for his life and who had contracted the respiratory disease common among miners, had wanted her to sell his almost two hundred cows and buy a store - probably a butcher store. (And yes, the man never suppressed Mma Ramotswe nor married again when the wife died. He loved her daughter and even when he did not approve of her first husband, Note Mokoti, he never objected him till Note revealed to her who he really was with series of abuses.) But Mma Ramotswe wanted to do something different, she wanted to be a detective and so set out, against the advice of attorneys and others, to becoming one. The rest of the stories are about the series of cases she helped solved. Using local knowledge, instincts and a book  for detectives she had ordered, Mma Ramotswe approached her work diligently, uninhibited by her enormous proportions.

Together with her small white van they became an inseparable pair. From solving a man whose wife had reported him missing and of whom she had assumed had run off with another woman - only to turnout in the belly of a crocodile - to a boy who was kidnapped and sent to a far off place to look after cattle, the reader would have fun-filled reading. With Mma Ramotswe, satisfaction is guaranteed, for in cases where the problem was difficult to solve or did not end well, she waived her fees. However, as a businesswoman she knew where to charge high and where to let go - like Mr Patel, possibly the richest man in Botswana, who wanted Mma Ramotswe to track her teenage daughter whom he suspected of having an affair with a boy named Jack. Mr Patel was willing and eager to pay almost ten times the cost, even though Mma Ramotswe felt guilty for doing that later. She also cracked a case involving a Dr Mokoti whose performance at the hospital he works for alternates between excellent and poor. At one time he would solve an important medical problem and at another he could not even suture. Suspecting him of drugs Dr Maketsi approached Mma Ramotswe, her old friend from Mochundi where they schooled together. And this she did with surprising outcome. At this time the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency situated at the foot of the Kgale Hill had become famous.

One thing about this story is its hilarity at some points. One just have to imagine an African woman of enormous proportions crouching under trees, in windows, killing crocodiles. And it was her trickery and intelligence that helped her most of the time. The only problem with this story, of which there might be a reason, is that there was a long background of Obed Ramotswe, Mma Ramotswe's father, and of the latter too. It dragged on for pages on end that one might thought it is of whom the story is about. Yet, since this is the first book of the series, it is possible that McCall Smith was just providing the background for the subsequent ones. I also felt that the number of cases could have been reduced and the actual investigation stretched so as to contain a lot of the drama and tension. As it is now, the many investigations to be carried out dulled the tension so that one moved from one problem to the other as if playing a hopscotch. In the end, this is an interesting non-sorrow-filled story and yet it carries the essence of Africa (or of Botswana) in it. The animals, which sometimes are talked about as if the continent has no humans, were mentioned but so too were the fears and aspirations of the people; and the traditional beliefs in voodoo; and the churches that are springing; and the middle class; and the diversity. A good story; it is recommended.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Quotes for Friday from Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle

"Sometimes I wonder if he wasn't born dead. I never met a man who was less interested in the living. Sometimes I think that's the trouble with the world: too many people in high places who are stone-cold dead." [68]

"Christ, back in Chicago, we don't make bicycles any more. It's all human relations now. The eggheads sit around trying to figure out new ways for everybody to be happy. Nobody can get fired, no matter what; and if somebody does accidentally make a bicycle, the union accuses us of cruel and inhuman practices and the government confiscates the bicycle for back taxes and gives it to a blind man in Afghanistan." [89]

"I know damn well they will be. The people down there are poor enough and scared enough and ignorant enough to have some common sense!" [89]

"'Americans,'" he said, quoting his wife's letter to the Times, "'are forever searching for love in forms it never takes, in places it can never be. It must have something to do with the vanished frontier." [97]

"The highest possible form of treason," said Minton, "is to say that Americans aren't loved wherever they go, whatever they do. Claire tried to make the point that American foreign policy should recognize hate rather than imagine love." [98]

"When Bokonon and McCabe took over this miserable country years ago," said Julian Castle, "they threw out the priests. And then Bokonon, cynically and playfully, invented a new religion" [172]

"Maturity, the way I understand it," he told me, "is knowing what your limitations are." [198]

"Maturity," Bokonon tell us, "is a bitter disappointment for which no remedy exists, unless laughter can be said to remedy anything." [198]

"... When a man becomes a becomes a writer, I think he takes on a sacred obligation to produce beauty and enlightenment and comfort at top speed." [231]

"What hope can there be for mankind," I thought, "When there are such men as Felix Hoenikker to give such playthings as ice-nine to such short-sighted children as almost all men and women are?"
      And I remembered The Fourteenth Book of Bokonon, which I had read in its entirety the night before. The Fourteenth Book is entitled, "What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?"
      It doesn't take long to read The Fourteenth Book. It consists of one word and a period.
      This is it:
      "Nothing" [245]

"Think of what a paradise this would be if men were kind and wise." [256]

"Beware of the man who works had to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before," Bokonon tells us. "He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way." [281]

"I guess all the excitement in bed had more to do with excitement about keeping the human race going than anybody ever imagined." [283]

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

157. Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

Cat's Cradle (Dial Press, 1963; 287) by Kurt Vonnegut takes a humourous look at science and religion and how scientists, even with the best of intentions, cannot in any way predict the effects of their inventions. It also provides a clear presentation of what is meant by religion being the opium of the masses. Vonnegut, through his ability to poke fun at will, treats his themes with all the apocalyptic concerns they deserve. His exploration into the dangerous effects of religion and science is germane even in today's world where the nuclear race is subtly raging and countries with such weapons have refused to completely denuclearised, using it as a bargaining chip - cleaning its innards anytime they want to flex their military prowess, and those without are eagerly acquiring it through any possible deception they can spin. Today, woe betides the country without nuclear weapons, a country incapable of destroying the world with one missile. For such countries, they move when others tell them to move. Another reason that makes Cat's Cradle a great novel, almost half a century after publication, is the raging conflict between science and religion and the leaps and bounds at which scientific knowledge is growing. It is interesting to note that almost always, when scientists obtain a breakthrough, the first application is toward saving lives and improving the lives we live; yet, in the end, it becomes a weapon to kill the masses with.

In Cat's Cradle, John Hoosier - who refers to himself as Jonah - had set out to write a book titled The Day the World Ended which was meant to chronicle what people were doing the day America dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In his research, John came across the Nobel Laureate, Physicist Dr Felix Hoenikker, who was part or head of the team that developed the atom bomb. He took interest in Dr Hoenikker but because the man had died he set out to interview his three eccentric children: the midget Newton who was the youngest and had been thrown out of pre-med at Cornell, the giantess Angela who was taken out of high school by Felix when his wife died to help keep the home and have a woman around him, and Franklin who was good at building models (cars, planes, etc.). John's investigations also took him to Dr. Asa Breed, a colleague of Felix, of whom it was speculated fathered Felix's three children; for it was said of Felix that he had no interest in people. His singular focus was his research and inventions. It was in a conversation with Dr Breed that John heard of ice-nine. The Marines had approached Felix with a problem: they want something that would make it easy for them to move out of mud or muck; they are tired of the dirt. Dr Hoenikker had found a way around this problem and that was ice-nine, which was a chemical grain capable of rearranging the water molecules in a way to quickly solidify it even at room temperature. But there is one significant problem: every water source close to or that fed the mud will freeze and this will continue infinitely, which means that every water source on earth could freeze including the rains. However, Dr Breed did not believe that Dr Hoenikker moved beyond the concept of its possibility to its development. But he did.

And on the day he died, having already told his children what he had produce, the three children divided the ice-nine amongst themselves and each went his/her way. Angela used hers to get herself a husband after years of incarceration. Dr Conners, having been told of the existence of ice-nine, began producing it on large scale to the American government. Part of Newt's (Newton) share was stolen by the Ukrainian midget with whom he had fallen in love with for a brief period and had had a brief vacation with at his father's Cape Cod residence. It turned out that the midget was a spy for the Russians. Franklin (Frank) had used his ice-nine as a bargaining chip to become the Major-General in a poor Caribbean country called San Lorenzo. John, after leaving Dr Breed's, found out in the supplementary papers of the New York Times that Franklin was in San Lorenzo. It was also here that he realised that the ice-nine was produced and had been shared amongst Felix's children.

San Lorenzo is a small country with only one city that had been colonised by every possible developed country, from the French to the Danes. It has one city, Bolivar, and one taxi service. Almost all the properties on the island belong to Julian Castle and his son, Phillip, and the president. The people speak a certain kind of patois. The recent founders of the country were: Lionel Boyd Johnson and Corporal McCabe. Because the land is not fertile enough and there are no jobs and no ways of improving the living standards of the people, McCabe and Johnson threw out all religions and created a new religion, Bokononism. Thus, Johnson became known as Bokonon. And in order to give the religious life of the people more zest, the two connived to ban Bokononism and Bokonon. People zealously and seriously became Bokononists and even though it was banned people secretly practiced it. To show how serious a crime it was to be one, the de facto president McCabe erected a hook where once every two years someone is impaled, to increase enthusiasm. When McCabe died his major-domo, "Papa" Monzano was made the president. "Papa", as he is known and referred to, was a staunch ally of America and abhors Communism to the core. He regards any opposition as a communist. When John was making his way into San Lorenzo, on the transit plane, he met Angela and Newt on their way to attending Franklin's engagement to "Papa" Monzano's adopted daughter, Mona Aamons Monzano. Also on the plane were the new American Ambassador to San Lorenzo and his wife and a bicycle-making businessman who is eager to invest in the country. They were met on arrival by "Papa" himself. But he was sick, suffering from cancer.

"Papa" collapsed and was rushed to Dr Von Koenigswald who was doing penance for all the people he killed during holocaust. But "Papa" later committed suicide with ice-nine (and his body turned solid) and that was when the apocalypse began. Because people were unaware of what had suddenly killed him; they knew not how to protect themselves and anyone who touched any infected substance and touched his mouth suddenly froze and died. That same time there were rockslides and tornadoes that destroyed the castle where "Papa" was and which further spread the ice-nine. The seas became solid and so too did the sky and the sun and every water body. John and Mona escaped into an oubliette "Papa" had built and were protected against the poison. Three days later, when John and Mona left their hideout and were surveying the damage caused by the storms and the poison, they realised that everybody above ground had either been killed by the poison or by thirst; they also came across a group of dead bodies whose hands were stuffed into their mouths. A note by Bokonon and stuck to a boulder and addressed to 'whom it may concern' suggested that the people had caught him and had asked of him what exactly God wanted to do and he had told them that God wanted them to die because he was through with them. And lo and behold, the people committed suicide. Mona upon reading the note also touched the solid surface and touched her mouth. And she died. Later, John would find out that others like him had survived: Newt, H. Lowe Crosby (the bicycle manufacturer) and his wife Hazel.

All through the book, Bokonon told the people that he was fake, that his books - The Books of Bokonon - were full of lies and no one should believe them. He even told them of how he left the government and how the religion was created. In fact a warning on the title page of the book reads:
Don't be a fool! Close the book at once! It is nothing but foma
and 'foma' is 'harmless untruths'. The first sentence in The Books of Bokonon reads:
All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies
Regardless of these, the people worshipped Bokonon and followed some of what he said, the ones that enslaved and harmed them but not those that informed them of the uselessness of their beliefs. In fact, "Papa" Monzano, the president who was to enforce the ban against Bokonon, was himself a Bokononist and requested their ritual of feet-rubbing when he was about to die. However, there was some kind of insistence, some kind of eagerness to get Bokonon destroyed so that the people will learn science as science is the magic that works. But John who had early on been made the president, because Frank was afraid of the publicity, was willing to enforce the ban because of his helplessness and inability to improve the standard of living of the people. 

In some way Vonnegut's story is about science fulfilling religious prophecies about the final cataclysm, the apocalypse mentioned in all religious books that will destroy everything even if they were false prophecies; for instance, Dr Hoenikker manufactured and his children distributed the ice-nine, which ended up fulfilling Bokonon's prophecies about the end of the world and how God will take everything back.
Someday, someday, this crazy world will have to end,
And our God will take things back that He to us did lend.
And if, on that sad day, you want to scold our God,
Why go right ahead and scold Him. He'll just smile and nod. 
[A Bokononist Calypso]
Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle is a very interesting, albeit gloomy, kind of book; a dystopia if you wish but the gloominess is always lightened by his adept use of satire. It shows how uncontrolled scientific exploration when mixed with religious fundamentalism can cause extreme catastrophes much wider and more serious than Hiroshima.
"What hope can there be for mankind," I thought, "When there are such men as Felix Hoenikker to give such playthings as ice-nine to such short-sighted children as almost all men and women are?"
      And I remembered The Fourteenth Book of Bokonon, which I had read in its entirety the night before. The Fourteenth Book is entitled, "What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?"
      It doesn't take long to read The Fourteenth Book. It consists of one word and a period.
      This is it:
The question today is for how long will the nuclear bombs remain inert? It takes one mad fundamentalist president or a fanatical iconoclast to change history's trajectory and the path of the human race. There were other themes other than these. The issue of rights and overstretched labour issues, which leads to no productivity were also raised and it was that which forced Mr Crossby to move into San Lorenzo.  This could be a commentary on misplaced priorities. America's fanaticism with itself as an omnipotent and impeccable entity - incapable of making mistakes - and therefore should be loved at all cost by all was treated with fun in the lives of Horlick Minton and his wife Claire when a letter Claire wrote in the New York Times was considered to exhibit softness toward communism and so cost her husband his job at the State Department. This part reminded me of Jimmy Carter's Our Endangered Values wherein he mentioned that a career diplomat's passionate hatred for Cuba is a sure way of getting promoted.

This book is recommended. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Library Additions

The second quarter of the year has begun and I've still not shared with readers any book I've come into possession of. I have acquired fewer books compared to this time last year. Below are the books I've acquired since the beginning of the year:
  1. Paradise by Toni Morrison. [January] This is the first book I got. It was sent to me by a friend. Morrison is an author of whom I would be proud to say 'I've read the entire works of ...'. So far I've read three: Song of Solomon, Beloved and Sula, and have two.
  2. Birds of Our Land by Virginia W. Dike. [February] I've already read this short but educative book. I got it from the publishers.
  3. Diplomatic Pounds and Other Stories by Ama Ata Aidoo. [March] I got an autographed copy of this book at a reading organised by the Writers Project of Ghana and the Goethe Institute of Ghana. This will be the second book by Ama Ata Aidoo I've read, after Changes.
  4. Amsterdam by Ian McEwan. [April] This book won the 1998 Booker Prize, though that wasn't the main reason why I bought it. I read On Chesil Beach and loved it. I will be reading Atonement this month.
  5. The Metamorphoses by Ovid; translated by Horace Gregory. [April] I just added this book to the list of books I purchased when I wanted a round figure. However, I know it to be a classic and most readers have read this.
  6. Dune by Frank Herbert. [April] This is a recommendation by a reader friend who lives around where I work. This old man can spend hours, with only a stone for a seat, and read pages and pages and woe be unto you if you pass by and greet him. He will tell you all the story and link it to others and relate it to the present situation. I respect this man a lot.
  7. The Great Gatsby by F. Scot Fitzgerald. [April] Purchased this for the Top 100 Books Reading Challenge. It is listed under the 'difficult books' section.
  8. If I'm So Successful, Why Do I Feel Like a Fake? The Impostor Phenomenon by Joan C Harvey, Ph.D., with Cynthia Katz. [April] I really want to get into non-fiction. I want to understand many things. I felt compelled by the title to read this.
These are all the books I've acquired this year. Have you read any of these?

Monday, April 23, 2012

156. SHORT STORY MONDAY: Invocations to the Dead by Gill Schierhout

Invocations to the Dead was published in the Caine Prize for African Writing 2010 anthology, A Life in Full and other stories.

Jonas Peterson was involved in a severe accident that left his pelvis crushed in seventeen places and a six-month stay in the hospital. At the hospital Jonas got on well with the nurses and got close to Grace Jaffe. Two years after Jonas was discharged he appeared at Grace's house, when Grace's relationship had gone cold and a divorce had occurred. Jonas was a helper, doing the things most men would not do. He did all the washing, the folding, the cleaning and tidying, and more.

When a job opening was announced at the hospital, Grace encouraged Jonas to go for it. Consenting with her decision, he became a washer of dead bodies for the pathologist. One night Grace was shocked to find, what she initially was a hairless rat, a lung hidden in Jonas's clothes. With his secrets out, Jonas fled the house.

The story begins another two years after Jonas fled from Grace's house at a psychiatric hospital where he had been brought for psychiatric assessment by Grace to determine if the charge for necrophilia which had been brought against him, when he was caught with human parts, would stand. It then alternated between the past life of Jonas and Grace and the current life at the hospital. The information on Jonas given to the hospital reads
 Illegally possessing various body organs, for no legitimate reason. Atypical Necrophilia. No evidence found of defilement of a corpse. Patient cannot give account of his actions. No other compulsive behaviours noted. Some tendency to magical thinking.
And Grace, who had been the first to witness Jonas's affinity for dead people perhaps which resulted from his working at the morgue, was tasked with performing a three-day assessment on him and make up her mind on his condition:
It is now up to Grace, and her colleagues, to answer the Magistrate's standard questions. In your opinion, was the act premeditated? Does the patient show remorse? Is this a rigid pattern of behaviours? Is he likely to re-offend?
Her answers would determine whether he is released on bail perhaps with medication or sent to prison. But before any of these could occur, Jonas stole one of the doctors' car and escaped. However, because six months previous to his appearance at the hospital he had communicated with Grace and had told him he was a changed man, Grace knew where he was heading towards. She followed him, found him, never brought him to justice, and helped in his escape. In all these, there was no love between Grace and Jonas.

This particular story got me thinking. How could one allow one who cuts dead bodies escape or help in his escape? The best should be an attempt at treatment.
About the author: Gill Schierhout has lived in Sydney since 2009. She is a writer, mother, struggling academic, consultant in public health, daughter, dog-owner and aspiring runner. In 2008, her short story The Day of the Surgical Colloquium Hosted by the Far East Rand Hospital was short-listed for the Caine Prize for African Writing. Her first novel, The Shape of Him (Random House, United Kingdom, 2009) was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Sunday Times Literary Award (South Africa), and nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Set in South African mining communities in the early 1900’s, it tells the story of Sara Highbury, an immigrant from the United Kingdom, and her doomed love affair with a diamond digger, Herbert Wakeford. She also writes a few short stories and is working on a second novel, and on some attempts at literary non-fiction. (Source)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

DISCUSSION: The Complete Works of...?

Many a time we read one or two works of an author, the ones which have become popular and everybody is talking about. Like music, people hardly listen to the entire works of ... except they are dedicated fans and incorrigible aficionados. As a reader I would like to know if there is any particular author whose works you read in its entirety or if there is any author whom you wish (or are on the course of reading) his or her entire works. I wish to read the entire works of Ayi Kwei Armah and Toni Morrison. However, since these authors have not stopped writing, one could only read as and when they write. What about you?

Friday, April 20, 2012

Quotes for Friday from Zadie Smith's White Teeth

I employ you to know things. To compute information. To bring into the light the great darkness of the creator's unexplainable universe.

Archie Jones attempted suicide because his wife, Ophelia, a violet-eyed Italian with a faint mustache, had recently divorced him. But he had not spent New Year's morning gagging on the tube of a vacuum cleaner because he loved her. It was rather because he had lived with her for so long and had not loved her. 

Archie's second marriage felt like buying a pair of shoes, taking them home, and finding they don't fit. For the sake of appearances, he put up with them. And then, all of a sudden and after thirty years, the shoes picked themselves up and walked out of the house. She left. Thirty years.

You must live life with the full knowledge that your actions will remain. We are creatures of consequence, Archibald...

Desire didn't even bother casing the joint, checking whether the neighbours were in - desire just kicked down the door and made himself at home.

[W]hen the male organ of a man stands erect, two thirds of his intellect go away ... And one third of his religion.

What was it about this unlovable century that convinced us we were, despite everything, eminently lovable as a people, as a species? What made us think that anyone who fails to love us is damaged, lacking, malfunctioning in some way? And particularly if they replace us with a god, or a weeping madonna, or the face of Christ in a ciabatta roll - then we call them crazy. Deluded. Regressive. We are so convinced of the goodness of ourselves, and the goodness of our love, we cannot bear to believe that there might be something more worthy of love than us, more worthy of worship. Greetings cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.

They were massively attracted by the fact that he had renounced women and the more he renounced them, the more successful he became. Of course this equation could only work so long, and now Shiva was getting more pussy than he ever had as a kaffir.

In Archie's experience anything with a long memory holds a grievance and a pet with a grievance (that time you got the wrong food, that time you bathed me) just isn't what you want.

But surely to tell these tales and others like them would be to speed the myth, the wicked lie, that the past is always tense and the future, perfect. And as Archie knows, it's not like that. It's never been like that.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

155. White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith's White Teeth (Penguin Books, 2000; 542) is a somewhat historical novel set in the not too distant past of two families, whose friendship was developed on the battlefield but fully fledged in London. It traces the life of Samad Miah Iqbal as an immigrant in Britain and his English friend Alfred Archibald Jones. Later on, the Chalfens - a middle class British family of Jewish descent - were introduced. Using a mix of humour, and a certain penchant (Smith's) for caricaturing, Zadie Smith portrayed the general issues of miscegenation, assimilation, acculturation, isolation and identity and their effects on the social, physical, mental, emotional and religious development of a migrants. And the extent to which one family went to in order to maintain the sanctity of their religious beliefs and traditional life, to preserve it from the invading army of bacteria. But what is the strength of a single man in the face of globalisation (spread through the television), precocity and willingness?

The story opened with Archie Jones on a suicide mission. Archie was a man who had never ever made a decision in his life. The mere act of thinking and making a decision was so difficult that he refrained from it whenever he could; but if he were hard-pressed to do so or the questioner pressed hard, he would toss a coin. Archie was the embodiment of failure; he had failed in all fronts of his life: his marriage which began on a beautiful note had failed irremediably after thirty years, the authorities had failed to recognise him as a WWII veteran (together with Samad) though he saw less of the war, and the Olympic committee failed to record his name for coming in 13th in cycling during the 1948 London Olympic games. But it was the major failure of his first life that offered him the chance to live a second. This was his failure to commit suicide when Mo Hussein-Ishmael, a halal butcher on whose property Archie had driven to gas himself, asked him not to kill himself there on his property. With this new lease of life, Archie was bent on living a kind of youngish lifestyle. He therefore descended into debauchery and hedonism together with some hemp-smoking, alcohol-imbuing teenagers. These young ones have gathered because the world did not end as was predicted and preached by the Jehovah Witnesses. It was during one of his visits to this house full of hedonists that Archie met the young Jamaican, with two missing front teeth, Clara Bowden. The two were soon married, against the warnings of Clara's mother, Hortense Bowden, and her boyfriend Ryan Topps. Clara had gone through a circuitous life that had seen her transformed from the shy, witnessing, Jehovah Witness she was to a hedonist, a change that had infuriated her spirit-filled mother.

Samad, Archie's closest and only friend had migrated to Britain, after the war, from Bangladesh with his wife Alsana. Alsana and Clara became friends after Archie's marriage and the two women conceived at approximately the same period. As the Iqbals tried to adjust to life in their new country and neighbourhood, the Joneses tried to come to terms of their 'accidental' marriage for Clara was nineteen when she married and Archie was forty-seven. Samad, a past scientist with a withered hand, had to suffer the humiliation of working as a chef under a family relative to whom he was much older and to whom he must obey, and Alsana must sew every day, every hour to keep the family going. At delivery time, Clara had a girl whom she named Irie Ambrosia Jones and Alsana had a set of twins, boys, whom Samad named Millat and Magid Iqbal.

Samad and Archie had now become fathers and must as well bring up their children the way they deemed best. And this was when the problems began, especially for Samad who, seeing his wife caught in that in-between most migrants find themselves - to let go of their traditions or the cling onto them, became afraid for Millat and Magid. But what could Samad, that archetypal patriarch, do to protect his roots and traditions from foreign infiltration, even if the foreign had become home to his children. Not even the separation or the sending home to Bengali of Magid, the precocious of the two who had shown excellent display of intellect, would solve the problem. Magid, through a series of incidences both at home in Bangladesh and in London, continued to seek education, defeating his father's quest for him to serve Allah and shun Western education. This failure in Samad's life weakened and saddened him, just as the refusal of both India and Britain to recognise or concede his great-grandfather's (Pande) demonstration of valour against the British soldiers. That his son was learning to become a lawyer was the greatest failure he could ever have in his life and for that he was almost always in a penance mood to Allah and irascible to Alsana, as if it was the latter who had brought up the idea rather than him colluding with Archie to kidnap the boy. Millat on the other hand was going through his own crises and confusions: morality, religious and identity (belonging). Moving from one hemp-smoking, women-chasing, alcohol-slurping gang to the other he finally joined KEVIN - Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation. This was after he had joined the Chalfen household through their son Joshua Chalfen. The three - Millat, Irie and Joshua - were part of the students caught when parents ambushed the school and arrested children smoking hemp. Their punishment was to attend biology studies at the Chalfen household. The Chalfens were Jewish and well-educated, opinionated and socially stupid: Marcus Chalfen was a famous geneticist (who through Irie had contacted Magid and, surprised by his intelligence, had gone on corresponding with him to the annoyance of Samad); Joyce Chalfen was a horticulturist (who doted over Millat, believing she understood him and could change him, which became detrimental to her own family); Joshua was the eldest of the Chalfen family.

As the Chalfens made all the fuss about the two: Irie and Millat - Millat because Joyce always wanted him to be around regardless of the cost she was incurring from all his delinquent behaviours and Irie because Marcus employed her to do his filing for him - Joshua was slipping away into a clique of friends who would shift his focus. Finally, when KEVIN took Millat and indoctrinated him about his religion and the need to defend it and informed him of Marcus' lifetime project, the FutureMouse project, which was not of Allah and that no one had the right to interfere with creation, a special domain for God, FATE had taken Joshua, who was initially attracted by his lasciviousness of Joely. FATE (Fighting Animal Torture and Exploitation) was a radical animal right group that would stop at nothing to release an incarcerated animal or to punish the offender.

Now as a new millennium was about to unfold, Marcus Chalfen was about to unveil his new creation, the FutureMouse, which he had programmed to live for seven-years and to die at a given time. This research, as communicated to the public through Magid's (he had returned to Britain through Marcus Chalfen) expert writing skill, was supposed to help cure so many diseases including cancer and skin pigmentation. However, there were a lot of people with special interests in this creation: KEVIN - led by Millat - would stop at nothing to disrupt the programme and show Marcus that he was not Allah and should therefore not play one; FATE - led by Crispin and Joely and helped by Joshua would want to break the glass and release the mouse or if it failed injure the perpetrator; Hortense Bowden and Ryan Topps - Clara's mother (and Irie's grandmother) and her first boyfriend respectively - being Jehovah Witnesses and having found a new date when the world would end - have organised a singing and drumming ceremony in front of the hall where the exhibition would take place, to register their displeasure against Marcus for playing Jehovah. But Samad, Archie, Irie and some of their relatives were there to support, albeit grudgingly, Irie and Magid. These groups with different opinions converged at the same destination.

Regarding identity, Irie - to look beautiful for Millat - had to undergo chemical treatment to straighten her hair and when it failed had to fix the hair of an Indian onto hers. This is an issue that had raged forever and it is rare to see an African woman - both at home and abroad - who still cherishes her kinky hair. The statistics provided by Smith, regarding the amount of money blacks spend on their hair, was amazing and the saddest part was the poorer emigres would have to spend so much money to change their look. And there were those Indians who are also forced to shave and sell their hair for money. Aside all these, the most significant theme was that between religion and science. There were several overt derisions against religious zealots. For instance, Samad was bent on making his son Magid serve Allah rather than becoming a lawyer. Smith's themes were varied and, though most were germane to the migrant experience, transcended beyond it. It pitted religious fundamentalism and the blind fanaticism against science. Here some of the poor arguments espoused by these right groups and religious bodies were seen in all of its stupidity. Regardless of this, her argument against that self-conceited idea that we should be loved or that each person should be loved equally was brilliant:
What was it about this unlovable century that convinced us we were, despite everything, eminently lovable as a people, as a species? What made us think that anyone who fails to love us is damaged, lacking, malfunctioning in some way? And particularly if they replace us with a god, or a weeping madonna, or the face of Christ in a ciabatta roll - then we call them crazy. Deluded. Regressive. We are so convinced of the goodness of ourselves, and the goodness of our love, we cannot bear to believe that there might be something more worthy of love than us, more worthy of worship. Greetings cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time. 
There were also several flagpoles to mark the time: the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demonstrations and agitations that marked Salman Rushdie's publication of Satanic Verses. The story is filled with humour and satirical presentations; it philosophises a lot of the current debate between religion and science, the gradual homogenisation of cultures within an environment and miscegenation. The language was very smart for each of the characters. There was the Jamaican dialect, the street jargon, and academic and religious languages. Smith showed that she understands her subjects and have a comparable knowledge to carry out their emotions and fears, unadulterated, to the reader. At 542 pages, White Teeth has a lot to offer the reader and every émigré would find something in the book to relate to.

This book was read for the Top 100 Books Reading Challenge and the Chunkster Challenge

Monday, April 16, 2012

154. SHORT STORY MONDAY: Set Me Free by Clifford Chianga Oluoch

Set Me Free, published in the Caine Prize for African writing 2010 anthology - A Life in Full and other stories - is a story based on the 2007-2008 Kenya electoral crisis that resulted when Mwai Kibaki was declared winner of the December 27, 2007 elections and Raila Odinga and his supporters claimed there has been electoral fraud leading to a somewhat Orange Revolution but worsened when some politicians invoked the tribal differences leading to violence. The resolution of the crisis led to the Kibaki-Odinga power-sharing government where Odinga became the prime minister and Kibaki remained the president. In this parallel story, narrated by the daughter of one of such rogue politicians whose name is on the list of the names the ICC has released, the woman tells of the events that took place within the next two days when the list came out. When as a temporary single-mother she had to make a lot of life-and-dead decisions amid threatening calls and text messages, and women who all want to be part of his father's wealth and so are reporting having had children with him. It also moves alongside the woman's five-year old son's eagerness to keep a fallen bird.

David Mavita collapsed in his room by his housemaid, already he was hypertensive and diabetic, after the ICC list came out and is on life support. He has been deserted by both family and friends; friends because none of them wanted to be associated with him after his name came up. His wife has divorced him and absolutely hates him, believing the greatest mistake she had made in her life was marrying David. His sons - Joni and Jerry - have been both disowned by David and having gone their own ways want to have nothing to do with him. Joni became a homosexual prostitute and Jerry was now in the US with her mother who was there to look after his children.

This breakdown in the family left his only daughter as the controller of his estate and by default the next of kin who had to ensure that the next few days after the event will pass smoothly. She had to decide to keep his father on life-support or not; and had to ward off all unnecessary and threatening calls. She made calls to all known family members but none was willing to help: her mother (David's wife) cut the line after she offered her tuppence, an uncle had his problem with David already and would not help him even in death, an Aunt (David's sister) would echo what his brother said and would also cut the line, she could talk to Jerry, and Joni was nowhere to be found. Friends have suddenly whittled and she is left alone. Finally, she set out to look for Joni in Nairobi's Red Light District. When she found him, he also had nothing to do with him; according to him he'd been dead since and that he had no father. But he followed her to the hospital and also advocated for the removal of the life-support which was the decision she had to make that led to her canvassing for opinions from family members. A call from her husband, Tim, from abroad also supported the removal of the life-support since there is no use keeping him alive: is it so that he would face trial by the ICC?

In all there were twelve women who called at the hospital claiming to have had children with David and that should be part of the funeral preparations. They also came with a fake court injunction on the cremation, but David's daughter also has her way around these things. She would take her father off life-support, watch him breathe his last breath, outwitted the authorities and the vulturing women and get him cremated. Together with Joni, they spread his remains over parliament building - the place their father had spent much of his life.

The story is also about the uselessness of earning all such stupendous wealth and gaining nothing in return; rejected by friends and family. In the end his ashes fitted in a little urn which fitted in her hand and when she asked if that is all, the usher responded:
Yes. Human beings are very small.
About the author:

Saturday, April 14, 2012

DISCUSSION: Do you read Introductions?

Most often the republication of books considered classics are preceded by introductions. In the Vintage Classics (2007) edition of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, there were two introductions: the first was by Margaret Atwood written in 2007 and the other by David Bradshaw in 1993. These introductions were then followed by the literary life of the author again by David Bradshaw and then finally there was a foreword by author written in 1946. All these together comprises 50 pages and also gave insights to what the story is about and more.

The question is do you read these introductions and forewords as part of the novel? Do you read it at all? Do you read it before? Or do you read it after? What is your position on this? I do read all before the book.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Quotes for Friday from Bessie Head's Maru

The rains were so late that year. But throughout that hot, dry summer those black storm clouds clung in thick folds of brooding darkness along the low horizon. There seemed to be a secret in their activity, because each evening they broke the long, sullen silence of the day, and sent soft rumbles of thunder and flickering slicks of lightning across the empty sky. [1]

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]

It is preferable to change the world on the basis of love of mankind. But if that quality be too rare, then common sense seems the next best thing. [7]

Those who spat at what they thought was inferior were the 'low filthy people' of the earth, because decent people cannot behave that way. [12]

Something they liked as Africans to pretend themselves incapable of was being exposed as oppressive and prejudiced. They always knew it was there but no oppressor believes in his oppression. He always says he treats his slaves nicely. [37]

Prejudice is like the old skin of a snake. It has to be removed bit by bit. [40]

He knew from his own knowledge of himself that true purpose and direction are creative. [45]

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

153. Maru by Bessie Head

Title: Maru
Author: Bessie Head
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: AWS Classics
Pages: 103
Year of First Publication: 1971
Country: Botswana/South Africa

In this book Bessie Head tackled an incipient but dangerous problem that Africans are not eager to confront but which had been the bane of the continent, stalling every development and fomenting and precipitating civil wars. Almost every crisis in Africa is either caused by this or act as a catalyst. It led to the electoral crisis in Kenya, the genocide in Rwanda, the Liberian war, the Ivorian crisis and more. Racism has been amongst us and has retarded our progress so much so that had it being eliminated a larger portion of our problems would have been solved concomitantly. For instance, if there were no internal racism (mostly referred to as tribalism or ethnicism) most forms of corruptions would be no more.

Today in every country, there are those who think the country belongs to them and look upon all others (tribes) as inferior and squatters deserving only the crumbs. This problem had become pronounced due to the great diversity within Africa's gene pool so that in a country the variation among people is as much as there are of ethnic or tribal groups. And because politics is about power and numbers corrupt politicians have fallen on this - whipping up sentiments, making ignorant and absolutely stupid ethically-biased statements.  In Botswana, the Masarwa tribe is one of those that have suffered extreme racial segregation. Even when the larger population were struggling against the western racialism they kept the Basarwa (or the Bushmen, their name itself deeply derogatory) as slaves. According to the Tswana people the Basarwa people cannot think, the very argument used against them by the western segregationists; they are considered not different from animals and are counted as part of the animals that inhabit the Kalahari. In this book, Bessie Head shows what a Basarwa (a girl in this case) can do when given the opportunity apart from hunting, gathering, herbal medicine and the art they are known for and the slaves the end up becoming. This is the subject matter of Bessie Head's novella Maru.

A Basarwa woman died after giving birth to a daughter. But because she is a Basarwa and an untouchable the people called on Margaret Cadmore, a white teacher, to attend to the thing. She also taught her several things including literature and art.She also taught her several things including literature and art. Margaret took the daughter and named her after herself, having had no child of her own. The young Margaret had to endure discrimination at school and had it not been her adopted mother, who ensured that she put those who laughed at her in their proper places, life would have been highly unbearable for her. And even though her colour could have allowed her to blend and be passed for a half-caste - a product of a black and white parents, which is itself considered as an abnormality but still above the Masarwa people - Margaret insisted on identifying herself with her people the first time she found out who she was and the meaning of the name of her people.

Fortunately for young Margaret she was a good student and with a British for a mother - albeit adopted - her English and the tonality of her voice was excellent. After she completed training college and her adopted mother left for her home country, young Margaret would be posted to a Delipe to teach at the Leseding School. There she met Dikeledi, the late chief's daughter, also a teacher at the school; the two quickly struck acquaintance. 

Dikeledi was in love with Moleka, a womaniser notorious for changing women like clothes and sending her rejects fleeing town or walking the streets talking to themselves. He had eight children with eight different women and there was no end in sight. Moleka found a place for Margaret. When Dikeledi got to know that Margaret was Masarwa she was amazed and advised her to keep it quiet as no one would suspect it, but she wouldn't hear of it. On the first day at school the head-teacher was all over himself, having already concluded that she was a half-caste, until he got to know that Margaret was a Masarwa and that was when the problem began. Afraid of parents revolting against this, of their children being thought by one of those things, he set out to devise a plan that would make life so much uncomfortable for Margaret so that she would leave by herself or get her sack, regardless of the fact that she had the best grades (in fact, he had started doubting if she never received help along the way and had sworn to investigate this matter).

Moleka had been taken in by Margaret's beauty, politeness, and mannerisms. He was now like a mad man. As a man of importance, he couldn't go out with one of the Masarwa people, what would people say about him? This dilemma glazed his eyes so much so that he saw through Dikeledi. The first thing he did was to release all his Masarwa slaves. And when the head-teacher prep Margaret's students to laugh at their teacher and ask her if she were a Masarwa and if so how could she teach them (the situation was saved Dikeledi whose no-nonsense attitude and education turned her into a somewhat strong woman) Moleka invited the head teacher into his house and invited him to eat with them all, including the recently-released Masarwa slaves. Infuriated the head-teacher left and fled the town.

Dikeledi's brother and heir-apparent, Maru, who had been away when Margaret made her entry into Dilepe was informed of all the happenings in the village by his spy, Ranko. Maru would also work on an elaborate plan that would entwine Dikeledi to Moleka and free him to whisk Margaret away.

This is a love story of some sorts but it is not romance-filled, even by 1970s African standards and the focus is not on building a suspense as to what would happen. The story begins with Maru married to Margaret; thus, the story is more about exposing how the Masarwa people are treated. Though the means by which Margaret was married, without her explicit consent for she loved Moleka (because Maru never showed any sign of love), bothered me. However, like most of Bessie's works there were a bit of surrealism in it where Maru and Margaret dreamt the same dreams. This is believed to be the activity of Maru's totems. Narrated in one long flashback, without chapters or numbered sections, in two parts, this is a fast read; it does away with any unnecessary issues and addresses what the author wants to say.

This is the most accessible of all three of Bessie Head's stories I have read. The importance of this story lies in the fact that even today the Masarwa are being discriminated against. There are stories of their total extinction and the loss of a culture, carefully preserved, because their lands have been found to contain diamonds.
About the author: Click here to read about Bessie Head.

Monday, April 09, 2012

152. SHORT STORY MONDAY: The David Thuo Show by Samuel Munene

This short story is taken from the Caine Prize for African Writing 2010 anthology,  A Life in Full and other stories.

David Thuo runs a column in the Sunday News on social issues; actually, he claims to be a consultant on social issues. He is also the head of the Thuo family comprising of his wife, two daughters and a maid. For the first time mother and father quarrelled, the wife was accusing the husband of cheating and the husband was counter-accusing her for sleeping with her boss. The household dynamics seems to be weaker and there is no single bond binding them together. Again, there seems to be great tension among them so that even watching television becomes a platform to inflame passions.

The degeneracy of the family is not limited to the parents suspecting each other. Sharon the first child has two boyfriends and shares her time between them. The narrator, the second child, who pretends to be the best member of the household secretly reads a pornographic magazine she purchases every week.

Shinko, the maid, knows most of the things going on in the family. For instance she knows that Sharon has two boyfriends and the mother too keeps kissing a young boy who has been dropping her off every night. One evening, she came home late only to meet her maid sleeping with her husband on the sofa. A quarrel ensued and it was during the exchange of words that Dave got a hard evidence that the wife cheats on him using the demanding nature of her work as an excuse.
Author in green (Source)

The story seems to show how everything is not right with the Thuo, and for that matter every, family. The plot was difficult to follow and the story lacked something to connect all the different actions. Like most short stories, it remained in its nascent form and would have worked better if it had been fledged out.
About the author: Samuel Munene is a young Nairobi poet, short story writer, and contributor to Kwani? as well as various literary online magazines. He holds an economics degree from the University of Nairobi, and currently earns a living as a freelance writer. (Source)

Saturday, April 07, 2012

DISCUSSION: Why Finish Books?

I was surfing the net as usual, reading those articles that attract my attention and I found this article about why it is not that necessary to finish reading a book and that not finishing a book does not mean you did not enjoy it or that the reader's feeling towards the book was negative. According to Tim Parks, it could even be a credit to the writer. He writes
To put a novel down before the end, then, is simply to acknowledge that for me its shape, its aesthetic quality, is in the weave of the plot and, with the best novels, in the meshing of the writing style with that weave. Style and plot, overall vision and local detail, fascinate together, in a perfect tangle. Once the structure has been set up and the narrative ball is rolling, the need for an end is just an unfortunate burden, an embarrassment, a deplorable closure of so much possibility. Sometimes I have experienced the fifty pages of suspense that so many writers feel condemned to close with as a stretch of psychological torture, obliging me to think of life as a machine for manufacturing pathos and tragedy, since the only endings we half-way believe in, of course, are the unhappy ones.
I personally cannot stand not finishing a book and even though I have abandoned some books, I had gone back to read them fully. It's not just the satisfaction of completing a book; it's not just because I want to tell people I have read this book.

What do you have to say? Should a book be necessarily finished? Will you consider your reading complete even when you did not complete? Should the reader decide when he/she thinks the book should end? Kindly share your thoughts on this. 

Friday, April 06, 2012

Quotes for Friday from Jose Saramago's Blindness

The sceptics, who are many and stubborn, claim that, when it comes to human nature, if it is true that the opportunity does not always make the thief, it is also true that it helps a lot. [17]

To put is simply, this woman could be classed as a prostitute, but the complexity in the web of social relationships, whether by day or night, vertical or horizontal, of the period here described cautions us to avoid a tendency to make hasty and definitive judgments, a mania which, owing to our exaggerated self-confidence, we shall perhaps never be rid of. [23]

Although it may be evident just how much cloud there is in Juno, it is not entirely licit, to insist on confusing with a Greek goddess what is no more than an ordinary concentration of drops of water hovering in the atmosphere. [23]

It was my fault, she sobbed, and it was true, no one could deny it, but it is also true, if this brings her any consolation, that if, before every action, we were to begin by weighing up the consequences, thinking about them in earnest, first the immediate consequences, then the probable, then the possible, then the imaginable ones, we should never move beyond the point where our first thought brought us to a halt. The good and the evil resulting from our words and deeds go on apportioning themselves, one assumes in a reasonably uniform and balanced way, throughout all the days to follow, including those endless days, when we shall not be here to find out, to congratulate ourselves or ask for pardon, indeed there are those who claim that this is the much-talked-of immortality [75]

We all have our moments of weakness, just as well that we are still capable of weeping, tears are often our salvation, there are times when we would die if we did not weep [93]

We have a colonel here who believes the solution would be to shoot the blind as soon as they appear, Corpses instead of blind men would scarcely improve the situation, To be blind is not the same as being dead, Yes, but to be dead is to be blind [104]

Perhaps only in a world of the blind will things be what they truly are [121]

[T]here is nothing in this world that belongs to us in an absolute sense [136]

[E]ven in the worst misfortunes it is possible to find enough good to be able to bear the aforesaid misfortunes with patience [144]

[W]hat one does on one's own initiative is generally less arduous than if one has to do something under duress. [160]

However, to everything its proper season, just because you rise early does not mean that you will die sooner. [163]

[I]t is not from someone's face and the litheness of their body that we can judge their strength of heart. [165]

And when is it necessary to kill, she asked herself as she headed in the direction of the hallway, and she herself answered the question, When what is still alive is already dead. [183]

Just as the habit does not make the monk, the sceptre does not make the king, this is a fact we should never forget [199]

[T]he fact is that hunger has always had a keen sense of smell, the kind that penetrates through all barriers, just as dogs do. [216]

[T]he reply to be given is that all stories are not like those about the creation of the universe, no one was there, no one witnessed anything, yet everyone knows what happened. [251]

Inside us there is something that has no name, that something is what we are. [261]

It's a time-honoured custom to pass by the dead without seeing them [282]

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

151. Blindness by Jose Saramago

Blindness (Vintage Classics, 1997; 309; translated by Giovanni Pontiero) is a story that investigates human behaviour with political undertones; what makes someone do one thing and not the other; does the conscience behind an activity matter?  Jose Saramago, the 1998 Nobel Laureate, used this experimental book to investigate these issues in ways similar to William Golding's Lord of the Flies.

People are suddenly going blind in an unnamed city. A man in his car, waiting for the traffic light to turn from red to amber and then green, suddenly lost his sight. The Good Samaritan who took him home and later stole his car also lost his sight. The doctor who looked at his strange case lost his sight in his house whilst researching more on the man's conditions; a prostitute who had just left the doctor's place and was meeting her client got blind whilst having sex with this man.

The authorities in order to contain, what became known as the white blindness - because the people were seeing a sea of milky white instead of the total blackness as described by the 'normally' blind people - quarantined them in a mental asylum where all contacts with the outside world were broken. All those who came into contact with these individuals were also detained and quarantined in a different section of the building. With time those who became blind were transferred, by their own people, to the blind section. The doctor's wife who was not blind but pretended to be in order to be close to her husband and five others, including the girl with the dark glasses, the boy with the squint, car thief, an old man with black eyepatch were the first six to be quarantined. When the first batch of the blind was settled in their wards, the authorities sounded the warning giving them a long list of rules and what is expected of them. Any attempt to escape will be met with instant death by shooting, they will do their own washing and bury their dead. Food will be given to them at specific times and they are to come for them themselves, near the gate. The doctor's wife, unaffected by the disease, tried to keep order but she would later give up because she was both overwhelmed and afraid (fear imbued into him by her husband) to inform the masses that she could see.

As the contagion spread and the number of inmates increase, the sanitation and personal hygiene began to  deteriorate. Prior to that the car thief, who had earlier been identified by the first blind man by his voice and who had tried fumbling the breasts of the girl with dark glasses and whom the girl had stamped with the heel of her shoe, had died from the wounds he sustained and had been buried. Amongst the masses there were those who were indolent and those who cheat people out of food. Though the level of organisation among them was low, the doctor's wife - who had still not been infected and would be the only one in the whole city to keep her sight - tried to put some form of order in whatever they do. But unable to control them completely lest they question her and also because the taps failed to run and the toilets were full, the people began desecrating their living spaces and, being blind, they walked in them and slept in them. Drivers who, in another life and place, had or would have complained and whom pedestrian had or would have described as inconsiderate and uncompassionate were now complaining about their being treated badly. As the numbers kept increasing (though the military and the authorities also became infected, they were not sent to a different place) chaos set in and because the asylum became a microcosm of the city in particular and by extension of the world, there were those who by their strength (and with their smart thinking had smuggled weapons into the asylum and were also able to fabricate new ones) gathered together and oppressed the people. They became the overlords and requesting the people to purchase the food, which was given to them free with their valuables, failure to obey would mean starvation for the entire ward; by then the rate of delivery had decreased and there was also no specific time for delivery. These thugs would later request the women from each ward to pay for their ward's food with a steamy orgy. These thugs excelled in their oppression of the masses, because they were organised so that a group of twenty could and did rule a people of over three hundred. It was clear that the people were set on the path to their devolution; moving from whatever they were at the time achronologically into the period when man was a base animal.

But the doctor's wife would lead a revolt one evening, during a blind orgy, and would kill the leader and that power that they held over them would dissolve and the people would be free. However, at this time the contagion had spread with such speed and ferocity that everyone in the city had already become blind, including the soldiers who were keeping watch, and the food producers. One of the women inmates, tired of the general life in the asylum, started a fire that caught the building in no time. It was this fire, while killing several inmates, that would set most of them free and it was then they would realise that their inability to get food, which most of them had blamed on the woman who had killed the leader - because had she not killed him they would still have had food, was because everybody was now blind. Back in the city of the blind, the group of seven - containing five of the first batch and two others: the old man with the eyepatch and the boy with the squint - led by the doctor's wife, had to find ways to survive this human catastrophe on their own. Having now been told them that she could seen and had was not blind, she would inform them of whatever was happening or had happened to the city. With stores looted and no food available she had to compose herself, physically (for she was an old woman of about fifty) and mentally (for the decisions she had to take and the filth and dirt she had to see and participate in, worse for her because she knows and sees what is happening) to keep her people alive. The six blind people were happy to know that they have one unblind person leading them; they each went to their homes only to be met by new occupants. People unable to find their way home had taken occupancy of the nearest rooms they could find. Needless to say water and food were a scarce commodity and dogs competed against each other for cadavers and corpses. So much filth had filled the city and so heavy was the stench of decomposition that windows now had to be kept closed. And when it rains they stand in it, clean themselves and collect some for drinking and through that the city got cleaned too, somewhat. 

The book could be describe as a compendium of scatology and not just for the shock value or to depict how we can be but rather how we are. It shows that it takes little to descend to the abyss of the social structure perhaps faster than it takes to ascend for all that is required is the breakdown in leadership, laws and awareness and all these are easy to lose than to develop or maintain. As a commentary on politics and governance there were several references to communal living, to the importance of working together to achieve a specific goal. For instance, regarding the idea of putting all the food supplies together and sharing the bulk, Saramago writes
[T]he concentration of food supplies into a single entity for apportioning and distribution, had its positive aspects, after all, however much certain idealists might protest that they would have preferred to go on struggling for life by their own means, even if their stubbornness meant going hungry. [144]
Then as a commentary against competition and its bias against the weak, he writes
There were blind inmates lying up against the walls, those who on arrival had been unsuccessful in finding a bed, either because in the assault they had lagged behind, or because they lacked the strength to contest a bed and win their battle. [146]
Thus, Saramago shows that the only way to come out of such a predicament is to work together rather than compete against each other which only worsens the situation. In the end bonds, that would under no circumstances be formed had there not been blindness, were formed. The girl with the dark glasses who was considered beautiful in all aspect latched onto the old man with the eyepatch. Rid of everything, of the very things that make us arrogant and think of ourselves superior, we are left with the purest form of love, a sense of affinity, which distinguishes not and calls out to whomever it wants. 

Using the case of the car thief and a prostitute (or the girl with the dark glasses) Saramago argues that choice and conscience are very important and it is what separates negative from positive. Though the girl is a prostitute in every sense of the word, Saramago admonishes against the use of the word because it is her decision to sleep with men in exchange for money and pleasure and that she does so by choosing the man she wants and when she wants. He writes
[T]his woman could be classed as a prostitute, but the complexity in the web of social relationships, whether by day or night, vertical or horizontal, of the period here described cautions us to avoid a tendency to make hasty and definitive judgments, a mania which, owing to our exaggerated self-confidence, we shall perhaps never be rid of. ... Without any doubt, this woman goes to bed with men in exchange for money, a fact that might allow us to classify her without further consideration as a prostitute, but, since it is also true that she only goes with a man when she feels like it and with whom she wants, we cannot dismiss the possibility that such a factual difference, must as a precaution determine her exclusion from the club as a whole. She has, like ordinary people, a profession, and, also like ordinary people, she takes advantage of any free time to indulge her body and satisfy needs, both individual and general. Were we not trying to reduce her to some primary definition, we should finally say of her, in the broad sense, that she lives as she pleases and moreover gets all the pleasure she can from life. [23/4]
Blindness is the work of an experiential writer but it is also experimental. Its experimentalism is on several fronts. First the narrative style is different. There are no inverted commas or apostrophes to indicate dialogues; full stops are sparingly used; and questions are to be inferred from the way they are written, there are no question marks to indicate them. The beginning of a dialogue is marked by capitalisation of the first word that begins the sentence and the response is separated from the previous by a comma - they are not arranged in paragraphs as is commonly done but flow into longer sentences. Initially, the reader might think this to be difficult but no such difficulty is observed. Consequently, the sentences were rather long and paragraphs lengthy. Another item to note in this masterpiece is names. There were no proper nouns in this book. No names of persons or of places. Each person is identified by something unique about him, temporary or permanent. There was the city, the man with the eyepatch, the girl with the dark glasses, the wife of the doctor, the doctor, the wife of the first man, the first man who went blind, the boy with the squint and others. And even with this, Saramago managed to keep his writing lucid so that the reader can forget that he met no such things. The universality of the issues discussed perhaps warranted this style of writing.

The narrative itself is different. Though I had met a similar kind of narrative in Palace Walk, where the narrator can break off to explain or converse with the reader directly, here it was extended. There were long monologues that philosophises the peoples' actions and distill what could be possibly learnt from it; there were places where the narrator becomes part of the struggle, using the first person plural 'we'; there were places where the narrator becomes omniscient. Generally, but not always, the omniscient narrator was used to tell the story (plot-wise) and the first person plural to 'discuss' the philosophies. Putting these styles together it was as if the narrator was holding the readers hand to navigate a complex architectural achievement and explaining to him or her how each facet works and how it is linked to the others.

Blindness is an excellent book. It is a book about relationship as it pertains to governance and power; about how we make decisions and how our decisions affect us; about the need for order and organisation. It is a book that those who have not as yet read should read.

Monday, April 02, 2012

150. SHORT STORY MONDAY: Happy Ending by Stanley Onjezani Kenani

After finding a love letter in his wife's handwriting with no name or address, Dama concluded that his wife of infidelity. He therefore sought the help of a spiritualist to deal with this offending man. The spiritualist, Simbazako, older than anyone in the village, listened to Dama's concerns and told him he had no problem. Simbazako is famous for the things he could do, though some were mere exaggerations. Before he proceeded he offered Dama the options available for him to make his choice.
There was one in which the man could die as if stung by a puff adder a few hours after the act. There was another in which the lover could be tortured slowly, feeling like a million needles were pricking his stomach. There was another in which the lover could go on for a month, every second, every minute, until death put the victim out of his misery. Dama, however, had decided not to be so cruel, so he'd settled for kuthamokondwa. The man should die in the act, he thought. [125]
Back home and Dama was still in between thoughts: should he or should he not. The spiritualist had told him that he could the food, after he had mixed it with the herbs he has provided, with her wife and nothing will happen to him but for his wife the moment he takes in the food, the medicine will starts its work. What he should realise was that if his wife doesn't cheat on him in a year he would be the one to die.

Now playing with the medicine it inadvertently fell from his hands into the food. So he removed it and stirred it. Dama had remained chaste and is afraid of any notion of sex outside marriage because of what happened to his father, which later shame the whole family. His father, a shameless womaniser who would follow anything female, was the first person in the whole of Malawi to be diagnosed of AIDS. After his and her wife's death, Dama became the item of gossips and a laughing stock to the people. People point hands at him as if he was the father and had committed the crime.

After the death of his parents, the young Dama was left to cater for his younger brother Abisalomu. To help him do all these, he married Tithelepo. But with time the two found that children will not be forthcoming and so adopted his brother as his son. But then the village folks began to gossip.

One day, coming from his daily rounds, Dama heard his wife shouting from behind the news. Rushing to the scene he found his brother, Abisalomu, dead.  Tithelepo ran away and Dama ran to the old Simbazako only to discover his decomposing body in his hut. Later Tithelepo will come back to her husband but between them lay an uneasy coldness. Dama had overheard a conversation between his wife and her friend as to how she forced Abisalomu to do what he did, that he was doing it to bring happiness to Dama. That month she got pregnant.

The first part of the short story was brilliantly told. But the denouement or the revelation in this case is artificial and too forced. The dialogue itself was constructed as if it were meant for Dama to hear and be convinced. Again, and this is personal, was this a happy ending because the woman became pregnant and the family had the child they had always wanted? Or was it a happy ending because the woman got the child that would erase the 'shame' of childlessness, even if in this case was the man's problem. Because sleeping with a man's brother is no justification for infidelity unless it has been agreed between the two. But then this is one of those moral issues whose answer is subjective.
About the author: Stanley Onjezani Kenani is a Malawian writer and poet. As a poet, Kenani has performed at the Arts Alive Festival in Johannesburg, South Africa, Poetry Africa in Durban, South Africa, Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA), Zimbabwe, and at the Struga Poetry Evenings in Macedonia. Kenani has won several awards in his country for his short story writing. In 2007, his short story, For Honour, won the third prize in an HSBC/SA PEN Competition. The same short story was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2008 and appeared in the anthology African Pens: New Writing from Southern Africa 2007 (Source). Read more about the author here.
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