Wednesday, May 30, 2012

168. The Famished Road by Ben Okri

Title: The Famished Road*
Author: Ben Okri
Genre: Fiction/Surrealist
Publishers: Vintage
Pages: 500
Year of First Publication: 1991
Country: Nigeria

Ben Okri's The Famished Road entrenches the writer's style of mixing what others might refer to as surrealism with realism. Like the stories in his collected short stories Incidents at the Shrine, Okri capitalises on the African's abundant belief in the spiritual world, or supernatural, to tell his stories, presenting the reader with a cascade of fantastic images and challenging descriptions. To the African the spirit world is not far off from or diametrical to the physical world; the African believes in the fluidity between the two and believes that children come from the spirit world, just as people go to the spirit world when they die. In effect, the African believes that the world we live in now, the one we see and feel, which could be referred to as the physical world, is just a transit in that infinite cyclical journey of birth-death-rebirth. It is such beliefs that makes it necessary, during any traditional African practice or ceremony, to call upon the ancestors. Names also bear witness to the African's belief in the supernatural. Good people who lived are named after so that their goodness will be bestowed upon the individual who has been named after them and people who lived a life not worthy of emulation are not named after or called upon during libation or prayers. To the African, God is part of his everyday life. It is this belief why 'Nyame' (meaning God) begins most of the speeches of the Akans of Ghana especially when referring to a future event over which he or she has no control. It isn't because they were Christianised, it is who the African is. The African also believes because of the fluidity between the spirit world and the physical, movement in and out of the worlds is common. For instance, people believe that spirits come 'shopping' on market days and those 'with eyes' will always tell you the amazing things they see on such days.

It is within this abundant spirituality of life, living, dying, death, and reincarnation that Okri sets this story and it requires a bigger heart devoid of all impossibilities and restraints in belief to understand and appreciate. The Famished Road is the story of an abiku, which is a child whose spirit is still connected to the land of origins such that he will die in his infancy and will die again if reborn. The child therefore 'comes into the world and leaves the world' unless certain rites are performed. Azaro  is an abiku who has caused her mother a lot of grief. Upon his last birth he decided to stay to make his mother happy. However, the spirits will not let him be, they will chase him everyday in an attempt to take him back to the spirit world. It was when he resurrected in the midst of a funeral after he had fought the spirits that took him away and managed to escape that he was named Lazaro, later shortened to Azaro. In this story, Azaro tells of how he struggled not to return to the spirit world and how the pact that he had had with his spirit friends haunted him. The name Lazaro is not the only link with Christianity. In fact, the book itself opens with a statement that is similar to the verse at John 1:1 'In the beginning was the word and the word was with God, and the word was God'. The transition of one element to the other and finally assuming or becoming the other was employed by Okri at the beginning of the novel as if to praise the word and the power it holds. He writes
In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. [3]
Roads are a fascination in traditional life of people. It represents the entry of Europeans and slave traders and the struggle between Christian and Traditional beliefs, between the peoples' ways of life and the ways of life of the visitors. It also marked the end of the period and the beginning of a new one. Thus, the road is viewed with awe and around it several proverbs have emerged. Most of these proverbs have surrounded its almost infiniteness and one can understand this when one pictures that the mode of transportation during those period - walking - restricts dispersion especially if it is temporary and not migratory.

Several themes run through this book. However, the major one is the issue of politics and its attendant dishonesty, greed, hatred, killing (murder), thuggery, lies, finger-pointing, denial, and any vice one can conceive. Set in the period where the colonial government was just about leaving the country and independence looms on the horizon, two political parties have been formed which must convince the people to vote for them to assume the reins of governance. There is the Party for the Rich, the front runner, and the Party for the Poor. Each of these parties involves itself in deception and lies; however, because the Party for the Rich has the wherewithal, it has more supporters, more thugs, and more money to spend on food for distribution to the people. The behaviour of this party is no different from the behaviour of Eliot's government in 1984 where a negative means a positive and vice versa; for when the Party for the Rich hires thugs to beat people who do not support them, they do so whilst preaching love and affection and caring on megaphones. They claim their love to the people in the midst of unrelenting blood flow. Even when they are beating the people, they will be blaming the other party for a crime they are presently committing. The power of words got hold of them such that Black Tyger - Azaro's father - sometimes got confused as to which of the two parties is committing crimes, though he was vehemently and ferociously against The Party for the Rich.

Along with the nascent politics of thuggery and intimidation came the self-aggrandisement of individuals who aligned themselves to the right political party. Because Madame Koto was a staunch member of the Party for the Rich, she became rich; she got all the contracts to cook for their parties and gatherings, all the customers and she was the first person to get electric power in the community and also the first to drive an automobile. Alternatively, because Black Tyger spoke his mind, which was always against the Party for the Rich, he got into fights often (almost always people descended on him and had it not been is surreal strength he might have been killed) and his landlord - a member of Party for the Rich - increased his rent and became his nemesis. Again, the photographer who went round documenting the activities and atrocities of the parties on the people became a haunted individual and was always on the run. The photographer was the conscience or memory of the society: capturing and saving and collecting and recollecting the happenings in the society.

Another theme was also environmental degradation which moves in tandem with rapid uncontrolled development and urbanisation. Trees and whole forests were destroyed, river bodies were filled with waste and flooding became an issue. The scatology described was similar to what Saramago described in Blindness, but on a smaller scale. Even when Black Tyger went round, with the crippled beggars, to clean the town, the filth came back with vengeance. His sanity was questioned and he was lambasted when he went round talking about the need to clean their environment and help the people.

Central to all these is the theme on poverty. Poverty as experienced by Azaro's parents was extreme and debilitating and almost sent Black Tyger into insanity when he found out that he was practically impotent to change his situation. His head-porter, which earned him little to keep his home running, was threatened by his political affiliation. He became a persona non-grata at the garage where he worked. Her wife also suffered similar fate at the market where the party's thugs would destroy her shed and prevent her from selling at the market. She had to resort to hawking, which became impossible during the rainy seasons. Thus, Azaro's parents descended farther and farther into abject poverty. The little they got were also spent on ceremonies anytime their son returned his spiritual escapades. Later, Black Tyger will become an accidental and occasional pugilist.

Black Tyger's philosophical and prophetic speech, after he recovered from his last and deadliest fight, was like an expatiation of Hermes Trismegistus' popular axiom as above so below. In this long rants to his family, he explained what he would, what must be done, what we should do as humanity to eliminate the evil that has pervaded our lives. For instance, he talked of strange beings having come into our - humanity's - midst and how we are afraid to fight it.
People who look like human beings are not human beings. Strange people are amongst us. We must be careful. Our lives are changing. Our gods are silent. Our ancestors are silent. A great something is going to come from the sky and change the face of the earth. ... We must look at ourselves differently. We are freer than we think. We haven't begun to live yet. The man whose light has come on in his head, in his dormant sun, can never be kept down or defeated. We can redream this world and make the dream real. Human beings are gods hidden from ourselves. ...
People who use only their eyes do not SEE. People who use only their ears do not HEAR. It is more difficult to love than to die. It is not death that human beings are most afraid of, it is love. The heart is bigger than a mountain. One human life is deeper than the ocean. [498]
Rats also played a significant metaphorical role in The Famished Road. As destroyers rats were used in comparison with the nouveau-riche who appropriates the people and their properties for their personal gains. They were the ones that chewed the little food Azaro's mother had kept and were later poisoned by the photographer. The 'road' in itself is metaphorical. It represents the journey of life.
It was a night replaying its corrosive recurrence on the road of our lives, on the road which was hungry for great transformations. [180]
Everything in Ben Okri's world is colourful. Even the wind could be silvery or blue. In this world inanimate objects assume animistic tendencies and could act on their own. In this world, a three-headed human is a common sight to those 'with eyes'. His use of synedoche and synaesthesia enhanced the beauty and enigma of the write. There never was a line that wasn't beautiful and evocative and to keep this through 500 pages of tiny fonts requires mastery and finesse and an inexhaustible stream of thoughts, sometimes Okri readers can testify to. The Famished Road is like the Harry Potter series where Hogwarts is located somewhere in London but only wizards could see; but this would be a matured and elevated version. Except that in Africa the existence of a Hogwartsian world would not shock the muggles.

Though the story was written in the first person (Azaro telling his story), Azaro seems to know what the other characters are thinking of making it read like an omniscient first person narrator, if there is a thing like that. Azaro's story gives hope when none exists, where the people themselves have given up and have made the exception the norm.

The story is recommended for readers with expansive belief that can take in everything. To us as Africans these are our realities. Yet, others who enjoy words for the sake of their beauty would find a lot of joy in this book. However, if you are a realist who sees nothing beyond anything that could be touched and still not fancy beautiful lines for their own sake, you can skip this book, and a lot of Okri's works for that matter.
About the author: Okri grew up in London before returning to Nigeria with his family in 1968. Much of his early fiction explores the political violence that he witnessed at first hand during the civil war in Nigeria. He left the country when a grant from the Nigerian government enabled him to read Comparative Literature at Essex University in England.

He was poetry editor for West Africa magazine between 1983 and 1986 and broadcast regularly for the BBC World Service between 1983 and 1985. He was appointed Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts at Trinity College Cambridge in 1991, a post he held until 1993. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1987, and was awarded honorary doctorates from the universities of Westminster (1997) and Essex (2002).

His first two novels, Flowers and Shadows (1980) and The Landscapes Within(1981), are both set in Nigeria and feature as central characters two young men struggling to make sense of the disintegration and chaos happening in both their family and country. The two collections of stories that followed, Incidents at the Shrine (1986) and Stars of the New Curfew (1988), are set in Lagos and London. (Source)

*This story, the first of a trilogy, was read for the Top 100 Books Reading Challenge and the Chunkster Challenge.

Monday, May 28, 2012

167. Madmen and Specialists by Wole Soyinka

Title: Madmen and Specialists
Author: Wole Soyinka
Genre: Play/Political
Publisher: University Press PLC
Pages: 77
Year of First Publication: 1971
Country: Nigeria

Wole Soyinka's play Madmen and Specialists have made me think twice about this genre. This is the first book I can boldly say 'it went over my head. I never got it.' Perhaps it was the mentality I carried into the book: I went into the book knowing that Soyinka's plays have deeper meanings other than its superficial mirth he creates with verve, which burdened me so that after three days of labouring through a 77-page book, finally turning over the last page, I still could not put the various issues together to create one coherent idea. This play, which was written when the author was in prison during Nigeria's Civil War, is sad and gloom, unlike The Lion and the Jewel

The story opens with a quartet of mendicants: Aafa, an arrogant, sarcastic and self-style leader of the four, Goyi who was somewhat positive or optimistic and appreciative and had a contraption that held him in stooping position, Blindman and Cripple wagering parts of their bodies in a dice game. These four beggars had become afflicted during the war and had now set up their camp on a route that led to Dr Bero's house and would do anything to get people to give them money including faking paroxysms. Together with Dr Bero, the quartet had formed the Cult of As. Dr Bero, who was once a physician had become a Specialist in torturing people during the war. This had had a psychological effect on him. Back home he had kept their raving and demented father in a room, like an oubliette, and had tasked the quartet mendicants to keep watch and prevent his sister from entering the room in which their father was kept, even though Si Bero did not know the condition their father was in and also did not know that his brother had retuned from the war. However, overlooking them were two old women: Iya Agba and Iya Mate, who had helped Si Bero keep her brother's practice going in his absence. The Cult of As, under the influence of the demented Old Man had become cannibals for it was the idea of legalising the eating human flesh that pushed him, the Old Man, to join his son in the war. 

Later, when Si Bero saw that her brother had arrived from the war, she asked him of their father. He initially lied flatly but she found the lie and persistently questioned him. Dr Bero was furious that the old women were living in that part of his compound and wanted them to leave and was even more furious when they demanded payment for helping Si Bero keep his concern going and yet would not state the form in which the payment should be. Here it was clear that even though Dr Bero was furious and threatened to sack the women, he never really was able to do carry it. Back in the room where the Old Man was hidden, a political discussion was going on amongst the quartet and the Old Man. They talked about politicians and their tricks, about promises that are broken just as they were spoken and they talk about whom to kill. Finally, Goyi would be trapped and offered for food. During all these, Dr Bero was thinking of ways to kill his father; perhaps they were both mad men and specialists.

The story seems to be about the political inefficiencies, the selfishness of the politicians, their greed and their double-barreled mouths that say a thing today and another a different day. It is about the inhumanity of their thought; as to what makes them do what they do, that went unanswered and I'm not sure Soyinka intended to ask or answer that question.

Have you read this book? Tell me what you think. Let this be an open review. I really would want to get more from this.
About the Author: Click here.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Call for Submissions: Kwani? Manuscript Project

To celebrate the African novel and its adaptability and resilience, Kwani Trust announces a one-off new literary prize for African writing. The Kwani? Manuscript Project calls for the submission of unpublished fiction manuscripts from African writers across the continent and in the Diaspora. The prize seeks fresh, original work that explores and challenges the possibilities of the novel.

The top 3 manuscripts will be awarded cash prizes:
  • 1st Prize: 300,000 KShs (equivalent to $3,500)
  •  2nd Prize: 150,000 KShs
  • 3rd Prize: 75,000 KShs
In addition Kwani? will publish manuscripts from across the shortlist and longlist, including the three winning manuscripts, as well as partnering with regional and global agents and publishing houses to create high profile international publication opportunities.

Winners will be announced in December 2012 at the Kwani? Litfest. For more information go to their website.

Submission Guidelines:
  • Deadline: 20th August 2012
  • Word count: 60,000 - 120,000 words
  • Submissions should be adult literary or genre fiction (in the sense of not being 'children fiction')
  • The work should be in English or 'Englishes'
  • The manuscript must be 'new' in the sense that it is 'unpublished in book form' (we will accept previously published submission if circulation has been under 500 copies and limited to one national territory)
  • Eligible participants should have at least one parent born in an African country who holds citizenship of the same
  • Please send submissions by email, attached as a WORD doc to

Friday, May 25, 2012

Quotes for Friday from Ben Okri's The Famished Road

His mind had been unhinged by the blast of detonators, nights spent with corpses and by the superstitious incredulity of having killed so many white men. [33]

"That's good. Life is full of riddles that only the dead can answer," was Dad's reply. [40]

"The only power poor people have is their hunger." [70]

The dead shook off their rust of living and seized up steel. Their lips quivered with the defiance of innocents, with manipulations of politicians and their interchangeable dreams, and with the insanity of thugs who don't even know for which parties they commit their atrocities. [180]

It was a night replaying its corrosive recurrence on the road of our lives, on the road which was hungry for great transformations. [180]

Her eyes were narrowed as if they were endlessly trying to exclude most of what they saw. [228]

"Can you understand what the rats are saying?"
"No. But I can kill them."
"Because they are never satisfied. They are like bad politicians and imperialists and rich people."
"They eat up property. They eat up everything in sight. And one day when they are very hungry they will eat us up." [233]

The school-children were in their uniforms. A cock crowed repeatedly. Mum got her tray together. I was ready for school. Mum went down the street, swaying, moving a little sleepily, with one more burden added to her life. She was merely a detail in the poverty of our area. [238]

"They made me think. Everything has to fight to live. Rats work very hard. If we are not careful they will inherit the earth." [441]

People who look like human beings are not human beings. Strange people are amongst us. We must be careful. Our lives are changing. Our gods are silent. Our ancestors are silent. A great something is going to come from the sky and change the face of the earth. [498]

We must look at ourselves differently. We are freer than we think. We haven't begun to live yet. The man whose light has come on in his head, in his dormant sun, can never be kept down or defeated. We can redream this world and make the dream real. Human beings are gods hidden from ourselves. [498]

People who use only their eyes do not SEE. People who use only their ears do not HEAR. It is more difficult to love than to die. It is not death that human beings are most afraid of, it is love. The heart is bigger than a mountain. One human life is deeper than the ocean. [498]

Wars are not fought on battlegrounds but in a space smaller than the head of a needle. [498]

A dream can be the highest point in life. [500]
Read the review here.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

166. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (Vintage, 2003*; 226) is a curious and fantastic book in its approach, vision, and perspectives. It is a bold indicator of the vastness of the novel landscape and how tiny the portion we have explored in this land; after all, it isn't for nothing that the world 'novel' also means 'fresh', 'new', 'refreshing' as all these three superlatives will accurately describe what Haddon has done with this book.

The book is unique on several fronts: as a detective story, and like all detective stories, the protagonist is investigating a murder; however, the murdered is not a chief executive who had double-dealings, nor is it a child who had early on been molested. It is also not a woman who had divorced her husband or jilted a boyfriend. In this novel, the protagonist - Christopher John Francis Boone - is investigating the death of Wellington, a neighbour's dog. And Christopher is fifteen and autistic.

One morning Christopher saw Wellington with a garden fork stuck into it. He raised the dog and approached Mrs Shears whose dog is Wellington. A misunderstanding ensued and Mrs Shears called the police. Christopher, as an autistic, doesn't want to be touched. He detested it and when the policeman, during questioning, touched him, Christopher punched him. He was taken into custody, not formally charged because Mrs Shears would not press charges and was bailed by his irate father. This was when Christopher decided to find out who killed Mrs Shears dog.

It is this investigation that will test the relationship between father and son and the strength of their love and the meaning of trust. It also brings to fore the nature of the autistic disease and how families had to work together to help the individual. Judy had left the family. Ed had told Christopher that his mother was dead. When Ed seized Christopher's 'detective' book and he set out to look for it, he also found a series of letters from his mother addressed to him. There were several of these letters, and their contents revealed why she left the family with Mr Shears and how she couldn't support him with his condition. It was clear that Judy was fed up, did not understand Christopher's conditions and was too quick-tempered to learn to adjust. But Ed has also committed a heinous crime, for as an autistic, Christopher takes things on their surface values: he hates metaphors and insinuations. He expects questions to be answered as they are asked and not in a circumlocutory manner. Consequently, he hates lies and speaks only the truth. He also hates strangers because he has to learn to trust them to be friends with them. And when Ed, in whom Christopher had entrusted his trust, broke it in such a gargantuan manner, Christopher was let down. Ed, in an attempt to placate his son and show how honest he was going to be confessed to the one bigger sin that would push Christopher, a boy whose understanding is limited, to run away from home, with his rat Toby as his only companion, and go in search of his mother, whilst outwitting those policemen who were looking for him. The problem is, his mother had moved to London and in such large cities, people are bound to touch you or give you indirect answers. But his fear of his father was so strong that he braced the unknown world to the one he knew. Falling ill from information overload, hunger and cold, Christopher would finally find his mother but how would his mother who had eloped with a neighbour's husband to escape the burden she thought Christopher was? and how would Mr Shears take this intrusion?

Soon after reaching London, Christopher wanted to come back to Swindon so that he could write his A-Level, one goal he had set himself to achieving and for which he had prepared for the past year. Her mother would be dismissed from work, when she missed two days of work to cater for Christopher and that began the destabilisation in what Mr Shears and Judy thought were a stable union they had created. Judy would also make the mistake to reschedule Christopher's A-Level exams to next year and that would create a silent rift between the two.

Written in chapters of prime numbers The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a story within a story and through this story Christopher tells of a certain period of his life. Written in the first person narrative, the story provides several laterals and diversions that explore the minds of autistic children or people with the Asperger's syndrome. Though Christopher thinks logically and loves puzzles and mathematics, and is working towards his A-Level exams, he still defines his good day, super good day or bad day by the number of red or yellow cars he sees in a row. He still cannot stand to be touched and could throw tantrums at any time. But he has a good memory and draws maps of places he has been with ease.

An interesting book worth the read.

Monday, May 21, 2012

165. SHORT STORY MONDAY: Indigo by Molara Wood

Idera and Jaiye have come back to Nigeria, from London, to settle. But the cultural differences between these two places are oceans apart. In their London environment, they could defy parents insistence for them to have children. There is no 'gang-up' pressure on them to bear children and no one is going to gossip about 'a married couple who have decided not to have children, just yet' or going to reprimand you or be cheeky towards you just because you have no children; because not bearing children or deciding not to does not make you unique or weird. But in Nigeria, or in Africa, these things do matter. And Idera and Jaiye have to face the consternation of several family members, friends, and completely unknown individuals who regard this decision not to have children after five years of marriage as weird and un-African, a sign of having become too westernised.

It is here that the major reason for their decision will be tested: did they make it based on logic, or are they being selfish, as Jaiye's father said? Is it because they wanted to fit in or to play-up with the current trends? The facade will begin to wear off but the most important question is: will their marriage survive?

Back in Nigeria and Idera is attending the naming ceremony of a relative. At the ceremony, filled with several women all giving the young mother advice and commenting on whom the baby resembles, anything she says is brushed off because as a barren woman she is not expected to know anything about childbirth and children. Completely overwhelmed by events, it suddenly dawns on her that perhaps she is barren. Prior to this one of those concerned relatives, a mother's sister who had actually taken care of her when her mother died, took her to a shrine to have her examined and the educated and sophisticated Idera had scoffed it off but had, out of decency and respect for one who had played the role of a mother, followed her.

Driving back into her four-bedroom house, she instantly realised how quiet and lonely the place is and she who had hated houses filled with children because of their penchant for disorder now found her ordered room with its minimalist touch too unsatisfactory. She felt lonely and house was too silent more so because Jaiye was on a business trip to Accra.

This story, like A Life in Full, treats the importance of children to the African family and how childlessness has become the source of several marital problems even though a lot of cultural transformations are taking place. It shows that bearing a child, in the African context, is not just a decision between a man and his wife but comprise the extended family of both sides. Whereas the woman's family are apprehensive that the marriage might end based on that, the man's family are hinting it. Again, it shows that one does not suddenly become westernised because one has stayed in a western country, it takes more. Can one just shake off the influence of the environment from which he/she comes from?
About the author: Molara Wood won the inaugural John La Rose Memorial Short Story Competition. Her work has been published internationally in journals and anthologies, including One World (New Internationalist, 2009) an din such publications as Sable Litmag, Humanitas, Chimurenga, Fafarina and Per Contra. She was a former columnist of the Nigerian Guardian and also contributes to the BBC. She lives in Lagos, where she works as the Arts and Culture editor of a national newspaper. (Source: anthology). Read more about her here.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Quotes for Friday from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World

'We condition them to thrive on heat,' concluded Mr Foster. 'Our colleagues upstairs will teach them to love it..'
'And that,' put in the Director sententiously, 'that is the secret of happiness and virtue - liking what you've got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny'. [12]

'I am I, and I wish I wasn't' [55]

A physical shortcoming could produce a kind of mental excess. The process, it seemed, was reversible. Mental excess could produce, for its own purposes, the voluntary blindness and deafness of deliberate solitude, the artificial impotence of asceticism. [59]

Words can be like X-rays, if you use them properly - they'll go through anything. You read and you're pierced. [60]

When people are suspicious with you, you start being suspicious with them. [60]

The greater a man's talents, the greater his power to lead astray. It is better than one should suffer than that many should be corrupted. [128]

'...Murder kills only the individual - and, after all, what is an individual?' With a sweeping gesture he indicated the rows of microscopes, the test-tubes, the incubators. 'We can make a new one with the greatest ease - as many as we like. Unorthodoxy threatens more than the life of a mere individual; it strikes at Society itself...' [128]

One of the principal functions of a friend is to suffer (in a milder and symbolic form) the punishments that we should like, but are unable, to inflict upon our enemies. [156]

We are not our own any more than what we possess is our own. We did not make ourselves, we cannot be supreme over ourselves. We are not our own masters. We are God's property. Is it not in our happiness thus to view the matter? Is it any happiness, or any comfort, to consider that we are our own? It may be thought so by the young and prosperous. These may think it a great thing to have everything, as they suppose, their own way - to depend on no one - to have to think of nothing out of sight, to be without the irksomeness of continual acknowledgement, continual prayer, continual reference of what they do to find that independence was not made for man - that it is an unnatural state - will do for a while, but will not carry us on safely to the end ... [205]

You remind me of another of those fellows called Bradley. He defined philosophy as the finding of bad reason for what one believes by instinct. As if one believed anything by instinct! One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them. Finding bad reasons for what one believes for other bad reasons - that's philosophy. People believe in God because they've been conditioned to believe in God. [207]

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

164. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World (Vintage Books, 1932; 329) by Aldous Huxley - with introductions by Margaret Atwood and David Bradshaw - is a dystopian novel that uses scientific, social and economic developments of the time to describe, through extrapolation, the way life is likely to be if we stick to that developmental trajectory tenaciously. In this book, set in A.F. 632 (the year of Our Ford or 2540 AD), mass production techniques, as developed by Henry Ford when he first built his Ford T Model, and mass consumption are the economic development paradigms. Ford's role in the story or in the life of the inhabitants of this new world was akin to that of God in the AD; for instance people say 'Oh Ford!' and not 'Oh God'. Religion is an anathema and production and consumption are its replacements.

Several years after the strategic war, the World State has been created. This World State, which is a highly-civilised and economically and scientifically developed society, is in sharp contrast to the primitive life of the Indians who were still viviparous, still pray to god, still develop wrinkles, still have emotions to love and feel attachment to one partner and do less consumption. In the new World State, the meanings of these terms are unknown and they are ancient and abominable. Though the old world of the Indians were described as primitive they had some level of science (so they could produce mescalin and they have hotels too).

Science has become the backbone to achieving the World State's  motto of Community, Identity and Stability. Even the successfully implemented economic paradigm of mass consumption rests on a peculiar scientific advancement of hypnopaedia, or sleep teaching. In the World States, people are not naturally born, they are 'hatched' in large test-tubes and are conditioned at specified periods for a certain number of times, which continues up to a certain stage in their lives. Conditioning is meant to make them like what they do; it is meant to make them happy, for in the new world happiness is the ultimate - happiness when serving and when being served. People are conditioned to be mass consumers through 'suggestive' axioms such as 'more stitches less riches', 'old clothes are beastly', 'ending is better than mending', which are repeated to them over and over again so that it becomes part of their lives, oblivious to the fact that they are not the ones thinking of them. People in this new world are therefore automaton consumers and for everything they do, including sports such as obstacle golf, there should be some form of consumption, else it is not good enough. According to the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning:
All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny. [12]
This is also because there are castes in this World State and foetuses are treated at the predestinators according to their caste assignment. There are the Alphas and Betas who are at the top and who are given the necessary conditions (no alcohol, enough oxygen) to develop. They are followed by the Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons; attached to all these, from Alpha to Epsilon, are pluses and minuses. The Epsilons are the lowest of the low. They are conditioned not to be able to read or think, only follow orders and to love what they do and are also produced using the Bokanovsky's Process. This process creates thousands of individuals who are indistinguishable from each other in terms of facial features, height, size, and every identifiable feature. Basically, they are clones. And they have been conditioned to like whatever they are and do. To prevent people wishing to be like others or maintain the balance, even though they have been conditioned to like what they do, they have also implanted certain prejudices in them through hypnopaedia,  which is 'the greatest moralizing and socializing force of all time'; so that the Betas (those who work in the Fertilising Room and other top places but not positions like a Controller or Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning) are happy not being Epsilons who do all the hard work and the Epsilons are happy not being Betas who do all the hard work. Again, size or physique is a matter of importance and is a direct determinant of one's social status. Finally, stability is created by conditioning the people, in addition to liking what they do, to accept that everybody is important. They are told 
[E]veryone belongs to everyone else. We can't do without anyone. Even Epsilons are useful. We couldn't do without Epsilons. Everyone works for everyone else. We can't do without anyone ... [64] ... [W]hen the individual feels, the community reels [81]
Consequently, in this new world having sex with several people is deemed morality correct and maintaining an emotional, monogamous relationship is considered amoral and obsolete. Men have been conditioned to take any woman they want at any time and the women have been conditioned to accept such offers; in fact, the women sometimes make such advances or offers when it is not forth coming. For those women who are fertile and not freemartins, using contraceptives before sex (and contraceptives are held in Malthusian belts) are a must and this too has been conditioned into them and is practiced with tenacity. The College of Emotional Engineering and another on behaviour engineers the individual's sense of feeling - no love, no sadness, only happiness. Loneliness is also almost a banned word and they are encouraged (and have been conditioned) not to be alone. Love of and for nature is also factored out of their development. But there is a reality-augmented drug which has all the positive effects of a hallucinogenic drug and none of the hangover effects but which also shortens life called soma. Soma are distributed freely to people and are used when one is a bit gloomy or almost about to be sad. People who take this go on soma holiday.

Bernard is an Alpha and a psychologists involved in hypnopaedia, where people are given what to think. Bernard is an enigmatic figure. As an Alpha plus, he is shorter than the average of his caste and that makes him feel inferior. He also has some affinity for nature and knows that people actually do not own what they think they have deeply thought of; he therefore does not regard them when they repeat them to him. Ben also wants to keep his love life discreet. He wants to keep Lenina for himself and hates talking about sex in public, something that is supposed to be casual and amoral. Another thing is that Ben dislikes the kinds of sports which they play; in a word, Ben is a misfit of sorts. Thus, Bernard attracts fewer women and receives less respect and sometimes he is derided by those below his caste.

One day Ben went to The Reservation - those societies not part of the World States - with Lenina, a Beta plus worker at the Hatcheries. There they met Linda, a woman who was once a World State citizen and had gone missing when she visited The Reservation with Thomas, the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning. At forty-four, Linda is wrinkled and old, unlike a World State citizen and had borne a child, John (who became known as Mr. Savage). Linda was considered a misfit in New Mexico because her behaviour ran counter to what the Indians believed in: she had several sexual partners and as a result was once beaten by the women. John was also considered and outsider and was not included into the activities and daily lives of the Indians. Fascinated by what he saw, Ben made a call to Mustapha Mond - the Resident World Controller of Western Europe - who asked him to bring the two to London, which is the World State where the story is set. At the World State, mother and son were instantly famous; whereas Linda was famous (and neglected) for her wrinkles, something they had not seen before - for citizens at the World State keep their soft babyish skin even in old age, John was famous for his eccentricities of having a mother, a father, emotional attachment to the mother, selfish views on sex (because he wasn't going to just have sex with them, which is what they, at least Lenina, wanted), self-flagellation (which he carried out as penance), and his resistance to soma.

John Savage would become an experimental material and would make Ben very famous and lovable,  awhile. In fact, women would sleep with Ben because they want a chance to look at and interact with Mr. Savage. But Mr. Savage would be fed up and would pack his things out of Ben's household and yet he would be followed, not by Ben, but by multitudes of curious people who would want to know more from him. Ben together with his friend Helmhotlz Watson, an Emotional Engineer and another misfit who has passion to write important things, would be sent out of the World State to other locations, such as the Falklands, where people with revolutionary ideas are sent and where Mustapha Mond, himself a physicist and who has in his possession Shakespearean books and the Bible, was almost sent when he was caught as a young man practicing hard science.

Take the science in Oryx and Crake and cross it with the mind control of 1984 and the restricted procreation of The Handmaid's Tale and one gets Brave New World. Like most dystopias, emotions, sex, religion, knowledge, procreation are controlled. Like 1984 people are conditioned to believe what the authorities want them to believe in. However, whereas in 1984 this conditioning is forcefully done, in Brave New World the people are conditioned to think that they thought of it. Again, whereas brutality and the terror of the rat reigns in 1984, in Brave New World the people are able to fulfill all their fantasies to the letter as long as it makes them happy and unthinking. Yet in both stories, knowledge is restricted: books are banned or rewritten or people don't even have the verve to read any more. Except the few leaders who still want to hold on to something.

Brave New World is the last of the trilogy of dystopias I wanted to read.

Monday, May 14, 2012

163. SHORT STORY MONDAY: The King and I by Novuyo Rosa Tshumba

Novuyo Rosa Tshumba's The King and I follows the life of two friends Nana and Sipho and how each turned out differently in the end. It also shows that being from a poor background isn't necessarily a recipe for success as has been captured in numerous stories and numerous African movies. And that sometimes people from seemingly rich, or somewhat endowed, background do succeed even if they are helped by their parents' wealth, name, or position or some sort of combination of these.

Nana and Sipho meet in a university in South Africa. Sipho is a Zimbabwean whose father is into politics whilst Nana is from Ghana. Sipho is better off than Nana and can afford to use a car on campus. They live all the lives students live: heavy drinking among others. Nana lives with Hannah, a Sudanese girl. These friends, like most students on campus, are political aware and have been influenced by Karl Max. They talk of socialism, African consciousness and Nana dreams of becoming the next Kwame Nkrumah who will lead Africa to unity. They are part of several demonstrations and the two can demonstrate on their own provided the issue of protest borders on socialism. When a Political Science student is awarded a prize for his essay African Despots - The Dynamics of a Failed Socialism, the two are there to demonstrate against it until they are soaked by the rains. What is between them is a kind of brotherly love, each being the other's keeper but mostly Sipho doing the keeping.

When they graduated each went his way. Sipho, the narrator of the story, stayed in South Africa and even though his father had been set up for a fall and had subsequently lost an election, he was able to find him a job in the Zimbabwean Embassy in South Africa as an attache of sorts. Nana, having returned to Ghana, seemed to be doing well. He has found a job and was rising through the ranks. When Sipho was about to marry he sent him several mails but there was no response. Then he heard he had been dismissed amidst an embezzlement scheme. Later, Sipho heard of sightings in the drug-peddling areas of Johannesburg. It was not long that the heavy-clothed Nana appeared on his doorstep in muddy shoes and coughing up bloody phlegms. Staining his wife's carpet, Sipho felt uncomfortable in the presence of this junkie who was once his friend. Asanda, Sipho's wife, was so infuriated that she had to walk him out. But Nana begged for a place to spend the night as his residence was far away, or so he claimed. In the morning, Sipho recognised that Nana had left already and so have certain stuffs in the household.

One thing about this novel is that it breaks convention. Far too often, it is the privilege who turn out to be doing drugs whilst the poor keep their focus and achieve their aim. This piece shows that in most cases this is not true because it is the rulers' children who turn out to be rulers, across the world. If Bush's son became a president after he was gone, and Eyadema's son succeeded him, Ali Bongo's son succeeded him and Laurent Kabila's son succeeded him, then no one can argue that Novuyo's story does not depict reality.
About the author: Novuyo Rosa is a Zimbabwean writer currently living in South Africa who has had short stories published in several anthologies including the African Roar 2010 and The Bed Book of Short Stories. She was the winner of the Intwasa Short Story Competition 2009.  (Source: the anthology)

Read more about the author here.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Quotes for Friday from Fiona Leonard's The Chicken Thief

Solidarity amongst chickens had been the death knell of many a careless thief. [4]

If someone were to clip his wings he would bleed to death at their feet before the knife had even finished slicing through the air. [109]

Humans claimed to be incredibly smart, and yet they spent their lives constantly dismissing the obvious. Hear a noise once, catch a glimpse of something they can't quite see, and they will tell themselves it's nothing, and blunder vacantly on, only to act surprised when the avalanche hits. Animals are not so stupid. Animals know that there is only a whisper between a second hearing and death. [201]

With women it really was impossible to do the right thing. No matter how hard you tried you were always in trouble. All that changed was how much. [217]

He missed talking to her, missed being able to sit long enough that words and meanings had time to work themselves out, instead of staying twisted up like rubber bands in a drawer. [240]

Did you really need to reach out and shake its hand? Maybe it would change you, change the way saw the world. Once you you have held death in your hands would you still fear it? [242]

'He said this was what Independence truly meant' the son said. He pointed out across the valley towards the sun as it crept towards the horizon. 'He said that only when you can see tomorrow with nothing in your way, are you truly free.' [250]

'Ahh, Alois, people think the world stops when there's crisis, that a war is all about fighting and conflict. They forget that all the while there are children going to school and people washing their clothes. There are people who fall in love and get divorced, who brush their teeth and cook meals for their families. ...' [301]

To the untrained ear, fear is in the sound of a footstep, the breaking of a branch, the heaving of a chest. But only a bad thief makes those sounds. To hear a practised thief you must listen for the sound of the blood in his veins as it carries to his extremities; the only sound that cannot be hidden. [333]

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

162. The Chicken Thief by Fiona Leondard

The Chicken Thief (2011; 340) by Fiona Leonard has been described as a political thriller of sorts. Set in an unnamed African country, it provides a different take on the struggle for independence in a southern Africa country. Though the country is unnamed, there were several flagpoles which point to Zimbabwe: for instance, the president had been in power for a long time (about twenty-five years in the story), there was a bush war that led to independence, they shared boundaries with Namibia and South Africa and other idiosyncrasies.

The story might have evolved from a kind of several 'what if...' questions and the material is this country's struggle for independence and the people involved. The past which served as the basis for the story and the present actions of the characters was developed mainly through dialogue. And the story itself spans a period of about five days.

Assuming that in the struggle for independence, there were seven main leaders. But at the final moment, the moment of glory where the colonisers were about to concede defeat and hand over the country to majority rule, five of the fighters suddenly had a plane crush, including Gabriel an enigmatic fighter. Except that Gabriel, deemed among the five dead, did not really die.

Twenty-five years on and Alois was the master chicken thief. On one of his nocturnal rounds he was chanced upon a robbery and in flight landed in the house of Jim, a man who had been observing Alois as he goes around stealing chickens. Jim, a professor in the university, informed Alois that he had a job for him that would earn him as much as - through negotiations - US$ 1,000. All he had to do was to collect a letter from a certain man at a given address at midnight and return the letter to him; if he failed to be there on time the man will destroy the letter. Simple. And the thousand dollars would be his. With a new life away from stealing chickens beckoning and more importantly a new life with Rose playing on his mind, Alois accepted the offer. However, when Alois got there, and after a flurry of guns and his inadvertent rescue of a woman and with no letter in hand, Alois realised that there is more to this than just a letter. Though he was slow in realising this, it finally dawned on him when he took the woman home and called Jim who began speaking in codes, informing him to hide the car.

This woman turned out to be Gabriel, a national heroine - a woman who had been presumed dead through a plane crash and at whose funeral the president had attended. Over the next three or four days, Alois would have to be more than a chicken thief. He had to be able to outwit security, tell cogent lies, be on the run with Alois, dodge bullets, and most importantly learn the untold unrelated history of his country from this totally enigmatic woman. Through a series of schemes from Jim who himself was under security surveillance, Alois would drive cross-country, with death at his heels. But Alois is sometimes slow; sometimes he fails to appreciate the nature of problem he is facing or the enormity of the task ahead. He would later involve several individuals: Harry was his white friend and a photographer and a lender of books to Alois; Daniel is Harry's friend whose father works for the government but who had returned home from further studies and had formed his own opposition party and Rose, Alois's girlfriend. These complications took place at the Levin - Ursula and Phillip, a couple who collaborated, in some form, with the independence fighters - household on a farm. Gabriel was now set to find out what happened to the others, whom she know were - unlike her - truly dead. And she intends to expose the president for what he his and his other surviving colleague, Ndlovu, who was Gabriel's arch-enemy during the struggle.

The story is pacey, though it could have been made tighter at some places, and funny. The reader is in for a true thriller set in Africa and of Ludlum proportions and with an unlikely hero. The material itself is unpredictable and so too is the story. There were several twists and turns and even though some events might be guessed right, others take the reader by surprise. Fiona has written a story that again, like McCall's The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency - portrays all the ambiguities and duality most African countries are famed for. There were several places that I questioned whether there is such a conspiracy hidden within Zimbabwe's struggle for independence. For instance, I have started a search to discover if truly there were individuals like Phillip and Ursula who helped the black course knowing that they were plotting the destruction of a lifestyle that benefits and favours them, in toto. Another beauty about this story is that it was self-published. It is a clear example of why not to judge a book using that dichotomous publication options: self or corporate. 

However, I had a few issues not with the prose but with some of the characters and descriptions. For instance I found Gabriel almost impeccable. She put herself into several dangers against the advice of those around her and in all these she came out unscathed. Yet, could it be Fiona's fault? Anyone who had been incarcerated for that long in a cubic room with almost to nothing possessions except a cup, a fork, a spoon and two newspapers - one local one foreign - every week and a guard to guide you, will behave like that when thrown back into a world she last saw or interacted with twenty-five years previous. But it was overstretched at the point where her excellent gardening skills, picked up or learnt by the guards, saved a whole community from drought. There were also some dramatic and somewhat cinematic descriptions like the place when she collapsed after Jim had shown her an address which happened to be the place where plane took off. Finally, there were two places where 'Alois felt the color rushing into his cheeks'. I thought  this was an impossibility in blacks.

Regardless of these, reading Alois adventure, which ended in the parliament house at a time the president was about to announce his intention to step down - as the international community had forced him to do, was fulfilling. Fiona Leonard had written a book that will forever dance on the mind of its readers. Perhaps it will ginger other writers to expand their writing possibilities and subject matter and keep asking the 'what ifs' that made the Ludlums and Sheldons.


Monday, May 07, 2012

161. SHORT STORY MONDAY: The Journey by Valerie Tagwira

Valerie Tagwira's The Journey traces the unpleasant path a mother had to take to keep her family together and to raise her two children as a single parent. It shows how the vicious cycle of poverty traps individuals and sometimes vitiate them to levels they never thought was possible. Reading this story one realises that just as there seems to be no different between genius and insanity there is also very little distance between right and wrong and between 'Yes' and 'Never'. If there be a story that fortifies that saying 'never say never' this is it.

Shingai has lost her husband. She has gone for his pension, and after refusing to share it with his family, had used it all up in two years. She has also lost her market space after she fell ill and had to hawk on streets. Now her rent is up and the only thing she has is the ring Tendai had given her. She decided to pawn it to pay the rent but the price offered her was smaller than the value she put on it. But Mai Tafa, the landlady is a woman of her words. Having before defaulted on her payment there was no second chance this time and Shingai just had to vacate the room. Packing her utensils and suitcases, Shingai went to live with Nellie, her friend. The uneasiness between Shingai and her in-laws, especially Amai, Tendai's mother, prevented her from going to them in this time of need.

Stretched to her elastic limit, Shingai gathers courage and approaches her in-laws for help. In fact, when Shingai fell sick and was unable to go to work, her father-in-law had provided for her and had paid the rent too but Amai had staunched that source of income when she found out. Now in the absence of her father-in-law Shingai has to deal with this difficult woman who is not prepared to let the past go. Hence, it doesn't surprise her when she refuses and in doing so shatters any hope that she has held, if only she had had one. To relieve her of the burden of having to sponge with her children and knowing that Amai loves her grandchildren, Shingai asks her if she can take care of them for her, in the interim, of which Amai agrees.

Free of the children now, Shingai has to struggle to survive. Because survival is a basic human instinct and one will do anything necessary to survive, after several debates with Nellie - including the issue of its morality and its rightness - Shingai borrows Nellie's skimpy clothes and set out into the night. Prior to her setting out, Nellie had shown her all the tricks: how she should do everything the policeman will say if accosted by one, how she should sway her hips, how to identify customers (the taxi will pack and leave their lights flashing); Nellie had also given her a pack of condoms and a knife to threaten customers to refuse to pay. 

A car parks, the lights flashing. Shingai has a customer. But this turns out to be the police. She commands her to stop and stop she does. Officer Santana searches her bag sees the knife and the condom, pulls her closer and then into the shadows, deeper. But to avoid force, Santana offers her a choice
You have condoms, don't you. If you give me a quick one, I haven't seen you, and I haven't seen the knife. Hey, I can even take you home. ... Or, I can book you in for soliciting, carrying dangerous weapons and threatening an officer. What shall it be?'
And the choice is clear to Shingai, there is no choice.
Valerie's story  shows the crooked path of life and the choices we take. Though Shingai seemed to have been presented with no option to choose from she all the same bears the consequences. It reminds us that our judgement of people should not be severe because we might not know what had taken them there.
About the author: Valerie Tagwira is a Zimbabwean writer currently working in London as a medical doctor. Her first novel, The Uncertainty of Hope, was published in Zimbabwe (Weaver Press, 2007) and in South Africa (Jacana Media, 2008). The novel won the The National Arts Merit Award for Best Fiction title in Zimbabwe (2008). She has had two short stories published. (Source: the anthology)

Friday, May 04, 2012

Caine Prize for African Writing Shortlist

The shortlist for the thirteenth Caine Prize for African Writing was released on May 1st, 2012. The shortlist was announced by the new vice-president of the prize Ben Okri. The Chair of judges, author and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature Bernardine Evaristo MBE, has described the shortlist as 'truly diverse fiction from a truly diverse continent.'

The 2012 shortlist comprises:
  • Rotimi Babatunde (Nigeria): Bombay's Republic from Mirabilia Review Vol. 3.9 (Lagos, 2011)
  • Billy Kahora (Kenya): Urban Zoning from McSweeney's Vol. 37 (San Francisco, 2011)
  • Stanley Kenani (Malawi): Love on Trial from For honour and Other Stories published by eKhaya/Random House Struik (Cape Town, 2011)
  • Melissa Tandiwe Myambo (Zimbabwe): La Salle de Départ from Patrick of the Spindle Vol. 4.2 (New Orleans, June, 2010)
  • Constance Myburgh (South Africa): Hunter Emmanuel from Jungle Jim Issue 6 (Cape Town, 2011)
Selected from 122 entries from 14 African countries Bernardine Evaristo said:
I'm proud to announce that this shortlist shows the range of African fiction beyond the more stereotypical narratives. These stories have an originality and facility with language that made them stand out. We've chosen a bravely provocative homosexual story set in Malawi; a Nigerian soldier fighting in the Burma Campaign of WW2; a hardboiled noir tale involving a disembodied leg; a drunk young Kenyan who outwits his irate employers; and the tension between Senegalese siblings over migration and family responsibility.
The winner of the 10,000 Pounds prize is to be announced at the celebratory dinner at the Bodleian Library, Oxford on Monday 2 July. Read more about the announcement here.

For those interested let's read this and make our own guesses of the winner. If Evaristo's words and the descriptions provided are anything to go by, this year's winner will be far different from the previous three or four where some readers have criticised the prize for awarding stereotypes. I will be reading and reviewing or talking about these before the July 2 date.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

160. Harvest of Thorns by Shimmer Chinodya

Title: Harvest of Thorns
Author: Shimmer Chinodya
Genre: Fiction/Colonialist/Race
Publishers: AWS Classics
Pages: 248
Year: 1989
Country: Zimbabwe

Shimmer Chinodya is one of the few Zimbabwean authors I have read whose works explore the struggle for independence from the stand point of the fighters and the general pulse of the nation at the time and is able to provide cogent argument for it without questioning, unnecessarily, the human cost. Not that he assumes that all the black Zimbabweans at the time were in support of the war; he accepts the human loss but Chinodya presents his work in such a way that make the struggle more significant, for the coloniser will not grant freedom to the colonised without a struggle and there is no struggle without its human loss and if you expect otherwise then you really don't know what you want. Most Zimbabwean literature, especially those published a decade or two after the war, makes it look as if the war was irrelevant and that the cost of the human loss far outweigh the freedom to rule themselves. And this message has seemingly or subtly been driven home using the effect of the war on families, of how peoples' lives were negatively affected and of how ambitions and aspirations were thwarted. There are those who have directly questioned if the war was worth it. I really don't know if there are other means of gaining independence apart from struggling for it. Or perhaps the conditions prior to independence were the ideal. It's possible that perhaps, over time, the euphoria has waned, expectations and hopes have been dashed; perhaps, things have never gone the way the people had expected. Yet, a thick line should be drawn between the struggle for independence and the administration of the country, else we become like the Israelites on their way out of Egypt to Canaan: we begin to crave for the pre-freedom conditions where all white men are Baas and superior and could confiscate any land they deem good. Bundling the two together disrespects the memory of those who died so majority rule will be attained. Will the American Revolutionary War be seen in such a light? Whatever happened post-War and during self-rule must be tackled as such without watering down the significance of the Bush War. To quote from Ayi Kwei Armah's Two Thousand Seasons
A people losing sight of origins are dead. A people deaf to purposes are lost. Under fertile rain, in scorching sunshine there is no difference: their bodies are mere corpses, awaiting final burial.
In this story, which won the 1990 Commonwealth Writers Prize for African Region, Shimmer Chinodya followed the life of the Tichafa family as their eldest son left home into the bush to fight the government forces. It traces the life of Benjamin Tichafa from his childhood when he burnt beerhalls because his schoolmates had called his parents sellouts to when he was arrested for participating in a demonstration against the call-up of blacks into the colonial government's military. Ben, after he was bailed by the headmaster of the school, made the long journey - fraught with near-death incidences - into the bush to fight the government. The rest of the story is about the emotional and physical pain he, together with the fighters, went through during the war. Making friends and losing them, suppression and expression of sexual feelings and instability amongst groups of fighters leading to emotional outbursts. Ben had joined the fighters at a tender age of about fourteen having never handled a gun and unaware of what really awaits him at this camp. However, reality dawned on him when one night government forces descended upon them through aerial bombings. After this, Ben moulted away his innocent cuticle and became a different person. 

The tautness of relationships amongst the fighters, the squabbles, the petty jealousies, were all played out nicely and enhanced because no one knew the other from before the war and no one knows the other by his name apart from his or her war name. The fighters were a mosaic of people: students, workers, and more.

Even though Chinodya showed the war in a kind of positive light, which it deserves, with the fighters ensuring that they gain the trust of the village folks through good behaviour - something which had been antithetically portrayed in other novels - he never shied away from the excesses the independence fighters went to to elicit total support from 'their' people. In this way, it became more natural and less dramatic. For instance, the place where the Pasi NemaSellout - Ben's war name - and Mabunu Munachapera were called upon by their leader, Baas Die, to beat a woman who had poisoned the food she gave to one member of their group and whom (the woman) upon investigations and search was found to have a son in the government forces who had given her a walkie-talkie to relay information about the fighters to them, was very sad. This Esau-ic dilemma which plagued this woman was common among the black population who were torn between listening to their growling bellies and supporting independence. Consequently, some of them held onto their jobs in the mainly white system and offered support of sorts to the government forces. 

In this book, the struggle comes alive; the pain is palpable and watching Ben lose his innocence in the war, in something he believed in and had voluntarily chosen to be part of against the advice of the camp commander, to see his youthful years coalesce and become callused, was really sad. And not only did he lose his youth but his future was also in jeopardy for he had left school without any meaningful academic certificate that would guarantee him a safe and secured job. And this would later come to haunt him as he would leave the camp at a time when he was not supposed to and had therefore not collected the required papers that would guarantee him the necessary jobs available to the ex-combatants.

During the war, the Tichafa household had undergone several metamorphoses. Mr Clopas Tichafa, a deacon and a fanatical Christian who would not allow his children to dance or listen to any song which is not gospel, ran away with the widow next door; Ben's younger sister eloped with a man and Ben's younger brother was left with her mother alone. After the war, when things had simmered down and Ben had come back home, the family would come back together again. Ben came home with a pregnant girlfriend - a girl whose parents together with the entire family were annihilated for supporting the combatants; Esther, hearing of her brothers return, came home with the man she had eloped with to, first, ask for forgiveness and then request that the proper rites be performed; Mr Clopas also came home, for once, to look for Ben. Though the family dynamics were still unstable, it was the first time the family had been together in a very long while.

Shimmer Chinodya like in Dew in the Morning showed that the African has a religion he can depend on. In this story, he showed the complicity of the Christian religion not only in the colonisation process but also in preventing them from fighting back. Through Mr and Mrs Tichafas, Chinodya explored the effects of 'exaggerated' Christianity and how these church leaders exploit their members. 

Harvest of Thorns is a brilliant book that does not belittle the Bush War that led to independence. It does not hide the barbarism that war brings upon the people and does not pretend to assume that innocent people do not die. However, the larger picture is that apartheid is a monster; that the idea that the minority of the people have absolute power over the majority and owns larger and larger portions of the fertile lands is absurd, was also carried through.

As already mentioned, Chinodya was able to delineate expectations of the out of the war from what actually transpired. He writes
'Of course, when we went out we thought our guns could change things overnight. And then we came back to find the whites could still shout at us because they still have the money and the ex-combatants have to scrounge for jobs just like everyone else. ... ' [243]
The author also foresaw that the war could easily fade from peoples' memory and they would begin to question its essence but for those who fought the scars will remain.
Five years from now the war will be totally forgotten. The truth of it is that those of us who went out to fight will carry the scars for the rest of our lives. We were heroes during the heat of the war, but now we have been left to lick our wounds. You think we consider ourselves heroes? [243]
In conclusion, it is best to quote Ayi Kwei Armah again from the same work :
Woe the race, too generous in the giving of itself, that finds a road not of regeneration but to its own extinction. Woe the race, woe the spring. Woe the headwaters, woe the seers, the hearers, woe the utterers. Woe the flowing water, people hustling to death.
 This book is recommended.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

April in Review and Projections for May

April was my lowest point, so far. With only five books, I was one book below the minimum to achieve my overall reading target of 70; however, major advances in the first three months would make this setback disappear in terms of averages. That's the beauty of averages, the simple arithmetic type. The month saw me read, as stated already, all the five books I projected to read at the beginning of the month. These five books totalled 1569 pages, at a rate of 52.30 pages per day. This also gives an average of 314 pages per book.

Regardless of this somewhat low point, I completed two challenges: the Africa Literature Reading Challenge hosted by Kinna and the Chunkster Challenge. The following books were read in this period:
  1. The Famished Road by Ben Okri. This book completed the Chunkster Challenge. It is the fourth above-450 pages book I've read this year, after I set out to read one per month to complete this challenge. The Famished Road is an interesting book and at 500 pages there wasn't a dull moment or line in the book. Review will be up in the coming weeks.
  2. Atonement by Ian McEwan. I read this book for my Top 100 Books Reading Challenge. McEwan is a British writer you can trust for a unique kind of love stories, at least if the two I've read could serve as a good statistical sample upon which to generalise. On Chesil Beach  is the other book I'm referring to. Both of these books present an uncomfortable situations to the reader and they are mostly of a somewhat sexual sort that never seemed to be resolved or completely grasped. His is a world of misinformation, incomplete understanding, wrong expectations and more. Atonement is a good and moving story.
  3. Burger's Daughter by Nadine Gordimer. This book completed the African Literature Reading Challenge. It was also read for the Top 100 Books Reading Challenge. It explores the internal struggles and outward adjustments and acceptance of being the daughter of a white anti-apartheid activists. A difficult book, both in terms of the prose and the storyline. Gordimer physically exacts on the reader whatever it was Rosa Burger was going through. Gordimer's talent as a writer shone through once again.
  4. Last Evenings on Earth by Roberto Bolano. This is my first taste of Bolano, and what a taste. In this collection Bolano narrates the failed aspirations, impotency, dejection, depression and fate of several Chileans in exile across Latin America and Europe. The stories mostly revolve around failed writers. It was read towards my 100 Shots of Short Challenge.
  5. Writing Free, edited by Irene Staunton. This is a collection of fifteen stories by fifteen Zimbabweans both at home and abroad. The objective was for these fifteen writers to define what 'writing free' means to them as expressed in a story. This might go down as one of the best anthologies I have read so far. There were several excellent experimental writings, bold in their style and prose. Here, though the usual flagpoles (of government maltreatment of the citizens, hyper inflation, land reclamation, bankrupt economy and the usual finger-pointing) found in Zimbabwean literature that has seen Zimbabwe itself becoming a character in stories coming out of this region in the last decade, there were several beautiful and bold styles and prose to boast of. This was also read for the African Literature Reading Challenge
One thing that runs through all these books is the challenge they pose to the reader. They are never easy and they tend not to easily bend to the reader's will. On that count, I wouldn't say April was a low point. It was rather a challenging month.

May is a busy month at work. In fact, until October I'm going to be very busy and will hardly be at my desk. This means that packing books and moving in and out. Currently, the first point of call is Uganda where I'm part of a team working on the African Parliamentary Index (API). These are the books I have lined to read this month:
  1. The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov. I have always wanted to read sci-fi books though sci-fi mixed with fantasy is not my 'thing'. Consequently, this book, which has been with me for sometime (fourteen months, to be precise), comes as the first choice in my journey into sci-fi. I also have Frank Herbert's Dune. The trilogy is made up of:
    1. Foundation
    2. Foundation and Empire
    3. Second Foundation
  2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. This book is listed on my Top 100 Books Challenge.
  3. Definition of a Miracle by Farida N. Bedwei. This is a semi-autobiographical account of the author but she has taken several liberties to fictonalise a lot of things.
  4. Journey by G.A. Agambila.
  5. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. My quest to completely read Morrison is ongoing.
  6. The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl.
  7. If I'm so Successful, Why do I feel like a Fake? The Impostor Phenomenon by Joan C Harvey with Cynthia Katz. This will be my non-fiction for the month. I read one non-fiction every month, except in April.
Of course, I can't promise to read all these ten (10) stories (or 7 books); however, that is the goal - to work towards reading them all. 

How was your reading in April?
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