Sunday, June 30, 2013

Half-Year Review & Projections for July

Reflections on the First Half of the Year
The end of June also marks the end of the first half of the year and an assessment of progress has to be made. But a friendly one. For this activity is only a hobby and rakes in no financial benefits. However, whatever thing that is worth doing is worth doing well. That said, lets jump straight to what I set out to do from the beginning of the year and what I have achieved so far.

It is good to talk about successes first and failure last. I set out to read 70 books by year-end December 31, 2013, at an average of almost 6 books a month,  repeating what I did in the year 2012. However, when I saw the kind of books I had to read for the Year of Russian Literature (a challenge I had set for myself), I swiftly readjusted it to 60, averaging exactly 5 books per month. So far I have read exactly 30 books and 1 Single Story, which is half of the total books to be read at half of the year. Comparatively, a year ago by this time I had read 37 books and 15 single stories but at a lower total number of pages (June 2012: 9,862; June 2013: 10,695). But all these numbers are vain. The blog and the stats I keep are to help me not to slack in my reading.

On the Year of Russian Literature, I have read some very interesting and fulfilling books like Crime and Punishment and The Karamazov Brothers by Fyodor Dostoevsky, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, and The Government Inspector by Nikolay Gogol. I am glad I did and I know it might not have been possible without this blog since there would be no commitment. I have learnt a lot from these books and I am a better person from reading it. I hope to read a total of 12 Russian books (novels, play, poetry anthology, creative non-fiction, collection of essays etc. whichever I get). I would also, accessibility permitting, like to spread it across the years so there would be the 18th, 19th, and 20th Century writers and some contemporary authors.

On the Non-Fiction I set out to read around the themes of Development, Culture and the Human Mind; Thought and Language; and Philosophical, Political and Economic Writings about Nation States and Humanity. However, I have hardly touched upon a book that addresses any of this. I am nowhere near fulfilling this challenge.

On other African (Alain Mabanckou, especially) and Non-African (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kobe Abe, Umberto Eco, Mario Vargas, Bogdan Tiganov, and Yudit Kiss) writers and titles I listed to read, I am again sad to say that I have failed woefully. First, I have not actively searched for the books and so have even partially forgotten about them. I hope the second half of the year will bring in something better.

Review June

I read a total of six books in June, three of which were part of the four books I projected to read. I continued with the Year of Russian Literature project reading The Karamazov Brothers by Fyodor Dostoevsky.  Also I read three of Bessie Head's books - When Rain Clouds Gather, Tales of Tenderness and Power  and The Cardinals, with Meditations and Short Stories- towards the commemoration of her birthday. But that was not the first reason for reading that many Bessie Head. The Writers Project of Ghana's Book and Discussion Club discussed A Question of Power in May. The book received great acceptance among the discussants. That book was dichotomous: the part that took place entirely in the author's mind or which addressed her psychotic visions and the part that concerned the physical environment, the real part. Though I have read Maru (about discrimination among the tribes of Botswana especially against the so-called Bushmen) and A woman Alone (essays, short stories, letters about Bessie Head), I thought the two are not enough to understand which part of Bessie dominates or pervades her writings: the psychological or the realist (for lack of a proper word). Hence, I decided to explore her writings. It also happened that Kinna was proposing to read Bessie to commemorate her birthday, so I joined her and killed two birds with a stone. The following were the books read:
  • Infinite Riches by Ben Okri. [394 p.] This book is the last in the Okri trilogy that began with The Famished Road. It concludes the story of the spirit child Azaro. However, it is also about the struggle of the people with the political elites and political parties. Okri's stories are fantastic and show the vastness of the African's belief.
  • The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola. [125 p.] This was the selection of the Writers Project of Ghana for the month under review. This is a folkloric tale about a Palm-Wine Drinkard who embarked on a long seemingly impossible journey to Deads' Town to bring back his dead Palm-Wine Tapster. Though the scenes and the stories seemed impossible, this is the characteristics and elements of folklores. There is also a moral lesson in it.
  • Tales of Tenderness and Power by Bessie Head. [144 p.] This is a collection of stories that speak on issues of politics, general life and set in either South Africa or Botswana. The stories are diverse, steeped in Bessie's realist approach to writing. They are wide and contain historical essays on apartheid and traditions of the Tswana people. In politics, she showed that the people are more important than the rulers and it is the willingness of the people that creates a leader.
  • When Rain Clouds Gather by Bessie Head. [199 p.] Set in a village in Golema Mmidi, this story tells of the life of livestock and crop farmers and their problems with drought and progress. Again, Bessie showed the contrast between apartheid South Africa and protectorate Botswana, albeit subtly. She also showed that progress is possible and people yearn for it, pointing out that black and white can live together harmoniously that it is systems that create problems; systems like apartheid, like traditional superstitions and the power associated with chieftaincy.
  • The Karamazov Brothers by Fyodor Dostoevsky. [870 p.] A beautiful book that explores human suffering, thoughts, actions, and the overall good of human kind. It analyses the effects of getting trapped by a single idea and how one's cumulative behaviour could lead to people forming wrong impressions and judging you by it. Its section titled The Grand Inquisitor provides an deeper exploration of life and the importance or otherwise of religion. This is a definitive work, or so I presume, on human psychology.
  • The Cardinals with Meditations and Short Stories by Bessie Head. [144 p.] This book is set in racial South Africa and talks about repression and its consequences such as the destruction of the family system, and also workplace sexism. Like a typical Head, it is based on realism and it is here that Bessie somewhat discussed how she believe short stories should be: it should be based on real people. The sections on meditations are brilliantly written and explores the author's deepest thoughts on such issues as Africa and politics.

Projections for July

In July, I will continue with the Russian books and hope to read the books as and when they become available. The following books are projected to be read:
  1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. This obviously goes to the Year of Russian Literature project. 
  2. A Heart's Quest by Elikplin Akorli. This is a poetry anthology by a Ghanaian.
  3. Ama - a Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade by Manu Herbstein. I scheduled this book for last June but I failed to read it. I hope to pick it up this time round.
  4. God Dies by the Nile by Nawal El Saadawi. This is the Writers Project of Ghana's book for the month of July. The Writers Project of Ghana holds a monthly book discussion on twitter and also at a physical location. You can follow us @WritersPG. All tweets on the book and about the discussion could be obtained using the hashtag #wpghbookclub. You are kindly invited to join us.
I will read these and one or two other books I can't foretell. Keep following ImageNations and together lets promote reading and African Literature.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

NEW PUBLICATIONS: Taiye Selasi, Chimamanda Adichie, & Alain Mabanckou

Over the past few months, several Africans have come up with great novels that have received rave reviews. It is important that we get to know these novels. In my previous discussions, I talked about how relatively prolific African writers have become. Here are a selection of three and I will post what has been written about them since I have not read them myself:
  • Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi [Ghana/Nigeria/UK]. According to the Diana Evans in The Guardian: [Ghana Must Go] stands up to the hype. Taiye Selasi writes with glittering poetic command, a sense of daring, and a deep emotional investment in the lives and transformations of her characters. There is a lot of crying in this novel, lots of corporeal observations of the pain inflicted by social experience and the ties of love. But the tears flow lightly through passages of gorgeous description and psychological investigation, leaving behind a powerful portrait of a broken family – "a family without gravity" – in the throes of piecing itself back together. The Guardian reports that Taiye was mentored by Toni Morrison and endorsed by Salman Rushdie. She is Yale- and Oxford-educated, half-Nigerian and half-Ghanaian, born in London, raised in Boston, living in Rome.
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie [Nigeria/US]. Americanah will be Adichie's third full-length novel and fourth book (after Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun (both novels), and the short story anthology, The Thing around Your Neck). According to a review by Elizabeth Day in The GuardianIt is ostensibly a love story – the tale of childhood sweethearts at school in Nigeria whose lives take different paths when they seek their fortunes in America and England – but it is also a brilliant dissection of modern attitudes to race, spanning three continents and touching on issues of identity, loss and loneliness. ... Gratifyingly, Americanah does not disappoint. The New York Times concludes its review saying: Americanah” is witheringly trenchant and hugely empathetic, both worldly and geographically precise, a novel that holds the discomfiting realities of our times fearlessly before us. It never feels false.
  • Tomorrow I'll be Twenty by Alain Mabanckou [Congo/France]. Mabanckou is one author whose books I have been on the search for but which I have not yet obtained. He wrote African Psycho and The Broken Glass. In a review in The Guardian, Maya Jaggi writers: Mabanckou's portrait of the artist shows the boy grappling with the schisms and hypocrisy of the adult world. He struggles to tell communists from capitalists. His Uncle René, who bins Victor Hugo for writing that "Africa has no history", keeps a photo of Lenin. René says he's a communist, but changes cars every six months and steals his sisters' inheritance with a nod to ancestral male prerogative. As the boy sees it, "Perhaps if you're rich in this life, you always want to be richer, and you stop noticing that the people around you have nothing."
Alain Mabanckou's book was brought to my notice by Winstonsdad's Blog. I know there are several books out there, however these three are likely to set the reading world ablaze this year. Taiye's book will be launched on July 17, 2013 at 7 PM at the Movempick Hotel in Ghana.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Additions to the Library

Last year I purchased fewer books in a month than read. In this way I reduced the number of unread books on my shelf, somewhat. I will continue that principle, in spirit, but only in so far as I have enough books to meet my reading objectives. The implication of this caveat is that because I don't have unread African books (only one or two remain on my shelf) and Russian novels, I would have to buy them to meet my reading goals. Thus, though I will purchase fewer books, books that contribute to the achievement of a reading would would of necessity be purchased. The following are the books I have added to my library:
  1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. This is to be read for the Year of Russian Literature. Tolstoy considered this to be his first true novel, considering War and Peace as more than a novel. From the blurb: Anna Karenina is one of the most loved and memorable heroines of literature. her overwhelming charm dominates a novel of unparalleled richness and destiny.
  2. Rubble by Alex Agyei Agyiri. Every last Wednesday in the month, the Writers Project of Ghana holds a Book Reading discussion with a published author under its Ghana Voices Series programme. This programme is organised in conjunction with the Goethe Institute. At such readings, authors sell autographed copies of their books and participants take advantage to purchase such books. This book was purchased at such a reading. Alex Agyei Agyiri was the reader for March this year. He is also the author of Unexpected Joy at Dawn. From the Blurb: Through unique narrative style, the author ... has outdone himself, exploring the African leadership question. What interests underline the push for leadership? Who profits from the cry by one group, in the interest of 'the people', for change-at-all-cost and the one by the other group for sober restraint? ...
  3. Taboo by Mawuli Adzei. The author was the reader for June at the Ghana Voices Series, a monthly book reading organised by the Writers Project of Ghana and the Goethe Institute (refer above). From the blurb: Between Togbi Somadza, chief priest of Tugla's twins, Ata is the one who has always admired his father and nursed ambitions of succeeding him after his death while Atakuma, placid, taciturn and reticent, strays into Christianity against the family tradition. Atakuma is never able to accept full Christianity, which leads him to question the very dogmas of the faith he so passionately profess. ...
  4. God Dies by the Nile by Nawal El Saadawi. This is the selection of the Writers Project of Ghana for the month of June. Pick a copy at the EPP Bookshop or Legon Bookshop, read and join us discuss it using the hashtag #wpghbookclub. Tweet at us @writersproject. Nawal El Saadawi is the author of Searching. From the blurb: Kafr El Teen is a beautiful, sleepy village on the banks of the Nile. Yet at its heart it is tyrannical and corrupt. The Mayor, Sheikh Hamzawi of the mosque and the Chief of the Village Guard are all obsessed by wealth and use and abuse the women of the village, taking them as slaves, marrying them and beating them. ...
  5. A Heart's Quest by Elikplim Akorli. This is a collection of poetry interspersed with photographs of painting and Japanese translation of some of the poems. From the blurb: A mystical and emotional outpouring revealing the mystery of subsistence and inner self, A Heart's Quest is an account of a psychic flight characterized by constant drifts into abstractness and sexuality. ...

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Discussion: An African Book You have Read that isn't Things Fall Apart

The rate of literary outturn by Africans, though comparatively smaller, has been progressively increasing. Africans have been writing and publishing for over a century now. For instance, The Anglo-Fante Short Story by Kobina Sekyi was published in the West African Magazine in 1918. The author's play Blinkards was first performed on-stage around 1915. The novels Ethiopia Unbound: Studies in Race Emancipation by Ephraim Casely-Hayford and Eighteen Pence by R. E. Obeng's were published in 1911 and 1943. Similarly, Herbert Isaac Ernest Dhlomo's The Girl Who Killed to Save: Nongqawuse the Liberator was published in 1935. 

Several of these examples exist. However, the publication of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958) brought African literature to a wider audience. The numerous translations (into more than fifty languages) and its widespread distribution made it one of the most translated and read African novels. The effect is that when asked, most non-Africans mention it as the only African book they have read. It creates the impression as if it is the definitive African novel; that once one has read it one has a complete understanding of African Literature. Thus, readers are unwilling to go beyond it.

Now the question I am asking my non-African readers is, apart from Things Fall Apart which other African book (novel, play, poetry anthology) have you read? How did you discover it (if you still remember)? And how different it is, if any, from other novels you have read?

Monday, June 24, 2013

Join us Celebrate Bessie Head

July 6, 2013 will be the 76th birthday of one of Africa's great authors, Bessie Head. To commemorate the day, some African book bloggers - Mary Okeke of Mary Okeke Reviews, Kinna of KinnaReads & this writer of ImageNations - have decided to celebrate this day by posting items about the author from July 6 to 12, 2013.

Posts could be anything except that it should be about the author: review of her books, quotes from her books, her life, pictures and others. This blogging event is open to all readers.

About Bessie Head: Bessie Amelia Head (1937-1986) never knew her real parents — an unstable white woman and an unknown black man. She was born and raised in apartheid South Africa. There she suffered from poverty, racial segregation, and gender discrimination. She also had to worry about her own "delicate nervous balance".

As a young woman she left South Africa to come to Botswana. She lived the rest of her life in this country, mostly in Serowe. Bit by bit she overcame her many formidable obstacles. One of her passions was letter-writing; she corresponded with hundreds of people from many countries during her life. At the end she was a famous writer known all around the world. Bessie died of hepatitis after a period of heavy drinking in April 1986 in Serowe at the age of 49.

Bessie Head is the author of When Rain Clouds Gather (1968), Maru (1971), & A Question of Power (1974). Books published posthumously include A Woman Alone (1990), Tales of Power and Tenderness (1989), & The Cardinals (1993).

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Introducing the Zimbabwean Poet Mbizo Chirasha with Three Poems

I am posting three poems by the Zimbabwean Mbizo Chirasha. I have read and enjoyed Mbizo's works and it is not out of place to feature some of his works on this blog. Read, enjoy and comment. Though this is not going to be a regular feature, I hope to once in a while bring you 'new' poets from Africa as part of my vision to Promote African Literature.

Children of Xenophobia

Children eating bullets and firecrackers
Beggars of smile and laughter
Silent corpses sleeping away fertile dreams
Povo chanting new nude wretched slogans
Overstayed exiles eating beetroot and African potato
Abortions and condoms batteries charging the lives of nannies and maids
Children of barefoot afternoons and uncondomized nights
Sweat chiselling the rock of your endurance
The heart of Soweto, Harare, Darfur, Bamako still beating like drums
Violence fumigating peace from this earth.

Kalinga- linga

A daughter of revolution fed on rich political nutrition
With a smile bandaging scars of the streets and falsehood by political demons
Fingers burnt in pseudo democratic pans of West, what a political humor
I see you smelling love through the thick dew of corruption and robots
True heroes and heroines swallowed up in the deep silence of chingwere and uzambwera
[Cemeteries of the poor]
Leopold hill shadows faking dances to the throbbing rhythms of vumbuza drums
Kalinga- linga- your rising sun will soon spread the beauty of its fingers in the skies of Afrika

Dream of Rain

This is the land that fed our dreams
Wind suffocated in the yellow smoke of wheat
Our fields' crimson red and clouds gray with millet sheaves
Pans hissing with oil baking bread
Gleaming thighs of our days sweating under the rain season sun that bloomed,
The flamboyant flowers
Weeds of hunger already been exiled.

About the Poet: Mbizo Chirasha is an internationally acclaimed performance poet, writer, and creative projects consultant. He is widely published in more than Seventy-five journals, magazines, and anthologies around the world. He was the poet-in-residence from 2001-2004 for the Iranian Embassy/UN Dialogue among Civilisations Project; Convener/Event Consultant THIS IS AFRICA POETRY NIGHT 2004-2006; official performance poet Zimbabwe International Travel Expo in 2007; Poet in Residence of the International Conference of African Culture and Development (ICACD) 2009; and official Poet SADC Poetry Festival, Namibia 2009.

In 2003 Mbizo was a delegate of Zimbabwe to the Goteborg International Book Fair in Sweden. He performed at Nordic African Institute and Swedish Writers Union. Mbizo Chirasha is widely profiled in both local and abroad media institutions. His poetry books Good Morning President and Whispering Woes of Ganges and Zambezi.

Mbizo Chirasha the Founder and Creative Director of Girl Child Creativity Project, the newly founded Urban Colleges Writers Prize and Curator and Producer of GirlchildVoices Fiesta and 100 thousand poets for change program in Zimbabwe. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

246. The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola*

Amos Tutuola's The Palm-Wine Drinkard and his Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads' Town (Faber and Faber, 1952; 125) is a string of fantastic occurrences or linked folkloric tales. The happenings are, like all folktales, incredible, colourful,  and entertaining with a moral lesson, of sorts. The story opens with the main character and narrator introducing himself to readers. He says:
I was a palm-wine drinkard since I was a boy of ten years of age. I had no other work more than to drink palm-wine in my life. In those days we did not know other money, except COWRIES, so that everything was cheap, and my father was the richest man in our town. [7]
 From there on the Palm-Wine Drinkard, whose name the reader never gets to know but who referred to himself as 'Father of gods who could do anything in this world', narrates a journey he embarked upon to bring back his dead palm-wine tapster from Deads' Town. The fantastic and mysterious events that took place on the journey and how he managed to overcome them are the subject of the story. In one of his several escapades he rescued a girl who had had followed a 'complete gentleman' into an evil forest from which she never returned. After this saving her he married her and the two together continued the journey into the unknown town in search of the dead palm-wine tapster.

Their encounters with spirits, demons, red people, giants, dwarves, are stories that will titillate a reader's mind. They signify the African's way of storytelling, his belief system and his ways of transferring values and norms. Narrated in the structure and mode of traditional folktales, they sometimes provide reasons why certain things are as they are. For instance, in one of the towns he went he was asked by a man that in order to show him where his dead palm-wine tapster is he has to bring back death. With his juju, trickery and some unidentifiable providence, he was able to capture death in a net; however, when he threw death down the net broke into pieces and he escaped and started roaming the world because he is homeless. This is one of the functions of stories in Africa - providing answers to the mysteries of the world.

Other lessons one could draw from the stories are that people do take advantage of others and make promises that they cannot fulfil. Alternatively, people will usually befriend you mostly because of what they can gain from you and if that is no more they leave. The narrator had several friends because he provided them with several hundreds of kegs of palm-wine; however, all his friends left him when the tapster died. Again, when he returned from his journey and brought with him an egg that provides all that one needs, they came from near and afar to benefit from it; but by then he had knew better.

The protagonist was helped, in addition to his juju and his trickery, by some unidentifiable providence. For instance, when he was tasked to rescue the lady who later became his wife, he was able to see into the life of the Skulls who had captured her and also see back into the past the events that led to it. Thus, with this foreknowledge he was able to rescue the novel. These are the indicators of African folklore where everything is possible or where nothing is beyond the characters. The narrator's journey into the world beyond to bring back his tapster and Azaro's journeys into other worlds are indications of the vastness of the African's belief and the commonality of African folklores. For instance, the fight between the heaven and earth and commanding a cane (or belt) to beat ungrateful individuals are also to be found in Ghanaian folkloric tales. Further, in this story for instance, all spirits and dangerous creatures were personified.

However, what makes The Palm-Wine Drinkard and his Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in Deads' Town interesting and worth the read is not the fantastic folktales but the language in which it has been written in. Amos Tutuola wrote the story using an informal type of English language (or the Pidgin English). He neither paid attention to grammar nor semantics. In fact, a statement he made showed clearly that he was transliterating his story into English from another language.
[T]hen I changed the lady to a kitten and put her inside my pocket and changed myself to a very small bird which I could describe as a "sparrow" in English language. [28]
He shows that there are several ways to tell a story and that the elements of a good story are more than good grammar, perhaps rephrasing Mark Twain who 'never had any large respect for good spelling'. Though Amos Tutuola was criticised by some for this writing style, he nevertheless achieved much world fame by it. This book, one of Africa's 100 Best Books of the 20th Century, is worth the read.

Another African novel written in the mode, grammar-wise but not throughout the novel (limited to the protagonist's conversations), is Brian Chikwava's Harare North.
About the Author: Amos Tutuola (20 June 1920 - 8 June 1997) was born in Abeokuta, Nigeria, in 1920, where his parents Charles and Esther were Yoruba Christian cocoa farmers. When about seven years old, he became a servant for F. O. Monu, an Igbo man, who sent Tutuola to the Salvation Army primary school in lieu of wages. At age 12 he attended the Anglican Central School in Abeokuta. His brief education was limited to six years (from 1934 to 1939). When his father died in 1939, Tutuola left school to train as a blacksmith, which trade he practised from 1942 to 1945 for the Royal Air Force in Nigeria. He subsequently tried a number of other vocations, including selling bread and acting as messenger for the Nigerian Department of Labor. In 1946, Tutuola completed his first full-length book, The Palm-Wine Drinkard, within a few days. In 1947 he married Victoria Alake, with whom he had four sons and four daughters. (Source)

*Today is Amos Tutuola's birthday. He would have been 93 years. Click here for quotes from this novel

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

#Quotes: Quotes from Amos Tutuola's The Palm-Wine Drinkard

I was a palm-wine drinkard since I was a boy of ten years of age. I had no other work more than to drink palm-wine in my life. [7]

Do not follow unknown man's beauty. [19]

I had told you not to follow me before we branched into this endless forest which belongs to only terrible and curious creatures, but when I became a half-bodied incomplete gentleman you wanted to go back, now that cannot be done, you have failed. Even you have never seen anything yet, just follow me. [20]

I could not blame the lady for following the Skull as a complete gentleman to his house at all. Because if I were a lady, no doubt I would follow him to wherever he would go, and still as I was a man I would jealous him more than that, because if this gentleman went to the battle field, surely, enemy would not kill him or capture hims and if bombers saw him in a town which was to be bombed, they would not throw bombs on his presence, and if they did throw it, the bomb itself would not explode until this gentle would leave that town, because of his beauty. [25]

This was a wonderful child, because if a hundred men were to fight with him, he would flog them until they would run away. [33]

This would be a brief loss of woman, but a shorter separation of a man from lover. [78]

She was not a human-being and she was not a spirit, but what was she? [83]

Hard to salute each other, harder to describe each other, and hardest to look at each other at our destination. [104]

As I had prepared the juju, we did not fear anything which might happen to us inside the bush and we were travelling both day and night as we liked. [107]

For the safety of an egg the wife was in hungry-creature's stomach. [109]
Read the review here

Monday, June 17, 2013

Kwani? Manuscript Prize Announces Shortlist

The Kwani? Manuscript Project, a new one-off literary prize for unpublished fiction from African writers, is delighted to announce a shortlist selected from a longlist of 30. The seven shortlisted titles are:

  1. Ayobami Adebayo, Stay with Me (Nigeria) 
  2. Ayesha Harruna Attah, Saturday’s People (Ghana / US)
  3. Stanley Gazemba, Ghettoboy (Kenya)
  4. Toni Kan, The Carnivorous City (Nigeria) 
  5. Timothy Kiprop Kimutai, The Water Spirits (Kenya) 
  6. Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, The Kintu Saga (Uganda / UK)
  7. Saah Millimono, One Day I Will Write About This War (Liberia)

The shortlist has been selected, without the author’s name attached, by a high-profile panel of judges including Deputy Editor of Granta magazine Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, leading scholar of African literature Professor Simon Gikandi, Chairman of Kenyatta University’s Literature Department Dr. Mbugua wa Mungai, editor of Zimbabwe’s Weaver Press Irene Staunton and internationally renowned Nigerian writer Helon Habila.  The Chair of Judges, award-winning Sudanese novelist Jamal Mahjoub, said:  
The five judges of the Kwani? Manuscript prize 2013 have carefully worked through a longlist of 30. These showed a wide range of styles, subjects and regional concerns. The judges were primarily looking for works that show promise in terms of the writing itself as well as the breadth and depth of vision brought to bear by the authors. The final shortlist of seven entries reflects the overall consensus of the judges and summarises their individual interests.
These seven novels from five African countries take us through the underbelly of Lagos, class divisions in Nairobi and war-torn Monrovia, through families cursed, self-destructing and reuniting, bringing new scrutiny to the epic, dictatorship and points-of-view in stories that are brave, tender and beguiling.

Kwani Trust’s Managing Editor, Billy Kahora said, 
In reviewing the shortlisted stories, I’m blown away by the potential these manuscripts hold, the different styles, concerns and voices that they bring to new contemporary African literature, and further add to Kwani’s fiction list. We can’t wait to bring them out as novels in the region and partner with publishing houses across the continent to make them available across Africa.

The top three manuscripts will be announced on Monday 1 July 2013 and will be awarded cash prizes totaling Ksh 525,000 (c. $6000).

In addition, Kwani Trust plans to publish 3-5 of the shortlisted manuscripts by April 2014. The Trust will also be partnering with regional and global agents and publishing houses to secure high profile international co-publication opportunities.

The Authors and Synopsis of the Stories

Ayobami Adebayo, Stay with Me  
Ayobami Adebayo was born in 1988 and her short stories have appeared in Farafina Magazine, Saraba Magazine, East Jasmine Review and African Writing Online.  Her work was highly commended in the 2009 Commonwealth short story competition. In 2012, she was a writer in residence at Writers Omi International (Ledig House), New York. She is the fiction editor for Saraba magazine.

Synopsis: Yejide's marriage is almost perfect. Even though she has never been pregnant, she is sure that her husband loves her and nothing can come between them. Then he marries another wife and everything Yejide has believed begins to fall apart. Still, she is not ready to lose the man she loves. Her quest to get pregnant before the new wife tests the limits of love and loss as she searches for a miracle baby on mountain tops, at stream sides and in her brother-in-law's bed.

Ayesha Harruna Attah, Saturday’s People 
Ayesha Harruna Attah is the author of the novel Harmattan Rain, which was shortlisted for the 2010 Commonwealth Writers' Prize, Best First Book. She has had short stories published in the African Roar 2010 anthology, Imagine Africa, and the Caine Prize Writers' 2009 anthology. She received an MFA in Fiction from NYU’s Creative Writing Program in May 2011.

Synopsis: Saturday’s People is based in a West African country at the end of a 17-year military dictatorship. It weaves the stories of four members of the Avoka household, where everybody is lurching toward self-destruction. The father, Theo, is recruited to write the memoirs of the dictator-turned-president whom he loathes. Zahra, matriarch of the house, rekindles an affair with an old lover and barely keeps her family and sanity together. Theo and Zahra's son Kojo has just started the boarding school of his dreams but finds out it's nothing like he imagined. Their new help, Atsu, recently transplanted from the village, struggles to understand the eccentricities of her new family.

Stanley Gazemba, Ghettoboy
Stanley Gazemba was born in 1974 in Western Kenya. He has published 2 novels, The Stone Hills of Maragoli (a recipient of the Jomo Kenyatta Prize and re-issued by Kwani Trust in 2009) and Khama. He has also published 7 children’s books: Shaka Zulu-Warrior King; Poko and the Jet; Poko at the Koras; The Herds boy and the Princess; Tobi and the Street boy; Ant’s Clay castle and Grandmother’s Winning Smile (long-listed for the Macmillan Prize). He has written for Msanii magazine, Sunday Nation, The New York Times, Saturday Nation and The East African. He was International Fellow at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2007. 

Synopsis: Ghettoboy explores relationships across and between urban spaces and social class within Nairobi.  When Kimani gets a job with the Adamali family, a rich Asian household, he believes that his dream of escaping the harsh life of the ghetto has come true.  But the job is unusual one.  He is to be the day-nurse of a bedridden matriarch who is in possession of a secret formula that can alter the global construction business if put into practice.  Ghosts from Idi Amin’s Uganda and Kimani’s relationship with Adamali’s daughter begin to threaten planned and expected trajectories for all concerned. 

Toni Kan, The Carnivorous City
Toni Kan is the author of the poetry collection When a Dream Lingers too Long, the novella Ballad of Rage, and most recently the short story collection Nights of the Creaking Bed (Cassava Republic). He is one of Nigeria's most anthologised poets and short story writers, and his work has appeared in Salthill, Drum Voices, Revue, Farafina, Sentinel Poetry Quarterly and ANA Review.  He currently edits the ‘Sunday Sun Revue’, a weekly 4 page literary supplement in Sunday Sun.  

Synopsis: Carnivorous City is a novel about Lagos, the city which is at once a beast with bared fangs and a seductive mistress with wild charms.  A young man arrives in the city in search of his missing brother who may or may not be dead. His search becomes, in many ways, a journey through the murky underbelly of Lagos as well as an odyssey into his own interior landscape; an odyssey that leaves him questioning long held beliefs and certitudes. 

Timothy Kiprop Kimutai, The Water Spirits
Timothy Kiprop Kimutai is 27 years old and interested in finding an audience for his stories. He participates in creative writing workshops with Amka Space, a writing forum provided by the Goethe Institute in Nairobi. 

Synopsis: Kogi sees an alternate world when his mother points a knife at her chest ready to plunge it in.   He finds a girl lying unconscious by the river, carries her home and lets her live in their chicken house - all the while thinking that she is a water spirit.  He dreams of bringing back rare chicken breeds from the brink of extinction.  The Water Spirits places the mysterious alongside the quotidian, exploring Kogi’s relationships with the water spirit, his newly-widowed mother Susanna and sister Chebet, and the pains of feeling powerless.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, The Kintu Saga
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is currently completing a PhD in Creative Writing at Lancaster University.  Her work has been published by African Writing Online and Commonword. She also runs the African reading group, ARG!, in Manchester which focuses on obscure African writers.

Synopsis: At dawn, on Monday the 5th of January 2004 in Uganda, the curse of Kintu strikes. Kamu Kintu is brutally murdered by a mob in Bwaise. Three months later, ten men involved in his murder are found dead, their bodies strewn along Bwaise’s main street. The story then travels back to 1750, to the beginning of the curse in the old kingdom of Buganda.  The Kintu Saga follows the misfortunes of the Kintu clan over 250 years, blending Ganda oral tradition, forms of myth, folktale and history with biblical elements.  The novel explores ideas of transgression, curse and perpetuity, looking back at the history of Buganda Kingdom and tracing birth of modern Uganda. 

Saah Millimono, One Day I Will Write About This War
Saah Millimono was born in 1981 and is a graduate of St. Michael’s Catholic High School in Monrovia, Liberia.  He works as a freelance fiction writer for the Liberian Observer Corporation and in 2009 won the Short Fiction Prize of the Sea Breeze Journal of Contemporary Liberian Writings.

Synopsis: Tarnue and Kou are from different backgrounds, young, ambitious, and in primary school. Suddenly the Liberian Civil War erupts; they and many others are altered in ways they could hardly have thought of.  One Day I Will Write About This War tenderly explores this unlikely childhood friendship and multiple human costs of war.

For more information please visit Kwani?'s website.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

245. Infinite Riches by Ben Okri

Infinite Riches (Phoenix, 1998; 394) is the last book of Ben Okri's trilogy that begins with The Famished Road. I postponed reading this particular book since in 2009 because I wanted to read them chronologically. I was serendipitously gifted with the first book but could not get the second - Songs of Enchantment - so finally I had to succumb and skip it.

Infinite Riches continues the story of Azaro, the abiku child who sees into the spirit world and do fantastic things. Also, the struggle between the political parties - the Party of the Rich and the Party of the Poor - over who to take the mantle of power once the colonialists has granted the colony its independence continues unabated. Herein lies the nefarious activities of the political elite; the brutality of the people by both the police and thugs of the political parties; the discrimination of the people by the people and the parties; and the humongous corruption of the political arrivistes against the beggary lives of the people. In this story, set at the point of independence of no particular country, or better still of Africa, Okri showed that the current political gimmicks, shenanigans, thuggery, and corruption, began at the second birth of the new continent. It was that part of the umbilical cord that remained in the belly of the continent, whose decay had sprung forth foul, greed-laden, and ignominious leaders. This was also the period that the media became the grand-illusionists for governments, turning reality into fantasy, and fiction into reality, at will.

When Azaro's father Black Tyger was arrested for a murder he knew nothing about, his wife embarked on a demonstration to first look for where he had been kept and then seek his release. Together with seven other women folks of her kind they moved from one police station to the other, setting prisoners free, until they found him in a near-moribund state and got him released. Through this Okri discussed how the educated elites of Africa, ride on the back of the struggles and death of the ordinary, mostly uneducated, people, by associating with them on the peripheries of their struggle, after which they betray them, and appropriate for themselves their victory. When these eight women embarked on their quest to release Black Tyger, they were met by a group of educated women who, afraid of the blows and blood that result from such heated demonstrations, sought to replace the incendiary march with an organised, sanitised one, which was incapable of penetrating the administration's thick skin. However, after rejecting this proposal and achieving victory, they - the educated women - found a way to appropriate the credit to themselves by conniving with their allies in the media and getting their pictures splattered in all newspapers. This behaviour became the new class system after the attainment of independence in most African countries where those who struggled for independence were mostly different from those who assumed the reins of power.

However, the colonialists were no different from the political elites. In light of the coming independence, they were eagerly destroying the country, shredding documents, writing up its history, creating new dreams and wiping out old ones, divesting the continent of its knowledge, pegging the beginning of its history from the time they set foot on its shores (or soil) and setting up the continent for failure.

One of the things the colonialists did, which is central to the stories, is the destruction of a symbolic spiritual forest of great significance to the people to make way for the development of a road. The significance of forests to the African and the symbolism of roads are numerous. Roads signify an entry point; it also signifies departure and migration and therefore dispersal and loss. Kofi Awoonor in his poem The Cathedral wrote about the destruction and supplanting of local customs at the arrival of the colonialists. Specifically the last four lines reads:
They sent surveyors and builders
who cut that tree
planting in its place
A huge senseless cathedral of doom
Thus, the forest is representative of the people, their essence, their life-blood, the ether, which was whittled. It also signifies the natural resources - the timber, the minerals, the people - that were moved from Africa to the colonialists' homelands. It should also be noted that roads and railways built by the colonialists in Africa led only to resource-rich areas. Okri used the haulage of resources from the hinterlands of Africa to make antithetical references to Joseph Conrad's and Aldous Huxley's books Heart of Darkness and Brave New World, respectively.

In these references, he described how the colonialist's Governor-General in his dream saw a gigantic sign at the mouth of the road reading 'Heart of World' and at at its end another sign reads 'Brave New Darkness'.  This clearly explains the significance and consequences of their entry and exists. However, in between these two, Okri writes:
Deep in his happy sleep the Governor-General dreamt of taking the Golden Stool of the Ashante king, the thinking masks of Bamako, the storytelling rocks of Zimbabwe, the symphonic Victoria Falls, the shapely tusks of Luo elephants, the slumbering trees of immemorial forests, the languorous river Niger, the enduring pyramids of the Nile, all the deltas rich with oil, the mountains rifted with metals apocalyptic, the mines shimmering with gold, the ancestral hills of Kilimanjaro, the lexicon of African rituals, the uncharted hinterland of Africa's unconquerable spirits. He dreamt of taking Africa's timber-like men, their pomegranate women, their fertile sculpture, their plaintive songs, their spirit-worlds... He dreamt of the great road on which all the fruits and riches of African lives would be directed towards sweetening the sleep of his good land. He did not dream of the hunger he would leave behind. [236/7]
This captures what had been and still is Africa's plight through colonialism and its appendage neo-colonialism. Thus, after entering the heart of the world, filled with resources and stealing and diverting it into their homelands they left it empty and dry for us to brave new darkness, darkness unknown. In addition to these, Okri also made more direct references to the environmental consequences of wanton destruction and forest degradation.

In spite of all this, Okri used the proverbial old woman to whom we revert when great decisions are to be made or when we are at crossroads and dithering. This old woman - like the woman in Armah's The Healers - recorded and coded the African knowledge (esoteric or otherwise) in all spheres of life, in safekeeping for generations. Yet, the fact was that her abode in the forest was threatened.

Infinite Riches is a book that is boundless in its subject and style. In matters of style, it mixes African magical realism with surrealism and science; on the other hand, through Azaro, copious references were made to the development and use of the atom bomb, to Einstein's space-time theory, and issues of racism. There was also an allusion to or a perception of the existence of parallel universes (or multiverse) among which Azaro weaved in and out seamlessly. To the African these are not new phenomena though not explicitly expressed in such scientific language. 

Another point of note in Infinite Riches is the significant role of women. One can easily mention Azaro's mother, who worked tirelessly to keep her home and protect her family and almost sacrificed herself in the search of her husband. The seven other women who together with Azaro's mother moved from one police station to the other, releasing prisoners and achieving national fame - albeit briefly, is another example. Even Madam Koto, a central figure in the stories, whose enigma and behaviour made everyone think of her as a witch, was actually the one who kept the balance in the society and prevented evil from proliferating. Upon her death, healing herbs grew on her body. Mention could also me made of the old woman in the forest who held the spirit and history of Africa together and coded its knowledge for generations. But in addition to these, there were the women who cheated the eight women out of their fame and rode on their backs to glory. 

Overall, I enjoyed The Famished Road much more than I did this. It was difficult to isolate what was actually happening in this book, one fantastic scene after another. What is required is for the reader to begin from the very first book and read through to the last. This book should not be read in isolation. Also, I believe the colour seeped a little off this one, comparatively. There was also a sense of a rush towards the end; besides, new roads were not created in this. Regardless, Okri's writing is a delight to read and his understanding of the world and his imagination to conceptualise and bring it to life are immense.

Friday, June 14, 2013

#Quotes: Quotes from Ben Okri's Infinite Riches

Time is growing ... And our suffering is growing too. When will our suffering bear fruit? One great thought can alter the future of the world. One revelation. One dream. But who will dream that dream? And who will make it real? [5]

Some people who are born don't want to live. Others who are dead do't want to die. [6]

Another insisted justice was an idea invented by the big crooks who run the world, an idea designed to keep small people in their corners. [26]

His ears were so wounded that he heard the language of his blood in the beating heart of the prison walls. His eyes hurt so much that he saw shapes hovering between the metal bars. Angel or demon, spirit or ancestor, he couldn't be sure. [46]

[F]ame is often devourer of the best things in our spirit. [88]

Every mood is a story, and every story becomes a mood. [153]

It is only when the diverse peoples of the earth meet and learn from and love one another that we can begin to get an inkling of this awesome picture. Call it a picture of divinity, or humanity if you want, but like the magic powder that Africans allude to, this great jigsaw has been distributed amongst all of us; and one aspect of our destiny on this earth may be to discover something of that grand image or music of our collective souls, of our immense possibilities, our infinite riches. [187]

People sometimes say that happiness is the holiday of the spirit, the lovely dreaming of the nerves. [194]

Great events don't just travel to people's ears through the mouths of men. Sometimes they travel through dreams, through the invisible cables in the air, or through the whispering mouths of spirits. [204]

Thins seep back from the future into the present; the past presses everything forward; and the future makes things search for their lost origins. [219]

Where does birth begin? It begins with a death. Things have to vacate the space we haven't properly used, in order for new things to be born. It begins with a death, and that night we heard plangent dirges in the air, foretelling a death in advance. [223]

Those who cannot transform their bad dreams which might become real, should be rudely awoken. [238]

I am a spirit-child wandering in an unhappy world. Draw a deep breath, for my new song is pitched to the wings of those birds of omen, birds that fly into new dawns, changing with their flight into the forms of future ages. [249]

[T]he manufacturers of reality had no power over laughter. [281]

Some say there is no greater breeding-ground for evil than when a people's reason falls asleep, their dreams unencumbered, and when the air seems clear. [329]

[G]reat old trees are impossible to replace. [364]
Read review here.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

244. Auto da Fe by Elias Canetti

Reading Elias Canetti's Auto da Fe (Penguin Modern Classics, 1935; 522)* after Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment is like travelling on an underground railway connecting two cities in different countries - the transition is seamless and without notice. Not only were both books translations - one from Russian, the other from German - but they both address identical issues: introducing new elements into a hyper-functioning cognitive process leading to an imbalance that bothers on insanity. Again, both books discuss matters of knowledge or ideas, albeit in different forms; whereas Canetti discusses an intelligent bibliomania, Dostoevsky discusses a deductive theorist hoping to practicalise his theories. Finally, both books make references to ideas in other important books. It was therefore a unique privilege to have read these books in succession.*

Professor Kien is a Sinologist, the best of his time. He has an extraordinarily boundless memory and can read several Eastern Languages. He has time for nothing else apart from scholastic writings and his four-roomed library. Apart from his housekeeper, he virtually lives alone. And only for his books for which he has spent a fortune to acquire. His daily activities are routine: he writes early in the morning, goes for a walk with his briefcase, comes home to his library, et al. This was Professor Kien's life, until he misread the intentions of his housekeeper. A misreading that would go on for a long time and which would lead him to his doom. 

When Therese - a woman about sixteen years older than the Professor - made a request for a book to read, the Professor, who brooked no nonsense especially from individuals outside the intelligentsia fraternity (sometimes even including some of whom he considered inferior), was amazed. However, it was not only the request that surprised him but Therese's personal relationship with the book she was given: first, she received the book in a clean wrapper; second, she bought brand-new hand-gloves which she wore when she handled the book. And to stretch matters, when the Kien spied on her to see if she was reading or pretending to be so, he found the book resting on a sewn pillow. Seeing a book he considered to be of no or little value treated this way surprised him, for he found that he - a lover of books - did not even treat his books in such a reverential manner as Therese did. When questioned why she had not read that far, Therese made it known that she read a page several dozens of time to absorb them before opening the next page. All these endeared Therese to the professor and a man who had remained unmarried, unattached, and a virgin, for four decades decided to marry his housekeeper of fifty-seven.

Whereas Kien married her for her devotion to knowledge and books, Therese married for love, money and property. And this is the point where the pathogen was introduced into the organism. Therese sought to claim ownership of Kien's entire properties including the books, the flat, his money and all. She started with part of the flat but gradually allocated three of the four rooms to herself and finally shared the remaining room with the professor. Later, she would throw the Professor onto the street, and Kien would become psychotic, of sorts - twisting reality (believing that she had locked her wife in the flat and that it was his strategy to leave home), believing the friends he picked up (like the dwarf who conned him out of his savings through his weakness for saving books and who planted a dangerous idea in his mind - that his wife was dead, which would later lead to the Professor's death).

Therese and Kien were opposites. Therese was limited in her vocabulary, but loquacious; Kien's language skills are unrivalled but taciturn. Kien's love is for books and knowledge (intangible); Therese's love is for the material properties and she considered the books only because of their financial value; so great was Therese's love for property and wealth that she thought Kien a thief for not giving her his savings at the bank and not willing her his properties. Kien was a virgin at forty; Therese knew what love should be, even at fifty-seven. And even though she was this age, she saw herself not a shade over thirty. These differences set the marriage up for failure even before it began. Kien was unsure how to consummate his marriage and if it was even necessary. He wondered if he should call his gynaecologist-turn-psychologist brother or if he should just buy a book on sex and if the latter who should get the book. These thought processes would later lead to his fall and his inability to fulfill Therese's marital expectations left her bitter and vengeful. These events together with her own psychotic tendencies would lead her to claim proprietorial ownership from the tall, lanky, spineless Kien - a man whose understanding of the world beyond books is as infantile as it could possibly be.

Kien sought solace in his books and partnered with them to fight the enemy, Therese. This provided enough allusion to Nazi Germany and its reaction towards Jews at the time. For instance, Therese's gradual takeover of Kien's apartment and his property could be an allusion Nazi Germany's occupation of foreign lands.
The enemy believes we shall not dare to render void conquests in territory already occupied; trusting in our ignorance of these new conditions, the enemy seeks to initiate a policy of abduction, unnoticed by us, and without an open declaration of war. Have no doubts of this, the enemy will lay hands first upon the noblest among your ranks, upon those whose ransom will be highest. [104]
He continues as he addresses his books to prepare to battle Therese:
Who among you would be reft from your native land, scattered through all the world, treated as slaves, to be priced, examined, bought, but never spoken to - slaves who are but half listened to when they speak in the performance of their duties, but in whose souls no man cares to read, who are possessed but not loved, left to rot or sold for profit, used but never understood? [104]
In this warfare address, Kien made reference to the song the Israelites sang as they were being taken into captivity recorded at Psalm 137. This reference extends to the Jews and their migration from their homeland into the diaspora. He writes
We have no time now for songs of lamentation, ..., or we shall be singing them next by the waters of Babylon. [105] 
In relation to this, Canetti discussed argued that the world remained blind to the events that took place during the Inquisition leading to the loss of several souls. He argued this by stating that sometimes only a small action is required to avert a bigger problem and that though our contribution towards the alleviation of a universal misery might be small, we should not hold it out. No one should think he is too small or too weak to make an impact.
Our widow's mite for the alleviation of universal misery is small, but we must cast in. If a man should say: alone I am too weak, then nothing would be done, and misery would devour further. [245]
But one can say that Kien was the cause of his own victimisation; he's responsible for his own problems by refusing to defend himself and allowing others to direct his life, by believing everybody and misinterpreting people's actions and statements. And after people have told him the things he want to hear, those he had been wishing for, he internalised them and make them his. He retells them as facts they coming from his prodigious mind. Besides, his narrow world-view beyond books made him not a master of people or of the world. Only of books. In his pathetic and often times comedic situations filled with glaring misunderstandings and misinterpretations, which a child of five might not even make, resulting mostly from the superimposition of his thoughts and beliefs on other people's actions and statements, Canetti might be deriding such narrow-mindedness and limited search for knowledge. Also, Kien never consulted anyone and worked in isolation, he was overly opinionated and thought that if it did not come from him, it wasn't important. Clearly, Canetti expects intellectuals to be involved in the discourse of the time, to participate and speak against evil and even if all you can do is little, do it. Else, in the end you might get what you fear the most.

Some aspects of the narrative investigate mob action - its causes and its mind. Canetti shows clearly that each person in a mob has his own unique motive and understanding of what is happening and most often these run counter to those of the others in the mob. He also discussed humanity as a single mass lodged within the individual. Thus, the individual carries within him the mass-soul and it is this mass-soul that is being attacked.
We wage the so-called war of existence for the destruction of the mass-soul in ourselves, no less than for hunger and love. In certain circumstances it can become so strong as to force the individual to selfless acts or even acts contrary to their own interests. 'Mankind' has existed as a mass for long before it was conceived of and watered into an idea. [461]
These deductions percolate into Nash's Equilibrium. Thus, Canetti might be discussing what is referred to in Xhosa as Ubuntu - I am because We are. The universal philosophy of togetherness; the oneness of purpose or of mind distilled into the Buddhist concept of Itai Doshin, or many in body but one in mind. This universal principle is antithetical to the individuality and self-centredness of current political and economic principles. Canetti's discourse showed that though mankind has lost this togetherness, a time will come when humanity shall realise its singularity of purpose, which would be translated into unity.
There will come a time when it will not be scattered again, possibly in a single country at first, eating its way out from there, until no one can doubt any more, for there will be no I, you, he, but only it, the mass. [461/2]
Issues of existentialism were also touched upon. Kien could be described as an Existentialist in the mould of Descartes whose existentialist thought is summed up in the maxim 'I think therefore I am'. Through Kien, Canetti discussed what is it to be dead. For him, since one cannot see the soul, there is no need in discussing it. What one sees is the skeleton and that's the most important thing.
When they found her, on the floor before the writing desk, she was a skeleton; not a soul...' [357; author's emphasis]
Esse percipi, to be is to be perceived. [79]
Marriage as a social contract and its overrating of sex and the relationship between the genders were all discussed. Women were both vilified and praised. But the motherhood role was magnified. Also, with the exception of Therese who did the abusing, most of the women in the story were abused.

Canetti employed comedy, caricaturing and augmented reality to tell this unique story. The turn in his imagery are sometimes sharp, unpredictable, and therefore fulfilling. For instance, two jaguars attacking from the flanks of a man suddenly become sacrificial priests of ancient Mexico. Some of Canetti's descriptions are fantastic; like how Kien packs an entire library into his head and unpacks them every night before going to sleep. He also wrote most of the story from the consciousness of his characters, especially Kien, thus conflating the real and the surreal. The distinction between reality and fantasy is therefore thin. Characters easily see what they have been wishing for or dreaming about, like Kien believing that he had killed his wife or Fisherle - the hump and dwarf - seeing himself as the Chess World Champion to the extent of adopting the title Dr. There are several moments of laughter interspersed with broader intellectual discourse.

Finally, the author's love for the German language was visible in this story. He made references to accurate use of words, people's inability to speak properly and those with limited diction.

There is more in this book than could be discussed here. It would be more beneficial if one reads the book instead. This book is highly recommended.
* Translated by C. V. Wedgewood
*After this I read Ben Okri's Infinite Riches and then followed it up with The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola. The progression with these four books is seamless.
* Read quotes from this book here.

Monday, June 10, 2013

#Quotes: Quotes from Elias Canetti's Auto da Fe

Occasional collisions unexpectedly encountered determine the direction of a lifetime. [16]

A bookseller is a king, and a king cannot be a bookseller. [16]

The greatest danger which threatens a man of learning, is to lose himself in talk. [20]

He reserved consciousness for real thoughts; they depend upon it; without consciousness, thoughts are unthinkable. Chewing and digesting happen of themselves. [32]

The man who has frittered away the strength of his eyes is a worth companion of the beast that leads him. [35]

Martyrs do not cry out, saints do not cry out. [45]

[I]t is easy to be self-possessed when you have been dead for centuries. [51]

Man alone was master of his fate. [64]

Blindness is a weapon against time and space; our being is one vast blindness, save only for that little circle our mean intelligence - mean in its nature as in its scope - can illumine. The dominating principle of the universe is blindness. It makes possible juxtapositions which would be impossible if the objects could see each other. It permits the truncation of time when time is unendurable. Time is a continuum whence there is one escape only. By closing the eyes to it from time to time, it is possible to splinter it into those fragments with which alone we are familiar. [79]

Esse percipi, to be is to be perceived. [79]

I'm against hitting a man when he's down, he can't appreciate it. [125]

She would have disintegrated into her chief components - skirt, ears, and sweat - had not her hatred for him, which he was now intensifying with pedantic zeal, become the surviving core of her being. [160]

Without leisure no art can exist. [180]

Those who have nothing make joyful givers. [231-2]

The sage, reverenced as a saint already by the ancient Indians, dismisses numbers, dates and comets to the devil and declares: our creeping corruption is this lack of piety with which men are infected; this is the position by which we shall perish. Woe to those who shall come after us! They are lost, they will inherit from us a million martyrs and the instruments of torture with which they must destroy a second million. No state can bear so many saints. In every town will be builded palaces to the Inquisition, like this one, six storeys high. Who can tell, perhaps the Americans build their pawnshop to touch the very sky. [240]

Our widow's mite for the alleviation of universal misery is small, but we must cast in. If a man should say: alone I am too weak, then nothing would be done, and misery would devour further. [245]

The foundation of all true learning is doubt. [438]

Being sane is a kind of retarded development. [453]

We wage the so-called war of existence for the destruction of the mass-soul in ourselves, no less than for hunger and love. In certain circumstances it can become so strong as to force the individual to selfless acts or even acts contrary to their own interest. 'Mankind' has existed as a mass for long before it was conceived of and watered down into an idea. It foams, a huge, wild, full-blooded, warm animal in all of us, very deep, far deeper than the maternal. In spite of its age it is the youngest of the beasts, the essential creation of the earth, its goal and its future. We know nothing of it; we live still, supposedly as individuals. Sometimes the masses pour over us, one single flood, one ocean, in which each drop is alive, and each drop wants the same thing. But it soon scatters again, and leaves us once more to be ourselves, poor solitary devils. In memory we can hardly conceive that we were ever so great, so many and so much one. 'Disease,' says one overburdened by intelligence; 'the beast in man' soothes the lamb of humility, and does not guess how near to the truth is its mistakes. In the meantime the mass within ourselves is arming for a new attack. There will come a time when it will not be scattered again, possibly in a single country at first, eating its way out from there, until no one can doubt any more, for there will be no I, you, he, but only it, the mass. [461-2]

A sensitive mind derives either advantage or injury from every contact, because will awaken thoughts and recollections. The indolent are wandering institutions, nothing flows into them, nothing makes them overflow, frozen and isolated, they drift through the world. Why should they move? What moves them? Accidentally they belong to the animal kingdom, but in fact they are vegetables. You could nip their heads off and they'd go on living, they have their roots. The stoic philosophy is suited to vegetable, it is high treason to animals. Let us be animals! He who has roots, let him uproot himself. [469]

In the spider, the most cruel and ugly of all creatures, I see an embodiment of woman. Her web shimmers in the sunlight, poisonous and blue. [487]

Scholarship should have its Inquisition, to which it could hand over heretics. [512]
Read the review here

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Additions to the Library

EPP Bookshop Legon
After a thorough discussion of A Question of Power by Bessie Head on the WPG's Twitter Book Discussion, I decided to read more of her works. I was fascinated by the depth of this discussion and how wide the story is and how varied the issues people took from the book. In addition to Bessie Head, I added one more book to Soyinka's pile and the WPG book for its discussion in June. The following therefore are the books purchased:
  1. Kongi's Harvest by Wole Soyinka. Soyinka's plays are not easy to breakthrough. However, they are still worth the read. From the blurb: Kongi's Harvest is to be the official of the Five Year Plan. President Kongi has the spiritual leader King Danlola under preventive detention. He is anxious that Danlola should be seen by the people at the festival to bring him the new yam with his own hands. With Danlola and Kongi increasingly involved in image building, the festival comes to a shattering climax. [...]
  2. Tales and Tenderness and Power by Bessie Head. I picked this because of the what I gleaned from A Question of Power. Bessie's understanding of power relations is marvelous and unfathomable. Tales of Tenderness draws on writings which have roots in the author's own experience in Botswana. It reflects her fascination with the country's people and their history and her identification with individuals and their conflicting emotions. 'She enjoyed observing, smiling, forgiving or raging and then recording.' These tales reveal her affinity with human goodness and tenderness and her fear and resentment of the misuse of power. [...]
  3. The Cardinals with Meditations and Short Stories by Bessie Head. Bessie Head seems to leave a part of herself in every book she writes. Her experiences are found scattered in them and her role as a victim of this discriminatory world coupled with other equally unfair variables have expanded her understanding of this world. This is Mouse's world, but she is blind to it, living only for her books. A job as a reporter on African Beat forces her to open her eyes. Newsroom sexism combines with everyday stories of racial repression and political muck-raking to radically alter Mouse's perception. But it is her relationship with the cynical newshound Johnny that is the greatest challenge to her loveless solitude.
  4. When the Rain Clouds Gather by Bessie Head. Again, like all her novels, the setting is a rural village in Botswana where she settled after she left South Africa with a no-reentry visa and where she remained stateless for fifteen years. In the heart of rural Botswana, the poverty-stricken village of Golema Mmidi is a haven to exiles from far and wide. A South African political refugee and an Englishman join forces to revolutionise the villagers' traditional farming methods, but their task is fraught with hazards as the pressures of tradition, opposition from the local chief and the unrelenting climate threaten to divide and devastate the fragile community.
  5. The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola. The Palm-Wine Drinkard is WPG's selected book for the month of June. This is a fantastic tall tale of the Palm-Wine Drinkard. ... brief, thronged, grisly and bewitching... written in English by a West African... Nothing is too prodigious or too trivial to put down in this tall, devilish story - Dylan Thomas in the Observer.
Perhaps reading these would enable me better understand Bessie Head, her works and her travails. A Question of Power - that phenomenal book - is comparable to most of the exalted books that discusses human psyche. For Head, this is more relevant not only because she understands what she writes, but because she also suffered it and overcame it. If her works have not garnered the excitement all such Kafkaesque literature obtain, it wouldn't be because it is less exciting, or that she is a woman. It would be because she is African and African literature are also limited to Africa. For instance, to digress, Achebe is considered the greatest African writer, even though his works have world impact.

I will be bringing you, my readers, what I think of the books as and when I read them.
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