The Book of Chameleons by José Eduardo Agualusa

the book of chameleonsagualusa

Published by Arcadia Books. First published in Portuguese in 2004, published in English in 2006, translated by Daniel Hahn.

The Book of Chameleons won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2007. Agualusa was again nominated earlier this year, for the same prize – merged with and now called Man Booker International Prize – with his second novel published in English: A General Theory of Oblivion. My GR book club are reading both books, but I chose The Book of Chameleons because it was the shorter of the two, and it actually won the prize :) (The winner of 2016 Man Booker International is The Vegetarian by Han Kang, which I read and reviewed this year too.)

Just a few weeks before I started reading this book, I actually met someone from Angola, who told me lots of stories about the bad political situation in Angola. Funny how things often just come together around the same time. Prior to this, I’m not even sure whether I knew where Angola was.

A brief introduction to Angola: it’s a country in Africa – south west coast, its capital is Luanda. It used to be colonised by Portugal and only won independence in 1975. The effect of Portuguese colonisation cannot be underestimated. The two countries seem to be tightly knit. Angola’s official language is Portuguese, and both my friend and Agualusa spent considerable time in Portugal. In fact both of them also have close relationship with Brazil. Agualusa divides his time between the three countries, and my friend married a Brazilian. I’m curious how much the three countries’ cultures have in common, and would really like to read books from Portugal and Brazil soon.

So back to the book, The Book of Chameleons is narrated by a lizard, who acts as the fly (predator) on the wall. His human friend is Felix Ventura, who creates people’s past for a living. He doesn’t quite do forgery – it’s more romantic than that. People who don’t like their past can be given an entirely new past, full of better memories, lineage, photos, and little items to back up the stories. There are a few characters that come into Felix’s living room who require his service, and we get all the stories through the lizard.

Now this book apparently has been compared to Borges or Kafka. The downside of comparing a contemporary author with classic big name authors is that most often than not, it doesn’t live up to the expectation. I happen to love Borges and Kafka. So really Agualusa didn’t start fairly for me, and frankly, had no chance.

I think the premise is actually quite promising, and has a good potential, but I didn’t think it was substantial enough. The book is 180 pages and has a lot of blank pages, because the chapters are so short. Almost all chapters are a few pages long, some are only half a page. Some chapters felt like fillers – there was nothing in it, like vignette of unrelated dreams. In Borges’s hand this would be a short story – dense and full of twists and turns. In fact any one story in Ficciones would be comparable to this book. And better. While Kafka is funnier and more emotional, and simply weirder.

I’m probably being a bit unfair, but how you read one book is a combined result of all the books you’ve read in the past – and in practice there’s no way to read one book in full isolation.

Having said all that, I think it’s a pretty good book. Just not brilliant. Read it if you’re interested in translated fiction, and/or would like to tick off Angola from your reading goal. If you haven’t read Borges, as a companion piece, I’d recommend Emma Zunz short story.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

 

Tamara Drewe and Aya of Yop City (Graphic Novels)

Tamara Drewe – Posy Simmonds (2007)

tamara drewe

I watched Tamara Drewe the movie many years ago, remember liking it, and thought I wouldn’t mind reading the graphic novel to see it in different format. So I took it when I saw it at the library.

The setting is charming: a writer’s retreat somewhere in England countryside, where writers go to have all services done – meal, cleaning, laundry presumably, leaving them all the time in the world to ponder and write. I can only imagine how much this may cost.

In the oldest story structure style of a stranger coming to town, Tamara Drewe is a former inhabitant of the small town who went to make a pretty successful writing career in London, now back to her old family house with a nose job and glamorous London life under her belt. At one point she even starts bringing a drummer boyfriend who’s been in a band!

This feels like a really grown-up graphic novel. Simmonds often write in prose and paragraphs with illustrations on the side, in addition to the usual comic panels. The characters and conflicts in the story are realistic and down to earth. The open marriage relationship between the married couple host of the retreat is particularly interesting and believable – all the characters are. Love how all the threads come together at the end. The literary backdrop is a bonus.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

Aya of Yop City (Aya #2) by Marguerite Abouet, Clément Oubrerie (2009)

aya 2

Aya of Yop City is the second book in the Aya series. It picks up a story thread from the previous book – which I read years ago, so it took me a while to remember. The premise isn’t complicated however, so it almost doesn’t matter whether you’ve read the first Aya or not.

The series is set in the idyllic Ivory Coast in the late 1970s. It seems rare to find books set in Africa that are not about bad things happening, and Aya fills in that gap. I love how it just tells the story of average middle class people with their middle class problems – that felt like it could happen anywhere in the world, except that this is in Africa.

But in some other ways it also felt uniquely African. There’s a baby in dispute at the beginning of the book (as pictured with Aya on the cover – but he is not Aya’s baby), and I love how the baby being passed from one hand to another and is essentially taken care of by the whole village. There’s a little note at the end of the book about the African culture related to this, how spoiled a woman would be after birth, how mom and grandmother would take care of her, while sisters, sister-in-laws, cousins would take care of the baby, and the rest of the women in the village help with the cooking and cleaning. In the weeks following, the mother would go from one door to another in the neighborhood to introduce the baby, sort of a ritual to make it part of the community. As it grows up, the whole village would keep watch together. Such a nice image.

Aya herself is a great main character. She is the sensible one amongst the other crazier characters. She is a good student and she clearly has dreams and goals for her future that is not simply playing housewife. Just like book one, book two also includes a recipe, this time Kedjenou Chicken. (I have yet to try the recipe in the first book =/ )

There’s interview with Abouet (who’s migrated to France at a young age) at the back of the book with a quote that’s especially poignant even to this day:

“As an African from the West, I would like to point out that the French had the black Africans brought over to do the jobs that no on else wanted to do. As long as the Blacks stayed in their assigned place – as supermarket attendants, house maids, street sweepers, in child and geriatric care, or at most, as artists and athletes – all went very well. But now some of the offspring and young children of those first arrivals are doing more than that. At the price of a difficult struggle, they are becoming company owners, managers, intellectuals, and they are more visible. These Blacks sense more discrimination because they have abandoned their role. This kind of racism is more frequent when the economy is doing poorly.

Today’s real danger is not idiotic racism and the increase in nationalists. We know how to deal with it — it is evident in ordinary attitudes which convey the worst paternalistic and condescending cliches that symbolically destroy Blacks even more surely than the overtly racist insults.” (Interview with Angela Ajayi at Wild River Review)

Mee’s rating: 4/5

 

Palace Walk – Naguib Mahfouz

palace walkPalace Walk is the first novel in the Cairo Trilogy by the winner of 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature, from Egypt – Naguib Mahfouz.

First published in 1956, the novel started in 1917 in the midst of WWI. Egypt was occupied by the British, and after the war was over, talks of independence were rampant.

We see Egypt through the viewpoint of a single family: the patriarch Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, his submissive wife Amina, and their five children: 3 boys and 2 girls. Yasin is the oldest son of Ahmad from his first, divorced wife, while the other 4 children are Ahmad and Amina’s. Fahmy the second son, is a studious and thoughtful high school student. The two daughters are Khadija and Aisha. The older Khadija is plump and sharp-tongue as a defense to her lack of beauty and jealousy of Aisha who is the more beautiful of the two, and therefore more marriageable. The youngest of them all is Kamal, around 10 years old, and is often the only character who is free to roam around, bridging the men and the women.

The book is nearly 500 pages, but it didn’t feel like one. It was a nice surprise to find that it was very readable. I read it in just a little over 2 weeks. The prose is quite verbose, so the book could be shorter, but the translation probably just follows the original quite closely. Lots of the sentences that the characters say for example are probably not long when said in Arabic, but becoming very verbose when translated into English.

I like how we follow a rather ordinary Egyptian family. Yes Ahmad is a hypocrite and quite oppressive towards his family, and in turn Amina’s obedience and passivity is hard to take for modern eyes. But I felt the drama isn’t sensationalized. There’s no domestic violence, no rape and no polygamy, which seem like ripe topics for books set in Middle Eastern or Islamic culture. I like that the oppression shown is more subtle. I would actually believe that this is what average family in Egypt at the turn of 20th century was like. Some variations of it is shown by the neighbors and friends of the family, for example Amina isn’t allowed to go out at all by her husband, while the neighbor’s wife is free to go out shopping by herself.

Ahmad Abd al-Jawad is probably the character that readers would have most problem with. While he demands all his family members to be straight, obedient, and all around good Muslims, and has the same strict and faithful front himself, unbeknownst to his family he spends every night drinking, partying, and visiting women of pleasures. Despicable in a glance, and there is no excuse for it, but I feel like the double life he’s living isn’t so far away from our modern time. Who isn’t familiar with the story of a straight looking person who has a big crack behind the facade?

I think it’s a bit unfair to simply judge the flaws of the culture because it doesn’t conform to our modern sensibilities. Keep in mind that this is set a century ago, and to think that around the same time women in Britain over the age of 30 have just won the right to vote (1918).

I think Palace Walk is exactly the kind of fiction that you’d read to learn about another culture and another way of thinking. I found the banter between the characters to be one of the most interesting aspects. Possibly the flirting in particular. You probably wonder how a society that is so divided between male and female, so rigid in the meaning of honor and shame, would mingle at all. Mahfouz exposes this skilfully in the verbal and non-verbal interactions between the characters. There’s meaning in every word and gesture – slightly different perhaps with our time and culture – but the same concept for the same game.

Based on this reading, I do plan to read the second and the third book in the trilogy. My GR book club is reading all three books together, but I don’t like reading multiple books by the same author successively, so I will schedule the second book to read next year. This is the first work by Naguib Mahfouz that I read.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

A great article of the author following the steps of Palace Walk around Cairo: Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk, and Old Cairo: Natalia Sarkissian

cairo trilogy
Naguib Mahfouz and The Cairo Trilogy (Everyman’s Library)

Season of Migration to the North – Tayeb Salih

season of migration to the north
Sudan, first published in 1966, translated from Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies

Season of Migration to the North is a post-colonial book by Tayeb Salih, a Sudanese writer. The book is first published in Arabic in 1966, and translated to English in 1969. My edition is the NYRB classics with introduction by Laila Lalami (who’s born and raised in Morocco) and translated by Denys Johnson-Davies.

Sudan became independent from the United Kingdom and Egypt in 1956, and these two countries comes up again and again in the book – becoming almost as an important setting as Sudan itself.

And as Sudan is located just south of Egypt, Nile River also makes a good deal of appearances
And as Sudan is located just south of Egypt, Nile River also makes a good deal of appearances

We can sense the post-colonialism theme from the beginning as we meet the narrator who just comes back to Sudan after an extended period of studying in Europe. The narrator is never named, and at the end of the book, I’m not even sure if he is a reliable one. Through his eyes, we learn the story of an enigmatic man in the village called Mustafa Sa’eed. Just like the Narrator, Mustafa has also studied and lived in England for a period of time. The difference is that, while for the Narrator his experience abroad doesn’t seem to have much effect on him, Mustafa’s adventures have gone to the extreme, which includes several women and the demise of them.

The book is rich and multi-layered, and would definitely trigger a lot of discussions if you read it in a book group (luckily I did). But on the flip side, there are a couple of very violent scenes, including psychotic behaviors, and I’m not sure what is the purpose of them. I wonder whether the shock factor is a big part of what made the book as well known as it is. Especially that it came out from Sudan – a Muslim country. Though perhaps it indicates a contrast between Islam of the 60s with the Islam of now? On that note, I like how Islam works more like a backdrop in the book rather than center stage, and how the author didn’t feel the need to always explain for Western audience. (There are times when this would be useful in other books of course, but it’s also refreshing to find varying style.)

When a book comes with the so-called Introduction I always leave it for last, as I’m a bit paranoid about spoilers. In this case with Laila Lalami’s introduction it was the right choice (again!) as she goes to summarise everything that happens in the book. But it’s a great “introduction” and I recommend it if you have that edition. Lalami had the advantage as she read the text in the original language Arabic and English, and was able to compare them. Not many Arabic books get to be so successfully translated. I thought the translation by Denys Johnson-Davies was amazing, and Lalami thought highly also of the collaboration between Sayih and Johnson-Davis to translate the book.

She noted that Season of Migration isn’t the first book in which a writer of color has decided to “write back” to the empire, but it is unique in that it is written in the author’s native language, rather than the colonial one. “Indeed Salih stands out among African writers of his generation for his insistence on continuing to use Arabic in spite of having lived the majority of his life outside of Sudan. ‘It’s a matter of principle,’ he once told an interviewer.” This really contrasts with the opinion of Wole Soyinka.

Interesting aspect to highlight, considering many books, if not all, that I’ve been reading by African writers in recent years have used the colonial language (just to mention a few: Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Wole Soyinka – English, Kamel Daoud – French). 

Season left me with conflicting reactions, but it is short, it’s readable, it’s a classic from a region whose literature isn’t available widely in English, so I think it’s worth reading.

Mee’s rating: 4/5 

tayeb salih
Tayeb Salih (1929-2009)

 

The Meursault Investigation – Kamel Daoud

the meursault investigation
First published in 2013, translated from French by John Cullen, published in English in 2015

The Meursault Investigation (henceforth will be referred to as TMI) by Kamel Daoud is a response to the literary classic The Stranger / The Outsider by Albert Camus. I happen to read The Stranger last year, so when my GR book group chose this and that it was available to buy in Waterstones as their “Buy Books for Syria” program, I decided to delve in.

To give a bit of background, Albert Camus is French Algerian (or pied-noir), and published The Stranger in 1942. He won the Nobel prize in literature in 1957. Algeria became independent from France in 1962 (though the decolonisation movement started in 1956).

Would you need to read The Stranger first before TMI? Yes, I’d recommend it. You would have a deeper understanding starting from The Stranger.

So in The Stranger, the “hero” named Meursault murders a man who is referred to in the book only as “the Arab”. The “hero” of TMI is the brother of the Arab, named Harun. From Harun we learn how the murder affects his and his mother’s life. The mother becomes obsessed about finding the murderer, and forever lives in grief of her dead son, almost forgetting about her other son.

Harun himself is obsessed about the death of his brother, though much of it stems from his mother’s. The fact that his brother is never named in Meursault’s narrative becomes his biggest sore point. I can understand the anger towards Meursault as the face of the French colonists. I was nodding at him about the absurdity of the use of the word “Arab”. Quoting Harun: “Arab. I never felt Arab, you know. Arab-ness is like Negro-ness, which only exists in the white man’s eyes.” 

I liked the book. Would it be able to stand on its own without The Stranger? I’d like to think it could, thought the connection to the Stranger doesn’t hurt the promotion surely. From TMI I learned more about the socio dynamics of native Algerians, the relationship with their French colonists, and the history of the country relating to its independence.

My only reservation is that the book could be a bit repetitive. I guess there’s only so much you can write about in the limited context. It could probably benefit from a tighter editing – cut it by 20-30 pages. Just my 2c :)

Mee’s rating: 4/5 – I like how TMI offers a fresh perspective of a native Algerian. It is quite different with reading Algerian story by Albert Camus. One country, two perspectives. Read both.

Kamel Daoud
Kamel Daoud

Death and the King’s Horseman – Wole Soyinka

death and the king's horsemanwole soyinka

 

Death and the King’s Horseman is a play by Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian and the first African to be honored the Nobel Prize in Literature. The play was published 1975, and Soyinka won the prize in 1986. I was reading this together with my GR book group. It also adds nicely to my Nobel project and my intention to read more plays.

The play is inspired by a real life incident that took place in Nigeria during the British occupation: the horseman of a king was prevented to do his last duty on earth, which is to commit a ritual suicide – to follow his king into the afterlife and help lead the way.

Everybody has a duty. The king’s horseman Elesin has lived a lavished lifestyle, with the understanding of the duty his community expects him to perform one day. Failure to do this would throw everything out of balance. The British officer Simon Pilkings also has a duty, and that is to keep order in the Majesty’s realm. A murder – that includes killing oneself, is a disorder and does not make sense to the British eyes. The stake is made higher as the Prince is visiting when this event takes place, so Pilkings is desperate to resolve (resorting to postpone) the problem without the Prince noticing.

The other important characters include Iyaloja, a matriarch of the market – so in effect, the community; and the horseman’s son Olunde who has gone to study abroad in England and come back when he heard the news about the death of the king, knowing the implication for his father.

In one way it is very much about the issue of colonization, though Soyinka doesn’t like it to be categorized that narrowly, as mentioned in the extra materials of my edition. It’s about a clash of cultures, but it could be between any cultures or subcultures, and does not necessarily point its finger to the white colonists vs the natives.

Soyinka is of Yoruba tribe in Nigeria, so this story is about people of Yoruba. To contrast, Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are both Igbo people. I haven’t read enough Nigerian literature to know the subtle differences, but I found these interesting. It just happens that the colleague sitting next to me is a Yoruba Nigerian, and he said his mother knows Soyinka personally (which I guess isn’t very surprising if they’re from the same tribe). He mentioned that there are some conflicts in the past between the tribes (Yoruba and Igbo are 2 of the 3 biggest tribes in Nigeria) but things are well now, and in fact his wife is Igbo. And that’s my little crash course on Nigerian tribes :)

I had the opportunity to go to Wole Soyinka’s talk at the British Library a couple of weeks ago – which was a very nice conjunction with my book group discussion (it’s online and nobody is in London – so I went by myself). It was a full house and more than half of the audience were Nigerian or African descent, so he seemed a very well respected man. I had my edition of Death and the King’s Horseman signed, but the signing was very rushed so I’m a bit disappointed on that end.

Last interesting point is Soyinka writes in English, so his works are not translated. His choice of language to produce his art is somewhat a sore point among different groups of people, as English is obviously the colonist language. This was asked also at the talk, and his answer is somewhere along the line of wanting to have his work as far reaching as possible. He also writes in his native language, but mostly privately. Considering that he did his higher studies in England and therefore went through Western education, I can absolutely understand this reasoning.

Mee’s rating: 4/5 – Great selection for book group as there are a lot of things to discuss. I can recommend my edition: Methuen Student Edition (pictured above) as it has plenty of extra materials to help you better understand the play and its place in the context of society and its time. Since reading this play I’ve been looking for more plays in Methuen Student Edition, which luckily my favorite secondhand bookshop in Charing Cross has many.

Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee

Disgrace - J. M. CoetzeeA professor at a reputable University one day impulsively sleeps with a young girl who’s also his student. The events that follow push him to resign and temporarily leave the town. He goes to visit his daughter in rural South Africa. More unfortunate events befall to both that bring them to question everything– the issue of safety, power play, their stand in the country, shame and disgrace.

Contrary to my thoughts before reading the book, it is hardly about the outcast professor and his student than him and his daughter. In fact the daughter fills at least half the book, because the farm where she lives is where the problem of racism occurs, which I think is the major topic of the book: racial tension in South Africa– the problem between them who are “of this earth” and them the others–ones with Western heritage or the Whites.

As most racism, it usually occurs in more ‘uneducated’ places by ‘uneducated’ people. Not in the city where everybody is supposed to be smart and sophisticated, no. It happens in the corners of the town, in back suburbs, behind bushes and shadows. I should know. I experienced extreme racism for many years of my teenage life — the problem that is unconsciously stuck with you to the bone, the matter of ‘my people’ against ‘your people’ — all too familiar elements that made me queasy.

I can’t remember when I first associated award winner with ‘hard to read’, but Coetzee wrote in straightforward style that is easy to read, though not necessarily easy to digest. I particularly don’t care much about Byron and Teresa, the 18th century British poet and his lover, who are featured often in the book. Coetzee is also fond of symbolism. Stray dogs are used throughout (including the cover), though I sometimes failed to understand the meaning, especially at the very end.

David and his daughter Lucy have many arguments that present most of the opposing ideas in the book: old and new generation, male and female, rural and city, the conflicting races.

I can’t run my life according to whether or not you like what I do. Not any more. You behave as if everything I do is part of the story of your life. You are the main character, I am a minor character who doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through. Well, contrary to what you think, people are not divided into major and minor. I am not minor. I have a life of my own, just as important to me as yours is to you, and in my life I am the one who makes the decisions.” ~ Lucy, p198

Disgrace is the theme of the book. I think at the end acceptance is the solution.

I would recommend it for people who would like to read thought-provoking book that touches uncomfortable issues. It’s also a pretty short book so it won’t take a lot of your time if you’d like to try Coetzee.

4.5 stars
1999, 220 pp

coetzee

Note: Apparently Coetzee emigrated to Adelaide, Australia in 2002. [source] No wonder he made appearances during previous Writers’ Festival here.

First line
For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.

Last line
‘Yes, I am giving him up.’

Quote
That is what whores are for, after all: to put up with the ecstasies of the unlovely.” ~ David Lurie, p44

Awards
1999 The Man Booker Prize
2000 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize – Best Book
2003 Nobel Prize for Literature (the author)

Also reviewed by

Everyday I Write the Book | The Critical Lass | Incurable Logophilia | caribousmom | Out of the Blue | Ink and Vellum | Books for Breakfast

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