We all go down in battle, but we all come home.’

Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes

Nightwood comes praised by many of my own personal literary heroes. TS Eliot was a fan. So too Jeanette Winterson. Even William Burroughs apparently loved it. With all that to recommend it how could I not love it too?

Nightwood

With that opening it’s probably not a surprise to learn that I didn’t love Nightwood. I didn’t even like it very much. I’m not saying it’s a bad book, given its champions I think that would be arrogant. I’m confident though in saying that if it’s a good book I am not a good reader for it.

Nightwood opens strongly:

Early in 1880, in spite of a well-founded suspicion as to the advisability of perpetuating that race which has the sanction of the Lord and the disapproval of the people, Hedvig Volkbein, a Viennese woman of great strength and military beauty, lying upon a canopied bed of a rich spectacular crimson, the valance stamped with the bifurcated wings of the House of Hapsburg, the feather coverlet an envelope of satin on which, in massive and tarnished gold threads, stood the Volkbein arms – gave birth, at the age of forty-five, to an only child, a son, seven days after her physician predicted that she would be taken.

The child is “Baron” Felix Volkbein. His title is slightly dubious and therefore all the more fiercely clung to. He’s a man with his gaze fixed firmly on the past, intent on preserving traditions his family never had more than questionable claims on.

Note that line about “perpetuating that race”, because Felix’s is part-Jewish and here that’s indicative of character. The first third or so of the novel is filled with characterisation based on racial essentialism, common in the early 20th Century but deeply tedious here in the early 21st.

That essentialism leads to cod-philosophy like this:

It takes a Christian, standing eternally in the Jew’s salvation, to blame himself and to bring up from that depth charming and fantastic superstitions through which the slowly and tirelessly milling Jew once more becomes the ‘collector’ of his own past. His undoing is never profitable until some goy has put it back into such shape that it can again be offered as a ‘sign’. A Jew’s undoing is never his own, it is God’s; his rehabilitation is never his own, it is a Christian’s. The Christian traffic in retribution has made the Jew’s history a commodity; it is the medium through which he receives, at the necessary moment, the serum of his own past that he may offer it again as his blood. In this manner the Jew participates in the two conditions; and in like manner Felix took the breast of this wet nurse whose milk was his being but which could never be his birthright.

Which is frankly bollocks, and not particularly meaningful bollocks at that. Then you get stuff like:

The people of the theatre and the [circus] ring were for him as dramatic and as monstrous as a consignment on which he could never bid. That he haunted them as persistently as he did, was evidence of something in his nature that was turning Christian.

After a long silence in which the doctor had ordered and consumed a Chambéry fraise and the Baron a coffee, the doctor remarked that the Jew and the Irish, the one moving upward and the other down, often meet, spade to spade in the same acre.

I could pick many more examples. To be Jewish or Christian or Irish here is more than an accident of birth and culture (at one point the novel observes that Felix, being Jewish, is ” racially incapable of abandon”). Race here is a fixed part of the self. It’s the breed you belong to, as might a horse or dog.

Mercifully this sort of thing dies back after the first third of the book or so (if it didn’t I sincerely doubt this would be viewed by anyone as a classic). Felix marries Robin Vote and has a frail and sickly child by her. Robin leaves him, and the novel follows her to her relationship with Nora Flood. Felix married Robin because he thought a man of his intended station should marry by a certain age and beget heirs. Nora takes in Robin because she loves her.

Most reviews of Nightwood focus on Robin and Nora and for good reason. Nora’s passion provides everything Felix’s dry and dwindling ambition lacks. Unfortunately, Robin’s is a restless soul. Nora’s love isn’t enough to keep her and Robin starts to stay out late, to pick up other women, to push back against the comfort Nora offers. Nora pursues her but can’t hold her, and soon Robin is poached by “the squatter” in her and Nora’s lives, the aging Jenny Petherbridge.

Felix wanted Robin for reasons that were ultimately sterile, and it’s telling that the child they have is weak and unlikely to live to see adulthood. Nora loves Robin so much that she’ll let her sleep with other women, wait at home and when Robin stops coming home follow her to cheap waterside bars and into the darkness Robin seeks out. Jenny Petherbridge just wants what others have, and takes Robin because Nora has her. As for what Robin wants, who truly knows? She thinks “unpeopled thoughts”. She’s more catalyst than character, aimless and promiscuous though whether from desire or listlessness is hard to say.

Looking up after an interminable flow of fact and fancy, [Felix] saw Robin sitting with her legs thrust out, her head thrown back against the embossed cushion of the chair, sleeping, one arm fallen over the chair’s side, the hand somehow older and wiser than her body; and looking at her he knew that he was not sufficient to make her what he had hoped; it would require more than his own argument. It would require contact with persons exonerated of their earthly condition by some strong spiritual bias, someone of that old régime, some old lady of the past courts, who only remembered others when trying to think of herself.

Observer and chorus to all of this is Dr. Matthew-Mighty-Grain-of-Salt-Dante-O’ Connor, a kind of holy fool. He’s friend to Felix and counsels and comforts him when Robin leaves. He becomes friend to Nora too and in one long dark night does the same for her. He’s a garrulous Irish cross-dresser and whole pages are given to his flights of rhetoric. As Nora asks on first meeting him as he talks with Felix: ‘Are you both really saying what you mean, or are you just talking?’

He’s doing both of course. O’ Connor speaks for the sake of language itself, but there’s meaning amidst the torrent. When Nora comes to him in despair his ocean of words gives her the space for her own pain. His loquacious nonsense is a kind of mercy.

Nightwood is, above all, a novel of emotion. The characters here are damned souls driven by their own passions, the only one of them to achieve any kind of grace does so by abandoning the follies that drive them. In that they’re human, if perhaps somewhat exaggerated humans.

It’s rare for posts here (or at any blog) to get people commenting below the line in strong disagreement. It happened when I criticised Heart of Darkness (which I rather welcomed) but it happened all the more when I reviewed Wuthering Heights which I took to even less than Nightwood. The thing about Wuthering Heights is it’s a novel of sensibility, not sense. Nightwood is the same. If the passion doesn’t speak to you then you’re left with unlikely characters doing improbable things in overblown language.

One little review isn’t going to dent Nightwood’s status any more than it will Wuthering Heights. There is though a chemistry between book and reader as there is between lovers, and just as it wasn’t there for Felix and Robin it isn’t there for me and Nightwood either.

Other reviews

None on the blogosphere I know of, save for Bookslut’s rather positive one here before she abandoned blogging. She makes a comparison to Proust. I wouldn’t. Jeanette Winterson wrote a characteristically lovely foreword which is reprinted in full in the Guardian here and is worth reading. The spoilers are few and Nightwood isn’t the sort of book that would be spoiled by knowing its slender plot in any event. Winterson is insightful on the book in a way I can’t be, because it spoke to her but merely spoke at me.

As a final aside, I do find the habit in early 20th Century English novels of dropping in little bits of dialogue in other European languages immensely irritating. Here it’s occasional phrases in German, but elsewhere I’ve seen both French and Italian. Huxley loved that sort of thing and I imagine it reflects how people of a certain class spoke, but it is wearying.

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Filed under Barnes, Djuna, Modernist Fiction

“There needs to be fucking in African literature too!”

Tram 83, by Fiston Mwanza Mujila and translated by Roland Glasser

There’s a tendency in the UK to expect a certain kind of book from Africa. It’s a serious book, dealing with the pain of a continent and the aftermath of Colonialism. It’s hailed as an important book, but it’s possibly a little dull and hardly anyone reads it. I don’t read it.

At one point in Tram 83 a publisher says to a young author:

We’ve already had enough of squalor, poverty, syphilis, and violence in African literature. Look around us. There are beautiful girls, good-looking men, Brazza Beer, good music. Doesn’t all that inspire you? I’m concerned for the future of African literature in general. The main character in the African novel is always single, neurotic, perverse, depressive, childless, homeless, and overburdened with debt. Here, we live, we fuck, we’re happy. There needs to be fucking in African literature too!”

Tram 83 puts the fucking back into African literature.

tram-83

Tram 83 is the legendary nightclub at the heart of a breakaway city-state ruled by a dissident general rumoured to be a sorcerer. It’s where everyone goes and everything and anything happens. Well, anything save a quiet conversation.

“Do you have the time?”

Requiem is a local fixer and money-maker. It’s hard to say exactly what he does, but he makes money doing it. His old friend Lucien, a writer, comes to stay with him. Lucien wants to write a doorstep novel featuring twenty famous historical characters from Europe and beyond. It sounds unreadable, but his bigger problem is that he’s finding it unwriteable and Tram 83’s distractions don’t help.

“Call me Astrid. I can’t live without caresses.”

Tram 83 doesn’t have a plot as such. Instead it has sequences of incantatory prose that seems as drunk on Brazza beer and hot jazz as are the regulars at Tram 83. Requiem wants to make money, possibly by robbing a mine (it’s a popular way to make some cash in the mineral-rich city-state, but a dangerous one). Lucien wants to write his book and meets a local publisher who’s interested provided he cuts the number of characters in half, relocates it to South America and perhaps turns it into a play.

“What are you trying to do? Get me horny?”

Requiem and Lucien careen through the city, interrupted constantly by the baby-chicks and single-mamas selling themselves with the constant code-question “do you have the time?” Hardly anybody does. When you’re young you sell yourself, when you’re old you sell whatever you can find. Tram 83 is a merciless place.

“Getting drunk on wine feels like a con. Two little glasses and you lose your head. Beer, now that’s a heavenly way to get wasted.”

Tram 83 is awash with foreign workers and “for-profit tourists”. The Europeans, Americans, Russians, Canadians, now the Chinese all eager to get their own little slice of mineral wealth. Are Requiem and his crew so different? There’s money literally lying in the ground. The foreigners have government contracts while Requiem has to sneak into the mines under cover of night, but the government’s just another set of strongmen, the General a man with more guns on his side than Requiem has. What you get is what you can grasp, and why should Requiem have any less than the next guy?

It was said that in a single day dozens of sacks of heterogenite were carted off from huts and other makeshift camps. With such eroded, tampered foundations, houses threatened to collapse at the slightest rain. Will you consent to starve to death when there’s silver, copper, barium, tin, or coal lying quietly under your feet? From the area around Hope Mine to as far as the east side of Vampiretown, the city took on the appearance of an archaeological site. Even the goats and wheelbarrows smelled of the cobalt quarries.

Meanwhile Lucien tries to make art. He shuns the advances of the baby-chicks, which confuses and offends them. He ignores the pleas from his French publisher for the overdue manuscript he owes, ashamed to admit that he was forced to burn it with a kalashnikov to the back of his neck. He does a reading at Tram 83, the crowd mob him and beat him to a pulp. As the text reflects:

There are cities which don’t need literature: they are literature. They file past, chest thrust out, head on their shoulders. They are proud and full of confidence despite the garbage bags they cart around. The City-State, an example among so many others—she pulsated with literature.

It’s a confident and persuasive paragraph, but perhaps illustrates one problem with the book. In the comments under David Hebblethwaite’s review (links at the bottom) Grant of 1st reading referenced that paragraph noting that while it sounds clever it’s not clear what it actually means. I think that’s fair. The best way to read Tram 83 is to let it wash over you, to treat it like the jazz constantly played at Tram 83 itself. It’s impressionistic, but cumulatively so and if you poke at individual elements they might not hold together quite as well as you’d think.

“I don’t like foreplay. It kills the pleasure.”

Tram 83 is ultimately a hymn to language as much as anything else. It’s no surprise to learn that Mujila is also a poet, because the book hums with poetry. I had several possible one-liner titles for this post. I considered calling this post ‘the monologues of a Kalashnikov,’ which I thought an extraordinarily evocative phrase (though I couldn’t say of what exactly). There are moments of syncopated alliteration like ‘He stepped over the sleepers stretched out on the sidewalk’ and lines that could have stepped out of a William Gibson novel like ‘The Tram retained its botched-night splendor.’

“Give me a real cuddle.”

At times it’s very funny. The exchanges between Lucien and his potential publisher are a micro-satire on the self-importance of literature and the constant tension between art and business in publishing. Lucien clearly has talent, but does anybody care? Abroad, back in France, they do but only for so long as expat African fiction remains fashionable. Back at home nobody’s lining up to buy the latest novel (a theme in Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief also).

“Take me to Bratislava and make me your dream queen!”

It would be easy to make all this bleak and angry. Foreign exploitation, political failure, violence and indifference to anything beyond surviving the next day, it’s potentially grim stuff. What makes Tram 83 different is the sense that regardless of all of this people still meet friends, go dancing, have sex, have a laugh, drink some beers, live. It’s the life as well as the language that makes Tram 83 sing.

Tram 83 knows what it’s doing. There’s clever use of repeated imagery, like the central motif of the never quite finished and war scarred rusting train station. It’s constantly referred to, a landmark both the text and the city revolve around (like the club itself), and as it gets mentioned again and again the description shortens until it becomes simply “the station whose metal structure” with no end to the description at all because none is needed – everyone including the reader knows the station by now and it’s enough merely to refer to it for the rest of its damaged history to spill forth. There’s paragraphs like beat poetry, cascading on for a page or more until you near-drown in the words, coming choking up for air on the other side:

Jalopies out of gas, deep-frozen products from the Galapagos Islands, knick-knacks, ceiling fans, oil changes, sheep, sarcastic remarks, hearses on alert, eggs contaminated with melamine, relics, minarets as far as the eye can see, bistros, baker-deli-linen-fish-lumber stores, phone booths, internet cafés, criminal records, pools of stagnant water, garbage bags at the mercy of beggars, stray dogs, no-entry signs, mountains of refuse, black market in the merchandise and its derivatives, discotheques, abandoned locomotives, born-again Christian evangelist churches, cockfights, settlings of scores, boxing galas, mosquitoes resistant to all pesticides, booing, trolleys, wimps bankrolled by mercenaries, Neanderthals, laundries, desires, beverages, arranged widowhoods of wives of soldiers declared missing, ringworms, jeers revised and corrected by the foreign press, daydreams of dissident rebels prepared to open another front because of an oilfield, magic potions to treat unidentified diseases, backwash and backwash, cannibals, bleeders, baby chicks with their “do you have the time?”, idols with feet of clay, smoking rooms, palimpsests, cathedrals, repeat offenders in custody released on bail who return to the scene of the crime with the weapon of the crime, oriental tapestries, suicidals, the comings and goings of naked-men diddlers, assorted gaffes, superfluities, prolegomena, dark looks, erections paraphrased and channeled into paper tissues…The night came on with her swimsuits and undershirts she forgot to wring out.

I’m more sympathetic to poet-novelists than some, and this is definitely a poet-novelist’s work. In that I was reminded slightly of Jean-Euphèle Milcé’s Alphabet of the Night, against which I commented that where there was a choice between sense and imagery that imagery won every time. That’s true here too. Mujila’s angel-headed hipsters aren’t strictly speaking credible characters. They’re convincing though, provided you go with the flow and don’t poke too hard at what any individual paragraph means exactly.

Tram 83 has the exuberance of late-night live jazz, sending you home blinking into daylight exhilarated and exhausted. It doesn’t play to easy narratives of African experience (as if there could be such a thing in such a vast continent). I didn’t take to it quite as much as I did Mabanckou, those prose-avalanches sometimes smother, but I think it definitely merits the attention it’s received and I look forward to Mujila’s next.

Other reviews

Tram 83 has been pretty heavily reviewed on the blogosphere. David’s Book World’s is here, Tony’s Reading List’s is here, Winston’s Dad’s Blog’s is here, 1st Reading’s Blog’s is here, ANZ LitLover’s Blog’s is here, Words without Borders’ is here and Shiny New Books’ review is here. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn I’d missed some too.

Also potentially of interest is my review here of Alain Mabanckou’s Memoirs of a Porcupine. Mabanckou provides the foreword to Tram 83 and given Mabanckou’s status Mujila can hardly not owe a debt back to him.

The other link with Mabanckou is that I mention above rumours that the dissident general is a sorceror, more specifically the rumour is that he “eats” his enemies in the spirit world just as the porcupine’s master Kibandi does in Memoirs. It’s not a major plot point here (it’s a single throw-away reference), but it’s a nice reward for my having chosen to read several African novels in relatively quick succession so letting me recognise links and common references one to the other.

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Filed under African Literature, Congolese Literature

At the beginning, there had been talk of using some of her money to start a home for alcoholics. In a sense they had succeeded.

Never Mind, by Edward St Aubyn

Never Mind is the first of Edward St Aubyn’s semi-autobiographical Patrick Melrose novels. It’s superbly well written; I’ll be reading the rest.

Never Mind

Here’s how it opens:

At half-past seven in the morning, carrying the laundry she had ironed the night before, Yvette came down the drive on her way to the house. Her sandal made a faint slapping sound as she clenched her toes to prevent it from falling off, and its broken strap made her walk unsteadily over the stony, rutted ground. Over the wall, below the line of cypresses that ran along the edge of the drive, she saw the doctor standing in the garden.

The doctor is busy tormenting and killing ants, prolonging their small agonies as much as he can.

Yvette had only to pass the fig tree and she could slip into the house without Dr Melrose knowing she had arrived. His habit, though, was to call her without looking up from the ground just when she thought she was screened by the tree. Yesterday he had talked to her for long enough to exhaust her arms, but not for so long that she might drop the linen. He gauged such things very precisely.

We’re still on the first page, and already Doctor David Melrose is established as a petty sadist of the first order. Five year old Patrick is his only son, an unfortunate thing to be.

Completing the family (if that’s the word) is Eleanor, David’s wife and Patrick’s mother. She’s American, rich, married for her money and long since regretting it but too crushed to escape. It’s no surprise she’s an alcoholic.

Never Mind is a slim and exquisitely well written novel. It focuses on one weekend when David and Eleanor have guests over: insecure academic Victor Eisen and his bored wife Anne Moore; David’s old friend Nicholas Pratt and Nicholas’ much younger current lover Bridget. It’s a collision of age, money and class.

Victor is middle class and successful in his career, but can’t resist cosying up to the aristocracy which David and Nicholas firmly belong to (Nicholas is a baronet). Eleanor was a successful reporter before marrying Victor, attracted by his intelligence and with no warning of his dully conservative nature and slightly obsequious social climbing. Bridget has vague dreams of marrying Nicholas for his money, but she’s getting tired of him faster than he is of her and increasingly finds him dull and middle-aged.

St Aubyn is brilliant at capturing character in small asides. Victor wants to be what David and Nicholas already are, but he never can be. You have to be born to that class, you can’t achieve it and while they find him amusing they also slightly despise him for trying. Anne understands what Victor can’t, and by not trying to fit in manages to do so better than he ever will. I loved this description of Victor’s hairbrushes, which whatever he does never quite manage his unruly hair:

His pair of ivory hairbrushes had no handles. They were quite inconvenient, but very traditional, like the wooden bowl of shaving soap, which never thickened as satisfactorily as foam from a can.

There’s something so horribly aspirational in that paragraph (possibly the most British sentence I shall ever write). It quietly damns Victor, though the book isn’t entirely without some sympathy to him.

In another scene David plays a game with Patrick where he pretends to suspend him by his ears but actually supports his weight with his arms. On this occasion, having gained Patrick’s trust, David takes his support away so that Patrick’s entire weight is suspended by his ears. It manages both to hurt Patrick physically and emotionally – a double win for David.

After hanging Patrick from his ears and watching him escape from the library, David shrugged, sat down at the piano, and started to improvise a fugue.

That sentence says everything that needs to be said about David really, though by the time it arrives we already know the kind of man he is. At least, we think we do, he gets worse.

The men here are truly awful. At one point Nicholas tells Bridget that Patrick only exists because David violently raped Eleanor one night. For Nicholas the story is an anecdote – a piece of idle gossip. He isn’t particularly concerned by his friend being a rapist, merely dryling noting that marital rape isn’t a concept recognised by law (it wasn’t a crime in the UK until 1991). He explains that David was a brilliant pianist as a boy, briefly joined the army and qualified but never practiced as a doctor. Despite his many talents David has never done anything of note; he has Eleanor’s money so doesn’t have to and prefers not to.

Casual cruelty is endemic here. Eleanor is drunk and cowed. Patrick looks for little from her and doesn’t even get that. At one point during a dreadful dinner party he sits on the stairs, and seeing Anne walking past asks her to send his mother to him. Anne passes on the message, but as soon as David sees Eleanor getting up to go to Patrick he tells her to sit down again. She does. Anne isn’t happy at Patrick being left ignored outside, but she doesn’t say anything. David cows her too. He cows everyone, save possibly Bridget who simply doesn’t care.

By the end of this novel we’ve seen almost every character verbally assassinate every other. These are the kind of people who laugh behind the backs of anyone who leaves the room, and when they reenter laugh behind the backs of whoever else happens not to be present. Patrick’s treatment escalates from cruelty and neglect to outright abuse. If it weren’t for the writing we’d be dangerously close to misery memoir territory. That writing though…

This is a lean novel with not a word wasted. Simon Savidge in his review here calls the writing understated and economical and he’s spot on. It’s darkly funny (often extremely dark), vicious and precise. It is, quite simply, brilliant. I’ll end with one final quote, chosen not because of its relevance to story or character but just because I thought it so good:

A glass of pastis, like a trapped cloud, stood on top of the piano.

A glass of pastis, like a trapped cloud. It’s a pretty much perfect description. It’s an example of why despite its subject matter being so very uncomfortable Never Mind is still so very readable.

Other reviews

On the blogosphere only Simon Savidge’s that I know of and which I linked to above. Please feel free as ever though to let me know of more in the comments.

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Filed under St Aubyn, Edward

yes, I was a happy porcupine back then,

Memoirs of a Porcupine, by Alain Mabanckou and translated by Helen Stevenson

One of the great joys of trying new authors is when you find one that has long been writing for you, if only you’d known it. Mabanckou with his wonderful mix of comedy, social commentary and psychological insight has long been writing for me. I just didn’t know it.

MemoirsofaPorcupine

In Congolese (and some wider African) folklore certain people have spirit doubles – animal familiars which grant them powers and through which they can work magic on the world. Many of these sorcerers use their powers for good, giving healings and blessings and so on. Some however use them for evil, in particular magically murdering their enemies.

If that sounds fantastical, well it is. It’s also however still a fairly widespread idea and even now suspected evil sorcerers are sometimes killed, blamed for deaths people otherwise struggle to explain. It’s not a belief system we have in the West, but we do have fairly widespread beliefs in ghosts and clairvoyants and mediums and faith healers (in which I’d personally include homoeopathists). How superstition manifests varies, but the instinct to it is all too human.

The narrator in Memoirs is the porcupine familiar of a just-recently killed sorcerer named Kibandi. Kibandi’s father, Papa Kibandi, was a sorcerer in turn and when Kibandi turned 11 forced him to drink a secret potion which killed Kibandi’s instincts for empathy and good and granted him an all-too physical porcupine as a spirit familiar.

Doubles don’t normally outlive their humans, so Porcupine (as I’ll call him) is now sitting under a baobab tree with nothing to do other than to reflect on Kibandi’s life and his part in it. At surface level it’s what it says on the tin – memoirs of a porcupine including how the sorcerer Kibandi used magic to kill nearly 100 people before finally being defeated. On another it’s the story of how Kibandi let jealousy and resentment rule his life and ultimately destroy it.

As a young man Kibandi is a skilled roofer. He makes good money and is much in demand. He lives with his mother, his father dead some years before. When Kibandi’s mother dies, on “a grey Monday, a Monday when even the flies couldn’t get off the ground, [in which his home village of] Séképembé seemed empty, the sky so low a human could almost have plucked a cluster of clouds without even raising his arm,” Kibandi’s sole restraint goes with her.

Kibandi had been courting the beautiful daughter of a rich villager, but when the father doesn’t attend Kibandi’s mother’s funeral Kibandi realises that he along with several other suitors are just being strung along so the father can extract gifts from them. Kibandi’s pride is outraged, and he decides to get revenge on the father by sending Porcupine to “eat” the daughter’s spirit so slaying her. Porcupine finds it all a bit unfair, but it’s not his job to second-guess his human.

If you’re the sort of person who sees slights you’ll see them everywhere. Kibandi stops taking care of himself, notices every insult or harsh glance and hits back by using Porcupine. The money stops rolling in as he spends more and more of his time nursing his grievances and taking his sorcerous revenges. A young man, abused, wastes his life spending his energies on imagined feuds and blaming others for his failings. Take away the sorcery and the story remains the same.

If that were all this was that would be interesting enough, but what makes this glorious is Porcupine himself. The tale he has to tell is a simple one, but he struggles to keep to the point. As he says “perhaps I’ve strayed too far from the subject of my confessions […] it must be the human in me speaking, in fact I learned my sense of digression from men, they never go straight to the point, open brackets they forget to close”.

Porcupine reflects on village life, on the attractions of villainy over goodness, on the lessons taught him by the old porcupine who ruled his little porcupine family. Kibandi used his powers to magically learn to read and what he knows Porcupine knows, so Porcupine can read too and indulges in a little literary analysis as he looks back disapprovingly on the books read by the one man he doesn’t regret helping kill, a vain Europeanised intellectual named Amédée:

if there’s one person whose disappearance I really don’t regret it’s that young man, he was such a show-off, a braggart of the first order, he thought he was most intelligent person in the village, in the region, not to say the whole country, he wore Terylene suits, sparkly ties, the kind of shoes you wear if you work in an office, those dens of idleness where men sit down, pretend to read papers and put off till tomorrow what they should be doing today, Amédée walked around with his chest puffed out, just because he’d studied for years, simply because he’d visited countries where it snows, let me tell you this, whenever he came to Séképembé to visit his parents, the young girls on heat went running after him, even married women cheated on their husbands, they’d bring him things to eat on the quiet, round the back of his father’ s hut, they’d wash his dirty linen for him, the guy went round doing things he shouldn’t have all over the place with married women and the young women on heat,

It’s a lovely commentary too of course on the returned expat, now a big man in his home village and a great success though who knows how great a success he actually was abroad. Amédée is a big reader and seduces girls by telling them stories he’s learned from his books. Porcupine is sceptical:

novels are books written by men to recount things which are untrue, they’ll say it all comes from their imagination, there are some novelists who would sell their own mothers or fathers to steal my porcupine destiny, draw inspiration from it, write a story in which I’d have an rather less than glorious role, make me look like low life, let me tell you this, human beings find life so boring, they need novels so they can invent other lives for themselves, by diving into one of these books, dear Baobab, you can take off round the world, leave the bush in the blink of an eye, turn up in a distant country, meet foreign people, strange animals, porcupines with even murkier pasts than mine,

There are indeed some novelists who might take a porcupine’s life and make him look like low life. It’s shocking.

Porcupine also takes the time to directly critique some of Amédée’s reading. For example: “Amédée would tell the young girls all about a wretched old man who went deep sea fishing and had to battle all alone with a huge fish, if you ask me this huge fish was the harmful double of a fisherman who was jealous of the old guy’s experience,”. Most of the descriptions are less obvious than that one, and there’s some fun to be had working out which novels Porcupine is talking about since he tends to be a very literal reader.

Porcupine is a lifelong rogue, but he’s a likable one. He has charm. Whether it’s his occasional attraction to human women (he picked up Kibandi’s tastes there too, porcupine females do nothing for him), his cowardice or his all-too-human ability to rationalise away his own failings he’s one of the more human characters I’ve read recently (though he’d probably find that an insulting observation).

Memoirs is a book full of sly asides. In one scene Porcupine is sent to kill a palm-wine tapster, an old man who Porcupine kills and leaves at the foot of the palm tree he was tapping when Porcupine found him. It couldn’t be a clearer shout out to Tutuola’s Palm-Wine Drinkard and it’s a nice touch of homage to Mabanckou’s predecessors.

Porcupine then is a very funny novel, but it’s also one with an underlying serious point. Take a young man, expose him to brutal abuse (here a sorcerous potion, but the world is hardly free of more prosaic horrors), and see how his life warps and distorts in consequence. Stu in his review over at his Winston’s Dad’s Blog draws parallels between Kibandi and the fate of child soldiers and I think he has a point.

I’ll end with a short observation on style. Mabanckou writes here in a free-flowing style reflecting the Porcupine’s garrulous speech. Mabanckou partly achieves this through avoiding use of full stops (I don’t think there are any), though just as with Enard’s Zone that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have sentences but simply that they’re structured using commas and natural pauses.

Mabanckou gives Memoirs the feel of a spoken rather than written work. Like Tutuola, like Lord, he draws on the rhythms of oral storytelling to give life to the page. It works well, and allows a final little end-joke on how Porcupine’s tale found itself published in book form. It’s a typically deft touch of levity in a novel that could easily have been rather bleak, but which never is.

Other reviews

The review that put me on to this book specifically and Mabanckou generally was this one from Stu’s Winston’s Dad’s Blog, as mentioned above. Given how much I enjoyed this I owe Stu massive thanks for this one, not for the first time.

As an aside, it occurred to me that Memoirs of a Porcupine might have been an inspiration for Lauren Beukes’ rather good Zoo City given the use of animal familiars in that. I asked Lauren Beukes however on twitter and she’d never heard of it. Different writers drawing on the same mythic references clearly.

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Filed under African Literature, Congolese Literature, French Literature, Mabanckou, Alain

He should have been a great philosopher, said Mrs. Ramsay, as they went down the road to the fishing village, but he had made an unfortunate marriage.

To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf

My Vintage Classics edition of To the Lighthouse comes in at 224 pages, including the introduction by Helen Dunmore. It would be easy to write a book twice that length about it.

To the Lighthouse

My first completed Woolf was Mrs Dalloway, after two unsuccessful attempts at The Voyage Out neither of which made it past the first couple of pages. I described Dalloway as “an easy and effervescent read that brims with life”, which surprised me because I’d expected something rather difficult and forbidding. Somehow despite that experience I was still daunted approaching To the Lighthouse. It’s curious how much a book’s reputation can be a barrier to it.

Lighthouse opens with the sprawling Ramsay family on holiday in Skye. Mr Ramsay is a philosophy professor, well regarded but perhaps falling slightly from fashion. His wife, Mrs Ramsay, is an extraordinarily beautiful woman largely unaware of her own beauty and who frankly could be Mrs Dalloway after some slightly different life choices.

With them are their many children and guests, most notable in memory their youngest son James who has set his heart on going to the lighthouse the next day and is cruelly disappointed by indifferent adults commenting that the weather will forbid it. Among the guests are Lily Briscoe, a self-doubting amateur painter who may have genuine talent; Charles Tansley, an abrasive young man insecure by reason of his impoverished background; Augustus Carmicheal, a minor poet.

I could pick any of several themes to discuss, but the one that stands out for me as I write this today is the question of what makes a life worthwhile. For James the answer is simple – the much promised trip to the lighthouse. He has the relentless focus of a small child. His whole hopes are invested in that one thing and yet he has no influence at all on whether it happens.

Others’ dreams are more complex, though perhaps no more within their power. Mr Ramsay obsesses on how his work will be remembered by posterity. He’s a vain man, his success and praises to date insufficient bulwark against his ever-encroaching insecurity. He knows his most recent book was not his best.

One in a generation. Is he to be blamed then if he is not that one? provided he has toiled honestly, given to the best of his power, till he has no more left to give? And his fame lasts how long? It is permissible even for a dying hero to think before he dies how men will speak of him hereafter. His fame lasts perhaps two thousand years. And what are two thousand years? (asked Mr. Ramsay ironically, staring at the hedge). What, indeed, if you look from a mountain-top down the long wastes of the ages? The very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare. His own little light would shine, not very brightly, for a year or two, and would then be merged in some bigger light, and that in a bigger still. (He looked into the darkness, into the intricacy of the twigs.)

Mrs Ramsay has her own fears and disappointments, but her sphere is firmly domestic. She comforts her husband when he despairs of being remembered and tries to bask in the reflected glory of the intensity of his intellect (yet each time we dip into his thoughts, they are on his legacy, not some great work). She looks to arrange marriages among her guests, seeks to preserve her children’s happiness which she knows cannot last into adulthood. She is the rock the family stands on, a light guiding them through stormy seas (you could write another book no doubt on the symbolism of the lighthouse itself…)

The marriages that happen do so without her help, those she seeks to bring about come to nothing. Her children’s happiness in the case of James can be dashed with a harsh word from the bumptious Tansley, and in the case of the older children is moving beyond her reach. Her husband’s dependence on her reassurance is a sign of a smallness in him, a truth she tries not to recognise.

Universities and people wanting him, lectures and books and their being of the highest importance—all that she did not doubt for a moment; but it was their relation, and his coming to her like that, openly, so that anyone could see, that discomposed her; for then people said he depended on her, when they must know that of the two he was infinitely the more important, and what she gave the world, in comparison with what he gave, negligible. But then again, it was the other thing too—not being able to tell him the truth, being afraid, for instance, about the greenhouse roof and the expense it would be, fifty pounds perhaps, to mend it; and then about his books, to be afraid that he might guess, what she a little suspected, that his last book was not quite his best book (she gathered that from William Bankes); and then to hide small daily things, and the children seeing it, and the burden it laid on them—all this diminished the entire joy, the pure joy, of the two notes sounding together, and let the sound die on her ear now with a dismal flatness.

And yet. What marriage is perfect? We see inside the Ramsay’s thoughts and so we see their failings, but that’s not the whole story. There’s the broader picture too: husband and wife; parents and children; the noise and chaos and love of a large family. The Ramsays are enviable, even if they don’t know it.

From her interior monologues it’s clear that Mrs Ramsay is intelligent, perhaps more so than her husband. She’s alive to beauty and is psychologically astute, but she has no outlet for any of it which is why she spends her days trying to pair up others perhaps so that by replicating her choices they validate them.

BUT WHAT HAVE I done with my life? thought Mrs. Ramsay, taking her place at the head of the table, and looking at all the plates making white circles on it.

Lily Briscoe isn’t a beauty, which in Edwardian Britain would generally be a distinct disadvantage save that Lily’s ambitions lie in her art. She wants to capture a relationship between objects, to solve a problem in a painting, yet doubts she has the ability. Tansley crushes her with a cruel remark that women can’t write or paint. Her confidence is so fragile he dents her even though even he doesn’t seem to believe what he says and in any event plainly knows nothing of either. She can’t bear anyone looking at her canvas.

Every sign in the book points to Lily having talent, but nothing supports her in it. She’s a woman; she doesn’t have the luxury Mr Ramsay has of a Mrs Ramsay to calm her fears. Still, she persists. Mr Ramsay wants immortality from his work; for Lily Briscoe the work itself is enough and she just wants to be true to her vision. The aging Mr Carmicheal meanwhile finds himself somewhere between the two, becoming recognised as a famous poet but seemingly just as comfortable as he was when uncelebrated.

Woolf’s prose continues to have moments of breathtaking beauty:

So she looked over her shoulder, at the town. The lights were rippling and running as if they were drops of silver water held firm in a wind. And all the poverty, all the suffering had turned to that, Mrs. Ramsay thought. The lights of the town and of the harbour and of the boats seemed like a phantom net floating there to mark something which had sunk.

All this written, and I’m not even a third of the way into the novel. Death intervenes, and more death with the war. The second section of the book shifts to an omniscient narrator quietly recording the gentle decay of the Ramsay’s neglected holiday home. The tone becomes elegiac, with occasional square-bracketed asides that reminded me of the muttered asides in Eliot’s poetry:

So some random light directing them from some uncovered star, or wandering ship, or the Lighthouse even, with its pale footfall upon stair and mat, the little airs mounted the staircase and nosed round bedroom doors. But here surely, they must cease. Whatever else may perish and disappear what lies here is steadfast. Here one might say to those sliding lights, those fumbling airs, that breathe and bend over the bed itself, here you can neither touch nor destroy. Upon which, wearily, ghostily, as if they had feather-light fingers and the light persistency of feathers, they would look, once, on the shut eyes and the loosely clasping fingers, and fold their garments wearily and disappear. And so, nosing, rubbing, they went to the window on the staircase, to the servants’ bedrooms, to the boxes in the attics; descending, blanched the apples on the dining-room table, fumbled the petals of roses, tried the picture on the easel, brushed the mat and blew a little sand along the floor. At length, desisting, all ceased together, gathered together, all sighed together; all together gave off an aimless gust of lamentation to which some door in the kitchen replied; swung wide; admitted nothing; and slammed to.

[Here Mr. Carmichael, who was reading Virgil, blew out his candle. It was past midnight.]

In the third section the family return, some ten years later. War and illness have reduced their number, and their relationships have shifted accordingly. Mr Ramsay, tyrant of the first section through his own need rather than any cruelty, is both reduced and yet made better too. He takes James to the lighthouse, praises him for how he manages the tiller on their boat. He has learned to make space for others. He is human, as are they all.

Other reviews

Grant of 1streading reviews it here. I had the advantage of not knowing a major story development around the half way mark of the novel and my ignorance definitely enhanced its impact. Grant assumes (fairly) that most readers are probably aware of the broad thrust of the story and so discusses that element in his first paragraph. I chose not to since I figured if I didn’t know it others might not, but by taking knowledge of the story as a given Grant does give himself more freedom to discuss some fairly key themes which I wasn’t able to explore here as much as I’d have liked.

Grant’s also spot on in saying that there’s no real sense here of the Isle of Skye as a place, but then place isn’t really Woolf’s focus. With this intensity of character and emotion, a certain shallowness of geography isn’t a serious flaw.

On a wholly unrelated note, until I ran a spellcheck on this post I honestly always thought elegiac was spelled elegaic (which still looks right to me on the page). I also thought it was a hard g (which is still how it sounds inside my head). Such are the perils of being largely self-educated. It rather makes me sympathise a bit more with poor Tansley.

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Filed under Modernist Fiction, Woolf, Virginia

Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog,

High-Rise, by J.G. Ballard

 

I grew up in Ballardia, more specifically on the Lancaster West Estate (which looks a hell of a lot nicer now than it did back then). Lancaster West is a large low-rise council estate with a couple of high-rises embedded within it, not far from the Westway which famously inspired Concrete Island. Ballard’s landscape is the landscape of my childhood.

Lancaster West LWE

The odd thing is like many writers whose name became an adjective I’ve actually read far less by Ballard than it feels like I have. His work is familiar to me both from life and from his particular stylistic consistency. Perhaps that’s why it took the release of a movie based on High-Rise by one of my favourite contemporary directors to prompt me to finally actually read it.

High-RiseHigh-Rise original

(That’s the cover I have and the first edition cover.)

High-Rise opens with the wonderfully disquieting words I’ve used as the title for this piece. It moves swiftly into flashback, with the early tenants moving into a new high-rise development. Among them is Laing, a psychiatrist (his name clearly a shout-out to then fashionable psychiatrist R.D. Laing).

The high-rise is the first of five in its development. It’s supremely modern. Its occupants are resolutely middle class or desirably glamorous: doctors; dentists; academics; tv producers; air hostesses; actors. In real life those of us who grew up on the estates were the urban poor, here Ballard inverts that. Here the architect lives in the building he designed.

The first sign that everything is perhaps not as it should be is when a champagne bottle falls from a party on a floor above and shatters on Laing’s balcony while he’s sunbathing. The more disturbing sign is his reaction:

After breakfast, Laing cleared the glass from the balcony. Two of the decorative tiles had been cracked. Mildly irritated, Laing picked up the bottle neck, still with its wired cork and foil in place, and tossed it over the balcony rail. A few seconds later he heard it shatter among the cars parked below.

Laing is annoyed that those above him pay no regard to his safety, but he pays no more regard to those below him. He doesn’t realise the implications yet, but the high-rise has become a microcosm of wider British society. Those on the topmost floors have their own dedicated entrance lobby and high-speed lifts (a common feature today in buildings with shared occupancy between rich and merely affluent). Everyone else rubs along as best they can, eyes rarely meeting.

This central two-thirds of the apartment building formed its middle class, made up of self-centred but basically docile members of the professions – the doctors and lawyers, accountants and tax specialists who worked, not for themselves, but for medical institutes and large corporations. Puritan and self-disciplined, they had all the cohesion of those eager to settle for second best.

The lower floors house the newer professions and occupations. the ones who work on tv behind the camera; the air hostesses. They tend to be younger than those on the upper floors, many have school age children while those higher up being older now have dogs instead.

Names here are meaningful. A key character from the lower floors is tv documentary maker Richard Wilder. He’s a larger than life hard-drinking womaniser seemingly modelled on Oliver Reed (and played brilliantly in the recent film by Luke Evans who seems to be channeling Oliver Reed’s spirit). Right at the very top is architect Anthony Royal (A Royal…). The two men epitomise the class conflict inherent in the building’s structure, with firmly middle class Laing caught squarely between them cosying up to Royal and slightly fearing Wilder.

It’s a mistake with Ballard to look for psychological depth. His characters are pawns of psycho-social forces quite beyond them, and Ballard doesn’t aim for naturalism. He’s exploring here the psychology of the underlying fascism of the everyday, as he does in so many of his books.

The high-rise becomes a pressure cooker bringing out the already implicit violence of the social order. Those on top resent those down below for their noisy lives and numerous children. Those at the bottom resent those at the top for their condescension and air of entitlement. Those between try to maintain strict proprieties while jealously guarding their own possessions and territory.

Before long a famous actress’s dog is drowned in the tenth floor swimming pool during a power cut. The pool has become a flashpoint of tensions between the classes, the upper floors wanting to bar the children from using it so their pool parties aren’t interrupted. Not long after a jeweller falls from the top floor to his death, or perhaps was pushed. Nobody calls the police.

The building’s structures start to break down. Power cuts become commonplace; the bin chutes become clogged and rubbish starts to pile up around them; the area around the high-rise becomes covered in broken glass and refuse thrown from above. All of that is obviously something of a comment on 1970s’ Britain generally, but it’s also all familiar to me from the estate I actually grew up in (though Ballard takes it all to an illustrative extreme far beyond mere reality).

People band together according to their floors and carry out raids on those above and below them for food or retribution. Increasingly nobody goes outside, and most tellingly nobody calls for help (partly because that would destroy the concept of the novel, and partly because while it may seem that the social compact is breaking down in fact they’re hammering out a new compact forged from “spasms of cold and random aggression.”)

At risk of biographical detail, it’s hard to read all this without remembering Ballard’s own childhood experience of social breakdown in occupied wartime Shanghai. In his own words “I don’t think you can go through the experience of war without one’s perceptions of the world being forever changed. The reassuring stage set that everyday reality in the suburban west presents to us is torn down; you see the ragged scaffolding, and then you see the truth beyond that, and it can be a frightening experience.”

High-Rise shows us what sits under the ragged scaffolding. Early on Wilder sees his neighbours emerge from the lifts “aggressively like bad-tempered miners emerging from their pit-cages. They strode past him, briefcases and handbags wielded like the instruments of an over-nervous body armour.” At this point they’ve merely suffered some inconvenience, but the suppressed violence is already starting to show. Later they move “into a realm of no social organization at all”, forming “small groups of killers, solitary hunters who built man-traps in empty apartments or preyed on the unwary in deserted elevator lobbies.”

The inhabitants, free now to enjoy the “perversities created by the limitless possibilities of the high-rise”, are becoming who they always were. Once the new equilibrium forms, with those able to adapt having done so and those not dead, a new civil order begins to emerge. After the initial explosion of violence and monstrosity the new barbarism looks suspiciously like where everybody started, save with tasteful wallpaper replaced with fire pits and spit-roast Alsatians.

In a sense life in the high-rise had begun to resemble the world outside – there were the same ruthlessness and aggression concealed within a set of polite conventions.

There’s a lot more by way of social comment here. Wilder uses the disorder to literally rise in society. His early too rapid ascent is punished by an unequivocal upper-floor beating to show him his place. After that he moves carefully and strategically, a few floors at a time, moving ever upwards and ever closer to Royal who both fears him and is fascinated by him. Tellingly in order to progress Wilder has to leave his family behind; like every aspirational child of working class parents he quickly learns that to get where he’s going he has to lose where he came from.

Laing meanwhile plays squash with Royal so securing himself an occasional place at the top table, but his status is contingent and Royal never truly sees Laing as an equal. Laing’s an intermediary between upper and lower floors, but not accepted by or entirely comfortable with either. As I’m writing this I’m reading the first of Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. It’s notable how much the explicit iniquities of High-Rise are implicitly present in the St. Aubyn.

I should caution that High-Rise can be a difficult read. Ballard has a flat affectless style which lends a chilling normality to descriptions of chaos and horror. This book features murder, rape, incest, slaughtered pets (sometimes for food and sometimes for no clear reason at all) and for a slim novel it features an awful lot of all those things. It’s not gratuitous, but particularly if you struggle with scenes of animals being killed this might not be the book for you.

In the end I think this is deservedly a classic. The characters here slip lightly into psychopathy and savagery in a manner which isn’t remotely realistic (and doesn’t aim to be), but it doesn’t matter both because Ballard creates his own reality. While this specific scenario could never happen, Ballard’s point that even choreographers are only a few good meals from barbarism remains true.

Other reviews

The ever-excellent Joachim Boaz reviews this at his blog here. The no-less excellent Sam Jordison actually had a Guardian reading group readalong of this and his final article on it is here. As ever please let me know of other interesting reviews in the comments.

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Filed under Ballard, J.G., Science Fiction

I was a palm-wine drinkard since I was a boy of ten years of age.

The Palm-Wine Drinkard, by Amos Tutuola

This is a hard book to describe, let alone review. First published in 1951 and based on Yoruba folktales it was championed by Dylan Thomas but on release criticised as “primitive”, “lazy” and even “barbaric”. African critics were as divided on it as Western ones and reading it I can see why. Today we have concepts such as “magical realism” (a term I dislike) and we’re more used to novels that mix the ordinary and the fantastic. In 1952 it must have seemed like it landed from Mars.

The Palm-Wine Drinkard

The story is fairly simple. The narrator (the drinkard) inherited a large estate on which he spent his days drinking vast quantities of palm wine with his friends. He had a personal palm-wine tapster, a man who goes up the palm trees to harvest their sap from which the wine is made. The tapster is gifted and his palm-wine is the best in the area, but he dies in an accident leaving the drinkard bereft. Ordinary palm-wine just doesn’t taste as good, and with the drop in quality the drinkard finds his fair-weather friends abandoning him.

When I saw that there was no palm-wine for me again, and nobody could tap it for me, then I thought within myself that old people were saying that the whole people who had died in this world, did not go to heaven directly, but they were living in on e place somewhere in this world. So that I said that I would find out where my palm-wine tapster who had died was.

One fine morning I took all my native juju and also my father’s juju with me and I left my father’s hometown to find out whereabouts was my tapster who had died.

This is a book where you have to embrace the language. The rhythms in that quote above are pretty typical, but they’re not the rhythms of British or American English. They’re Yoruban rhythms expressed in English.

The drinkard says that his adventures took place in the past when towns and cities were smaller and separated by thick bush and forest, but the reality is that this is set in no-time. The people use cowries as currency, as did the pre-colonial Yorubans, but at one point the drinkard sells his death for a colonial period “£70: 18: 6d”. The book is current yet timeless, as myths always are.

Some seven months after setting out the drinkard meets an old man who is actually a god and who claims to know where the tapster is. The old man asks the drinkard’s name and the drinkard identifies himself as “Father of gods who could do anything in this world”. Hearing this, the old man (god) sets him (drinkard) a task: to go to a nearby blacksmith and to get the right object which the blacksmith has made for the old man (god).

The drinkard uses his juju to change into a bird and listens to the old man (god) talking with his wife, and so learns what the object is that he needs to ask the blacksmith for. When he returns with it the old man (god) sets another task, to capture Death with a net.

The drinkard goes to Death’s house where he (the drinkard) meets a small rolling drum which he bangs to announce his presence. Death however is angered at being visited by the living and commands the strings of the drum to tighten upon the drinkard, choking him. At this the drinkard uses his juju to command the ropes of the yams in Death’s garden to tighten on Death and the yam-stakes to beat him (Death). More tricks follow, and Death is captured.

The drinkard lets Death out at the house of the old man, who flees not having expected the drinkard to return. That is how Death came to be at large in the world, having been taken from his home and let out by the house of the old man.

You’ll have noticed my use of “old man (god)” and “he (Death)” there. It’s a technique Tutuola often uses and it takes a little getting used to as he’s easily good enough a writer that you’d never be confused without that clarification. It’s a stylistic choice, one that creates an almost ritual feel to the language.

You might think that having changed into a bird and captured death we’d be some way into the book, but in fact all that’s done by page 12 (and the book starts on page 3). Soon after the drinkard comes to another town where again he gives his name as “Father of gods who could do anything in this world”. An old man in that town asks the drinkard’s help to rescue his daughter, who has been kidnapped by a beautiful and expensively dressed “complete” gentleman who she followed from the market (which is why one should never lightly follow a handsome stranger from the market, good advice in any time or place).

The gentleman is in fact just a skull and only looked like a complete gentleman because he had hired clothes and body-parts on his way to the market. He lives in a hole in the ground with a family of skulls and is a dangerous spirit. The drinkard follows him:

When I travelled with him a distance of about twelve miles away to that market, the gentleman left the really road on which we were travelling and branched into an endless forest and I was following him, but as I did not want him to see that I was following him, then I used one of my juju which changed me into a lizard and followed him. But after I had travelled with him a distance of about twenty-five miles away in this endless forest, he began to pull out all the parts of his body and return them to the owners, and paid them.

That quote includes possibly my favourite phrase of the book: “the gentleman left the really road on which we were travelling and branched into an endless forest”. Blink and you’d miss the transition from the real (the “really road”) to the fantastical (the “endless forest”), because there never really is a transition and never a point where one starts and the other stops.

This next quote is from page 33 (of 129). By this point the drinkard has paused in his quest and has married and had a son. The son was magically strong and devoured all the food in the village, burning the homes of those who opposed him, so the drinkard burns down his own house with the child inside and then the drinkard and his wife set off again in search of the dead tapster. Unwisely, the wife briefly goes back to the house to retrieve a gold trinket (if Lot’s wife and Eurydice have taught us anything, it’s never turn around and look back):

When we reached there, she picked a stick and began to scratch the ashes with it, and there I saw that the middle of the ashes rose up suddenly and at the same time there appeared a half-bodied baby, he was talking with a lower voice like a telephone.

There’s no sense here of child cruelty; this isn’t remotely intending to be a realistic depiction of a couple slaying their own child. It’s a mythical event: the couple give birth to a child who is a spirit and have to destroy it to escape, but then release another spirit and so the tale continues.

By this point hopefully you’ve got a decent feel for the book’s structure and language. If it seems like this review is just one thing after another that’s intentional because that’s how the book reads. It’s essentially a collection of folk tales here all featuring the same central character, and so the drinkard and his wife encounter “wraith-island” and later “Red-town” which is populaced by red creatures and the “Red-people” and later yet an indefatigable man named “Invisible-Pawn” who is head of all the Bush-creatures and, and, and…

Whatever else it may be, The Palm-Wine Drinkard (or to give it its full title and subtitle: The Palm-Wine Drinkard and his Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads’ Town) is not a simplistic book. It’s not primitive, it’s not lazy and I have no idea what a barbaric book would be but I know this isn’t that either. I actually found it quite a challenging read, partly as it just doesn’t follow any kind of narrative structure I’m remotely used to and partly because I had to adjust myself to its unique language (something which clearly some of those early reviewers weren’t willing to do).

The Palm-Wine Drinkard follows the rules of dreams. It’s a sequence of bizarre events each of which follow their own internal myth-logic but with no wider narrative save that the drinkard sets off to find his dead tapster and eventually returns from his quest after many adventures (I’m not sure one can actually spoil this book, but just in case I’ll avoid saying whether he finds his tapster or not).

If I knew more of Nigeria’s colonial history and pre-independence situation I’d probably have picked up on some then-contemporary parallels. As it is I only recognised that there were some references that I wasn’t really getting. That didn’t matter though as this isn’t something so simple as a parable or allegory. It’s richer than that; it’s Yoruban tradition captured on the page yet kept alive through Tutuola’s prose.

The structure, the kind of tales Tutuola tells, remind me of the Nordic and Greek myths I read as a child. I remember when Thor took refuge one night in a strange five-chambered hall only to discover the next morning that he had rested in a giant’s glove. Later some giants challenged Thor to drain a giant’s drinking horn, which Thor could not, but the giants grew frightened because the horn was really the horn of the sea and Thor was so mighty that he had almost drained the seas dry. Thor, like the drinkard, has an awful lot of fairly weird random adventures.

In the end I’m not quite sure what I make of Drinkard. It’s not the sort of book you’d dip into to relax of an evening and it’s not full of deep insights into mortality or whatever (save that it’s actually quite a good idea to sell your death as then you can’t die, mine’s available at reasonable rates should anyone want it). It’s very much its own thing.

Perhaps its curious originality is why it matters, because just by existing it helps broaden fiction’s possibilities. Without this would we have Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo, or Mabanckou’s Memoirs of a Porcupine (which I started this morning as at the time of writing)? We might, but I suspect Tutuola helped open the door those later writers walked through.

Other reviews

None on the blogosphere that I know of, but as ever I’m happy to be corrected in the comments.

14 Comments

Filed under African Literature, Fantasy Fiction, Nigerian Literature, Tutuola, Amos

“They ought to start a home for incurable romantics.”

The King of a Rainy Country, by Brigid Brophy

One of the oddities in getting older is the seeming culling of possible lives. I say seeming because our options are often greater than we think, but as jobs and children and life-choices accumulate the room for movement gets narrower.

At 10 you might be anything. At 20 the options are still pretty wide, though by then you can probably make a fair guess as to whether you’re straight or gay, good or bad at sports, practical or a bit of a dreamer.

By 30 most people are either in a long term relationship or looking to be. You’ve likely got a job, perhaps a career. You may well have children. In years past you’d probably have bought a house if you were working steadily (you’d be lucky to do that at 30 now, in the UK anyway).

By 40 odds are you’re settled in that career. You’re probably married, possibly even divorced, and the children are getting older. The prospects now of suddenly giving it all up to open a bar in Belize aren’t looking as good as they used to.

And so it goes on. If you make it to 90 your biggest remaining decision may be whether to stay in the TV room or to take a nap.

Written like that it all sounds pretty gloomy, but my notional average person has a partner, children, a career, a home. Those may not be things that ring down the ages to the applause of posterity but they can be pretty good.

Let’s go back to that “seeming” though, right there in my first sentence. Life closes doors to us, but we close more ourselves. We choose who we are, and then forget we ever made a choice. King, in part, is about that time when those doors are still open, when we don’t yet know which we’ll walk through.

In 1950s London Susan is living with Neale in the kind of poverty that’s only picturesque when you know it’s temporary. They’re young bohemians (Neale has a “tie for reading Baudelaire in”; Susan “can bear anything except a status quo”). They’re supremely uncommitted.

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Susan and Neale live together, but they’re not quite a couple and they don’t have sex. At the same time, they’re not quite not a couple either sharing so many private jokes and references that their friends sometimes can’t understand what they’re saying when they talk to each other.

Neale asked: “Are you afraid they’ll think we go to bed together?”

“No, I’m afraid they’ll guess we don’t.”

They’re broke, but they speak French and Italian and have travelled abroad and seen the opera and in 1950s London that’s a fairly straightforward class signifier. If they wanted they could call their dads and they would stop it all. For now they’re enjoying their freedom, but even bohemians have to pay the rent. Neale works washing dishes; Susan gets a job in a bookseller’s.

The bookseller is Finkelheim, though he’s not Jewish. He just thought sounding Jewish would help him in the book trade. He sells a range of titles, but he makes his money with porn. One day, as Susan idly glances at the stock, she finds a striptease picture book where you flick the pages and a woman gradually disrobes. The woman is Cynthia, Susan’s old crush from school (cue link to J Geil’s Band’s classic track Centrefold at this point).

In her schooldays Susan was besotted with Cynthia; loved her utterly. Does that make Susan gay? It’s not that simple, lots of people have schoolday crushes on the same sex after all yet self-identify later as straight. Her sexuality is uncertain.

Neale’s sexuality is also somewhat uncertain. He brings a gay French tourist named François home to stay and it’s not clear what Neale and François’ relationship is exactly, but then it’s not clear what anyone’s relationship is exactly. François’ presence does allow however for some wonderful comic Franglais dialogue as Susan tries to make conversation using her rather limited French.

Neale and Susan decide to track down Cynthia, eventually discovering that she was last seen in Venice. Before long they’re out in Italy acting as last-minute tour guide hires to a coachload of particularly uncultured American tourists. The fact the tour agency was willing to send them despite their total lack of prior relevant experience should perhaps have been a warning…

The woman behind asked Neale: “What are carnations in Italian?” Neale looked at me.

“I can’t remember.”

“They don’t know,” the woman said to her husband.

I got up and went to the front of the bus, where I say down at the steel hump besides Carlo. He looked, smiled at me, and turned to the road again. I waited till another boy tried to sell us carnations, then asked Carlo what they were called.

“Fiori,” he said. “Fee-Aw-Ere.”

“Si, si,” I said, “ma che specie di fiori?”

“Fiori,” he repeated. “Fiori rossi – o fiori bianchi.”

I went back to my seat. “You find out?” the woman said.

“I’m afraid not.”

Presently I turned round and told her: “I’ve remembered. Garofani.”

“O,” she said.

I heard her husband ask: “What she say?”

“Some Italian word.”

This is a remarkably witty novel. The dialogue between Neale, Susan and François is priceless. The American tourists are a wonderful mix of the unworldly and the arrogant, comparing everything to something back home and ticking off European sights without any real interest or understanding. One constantly worries about hygiene; another can’t rest unless she has seat 13 on every coach and room 13 in every hotel (at one point she’s accidentally allotted room 31, they arrange for the hotel to reverse the numbers on her door so she doesn’t know).

There’s a distinctly three/four act structure here. The early part in London with François and faux-Finkelheim culminating in an extended flashback to Susan’s schooldays; the road trip with the Americans as Neale and Susan make up historical detail for the places passed, the whole thing like a classic ’60s comedy; then finally the melancholy of Venice and the discovery of Cynthia who is in the company of aging yet still gifted opera singer Helena Buchan. The mood changes quite markedly section to section, and yet somehow never jars.

Identities here are fluid, adopted as required or not yet assumed. The book is unusually free of judgement. In a sense Neale and Susan are playing at their lives, but at the same time that play is the reality – it’s not as if they have other lives somehow more real. Neale and Susan both are searching for “the moment” – a single moment in life in which one can be fully present. The search of course is the moment.

In the end I find myself struggling to capture this novel, which is perhaps appropriate. It’s deceptively light, and yet you don’t explore themes of gender, sexuality and identity while managing significant shifts in tone without having put some serious thought in to what you’re doing. It’s reminiscent in some ways of Oscar Wilde, who in Lady Windermere’s Fan has Lord Darlington say ” life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it”. So it is.

Neale and Susan are an educated pair. Their conversation, and therefore the book, is full of allusions to opera (particularly The Marriage of Figaro). If you know your opera better than I do I suspect there’s a world of references there to unpack. For me it sufficed to recognise that opera is a space where lives are lived large, but where identity is as malleable as the next costume change.

I’ll end (almost) with what struck me as perhaps the most quietly radical thing in The King of a Rainy Country, and that’s the lack of sex. This is, in part, a celibate sex comedy. Neale and Susan share a bed in 1950s England, but nothing happens in it save sleep (and since she works days and him nights even that doesn’t overlap that much). Susan and Cynthia were young lovers in school, but long walks and holding hands were about as far as it went. Helena Buchan, the opera singer, is beautiful and something of a hero to Susan and Neale both, but she too travels with a male companion who seems more friend than lover. The lack of sex subtly undermines expectations. It’s clever, like the rest of this delightful novel.

I’ll end (properly), with a poem by George Szirtes taken with kind permission from his website here, inspired by (but not a straight translation of) the Baudelaire original:

Spleen in a Rainy Season
A burlesque after Baudelaire

I’m like the king of a rainy country, rich
but wobbly weak; both cub and toothless bitch.
I’m through with books, and poems, and string quartets:
I’ve sold the horses, shot the household pets.
Cheer up? Not likely, board games are a bore,
and as for ‘the people’ dying by my door,
fuck them, and fuck that guitar-wielding clown,
who’s worse than useless when I’m feeling down.
See, here he is – that’s me – stuck in his bed,
the girls can put on sex shows, give him head,
go girl on girl, no point, it just won’t work,
it won’t jump-start this junky royal jerk.
The quack who brings him pills and knows a trick
to harden flaccid aristocratic dick
may as well bring blood and the Roman Baths,
the kind that suited those old psychopaths.
No good, he’s dead in muscle, nerve, and brain.
It’s all green Lethe and that bloody rain.

Other reviews

Heavenali reviewed this here; a blog titled Emily Books reviewed it here; and a reviewer called Aimee Wall wrote a very good review for the site Lemon Hound here. I also found this rather interesting piece on an opera blog about the book’s connections with opera. If you know of others, as always please let me know in the comments.

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Filed under Brophy, Brigid

“Relax! God is in control.”

Every Day is for the Thief, by Teju Cole

Teju Cole’s remarkable Open City made him something of an instant literary star. It was widely described as his debut, but in fact he’d already been published four years previously with the then little noticed Every Day is for the Thief.

With everyone waiting for a follow-up to Open City, and Cole seemingly more interested for the moment in his journalism and essays, the time was ripe for a back catalogue re-issue. I’m glad that happened, but there’s a reason Cole found fame with Open City and not with Every Day and that’s because interesting as Every Day is it’s a much less polished and accomplished work.

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The narrator in Every Day is never named and it’s easy to assume it’s essentially Cole himself, but biographical details within the text establish that while Cole might (like many novelists) be drawing on his own experiences it’s not him within the fiction. In fact, it appears to be the same character as Cole later used in Open City, so for the purposes of this piece I’m going to refer to him as Julius.

The book opens with Julius in the New York Nigerian consulate getting his visa to return home after years abroad. The bureaucracy is indifferently time-consuming, but it can be circumvented. If you’re willing to pay some extra fees, and willing not to take a receipt when you do so, your application can be fast tracked.

It’s a sour introduction to a theme that will run right through the novel. The consulate has a torn poster appealing for visa applicants to report any attempts to extort bribes, but there’s no contact details on it so nobody to complain to except the very people demanding them. Julius grudgingly pays. He’ll get used to doing that.

The airport looks sullen from the tarmac. It is named for a dead general, and is all that is worst about the architecture of the seventies.

In Nigeria Julius hasn’t yet left the airport before he receives his first in-country demand for a bribe. An official sits near the exit with no apparent job and asks “What have you brought me for Christmas?” commenting that “you know, they spend dollars in New York.” Nothing is being offered in return, no service or smoothed transaction. It’s just a straightforward demand for a little cash.

On the way home from the airport Julius sees two traffic police arguing. They’re both stationed on a roundabout and shaking down cars for bribes, but one’s standing too close to the other’s spot so the same drivers are being hit twice in a row too quickly which causes them to get angry. It’s all taking place under a billboard which reads “Corruption is illegal: Do not Give or Accept Bribes.”

When Julius and his family go to buy bread a man holds the shop door open, then follows down the street asking for money. It’s relentless. It’s wearying. Cash flows like water; perhaps better to say it flows like oil. It’s an essential social lubricant. As Julius reflects:

The informal economy is the livelihood of many Lagosians. But corruption, in the form of piracy or of graft, also means that most people remain on the margins. The systems that could lift the majority out of poverty are undercut at every turn. Precisely because everyone takes a shortcut, nothing works and, for this reason, the only way to get anything done is to take another shortcut. The advantage in these situations goes to the highest bidders, those individuals most willing to pay money or to test the limits of the law.

Every Day is part novel (novella actually, it’s not that long) and part essay. The text frequently speaks directly to the reader as in that quote above, dropping any real sense of being fiction. It works fairly well, but the result is a kind of novelistic reportage rather than a more conventional narrative. Between chapters are photographs taken by Cole, visual vignettes of everyday Nigeria.

Cole is a master at capturing the Nigerian voice (I’ve worked with a number of Nigerians and currently live in an area with a big Nigerian expat population, so it’s a style of speech I’ve heard a fair bit). This next quote is lengthy, but shows both that command of voice and some of the dangers of life in Lagos:

My Uncle Bello, a well-built man in his forties, told me about going to Oshodi market and being accosted. A rough-looking man approached him on the Oshodi overpass and asked for money. My uncle thought about it and gave him two hundred naira. The man was unimpressed.

—Ah, no o. My money is one thousand.

Uncle Bello said he had to assess at that point whether to call the guy’s bluff or to cave in to the extortion. He called his bluff. It was a bad move. The guy got extremely hostile.

—Heh? What do you mean by no? I will waste you. I will waste you. You see this bridge? I’ll dangle you from the edge, I’ll throw you off it!

My uncle’s options were suddenly limited. He knew that if he gave the thug the thousand naira, his whole wallet could get cleaned out. The man could tell him to take off his trousers and crawl on all fours in the dirt or something similarly humiliating. On the other hand, he really did look like the kind of guy who could make good on his threat of murder.

Uncle Bello’s instincts told him to fight fire with fire. He had lived in Europe for a long time, studying management in Krakow in the 1980s. In fact he was still fluent in Polish. But he had also grown up in a relatively poor family, and had to fend for himself from an early age. So he knew the ways of the street. He started shouting at the man:

—Waste me? Waste me? Are your eyes functioning? Look at me very well before you say another word. You don’t recognize me? I will injure you, I will kill you. You understand? I will kill you! Do you know who you are talking to? Ehn? Do you know me? I will make your wife a widow!

“But, of course,” my uncle added with a deep laugh, “the whole time I was saying this, I was quaking in my shoes like you wouldn’t believe.” The guy bought the act though, and started begging my uncle to forgive him. Finally, my uncle gave him another two hundred, and they parted ways. About three dollars had changed hands. Both lived to tell the tale. Lagos.

The intensity of Lagos life is dulling. Almost nobody seems to read anything other than religious pamphlets or cheap newspapers, seeing someone with a novel is a major incident for Julius. At night there are regular powercuts. It’s too hot to sleep and the noise of South African soaps from the neighbours’ TVs too loud anyway.

Violence is normalised as the quote above and this quote recalling an incident from Julius’ childhood shows. The boy mentioned here is a petty handbag thief, nothing more serious:

An old car tire—from where?—has been quickly sourced. The boy’s clothes are torn off, he is knocked down repeatedly. Space has been created out of the congestion. A gaggle of schoolgirls, in green-and-white uniforms, has joined the spectators. And a new twist: in the crowd, there stands a man with a digital camcorder. The single eye of his machine collects the event: this fragile body, which, shed of clothes, is now like a dark sapling whipped about in the wind. The tire is flung around the boy. He is losing consciousness but revives with sudden panic when he is doused with petrol. From the distance, two traffic officers, the ones they call Yellow Fever, watch. The splashing liquid is lighter than water, it is fragrant, it drips off him, beads in his woolly hair. He glistens. The begging stops. He stops begging and he is not yet lit. The whites of his eyes are bright as lamps. And then only the last thing, which is soon supplied. The fire catches with a loud gust, and the crowd gasps and inches back. The boy dances furiously but, hemmed down by the tire, quickly goes prone, and still. The most vivid moment in the fire’s life passes, and its color dulls and fizzes out. The crowd, chattering and sighing, momentarily sated, melts away. The man with the digicam lowers his machine. He, too, disappears. Traffic quickly reconstitutes around the charred pile. The air smells of rubber, meat, and exhaust.

It’s depressing to read something like that, but somehow still less depressing than Julius’ trip to the National Museum. Julius is the only visitor; photography is forbidden but there’s nothing to photograph anyway because the exhibits are second-rate and covered in dust. Nigeria’s famous artistic treasures are nowhere to be seen, sold to foreign dealers. In New York, London and Berlin well curated examples of Nigeria’s rich artistic history are proudly displayed, accompanied by high-quality contextual explanations. In Lagos there are some pitiful beaded baskets and more dispiritingly yet the bullet-riddled car in which one of Nigeria’s military rulers was murdered back in 1976.

Despite its short length Every Day is a fatiguing read. Not for lack of skill, but rather because of skill. Cole captures the endless petty corruption, the constant threat of escalation into violence, but above all the passivity it breeds in people. It takes so much energy just to make it through the day that for most people there’s nothing left for art or for social improvement. When people hope for better they hope for it in the next life, their prayers led by preachers whose sanctity is proven by their earthly rewards in the form of Learjets and Rolls-Royce cars.

Julius finds an exception when he visits a private conservatory where children of the rich study classical music and jazz.The conservatory is a rare moment of pure culture, of dedication to something beyond mere survival. It seems from Julius’ brief visit as good as anything he might see overseas, and so is a small vision of what Nigeria could be. It’s utterly beyond the reach of the vast majority of the population, just having to pay for your own instrument would make it too expensive for most, but it’s something.

Each time I am sure that, in returning to Lagos, I have inadvertently wandered into a region of hell, something else emerges to give me hope. A reader, an orchestra, the friendship of some powerful swimmers against the tide.

In the UK we now tend to talk of the arts as the “creative industries”. The benefits of art are expressed in economic terms – jobs created or supported; tourist revenue generated. It’s reductionist and misses the point. The benefit of art is not that we can make money from it. If that were all it was then we should jettison art where other investments show higher returns. The benefit of art is that it takes us beyond the every day and gives us something greater.

The conservatory provides a small shaft of light in a bleak novel. As the book nears its end Nigeria is opening its doors to Chinese money and development but like the other foreigners attracted by Nigeria’s oil and mineral wealth they keep to themselves and don’t mix with the locals except for business. Julius goes back to the airport, and after one last demand for a bribe and one last irritant as the plane sits stalled on the tarmac for an unexplained half-hour, flies home to the US. In a final elegiac coda he revisits Lagos in memory returning to an unexpected urban discovery of grace and dignity. Life in Lagos goes on despite everything, but without Julius.

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Filed under Cole, Teju

All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz

Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness is one of those books so famous that actually reading it seems almost unnecessary. The journey up the river; Mr Kurtz; “‘The horror! The horror!’”. It’s well known material.

Perhaps that’s why it took me so long to get round to reading it myself. It felt like I already had.

Heart

That’s not the cover I have, but it is an absolutely brilliant one that for me captures the book better than any other I’ve seen. My copy was a Penguin Classics edition that also came with the short story Youth, featuring the same protagonist and an essentially identical framing device. They make interesting comparison pieces, and if you can read them together I’d recommend doing so.

Heart opens with Marlow and his friends sitting on a boat on the Thames. They’re all aging ex-seamen with most having long moved on to other more illustrious careers. As the sun sets Marlow begins to tell the others a tale of his seafaring days. Youth opens almost exactly the same way.

As the sun sets on the Thames the narrator (an unnamed member of Marlow’s audience) reflects on its glory:

The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. […] Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! … The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.

It’s a beautiful and sentimental scene, but then:

“And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”

Note the use of past tense there. With that remark everyone settles down and Marlow starts to talk of the Romans and their Empire, and its then-modern British equivalent. Marlow reflects:

It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind – as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.

True enough, though many in Britain today would still find it objectionable. Whenever I’ve seen the British Empire come up in conversation (which isn’t actually that often, it ended a while back now) you can generally count on at least one or two people arguing that overall it was for the benefit of everyone involved, even if a few mistakes were made along the way.

Perhaps though Conrad’s contemporaries would have recognised the truth of his statement. It isn’t after all arguing that colonialism is wrong, just that the practicalities of it are often ugly. Those who’d been there might well agree.

The stage set Marlow sets off on his anecdote, which takes him to the offices of a European trading house and from there to a great river in an unnamed African nation. It’s never stated, but contemporary readers would have known just as much as modern ones do that it’s King Leopold’s Congo.

Marlow makes his way slowly upriver, stopping along the way at a trading station where he sees a ravine filled with corpses and dying men, all black. It’s the first real sign of the human cost of Leopold’s exploitation. The trading house itself has two white men within it, one the perfectly groomed chief accountant and the other a company agent lost to fever while returning home. The contrasts are surreal, as is the attitude of the accountant who casually remarks that the agent isn’t dead “yet” and comments on how when one has to keep accurate books “one comes to hate those savages”.  On his surface the accountant is the epitome of European civilisation but he has hardened inside.

“He turned to his work. The noise outside had ceased, and presently in going out I stopped at the door. In the steady buzz of flies the homeward-bound agent was lying flushed and insensible; the other, bent over his books, was making correct entries of perfectly correct transactions; and fifty feet below the doorstep I could see the still tree-tops of the grove of death.

That accountant is the first to speak of Mr Kurtz, a legendary company agent who brings in more ivory than the rest put together. As Marlow heads deeper inland his misgivings grow, and so did mine.

The problem with Heart of Darkness that soon became apparent is that it is extraordinarily racist. The local population rarely get to speak (even in their own language) and when they do it’s mostly the savage cries of a frenzied mob. Marlow is appalled by the “grove of death”, but in the same way a modern person might be appalled by seeing chickens packed into a factory farm. There’s no sense he sees the blacks as being of the same nature as the whites. instead he refers to them as having a “taint of imbecile rapacity”.

Marlow encounters a company manager who is both untrustworthy and stupid; a man who only has his position because his exceptional good health preserves him from the fevers that strike down most of the whites. He’s an unlikable character, but he’s white which means he at least gets dialogue and he’s clearly the same kind of being as Marlow, just an inferior specimen of Marlow’s breed.

The blacks by contrast are portrayed as barely human. Marlow’s steamship crew are a group of primitive cannibals, one of whom works on the ship’s bridge:

He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a  vertical boiler. He was there below me, and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind legs.

On Marlow’s account this “savage” understands that if the water in the steam-gauge runs low “the evil spirit inside the boiler would get angry through the greatness of his thirst, and take a terrible vengeance.” Later the fireman takes a spear to the chest and as he lies dying he gives Marlow a look “like a claim of distant kinship”. Marlow misses him as a shepherd might miss a sheep dog (perhaps not quite that much), even though he notes in an aside to his audience that he understands they may find it “passing strange this regret for a savage who was of no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara.”

That description of an “improved specimen” who even so is like “a dog in a parody of breeches” is as close to human as anyone black gets in this novel. Mostly the Africans are an undifferentiated mass of limbs and torsos, interchangeable savages. Marlow’s language, Conrad’s language, is riddled with hostility and contempt for the locals and much of it I can’t really repeat here without risking causing some fairly serious offence to those reading this.

I don’t have a problem with an 1899 novel about colonialist administrators consistently using horrifyingly racist language. It would be absurd in a way if it didn’t. I don’t believe these Europeans would have spoken kindly of the Africans they controlled and I’m quite certain they wouldn’t have regarded them as equals. I had however expected Conrad to be slightly more enlightened.

As it is however, the tragedy that comes across in Heart of Darkness is not the tragedy of the human cost to the Congolese of their occupation and exploitation. That’s just breaking eggs while making an omelette. The tragedy is that having to do terrible things hardens and brutalises the Europeans who do them.

Kurtz is a noble figure undone by his isolation in the heart of darkness. That darkness, that savagery, for Conrad/Marlow remains within us even in 1899 when Europe has long since climbed into the light. By descending back into it we risk reawakening the darkness in our own hearts, and becoming lost in it.

In the end I found this an ugly novel. Not ugly for the reasons I expected, but because it isn’t so much a searing indictment of colonialism as it’s an adventure yarn with a level of racism I’ve rarely seen in any fiction (and I’ve read a fair bit from this period). I’ll link below to an essay by Chinua Achebe with which I largely agree and which addresses the racism of the text far better than I ever could, but here’s one final quote to show how it crops up not just in the characters’ language but in the very descriptions of the local people:

Suddenly the manager’s boy put his insolent black head in the doorway, and said in a tone of scathing contempt –

“‘Mistah Kurtz – he dead.’

His “insolent black head”. The familiar language of prejudice and disdain.

The reason I recommend reading Youth with this is partly that it’s a fun story but more importantly that I think it undermines Heart’s status. Youth and Heart both consist of Marlow telling a story of dangerous and memorable adventure. The foreword notes that Youth is far less psychologically complex, and that’s true, but I wondered if for Conrad these were broadly similar nautical tales of adventure. Heart includes powerful elements of reportage and a degree of stylistic improvement, but it’s not a fundamentally different animal to Youth..

Heart’s critical acclaim came decades after its publication. It’s now an accepted part of the canon, but I question that. It’s a good book, well written and powerful in its depiction of one of colonialism’s greatest horrors. It’s also one of the most dehumanising and racist texts I’ve read, and its lack of empathy for anyone in the narrative who isn’t white is why for me it fails to be a great book.

Other reviews

None I know on the blogosphere, though I’m sure I’ve missed some. Achebe’s essay for those interested is here. It’s worth reading even if you don’t agree, and as I say above goes into much more detail on the racist aspects of the novel (for example the contrast between Kurtz’ black mistress and his white wife left at home, one an unspeaking savage and the other noble and even spiritual).

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Filed under Conrad, Joseph