#50. For Bread Alone (Mohamed Choukri)

Book: For Bread Alone, by Mohamed Choukri; translated from the Arabic by Paul Bowles

Genre and Year of Publication: Autobiography; English translation 1973

Where I got it: The Open Door used book shop

Length: 168 pages

Briefly, it’s the autobiography / memoir of a boy born into a poor family in Morocco in 1935, who experiences extreme hardship, including near-starvation; runs away from his violent father at age 11 and becomes a street-kid, involved in stealing, smuggling and prostitution; and at age 20 meets [in jail] someone who encourages him to learn to read and write.  (He later went on to be professor of Arabic Literature at Ibn Batuta College in Tangier, but the book stops at age 20; later books take up the story).

Comments: I bought this book in a second-hand shop specifically with the African reading challenge 2014 in mind.  But then I avoided it for several months, fearing the theme, not wanting to read about poverty and hardship, not wishing to get emotionally wrecked by the desperation described in the blurb.  However, when I did pick it up and open the cover, I whizzed through the book and did not find it at all emotionally manipulative.  Quite the contrary, it is rather understated.  The author lets the facts speak for themselves.  He does not try to impose his own adult, educated conclusions on the events surrounding his youth.  Neither is he, apparently, angry or self-pitying. 

This book was banned in Morocco from 1983 to 2000.  It is not difficult to see why.  No country, let alone a Muslim country, would be happy to see an account of one of its youths involving frequent near-starvation (one of the hardest parts of the book to read is about the starving teenager diving into sewage-filled water to retrieve and eat bread that someone had thrown away), sex, alcohol, and drugs.  And there is a LOT of sex.  From the (relatively innocent – ?) pre-pubescent boy who climbs a tree to spy on a girl bathing naked, to fantasies about various older women, to masturbation, sex with prostitutes, sex as a prostitute, sex with a tree (yes)… But while there is a lot of it, the scenes are not overly drawn-out nor especially graphic.

I find it strange that an error which went uncorrected in the translator’s introduction should be copied in various reviews around the internet without comment or note.  The lines read: “Choukri grew up under conditions of poverty excessive even for Morocco.  Eight of his brothers and sisters died of malnutrition and neglect.  Another brother was killed outright by Choukri’s father in an access of hunger and desperation.”  In the last line, the word should, of course, be “excess”, not “access”.

One of the lines which most struck me in the book concerned the death of one of the other siblings.  Choukri writes, “One day my little brother Achor died.  His death left me with no feeling of regret.  I had heard him crying and seen him crawling, but I had never thought of him as another person.”

It is all too easy not to think of certain people, or classes of people, as persons.  Choukri’s story certainly makes him a very real person, though if I had met him as youth I would probably have tried to avoid him, or not to connect with him.

Challenges: Africa Reading Challenge 2014; non-fiction reading challenge

#35. The Yacoubian Building (Alaa Al Aswany)

Book: The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa Al Aswany

Genre and Year of Publication: Fiction, 2004

Where I got it: Bought in The Open Door used book shop (paperback, translated from Arabic) (read in July; reviewed in October)

Length: 256 pages

Briefly, it weaves together the stories of the lives of various people who live in the same apartment complex in contemporary Cairo.

Comments: I first came across Alaa Al Aswany through his short story “Mme Zitta Mendès, a Last Image” in The Granta Book of the African Short Story, and when I saw this book in the used book store I immediately picked it up.  It wasn’t exactly an easy read, but it was a worthwhile one.  The interlocking stories of the various residents of this once upmarket but now pretty run-down building portray all kinds of human situations.  The limited options of many people, and the consequent fatalism or despair into which they fall are realistically portrayed.  Most eye-opening for me, was the depiction of the young man who becomes involved in an extremist Islamic movement – eye-opening because credible.

I’ll be passing this book on to someone else to enjoy.

Read the Goodreads comments for more insightful reviews.

Challenges: 2014 Africa Reading Challenge

#14. Sardines (Nuruddin Farah)

Book: Sardines, by Nuruddin Farah

Genre: Fiction

Where I got it: Borrowed from the local library

Length: 250 pages

Briefly, it’s the second, but independent, book of a trilogy entitled “Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship” – though the edition which I read (Heinemann, African Writers Series, 1981) does not mention this. Perhaps the over-arching title was applied retrospectively?  The “African Dictatorship” is Somalia (under Siad Barre, though he is never named).  “Sardines brilliantly combines a social commentary on life under a dictatorship with a compassionate exploration of African feminist issues”, says the Goodreads site.

Comments: This was not an easy read.  The prose is highly metaphorical, in a somewhat self-conscious way.  Characters think and speak in paragraphs of metaphor.  One of the many literary references in the book is to Flann O’Brien’s “At-Swim-Two-Birds”, and that’s the kind of style that can be found here. Several times I nearly gave up.  It was – well, heavy. 

I admit that before coming to this book I had almost NO knowledge of Somalia.  The name of the country evoked a 1970’s famine-relief-agency poster of a starving child in a poor East African country, that’s all.  I didn’t know anything about the Siad Barre regime, or anything else about Somalia either.  I do now, but it’s more from reading about this book, trying to get some background information to help me understand what this was all about, than from Sardines itself.

I had a lot of questions about this work, above all, whether the characters and the relationships supposed to be authentic?  I didn’t find them so, but maybe they’re not supposed to be.  (Is the girl, Ubax, supposed to be a real eight-year-old, or just a literary device?  Because sometimes she seems more like a five-year-old, and at others she is portrayed with the understanding of a teenager.  Does a young woman who suspects that she is pregnant as a result of a one-night-stand really not cry, or worry, or panic, but simply wax politically philosophical?  Why does swimming training seem to play so tiny a role in the life of a national swimming champion?)  To appreciate the book, or to evaluate it fairly, I would need to read it again.  And I can’t honestly see myself doing that any time soon.

Challenges: Africa Reading Challenge; I Love Library Books challenge.

2014 Africa Reading Challenge

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It’s totally reckless of me to join another challenge – but here goes.  I can’t get this one out of my mind.

The Africa Reading Challenge is hosted by Kinna at KinnaReads; signup post is here.

The goal is to read five (or more) books “which are written by African writers, or take place in Africa, or are concerned with Africans and with historical and contemporary African issues”.  At least three books must be written by African writers.

I’ve just started reading The Granta Book of the African Short Story, so that will be one of my books.

Unread on my shelf at the moment are Acts of Faith, by Philip Caputo (set in Sudan, by an American author) and The Water House, by Antonio Olinto (set in Nigeria, by a Brazilian author).  I aim to include either or both of these.

For the others, I’m thinking of A Question of Power, by Bessie Head (South Africa); Sardines, by Nurudin Farah (Somalia); Ancestor Stones, by Aminatta Forna (Sierra Leone); and On Black Sisters Street, by Chika Unigwe (Nigeria).  But it may be others!