Short Story #41. Faeries of the Nile (Mansoura Ez-Eldin)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the king of spades.

Story: Faeries of the Nile, by Mansoura Ez-Eldin [in The Granta Book of the African Short Story] (translated from the Arabic by Raphael Cohen)

Comments: Mansoura Ez-Eldin is an Egyptian writer and journalist.  In this story she explores the responses of a woman trapped in a very limited situation: physical poverty, a betraying and abusive husband, the death of their only son.  The “river faeries” sing to the woman, entrance her, seduce her, and she succumbs…  One critic says that it is a story about sexual repression, but I think that it points to much more than just sexual desire.  It is about the woman’s desire for freedom, for self-determination, for a voice.  The story itself gives the woman, Zeenat, no voice: it is told from the points of view of an omniscient narrator, and of the husband.

There are some great phrases: “my wife cried a lot, at her mother’s direction”; “She obeys me as if castigating me with obedience”.

The Guardian’s reviewer found the story “incredibly dated”, and Think Africa Press said it “show[s] a little too strongly the influence of past generations and styles… Faeries of the Nile is a story in the tradition of tiresome magical realism”.  But I agree more with the Goodreads reviewer who calls it “a great piece of imaginative literature” and other more positive reviews.  I would be happy to read more by this author.

#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

Short Story #28. Passion (Doreen Baingana)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the queen of diamonds.

Story: Passion, by Doreen Baingana (from The Granta Book of the African Short Story)

Comments: This is perhaps the best story I’ve read in this collection so far.  It is told in the person of Rosa, a seventeen-year-old high school student in boarding school in Uganda, who decides to conduct a juju experiment on her (male) English literature teacher – ostensibly because she is rebelling against the anti-juju teaching that is being hammered into the students, but in reality because she is a seventeen-year-old girl/woman fascinated with sex, men, passion.  How the teacher deals with her not-very-subtle [except to her] attempt to seduce him, encouraging her, in a slightly clumsy but effective way, to channel her passion elsewhere, via literature, makes this a classic rite-of-passage or coming-of-age story.

The author captures the voice of a seventeen year old girl excellently, with just the right mixture of alleged boredom with school and disdain for her so uncool teachers (admitting, nevertheless, a certain amount of respect for them), rebelliousness, fascination with sex and sexuality, and independent thoughtfulness.  The dialogue with her classmates is as authentic as the passages which take place in Rosa’s head.

I had no idea when reading the story that it is from a collection of interlocking stories, Tropical Fish: Stories out of Entebbe, involving three sisters (Christine, Rosa, and Patti) and their experience of growing up in Uganda in the years immediately after the rule of Idi Amin.  The story certainly stands very well on its own.  But I’m now interested in reading the whole collection.

#41. Acts of Faith (Philip Caputo)

Book: Acts of Faith, by Philip Caputo

Genre and Year of Publication: War fiction; 2006

Where I got it: The Open Door used book shop (read between January and August; reviewed in October)

Length: 688 pages

Briefly, it’s a novel set in Sudan (now South Sudan) during the 1990s, about the ambiguity of foreign (particularly American) aid to the civilian victims of the civil war.

Comments: This book got rave reviews in the press (Caputo was compared to Graham Greene, inter alia), but the reviews from regular readers on Goodreads are more nuanced.  I’m with the latter.  At almost 700 pages this is a giant book – dare I suggest that a more skilled writer might have been able to convey the story and the message in 500?  That the author felt the need to include a two page character list indicates complexity.  I frequently wasn’t sure, especially at the beginning, who was who.  The themes are fascinating, but I was frequently bored, putting the book down for long periods at a time.  The love affairs in particular are unconvincing, and I found the very last scene in the book particularly unconvincing.  There’s violence, sex, mixed motives, death, unforeseen consequences, politics, religion, love, hate, heat and more in this book.  I’m glad I read it, but more for the feeling of accomplishment at having finished it that for actual enjoyment of the reading itself.

Challenges: Full House Challenge for the category “Published before 2013”

Short Story #26. Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals (Yvonne Vera)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the three of clubs.

Story: Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals, by Yvonne Vera (in The Granta Book of the African Short Story)  [Read in July; re-read and reviewed in October]

Comments: The online articles which top the list in a Google search for Yvonne Vera will tell you that she is renowned for her strong female characters – but this story features two men.  One is a carver, the other a painter, and they both sit and work outside an Africans-only hospital (in Vera’s native Zimbabwe, formerly Southern Rhodesia), producing cheap items to sell to those going in and out.  The carver carves elephants and giraffes, “bringing the jungle to the city”.  A central part of the story involves a somewhat philosophical discussion about the competition between the elephant and the giraffe for the highest leaves on the trees, which the giraffe accesses by his long neck and the elephant by his strength and long tusks.  The animals which the carver makes are lifeless, and he knows it.  He has never seen in reality the animals that he carves.  The painter’s work, on the other hand, is full of life, as he adds details of a couple eating ice-cream to a picture of the Victoria Falls – though he too has never seen the Falls in reality.

So – talent and attitude are what bring vibrancy, more than experience or opportunity (or the lack of it)?  Perhaps this is one theme in this story?  This could also be behind the giraffe /elephant competition-for-highest-leaves theme, though most commentators seem to relate it only to the politics of Zimbabwe at the time.

Yvonne Vera died in 2005 at the age of 40.  Her mother subsequently wrote her biography, which would surely be an interesting read: http://www.mazwi.net/reviews/mother-writes-yvonne-veras-biography

#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

Short Story #25. Homecoming (Laila Lalami)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the nine of diamonds.

Story: Homecoming, by Laila Lalami [from The Granta Book of the African Short Story]

Comments: “Hold on,” I thought, when I checked the title listed against the nine of diamonds, “haven’t I read that story already?  Quite recently, in fact?”  But no, when I double-checked, everything was in order.  The first story I read was The Homecoming, by Namibian Milly Jafta, this is Homecoming, by Moroccan Laila Lalami.  The protagonist in this story is a young man, Aziz, who has been working for five years in Spain as an illegal immigrant, and now returns home.  His mother and his wife want him to stay, but he has not saved enough to start a business at home.  He wants his wife to return to Spain with him, but she doesn’t want to go.  And as he stays for a little while, he begins to see that in fact it wouldn’t work out… home looks different than he has remembered, he has changed, there is a new gap between him and his loved ones.  Eventually he prepares to return to Spain alone.

A thoughtful, tense, touching story.  I have this author on my list of African writers to watch out for in future.