Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Liberia: This Child Will be Great, by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

I couldn't find any fiction from Liberia, so instead I chose this memoir written by Africa's first female president. It was interesting to read, but more impersonal than I expected. Although there were some childhood memories, mostly it was an account of the author's political life and career, and of political events in the country. There were some interesting omissions. For instance, at one point the author spent nine months in prison. Blink and you could miss it. In one paragraph she was being imprisoned, and almost in the next sentence she was released again, with almost no indication of how she felt about her time in prison and how she coped.

She married very young and divorced her abusive husband when she was still young, with four sons. Near the end of the book, she explains why she did not marry again. She says that there were romances, and one very special friend, but no details are given.

Still, I learnt a lot about the country from the book. The author is just finishing her second six year term as president, and the book was written early in her presidency. (She was elected at the end of 2005 and the book was released in 2009, before she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011). It would be interesting to read a follow-up, with more details of how she succeeded - or not - in her goals, later in her presidency, and how she coped with the Ebola crisis. And - dare I say it - maybe some more personal insights?

"This Child Will be Great" (the title was taken from something an elderly man said to Ellen's mother) was published by Harper Collins.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

South Africa: Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes

Zinzi has a sloth which accompanies her everywhere she goes, draped on her back. She lives with other "animalled" outcasts in a Johannesburg slum known as Zoo City. Her talent is finding lost things, which she uses to earn her living, but when a job goes wrong she is engaged, reluctantly, to find a missing girl, and is drawn into a very dark and dangerous underworld revolving around the music industry.

This is fantasy but not of the usual sort which always seems to be set in a vaguely medieval type of world. The setting is in every way modern South Africa apart from the fantasy elements in which people who criminal acts become "aposymbiots" and at the same time acquire unusual, magical talents. It's dark, complicated and totally original. I could say it's not a genre I've been into much before - but then, it is not really a "genre" novel at all, bursting out of the confines of both fantasy and noir thriller.

Zoo City won the Arthur C Clarke award in 2011 - an award for the best science fiction novel published in English in the previous year. Which is interesting, since "science" is thin on the ground although perhaps the vaguely stated reasons for the onset of the condition of animal companionship qualify as "science". Be that as it may, the book's quality is certainly deserving of recognition. I'll be looking out for more of this author's work.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Ghana: Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

I resisted this book as my choice for Ghana for quite a while. Even though the author, Yaa Gyasi, was born in Ghana, she was raised in Alabama. Furthermore, the publicity material describes the book as "an intense, heartbreaking story of one family and through their lives the very story of America itself". I didn't want to read an American story, I wanted to read an African story. But I did want to read this book after seeing a lot of positive reviews, and when I did, I found that it is in fact an African story as much as it is an American story - I guess that it is not described that way for marketing reasons - the publishers thought that calling it "the story of America" would sell more books.

Effia and Esi are two sisters - half sisters, in fact - in Ghana in the late eighteenth century. One of them marries a white man, a slave trader in Cape Coast. The other is sold into slavery. The novel follows seven generations of their descendants and all the twists and turns of their lives. It is a stunning novel. There is nothing stereotypical about any of the characters. In America, after escaping via the underground railroad, Esi's grandson Kojo marries a free woman, Anna. And yet heartbreakingly, she is captured by those hunting runaway slaves in the north, and her son H is born into slavery again. After slavery ends, he is convicted for, as far as I could tell, looking at a white woman, and sent as a convict to labour in coal mines. Eventually his descendants return to the north, to New York, but their struggles do not end there.

Effia's son becomes an heir to his uncle, a "Big Man"in his tribe. But her grandson James Richard wants nothing more than to marry the girl he has set his heart on, and manages to disappear in a tribal war to contrive this. So his descendants, too, know struggles and poverty. Furthermore, they are haunted by dreams of the "fire woman" who is deeply connected with their family history.

Eventually the two branches of the family come together, without realising their connection. The ending could have seemed contrived, but didn't. It is a thoroughly satisfying story, and one that revealed as much to me about the colonial history of Ghana as about the history of African Americans.

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Finland: The Winter War, by Philip Teir

After I brought this home from the library, I wondered at my choice when I saw Philip Teir described as a "Finland Swede" on the dust jacket. But it turns out that he was indeed born in Finland and grew up there - there is a considerable Swedish speaking community in parts of western Finland, something that I had not previously realised (but which makes perfect sense, given the proximity of the two countries).

The first sentence is attention grabbing: "The first mistake that Max and Katriina made that winter - and they would make many mistakes before their divorce - was to deep-freeze their grandchildren's hamster." The book then jumps back in time a few months, and chronicles the lives of Max and Katriina, their daughters Helen and Eva, and other family members. Eva is an art student trying to find her way at art school in London. Eva is married to Christian and has two children. Max's mother is elderly and frail. Max is a sociology professor writing a book which has been a long time coming to fruition. He meets one of his former students, Laura, in a chance encounter and invites her to his sixtieth birthday part where his publisher suggest she help Max with his book. This leads to his having an affair with her.

Actually I'm not sure that it should be called an affair. It doesn't seem to mean all that much to Laura, more just casual sex than a real relationship. By the time I finished the book I didn't really have a lot of sympathy for Max, who seemed to be the author of his own downfall. It's a genre of book that I don't read much - stories of modern life with not much of the weird or unusual about it (despite the opening sentence) but it was well written enough that I found it more absorbing than I expected. The epigraph is a quote by August Stridberg: "And yet those trivial matters were not without significance in life, because life consists of trivial matters", which seemed a very apposite choice, after reading the book.

The Winter War was translated from Swedish by Tiina Nunnally and published by Serpent's Tail, an imprint of Profile Books Ltd (London) in 2015.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Papua New Guinea: Tabu, by Moses Maladina

A search of our library's online catalogue revealed several novels set in Papua New Guinea - but as one was written by a New Zealander, and one by an Australian, that left me with Moses Maladina's Tabu. Moses Maladina is (or was in 2003) a senior government minister in Papua New Guinea, with a background in agriculture, law and business. He served as Papua New Guinea's High Commissioner to New Zealand from 1998 - 2002.

Like my choice for Benin, the book deals with the exploitation of the resources of third world countries, and with an inter-racial love affair. However, I found this one a lot easier to read. It is set both in 1933 and in 1997, and alternates between the two to tell the story of Elizabeth Castleton, the young wife of an Australian newly arrived in Port Moresby to work in the Australian administration there, and of her lover, the Papuan Sitiveni (Stephen). At that time such relationships were forbidden, and the White Women's Protection Act rendered any native who had relationships with a white woman liable to harsh punishment. Elizabeth falls pregnant, and leaves for Australia and thence England where she makes a career for herself and brings up her daughter alone.

In 1997 after Elizabeth's death, her grandson Edward travels to Port Moresby both to find out the truth about his grandfather, and to investigate a business deal - which turns out to be a rather shady deal involving mercenaries and the recapture of a gold mine on the island of Bougainville from rebel forces. This story is apparently based on real events.

In "As She Was Discovering Tigony", my choice for Benin, the Frenchwoman Dorcas rushed so precipitately into an affair with an African man that it made no sense to me (the actual relationship later on appeared to be sound, but I couldn't see how it started, especially since she was an older, professional woman). In this book on the other hand, the story arc in which the lonely young woman with little to do falls for the native policeman who has been tasked with showing her around the island proceeds on a much more understandable basis. Although sometimes I felt like shaking Elizabeth for her incredible naivety and selfishness in exposing Sitiveni to the huge risk of discovery.

In 1997 although the country is independent, and the harsher laws no longer exist, many of the locals are still impoverished, and the country appears to still be run for the benefit of wealthier nations and their exploitation of its rich resources of gold, oil and fish. I did feel that the book was written more to raise these issues than to tell a good story - but it was well done and the storyline was quite strong despite the issues being clearly expressed.

Tabu was published by Steele Roberts Limited (Wellington, New Zealand) in 2003.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Azerbaijan: Solar Plexus, by Rustam Ibragimbekov

I waited quite a while for this book. While I found Kurban Said's Ali and Nino in our library catalogue, I felt that it had been published too long ago to represent modern Azerbaijan. It was published in 1937 at a time when Azerbaijan was part of Soviet Russia.

Some searching on the internet eventually turned up a reference to Rustam Ibragimbekov's novel, which turned out to be somewhat expensive, however I was able to get our library to buy it and eventually it arrived.

This book is subtitled "A Baku Saga in Four Parts". It tells the story of a group of friends who grow up in houses built around the same courtyard in a street in Baku, following them through some turbulent times in Azerbaijani history, culminating in the early days of independence in the 1990s. Each of the four sections focuses on a different member of the group. Throughout, we see them balancing self interest with their friendships, as they take various actions including betrayals to get ahead and just to survive. Baku is an ancient city and the book speaks of its culture, but also of how it is changing and becoming rough and lawless. There are glimpses of the economy which is built on oil.

The second section was the most difficult for me. This section focuses on Marat, who has stayed in his courtyard apartment when all the other inhabitants have left. Because of nearby quarrying, it is doomed to be pulled down. There are passages in italics which at first I thought were dreams, then perhaps flashbacks, and eventually I wondered if they were a mix of both.

It wasn't until the third and the fourth sections that I gradually began to understand how all the events described related to each other, and all the loose plot ends began to be tied together. By the end of the book, I felt I had enjoyed it, and been somewhat enlightened about contemporary Azerbaijan, even though I had been slightly tempted in the second section to give up (but didn't, owing to the lack of alternatives).

Rustam Ibragimbekov was born in Baku in 1939. He is an internationally award-winning screenwriter, dramatist and producer. In 1994 his film Burnt by the Sun was awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes and an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. (The narrator of the fourth section, Seidzade, is a writer of novels and screen plays, and I wondered if he was a somewhat autobiographical figure).

Solar Plexus was translated from Russian by Andrew Bromfield and published in 2014 by Glagoslav Publications.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Bhutan: The Circle of Karma, by Kunzang Choden

I'm always wary when there seems to be only one book available from any country. The quality can vary. And this one sounded not quite my cup of tea - talk of "karma" and other spiritual concepts somewhat taken over by the Western new-agers tended to put me off.

My misgivings however were, to my pleasure, proved wrong. The book is the first novel written in English by a Bhutanese writer. And yet it read well, the English being of a higher standard than that in many of the translations I have read, where the translator should know their native language. The narration is simple and straightforward, telling the story of the life of a Bhutanese woman, Tsomo. When her mother dies in childbirth, her life changes. The book follows through all the twists and turns in her life, as she marries, loses her first husband to her sister, and later marries again. But all along she has desired to study religion and eventually she becomes a nun. This is a society where religion is the only type of learning. Her father has tutored young boys in his home, but as a girl, this was denied to Tsomo.

We see both the benefits and drawbacks of the simple life - the superstition and the useless rituals. For instance, the only treatment for a difficult childbirth is too feed the spirits and ask them to go away.

The book is a fascinating insight into the culture of this tucked away Himalayan kingdom, and also shows the changes than gradual modernisation brings to Tsomo's life - the building of roads, the coming of Western medicine.

While it would be good to have more books available from this nation, if I had had to choose from several, I would have been happy to have chosen this one.