Monday, November 29, 2010

All about Angola

In my South African youth, Angola was a fascinating, familiar, forbidden place, at once dangerously close and impossibly far.

A neighbouring country which I wasn't allowed to visit, at first because of the nebulous 'Border War' that South Africa was involved in during the seventies (when many of my white male contemporaries were secretly transported over there, whether they liked it or not, as army conscripts), and then because of the devastating civil war dragging on for three decades.

I was therefore delighted to meet Angolan author José Eduardo Agualusa a few years ago at an international writers' gathering - finally someone who could tell me about Angola from the inside - and even more delighted when I started reading his novels. The Book of Chameleons is thrillingly original with it reptilian narrator, winning the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2007 and drawing favourable comparisons with Kafka: 'Not since Gregor Samsa's metamorphosis have we had such a convincing non-human narrator,' was the conclusion of the Independent.

The next one I read, I liked even more. Creole is a historical novel about a Portuguese aristocrat and adventurer who travels through untamed Angola and colonial Brazil, meeting slaves and slave-owners and abolitionists and witch-doctors along the way, some of them 'real' and others fictional, all quite extraordinary. The most unforgettable character is the former slave-girl, Ana Olimpia Vaz de Caminha, believed to be the most beautiful woman in the world, with whom the Portuguese aristocrat falls hopelessly in love. This novel was awarded the Portuguese Grand Prize for Literature and the influential Spanish newspaper El Pais called it 'one of the most powerful and most beautiful arguments against a stereotyped vision of Africa'. High praise, indeed.

Earlier this year I met up with the author again in Lisbon - he now divides his time between Angola, Brazil and Portugal - and he was kind enough to give me his two latest novels published in English. Rainy Season, an autobiographical journalist's investigation into the disappearance of a fictional Angolan poet and historian in 1992, against the backdrop of thirty years of war, was originally published in 1996 and only translated last year by Agualusa's usual collaborator, Daniel Hahn. The Translator's Diary included at the end of the novel, consisting of a blog that Hahn kept while working on the translation, is a fascinating piece of reading in itself; enlightening to 'ordinary' readers and absolutely irresistible to anyone with an interest in translating.

After reading My Father's Wives, I told the author that this is my favourite - but I'd better add 'so far', since I seem to like each of his books a little more than the previous one. Once again it's the story of a journey, this time of a contemporary character, Laurentina, a young Portuguese woman travelling through Angola, Namibia, South Africa and Mozambique, to try and find out more about a father she never knew. The father figure is a famous Angolan musician, Faustino Manso, who died leaving at least seven wives and eighteen children scattered across southern Africa, and during her journey Laurentina discovers many brothers and sisters and other family members. Or so she thinks...

There's a wonderful twist at the end that lifts the story above any accusation of macho swaggering - and some really impressive female characters. Agualusa is apparently that rare thing: an African writer with a Latin-American connection who can create strong and believable female protagonists from book to book.

No wonder an impressive real-life African woman like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the young award-winning author of Half of a Yellow Sun, recently named him as one of her favourite writers. If you love Adichie's work but don't know Agualusa yet, do get hold of one of his books. Who knows, it might just be the start of another beautiful literary friendship.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

As he lay dying...

Novels about old white men dying - and reminiscing about their dreary lives - are usually not cheerful reading. But sometimes, just sometimes, such a novel can become a transcendental literary experience.

Ever since William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying (in which the dying/dead protagonist is a woman), this fictional road has been well travelled. Of course, not all writers who try to follow in Faulkner's footsteps have his talent, so when I come across one of these as-I-lay-dying stories that really grips me, I am always relieved and grateful. Recently I was fortunate enough to read two such novels in consequence. Bliss. Pure bliss.

I knew that Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and Tinkers by Paul Harding had both won the Pulitzer Prize (Robinson in 2005 and Harding this year), but this scrap of literary knowledge didn't prepare me for the impact of the two books. Both deal with death and dying, with sin and mercy and forgiving and other moral issues, and both are brilliantly written.

Harding's protagonist, George Washington Crosby, is a retired teacher who used to tinker with antique clocks, dying of cancer and kidney failure in a hospital bed in the middle of his living room, surrounded by his family. Robinson's narrator, John Ames, is an old preacher with a failing heart in the Mid-West town of Gilead, who writes a letter to his young son, knowing he will never see the child grow into an adult. Neither George Crosby nor John Ames has led an exceptionally interesting or adventurous life - and yet their stories are spell-binding.

Of the two books, I preferred Gilead. Not that Tinkers isn't an absolutely worthy read; it's just that I found Gilead more moving - although for the life of me I can't understand why it touched me so deeply. It is a 'religious' novel, in many ways, and I am not a 'religious' person, in most ways. Nowadays I mostly want to run and hide when I hear the word 'religion' because it reminds me of Tea Party zealots in the USA and their Muslim counterparts in Pakistan or Iran or elsewhere. But in this book I encountered that rare breed, a profoundly moral character, who can give unreligious souls like me renewed respect for religion.

Robinson is not what you would call a prolific author. She waited more than twenty years after her highly acclaimed debut novel, Homecoming, before publishing this second one. Perhaps the long wait produced the amazing grace of Gilead, the calm reflection, the spiritual insight, the pure wisdom. Perhaps I should stop trying to explain my reaction to this extraordinary book and simply urge you to read it - and see for yourself.

Both Gilead and Tinkers are proof that old white men dying can still be unforgettable characters in great books. Glory hallelujah.