Monday, 8 February 2016

"On the Bank of the River" by Ifeoluwa Adeniyi

On the Bank of the River is a mesh of narratives. Enitan’s story hatches other stories, weightier stories. And characters in their different shades.  Though the story, for me, didn't start up with the desired pace, I find consolation in the fact that I pressed on. And I did get to that point where putting the book down became a huge challenge. This anticipation, you should note, is not because there is a tinge of novelty in the plot. NO!  It gets to a stage in the build up of the plot where you can without mincing words link some loose ends in the story. It is a love story. But not just a love story; the intricacies therein are nothing short of magical. You should read this book for its dissimilarity with Africa Magic.

Love could look so simplistic, so ordinary until it is subjected to the crucible of life's complexities. Love is not love until the dross finally comes off the face of the silver. Until you have fought with every will within to assert who or what your heart really wants to follow. That doesn't mean situations you would rather have stuff in the ass of any of the world's malcontents won't rear their horned Grendel's heads. Matters of the heart are really complex. 

On the bank of a river, we find the concept of home play out as both young and old in Obade ascribe a considerable amount of value to the river in their village. It doesn't just serve a recreative purpose; it is a home. A home transcends piles and piles of blocks set on some firm base. It's a place of solace, a place where every arm around, visible or non-visible pulls you into the warmth of reassuring embraces. On the Bank of the River has shown that home could be anything. Anybody. Anywhere. For Enitan, the concept of home can only be linked to her auntie, Jibike, as well as the river.

Enitan. She could have passed as the centre of the plot. She isn't. Her life is only a platform for which the complexity of humanity can be put on display. Enitan is the present that leads us back to the past. We don't know who Enitan is until her past, before her birth, is unravelled. Enitan is the reason we meet the like of Adeoye, a promising young doctor, Asake, and her sister, Jibike, Mama Yeye, their aunt and their recessive father figure. 

On the Bank of the River is narrated in snips of alternating times. You have references being made to the Nigeria of the 70s and 90s. In fact, a couple of chapters are years. The temporal setting of this novel is sensitive to the socio-political situation of the country at such times. The military rule in the country in the 90s does not escape mention in the novel. This reminds me of Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah and the treatment meted out to journalists therein. It's the same thing in Adeniyi's book. Paul and Nomenclature (Adeoye) are both victims of this. You remember Achebe's Ikem and Chris? Beatrice? If you haven't met these guys, fix a date with them, you really need to.

Resistance does not necessarily have to be a grand thing. It starts from the seeming trivial things. There is a bit of racism that reflects in the relationship between Adeoye, his uncle's wife, Angela and the trio of Root, Stem and Xylem. Having to call humans Root, Stem and Xylem is a thingification of their persons. Significance is attached to this naming act considering the source it comes from: Angela. Angela, Adeoye's uncle's wife is white and earlier in the novel we see her argue vehemently with Adeoye on issues of race and colonialism. However, a little but significant instance of resistance in the novel passes a message across:

'''Xylem?'' Adeoye repeated the name, and then said it again, remembering his elementary biology.
''That is out of the ordinary.''
Angela replied, ''I just love 'xylem' as a word, that's why. But I never call him that because he hates it.'
''How was he able to get away from that?''
''When a man makes bold enough to say no, you cannot force a name down his throat...''' [Emphasis mine](203-204)

In a generation that is trying all it can to go back to its roots, what Ifeoluwa Adeniyi does with language is laudable. I appreciate that the diction amply reflects her culture. She flexes her cultural muscle well in the book. My only issue with this feat is the italicization of indigenous words. African literature ought to have risen beyond this, I think. We should not ascribe triviality to such things as this. Let's put our cultures on display. It isn't wrong for a reader who doesn't understand what a word means to consult the gods of cyberspace. If we must italicize every indigenous word that features in our works, then the indigenous names too ought to be captured, slant. It must be said, by the way, that Adeniyi's language brings delight. I watch out for language a lot and she does not fail to deliver. Here are some:

“Whilst the moon glowed and the cool breeze took its toll on the flesh, Asake began to dance. That artistic wriggling warmed them all into a submission that made them still. Her body movements twisted with her back going back and forth in an endless rhythm. She controlled the beat with her body movements, tapping the ground with her legs as she danced. When she bent down in style, she stood up by shaking her buttocks to the rhythm of the song...At a particular point when she bent down, she danced round in that stance with an equal grace as though she was standing up...” (70)
And this:

“This woman who was not her mother made her smile and she knew her own mother could not even make her smile on the memories they shared, were she to die. After long episodes of memory-orchestrated smiles, Enitan let the torrents flow in a stream that if possible would bring the dead to life. The torrents were necessary to wash away the grief. The grief was necessary to sink in the reality. The reality was most important to live life again.” (106-107)
And I love the innuendo here:

            ''What do you mean by fresh and dry pepper?'' Nomenclature asked Jibike.
''The legal wives are the fresh ones now and the concubines are the dry ones,'' she replied.
Paul chuckled. ''Fresh pepper o., dry pepper o, they are both pepper. Maybe you should consider the properties of dried pepper that make it irresistible to men. First it is easy to use, no unnecessary rule, no time limits. they are also readily available. They could be more peppery, you only need to look around for a good one. You know what I mean?'' Jibike's husband collapsed in laughter at what Paul had said...
''The flavour the fresh one gives you is better. it has a good taste, a holy taste''... (239)
I don't have a doubt Ifeoluwa Adeniyi's next book is going to be definitely better. While I wait for that, I'll read On the Bank of the River again. You should have a first read if you haven't.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

"Shadow Self" by Paula Marais

Shadow Self is a good book. Somehow, I feel like saying that is an understatement. But what else can one say about a book one really loves? Each page you flip is an invitation to encounter creativity that delights. Sentences jump at you, sometimes they tickle you. And you find yourself helpless in their grip, laughing, at times shedding tears and wishing that something would make you remain in their world. Imagine this:

''And what else could I do? My matric was so poor there was no way I was going to university, not that I was interested. In class at school I had dreamt about travelling - Galapagos, Antarctica and Route 66. And when I wasn't doing that, I was thinking about Rajit and his naked body against mine in the back of his father's Honda Ballade. (It's amazing what you can get up to right under your parents' noses). I'd had no inclination at all to read my set works, and no patience with studying. History was dull, maths was incomprehensible, Afrikaans was tedious and I enjoyed the biology I was learning with Rajit a lot more than fungal spores and the life cycles of amphibians. Geography was my only saving grace.
But I was map reading my way out of there when I hit a dead end.'' (34-35)
Paula Marais is a gifted writer. The poetry and drama in her prose blows the reader away almost all the time. One can tell from the experience of reading Shadow Self that she will do well as a dramatist. Her characters' conversations are so racy one cannot just have enough of them. I love this:

''Are you out of your mind? Having Joe almost killed me. How can you be so selfish? If you really loved me you'd go for the snip and the subject will be closed.''
And I don't know why I couldn't just accept that and let it drop.
''It won't necessarily happen again, what you went through, I mean,'' I persisted. ''This time we'd be prepared.''
Thea's eyes blazed. ''I'm done with babies, Clay. Done. I'm done with night terrors, done with nappies, done with engorged boobs, and having to give up my life and my career for somebody else. I am making something of my life now. I'm happy. Why can't you be?''
''It's just - ''
''Just nothing. I love you, Clay. Passionately. I'd do just about anything for you, but I'm sorry - I can't go down that road again. It's taken all this time for me to find myself. If you have more love to give, get a dog, go work in an orphanage. I don't care, but I'm not having another baby suck the life out of me like a leech.''
''Wow,'' I said. ''A leech...A dog?''
''Well, you know what I mean.''
''A dog. Seriously?''
''Okay, so you're not a dog lover. Get a rabbit. A cat. Or volunteer at the Red Cross...'' (230)
Shadow Self has a dark plot. Its characters are constantly in a maze of messy situations. They are real. So real the reader finds himself in their every move. As they try to negotiate their escape route out of one trouble, they find themselves getting neck deep in another messy creek. No rest. You will almost cry for them, that's if you are strong-hearted. I am not; my eyes spat some water.

Shadow Self tells the story of Thea Middleton. Thea, at the beginning of the story, is cast in the light of an adopted kid. One finds out she isn't eventually. Thea, unlike her cancerous brother, Robbie, does not get the kind of attention she needs from her parents and thus tries to seek validation off the four walls of her family. She falls in love with Rajit, an Indian guy her parents disapprove of on the ground of racial disparities. Her pregnancy (of course, Rajit's the culprit) marks the start of her predicament. Refusing to leave Rajit and also to abort the baby earns her her mum's disownment. Her marriage to Rajit is far, too far from her expectation. So much parental intervention to struggle with and cultural chasms to bridge. 

There is abuse too. Paula Marais so crafts Thea's abuse in such a way that it isn't overtly stated but she tasks her reader to dig stuff out of her words though I wish she would have been more direct; abuse ought not to be masked. NO. Thea's second marriage shows the prospects of success until she has Clay's first child, Joe. And the struggle heightens. Postpartum disorder and a gruesome murder feature. And selves become their own shadows. Nobody goes through postpartum disorder and remains the same. The experience is just excruciating, even for a reader, especially one like me whose first encounter with postpartum disorder is in Shadow Self:

''But her face was redder and redder and she was opening her mouth like a suffocating fish. Then without any warning, she fell forward.. She landed on the linoleum floor. The chair crashed on top of her ankle. Thea yelped, then began to caterpillar along the floor to a corner, as I watched, horrified. When she reached the wall, she slithered upwards, banging her head against the plaster...
...she kept on banging her head on the rough wall, like a tantruming toddler. Over and over again. She was already bleeding from her forehead, her nose. Even her ear lobe was scraped from the uneven wall. And all the time these otherworldly noises coming from her throat. like a wolf baying...'' (214)
Shadow Self explores motherhood and in fact, a couple of other things about femininity. Motherhood and its many shades catch my attention. Thea's perspective about motherhood differs from her mother's and they are both altogether disparate from Asmita Ayaa's (Raj's mother). Thea's, though funny, will give one a jolt anytime. She's the woman that hates to have babies (she loves having her husband's full love instead) and she passes same to her daughter. Her postpartum disorder only catalysed Sanusha's inherited view.

Sanusha. Shadow Self is about a woman, Thea, one in whose story other women find their voices. Of these women, Sanusha is my favourite character. Gawd! I love Sanusha! Shadow Self is a bulky book but Sanusha gets me chortling all the time. I love child narration and I like that Paula's eclectic narrative technique doesn't exempt Sanusha's side to every slice of the tale. Sanusha reminds me of Lola Ogunwole in Sade Adeniran's Imagine This. Though a couple of things serve as parallels in the lives of Sanusha and her mum, she is different. She doesn't give a heck what others say about her; she is independent and not in dire search for approval. Very perceptive, Sanusha sees through other characters' lives and makes judgements, her own way. She grows through the plot but the vivacity in her narrations matures with her. Meet her:

''There's something kind of gross about knowing your mum's been doing it.
It's not like I don't know about the birds and the bees - isn't that a stupid way of putting it? I've looked up sex in the Encyclopaedia Britannica and there are pictures and everything. Not that I couldn't have worked it out on my own. Appa brings all sorts of women home and the noises they make at night aren't exactly soothing. But Clay's always seemed like a nice guy and I can't imagine him and, well, all that stuff. But there's mom, her tummy getting bigger and looking completely green as she eats whole pineapples to stop herself from puking.
And boy, is she grumpy. I'm doing my best, but she's a pain in the royal ass, getting me to do this, and do that, like being pregnant makes her handicapped. I mean, in some countries in the world, women give birth in the fields and then carry on working. So why is she always griping?'' (164).
A happy story doesn't make a good literature. But it takes expertise to write such an emotionally charged story Paula Marais. way. Paula Marais' is dark, sad but you don't just want to drop the book till you turn the last page. Though the plot seems disjointed at the beginning, different parts of the jigsaw start coming together with each character's account. Maximising the first person narrative technique this way helps the flow of the story and it allows causality and suspense play out well. However, it doesn't cover the many perspectives there are to the story. On account of this, I feel Rajit, Thea's mum and Auntie Annie are some of the characters that Paula Marais cheated. 

Editorial slips such as the following could have been avoided too:

''''Glad you enjoyed it.'' I wanted to hold her back resisted the urged to pull her hand. Her face. To kiss her.'' [Emphasis mine] (91)
''As the moon became clearer, I paced up and down the tiny patio liked a bee in a jar.'' [Emphasis mine] (149)

I will read Shadow Self again.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

“What About Meera” by Z P Dala

The truth is: so many things are about Meera. Meera is almost irredeemable. Life stings her anyhow. She should just die, the world hates her. But this Meera is strong. Through life's grit and grime, she ekes out a tawdry survival. Though somewhat distracting from the onset, this book intriguingly navigates the sorrow that is Meera. In biting more than necessary, What About Meera tries the reader’s patience. It packs so much together to bore. It is a Wikipedia and fiction all in one. I will later tell you why. With a troubled Meera, the reader comes in contact with other interesting issues. What About Meera seems like a descant on the many issues it labours to exhaustively deal with. The woeful result is the simplistic way many of them are left in. 

With a cyclical plot, What About Meera attempts an interesting narrative of the disturbed and the willed culpability of all. The story begins from Dublin, a foreshadowing that shows significant bits of Meera’s life. Durban follows after. Here, Meera’s life is interestingly built and you see the ill luck that assails her, her society and the Indians in South Africa. You are again taken to Dublin. This Dublin begins the narrative in the first Dublin and continues it. At Dublin, Meera seeks refuge. The last Durban shows the lapsing wick of everything.  In Meera’s society, class and gender segregations are rife. This book shows how innocence is squashed and spat out. There are tinges of Meera in everyone: the little voiceless girl, the embattled feisty youth, the troubled wife, the broken spinster. From Durban to Durblin, Meera is a pariah. Life in Dublin almost ensconces her. Ian is the comforter as she whiles away her wispy life working at Home for Autistic Children.

Amidst its many letdowns, What About Meera is an interesting story.  Z P Dala structures her novel in such a way that readers could pick off interesting tidbits. The Nepalese chapter makes for a captivating short story. In The Twisted Twins, Z P Dala draws you into the dampened world of autism. This part moved me. This novel is a genealogy of sorrows. Aside the lo-fi life of Meera, What About Meera is a collection of troubles early Indian descents in South Africa swarmed in. Meera is then a signpost of these many woes; that exemplary battered person of all the calamities facing her ilk. 

What About Meera fulfills tripodal roles: one is about the world of autism, this world rends the soul, the world of Stewart and the twisted twins; the other is about Meera and her numerous psycho-ills; the third, a deep-seated Indian caste system. You will appreciate this devious caste system well if you’ve read Arundathi Roy’s The God of Small Things and E.M. Forster's A Passage to India. Those books are good pieces on that theme. What About Meera’s attempt at showing the evils of this caste system seems almost shallow. However, in Meera-Rajesh relationship, Anusha-Vivek Patel flirty encounter and Haroon-Nisha marriage, Z P Dala manages to weave this class discrimination around her narrative. Underlining all social mishmashes in the book is this devious cultural segregation. It heightens Meera’s troubles. 

This sums up the beginning of Meera’s doom:

“Young, fresh, freshly pinched and fondled, not even nineteen years old. With a sharp mind, soft heart and a beauty that only a father could see. She must go.” (pg. 63)

This book is irritatingly informative. Z P Dala tends to over-feed the reader. A part of the book reads like a treatise on everything Indian in South Africa. The web is awash with such information. You want to know more about the Gujuratis? Google it. You want to see how the Indians were handled during Aparthied and post-Mandela release? Wikipedia is there. The reader does not always need fiction to know these things. The tired way Z P Dala goes into explaining what glue does smacked me here. I was put off. Do we really need this?

“Methylated spirits that are used to clean mirrors in rich people’s houses. Or to be drunk by the beggar street children from the bushes near High Chaparral, known to all at the Unit, where you can buy any drug you desire. Even methylated spirits…. The torn-clothed street boys walk to Dhanraj’s tuck-shop table to buy bottles of it for a fraction of the cost. Methylated spirits and sniffing glue fumes from a paper bag quells hunger for days.” (pg. 226)
If you do not know what sniffing glue does, you need Google not a novel. 

This book captivates you at moments like this: 

“‘Wait, just wait. Talk to me for a minute. I'm sorry it turned out that way. I was forced to marry Kajal. My parents heard I was speaking to you, they quickly found me a girl.'
'Do you love her?' Meera asked.
'I... I do, now, I've learnt to love her, to love my baby boy. I'm content.'
Well good for you, Meera thought.
'So what do you want with me?' she asked.
'Meera, even though I am married, maybe we, I mean maybe things can still happen between us...' Navin whispered and moved close to her, smelling her perfume. Hotel room? In the Big City?...
'What? So I'm not good enough to be your wife, but I'm good enough to be your mistress? You disgust me...'  “- (pg. 174)
Z P Dala shows how reality stings idealistic love here. Iqbal is indeed silly:

“Life was not poetry, Haroon knew. Life was divides, and hierarchy, and places where certain people did not belong. The girl came from rich, snobbish stock – the ones who felt above everyone else…
But Iqbal, with a head filled with love poems, didn’t see the divide. He only saw Rooksana’s benign, beautiful face, and knew with all certainty that she would be his…” (pg. 124-125)
Z P Dala is a promising writer. I want to read more from her.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

“The Story of Anna P, As Told by Herself” by Penny Busetto

“I wander down to Roman ruins. There is a bench and I sit down…
A man sits down on the bench beside me, a small round man with a bald head.
– Ma guarda quei gatti. He points and I follow the line of his finger to where two cats are mating.
– Gurda come le paice, alla gattacia. Look at how much she likes it, the filthy she-cat…
 – Anche tu gridi cosi? Do you also scream like that? I don’t reply.
He takes my hand and leads me to a crowded caffe across the road where he orders a grappa standing up at the counter. By now his arm is around my waist. He pays, drinks, and guides me to his car parked nearby. We get inside. He pulls me to him, already busy unbuttoning his fly, then pushes my head to his lap. I hear him gasp as he fills my mouth.
Before he is spent we are interrupted by a traffic policeman who knocks officiously on the window and tells us to move on. The man drives a short way to a park with a lake. From a public telephone booth he phones a friend and arranges to borrow his apartment for the afternoon. In exchange, he says, the friend can also have some fun.” (pg. 57)

This is not a usual book about abuse and the abused. This book chronicles pains in an interesting way. The point of view switches from the first person to second person personal pronouns to accommodate layers of horrors. It does not beg for cheap sympathy. Stories similar to Anna P’s are often cheaply relatable, they prematurely bleed you of strength and emotion. You don’t ask for a full narrative if your sister runs home abused, you lurch to avenge. Such is the common response stories of abuse glean from you. When they lack depth, they still spur you to act. The Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself is rather deep. It does not exert immediate response from the reader. It tasks the reader’s patience as it plunges the reader into the grim quiddity of Anna P’s life. With an efficient POV that runs in media res, Penny Busetto seems to worsen Anna P's victimhood. She pulls her about. In the Book of the Present, I loathed Anna P. She cuts across as dull, soft and pliable. Everything grows on her. Any stranger could dig into her cone, anytime, anywhere (see. pg. 41-42). She is empty. Her utter emptiness reminds one of Michael K in J.M Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K.  Anna P was beginning to repulse me until I understood her in the Book of Memory. In the Book of Memory, her story wrenches the heart. Book of the Future is a cul-de-sac. There, Anna P’s freedom edgily stretches her. 

When the Sugabelly-Audu narrative broke more than a month ago, we mocked her. We wished her back to her hellhole. What kind of a girl gets serially abused and still stays in it? We rationalized and questioned. This is one of the ways we attack the abused. This is crazy. We are mad. There is a clear similarity between the Sugabelly-Audu saga and Anna P’s. Psychological troubles are often generally misunderstood. We are stupidly quick to label them unusual. This world is reeking of many unashamed predators. The sooner we know this, the better for the emotionally tarred. Anna P’s mother is clueless and Anna P bears the brunt. 

In a simple yet assured prose, Penny Busetto bares the most dampened part of the human soul. With a character floating between loss and amnesia, The Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself investigates the extremity of sexual trauma. The life of this character is disturbing. Anna P freely lives on the pages, she does not give a F about the world. She does not take herself seriously. She does not wallow in the bespoke grief life causes the abused. She lives on a routine. Her life is a timetable. She seems not to need the world even as she yearns for it in Sabrina and Ugo. With a sedentary teaching job, Anna P lives a terribly lonely life as she is torn between worlds, between her past South Africa and present Italy.

“I am not sure any more how I ended up here on the island. I think I came to see the ruins and forgot to go back. The local school needed an English teacher and I was asked to stand in until the Ministry in Rome appointed someone.
But that was twenty years ago…
I am always filled with a yearning for something I can’t put my finger on or understand. At times the pain is so great that I wish I were a man and could pay a woman to hold me for a few hours, to make it pass. My body longs to be held and comforted, to know the warmth and softness of touch.” (pg. ix)
I am always wary of literatures that further stereotypical stories of places and their people. The Story of Anna P as, Told by Herself does that bad with the Italians. Most of the Italians appear daft. They are shown as bereft of simple civilities. In this book, sex wafts around unashamedly in Italy. This thickens the common discourse of Italy’s pervasive sexual bestiality. Nearly every male character in this book is a sexual predator. This is bad. From the hotelier, Ispettore Lupo, the stranger on the street, the random lift giver, and to Signor Cappi, everybody pines for Anna P’s sweet pile. This book tends to a subtle but destructive vilification of Italians. That one may consider this kind of narrative normal shows how insidious a single narrative could be.

Also, I find Anna P’s diary useless as she suffers amnesia. Isn’t a diary a sort of a reminder? In her Friday 9 November entry, she writes of buying a knife. A week after (Friday 16 November), she laments not knowing how she comes about the knife. And I began to wonder: does she write in scattered pages; can’t she flip through her diary to rescue herself; what’s the point of keeping a diary if not to help memory?

Friday 9 November
How much is it? I gesture towards the knife.
She names the price, doubled I am sure because of what she perceives is an English accent, the illusion of foreign wealth. I accept and draw out the money. She wraps the knife carefully first in tissue paper, then in wedding gift wrap, white with silver wedding bells and the words Tanti Auguri, Congratulations, repeated over and over…” (pg. 45)
Memory fails her here:

Friday 16 November
I open my handbag and catch sight of a small parcel wrapped in white-and-silver paper. For some reason the sight bothers me. Without removing it from my bag I unwrap. Inside it is a knife. I touch it, running my hand along the handle, touching the hard cold blade. I wonder where it comes from.” (pg. 57)
What is the point of the diary please? This is the issue I have with the diary.

The Story of Anna P as Told by Herself is an interesting book. Read it.