Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Getting into our Bones

On Sunday, in a secondhand bookshop's $1-$2 bin, I found two more books from the old Heinemann African Writers series. One was Peter Abrahams' Mine Boy, the other a book called The Future Leaders by Mwangi Ruheni. Abrahams is South African, Ruheni, Kenyan.

According to the blurb

Mine Boy is an early novel by Peter Abrahams. It tells of the story of Xuma, a countryman, in a large South African industrial city. And the impact on him of new ways and new values […] This was one of the first books which drew attention to the lives of black South Africans in a white-dominated country.

This 1979 edition is a reprint; Mine Boy was published for the first time in 1946.

Ruheni doesn't have a Wikipedia page, or much of a profile online, but a search for his name turned up a forum post that included this:

In my opinion the most underrated [Kenyan] writer is Mwangi Ruheni. He authored books like What a Husband, the Minister's Daughter, the Ivory Merchants etc quite a number of books but he is not as well known as his counterparts.

The opening lines of The Future Leaders are perhaps sarcastic, or else the narrator is very sincere and naive:

The speech was marvellous. It was getting into our bones like no other speech that we could remember. Whoever picked on Sir James Henderson, K.C.M.G., C.B., D.S.O., to deliver this speech today must be congratulated. Sir James definitely knows how to speak at a Graduation Ceremony.

My hope is that the Series is about to hand me another book as good as Daniachew Worku's The Thirteenth Sun. A lot of novels that try to sum up the State Of The Nation (any nation) are fat and panoramic, but Worku, who spends parts of his book riffing off Faulkner, works in a spirit of Modernist compression, boiling different areas of 1960s Ethiopian society down into separate characters and remarking on that society by bringing those people together. At the same time the characters operate as characters, that is, they seem to have independent life, they are not tied down to the symbolic roles the author has given them. The ending is hallucinatory and violent in a way that made me think of José Donoso's The Obscene Bird of Night. Most of the African books English-speaking readers read come from Nigeria or South Africa, and the storytelling is often straightforward, or, at least, restrained, plainspoken (Coetzee 's sentences are simple enough, even when his books aren't), but Thirteenth Sun has a feel I've been taught to expect from South American literature, as if the world is vibrating, transparent, preparing to leak. The author is willing to sound pessimistic and confused, too, he is willing to say, I, the author, am not all-powerful, I am not all-wise, I have many questions and few answers which takes confidence, and intelligence as well, and a regard for the truth that must have compelled him to look into himself and say, I really don't know everything, and it would be dishonest to say that I do, and so I must not.

Worku is never distanced, always earnest, passionate, and when the story ends with the characters trudging ridiculously and hopelessly though mud, his mind seems to be struggling through that same mud as well. This makes him a very different state-of-the-nation author from someone like Tolstoy, who ends War and Peace with an essay telling you what you should have learnt from the book you've just read, and, before that, a little lecture in peasant husbandry.

Worku died in 1994. The Thirteenth Sun was his only book in English. Flipping open a collection of A.A. Gill's travel essays in another secondhand shop on the same day that I discovered Mine Boy and Future Leaders, I found the capital city of his native country described as a huge slum.

No comments:

Post a Comment