Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Book 62, Namibia: “The Purple Violet of Oshaantu” by Neshani Andreas

I’m going to be as brief as possible, because I’ve got way too much on my plate tonight. I’m trying to finish a performance art text for a Japanese artist based in Vienna, and tomorrow I’m performing in a sketch at the Esplanade for NYU Tisch Asia. (Yes, my opportunities sometimes arise from very strange places.)

Anyhow, this is a pretty good book. Not a must-read, but a gentle insight into the complexities of women’s society in late 1990s rural Africa: wife-beating, vicious relatives, markets, thieves, miner husbands, Christian pastors and pagan wise women. Nothing very exotic or political, which of course is a political statement in itself.

The story’s about a lady named Kauna whose husband Shange dies on her suddenly. Given that Shange was an abusive, cheating, lying prick of a bastard she can’t find it within herself to mourn him – she’s more worried about the fact his relatives may think she’s killed him via poison or witchcraft (the belief that you can harm someone by just wishing it is very strong in the narrative). Through the bulk of the book, when everyone’s busying themselves with grand funeral preparations, she does herself an anti-Antigone and refuses to honour her husband: she does not cry, she refuses to speak at his wake.

All this is narrated by Ali, her best friend and neighbour, mind you. And Ali has a great relationship with her husband, not perfect but completely functional. Which is a rather uplifting thing in the end: it demonstrates that good love is possible.

(Interesting detail: pretty much all the men work in mines or factories in other villages/cities while the women stay at home minding shops or families. There’s no sense that this is an oppressive system, though. If you’re a lady you can run your own business and juggle careers, but it’s not the right to work you fight for but for the dignity that supplies in the first place.)

Other oddities: I’ve noticed that there’s a standard African style of fiction, featuring stripped-down English plus a few words in other languages (here the languages are Oshiwambo and Afrikaans, which is apparently big in Namibia still – the fatty flourcakes are called vetkoekies, for chrissakes. You see this style in Ngugi and Achebe; maybe they demonstrated how it’s marketable to the world. Or maybe that’s how Africa speaks English, on the whole.

Andreas does mix it up, though, with her non-linear narrative: we get loads of extended flashbacks revealing their lives before Shange’s death, and almost everything’s in first-person from Ali’s viewpoint, but there’s some omniscient third-person going on too.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

That’s it for Namibia I think! Now to work!

Representative quote: ‘But, Ali, can you imagine what I have to say about that man? Can you picture me saying… No! I am not going to tell the lies that widows tell at their husbands’ funerals. I am not going to say what a loving, honourable and faithful husband he was, while everybody in the village knows what type of man he was. No, I will not make a laughing stock of myself. No, not because of Shange or anyone else,’ she said with finality. ‘Shange does not even expect me to do this.’

Next book: Bessie Head’s When Rain Clouds Gather, from Botswana.

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