Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Book 67, Mozambique: "The Last Flight of the Flamingo" by Mia Couto

Given what I've read of Portuguese and Brazilian literature, I've come up with a theory that all Lusophone writers are CRAZY. Reading Couto does not disprove my hypothesis. The guy's been called a "white man with an African soul" (he's born and bred in Mozambique anyway, where he works as an ornithologist), and indeed he's utterly different from white South African writers like Coetzee and Gordimer - his form of magical realism outweirds even García Márquez.

Y'see, The Last Flight of the Flamingo's set in Tizangara, one of those imaginary towns in the middle of bumfuck-nowhere where supernatural stuff happens. Shades of Macondo, no? But unlike Hundred Years of Solitude, the tale's limited to a single mystery of a contemporary age: the bizarre epidemic of UN peacekeepers exploding into thin air in the town, leaving behind nothing but their blue helmets and their weiners.

Thus we join Massimo, an Italian peacekeeper, and a local translator (our nameless narrator) on a quest to solve this mystery. And there are many clues, and many promises of explanations, but every speech is so wrapped up in the colourful zoological idiom of the town dialect that there's barely any headway made: between the revelations of the medicine man and the town prostitute and the administrator and his wife and the hotel receptionist and the cursed 19 year-old old lady Temporina and the narrator's boneless father (seriously, there's a sequence where he removes his skeleton and hangs it on a tree), we're left with at least two different answers to what happened, the impossible answer more credible than the probable one.

Oh, and the ending is even more pessimistic and nihilistic than that of Hundred Years, if you can believe it. Still thoroughly recommended, though its weirdness really messed with my post-holiday mood slump. I'm wondering if Couto's inspiration was the Czech surrealist vampire novel Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. That's the only novel I can think of with the same kind of blessed illogic and fantasy - though Flamingo one-up's that book by making the story a metaphor for post-independence corruption and the nation's uneasy relationship with well-intentioned foreigners. I also wanna plagiarise his strategy for narration: have some well-meaning cipher who's witness to everything and promised son etc describe everything that's happened, though he ultimately proves capable of zero action.

Incidentally, the Zimbabwe Book Fair actually chose Couto's first novel, Sleepwalking Land, as one of its top 100 African books of the 20th century. But alas, the library didn't have a copy in stock.

Mai phen rai. Flamingo's has just been made into a movie! Prosthetic penises and all. Beat that, minho amigo.

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Representative quote:
"Take care, Massimo Risi, sir: the mouth is big and eyes are small. Or as we say here: a donkey eats thorns with its smooth tongue. The problem is that what's happening here is more dangerous than you think. Why is it dangerous? You'll find out like a duck. Yes, like a duck that only discovers how hard things are after it has broken its beak."

Next book: Soeuf Elbadawi's Moroni Blues, from Comoros.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Book 66, Malawi: "Of Chameleons and Gods" by Jack Mapanje

I’m back in Singapore, and ready to catch up on my reading! Opportunities in South Africa were surprisingly slack – only finished Long Walk to Freedom because my movie monitor malfunctioned during the Emirates flight home, on the leg between Dubai and Colombo.

Back when I was planning the trip, I was wondering if I oughta download development celeb William Kamkwamba's The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, or else check out Jack Mapanje’s Beasts of Nalunga from the library and stow it along. Then I decided I’d bank on the possibility that I might find some of the first-generation greats in a South African bookstore: David Rubadiri or Frank Chipasula – only to discover that:

1) Books are really expensive in South Africa,

2) The storehands at V&A Waterfront in Cape Town and that hip little university joint in Stellenbosch have little knowledge of African lit (they thought Mia Couto was a woman, sniff sniff).

But back at NLB, I discovered that Central Lending owns this book, which was the first to catapult Mapanje to commercial success when published in 1981 (although his incarceration without charges from 1987-1991 made him famous, if you can call it fame, considering that I’d never heard of him till this project).

And it’s good. Really eloquent, passionate stuff, with a lot of personalized references to friends a la Frank O’Hara, a tinge of the hermeticism and experimentation of Arthur Yap, though never quite as academic and lofty as Wole Soyinka or Edwin Thumboo; plus of course the outrage of the third-world liberationist betrayed that’s so common to postcolonial lit.

He honestly sounds like the kind of guy you’d like as your creative writing teacher. (Maybe I’m thinking like this ‘cos I’m typing on the way to NTU, where I’m delivering a poetry reading and handing in my claim forms for exam marking. Or maybe I just need a mentor myself.)

It’s the vibrancy of Mapanje’s words and symbols that really captivates me. Chameleons, nsolo trees, the murders at Chilombwe, calabashes, dagga, ancestral shields, and the imaginary Chief Kwangala, a Yao word which means dancing frantically. How can we approximate this in Singapore literature?

(Of special interest are the references to Chingwe’s Hole, a hole on the verdant Zomba Plateau where wrongdoers were flung in punishment and the supposed source of the Namitembo River. A whole section of the book is titled “Re-entering Chingwe’s Hole”; confronting the juxtaposition of horror, beauty and fertility that is post-independence Africa.)

I’m less keen, however, about the obligatory “I’m dislocated in London” poems, given that I’ve read a few similar ones now. Or maybe I’m just hungry for exotica? Maybe I just want my writers glowing with Afro anger instead of Euro malaise?

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Representative quote:

Visiting Zomba Plateau

Could I have come back to you to wince
Under the blur of your negatives,
To sit before braziers without the glow
Of charcoal, to cringe at your rivers
That without their hippos and crocs
Merely trickle gratingly down, to watch
Dragonflies that no longer fascinate and
Puff-adders that have lost their puff?
Where is your charming hyena tail –
Praying mantis who cares for prayers once?
Where is the spirit that touched the hearts
Lightly – chameleon colours of home?
Where is your creation myth? Have I come
To witness the carving and jingling only of
Your bloated images and piddling mirrors?

Next book: Mia Couto’s The Last Flight of the Flamingo, from Mozambique.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Book 65, Zambia: "With Sword and Chain in Lusaka" by Richard Sampson

Given that I was actually travelling to Zambia and was not having that great a time with Malama Katulwende's Bitterness, I decided to switch to another work: something shorter and more informative, though not actually better written.

Richard Sampson was born in London in 1922, served in the British Navy in the Second World War, migrated to Zambia in 1948, and emigrated to California in 1972; specifically to La Jolla, which he claims has a similar climate.

In between, he was an entrepreneur in multiple fields, served as deputy mayor, and later mayor of the capital city, Lusaka, stood as a candidate for the UNIP - a party which was mostly African, because remember, this was before independence, when the country was called Northern Rhodesia.

Sounds like it should be rather good reading, no? Sadly, the most interesting bits are either previewed in the introduction (e.g. Sampson's negotiations to end the system where butchers could only sell meat to blacks through hatches in the wall rather than allowing them into the shop) or delivered in throwaway fashion (e.g. the sensational tales of local characters, or Indira Gandhi's lecturing to the Indian community that they treated their womenfolk in antediluvian style).

There's no real urgency, nothing to invite emotional investment in the narrative. He wasn't a freedom fighter; he was a responsible Brit who happened to think that his fellow whites were being irresponsible by not allowing more African involvement in politics in the run-up before independence. There's a lot of damning evidence against Roy Welensky, the last Prime Minister of Northern Rhodesia, who clung to the idea of a British presence despite the fact that he knew London wouldn't support it. But is there real, virulent, eloquent scorn? Not even that. Ho-hum.

Oh, and every now and then Sampson tries to make his story more dramatic by beginning a chapter in media res. What actually happens is that the reader just gets confused.

But the book's informative, yes indeed. Eye-opening to see what was happening at the time of African decolonisation: how various powers sabotaged the possibility of a more stable, more prosperous Zambia (though the drama's killed a little when Sampson congratulates the nation on not having any bloody civil wars since independence). Interesting too to realise that Zambia was richer than Zimbabwe, though right now the case is reversed: in spite of Mugabe's bad press, Zim is recovering and Zam's still in the slumps (as gathered unprofessionally from Wikipedia and my inquiries with tour guides on both sides of Victoria Falls.)

Also cool was my experience of reading this book concurrently with Long Walk to Freedom (which is actually turning into a good read), as the geographies and personalities overlap: Kenneth Kaunda, Haile Selassie, and of course the spectres of South African apartheid and the Zimbabwean civil war that Zambia actually managed to escape.

So basically, this book isn't recommended, unless you're going to Zambia and would like some background. The guy's evidently written other books, which I dare say may be better. Otherwise, go read some Archie comics instead.

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Representative quote:
"For those interested in the subject, African beer is made from fermented corn and is very potent. To me it always had the colour of dirty milk and I never did try it."

Next book: Jack Mapanje's Beasts of Nalunga, from Malawi.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Hello 2111!: a collaboration with Michikazu Matsune

If you happen to be in Vienna/Wien, Austria, this coming week, why not head down to a performance art/art installation I've helped to create called Hello 2111?

It's featured in Wiener Festwochen's "Survival Strategies", and it's initiated and mostly created by Michikazu Matsune, a Japanese artist working in Austria whom I last met at the Flying Circus Project 2007.

The performance segment is a letter to the people of the year 2111, performed by Mich himself. I helped generate the text (in fact, I just got off Skype with him as we hammered out the final version). Can't fly over because I'm currently in Zimbabwe.

Anyhow, details are:

13 to 18 June 2011
Kunsthalle Wien, project space karlsplatz
brut at Künstlerhaus

(The performance is on 18 June!)

More info about the exhibition here.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

I'm flying to South Africa tomorrow!

And oddly enough, I haven't finished my Zambian book, for the following reasons:

1) Bitterness is not actually a very good read.

2) Especially on a Kindle, methinks.

3) Even more so on a Kindle which officially belongs to my father anyway, and which my mother is occasionally using to read Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

4) And here's the principal reason: my main priority of late has been finishing Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom, which I would imagine should be compulsory reading before any trip to South Africa.

Unfortunately, this is also not a very good read. I may say more eventually.