FAO Quotables

"But being right, even morally right, isn't everything. It is also important to be competent, to be consistent, and to be knowledgeable. It's important for your soldiers and diplomats to speak the language of the people you want to influence. It's important to understand the ethnic and tribal divisions of the place you hope to assist."
-Anne Applebaum

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Kruse's Keys: Read "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears" To Better Understand the Immigrant Experience

Before Adichie was regaling the world with her story of a relatively privileged immigrant experience in her brilliant 2013 novel “Americanah” (my notes and highlights on it are here), Ethiopian author Dinaw Mengestu was pulling back the curtain on a much bleaker immigrant experience in his 2007 “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears.” I came across his debut novel after reading his masterful “All Our Names”, a story that I dubbed the “Great African Novel” (you can read my review here).

It’s telling that Mengestu chooses to frame his brave, funny, and sad story under the auspices of a key line from Dante’s Inferno. In particular, the title comes from the closing lines of Dante’s Inferno, as Dante and Virgil emerge from their voyage through the 9 circles of hell on Easter morning. With a journey through purgatory and paradise still ahead, the travelers look up to the star-soaked heavens:

“Through a round aperture I saw appear/Some of the beautiful things that heaven bears/Where we came forth and once more saw the stars.”

It is this experience of capturing beauty following unspeakable evil and adversity that Mengestu likens to the immigrant experience for so many (Africans in the book’s case). In the case of the narrator Sepha and his friends, they have escaped the violence in their own country and arrived in America, “seeing the stars.” Only they soon discover that while their new life in the United States may not be hell, it will likely be much more like the penance of purgatory than that of paradiso. Sepha emphasizes the direction of this journey a la purgatory as he notes: “As it was, I did not come to America to find a better life. I came here running and screaming with the ghosts of an old one firmly attached to my back.” (41)

While Sepha shares some of the experience of living and fleeing Ethiopia at the time of Emperor Salassie, some of the book’s best lines and conversations come from his Congolese friend Joseph. As Joseph shares a childhood experience from when his village was “freed” by rebel forces, he notes that “we didn’t even know we were oppressed.” With wry humor he goes on to explain that “we gave the rebels all the money we had to thank them.” In pulling back the veil on the inner sanctum of immigrant conversations, Mengestu encourages readers not to take so much of the headlines spit out about conflict on the African continent at face value but to delve deeper and search for the nuance--for the human experience.

“The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears” is ultimately about the intersection of expectations, dreams, and reality for many immigrants in the United States. More often than not, Mengestu wants the reader to know, this intersection is a harsh one where dreams easily wither in the face of the drive to just exist between two worlds.

*One of my Reading Around the Continent books--the full list is here.
See our 20172016, 2015 and 2014 Reading Lists.
Car connoisseur Salassie is deposed from power in a VW Beetle 

Key Quotes:
  • “As it was, I did not come to America to find a better life. I came here running and screaming with the ghosts of an old one firmly attached to my back.” (41)
  • “Nobody understands chess like an African.” Joseph from Congo shares this tidbit, noting that in a world of government repression, it’s the one area where their decisions mattered. (63)
  • “Through a round aperture I saw appear/Some of the beautiful things that heaven bears/Where we came forth and once more saw the stars” Joseph’s favorite lines of poetry (from Dante’s Inferno) as he says only Africans can truly relate to the sense of being in hell with only occasional periods of relief. (100)
  • “I am one of those people for whom nothing is left of their home country.” Sepha’s Uncle in a letter to President Carter. (124)
  • “We have come this far, to find we have even further to go/The last traces of a permanent twilight have faded and/given way/To what we hope is nothing short of a permanent dawn.” Joseph trying to capture what it was like at the birth of Congolese independence. (169)
  • “Let us stop. Let us begin again./Let us clean the blood from the rubber fields/And do what we promised to do.” Different independence lines from Joseph. (170)
  • “Patrice./Are we ready?” (170) Joseph’s spares lines in his ‘Life of Congo’ poem.
  • “All the best dictators are colonels.” (184) Joseph, Kenneth and Sepha during one of their rehashes of various coups across the continent.
  • “We didn’t even know we were oppressed.” (220) Great line from Joseph that gets at the complexity of so much of the wars and rebellions across Africa. In this case Joseph is describing being violently ‘liberated’ by rebels. With wry humor he goes on to say that “we gave the rebels all the money we had to thank them.”
Key Takeaways:
  • Sepha notes the power of small gestures of sympathy at opportune times in a conversation with Naomi, Judith’s precocious daughter. (26)
  • Remittances mentioned. In Sepha’s case, his family didn’t really need the money but it was kind of the price one paid for not enduring life back home. (41)
  • In life, sometime you hold onto things that are cheap or meaningless with the hope that the meaning will emerge later. (50)
  • Ethiopian emperor leaves power in beat up VW Beetle (92)
  • Emperor buried under a toilet (94)
  • At 16, Sepha didn’t yet believe in consequences...to the detriment of his father who was killed after Sepha passed out revolutionary flyers (126)
  • Disappointment close to hatred (father couldn’t act as he was taken away by soldiers) (130)
  • A handshake with Judith breaks Sepha’s heart. Sepha never feels himself worthy. (137)
  • Author notes similarities between Addis and DC. (173)
  • Immigrants and the idea of “going back home” is explored. Mengestu opines that the phrase denotes an understanding that what you return to can never be the same as what you left. (174)
  • The power of his father’s absence frames everything in Sepha’s life. When his father died, so did Sepha’s life in Ethiopia (Absent father wound). (177)
  • Immigrants can’t take Christmas off--they are expected to work in the 7-11s and mini-marts. (178)
  • Someone is always on the run near you (194)
  • Expectations of dead things is that they stay dead. That is, what happens when memories live on like a wound that will never heal. (209)
  • We all want to shape our own destiny--we want to control what we can in our own limited spheres (211)
  • The theme of an immigrant life is that idea of being stuck between two worlds. “A man stuck between two worlds lives and dies alone.” In between idea (228)
Key References (for further study):

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Kruse's Keys: Read "What the Day Owes the Night" to Learn About the Algerian Revolution, Love and Why Fiction Matters

*One of my Reading Around the African Continent books--the full list is here. *
**You can also check out my 2018 Reading List here.**

This book is a perfect example of why reading fiction is important. Reading fiction like this forces the reader to internalize and grapple with historical events in a way that a straightforward history never could. In this case, by personalizing something like the Algerian independence struggle, the reader must reevaluate the dry numbers, facts and statistics littering the historical record and connect them to the actual people and struggles behind them.

BACKGROUND NOTE: This review might not make a lot of sense if you don’t know some basics of Algerian history so here some “accurate enough” background: over the years, waves of settlers from Europe (Spain, France, Italy, etc.) came to Algeria and stole wide swaths of land from the Arabs and Berbers that lived there. For the purposes of this story (which takes place from 1900 to present day), many of these settlers came in the early 19th century and never returned to Europe. That meant successive generations settled and lived in Algeria and knew nothing else. They built farms, vineyards, lives, and communities as the minority ruling class. These people came to be referred to as pieds-noirs (i.e., black feet). There is some controversy as to the etymological background of the term and you can click the hyperlink in the previous sentence if you want to go down that rabbit-hole.

Eventually, the rising discontent of the Arab and Berber populace (you can read more about the Berber role in all this in my graduate school thesis) at the economic/social/political disparity grew to the point where a War for Independence erupted. There were lots of factors to this tipping point: the end of WWII in which many Algerian Arabs fought, bled and died for France and returned to their lives as third-class citizens; the French loss at Dien Bien Phu, the rising tide of independence spreading across the globe post-WWII, etc. In the end, the FLN (National Liberation Front) waged an 8-year guerilla war for independence that was notable for atrocities on both sides (but with some very brutal tactics by the French overlords--particularly when compared with the France’s far less vehement response to Morocco’s independence ‘struggle’) and which resulted in a free Algeria in 1962. This freedom led to the wholesale de facto expulsion of some 800,000 pieds-noirs to an unprepared France. Most of the 100,000 or so who would remain left in the ensuing decades. There you have it--down and dirty history lesson.

Have you ever dared?

What the Day Owes the Night is one of the saddest love stories you will ever read--in it you’ll witness the stillbirth of a romantic love and the lasting depth of a filial one. Khadra’s novel brings to mind the beautiful writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the melancholy sorrow of Neruda’s “Poem 20”, and the powerful narrative arc of Mahfouz’ The Cairo Trilogy. The height of the story’s narrative comes as the woman who should be the love of Younes’ life indicts him with the damning charge: Have you ever dared? And indeed, Younes’ sorry story is one of impotence as he never has dared and we bear witness to the slow disintegration of his life. In contrast, after centuries of subjugation, Algeria the country awakens and dares wildly, breaking its colonial chains, bloody link by bloody link. It’s in his ability to craft a story through these simultaneously ascending/descending narratives that Khadra displays true literary mastery.

Before going on, the author/pen name “issue” must addressed. Yasmina Khadra is the name you will find on the book cover but the author’s actual name is Mohammed Moulessehoul and he’s a former Algerian army officer. In an effort to circumvent scrutiny and censorship by the Army, he used his wife’s first two names beginning in 1997 (4 years later, he went public with his true identity after resigning from the Algerian military). In interviews he’s noted that he used his wife’s names with her permission and as a way to honor her. The crux of why this is an “issue” is because some in the public can’t imagine that someone who served in the Algerian military could not have helped but to partake in civilian massacres. Or at a minimum, many French critics just can’t accept any literary or cultural contributions from someone who participated in violence--even against terrorist groups. The author is fairly open about the horror and violence he has witnessed in his life and denies any wrongdoing and I haven’t found any credible evidence to support the allegations so for me there is no “issue.” Writing this as an American, I’d say “this is a free country, let people use whatever name they want” but we are talking about an Algerian quasi-exile living in France. You can scroll down to my “Key References” section and find several articles/interviews to learn more about this “controversy.” Now back to the actual book.

There’s a plaintive song that an old destitute barber sings early on in the novel while the young child Younes is still living in the slum of Jeane Jato:

I miss your eyes

And I go blind

Every time you look away

I die a little every day
Searching for you
In vain among the living
What does it mean to live this love
When all the world proclaims
That you are gone?
What will I do now with my hands
Now your body is not here… (53)

These lyrics serve in many ways as a soundtrack for this story. One its face, the lyrics describe Emilie and Younes at different points during their relationship. Emilie consistently searches for Younes “among the living”--searches for his love--to no avail throughout her time in Rio Salado. And in the end it is Younes who is tortured with a life of “dying every day” as the world proclaims that she is indeed gone--vanished, expelled with the pieds-noirs exodus from Algeria.

But on a deeper level the lyrics speak to the larger plight of the pieds-noirs community who find themselves living in a foreign country (i.e., France) following Algerian independence. This is the conundrum Younes’ lifelong pieds-noirs amis wrestle with in the novel’s closing pages: what do they do now with their hands, with their lives, now that her “body”--that is, the Algeria of their youth, is not there. The author’s treatment of the pieds-noirs in addressing these questions is surprisingly empathetic (particularly for an Algerian Arab) and even-handed as he creates complex characters who display a deep primordial love for the birthplace of their great-grandfathers--the land of Algeria. But it’s this very love that blinds them to “how” of the manner by which the countryside of Algeria became the land of their grandfathers. There’s a telling exchange (pgs. 284-7) between Younes and the overbearing quasi-feudal lord cum pieds-noir Jaime Sosa that begins with Sosa lecturing on the mission civilisatrice of his ancestors, “men who came here to a dead place and breathed life into it.” Sosa’s blindness to the blood and tears of the Arabs who did the bulk of the actual work as quasi serfs/slaves (and whose land was stolen) in “breathing life” into the land provokes Younes to perhaps his one act of courage as he responds with a poetic soliloquy that charges “this land does not belong to you. It belongs to that ancient shepherd whose ghost is standing next to you, though you refuse to see it.” It notable that Jaime is wholly unmoved by this and doesn’t bother to even respond to Younes.

Following this conversation we see the acceleration of the Algerian fight for independence, as the Front Liberation Nationale (FLN) steps up its violent campaign against pieds-noirs and equivocating muslims alike--notably Younes tries to straddle the line and finds himself saved from summary execution only by his one-time act of kindness to an arab servant turned rebel. As the FLN victory becomes assured we witness the implementation of le saison de la valise ou le cercueil (i.e., the suitcase or the coffin) with the wholesale exodus of pieds-noirs from Younes’ hometown of Rio Salado--to include Emilie.

Following Algerian independence, the narrative skips forward some thirty years to “present day” as Younes travels to Aix-en-Provence to visit Michel (Emilie’s son) and his old pieds-noirs friends. That the author gaps these thirty years is a profound statement on Younes’ life. This time period, in which Younes marries, has children, and grandchildren is covered in a few throwaway sentences, almost as an afterthought. Because of his inability to act, Younes’ entire outlook has become focused on his mispent past. Younes’ sentimental longing for his los is contrasted with the wider pieds-noirs communities’ own nostalgia--during their reunion his childhood friend Andre points out that “round here we don’t talk about nostalgia, we say nost-Algeria...Algeria still clings to me.” This leads to a discussion on the heavy toll of losing one’s country versus losing one’s friends, and love.

While the author Moulessehoul makes it clear that that there’s no easy answer to this, he does end the novel with a stark statement on the power of filial love, leaving the reader with Younes’ final farewell to his childhood friend Jean-Christophe: “We hug each other hard as once we used to hug our dreams to us, convinced that if we were to relax our grip, even a fraction, they would slip away.”

While this is a powerful sentiment, it stands as a distant second to what Younes gave up in committing the grave offense of not pursuing Emilie when he had the chance(s). In her own final attempt to coax him into action, Emilie implored him that “there is no crime, or shame, in love, except to sacrifice it, even for the best of reasons.” In this statement, the author offers the reader a call to action to pursue love at any cost. Indeed as the story comes to close, we are left to ponder what could have been had Younes followed his Uncle’s admonition: “Only love can make good the misfortunes and evils of the world. And remember this: if a woman loves you, no star is beyond your grasp, no god can touch you. Some of the last words from Younes’ uncle to him before dying...If you want your life to be a small part of eternity...love with all your strength, love as though it is all you know how to do, love enough to make the gods themselves jealous...for it is in love that all ugliness reveals its beauty.”

Key Quotes:

  • Every day these women would gather around the well and spend most of their time turning over the past as you might turn a knife in an old wound. (28) 
  • In describing a reknowned musician named Slimane, Younes admires his embodiment of “the greatest of virtues: discernment, a quality that is all but lost today.” (45) 
  • I miss your eyes /And I go blind/ Every time you look away/I die a little every day/Searching for you/ In vain among the living/ What does it mean to live this love/ When all the world proclaims/ That you are gone?/ What will I do now with my hands/ Now your body is not here… (53) 
  • Her smile was like a benediction, Younes visits his mother after his uncle adopts him. (80) 
  • Younes, seeing his failed, stumbling drunk father one last time: A look of such despair that it choked the life out of a noble father’s promises to his son. It was a look such as a man can give only once in his lifetime, since after it there is nothing. (88) 
  • For one searing instant, I mistook her for my destiny, Younes’ keen observation as he is seduced by Madame Cazenave--perhaps the great mistake of his life. (163) 
  • Younes observing the reaction to the FLN mobilization within the country: We knew Algeria was at war, that a seething anger festered among the people, but the villagers in Rio Salado seemed to care little about this. They built high walls around their happiness; walls with no windows to the outside world. (206) 
  • There is no crime, or shame, in love, except to sacrifice it, even for the best of reasons, Emilie to Younes as she makes a final fruitless effort to explain her love to him after Jean-Christophe’s disappearance (242) 
  • For a man to think he can fulfill his destiny without a woman is a misunderstanding, a miscalculation; it is recklessness and folly. Certainly a woman is not everything, but everything depends on her. Look around you, look at history, think about the whole world and tell me what man is without woman; what are his promises, his prayers when it is not her praise he sings? A man may be as rich as Croesus, as poor as Job, he may be a slave or a tyrant, but there is no horizon wide enough is woman turns her back...sunset, springtime, the blue of the sea, the stars in the sky...the rest, all the rest, exists simply to adorn her. Younes uncle counsels him to no avail. (249) 
  • Only love can make good the misfortunes and evils of the world. And remember this: if a woman loves you, no star is beyond your grasp, no god can touch you. Some of the last words from Younes’ uncle to him before dying. (273) If you want your life to be a small part of eternity...love with all your strength, love as though it is all you know how to do, love enough to make the gods themselves jealous...for it is in love that all ugliness reveals its beauty. The last words of Younes’ uncle. (355) 
  • The love of Younes’ life, Emilie, sentences him: Have you ever dared Younes, even once in your life? (308) 
  • You took my love for you and strangled it before it could take flight. Just like that...my love for you was dead before it even hit the ground. Emilie after an impotent, much too late attempt by Younes to profess his love. Also hearkens back to his days as a boy catching and selling finches. (309) 
  • Pieds-noirs--as though we’ve spent our whole lives trudging through mud, Dede in a letter to Younes from France as he comes to grip with his new reality. (357) 
  • The pieds-noirs in France were easily recognized as they “rolled their Rs with relish like stirring couscous.” (358) 
  • Pieds-noir Emilie utlimately ends up embracing a fatalistic view on her life as she says in her final words to Younes: Nobody is to blame, Younes, you don’t owe me anything. It’s just the way the world is, and I don’t want that anymore.” And with those last words, my heart broke for these characters, these people who were at once imagined and at the same time echoes of real lives captures by the author in this book. (362) 
  • Every generations has its own drugs, Younes comments to Emilie’s son Michel who has just lamented the booming consumerism prevalent in France. (366) 
  • Round here we don’t talk about nostalgia, we say nost-Algeria...Algeria still clings to me, childhood pieds-noir friend Andre shares with Younes as they discuss (as old men) the heavy toll of losing one’s country vs. losing one’s friends. (377-8) 
  • We hug each other hard as once we used to hug our dreams to us, convinced that if we were to relax our grip, even a fraction, they would slip away. Younes bidding a final farewell to his childhood friend Jean-Christophe. (389) 
Key Takeaways
  • Importance of land to farmers: Younes’ father had eyes “only for his land” (4) 
  • The pride of Younes’ father (his inability to accept Younes’ money) warps his own conception of everything: “I no longer understood anything. I was no longer certain of anything.” (49) 
  • The idea that poverty is noted fated but a state of mind. The poverty of Jenane Jato is that they did not dream. What then is the idea of a people who’s ability to dream has been crushed or stolen? (81) 
  • To the Europeans, time is money but to the Arab time has no price. This is similar to the adage about the US having all the watches but the Taliban having all the time. In the story’s case, Arabs find happiness apart from money--from simple shared experiences (85) 
  • 4th generation greeks in Oran (107) 
  • Oran referred to the “la ville americaine” because of its sophistication and grace and the idea of possibility that existed there. (141)
  • With the end of WWII, independence movements mobilized but were brutally suppressed. Younes’ uncle observes that the children of these movement died fighting for France in world war II only to have their family killed protesting back in Algeria (172) 
  • Poetry has always been the soul of Algeria (180). Here’s a link to the Algerian national anthem, We Pledge,: http://fuuo.blogspot.com/2010/07/poet-of-week-from-algeria-moufdi-zakaria.html
  • Again and again, Younes decides to do nothing in the face of a decision or conflict. He refuses to be the master of his own destiny. In this novel he represents a distinct part of colonial Algeria (280) 
  • There’s a great exchange that brings to live the terrible tension between the colonizers who viewed themselves as great men in the mission civilisatrice, men who “came here to a dead place and breathed life into it.” It’s telling that Younes’ one moment of bravery or courage comes in a poetic response to the Jaime Sosa’s solilquoy in which Younes charges that “this land does not belong to you. It belongs to that that ancient shepherd who ghost is standing next to you, though you refuse to see it. Jaime is unmoved. (284-287) 
  • Younes eventually loses his own sense of self to the point when he turns his own mother into a stranger as he questions her following his release from prison due to Isabelle’s intervention. (332) 
  • Younes’ uncle still dreams of an enlightened nation for Algeria (335) 
  • French talk of ‘self-determination’--De Gaulle June 1958 speech: I have understood you. En francais: je vous ai compris. But the pied-noirs likely don’t believe him and consider it an empty speech (337) 
  • December 1960, the non-Algerian villagers of Rio Salado come to the realization that Algeria will be Algerian. (338) 
  • Warfare between the OAS and FLN. The OAS was a secret paramilitary group formed by recalcitrant pied-noirs and the french military that ended up killing both muslims and French in terrorist attacks. The Front Liberation Nationale was the military arm of the Algeria’s independence fight and is estimated to have killed far more Algerians (i.e., muslim arabs) than French/pied-noirs. The FLN made this season of killing one of “the suitcase or the coffin” ("La valise ou le cercueil") as they strove to drive out remaining pied-noirs. (342) 
  • The book is also an examination of what is home? What is a nation? The pied-noirs settlers may have been there for generations and not know any home other than the countryside of Algeria but there were also only there for generations because there ancestors had stolen or appropriated the lands in the 19th century. (344) 
  • When the mass exodus of pied-noirs began, it brought with it a startling realization that is really was all over for them--but this gets to the idea that it never really began because it began in thievery, brutality and illegality (350). 
  • Pieds-noir Emilie utlimately ends up embracing a fatalistic view on her life as she says in her final words to Younes: Nobody is to blame, Younes, you don’t owe me anything. It’s just the way the world is, and I don’t want that anymore.” And with those last words, my heart broke for these characters, these people who were at once imagined and at the same time echoes of real lives captures by the author in this book. (362) 
  • Pieds-noire Gustave wonders during the discussion of the old men why they were all treated as one mass? He hits on one of the great political questions of the ages, the human tendency and political necessity to lump groups of people together. In this case, Gustave can’t come to grips to how he lost the country where his great-grandfather was born, that his family built with their own sweat and blood. Of course in these comments he displays his blindness to the sweat and blood of all the arabs who did most of the actual sweating and bleeding. (379) 
Key References (for further study):

Cities: Rio Salado (current day El Malah), Oran

Messali Hadj , who meets with Younes’ Uncle early on in the story(98)

Operation Catapult (122)

Max-Pol Fouchet presents Younes’ friend Fabrice with national poetry prize (179)

2013 CRS Report "Algeria: Current Issues"

North Africa Berber Language Map

My Grad School Thesis: Amazigh-State Relations in Morocco and Algeria

(78 and 79 footnote from thesis)

2005 Guardian arrticle on Khadra

2002 Guardian article on Khadra coming out as Moulessehoul

Article of Moulessehoul bid for Algerian Presidency

2006 New York review of "The Attack"

The Atlantic Chronology on Algerian War of Independence

Article on Jean-Senac: Poet of Algerian Revolution

Monday, April 16, 2018

Kruse's Keys: Read "Beyond the Rice Fields" to Experience the Beauty, Love and Tragedy of Madagascar

It’s hard to express how much I looked forward to reading this book.  I spent three years living and working in Madagascar beginning in late 2013 (my collected writings from that time can be found here and here).  Prior to my arrival, I had scoured the libraries and internet for anything that I could find in English on Madagascar (my list of collected articles and books can be found here and here.).  Unfortunately, this was a rather small task once one gets beyond the myriad travel guides and nature-oriented literature.  
Then near the end of 2015, I came across a post from Ann Morgan, who spent a year reading a novel from EVERY COUNTRY IN THE WORLD.  In the post, she lamented the fact that not a single novel from Madagascar had ever been translated into English, but that a translator named Allison Charette had received a PEN grant to translate one and  she’d chosen “Beyond the Rice Fields.”  So I’d been literally waiting for the last two years for the book to be released and it did not disappoint.  

Malagasy author Naivo has crafting a heart-wrenching tale of love sets amidst one slave’s seemingly impossible yearning for success and upward mobility.  Impressively, the author’s expansive piece of pre-colonial historical fiction doesn’t hold back in addressing some oft-considered taboo subjects in Madagascar such as slavery and the wholesale execution of Christians under Queen Ranavalona’s reign in the 19th century. The narrative centers on Tsito, a child whose family were “forest people” and captured, then sold into slavery by the ruling Merina highlanders (called amboalambos, i.e., pig-dogs by the atandroy or antakarana--it’s unclear which tribe the author refers to when he uses the denotation ‘forest people).  He grows up with his master Rado’s family and develops a bond with Rado’s daughter Fara.  The story unfolds through dueling narratives between these two characters.  

The book reads as a mixture of hainteny (oral tale/poetry) and tantara (historical narrative) with a liberal dosing of Malagasy proverbs/adages (I counted 29 of them).  One in particular proves emblematic as Fara ponders her destiny:
Love is like rice, when you transplant it, it grows, but never in the same way.  It retains a bittersweet memory of its first soils. Every time it’s uprooted it dies a little; every time it’s replanted, it loses a piece of its soil.  But it also bears fruit (188).
Fara’s observation captures the tension and movement with Beyond the Rice Fields as the central characters and family find themselves uprooted numerous times amidst shifting factions as King Radama dies and the throne is passed to his wife Ranavalona.  Her reign marks the beginning of an increasingly fraught relationship between Christianity and political power in Madagascar, especially since the crown Prince becomes a Christian.  

While neither Fara nor Tsito are themselves Christians, they find themselves caught in the ill effects of Ranavalona’s power consolidation as she upends traditional tribal power alliances and eventually publicly executes thousands of Malagasy Christians.   Within all this chaos, however, Fara and Tsito ultimately find each other.  
In one key conversation, we hear echoes of the fampitaha song from the novel’s beginning as Fara lovingly spars with Tsito:
“And how will you love me?”  
He replies: “I will love you like my eyes, the windows of my soul; without them, I am as weak as a child, but with them, the world smiles at me.”
“Then do not love me, for I will be of no use to you in the darkness.”

“I will love you like the door to my home, protecting me from enemies and keeping the hearth warm.”
“Then do not love, for you push through me without shame to achieve your ends.”
“I will love you like the Sovereign of this realm, mistress of the our lives and destiny.” (238)
Naivo proves himself a skilled and brave writer in Beyond the Rice Fields. With the publication of his novel in English, he has illuminated a period of Malagasy history previously hidden from most of the world.  Along the way, he has brought to life the rich traditions and deep culture of a country and people that are all too often wrongly associated solely with lemurs and coups by radio DJs.  

*One of my Reading Around the African Continent books--the full list is here.

You can also check out my 2018 Reading List here.

Key Quotes:

“Sing for your highest dreams, dance for your most starstruck plans.  Then you cannot lose (120).”

Key Takeaways:
  • Unless you live in Madagascar I don't think that I can ever make you understand how important rice is to Madagascar, to its culture.  For starters, Malagasies eat rice AT EVERY MEAL. Living in its capital you see the rice fields everywhere, they are inescapable--RICE IS LIFE in Mada! 
  • Book captures a tension that exists today between the Merina highlanders, who consolidate power across Madagascar and everyone else (in the novel’s case the ‘forest people’ who refer to the Merinas as pig-dogs). While many would disagree as to the level of this tension today, I saw evidence of it, particularly between the Merina highlanders and those living on the coasts (6).
  • Torture as a whole plays a central role throughout the novel, whether in its use to break down slaves (9), or as an overall method of societal control.
  • The idea of “purification” also plays an important role in the culture and tradition of the villages and the palace.  Earlier on, we see the ‘witch doctors/seers’ practice of determining a child’s purity by putting them in the path of stampeding cattle and seeing if they live (56).  
  • Fara’s belief that “the city is my destiny” is a harbinger of doom (64)
  • Short hair done as a sign of mourning (72)
  • Keen insight into rather insidious ways that early white missionaries exercised control and ensured their livelihoods as they spread rumours that “killing a white man will give you leprosy” or “vazaha blood was a slow poison that made anyone who spilled it go deaf” (90).
  • Fampitaha singing/dancing competition is seen as elemental part of Malagasy society (117). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FBUxRMAZ6oM 
  • Merina referred to themselves as “People under the sky” (117).
  • Lanterns and lights are associated with childhood and celebration of children (133)
  • Annual Bathing feast described as essentially a sexual free for all, as long as the participants hide while they do it (144)
  • While the Queen starts anti-Christian actions (171), they also had the effects of galvanizing the spread of Christianity (175).
  • Tangena poison test played a huge role until the Queen’s successor outlawed it.  Anyone so accused would be required to drink the poison (derived from the toxic nuts of tangena tree.  Then they’d have to swallow three bird skins.  If they could vomit up the three bird skins without dying then they’d be declared innocent.  Evidently this was a widely accepted method of guilt determination with something like 2% of the population dying from it every year (much more during Ranavalona’s reign) (216).  
  • Under the quee, the palace/government started to confiscate everything from the people (220).  
  • Beautiful writing: “I will love you” (238)
  • Words in English as holding no sacred virtue (267)
  • More beautiful writing: “My heart is as solid as a shield” (274)
  • It becomes evident under the queen that the military generals wield the real power (342)
  • Habits of a slave described (23)
  1. A slave skilled at valiha: when you ask him to play, he refuses, but as soon as you speak of work, he goes mad for the music. (9)
  2. A crying orphan, only pitied by the back of his own hand. (10)
  3. Do not cook meat without knowing its name (15).
  4. The seer who wants to make the impossible believable is not afraid to make dying men dance (17).
  5. A banana threatened with a knife with eventually be pierced (33).
  6. A lie likes to dress itself up as a story (40).
  7. A servant’s undivided piaster is the master’s esteem (48).
  8. You must not judge the stranger by his yellowish face but think of his family on the other side of the earth (58).
  9. Better a small soul respected by his friends than a great soul who perishes in vain (69).
  10. The tree that grows too tall will be thrashed by strong winds (70).
  11. The sovereign’s word is law; it enters our homes not on tiptoes, but stomping its feet (88).
  12. He who changes lords changes status (93).
  13. The City’s great houses, the first built are soonest dissatisfied (107).
  14. Hope cannot vanquish destiny (110).  
  15. Only simpletons want to be like their fathers (116).  
  16. He who shows his back hides what’s in his soul (125).
  17. He who has a white soul is like a bird of ill fate (125).
  18. If the waterfall rumbles, it is because of the rocks; if kings rule, it is because of the vahoaka (128).
  19. The poor are not friends of the affluent (171)
  20. Love is like rice, when you transplant it, it grows, but never in the same way.  It retains a bittersweet memory of its first soils. Every Time it’s uprooted it dies a little; every time it’s replanted, it loses a piece of its soil.  But it also bears fruit (188).
  21. They can rise to the top as cream does, but milk will always reveal a common ancestor (189).
  22. A meeting of dogs where they only sniff each other’s asses (199).  
  23. Those who are unified are like a rock, those who are divided are like the sand (221).
  24. Love is like the silkworm in winter: touching it makes its eyes open wide(232).
  25. Only halfwits have less ambition that their fathers (242).
  26. The soul is what makes us human (251).
  27. Everyone is in himself a noblemen (251).
  28. Destiny is a chameleon on a tree branch, it only takes a hissing child for it to change its color (318).
Songs and Hainteny:
We’ll go to the City of Thousands
To eat the laying hen
To eat the fatty zebu hump (18)

The village is rich with children
Grandmother is lucky indeed
Her home has a hundred slaves
Her home holds a hundred cattle (26)

To mediate the difficult
        As saffron does (73)

Come forth! Let them appear
        And the most beautiful will triumph
They will be judged
And the ugliest will disappear (126)

Tell me how I can keep your love:
        If I knot it into a corner of my gown
        The thread might break it and I could lose it.
        If I place it in the palm of my hand
        I’m afraid it might dissolve into dampness…
Instead, I’ll put it in my heart
Although it will make me perish
Will that not make me love you all the more? (131)

Bulls fighting within the herd
        The victor is not cheered
        The vanquished is not booed (135)

The trees of sweet-smelling wood
        Counting two, there finding three
        There on the tall mountain
        On Mount Adrigiba
They wanted to sleep
Pressed against each other
At least rejoice, oh my soul,
That you do not possess
The one you do not love (146)

A thousand words
        A hundred stories
        But all talk ends
        At the hour of confrontation (275)

I implore your forgiveness, O my earth
        I appeal to your mercy, O my earth!
        You, who cover our dear ones
        You, their final shelter
        We trample you underfoot
        But you are the water’s cradle
        And you grow the ears of rice
        And you absorb all sorrow
        O my earth (348).

Key References (for further study):

  • Fampitaha competition (12)
  • Fara name (15)
  • Kalanoro (96)--mythical creature--there’s some weird stuff on the internet about this one
  • “Paul and Virginia”  love story of star-crossed lovers in Mauritius.  You can read more about it here(123)
  • Christian holy man who was killed by the Queen--more about him here. (162)
  • Fara describes the dying away of fampitaha competitions, are these still held today? (192)
  • Mantasoa, man-made lake/Laborde built the city there is and is buried there. (193)
  • Royal decree for export rights (227) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Laborde 
  • Menamasos artists society to surpass Vazahas (236) reference book
  • Zafamanelo family right to recite kabary was rescinded by the Queen(239)
  • Crown prince Radama I a christian (243)
  • Madagascar sent ambassadors to England and France in the 1800’s (247)
  • Sidikina derivation of God Save the King played when foreign rulers would visit Madagascar (259)
  • http://kruzoo.blogspot.com/2016/08/veloma-list-of-madagascar-posts.html
  • http://kruzoo.blogspot.com/2016/08/veloma-list-of-poems-written-while-in.html
  • http://kruzoo.blogspot.com/2016/08/antananarivo.restaurantlist.bestofmadagascarhediard.html
  • http://kruzoo.blogspot.com/p/mada-articles.html
  • www.brooklynbookfestival.org/authors/naivo/
  • http://ile-en-ile.org/naivo/
  • http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/article/december-2015-the-conspiracists-naivo-allison-m-charette
  • https://pen.org/introducing-the-literature-of-madagascar-on-translating-naivo/

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Kruse's Keys: Read "Memoirs of a Porcupine" to Learn About a Congolese Serial Killer...Porcupine (Republic of Congo)

So this is a difficult novel from renowned author Alain Mabanckou.  Hailing from the Republic of Congo (the good one--hint: if a country has the name "democratic" or "democracy " in it, it's probably not), ubiquitous writer Mabanckou has penned a pointed tale aimed at taking down the role of backwoods superstition amidst modernity--at least that's what really smart people say he was doing.  I will admit I didn't really understand the point of this novel and had to do some research to come to this deeper aforementioned conclusion.  As I finished the last pages of this story, I was pretty disappointed I hadn't picked a different Congolese novel for my Reading the Continent project.  But in my research afterwards, I discovered the book was the 2006 Renaudot prize winner (given to the best original French language novel) and so in the aftermath, I've decided to give it a second chance--at least on an intellectual level.

Key Takeaways:

  • If you are only going to read one novel from the Republic of Congo, do NOT make it this one.  An ideal "Reading the Continent" selection is one that sheds light, or offers texture to a specific period of history in the subject country.  "Memoirs of a Porcupine" won't leave the reader better understanding the specific politics, history or culture of Congo beyond a knowledge that many people may still deeply embrace the superstitious.  I might recommend instead "The Lights of Pointe-Noire" which will likely take this one's place on my Reading the Continent List.
  • This tale centers around a boy and porcupine that have possessed each other--the porcupine is the 'harmful double' of a young village boy named Kibandi.  Evidently there are also 'peaceful doubles', but that's not what this tale is about.  As the narrator porcupine unfolds the tale of his life, the reader follows his journey from mere animal to Kibandi's hitman assassin.   The narrative eventually devolves into a murderous spree of anyone who happens to given even minor offense to Kibandi.  
  • A notable practice in the novel is that of "trial by corpse" where a group of men hold up the murdered person and that dead person "directs" them to the guilty party.  This superstitious practice has some commonality with the former Malagasy practice noted in "Beyond the Rice Fields." For a long time Kibandi evades detection by putting a nut up his butt...yes his butt.  

*One of my Reading Around the African Continent books--the full list is here.

Key References (For Further Study):
Three Writers from the Republic of Congo

Key Quotes: 

  • the universally dreaded trial by corpse, where the corpse picks out its aggressor, is widely used in these parts, whenever someone dies, the villagers rush to do it, to their minds there’s no such thing as a natural death, only the dead can tell the living who caused their death (94).
  • ‘sit at the foot of a baobab tree, and given time, you’ll see the whole universe pass before you’, our old porcupine used to say, he told us that at that time the baobabs could talk, respond to humans, punish them, whip them with their branches when the monkey cousins took up arms against the plant world and in those days he went on, the baobabs could move about, find themselves a more comfortable spot where they could take better root, some of them came from far, far away, they would pass other baobabs going the other way because one always tends to think that the soil elsewhere is better than one’s native soil, that life is easier elsewhere (100).
  • what I really didn’t want to do was watch the poor innocent child taking leave of this life just because of the stupidity and irresponsibility of his father, that I did not want to see, and yet something about it bothered me, I felt ashamed of my own reflection in the water, I went to the funeral, perhaps hoping for some kind of forgiveness, I heard the poor folk singing their funeral songs, and I wept (120).
  • I’ve got two ideas I’d like to follow up, first I’d like to wage a merciless campaign against all the harmful doubles in this country, I know that’s a big undertaking, but I’d like to hunt them down, one after the other, by way of atonement, to wipe out my share of responsibility for the misfortune suffered by this and many other villages, and second, dear Baobab, I’d simply like to go back and live in our old territory because spending so much time with men has made me nostalgic, it’s a feeling you might call territory-sickness, men would say homesickness, a longing for their country, I cling to my memories as the elephant clings to his tusks, distant images, vanished shades, far off noises which stop me doing something irreparable, oh yes, irreparable, I do think of that too, of taking my own life, but it’s the most cowardly of all acts, and just as human beings believe their existence comes from a supreme being, I have come to believe it too, since last Friday, the reason I’m still alive, for porcupine’s sake, must be because some higher will than mine has decreed it, and if so, I must have one last mission to carry out here below (149)

Kruse's Keys: Read "African Kaiser" To Learn an Untold Chapter of WWI History

Standard Disclaimer: For every “great” thing/development done by a colonial power in Africa, myriad awful things (like genocide, theft, and rape) were carried out by the same power. It’s an unfruitful task to judge past historical figures strictly against our evolving modern standards. Rather it’s usually more productive to attempt to judge their actions with the prevailing standards of the day (what were the standard--albeit flawed--views and how did the person accept or fight against them) and then baseline this analysis against general good and evil.

While there are various colonial leaders who exhibited brilliance in their fields or who have been reported to have been widely loved by the local populace, it’s worthwhile to acknowledge that in many cases, the local populace didn’t have much of a choice. Facing overwhelming military power, they could either fight back or resign themselves to getting the best deal they could. This was likely a choice faced by many who eventually became Askari (soldiers) for different colonial powers. In Germany’s case, those Askari members of the Schuztruppe were better paid than the locals in the armies of the other colonial powers. Under Lettow-Vorbeck’s leadership they were also the most effective guerilla army in history (conversely, without their sacrifice and discipline Lettow-Vorbeck would have been defeated handily). End Disclaimer.

It quickly becomes apparent in the impressive tome, 
African Kaiser: General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and the Great War in Africa, 1914-1918, that author Robert Gaudi is a bit of a von Lettow-Vorbeck fanboy. But this admiration is not without merit as the reader quickly learns the insurmountable odds faced by the German general fighting alone (i.e., without logistical support) and unafraid in German East Africa during World War I. While the general ends his four-year struggle in unconditional surrender at the hands of the British (after being ordered to following the actual Kaiser’s abdication), he completed his military service as a victor, having succeeded in his mission of pushing Great Britain to expend immense treasure and forces in its pursuit of his small army of guerrilla fighters.

This pursuit was one which spanned the continent and included the longest naval battle in history (9 months) as the British blockaded the Rufiji delta in pursuit of SMS Konigsberg. While the battle ended with the destruction the German cruiser, it took several British ships away from their broader mission of destroying axis commerce around the continent for nearly a year. While much of the book carries an army-centric focus, Gaudi’s thorough depiction of this fight is a notable one for naval enthusiasts as we see one of the first uses of aviation in maritime warfare. Critics of this book point out Gaudi’s inaccuracy in his varying descriptions of SMS Konigsberg as a battleship when it was really a cruiser, but honestly, I am in the Navy myself and I took his shifting descriptions as more of an artistic license in attempting not to be overly repetitive.

And indeed this naval battle is emblematic of von Lettow-Vorbeck’s overall strategy: to execute a fighting retreat in which he is never defeated or captured. In this guerilla campaign he was wildly successful and stands as the only undefeated Axis general of World War I.

Historian Edwin Palmer Hoyt described Lettow-Vorbeck’s campaign as “the greatest single guerrilla operation in history, and the most successful." He did this largely by eschewing the traditional army tactics of the previous century and decentralizing his command in order to attack British supply chains and force them to commit greater and greater forces. His success did come at a high price, however, as his highly disciplined, nail-tough Askari forces (porters and soldiers) died in untallied numbers (although much less proportionately than their adversaries). There’s much evidence though that he was widely respected by his men as seen in a return trip to Tanzania later in his life as an 80 year old retiree in which he was greeted with cheers by again former soldiers and hoisted above their heads.

Despite this being Gaudi’s first book, this lengthy book (18 hours on Audible!) flies by on the strength of his story-telling and narrative prowess. The author also ties up Lettow-Vorbeck’s life story neatly with a well-researched retelling us his life-long quest for love and notably his distaste for Hitler which culminated in his telling Hitler to “go F*** himself” when the genocidal dictator offered him an ambassadorship. 

And if this last tidbit doesn’t pique your interest in the leader, I am fairly certain he’s the only general with a dinosaur named after him: the uncatchable lizard, aka, the dryosaurid species Dysalotosaurus lettowvorbecki was named after him after discovery of its fossils in Tanzania.

*One of my Reading Around the African Continent books--the full list is here.
You can also check out my 2018 Reading List here. 

Key Takeaways (more notes are coming but one of the challenges with audiobooks is that notes are difficult. There's a 'save clip' function on the Pocketcasts app but you still have to go back and listen to all the clips):

Chapter 1: Aggressive and completely self-supportive, famed schutzstruppe--first racially integrated army in modern history.  
Chapter 8: SHaka Zulu--african hitler?
Chapter 8: herroro vs. hottentot genocide (4 phases, each 12 years)  
Chapter 8: First german colonialists stole herroro women and raped and fathered children.  This set off a huge rebellion led by samuel Maharero, the supreme chief of the Herero, led a rebellion against German rule.
Chapter 9: Heinrich Ernst Göring story about him forbading alcohol and fornication whose daughter killed her own baby when she became pregnant rather than face his wrath.
Chapter 11:  Kiboko day, men chosen at random to be whipped.  See more in this excerpt here.  
Chapter 11: German elections  in fall 2006 sweep conservative out of power--colonial political play major role
Chapter 11: progressive regime changes colonial outlook to compassionate caretakers (post genocide) Schnee’s agenda
Chapter 12: More notes forthcoming...

Key References (For Further Study):

Key References (for further study): For the life of me, I can't get the book covers to line up in an ordered manner--I eventually just gave up.