BITTER FRUIT

I just read another good book written by the author Achmat Dangor, who hails from South Africa (1948), but who has worked for many years in the Swiss town of Geneva. South Africa is still in his mind and in his heart. This book, about the bitter fruits of the independence after the years of apartheid rule, gained him the Booker Prize 2004.

People were elated when the walls of apartheid fell. People rejoiced in the streets, the slums and in the posh areas, on the tarmac and on the dirtroad, on the beach and in the field. A new day dawned. The fruit of the new dispensation was ready to be picked. And people picked and picked, but not everyone was near a fruit tree. Some has already picked in the past, when the lines were drawn. They had crossed lines, were on the safe side, on the side of the comrades, now they wanted to be harvesters on a grand scale, temporarily forgetting their brothers and sisters and farflung relations. 

Achmat Dangor describes life after the fall of apartheid. Old ghosts appear in the streets, white men shuffle to different tunes as in the past. An old apartheid officer had raped Lydia, the wife-to-be of Silas. Now Silas meets the old man, 20 years later, in a shoppingmall. Old wounds have never faded away, realizes Lydia when she hears about this old man. 

Upward mobility, new civil service upstarts, everyone wants to have part of the fruits, these fruits look so sweet. But the rot has settled deep down beneath the colourful skin of the fruit. The stench is not noticable for the casual passerby. 

We read about relations in the extended family, old comrades, new ties, old establishments. In the olden days people carried each others burdens and responsibilities, but it is each man and each woman and each child on its own. Your burden is yours and yours alone. 

What has ever changed, but the skin of things? Things fall apart, the center cannot hold. Achebe revisited. Relations crumble. Old ties snap. Nothing is able to stand the times of change of the winds of change. Ideals are buried by the wayside, as an afterthought. Everyone struggles for his and her and its square foot of life and land and future. 

The fruit has been picked, some filled one basket, some filled a thousand baskets. But bitter is the fruit, for each and every picker. Read, and shiver underneath the tree.

Achmat Dangor – Bitter Fruit – 2004

THE CAIRO HOUSE

The house does exist in Cairo, in the Garden City.

The house is the center of life and the center of the family and the extended family and an elite and a political ruling class.  It is the house Samia writes about, drawing on het personal memories, and moulding it into a novel, an autobiographical novel.

At the center of the novel is Gigi, a woman who returns to the country of her birth, i.e. Egypt. She left her son when she the country and moved abroad. She was to reunite with her son, who stayed with his father in Egypt (maybe the son will come with her to the United States of America) and the visit the old places, like the House, the seat of the Pasha, as it was in the olden days.

We swerve from the present to the past, bound by memories and political developments. We creep back to the 23rd of July in the year 1961. President Nasser delivers a speech. It is the beginning of the end of the extended well-to-d0 politically connected family. Relatives are sent to an internmentcamp, possessions are sold by the governemnt. Their private empire crumbles. Their empire in the upperclass, with a French accent.

We even journey further back into time, back to the early fifties, the days that the family was climbing the sports of succes and influence and status. The family is filled with modernity and at the same time aware that the old traditions should not fade away in the glaring sun of the Egyptian metropoles. 

It is a story of the past and finding your roots in a new world, with or without your relatives and your inward traditions. Gigi travels to Egypt, is she travelling home or is she now leaving home. She cannot answer that question. The two countries and the two identities and these different cultures are present in her life.

Changes came to the country of Egypt, upheavals from a monarchy, to the military, from one dictatorship to the next. Has anything changed? 

This book would have even been better with a family tree, nicely at the beginning or the end. A tree rooted in Egypt, at the banks of the Nile, and branches till the ends of the earth. 

Samia Serageldin – The Cairo House – 2000

HINTER DER SCHLEIER DER TRÄNEN

This is the third and last book by Choga Regina Egbeme (not her real name), a woman with a German mother Lisa and a Nigerian father. Her married mother met this Nigerian man David who led a church of the Black Jesus and had a harem in Lagos, Nigeria. Lisa leaves her husband and marries David and joins the harem. Choga was born with this mixed ancestry and raised in the harem.

In this third volume we read about the last days, weeks and months of Choga who leads a rural community not far from Jos, Nigeria. This community is an offshoot  from the harem that has been scattered, after the death of David and his incapable successor Felix (the husband of Choga).  Her halfsister from Germany has joined the community as well, and she teaches the children, some of them from the neighbourhood.

Choga has been trained as a healer with the gifts of mother nature as she sees it. With her curing and caring activities she tries to uphold the community of women and this very young man, her son Josh.

We read about her attempts to stem the tide of physical decline with her own brew ‘Choga’s tea’. She drinks it herself and she gives it to her son, and others who live in the community and around it. The rise of HIV Aids is prominent.

A medical doctor from a hospital in Jos is interested in her work and in her tea. He visits the community and wants to do some research on the work and the tea. He also arranges some financial support. 

The community loses more and more members, partly due to death. It is in this way a sad story, a story of decline, but also a story of courage.  

This third volume demands slowreading, for the story unfolds in a slow way. It is not about the action, but about the thoughts and relationships of people. 

The Dutch publisher thought it proper to put a cover to this book filled with Maasai / Samburu people in traditional attire. You do not find many of them on the central plateau in Nigeria. 

Choga Regina Egbeme – Hinter der Schleier der Tränen- 2004

SPIEËL / MIRROR

This book is one in a set of three. I have read one book, now the second (no numerological order).

The main character of the book is a South African architect, a succesful acrchitect and a well-to-do one. Married with two children and even an au-pair from Europe. One day he wakes up, goes to the bathroom and when he looks into the mirror he discoivers to his am,azement and shock that his skin has turned a deep brown. It is not a heavy tan, that has been building up in a few days time. It has appeared from one moment to the next. This white male has become overnight a dark brown male.

Brink searches in these pages for identity in the new South Africa. How will people look at him? What will his friends say? Will his wife Carla take a different opinion on him? What will Steve think about himself and how others will think about him? Does colour has any impact in the rainbow nation?

Ofcourse women and affairs enter the pages as well (and they also define his identity!), you seems not to be able to have Brink and frorgo women and affairs. But is seems that the skin has a greater impact on the man in the pages.

Skin and identity.
Identity and skin.

Will it be a change form the outside towards the inside?
Or will it be a change from the inside towards the outise.

An intruiging book.

André Brink – Spieël / Mirror – 2008

THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND

For a long time I thought that this book was an account of a real life situation. Till I started reading this book and read a bit around this book.

There are two main characters in this book. One is the Ugandan dictator and soldier Idi Amin, who made himself famous thorugh is atrocities and unorthodox methods in international diplomacy. The other is Nicholas Garrigan, a medical doctor from Great Brittain (sorry, Scotland!). He just finished his medical studies in Edinburgh and starts his work in a clinic/ small hospital in the western town of Mbarara. On his first night in Uganda Idi Amin takes over power and Obote is chased away.

We read about Nicholas’ day to day work in the medical world of Mbarara. One day he is called to treat the president after an accident near Mbarara. Shortly afterwards hge is called to Kampala to be the personal doctor of the president, next to that (but his main job) he works in a Kampala hospital.

Nicholas is intrigued and fascinated by Amin. This fascination draws him closer and closer to Amin, and when the world around him falls apart he stays at his work in the hospital and near Amin. He lives at the compound of State House.

Not only is Nicholas fascinated by Amin, there is a mutual relationship, not only due to the Scottishness of Nicholas.

This book makes a good read. Foden did a fair bit of research and some of the characters and situations of this book did remind me of the death of the Kenyan minister Bruce Mackenzie (1978) and the role of the Briton Bob Astles in Uganda.

The book has been turned into a movie. Forest Whitaker played the role of Amin to much acclaim.

Giles Foden – The last king of Scotland – 1998 

DAGBOEK VAN CARLA

How often do writers incorporate bits (or many bits) of their life in their books? It seems that the Belgian writer Cottenjé (1933 – 2006) did put the familiar in the fiction. She was trained as a nurse, got married, worked on a voluntary basis in Congo (in the colonial days of Belgium) in the province of Kivu. During the days of independence the family (including the children) decided to return to Belgium.

Carla the main character in this “Diary of Carla” is a trained nurse, who works as a nurse in Belgian Congo, after she gets married to another colonial in the province of Kivu, she leaves her job and on a voluntary basis treats people in her new neighbourhood, at a lake. During the early days of independence Carla and the children (and a bit later her husband as well) flee the country.

Reading this book you get a glimpse of colonial life (and the different attitudes among the Belgians, building an existence in a new world), about the work of the nurse, her contacts with Congolese people, living in a remote place with her husband Wim and her children.

But most of all this book is about the independence of a woman, not the independence of a nation. She loves her husband Wim very much, and she does not want to leave him, nor does she want to be left by him. But, her capacity for love (or better: physical contact with other men) she cannot limit to her husband. She has a strong longing for independence, to chart her own course, to have extra-marital affairs. In this way she is a bit the odd-woman-out. But this does not make her conform to the accepted standards of society. This situation continues in Belgium. Her husband is a straightfortward man, who is in love with Carla, very much so. But can he withstand the pressurre that is building? Will he be able to be the shoulder Carla’s needs after her affairs or will he withdraw his shoulder?

Mireille Cottenjé – Dagboek van Carla – 1968

Mireille Cottenjé in 1982

TERRA SONÂMBULA

In this one book you will receive two stories. Mind you, not two independent stories, the first and the second, the first and the last. These two stories intertwine and get closer and closer.

In one story you will read about two men, an old man Tuahir and a young boy Muidinga. They have escaped or left a refugeecamp in wartorn Mozambique. They stumble upon a bus that has been burnt due to an accident or a shooting or another disaster. They move into the bus and consider it their home, albeit a temporary one.

Near the bus they find an abandoned suitcase, in the suitcase are left a couple of notebooks, in it is written by Kindzu, who writes the story of his life. A story with the obvious and the unobvious, his background, a journey on the seas, the meeting with an illustrious lady.

Muidinga reads history in the notebooks aloud. He is able to read and speak. The old man Tuahir is able to listen. These two refugees in search of their future meet the past of this enigmatic Kindzu. Everyday they find time to get involved in Kindzu’s life, while they struggle with their own one.

They take part in the story, Muidinga recognizes himself in one of the missing relatives of Kindzu, for he does not know his own story, his own background. He has been ripped of his past, struggles with his present and has no clue about his future. 

There is more to the stories that Mia Couto has woven. We encounter traditional leftovers, presentday marxism, a colonial world on the wane. All these ingredients have been woven till you have a toxic mix of past, present, and future, set on a bleak canvas. 

“The living and the dead and those who walk on water”, Couto quotes the long dead Greek philosopher Plato, who divided manhood into three groups. We meet all three of them in this novel. The sleeping and the waking. The waking walk through the landscape. The sleeping notice at daybreak that the landscape has changed, the landscape has been walking while they slept. They live in an ever changing landscape, where the boundaries between sleep and awake are blurred.

Keep your eyes wide open when you read this book! 

Mia Couto – Terra  Sonâmbula – 1992