Tag Archives: war

Booker Prize 2015: Modern Britain

The Americans this year are all about family. There are no big state-of-the-nation novels about America here this year. The Brits, though, seem to be in a more self-reflective mood, and there’s a particularly nice piece of symmetry that the two novels here are are written by Granta Best Young British Novelists—Andrew O’Hagan in 2003 and Sunjeev Sahota in 2013.

Andrew O’Hagan was last shortlisted for the Booker in 1999 for his first novel Our fathers. Sixteen years later, The illuminations, a novel about, amongst other things, the Iraq War, is in contention.

Anne lives in a nursing home, where her neighbour Maureen comes over to help her remember what she’s forgotten. Together they go to the Memory Club to remind themselves what they no longer know—for Anne, this means remembering her life as a photographer, as well as her husband, who was killed during his service in the army. Now, her grandson Luke is in Iraq, though she often forgets this. Meanwhile, Anne’s estranged daughter Alice is doing all she can to keep it together, sandwiched between her increasingly forgetful mother and her always-in-danger son.

For the most part, The illuminations flits between Anne’s life in this drearily small apartment in which she lives and Luke’s more muscular adventures in Iraq. It is the latter set of sequences that really bring this novel to life, and highlight the affect this ridiculous war has not only on the people who fight it, but the people who live it vicariously at home in Britain. It’s strange that there are still so few good novels about our time in both Iraq and Afghanistan (The yellow birds springs to mind for the Americans, and I am struggling to think of any Australian equivalent), but here O’Hagan has written something horrifyingly believable.

Luke himself is only in his late 20s, but already cynical and world-weary, seeing the war as an endless conflict between drugged-up young men brought up on FPSs and Red Bull, brought to a foreign land to fight an enemy they don’t understand, with young men who can’t even read, brought up on rhetoric they don’t understand. It’s a thoroughly depressing point of view, and though Luke tries to make sense of it with his direct superior, Major Scullion, he only finds a man broken by the repetition of conflicts stretching back decades.

When Luke does eventually return to Scotland, ruined by one particular experience, it is up to his mother and grandmother to help him reintegrate into a nation that is still struggling to work out what it wants—this is, after all, post-referendum Scotland, reaching out for an identity in modern Britain.

The illuminations reminds us that we are still at war, that there are still young men and women in far-flung places fighting for something that no one can really remember anymore.

If Andrew O’Hagan is concerned with what happens when young Britons go out into the world, Sunjeev Sahota is far more interested in seeing what happens when young Indians come to Britain. The year of the runaways, as the title suggests, takes a year in the life of three young Indian men—and one young Indian-English woman—who run away from their lives in an attempt to make a better one. It’s a surprisingly timely novel, considering the recent mass movements of people from war-torn places into Europe.

What is good about this novel is that Sahota doesn’t try to draw too large a bow when choosing his three leads. There are, of course , similarities between them, but this is not a novel using characters to make a point. Each of them is given the space to be their own person.

Both Avtar and Randeep have made their way to England on legitimate visas, but have no intention of keeping to the rules. Despite being accepted into a college, Avtar is there to make enough money to send back home to his family, where his father, a former government worker, is mentally ill. Randeep, too, is here to make money, on a spousal visa via a marriage that looks real only on paper. Both are exploited as cheap labour, and the struggles they go through to keep their heads above water are touching, considering what they went through to get where they are. (Sound familiar?)

Tochi, though is an illegal immigrant. Fleeing northern India, where his family was massacred by extremists, he moved to the West on the promise of a safe—and rich—life. (Sound familiar?) Of course, once he gets there, it becomes clear he has been sold a lie, particularly since he comes from a lower caste. The old prejudices are still alive and well in England.

The other main character, Narinder, is Randeep’s visa wife. Raised a devout Sikh in England, her story acts as a counterbalance to these three tales of migration. Still a runaway, she has married Randeep to help him come to England . Her narrative opens a completely new line of questioning, as we watch her move from being a quiet, devoted religious young woman to something a bit more human. It is here that one of the driving forces of the novel comes to the fore, exploring what happens to individual when they have been cut off from their communities and forced to flee to another. How do people cope with this upheaval?

The year of the runaways might, at first blush, sound a like a ripped-from-the-headlines novel, but Sahota is smart enough, and good enough, to make sure that these characters are not ciphers, but real people. By bringing a human face to problems that so often seem intangible, he show his gifts as an emerging chronicler of Britain and its people.

Tagged , , , , ,

The Other Shore (2014) – Hoa PHAM

Seizure are a publishing company based in Western Sydney—think of them as the cooler, younger sister of Giramondo. Over the past few years they have run a competition called Viva La Novella, designed to promote writers using this shorter format. This year, there were four winners, each published in print form. Hoa Pham, a former SMH Young Novelist of the Year, was one of this year’s winners.

When Kim Nguyen falls out of a boat and nearly drowns, she suddenly finds herself with the ability to speak to the dead. News of her gift, though, quickly finds its way to the all-knowing government, who want her to use it to help them. But Kim is uncomfortable with her new work, and with the arrival of a mysterious young man from America, she finds her loyalties divided.

Here’s a fun fact: the name Nguyen is the 13th most common surname in Australia. In Sydney, it’s the third most common. Australia has a strong history of immigration from Vietnam—South Australia’s Governor-elect is Hieu Van Le, a man who came to Australia in 1977 as a refugee. And yet, there is a dearth of Vietnamese-Australian voices in the literature world. Anh Do’s autobiography, The Happiest Refugee, was popular, but outside that, there are no household names. It’s refreshing, then, to read a Vietnamese-Australian voice in print.

Kim’s gift awakens her not only to the spiritual world, but to the realities of history that have been hidden from her by an authoritarian government trying to keep a lid on the past. Born and raised in Hà Nội, the stronghold of the communist government, Kim has only been told one side of the story. As she visits past battlefields, however, to help spirits reconnect with their living descendants, she finds herself talking to Americans and Southern Vietnamese people who died during the war.

The use of speculative fiction to shine a light on real-world issues is not exactly revolutionary—in fact, it is the genre’s very raison d’etre—but by placing it in this context, Pham reminds us that the effects of war live long into the future. The Vietnam War holds a particularly complex place in Western memory, and it is pleasing to see that Pham draws out the complexities of the American War from the other side. The battle may be over, but the reverberations of one death travel along family lines, forcing their way into everyday life.

More important, though, is the question it raises about the relationship between children, education and history. Kim is suddenly awakened to the reality of history—that war is complex, and that there are not usually any clear winners. Pham dares to ask the question: what happens to a young girl on the brink of adulthood when she discovers that her life is built on a lie? And here, we don’t mean a small lie, we mean a big, sociocultural lie. Literally her entire life is built on the idea that the North won, and that the Americans and the South were inherently bad people. But this is clearly not the case. Kim’s struggle to reconcile this truth with her life before her gift is deftly explored by Pham, particularly in the second half.

If Viva La Novella is a prize dedicated to finding Australian fiction that wouldn’t be published by a mainstream publisher, then it’s hit the nail on the head with The Other Shore. A genre-bending short work, it highlights Hoa Pham’s abilities to combine the everyday with the supernatural in a way that never feels forced; instead forcing her readers to reconsider their own ideas about war and memory.

Tagged , , , , ,

The Islands (1999) – Carlos GAMERRO

I am young enough to have a negligible understanding of the Falklands War. If you were to ask me to point to them on a map, I would struggle. If you asked me why two countries on opposite sides of the world were fighting of what appear to be some rocks in the ocean, I probably couldn’t give you an answer. I couldn’t tell you if England or Argentina had a more legitimate claim to them. Please bear this in mind as I review a huge Argentinian novel about the Falklands War.

It’s been ten years since the end of Falklands War. Felipe Félix was there, but has now become a slacker computer hacker, spending much of his time high. One day, he is summoned to the office of a very rich, very powerful and very secretive. The man has a job for him—find the person his son killed. As Felipe digs down, he finds that, for a lot of people, the war hasn’t ended, and that he is slowly being drawn back in.

There is no way to adequately describe what Gamerro is trying to do in The Islands in a short blog post. I will leave the big questions up to the academics who are no doubt salivating over the whole thing. What I do want to talk about, though, is the structure, and the way in which it creates a kind of fractured narrative about war, about national identity, and about the future.

Marketing books is hard. Marketing indie translations is even harder. So when And Other Stories call The Islands “a detective novel, a cyber-thriller, an inner-city road trip and a war memoir,” it sounds like they are trying to cover all their bases, to get as many people reading the novel as possible. As it turns out, they are actually quite close to the truth. The first section could be ripped right out of any cyperpunk novel of the late 80s/early 90s, with a computer hacker getting a mysterious summons to a skyscraper made exclusively out of one-way mirrors. It’s inventive, bizarre, philosophical, and confrontingly violent.

It is something of a surprise, then, when Chapter Two takes a huge turn, and becomes a detective novel, mixed with surreal scenes of a shady Argentinian public service. Genre hopping becomes commonplace throughout the novel, and Gamerro takes us from crime novel to war memoir, road trip to cyperpunk in almost self-contained chapters that all build up a picture of a war that, for many people, never really ended.

Clearly threaded throughout this, though, is the way in which Argentina, and Argentinians, responded to losing the war. It is what drives our protagonist—both physically and emotionally—to seek out the answers he has been asked to find. Several sections are written as flashbacks to the war itself, in which Felipe Félix himself was a conscript. These glimpses into the war are not pretty—much of it seems pointless, with the officers in particular more concerned with their own egos than questioning their own actions.

The Islands is too long for its own good—I got bored and stopped every few sections. It tends to ramble, often repeating thematic beats that have already been explored, and sometimes loses narrative focus in favour of drug trips and conversations on philosophy. I’m terrified by the afterword, in which Gamerro suggests this English edition has been cut down significantly from the original Spanish.

Taken on their own, though, each section in The Islands is a little masterpiece, exploring everything from love, lust, father/son relationships, computer science and wartime nationalism—but always through the lens of the Falklands War. One cannot help but wonder if this makes it the archetypal contemporary Argentinian novel.

Tagged , , , ,

The Blind Man’s Garden (2013) – Nadeem ASLAM

My pick for last year’s Man Asian Literary Prize, Uzma Aslam Khan’s Thinner Than Skin, was a beautiful evocation of a less-than-well-travelled part of the world—the dangerous mountains on the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Reading that opened my eyes to a part of the world about which I know nothing. I was excited, then, to see that Nadeen Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden was set in the same place.

In the wake of terrorist attacks in New York in 2001, two Pakistani brothers walk across the border into Afghanistan. They are not there to take up arms, but to help the wounded civilians caught up in the American invasion.

It tries to reach similar heights to one ones Khan’s achieves, but never manages to provide the reader with an emotional centre into which we can fully immerse ourselves. The story itself should be touching—it is the story of mistaken identity in a world torn apart by sectarian violence, where protestations of innocence fall on deaf ears. It is not limited to American misunderstanding of who is a terrorist and who isn’t—the Taliban are on the warpath, and anyone considered to be an American sympathiser is not safe.

Ostensibly the biggest problem with the novel is the way in which it is structured. In the first section, we are introduced to a family—the father, Rohan, whose wife’s death has forced him to question his beliefs in God; his biological son, and his adopted son. After the attack on New York on 9 September 2001, the two brothers decide to go to Afghanistan to help the sick and the injured.

So we spend almost a quarter of the book getting to know these two characters, only for at least one of them to be torn away from us. Why should we, as readers, continue to invest our emotion and thoughts into a novel that is willing to kill off a character it has set up as a protagonist so early?

The rest of the novel deals with the repercussions of this death. This, in itself, is not a bad choice, but I am yet to understand why Aslam waited this long to get to the heart of the narrative. Many of the reactions to his death are touching, and recounted deftly by Aslam, whose control of the English language is exquisite.

Most of my problems with the novel could easily be solved in one of two ways. The first is to simply eliminate the first section, and let the reader deal only with the fallout of an undeserved death on a grieving family. The other option is simply to rearrange the chapters slightly so Jeo’s story is told in flashback, slowly allowing us to understand who he was to those who remain.

Form and function are always bound tightly. The function of Aslam’s novel is to highlight to us the grey nature of right and wrong in a world where violence begets violence. It’s an admirable theme, and one that we would all do well to consider more often, particularly in the case of religious extremism. But his choice of form lets him down, and the meat of the novel doesn’t start until well after it should have. It is this that remains the fatal flaw for The Blind Man’s Garden.

Tagged , , , ,

The Odd Angry Shot (1975) – William NAGLE

I have an odd relationship with Anzac Day. On the one hand, I certainly bear no grudge to individual members of the armed forces of Australia, and admire them for doing a job I never could. On the other hand, though, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable about a public holiday that seems to revel in an Australian culture that, for me, no longer exists: that of the strong Australian male bravely going out into the battlefield with his mates to defend us. It seems desperately at odds with the fact that modern Australia was not born out of violence or war, a fact of which we should be quite rightly proud.

Here, then, is Text Classics’s answer to Anzac Day 2013: William Nagle’s The Odd Angry Shot, a novel that details a year in the life of four Australian soldiers during the Vietnam War.

First things first: this is a very short novel. The Text edition is less than 140 pages. So this is not so much a huge, sprawling epic about Vietnam so much as a series of vignettes, many less than a page, providing a fractured, kaleidoscopic view of what we can probably assume to be a fairly typical Australian draft experience of the war.

Our main group of protagonists are an odd bunch. If I ever met them, I think I’d probably not like them very much. They are, I suppose, the typical Aussie larrikin, built with a quick retort, and a healthy disrespect for authority. In many ways, they seem completely oblivious to the immediate danger they are in, and their reckless behaviour, both on- and off-duty, seems to compound their ignorance. Almost all of them are draftees, and there is a clear demarcation between the enlisted officers—men who are proper military types—and those young men that have been unlucky enough to have their birthday drawn out of a barrel. The tension between enlisted and drafted plays out through the whole novel, occasionally in quite amusing ways.

And yet, so often, these shenanigans are brought sharply into focus by the horrific events taking place around them. Nagle doesn’t shy away from describing the intense results of skirmishes and attacks from the enemy. Friends are often killed, though the emotional impact of this is never physicalised by these men. The only moment of emotional pain in the whole novel comes when one man is informed by mail that his mother and fiancée, living safely in Australia, have been killed in a car accident. The irony of this is too much for Bung who breaks down.

Perhaps, then, we need to see the actions of these men in a different light. They are acting out, not necessarily because they are bad people, but because they are put under intense pressure to perform every time they leave camp. They are in a country that does not want them, doing a job for which they will never be thanked.

But again, we have to come back to the evidence presented. These men take advantage of the very people they are supposed to be protecting. Perhaps this is why soldiers now have cultural sensitivity training. The women of Vietnam seem to be nothing more than receptacles for these men to unload into, and the men and children are to be taken advantage of at every opportunity, despite being desperately poor, living in a country that has been invaded by outside forces.

The final pages of The Odd Angry Shot are reflective and quiet. Two men have arrived back in Sydney, no longer required by the military machine. They are irreparably changed. The things they have seen and done cannot never be unseen or undone. But they have fought a war that has become deeply unpopular, and are now required to never mention it again.

This is the true horror of the Vietnam generation. Left to fend for themselves, these men, many of whom had not choice in their service, were forced to reintegrate into a world that now seemed strange and superficial. It is this that Nagle leaves dangling at the end, forcing us to question our own attitudes towards the politics of war.

Tagged , , ,

The Memory of Love (2010) – Aminatta FORNA

Now that I’ve joined a pretty informal book club, I get to read things I’ve been meaning to for ages but haven’t gotten around to it. The Memory of Love won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2011, a prize that has recently been revamped, now being awarded to debut novels. It’s nice to see an African novel from outside of Nigeria, too – the triple threat of Achebe, Adichie and Habila is often hard to fight.

I don’t know if it’s because I kept comparing it to Half of a Yellow Sun – which I know is unfair – but I kept waiting for the war to actually start. The two concurrent narratives take place before and after the war, leaving the horrors of the war to our own imagination. It’s not a bad idea, but I think I would have preferred to see, at the very least, the initial break-out of war, rather than cutting off before it. Instead, Forna concerns herself with how people deal with the past, and the lies they tell themselves about the past to make them feel good about themselves.

The most obvious way she does this is by parachuting a white British psychiatrist into Sierra Leone to deal with patients with PTSD. He serves two functions: the first is providing an outsider point of view, allowing us outsiders a way in. Of course, as with all outsiders, Adrian doesn’t fully understand the situation in which he has found himself, and tries to solve it in ways he knows. Forna makes an interesting point with Adrian – he is the stand-in figure for white people coming to Africa, thinking they understand the indigenous problems, thinking they can solve these long-term issues with ideas from the West.

Adrian also becomes our way into stories from the war. Obviously the central one is Elias’, but there are other, smaller stories he encounters. From the small deaf homeless boy to the woman who goes into a fugue state to mentally escape the horrors she endured in the war, Forna populates her novel with people who have had to learn to cope with the fall-out from a civil war that tore a country apart.

Adrian’s friend Kai, a surgeon who has had to learn to deal with everyday patients as opposed to M*A*S*H-style war surgery, figures heavily in Adrian’s new life. They form a strangely close relationship quite early on (a lot of us at book club thought there was going to be a big gay love story, but we were way off), and Kai’s own acceptance of war is a different tale from the others. Realising there is nothing left for him in Sierra Leone, he makes plans to emigrate to America – in this novel, he seems to be the only one interested in leaving. Is this because he thinks he has lost so much more than anyone else? Or because he’s the only person with enough money to actually follow through?

Elias’ story, on the other had, takes us to just before the breakout of the Sierra Leone civil war. A young university teacher, he finds himself isolated from the rest of his group of friends because he is somewhat socially awkward. But as the narrative progresses, it becomes rapidly clear that Elias Cole is actually a deeply unlikeable person. Desperately in love with the girlfriend of a friend, he slowly becomes a little creepy as he does everything he can to manufacture meetings with her. For a long time, Saffia seems completely oblivious to Elias’ intentions, though, thinking he is simply being friendly. Once Saffia and Julius marry, though, Elias doesn’t get the hint, continuing his pursuit of a woman that his now completely unavailable to him.

This is all build-up to the ultimate act of betrayal that is central to the novel, the one that affects almost all other characters, no matter how indirectly. When the two of them are in gaol on trumped up charges of sedition, Elias hears Julius choking to death. And then he doesn’t do anything about it.

No doubt there is some jealousy threaded through Elias’ actions. His refusal to believe that Saffia would fall for someone other than him makes him hate Julius more and more, and without thinking, he leaves Julius to die. In his very poor defence, he didn’t expect the other man to choke to death. But by not doing anything to help when he hears the sounds of choking, he is implicit in a death that could probably have been avoided. I certainly thought that’s where we were all headed – seeming the logical choice in a book about the effects of war would have been to have Julius killed by the police – but then, Forna and I don’t see eye to eye on what makes a good plot.

The Memory of Love is not bad. There are some nice scenes under which universal themes of love, betrayal and jealousy are built. But it didn’t go where I thought it would go – and more importantly, where I thought it should go. I would have liked to see Forna deal more with the war itself. I would have liked Adrian to be a bit stronger as a character. Novels like Half Blood Blues dealt with this in a better way – certainly for me, anyway.

Tagged , , , ,

The Yellow Birds (2012) – Kevin POWERS

Releasing your war novel on 11 September is a risky business. If it’s really good, it will forever be remembered as a sneaky marketing tool to highlight the important message your novel has; if it’s really bad, it will forever be remembered as a sneaky marketing tool to highlight the cheap way people cash in on days like this to play on the public’s emotions. Fortunately, The Yellow Birds ticks so many boxes on my “good novel” list – less than 250 pages, fragmented narrative, gorgeous language, depressing content. It’s like this was written just for me.

Bartle and Murph were deployed to Iraq. But Murph never came back. Haunted by the promise he made to Murph’s mother before they left, Bartle cannot stop thinking about the friend left behind in a foreign land. As we flit between past, present and future, and the story of what really happened to Murph becomes clear, a devastating tale of men under pressure emerges. No one will ever be the same again.

The biography at the back on the book mentions two things that I can only imagine are the most influential parts of Powers’ life on this novel – his time in Iraq as a machine gunner, and his MFA in poetry.Obviously it’s not hard to see the influence the first had on this novel, but the main achievement of this novel, for me, though, is the language. The first paragraph is a beautifully haunting personification of the war itself, describing it as hungry. I could block-quote almost every paragraph in this novel, it is so gorgeously written. But what makes it even more amazing is one passage, about two-thirds of the way through the novel, in which the mask slips. I can’t decide if it’s the mask of the narrator, or of Powers himself, but the perfectly controlled, structured language of the rest of the novel falls away, and for a one-page stream-of-consciousness paragraph, expletives and dirty language, the likes of which have been, up until now, not used, are utilised to brutally attack the war machine. It’s a section that proves to me two things – one, Powers has clearly spent a lot of time crafting a poetic style, which is highly effective; and two, this is a story that is close to his heart.

There are three narratives running in parallel: the first, in 2004, while Bartle and Murph are in Iraq; the second, in 2003, while the two are still in training in America; and the third, in 2005, when John has returned to America after finishing his deployment. Each one shines light on a different stage of the cycle of a soldier’s life. We start with Bartle and Murph patrolling This changes as the two are shipped off to Al Tafar, Iraq (Powers was stationed in Tal Afar). In a foreign, hostile land the two are forced to become closer, relying on on another, as well as the rest of their platoon, to simply stay alive. It’s hard to decide whether or not these soldiers are nice people. Most of them are just people, with flaws just like the rest of us.

It’s not just the people Powers describes with vivid detail. The milieu of the Iraq war – the desolation of a desert landscape – the heat, the wind, the sand – as well as the relationship between the occupying forces and everyday Iraqis, are clearly drawn from personal experience. The first major character death is that of the Iraqi interpreter travelling with the platoon. This is not a surprise – we hear of Iraqis working with Americans being killed far too regularly. But Bartle and Murph are more concerned with being killed themselves – the death toll is rapidly reaching 1000, and they don’t want to be the 1000th American troop killed in Iraq. It becomes a powerful recurring motif throughout the novel, of the death count rising, catching up with soldiers still on the ground.

When Bartle returns to America, he moves back home to live with his mother. As with all returning soldier stories, he has trouble readjusting to a life of relative comfort. He becomes isolated and introverted, moving from his childhood bedroom to a shed in his backyard. This doesn’t last long, however, and he eventually moves out of home, opting to live in an abandoned factory just out of town. In what is probably the most horrific scene – and there are certainly no shortage of candidates here – Bartle finds himself awoken next to a river bed, having been dragged out of the river. It is never made explicit if he jumped or simply slipped, but the reaction of the police who save him is terrifying. Though they suspect a suicide attempt, once they discover Bartle is a former soldier, they just leave him alone. They don’t bother to give him a psych evaluation, because he is a solder, not in spite of it. It’s a damning indictment of how soldiers are treated when they return to modern America.

There is a sting in the tail. It is not until the final pages that we discover what it is that has killed Daniel Murphy. It is not a regular shoot-out, it is not friendly fire, and it is not an IED. Murph goes AWOL, forcing the rest of the platoon to search for him for several days. In the pre-deployment sequences, Murph seemed to be a little nervous, a little unsure, about the whole adventure, and the stresses of war have clearly affected him more than most. While their sergeant coped with it by being a dick, and Bartle seems to be able to bottle it up inside, something inside Murph snaps, and he runs away. Of course, Iraq is still a dangerous place, and so he ends up dead. It’s not a pretty sight, and really hammers home the message Powers is imparting here – war is hell.

From what I can only describe as one of the most arresting first lines I’ve read in ages (“The war tried to kill us in the spring”), to a final, surprisingly redemptive scene, The Yellow Birds marks Kevin Powers as a talent to watch. The collision of perfectly formed, poetic sentences with an horrific subject matter – and making this work – is a sure sign that Powers is a gifted writer. Let’s hope whatever he does next doesn’t disappoint.

Tagged , , , ,

The Good Muslim (2011) – Tahmima ANAM

Continuing my reading of this year’s Man Asian longlist, I find myself in Bangladesh. Tahmima Anam’s first novel, A Golden Age, won the old Commonwealth Writers’ First Book Prize, so she’s got a good record. I can’t be totally sure, but I don’t think I’ve ever read any Bengali literature – I am, in fact, not even completely sure that’s the correct adjective to describe literature from Bangladesh. Nevertheless, with a such a provocative title, how could I not dive in?

The war is over. Maya has returned home to Dhaka after spending time in the country, looking after women’s health in a remote community. But things have changed in the seven years since she’s been home. Her mother is unwell, and her brother’s wife has died. Sohail, her brother, is not taking it well, and retreating into his new-found religion, which Maya finds off-putting. But will familial loyalty win out, or has Sohail completely turned his back on his sister, mother, and son?

My knowledge of the Bangladeshi Civil War is, how you say, non-existent, so I was having to try and work out some context while getting on board with the plot. This was kind of difficult, because Anam splits the novel into two parallel timelines, one in 1971, and one in 1984. Switching back and forth between the two, she tries to highlight the pre-war Sohail and the post-war version, but doing so on an almost chapterly basis has the effect of simply confusing the reader. It took me a good while to get a handle on what was going on, and I’m not sure the whole thing wouldn’t have been served better by keeping the whole thing linear, and presenting it in two parts.

Sohail himself should be a fascinating character – a man who has turned to radial Islam after the war, desperately trying to find some sense of meaning in his life. It is ironic, of course, that it should be his mother who casually hands him a copy of the Qu’ran in the hope he might find a small sliver of hope – his eventual rejection of his family in exchange for the word of God is heartbreaking.Anam really runs with the idea that people turn to religion in times of need, and it is nowhere more obvious than here. Sohail is so devastated by the war, so dead inside, there is nothing for him to do but turn to a system of belief he used to mock with his sister.

His son, though, is perhaps the most interesting character here. Zaid is young and impressionable, but without a strong parental figure, he has become a wild child. Both his parents are so caught up in living the religious life, it seems as though they have forgotten they have a child that needs to be loved and cared for, not indoctrinated with ridiculous religious values. Maya deems it her job to educate him properly, but her attempts to do so are constantly rejected by Sohail, as well as the women he surrounds himself with. This ultimate rejection of knowledge in favour of faith – by denying your son a proper education – should really be punishable by law, but here, it simply becomes another symptom of the rift that has formed between these two siblings.

Maya herself seems like an intelligent young woman – her work in the country as a obstetrician during and immediately after the war is noble, and well intentioned. Which is perhaps the fundamental problem I have with the novel. It’s hard not to view the debate here as a simple liberal lady doctor = good; radical Islamic man = bad. It’s a deeply natural reaction for me to hit both of those points of view, and Anam does the same here. It is not until the very end that we get a sense that, perhaps, it’s not as cut and dry as the past 250 pages would have us believe. The revelation about Maya’s true work after the war is, I think, supposed to be shocking, but to be honest, I was on her side. The work she was doing was perfectly believable, and indeed, necessary, I think. Similarly, the final sequences, in which Sohail is forced to confront whether or not he truly loves his son provides us with a sense of redemption on his behalf, but it comes as too little, too late.

There are some interesting ideas bubbling underneath the surface of The Good Muslim. But I’m not sure Anam ever manages to reach for the really, really tough questions, and force us to think about how religion, war, love – all those big things – affect us. These are big, big themes to be tackling, and until the very end, there is not enough questioning or moral ambiguity to allow the reader to consider these issues carefully and properly.

Tagged , , , ,

Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) – Chimamanda Ngozi ADICHIE

Perhaps I’m just becoming more cynical in my old(er) age, but I think a lot of people read novels like this one for one of two reasons: they feel they should, because it’s written by an African woman; or because they think they’ll get brownie points for reading something as exotic as an African woman writer. And knowing that this book was quite popular when it came out, I was expecting a good, but not great novel, about how hard it is to be a woman in Africa. Basically, I was expecting something not covering any new ground. Turns out I was way off.

Civil war is brewing in Nigeria. It is the 1960s, and southern separatists are wanting to secede, and start afresh. Ugwu is starting a new job as a houseboy. Olanna is moving in with her partner, both lecturers at a university. And Richard has come from deepest, darkest England to Nigeria to report. As the political and social situation in the country deteriorates, these three very ordinary people are caught up in a war that will change their lives forever.

Adichie’s portrayal of Africa is refreshingly unique. We are not subjected here to dismal descriptions of the slums of Nigeria, of the hordes of people suffering from HIV/AIDS, or from repression from the white colonial powers. Here, we get middle class Nigeria, full of intelligent, witty people, who are truly trying to make their country better. And this is the Africa that we just don’t see often enough, whether in the news or in literature. Of course these things happen – Africa is a troubled continent. But for Adichie, who was brought up in Nigeria by middle class parents, but university educated in America, this is just as much “the real Africa” as any other experience.

Indeed, this novel isn’t even really about the Nigerian civil war. It is, of course, an ever present menace, particularly in the latter stages of the novel, but I don’t think the focus is there. The focus is on what people do when forced to make difficult situations, when their comfortable, everyday lives are stripped from them, and they have to fend for themselves. Of the three main voices, it is Olanna who struggles the most with this upheaval. But it’s not just the war that’s affecting her – it’s her husband’s infidelity, and indeed, her own. It is the human relationships that maintain focus here, not the war.

This is not to say that the war is sidelined in favour of crappy soap-opera style adultery among the cast. For someone like me who has no background in African history, there is an interesting lesson to be learned here. Nigeria, like so many of the postcolonial, created countries of Africa, has internal conflict brought about by several different tribal groups being forced to coexist. And the civil war that is borne out of it, that is the subject of Half of a Yellow Sun, is an important part of history, and one that should be investigated and discovered by people who aren’t Nigerian.

The spectre of colonial power is not as strong as one might find in other African literature. The only white character, Richard, is not what you would call a cultural imperialist. He is deeply empathetic, to both individual people, as well as the Biafran cause itself. His subtle rejections of white African society, and his eventual willingness to be identified as Biafran, are portrayed here as kind. He is not a strong man; instead, he is a frustrated writer, a passive man who goes with the flow, yet there is strength underneath. Above all, he is fallible, and his own infidelity is something that also shapes the way these characters deal with the war.

For a long time, I think, Western readers’ views of African literature have been too closed-minded. Whose fault this is, I don’t know – the publishers for not publishing things that can’t be easily marketed as “African literature”, or the readers who simply read these things because they feel they should. Don’t read Half of a Yellow Sun because you want to read an “African novel”. If I say it’s much more than that, be aware I’m not trying to put down the vast numbers of African novels that have come before it, and done so much to educate us. But this is, hopefully, the beginning of a new kind of African novel – where people deal with situations that are not necessarily uniquely African, but more universal.

Tagged , , , , ,

The Sorrow of War (1991) – Bảo NINH

In my desperation to avoid writing an essay in a foreign language late at night, I thought I’d write this review instead. Having read most of this in a doctor’s waiting room this morning, I feel that it’s fresh enough in my mind to justify this. Or not. I just really don’t want to write that essay.

Kien is a veteran of the Vietnam War. He is writing a novel, based on his experiences of the war – but he is still haunted by these events, making it hard for him to concentrate. As he continues to write it down, past and present collide, along with reality and fiction. Everything is mixed up, and soon the most important story he must tell is his love story – the story of Kien and Phuong.

That plot description doesn’t do this book justice. It starts with a graphic and detailed account of skirmishes in the jungle of Vietnam during the war, and then slowly, the present Kien is revealed. The novel switches between past and present with no warning – indeed, the two collide in the same paragraph on occasion. By not using chapters, Ninh has created almost one long short story. But it’s much more than that, and the novel revels in its fractured narrative. Indeed, as he says at the end, you could scatter each incident on the floor, then pick them up again and read them, and it would still make just as much sense. It’s not just a gimmick – by meshing together the history of Kien, there is a great sense of his life as a whole, and not just one small part.

Kien is clearly based on Ninh’s own experiences of fighting during the Vietnam War, and it is beautifully evoked. There is no glory here – the tragedy of war is what this novel focuses on. When we see them fighting in the war, the characters are all young – mostly older teenagers – and while Ninh doesn’t focus on this fact for too long, he doesn’t have to. There is enough inherent tragedy in this for the reader to understand his point. For a ‘war novel’, though, there is ironically very little war in it. Well, that’s not completely true. There’s a lot of war – but that’s not the point of the novel, I don’t think. Again and again, the characters shine as the main attraction of this novel – Kien in particular. What I found more interesting than the war sections were his attempts to reintegrate into society after the war. He locks himself in a bare apartment, and has to write because of some compulsion to do so. Again, there’s clearly some kind of autobiographical element at work here, but it only serves to strengthen the novel. That, and it doesn’t feel like some of those autobiographical novels that tend to get a bit self-indulgent.

It is interesting that the second half of the novel, while still concerned with the war, actually develops into a moving, tragic love story. Kien and his lover, Phuong, seem destined to be apart for all time, and the fact that they keep meeting by chance as the years go on only serves to highlight the fact that they can never be together. One has to wonder for whom Ninh himself is pining. Still, I’m not sure I got a ‘pining’ feeling from the two. To a large extent, they had both resigned themselves to the fact that they were never going to be together, and did their best to move on. Very pragmatic. On a side note, it is interesting that the original Vietnamese title of the novel is loosely translated as The Destiny of Love, perhaps showing us Ninh’s original intention with his work.

The Sorrow of War is truly an excellent novel. I don’t care if you read it just because it’s written by a Vietnamese writer, or because you think you’ll get to hear the other side of the story. You won’t, by the way – the American Army barely feature in the whole thing, and the war is usually referred to as a civil war. This is truly a brilliant character study, and the backdrop of the Vietnamese War, and the fact that it is in translation might give some people the wrong impression. Bảo Ninh has written a universal novel of memory, history, love and loss.

Tagged , , ,