The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James

tuskTania James’s The Tusk That Did the Damage is a story about a couple of very young American film-makers who travel to a  Keralan wildlife park in South India to make a documentary about a veterinarian they’ve heard of, who rescues orphaned elephants. One of those orphaned elephants is now on the loose and is being pursued by poachers.

The young elephant orphaned after the brutal death of its mother, initially seized as a baby by poachers earns the name Gravedigger after developing a reputation for covering his human victims with leaves and dirt after death. Having escaped captivity he is being pursued by poachers, a significant price on his head.

Manu is the younger brother of a poacher, disturbed by what he discovers his brother is up to and the lies he tells his wife to cover for his absences. For the sake of his mother, who pleads with him to watch over her eldest son, he follows his brother on this last deadly pursuit, to try to ensure his safety; he knows the danger very well as his best friend was one of the victims of Gravedigger, but he hopes to keep his brother out of danger and trouble.

It is a story of a tribe of elephants in South India, who have lost their ability to roam freely and live as their nature intended, forever changed by their interactions with humans, it is also about those who wish to care for and protect elephants, those who are willing to exploit them and outsiders looking for a sensational story to bolster their careers.

Remembering India

Remembering India

It is a clash of cultures, of people and species who have forgotten how to live in harmony and are having to live with the consequences of their behaviours.

The narrative follows the elephant they name Gravedigger, the film maker Emma and Manu, the younger brother of the ivory poacher.

“Fresh out of college, we’d been looking for a subject for our first documentary feature when I learned about Ravi from an inflight magazine. The photos of fuzzy elephant calves hooked me for the usual cutesy reasons; the description of the veterinary doctor glowed with dramatic potential.”

The story moves between the three narratives, following their lives, looking back at the events that have shaped them until now, leading them towards each other and the inevitable confrontations that beckon.

“The trouble began when my mother found a pouch of bullets in Jayan’s cabinet – thick and crude as if sawed from a steering rod – and thrust the pouch at my father. She felt it a father’s duty to straighten out a wayward son even if the father himself was wayward past hope.”

There is an authenticity to the narrative of the younger brother that has the effect of drawing the reader deep into the lives of his family and neighbours, that his story involves more than just himself may be one of the reasons I was captivated by these sections.

The insights into the perceptions from the elephants point of view are sensitively if briefly handled, I wished this narrative voice could have been even stronger.

“I had never stood in such intimate company with a wild bull elephant or felt its breath steaming upon my face, had never watched the ground beneath my feet fall away until all that remained was the small patch on which I stood trembling. How could a man survive such a thing unchanged? How could he glimpse that unholy omen, a warning as ancient as the oldest of fables, as obvious as a black-bellied cloud, and ignore it?”

The film-makers felt unnatural in the environment, lacking understanding, empathy and not spending sufficient time to learn anything, they were the major weakness in the narrative for me. It is interesting having recently read Yasmina Khadra’s The African Equation, that both authors depict a similar stereotype of the Westerner entering into a foreign culture for a short period of time, insufficient to be able to able to understand it from the inside and this case, perhaps not wishing to see it in any other way that a sensational one.

It might be time for me to read  Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s An African in Greenland, brought to my attention by Ann Morgan, in her A Year of Reading the World project. The author ran away from his native Togo, to avoid having to be initiated into a snake cult and after reading a children’s book about a place called Greenland that had no snakes, he made that his destination. For the next twelve years, he travelled overland working his way towards his destination, sharing his observations and experiences. Not just an adventure, his book published in 1977 in France won a literary prize and since Ann Morgan read and reviewed it, the story has been picked up by a film producer.

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Note: The Tusk That Did the Damage was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

The African Equation by Yasmina Khadra tr. by Howard Curtis (French)

Yasmina Khadra is a name I have seen and heard mention often, here in France. At first, I too thought it was a woman writer. The real Yasmina Khadra is indeed a woman, but the author of the books is her husband, the Algerian writer Mohammed Moulessehoul, who created the pseudonym to deflect attention away from censors, as he was an officer in the Algerian army at the beginning of his writing career. His real identity was only revealed after he left the army and came to France to live in 2001.

He is known for offering an alternative narrative and perspective on the subjects he pursues in his fiction, a challenge to commonly held Western stereotypes. Whether he achieves that or not, his books fly off the shelves in France and now appear to be gathering an audience in the English language as well. It’s disturbing, compelling, likely to provoke much debate and makes me look forward to reading his next book.

KhadraFirst published in France in 2012, The African Equation was translated by Howard Curtis for Gallic Books and made available in February 2015. Two further titles will be published in late 2015 and 2016.

Kurt Krausmann, a doctor living in Frankfurt, Germany met a beautiful woman while in Paris, both were there for work purposes, attending different conferences in the same hotel, seemingly wedded to their careers, they found each other and if we are to believe the doctor narrator, 10 years of contentedness followed.

Moments from the past now arrive unbidden, a mocking assurance as his illusion of bliss is permanently scarred the evening he arrives home to discover the loving (though recently tormented by he knows not what) Jessica, has committed suicide.

The doctor’s ritualistic, clinical, predictable life is turned upside down and he experiences extremes of emotion, the like of which he would normally only ever encounter in the detached manner he has of observing patients, those symptoms he has so often downplayed in others threaten to overwhelm him.

‘Try to forget your dark thoughts, Frau Biribauer,’ I said. ‘You’re worrying unnecessarily. It’s all in your mind. Keep your spirits up. You’ve shown great courage and a clear head. You have no reason to give in now. With its joys and pains, life deserves to be lived to the end.’

His friend Hans Mekkenroth, a wealthy philanthropist throws him a lifeline, suggesting he travel with him on one of his regular humanitarian missions, they will sail across the seas in his yacht to deliver supplies to the Comoros Isles.

Hans lost his wife Paula some years before and though there isn’t a day when he doesn’t miss her, he appreciates that life doesn’t stop, he has found meaning in using his wealth to try and alleviate the suffering of others (while enjoying the element of adventure), whether it is the poor of Africa or the 1st world problems of his companion the Doctor, Kurt.

The Gulf of Aden

The Gulf of Aden

Kurt is about to discover a version of suffering and misery worse than he came with, when they are hijacked by pirates in the Gulf of Aden in the middle of the night and taken hostage. Transported inland, they are initially held in a cave, while their captors decide what to do with them and teach them a lesson or two in the meantime.

The men are moved and lose all sense of where they actually are, as they try to understand who is in charge and what is going on around them. When they meet fellow hostage Bruno, a Frenchman who has been living a nomadic existence in Africa for 40 years, they begin to understand the varying potential prices on their heads and fear for their survival. Despite his captivity, Bruno the ‘born again African’ Frenchman, refuses to let go of his love for Africa, countering every negative situation with an alternative view.

‘I don’t understand what goes on in these monsters’ minds.’

‘A goldfish can’t bring the complexity of the ocean back to the tranquillity of its bowl, Dr Kausmann,’ Bruno said with a hint of reproach.

‘I don’t live on another planet,’ I retorted, exasperated that he could still come out with these insinuations after all I had been through.

‘Neither does a goldfish. But what does it know about storms? The world has become colour blind. On both sides, everything is either black or white, and nobody cares to put things into perspective. Good and evil are ancient history. These days, it’s a matter of predators and prey. The predators are obsessed with extending their living space, the prey with their survival.’

‘You’ve been too long in Africa, Bruno.’

‘What is Africa, or Asia or America? he said in disgust. ‘It’s all the same. Whether you call it a brothel or a whorehouse, it’s the soul that’s in it that determines its vocation. Whether you say “it smells bad” or “it stinks” doesn’t change the air around you. The South Pole is only the North Pole lying on its back, and the West is only the East on the other side of the street. And do you know why, Dr Kausmann? Because there are no more shades of grey, anybody can rationalise anything, even the worst atrocity.’

The hostage experience awakens a once dormant, now seething rage in the Doctor, an equivalent madness that has been roused for some time in his captors, as they trade insults, tirades of hatred and contempt revealing how similar they all are, despite their intent to exert superiority and dominance, each striving to rise above the other. They have worn their societal labels, been perceived, and practised as a Poet(the African) and a Doctor(the Westerner) yet in this unforgiving environment, they are reduced to their despicable worst, seeing the other as their nemesis, representing the worst of those stereotypes, they reduce each other to in their respective forms of bigotry, showing themselves equally capable of the worst man can do, given the circumstances.

Yasmina Khadra

Yasmina Khadra

It is a compelling story that provokes as many questions as it answers, that at times risks falling into the stereotypical traps it seeks to avert. The Doctor had no desire to travel to the African continent, he is there by accident, thus he represents the perspective of those who come by their views through media and external cultural perspectives and his violent experience would seem only to strengthen those views, though they are challenged by some of his later encounters.

Without giving the plot away, I conclude he learns little from his experience, he reverts to his former self, seeks a form of escape from his reality, another version of the life he had before. Perhaps this is what Khadra is getting at, whether it’s a hostage experience, a safari trip or medical relief, that Westerners remain unchanged by their experience? Certainly tourism is rarely a life changing activity, but living in another country for more than 40 years might be.

We were puzzled by the suicide of the Doctor’s wife and though a reason is proffered, there is little introspection on his part to understand his role in it. Did his subsequent journey transform his character in any way? His reaction on his return and unwillingness to explore it, suggest not.

On the reverse side of this equation, we witness the horror of hostage taking and the keeping of prisoners in horrid conditions, the anger and violence of men, the arid landscape, civilian brutalities, villagers on the run and a refugee camp. They a significant contrast to the part of Africa I have been in recently through Wangari Maathai’s autobiography, Unbowed, One Woman’s Story she inhabited a woman’s world in the beginning and then through education, the Kenyan elite. Her story does more to dispel the myths and stereotypes than anything else I have read so far. She may have been an exceptional woman, but I have no doubt there are many more like her, who could teach us a lot more about the Frenchman Bruno’s favourite and frequent quote:

‘That’s Africa, Monsieur Krausmann!’

 

Unbowed, One Woman’s Story by Wangari Maathai

WangariWangari Maathai was an exceptionally hard working, charismatic, altruist, who came from humble rural beginnings, toiling the land barehanded from a young age to become one of a group of young Africans identified as part of the “Kennedy Airlift”, provided the opportunity to gain bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the US, then completing a PhD in her native Kenya and using her education to work for the betterment of her country and people in terms of sustainable environmental practices social justice.

In addition to a senior role as a scientist and researcher at a university in Nairobi, needing to do something practical and far-reaching, she founded the sustainable tree planting initiative, The Green Belt Movement and would go on to become a responsible and practically minded activist, working to protect the natural resources and people of Kenya, through her knowledge of where to apply pressure, through her strong international network and above all the high regard in which she was esteemed by many, though sadly, that didn’t include the government of Kenya, who over many, many years continued to block her, plant obstacles in her way, arrest her and make it very difficult for her to continue in her role as an academic and to run her own business.

Wangari Maathai possessed a spirit that refused to lie down, with every setback, she gathered herself and whatever limited resources she still had, and at times this was nearly nothing and always looked towards the one step she could take, that first step towards a solution.

Wangari Maathai, Tree Hugger Extraordinaire!

Wangari Maathai, Tree Hugger Extraordinaire!

Planting a tree was both symbolic and life-sustaining. As more and more of Kenya’s forest was being deforested, underground water sources were drying up, land that had been planted with indigenous trees was being replaced with cash crops like tea and coffee, stripping the soil of nutrients and occupying land previously used to produce traditional foods for people to eat. As a consequence women began to feed their families more processed foods, requiring less energy to produce, less firewood and increasing the incidence of malnutrition.

“While I was in the rural areas outside Nairobi, I noticed that the rivers would rush down hillsides and along paths and roads when it rained, and that they would be muddy with silt. This was very different from when I was growing up. “That is soil erosion,” I remember thinking to myself. “We must do something about that.” I also observed that the cows were so skinny that I could count their ribs. There was little grass or other fodder for them to eat where they grazed, and during the dry season much of the grass lacked nutrients.”

And she took people with her, she made them part of the solution. To grow The Green Belt Movement required a large network of people to plant trees and to source and nurture seedlings. She went to the women, women like herself who grew up with their hands in the earth, she empowered them to create nurseries in their villages and tend the small trees and keep planting.

“Although the leadership of the NCWK (National Council of Women of Kenya) was generally elite and urban,  we were concerned with the  social and economic status of the majority of our members, who were poor, rural women. We worried about  their access to clean water,  and firewood,  how they would feed their children,  pay their school fees,  and afford clothing, and we wondered what we could do to ease their burdens. We had a choice: we could either sit in an ivory tower wondering how so many people could be so poor and not be working to change their situation, or we could  try to help them escape the vicious cycle they found themselves in. This was not a remote problem for us. The rural areas were where our mothers and sisters still lived. We owed it to them to do all we could.”

Tumutumu Hills nursery

Tumutumu Hills nursery

These women were already farmers, they knew how to nurture beans, maize and millet seeds, and Wangari and her team reminded them, they didn’t need a diploma to plant a tree. All they needed was their “women-sense”. These women succeeded, they showed other women what to do and became known as their “foresters without diplomas”. At every stage they looked to see if they could improve the way they did things and to overcome any obstacles the women encountered. It was a huge and sustainable success.

Unfortunately, the government for much of the 80’s and 90’s was against her, almost as if it were a personal affront, to witness a woman speak out and lead and inspire others to stand up to authority; Wangari Maathai was an advocate for proper governance and management of public resources and as soon as she heard about abuses of powers that threatened to remove public rights, she moved her supporters to action.

Through perseverance she won many battles, to save the last big public park in the middle of Nairobi, Uhuru Park from urban development, preventing Karura Forest from being given to friends and political supporters of politicians, the release of political prisoners and even the lobbying of the World Bank to forgive Kenya’s national debt which had escalated out of control. due to interest payments, despite the original loan amounts having been repaid .

“When I see Uhuru Park and contemplate its meaning, I feel compelled to fight for it so that my grandchildren may share that dream and that joy of freedom as they one day walk there.”

« Maathai and Obama in Nairobi » Source: Fredrick Onyango,  Nairobi, Kenya Wikipedia

« Maathai and Obama in Nairobi » Source: Fredrick Onyango, Nairobi, Kenya Wikipedia

Unbowed, One Woman’s Story, is an astonishing and important recollection of the life and work of Wangari Maathai. She applied herself to everything she did with vigour and heart, the opportunity to be educated, something that continues to be lobbied for so many girls in third world countries, was a major turning point and became the first of many open doorways she walked through and made the most of, not for own benefit, but always for the good of all.

It seems almost like a utopian fantasy, to imagine what the world could be like, if more women were given the opportunity to gain the necessary knowledge that could allow them to facilitate solutions to village and country problems, that allowed them to live sustainably and not in fear or poverty without understanding why. Wangari Maathai knew and practised that one person can’t change everything, it is through showing and empowering others that change happens.

She was an amazing, inspirational and practical woman, who responded to the call for help on many significant issues that would benefit all Kenyan’s and was an example to the world, rightfully acknowledged and awarded the Nobel Prize for peace in 2004. Sadly she passed away in 2011 from ovarian cancer.

“Throughout my life, I have never stopped to strategize about my next steps. I often just keep walking along, through whichever door opens. I have been on a journey and this journey has never stopped. When the journey is acknowledged and sustained by those I work with, they are a source of inspiration, energy and encouragement. They are the reasons I kept walking, and will keep walking, as long as my knees hold out.”

Wangari tells a wonderful story of how the hummingbird responds to a forest fire, in a delightful metaphor that describes exactly her attitude to life and the many challenges that surround us. It has been made into a 2 minute animated film, Dirt, narrated by Wangari Maathai and is a wonderful introduction to her faithful, persevering spirit. A wonderful short film and one of my Top Reads for 2015.

I will be the hummingbird…

Kamchatka by Marcelo Figueras tr. Frank Wynne (Spanish, Argentina)

KamcahtkaKamchatka is a novel by the Argentinian writer Marcelo Figueras set in 1976, one year during a disturbing era of Argentinian history under military dictatorship, often referred to as The Dark Ages, a time when speaking out against the establishment gave rise to a terrible number of “Disappeared”.

Ordinary people vanished without trace, neither arrested nor imprisoned, there was no record of their detainment, they simply disappeared, believed to have been disposed off.

In an interview with Stu a huge reader of translated fiction who reviews at Winston’s Dad, Marcelo Figueras said this about his own experience as a child growing up in those years, words that are clearly an inspiration for the novel he has written:

“On the one hand, I was the typical boy on the verge of adolescence: shy, introspective, living in a bubble made of books ,music, comics, TV and movies. I played Risk a lot. I watched The Invaders. I enjoyed Houdini, the movie with Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, but rejected its sad, sad ending. I fell in love every day. I danced alone.

But on the other hand, I lived in fear. I knew nothing about what was happening, my family had always been apolitical. In spite of that, I sensed something awful was going on: it was everywhere, even in the air, atoms of fear mixed with oxygen and nitrogen.

That was one of the main ingredients of the military Junta’s perversity: they tried to keep the appearance of normality, Buenos Aires’ streets were calm and orderly (and filled with policemen), as if nothing out of the ordinary was really happening. But people were being kidnapped in the dark, locked in dungeons, tortured and killed, and their bodies hidden in massive, anonymous graves or dropped into the sea. So something wicked was indeed happening. And my nose picked it up somehow.”

The author goes on to say that the subject has been written about by many authors and in his opinion many of those stories follow a similar trajectory of a romantic young man or woman, their involvement in politics, a kidnapping occurs, torture, death and the law courts follow.

He wanted to do something different, to write about what those who were not kidnapped endured, a different horror. By making a 10-year-old the narrator of his novel, he puts the reader right into this fearful and confusing situation of sensing being in danger and yet understanding nothing about where that fear is coming from.

HoudiniEarly on in the novel, our narrator and his younger brother, whom he affectionately refers to as The Midget, are pulled out of school abruptly by their mother and they go on what she describes as a holiday, to stay in a safe house.

The boys are told to choose a name for themselves, to change their identity and after finding a book about Harry Houdini on top of a cupboard, our narrator calls himself Harry and decides he wants to become an escape artist, something he goes to great lengths to tell us is very different to being a magician.

“Since the uncertainties of the present weighed heavily on me, I had been spending a lot of time thinking about my future. The idea of becoming an escape artist struck me as clearly as a vision: once the notion was firmly planted in my brain, all my worries  disappeared. Now I had a plan, something that would, in the near future, make it possible to tie up the loose ends of my circumstances. I imagined that Houdini himself had done much the same thing. ”

Risk Map

The ‘Risk’ Map of the World

The stay doesn’t feel like a holiday to Harry, however he passes his time doing the things he enjoys, playing Risk with his father, a post colonial game of strategy to take over the territories of the world. Harry wants to conquer but he never does, his father believes it is important he learns how to win through continual practice, not to have victory handed to him.

Finally the match occurs where Harry begins to win, he pushes his father back, gaining all but one last territory, that last bastion of strength, Kamchatka. He fails to take it and from that moment on his fortune turns.  Kamchatka is this place on the map that few have heard of, but it contains a hidden strength and it is both a figurative place Harry will return to in later years and a physical landscape of extraordinary elements that he will also visit.

Our Harry is very curious and intelligent and the book is structured into sections like lessons from a day at school. In each of these parts he reflects on philosophical ideas, covering subjects the book is divided into, biology, geography, language, astronomy and history. These reflections were one of the magical parts of the book for me, I recognise that beautiful curiosity of a young mind, trying to make connections between what he knows and what he thinks might be, growing his brain on the page.

“Sometimes I think that everything you need to know about life can be found in geography books. The result of centuries of research, they tell us how the Earth was formed…They tell us about how successive geological strata of the planet were laid down, one on top of the other, creating a modem which applies to everything in life. (In a sense too, we are made up of successive layers. Our current incarnation is laid down over a previous one, but sometimes its cracks and eruptions bring to the surface elements we thought long buried.)”

Most of the narrative takes place in this suburban exile for the period that the two boys are with their parents, during that time they invite their Grandmother to visit, a formidable woman who doesn’t get on with her daughter and whom The Midget plays a deathly trick on.

There is  a swimming pool and often the boys find a dead toad floating within it, so they devise a method for the toad to escape, hoping to improve the genetic selection of toads, as only the intelligent will figure out how to escape. It is a child’s game invested with hope.

And Kamchatka?

“The last thing Papa said to me, the last word from his lips, was ‘Kamchatka’.”

I thought this book was incredibly well told, the voice of the child narrator was so authentic and believable, his curiosity, frustrations and fear penetrate the pages and make the reader feel it all. You can’t help but read the book with a certain amount of tension, not knowing what the outcome will be. I was left wanting to read a sequel, to know how Harry coped and lived in the teenage years that would have followed, when life must have been so different to everything he and The Midget had known up until then.

A 5 star read for me, highly recommended.

The book was short listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2011.

A Note on That Place Called Kamchatka

Kamchatka landscapeIn the easternmost region of Russia, eight time zones from Moscow, closer to Japan than most of Russia lies the region and peninsula of Kamchatka. A land of legends and a kingdom of bears. The region is stunning to look at and sees all the elements come together, snow topped hills, ramblings brooks, luscious greenery and volcanic vapours, yes there are frequent volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.

I realised some days after finishing this wonderful book that I knew about Kamchatka because some months ago my son made me go with him to see a stunning documentary at the cinema called ‘Terre des Ours’ which is set right on the heart of Kamchatka, a territory that is the home of brown bears, who only come out of hibernation for 3 months of the year and during that time they leave the snow topped mountainous regions and traverse the lava fields and go down to the river and lakes which are heaving with salmon. They must eat enough to get them through the next hibernation and the female bears have an even more challenging role as they have to catch enough for themselves and their offspring, while fending off the attentions of the lone male bears.

Below is a one minute trailer that show you a little of that magical world. The film is brilliant, sadly I don’t think it is available in English, the voice over is done by Marion Cotillard. But do watch this snippet, its magic.

Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal, tr. from Catalan by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell

Stone  in a LandslideThis is the second in the Female Voices: Inner Realities series from Peirene Press.

Publisher, Mieke Ziervogel introduces each of their books with one or two sentences in extra-large font on the second page and it’s a page that you find yourself looking forward to whenever you pick up one of their books.

She shares what attracted the team to selecting that title as one of the Peirene books to translate into English and share with readers.

For Stone in a Landslide, she had this to say:

“I fell in love with Conxa’s narrative voice, its stoic calmness and the complete lack of anger and bitterness. It’s a timeless voice, down to earth and full of human contradictory nuances. It’s the expression of someone who searches for understanding in a changing world but senses that ultimately there may be no such thing.”

We meet Conxa as a 13-year-old girl living in the Catalan Pyrenees, Spain at the beginning of the last century, though she narrates the story from the other end of her life, reflecting back on her journey as an old woman.

One of six children, the opening lines tell us how she came to live with her childless aunt and uncle, leaving her family, home, village and mountain behind at such a tender age.

“Anyone could see that there were a lot of us at home. Someone had to go. I was the fifth of six children – Mother used to say I was there because God had wanted me to be there and you have to take what He sends you. The eldest was Maria, she, more than Mother, ran the house.  Josep was the son and heir and Joan was going into the church. We three youngest were told a hundred times that we were more of a burden than a blessing….So it was decided that I, who was level-headed and even-tempered, would be sent to help my mother’s sister, Tia.”

LandslideShe remembers going to school and how fortunate she was to be able to, on account of having older sisters who stayed home to do the work. Three winters she went to school, until she joined the family of her aunt and uncle and then had to help them with the outdoor work.

In short chapters of around two pages, we observe the change in Conxa’s life, her new duties, how people perceive her initially as an outsider and how that perception begins to change, she has become an heir to land thus her marriage prospects have increased. She suffers silently from being separated from her family, but in time accepts her new role and life.

“Time passed and no one spoke of home. Of my family. In five years I had seen Mother and Maria only once, when they came for the Festa Major during my first year at Pallarès….My aunt and uncle said nothing about going back and I didn’t dare mention it. Was I happy there? I had no idea. I’d lived with my heart in my mouth a bit, worried about what they might throw back in my face. Maybe the poverty of my family…But I’d got used to them and their way of doing things. And it’s true, the thought of leaving Pallarès to return to Ermita became stranger every day.”

We learn through Conxa’s experiences how people were perceived, eldest sons were destined to be the heir, a second son may have had to learn a trade and were therefore seen as lesser prospects. Ownership of land accrued status, men who earned a wage were less desirable.

“They knew him to be hard-working and quick-witted but, because of the nature of his work, he appeared to be a drifter and freer than most men, who only looked at the ground to work it or the sky to figure out what the weather will bring. I realised that they saw him as an outsider, someone who’d managed to earn himself a living, but this had more or less divided him from his family.”

Falling in love with a tradesman is about as rebellious as Conxa gets, her aunt and uncle soon realise that Jaume is a good match, and as with her life as the adopted daughter Conxa becomes as accepting of her new circumstances in her life with Jaume, who must by necessity travel a lot for his work.  He is more outspoken and for this Conxa will experience hardship as the Spanish Civil War impacts even the quietest villages.

Stone in a Landslide is such an apt metaphor for Conxa and yet she was not like the others. She doesn’t complain, she loves genuinely, she accepts her circumstances and only at the end when she is physically removed from her natural surrounding does she come close to realising how much a part of that landscape she is as a person. She coped with many changes, from daughter to adopted daughter, lover, mother within her natural environment, but the final move puts her somewhere beyond reach, beyond comprehension of how to be who she really is.

“Perhaps I had turned into a living stone, or it was just that I had never known how to rebel…. I felt that I was going to need to be strong, but I had no idea why.”

Another excellent addition to the collection and discovery of another wonderful writer.

Maria Barbal, born in 1949, is considered the most influential living Catalan author. The clarity with which she presents human relations and the passage of time has earned her critical acclaim and a wide readership. She lives in Barcelona.

Next Up: Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Deluis.

Female Voice Inner Realities

Under the Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hameda tr. by Adriana Hunter

We are in the city of Tripoli, bordering the Mediterranean in the 1960’s, though this is no seaside idyll.

Tripoli SkyThe narrative follows in the footsteps and the mind of a boy named Hadachinou who prefers the company of his mother, her friends, great-aunt’s and escorting girls sent on errands who are not yet kept indoors, bound by the shackles of marriage, in a society where a river of seething discontent courses through the veins of many, where the sexes barely tolerate each other and anyone who seems to have escaped the marriage trap is resented their so-called freedoms.

Hadachinou is privy to the thoughts, gossip and attitudes of women, a witness to their interior lives, he listens to their stories and absorbs their repressed desires as his own begin to awaken.

The tea ceremony was the only part of the day when my mother and her friends could live their lives in real times and tell their own stories. At last they could talk about dreams, longings and anxieties , all in the same breath and their bodies were at peace.

I sometimes wondered how these women who were all so different were able to spend hours at a time, each talking about her own god, her own people and thoughts, free to be wildly outspoken but without provoking any true conflict. It was because they had no power to preserve and no possessions to watch over. That was for the people on the other side of the wall: the men, the sheikhs, the governors and their hunting dogs! Scheming and calculating, diplomacy and power struggles were their domain.

Here with the women, my guardian angels, there were just words, spoken openly and easily, flitting and whirling about, a life force in themselves. Without these moments of trusting abandon, they would have dried up with sorrow. Or imploded as they toiled over their cooking pots.

Taynal Mosque

Taynal Mosque Source: wikipedia

While the men are at work, or at the mosque or in the coffee houses, the women finish their work and make time to see each other.

Here, great-aunt Nafissa has had enough of the women bad mouthing his mother’s childhood friend Jamila, words they only speak when his mother leaves the room, venomous remarks spiralling into bitterness about what they perceive as her secret life; flushed with rage, aunt Nafissa rails against them:

‘Leave Jamila alone,’ she cried. ‘Let her live her life. Its only because you’re jealous that you see evil in everything. She and her friends allow themselves freedoms you don’t have, freedoms you envy because your husbands keep you on a tight leash. What would you have her do? Stay at home like you, sitting on cushions and sucking on loukoums while you wait for men who never come home? You think those women are living bad lives? You make me laugh! But you don’t know when to hold your tongues, that’s for sure, and you’re full of spite. And, anyway, it’s not as if any of this has ever stopped you taking their money!’ she added, always ready to speak out against injustice.

OldTripoli

Old Tripoli Source: wikipedia

It is not easy to read about a repressed patriarchal society without much glimmer of hope, a slice of life narrative set in a pre-Gaddafi society on the verge of change.

I found it a sombre read, left wondering if this boy will be changed by virtue of his proximity to the women folk, or whether that might become a reason for his need to escape, lest he not fit in.

Looking out to sea, I remembered what Hadja Kimya had said: ‘Hadachinou, keep yourself busy doing simple things that delight you. Give yourself a goal. The soul of life is the little things, the minor events no one notices… That’s where life is, the pleasure of being alive, otherwise there’s just this vast blueness casting its shadow over us. Go on, keep yourself busy, do something, and then you might find yourself one day.’

This is cultural insight beyond the normal bounds of the English language, thanks to the translation of Adriana Hunter and the passion of Peirene Press in bringing these kinds of stories into the mainstream.