The Story of the Cannibal Woman by Maryse Condé, tr. Richard Philcox #WITMonth

Although she recommends you start with her book of essays Tales from The Heart: True Stories from My Childhood about growing up the youngest of eight children in a black bourgeois family in Guadeloupe, Maryse Condé cited The Story of the Cannibal Woman as her personal favourite of her works at a discussion I attended at our local library last year. It was translated by her husband Richard Philcox.

It was interesting to read this novel so soon after Yewande Omotoso’s The Woman Next Door, given certain points in common, both placing a black Caribbean woman in South Africa and observing her relations with others around her, in the post-apartheid context, it made me wonder if she had been aware of Condé’s earlier work.

As The Story of the Cannibal Woman opens, we learn Rosélie is a 50-year-old recent widow, living alone, without family connections and few friends in Cape Town, South Africa, after the brutal murder of her white British husband, a retired university professor, who nipped out after midnight one evening, allegedly to buy cigarettes and never returned home.

The police suspect it wasn’t a random encounter, something Rosélie refuses initially to acknowledge, completely ignoring her husbands study, a room she rarely ever ventured into, one strangely she is even less inclined to now.

“Aren’t you going to return home?”

Home? If only I knew where home was.

Chance had it I was born in Guadeloupe. But nobody in my family is interested in me. Apart from that, I have lived in France. A man took me to Africa, then left me. Another took me to the United States, then brought me to Africa, and he too left me stranded, this time in Cape Town. Oh, I forgot I’ve also lived in Japan. That makes for a fine charade, doesn’t it? No, my country was Stephen. I shall stay wherever he is.

Left alone without an income to support her (they’d never married though fortunately the house was in both their names), and having made only half-hearted attempts to exhibit her paintings, even then via the efforts of others willing her to succeed, rather than by her own initiative, she decides to offer her services and a healer/clairvoyant.

It is through these occasional appointments with clients that she encounters different members of the local population and the variety of issues confronting them, such as the former trade unionist, who’d languished for years in prison on Robben Island, now a tourist guide for the masses wishing to see where Nelson Mandela had been interned, “revisiting his abuse and torture day after day, describing it down to the last detail to the inquisitive hordes in an endeavour to satisfy their curiosity, the poor guy was losing his head”

10.00am, Patient No. 7, David Fagwela, Age: 73, Particularity: one of the few South African clients, Profession: retired miner

It is an intriguing dual mystery, the ongoing investigation and gradual uncovering of the motive behind the crime plays out at the same time as the intrigue mounts regarding the widow’s reluctance confront the truth about her husband, whose death has loosened the tongues of people close to her, they now freely express their disapproval of him and the way they perceive he treated Rosélie. She appears to be shocked by these revelations and thus retraces her memories of their lives together in London, New York, Tokyo and Cape Town.

It’s an astute medium through which to learn more of their back story, for in narrating those events Rosalie shares how she interpreted events, but the reader will create their own impression and begin to see the abyss between her perspective, Stephen’s and that of their friends.

The couple go on a safari soon after arriving in South Africa, Rosélie was terrified.

What did frighten her were the men. White men. Guides, game wardens, local visitors, foreign tourists. All wearing boots and safari hats, sporting double-barrelled guns, playing in a Western without a hint of a bison or an Indian now massacred or defeated, herded toothless into their reservations. Stephen, on the contrary loved dressing up in a bush jacket and canvas shorts in camouflage, a flask clipped to his waist and sunglasses perched on his nose.

“You don’t know how to enjoy yourself,” he reprimanded her, manly grabbing the wheel of the Land Rover.

Not her fault if she suffered from the complex of a victim and identified with those who are hunted.

At the same time Rosalie is going through her crisis, there is a well publicised case in the newspapers of a woman named Fiela, who allegedly murdered her husband. In court she refuses to speak, the public begin to turn against her, some calling her a witch, others a cannibal. The police officer on Stephen’s case wonders aloud whether she might open up to Rosalie, as many of her patients do. Rosalie has imaginary conversations with Fiela, the one personality to whom she feels able to ask questions (albeit in her dreams), that she can not utter to anyone else:

“Fiela, you’ve settled into my thoughts and dreams. No bother at all. As discreet as an alter ego. You hide behind everything I do, invisible, like the silk lining of a doublet. You must have been like me, a solitary child, a taciturn teenager….Fiela,  what have they got against him? He has always been by my side.Thoughtful.Considerate. Patient to my moods…Fiela, he always forgave me, I who was not beyond reproach, who, I confess, had been unfaithful before.”

Although there was the allegation against Fiela, this story wasn’t about her, it is about Rosélie, so after reading I didn’t understand the reference to the cannibal woman, so I looked it up to see what its symbolic meaning was and discovered that it is related to post colonisation and the loss of cultural memory, this post colonial world inevitably leading to a sense of spiritual devastation, it has even become in television series today, a symbol of self-awakening.

Rosalie is far from her roots and her culture and took shelter with a man, who further alienated her from that, even though he was relatively kind to her. His death has forced her to confront herself.

Maryse Condé

I thought this book was brilliant, it can be read superficially as a plot driven novel, or at a deeper analytical level, by looking at an outside view of post apartheid South Africa through the eyes of a bi-cultural, biracial couple, neither of whom come from there.

It’s techniques with flashbacks to fill in the story are typical of the Caribbean style which Maryse Condé does to great effect as are the dream sequences, where her subconscious self expresses itself openly, illuminating the reader. I understand why it is her favourite, she has accomplished a grand feat of literature in this one thrilling novel.

“The author demonstrates how one’s entire sense of self gets swallowed up by trauma and its dislocating aftermath.” – New York Times

Highly Recommended!

My Previous Reviews of Maryse Condé’s work:

Tales From the Heart: Stories From My Childhood

Victoire: My Mother’s Mother

Segu

A Season in Rihata

Buy a Copy of The Story of the Cannibal Woman via Book Depository

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Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk tr. Michiel Heyns

Marlene Van Niekerk was one of the ten nominees for the Man Booker International Prize 2015, before this prize joined forces with the IFFP (International Foreign Fiction Prize). The newly created prize will retain the name Man Booker International Prize, but will follow the format of the IFFP, which was to nominate a book published in the year of the prize, not an author’s oeuvre of work.

Finalists

I have been reading the work of Maryse Condé, one of the ten nominees and I chose Marlene Van Niekerk’s Agaat after reading Rough Ghosts excellent and enticing review, linked below.

Agaat is the name of the adopted daughter/maidservant, taken into Milla’s home at 4-years-old, in a state of neglect, her arm disabled, rescued from an abusive, dysfunctional existence that might fill the vacuum inside a barren woman allowing her to create a useful child/companion, trained in all aspects of family and farming life.

Milla is the only child of a farming family and set to inherit and work her own farm, she is poised to marry Jak as the book opens. The novel explores the growing tension in their relationship through Milla’s diaries and the effect of Milla bringing Agaat into their (at the time) childless marriage. Twelve years into that bereft marriage she gives birth to a son.

AgaatThe chapters alternate between life as it was on the farm and the present, when Agaat, now a mature woman is caring for dying 67-year-old Milla, as her body shuts down, paralysed, infirm, communicating only through her eyes with this character she “tamed” whom she is now dependent on for everything.

Agaat is set on a the farm Milla inherited from her mother in South Africa, from the early years of apartheid until its dying days, just as Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress come into power. Milla takes over the farm when she marries Jak, the couple seem well-suited on the surface, though cracks and resentments appear early in the marriage, deepening to suggest otherwise.

Agaat is witness to, victim of and in many ways, moulded by this relationship, the family and the farm itself. She will learn everything from Milla, all that is required to run the home, the farm ; she will  help raise the son and establish a unique bond with him, passing to him her own knowledge, a consciousness more rooted in the land and its culture than any colonising people are ever capable of embracing. Rarely rebellious, it is in small but important ways that Agaat subverts the intentions of her masters, she who will ultimately inherit all.

The novel is narrated from Milla’s shifting point of view, the present tense, first person (I) view, a stream of consciousness narrative, in the latter weeks of her life when she lies bedridden, almost paralysed, in advanced stage motor neurone disease; the past tense, second person (you) view as she remembers episodes from the past, no doubt prompted by Agaat’s reading to her from the bundle of diaries she has kept over the years, both the original entries and annotations written in at a later time. The novel is bookended by a prologue and epilogue that give voice to the estranged son, something of a mystery and strangely absent from much of the narrative.

Agaat has become Milla’s specialist nurse and caregiver, tending to her needs with a detached, precision-like efficiency, communicating through the eyes, blinking an intuitive, telepathic like conversation, the result of a lifelong, if at times acerbic intimacy, command and control. The roles are now reversed, the landscape has changed and we are uncertain whether these actions are driven by love, hate, a sense of duty, a learned, stalwart independence, revenge or the imagined interpretations of a dying, guilt-ridden patroness.

French Version Cover

French Version Cover

We never enter into Agaat’s perspective, we view her through her mistress’s interpretation and the more we come to know about their relationship, the less sure we are of Agaat’s motives and feelings, unsettled by all that has come before, as we become aware that Milla’s present day view has to a certain extent rewritten the past into a more easily digested form.

There is something that Milla wants from Agaat and it is this minor battle of wills that provides a dramatic thread throughout Milla’s dying days. Agaat avoids fulfilling the request, bringing her mistress everything but the things she wants, a set of maps of the farm, like her body, the thing she is losing control of and the maps represent her last effort at retaining some form of control.

For a long time after finishing Agaat, I was not able to adequately express what I thought of it, I found it very disturbing. It is a story that stays with the reader a long time and reviewing it required a lengthy incubation period.

I read reviews in the New York Times and Rumpus (see links below) where critics referred to it as an allegory, convinced that these characters represented an abstract idea, that of apartheid, that it was there to teach or explain some kind of moral lesson. Sarah Pett, in her academic article refers to it as an ‘unruly text’, something that upends and disturbs the reader and here I find more resonance, along with these words proffered by the author herself, suggesting that these characters and this story should invite questions:

“…novels are texts of structured ambiguity that enable many readings. My reading of the text is no more valid than yours at this or any other point.  What I am mainly interested in as an author is to complicate matters…in such a densely patterned way that the text will not stop eliciting questions and that it will refuse to provide any definite answers to questions such as the ones you (and I) might ask.” Marlene Van Niekerk

In my reading of the story, the focus isn’t as much an indictment of apartheid, as a portrayal of that aspect of humanity, in which people attempt to enslave, train and/or control the other for a selfish purpose, as with slavery, as we know of the past and now of the present, often disguised as something else, it can be what an employer asks of an employee, a parent of a child, a human trafficker of its victims, a husband of a wife and it can occur in the reverse, the victim becomes the oppressor.

UK Cover Version of Agaat

UK Cover Version of Agaat

What is portrayed between Milla and Agaat seems to me something other than South Africa’s political policy of the 1940-1980’s, for that would be to limit it, it is born of it for sure, it shows what we are all capable of, depending on what we are born into, what we are influenced by and how we respond to those things. It is about how we think things through, with whom we share, discuss and listen, igniting and strengthening those neural parts of the brain whose inflammation will solidify that thinking, strengthening the belief and justification in our resultant behaviours.

I disliked being witness to it, to the playing along with the way things were for Milla on the farm, fulfilling her familial and societal expectations, flaunting them by taking in Agaat and exploiting her, with ignorant, self-righteous justification. However I couldn’t help wondering if Agaat was equally capable of the same. Disturbing and difficult to write about.

The allegory, if it is so, lacks any moral message, true the victim may eventually inherit the earth, however she too seems as likely to become the oppressor, for it is not the colour of one’s skin that dictates moral or good, all are capable of the same, we are weights on the end of the pendulum and depending on which way it is currently swinging, and where we are positioned, we could all too easily become either victim or oppressor.

Do read Rough Ghosts’ review, his will convince you to read it.

Further Reading:

Rough GhostsAnd Her Name Was Good

Liesl Schillinger, New York Times: Truth and Reconciliation

Luke Gerwe, Rumpus: Agaat

Sarah Pett, University of YorkThe via dolorosa in the Southern hemisphere: Reading illness and dying in Marlene van Nieker’s Agaat (2006)

Good Morning, Mr Mandela by Zelda la Grange #Memoir #Giveaway

Good Morning

Thanks to the publisher Viking, Penguin-Random House, one lucky US reader can win a copy of Zelda la Grange’s memoir Good Morning, Mr. Mandela, an in-depth account of her 20-year dedication to her employer Nelson Mandela.

Win a Copy!

To enter the draw, leave a message below or on the book review post here. Only US readers with a valid postal address are able to enter sorry. Entries close Sunday 3 August.

An Additional Entry!

Share one of your favorite quotes from Nelson Mandela to gain an additional entry.

You can find a list of quotes here on Goodreads.

Bonne Chance!

 

Good Morning, Mr Mandela by Zelda la Grange

Mandela Day

Today, 18 July is Nelson Mandela Day, it was the date of his birthday and the day he married his wife Graça Machel. I discovered this yesterday as I was nearing the end of Zelda la Grange’s memoir Good Morning, Mr Mandela as she helped with the plan to advocate to the UN to try to make 18 July International Nelson Mandela Day, after receiving a letter of congratulations from Bono for Mandela’s ninetieth birthday celebrations held in Hyde Park, London. He wrote:

“Happy Birthday Madiba. I am working to make July 18th a public holiday in every country that acknowledges that the struggle of Nelson Mandela is not over until every individual who yearns for freedom has the chance to grasp it. I believe your birthday should be an occasion around the globe to honour those who still struggle.” Bono, U2

Good MorningWhen I saw this memoir was due for release I didn’t know anything about Zelda la Grange, but after reading this interview by John Carlin in The Guardian from 2008, I decided to find out more and finished reading it today.

Zelda la Grange was born in 1970 in East Johannesburg, South Africa to a white Afrikaans family. Her father worked in construction and her mother was a teacher. The family wasn’t rich, but being white, they enjoyed the privileges of their race, benefiting from the apartheid regime through access to health, education and a strong sense of entitlement. It wasn’t something she ever thought about, it was the way they lived, they accepted it and had little knowledge of how these policies affected black and coloured people. They were racist.

“As a child it is easy to follow when you grow up in an environment that is safe. Perhaps if I had been oppressed, didn’t have access to a decent school, a proper house, electricity and water, I would have asked different questions, and my brain would have developed into being more inquisitive about injustice at an early age.”

Not knowing what she wanted to do with her life, she enrolled in a course to become an Executive Secretary. When Mandela was voted President she was working in a government Human Resources Department and heard there was a job opening in the administrative department of the President’s office.

It was to be the beginning of a twenty-year career working for Nelson Mandela, first in his capacity as President and then when he left the government, she would be the one person he chose to take with him, to maintain in his employ for life.

Zelda la Grange served Nelson Mandela for around 20 years and you could say she gave her life to him as she had little personal existence outside her working life, so loyal was she to the man who handpicked her to be that loyal employee. Ever the strategist, he chose a woman whose skills complimented his own, she compensated for his weakness and allowed him to continue to focus on his strengths by taking care of all the things that needed to go on behind the scenes to ensure safe passage and no surprises. She was a perfectionist, though she doesn’t admit that in the book, working often through the night than have anything go wrong and was completely obsessed with every little detail.

Zelda owns up in the opening pages that this book is her story and so doesn’t contain great political insights into South Africa or its policies, nor does she ever break the trust she had with Nelson Mandela and say anything he wouldn’t have approved of. One gets the impression that she could have said so much more and perhaps even did, but any excesses have been cut from the first draft and what we read here is a clean, if somewhat lacking version of the events of those twenty years they worked together.

The book reads like a diary of events, which can become tedious, especially as the language is quite prosaic, just as the job must have been, however she is clearly passionate and dedicated to serving the man she referred to as Khulu or Grandfather and he referred to her as Zeldini. Their relationship was extremely close, but always with a respectful and appropriate distance, as was inherent in both their natures.

It is an incredible record of those years and the many voyages they made, people met and funds raised for various humanitarian projects they launched, even if we miss the perspective of the man himself.  In telling her story, she pays tribute to her boss and has created a record of her great respect and need to ensure that all those associated with him, from friends to celebrities to politicians were adequately taken care of. She never stoops to gossip, takes care not to say anything negative about the family, although you can sense the unspoken tension underneath, after all they did bar her from the funeral activities and if it wasn’t for the generosity of Mandela’s wife, Mrs Machel, she would not have attended at all.

An interesting account and makes me even more curious to read Mandela’s own words and gain an insight into what was going on inside his mind during these years.

Today's Google Doodle

Today’s Google Doodle

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

The Expedition to the Baobab Tree by Wilma Stockenström

Baobab Tree CoverI came across this book by chance, first published as Die kremetartekspedisie in its original Afrikaans in 1981, it was translated into English by Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee, initially in 1983 and again in 2014.

I had never heard of Wilma Stockenström, but after a little digging, I find:

“For the past four decades Wilma Johanna Stockenström has been enriching Afrikaans literature with her satirical, obstinate and compassionate voice. Along with Elisabeth Eybers, Sheila Cussons, Ina Rousseau and Antjie Krog, she remains one of the most important women writers in Afrikaans.” © Johann de Lange

After recently reading Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings, a story narrated by a female slave, I was interested to read this more literary novel, set in the harsh interior of South Africa.

It is a quiet, compelling, stream of consciousness narrative of a slave woman who finds refuge in the hollow of a baobab tree, attempting to survive following the death of her third master, finding herself abandoned in an often hostile wilderness.

“I was sold off a second time on the square near the sea where even then the raggedy castor-oil trees were standing. Was sold secondhand. I was a damaged plaything, my bundle of baby and myself bid for separately and disposed of separately. Simply playthings. Useful, certainly. My owner thought he had wasted his money.”

The Baobab Tree

The Baobab Tree

Embracing this newfound freedom of her body, mind and time, she thinks back over the years, reflecting on what her existence thus far has meant, the role of her three masters, moments shared with a friend, the loss of her children and the inclinations of man, something she has witnessed both in captivity and in this solitary freedom, where she finds a kind of disturbed though preferable peace.

“I know the interior of my tree as a blind man knows his home, I know its flat surfaces and grooves and swellings and edges, its smell, its darknesses, its great crack of light as I never knew the huts and rooms where I was ordered to sleep, as I can only know something that is mine and mine only, my dwelling place into which no one ever penetrates. I can say: this is mine. I can say: this is I. These are my footprints. These are the ashes of my fireplace. These are my grinding stones. These are my beads. My sherds.”

She is viewed by a tribe of small people who make a pilgrimage to the tree and recognise her as some kind of deity. It is their generosity and ritual of giving alms that aids her survival.

She notices everything, she appreciates her surroundings and tunes into small changes and disturbances in it. She becomes it.

Haunting, lyrical, this work is unlike any other narrative of the life of a slave woman I have ever encountered.

 

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

She Left Me the Gun

The GunNeither the title nor this book cover would normally attract me towards picking up this book, however it was through neither of those avenues that I came to hear about the book. It was a random tweet that included the following:

Any sentence that contains the words “Maya Angelou and Emma Brockes, who both…” works for me.

I was reading Maya Angelou’s Mom & Me & Mom at the time and so wondered who Emma Brockes was, intrigued by the reader’s comment implying she’d enjoy curling up with both books. I saw that Brockes had published a memoir about her mother and then read an excellent article in The Guardian, where it turns out Emma Brockes works (in the New York office).

Emma Brockes was born in England, her mother leaving her own country of birth South Africa in her early twenties. After some years living in London, she met her husband and they moved to an English village. She was a mature mother, having her only child later in life and lived a quite routine-lead life with her small family and had a job doing accounts for a jeweller in a neighbouring town.

Brockes recalls her mother mentioning that she’d one day tell her about her life in South Africa before coming to England, however the daughter didn’t press her mother and that moment of revelation never arrived. Apart from a couple of offhand comments hinting at some dark past and a court case, any opportunity to quietly share her past with her daughter in her later years was cut short by her illness and premature death, a time when the days seemed better spent just appreciating each other’s company.

It seemed absurd at this stage to ruin what time we had left with painful and long-avoided subjects.

Whether it was the journalist instinct or some kind of closure in making an effort to understand her mother more fully, Brockes decides to find out what it was that drove her mother to abandon her family and her country and never look back.

Jo'burg High Court

Jo’burg High Court

Knowing there was a court case against her grandfather and using her journalistic knowledge and access to resources, she searches archives, only to discover an earlier judgement, one that preceded his marriage to her grandmother, a murder conviction.

She requests the file to be sent to her and then discovers the second court case, in which mother is named in bringing a charge against her own father. The file is too large, so she makes plans to visit South Africa to do her research and to meet the numerous family members, her mother’s half sisters and brothers, the seven aunts and uncles who live there.

When she was in her mid-twenties, she said, she’d had her father arrested. There had been a highly publicized court case, during which he had defended himself, cross-examining his own children in the witness-box and destroying them one by one. Her stepmother had covered for him. He had been found not guilty.

Emma Brockes

Emma Brockes

This is a book that once started is hard to put down, the way Emma Brockes writes, it is as if you are on the same journey, with the same feeling of curiosity tempered by an instinct not to get too involved.

In fact, for me there was a turning point somewhere in her travels, just when she starts to become part of a local crowd of journalists, when she begins to become part of the weave of family fabric, when it felt like it was time to get out. That while she was there and had a clear purpose and was fulfilling some kind of tribute to her mother, all was well, but that getting any further involved might in some way rub something into her that her mother had spent a lifetime trying to protect her from.

She was right to leave when she did.

And the gun? Well you know whenever a gun is mentioned, a shot must be fired and so it was, yet while the title stretches the truth somewhat, all must be forgiven, since it was suggested to the author by the late Nora Ephron, another fitting tribute.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.