Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Houseboy - Ferdinand Oyono

"Brother, what are we? What are we blackmen who are called French" ? Asks Toundi just before his death. It is the question asked a good number of Africans who worked with and for their colonial masters. They learn French and can converse with their masters, be the interpreter as and when needed, and do their house hold scores working for them. Toundi runs away from home unable to stand his punishing father and take refuge in the church, getting himself baptized to Joseph. Death of the father at church made his life difficult, and it was the new father who recommended him to the house of the Commander. His fluent French and learnt mannerisms and cleanliness ( the transformation of the African identity to the European ) had gone well with the Commander and soon he become the trusted houseboy. His dual life of being a French at the house and an African to his friends is an interesting point of observation.

Arrival of the commandant's wife ( the most beautiful women the country has seen) has made the situation little tense. Initially she charmed everyone who met her and made an impression to the locals ( as the comment on her beauty and her style) and the other Europeans. It was her friendship with the Boss of the Jail , turned the situation worse. Often witness to the infidelities, being forced to be the messenger boy between the lovers, Tuondi's loyalty is now under question. The often touring Commandant, indeed comes to know his wife's improper behavior resulting in a showdown. Toundi is suspected to be spreading the rumours , and the act of vengeance by the lady increased, despite the refusal of the Commandant to replace the houseboy. Eventually , they get him falsely accusing him of theft. Arrested and tortured, he was left to none but himself to defend. Escaping the torture and interrogation, he runs away to the nearby Spanish Colony, where he succumbs to his injuries and dies.

Book is written in the form of diaries, introduced by a nameless narrator who witness Tuondi's last minutes and recover his diaries.
"Father Gilbert says I can read and write fluently. Now I can keep a diary like he does. Keeping a diary is a white man's custom and what pleasure there is in it I do not know. But I shall try it out"

This book is originally published in 1956, four years before the independence of Cameroon from French ( in 1960). I can understand the significance of this book, at the time of publication on the lrger scope of colonial Africa's literature during the days prior to independence. It is also evident that this complex social structure of Whites, the in between and Native live a life that are delicate and often rely on mistrust. Cameroon-born Ferdinand Oyono is trying examine these relationships in this very short and straightforward tale. It might also be one of the important book with reference to the effects of colonial rule in the African Literature.

On the other side, reading it now 55 years after its publication, did not create the strong impression that it would have caused then. It reads like a plain story of a houseboy in European Quarters, caught for theft and dies during ( or as a result of) the interrogation. As it is with every colonial states, they learn the language of their masters, and try to imitate them in their own life. apart from the clever use of form in the way of a diary, it does not have anything unique in the narration. However, I also get a feeling that a lot was left unsaid ( we can understand that as it was published when the French were still in power) and those missing pieces reconstructed by the reader gives this small book a larger perspective. Having said that, I can sense the overall importance of this book in the colonial literature of Africa.
Houseboy (1956)

Ferdinand Oyono ( translated from French by John Reed 1966)


122 Pages
Africa Book Club, New Times Ruwanda, Wiki Entry

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The King of the Fields - Isaac Bashevis Singer

I haven't read any other books of Isaac singer, hence it is too early to judge the authour, especially for a Nobel Prize winner(1978). This being the later works of Singer, I'm sure there are more prolific works that missed my attention. This book, a short fable set during the medieval Poland, talks about the growing of civilization from the nomadic, hunter community to the farming community, living together amidst the growing insecurity of attack and murder.

At the outset it is a simple folklorish tale set in Vistula province, where Lesniks ( the hunter community) and Woyaks ( the farming sect) are under constant war. After the last attack where Lesniks lost most of their men, most of the women were raped by Woyak men they escaped to the mountains living in the caves under the leadership of Cybula , who is the best hunter in their surviving group. Cybula's daughter is detained and is now the wife of the Woyak leader. It was soon evident that the few Woyak men may not be able to work in the fields without some additional support. Hence the efforts begun to lure the Lesniks back to the settlement with lucrative offers. Lesniks were persuaded by Cybula's and a new joint community settle working in the fields. however the basic difference between the team continue and the murder and rape did not cease.

Cybula in the meanwhile become the lieutenant of the chielf and was sent on a mission to the nearby ( few weeks travel) town to sell few gold and get necessary seeds and other essentials. On his return, he brouhgt along a Jew slave, as their official shoemaker. The Jew however was much more equipped, as he taught the youngster to read and write as well as telling them stories and about the 'one and only GOD'. The community where single GOD does not exist, and polygamy is the way of living, it was a harsh shock. While they continue to believe in their various GODs , this new concept of a single GOD who is omnipresent did cause some ripples. It did not take long for the systems to fail again and the Lesniks to abandon and escape to the forests. Only to comeback at an appropriate time to kill all the Woyak men and seize power. Cybula , now the new Krol ( chief) is now rule with kingdom with the support of his mistress ( his wife's mother). It is to this setting came another stranger who proclaim to belong to a new belief called Christianity. Similar to Jews, he too believe in a Single GOD, whom he says was done to death by the Jews. Community is now divided between the two beliefs, while not abandoning their own GODs , especially Cybula who continue to believe in his GOD of Death

They were again attacked by another group of horse laden mercenaries, who take over the regime from Cybula, and declare the place as Poland ( derived from Pola , meant field). Disheartened, Cybula escape back to the mountains with his expecting wife , embarking on a long journey.

Fairly simple story of tribal warfare and the change of civilization. Or it can also be said as the birth of the new Polish state. May be it is an attempt to look at the modern civilization through the history. There are interesting characters, each named after some of the vegetables or animals as is the practice then. Most exhibit their primitive behavior, killing raping and engaging in other sexually influenced activities, while not hunting or in the fields. Their emotions are strong, either love or kill. It only Cybula, who thinks beyond these basic states and arrive at his own philosophical understanding. Beyond that there was nothing that caught my attention and I do not consider this as a major work of fiction.

The King of the Fields ( 1988 )

Isaac Bashevis Singer ( translated from Yiddish by the author)

Plume Books

224 Pages
Redrookreview , NY Times

Friday, April 20, 2012

Working IX to V - Vickie Leon

Things weren't too different in the early ages for a salaried employee. One had to go through the same rituals of appointment, the appraisals, reward for performance, the job cut and resulted firing and those hierarchical positions. One always complained about over work and some of the other perils of a daily job. There were varieties of job in the offing, few of them were the privilege of the 'Slaves'. Slaves, only because their country lost the war. The Prisoners of Wars were not tried or killed. They were immediately deployed on job. It did not take long for the fortune to reverse.

Vicki Leon, brings out a curious study ( a well researched one at that) about the kind of job people performed during the early days of Roman, Greek civilizations. Deriving her output of large number of references, from the drawings, those writings, epics, the architectural specialties this bundle of cute facts were both fun to read and are informative. With a catchy title to go along - Orgy planners, funeral clowns, and other prized professions of the ancient world - the book classified the various functions under ten chapters or groups.

While it is impossible to mention all those here, but few worth an honorable mention include, a boy hooker ( preference was for youth with big shoulders, tiny waist, good muscle tone, and protruding buttock. His nose should be straight, his lower lip Elvis-like, his hair a flowing mane and he had to have dainty genitals), War Elephant Commander( must have returned with Alexander after his famous war with Porous) , Mercenaries ( old form of quotation/ supari team), Tour Guide, Publishers and Book Sellers ( yes, those hand written ones), Armpit plucker , Super Models ( do you remember the Venus - but do you know the model posed for that ?) , funeral clowns ( a custom still exists in some part of our country), orgy planners and the underwear maker ( the loin cloth was mostly a wrap around, but women preferred something for their upper part of the body.. Roman men swore by decency, with complete body coverage except for hands and the head. Greek men were more enterprising and get my hurray, for they spend their days clad in a himation, or what amount to a bedsheet. Conservative fellows often wore nothing under it , reminds me of the hostel days clad in colorful 'Lungis').

The book is presented similar to a coffee table book , easy reading with few illustrations. The seriousness of the subject and the result of her hard work is camouflaged under fine humour. While some of the references are beyond me, over all it was a nice funny read, if one do not approach this as a serious work of non fiction.
Working IX to V ( 2007 )

Vicki Leon

Walker & Company

312 Pages
npr books

Saturday, April 07, 2012

മലയാളത്തിന്റെ 100 കഥകള്‍(100 mini stories from Malayalam)

A collection of 100 mini stories by 100 different writers in Malayalam is an interesting read. The name include some of the big-wigs in the Malayalam Literary world, from VKN , Madhavikkutty, Kovilan, M Mukundan, Punathil Kunjabdulla etc etc to some of the 'new kids in the block'. While the majority of the stories were after the same old cliched subject of abuse, family values, expatriation, abandoned parents back home etc, there were a few different voices and attempt to improve within the constraints of a short fiction.

Like any compilations, this has 10+ good stories and a lot of average mediocre ones and the rest shear waste. I know one can not reach consensus with others in their liking. I picked around 8 stories for a second read and the person read this book immediately after me picked her 8. There were agreement only on 5 ( so much for good ).

I know it is not easy to write a story in few sentences or in less than a half a page length. It demands a different level of skill and talent. The impact has to sublime and lasting. The language has to be crisp while being fuild. The words to be poetic and the theme or plot to be short. That also calls for better editorial and compilation work. Considering all that, this is a brave attempt to get them published in one book trying to include most of the prominent writers of Malayalam. Arshad Batheri, who compiled the book ( which include on of his own creation) tells us that these are directly collected from the writers and have not been published elsewhere. Hence, unlike other anthologies , this does not have a history of readers feedback and their previous experience.

The stories stood out for their brilliance and their ability to handle the their theme differently are of Kovilan, Pattathuvila Karunakaran, Perumbatavam Sridharan, Vaishakhan, U K Kumaran, E Harikumar, Abraham Mathew , K Raghunathan and K V Anoop. These are my picks and I am sure you can come up with another after you read them. Death was the theme for Pattathuvila ( gorgeously named Guernica ) , Perumbatavan ( yathra ) and Vaishakhan ( marakkombil thoongiyirikkunna kuta), each taking it in a different way. Mixing the Picasso's Guernica ( created during Spanish Civil war after the Basque town with the same name was bombed by German and Italian Airplanes) to the present day bombing and murder in a small town, Karunakaran depicts a scary picture of the current day political murders. Vaishakhan's symbolism of death to the hanging umbrella on the tree after a gruesome road accident, Perumbatavam's journey to the other world, UK Kumaran's 'man' is unable to react or respond to the external world thus remain a nonbeing.

James Kelman's 'acid' and the one line story of Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso's 'The Dinosaur' ( for those who want to know the story goes like this : "When he woke up,the dinosaur was still there") comes to my mind. I remember being shocked by Acid. While these stories may not be as impressive as some of the better stories written elsewhere, this indeed is a significant attempt in the same direction.
മലയാളത്തിന്റെ 100 കഥകള്‍ (100 stories from Malayalam)
100 Writers ( Compiled by Arshad Bathery )

Olive Books

150 Pages

Rs 90