Sunday, August 4, 2013

Taipei by Tao Lin

Tao Lin has earned the reputation as the Bad Boy of Indie novels or Alt Lit (wedded to culture of the Internet and self-publication), but can he sustain that claim now that main line publisher Vintage has published his latest autobiographical crossover novel Taipei (2013) ? The book cover is notable as an animated GIF transferred to holographic foil.  It is a love story about  Paul, a Brooklyn novelist anticipating embarking on a book tour "September 7 to November 4" (p. 93).    We know it was "twenty months ago" (p. 90) when Paul first learned of budding love interest Erin, in "January 2009") (p. 90), placing the action (or lack thereof) in August, 2011.  The vocabulary is minimalist: Stephen Marche of Esquire calls it the "Asperger's style" of literature based on disaffection and disconnection.
This novel was trashed by Lydia Kiesling in her review "Modern Life is Rubbish: Tao Lin's Taipei" in the online literary magazine The Millions, founded by Max Magee in 2003.  Her review resonated on the Internet.  She wonders "why someone who hates words would take the trouble to arrange so many of them in a row...Why does he hate me ?...Why does he inflict upon me his framework-y (p. 8) somethingness, his soil-y (p. 11) area, or the salad-y (p. 21) remains of the burrito?"  The author seems to be embarrassed by words and what they can represent and mean.  His are colorless, witless, humorless.  "Picking out individual passages cannot express the cumulative monotonous assault on the senses." 
LK notes that everyone's ages are "recorded, as if in a hipster police blotter, a method to describe people without really describing them."  LK sees the drug use as a good excuse for its awfulness, because it now had a Problem.  She also points out regarding sex in the book that "when the panties come off, the camera, narratively speaking, looks politely away."  Sex is awkwardly clinical, witness "At Paul's apartment they drank green juice and showered, then performed oral sex on each other, showered again, turned off the light to sleep" (p. 216).
Kiesling feels that Tao Lin anticipates the backlash in Taipei.  “He read an account of his Toronto reading, when he’d been sober, describing him as ‘monosyllabic,’ ‘awkward,’ ‘stilted and unfriendly’ within a disapproval of his oeuvre, itself vaguely within a disapproval of contemporary culture and, by way of a link to someone else’s essay, the internet” (p. 129).  Wow, TL writes his own book review !  Yet in a June 9 comment to Kiesling's review, a reader compares Lin the superrealist attempting to do with writing what photographers do on film: capture what is.  TL bears out this notion on the last page: Paul "briefly discerned her movement as incremental - not continuous, but in frames per second - and, like with insects or large predators, unpredictable and dangerous" (p. 248).
Clancy Martin (NYT, 6.30.13) takes the high road as few reviewers have done.  He elevates it to a bildungsroman, a coming of age story, like Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March.  The magic moment between Paul and Erin happens in Taipei, while visiting his parents.  CM points out that "Rather than talking about, they are talking to."  Paul finds himself focusing on their "conversation, which was producing its own, unmediated emotions" (p. 182).  Earlier the couple imagine an "unlikely romance and mutually learning the true meaning of life" (p. 140).  CM opines "life is changing from the aesthetic to the ethical...his characters have become authentic."  This is a subtle reference to Søren Kierkegaard's book Either/Or, in which the aesthetic and ethical represent sequential evolutionary stages in a young man's development.  Ironically, the word ethical refers also to drugs available only from a physician's prescription.
In support of CM's thesis, Paul's relationships are first classified as "obsessions", with Laura (p. 56) and Erin (pp. 109, 147).  TL tends to pathologize human emotions into illnesses.
The novel lacks any form of action and seems to be a form of Paul's diary, especially since no moral stance is taken toward the author's actions.  A discussion regarding a documentary on rap artist Lil Wayne's drug use is insightful to the structure of the novel.  "Paul felt it was bleak and depressing that the filmmakers superimposed their views onto Lil Wayne" (p. 98).  And so, in this autobiography, Paul never opines on the good or evil of endless pill popping, he never pathologizes on drug use.  It can be argued that the characters manipulate themselves chemically to avoid acting "crazy."  Paul says "They'll think we're on drugs if we're not on drugs.  We're normal when we're on drugs" (p. 149).
Many reviewers have derided the utterly simplistic vocabulary in the book, totally devoid of creative metaphor.  Yet, on occasion, compelling literary snippets surface like "Paul....stood naked in Calvin's room struggling to insert his left leg into his boxer short's left hole, which kept collapsing shut and distortedly reappearing as part of a slowly rippling infinity symbol" (p. 99).
Much of the language is indicative of a generation weaned on the Internet.  "Paul didn't know what to do, so he went "afk," he felt, and remained there - away from the keyboard of the screen of his face - as Erin, looking at the inanimate object of his head..." (p. 107).  The author is obsessed with how the Internet is colonizing our consciousness.  A social interaction makes him feel "a sensation not unlike clicking 'send' for a finished draft of a long e-mail" (p. 122).  The online world is more addictive than anything in a pharmacy.
Popular culture abounds.  Cornmeal Funyuns have been around since 1969 and are referenced in a song by Eminem.  Klonimin, Xanax, Adderall and a myriad of other prescription drugs are ubiquitous in this book.  Tao Lin refers to his literary heros Brett Easton Ellis (p. 90), Ann Beattie (p. 179, Chilly Scenes of Winter) and David Foster Wallace (p. 120).  On his way to Taipei, he contemplates getting caught and writing a meganovel Infinite Witz (p. 159), a tip of the hat to DFW's Infinite Jest and Joshua Cohen's Witz.


Bobst library, NYU

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang

No one can ever be the same after they read this book.  Iris Chang wrote this best-selling account of the Nanking massacre in 1997, after doing exhaustive research in Nanjing and the U.S, missionary archives.  The systematic rape of several hundred thousand civilian women by the Japanese occupiers in December 1937 in addition to the torture and other countless atrocities of men and women defies one's belief system.  Sadly, the author ended her own life with a pistol to her head in a car in Los Gatos, CA, in 2004, some saying she could no longer cope with such intimate knowledge of what was perpetrated in China's capital.  This book is of special interest to me as I have a great-uncle, John Henry Reisner (1887-1965), who was a Presbyterian missionary in Nanking and Dean of the College of Agriculture and Forestry of Nanking Univ. from 1914-1931.  He left China 6 years before the Japanese invasion.  His family legacy was ever present in my childhood home, filled with Chinese lamps and rugs as he couldn't bring cash out of China.

John H. Reisner with daughter

reverse inscription, April, 1919

The daughter of two university professors. Iris Chang grew up in Champagne-Urbana, IL, graduating from Univ. Illinois at C-U in 1989.  She became a New York Times stringer and wrote her first book, Thread of the Silkworm (1995), about NASA JPL-founder Tsien Hsue-shen, who was accused of being a spy, left for China, and developed missile systems in China. 

Iris took on a much more incendiary topic when she approached The Rape of Nanking.  Unlike Germany, who made reparations of over $60 billion to individuals, restitution for lost property, and agreements with Israel and other nations (p. 222), Japan never made even a formal apology.  Oddly enough, even present day Chinese leaders are reticent about the topic in fear of upsetting their Japanese trading partner.  Her book was influenced (p. 14) by the classic Kurosawa film Rashomon (1950) (p. 19) about a rape and murder case in 10th century Kyoto.  A bandit waylays a traveling samurai and his wife: rapes the wife and kills the samurai.  Simple enough, yet the story becomes complex when the other characters relate the story, including the wife, the bandit, and a witness.  Of course, the Rape of Nanking is analogous, when told by the Chinese, Japanese, and the West.

A major question remains as to why the Japanese promulgated such aggressive westward expansion.  Chang notes that by the 1920s Japan had 60 million mouths to feed (p. 26) in a limited area of 142,270 square miles.  Moreover, the U.S. had adopted manifest destiny as the excuse for westward expansion to the Pacific Ocean, the Japanese would do the same in the socially fragmented and loosely governed China (p. 27).  Some experts blame the non-Christian nature of Japanese religion, claiming that while Christianity puts forth the idea that all humans are brothers (all things created in God's image), Shintoism purports that only the emperor and his descendants were created in God's image (p. 54).

During the Occupation, a Safety Zone was established run by Westerners.  Many Chinese hid here for long periods.  Heroes included the improbable John Rabe (p. 109), leader of the Nanking Nazi Party, Minnie Vautrin (p. 129), dean of studies at Ginling Women's Arts & Science College, and American surgeon Robert Wilson (p. 122).

Chang details the atrocities as well she should.  Use Google Image to see babies skewered on bayonets like shish kebab, raped women dead on the ground with lances plunged into their vaginas, etc.  The Japanese even had a Nazi-like experimental medical lab à la Josef Mengele, Unit Ei 1644 (p. 164), where guinea pigs they termed zaimoku were subjected to vivisection and were injected with poisons, germs, lethal gases and snake venom, including cobra, habu, and amagasa.

Despite overwhelming evidence, claims are still made that the atrocities never occurred.  Fortunately, the crimes of Nanking were filmed by John Magee (p. 156) of victims at the Univ. of Nanking Hospital.  George Fitch smuggled the 16 mm negative out of China at great risk, on a Japanese military train to Shanghai, sewn into linings of his camel's hair coat. 

The Nanjing Municipal Government built the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall in 1985.  This is not unique for Asia, compare with the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979) are documented.

City of Life and Death (2009) is an extraordinary Chinese film about the Massacre, directed by Lu Chuan and filmed in Tianjin.  Black and white, the cinematography is highly nuanced and sensitive, I cannot recall a more sophisticated Chinese film.  The Chinese Film Bureau delayed release by 1 year.  Some details are well beyond the recounting in Chang's book, especially the sympathetic portrayal of Japanese soldier Kadokawa, who falls for Japanese prostitute Yuriko, and ultimately commits suicide, unable to digest the tragedy (art imitating life).  Rabe's male secretary Tang Tianxiang is also a focal point, who fails to protect his family in the Safety Zone, despite ratting out the location of Chinese soldiers to the Japanese, in exchange for immunity, not granted.

AOL Vice-Chairmon Ted Leonsis produced the documentary Nanking (2007) as a result of reading Chang's book.  It is filled with archival footage.  Although Mariel Hemingway (Minnie Vautrin) and Woody Harrelson (Robert Wilson) are among several actors recruited as on-camera readers, the most memorable scenes are interviews with elderly Japanese soldiers recounting the killings and rapes. 

Bertolucci's famous Academy Award-winning film The Last Emperor (1987) has a brief scene referencing 1937 in Nanking.  In 1988 the Shochiku Fuji Distribution Co. in Japan removed a 30-second flashback scene making Bertolucci furious.  Outcry forced the distributors to restore the excised scene.

 The Flowers of War (2011) is directed by Zhang Yimou, China's best-known director (Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern) and based on the novel 13 Flowers of Nanjing by Geling Yan.  It is the most expensive movie made in China and paves the way for large international audiences.  It stars Christian Bale and Nanjing native Ni Ni (Yimou's latest "Mou" girl).  A beautiful soundtrack backs an impressive film about schoolgirls and prostitutes seeking safe haven in a Nanjing cathedral at the onset of the Nanking Massacre in 1937, under the protection of a mortician turned priest.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala

"Uzo" Iweala  (U-zod-din-ma EE-wall-a) hails from a well-heeled Nigerian family, part of the vast diaspora situated in the U.S.  His father is a surgeon, and mother was Nigeria's Minister of Finance.  He wrote this story as a Harvard undergrad.  His grasp of native language is phenomenal.  The concept was born when attending a speaking engagement at Harvard by China Keitetsi, a young woman forced to fight in the Ugandan Civil War.  Most readers will imagine these lives as typical of the boy-soldiers of Sierra Leone.

As I began this magical little book, the lexicon of the 9-year old Agu struck me as a very powerful medium for telling the story of a boy forced to become a soldier, a killing machine.  His voice is "unliterary, yet poetic" (Baker, NYT 12/4/05).  The story is unimaginable without this voice.

It has precedence in Martin Amis' short story "What Happened to Me on My Holiday" in the collection Heavy Water.  Amis' story takes place in "Horzeleej Band" (Horseleech Pond, South of Wellfleet) and is narrated in an argot simulating his actual son, Louis, mourning the death of his step-brother.  The book is replete with onomatopoeia words like "TAKA TAKA TAKA," (p. 79) the sound of machine gun fire.  I am reminded of the Swahili term for motorcycle "piki piki piki," echoing the gentle sounds of a Honda 125 cc bike in the Tanzania bush.

The atrocities these boys are forced to commit are brutal.  "You are not my mother, I am saying to the girl's mother and when I am raising my knife high above my head.  I am liking the sound of knife chopping KPWUDA KPWUDA on her head and how the blood is just splashing on my hand and my face and my feets.  I am chopping and chopping and chopping until I am looking up and it is dark" (p. 51).  His commander is a pederast "Commandant is touching me and bringing my head to where he is standing at attention" (p. 84).  There's more: "he was telling me to kneel and then he was entering inside of me the way the man goat is sometimes mistaking other man goat for woman goat and going inside of them" (p. 85).  The man-boys are starving: "Everyone here is doing zero zero one.  I am not knowing what this is meaning before I am soldier, but now I am knowing that it means no breakfast, no lunch, only dinner" (p. 90).  Agu laments childhood lost: "I am knowing I am no more child so if this war is ending I cannot be going back to doing child thing" (p. 93).

Thursday, March 28, 2013

I Do Not Come to You by Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

This is a page turner of a book and Nwaubani in I Do Not Come to You by Chance (2010) has been able to master a well written novel with great comedic style through caricature, something I have not seen in Nigerian authors.  Not unlike Noo Saro-Wiwa, her father was an activist, although Chukwuma Hope Nwaubani never paid with his life.  She was born in Enugu, grew up in Umuahia and has stayed in Nigeria, graduating from the Univ. of Ibadan, now living in Lagos after time spent in Abuja.  Got that?  The story takes place in Abia State and involves the Igbo tribe ("the niggers of Nigeria," pp. 234, 254) as does much Nigerian fiction. 
The title was inspired by Ecclesiastes 9:11.  "I returned, and saw under the sun,that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."  The author found the titular line from a '419' letter (p. 178) to an unsuspecting foreigner or "mugu" (p. 177).
It is interesting that this young woman writes a novel through the eyes of a young man, Kingsley Onyeaghalanwanneya Ibe.  He is an "opara" (pp. 15, 182, 376) the eldest son.  The author's name Adaobi means first daughter.  He loses his idealism and joins his Uncle Boniface aka Cash Daddy in a 419 Nigerian Letter scam.  The mugu is lured into various fees to be paid before he receives the big money, be it hidden money in a Swiss bank account or whatever. 
Ikhide Ikheloa ( opines that the book 'reeks of rampant anti-intellectualism.  Cash Daddy chides Kingsley for his bookish aspirations. 
 The book is loaded with hilarity.  We learn that the National Electric Power Authority is best called Never Expect Power Always (p. 64).  "it felt as if 2,2,4-trimethylpentane had been pumped into my heart and set alight with a stick of match" (p.95) refers to the octane isomer used in octane rating.  Ben & Jerry's ice cream seems a staple of the 419ers (p. 145).  Kings' father relates the story of how the tortoise broke his back (p. 158), yet this fable already appeared in Adiche's Purple Hibiscus (2003), oops !  Kings notes that as Cash Daddy emerges from the shower "his five limbs were thick and long" (214).

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

What was the first book written by an American author to be widely read overseas?  Dana's Two Years Before the Mast (1840).  There is also little doubt that it served as an inspiration for Melville's Moby-Dick (1851).  The character Sam Sparks (p. 81) had a speech impediment that may have been an inspiration for Billy Budd.  When "California 'broke out' 1848, and so large a portion of the Anglo-Saxon race flocked to it, there was no book upon California but mine" (p. 315).  I had been meaning to read this book since 1989, when I moved into a 1916 Colonial Revival house designed by Dana's eponymous great grandson, an Ecole des Beaux Arts architect of the Madison Ave. firm Murphy & Dana.

Dana was a student at Harvard in 1831, but measles left his eyesight weakened.  He joined the crew of the ship Pilgrim for a 2-year trip to California (actually Alto California, Mexico's northernmost state) around Cape Horn and documented the voyage in this seafaring adventure narrative.  Upon his return, he completed Harvard in 1837 and became a lawyer well known for defending the rights of the common man.  His chronicles of sailor life and the brutal floggings meted out by the Captain are the more memorable sections of the book.  He returned to California (now one of the United States) 24 years later in 1859 by steamboat and also chronicled that trip in a coda.  He died in Rome in 1882 and was buried in the Protestant Cemetery near the graves of Keats and Shelly.

The sea terminology is unparalleled.  I was well into the book before I realized that there was an illustration (fig. opposite p. 269) of the brig and ship sails with the names of each sail in the Great Illustrated Classics edition of the book.  The book gets it's name from the fact that the crew made their quarters in the forecastle (fig. opposite p. 10), before the mast.  Dana chose to live with the crew despite his elevated social status.  "There is not so hopeless and pitiable an object as a landsman beginning a sailor's life" (p. 2).  Many of the nautical terms are simple, like "hove," (p. 2) the past tense of "heave," to haul with a rope.  To "reef" (p. 5) a topsail is to fold and tie it down.  A "brig" (p. 14) is a two-mast ship with square sails.  A "hermaphrodite brig" (p. 15) is two-mast with only forward sales square.  The word "hazing" (p. 77) seems to be an old sailor term.  I even see the word "Yahoos" (p. 112).  "Doubling" (p. 266) is to sail around a projection of land as in doubling Cape Horn.

The geography from 1834 is fascinating.  The "Pacific well deserves its name, has few storms" (p. 43).  At that time, Hawaii was known as the Sandwich Islands (p. 45).  Much of the book describes the natives - "The Californians are an idle, thriftless people, and can make nothing for themselves" (p. 62), yet "the climate as good as any in the world" (p. 68).  Boats from Sitka are coming down from Russian America (p. 188), under Russian control until 1899.  We learn that ships could take an inland route above Tierra del Fuego through the Straits of Magellan (p. 264).  It is interesting to note that the California Gold Rush broke out in 1848 in Alto California, statehood two years later (1850) was inevitable.

If you loved the book, the 1946 film (not yet on DVD) awaits, yet has little to do with Dana's story line.  Alan Ladd plays Charles Stewart (not in the book), son of the ship's owner and Brian Donlevy plays Dana (no mention of Harvard).  Mexican 1930s film diva Esther Fernández plays passenger and Ladd's love interest Maria Dominguez (most certainly not in the book !).  It's your basic swashbuckler and worth watching.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Oil on Water by Helon Habila

Helon Habila is a new wave Nigerian author, presently a professor at George Mason Univ.  The novel Oil on Water (2010) follows two Port Harcourt journalists, Rufus and his mentor Zaq (dying of dengue fever, p. 150), into the Niger Delta in search of a kidnapped oil executive (p. 72) James Floode's wife, Isabel Floode (p. 191).  Of course, the kidnap assist is provided by her driver Salomon, and let's be clear that the executive has impregnated (p. 218) his girlfriend Koko (p. 202).  Naive he is too as he laments on the rebel attacks on the oil infrastructure "The people don't understand what they do to themselves..." (p. 103).

The story line aside, the style of writing is based on interwoven flashbacks, while our journalists are seeking the wife on Irikefe Island (imaginary, p. 225).  The book opens on "our ninth day on her trail" (p. 5).  Their odyssey is Conradian, and the flashback hazy style is reminiscent of Heart of Darkness.  Nigeria's dictator Sani Abacha (p. 236) died in 1998 - he was famous for colluding with Big Oil, this story unfolds ten years later.  Yet the triangular entanglements between rebels, the oil companies, and the Nigerian military are ever present.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Biafran flag (sunrise)
Ogbunigwe land mine

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's sophomore effort Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) is an oeuvre of great gravitas, more so than any other African author I have read.  Achebe's simple yet powerful Things Fall Apart (the first sentence of the novel alludes to that work) and Okri's The Famished Road, a classic of magic realism, have been the gold standard for Nigerian literature.  With the Nigerian-Biafran War as a backdrop (1967-1970), the author has put a face to the conflict in a scholarly fashion.  In fact two of her grandfathers died in the war (frontispiece).  This was the war that made "Harold Wilson syndrome" (p. 338) or kwashiorkor the poster child of suffering.

The novel is narrated entirely from the point of view ("POV") of three of the leading characters: Ugwu, a 13 year old houseboy (p. 5), Olanna, his Master's (Odenigbo) wife, and Richard, lover to Kainene, Olanna's twin sister.  The reader only knows what they know, albeit sometimes limited.  The British Army has arrived "to finish us off" (p. 274) and "Lagos says Chinese soldiers are fighting for us" (p. 346).  The facts are never "authorially" approved.  We never hear from Odenigbo or Kainene. They are only observed from the outside.  For example, Olanna is brought news that Ugwu, press ganged into the Biafran army, has been killed.  We later learn he has survived.  Each chapter is told from a single POV, the leading word in each chapter is a character's name, the POV key.  Adichie crafts the POV very carefully.  just when you think she has slipped in chap. 26, Ugwu reveals that he "pretended not to have heard" (p. 293) Olanna and Muokelu talking in private !

Olanna Ozobia (p. 27) and Kainene are London School of Economics (pp. 40 and 57) graduates, the Igbo elite, Olanna beautiful, Kainene brilliant.  Kainene is lover with Richard, despite his repeated impotence (p. 63).

The book jumps around between events that took place during the early 1960s and the late 1960s in 4 sections.   This structure is used for dramatic effect, as two distinct acts of infidelity are revealed (pp. 231 and 234) to the reader well after the war is underway.  The war parties are tribal (p. 20), mainly the Hausa and the Igbo (referred to as the Jews (Holocaust reference, p. 50) of Nigeria due to racist attitudes).  The "Igbo were surly and money-loving" (p. 55).  The Igbo, under Colonel Ojukwu (p. 158), secede from Nigeria on July 6, 1967 (p. 161) to form the Republic of Biafra (named after the Bight of Biafra, p. 158).

There are 8 references to a book entitled The World was Silent When we Died, a work in progress (p. 374).  At first we ascribe it to Richard, yet he is not a finisher and we ultimately learn that Ugwu is the author (pp. 396, 433).

There is a healthy usage of the Igbo language.  Nkem means "my own" (p. 24).  "Speak with water in my mouth" (p. 226) means unheard.  An afia attack is to go behind enemy lines to buy food (p. 293).  An ogbunigwe is a Biafran land mine (pp. 317, 359).

Many English words are italicized, implying euphemisms, e.g., when Odenigbo uses the word experience (p. 186) and brief rash lust (p. 225). 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Purple Hibiscus (2003) is the debut novel from Nigeria's current leading author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  Diction is very simple, reminiscent of Chinhua Achebe's Things Fall Apart.  Indeed, the book's first sentence alludes "Things started to fall apart at home..." (p. 1).  The author writes about what she knows, as she grew up in Nsukka, SE Nigeria, near Enuga, as does her lead character, Kambili Achike.  The author went to Univ. Nigeria (Nsukka) - Aunty Ifeoma teaches there.  In brief this is a story about an upper middle class family struggling to live under the abusive control of a very religious father, Eugene.  The author imbues great sensitivity to the 15-year old daughter and her coming of age, as well as brother Jaja (allusion to Jaja Opobo, King of Defiance).  Ultimately, spoiler alert, Beatrice, the mother, poisons Eugene. 
Aunty Ifeoma cultivates purple hibiscus "rare, fragrant with the undertones of freedom" (p. 16).  The book’s namesake flower is a representation of freedom and hope. Jaja is drawn to the unusual purple hibiscus, bred by a botanist friend of Aunty Ifeoma. Aunty Ifeoma has created something new by bringing the natural world together with intelligence. For Jaja, the flower is hope that something new can be created. He longs to break free of his Papa’s rule. He takes a stalk of the purple hibiscus home with him, and plants it in their garden. He also takes home the insight he learns from Nsukka. As both blossom, so too do Jaja and his rebellion.
Aunty takes Kambili and her brother to a masquerade festival (p. 73), the Abagane mmuo, in which they are subject to idolatry, much to the chagrin of Eugene, who despises "pagan rituals" (p. 106). 
Papa-Nnukwu, Kambili's grandfather, tells his family how the tortoise cracked his shell (p. 157). During a famine, the animals gather. They are weakened by hunger. Lion’s roar is but a thin whine and Tortoise can barely carry his shell. Only Dog looks well. He insists because his family eats feces, they are still healthy. Since the rest of the animals won’t do what Dog does, they decide they must sacrifice their mothers to be eaten. Each week, a different mother gives up their life to feed the village. A few days before Dog’s mother is to be killed, the village hears him wailing. He tells them his mother has died of disease. They cannot eat her. A few days later, Tortoise hears Dog calling his mother. A rope descends from the sky. Tortoise learns that Dog’s mother is still alive, living in the sky with wealthy friends. Dog’s health has not suffered because he has been eating all along. Tortoise schemes, telling Dog he must take him up to the sky or else he will tell the village the truth. Dog agrees. Soon after, Tortoise becomes greedy, wanting not only his portion but Dog’s as well. Mimicking Dog, Tortoise asks for the rope to be lowered one day. Dog finds him and is furious. He calls to his mother and she cuts the rope. Tortoise lands on a pile of rocks and his shell is cracked to this day.
In Igbo legend, the tortoise is a trickster figure that deceives the other animals in the world. In this parable, the tortoise is punished for his greed. There is a parallel in this story to what is happening in Nigeria. Dog, or the government, is hoarding food during a famine. Dog lies about how he stays healthy, as the government misdirects funds into their own pockets. The greedy Tortoise aligns himself with Dog rather than telling the rest of the animals. If you are friends with those in power, no harm will come to you. 
The novel makes thinly veiled references to freedom fighters Del Giwa (as Ade Coker) and Ken Saro-Wiwa (Nwankiti Ogechi, p. 201), who was hanged Nov, 1995.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Looking for Transwonderland by Noo Saro-Wiwa

Obodu cable car

Noo Saro-Wiwa
Noo (pronounced "gnaw", p. 289) Saro-Wiwa is the expat daughter, living in Jand (slang for overseas, p. 73), of famous dissident Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was imprisoned in the 1990s for campaigning against Government corruption and environmental degradation by Shell Oil.  Noo and siblings were in prep school in London, when she got the call in November 1995 that her father had been murdered (p. 7).  Trained as a travel writer, Noo meanders around Nigeria as a tourist, ending up at her family homestead in Bane, near Port Harcourt.  Noo's family was Ogoni, "bit players in the drama of Nigerian history in which the Binis, Yorubas, Hausas and Igbos played a leading role" (p. 256).  After  reading the book, we realize Nigeria is much more than a base for launching "419" scams (p. 79).

In the Prologue, she opines that Nigeria "has perhaps received fewer voluntary visitors than outer space" (p. 8).  All trips to Nigeria begin and end with Lagos, a chaotic city of nearly 20 million.  Appropriately her first task is to negotiate the traffic with the minibuses or danfos (p. 19) and also the 100cc motorcycles (Chinese Jinchengs) or okadas (p. 34), which buzz around the streets in their thousands, like a plague of giant flies."  She recounts a visit to the beach at Tarkwa Bay overwhelmed by the proximity of the oil tanker traffic (p. 42).

The arc of her storytelling follows Ibadan (Ibadan Univ., the Harvard of Nigeria; the dilapidated Transwonderland amusement park; Osogbo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site), Ajuba (the sterile modern capital like Brasilia; Zuma Rock, the Ayers Rock of Nigeria), Kano (Islamic area under Sharia law, the city supposedly had hand amputation machines from Saudi Arabia - p. 147; Gidan Makama, a museum), Nguru (most northerly town in Nigeria), Yankari Game Reserve (safari park), Jos (Wild West scenery on high plateau, museum has terracotta figurines), Maiduguri (Islamic City near Lake Chad), Sukur (Stone Age mountain kingdom), Calabar (site where slaves were sent on Cross River 500 years ago), Alok (stone monolith site), Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary (drill monkey site, jungle canopy walks), Obodu Cattle Ranch (jewel of Nigeria's tourist resorts near Cameroonian border, longest cable car in Africa), Benin (home of ancient Benin Empire), Esie (soapstone sculptures), Port Harcourt (gang driven, Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force (NDPVF), Icelanders, oil bunkering) and Bane (family home).

Noo poignantly describes effort to recover her father's bones in 2005 from a public field after being murdered by Sani Abacha's regime.  The bones were identified through forensic tests (p. 290).