Monday, May 29, 2023

Something New

  We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“THE DECK” by Fiona Farrell Penguin-Random House, $NZ37); “FROM THERE TO HERE – A Memoir” by Joe Bennett (Harper-Collins, $NZ23:52) ; (“PINEAPPLE STREET” by Jenny Jackson  ( Penguin-Random House, $NZ37)

Some years ago I set out to read all of the Florentine Boccaccio’s Decameron, using both the (bowdlerised) old two-volume Everyman’s edition, and the (unbowdlerised) more recent, fat Penguin edition. I never made it all the way through the 800 odd pages, because (sorry) I soon discovered the sameness of so many stories – all those tales about monks bonking nuns and priests bonking penitents and extraordinary fortune coming to the deserving. I know this is very rude of me because the Decameron is rightly regarded as one of the great works of the early Renaissance and it inspired many imitations, with the likes of Jeff Chaucer and Bill Shakespeare using Boccaccio’s stories as source material (on my shelf I also have a copy of the Venetian Giambattista Basile’s Pentameron, written about 200 years after the Decameron and clearly inspired by it). In fact, the only tale I really latched onto was (Decameron, Fourth Day, 5th Story) the story of Lisabetta and her pot of basil, renamed by John Keats Isabella and the Pot of Basil (analysed elsewhere on this blog).

Fiona Farrell is very interested in Boccaccio’s Decameron, and in her opening chapter “The Frame”, writing as “the author”, she gives us an engaging 24-page account of the Decameron, its influence, how it inspired her and how it has become a widely read classic. But she is not a slave to Boccaccio. The Decameron has ten young adults (7 women, 3 men) fleeing from the bubonic plague that is raging in 14th century Florence and retiring to an opulent home as their safe quarantine. There they tell each other stories to pass the time – ten stories each day for ten days = one hundred stories. Fiona Farrell’s The Deck (presumably an abbreviation of The Decameron) has her New Zealanders going to a remote bay on Banks Peninsula where they are less likely to contract a new plague that is stalking the country. Farrell has clearly been inspired to write by the Covid pest, but this novel is set in the near future. Those seeking quarantine on Banks Peninsula are not young adults. Most of them are advanced in age, like the author herself, and with a lot of experience behind them. They are also mainly middle-class. They do tell one another a few stories, sometimes on the deck of two characters’ bach overlooking the bay. But they are mainly presented to us by the back-stories of their lives, which are related to us readers and not spoken out loud to the other characters. And they are in their refuge for only six days and nights, eventually leaving in conditions that seem like the ravages of Cyclone Gabrielle.

So here they are. Ani the artist; Philippa, an erstwhile judge, and her partner, Tom who sometimes have a tense relationship because one has long kept an important secret from the other; Philippa’s sister Maria who is protecting her grand-daughter Zoe from being caught up in a cult; the gay couple Pete and Didi – who for some reason is sometimes called “E’ or “e”; Baz the surfer, always trying to shuck off his father’s taunts that he was a “nancy boy”; and a few others.

Inasmuch as it is a collection of stories, The Deck is various in its interests and varied in its quality. Ani thinks of the animals on Earth that are being rendered extinct and how it affects the way she illustrates children’s books. To the group she narrates a story of being lost in the wilderness when a car was stolen. Without attaching names to each tale, there is a story of inept deerstalking ending in pure sexual fantasy; a tale of an unexpected birth; a character recalling childhood life in a rough run-down rural home, and yet remembering it fondly; a story of a father’s drunken abuse and how the family reconciled only after he was dead; and a tale (one of the best in the book) in which a character chooses self-interest and career over decency and morality, in a way that has repercussions for another person. Most bizarre tale, and with the most unexpected outcome, concerns one of the quarantined group recalling his days as a singer on a cruise ship and an odd request that two passengers made to him. Most improbable story involves the outcome of confronting Somali pirates.

But in this varied book, Fiona Farrell is as much essayist and polemicist as she is novelist – as was shown in her earlier books The Broken Book and The Villa at the End of the Empire. Speaking in her own voice as the author, not only in her opening “The Frame” but also in the closing essay “The Author’s Conclusion”, she speaks loudly about climate change and the too-widespread indifference to its problems. If plagues, which have been relatively common in human history, are capable of wiping out many thousands of human beings, could it be that climate change will wipe out all of us? And in this context, can stories and literature be of any help? Farrell raises awkward questions about the validity of story-telling. Are we deceived by stories? Do they enlighten us? Are they a refuge from reality? Is it actually worthwhile for her to write fiction especially when, as she sees it, climate change could mean that we might all soon be exterminated? And then there comes a condemnation of false stories in our age of both misinformation and disinformation and conspiracy theories and nonsense shared on line. The age of “post-truth” is upon us. Hence her condemnation of the destructive protests staged in Wellington by “antivaxxers”. Collectively, her address to us is one of admonition.

Personally, I enjoyed this book, especially when Fiona Farrell indulges her wilder imagination or lets rip with angry polemic. But I’d be hard pressed to call it all of a piece.

Footnote: Elsewhere on this blog, you can find accounts of other works by Fiona Farrell, her 2009 novel Limestone ; her first account to the Christchurch earthquakes The Broken Book  and her scathing critique of how Christchurch was being rebuilt The Villa at the Edge of the Empire ; as well as her own selection of her poems up to 2020 Nouns, Verbs etc.

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There’s a strong possibility that I owe Joe Bennett an apology. Although I’ve read many of the light and often jocular columns he’s written, I’ve read only two of his books. Way back in 2012, I reviewed for the NZ Listener his Double Happiness, purportedly an expose of “how bullshit works”. It struck me as the same sort of easy-ironical and sometimes glib journalism found in his columns. In 2015 I read and reviewed for Landfall Bennett's novel King Rich, centred on the Christchurch earthquakes and a lonely old man hiding from the family who had abandoned him. While a credible tale, some of it read as interpolated journalism.That, I thought, was the only level Joe Bennett’s writing could reach. I now hastily pull my head in and admit that I judged wrongly. Written in his 66th year, Joe Bennett’s memoir From There to Here is a beauty, genuinely witty in places, thoughtful in others, and always buoyed by clear, unambiguous prose.

 From There to Here covers the first thirty years of Bennett’s life, from early English childhood to when he settled in New Zealand in 1987 and stayed here. He was born Julian Bennett. He disliked the poncy name Julian and shucked it off early. His family came from the north of England but relocated to Brighton in England’s south-east. Brighton – town of decaying interest to holiday-makers, with its decrepit pier already being largely ignored by people who could now afford to take their breaks further afield, such as in continental Europe. Very vivid is (in Chapter 5) Bennett’s account of men and boys, like young Bennett himself, who found their amusement in fishing off the pier in fair or freezing weather.

Bennett’s father was a hard man, following the accepted mores of his time, but not excessively abusive. Even so, his disciplinarian ways turned one of young Joe’s older brothers into a bit of a rebel who scarpered from home as soon as he could. Bennett admits that, years later, there was a sense of relief in his family when his father died. Young Joe himself was more of a conformist than his elder brother. He weathered infant school and primary school noting, as all perceptive little boys do, how sadistic and violent little boys’ playground games could be. The game of “piling on” smaller kids sounds to me very like the awful “stacks on the mill” game I remember in New Zealand primary-school playgrounds. Bennett admits honestly that he joined in such games, noting “In The Lord of the Flies, I’d have laughed at the smashing of Piggy’s glasses and I’d have helped to kill Simon.” (p.50) He also witnessed – but did not take part in - the sheer sadism of even rougher games played by older boys near creeks or in neighbouring woods. Young Bennett loved cricket (it features quite a lot in the earlier stages of this memoir) and was happy with football (soccer) but was not interested in rugby.

The growing boy was of the generation where, in England, your fate was moulded by the Eleven-Plus examination. If you passed, you went to a grammar school. If you failed you were consigned to a secondary modern school. Bennett passed, went to a grammar school, and though he mildly rags and ridicules some of the teachers (it’s compulsory in a memoir of this sort, isn’t it?) he clearly liked the school and did reasonably well in learning. I share the horror he felt when he was confronted with calculus, being able to make neither head nor tail of it (me too) and shifted his studies over to literature, language and history (me too). There he did very well, revelling in the poetry of Philip Larkin and enjoying reading Camus’ L’Etranger.

But there was a major crisis when he hit puberty. He began to realise that he was homosexual. He often had crushes on handsome boys and young men of his own age. Always what ensued was friendship, with the young man in question being quite heterosexual, totally unaware of Joe’s real feelings and treating him simply as a pal. Joe played the part of being a regular, rough guy, taking part in larrikin-ish stunts, getting copped for drunk-driving etc. The odd thing about this memoir is that Bennett chronicles only two times he had sexual intercourse, in both cases with women and (in his case) with little enthusiasm. He does not make a big issue of it. Apparently he lost his virginity to a woman who seduced him in a graveyard, which at least adds an element of humour.

Bennett’s reward for his diligence at grammar school was a place at the University of Cambridge. As he tells it, he lounged his way through his time there, read what he wanted to, lazed, partied, and just scraped through a degree with the lowest of marks. Is he being modest? Maybe. But it seems clear that he was unsure of what he wanted to do with his life, apart from a vague sense that he wanted to write something. So he did what so many graduates do when they are at a loose end. He went school-teaching, first in a prep-school. Then he latched on to teaching the English language in foreign [European] countries – another favourite of those who aren’t quite sure what to do with their lives. After hitchhiking his way around France, he took an English-teaching job in Spain, thoroughly enjoying the welcome alien-ness of the country.  And (in part supported by a modest legacy) this was how he spent the next few years – going from school to school teaching English.

It's in these sections of From There to Here that he piles on the tales of eccentric or strange language-teachers, grotty digs in which he often had to live, and comical mishaps – which were probably less funny at the time than they were in written memory. But, all the while hoping he could write something worthwhile (short stories? a novel?) he came to realise that jobbing his way through language schools was a dead end. He notes: “So I was left in the usual quandary. I could teach, and there were always jobs to be had. But there were also [fellow English-language teachers in the school where he was then teaching] who’d taught a year or so in each of seven of eight countries and who planned to carry on being peripatetic into middle age. I saw in them a warning of how easily I could delude myself that by moving on I was getting somewhere. Geography was not the answer, but I didn’t know what was.” (p.204)

He went back to England and took a diploma in physical education – not that it really enthused him, but it did give him a teaching certificate. And, partly helped by the prestige of having studied at Cambridge, he was offered a post teaching full-time in a senior school in Vancouver. In his holidays he took a hitchhiker trip across Canada in the freezing depths of winter. Later he took three weeks hitchhiking in the USA. I’m amused that while he clearly liked most of the Americans he met en route, his English perspective led him to throw in a barb, thus: “My one surprise from three weeks on the road in the states was the overwhelming generosity of ordinary Americans, their open-hearted friendliness. That aside, I had my prejudices pleasantly confirmed. It was a place dedicated to making a buck. It wasn’t strong on irony. Religion was more undisguisedly a business than it was elsewhere. And the whole country felt founded on the triumph of appearance over reality, of hope over truth.” (p.251)

Then a return to England. And a trip to Australia. And (by this stage realising he would never be a novelist) landing in New Zealand when he was 30. And securing a teaching position at one of New Zealand’s most expensive private schools, King’s College in Christchurch, at which point From There to Here ends. I wonder if Joe Bennett plans another memoir of his 36 years (so far) in New Zealand

What keeps the wheels turning of this memoir that I have thoughtfully synopsised for you? It is Bennett’s humour, his gallery of odd or slightly eccentric people, his confessions about himself, and above all his tersely-told anecdotes. The book keeps moving, is entertaining and is well-written. What more do you want?

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I’ll begin with an obvious confession – American author Jenny Jackson’s Pineapple Street is not what I would call my preferred genre of reading. I would suggest that it is aimed mainly at a young female audience; and the wrong sort of reviewer might dismiss it rudely as “chick-lit”. But that would be very demeaning. Though Pineapple Street is not my type of novel, Jenny Jackson writes with much skill and is astute at presenting in detail a certain type of social class.

Pineapple Street concerns the Stockton family of Brooklyn Heights - wealthy New York WASPS, living on huge trust-funds, property speculation and much inherited wealth. They are always concerned with the accumulation of even more wealth and the preservation of what they already have. The family is ruled by patriarch Chip and performative matriarch Tilda, but the novel focuses on three younger Stockton women  - Darley, Georgiana and Sacha, who was not born into the family but who married the senior Stockton offspring, Cord. So two sisters and a sister-in-law.

The in-law Sacha is far and away the most sympathetic character in the novel. She came from an ordinary middle-class family, not exactly poverty; but she is frequently sneered at by Darley and Georgiana as a “gold digger” who has only married into the family for their money. This is clearly not the case, and she is capable of standing up for herself when she is attacked by snide innuendo. Darley is almost a sympathetic character. Her marriage is solid and she has set aside a career to raise her children, even though she knows this nowadays invites criticism. I think we are meant to see Georgiana, the youngest Stockton, in a positive light, but I can’t help seeing her as a bit of a twit, easily led on and foolishly having an affair with a man before she’s checked whether or not he is married. Later she matches up with a guy, another WASP inheritor of great wealth, who says that all wealth should be given away to the poor. The novel traces these three women through a year or so.

Before I get to the good stuff, proving the author’s skill, I note some major flaws. There’s some melodrama to push the plot along – somebody suddenly loses his prestigious job; somebody suddenly dies in a plane crash – but I’m not the sort of swine who would ruin your reading pleasure by saying to whom, when and how these things happen. I also think the finale is contrived, suddenly giving us a “happy ending” when sweetness-and-light prevails in an otherwise quarrelsome family. Or am I misreading it? Perhaps Jenny Jackson is being ironical and is showing us that the rich will simply go on being the rich.

Now for the really good stuff. Jenny Jackson gives us precisely-observed behaviours and fads of the American very rich. The superfluous “gender reveal” parties, lavishly catered, when somebody is pregnant. The “auctions” for the private schools they send their kids to, where people can show off their idea of philanthropy by donating exorbitant money for relatively inexpensive things. What is and is not regarded as acceptable food and behaviour at the dinner table. The special codes in which many of the rich speak. The fetishization of such things as playing tennis. The awareness that they are a people set apart from the general population. The ease with which the wealthy flitter around the world, usually on holiday, sometimes of business. And – most often emphasised by the author – the women’s way of dressing – dressing to make an impact on beholders, knowing how to pick out what is currently chic, what is passe, what jewellery they should wear and what they would be shamed by wearing.

In the end, Pineapple Street is a lively revelation of a certain social class, a sort of urban lesson in modern anthropology. This what I found most interesting about the novel and what kept me reading.


Something Old

  Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.    

PARADISE” by Abdulrazac Gurnah (first published 1994); "DESERTION" by Abdulrazac Gurnah (first published 2005)

            Last posting, I admitted that I had read too few novels by African authors and decided to mend things a little by reading Tanzanian Nobel Prize-winner Abdulrazac Gurnah’s The Last Gift, and Senegalese Prix Goncourt des Lyceens-winner David Diop’s At Night All Blood is Black (original French title Frere d‘ame). Both of them are very good novels, but one thing nagged at me. Though written by Africans, both novels are set largely in Europe. I wanted to read an African’s novel set in Africa. So I turned to one of Abdulrazac Gurnah’s earlier novels, Paradise, first published in 1994.

            Paradise is set in the very early 20th century, the heyday of European colonialisation and empire-building. European maps then labelled the country in which the novel is set as German East Africa. Only later did it become Tanganyika and then (with the inclusion of Zanzibar) Tanzania, as it now is. Oddly, though, colonisation is not the main focus of the novel. It is more concerned with the various, and often conflicting, cultures and ethnicities that the country contains. Its focus is on the life of a young man, Yusuf, seen from childhood through puberty to young manhood. In one sense, the chronicle of this young life is presented very much in the style of the earliest of European novels in the 18th century, such as Daniel Defoe’s many chronicles and tales (Captain Singleton, Colonel Jack, Moll Flanders, Robinson Crusoe etc.). Many characters are introduced, who appear only in part of the narrative; there is a long journey; and adventures and mishaps happen. It is not exactly a picaresque novel – Yusuf is no picaro – but it is nearly so.

A major event shapes the boy Yusuf’s life. Living in  the central part of the country, Yusuf’s father runs a very unsuccessful store. He owes much money to a man whom young Yusuf knows as Uncle Aziz (whether or not he is really Yusuf’s uncle is never made clear). Uncle Aziz, a successful merchant and trader, waives the debt on condition that he can take young Yusuf to be his indentured servant. Yusuf has to farewell his family forever and is taken, by train, far away to the coast (not too far from the island Zanzibar) where he has to toil in one of Uncle Aziz’s stores.  He is put under the authority of the storeman Khalil, an erratic and slightly unhinged fellow who jokes with customers, frets at his lowly status and often takes out his frustrations on Yusuf; yet who sometimes speaks words of wisdom. Yusuf’s language is one dialect of  Swahili (there are a number of Swahili dialects) and he has to learn Arabic as so many of people in the coastal area are Arabs. Nominally most of the country are Muslim, including Yusuf. But later in the novel one of Yusuf’s employers, Hamid, is appalled to discover that Yusuf, now aged 16, can barely read and has never studied the Koran. Hamid sets him to work studying (between his onerous tasks) and learning verses of the Koran by heart. For a while, Yusuf is very pious – or at least seems so – diligently visiting the mosque and saying his prayers; though the implication is that this is as much to earn favour with his employer as it is real piety.

So much for the general situation of Yusuf’s life. The three long central chapters (of this six-long-chapter novel) follow Yusuf as he is taken on the long trading expedition into the western-most part of the country, even further west that the central area where Yusuf was born. It is here that there is what amounts to an adventure rapidly turning into a disaster. A village they pass through has been burnt to the ground by marauders. They cross a river that is infested with crocodiles. A tribal woman is killed by a crocodile and a local tribal chief (they are designated as “sultans” in this novel) demands reparations because the woman’s death must be the result of the traders bringing bad luck. Everything goes wrong for the traders – disease, hunger, sickness. One “sultan” steals all their trading goods, and when they finally stumble back to the coast, the traders have made no profit.

When Yusuf recalls the journey to the interior, it is like a nightmare “So often on the journey he felt he was a soft-fleshed animal which had left its shell and was now caught in the open, a vile and grotesque beast blindly smearing its passage across the rubble and thorns. That was how he thought they all were, stumbling blindly through the middle of nowhere. The terror he felt was not the same as fear… It was as if he had no real existence, as if he were living in a dream, over the edge of extinction. It made him wonder what it was that people wanted so much that they could overcome that terror in search of trade… he had seen sights which nothing in him could have predicted.” (Chapter 5, “The Grove of Desire”, part 1)

Most notable is the fact that the traders regard the tribes near Lake Tanganyika as alien superstitious barbarians. They are as unknown to the people on the coast as they would be to the average European. “On one side, the level plain stretched away. Behind the mountains, he was told by the others who had been here before, lived the dusty warrior people who herded cattle and drank the blood of their animals. They thought war was honourable and were proud of their history of violence. The greatness of their leaders was measured by the animals they had acquired from raiding their neighbours, and by the number of women they had abducted from their homes. When they were not fighting, they adorned their bodies and hair with the dedication of brothel queens…” (Chapter 2 “The Mountain Town”, part 4). Thus Yusuf is told. This reader found the journey something like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in its travel deep into unknown and alien territory. I now discover that one reviewer made the same connection, but was quickly slapped down by another who said that this was an unseemly Euro-centric interpretation…

In the novel there are only a few occasions when German colonisers loom large, but they are there in the background. In one phase of the journey, the African and Arab traders are enjoying themselves in the sight of a picturesque waterfall. A servant appears and tells them they have to leave because “Bwana” (meaning a German official) doesn’t want them there. In another episode, a German official, backed by armed men, actually helps the journeying traders by getting handed back to them the trading goods that have been stolen by the “sultan”. But the travellers most often criticise their German masters:

Everywhere they went now they found Europeans had got there before them, and had installed soldiers and officials telling people that they had come to save them from their enemies who only sought to make slaves of them. It was as if no other trade had been heard of, to hear them speak. The traders spoke of the Europeans with amazement, awed by their ferocity and ruthlessness. They take the best land without paying a bead, force the people to work for them by one trick or another, eat anything and everything however tough or putrid. Their appetite has no limit or decency, like a plague of locusts. Taxes for this, taxes for that, otherwise prison for the offender, or the lash, or even hanging…”(Chapter 2 “The Mountain Town”, part 5)

Simba Mwene, an African guide, told “stories of the Germans. He spoke admiringly of their sternness and implacability. Every infringement was punished, however much the victim begged for mercy or promised to reform… ‘With us, if a culprit shows repentance we find it hard to punish him, especially if the sentence is severe. People will come to beg and plead for him, and we all have loved ones who’ll mourn. But with the German it’s the opposite. The more severe the punishment, the more firm and unforgiving he is…’ ”  (Chapter 3 “The Journey to the Interior”, part 4) The greatest crime of the German rulers comes at the end where, in 1914, the First World War is breaking out and Germans are marching through the country kidnapping Africans and dragooning them into the army.

Paradise has many colourful characters – the severe Mohammed Abdalla who shouts orders at the porters on the interior expedition. The foul-mouthed Greek-Indian driver who shouts filth at the porters. The blasphemous Indian Kalasinga who likes to throw scepticism at the more devout Muslims.

But a question must be asked. Why is the novel called Paradise, especially as most characters are living hard and unpleasant lives? The nature of paradise is quarrelled over by devout Hamid and sceptical Kalasinga, one seeing it as heaven and another seeing it merely as a place of comfort on Earth (Chapter 2 “The Mountain Town”, part 7). But it has to be remembered that the word “paradise” originally, in the Persian language, meant a walled garden, a place to retreat and enjoy, blocking out the imperfect world. This surfaces in the last chapters of this novel. Yusuf has been growing up. He is a very handsome young man. Adults (male and female) often take a sensual interest in him – and though, like any other young man, he dreams of women and sex, he remains a virgin. But when he returns to the coast, he looks after a walled garden so well that the mistress of the house, mature in age, begins to take a very close interest in him and tries to seduce him. He turns her down. Scorned, she cries rape to her powerful husband and Yusuf has to run for it – run into uncertainty. At which point you get the reference, don’t you? This is a replay of the story of Joseph (Yusuf to Muslims) which first was written in the last chapters of the Book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible. The Muslim version of the story of Joseph / Yusuf may be found in Chapter 12 of the Koran, as I confirmed when I consulted my copy of the Koran. The Bible and Koran versions of this story are similar, but there are some specific details found only in the Koran and I conclude that it was this text which Abdulrazac Gurnah used.

And what does the notion of paradise mean in this novel? I can only conclude that it is ironical. With the debts imposed on characters, with the friction between ethnicities, with the pressure of colonial overlords, with the exploitation of indentured labour, with the looming world war - the notion of paradise is far, far away from the quotidian reality of life. But at least, with young Yusuf running away from trouble, there is the possibility that he has the nous to make a reasonable life for himself. In spite of everything, this is not a work of gloom.

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If Abdulrazac Gurnah’s Paradise had something to say about colonialism, his 2005 novel Desertion presents us with a problem that may be even thornier – namely, the inter-relation of different races. Desertion has two time frames. The first third of the novel is set in the year 1899. The remainder of the novel is set in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

In 1899, an Englishman called Martin Pearce stumbles, dehydrated, into a village in Kenya. He is a traveller, an “Orientalist”, bereft of nearly all possessions. He is taken in by a merchant family of mixed Indian and African descent and falls in love with a woman of the family called Rehana. Pearce is a thoroughly decent man, sympathises with the African and Indian people, understands their customs and traditions and truly loves Rehana. Indeed (as we discover only much later in the novel) he has a child with her. And yet, without any explanation, he deserts her and disappears completely from the novel. Could it be that an “Orientalist”, obsessed with what is exotic, can in fact be less interested with real living people?

Flash forward to the 1950s and early 1960s. Zanzibar is in turmoil, going through a revolution and the British are withdrawing from Tanganyika which will soon become Tanzania. The focus now is on a family of two brothers and a sister living in Zanzibar. They are good Muslims and obedient to their parents. The youngest brother Rashid is totally focused on winning a scholarship to an English university. Rashid (who narrates most of the novel in the first person) is a good scholar and he wins his scholarship to the University of London. Off he goes to England while his family tell him that it would be safest for him to stay in England given what violent warring there was in their own country.

Rashid’s older sister Farida is a dressmaker. One of her clients, Jamila, has an affair with Rashid’s older brother Amin. But Jamila is of a different social class from the family, she is more worldly than the family, not a devout Muslim and is soon being socially shunned by Amin’s family and their circle. Indeed, given Jamila’s social life, dining with sultans and European officials, she is regarded by Amin’s family as being little more than a whore. Reluctantly Amin breaks off his affair with her.

And it is at  this point that we understand how the novel is stitched together. For it turns out that Jamila is in fact the grand-daughter of the forsaken Rehana and the absconding Pearce. With the exception of one chapter, this whole story is told by Rachid, who has pieced together the story of Martin Pearce and Rehana through notebooks kept by his brother Amin. It is now clear why the novel is called Desertion. Martin Pearce deserts Rehana. The English desert a country which it promised to protect. Amin deserted the other Rehana. And, of course, most important of all, Rachid has deserted the country and culture that nurtured him. He settles in to an academic life in England, and as the years go by he becomes more and more alienated from his family and its beliefs. He almost becomes an Englishman.

It would be easy to suggest that in this novel Abdulrazac Gurnah is considering his own situation – Tanzanian by origin, British academic by choice – and offering a critique of his status, cut off from his roots and assimilated into European norms. Yet it is more than that, for it is as much about the pain of leaving a certain culture, even if one does not wish to return to it. At one point, Rachid refers to Othello, and wonders if love between different ethnicities is always awkward.

There are certainly some sharp critiques of colonialism in this novel. In the 1899 section of the story, there is a British official who treats Rehana’s family with great injustice because he refuses to believe that they are telling the truth over a matter of theft as their very ethnicity means they can’t be telling the truth. When Rachid is first introduced to an English university, he and other “foreign” students are welcomed with a very patronising speech  where the speaker tries to ingratiate  them as “jolly good fellows”. But it is not colonialism that drives this novel. It is that sense of loss. That sense of desertion.

Something Thoughtful

  Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

                                   GOODBYE KEVIN IRELAND 

Kevin Ireland died in the week I am writing this.

I’m not going to pretend that I knew Kevin Ireland, who was decades older than me and of a different generation. I met him only twice and that was very briefly in both cases, one being when a publisher introduced me to him and he grunted politely, shook my hand with a leathery grip and moved on. I once knew quite well a woman who claimed to have had an affair with him, but I haven’t seen her for years. So I know him only by his work, which might be the best way to judge any author.

 To remind you of his curriculum vitae, [which I’ve filched from various obituaries] Kevin Jowsey was born in July 1933 in the Auckland suburb Mt. Albert, whence his family moved to the North Shore when he was a kid. He died in May 2023, just two months before his 90th birthday. He adopted the name Ireland when he was a young adult. Kevin Ireland was a prolific poet, producing nearly 20 books of poetry. Poetry was his strongest suit, but in his later years, when he was already in his 60s, he took up prose. He wrote a collection of short-stories, six novels and two memoirs. As is often noted, he left New Zealand for 25 years, working mainly in England, but he always wrote of New Zealand.  He married a number of times and had some children.

When I reviewed on this blog his 2022 collection Just Like That, I remarked: “In terms of current prosody, Kevin Ireland is a heretic. He insists on writing in neat, orderly stanzas, four or five lines per stanza by preference, instead of letting his words dribble haphazardly down the page. He knows there is a difference between prose and poetry. If he’s polemical he’s polemical discreetly and does not beat a big drum. Worst of all (and this is the man’s greatest sin) he does not write in a cryptic code decipherable only by a small clique. Kevin Ireland makes his meaning clear. Obviously the man has not been to an approved writing school. He should therefore be condemned and burnt at the stake…. Translation – Ireland writes lucidly, clearly and understandably. The nerve of the man!” [Sarcastic little bugger aren’t I?]

I appreciated the clarity and forthrightness of his poetry, a praise which I could also give to much of the poetry of his long-time friend C. K. Stead. But I don’t want go overboard about this. Often I found a strain of blokey-ness in Ireland’s work which was not for me, especially in poems where he says he likes more than anything a red wine and a good steak.  In the 1950s and after his return to New Zealand, he was very much part of the informal North Shore group centred on Frank Sargeson. It was mainly a blokey group (save for some passing-through people like Janet Frame) and in retrospect it was a group flaunting macho ideas which, in the case of Sargeson, often meant misogyny. At the time, Ireland and his mates would have seen themselves as rebels against conformist Kiwi suburban-ism, but much of what was produced then now reads very differently, and the rebels more churlish than rebellious.

All of which is saying that times change and fashions change and a reasonable perspective would allow us to admit that in literature, much of what is now lauded will inevitably look tattered, dated and simply wrong in 50 years’ time.

In a way though, I admire Kevin Ireland for holding to his chosen world-view. There is a very good poem in the collection Just Like That called “Old military families” in which he refers to forebears who fought in the Boer War and other wars for the British Empire.  He remarks “I’m old and tired of it all, and now / feel only the greatest love and respect / for the regiments of them. Whatever they got up to / and wherever they went, they were people / of their times. I can’t impose a distant right / or wrong on them, for history does that job / with its sure inconsistencies. It’s a cruel record / not so much for what it tells us of the things / we did, or failed to do, but for the changing ways / we read it. The past has altered so much / since I was a boy that it cannot help but seem / a dangerous place. Best to go there unafraid / and choose to face the ancestors of us all.”

In an age when we are called upon to feel guilty for things that happened long before we existed, this is a courageous statement. And even if I’m not on board with all Kevin Ireland’s world-view, I applaud him for sticking to his guns.

Monday, May 15, 2023

Something New

We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.  

A BLOODY DIFFICULT SUBJECT – Ruth Ross, te Tiriti o Waitangi and the Making of History” by Bain Attwood (Auckland University Press, hardback $NZ59:99)

            One of the subtitles of Professor Bain Attwood’s A Bloody Difficult Subject is “the Making of History”. This might confuse some readers. When we hear of something “making history” we assume it is referring to an event that is regarded as momentous and likely to be remembered in ages to come. But in this case “the making of history” refers to the way historians create and shape their versions of history after the event. In other words, it refers to historiography. And the historiography here examined is the historiography of the Treaty of Waitangi. Amazing as it now seems, right up to the late 1950s there were very few professional historians in New Zealand who took an interest in New Zealand history, and virtually none who saw the Treaty of Waitangi as anything other than an honourable document made with the best of intentions by British officials and ensuring harmony between Maori and Pakeha. The first person to challenge systematically this assumption was Ruth Ross (1920-1982), and for this reason it is Ruth Ross who takes up so much of A Bloody Difficult Subject  - her term for how difficult it was to pin down the real meaning and purpose of the Treaty.

            Born Ruth Guscott in Whanganui, she went to Victoria University College and was much influenced by J.C.Beaglehole, even if, like his colleagues, he saw New Zealand in terms of its British connections. Ruth Guscott was a good student, but didn’t complete the last part of her degree and became a research assistant in the Historical Branch. She married George Burnard, but her young husband died of a congenital disease in the first year of their marriage. She faltered as a budding historian and took up a menial filing job. She met Ian Ross, ten years her senior, who had just come back from the war. They married, moved to Auckland, and soon had two sons. She was thenceforth Ruth Ross. She was also, from this point on, tied to domestic life running a household and raising the two boys.

Beaglehole had directed her into examining the “Facsimiles” of the Treaty of Waitangi and related documents, but when she settled in Auckland she turned to young Keith Sinclair for advice. Her research led her to believe that the Maori-language version of the Treaty was the only legitimate version and she consulted Maori elders on this point. She also came to believe that the missionary Henry Williams and his son, who wrote the Maori version of the Treaty, had done a botched job, especially when they used the term kawanatanga (“governorship”), a term that she believed was made up by the missionaries. The term rangatiratanga would have been more appropriate. In her early stages of research, she referred to the Treaty as “this so-called treaty” and said it could never stand up as international law.

In 1950, she presented to the Victorian Historical Association a paper in which she posited (as Bain Attwood preface warns us) “That the Treaty was hastily and inexpertly drafted; that the English text was badly translated into te reo Maori; that the Treaty was so ambiguous and contradictory that it was taken to mean whatever anyone wanted it to mean; and that it could never provide the basis for any legal change that would give the help Maori desperately needed.” (p.xii) Further, in her perspective, “Hobson and the British government thought the Maori text meant the same as the English text and they regarded it as merely one of several devices to attach New Zealand to the British Crown  - and not a legally binding one at that . In keeping with this point, she argued that the Treaty meetings were probably staged for the sake of appearances. She observed that Hobson did not wait for all of them to take place before he issued his proclamation in May 1840 declaring British sovereignty over the whole of New Zealand, and she pointed out that while he had claimed the North Island by virtue of cession, he had simply claimed the southern islands on the grounds of the legal doctrine of discovery.” (p.21) Her paper was largely ignored by historians. Indeed so negative was the response of her audience that she became very sceptical of academic historians.

In 1953 she started working for School Publications and was able to write historical fictions for their bulletins, even if she was also preparing a bulletin on the Treaty of Waitangi. By this stage she and her husband had moved from Auckland to Motukiore on the Hokianga Harbour, where Ian Ross taught in a Maori school. There she came to know very well the Maori elders of the region, and they discussed with her not only local law but their own views of the Treaty of Waitangi. This reinforced her view that Maori in 1840 had understood the Treaty to mean that they retained possession of their land, with British officials being concerned only with ensuring the good behaviour of Pakeha settlers. Her bulletin on the Treaty was finally prepared in 1956 and she had the good fortune to have a helpful editor in James K. Baxter. The Maori of Hokianga to whom she showed her draft were very impressed, but she got into an intense quarrel with School Publications when they wanted to abridge it. At this point it’s worth noting (as Bain Attwood does) that sometimes Ruth Ross could be her own worst enemy. She had a habit of quarrelling with people who either challenged her findings or wanted to modify them. She was also aware, as a mother raising children, that she did not always have the time to pursue her historical studies as academic historians had. I must also add my astonishment that the bulletin on the Treaty which Ross wrote for primary schools was 12,000 words long. How many young children then (or now) would be able to read a bulletin 12,000 words long?... or was the bulletin presented to children by having a teacher reading it out loud to them?

From 1958 onwards, Ross expanded her views on the Treaty and continued her research. By the late 1960s there was more pressure from Maori to have the Treaty ratified as law. When Ross gave a seminar on the Treaty in Wellington, pointing out its many flaws, the misleading terms that Henry Williams had used in the text, and the fact that not all rangatira had signed it, Maori listeners were very hostile to what she said. Her finding did not fit their agenda. At about the same time, Ross was irked that the budding professional historian Judith Binney had referred to Ross as an “amateur”, even though Binney took material from an article by Ross and used it without adequate acknowledgement.

It was in 1971 that Ross’s most influential paper was accepted by the New Zealand Journal of History and published in 1972. Bain Attwood notes: “For some time now, Ross’s findings have become so familiar that it is difficult to appreciate how startlingly original they were when they finally saw the light of day in 1972, nearly twenty years after she had first formulated them. No one previously had taken the Maori text as seriously as she had or claimed that it differed from the official English texts in so many important respects. No one had previously argued so strongly that the Treaty was ambiguous and contradictory and so the parties to it were uncertain and divided about its meaning. No one had published such a ferocious assault on the myth of the Treaty as a sacred covenant and the Maori Magna Carta.” (p.87)

From 1972 onwards, Ross’s article was widely accepted by academic historians. They began to view the Treaty in her terms. Only then did her interpretation of the Treaty become known to the general public and articles in newspapers by Tony Simpson and Ranginui Walker. They embraced Ross’s idea that the Maori-language version of the Treaty should be regarded as the real Treaty, flawed though its language was. Lawyers began to argue either against or for the idea that the Treaty really was a valid treaty. But, under pressure, it was gradually agreed that both versions of the Treaty (Maori and Pakeha) had to be taken into account. And in 1975, the Waitangi Tribunal was set up. At about the same time, the younger historian Claudia Orange acknowledged her debt to Ruth Ross as she began her own work on the Treaty; but while Orange agreed that the Treaty was as poorly devised as Ross had said, Orange was more interested in how Maori understood the Treaty at the time.

The time came when it was necessary for the Treaty to become essential for policy and hence, though Ross’s findings had never been refuted,  there emerged the necessary myth of a mutually-understood Treaty. Maori activists who had once proclaimed “The Treaty is a Fraud” now began to say “Honour the Treaty” as they pushed for it to be ratified and written into law. The Treaty was now accepted with “pious respect” (p.115) and as a solemn contract. This was the view promoted especially by Eddie Durie when he led the Waitangi Tribunal. The tribunal accepted Ross’s minor argument – that the Maori text of the Treaty was the Treaty – but ignored Ross’s much-quoted major argument, that the Treaty was “hastily and inexpertly drawn up, ambiguous and contradictory in content, chaotic in execution”. In effect, the Waitangi Tribunal needed to have the Treaty represented as an authoritative document in order to facilitate what they wanted it to mean – a sacred contract. They began to speak of a nebulous wairua (“spirit”) of the Treaty rather than considering the historical reality in which the Treaty was devised.

When contentious matters about Maori land and ownership came to the Court of Appeal, says Bain Attwood, “In essence, what the Court of Appeal did was in line with the way the common law usually works. It brought down a judgement that created precise legal rights but made them appear as though they had been discovered in the agreement of 1840. This would have baffled Ross in one sense, given the difficulty she had comprehending the language of lawyers, but it would have struck her as familiar in another, given that she had believed that the Treaty meant to each New Zealander whatever they wanted it to mean.” (p.127)

As Bain Attwood acknowledges, Claudia Orange gradually became accepted as the historian of the Treaty of Waitangi, especially when her book The Treaty of Waitangi was published. Attwood rather waspishly notes (a.) that Orange managed to “forget” how much her thesis [before it was modified as a book] drew upon Ross’s work; and (b.) that Orange was now working in an environment where the Treaty had to be presented as an honourable agreement and the foundation of laws that were now being coined. Hence, says Attwood, in her published book Orange suppressed negative terms about the Treaty that she had used in her thesis [see p.129 for these statements].

When Orange justified the worth of the Treaty, Attwood says :  This argument required a historical account that had several elements that differed from Ross’s. While it could account for some degree of confusion in the making of the Treaty, it had to represent that agreement as sufficiently coherent, rather than fundamentally ambiguous and contradictory, so that both parties could be said to have a mutual understanding of its terms and the Treaty could be thereby regarded as a binding contract. It also had to figure the Crown as a body that had generally acted in an honourable manner at the time the Treaty was made.” (p.130) In other words, it had to present the Treaty in terms that fitted the new narrative as accepted by the Waitangi Tribunal.

From this point on, A Bloody Difficult Subject moves away from the life and work of Ruth Ross and considers how different  historians and lawyers have subsequently interpreted the Treaty. Paul McHugh argued for the legitimacy of the Treaty as, in a very different way, did Keith Sorrenson. Andrew Sharp saw current ideas of the Treaty as serving present interests. “It was evident that the Tribunal’s reconstructions of the past were anachronistic; that it was attributing to the past concepts and categories that could never have existed at that time.” (p.145) Alan Ward, deeply concerned about the relativism of post-modernism, warned that having historians on the Tribunal corrupted historians as they often had to verify claims, acting as advocates rather than as impartial historians. [Nevertheless, as Bain Attwood notes, Alan Ward was later happy to write a three-volume “juridical history” of the Trbunal.] Paul McHugh, returning to the debate, saw juridical history as a “Whig” enterprise – that it, seeing the past only for present purposes; seeing the past only inasmuch as it led to present attitudes and norms. W.H.Oliver made a similar argument. The Tribunal was assuming there had been an equitable partnership which had been violated… but this was not history. From Britain, J.C.A. Pocock presented a convoluted argument advocating both Maori and British versions of the Treaty as being in conversation with each other. Michael Belgrave attempted to see the Tribunal’s work as based on history, though he was sceptical about the Treaty itself.

At this point, Attwood deals with what he calls “revisionist history”. D.F.McKenzie’s view was that the Treaty was essentially an oral Treaty as the Maori in 1840 regarded the verbal discussion as the Treaty, rather than the written document which some of them signed. Lyndsay Head was the first to mount a head-on critique of Ruth Ross’s work. She argued that, far from being incompetent, Henry Williams was very well-versed in the Maori language and that the terms used in the [Maori] Treaty were fully understood. She notes that “kawanatanga”, the term Ruth Ross had criticised as an unknown neologism, was a term familiar to Maori as it was already being used in the Maori translation of Bible before the Treaty was written. Lyndsay Head further argued that Maori in 1840 were interested in becoming “modern” in the sense of wanting to embrace British forms of governance and she suggested that Ross was relying on the Maori language as it had become rather than the language as it was in 1840. Michael Belgrave also argued that the Treaty was really about the British promise of “protection” and with the Maori hoping to be given a role in the British Empire – in other words, the Treaty was a thing of the moment dealing with immediate issues and not intended for future purposes.

Having examined the work of these and other historians, Bain Attwood turns to “post-foundational” history, viz. history that no longer accepts the Treaty as the foundational document that shaped the whole of New Zealand. He notes that the Treaty was of its time, and dealt primarily with the far north of the country, where Maori were accustomed to Pakeha. He also notes that one of the chief difficulties in accounting for the Treaty of Waitangi is the minimal accounts we have of how it was accepted by Maori at the time: “Many historians have assumed or even asserted that the record of the Treaty meetings is much better than it is (though Ross cautioned against this) and they have projected their findings about one of the areas – the far north – in which the indigenous people had become most familiar with European newcomers onto areas where they had barely met them. They have also played down the difficulties that arise because all the written record of these meetings were created by British or Pakeha players rather than Maori, and the longest account (Colenso’s) was only produced many years later.” (p.194)

Giving his last chapter the title “The Advantages and Disadvantages of History”, Attwood gives a long argument for using the Treaty in the betterment of society and fixing grievances… but always being aware that appeals to the Treaty are based on much historical uncertainty.

He also offers a stern warning: “…historians must try to ensure that they do not cross over the razor-thin line that separates historical scholarship from political advocacy. Doing this requires self-control (though not self-immolation) so that they are both able and willing to abandon wishful thinking, accept findings that do not serve the cause they support, and discard pleasing interpretations that do not pass elementary tests of logic and evidence. This would mean, for example, that New Zealand historians would not assert, as several have done in recent years, that in 1840 some of the British players who were party to drawing up the Treaty understood it as an agreement in which the sovereignty of the chiefs had been guaranteed in a comprehensive sense. Nor would any historian argue that Maori never knowingly engaged in transfers of land that they knew amounted to sales, as several historians have done, or that the British Crown undertook to protect Maori in the possession of all their lands, as most historians have done.” (p.203)

            What, more than anything, do I take away from this book?

First and foremost, that the Treaty of Waitangi has been fetishized and mythologised in order to fit with currently-acceptable ideologies and beliefs. I do not question the necessity for the Waitangi Tribunal.  It is important that Maori grievances are addressed, that land stolen from iwi be returned or some other form of compensation be found, and that conflicts be settled. But to claim that these actions are based on the (historical) Treaty of Waitangi is simply untrue. Invoking the nebulous “spirit” of the Treaty, no matter how well-meaning and useful this may be, is avoiding the reality of what the Treaty was in 1840. Claiming that the Treaty of Waitangi was a mutual agreement fully understood in the same way by both Maori and Pakeha, is myth… but perhaps it could be called a necessary myth, now contributing to the general wellbeing of New Zealand.

Second, this book nowhere suggests that Ruth Ross’s ground-breaking research and articles were the last word on the Treaty. In the 50-plus years since her most influential essay was published, many historians have credibly refuted or challenged some of her conclusions. Nevertheless, this book honours her for being the first to open the can of worms, to really question the nature of the Treaty, point out its flaws and shortcomings, and puncture the unrealistic notion of the Treaty as “the Maori Magna Carta”. Before she went to work, it was more-or-less taken for granted that the Treaty was a nice, civil agreement showing the best of British law and ushering in the “best race relations in the world”. In this book, Ross is rightly being honoured as the pioneer who was the first to give real and penetrating scrutiny to the Treaty, warts and all.

Personal Footnote: When I was preparing my doctorate in history in the History Department of the University of Auckland, my chief supervisor was the late Professor Hugh Laracy. (My deputy supervisor was Professor Linda Bryder. They were both excellent supervisors and good company.) Often Prof. Laracy would invoke the name of Ruth Ross, who had already died. He regarded her as the model of original research. Apparently Laracy and Ross got on very well together – in fact he was one of the few academics Ross never quarrelled with and apparently one of the few academic historians who took her work seriously. I’m pleased to see that there is a passing reference to Laracy on p.109 of Attwood’s book.  

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.       

AT NIGHT ALL BLOOD IS BLACK” by David Diop (First published in French in 2018 with the title “FRERE D’AME” [Soul Brother]. English translation by Anne Moschovakis published 2020); “THE LAST GIFT” by Abdulrazac Gurnah (first published 2011)

            Africa is a huge continent which now produces many writers who have reached international audiences. So I do often feel daunted by my ignorance of African literature. On this blog I have sometimes reviewed books about Africa written by Europeans. But only once have I reviewed on this blog a book by an African, namely Chinua Achebe’s classic Things Fall Apart, and that was written way back in 1958. So I decided to educate myself a bit by reading two more recent works by distinguished African novelists. One writes in French. The other writes in English.

            The Francophone first. David Diop was born in Paris of Senegalese parents and he grew up in Senegal. He is now a professor in a French university, specialising in two subjects: classical French literature and European representations of Africa. Frere d’Ame [Soul Brother] is the more relevant title for his novel, as it concerns, among other things, the strong bonding of two men and the complete disorientation of one when the other dies. Perhaps the Anglophone translator thought Soul Brother sounded too like an African-American phrase, so translator (or publisher) chose to re-name it At Night All Blood is Black, a passing phrase which does occur in the novel.

Some context. The story is set in the First World War, when the French army was hard pressed and France decided to recruit (or dragoon) as many soldiers as possible from France’s African colonies, including Senegal. On the front line, in the trenches, are Senegalese soldiers, suffering frequent bombardments but admired by the French top brass for their sheer ferocity in battle. These African soldiers carry both rifles and machetes when they charge or crawl across no-man’s-land, ready to hack German soldiers apart as often as they shoot them.

Frere d’Ame is narrated throughout by the Senegalese soldier Alfa Ndiaye. From the very first page we are aware that he is suffering long-term trauma. His best friend who came from the same village as he, Mademba Diop, has been mortally wounded by an exploding shell. His guts are hanging out, he is suffering a long, painful death and he repeatedly begs Alfa Ndiaye to shoot him quickly and put him out of his misery. But Alfa Ndiaye cannot bring himself to kill his frere d’ame and Mademba Diop dies in drawn-out agony. This is the trigger that sends Alfa Ndiaye spiralling down through guilt, then grandiose fantasy about himself and ultimately into complete, unhinged madness. In that sense the novel is about a man psychologically crushed and destroyed.

Alfa Ndiaye is already a killer. Now, in a sort of revenge on white people, he becomes even more savage. He not only kills and mutilates German soldiers, but he slices off their hands and takes them back to the French lines as trophies. At first he is admired for this, but gradually the African soldiers come to fear him as a sort sorcerer for the way he seems invulnerable and always comes back alive. And even the French officers who once praised him for his courage, and suggested he could win the Croix de Guerre, are becoming queasy about his methods. Alfa Ndiaye himself comes to believe he is a demi-god; a force of nature.

Alfa Ndiaye’s narration is deliberately repetitive. Again and again he comes back to the slow death of Mademba Diop, an obsession like an insistent drum being sounded. Hammered into us is the understanding that this is the event that changed him. Again and again he introduces events by saying “God’s truth”. Referring to the Germans facing them, he calls them “the enemy of the other side”, which may subtly suggest that he sees “enemies on this side” as well. Only one French soldier actually befriends him, Jean-Baptiste; but Jean-Baptiste goes crazy in battle and is killed, making Alfa Ndiaye even more unhinged. He becomes critical of the French officers who lead them, especially their Captain Armand.

He declares: “What I think is that people don’t want me to think. The unthinkable is what’s hidden in the captain’s words. The captain’s France needs for us to play the savage when it suits them. They need for us to be savage because the enemy is afraid of our machetes… The captain’s France needs our savagery, and because we are obedient, myself and the others, we play the savage. We slash the enemy’s flesh, we maim, we decapitate, we disembowel… the only difference between me [and other Senegalese soldiers] is that I became savage intentionally.” (Chapter 3) Later he describes the officer: “Captain Armand is a small man with matching black eyes drowning in continuous rage. His matching black eyes are full of hate for anything that isn’t war. For the captain life is war … The captain indulges war shamelessly. He showers war with presents, he spoils her with countless soldiers’ lives. The captain is a devourer of souls. I know, I understand that Captain Armand was a demm [demon] , who needed his wife, war, to survive…” (Chapter 13)

Obviously one major thrust of this novel is a critique of the misuse and corruption of Africans by their colonial masters. But, anti-colonial though Frere d’Ame may be, David Diop nowhere suggests that traditional Senegalese life was perfect. As Alfa Ndiaye succumbs to paranoia and madness, a sympathetic French psychiatrist, Dr. Francois, tries to heal him by getting him to draw pictures of home. This sends Alfa Ndiaye into thinking of the good things there, but also the bad – the woman he wanted to marry but who was denied him by tribal codes; the chieftain who was ready to sell out his followers by accepting the French idea of raising cash crops rather than the crops the community relied on; the regular raids by Moors looking for slaves. No people is devoid of sin and fault. As for Alfa Ndiaye, his final actions in this novel are unforgivable. Not just madness, but pure evil has clawed into him.

Interesting to note that in 2018 Frere d’Ame was the winner of the Prix Goncourt des Lyceens – a junior branch of the Prix Goncourt judged by a panel of senior students in French high-schools. And in 2020, the English-language translation At Night All Blood is Black won the Booker International Award.

  *.  *.  *.  *. *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *

A few years later, in 2021, Abdulrazak Gurnah won an even more prestigious award - the Nobel Prize for Literature.  There are some similarities shared by Abdulrazak Gurnah and David Diop. Not only were both African-born, but both eventually made careers in European universities. However, while David Diop is a French-speaking Senegalese, Abdulrazak Gurnah (whose first language was Swahili) is an English-speaking Tanzanian of Arab descent. He fled from Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania) in 1968, when he was twenty and Zanzibar was going through a violent revolution. He first taught English and post-colonial literature at a university in Nigeria, and then moved to England where he became a professor at the University of Kent. Abdulrazak Gurnah, so Wikipedia tells me, is a prolific author, having written eleven novels, seven collections of short stories, and many essays of literary criticism. I chose to read one of his less-touted novels, The Last Gift (published 2011).

The Last Gift is set largely in England. Maryam and her much-older husband Abbas live quietly in Norwich. They have two adult children, son Jamal and daughter Hanna. Maryam knows nothing about her ancestry as she was literally a foundling who was passed through a number of unsatisfactory carers before she was adopted by the Mauritian woman Ferooz and her Indian husband Vijay. Maryam’s own ethnicity is unsure. As for Maryam’s husband Abbas, he has never spoken to either wife or children about his own specific origins, only vaguely saying that he came from East Africa. When Maryam first met him and fell in love with him, she knew him – according to his own definition of himself – as a wandering sailor who had seen much of the world. Hanna and Jamal are deprived of any sense of ancestry and forebears, and as they mature into young adulthood, they become more inquisitive. What is played out here is the loss of an essential part of identity. Who are we when we do not know who our people are? Yet at the same time, Hanna and Jamal are (almost) thoroughly British. They have never lived in any country but England, and another stream of ideas has to do with their assimilation.

The crisis which frames the novel comes when Abbas, even though he is only in his early 60s, has a “diabetic crisis”, causing a kind of stroke which makes him bedridden and barely capable of speaking. But in this state, his mind turns back to his early childhood and young manhood in Africa, which he has never disclosed to wife or children. And gradually we learn of the drastic circumstances that made him flee from his country of origin. Given that his backstory is unfolded bit-by-bit through the novel, I will not go into the details. But at the very least I can say that the novel has much to do with the many things that can force somebody to flee from home – refugees become refugees for many and various reasons. Bit-by-bit, too, we learn why Maryam ran away from her foster-parents, Ferooz and Vijay, when she was young; and why she chose never to contact them again.


Abdulrazak Gurnah is obviously aware of the pockets of racial prejudice that there are in England, but they are not a major theme in the novel. There’s an unpleasant episode where an Anglo shopkeeper clearly resents selling something to Jamal because of the colour of Jamal’s skin. There’s a very minor subplot about Jamal and his Italian girlfriend befriending and protecting a man of a minor ethnicity, who is being harassed by local teenage Anglo thugs. Most excruciating are the scenes in which Hanna visits the home of her English boyfriend Nick. Nick’s family are rural, Anglican (uncle the local vicar) and apparently welcoming Hannah courteously. But as Nick’s father – a former colonial official – gets further into table-talk, his tone becomes unbearably condescending to Hanna. However, while the faults of England are there to see, Abdulrazak Gurnah does not idealise the country from which Abbas came – ruled by tight codes, tribal, making it difficult for young people to get a good education. As in David Diop’s Frere d’Ame, it is made clear that no people is devoid of sin and fault.

More important to the novel are the ways the younger generation, Hanna and Jamal, are growing away from their parent’s culture. The fact is, both these younger people are working their way into the middle classes. At one point “Abbas nodded slowly and turned back to the muted television, which was showing a nature programme. He too had learned to retreat from Hanna, who had once been so dear to his life. She turned against him after she went to university, not with anger or rudeness, not at first, but with sullen and withdrawn resistance.” (pp.81-82). At another point, Maryam is surprised and a little shocked that Hanna’s boyfriend Nick is making dinner for her. Surely it is women’s work to prepare dinner? Incidentally, apparently as part of the assimilation process, Hanna decides to change her name to Anna.

In this novel, then, we have many ideas presented and discussed. And in a very humane way. The riddle of Abbas’s origins are worked out; and the ancestry of Maryam is more-or-less worked out. This is satisfying to the reader, but even more it confirms the importance of genealogy.