The Lieutenant of Kouta – a #BTBA2018 flashlight

I’ve learned that there are a lot of reasons why a book doesn’t make it onto a long list. Mostly it’s about the numbers… there are hundreds of books and a limited number of opportunities to recognize them. And so, while I am proud of having contributed to this year’s Best Translated Book Award Long List, and on the whole I think it’s excellent, I still have an entire stack of books which I feel deserve honorable mentions at the very least.

Over the next few weeks I’d like to talk about the novels I read from 2017 that – for a huge variety of reasons, all of which are so benign as to be entirely uninteresting – didn’t make it onto this year’s long list.  These are books I enjoyed and wanted to shine my little flashlight on.


The Lieutenant of Kouta is the first in a trilogy of books by the Malian writer Massa Makan Diabaté to be translated into English. Written in 1979, and set in a fictionalized version of the author’s hometown of Kita, it follows the adventures/journey of one Lieutenant Siriman Keita, a retired tirailleur sénégalais (the name taken by members of the black African infantry of the French Army) who returns to Kouta after his years of service to France. Once home he builds an expensive house (square, like those he saw on the continent) and – puffed up on his own importance, surrounded by hangers-on and overly impressed with the French colonial government, – he settles down to criticize, annoy and unintentionally entertain the locals. Initially, Siriman Keita does not make himself beloved to his neighbors. Just the opposite: he rebuffs the overtures of the local imam and openly criticizes the local customs. His pride gets him into some embarrassing, and ultimately humbling, situations. The tone of his exploits veer mostly towards slapstick, like the time he falls from his horse while trying to impress a young woman’s family.

Emboldened by the applause, at the limit of his self-control, he made his horse rear until it was almost vertical; then he ordered it to prostrate itself before his future in-laws. The beast bent its knees; the cries of admiration rose, and the band resumed, even more beautifully. Surprised, the horse reared, launching its rider into a mud-filled ditch. The crowd gathered around the lieutenant in a circle to block him from sight. The rumor spread throughout the village; his image was tarnished.

“It looks like he pooped his pants, like a baby,” some said. The more merciful maintained that he had only pissed himself…

The Lieutenant of Kouta gets high marks just for its entertainment value. It’s really funny. Diabaté’s prose style has a folksy charm reminiscent of Eudora Welty’s rowdier tales, like Losing Battles and Why I Live at the P.O.  His characters also have a lot in common with one of John Steinbeck’s down-on-their-luck heroes. Both writers concerned themselves with the situation of disenfranchised men struggling, through a mix of humor and pathos, to retain their dignity in rapidly changing worlds. Steinbeck once wrote “I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature”, which makes me think he would have approved of Diabeté’s work… if it’d been available in English during his lifetime. Because despite being from different continents and very different cultural backgrounds, these three writers were contemporaries. And once you realize that simple fact, the overlap in their work is obvious.

Massa Makan Diabaté (1938-1988) was descended from a family of griots, with deep roots in Mali, Africa. Griots were oral historians, storytellers, spreaders of news and gossip, entertainers and the advisers to kings.  Their job was to preserve and disseminate important community information in the absence of the written word.  Diabaté was trained by his two uncles, both renowned griots. His life’s work would be to keep the griot tradition relevant in 20th century society. Shane Auerbach’s and David Yost’s vibrant translation celebrates that history by preserving the sense that this novel comes out of an oral, storytelling tradition.  Most of the lieutenant’s escapades are related to us as anecdotes, casual gossip passed between neighbors.

The narrative structure is fairly standard, and for some readers, those who might be over modernism and need a break from experimental prose, the no frills approach to character and plot can be something of a relief. It’s the local nature of the subject matter which elevates it, coming at us from an unusual point of view – that of the crowd. In the waning days of colonialism returning soldiers, receiving government pensions and indoctrinated with military discipline, served as unofficial extensions of the colonial administration. (Mali didn’t gain independence until 1960.) Lieutenant Siriman Keita is no exception, with his susceptibility to flattery and misplaced allegiance to France. But hints are dropped early on that there is more to this character.  He possesses a kind heart. The novel opens with laughter as we (along with a group of villagers) witness the lieutenant catch a local boy stealing his eggs. The uncowed child, Famakan, is paraded through the streets, responding to the Lieutenant’s constant berating and threats of dire punishments with his own muttered asides. The two reach a bridge and the boy, knowing he will come out of it unharmed, says that for his punishment he chooses to be thrown over the side. Siriman, not wanting to do Famakan actual harm, believes this too harsh. But Famakan insists. “He’s suicidal,” the lieutenant shouted. ‘“He chose for me to throw him from a bridge. Let none accuse me of murder!”’ A struggle ensues as the lieutenant tries to restrain/dissuade Famakan. The boy manages to push his captor headfirst into the mud below and “To disguise his ruse, the boy dove in after him, to the applause, shouts, and laughter of the audience.” Ever aware of his dignity, Siriman shouts to the spectators, “Mark my words… Whoever tells this story will have to pay twenty francs! Ten francs will go to me, and ten will go to Famakan.”

The fact that he is willing to split the fine so that the boy benefits reflects well on him. Later the lieutenant will adopt Famakan and reenacting their first, inauspicious meeting will become a game between them. One designed to make the boy smile and laugh. Diabaté’s secret sauce is allowing his character to evolve, balancing the man’s pomposity with an almost tragic integrity. Eventually – after several comedic missteps which serve to lighten what is ultimately a tale about one man’s disillusionment with colonialism – the lieutenant’s better nature will win out and his transformation into an entirely sympathetic character will be complete. Perhaps even into a heroic one, in that way that introspection in old age can sometimes become heroic. At the end, I was surprisingly moved by The Lieutenant of Kouta journey.

 

Title: The Lieutenant of Kouta

Author:  Massa Makan Diabate

Translator: Shane Auerbach & David Yost

Publisher: Michigan State University Press, 2017

100 Pages: One Day I Will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina

The series 100 Pages was started to highlight those books I’ve put aside after 100 pages – not due to any fault of the author or the quality of the writing, but because ultimately they were not to my taste.  100 Pages is a way to recommend deserving books that I know BookSexy Review readers will be interested in, even when I am not.

One Day I Will Write About This Place is a memoir by author Binyavanga Wainaina.  Writing in the first person present tense, Wainaina takes the reader through his Kenyan childhood in the 80’s, college in South Africa in the 90’s, and his eventual immigration to the United States in the first decade of the 21st Century.  More than the typical coming of age story – the book reminded me of Eudora Welty’s autobiography One Writer’s Beginnings.  Binyavanga Wainaina is telling a very specific story which focuses on his development as a writer.  He tells it in full-throttle, turn-the-spigot-on-and-let-it-rip stream of consciousness style.

“Stream” may even be too tame a word.  Wainaina has unleashed a river of memories, impressions and emotions.  The disorganization of his thought process – which he wrestles and maneuvers into the context of his life and the semblance of a plot – feels unusually authentic.  His words and ideas are not being arranged with an eye for poetry or artful composition.  The writing between these covers reads like raw, unedited data.  And I mean that in the best possible sense.  There’s a cognizance here that I feel is missing from many memoirs.

And Binyavanga Wainaina stays true to his GRANTA article.  The Kenyans he describes do not live in grass huts.  They are, in fact, Kenyans in the sense that a New Yorker is from New York.  There is a multi-cultural aspect to his childhood.  As he says in the article, “Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people…” and you feel that when reading One Day I Will Write About This Place.  His mother was born in Uganda and owns a beauty salon. She “speaks Kinyarwanda (Bufumbria), Luganda, English, and Kiswalhili.”  His father is Kenyan, a Gikuyu and is the Managing Director of the Pyrethrum Board of Kenya.  He too speaks multiple languages – Gikuyu, Kiswahili and English.  They are committed to seeing their country prosper.  Young Binyavanga is aware of the politics happening around him, but larger events take place on the periphery of his child’s world.

The most scenic description I came across in the 109 pages I’d read was of a corrugated roofed village that young Wainaina visits with his father to find a mechanical part.  It is located in the poorest section of the city, not the section where his family lives.  Wainaina is careful to differentiate.

…It is lunchtime, and women are gathered around huge pots cut out of old oil drums; beans and maize are boiling, men queuing for a two-shilling lunch.  Screaming, shouting, ladles clashing hard on enamel plates.  Now it is the smell of boiling suds of beans.

The grass has been beaten down to nothing by feet over many years in this large patch of ground of banging.  Somewhere, not far from here, an open-air church service is taking place: loudspeakers and shouts and screams.

You would not believe that not five hundred meters from here are roads and shops, and skyscrapers and cool restaurants that are playing the music of noiseless elevators, and serving the food of quiet electric mixers and plastic fridge containers.  Burgers and coke.  Pizza.

My problem finishing One Day I Will Write About This Place have more to do with my personal likes and dislikes than a weakness in the author’s story.  First person present is my least favorite narrative tense.  The author is not just asking me to immerse myself in his book, but to accept that I am present as the events occur.  It’s always felt gimmicky and I’ve difficulty moving past it.  Also, I generally don’t like memoirs.

But I can recognize when a book is well written and important.  Binyavanga Wainaina has given the reader something that he recognizes as all too rare:  an honest representation of modern Africa.  A place much more familiar (and less romantic) than that we in the West imagine it to be.

Publisher:  Graywolf Press, Minneapolis (2011)
ISBN:  978 1 55597 591 3

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How to Write About Africa

My review of Binyavanga Wainaina’s memoir, Someday I Will Write About This Place, should be up this week. In the meantime, I thought you might be interested in reading his 2005 article from GRANTA entitled How to Write About Africa.  Below is a small excerpt.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.

I’d print the whole thing, but GRANTA would probably come after me.  So, follow the link, then come back and tell me what you think.

Not Untrue & Not Unkind by Ed O’Loughlin (Advance Review Copy)

I suppose the plot of Not Untrue & Not Unkind went sideways for me at the end of chapter 3, when it suddenly became something unexpected.  Zaire is falling apart. The tight-knit band of journalists at the center of the story head in the direction of the abandoned presidential villa in search of some “bang-bang” (cant for “action” or “fighting”).  At least that is what we’re led to believe… until they reach the palace and begin looting for souvenirs.  “You do realize  that by rights this stuff belongs to the people of Zaire?” one says as she stuffs perfume flasks into a pillowcase.   “It’s the thing to do,” answers the story’s narrator.  “It’s a story to tell afterwards.”

The passage that followed had me hooked.

Outside the squall had passed but a wet wind was spilling from the highlands.  A half-dozen soldiers in Kagame-brand wellingtons were huddled in the shelter of the gatehouse, watching through what was left of its windows as we came across the lawn.  Tommo and Fine were waddling ahead with a heavy crate of bottles swinging between them, but when they saw the soldiers their pace slowed and Beatrice took the lead.  She was carrying one of my clinking pillow cases, smiling brightly, and as we trudged past the gatehouse she gave the soldiers a cheerful greeting and moved on towards our car.  We were out of the gate, almost clear, when a voice called after us.  A soldier stepped out of the gatehouse and stood there, waving one hand palm downwards.  He looked a little older than the others and his rifle was slung muzzle down to keep out the rain.  He took a step or two after us, out of the lee of the gatehouse, and then he stopped, shivering in the wind.  The faces of his comrades stared from the window behind us, indifferent with fatigue. The soldier considered us, his face screwed up, anxious, and then he spoke, very politely, in good mission-school English.  Could we please tell the other mzungus not to come here again, he said.  There were Interahamwe near by, and the area was not safe.  And besides, he said, someone had been looting.  He looked sadly at my bundle.  Looters, he said, could be shot.

The narrator of Not Untrue & Not Unkind is Owen Simmons, a journalist who spent the mid-1990’s as a foreign correspondent in Africa.  Now (a decade later) securely ensconced behind a newsroom desk, the death of a colleague causes him to look back on his former life and remember the friends who were a part of it.   Owen has a low opinion of his younger self (one we come to share) portraying him as wet behind the ears, with a chip on his shoulder and a romanticized image of his life.  He doesn’t even seem all that talented – at finding stories or writing them up afterwards.  It’s the author’s, and the book’s, greatest strength.  Ed O’Loughlin has developed a character, a whole cast of characters, that most readers will not find sympathetic.  Yet they are not unsympathetic.  The author asks us to withhold  judgment – just like in the lines of the Larkin poem from which the book gets its title – and it is surprisingly easy to comply.  Because his characters feel real  – each with his or her own fully developed, unique personality.  Fine, chasing his Pulitzer; Tommo, the earnest photographer; sophisticated Laura; hard, cynical Brereton and the enigmatic Beatrice who Owen falls in love with.   There is something of the mercenary in each.

O’Loughlin’s entire plot builds towards one final, tragic event  which hangs over the narrative like a dark cloud.  To be honest, for the purposes of the story, it’s the only event that matters. The chapters leading up to it are stuffed full of anecdotes, character development and beautiful prose.  Sentences that have been scrubbed clean of emotional content jump from one brutal scene of war to another.  And if some decision or memory is momentarily clouded by the narrator’s perspective, 10 years on Owen seems very much aware of his human frailty.  He makes it clear that acts of humanity and heroism took place despite the characters’ best intentions, not because of them.  The men and women who inhabit his story are not missionaries or idealists. They are more akin to tourists, sending dispatches home on the atrocities happening in Africa for general (and safe) consumption with coffee.  Everything is about detachment and if the novel does have a flaw it is that we are left to some extent feeling ambiguous. So much so that when the big secret (because of course it would have to be a secret) on which the story pivots is finally revealed – it has become anti-climactic for both Owen and for us.

Not Untrue & Not Unkind reminded me of the film Blood Diamond – without  redemption at its end.  Which is why I’m not surprised that the novel received mixed reviews when longlisted for the Man Booker last year. Personally, I found it to be  an impressive achievement for a first novel, if problematic.  Cartwright, the character whose death is the impetus for Owen’s reminiscences, always felt superfluous.  And the plot does sag a bit in the middle – just a bit.  There are too few feel good moments and the fact that nothing is explicitly labeled as morally right or wrong can be frustrating (usually I prefer my books to take a stand).  But the story is intriguing, the prose beautifully constructed and Ed O’Loughlin kept me reading until the end.  I enjoyed Not Untrue & Not Unkind and I believe that if others don’t go into it expecting the Africa from The Poisonwood Bible, No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency or even Out of Africa, they will as well.

Publisher:  The Overlook Press, New York.  (2010)
ISBN:  978 1 59020 295 1

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