A selection of reviews from this fascinating and unusual blog. You are guaranteed to find things here which you have never met before!
There’s a whole world out there! I’m looking at two books, a film and an artist from each country in the world. Reviews are SPOILER FREE. New posts Tues & Sat
Tété-Michel Kpomassie: An African in Greenland (Togo)
Translated from the French by James Kirkup, first published in 1981.
I googled Togolese writers, and the first name to pop up was that of Tété-Michel Kpomassie. The intriguing title of this book, published in 1981, meant it just begged to be picked up. Togo and Greenland seem opposite extremes, but author Tété-Michel Kpomassie was determined to make the journey to Greenland from his home in Togo after seeing a book about the frozen territory. He set off as a teenager in 1959, just before he was to be indoctrinated into a snake cult.
Perhaps now is a good time to admit that as a small child I was obsessed with huskies. I would attach my stuffed Highland Terrier toy to a length of wool and hold his reins in my hands as I perched in an armchair, willing him to whizz across the carpet, while I yelled “Mush! Mush!” The point of this anecdote being, I guess, that I can understand the fascination that the teenage Kpomassie felt for lives of the people who used to be known as Eskimos (now more accurately known as Inuit).
Kpomassie made his way slowly north, over several years, educating himself via correspondence course, and taking short-term jobs. Kpomassie’s optimism, exuberance and charisma jump off the page, and it is striking how people everywhere proved themselves willing to put him up in their homes after a moment’s acquaintance.
Greenland is massive, stretching 2.166 million km², but is currently home to only around 56,000 people. On his arrival, Kpomassie became something of a local celebrity, being welcomed into the various communities among which he stayed (and into the beds of several women!). He travelled north through the territory, experiencing brutal living conditions, in what became a sort of ethnographic study.
Still gripping the two uprights, my companion brought the sled to a graceful halt beside me, while I wobbled to my feet and dusted snow from my clothes. He didn’t even ask if I was hurt.
“Unbelievable!” he exclaimed. “How can a man fall off a sled? It’s not possible, yet you, you managed to do it. I saw you rolling down like a seal’s bladder, and I couldn’t believe my eyes!”
Kpomassie demonstrated a preternatural ability to pick up languages, seeming to converse with ease wherever he went, and relays many colourful, sometimes funny, adventures, as well as a few genuinely disturbing encounters.
The locals’ diet sounds truly disgusting, as they survived on seal blubber and, in places, raw dog meat, while Kpomassie had warm clothing stitched for him out of dog fur and seal skin. (I don’t whether these traditions have persisted into the 21st century, or to what extent climate change has affected current ways of life.)
Raw fish exposed to glacial air is firm, even hard, and doesn’t smell. It is wholesome and pleasant to eat, even when crunchy with ice crystals. However, I would never eat raw fish in my own country, for in the hot climate it goes soft and limp and start to smell within two hours … As for seal blubber, that native delicacy, is is simply nauseating for a foreigner and resembles tallow. Lightly dried and yellowed by the sun, then “hung” as the Greenlanders like it, it smells rancid. And when frozen, frankly it even tastes like candle wax.
The film rights to Kpomassie’s engaging and enlightening adventures were bought some time ago. Development work commenced on a film adaptation of the memoir, but it seems that work must have slowed or stalled – though I did come across this teaser trailer from 2016:
The Guilty / Den skyldige: Danish film
Directed and co-written by Gustav Möller. Released October 2018.
I spotted this Danish thriller on Netflix UK, and settled down with a cuppa to watch, demanding that the husband pause progress on his ongoing Breaking Bad-marathon. I wasn’t sure whether this film was particularly representative of Danish film, and I still don’t really know the answer to that, but Lars von Trier it is not. Thankfully.
The set of this film is probably one of the most pared back that I’ve ever encountered. All we see is the interior of a two-room office. Throughout the bulk of the movie the viewer watches a deskbound policeman, Asger Holm (played by Jakob Cedergren), process the equivalent of 999 distress calls from members of the public.
So far so boring huh? Except this film is edge of the seat thrilling.
That the film manages to hold us in its thrall for 85 minutes without showing us anything beyond Asger’s office, his desk, his computer screen and his phone, is testament to its power. It excels at building up suspense and tension, in concert with clever use of sound and lighting.
Scholastique Mukasonga: Our Lady of the Nile (Rwanda)
Translated from the French by Melanie Mauthner
I serendipitously found my copy of this book in a secondhand bookshop in Herne Hill, South London, which I’ve found to be an unexpected and excitingly ripe source of obscure works of fiction in translation. The husband – amusingly but perhaps a bit meanly – suggested that maybe someone local is doing the exact same project as me, but is just that little bit ahead…
Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga rattles along like a Rwandan version of Mallory Towers – until, suddenly, it is chillingly nothing at all like an Enid Blyton boarding school novel. Set in 1979, it follows the school lives of a group of elite Rwandan girls. They attend a prestigious Catholic boarding school, the Notre-Dame du Nil, which is run by nuns.
The opening lines of the book paint a vivid and captivating picture of the institution:
‘There is no better lycée than Our Lady of the Nile. Nor is there any higher. Twenty-five hundred meters, the white teachers proudly proclaim …. “We’re so close to heaven,” whispers Mother Superior, clasping her hands together.
‘The school year coincides with the rainy season, so the lycee is often wrapped in clouds. Sometimes, not often, the sun peeks through and you can see as far as the big lake, that shiny blue puddle down in the valley.’
In the anecdotes about school life – both recognisable to myself as a Brit and not so recognisable – a vibrant picture of the girls lives is built up. The pupils comprise predominantly Hutu girls and a few Tutsi girls attending the school to fulfil a ‘quota’, and as the story unfurls it serves as a microcosm of wider Rwandan society.
As one of the reviews on the book’s back jacket says, “Strangely, it is in this incredibly light novel, that one best understands the ethnic, political, and religious reasons behind the massacre of the mysterious Tutsis.”
I’d never taken the time to fill in how and why the Rwandan genocide took place. And I’m ashamed to say I’d never truly taken in the sheer scale of the atrocities. While reading the novel, I was driven to do some research online to fill in some of my missing Rwandan history.
I learnt that the Tutsis have sometimes been described as “African Jews”, and that perceived differences and societal divisions between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi populations were reinforced by Rwanda’s Belgian occupiers. Influenced by the European eugenics movement, the Belgian colonisers favoured the Tutsi population, considering their lighter skin to indicate Caucasian heritage. As a consequence, Tutsis were often rewarded with political clout and senior positions in the colonial regime.
Anti-colonial and anti-Tutsi movements began to emerge. Rwanda was declared a republic in 1961, and the monarchy was abolished. Independence from Belgium followed in 1962. In April 1994 the highly symbolic murder of Tutsi Queen Gicanda (who had been living “locked up in her Butare villa” for years) took place towards the beginning of what later became known as the Rwandan genocide. The novel is set almost equidistant in time from these key events, and deep ethnic tensions are evident even in the rarefied atmosphere of the lycée.
Mukasonga’s novel was first published in 2012, and appeared in English translation in 2014. It won the Prix Renaudot in 2012. The copy I read is published by US publisher Archipelago books, which describes itself as a “not-for-profit press devoted to publishing excellent translations of classic and contemporary world literature.” Recently having been voted one of the 100 best books by women in translation, Our Lady of the Nile is a book I’m glad to have chosen to represent a work by a Rwandan female writer.
Marjane Satrapi: Persepolis (Iran)
NORTH AFRICA, MIDDLE EAST AND CENTRAL ASIA
Translated from the French by Mattias Ripa (Satrapi’s real life husband) and Anjali Singh
Marjane Satrapi’s memoir Persepolis broke new ground, by exploring her experiences during and after the Iranian Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war of the late 1970s and 1980s, in the form of a graphic novel. Published in the early 2000s, by 2018 it had sold more than 2 million copies.
As Satrapi writes in an Introduction to the book: “Since [the Islamic Revolution] this old and great civilization has been discussed mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism. As an Iranian who has lived more than half of my life in Iran, I know that this image is far from the truth.”
I ordered my copy from my local Southwark library. Really, it is two books, or even four books, as it includes what was originally published in France as Persepolis I and II (The Story of a Childhood) and Persepolis III and IV (The Story of a Return). I’d taken it out of the library before, but hadn’t got round to reading it, assuming, I guess, that because of its themes it would be heavy-going and hard work. However, once I’d decided I was going to embark on my global cultural tour, I grabbed a copy for the second time – and actually read it. Within just a few pages I was gripped….
….Although my only gripe was that the text is teeny tiny, even with my old-person reading glasses on.
The book is aimed squarely at a Western audience, and is designed to break down stereotypes and challenge misinformation, as well as entertain. Unsurprisingly, the book was banned in Iran. Satrapi herself settled in France in her 20s, although her enduring love for her native country shines out clearly from her writing.
Although I’m not usually a fan of the comic strip format, the device makes the sometimes challenging themes of Satrapi’s story hugely accessible. Satrapi is feisty and funny, describing her experiences of growing up, which veer between the universal and the specific.
Satrapi describes how as a small child her ambition in life was to become a prophet. She believes that she is visited by God, although his pronouncements can be prosaic: “Tomorrow the weather is going to be nice. It will be 75 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade.”
The illustrations, an integral component of the book, are great: evocative and, again, often disarmingly funny. Satrapi is brilliant on facial expressions. Black and white, stark and combining elements of both cultures, they effectively illuminate Satrapi’s experiences.
Satrapi’s experience in Iran, of course, was in many ways atypical. Her family were part of an educated elite, and had the money to send her to Europe for several years in her teens, to take trips to Europe and Canada themselves, and to pay for Satrapi to move to France to study in her twenties.
So she had a comparatively privileged lifestyle, but that is not to undermine or understate the difficulties Satrapi faced growing up during a time of repression and devastating conflict. And she effectively conveys the horrific toll it took on the people of Iran as a whole. This includes the sudden proliferation of nuptial chambers (as Satrapi explains, when an unmarried shi’ite man dies, a nuptial chamber is built for him so the dead man can, symbolically at least, gain carnal knowledge) and the huge number of streets renamed in honour of fallen ‘martyrs’.
In addition to being a coming of age story and a political memoir, the book is also a tale of familial love. Satrapi’s warm, loving and secular parents were endlessly supportive and caring, and her filthy-mouthed granny is an appealing character (who, incidentally, attributed the pertness of her elderly breasts to a daily 10-minute dip in ice water). Illuminating and entertaining, and a quick read, I wholly recommend this illuminating book.
Imogen Gladman is a book editor from South-East London, with experience of working in the fields of international political and economic non-fiction, as well as fiction. She is currently familiarising herself with books, film and art from every country in the world, one country at a time. There’s a whole world out there! She blogs at https://readingandwatchingtheworld.home.blog