Category Archives: Books and reading

For the Joy of Reading: House of Stone

Gukurahundi is not a word that is known in this country, at least not in the way that we know the words Holocaust or Genocide or Massacre. It is, however, a seminal event in the history of Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe. It was when Robert Mugabe sent the fifth brigade of the Zimbabwe Army, a brigade that had been trained by the North Koreans, into the area around Bulawayo and murdered thousands of his political opponents in the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). It was an event that set Zimbabwe along a path of repression from the mis-1980s until last year when Mugabe was forcibly removed from power. It is an event that stills hangs its shadow over Zimbabwe. It is an event that is central to this book, although the book is not set in the actual time of the massacres. It is set in the present day, looking at how Zimbabwe and particularly the people around Bulawayo are dealing with the consequences of what happened.

Bukhosi has gone missing. His parents, Abed and Agnes, begin to look for him. It gives nothing away to say that Bukhosi has fallen a victim to those opposed to his secessionist politics. This is made clear from the start. It is just that Abed and Agnes do not realise this, and do not look in the right places. What follows is a story of deception, of power plays and of people struggling to do the right thing, if only for themselves.

To describe the main character as manipulative gives no real idea of how self-serving and self-obsessed he actually is. His whole purpose is to make sure that his life is a comfortable as it possibly can be, even if that means lying about the whereabouts of Bukhosi, which he does with consummate skill.

I will not say any more about the plot. Let us look at the language. There is no doubt that Novuyo Rosa Tshuma is a skilled writer. She uses language that sweeps you along with the story, and she never lets you forget that Gukurahundi is the underlying theme of the story, the motor on which everything else depends.

There is one difficulty with the language. There is no glossary for the Ndebele words that are peppered throughout the tale. This was not a problem for me because I have spent a considerable amount of my life around the offices of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, and I know what words like bhundu (the sticks) and mfana (boy) mean. Most people will not have a clue, and that will make it difficult for them to understand some parts of the book. This, however, is a fault of the publisher and not of the author. It would not have been difficult to provide a glossary, and it should have been done.

Apart from that, however, anyone who wants to understand what is happening in modern Zimbabwe, or even modern Africa, should read this book. It will give you an insight that others will not have.

Advertisements

For the Joy of Reading: Oliver Tambo: Beyond the Engeli Mountains

Oliver Tambo is deserving of a biography. He is the man who held the African National Congress (ANC) together throughout all the years of exile, when Nelson Mandela was in prison. He is the man who ensured that there was an organisation in place for Nelson Mandela to lead when he was released from prison. He is the man who nurtured and encouraged the resistance to apartheid both in South Africa and throughout the world from 1962 to 1990. He is the man who encouraged generation upon generation to believe that we could win, when the world told us we were wasting our time.

He is certainly deserving of a biography. This one is not new. It was first published in 2004, to coincide with the tenth anniversary of freedom in South Africa. One of the questions that I have to ask myself therefore is this: Why has it taken me so long to read this book? Part of the reason is that the book was quite difficult to get hold of in this country. But that is an excuse. I worried that I had been too close to the events, and I had only really been on the periphery, and that it would be difficult to make an objective judgement. It is now 25 years since Oliver Tambo died, and I think that I am in a position to make that judgement.

I should explain. I was chair of the London Anti-Apartheid Committee in the 1980s. I met Oliver Tambo on a few occasions. It would be untrue to say that I was acquainted with him, although I spoke to him directly on occasion and I think that he was aware of who I was. I was certainly known to his wife, Adelaide, and to his children, Thembi, Dali and Tselane. I played with his grandchildren, Thembi’s boys, Sasha and Oliver on occasion. I was a volunteer at the ANC Office in 28 Penton Street and at the Department of Information and Publicity Office in Mackenzie Road. This latter was a secret office, and you really had to be trusted to be allowed to work there. I attended the ANC International Solidarity Conferences at Arusha in Tanzania in 1987, and in Johannesburg in 1993. I worked as a volunteer in the ANC Office in Jeppe Street, Johannesburg, during the 1994 election. I cannot claim that I was neutral, and this is why I was worried about reading this book.

Of course, I did not need to worry. Oliver Tambo may have been a self-effacing man and certainly not self-promoting, but he had an acuity of mind that made his judgement good. If Oliver Tambo thought that Luli Callinicos was a suitable person to write his biography that is simply because she was. It is a task that she takes on with sensitivity and understanding, recognising his merits and dealing with the difficulties that arose, of which there were many.

Callinicos begins with his upbringing in the village of Kantolo, district of Bizana, in Pondoland on the far east of the then Cape Province (now the Eastern Cape). Tambo was born into a traditional Mpondo family. His father had a number of wives, and children by all of them. Oliver had his mother and his “other mothers”. The community lived by farming, until the introduction of the Poll Tax which necessitated the men to go away to earn money in order to pay the tax. This was disruptive and some of the men were injured or, in the case of one of Oliver’s uncles, killed because of the unsafe conditions in the mines. Oliver’s father was determined that his son would be educated so that this would not happen to him, and so his son was sent away to missionary schools. By then, he had already learned the tradition of African leadership, of listening to a discussion, of summarising it at the end and of leading people to a decision. This tradition of ubuntu after an indaba was something that he was to practice throughout the whole of his political career.

The other major factor about Tambo’s character was his deep commitment to Christianity and specifically to the Anglican Church. This partly came about through the education that he received at St. Peter’s school, a Community of the Resurrection school, in Johannesburg. It is also partly because of his enduring friendship with Trevor Huddleston, a member of the Community, and a deeply passionate campaigner against apartheid. It was mainly, however, because of his deep spirituality and the strength that he gained from this belief, which helped him to lead the ANC through all the difficult years of exile.

I can only really comment on the accuracy of the description of events that happened in London in the late 1980s when I was a volunteer in the ANC Offices. They do seem accurate to me. I was aware of events simply because I was in the ANC office when things happened. If you see Thabo Mbeki on the stairs, then you know he is in London. If you are asked to make a cup of tea and take it in to Dirk Coetzee, you know he is in the ANC Offices talking to someone. I knew things that I probably should not have known, and I can say that the description of those events is accurate. I therefore assume that the description of events in Africa and elsewhere are also accurate. They are certainly detailed. Undoubtedly, there will be some people who do not agree with the interpretation, or who may have nuances that they want considered.

It is interesting that when Tambo faced difficulties, he did not try to impose his will. He required that ANC to take a decision as an organisation. That is what led to the calling of the Morogoro and Kabwe conferences, and for the extended consultations with the NEC and other relevant bodies. It was his style of leadership. It was not that he did not lead. He involved everyone in the decision-making process. He listened and then advised on what was to be done. Almost inevitably, this meant that the decision went his way. And there were difficulties. Those who wanted to keep other races out of the ANC were faced down at Morogoro, and those who wanted to keep other races off the National Executive Committee were dealt with at Kabwe. The excesses of the ANC security at Quattro in Angola were brought under control. The need to prepare for the future was dealt with by decisions like the appointment of a group to work on a constitution for the new South Africa. And there were the daily difficulties of running the organisation, making diplomatic representations, feeding and clothing people, weeding out infiltrators, training and equipping an army, campaigning for the release of political prisoners, maintaining underground links to the organisation in South Africa, and everything else that was needed.

For this, Tambo sacrificed both his family and his health. His wife, Adelaide, set up home in London with the three children and, although he visited, his schedule simply did not allow him to live there. His base was first Dar-es-Salaam and then Lusaka. Adelaide was the subject of spiteful remarks. It was said that she lived in a big house in Muswell Hill, in north London. This was a matter of perspective. If, like me, you were brought up in north-east London, it was not a big house. If you were brought up in a township or rural area of South Africa, it was enormous. It had one large reception room which was used to host diplomatic events for the ANC, especially when Tambo was in London. It was said that Adelaide sent her children to boarding schools. She did. This was after a man was found in the garden looking up at the room of a 12-year-old Thembi. It was said that he was a “Peeping Tom” but he could have been an apartheid agent. People forgot that the Tambo children were under daily threat of kidnap. I know that these things were said, because they were said to me and got very short shrift. So, with the whole range of issues pressing upon him, Tambo had to deal with difficulties like this as well.

What we have is a remarkable story about a remarkable man. He was patient and kind. He was not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. He never insisted on his own way. He was not irritable or resentful. He did not rejoice in wrongdoing, but in the truth. He bore all things, he hoped for all things, he endured all things. Oliver Tambo made a significant and indelible contribution to the liberation of his country. He was one of the great leaders of the twentieth century.

For the Joy of Reading: Hell

This is Alasdair Gray’s long-anticipated translation of Dante’s Inferno into what Gray describes as “prosaic English”. So, the first thing to say is that there is nothing prosaic about Gray’s English. It grabs you by the throat and pulls you along at a merry rate, gleefully recounting the descent into Hell. This is exactly what you would expect from the creator of “Lanark” which, after all, is its own descent of this kind.

The story is well-known. Dante, the poet, has lost his way in a terrible and hostile wood when he meets Virgil who leads him on a journey into the inferno because it has been ordained in Heaven that a mortal poet should see Hell, and then describe it. The fear of the punishments of Hell should persuade others to live “a righteous, sober and godly life” rather suffer eternal torment. That is the task that Dante is given and the purpose of his journey, led by Virgil, through the circles of hell.

There are a number of things that Alasdair Gray makes very clear in his translation. The reason why Dante encounters so many Tuscans in hell is that he can speak their language, especially if they are Florentine. This accounts for the obscurity of many of the figures that we come across. Dante’s audience would know who Filippo Argenti or the tyrant Azzolino or Guido Guerra are, but we do not. It is like having a hell populated by Angela Leadsom, Nigel Farage and the like. They may be well-known now, but in a few hundred years’ time, I doubt it.

There are the figures from Greek mythology in particular, and these are known because they are still part of the popular culture, especially Hercules, Achilles and the many others mentioned. There are notorious figures from history, such as Attila the Hun. The point however is to show us that they are at the mercy of Harpies and Furies and Gorgons, of Demons and fiends, and that they are subjected to unspeakable and unremitting torment.

The crime of the century (the fourteenth century) gets a mention. Guy de Montfort, a grandson of King John of England, is in hell for the murder of his cousin in the Cathedral of Viterbo, as do other spectacular crimes from throughout the centuries. Brutus and Cassius are confined in the lowest circle of hell, alongside Judas Iscariot. There are whole chapters on the doom of sectarians, falsifiers, forgers, rebels and traitors, which Alasdair Gray gleefully translates into doom-laden prose.

The denunciation of capitalism “which is judged as foul as sodomy” is a particular delight, and will cause offence to people on all sides of the argument about modern morality. It is easy to get the feeling that Alasdair Gray was enjoying himself enormously at that point. It is of course Dante who is making the comparison, but Gray is clearly revelling in it.

There are some comparisons that, in my view, do not work. Gray translates Guelph (supporters of the Pope) and Ghibelline (supporters of the Emperor) as Whig and Tory, and says that the similarity between the two is the difference between old and new money. My view is that this is both a misreading of fourteenth- and eighteenth-century history, but that does not really matter. The real problem is that only one of those terms is in use today, and that the comparison will not make sense to the ordinary reader. That having been said, I cannot think of a better one.

What Gray has given us is an exciting, ribald and exuberant translation of Dante’s Inferno into English. It is a translation for the modern reader. Enjoy it.

For the Joy of Reading: Gutter 18

Listen do you want to know a secret. Gutter Magazine is an essential read, especially if you are a librarian or a bookseller, and you want to know who the up and coming voices are in Scottish Literature. Of course, this assumes that you have not outsourced your purchasing so that you can cut costs to the bare minimum, and reduce the number of professional staff that are employed in your outlets. Gutter has survived the tribulations of the last year or so, and it has produced a wonderful issue for Autumn 2018, timed to appear at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and coupled with the Freedom Papers, sponsored by the Festival, to celebrate the centenary of women getting the vote in the UK and the birth of Nelson Mandela.
All you have to do is look at the content. There is an interview with Louise Welsh on the art of writing crime stories, showing that crime novels are an examination of the human psyche, and that they are much more than a Cluedo-type mystery. There is a story by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, ostensibly about body parts deciding to co-operate for the greater good, but really about how the individual cannot function without the community, the African concept of ubuntu. This stories has been translated into Shetlandic and English from Gikuyu. I would recommend reading the Shetlandic first, not because I can really understand it because you can hear it rolling off the tongue.
William Letford has written a short story that is essentially about how we, as a society, deal with manhood and masculinity, and how they are not the same thing. William Letford is a poet that I came across through Gutter and the Discombobulate evenings at the Arches in Glasgow. All I can say about him is that he is brilliant and if you have not read his poetry collections, Bevel and Dirt, then you have a treat in store. And that is something that can also be said about Gutter.
Then there is the poetry. These are names that are worth discovering: Penny Boxall, David Hale, Bridget Khursheed, Lavry Butler, Charles Lang, David Ross Linklater, Jay Whittaker, Kevin Williamson, Ross Wilson, Hamish Scott, Sara Clark, Maria Sledmore, Iona Lee, Lucy Cathcart Froden, Rosa Campbell, Hannah Van Hove, Vahni Capildeo, Caroline Hume, Ingrid Grieve, Barbara Johnston and that old favourite, Anonymous. All of these will be names worth watching out for. If publishers have any sense, all of these will be names worth nurturing. I presume that the same can be said for Marcas Mac an Tuairneir, but I do not know because this poem is in Gaelic, and I cannot read it.
Even the reviews tell you what to look out for. You do not have to agree with them. Indeed, how can you if you have not read the books, but if a book is reviewed in Gutter then that is a good indication that it is worth reading.
Gutter Magazine is a phenomenon. Just be glad that it has survived the last year. Read it. Make sure that it survives to continue promoting good Scottish literature. Libraries should buy it, if only for their purchasing staff. Readers should read it so they know the names to look out for.
If you have not read Gutter, have never come across it, and you love books, then this is a treat and you should wallow in it.

For the Joy of Reading: Secure the Base

This collection of essays by Ngugi wa Thiong’o is a meditation upon Africa and its place in the modern world. There are two facts that underpin all these essays and they are the two fundamental facts about African history: the Atlantic slave trade and colonialism. It is impossible to consider the history and development of Africa into post-colonial independence without having a grasp of these issues. It is impossible to understand what independence in the post-colonial era actually entails without taking these two facts into account. They are the building blocks on which the history of modern Africa has been built.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s argument starts from a base that should be obvious, although it is brushed under the carpet. The Atlantic Slave Trade was a crime against humanity. It allowed the burgeoning capitalist economies of Western Europe and what became the United States. It was driven by the need to have cheap labour to produce sugar, tobacco and cotton. Slaves only needed enough food, clothing and housing to keep them, literally, producing the goods, and if they died more slaves could be purchased. Ngugi recognises that the kingdoms of the West African littoral by waging war on their neighbours, seizing captives and selling them to European traders, whether they were Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch or English. [The Scots did not benefit from the slave trade until the Act of Union of 1707, but they seem to have taken to it like ducks to water. Glasgow is built on money from the slave trade and the slave plantations]. Obviously, this loss of population and the disruption it caused had a detrimental effect on the development of Africa.
One of the things that Ngugi argues should be considered is the trauma to the African psyche. This was compounded by the trauma of colonialism, and the barbarity with which African societies were destroyed so that resources could be extracted from the continent for the benefit of the colonial power. Part of the consequence of colonialism was that European languages became the languages of power, and that is still the case in sub-Saharan Africa, even in countries where an African language, or more than one, has been given official status. [Arabic is a separate case. It is not in origin an African language but it has been spoken in the continent for something like 1,500 years].

In these essays, Ngugi issues a call to arms. He calls upon African intellectuals to write in their own tongues. He asks for schools to teach in African languages. He challenges the use of the word “tribe”, and asks why 40,000,000 Yoruba form a tribe, but 300,000 Icelanders or 5 million Danes form a nation. The answer is both obvious and inherently racist. All you have to do is look at racial classification in apartheid South Africa where 5,000,000 whites, despite speaking different languages, formed one racial group whereas Nguni speakers, despite using variants of the same language, formed, I think, 5 racial groups.
Ngugi argues that Africans need to accord their own languages respect. The argument that there are no words in African languages for the technological advances that have been made over the last two hundred years, is one that he demolishes as nonsense. He points out that the same was said of English and French, when they began to replace Latin as the language of intellectual discourse. He could also have pointed out that there is no English word for “television”. It is derived from Greek and Latin. Words can be invented and they frequently are. Shakespeare was an expert at this.
Ngugi also argues that African achievements are overlooked in the world. He rightly argues that the greatest threat to our planet is nuclear weaponry, and that the most pressing need for securing the future of our planet is the decommissioning of those weapons. He then adds that two countries have already done this, and that they are both African countries – South Africa and Libya. One has never been credited with doing so, and the other was invaded, its infrastructure destroyed and an ongoing refugee crisis created. I remember someone on Facebook arguing in 2014 that if Scotland became independent it would be the first country to decommission its nuclear weapons, and I replied that this would not be the case because South African and Libya had already done it. The argument was based on ignorance, but it is symptomatic of the fact that Africa, when it does something good, does not get coverage in the western media.
Another argument that Ngugi puts forward is that the world is divided between the wealthy and the poor. He argues that, if the world is to live at peace and in prosperity, then those resources must be shared equally. He argues that this cannot be achieved by tinkering with the world economy, as the Christian missionaries die in the colonial period and as the NGOs do now, but needs a structural change. He argues for a world without borders, or, at least, the kind of borders that we have in place now. He argues for a world in which we ensure that the hungry are fed, the poor clothed, the homeless housed, the sick are healed and the refugees are welcomed. He argues against the expenditure by the rich nations of this world on armaments. This is a cry from the heart against the neo-colonial world in which we live. It is an argument that we have a duty to consider. I think he is right.

For the Joy of Reading: Going to the Mountain

This book is a unique view of Nelson Mandela. It is written by his grandson, Ndaba, and it tells the story of being brought up by Mandela, and what it meant to have him as an example, a mentor and the patriarch of the family. Of course, he was not the usual patriarchal figure because for 27 years he was not there. He was in prison. Ndaba Mandela did not meet his grandfather until he was seven years old, and the meeting took place in Victor Verster prison, a few months before his release. In those years between Ndaba’s birth and the release of his grandfather, the Mandela family endured the constant harassment of the apartheid security police. Winnie Mandela was arrested, imprisoned, tortured, banned and sent into internal exile. Her daughters, Zenani and Zindzi Mandela, had to be sent to school in Swaziland to escape the constant harassment that was inflicted on them. Mandela’s eldest son, Thembi, was killed in a car accident, and Mandela was not allowed to attend his funeral. Ndaba escaped from this by going to live with his grandmother, Evelyn, Mandela’s first wife, who had left him when she joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Ndaba lived with her in Cofimvaba, a small town in the Eastern Cape, until his parents decided that he should come to live with them in Soweto. It was not an easy childhood by any means.
But his family took a life-changing decision for Ndaba when he was eleven years old. It was decided that he would go and live with his grandfather. By now, the date for the election had been set and Mandela was campaigning for the Presidency, to which he was inaugurated on 10th May 1994. So Ndaba was living there with an icon of the struggle, just at the point of transformation. What we have is an insider’s view of what was happening remembered from the point of view of a child.
It is a remarkable tale. We see how the two began to grow together, learning to live with each, to respect each other and through the process of getting to know each other becoming friends.
The phrase “going to the mountain” is used for the initiation ceremony of Xhosa boys into manhood. It is a period when the initiates are kept away from their families and begin to learn about the history and rituals of their people, and the duties of a man. It ends with circumcision and recovery from that rite. It is an indication of Mandela’s view of the world that he had no doubt that this ceremony was important and that he had a role to play in preparing his grandson for it.
This book gives a view of Nelson Mandela that only his sons (now both dead) and his grandsons, such as Ndaba, were familiar with. His sons, of course, did not really get to know him like this because he was in prison when their initiations took place. Nor is it something that Mandela talked about in his autobiography. But this respect for tradition is probably essential towards an understanding of the man.
This is a short book. It is easy to read. It gives a view of Mandela that you will not otherwise have. It is, for that reason, an important book.

For the Joy of Reading: The Baghdad Clock

If you were going to pick somewhere to be born in the late 1980s, it is hard to think of somewhere that would have been worse than Baghdad. Except Afghanistan. A child in Baghdad, in 1991, had to endure “Desert Storm”, the First Gulf War. [And let us be honest, the name “Desert Storm” is a misnomer. Iraq is not a desert. It is the valleys of the Euphrates and Tigris. It has been a centre of civilisation for nigh on 4,000 years]. This is the story of two girls growing up, Nadia and the unnamed narrator. It begins when they meet in an air raid shelter, during the first Gulf War. It continues through the sanctions imposed by President Clinton to the attack launched by President George W. Bush. It is the story of the attempt to lead a normal life in the midst of war and the threat of war. It is the story of a neighbourhood around the landmark Baghdad Clock.
It is the story of Nadia and her friends growing up in the midst of war, then devastating sanctions, then war again. Unsurprisingly, people did not want to, could not endure all the dangers and privations that they were subjected to living in the area around the Baghdad Clock. So slowly but surely, families begin to leave fleeing north and west to supposed safety in cities like Mosul and Damascus. Where, of course, they will not be safe for long.
We meet characters like the soothsayer, who can predict what is going to happen to the people around the Baghdad Clock. We meet Biryad, the dog who makes his home in the neighbourhood and who is loved by everyone until they and their families move away, leaving him behind. We meet all the women called Umm (mother), in the Arabic tradition, followed by the name of their eldest child, and all the men similarly called Abu (father). We meet Ahmad and Farooq, the boys that Nadia and her friend fall in love with. With meet Uncle Shawkat and his wife, Baji Nadira. We learn to be happy with them and to cry with them when things go wrong. And how could they not go wrong with Saddam Hussein as President, and President George W. Bush lusting for revenge?
This is the story of a terrible 30 years, and of the people who suffered both war and privation. It is a story that shows the humanity of ordinary Iraqis, and the horror of what has been inflicted on them. It is a story of the triumph of ordinary people and of hope, in the face of adversity. It is uplifting. It is triumphant because people survive.
That is what makes this book a must read.