Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

November 15, 2015 § Leave a comment

No writer wants the defining trait of his or her novel to be that it reminds critics and readers of other best-selling and/or critically acclaimed novels. The Nigerian writer Chinelo Okparanta’s debut novel, Under the Udala Trees, does this from the first page… actually from the very first sentence.

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the North, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet…

That is not Okparanta, but  the famous opening lines of Isak Dinesen’s (or, if you prefer, Karen Blixen’s) Out of Africa.  In the paragraphs that immediately follow Dinesen goes on to to describe the topography, the weather and the sounds of her home in Kenya.  And say what you want about Dinesen – her politics, her character, her ability to run a farm – she could write.  Those opening pages of Out of Africa are a sensory immersion, and the country of Kenya is as important a character in her story as any man or woman she introduces later in the narrative.

Okparanta also opens with her protagonist describing her home in Africa.

Midway between Old Oba-Nnewi Road and New Oba-Nnewi Road, in that general area bound by the village church and the primary school, and where Mmiri John Road drops off only to begin again, stood our house in Ojoto. It was a  yellow-painted two-story cement construction built along the dusty brown trails just south of River John, where Papa’s mother almost drowned when she was a girl, back when people still washed their clothes on the rocky edges of the river.

Okparanta narrator goes on the describe her family’s compound, the wet versus dry season, the smells and noises, the life she lived as a child before the Biafran War interrupted in 1967 – a period of time notably brought to most Western readers’ attention by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half A Yellow Sun.  But most of Under the Udala Trees takes place in the aftermath of that war.  Nigeria is not a character, nor is it integral to her story.  The plot momentum comes from it being a coming of age and a coming out story which could, unfortunately, have taken place in many African nations.  The book purports to be about the relationship between two young girls, but is more about the sexual journey of only one of those girls.  The narrator, Ijeoma, is a Nigerian girl who is attracted to women.  And while her relationships are sometimes interesting – with her first love, her mother, her husband, her daughter – they are never explored enough to be moving.  They lack depth.  Their portrayal is only one-sided.  We never get to see the world through anyone’s other than Ijeoma’s eyes… and she is not especially effusive or forthcoming with her emotions or opinions.  For the kind of portrait Okparanta is trying to create, – a nuanced one in which even the book’s antagonists are sympathetic though misguided  – having a reserved character such as Ijeoma at the center is an unnecessary obstacle.  Under the Udala Trees would have benefitted from multiple perspectives.  As it is, it lacks a strong narrative arc, reading more like a personal essay than a story designed to inspire empathy or a strong emotional response.

There is no way to tell the story of what happened with Amina without first telling the story of Mama’s sending me off. Likewise, there is no way to tell the story of Mama’s sending me off without also telling of Papa’s refusal to go to the bunker. Without his refusal, the sending away might never have occurred, and if the sending away had not occurred, then I might never have met Amina.

If I had not met Amina, who knows, there might be no story at all to tell.

Ijeoma meets Amina while acting as housegirl for a schoolteacher and his wife who were friends of her late father.  Her mother has sent her there while she rebuilds a life for them in Ijeoma’s grandparents village. The two girls share their quarters, become close and eventually fall in love.  They are discovered and Ijeoma’s mother is sent for.  An extremely religious woman, Mama takes Ijeoma away and spends hours instructing her that what she has done is unnatural and an abomination in God’s eyes.

This doesn’t change Ijeoma, it only teaches her that her relationships must be conducted in secret. At school she and Amina meet again, and are again separated (this time by Amina). The plot, narrated in Ijeoma’s voice, chronicles her journey to love and acceptance. Okparanta hits all the expected plot points: first love, exposure, betrayal, a more mature relationship, violent persecution, an attempt to lead a “normal” heterosexual life, and then the realization that road leads only to unhappiness for everyone involved.  Ultimately, Ijeoma has a happy ending of sorts – one that is realistic in the society in which she lives.

For all the flaws in this novel, Chinelo Okparanta writes well, as befits her background.  A Nigerian-American writer, who immigrated to America at with her parents at age ten, she attended Penn State, Rutgers and is an alum of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  She’s been published everywhere you’d expect: Granta, Tin House, The New Yorker, etc.  She’s held professorships and received fellowships and her book of short stories Happiness, Like Water, was well received. In Under the Udala Trees, her plain straight-forward prose style is interesting, sometimes even engaging.  And there is no denying that she’s written a timely novel, one could even argue an important novel.  But, unfortunately, it’s also an extremely frustrating novel.  Her heroine is too hesitant and circumspect in what we are expected to believe are her innermost thoughts and desires.  The words “suppose”, “might” and “perhaps” pop up often.  Ironically, the one thing Ijeoma is quite definite about is her preference for women.  Though she is frequently told that her feelings are wrong – as if love could ever be wrong – she barely struggles with them.  She never seems torn or even confused by the fact that she is attracted to women, and yet at the book’s turning point she inexplicably turns her back on the woman she loves and instead marries a childhood friend (we assume to please her mother).  This happens with no explanation as to why, no real foreshadowing and no insight into the pressure (we again must assume) she feels to conform. The actual decision is made between chapters.  The actual undoing of that decision also happens between chapters. Okparanta seems to have an innate fear of climactic scenes.  She may be the rare author whose work has suffered from too much editing. Under the Udala Trees has the skeleton of a great book in it, but sadly lacks the substance of one.

 

The Brotherhood of Book Hunters by Raphaël Jerusalmy, tr. Howard Curtis

October 25, 2015 § Leave a comment

Title: The Brotherhood of Book Hunters
Author:   Raphaël Jerusalmy
Translator:   Howard Curtis
Publisher: Europa Editions, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 60945 230 8

The eighteenth century romance novel tradition with its lush descriptions of landscapes and settings is  just one of  the many threads Raphaël Jerusalmy weaves into a novel which features the 15th century French poet and rogue Francois Villon, a real-life figure with a shadowy historical record.  Add to this the Medici family, a journey to the Holy Land and a Jewish conspiracy as fanciful and ambitious as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (minus the anti-semitism) and you’ll begin to get a sense of the scope of the author’s vision.

Slowly advancing across the still burning scrubland, through ravines over which darkness was spreading, Djanoush at last reached a promontory from which the outline of the lake could be seen in the distance. His traveling companions gazed down at the fabled landscape in silence. A sparrow hawk hovered, describing broad circles, weaving his flight in the invisible weft of the sky, patrolling the sheet of water in search of prey. The Sea of Kinnereth, as the Hebrews called it, stretched as far as the horizon, lined with wild rushes and willows. The white domes of Tiberias glittered on the western shore. To the east, the grim mass of the Golan rose into the clouds, covering the tranquil waters with its threatening shadow. Opposite, in the distance, where the haze of the lake gave way to a sand-filled mist, Judea began.

The Brotherhood of Book Hunters is a  historical adventure story in the style of Alexandre Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson or James Fenimore Cooper. Or, if we’re looking for more contemporary comparisons, with Michael Chabon’s 2007 novella Gentlemen of the Road, Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas and, in a roundabout way, the short stories of the sci-fi/fantasy writer Fritz Lieber will do nicely. The basics of what ultimately grows into a rather complicated plot are as follows: François Villon is approached in prison by the agents of Louis XI.  The French King wishes to shift the power between himself and the Vatican by encouraging the circulation of pamphlets challenging the dogma of the Catholic Church. To this end he tasks Villon with convincing printers & booksellers from across Europe to set up their shops in Paris. And once that is accomplished he sends Villon – accompanied by the poet’s friend Colin da Cayeux (Fafhrd to Villon’s Gray Mouser) – to the Holy Land on a mission to acquire rare manuscripts from the time of Christ which are guaranteed to undermine the Pope’s authority once distributed among the masses.

What the King & Villon do not realize is that more people are involved in this game of Renaissance intrigue than they know. The Medici family, backed by a shadowy organization known as the Brotherhood of Book Hunters, have their own plans for poor Villon. And no one seems to consider the possibility that Villon may just have a few plans of his own.

“What good wind brings you to the Holy Land, Master Villon?”

“Contrary winds. Zephyrs of escape and trade winds of fortune.”

Raphaël Jerusalmy has a true gift for sprawling scenic landscapes and carefully lit interiors – in this way he is the novelistic equivalent to the director John Ford.  Often he spends more time on the particulars of a room than the people in it, leaving his characters emotions and motivations opaque through much of the book. There’s a noticeable absence of internal dialogue in the pages of The Brotherhood…, particularly among the main characters.  This is a marked and noticeable contrast to the Franzen-style psychoanalytical navel gazing frequently found in contemporary literary fiction.  But Jerusalmy seems to be after something else entirely. His prose is performative, delivering moments of deliciously decadent melodrama.  Take for example the passage below in which Colin de Cayeux dramatically enters a tavern, summoned there by Villon.

The door of the tavern opened suddenly, blown inward by a gust of wind. Spray and hail crashed onto the flagstones, sprinkling the sawdust and the straw. The dogs growled, the drinkers bellowed, the cats threw themselves under the tables. Their shadows swayed in the red light of the newly fanned flames of the hearth. Threats and curses rang out. Framed in the doorway, dripping with rain, a man stood silhouetted against the whiteness of the hail. He was motionless for a moment, ignoring the tumult. A black velvet cloak floated around his shoulders like beating wings. Only two things were visible on this untimely specter: a wan smile and, below it, the milky reflection of a knife.

Cue the sinister music.

The Brotherhood of Book Hunters was released in English by Europa Editions in 2014, the second of Jerusalmy’s novels to be translated into English, and received moderate attention and lukewarm reviews. His tendency to view his characters with the same panoramic lens he uses for the scenery – zooming in only briefly to record a reaction or fleeting emotion before sweeping off to the next plot twist – is a deliberate, but perhaps not always successful, stylistic tick. His use of the third person omniscient narrator is masterful, but (perhaps as a result) his book is not character driven enough to appeal to the genre reader. Nor is his writing experimental enough to draw the attention of the die-hard translation crowd. What he has done is written a solid, entertaining and (admittedly) cinematic novel filled with lovely passages that fire the imagination – the perfect book for Fall nights curled up in a comfortable armchair under a warm blanket.

Federico checked on last time that the volumes were in good condition, then called the clerk and ordered him to wrap them. He walked Ficino to the door of the shop. The old scholar took off his hat to say goodbye to his host, then again pulled it down over his ears. The rain had stopped. The clerk arrived, holding the precious package at arm’s length, and was already rushing outside, forcing Master Ficino to gallop after him. Federico watched them scampering toward the rainbow that crowned the end of the avenue. He half expected to see them fly away on the horizon and whirl around amid steeples and towers, gaily beating their wings beyond the orange roofs of the city.

The Bosnian War – In Short Stories & A Computer Game

October 21, 2015 § 2 Comments

This week’s review can be found over at The Rumpus. Soundcheck: Tales from the Balkan Conflict is a book of short stories by Galician author & journalist Miguel-Anxo Murado, translated by Carys Evans-Corrales.  This War of Mine is a computer survival game based on the Siege of Sarajevo. Each compliments the other – forcing readers (and players) to re-evaluate the way we think about war.  Arguably in more realistic ways than we’re used to.  CLICK on the cover to learn more:

 

SOUNDCHECK: TALES FROM THE BALKAN CONFLICT

 

Note:  This War of Mine was created by the game company 11 bit studios. They’re currently developing a new version of the game which ups the ante even further by adding children to the group of survivors. I talk about the original game in the review – here’s a link to the homepage and trailer (you’ll need to scroll down) for This War of Mine: The Little Ones. No release date yet, as far as I can tell.

A Quick Post On A Day Spent Reading, Fake Fireplaces & Sergio Pitol

October 3, 2015 § 5 Comments

I’ve set aside today to read.  My usual routine for days like this is to make prodigious amounts of tea, put the “fireplace” video on the television and pretend I’m stranded in a Scottish Inn. The video operates under the same concept as the Yule Log.  Which, for those who haven’t had the pleasure, is played during the holidays on public television – transforming television screens across America into burning fireplaces. Classical music plays as the logs burn down, though why they (by they I am of course referring to the visionaries who recognized the market demand a video of burning logs fills) can’t just use the crackling sounds of an actual fire is beyond me. The particular video I have access to also includes artistic close-ups of portions of the fire, further destroying the illusion of your-tv-as-fireplace.  We can only assume this (along with the music) is a balm to the filmmaker’s artistic integrity, or perhaps a way to pacify the Gas Fireplace Manufacturers of America who might view televised fireplaces as a competing market.

As usual there’s a stack of books I want to get to.  At the moment my focus is on finishing Sergio Pitol’s The Art of Flight. He has a remarkable authorial voice – and his personality shines through this and the first book of his Trilogy of Memory: The Journey. What I wanted to talk about, though, is the wonderful supplemental material Deep Vellum included with each book.  Two Introductions  – written by Enrique Vila-Matas (for The Art of Flight) & Álvaro Enrigue (for The Journey).  Álvaro Enrigue’s is your standard overview: explaining the author’s work and its importance in an essay called Sergio Pitol, Russian Boy.  Vila-Matas’ introduction is a bit more personal. He draws a wonderful portrait of Sergio Pitol in his own, very brief, essay entitled Pitol in the Rain.  The two men (Vila-Matas & Pitol) are friends; and Vila-Matas mentions the little details, the small quirks of personality, which true friends treasure. Thanks to Vila-Matas we discover that Sergio Pitol is a bit of a hypochondriac and is continuously losing (and recovering) his eyeglasses.

‘I remember the day because there was a pounding rain and Sergio was constantly losing his glasses; the latter was not at all unusual, his penchant for losing and then finding his glasses being legendary. That day he lost them several times, in various bookstores and cafes, as if that were the perfect antidote for not losing his umbrella. I recalled the day that Juan Villoro had found in Pitol’s tendency to lose his glasses a clue to illuminating new aspects of his poetics:  “Sergio writes in that hazy region of someone who loses his eyeglasses on purpose; he pretends that his originality is an attribute of his bad eyesight…”

Pitol in the Rain is only a few pages long, but every word is full of affection and friendship.  Readers are left in no doubt that Pitol is a man much loved by those fortunate enough to know him personally.

How often can biographies, let alone introductions and afterwards, make that claim? I often find that the more I learn about an author the more disillusioned I become.  But, from what I’ve read so far – The Journey in its entirety and a good portion of The Art of Flight – Pitol is far from a bad boy or glamorous member of the Literati.  Though he seems to have come in contact, and frequently developed lasting relationships, with some of the most important writers of the times his writing is amazingly scandal and gossip free.  His anecdotes are amusing because he finds them amusing, and always good-naturedly so. I get the feeling the members of the Algonquin Round Table would find him a bore and he would feel the same of them.  He lacks their sting, yet is as charming as any one of them could wish to be.

George Henson’s translation captures the author’s lightness and guileless enthusiasm for life and literature. He’s also done an admirable job of keeping the strand of Pitol’s prose from becoming tangled in the author’s convoluted labyrinth of memory. Henson, too, seems to have succumbed to Sergio’s charm despite their having never met.  In the translator’s note Henson describes the pressure of translating without an author’s collaboration.  Particularly when the author is a much celebrated translator, himself.   He explains the reason for the absence of authorial input (which I won’t go into) and ends the paragraph with an email he received from Pitol (which I will) – “Your interest in my work fills me with happiness and gratitude. I would love nothing more than to see my Trilogy of Memory translated into English, a language I adore and in which none of my books exist.”

I found those two sentences incredibly touching, – particularly the words happiness, gratitude and adore. The more I read the more it becomes apparent that Pitol possessed a rare and self-effacing intelligence. Those three words are representative of the author, or at least how I’ve come to think of him through the his books. Many things seem to have filled Sergio Pitol with adoration, happiness and gratitude.  We can all be grateful that he took the time to write some of those things down.

An Annual Tradition: The 2015 Brooklyn Book Festival

September 30, 2015 § 2 Comments

A little over a week I was at the Brooklyn Festival. The weather was beautiful – a warm and windy Fall day. Due to the construction happening around Borough Hall everything was a little more spread out this year. The Hall’s grand steps, featured in every article about the festival and usually completely filled with people, stood empty behind a chain link fence. Food trucks were parked in front of the Cadman Plaza Post Office, a little farther down than their normal spots.  The Post Office steps functioned as an al fresco dining area where Lori, my Festival buddy, and I enjoyed some delicious (if overpriced) empanadas mid-day. The new set-up also utilized a section of park around the Korean War Memorial which usually stands empty, filling it with the booths belonging to the smaller literary magazines.  I liked it.  In fact, I hope they continue using it next year – hopefully moving the booths out of the too narrow, sad walkway adjacent to the Courthouse that no one really likes.
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After several years of attendance one thing I’ve learned is that the moderator has the ability to make or break a panel.  This was painfully reinforced at Darkness & Light – a panel which featured an extraordinary line-up of international authors: Naja Marie Aidt (Denmark), László Krasznahorkai (Hungary) & Andrés Neuman (Argentina/Spain).  Krasznahorkai, I can’t be alone in believing, will eventually win the Nobel.  Which adds a certain prestige to the whole enterprise.  People develop expectations.  Which is why the moderator must have been a last minute substitution, after the original moderator was struck down with cholera or the bubonic plague.  That’s the only logical explanation. Because it was immediately clear he hadn’t read any of the authors’ books. In fact, he did everything to avoid talking about them altogether.  Instead he followed a painful line of questions which included reading aloud Genesis 1:3 and asking the panelists to comment (because Europeans don’t feel Americans are religious enough); discussing the length of daylight in the different time zones where they are from; and  ENDING the panel by having them talk about whether they felt print books vs. digital readers (which have built in light sources – he actually included that as a qualifier) were effecting how they wrote and/or how their books were enjoyed.  The panel is called light and dark, get it??? You think it’s a metaphor – but noooo, he meant it literally. SURPRISE!

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No rotten fruit was available to the audience, and I’d already eaten my empanadas. And so this madness was allowed to play out unchecked.

Each author did give a brief reading at the beginning, before anyone realized what was in store. László chose to read his passage first in English and then, movingly, in Hungarian.  Most of the audience questions were, not surprisingly, directed at László and mostly pertained to his work in film.  Luckily, Neuman and Aidt were on other panels later in the day.  And Laszlo did sign my copies of Satantango & Seiobo There Below afterwards  – one personalized to me and the other to my husband.  If, after that, you still feel you might have missed something the video of the panel is up on YouTube for your viewing pleasure.
On the other end of the spectrum – as wonderful as the before mentioned panel was terrible – The New Latin American Literature: A View From Within had an incredible line-up of authors.  Yuri Herrera, Valeria Luiselli, Guadalupe Nettel, Andrés Neuman (again) and Alejandro Zambra. Daniel Alarcon acted as moderator.  The discussion covered a variety of topics – magical realism and The Boom, writing for an English speaking audience, life in Mexico City and (as the title says) the state of Latin American literature today. Overall it was an incredibly vibrant 60 minutes, one of the few events I’ve ever attended which conveyed a sense of the camaraderie we like to imagine exists among writers. I left believing The New Latin American Literature was a real movement rather than just a pretext on which to organize a panel.
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Despite the numbers he was working with Alarcon engaged each writer individually, asking questions which showcased their personalities & interests. Alejandro Zambra came across as the most defiant of the group, while Guadalupe Nettel seemed to be the most socially & politically involved (a journalist herself, she was the only one to bring up  the killing of journalists in Mexico).  Luiselli brought up, not for the first time, the generation of Latin American writers who came immediately after The Boom and are still waiting to be translated into English.  Andrés Neuman  – whose short story collection I knew I had somewhere (wrongfully neglected) on my bookshelves  – displayed a thoughtful, intellectual side. I found his book, The Things We Don’t Do published by Open Letter, immediately upon arriving home. I can’t wait to start reading it.

There were other panels and more than one new discovery. Imperium, when described by the author Christian Kracht, seems a much more intriguing book than its marketing conveys. I heard the Congolese author of Tram 83, Fiston Mwanza Mujila, give a spirited reading from his novel in French – and quietly laughed as his British translator strove valiantly to emulate that passion but was hindered by being… well… a little too British.  I also spent some time and money at the Feminist Press booth. I finally own a copy of Virginie Despentes King Kong Theory.  But my favorite purchase of the day was without a doubt the anthology  The Shipwrecked: Contemporary Stories by Women from Iran.

I also received a rather smart tote bag.
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The Brooklyn Book Festival, despite its being held in September, always serves as the mile marker of my year in books.  It’s where I go to see the authors who excited me in the months preceding and where I discover the authors who’ll occupy me for the weeks that remain.  I imagine that there are dozens of similar, if not larger and better, book festivals happening throughout the year that I know nothing about. So I’m throwing out a question – do you have a festival which plays the same, or a similar, role for you?

 

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