Dan Sandman

Archive for July, 2013|Monthly archive page

30: Boyhood by J.M. Coetzee

In Autobiography, Books, Fiction, Non-Fiction on 26/07/2013 at 12:00 pm

Boyhood by J.M. CoetzeeAs tales of childhood go, mine is as about interesting as anyone else’s. I had a family, I went to school and eventually turned into a teenager. In between these rather run of the mill events, lots of things happened that could be turned into a memoir. But if I was to sit down and begin regaling the anecdotes it might be quite a dull book. I’d probably tell the story predictably, in the first person, pointing out lots of detailed various landscapes and colourful people along the way. I doubt I’d think of utilising the third person and sparsely fictionalise my upbringing, fears about society and personal relationships as bleak sepia toned photographs.

But J.M Coetzee is not me: he is a great writer. He writes in a style that is his own. He is able to tell the story in such a way that will drag you into his world view. The world you’re dragged into is a dark world of conflicting emotions. A place where childhood is presented as naked and at times ugly. He is wise, serious and somewhat superior. He is not afraid to show contempt and take judgement. And his book is a good read, depressing at times yes, but nonetheless a very well written piece of writing.

Some things about growing up – riding a bike, playing cricket, going to see a film, visiting family – seem universal to boyhood. That’s why this book had me turning the pages; because it reminded me of the types of things that boys do, how they think and feel. And Coetzee, born in 1940, was a boy growing up in pre-apartheid South Africa. This made the book particularly compelling.

Because it is a boy who the story follows, complex politics and salient themes are seen from a boy’s perspective. National attitudes towards race, religion and sex are intoned through memories of growing up. The boy’s birthday party is “spoiled” by “ragged coloured children”. He “retreats in dismay” from his Afrikaans classmate’s “monosyllabic heaviness”. He looks up to the English “who have not fallen into a rage because they live behind walls and guard their hearts well”. Already, at a young age, the boy has defined his social landscape in racial terms and yet doesn’t conform to the expectations of society. Apprehensive of history lessons, he decides to like the Russians; not sure what religion he belongs to, he says he’s Catholic because he’s read stories about heroic Romans. Everything in life, his education and his family, feels ominous to the boy. At home, he doesn’t like his father and squirms when his mother mentions the word love.

If this book wasn’t written with acutely descriptive verve, the serious tone could seem too dismal for most reader’s tastes. But it is written with great exactness and fans of Coetzee’s work will recognise his remarkably elegant style. In my life, the book has helped me to think about childhood in a reflective way. How school education can overly focus on the passing of exams whilst creativity is shunned as being abnormal. How children can feel helpless when something dramatic happens in their family life. How young people struggle to come to terms with grown-ups contradictory world views.

Serious things, but nonetheless worth thinking about.

29: Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe

In Books, Fiction on 19/07/2013 at 12:00 pm

Arrow of God by Chinua AchebeThis gripping novel by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe is the third book of his highly acclaimed African trilogy: a series of books which can be enjoyed out of sequence. The story explores the conflicting relationship between a traditional African ruler called Ezuelu and British Colonial rule. The ancestors of Ezuelu, chief priest of Umuaro, have been sought for wisdom and guidance by the six villages for many years. As chief priest, Ezuelu is an authority on the locally worshipped god Ulu. However, as the story progresses, Ezuelu’s power is put under pressure by the interference of British officers and the white man’s religion Christianity.

To give the story some background, at the very beginning of the 20th century, a system of indirect rule was established in Nigeria whereby the British controlled the military and the tax system whilst local authorities, often aristocratic and friendly towards the British, were chosen to rule over other areas of life. As long as the military controlled the guns, this system of indirect rule provided a cheap and sparsely staffed way for Britain to make a profit.

The plot of Arrow of God tells the story of the people effected by indirect rule. It begins with a battle between the chief priest’s village Umuaro and the nearby village Okperi. A British officer called Winterbottom intervenes in the battle and admires Ezuelu for his honesty. Later, Ezuelu is asked to become a Warrant Cheif under the Administration, but Ezuelu refuses to take Winterbottom’s offer and is temporarily put in prison. At first Ezuelu is admired by his people for saying no to the white man, but Ezuelu’s anger and the anger of his spirit side – through which Ulu communicates – leads to tragic circumstances. Ezuelu is an arrow of god: striking against his people as they turn away from Ulu towards Christianity.

Achebe’s writing grabs the reader’s attention through a direct, descriptive and (at times) essay like style. The rich dialogue catalogues many old proverbs and brings to life the translated speech of the villagers. When the story moves to depict the British Administration, we are shown an insight into the language of bureaucracy where big decisions are made in distant countries for political gain. The beauty of Achebe’s writing style is its ability to transport the reader into a complex world; therefore, encouraging the reader to engage with complex issues.

I would highly recommend this book to friends interested in reading good books that teach you things. Because it’s well written and because the plot is exciting, Arrow of God paints an accessible yet chilling portrait of colonial Africa. Seen mostly from the perspective of individual characters struggling to come to terms with the aftermath of colonialism, this compellingly sad story simultaneously celebrates traditional Nigerian customs. This book is as starkly relevant today as when it was written in 1964.

An important book.

28: The Bridge by Iain Banks

In Books, Fiction on 12/07/2013 at 12:00 pm

The Bridge by Iain BanksI’m going to my local book club next week. We’ll be meeting downstairs (I live above a library) to discuss The Bridge by Iain Banks. Sadly, the Scottish author recently passed away, on June the 9th this year, following a long battle with cancer. Banks was an important non-genre and science fiction writer who will be missed by his many worldwide fans.

Written in 1986, The Bridge raises many philosophical questions about life, death and the subconscious mind. The book’s interwoven and shifting narratives artfully explore the inner workings of a man’s mind whilst he is lying in a coma. It is an exciting story that is surreal in terms of both form and content – a masterpiece that showcases Banks’ playful way with words. It’s often laugh out loud funny, at times odd or disturbing, and always a pleasure to read.

However, because of the non-linear form – plus the occasional use of phonetically spelt dialect – it can sometimes be difficult to follow the story. Banks consistently asks more questions than he answers, yet is at his best when diverting the norms and standards of literature; playing with the reader’s expectations; building up contrasting layers of intrigue; varying the storytelling device. The Bridge is like a good symphony:  carefully structured with some good tunes holding together contrasting sections.

I’ll enjoy chatting about this book at the Primrose Hill Community Library Book Club. I think it has the potential to liven up a room full of book lovers. Yes, it can be angry, but it can be light-hearted too; it’s a deep multi-layered fiction. Good writers of fiction – and Banks is certainly an expert – are able to organise their stories in new ways that reveal something about the human condition. By reading this book, I found myself thrown into a fascinating world where experience, time and memory do not necessarily follow predictable patterns. In a universe full of hundreds of billions of galaxies, this fictional hypothesis seems a likely conclusion.

Reminds of a time when I… but that was another story.

27: We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch

In Books, History, Non-Fiction on 05/07/2013 at 12:00 pm

We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip GourevitchThis remarkable history book is about the Rwandan genocide of 1994 which lead to the killing of between 500,000 and 100,0000 (up to 14.2% of the country’s population) in a hundred days. Journalist Philip Gourevitch, writing for the New Yorker, grapples with a series of complex and shocking stories from Rwanda. The book references colonial writer’s flawed views on racial identity; Hutu Power propagandist radio broadcasts and pamphlets; quotes from soldiers working for the UN; and an international law, unanimously adopted at the genocide convention  in 1948, created to prevent another holocaust.

To the book’s credit,  every historical argument and shocking statistic is placed within the context of an interviewed survivor. The interviewees cover a range of Rwandan society including: the old woman who survived the murder of her children; the allegedly criminal priest who escaped to Texas; the hotel manager, Paul Rusesabagina, who saved many Tutsi lives (as depicted in the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda) by using his social intelligence and business skills; and, most significantly, the current president of Rwanda Paul Kagame. The interviews are handled delicately as the sympathetic yet cynical Gouravitch attempts to come to terms with his experiences.

And I think great credit should be given to Gouravitch. Not only has the American journalist gone to great depths – he spent three years compiling the research for this book – to shed some light on some very dark stories, but he has done so with the articulate prose style of a good writer of fiction. As the book references Joseph Conrad and George Elliot, we are given a literary context for the great suffering and horrific acts of the past. The reader is shown a portrait of a poor country – tragically ignored by the UN – divided by ethnicity to the point of destruction. Then the reader, who will most likely be from a safer and wealthier country, is given a harrowing account of how humanitarian aid money was used following the highly organised mass murders. As the very people who had committed the atrocities fled to the refugee camps in neighbouring Zaire to escape prosecution, aid workers were manipulated to become naive pawns within a Mafia style system. Lives were saved, but many dodgy deals were done.

To conclude, I want to tell you a story from my own childhood. In 1994 I was a nine-year-old primary school student who didn’t like dinner-ladies. They would always be shouting at children and telling them things that didn’t make much sense. I remember one day I didn’t like the over-boiled pasta that I had been given to eat for school dinners. It must have been sitting in the pot for at least half an hour which left it inflated and incredibly soggy. Anyway, the dinner-ladies would tell the kids that they weren’t allowed to throw away their pasta “because of the starving children in Africa.” I would reply to them logically arguing that “if I don’t throw away this food it’s not going to go Africa so why can’t I throw it away.” I cleverly organised a lookout system with a couple of friends. Whilst the dinner-ladies weren’t looking or were having a fag outside, we’d make a dash for the throw-away bowl. Goodbye saturated pasta!

Having now read, in great detail, about what the dinner-ladies called “the starving children in Africa” I will, if called upon, defend my actions in a court of justice.