Dan Sandman

Posts Tagged ‘Africa’

#32 The Full Cupboard of Life

In Adventure, Books, Comedy, Crime, Fiction on 04/08/2017 at 12:00 pm

#32 The Full Cupboard of LifeBotswana is a moral playground in this novel from the No. Ladies’ Detective Agency series. With his infectiously sunny outlook, Alexander McCall Smith cries in favour of the traditional Botswana values that stand for honesty and hard work. In this fifth installment, such principles are under threat from cowboy mechanics and gold-digger boyfriends. As ever, with her perfect blend of feminine intuition and common-sense, private detective Mma Ramotswe sets out to fight for the old Botswana ways her father believed in. As with the other books within the series, McCall Smith promotes an optimistic view of Botswana and Southern Africa in general; highlighting the generosity, compassion and courage of its people with his deceptively simple prose. On the surface, he provides his many fans with hours of comic fun; but underneath lies a moral philosophy which reveals his academic background and life experience. These popular books can be enjoyed entertainment or read as guides on how to live a moral and happy life in an ever-changing world. I think we would all benefit from a cup of bush tea with Mma Ramotswe, Mma Makutsi and Mr J.L.B Matekoni.


#3 Things Fall Apart

In Books, Fiction on 13/01/2017 at 12:00 pm

Written in the past tense, in clear and concise prose, this historical novel explores the religious practices and cultural traditions of a village called Umuofia. The protagonist Okonkwo is a great wrestler and a great warrior; a man with many wives and much authority within the village. It is said that he has a strong chi or personal god, which has enabled him to prosper; despite his father being heavily in debt when he died. Okonkwo shows no emotion, unless it is the emotion of anger. For example, as is acceptable within the village, and to maintain his role as head of the family, he often beats his wives. Okonkwo is a great believer in the laws of his society, even when the law is against him. When Okonkwo is exiled from Umuofia for an inadvertent shooting, he must abandon his father’s village. Meanwhile, a new system of governance, accompanied by a new religious order, one ruled by white men, has begun to establish itself.

#3 Things Fall Apart.jpg

19: Life and Times of Michael K by J. M. Coetzee

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 06/05/2016 at 12:00 pm

Life and Times of Michael KMichael K is a gardener caught in the midst of a civil war. K leaves the city of Cape Town and heads to the country in search of his mother’s childhood home. On his Odyssey, our unlikely hero encounters several strangers, each effected by the war in a different way. He also encounters a police state built on the backs of concentration camp workers.

J. M Coetzee published his masterpiece in 1983, the year I was born. Between its publication and now, thirty-two years have passed. Over these three decades, apartheid South Africa has become post-apartheid South Africa; a new system with new problems of its own. But whereas critics with an historical angle would justifiably locate this work within the politics of 1983, I would like to talk very briefly about its place within the history of literature and the modern novel.

There is certainly a Greek influence here, as with any story concerning a hero whom, like Ulysses, travels away from home, comes up against a number of trials, transforms their heroic character and finally returns to where the adventure started. Then there are the references to Robinson Crusoe somewhere in the middle of the story; as K lives the life of an isolated farmer, growing pumpkins and hunting various species with his catapult. In my usual three paragraphs, written every Friday morning and published at twelve noon precisely, I have just given Life and Times of Michael K an historical context and, in the third paragraph, connected it to two examples of my wider reading.

There are many ways to talk about books, and there are as just many ways to read them.

18:In the Heart of the Country by J. M Coetzee

In Books, Fiction on 29/04/2016 at 12:00 pm

In the Heart of the Country by J.M. CoetzeeThis book is set in the South African countryside. On an isolated farm, a disturbed character called Magda is writing down her thoughts in the present tense. Readers are given no omnipresent narrative voice, nor are we shown another side to the story. Magda controls the words on the page and we, the readers, are her confidants.

Below the surface of this closed room psycho drama lie two problematic power relationships. Firstly, from a psychoanalytical perspective, it is possible to observe an unsettling and worrisome sexual tension between a mentally ill daughter and her patriarchal father. Secondly, and relevant to any postcolonial critique of the novel, there is a more overt discourse between master and servant. Later in the novel, such relationships are shown to be held together by the power of money or the power of a gun. When this power is taken away from the master, the results are catastrophic for the social order of the household.

Coetzee presents us with another dark work of postcolonial fiction. His bleak and isolated South African landscape is a microcosm in which to explore mental illness. On first appearances, it is the violent story of an individual descent into a fantastical madness. When seen from a number of critical perspectives, it can be used to open up questions surrounding psychoanalysis, feminism, colonial history and social class.

‘A powerful study of lust, degradation and fantasy’.

13: Age of Iron by J. M. Coetzee

In Books, Crime, Fiction on 25/03/2016 at 12:00 pm

Age of Iron by J. M. CoetzeeJ. M. Coetzee’s novels do not offer the reader an escape from the problems of society. In beautifully crafted prose, his fiction forces us to confront contemporary issues head on. With virtuous narrative technique, his books shine a light on the inner workings of the human soul. Without coming across as preachy or over discursive, Coetzee teaches us to search within ourselves. What we find might upset us, but by questioning our conscience we come closer to an understanding of life.

The narrator of this epistolary novel is an old classics teacher who is well versed in Latin and Greek. Because she is writing using the letter form, she engages the reader directly at several points of the story. This narrative technique brings extra gravity to the novel, giving the writing a sense of urgency that could otherwise be missing. Critical readers will notice how this form is employed in order to highlight the physical act of writing. It is as though we the reader are privy to confidential material, speculating upon the literary evidence presented to us.

As in other works by Coetzee, old photographs are symbolic metaphors: frozen evidence of times gone by. When we peer at them, we do not necessarily see ourselves. What we observe is a faded image of ourselves, one that is not the face we see today in the mirror. Our childhood memories become tainted by the knowledge of our adult selves; magnified by the inevitable approach of death.

Like I said, this is not escapism.


01: Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton

In Books, Fiction on 01/01/2016 at 12:00 pm

Primrose Hill Community LibraryI live with my mother in a posh part of north London called Primrose Hill, but we are not posh. Many celebrities reside nearby. When I was younger, I used to teach guitar in a private school for the children of the rich and famous. My biggest claim to fame is that I once tackled a Hollywood star on the football pitch. It was a parents versus teachers game. We won seven nil.

There is a community library directly underneath one side of our living room. My mother and I treat it as an extension to our home. Sometimes one of the volunteers puts books outside to buy for next to nothing. Just before Christmas, we picked up one nice Penguin each. They were rectangular shaped, smelling of camp fires and rose petals.

‘Ooh!’ I exclaimed, reading from the blurb.

‘This book “approaches the racial problems of South Africa…”. Sounds right up my street. Ha, that almost sounds like a line from a comedy. I do enjoy the racial problems of South Africa.’

A woman wearing glasses happened to be passing by. She gave me a funny look and then started to browse. I think she had her eye on my mother’s Penguin. She followed us into the library.

42: Township Plays by Athold Fugard

In Books, Fiction, Plays on 16/10/2015 at 12:00 pm

The Township Plays by Athol FugardAthol Fugard (1932 – ) is South Africa’s foremost playwright. This book is a collection of five plays he wrote in collaboration with black actors from the townships. The plays were all performed during apartheid, and draw on the everyday experiences of ordinary people. In modern day South Africa, how relevant are these vital and angry plays?

In No-good Friday (1958), a man in his thirties called Willie makes a stand against a township gangster called Shark. Willie starts out studying for a BA, but cannot escape the violence on his doorstep. Throughout, the drama is nail-biting, and we are left riding on the edge of our seats. Nongogo (1959) is about a woman called Queeny, who runs a shebeen (drinking establishment). Queeny is offered a more honest life by the young salesman Johnny, but their plans are scuppered by her Iago-like friend Sam. The third play The Coat (1967), is an acting exercise involving a dead man’s over-garment. The last two plays, Sizwe Bansi is Dead (1972) and The Island (1973), directly attack the actions of the government: the first on the issue of racially defined identity cards; the second on the detention of political prisoners on Robben Island.

This is an excellent book. It includes a brilliant introduction by Dennis Walder, and a brief preface by the playwright himself. But to restate the question I asked earlier, are these plays still important today? Yes, I believe so – and I think they will still be read into the twenty-second century. This is drama that will stand the test of time: thrilling, exciting, politically aware drama. The good sort of stuff that will get you thinking and talking when you come out of the playhouse. If you think that sounds like something you’d like to do, then read this book.

Or form a drama company.

33: Dusklands by J.M. Coetzee

In Books, Fiction, History, Non-Fiction on 14/08/2015 at 12:00 pm

Duskland by J. M. CoetzeeThis chilling debut novel contains two first person accounts: firstly, the disturbing thoughts of an American propagandist during the Vietnam War; and secondly, the brutal narrative of a frontiersman and elephant hunter. The first account is by all appearances a work of fiction, whilst the second account is framed by the translator as an historical document (pg. 85). By melding supposed fiction with supposed history, Coetzee asks the reader to question the validity of historical truth. When we consider this in the light of J.M Coetzee’s autobiographical work Boyhood (1997), we can begin to understand the difficult relationship that Coetzee has with historical truth.

As America was suffering huge defeats in Vietnam, across the world steps were being taken by colonialist nations to decolonize. A quick Wikipedia search will show that forty two African nations were granted independence between 1955 and 1975 (the twenty year period in which the ‘American War’ was thought). By the time Dusklands was published in 1974, Portugal’s African empire had collapsed. African politics scholar Jonathan Farley sees this as a turning point, leading to independence of Rhodesia as Zimbabwe (1980) and South Africa achieving majority rule in 1994 (see Southern Africa by Jonathan Farley). This is the historical context within which Coetzee was finishing his novel, a creative process which involved literary research at The British Museum.

It is fascinating to think of Coetzee living in London, before the two Booker Awards and the Nobel Prize for Literature, sifting through the archives of my local museum. In fact, it is inspiring to know that his scholarly novels can still be published and appreciated by a wide audience. The more I learn about fiction and history, the more I realize how important novels are to me. The novel form can work independently from the dates, figures and ideologies purveyed by historians and journalists. Humanistic storytelling can help the reader to feel empathy towards other cultures, and to question the received wisdom of politically motivated ‘non-fiction’. Dusklands has been criticized for not being harsh enough on the frankly genocidal eighteenth century explorers portrayed in the second half of the novel. Instead of being condemned by Dr. S.J Coetzee (the novelist’s father) in his 1951 edition (pg.85), they are celebrated in the afterword as ‘honorable’ (pg.166). However, if this slim novel fails to fully address the warped education system of apartheid era South Africa, this overhanging issue is explored more fully in the autobiographical work Boyhood.

Today he would probably be keeping a blog for that sort of thing.

22: The Kalahari Typing School for Men by Alexander McCall Smith

In Books, Crime, Fiction on 29/05/2015 at 12:00 pm

The Kalahari Typing School for Men by Alexander McCall SmithAh, time for another visit to the wonderful world of Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana. It’s a magical place where Africa’s problems can all be wiped away by a nice cup of red bush tea and a friendly consultation with the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency; where readers are encouraged to feel that a little human kindness can go a very long way; and where life’s moral problems can be handled with ladies intuition and common sense. Of course, the real world is not quite so simple, but who said that fiction should be a facsimile of reality anyway?

So, in this perfectly paced book (210 pp), the forth in the series, Mma Ramotswe and her trusty sidekick Mma Makutsi are back: turning a patriarchal society on its head whilst still fighting for the old Botswana ways. Just as things were getting comfortable, and Mr. J. L. B. Maketoni was getting over his depression illness, Mma Ramotswe’s business is threatened, when she discovers that she has a competitor. The Satisfaction Guaranteed Detective Agency is run by a man with a Zulu sounding name (Zulu people are always too loud), who promotes his experience in Johannesburg and New York. Will Mma Ramotswe loose business, as clients are attracted by such exotic sounding city names, in such exciting sounding countries as South Africa and America? And will people go to the new face in town because he’s a man, and you can trust a man, especially a man who has worked in the CID? All will be revealed.

Meanwhile, Mma Makutsi sets up her own typing school business, and, seeing a gap in the market, she decides the classes will be run solely for male students. This clever idea is a great success, meaning that Mma Makutsi now has three jobs. And when she meets an older man with unusually shiny shoes, everything seems to be on the up. But is the diamond company man all that he’s cracked up to be? Only Mma Ramotswe can find the answer.

This series always makes me smile with pleasure.

09: Southern Africa by Jonathan Farley

In Books, History, Non-Fiction on 27/02/2015 at 12:00 pm

Southern Africa by Jonathan FarleyThis concise history book is focused on Southern Africa as a region, expertly bringing together the central events and personalities that have shaped contemporary South Africa, Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique, Lesotho, Botswana, Swaziland and Namibia. The book is divided into four heading: the economic and social dimension, the political dimension, the security dimension and the foreign policy dimension – with conclusions forming a fifth part. In an authoritative way, the work draws together map-changing events such as the collapse of Portugal’s African empire (1974), the independence of Rhodesia as Zimbabwe (1980) and South Africa achieving majority rule in 1994.

Jonathan Farley has taught African politics on naval officer courses in Greenwich, and expertly guides the reader through the complex and inter-connected politics and issues. He is first to admit that Southern Africa has immense problems – such as AIDS, general insecurity, violence against woman, injustice in Zimbabwe and lack of reconciliation across the colour line (pg. 139) – but is often convincing when discussing solutions to these problems. For example, he supports ‘the onward march of education that will eventually bring about greater enlightenment, greater tolerance and the greatest happiness’. But, the difficulty is, Southern Africa needs to develop a system that can support such luxuries as education, health and lower crime rates. In historical terms, the region is still in its infancy – if we take 1974 as a turning point, as Farley does – and so far, when we consider the relatively recent transference from minority rule to majority rule, it should be credited for the forward steps it has taken. However, one thing is clear, on an unacceptable scale, too many Southern African people continue to suffer from preventable disease, sexist attacks, political corruption and racial division.

On the whole, I enjoyed studying this book and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in general history. It is small in size, but packs a big punch, covering the most essential incidents and characters (eg. the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck to the the Cape in 1652). My main criticism is that, for a book published in 2008, during the presidency of Thabo Mbeki in South Africa, it is already dated. One example that stood out for me, is the optimistic way Farley discuses the sacking of Jacob Zuma in regards to the political dimension. When he was deputy prime minister, the current president was rightly fired for taking back-handers. In hindsight, when Farley holds this up as a good example, it is rather disparaging to read. Still, this only goes to show how important it is that we read history books, digest what we have learnt and reflect on this knowledge.

That’s why I write about history.