africa

HECATE AND HER DOGS BY PAUL MORAND

Have you ever met an Englishman abroad? I travel regularly, often alone, and always make an effort to interact with the locals. Most of the time people are warm and friendly, at least outwardly, but there’s an unmistakable caution below the surface. You’re English? Yes. It feels like an admission of guilt. Perhaps I should apologise? How English that would be. It’s the same in bars and hotels. The workers are happy to take your money, but it’s clear that the reputation of your kind preceeds you. You’re eyed as something like a cross between a cash-cow and a pirate. Your role is to plunder and spend. It’s the only time that I am allowed a glimpse into what it feels like to be marked, to be judged, instantly and negatively, without having done anything to justify it myself. Why are you here? I’m here to goose your women and pave your streets with the contents of my stomach.

It’s worse at the weekends. Spend two or three weeks in a foreign country and you will come to see it yourself. Or hear it, rather. The pounding drums and clattering hoofbeats of the English arriving on the Friday evening. Of course we aren’t always so savage. Quite the contrary. Our national disease is our repression, our inability to express ourselves, our shame. Being emotionally disabled is our cultural signature. It is only when we are away, when we are somewhere and something unrecognisable, that we feel free, but moral and emotional freedom is too much for our weak constitution. We are the dog that has managed to break into the larder. We are the dog that has gorged itself then shit all over the living room floor.

“I threw myself recklessly into the inescapable maelstrom of the passions with the same determination which others use to subdue them. I envied Clotilde, to whom wickedness came naturally, whereas I had to try very hard to outdo her by committing acts of unbelievable folly.”

Hecate and Her Dogs is the story of a man, now sixty, who returns to Africa after thirty years. After a brief introduction, very little of the action takes place in the present, with the majority of the novel being a retelling of his past experiences of a place he swore he would never visit again, a place where ‘I left my youth and spent the worst years of my life.’ It’s a well-worn, but always intriguing set-up. One continues eagerly, awaiting the revelation, the answer to the question: why the worst? My anticipation was especially heightened by some of the reviews I had seen. In fact, I must admit that I was drawn to the novel mostly because it has been described as ‘repellent’ and ‘unnerving,’ amongst other things. Having read it, however, I wonder if these readers were particularly sensitive or, more likely, influenced by the unsavoury aspects of the author’s biography. Morand was not, to say the least, the most tolerant or enlightened of men. It is well documented that he was an elitist, a supporter of the Nazis, and an anti-semite. While the most ‘shocking’ aspect of the book doesn’t relate to Jews or the war, Morand’s unpleasant views do make the pages feel a little grimier to the touch.

With this in mind, one might anticipate that Morand’s Africa will be something like Celine’s or Conrad’s, which is to say hostile and primitive. Thankfully, surprisingly, that isn’t really the case. The book is actually set in Tangier, and therefore the closest literary comparison would be the work of Paul Bowles, which, in spite of its more positive reputation, has always struck me as being dubious also. In any case, there is one use of the word swarthy, one line about all arabs being called Ibrahim, and various references to the laidback, easy-going atmosphere. This latter point is important, because it – the local way of life – is used to contrast the personality and values of the narrator, which is often the case in novels of this sort. However, the difference here is that one gets the impression that the author, or the narrator at least, is being critical of the European, of himself, not the African. It is also telling that the novel’s dark heart, the Hecate of the title, is also a European who [seemingly] preys upon innocent local children.

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Before considering the villain of the piece I want to focus upon the narrator in more detail. As previously noted, he is particularly self-critical. He describes himself as ‘square-shaped,’ ‘stiff,’ and ‘lacking in social graces.’ As with the Englishman abroad, he finds that new territory affords him the opportunity to reinvent himself, to indulge himself, to let himself go, but he does so inexpertly, without imagination. He did not, he writes, know ‘how to breathe.’ Indeed, his ideas about what letting himself go actually means are comically innocent, such that Morand starts to resemble a satirist: ‘I wanted to go out without a hat, stroll to the office without carrying a leather briefcase, don a suit of close-woven grey cloth, something that in Europe would have struck me as being scandalously raffish.’ I found this aspect of the narrative fascinating. It reminded me of the voice of Serenus Zeitblom in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus. Even when the narrator does eventually let down his hair, he does so by copying the style of another. In other words, he imitates Clotilde, he appropriates her fantasies and desires.

Clotilde is initially portrayed as being a ‘blank,’ as ‘lacking lustre.’ She is graceful, and attractive, but in an obvious, predictable kind of way. Again, in spite of Morand’s elitist, classist, and racist views, he appears to be poking fun at the wealthy white European, who is ‘distinguished, not distinctive.’ Yet there is, of course, something about her that is distinctive, which is her apparent sexual interest in children. I say apparent for two reasons, because one never sees her doing anything wrong, one never witnesses the acts themselves, and her admissions, if you could call them that bearing in mind their vague nature, are all given at night, sometimes in her sleep. If one did want to point the accusing finger at Morand, then one might argue that it is Africa’s role to be the corruptor, rather than simply the conduit, but I really did not get that from the novel. It could, in my opinion, have been set anywhere, it just had to be somewhere else.

Nor do I think Hecate and Her Dogs is about sex, repellant or otherwise. To focus on that in reviews is misleading, albeit understandable. Yes, the narrator is influenced by Clotilde until he finds that her perversions ‘suited my taste,’ and there is something interesting about the power of suggestion, about the malleability of our sexual fantasies; but, as I mentioned previously, that is merely further evidence of his lack of imagination. For me, this is a book about what happens when you give an average man, a repressed dolt, a bit of rope, or a lot of rope, when you give him freedom. It is not necessary that he will do something so extreme or immoral, as he does here, but, in my experience, he will certainly do something out of character, he will gorge himself. And then he will shit all over the living room floor, of course.

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MY LIFE IN THE BUSH OF GHOSTS BY AMOS TUTUOLA

Boo.

No one chooses to be a ghost. It’s something that happens to you, against your will, without your say. One moment you’re miserable and alive, the next you’re miserable and dead. Or not dead exactly; it’s more like being in a permanent state of drunkenness, but a particular kind of drunkenness. It’s the sort of state you find yourself in after the party, at 3am, walking home alone in the dark, when everything seems unreal, untouchable, soft and sad. Yet this is still preferable to real death, of course. Any form of being is superior to no being. Something is always better than nothing, no matter how intangible. Perhaps the nothing comes after. Perhaps life fades away in stages, like a stain. I don’t know. No one tells you anything. There isn’t an induction or instruction manual. The lights simply go out, and then the lights come back on, as though there was a brief glitch in the system. At first you think it’s business as usual, until you realise your leg is missing or your face now looks like a shredded lettuce.

Nowadays, I’ve got a lot of time to kill. In the world of ghosts there is very little socialising. We have no ambition, no lust for power, no lust of any kind, and aren’t these urges often the motivating factors behind human interaction? So we spend most of the day, every day, alone, not even acknowledging the still-breathing beings with whom we share the world. Yet sometimes, in order to pass a few hours, I’ll listen in to their conversation, hoping that from a distance, with no personal agenda, I can find something worthwhile in it. Unfortunately it strikes me as even more banal and absurd than it did when I could participate myself, because it does not, and cannot, relate to me. You might say that I am bitter. I would say that I’m bored. Certainly, I’m bored; and I guess that is how I came to this, or came back to this. To reading, I mean. It’s almost enough to make you believe in the Devil, in some powerful, malevolent force. To read, to spend the afterlife engaged in the one activity you blame, you hold responsible, for wasting years of your actual-life, for driving away friends and girlfriends, for missed opportunities. To return to books, with your tail between your legs.

“Again after a little while they left that and then my eyes opened as before, but I saw nobody there with me in this doorless room who was ill-treating me like that. Immediately my eyes opened there I saw about a thousand snakes which almost covered me, although they did not attempt to bite me at all. It was in this doorless room which is in undergrounds I first saw my life that the biggest and longest among these snakes which was acting as a director for the rest vomited a kind of coloured lights from his mouth on to the floor of this room. These lights shone to every part of the room and also to my eyes, and after all of the snakes saw me clearly through the lights then they disappeared at once with the lights and then the room became dark as before.”

Recently I read My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Amos Tutuola. I remember trying, on numerous occasions, to finish it in the-before-times. Then, I would give up after only a few pages. Maybe I have more patience now. Maybe my taste has become refined. More likely, I simply have no real distractions. I cannot, for example, break off my reading in order to drink tea or play with myself. In any case, it is the story of a boy – the narrator – who gets lost in the African bush and, yes, spends a great deal of his life amongst the ghosts that inhabit it. When considering the book, it is perhaps expected of you that you will engage with the African issue, which is to say that you will place My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in socio-political, cultural context. Quite frankly, I am incapable, and, truth be told, not really all that interested in how closely, or otherwise, the contents resemble, are inspired by, etc, Yoroba folk-tales. I am not a professional literary critic. For me, what is important is this: is it a good book? Yes, it is very good indeed. It is, in fact, a great book. Says the ghost.

In likewise fashion, I do not want to labour over the language either. Of course, I must mention it, briefly at least. It is sometimes argued that the writing is poor, broken, ungrammatical, or, God forbid, ‘primitive.’ Well, I can report that the syntax, for example, is unusual, vis-a-vis formal English, but isn’t, say, Henry James’ and James Joyce’s also? Or what about Mark Twain, David Foster Wallace, John Hawkes, Anna Kavan, the surrealists, and so on? Isn’t there the not-so-subtle, unpleasant odour of racism hanging over that ‘primitive’? Ask yourself this: what is correct? What does it even mean to call a certain kind of writing correct, or not-broken, or sophisticated? Aren’t these terms meaningless? In any case, perhaps Tutuola could have written like Jane Austen had he wanted to. And perhaps I’m primitive myself – well, I am half-dead, at the very least – but all that truly concerns me is whether the style serves the material well, which, in this instance, it undoubtedly does.

There is, however, the recurring theme of language within the story itself. Tutuola’s hero finds often that he cannot communicate with those around him, with, to be specific, the ghosts; or certainly not with words. When he meets the copperish, silverish, and golden ghosts, for example, they use lights to catch his attention and win his favour. They, and the other bush-dwellers that the boy crosses paths with, have their own language, which he cannot speak [although at times he seems to be able to understand them, they, in the main, cannot understand him]. Moreover, there are numerous instances where speech is physically impossible – such as when a web covers his mouth – or when it is outlawed, as in the town where one is only allowed to communicate with shrugs. I am not able to put forward a single, convincing, intelligent theory as to what the significance of this is. It might be nothing more than a way of heightening the bush’s sense of otherness, and likewise the boy’s exclusion from that world. Yet I like to think it is a cheeky reference to the European novels that plonk the white man in Africa to confront the alien, sometimes hostile, locals, with their weird food, their weird practices and their impenetrable gobbledygook language.

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Certainly, the ghosts aren’t all that friendly. I’ve already alluded to this; although my kind aren’t Tutuola’s kind. Many of them want to kill the boy, or eat him – which also supports the aforementioned theory of mine, for it suggests the African cannibal cliche – or at least do him some form of physical harm. Yet this perceived ill-treatment, or lack of friendliness, is, in most cases, not presented as being a moral failing. Aside from one or two references to hell, and an episode featuring a female ghost who disagrees with the murderous commands of her parents, the author doesn’t appear to judge them, nor want the reader to. They are not savages; ‘the deads’ simply have their own customs, their own way of life, their own values, their own world, which are of course different to the boy’s, to that of earthly creatures. For example, there is the story of the mother ghost, who one must present with food, both for her and the numerous heads that are attached to her body. The rest of her people eat last, and not very well, and this is accepted as how it must be.

Now I would like to set all that aside – the theorising and philosophising, the search for a deeper meaning, etc – and concentrate on the weirdness. If we ghosts talked to each other more often I would say ‘here, read this book it’s…really weird.’ The weirdness is the selling point, the high point, the only real point that matters. I mentioned previously the mother ghost with many heads, but that’s nothing. How about the small ghost: ‘both his legs were twisted as rope and both feet faced sharply left and right, he had an eye in his forehead which was exactly like a moon, this eye was as big as a full moon and had a cover or socket which could be easily opening and closing at any time.’ Then there are the ghosts who steal into the womb of pregnant women, replacing her unborn babies; and the television ghost, who shows the boy a vision of his mother on the palm of her hand in order to convince him to lick her sore for ten years; and the talking land, which, when you place your feet on it, says loudly: ‘Don’t smash me. Oh don’t smash me, don’t walk on me.’

The weirdness is endless, and always entertaining. And, perhaps most impressively, very funny. A lot of books that are described as funny do little to justify the claim. They might make you smile, maybe even snigger, but laugh? Really? My Life in the Bush of Ghosts drew sounds from my throat I thought I would never hear again; and that, in the real world, and in the unreal world, in my world and in your world, is precious. I do not want to analyse, but rather give examples, to make, not for the first time in this review, a short list, without, I hope, spoiling the jokes. So what about the homeless ghost who dances to the boy’s crying as though it is ‘a lofty music for him’? And what about the ghost with snakes all over his body, the bad-smelling ghost, who can only eat sleeping animals, for the wide-awake ones are alerted by his smell and run away? Finally, from me, certainly not in terms of the book, what about the point when the boy turns himself into a cow in order to escape a ghost who is chasing him; when, unfortunately, as a cow, he catches the eye of a lion, who also takes up the chase? Perhaps none of this sounds amusing, for I am not a comedian, I do not have a polished delivery. I’m dead, or half-dead, after all.

Boo-hoo. Boo-haha.

JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT BY LOUIS-FERDINAND CELINE

Here’s how it started. I didn’t say a word, didn’t even look at it funny, but 2016 took a dislike to me from the first moment. Initially, it was only small things, relatively insignificant things. A sharp whack on the head when my back was turned. A quick kick to the shins. That sort of thing. But then, with generic horror film tempo, the bad began to escalate. Every sphere of my life became compromised, to such an extent that I was actually afraid. I was spooked. I tried to flee, to another country. But that plan turned to shit too. I was on the run, while remaining stationary. By the end of the year, I expected the worst out of every situation, and I was never disappointed. So as midnight on the thirty-first of December struck, I waved 2016 away with glee; I watched it die with a sadistic smirk. Good riddance.

“The sadness of the world has different ways of getting to people, but it seems to succeed almost every time.”

As the new year slouched into being, one of my first acts was to pick up Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline. It seemed appropriate. Whenever Céline’s work is discussed, it is invariably impressed upon you how hateful and irate it is. I’ve never quite agreed with that, or certainly not in relation to the novel under review here. The chateau trilogy, which arrived at the end of his career, would perhaps fit the bill, but Céline’s debut is too literary, too controlled to deserve that description. If, for example, you compare this novel with Castle to Castle, with its torrent of ellipses, the differences are clear. That book starts with a formless, seemingly autobiographical, rant about royalties, which continues for numerous pages, with no other characters in sight. Journey, on the other hand, begins conventionally, with something of a plot, concerning Ferdinand Bardamu’s enlistment in the army. In fact, in relation to his later novels, Journey seems almost quaint, in that it delivers some fairly straightforward literary pleasures.

To say that it is relatively conventional is not, of course, the same as saying that its outlook is positive. It isn’t; Journey is unrelentingly cynical and that, I felt, would chime with my current mood. However, what struck me most vehemently this time around [I’ve read the book twice now] is how sad and moving it is. For me, it is not hate that is the dominant emotion, but fear; and, consequently, the book resonated with me in an unexpected way. Bardamu passes through four circles of hell: the army, Africa, America, and back home in France as a doctor. During all of these stages he is worried about his life, his prospects, and the state of the world; he is constantly scared of, and baffled by, the situations, and danger, that he finds himself in. Indeed, one of the things I most like about Journey, in contrast to the writers that it influenced, is that the Frenchman’s protagonist is not self-glorifying, he is always at pains to convince you of how weak and small he is. He is the archetypal rabbit in a forest teeming with wolves; and, by his own admission, he is shitting himself.

Of the four circles, the first, which takes up roughly the first 100 pages, and which deals with Bardamu’s experiences during World War 1, is the most impressive. I would, in fact, go as far as to say it is amongst the finest war-writing that I have ever read; and I have read a lot. Perhaps only the Russians, Victor Serge and Vasily Grossman, in their respective novels Unforgiving Years and Life & Fate, did an equally fine job of portraying the sheer senselessness and horror of being caught up in a military conflict. Bardamu, as the self-appointed last coward on earth, is absolutely out of his element. He cannot understand why the Germans want to kill him nor why his own countrymen want to send him to his death. Every moment for him is an effort to stay alive, to fuck fate; he is the ultimate anti-hero. At one point he even tries to get himself captured, because he sees in that the surest way of saving his skin.

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The following section of the book, featuring Bardamu’s adventures in Africa, is, I would argue, the weakest. On the surface, there is very little to distinguish it from the war section – Ferdinand is still being oppressed by others, is still scared and trying to make it through the day – but it feels somewhat derivative, or at least too obvious. Indeed, it is essentially a re-write of Heart of Darkness. The European enters colonised, inhospitable Africa, which strikes him as dangerous and alien, and goes in search of an enigmatic figure. Yet it differs from Conrad’s work in one crucial aspect, in that having already been through the war section, one understands that Céline isn’t singling Africa out, that, as far as the Frenchman is concerned, everyone everywhere is crazy and dangerous and alien, not just Africans.

However, there were, for me, too many clichés and stereotypes, even bearing in mind that Céline did in fact spend time in Africa [and so ought to be able to bring a kind of truthfulness to his fictional account of the place]. Maybe it is simply a sign of the times, or rather a sign of the prevailing attitudes of our respective times, but I was made uncomfortable by how lazy some of the descriptions and references seemed, such as frequently mentioning cannibalism, or tom-tom drums, or the mumbo-jumbo African language. Having said that, I do think it is possible to defend the book in this regard. Céline was not a subtle writer; all of his work, regardless of what subject he was dealing with, is exaggerated, all of his characters are broad. So, if there is a boss he will unfailingly be a maniacal shyster, who takes advantage of his employees; if there’s an army general he’ll be a bad tempered lunatic, intent on seeing his charges blown to bits or riddled with bullets. Céline just did not do nuanced characters; he did not do realism.

“Not much music left inside us for life to dance to. Our youth has gone to the ends of the earth to die in the silence of the truth. And where, I ask you, can a man escape to, when he hasn’t enough madness left inside him? The truth is an endless death agony. The truth is death. You have to choose: death or lies. I’ve never been able to kill myself.”

In terms of influences, Céline’s writing is a mixture of Knut Hamsun [particularly Hunger] and Dostoevsky [most obviously Notes from Underground], with a little French surrealism thrown in. What came out of those influences, however, was identifiably his own. Part of that is to do with his fearlessness [ironically enough], his ability to look all kinds of misery in the face without blanching. Furthermore, his hopelessness, his despair, is more relatable for the average person. Hamsun’s and Dostoevsky’s protagonists are complicated people, and their tragedies are often on a much grander philosophical-existential-emotional scale. Ferdinand Bardamu’s concerns – lack of money, not being able to keep a woman, the misery of low-paid employment – are, on the other hand, perhaps similar to yours, especially if you are a man. What is so fascinating about his oeuvre is that Céline consistently pitches this everyman, this poor frightened bastard, into some of the most tumultuous events of the 20th century…and then allows us to watch as he inevitably flounders.