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‘So Long a Letter’ by Mariama Ba ***

I have wanted to read Mariama Ba’s debut novella, So Long a Letter, for such a long time.  It was a title which appeared in my first to-read notebook, which I began around 2006; needless to say, it has taken me an awfully long time to track down a copy and sit down to read it.  Set in Senegal, where the author was from, So Long a Letter was first published in French in 1980, and in English translation by Marlupé Bodé-Thomas in 1981.  It has long been considered a modern classic.

200px-mariamaba_solongaletterBa chose to write her novella due to ‘her commitment for eradicating inequalities between men and women in Africa’.  Filling only 90 pages of narrative, So Long a Letter is a ‘sequence of reminiscences, some wistful, some bitter, recounted by Senegalese schoolteacher Ramatoulaye, who has recently been widowed.’  It is written as a letter to her oldest friend, Aissatou, and gives a ‘record of her emotional struggle for survival after her husband’s abrupt decision to take a second wife.  Although sanctioned by Islam, his action is a calculated betrayal of her trust and a brutal rejection of their life together.’

Ramatoulaye’s husband, Madou, dies following a heart attack.  When she sees his body, she remarks: ‘I listen to the words that create around me a new atmosphere in which I move, a stranger and tormented.  Death, the tenuous passage between two opposite worlds, one tumultuous, the other still.’  Culturally, this element of the novella, in which Ramatoulaye sets out the burial customs of Islam, is fascinating.

The couple had been married for thirty years, and had twelve children.  The decision of Madou’s to take a second wife is all the more heartbreaking in this respect, and neither Ramatoulaye or her children can believe or support his decision.  Following Madou’s death, she reflects: ‘The presence of my co-wife beside me irritates me.  She has been installed in my house for the funeral, in accordance with tradition.’  The relationship between the two is never explored in as much detail as I would have expected; rather, it is mentioned from time to time, but the finer details are glossed over.

I found the prose of So Long a Letter textured and rich; there is a sensual quality to it.  At the outset, Ramatoulaye writes: ‘I conjure you up.  The past is reborn, along with its procession of emotions.  I close my eyes.  Ebb and tide of feeling: heat and dazzlement, the wood fires, the sharp green mango, bitten into in turns, a delicacy in our greedy mouths.  I close my eyes.  Ebb and tide of images: drops of sweat beading your mother’s ochre-coloured face as she emerges from the kitchen, the procession of young wet girls chattering on their way back from the springs.’

The society in which Ramatoulaye lived as a young woman is reflected and commented upon.  She writes: ‘Because, being the first pioneers of the promotion of African women, there were very few of us.  Men would call us scatter-brained.  Others labelled us devils.  But many wanted to possess us.  How many dreams did we nourish hopelessly that could have been fulfilled on lasting happiness and that we abandoned to embrace others, those that have burst miserably like soap bubbles, leaving us empty handed?’  In this manner, Ramatoulaye’s history is intertwined with the social and political climate of the entire nation of Senegal.  One of the real strengths of the book for me was the way in which Ramatoulaye writes about the experiences of women in a suppressed society, and the way in which she has lived through ‘the birth of a republic, the birth of an anthem and the implementation of a flag.’

Whilst there are certainly some positive and admirable elements to So Long a Letter, I did not feel as though the quality of its prose was sustained throughout.  It soon became quite repetitive, and I did not feel as engaged with the story after around the first quarter had passed.  Something about the prose felt detached; perhaps this is a consequence of its translation, but there was definitely a stilted quality to it, which became more apparent as the story went on.

At first, it seemed to me that the narrator’s voice had such a presence, but this somehow waned after a while; it became more formal, and I felt less connected to it.  I was pulled in at the outset, but found myself becoming increasingly indifferent to the rather stubborn narrator.  It felt as though she was being both open and secretive about elements of her life.  I admire the agency which she gave herself, but for me this was not realised strongly enough, or early enough, to make a difference in my feelings for the protagonist.  Whilst I loved the use of cultural details within So Long a Letter, I must admit that it was not as absorbing as I had expected it would be.  Although I was interested in the wider story, I felt that Ba’s characters could have been more realistically drawn, and this would have made for a far more memorable story.

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‘Regeneration’ by Pat Barker *****

I have been meaning to read Pat Barker’s Regeneration – the ‘classic exploration of how the traumas of war brutalised a generation of young men’ – for such a long time, but only got around to it very recently.  Probably her most famous novel, Regeneration has been considered a modern classic since its publication in 1991, and is the first book in a trilogy of the same name.  The book has been highly praised.  Margaret Forster calls it ‘a novel of tremendous power’, the Sunday Times ‘brilliant, intense, subtle’, and, fittingly, Time Out heralds it ‘a fine anthem for doomed youth’. 

9780141030937Set in 1917 at the Craiglockhart War Hospital in southeast Edinburgh, Regeneration takes as its focus three very well-known figures – Dr W.H.H. Rivers, who pioneered shellshock treatment for soldiers, and two war poets, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.  Robert Graves also makes odd appearances throughout.  Barker has also created, alongside these figures, the character of Billy Prior, unable to speak and only able to communicate on paper, who feels just as realistic.  Rivers’ job is to make the men in his care healthy enough that they can be returned to the Front.  ‘Yet the closer he gets to mending his patients’ minds,’ the blurb continues, ‘the harder becomes every decision to send them back to the horrors’ which await them.

Regeneration opens at the point at which Sassoon has expressed his objections to the war in writing, in a piece which he calls ‘an act of wilful defiance of military authority’.  In consequence, he is sent directly to Rivers, who receives the news of his arrival as follows: ‘Can you imagine what our dear Director of Medical Services is going to say, when he finds out we’re sheltering “Conchies” as well as cowards, shirkers, scrimshankers and degenerates?  We’ll just have to hope there’s no publicity.’

Justine Picardie writes that ‘what gives the novel its authenticity is Pat Barker’s impressive ability to capture her characters’ voices and moods.’  Indeed, Barker has a wonderful understanding of each of her characters, whether historical figures, or invented ones.  Her interpretation of them made them feel highly realistic, and at points in conversations – particularly those between Owen and Sassoon – I had to remind myself that I was not reading a piece of non-fiction.

There is such humanity to Barker’s examination, and I very much enjoyed the little glimpses of surprise in the behaviour of her characters, which often seem to be at odds with their public personas.  When Sassoon first arrives at Craiglockhart, for instance, Barker writes that he ‘lingered on the drive for a full minute after the taxi had driven away, then took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and ran up the steps.’ The descriptions which Barker gives of her characters do not just remark on the superficial; rather, they tend to have a lot of depth to them, and often err on the chilling.  She describes Sassoon in the following way: ‘Light from the window behind Rivers’s desk fell directly onto Sassoon’s face.  Pale skin, purple shadows under the eyes.  Apart from that, no obvious signs of nervous disorder.  No twitches, jerks, blinks, no repeated ducking to avoid a long-exploded shell.  His hands, doing complicated things with cup, saucer, plate, sandwiches, cake, sugar tongs and spoon, were perfectly steady…  So far he hadn’t looked at Rivers.  He sat with his head slightly averted, a posture that could easily have been taken for arrogance, though Rivers was more inclined to suspect shyness.’

Other reviewers have commented upon the language used in the novel, believing it to be too simplistic.  However, this was not the impression which I received.  There are a lot of poetic descriptions, and the dialogue particularly is filled with nuances and undercurrents.  The more stark, matter-of-fact language which has been used at odd times serves to highlight the horror of wartime.  Given the nature of the book, I felt as though the balance which Barker struck between these descriptions and the examination of her characters was perfect.  The moments of dark humour, which can be found from time to time, also worked very well.

Regeneration is very well situated historically, and scenes are vividly set in just a few sentences.  One of Barker’s particular strengths here are the comparisons which she makes between wartime and civilian life, particularly with regard to way in which she shows how quite ordinary things can be triggers for what soldiers had experienced in the trenches.  When a character named Burns is travelling on a bus, to give one example, she writes: ‘A branch rattled along the windows with a sound like machine-gun fire, and he had to bite his lips to stop himself crying out.’  She also demonstrates an impressive emotional range in her explorations of isolation and freedom, wellbeing and mentality, nightmare states and hallucinatory moments, and the profound effects which each of these things can cause.

There is, of course, much in the novel about medical experimentation, and how best to treat such troubled men.  Thoughts of, and explorations around, masculinity, have been cleverly woven in.  Barker makes it clear from the outset that the methods which Rivers has adopted in his radical treatment plan go quite against the moral, ‘manly’ values instilled in him, of demonstrating only strength and valour.  He, and too his patients, were not expected to show any signs of weakness.  Of this, Barker observes: ‘… he was already experimenting on himself.  In leading his patients to understand that breakdown was nothing to be ashamed of, that horror and fear were inevitable responses to the trauma of war and were better acknowledged than suppressed, that feelings of kindnesses for other men were natural and right, that tears were an acceptable and helpful part of grieving, he was setting himself against the whole tenor of their upbringing.’  She goes on to write: ‘The change he demanded of them – and by implication of himself – was not trivial.  Fear, tenderness – these emotions were so despised that they could be admitted into consciousness only at the cost of redefining what it meant to be a man.’

I had a feeling that I might regret leaving it so long to pick up Regeneration, and I am.  It is a stunning novel, compelling from the outset, and filled with moments of harrowing beauty, and poignant reflections on conflict and its worth.  I already have the second book in the trilogy, The Eye in the Door, on my to-read pile, and am very much looking forward to continuing with it sooner rather than later.  I imagine that it will be just as moving as Regeneration proved to be, this wonderful mixture of fact and fiction, in which Barker is constantly aware of the significance of every tiny thing.

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