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Armchair Travelling: Africa

I am a keen traveller in normal times, and am missing the freedom in planning trips, and exploring new places with my boyfriend. At present, like almost everyone else around the world, my only travelling is occurring through books, and watching foreign language films and Scandi-crime dramas on Netflix.

I created the first of the posts in this new series in February, alerting you to eight books set in Korea which I am keen to read, or which I count amongst my favourites. For my second post, I have selected three African countries, merely because I could not find a great deal of books set in each location. My birthday trip to Morocco was cancelled last year, and we could not go ahead with our planned safari to The Gambia and Senegal either; therefore, these are my choices.

The Gambia

Four Guineas by Elspeth Huxley

‘This account of Elspeth Huxley’s travels in Gambia, Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast and Nigeria gilds the Dark Continent–not because the author romanticizes it, but because she clarifies it…its history, superstitions and tribal ways, its beauty and power, its great contrasts and complexities. But this is no postcard and Huxley is not diverted by the exotic scenery and colorful natives. Instead, she pictures a region striving to maintain its heritage while finding a future. It’s like going ahead with one foot on the brake.’

A Season in Sinji by J.L. Carr

A Season in Sinji recreates life on a wartime RAF flying boat station in an African backwater. The dialogue evokes a wide range of characters, and in the bizarre cricket match which acts as a catharsis to the novel’s mounting passions, human dramas and irony are portrayed.’

Senegal

Ambiguous Adventure by Cheikh Hamidou Kane

‘Hailed by Chinua Achebe as one of the greatest African novels ever written, this long-unavailable classic tells the tale of young Samba Diallo, a devout pupil in a Koranic school in Senegal whose parents send him to Paris to study philosophy. But unknown to Samba, it is a desperate attempt by his parents to better understand the French colonial forces transforming their traditional way of life. Instead, for Samba, it seems an exciting adventure, and once in France he excels at his new studies and is delighted by his new “marvelous comprehension and total communion” with the Western world. Soon, though, he finds himself torn between the materialistic secularism and isolation of French civilization and the deeper spiritual influences of his homeland. As Samba puts it: “I have become the two.” Written in an elegant, lyrical prose, Ambiguous Adventure is a masterful expression of the immigrant experience and the repercussions of colonialism, and a great work of literature about the uneasy relationship between Islamic Africa and the West—a relationship more important today than ever before.’

Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye

‘In this new novel, the first by a black woman ever to win the coveted Prix Goncourt, Marie NDiaye creates a luminous narrative triptych as harrowing as it is beautiful. This is the story of three women who say no: Norah, a French-born lawyer who finds herself in Senegal, summoned by her estranged, tyrannical father to save another victim of his paternity; Fanta, who leaves a modest but contented life as a teacher in Dakar to follow her white boyfriend back to France, where his delusional depression and sense of failure poison everything; and Khady, a penniless widow put out by her husband’s family with nothing but the name of a distant cousin (the aforementioned Fanta) who lives in France, a place Khady can scarcely conceive of but toward which she must now take desperate flight. With lyrical intensity, Marie NDiaye masterfully evokes the relentless denial of dignity, to say nothing of happiness, in these lives caught between Africa and Europe. We see with stunning emotional exactitude how ordinary women discover unimagined reserves of strength, even as their humanity is chipped away. Three Strong Women admits us to an immigrant experience rarely if ever examined in fiction, but even more into the depths of the suffering heart.’

Morocco

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami

‘Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits evokes the grit and enduring grace that is modern Morocco. As four Moroccans illegally cross the Strait of Gibraltar in an inflatable boat headed for Spain, author Laila Lalami asks, What has driven them to risk their lives? And will the rewards prove to be worth the danger? There’s Murad, a gentle, unemployed man who’s been reduced to hustling tourists around Tangier; Halima, who’s fleeing her drunken husband and the slums of Casablanca; Aziz, who must leave behind his devoted wife in hope of securing work in Spain; and Faten, a student and religious fanatic whose faith is at odds with an influential man determined to destroy her future. Sensitively written with beauty and boldness, this is a gripping book about what propels people to risk their lives in search of a better future.’

A House in Fez: Building a Life in the Ancient Heart of Morocco by Suzanna Clarke

‘The Medina — the Old City — of Fez is the best-preserved, medieval walled city in the world. Inside this vibrant Moroccan community, internet cafes and mobile phones coexist with a maze of donkey-trod alleyways, thousand-year-old sewer systems, and Arab-style houses, gorgeous with intricate, if often shabby, mosaic work. While vacationing in Morocco, Suzanna Clarke and her husband, Sandy, are inspired to buy a dilapidated, centuries-old riad in Fez with the aim of restoring it to its original splendor, using only traditional craftsmen and handmade materials. So begins a remarkable adventure that is bewildering, at times hilarious, and ultimately immensely rewarding. A House in Fez chronicles their meticulous restoration, but it is also a journey into Moroccan customs and lore and a window into the lives of its people as friendships blossom. When the riad is finally returned to its former glory, Suzanna finds she has not just restored an old house, but also her soul.’

Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie

‘In Agatha Christie’s gripping international thriller Destination Unknown, a woman at the end of her rope chooses a more exciting way to die when she embarks upon an almost certain suicide mission to find a missing scientist. When a number of leading scientists disappear without a trace, concern grows within the international intelligence community. And the one woman who appears to hold the key to the mystery is dying from injuries sustained in a plane crash. Meanwhile, in a Casablanca hotel room, Hilary Craven prepares to take her own life. But her suicide attempt is about to be interrupted by a man who will offer her an altogether more thrilling way to die…’

Have you read any of these books? Where have you been travelling to through literature lately? If you have any countries which you’re itching to travel to, and wish me to include in this series, please just let me know!

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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.