Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Affirming Flames: Great Books of 2016

"Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame."

W.H. Auden (1939).

My Canadian fellow-writer, Barbara Kyle, shared these words of Auden's with her friends and followers a few days ago, as a sort of epitaph to a year that has had more than its expected share of dark moments, sending many of us to seek inspiration and solace more often in poetry than in prose.

I end this year, as I ended last year (and will, perhaps end every year), with more new fiction and non-fiction titles on my "to read" list, than on my "read and reviewed" list, but here are just three new books that caught my attention over the course of 2016, and which did strike me, in Auden's terms, as "affirming flames" that address themselves to the present moment, with all its dilemmas and uncertainties.

My first choice is a straightforward historical novel, The Women Friends - Selina, by Emma Rose Millar and Miriam Drori. Set in Austria between 1916 and 1938, it is inspired by Gustav Klimt's masterpiece, Die Freundinnen, and tells the story of a young woman, Selina, who leaves her rural community in the Tyrol to seek her fortune as a fashion model in Vienna. Work is hard to come by, however, in the capital city of a dying empire, and she finds herself with few resources or friends to fall back on, outside of a small circle of marginalised people - Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals, struggling to eek out a living, and to maintain their identity in a country that is losing its way, and increasingly turning against them. The history is very much in the background of the human story, but is made more interesting by virtue of its unfamiliarity (most British readers, I suspect, know far less about the early Twentieth Century history of Austria, than about that of Germany).

"Die Freundinnen," by Gustav Klimt (1916-17). Image: DirectMedia Publishing GmbH (image is in the Public Domain).

"Klimt didn't ask for me, and neither did Fraulein Floge. Neomi and Livia didn't even speak to me when they passed me on the stairs ... the days seemed terribly long. I wrote letters to my family in Tyrol, went to see exhibitions at the gallery and the Wien Museum on Karlsplatz, anywhere that was warm, where admission was free and I could at least improve my mind while my days were idle. But my purse was soon empty; I was short on the rent that month and increasingly frequented the library and the park so as to avoid my landlord as well as I could."

My second choice raises a fundamental question: is there such a thing as "contemporary historical fiction" (there is certainly such a thing as "contemporary history," with degree courses on offer at many of the UK's leading universities)? The Historical Novels Society defines "historical fiction" as being written "at least fifty years after the events described, or ... by someone who was not alive at the time." In another sense, all fiction is "historical," because of the time normally taken to edit and produce a book, even after the author has completed his or her final draft. Ali Smith's novel, Autumn, however, is recognisably set in 2016, with specific references to the Brexit Referendum, and to the murder of the MP, Jo Cox. Once again, the history is in the background to a human story (an inter-generational friendship between a centenarian man and a woman in her thirties), but it is unmistakably there. Rich in literary allusion, it is also written with very tangible warmth and humour.

Tributes to the murdered MP, Jo Cox, in London's Parliament Square. Photo: Garry Knight (licensed under CCA).

"It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That's the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it's in their nature. So an old old man washes up on a shore. He looks like a punctured football with its stitching split, the leather kind that people kicked a hundred years ago. The sea's been rough. It has taken the shirt off his back, naked as the day I was born are the words in the head he moves on its neck, but it hurts to. So try not to move the head. What's this in his mouth, grit? It's sand ... The sand in his mouth and his eyes is the last of the grains in the neck of the sandglass. Daniel Gluck, your luck's run out at last ... is this it? really? this? is death?"  

My third choice is a work of non-fiction: Sarah Bakewell's At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails. Like Bakewell, I was a teenage existentialist, and voraciously read the philosophical works, novels, and plays of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus. Although I knew that existentialism was not exclusively (or even originally) a French movement, I was far more suspicious of the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, who I knew to have been an active and enthusiastic Nazi, and, whilst I knew that I ought to read the works of Edmund Husserl, the translations available to me seemed dense and impenetrable, and my German, unlike my French, was not good enough for me to check them against the original. Bakewell combines the vocations of the philosopher, biographer and intellectual historian, and reveals much, here, that was unknown to me, not least the heroic role played by a Franciscan priest, Father Herman Van Breda, in protecting Husserl's manuscripts from the Nazis. Whether Van Breda actually considered himself an existentialist of any sort is unclear, but his actions show him to be as perfect an example of the existentialist hero as any invented in the novels of Sartre or de Beauvoir.

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, with Che Guevara in Cuba, 1960. Photo: Alberto Korda (image is in the Public Domain).

"Where philosophers before him had written in careful propositions and arguments, Sartre wrote like a novelist - not surprisingly, since he was one ... Above all, he wrote about one big subject: what it meant to be free. Freedom, for him, lay at the heart of all human experience, and this set humans apart from all other kinds of object. Other things merely sit in place, waiting to be pushed or pulled around. Even non-human animals mostly follow the instincts and behaviours that characterise their species, Sartre believed. But as a human being, I have no predefined nature at all ... I am always one step ahead of myself, making myself up as I go along."

In their different ways, each of these books seems to me to have something particular to have something to say to us, living in the present moment. Whether one is reflecting, directly, on the year that we have just lived through; or learning the lessons of a more distant past; or considering the nature of human freedom (and the responsibilities, as well as the opportunities, that it confronts us with); one realises that nothing that we face is entirely new or unique. However disturbed we are by the things going on in the word around us, and with however much trepidation we walk on into the coming year, we can reflect, with the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet, channeled here by Seamus Heaney, "That passed over, this can too."

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

A History of the World in 50 Novels: 46 - "A Grain of Wheat," by Ngugi wa Thiong'o

From the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Centuries, following the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, and the consequent disruption of the overland trade-routes connecting China and India to the markets of Europe and the Mediterranean world, the coastal cities of East Africa, including Mombasa and Zanzibar, became magnets for European, Arabic and Chinese traders. Chinese junks brought silks; Arabian dhows brought pepper and cloves; and traders from Portugal, England, and Oman, vied with one another to purchase these commodities. Few of these traders ever ventured more than a few miles from the coast. Small numbers of native Africans in the interior were involved in the procurement and trade of goods (gold, ivory, rhino horn, tortoise shell) for the European, Arabian and Chinese markets, but most made their living either as subsistence farmers or as herdsmen.

The European exploration of the African interior began in the mid-Nineteenth Century, and went hand in hand with missionary activity. Colonisation followed, the motivation for this being partly economic (diamonds, minerals, rubber), and partly geopolitical (the British seized territory in order to keep it out of German or French hands, and vice-versa). In 1870, only 10% of Africa had been under European control, but, by 1914, this had risen to 90%. Kenya became a British protectorate in 1895, and railways were built to open up the interior, and connect it to the coastal ports.

A Church of Scotland missionary service in a Kenyan village, 1905-40 (image is in the Public Domain).

The "Lunatic Express," near Mombasa, in 1899, one of the railways connecting Kenya's coast and interior (image is in the Public Domain).

The highlands of Kenya proved to be perfectly suited to the intensive cultivation of coffee, increasingly in demand across Europe and North America. Plantations were established by European settlers, but native Africans were forbidden by the colonial authorities from producing coffee, and other cash-crops.

A coffee plantation in Kenya, 1936. Photo: Library of Congress, Matpc-13872 (Public Domain).

Kenyan soldiers of the King's African Rifles fought with distinction on the British side in both World Wars, gaining military experience, but also an understanding of the world beyond their homeland. Ireland had already won her independence from the British Empire, and India would achieve hers just two years after the end of the Second World War.

The King's African Rifles, 1952-6. Photo: Imperial War Museum, MAU-345 (non-commercial license).

Whilst many returning Kenyan soldiers remained loyal to the Empire, others were inspired to take up the struggle for independence, a cause that gained increasing support among the younger generation. Village communities, and even families, were divided, as some served in the pro-British Home Guard, whilst others left to join the Mau-Mau rebels in the forest. A State of Emergency was declared in 1952, and atrocities were committed on both sides, before Kenya finally gained her independence in 1963.

A British Army patrol in Kenya, 1952-6. Photo: Imperial War Museum, MAU-587 (non-commercial license).

Ngugi wa Thiong'o's novel, A Grain of Wheat, is set in a rural community in the Kenyan highlands on either side of the Uhuru (independence) celebrations at the end of 1963. It is a powerful evocation of a divided community, struggling to make sense of its past as it moves forward towards an uncertain future, and facing the realities of personal, as well as political, betrayals.

"Mugo walked, his head slightly bowed, staring at the ground as if ashamed of looking about him ... he heard someone shout his name. He started, stopped, and stared at Githua, who was hobbling towards him on crutches. When he reached Mugo he stood to attention, lifted his torn hat, and cried out: 'In the name of blackman's freedom, I salute you.' Then he bowed several times in comic deference. 'Is it - is it well with you?' Mugo asked, not knowing how to react ... Githua did not answer at once ... 'I tell you before the Emergency I was like you; before the whiteman did this to me with bullets, I could work with both hands, man' ... Githua's voice suddenly changed: 'The Emergency destroyed us,' he said in a tearful voice and abruptly went away."

"Kihika was tortured. Some say that the neck of a bottle was wedged into his body through the anus as the white people in the Special Branch tried to wrest the secrets of the forest from him. Others say that he was offered a lot of money and a free trip to England to shake the hand of the new woman on the throne. But he would not speak. Kihika was hanged in public, one Sunday, at Rung'ei Market, not far from where he had once stood calling for blood to rain on and water the tree of freedom. A combined force of Homeguards and Police whipped and drove people from Thabei and other ridges to see the body of the rebel dangling on the tree, and learn."

"Looking at Gikonyo, you could not believe that he was the same man whose marriage to Mumbi almost thirteen years before had angered other young suitors: what did Mumbi see in him? How could a woman so beautiful walk into poverty with eyes wide open? Now four years after returning home from detention, Gikonyo was one of the richest men in Thabei. He had recently bought a five-acre farm plot; he owned a shop - Gikonyo General Stores - at Rung'ei; and only the other day he had acquired a second-hand lorry for trading. On top of this, he was elected the chairman of the local branch of the Movement, a tribute, so people said, to his man's spirit which no detention camp could break."

Mau-Mau suspects under guard(image is in the Public Domain).

A Grain of Wheat is not a comfortable read for a white Briton such as myself, whose beloved uncle and aunt fled the Mau-Mau uprising after a lifetime spent in the colonial administration of Mombasa and Zanzibar. I wish, however, that someone had pressed it into my hand when I was a younger man, and that I could have discussed it with them. It is a mark of Ngugi's accomplishment as a writer that he invests human agency and dignity in his black and white characters alike: this is no triumphalist novel of the Kenyan independence movement, but rather a generous and even-handed treatment of one of the most troubled chapters in the shared history of its author's nation, and of mine.

President Jomo Kenyatta at the Eldoret Agricultural Show in 1968. Photo: Museum of World Cultures (licensed under CCA).

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.