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Thursday, 18 June 2015

Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret - Ondjaki (translated by Stephen Henighan) - 2015 Best Translated Book Award

One of the benefits of literary awards, like the Best Translated Book Award, is it brings obscure works to the reading public, nations such as Angola have their artistic presence put to the English speaking world, stories and cultures other than our own are highlighted to a wider audience, and small independent publishers get to highlight their wares. If I hadn’t made the conscious effort to read the longlist of the 2015 Best Translated Book Award I am pretty sure I would still remain without an Angolan novel being on my world reading map.

Author Ondjaki was born in Luanda, Angola in 1977. The author of five novels, three short story collections, poems and stories for children, he was named in 2012, by “The Guardian”, as one of its “Top Five African Writers” and the following year he was awarded the Jose Sarmago Prize for his novel “Os Transparentes”.

This work was originally published in 2008 and is translated from the Portuguese by Stephen Henighan, an admirable job being done their indeed with numerous made up words, a blend of Russian, Portuguese and slang terms throughout, must have presented its own challenges.

To be honest my knowledge of Angolan history was basically non-existent so the Portuguese influence, Cuban speaking characters, a monument to their first President Agostino Neto, and the Soviet troops all a revelation to me.

The work opens with an epigraph by Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, as did the dark “Last Words From Montmartre” by Qiu Miaojin, her works and influence obviously spreading far and wide, Taiwan and Angola!!

It was a huge page with a half-crumpled drawing of the government’ plan for the whole Mausoleum area, with tiny pictures that were dotted with symbols where they were going to put new parks, swing sets, a new waterfront drive close to the sea, lots of space with lawns where dogs could walk and poop all over, slides, water fountains, mature trees that I don’t know how they were going to grow so fast, and a tone of people lining up to enter the Mausoleum and see the body of the Comrade President, embalmed with Soviet techniques.
Our story is narrated by a young boy, yes another coming-of-age story, who along with other residents of their area, watches the construction of the Mausoleum, a dedication to former President Agostino Neto, overseen by Soviet “troops”. The characters include 3.14 (Pi’s nickname), Charlita, Dr. Rafael KnockKnock (named after the way he quietly knocks on doors), Comrade Gas Jockey (resident of a defunct gas station), Sea Foam (a local dreadlocked Cuban speaking crazy who swims in the sea foam every day), and Soviet Goodafterov (named after the way he says “good afternoon”). Of course we have Granma Nineteen, named after she has to toe amputated from gangrene.

The story is a retrospective look at the threat to a local community by the construction of the Mausoleum, a time when they feel threatened of having their homes “dexploded” and the plans the kids come up with to rid themselves of the threat. An older character looking back, “it was in a time the elders call before” and all the childhood influences which have created the person he is today.

What could be read as a political allegory for the country of Angola, with the Soviets keeping caged local birds in a warehouse, with parrots saying anti-USA things such as “Hey, Reagan, hands off Angola”, the Cuban influenced Sea Foam crazily attempting to release the caged birds. The Angolan people have had their culture and identity stolen and caged, how can they get it back?

When you grow up, you have to remember all of these tales. Inside you. You promise?
As per numerous African novels of this style, the innocence of youth is to the fore, and the language paints an evocative picture of the setting:

The sea breeze carried a heap of smells that you had to keep your eyes closed to understand, as though it were a carnival of colours: mangoes still green and pretty hanging from the trees, mangoes already gnawed by bats, the green smell of the cherimoya fruit, the dust brushed of the guavas that were about to fall, the smell of Surinam cherries blended with that of the loquat tree, the smells of chicken coups and pigpens, the cries of the parrots and the dogs, two or three bursts from an AK-47, a radio that someone had left on during a news broadcast in an African language, the footfalls of people who were running to get home, or at least to get to a place where they wouldn’t get wet, and even if it were already late, the sounds of the bakery that was in the street behind, where they started work so early and worked all night to ensure that the bread arrived hot at the houses of people who spent the whole night sleeping. Which meant that, in the end, the smell of the rain was a difficult thing to describe to someone who wasn’t familiar with the bathroom of Granma Agnette’s house.
The story is quite a simple one and the tension builds towards a conclusion where our rooting for the anti-hero youths of Angola is revealed. However, towards the end the work I felt the tension dropped and as we got very close to the ending, the story almost deconstructed and the style suddenly leapt into a different tone, it became rushed nature and personally I felt this detracted from the earlier innocent sections. It could well be another parallel with Angolan history with a cobbled plan for the future being put in place, but by the time I’d gotten that far into the work, to suddenly change style felt cumbersome and I just pushed through to the end. 

Personally one of my least favourite of the Best Translated Book Award longlist, however that does not mean it is not a worthwhile book to investigate.

As regular visitors to this blog would possibly know, I am not a huge fan of coming-of-age stories, and without specifically demeaning this book in any way, it is actually a fine example of the young innocent voice style, I am personally a bit over picking up an African book and finding it is in a child’s voice. Recently I’ve reviewed NoViolet Bulaweyo’s “We Need New Names” from Zimbabwe, Juan Tomas Avila Laurel’s Equatorial Guinean “By Night The MountainBurns” and the Tutsi tale, “Our Lady of the Nile” by Scholastique Mukasonga. All African works, all in children’s voices, all looking at the issues in their countries through innocent eyes.

Again not a criticism of this book, but a reflection on the choices made by publishers where the same investments in translating literature are being focused on a similar storyline. One would think there would be a raft of available literature from these little represented nations but to focus on a single style and genre is becoming a tad repetitive.

If these coming-of-age tales are your thing, then possibly this is a work for you, a further exposure to an emerging African writer and a glimpse into Angolan life.

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