Fouad Laroui: The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers

Laroui, Fouad (2016), The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers, Deep Vellum
Translated from the French by Emma Ramadan
ISBN 978-1-941920-26-8

DV_Curious_Case_site-600x600Maybe the particular quality of Fouad Laroui’s humorous fiction is best described with a phrase from his 2010 novel Une année chez les Francais, a supple, warm boarding school novel. A family of rich French expats living in Casablanca suggests to the novel’s Arab protagonist that he may find quotidian details about Morocco banal that they still grapple with. Silently, the boy disagrees. “Rien, absolument rien, ne lui a jamais semblé banal.” Despite the fact that Laroui’s fiction is not necessarily grounded in a prose of observation, I got a similar feeling from the books of his I’ve read: a writer who is aware of all the oddities of how the world around him works and holds these oddities up to the light, with a biting but gentle intelligence, a warm sense of humor, and a smart linguistic inventiveness. Given the readability of his work, it is a bit puzzling that none of his work has been translated into English so far. This oversight has been amended this year with the translation of The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers, a recent collection of short stories. The translator is Emma Ramadan and the publisher is Deep Vellum, who made quite a splash last year with the publication of Tram 83, possibly hoping to repeat that surprise success by offering anglophone readers the gift of a hitherto untranslated but substantial and important writer. I’m not a great reader of short stories, and so I would have suggested maybe a translation of one of his novels (the mildly kafkaesque and beautifully inventive La vieille dame du riad would have been a great candidate) instead, but I understand the choice. Laroui is not by temperament a novelist (despite having written a ton of them), and his short stories are very short, boiled down to one specific idea (the titular story is about 10 pages in my edition) and absolutely hilarious; moreover, this collection won the Prix Goncourt when it was published in French in 2013, so it makes sense. The next project of Ramadan is Laroui’s other recent prizewinning novel, Les Tribulations du dernier Sijilmassi which won the Prix Jean-Giono in 2014, an excellent novel that you should be very impatient to see in translation. Meanwhile, getting The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers as a first offering from Laroui’s large (he writes with a productivity that rivals TC Boyle’s stories/novels rhythm) oeuvre, of which I have read but a fraction, is no consolation prize. This is a fascinating book and an interesting display of many of Laroui’s strengths. If you want a writer who writes about Morocco, exile, dictatorship, with a knowing, but light and gentle hand, read this. Even if you, like me, are a bit averse to short stories, I promise, this is time well spent. Laroui does interesting things with the form. Read this, but more importantly, whenever one of his novels becomes available in translation, read that!

Laroui’s stories, more even, as far as I have read them, than his novels, are concerned with discussing history, nation and identity. A vast plurality of the stories in The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers are written as conversations, and the equally excellent collection Tu n’as rien compris à Hassan II even has the conversational scene inscribed into the title through address. Laroui’s stories do not follow someone’s experience from an omniscient or limited narrator – they are less stories than tales, and the audience of the takes is present in the stories itself. The stories set in Morocco are almost all set in Morocco’s history, and I’ll return to that aspect in a second. What this means, with all the talking about telling stories, is that these collections are full of disquisitions about how to talk about history. How do you talk about the past? What does it mean to have a reliable memory? History, in the Laroui books I have read, is something created by Moroccans together, by talking about the past, and in many ways, Laroui’s books themselves can, and I think should, be read as contributing to that same conversation. In La vieille dame du riad, a French couple, drawn with sharp, but kind satire, is confronted with an odd but difficult situation in Morocco. A young man promises to explain. Instead of just doing so straightforwardly, he writes a whole novel, which forms the core of the book. It is a novel about history. Thus, Laroui’s themes keep returning in his work. The different ways of framing conversation and memory (a form of, I suppose, Halbwachs’ collective memory) are one of the great strengths of The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers, apart from the immediate pleasures of Laroui’s observations and humor. The other stories, which are not concerned with memory, are about being an exile. They are a bit hit-and-miss. The excellent story “Dislocation,” in a circling movement of repetition, slowly strips a man who lives abroad from all his illusions, resulting in a bleak statement of alienation and loneliness, apart from the (sometimes controversial) final tableau. A different story, about a long-distance relationship on the rocks, is not as successful. But the few down moments in his work are few and far between. Reading his work, one gets the impression that, at this point, Laroui has mastered the tone, humor and style of his stories, and they are remarkably consistent in quality.

Fouad Laroui was born in Morocco in 1958, went to a French-speaking elite high school in Casablanca (the first year of which is recounted in the extraordinary autobiographical novel Une année chez les Francais), then studied in Cambridge and Yorkshire (which experience he drew on for the hilarious La Femme la plus riche de Yorkshire). Eventually he moved to Amsterdam to teach. He publishes with some regularity novels and short stories in alternating rhythms, and is particularly successful in Morocco, where, according to some, his books are regularly sold out. He recounts some funny habits of Moroccans (always aware of the distance between caricature and realism; his short Romeo and Juliet-like novel De quel amour blessé ends with a postscript, wherein a character exclaims, critically, “C’est du guignol. Les personnages sont des stéreotypes.”) and some strange quirks of life in Morocco and as an exile, but almost always, these observations are laced with a profound sense of history. I’m not going to spoil any of the stories (which, in structure and twists, are eminently spoilable), but, speaking in broader terms, a story about some Moroccans making do with a school requirement is laced with the knowledge of how dangerous it is to upset some people, and where, during Hassan II’s time, power truly lay. Another story has its characters cautious because a new acquaintance may be trying to report on them. In both cases, these elements are not necessary to the story, strictly, speaking. Both stories could have been told without them, but Laroui’s work is more than funny. It is critical in a way that communicates that criticism to his intended audience without offending them, or being too heavy-handed about it. None of Laroui’s work has been banned, for example, despite sometimes the criticism, the abyss behind the light words, being quite brutal. For example: Une année chez les Francais is a novel about Laroui’s own first year in French high school in Casablanca. It contains many explicit digs at the society of that time, intelligently dismantles illusions of class and nationality and more. But when we look at how it corresponds to Laroui’s own life, the decision to make it just one year, which has textual and intertextual relevance, also means that the novel cuts off just before Laroui’s father, the following year, vanishes, most likely into one of Hassan II’s jails. This autobiographical fact turns the incessant quips about “what does your father do?” that keep cropping up in the novel into dark hints at an ugly historical (and deeply personal) fact. You can read the novel without that background, and it is still a great book, but the interaction with Laroui’s intended audience serves as a rich background without bringing down the tone of the book or making the book vulnerable to political criticism.

I was about to write: “there’s no case in The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers where the surface reading, and the reading of the intended audience are so far apart,” but the truth is, they may well be. Apart from the few things I spotted, the book is likely crawling with small hints and contexts. Some of these are barely of relevance to me, and I wonder if Emma Ramadan annotated her translation to include them. The title story (which you can read here, by the way), a humorous tale, is told by a man named Dassoukine, who, trying to purchase grain from a European consortium, suddenly finds himself without trousers. I am fairly certain that the story pays homage to the famous Moroccan funnyman/humorist Mustapha Dassoukine, but being unaware of his body of work, this knowledge doesn’t really add to the story. Or another reference, later in the book. A group of friends meet in a café called Le Café de l’Univers, which may well refer to a chanson by Claude Semal (Au Café de l’Univers), the final stanza of which ties the story to the collection as a whole and the title story. I read this online. I would never have guessed it nor does it add substantially to my appreciation of the stories, and yet, I don’t find my reading of them lacking in the least. It is Laroui’s skill to write fiction that is open enough to be read and enjoyed by a wide audience, but specific enough to be read and understood by a local audience. For another example, see translator Lydia Beyoud’s comments on the cigarette brand Casasports in a Laroui story she translated (you can read the story here). Yet these examples are but the tip of the iceberg. A much larger set of allusions and hints is in the language itself. Everything I said so far was about content rather than language specifically, and yet, the language of his work is the real treasure. Apart from puns and jokes scattered all over his work, Fouad Laroui is very aware that he is a writer writing in French (his poetry, meanwhile, is written and published in Dutch).

In his very intriguing book Le Drame Linguistique Marocain, which I read over the weekend, Laroui dissects the unique linguistic situation of Morocco. The main focus is not French, it is the tension between Arab as a literary language and Darija, the dialect spoken by people “on the ground.” There is no real literature in Darija, but Moroccans do not universally read classical Arab, which limits the scope of Moroccan (and, by extension, most of Arab) literature. French is, understandably, another layer. Laroui points out that while Arab is the official language, sometimes officials will speak French rather than Arab. Moroccan literature in French is, according to him, ‘a monster which doesn’t want to die.’ If you think this is a curious way to talk about one’s own work then you misunderstand the truly odd and complex way that Moroccans think about their literature. It is fairly strange to think of a nation’s literature as being completely untethered to a language (among the examples Laroui gives are, imagine if “La Cantatrice Chauve” was considered classic Romanian literature), and yet, Laroui cites multiple Moroccan intellectuals who forward just that claim. So, is The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers a Moroccan book? In addition to its themes and the nationality of its author, what really makes it Moroccan is the book’s odd use of (and sometimes allusion to) dialect. It is a book in French, but reading it, I had to think of a remark Laroui makes when he details how different Arab writers have coped with dialect. He mentions Nagib Mahfuz as a particularly masterful user of literary Arab – in his work, according to Laroui, while we find no Darija, per se, we find an artfully turned literary Arab language that, to knowledgeable readers, lets the dialect shine through. I suspect, in some dialog, Laroui is doing the same. In some places we can see it. There are French terms which he ‘misspells’ to reflect Arab pronunciation, and some of his novels contain borderline unreadable chunks of dialog that are Darija/Arab inflected French (Some early portions of La vieille dame du riad stand out particularly, hilariously) In other places, we don’t see it. Earlier, I talked about the stories sort of metafictionally discuss the importance of creating a collective memory through dialog, stories that, performatively, are part of that dialog. Language, clearly, is an important part of the same process, and the Moroccan diglossia, as Laroui describes it, provides an odd dynamic for that process.

In Le Drame Linguistique Marocain, we have an author who is incredibly insistent that the dialect Darija is the true mother tongue of Moroccans and needs to be given a greater role in education, literature and culture. The case is persuasive and the book is detailed and exact, and yet, Fouad Laroui writes in French (and Dutch). What to make of this? Maybe this adds to his insistence, and it is, I think, part of the explanation of why his satire and humor is embracing rather than just bracing. I feel like there’s a melancholy and urgency to his whole project that cannot be summed up by one or two stories alone. I started this review with a reference to Une année chez les Francais, a story about a young boy who has been raised in French, among people who speak almost exclusively Darija. Mehdi, that novel’s protagonist barely speaks Arab, and his situation between dialect, Arab and French is a tense and difficult one. In Laroui’s followup novel, similarly autobiographical, Les Tribulations du dernier Sijilmassi, an engineer returns to Morocco to find himself, and finds his vocation: becoming a writer. This sense of vocation and urgency is felt in most of the work by Fouad Laroui I have read, and accompanies (rather than replaces) the humor of the fiction. And look, maybe I imagined it because he doesn’t talk about it in interviews, maybe these are just funny stories with none of the urgency that I read into them, but why don’t you read his work and find out for yourself? L’Ètrange Affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine is maybe not my preferred starting point for Laroui’s work, but it’s a good one, and it is available in translation. Go. Read.

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Sharon Dodua Otoo: Synchronicity

Otoo, Sharon Dodua (2015), Synchronicity, Edition Assemblage
With Illustrations by Sita Ngoumou
ISBN 978-3-942885-95-9

Otoo, Sharon Dodua (2012), The Things I am Thinking While Smiling Politely, Edition Assemblage
ISBN 978-3-942885-22-5

otooIs this German literature? Sharon Otoo is not a German writer. She is, according to her page and the book cover, “a Black British mother, activist, author and editor;” and both books under review are written in English. There is a German version of both, published more or less simultaneously by the same publisher, who is headquartered in Münster, in North-Rhine Westphalia in West Germany, but they have both been translated by a person other than the author (Mirjam Nuenning). Otoo lives and works in Germany and is involved in German debates on racism and refugees. She moved to Germany in 2006 and immediately became involved in activism involving blackness in Germany. I recommend reading this interview. This year, she won the Bachmannpreis for a brilliant story, written in German, which was clearly, to pretty much any competent observer, the best text in the competition, despite some excellent work by the other competitors. The two novellas under review are a cultural hybrid, written in English by a writer with English education and sensibilities, but set in Germany and informed by the sharp observations and brilliant details of a critically observant person living in this country. German literature written by Germans of German descent is pretty dull these days, with a few notable exceptions. Too much of it has been nurtured in the two big MFA mills, too much of it is blind, privileged pap with nothing at stake. Otoo’s books are brilliantly aware of traditions and contexts, of how assumptions and narratives intersect. Synchronicity is a near-allegorical tale of migration, community and adulthood and extends the promise of Otoo’s debut. The Things I am Thinking While Smiling Politely, a book about heartbreak, racism and migration. Both books are written with a sharp stylistic economy that never lapses into flatness, a skill that is as rare as it is commendable. If German literature is to have an interesting future, then it is not young writers writing clever postmodern 1000 page books with nothing at stake or MFA mill products with their self-congratulatory emptiness. It is writers with a migratory background who inject fresh energy and purpose into a literature that has grown rather tired. Otoo does not identify as a German writer but it is German literature that most stands to profit from her growing body of work.

otoo doppelSynchronicity is a multi-layered, but straight-forward story of community and family. Everything else, all the magical realism, all the bells and whistles, are woven around this core. Blackness and migration is a tale of fighting to belong. In the much more knotty and fragmented Things I am Thinking…, the protagonist explains that, being “the only black girl in a London suburb” she “quickly leaned that trouble could be avoided if [she] acted white.” This thinking is continued and expanded upon in Synchronicity – while the first novella used the personal as a mirror and medium to reflect (and reflect upon) political aspects, combining heartbreak with thoughts of alienation, this second novella is more deliberate and careful in discussing migration by offering us a set of metaphors on the one hand, and tableau of characters who all relate to the protagonist along an axis of power and nationality. The more streamlined nature of the second book derives to a great part from the genesis of the book as a Christmas tale written in 24 daily installments and sent to friends and family. The idea of turning it into a book came later, which explains why the two novellas are so different in construction. Things I am Thinking… is written in fragments, with a narrator who keeps going back and forth in time, to reveal some things and hint at others. The chapters all start mid-sentence and each chapter is preceded by a “shrapnel,” an emotionally charged quote. The book only makes sense as a complete construction, there’s no way to write that kind of book by coming up with daily installments. And yet the linear nature of Synchronicity is also not a sign of Otoo’s development, because her Bachmannpreis-winning story is exceptionally well constructed, with cultural, historical and theoretical allusions coming together to create a story that is deceptively simple, a story that needed to be mapped out in advance. I suspect when we look at Otoo’s work in a few years, after she has written the novel that she’s writing now (and won the Chamisso-award that she’s practically a shoo-in for at this point) and edited some more books, that Synchronicity will stand out as a unique part of her oeuvre. An unusual work by a writer of uncommon talent.

glossaryIt is important to note what an incredible progress the author has made since her first novella, despite that book’s high quality. Things I am Thinking… is a dense realist book that is fairly low on allusion and high on clarity of observation. The prose is lean but effective throughout, sometimes leaning a bit towards the journalistic. The real achievement of the book, however, is not the writing or the observations, per se, it is the author’s skill of connecting various elements of her narrator’s life in meaningful but subtle ways. I am sure the author is aware of various aspects of political philosophy, from Foucault to Critical Race Studies, but she wears that knowledge lightly. This is the philosophical version of “show not tell.” The book’s story is about a Black woman who lives in Germany. She has broken up with her husband Till, who is also the father of her child. She has friends of various ethnicities and origins, among them refugees. She has increasingly become disillusioned with the reality of Germany, which is expressed particularly well in the narrator’s attitude towards her husband’s name

So it was a matter of great inspiration to me, meeting Till on my year abroad in Germany. Someone with a surname so unambiguously of the country he was born, raised and lived in that I thought: how sexy is that? And I knew I had to make it my own. This however didn’t stop other officially suited white ladies in cold offices from saying “Wie bitte?” and asking me to repeat myself – like they were disappointed because they had been expecting me to be called something resembling Umdibondingo or whatever. Several months after we were married, I discovered that “Peters” was also the surname of a German colonial aggressor and although I didn’t begin to hate it then, I stopped adorning myself with it.

Otoo pulls off a rare trick – her book is dense and cerebral, but it has a story to tell, as well as a narrative and political urgency. Everything in the book has a purpose and is connected to everything else, but it never feels like Otoo is simply having a postmodern game on. This is not the place to unravel all the book’s plotlines and trajectories, but suffice to say that she manages to see how the different ways power shapes and controls us intersect and collaborate. And her protagonist, who has learned to accommodate various demands of power, is now crashing against the walls of the well-built house of German racism and economics because her personal life implodes. The word “shrapnel” is well chosen for the quotes preceding the chapters because the impression I got reading the book was that heartbreak, a fundamental personal emotion, functions like a bomb that explodes in the middle of a lifetime of accomodation and struggle. The book itself, while not framed explicitly as a text written by the protagonist, feels like an attempt to assemble the shards of a life, where one betrayal has damaged personal, professional and social relationships.

otoo innen1The aspect of migration is not central to Things I am Thinking…. We learn that the protagonist is British, but migration is experienced more through the eyes of the refugees we encounter in the book like Kareem, of whom the author remarks that he “has this matter of fact, nothing-to-lose air about his person. Years of being an illegal immigrant in an unwelcoming country will do that to you, I guess.” Much of the alienation that we learn about is the kind that happens when you look foreign and live in a racist country:

Berlin is a place where anything goes, and you can wear whatever you like, but if you are a Black woman in the underground, be prepared to be looked up and down very very slowly. I cannot tell you how many times I have glanced down at myself in horror during such moments to check if my jeans were unzipped or if my dress was caught up in my underwear. White people look at me sometimes like I am their own private Völkerschau. Staring back doesn’t help. It counts as part of the entertainment. Entertainment.

We get hints sometimes as to how a hybrid identity can develop with migration, such as when the protagonist recounts the criticism her “auntie” leveled at her: “she was truly shocked when she first realized that I had not raised Beth to hand wash her own underwear every night.” The reason for “auntie”’s outrage is the question of identity: “just because she has a whitey father, doesn’t mean she’s not Ghanaian!” The protagonist is not so sanguine about these matters, more interested in negotiating a Black identity in Germany, dealing with the shifting fortunes of being married to someone named Peters, and with the difficulties of establishing trust and loyalties in this country when you’re viewed as foreign.

otoo innen 2Synchronicity, on the other hand, is primarily dedicated to these questions of heritage and migration. There are basically two stories, layered one above the other, in the book. One, the surface-level story, is the one of Charlie Mensah, known as “Cee,” who is a graphic designer who, one day, starts to “lose” her colors. This is meant quite literally. For a couple of days, she stops being able to see certain colors, with one color absconding per day. Blue, red, green, etc., until just gray remains. The beautiful illustrations by Sita Ngoumou provide a lovely background to this contrast. This is challenging to Cee, who is a freelance designer, with a big and well-paid project coming up, and who has suddenly lost the use of one of her most important faculties. Eventually, however, the colors return, one by one, albeit in a different form. This, so far, is the story as a realist narrative would describe it. There are smaller plotlines woven into it, such as Cee falling in love, and her conflicts with her client, but basically, this is it. The other story is the one concerning heritage and identity. This loss of colors is not some disability, not some virus or sickness, it is a process of maturation that happens to all the women in her family. The “different form” that colors are regained in is what the author calls “polysense,” a special form of synesthesia. And this is not all that is different about the women in Cee’s family. They are also all women who don’t reproduce sexually. They are parthogenic, which, as Cee explains, “means we have children alone – that our bodies are designed to become pregnant completely by themselves.” This is not some science fictional theory, although it echoes such science fictional worlds as the planet Whileaway in Joanna Russ’ feminist classic The Female Man. Otoo, beyond the term, never goes into details, because this strange genetic heritage serves primarily as a metaphor for migration and alienation. The people in Cee’s family live alone. They raise their daughters to be independent and then, once they are adult, they push them out of the house and then let them fend for themselves. The maturation process to polysense, and the insistence on independence makes it hard for these women to establish personal bonds; thus, Otoo found a metaphor to reify something that has been part of immigrant experience for a long time.

4EdA_Day-by-Day_CoverA better way, I suppose to frame it, is Axel Honneth’s innovative take on the subject of reification, where the process of recognizing the other is fundamental to the way our subjectivity is constructed and yet that recognition, which, as Butler writes, “is something achieved” that “emerge[s] first only after we wake from a more primary forgetfulness,” can be abandoned. The forgetting of recognition is, in Honneth’s reading, what. In classic terminology, we called reification. What does migration to to emotional recognition? How do we react when we migrate into places that see us as a constituting alterity, that use us to create their national and personal narratives. In Otoo’s slender and careful book, the answer, given for many generations of immigrants, is to retreat to a specific kind of subjectivity that rejects recognition. The parthogenetic reproduction is a perfect metaphor for that. But the tone of the book isn’t dark. Otoo, who works as an activist, imbues her novella with confidence in the future. Her migrants break free of this mold. Cee’s daughter refuses to accept the ways of her family and Cee herself sees changes in her and the world around her. She falls in love with a policeman who isn’t white, representing a fusion of her horizons with that of the country she migrated to. The most powerful description of the policeman is not the first time she sees him, it is a moment of recognition, which, for Honneth, is something that is part of maturation:

That policeman. I recognized him straight away this time because he had a particular kind of walk. Like he was happy to be walking at all. In fact, if I had to choose one word to describe his body language it would be: gratitude. That really fascinated me. I stared at him for quite some time as I walked towards him – he was in deep conversation with his white colleague. I could tell the colleague was white because his walk was altogether more sturdy and authoritarian. He placed his feet firmly onto the ground, each step conferring a heritage of legitimacy and ownership unto him.

The book is a Christmas story, which explains its optimism and lightness, but it also offers a literary third way between assimilation and rejection. Critical optimism, if you will. It is a unique quality that appears to be emerging in Otoo’s work. Things I am Thinking… is a much darker work, but the story that Otoo read at the Bachmannpreis walks the same line as Synchronicity does. I don’t think I’ve ever read quite the same kind of story in this country and I don’t think I have ever read a writer quite like Otoo.

tddl16-532x200At the Bachmannpreis (I had a short post on it last year here) the jury discussions of Otoo’s text and the one of Tomer Gardi, another exciting text read at the competition, as well as the contrast to the bland terrible awfulness of the texts read by Jan Snela, Julia Wolf, Isabelle Lehn or Astrid Sozio (who, slotted directly behind Otoo, read a spectacularly racist text) maybe shows where literature written and published in this country needs to turn. The comfortable and unnecessary tales of migrancy from a MFA-educated German mind do not add to the conversation and they do not produce good literature. That is a dead end, and nothing demonstrated that dead end as well as the comparison of the field with Sharon Otoo’s excellent text, and Otoo’s work in general.

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Iain Reid: I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Reid, Iain (2016), I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Text Publishing
ISBN 9-781911-231042

endingthingsSo this is a weird book. Not weird as in weird fiction, or weird as in unusual. Iain Reid’s novel is a fairly straightforward psychological (horror) thriller. If you have ever read a book or seen a movie or played a video game in the genre, you’ll not be surprised by the book’s twists and turns. Everything is very clearly telegraphed, to such an extent that I was, at some point, wondering whether the effect was intentional but I couldn’t figure out the goal of such a tactic, because apart from the pleasures of genre, there is nothing else to the book. Well, one thing, but I’ll return to that. The book is fairly short, short on pages, but also short on characterizations and linguistic inventiveness. If I wasn’t reading a genuinely terrible book as I am writing this review, I’d say that it has been a while since I have read a book so thin on language and character. The author clearly wrote this book with the genre tools in mind, hurrying through the early bits to get to the meatier final confrontations. He draws on a vast canon of horror literature, but without the joy and delight that those writers display in writing those kinds of books. When you read, say, a good Stephen King novel (or even a bad one), what you get is an author who is profoundly interested in his material, who is convinced of the necessity and inherent worthiness of telling these stories and who tells these stories from the ground up. King took up the 19th century concept of the uncanny and implanted it in the dull lives of small town Maine, telling stories of lives upended by the supernatural. These books work because we are aware of the stakes. Reid uses many of the same tropes, and his execution of them in the book’s last third is almost flawless, but there is nothing at stake. There is no story here, but also no language that would make up for that. And it’s not as if that was intentional either – because the first half of the novel is clearly trying to tell a story. The author is clearly aware that he needs to invest his readers in the story for the final twists to have any payoffs, but all that is just awful. I considered getting rid of the book multiple times while dragging myself through the book’s dull first half. The excellent execution of the last third and the capable injection of what felt like genuine despair barely makes up for that. I will say this. If you love the genre, you won’t hate this book, but I cannot possibly come up with a reason why you’d read this book rather than one of the many excellent other entries in the genre.

It is entirely possible to read much of what I said in a much more positive light. The signposting of plot elements could be viewed as drawing the reader in, as suggestiveness. Yet given that part of the book’s mechanics uses and relies on twists, I doubt that this is part of the book’s function – because no matter what, the result is a less powerful reveal. I suspect, rather, that the signposting is a symptom of the author’s attempt to get his sea legs in this book, his first attempt at imaginative fiction, after writing two memoirs (I think). It reads as if he had opened a guide on how to write a psychological thriller and started to work through its prompts bit by bit. This would also explain the skeletal nature of the book which contains the absolute bare minimum of story. It is hard to tell you what the book is about because almost any detail I can give you about plot developments will spoil you, because everything has a purpose. It’s like an inept inversion of Chekhov’s pistol: there are no pistols that will not get shot later. No room or patience for characterization is the result. The book’s set up is a car trip undertaken by a couple to visit the man’s parents. Strange calls and signs accompany the trip until the catastrophe upends everything. The book is written from the girlfriend’s point of view, but the author is never really interested in her actual point of view; I will say, having read Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything just before reading this book has not helped, since Abbott, in her recent string of novels, has absolutely mastered the art of telling a thriller from a believable and rich female point of view. Other authors with similar plots have managed this part of the story with much more aplomb. The car ride is full of the most dull and banal dialogue, and while, yes, much of this has a purpose, as the end of the book reveals, it still requires us to slog through 100 pages of dull writing. And it is mystifying. If this was a first book, I’d understand. If this was a book by a misanthrope who never gets out and is now somehow forced to imagine how two people talk to each other, I’d understand, as well. But the author has written two memoirs – two prizewinning, well reviewed memoirs to boot. He is clearly able to figure out how to write characters that are full of life and depth. What has happened to the poor man? Did he get fleeced by the MFA equivalent of Trump university before he set out to write his third book and first novel? I am absolutely confused.

But even if we grant him the characterizations and dialogue and view them as another Chekhovian pistol – nothing explains the paucity of the novel’s style. I haven’t read Iain Reid’s other books, but he gets his prose regularly published in the New Yorker – he knows how to write well. What happened here? At its best the novel is filled with unremarkable, dull prose. At its worst, Reid goes for the odd short sentence prose rhythm used by high school boys who try to write interior monologue. With no teacher on hand to rap his knuckles, Reid unsystematically moves from one register to the next, from dull to bad and back to dull again. There is no obvious attempt to console his readers for the dearth of characters by giving us language that is enjoyable to read. So many sentences without verbs. Or sentences consisting of only one word, and that one’s a verb. Writing. How can you write like this? Write like that. Like this. If anything, these antics get worse as the book comes to an end, but at that point, we are excited, along for the genre ride and don’t care as much. I think style in horror gets a bad rep, and too little consideration. Read Stephen King and you’ll find he has a very specific way of shaping language that makes him a much more visceral writer than, say, Koontz, who is more interested in effects. I think, especially among ‘literary’ people there are two ways of dealing with genre. Either we are offered books that do not deliver on the promises of genre (excitement, fun, fear), because the authors are too far up their own backside to tell a proper story and offer some literary pap instead that works on no level. The exception to this rule is of course Gertrude Stein, whose Blood on the Dining Room Floor does not work as a mystery, but it is, as everything by Ms. Stein, a brilliant masterpiece of writing so nobody cares. The other direction, and that is where Iain Reid went, is the one of thinking of genre as being bad, but rule-bound writing, and offering, then, bad writing because it’s what you do. There is a whole host of examples of both categories in contemporary German fiction where something has convinced virtually all major writers to write some kind of science fiction recently, to sometimes deeply saddening results. So this is what I suspect happened here. Reid is convinced or was convinced that writing a thriller means writing in pared-down language. Nobody told him that writing simple prose is not a free pass to dullness (we had this before, see here, here and here).

And yet. And yet I cannot bring myself to hate the novel. In part because I am right now reading the worst book I have read in a few years, and I sort of try to review on a curve. So it could be worse. But more than that, the main character’s deep despair, which the last pages of the book circle in on (no spoiler, don’t worry) is, at the end, very believable. We know from page 13 of the book that part of the book’s discourse will involve suicide and the despair that pushes people to that point. And as I earlier suggested that I may be biased against parts of the book, I need to add here, that, were I not biased in favor of it, as a person who himself sometimes thinks of ending things, I might be even harsher on the book, because this discourse, it absolutely worked for me, personally. Potentially hokey sentences like “What if it doesn’t get better? What if death isn’t an escape?” gave me a bit of personal anxiety, which is obviously not a bad thing in the context of a thriller. This may not work for everyone. If you read those two sentences and rolled your eyes – stay away from this book. For everybody else, I think the book, once finished, does offer an interestingly creepy look at how it feels to be alienated, alone and scared. Nothing in the book feels original, really, and all the details of it also point to the genre, to such an extent that I am sure it is intentional. As a writing exercise, and cut to story size, this would be quite a nice riff on the genre. As a published novel, not so much. This could have been (and should have been) much better than it is. A shame.

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Marcel Beyer wins award

büchnerMarcel Beyer, one of Germany’s 5 best poets, one of Germany’s 5 best novelists and a damn good nonfiction writer, has just won the Büchnerpreis, Germany’s most prestigious lifetime achievement award. I mean he should have won it a decade ago, especially if you look at some past winners (Arnold Stadler, Sibylle Lewitscharoff, FC Delius and Martin Mosebach all number among past winners of the award), but this is well deserved to say the least. All of his fiction has been translated into English, and it is uniformly excellent. I’ll try to have something new on him up one of these days but in the meantime, I’m a bit perturbed that the only thing on my blog I can link to is my very bad review of his very good novel Kaltenburg. I feel it should be mentioned again for readers who only know his novels that Beyer has always written poetry as well as fiction and he is one of the very very few writers who excel at both. I have read (despite not owning) his last collection multiple times and the constant excellence of Beyer’s writing through the years that never flagged, never got bad or complacent, is just stunning. His fiction is infused with a passionate reckoning with the wayward forces of history, a work struggling with the complexities of knowledge and narrative. On top of that, he has developed a style that is always clear yet powerful. No two novels of his are truly alike except in the most broad of parameters and his poetry is still different. German literary fiction about German history, when it’s not written by Jirgl, is often either clichéd (Erpenbeck), sentimental (Tellkamp) or dour (Ruge). There’s really no writer like Marcel Beyer in this country, and that’s been true and obvious for a long time. This recognition by the German Academy for Language and Literature is long overdue.

Phil LaMarche: American Youth

LaMarche, Phil (2007), American Youth, Sceptre
ISBN 978-0-340-93803-4

lamarche 2I went into this book knowing nothing about it or the author. Someone recommended it to me and I decided on a whim to read it. Not knowing anything about it, I was surprised at the way the book’s title’s relationship to the text keeps mildly shifting. From a vague description for much of the book’s personnel to the name for “a small group [where local kids] get together and discuss politics, activism, that sort of thing.” The kids in question are all right wing nuts, if you can call adolescents that, but the book loses interest in politics with remarkable speed given how central they are to a significant portion of its characters. Rather than examine the way politics insinuate themselves into youth culture, American Youth is a novel about a a small town that was hit hard by the recession and a Bildungsroman of sorts where a young boy discovers guilt, politics, sex and redemption, in this order. Phil LaMarche tries his hand at a version of America that has already been well examined by the likes of Richard Ford, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Thomas McGuane or Daniel Woodrell. This is not a very good novel, but there’s a very good novel in it somewhere, which makes it a bit maddening to read. The first half of the novel is quite intriguing, until the second half, which reads like a dutiful tying up of lose ends and narrative strands, really ruins the whole thing. The impression is that Phil LaMarche decided to end the novel on a redemptive note, and shaped the later acts of the story accordingly, rather than ride out the story as is, and see what its implications and possible directions are. It’s rather like seeing an object grow before your eyes only to find that it’s a bag full of hot air. And it’s not even particularly well written. Not bad, mind you, but the simple prose aims for early Hemingway, particularly some of the early Nick Adams stories, without having early Hemingway’s gift for compression. It is no surprise that this book and its author is an MFA product (you may have read my misgivings here and here), because the book reads (though it apparently isn’t) like someone’s thesis, dutifully taking an idea and putting it through the gears of what a “good” realist novel dealing with small town America should do. Alternately, it could be a result of a short story writer grappling with the very different task of building a novel. I imagine if Bonnie Jo Campbell ever gets round to writing a novel, it might be very similar to this one. And yet, despite all this, I can’t say I regretted reading it. It is a quick read, with good characters, and a really good first half. Look, it’s fine.

lamarche 3The characters and the various ways they are interconnected is the real achievement here. A kid dies early in the novel, and the guilt is curiously deferred: the killer bears some responsibility, but it was an accident brought about by age and inexperience; the novel’s protagonist, an experienced user of guns who loaded the gun only to leave it in his friend’s hands also bears some, as do the victim, shot when the two kids were grappling over the gun and the protagonist’s mother whose distracting noises prompted the protagonist to leave the gun in his friends’ hands. This is no spoiler, we learn this fairly early, but it shows us the way the novel connects its characters. Shared guilt, shared hate, shared pain. All people in the novel are somehow connected to all other people by a sad game of six degrees of shame and fear. The construction of the novel is so well done that I would not be surprised to learn that the author used a complex diagram to draw up the characters and the story. Sometimes, the effect is almost Checkovian: any character who we are introduced to that is not an immediate source of misery for the protagonist will eventually turn out to provide a solid dose of it – this is very impressive but, especially towards the end of the book, becomes more annoying that enjoyable. LaMarche’s treatment of guilt and shame gets more heavy handed as the novel slogs on. One can almost hear the author’s urge to include and clarify certain elements beyond ambiguity. The guilt for the killed boy is palpable and informs even simple observations. It is also mostly unspoken, weighing heavily over everything. This is how it should be. Similarly, boyhood betrayals and loyalties are debated with unspoken feelings of guilt and anger, expressed with body language and sullen words. When, however, towards the end of the book, a budding love, and the protagonist’s first sexual encounter, turns sour amid accusations of rape, we get an unholy amount of paragraphs of the protagonist debating the guilt or lack thereof for the act of rape. The original encounter, which is clearly a form of rape, was described clearly enough. No reader would have needed the copious debates of how the accusation shocked the boy who thought “it was not like that” and then his insight that maybe he did cross some line, and his debates of the topic both with other boys as well as the girl whose pleas to stop he ignored in the first place. I’m not advocating treating a terrible act with less condemnation, but the step by step discussion of it in the book, again, has the whiff of college debates on rape culture and an author who was trying to ‘get it right,’ even at the expense of the literary quality of his novel.

richard fordCuriously, he doesn’t get it right, despite the tedious extended discussions of the act. His failure here is less one of misreading rape, and more one of the role he allows women to play in this story and particular in this part of the narrative. The victim of rape basically drops out of the story after the accusation makes the rounds, reappearing only to assuage the protagonist’s feelings of guilt. Calling what happened between them rape becomes less an accurate description of what happened (though it is) and more of a weapon wielded by other boys and a source of resentment, anger and violence. The girl’s motivations and feelings suddenly disappear from a novel that was originally very interested in them and very clever in how it introduced them. This is due to two defects in the novel. One is its massive disinterest in its female characters. After setting them up, they become mere catalysts for the male characters’ actions. This gulf between the depth of the characters as we are introduced to them, and the shallow actual use of them is due to the second defect and that’s the novel’s slavish devotion to structure. There is no room in the third act to examine the girls’ motivations and feelings because the beats of the story demand that something else happens now. There is no room for the mother of the killed boy to have a complex reaction to the violent events because the only room the tightly scripted story allows her to have is as a forgiving catalyst for redemption. That’s also why the politics fall by the wayside. We need them in the first act, to connect the protagonist to that right wing group of teetotaler boys called “American Youth,” but the arc of the story does not have an opening for any examination of politics or of the way that that small town really deals with politics, so it really never comes up again, except in small phrases here and there. And with all that tightness the book still doesn’t really have a dense texture. The second half, which is almost single-mindedly dedicated to finishing the story and hitting all the right beats, and tying up all the strands of story in the right way is pretty flabby because as the author loses interest in all the strange and exciting characters that populate the book, he falls back more and more on the protagonist’s thoughts and ruminations. The second half of the novel could be cut by 60% without losing anything truly significant. It shows where the author’s interest and priorities lie: in construction. He spent so much effort setting up the story that it feels as if the second half of the book is just a quick, unedited filling in of gaps. As I said before, this makes for a maddening reading experience. And not in a good way.

lamarche 1American Youth is set up as a book about small town life, about politics, even sexual politics, about how right wing politics are fueled by anger and frustration, about guilt and redemption, but ultimately, it is only the latter and the way a young boy matures into a young adult. The final chapter of the book, and especially the final paragraph, with its cheesily formulaic outlook into the future finally jettison all the darkness and bleakness that was a part of so much of the novel, and replaces it with a contemplation of what this young adult plans on telling his child. It feels as if the author is exceptionally blind to the possible implications of his story. There is a big unmarked, unexamined heart to the story where everyone is male, white and has whatever vaguely centrist politics Phil LaMarche himself has. Everything that doesn’t fit this basic assumption of normalcy is introduced as needed and jettisoned as needed. Thus, the politics of the book. The “American Youth” right wingers are the only people in the book whose politics are discussed, really, and then some politically correct newcomers. There is, as with so many other aspects of the book, a moment where we find a fissure in the text, an instability that might be used to cleave open many assumptions. It is the moment when the protagonist’s mother, trying to find out about a police officer’s stance regarding the killing, asks a friendly police man: “is he like us?” That was an extremely smart way of showing how the town’s loyalty works, and it tied into another strand of the story that examined boyhood loyalty. Yet as we enter the second half of the story it is as if the question had never been asked. The implication being, somehow, that we the reader are assumed to be like the author. In a book on the construction of whiteness as “a bounded cultural identity,” Matt Wray suggests that dismissive terms like “White Trash” serve as “boundary terms,” that help manage disparate lines of social loyalty. In a way, much of American Youth is concerned with offering us elements that are not “like us,” sharpening the books sense of who belongs to the ‘in’ group and who does not. Liking guns is good, being obsessed with gun rights is weird and so is not liking guns at all. Drinking a bit of alcohol is good, getting drunk off your ass is weird and so is not drinking at all. Doing the beast with two backs now and then is good, abstaining from sex is weird. And so on. None of these are awful, but when it comes to the book’s gender politics or its dubious racial politics, the picture is a bit less savoury.

Overall, the problem is not of the book focusing on loyalties and marking insiders and outsiders. Writers like Daniel Woodrell are excellent at doing that in similarly set stories. But Woodrell creates closed worlds where the demands of the story dictate the way it moves. He replicates the closed world of the stories in the closed form of the novel. Phil LaMarche’s novel has no loyalties to its characters or its story. It is about white male experience and could conceivably be set in a different place among different characters, if the story beats are mostly maintained. It acts like a story about places, a novel invested in local cultures, but we soon see the lamb hiding beneath the wolfskin. At some point, I think, the book even quotes Cormac McCarthy and while the man’s recent output is less than inspired, the man’s work contains books so infused with a sense of place that we almost drown in it. Suttree this ain’t. The disappointment I felt on reading American Youth makes it hard for me to predict where LaMarche’s path as a writer will take him. One hopes that he learns to shake off the MFA guidelines and learns to trust the story, trust his characters.

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Yvonne Vera: Butterfly Burning

Vera, Yvonne (2000), Butterfly Burning, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN 0-374-29186-1

vera coverSo here is another example of me being awfully badly read. The late Yvonne Vera was a leading/important novelist from Zimbabwe, winner of multiple literary awards. And this is the first time I ever read any of her books. What’s worse is that I think I have only read 2 novels by writers from Zimbabwe, period. One is Vera’s novel, and the other one is the obvious choice that anyone who graduated from college has had to read at one point or another, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s fantastic debut Nervous Conditions. There’s a good likelihood that much of what follows is basically a comparison of the only two novels I’ve read from an African country with a rich literary tradition, which is awful and myopic, but there you go. In case you don’t make it that far, let me impress on you that if you read Dangarembga’s novel and expect anything close to the same from Butterfly Burning, you’ll be very surprised. Given that these are two women from the same country, the same generation, both writing about the plight of being a young woman in Zimbabwe/Rhodesia, both fêted by Western literary critics and academics, it is quite stunning just how dissimilar the two books are. Vera’s novel is very unusual, a challenging read in many ways. At the time that I am typing this review I am not even sure whether it is very good. Stylistically, Vera opts for a language that is generally coded as poetic, but in the process she loses precision, accuracy and intellectual punch. If you read Dangarembga’s novel, you know it spreads out its problems and areas of interests for the reader to see and understand. Vera’s novel is just as personal, just as political, and targets similar issues sometimes, but the textual surface is like a wave of text hitting you. Vera shifts from explicit physical details to a poetic vagueness that sometimes appears to border on self-parody. And yet, as much as I was tempted to shore up its faults in a summary of the book, Vera’s commitment to her style, Vera’s intense presentation of her concerns and the sometimes almost impenetrable surface of the text all contribute to a literary power that can’t but impress. If you don’t like writers who describe sex as a couple “[falling] to a solitary passion” and “yielding to each other,” this is maybe not for you. If you want your African novels to be as clear as Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s early work or Dangarembga’s, then this may not be for you either. But for everybody else, Yvonne Vera has written an oddly compelling, deeply flawed but powerful novel about the female experience in an African country under British occupation. The final scene of confrontation and self-renunciation is genuinely fantastic.

One thing that struck me is that the novel’s near-obsessive account of what it feels like to be a woman in 1940s Zimbabwe and the density of its imagery and the vagueness of the language sometimes blinded me to the subtleties in the book’s overall construction. Butterfly Burning is written in many places like a novel about feminity and patriarchy, with a long, almost surreal passage where a women performs an abortion on herself by literally reaching inside herself; at the same time, it is also a novel about history. Yvonne Vera very carefully placed this novel, the intensity of which could suggest an autobiographical impetus, in a period almost two decades before she was even born. There is no simple identification as in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel, which follows a girl about the same age that the author would have been at that time, give or take a year. The way Vera’s novel is structured with respect to the broader historical narratives is deeply interesting: on the one hand, the story of the novel’s young female protagonist, a woman named Phephelaphi, is not particularly contextualized historically. We learn that certain kinds of education were not open to her, but unlike, again, in Nervous Conditions, we have no clear historical time-line, no extensive debates about the role of the colonizers and missionaries. Dangarembga is very specific even about the things that have changed in the lifetime of her characters. I suppose that’s what makes it such a popular choice in classrooms – reading Nervous Conditions gives you a fair idea of Zimbabwe’s history of the period depicted in the novel. An all you can eat buffet of educational opportunity, if you will. Yvonne Vera’s history is more hidden. There are no or very few British people in the novel, we learn next to nothing about the control that the colonizers exert over their colony and the restrictions that the colonized live under. The bad things that happen to Phephelaphi are not abstract deeds by some distant colonizing power – they are things that men do to women in many places all over the world. The sexually active women in the book, including Phephelaphi’s late mother and Deliwe, the proprietor of an illegal nightclub, do not distinguish between black and white men, and while a white policeman commits a murder in the book, it is not political or racist – it is a crime motivated by masculine jealousy which can turn to violence at any time in any country, something that hasn’t changed until today. So, given all these parts of the story that are primarily concerned with female experience, one could be excused if the novel appeared almost unpolitical, as far as the broader range of Zimbabwean history is concerned.

This is not the case. The book begins with a hanging, a result of the first uprising in Zimbabwe in 1896. The stark image of men hanging from a tree and a mother leading her son to see and remember what happened is what the book wants us to use as historical context. Now, Dangarembga’s novel doesn’t end at the 1977 war of independence, but the sequel (which I have not read) continues the time-line to end up right there. Vera, who was born a mere five years after Dangarembga declines to choose the war of independence as her marker. Instead she makes the failed rebellion almost a hundred years earlier her historical touchstone. The boy who watches his father hang from a tree becomes, 40 years later, the much older lover of Phephelaphi, a construction worker named Fumbatha. Thus, the vast bulk of the novel is set almost exactly between the two rebellions, and Vera can rely on her evocation of the first one to implicitly also evoke the second. What’s more, the interrogation of urban social structures in the book, not focused on class but on gender, also speaks to the author’s thinking regarding the underpinnings of the movement that ended up finally gaining independence (although that’s obviously speculation since I’ve read none of her other books). If politics is made by men, because women have no space in it, because women have to fight for their own spaces and their own bodies first, then what follows is that politics are always undergirded by violence. This is not even just about the Mugabe administration and its violent acts. A few months/weeks ago I read this book about the Zimbabwean economy by Hevina Dashwood and it is an utterly dispiriting read about how a country that was founded on vaguely socialist principles, coming as they did out of a popular revolution, descended into market-driven liberalism, marked by a decline in social welfare and a decline of popular participation and interest in government. There was no general change of mind in the population – it was a decision driven by the then finance minister in cooperation with the world bank and the IMF. The minister had to slowly convince first the bureaucratic apparatus and then the ruling party’s internal debating structures before informing the public of this new direction. Social disengagement is its own violence, and markedly, in Burning Butterfly, it is abandonment, lack of employment and social cohesion that lead to the book’s dark ending. Originally written in 1998, after free market reforms were completely implemented (according to Dashwood, the process ended in 1997), it is hard not to see at least some implication here regarding political action and inaction.

butterfly coverYet despite all this history, the core of the novel remains its dealings with feminity. There is a strong tension between motherhood and sexuality that the novel does not resolve or judge. Sexual openness is dangerous, but that’s due to patriarchy, not because the act itself is a problem. Motherhood itself, however, is also restrictive and oppressive. There is a strong connection of sexuality to freeing people from the bond of repressed memory, but encounters with motherhood can also lead to almost painful epiphanies. As Grace Musila has pointed out, “nationalist discourses constituted the African nation as the feminine victim of an aggressive colonial master” and “the prostitute’s body became a convenient index for the degraded postcolonial nation.” Vera reacts very strongly against this appropriation of the female body for the purposes of political rhetoric. Butterfly Burning reasserts the primacy of the female body over political discourses. Phephelaphi resists the seizure of her body twice, with an increased rate of violence and insistence. Vera has places this female story very carefully and very intentionally within the historical framework without making it a direct part. The connection is Fumbatha, Phephelaphi’s lover. Phephelaphi herself resists. In a way, the novel’s own language is a bit like an act of resistance. The intense smell of poetic writing, i.e. writing that is written as “poetic” and not writing that is itself powerfully poetic is all over the book. While Dangarembga’s novel is written in crystalline, sharp English, with short, precise sentences and thus fits discourses of order and narratives like that very well, that is not as easy for Vera’s novel which I think intentionally reaches for a kind of feminine écriture. The effect is that the novel reminded me immediately not of other African writers I know but of North American feminist postmodernism, specifically Carole Maso’s books. Another reference would maybe be Daphne Marlatt or even the female sections in W. Paul Anderson’s Hunger’s Brides. While those parts of Anderson sometimes read like parody and I very specifically didn’t like Marlatt’s book, the urgency of Vera’s novel elevates the sometimes murky and sentimental phrasings to a different level. Given the book’s thorny relationship to the history experienced and pushed by men, this style appears to provide another layer of resistance. I will admit, I was a bit annoyed. Half of the pages I marked in my copy of the novel featured some borderline outrageous formulation. Yet towards the end of the book, especially during an extremely graphic scene of abortion by a character’s own hand, the style proves useful beyond the sometimes challenging readability. We never see the scene 100% clear and the style contributes to that – but Vera manages to do two things at once: to not shy away from the intricacies, sometimes brutal, of the female physical experience, without delivering a clinical description that would hand epistemological control right back to the patriarchy. It’s an interesting effect and absolutely worth having to wade through what feels like overly flowery language (and not the good, Thomas Wolfe kind of flowery).

This writerly strategy may be due to the fact that Vera, while a writer from Zimbabwe, is also a Canadian writer, who lived with her Canadian husband in Toronto when she died. And while I have some difficulties contextualizing Vera’s writing within what I have read of African literature, I would have no such difficulties with a comparison to Canadian literature, where that kind of writing is not uncommon, from the aforementioned Marlatt to the widely admired Margaret Atwood. At the same time, I do not mean to suggest that Butterfly Burning is a Canadian novel in the sense of a novel written for a Canadian audience. Unlike writers like Maryse Condé whose 2010 novel (cf. my review here) contained a baffling comparison involving Hurricane Katrina, betraying the extent to which Condé’s life and references are centered around Western Europe and the US, Vera’s novel was first published in Zimbabwe, only later in the US. Its primary audience is African, and its message is urgent. The politicization of the private, of the female body, does work out rather well, especially, when, intentionally or not (I can’t decide), the novel’s final scene evokes iconic images of protests like the monks who protested the Vietnam war.

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. :) If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)