Ondjaki: Good Morning Comrades

Ondjaki (2008), Good Morning Comrades, Biblioasis
ISBN 978-1-897231-40-1
translated from the Portuguese by Stephen Henighan

What a novel. Ten pages in I hated it. There are some common literary mechanisms that I am getting tired of and this is one of the worst: a faux-naïve narrator, usually children or adolescents, describing his or her life in terrible circumstances, be it war or dictatorship or other regimes. Here it’s communist Angola, in the last year of a war that had lasted for several decades. A naïve boy is telling his tale. Simple style. I couldn’t decide whether it was the writer’s fault or the translator’s, but what I did know was that I regretted buying the book.

Ten pages later I was hooked. The style turned out to be more of a pose, it created a voice, a believable voice for the narrator and protagonist, the novel immediately started to cohere, and it stayed that way until the end of the book. When I had finished it, I felt I knew Ndalu, as the narrator/protagonist is called, on a personal level, even though he shared few personal details with us, the readers. This evocative power in so young a writer is impressive. This novel will not be the last of Ondjaki’s novels I’ll read.

The main power of the novel, however is found in its background. It’s set in Angola, a former Portuguese colony, which was torn apart by decades of war afterwards. One was the civil war, described @wiki like this:

The Angolan Civil War (1975 – 2002), one of the largest and deadliest Cold War conflicts, erupted shortly after and lasted 27 years, ravaging the economy, disturbing social order and disrupting social stability in the newly independent country. Over 500,000 people lost their lives,[7][8] as the three main factions and several smaller ones struggled for supremacy. Millions of Angolan refugees suffered with the conflict and left the country or simply fled to other regions of Angola.

The other major war was between the Angolan forces, augmented by Cuban military and apartheid South Africa. The latter conflict ended when the Angolan/Cuban army defeated South Africa’s forces at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale. Good Morning Comrades‘ translator writes of this:

The battle of Cuito Cuanavale has been erased from history as it is taught in Western nations; yet this battle forced the Western world to accept Angola’s present boundaries, caused the fall from power of South African president P.W. Botha, and led to the independence of Namibia and the end of apartheid in South Africa. In many parts of the world, Cuban soldiers, rather than tepid sanctions by the Western nations, are credited with having dealt the apartheid system its death blow.

This ambivalence, between oppression and liberation, of communist dictatorship, which in the novel is presented as yet another kind of colonialism, with beaches just for the Soviets and Cuban teachers and inspectors, while not actively governing the country, are apparently in firm control of central infrastructural points, is important. So are others: now we get to the really tasty bits. The Cuban/Soviet colonialism is never reflected, but the former Portuguese is, in two different ways. One is an old man, Comrade Antonio, who is old enough to remember Portuguese rule and constantly insists on the fact that it hasn’t been that bad, in a way that reminded me of old GDR citizens, who remember the 40 yrs fondly.

The second way Portuguese colonialism reflected is trickier. A relative from Portugal visits. How is this important? Let me digress first: all of Ndalu’s description of Angola are refreshingly devoid of whining, describing his circumstances good-humoredly, without hidden judgment. Some things might seem strange or possibly oppressive to us, but not to Ndalu. It does raise the question whether judgment is valid at all, since it’s not part of the book, maybe it’s just our/my uptight anti-communism (not that I thought I harbored this sort of prejudice). However, and here’s where we return to the visit, we do get an outside view on this, which reveals the absurdity of many daily rituals Ndalu takes for granted.

But even within these absurd rituals, there are again contrarian elements. Take this piece of dialogue. The aunt brings three different chocolate bars and Ndalu automatically assumes that she must have borrowed her neighbor’s ration cards. She denies that:

“I don’t have any sort of ration card. In Portugal we make our purchases without a card.”
“Without a card? But how do they keep track of people? How do they keep track, for example, of the fish you take home?” I didn’t even let her respond. “How do they know you didn’t take too much fish?”
“But I make the purchases I wish to make, provided that I have the money. Nobody tells me that I took too much fish or too little…”
“Nobody?” I was startled, but not overly so, because I was certain she was lying or jiking. “Isn’t there even a comrade in the fish market who stamps the cards when you buy fish on Wednesday?”

There you go. We all know that the phrase introduced by “provided…” isn’t as unimportant as it seems. And we all know that we here have excellent means of keeping track of our customers. These things crawl throughout the book including through an action- and suspense-packed episode at the center of the novel. I called the book simple but it’s deceptively simple. There is so much hidden in between the sparse details, that it results in the picture evoked in this short novel being incredibly rich. Additionally, the history it’s based on is intriguing, and I really like Ndalu.

The novel isn’t perfect, I am too much of a stickler for style to claim that, since Ondjaki or his translator isn’t interested in style at all. Yes, I said it works, but its accumulative. Pick any page, read it, it’s not a particular pleasure. read a whole chapter and the pleasure returns. It’s not my kind of book, but unquestionably good. On many levels. And he has four more novels already published in Portuguese, one of ’em translated. Lots of great literature to look forward to.

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