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.

O Tempora, O Mores!

New study, somewhat interesting results:

Anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish feelings are rising in several major European countries, according to a worldwide survey released on Wednesday.

The Washington-based Pew Research Centre’s global attitude survey found 46 percent of Spanish, 36 percent of Poles and 34 percent of Russians view Jews unfavourably, while the same was true for 25 percent of Germans, and 20 percent of French. […]

The figures are all higher than in comparable Pew surveys done in recent years, the report said, and “in a number of countries the increase has been especially notable between 2006 and 2008.”

Opinions of Muslims are also dimming compared to previous years with 52 percent in Spain, 50 percent in Germany, 46 percent in Poland and 38 percent in France having negative attitudes toward them. […]

“There is a clear relationship between anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim attitudes,” the report said. “(Those) that view Jews unfavourably also tend to see Muslims in a negative light.”



Immer diese Moslems! Das hier in SPON

Wegen eines papstkritischen Liedes wird der evangelische Pfarrer und Liedermacher Clemens Bittlinger von katholischen Fundamentalisten mit Morddrohungen attackiert und im Internet wüst beschimpft. Die Polizei nimmt die Drohungen ernst.

In seinem Song “Mensch Benedikt” hält Bittlinger Benedikt XVI. unter anderem vor, durch die Ablehnung von Kondomen die Ausbreitung von Aids in Afrika zu fördern. Zudem kritisiert der Darmstädter Pfarrer und Liedermacher die Haltung des Papstes, keine andere Kirche neben der katholischen anzuerkennen. Seit Bittlinger seinen Song im Mai auf dem Osnabrücker Katholikentag aufführte, sind laut Informationen des SPIEGEL auf rechtskonservativen katholischen Internet-Seiten zornige Hinweise auf den Song erschienen.

Die Wutwelle habe ihn “vollkommen unerwartet” getroffen, sagt Bittlinger. In Drohschreiben wird der Songschreiber als “dreckige Protestantensau” bezeichnet, andere halten ihn für “vom Teufel besessen”, einen “Stinker” oder beklagen, keine “Aggressionen” gegen ihn “rauslassen” zu können. Die hessische Polizei nahm die Drohungen so ernst, dass sie ein Konzert unter Polizeischutz stellte und eine verdächtige Postsendung an ihn von einer Spezialeinheit öffnen ließ.

"A Roger Federer Among Writers"

Still another DFW obit. I am still sad. Found this great paragraph in an obit at DeWitt’s capricious blog:

Well, this is the world we live in, brothers and sisters. It’s a rum old place. Oblivion doesn’t strike me as a difficult, never mind uncompromisingly difficult, book. Plato can be difficult; the speeches in Thucydides drive strong men to drink; Kant is difficult, Wittgenstein is difficult, David Lewis is not for the faint of heart. But Oblivion? DFW had a ravishingly lovely gift for voice; he took the sort of pleasure in variety that we see in (say) Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition or Debussy’s Preludes. Why would a reader labour grumpily through the stories in search of hidden meanings? Let alone blame the profligate author for lack of generosity? I’ve no idea, but one thing is certain: in this world, here, now, there is no place for a Roger Federer among writers.

He’s right, you know.

johnnywalkitoff wrote

suicide is so close at hand, when you think about it, just walk into the middle of the street…or go to the kitchen grab a knife and cut long and deep into the veins lining your wrists. who hasn’t wished they had the courage to do these things. it is both cowardly and courageous. and for TRYING to commit suicide…if you want to do it, you do. if you want to kill yourself, you make sure you die. an attempt is something else entire…a subliminal ‘i actually love life, but i am tired right now’ scream starting in the deep creases of the brain/mind.