The Dust Diaries – Owen Sheers

The irregular coughs of the man sleeping in the bunk beneath him had been chiselling into his sleep all night, but it was the slap of the sea against the ship’s hull that finally woke Arthur. There was something different about it, a change in its register and rhythm. Keeping his eyes shut, he tried to work out what it was. And then he realised: they were still, the ship was no longer moving. They must have finally been allowed into harbour. They had arrived.

So not having had the chance to get to Foyles to get some new books, and partly with a desire to go back to read some of my Brazilian favourites ahead of a potential visit next year, I decided to dive into my library and re-read some of my collection.

I decided to kick off with The Dust Diaries by Owen Sheers, having just emerged from the engrossing novel Street of Thieves, I fancied something non-fictional. I can’t remember why I picked this up, the travel element certainly, but also the chance to read a prose book by a poet, certainly the recommendation from Louis de Bernieres on the front would of done it no harm at all.

We follow Owen Sheers as he travels Zimbabwe, on the trail of his great, great uncle, Arthur Shearly Cripps, or Mpandi as he was called in the Shona language. Sheers starts off by stating that while the account of his own travels is true, the story of Cripps is fiction, based on fact, is a reflection of Cripps that Sheers has brought to life. And it is an incredible job done as well. I think this blend of historical fiction with biography is not something I have come across elsewhere and although this time around I found it harder to edge out the nagging in my mind that this is only what might have happened, which barely featured on my first reading, it is still a thoroughly enjoyable read.

At first I was frustrated, I had gone into this to read it as a travel book, and there was barely any travel in it, certainly not in the first few parts. We were meeting Arthur, his trip to Southern Rhodesia and the beginning of his life there. Sheers prose, seemed, to me, excessively ornate, an eager emotional poet wringing every last adjective into every sentence or phrase, which blurred and meant it took longer to read. Slowly I realised though that it was me that was causing the frustration. Certainly I had loved the poets prose on the first reading, why was I frustrated this time? Eventually I realised it was my own attitude, in deciding I was going to read a travel book, I was frustrated that it wasn’t really a travel book, and therefore was shutting down everything that wasn’t what I wanted it to be. Slowly, I relaxed my grip on the expected, and enjoyed the story of Arthur’s life, brought elegantly to life by Sheers. There were still moments, like Cloud Road I felt I was being led somewhere, the hidden love story and the rumoured child, but actually, Sheers I think puts this in as it should be, as he has to work you out, and then fill in how would fit in with your story.

Cripps was a man out of time, a likeable, passionate, stubborn, straight as an arrow missionary who embraced Rhodesisa and the native people in it as his home and family, and they in part responded to him. The moment Sheers first visits the grave, brief in the book, is a special moment, as is the festival at the end. But it is the story of Cripps that dominates Dust Diaries, as it should. An angry advocate for the local people, Cripps lived in a rondavel next to his church and over time understood the tensions between them and the colonisers. He fought against the small mindedness and discrimination and ended up almost disowned by one side, and universally adored by the other.
As you read his story, even though you know that Sheers is writing, his textured picture of Cripps is so well painted that the thoughts he puts in the missionary’s head are believable and plausible.

Minutes before, word had passed up the ship, whispered from officer to officer, that they had crossed the border with German East Africa. Arthur studied the water below him again. He had seen no border interrupt it’s continuity. He had seen nothing but the moonlight, mineral across it’s supple surface. He thought to himself how ridiculous it was to take a ruler and a pencil and dash a border through a lake. Like portioning the sky or claiming the stars. And how childlike to label one side of the lake German and the other British. Childlike and futile. The imbricated obsession to own, to possess. And yet that rule and pencil laid over the lake was enough to send two thousand of them across her waters tonight, weighed down with ammunition and intent. Two thousand of them, steaming towards the land on the other side, the land labelled German. It was all they needed to consider killing and being killed. Words on a map.

This particular part made me think of Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari, who points out that nations are entirely made up, and exist only in the minds of humans, yet it is humans that die for nations. Cripps certainly seemed more enlightened than most others at the time and pointed out that land would be the cause of later trouble if it was not sorted out, sadly an accurate prediction of what was to come as Sheers finished this book.
Even as the trouble flairs up and Sheers gazes in from it’s periphary, Cripps’s legacy remained strong and the annual festival in his honour is a chance for Sheers to meet people that knew his relative and in a poignant turning of the narrative, you meet the people who had quite clearly given the stories and anecdotes that had allowed such a compelling portrait to be drawn of a wonderful man.

Cripps was by no means without faults, and while there can be no doubt about his love for Ada, in the end it is the Veld and it’s people that capture his heart, and Sheers eloquently and beautifully weaves his story with his own journey into understanding this maverick missionary, a journey he has thankfully shared with us.

The men return with the lioness as Arthur is shutting up the church and padlocking the door to the vestry. The light has almost faded from the day and a streak of sunset lies across the horizon, setting off the trees and thorn bushes in sharp silhouettes. They return triumphant, the dogs barking at their heels and the body of the lioness slung across an old Scotch cart which they pull themselves, four at the front holding the shafts and two on either side, like a royal procession. Except in this procession the queen is dead, shot through the heart, the stomach and the hip, dried blood caked on her golden coat. Her eyes are still open and her tongue hangs from the side of her jaw, a slab of pink flesh, shaking with the movement of the cart.

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Street of Thieves – Mathias Enard

Men are like dogs, they rub against each other in misery, they roll around in filth and can’t get out of it, lick their fur and their genitals all day long, lying in the dust, ready to do anything for the scrap of  meat or the rotten bone they want someone to throw at them, and I’m just like them, I’m a human being, hence a depraved piece of garbage that’s a slave to it’s instincts, a dog , a dog that bites when it’s afraid and begs for caresses.

I was looking forward to this, and it did not disappoint. Enard, is currently my favourite author, although I believe I have now read all of his books in English, so not sure where I go from here.

We start in Tangier, Lakhdar is caught with his cousin Meryem and leaves the family home. He returns to Tangier and meets up with his friend Bassam, and they dream about a better life elsewhere, while the Arab Spring takes flight around them. Lakhdar meets Judit, a student from Barcelona and strikes up a tentative romance with her, as Bassam becomes more aloof and withdrawn into his religion, Lakhdar works for a better life. He gets the chance to work on a ferry plying between Tangier and Algeciras until it is impounded due to lack of funds. He makes it into Spain and eventually to Barcelona, homing in on Judit like a port in a storm. He settles down in the downtrodden Raval district and it is while he is here that Bassam reappears, quiet, pensive and seemingly waiting for something.

As with Compass and Zone, I disappeared into the Street of Thieves. Enard captures the eruption of the Arab spring in north Africa while Europe stands on the opposite shore and watches curiously, and he does this while ostensibly writing about two young boys who are dreaming of a better life, in a place that doesn’t want them. The boys separation after Lakhdar is kicked out of his home is perhaps the catalyst for Bassam to disappear into his religion, but perhaps it was there all along. While alluding to it throughout the book it is never clear exactly what Bassam is up to with Sheikh Nureddin, yet it is perhaps telling that I thought I knew exactly what he was doing and thought Lakhdar was incredibly naive about his friend. Yet I can imagine it is a situation that is difficult to navigate out of when you’re in his position, and the more his doubts grow, the more he wants to give his friend the benefit of the doubt.

Meanwhile Judit is full of revolutionary zeal in Spain, before she falls ill, and taking a step back it’s almost as if Enard is painting the end of days, and perhaps it is, given the hatred and division that is swirling up in the world. Yet Street of Thieves is never bleak, at least it did not seem so to me, Lakhdar, while never fully accepting the fate of the current that sweeps him along, always sets to and tries to make something of the situation he is landed in.

Having been to Tangier, briefly, travelling on a ferry from Algeciras, and stayed in the Raval quarter in Barcelona, a somewhat cleaned up quarter than the time of the book, and even read one of the french detective novels that Lakhdar reads, I had a completely different experience to him, which resonated around my head as I read and made me think more about Street of Thieves than I would of done normally.

So thank you Mathias Enard, and for the excellent translation by Charlotte Mandell. I must now patiently wait for a new novel from my new favourite author.

Men are like dogs, with empty gazes, they circle in the twilight, chase a ball, fight over a female, over a corner of the kennel, stay stretched out for hours, tongues lolling, waiting to be done in, in a final caress – why, in one instant, does one make a decision, why today, why now, maybe he’s the one who decided and not me, Bassam seemed to be looking at me, seated, back straight, in the living room; light from the street projected his shadow on Mounir’s closed door,

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Men Without Women – Murakami

I tried to collect fragments of clues as to her whereabouts, in all sorts of places and from all sorts of people. But these were nothing but scraps, assorted bits and pieces. No matter how many you collect, fragments are still just that. Her essence always vanished like a mirage. And from land, the horizon was infinite As was the horizon at sea. I busily chased it, moving from point to point-from Bombay to Cape Town to Reykjavik to the Bahamas. I made the rounds of every town with a harbor, but by the time I arrived, she was already gone. Only a faint trace of her warmth remained on an unmade bed.

Oh Murakami, how do you do it? You’re like a drug. I love reading the simple, elegant prose that makes everyday actions seem so much more than they are, part of a fascinating narrative. Yet you also make the most bizarre, sometimes absurd situations seem absolutely normal. I the more I strive to understand, the less I actually do. And the less I understand, the more I read to understand, and so it goes on. I mean, it works a treat, I’ll give you that.

Seven short stories ranging from the bizarre to the unreal, about men without women, or men and women, or maybe just about men. It’s Murakami, it literally could be anything. Obviously there’s a jazz bar, a jazz bar owner even. There’s an actor, a house bound patient and a cosmetic surgeon amongst the seven men. They retell or recall stories of the women that have impacted their lives, in that Murakami way where it’s not quite normal, but not quite abnormal.

Of course, some of it resonated with me, with my own life and my previous relationships, some of it was completely alien, oftentimes the two occurred in the same short story, and taken simply, is how men see women and how they rub and bounce along off of each other throughout life. I wouldn’t pick out one story over and above the others, and I think that the collection works as a whole, although, in all honesty, I couldn’t tell you why, it just does.

So if you want Murakami with the smallest pinch of romance, with his usual dollop of weird and just the right amount of normal, then read Men Without Women.

This is what he told me. “I’ve been out with lots of women who are much prettier than her, better built, with better taste, and more intelligent. But those comparisons are meaningless. Because to me she is someone special. A ‘complete presence,’ I guess you could call it. All of her qualities are tightly bound into one core. You can’t separate each individual quality to measure and analyze it, to say it’s better or worse than the same quality in someone else. It’s what’s in her core that attracts me so strongly. Like a powerful magnet. It’s beyond logic.”

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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy

Most of his visitors, brash emissaries of a new ruling class, barely aware of their own youthful hubris, did not completely grasp the layered meaning of the couplet they had been offered, like a snack to be washed down by a thimble-sized cup of thick, sweet tea. They understood of course that it was a dirge for a fallen empire whose international borders had shrunk to a grimy ghetto circumscribed by the ruined walls of an old city. And yes, they realized that it was also a rueful comment on Mulaqat Ali’s own straitened circumstances. What escaped them was that the couplet was a sly snack, a perfidious samosa, a warning wrapped in mourning, being offered with faux humility by an erudite man who had absolute faith in his listeners’ ignorance of Urdu, a language which, like most of those who spoke it, was gradually being ghettoized.

Amitav Ghosh, Rohinton Mistry, Salman Rushdie, I don’t know what it is, but I sink without a trace into novels set on the sub continent. It’s not somewhere I have a desire to visit, or who’s history is of particular interest to me, but the authors have a certain flair for description, for crafting so joyfully the sights, sounds, smells and colours of this part of the world. Yet the bright, bold and overwhelming picture is merely a back drop to the horrifying, brutal and at times unbelievable lives being lived by millions of people, painstakingly served up on the page. That would be enough, but there’s more. There seems to be a sideways glance, an honest, yet self depreciating mocking of how ridiculous the brutality of it all is, how contradictory the faith and the lives are intertwined, how it’s in plain view but out of sight. The horror is diluted ever so slightly by the humour, the sheer force of personality of the survivors, of every single person who makes it to the end of another day.

Arundhati Roy encapsulates all this, and surpasses all others I’ve read, with The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Utmost Happiness is most definitely what I felt after finishing this.
For all the brutality and pointless horror throughout the whole novel, it’s a warm story of friendship, love, of survival. Set against the backdrop of Kerala’s fight for independence, a small group of characters find each other and survive against the prejudice, hatred and inexplicably cruel violence that permeates India as it convulses and changes.
Roy gathers a small group of characters around Anjum, formally Aftab, and Tilo, who’s sudden decision to claim an abandoned baby brings them together in an Old Delhi graveyard where the breathing live side by side with those who have breathed their last. As Anjum builds a community out of the way, Tilo, seen mostly through the eyes of three men who love her unconditionally, arrives with a baby snatched from a street of protest.

The complete absence of a desire to please, or to put someone at their ease, could, in a less vulnerable person, have been construed as arrogance. In her it came across as a kind of reckless aloneness. Behind her plain, unfashionable spectacles, her slightly slanting cat-eyes had the insouciant secretiveness of a pyromaniac. She gave the impression that she had somehow slipped off her leash. As though she was taking herself for a walk while the rest of us were being walked – like pets. As though she was watching considerately, somewhat absent-mindedly, from a distance, while we minced along, grateful to our owners, happy to perpetuate our bondage.

In the background the might of new India stamps it’s worn sandal down on Kerala. The mindless violence of a child who has discovered it’s own might by squashing ants and then discovered that actually, the ants can bite is perfectly captured, with an almost mocking, sardonic voice. A voice that says look India, look at how far you have come, yet how far you have yet to go. But The Ministry is not a novel utmost about violence, it is about life, in all it’s natural colours, smells and glory. So much did I enjoy it that it felt like the book was breathing in my hands.

It’s the detail that Arundhati Roy beautifully paints, while dealing with a whole country, through a small number of seemingly inconsequential protagonists that make The Ministry of Utmost Happiness a breathtaking read.

As Aftab kept strict vigil, day after day, over nothing in particular, Guddhu Bhai, the acrimonious early-morning fishmonger who parked his cart of gleaming fresh fish in the centre of the chowk, would, as surely as the sun rose in the east and set in the west, elongate into Wasim, the tall, affable afternoon naan khatai-seller who would then shrink into Yunus, the small, lean evening fruit-seller, who, late at night, would broaden and balloon into Hassan Mian, the stout vendor of the best mutton biryani in Matia Mahal, which he dished out of a copper pot.

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Familiar Things – Hwang Sok-Yong

It made sense. If Baldspot had not shown him the hideout when he first came to the island with his mother, Bugeye might have felt so hopeless that he would’ve tried to run away at once. Baldspot gave up on stoking the fire, and backed away from the stove with a pout. He looked upset about getting hit on the head.
The boys cooked their dinner away from the swarms of flies crowding the garbage, away from the grown-ups, down by the river’s edge where the air was heady with the scent of grass and flowing water. Afterward, they lay side by side on a big scrap of canvas.

Another book that caught my attention from the pedestal in Foyles, it was an impulse buy, to try a new author and expand my bookish horizon a little further.
Bugeye and his mother move to the improbably named Flower Island, a massive landfill site at the edge of Seoul where outsiders make a meagre living collecting recyclables from the rubbish.
As his mum moves in with the group leader, Bugeye ends up with a younger step brother, Baldspot, who takes him to a secret hide out some of the kids have made. While hanging out with Baldspot, he notices lights moving around the landfill site, and Bugeye learns they are dokkaebi, spirits of people gone before.

Weird. Unfamiliar. They are two words that I think of when I think of Familiar Things. The story is very sad, focusing mostly on the kids as much as the life of the outsiders working on the landfill site, a harsh juxtaposition to the often futuristic portrayal of South Korea, and Seoul in particular. There is some comment on our throwaway society, but given the setting of the story, it did not come across as particularly heavy.
What I found weird were words and phrases that cropped up throughout the book, whether intentional or a quirk of translating I couldn’t tell, but describing one of the neighbourhoods that the trash trucks come in from as ‘the cream of the crop’ was unexpected and while it works, it didn’t feel quite right in a novel. That’s probably just me though.

As pointed out by the Economist on the cover, the story floats between harsh reality and whimsical folk tale without jarring the reader, but at the same time the message behind the novel, the vast gulf between the have’s and the have not’s, is one that has been heard and told before, and while the reality is harsh, there are other realities that are harsher still and so Familiar Things becomes exactly that, a Familiar tale. While the ending is sad, there is a glimmer of hope, but sadly, probably not enough for me to read further.

Bugeye didn’t hide the derision in his voice when he referred to the stew Mole had made for them the last time from discarded fish. The adults called everything cooked with foodstuffs scrounged from the landfill ‘Flower Island stew’.
‘Watch it, man. Don’t you know who I am? I’m the youngest member of the Co-op!’
The Environmental Co-operative was the creme de la creme of all the private truck sectors, the one the Baron was forever envious of, as it covered the U.S military bases, the factory districts and the private residential areas. Along with three districts south of the river, the permit fee for the Co-op was many times higher than anywhere else.

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