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Third World Novels... The Top 10


new internationalist
issue 191 - January 1989

The Top 10

The quickest way to absorb a distant culture
is to bury yourself in a novel. No matter how
vivid the TV reports or press articles,
they rarely penetrate as deeply.

There are many gifted Third World writers who can
help you transcend barriers of language and tradition
but you might find it difficult to know where to start. As a guide,
the NI has chosen its ten best novels
- the ones which are both
enjoyable to read and give a vivid impression of life in developing
countries. They are not listed in any significant order.

Illustrations: CLIVE OFFLEY

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French West Africa in the late 1940s might not seem the most urgent subject for your attention. But set aside the location and the time, and even the fact that the story is built around a strike by workers on the Dakar-Niger railway line. Sembene Ousmane is a story-teller and a skilful writer who can carry you along with the drama and the atmosphere regardless of subject.

The 'bits of wood' of the title are a colloquial term for human beings and it is through their eyes, and their culture, that the story unfolds. Ousmane looks at the struggle between the colonizing French masters and unionized African workers who are beginning to sense their own strength. And he explores the tensions between two generations of Africans: the younger French-speaking union organizers find they have to take responsibilities in the strange new world that their elders cannot cope with. Overlaid on this are strands of sexual politics as the strike allows women to take greater responsibilities.

But don't be daunted by the prospect of heavily significant material. Such themes are there if you choose to identify them but they are woven through a tightly-written narrative which will hold you from beginning to end.

Illustration: Clive Offley ...Like rejected lovers returning to a trysting place, they kept coming back to the areas surrounding the station. They would just stand there, motionless, their eyes fixed on the horizon, scarcely speaking to each other. Sometimes a little block of five or six men would detach itself from the larger mass and drift off in the direction of the track. For a few minutes they would wander along the rails and then, suddenly, as though seized with panic, they would hasten back to the safety of the group they had left. Then again they would just stand there, or squat down in the shade of a sand hill, their eyes fixed on the two endless parallels, following them out until they joined and lost themselves in the bush. Something was being born inside them, as if the past and future were coupling to breed a new kind of man, and it seemed to them that the wind was whispering a phrase they had often heard from Bakayoko: 'The kind of man we were is dead, and our only hope for a new life lies in the machine, which knows neither language nor a race.'.

Publisher Heinemann

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A tribal society seen from the inside looking out. In a beautifully simple piece of writing Achebe transports us back to the earliest days of colonialism.

This is the story of Okonkwo, the strong son of a feckless father who builds a position of respect and authority for himself in the tribe - only to see things fall apart as he is undermined by the arrival of whites.

Achebe is a Nigerian writer who is achieving much greater international recognition. This was his first novel and probably his best. One of its great strengths is to show how many of the traditional values help people make sense of the world around them - no matter how irrational they might seem to outsiders. How true is it? Only those who come from that place at that time can judge. But to the Western reader at least he offers an affectionate but unsentimental portrait with the taste and smell of authenticity.

Illustration: Clive Offley .And now the rains had really come, so heavy and persistent that even the village rain-maker no longer claimed to be able to intervene. He could not stop the rain now, just as he would not attempt to start it in the heart of the dry season, without serious danger to his own health. The personal dynamism required to counter the forces of these extremes of weather would be far too great for the human frame.

And so nature was not interfered with in the heart of the rainy season. Sometimes it poured down in such thick sheets of water that earth and sky seemed merged in one grey wetness.

Publisher Heinemann

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This should be required reading for all tourists to Kenya - though they would need no coercion beyond the first thirty pages or so. After absorbing the first batch of strange-sounding names this is a book which is difficult to put down.

Petals of blood is set in post-colonial Kenya. It's a village-level view of the rapid stages of development through which Africa's capitalist success story has been jolted. Ngugi is unimpressed by much of this 'progress'; he has been an outspoken critic of the Kenyan Government and spent time in jail as result.

The book is set in the village of Ilmorog and tells the story of four new arrivals including an ex Mau-Mau freedom fighter and a prostitute. All are searching for peace of mind and for a while it seems that Ilmorog can offer this. But then the village is hit by a devastating drought. In desperation the villagers turn to their MP and organize a march to Nairobi. And as the drama unfolds it reveals complex layers of corruption and influence-peddling.

It was not only the flood light of the moon that made Ilmorog a wonder! There was also something soft and subdued and beautiful between the hour of the sun's death and the hour of darkness. For an inexplicable reason the low, billowy Donyo hills seemed to rise and to touch the sky. Standing anywhere on the ridge one could catch sight of the sun delicately resting on the top of the distant hills which marked the far end of the grazing plains. Then suddenly the sun would slip behind the hills, blazing out a coppery hue with arrows of fire shot in every direction. Soon after darkness and mystery would descend on the plains and the hills...

Publisher Heinemann

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A terrific roller-coaster of a book. This is the novel that defines that strange genre of 'magic realism'. The story-line and the characters may seem incredible - like beautiful Remedios who floats up into the heavens while folding the household sheets and is never seen again - but Marquez defies you to disbelieve in them. For all its dreamlike episodes it locates you firmly in the village of Macondo in the jungles of Colombia through a century of dramatic development. The really unbelievable thing about this book is the power of imagination which gave rise to it.

The story chronicles the Buendia family. As the book opens the only outside visitors to the sleepy town of Macondo are a troupe of gypsies, but by the close its residents have been exposed to a railroad and the attentions of a rapacious banana company. In between they have experienced all sorts of eccentric people and weird events.

Illustration: Clive Offley ...When they got there a group of men were already pulling the monster off the sharpened stakes they had set in the bottom of a pit. It was as heavy as an ox in spite of the fact that it was no taller than a young steer, and a green and greasy liquid flowed from its wounds. Its body was covered with a rough hair plagued with small ticks, and the skin was hardened with the scales of a fish, but its human parts were more like those of a sickly angel than of a man, for its hands were tense and agile, its eyes large and gloomy, and on its shoulder-blades it had the scarred-over and calloused stumps of powerful wings which must have been chopped off by a woodman's axe. They hung it to an almond tree in the square by its ankles so that everyone could see it, and when it began to rot they burned it in a bonfire, for they could not determine whether its bastard nature was that of an animal to be thrown in the river or a human being to be buried.

Publisher: UK/Australasia - Picador; Can/US - Avon Books

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The children in question were all born around midnight on 15 August 1947, the moment of India's independence. All are blessed with remarkable powers - from a boy in Kerala who could step into a mirror and emerge through any other reflective surface in India, to a girl (or boy) who could change his (or her) sex at will.

Most remarkable of all is Saleem, born precisely on the stroke of midnight, who has the ability to wander into other people's lives and share their experiences. The book traces his family history leading up to that midnight stroke and carries it through to the dark period of Mrs Gandhi's emergency.

Rushdie might only just qualify as a Third World novelist. For although he was born on the Indian sub-continent, he was educated and lives in the UK. But Midnight's Children gives an unsurpassed insight into Indian life at all levels. The 'magic realism' is conjured up with great skill and paints a vivid historical picture which few history books can better.

Illustration: Clive Offley How do eleven-year-olds react to the announcement of a coup? Hearing the words, '.national finances in frightening disarray .corruption and impurity are everywhere.' do their jaws stiffen, too? Do their eyes focus on brighter tomorrows?

When General Ayub Khan said, 'Martial Law is now imposed, 'both cousin Zafar and I understood that his voice - that voice filled with power and decision and the rich timbre of my aunt's finest cooking - was speaking a thing for which we knew only one word: treason. I'm proud to say I kept my head; but Zafar lost control of a more embarrassing organ. Moisture stained his trouser-fronts; the yellow moisture of fear tricked down his leg to stain Persian carpets; gongs-and-pips smelled something, and turned upon him with looks of infinite distaste; and then (worst of all) came laughter.

General Zulfikar had just begun saying, 'If you permit, sir, I shall map out tonight's procedures,' when his son wet his pants. In cold fury my uncle hurled his son from the room, 'Pimp! Woman!' followed Zafar out of the dining chamber, in his father's thin sharp voice; 'Coward! Homosexual! Hindu!'.

Publisher Picador

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This is the story of Firdaus - as told to the author in the condemned cell of a prison in Cairo. Firdaus is a prostitute about to die for the murder of her pimp. A pretty depressing read you might imagine hut the story of Firdaus is one of dignity and determination that transcends the grim environment.

The novel expresses the powerlessness which many Arab women feel. Prostitution is almost offered here as one of the less exploitative circumstances for a woman. Certainly the happiest and most confident period in Firdaus' life is when she can pick and choose her customers and determine for herself the relationship she will have with them.

Then a customer calls her shameless. Firdaus is so stung by this that she looks for another job. She turns to office work quite successfully. But still she is exploited by men - and a lot poorer. She returns to prostitution but then the final exploiter, the pimp, forces himself onto the scene and her life effectively comes to an end.

Illustration: Clive Offley The novel is brief - 100 pages or so - and a remarkably effective narrative which you could get through in one sitting.

When one of his female children died, my father would eat his supper, my mother would wash his legs, and then he would go to sleep, just as he did every night. When the child that died was a boy, he would beat my mother, then have his supper and lie down to sleep.

My father never went to bed without supper, no matter what happened. Sometimes when there was no food at home we would all go to bed with empty stomachs. But he would never fail to have a meal. My mother would hide his food from us at the bottom of one of the holes in the oven. He would sit eating alone while we watched him. One evening I dared to stretch out my hand to his plate, but he struck me a sharp blow over the back of my fingers.

I was so hungry that I could not cry. I sat in front of him watching as he ate, my eyes following his hand from the moment his fingers plunged into the bowl until it rose into the air, and carried the food into his mouth. His mouth was like that of a camel, with a big opening and wide jaws. His upper jaw kept clamping down on his lower jaw with a loud grinding noise, and chewed through each morsel so thoroughly that we could hear his teeth striking against each other.

Publisher Zed Press

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This novel is written entirely in the dialect of Trinidad. Yet such is the skill of the writing that you will forget the strangeness of the language after the first couple of paragraphs.

The story is narrated by Eva, a stoical woman who is constantly surprised at what life throws at her. The book's title comes from Psalm 60: 'Thou has shewd thy people hard things: thou has made us to drink the wine of astonishment'.

Eva is married to a preacher and the tale she tells is of their Baptist congregation whose exuberant spiritual style of worship was banned by the colonial Government in 1917. The story finishes when the ban was finally lifted in 1951.

The book explores the lengths to which a community, particularly a Christian one, should go to stand up for its rights when faced with oppression. The instinct of Eva's husband, Bee, is to tone down the services and comply with the law. But one of his congregation is made of more aggressive stuff and refuses to lives life of compromise; in the end he turns his rage destructively against the poor people around him - with tragic results.

So now we have this church on top of this hill on the edge of the village. We have this church, where Bee preach the sermons quiet, without spirit so as not to move the congregation to sing too loud or ring the bell or catch the Spirit and speak in tongues, so when Corporal Prince break into the Church one evening, he and the whole Bonasse Police Force, he finds us singing soft and low as children in a Sunday School. 'God moves in mysterious way His wonders to perform. 'We wasn't breaking the law so they had to put up their batons and go away without beating anybody... And so we go.

But the more we go on with this type of service, this soft praying and quiet singing, and not ringing the bell or catching the Spirit, the more we realize that we ain't solving the problem. All we was doing was taking away the ceremonies natural to our worship. All we was doing was watering down the beauty and appeal of our church. And what was we becoming? What was we becoming?...

Publisher Heinemann

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This chronicle of a futile revolutionary uprising in Peru in the 1950s is written in a style which fails somewhere between journalistic investigation and an adventure story.

Vargas Llosa has quite a few fine novels behind him but this is the most directly political. Mayta, the hero, is a member of the Revolutionary Workers Party (Trotskyist) - the RWP(T). He is also gay. Given the author's centre-right political stance (he is a potential Presidential candidate in Peru) one could hardly expect the portrait to be sympathetic. And it isn't. Alejandro Mayta the revolutionary theorist, who heads for the hills in the hope of joining a mass uprising comes over finally as a misguided and almost pathetic figure.

But Vargas Llosa paints a vivid and authentic picture both of revolutionary fervour and of the sectarian splitting and in-fighting on the Peruvian Left. Visitors to Lima will also appreciate the picture he paints of that crumbling city - the grey metropolis of South America.

[image, unknown] ...'Jauja! Jauja! What a shame you've never been there. All Peruvians should visit Jauja!' Mayta then heard him launch, with no preamble, into a discourse about Indian life. The real Peru was in the mountains and not along the coast, among the Indians and condors and the peaks of the Andes, not here in Lima, a foreign, lazy, anti-Peruvian city... These were things which Mayta had heard and read often. But they sounded different coming from the Lieutenant's mouth. The novelty was in the clean and smiling way he said them, blowing out gray smoke rings at the same time. There was something spontaneous and lively in his manner of speaking that made whatever he was saying sound even better. Why did this boy arouse in him that nostalgia, that sensation of something altogether extinct. Because he's sound, thought Mayta. He's not perverted. Politics hasn't killed his joy in living...

Publisher: UK/Australasia - Faber& Faber; Can - Penguin Canada

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Impossible not to recommend a book by V S Naipaul. But which to choose from his marvellous output? Naipaul was brought up in Trinidad but as a young man settled in England where he has been based ever since. He has written novels and travel books set in Latin America, Africa, the Caribbean, India and Europe; what he has to say about any country is worth reading.

A house for Mr Biswas is an engaging comic novel set in Trinidad about a poor man who marries into a large extended family from whom he struggles to escape. Mr Biswas's main aim in life is to have a family house of his own. He works as a journalist (Naipaul's father was also a journalist) and some of the funniest scenes include his imaginative coverage of local news.

The novel offers a rich portrait of a lower middle-class Hindu family - an ethnic minority in a black colonial society.

[image, unknown] ... Purist, Mr Biswas thought, when he saw Pankaj Rai. The man is a purist. He was elegant in a long black close-fitting Indian coat, and when he shook Mr Biswas by the hand Mr Biswas surrendered to his graciousness, at the same time noting with satisfaction make him look comic or sinister, benevolent or supercilious. They dropped a fraction of an inch and converted a smile into a devastating sneer. This was particularly effective when he began to ridicule the practices of orthodox Hinduism...

Publisher Penguin

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Isabel Allende is a Chilean who has just returned to her home country after exile in Venezuela. Her first novel House of the Spirits is also highly recommended - a tour de force of magic realism. Of love and shadows is more of a political thriller and perhaps easier to read. Both are evidence of a wonderful writing talent.

Chile is not mentioned once in the book. But one is left in no doubt about the location. Irene the heroine is a journalist from an upper middle-class family engaged to be married to an army officer. An assignment to cover a strange event in a peasant family changes her life. She and the photographer she works with are caught up in an investigation that shakes her out of her complacency - and into the shadowy world of covert operations against the dictatorship.

Illustration: Clive Offley ... Until the day she visited the Morgue, Irene Beltrán had lived in angelic ignorance, not from apathy or stupidity but because ignorance was the norm in her situation. Like her mother and so many others of her social class, she escaped into the orderly, peaceful world of the fashionable neighbourhoods, the exclusive beach clubs, the ski slopes, the summers in the country. Irene had been educated to deny any unpleasantness, discounting it as a distortion of the facts. One day, she had seen a car screech to a stop and several men overpower a pedestrian and force him into their vehicle; from a distance she had smelled the smoke of bonfires burning blacklisted books; she had glimpsed the outline of a human body floating in the dark waters of the canal. She had heard patrol cars and the roar of helicopters shattering the night skies. She had stopped to help someone who had fainted from hunger in the street. Irene had lived surrounded by the gales of hatred, but remained untouched by them behind the high wall that had protected her since childhood.

Publisher UK - Black Swan; Can/US - Knopf; Australasia - Cape.

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