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The NI Star rating system. Books

No Past, No Present, No Future
by Yulisa Amadu Maddy
Heinemann African Writers Series
(ISBN 0-435-90522-8)

Wounding Words
by Evelyne Accad
Heinemann African Writers Series
(ISBN 0-435-90523-6)

No Past, No Present, No Future. There should be a word for books which are utterly compelling despite their flaws. They offer so much more to sink one’s teeth into, because their frustrations keep the mind focused.

No Past, No Present, No Future is one such book. It’s a cynical look at the post-colonial mentality, striving for freedom and articulation, yet completely messed up by the baggage of Empire. Three adolescent boys from very different backgrounds in the fictional African country of Bauya abandon their careers in petty officialdom (having lined their pockets) and go to Britain where they will get degrees and return crowned in glory.

Instead they discover the soul-deadening existence of the student exile, scraping to get by in rented rooms, their ambitions thwarted and their hearts hardened by racial prejudice, not just that of the ‘superior’ whites they encounter, but their own distorted notions. Maddy brilliantly exposes the us-and-them frame of mind and its colonial underpinnings. But the major theme is corruption – in politics, in commerce, in people and their very souls. It rips along at a crackling pace, the writing is unfussy yet accomplished and its moments of insight are numerous.

Now we come to the big ‘but’. Its take on sexual politics is curiously immature. The three rakes are united in their misogyny. Ade, the son of prissy élite parents, sponges off his girlfriend and plays the field; Santigie, the son of a village chief decides to avenge himself on ‘the white race’ through sexual conquests; and Joe, the orphaned son of hooch-brewers distrusts women apparently because he is gay. Joe is the only one with an enduring, and even interracial, relationship at the end of the novel, but his gayness comes off as mere political point-scoring because Maddy writes about it so unconvincingly.

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Perhaps it’s just such clichés of African manhood that the women in Evelyne Accad’s book Wounding Words are fighting against. Hayate, the protagonist, is a Lebanese feminist who spends a year on a research grant from a US university meeting up with Tunisian feminists. As a character she appears to be a rather thin disguise for the author, and the reader will cringe when one of the Tunisian characters comes up to her and praises her former work for its ‘sensitivity’. If anything there is a surfeit of ‘sensitivity’ here. The book is a journal of meetings and ideas dotted with numerous accounts of delicious meals. A mixture of poetry, fiction and polemic, it is less a novel, more an exploration of the complex issues that confront, mainly middle-class, Arab feminists.

But its transparency – one gets the feeling that Accad is writing about people she has met rather than bothering to invent characters – is also its strength, giving depth to the numerous points of view put forward. I found myself warming to these women struggling for identity in a culture that would prefer them shut away. Accad is true to their voices and what they have to say is weighty, essential and thought-provoking.

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Né La Thiass
by Cheikh Lô
(World Circuit WCD 046)

Night to Night
by Geoffrey Oryema
(Virgin/Real World CDR W58)

Cheikh Lo With Cheikh Lô being touted as Senegal’s answer to Bob Marley and Geoffrey Oryema as Uganda’s version of Leonard Cohen, two things are clear. First, that there’s some major singer-songwriter talent here and second, it’s very tempting to describe new talent in old terms. Lô has dreadlocks and is, as Marley was, a deeply religious man. He follows the Baye Fall, a Senegalese Islamic sect which worships through work rather than simple prayer. Oryema writes beautifully crafted songs which reflect not just on his actual exile (he left Uganda after his father, a former minister, was killed by Idi Amin’s regime) but on what may be called ‘virtual exiles’ such as loss of mother tongue.

Cheikh Lô’s Né La Thiass (‘Gone in a flash’) is the first release from Youssour N’Dour’s own JoLôli label and is produced by the Senegalese superstar. It was recorded at lightning speed – seven days. But the album’s initial lightness – mbalax rhythms weaving into salsa, fuelled by drums, flutes and strings – is misleading for this music has serious intentions. The song ‘Set’ (‘cleanliness’) is about the effect that mountains of garbage have on civic life. While ‘Doxandeme’ (‘Immigrant’), written during Lô’s time in Paris, is as much a plea for dignity as its own dignified response to the travails faced by travellers and the dispossessed. Lô sings in his native Wolof language but the sleevenotes provide English and French translations.

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Oryema’s delicate Night to Night (the album is actually a song cycle detailing the thoughts and impressions in the singer’s head over a 24-hour period) is a different response to travelling. Unlike Lô, Oryema is a musician unable to go home and this is reflected in his songs and their precise studies of longing. It’s subtle stuff, and Oryema has some master musicians including the Cajun, Daniel Lanois, to aid him. The result is a dreamlike blend of instruments, harmonies and melodies that shift between cultures. On ‘Medieval Dream’, Oryema accesses a high, fluting voice and a stark undertow rhythm; the effect is sepulchral and should serve as an open invitation to anyone to explore this much-underrated writer’s music further.

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directed by Moshen Makhmalbaf

Gabbeh Despite their growing international reputation, Iranian filmmakers continue to feel the weight of state censorship. Moshen Makhmalbaf fell out of favour with the authorities with his 1989 film Marriage of the Blessed which dramatized the bloody aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war. Since then, four of his films, including the lovely and lyrical Gabbeh, have been banned.

Makhmalbaf claims Gabbeh is devoid of any political content. This is open to question. What is certain, though, is that it’s a visual feast, a highly original blend of allegory, symbolism and ethnography, which the director himself calls ‘poetic realism’. Set among the nomadic, carpet-weaving communities of South-Eastern Iran, it lays particular emphasis on beauty, both natural and artistic.

It opens in a poppy-strewn landscape with an elderly couple standing by a stream bickering over who will wash their gabbeh – a richly-textured carpet made by Ghashgai nomads. As they argue over the significance of an image woven into the carpet of a man and a woman on horseback, a young woman, also called Gabbeh, suddenly materializes. It becomes obvious that the story in the carpet is hers. Her father has decreed that she cannot marry her lover until her uncle finds himself a bride and her mother gives birth. Her lover, meanwhile, pursues the family from a distance, emitting plaintive wolf howls from one striking terrain to another.

Despite Makhmalbaf’s non-political claims for this film, he does admit to social commentary. As a woman, a carpetmaker and a storyteller, Gabbeh is profoundly creative in her own right, but her actions are circumscribed by her father’s authority. However, she finally elopes with her lover and her father pretends to shoot them in order to re-establish his authority over his remaining daughters. In positioning Gabbeh at the centre of the film, Makhmalbaf has gone some way towards overturning Iranian cinema’s narrow representation of women. And perhaps he is also making a broader comment about authoritarianism?

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T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C
Pablo Neruda
...being the big-hearted ‘subversive’ whose poetry made things happen.

Pablo Neruda. Rarely does the death of a poet – even a famous or much-loved one – become the focus of the grief and anguish of a nation. On 23 September 1973 Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet and Nobel laureate died aged 69. Two weeks earlier the generals of the Chilean army had mur-dered the elected President, Salvador Allende, and instigated a regime of terror and torture. Neruda’s funeral became a rallying point for the people; an outpouring of their sorrow and an expression of their defiance. To gather in the streets for any purpose, let alone to mourn for a man the army regarded as a subversive writer, was provocative and dangerous. Joan Jara, whose husband Victor was later to be interned and killed by the military, recalled the atmosphere of that day: ‘As we walked through the back streets towards the cemetery, I heard Neruda’s poetry being recited by one person after another in the crowd, verse after verse, defying the menace of the uniforms surrounding us; I saw the workers on a building site, standing to attention with their yellow helmets in their hands... Neruda’s verses took on an even greater significance as voice after voice took them up, confronting the visible face of fascism’.

WH Auden famously wrote, in his In Memory of WB Yeats, that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. What occurred on the streets of Santiago on that September day stands as a powerful and moving rebuttal to such defeatism. Neruda’s whole life shouts an affirmation of the positive force of poetry. Born in 1904 in Parral, central Chile, he went to Santiago to study in 1920 and published his first volume, La canción de la Fiesta in the following year. His second and third books, Crepusculario and Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desperada brought him critical praise and popularity; but it was only when he was posted to serve as Chilean consul to the Republican Government in Spain that his work began explicitly to speak to ordinary people in their own words, rather than serve an educated élite. What he witnessed in Barcelona and Madrid during the Civil War profoundly affected his writing and the course of his life ever after. The poem Explico algunas cosas (‘I’m explaining a Few Things’) written shortly after the murder by the Falange of his friend Federico Garcia Lorca, lays bare the bond he now felt between personal anguish and political events:

see my dead house,
look at broken Spain;
from every house burning metal flows
instead of flowers...
And will you ask: why doesn’t his poetry
speak of dreams and leaves
and the great volcanoes of his native land?
Come and see the blood on the streets.
Come and see the blood on the streets.
Come and see the blood on the streets!

In 1938 Neruda began work on what was to become the Canto General, his massive 15-part eulogy to the land and people of Chile which was eventually published in 1950 to international acclaim. He had joined the Communist party – becoming a Senator and its Presidential candidate in the 1960s – and his progressive introduction of polemical and overtly political sentiments into his poems went hand-in-hand with his tendency to read his poetry aloud at trade union meetings and political rallies. Neruda’s writing had a vast and omnivorous scope; enveloping all history and nature in its embrace. But time and again he returned to the endeavours and the concerns of ordinary people.

On Allende’s election in 1970, Neruda accepted the post of Chile’s Ambassador to France. Awarded the Nobel literature prize in 1971, he returned home two years later, terminally ill and hoping for peace at his beloved Isla Negra home. It was not to be – as he lay near death the armed forces staged their coup and Neruda died still engaged in the struggle of a lifetime. After his death his house was ransacked by military thugs and many of his papers were destroyed.

There could be no more fitting testament to the life and work of Pablo Neruda than that his funeral became the occasion for the first mass demonstration against the military regime. In saying farewell to their poet, the people affirmed the continuity of the fight for justice and dignity:

So let no-one worry when
I seem to be alone and am not alone,
I am not with nobody and I speak for all –
Someone is listening to me and, although they do not know it,
those I sing of, those who know
go on being born and will fill up the world.

from El pueblo (‘The People’)
Peter Whittaker

Selected Poems by Pablo Neruda is published in a bi-lingual edition by Penguin (1975) ISBN 0-14-018618-2.

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New Internationalist issue 288 magazine cover This article is from the March 1997 issue of New Internationalist.
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