Mixed media: books
Woman of the Ashes
by Mia Couto, translated from Portuguese by David Brookshaw (World Editions, ISBN 9781642860399)
Mozambican author Mia Couto is an exquisite prose stylist who frequently delves into the history and traditions of his country to construct compelling narratives that speak of the colonial condition and the struggle for freedom. His latest novel, the first in a projected trilogy, is set at the start of the 19th century in the State of Gaza, which covered the southern half of what is now Mozambique. Ngungunyane, one of the last powerful African rulers, is engaged in a desperate effort to maintain his empire in the face of the encroaching Portuguese colonizers.
The story is told from the alternating viewpoints of Imani, a young girl of the VaChopi people, and Germano de Melo, a Portuguese sergeant sent to fortify an isolated military outpost. Both individuals are deeply conflicted. Imani struggles to reconcile her place within her traditional family culture with her new role as translator to the Portuguese. Germano is well aware of his duties as the official face of the occupying force but he is tormented by memories of his radical, anti-monarchist past, leading him to question his own conduct and that of his country.
As war approaches and acts of violence become daily threats, Germano and Imani are drawn together in an embrace of the desperate and the doomed, an affair that tears at the roots of who they are and the bonds that tie them to their respective communities. In Woman of the Ashes, Mia Couto has given us a work that is epic in scale yet maintains a humane focus on the individual tragedies of those caught up in the sweep of history.
by Dwight Thompson (Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 9781845234072)
In his debut novel, Jamaican author Dwight Thompson presents us with a coming-of-age story that adheres to the maxim ‘write what you know’. Set in Montego Bay in the 1980s, Death Register is the story of Chauncey Knuckle – a schoolboy and aspiring writer whose talent has won him a place at an elite boys’ college. Abandoned by his father after his mother’s death, Chauncey is raised by his grandparents in a loving but fiercely strict family. Violence, both inside and outside the home, is endemic and Chauncey’s path to university and escape from the stifling norms of Montego Bay is strewn with obstacles. His school is a hidebound and patriarchal place and, in the semi-lawless streets, there is the constant lure of drugs, sex and criminal gangs.
Central to the book is the environment of homophobia that imbues everything in Chauncey’s world. He is deeply troubled by his failure to defend his gay best friend Tristan when he is abused by a church elder, Deacon Mac. Tristan’s drift into drug use and an early death is shatteringly traumatic to Chauncey. He is, however, far from an innocent abroad himself and battles with his own inability to form lasting relationships and a disturbing disposition towards sexual violence. Conveyed primarily through richly imagined dialogue and extracts from Chauncey’s writing, one young man’s attempt to come to terms with his own deficiencies is the beating heart of the book. Dwight Thompson is to be commended for such an unflinchingly honest portrait of a character striving not only to be a better writer but – crucially – a better person.
The New Faces of Fascism
by Enzo Traverso, translated from French by David Broder (Verso, ISBN 978178870464)
Is Trump a fascist? Is Marine Le Pen? Is ISIS?
What does fascism mean, actually, in the early 21st century as the world veers to the radical Right?
Acclaimed historian Enzo Traverso, who has written many books on fascism and totalitarianism, is a lucid, at times provocative, guide through one of the most pertinent and enigmatic topics of our times.
He is hot on defining terms and making distinctions. There’s the ‘classical’ fascism of Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s. There’s the neo-fascism of far-right groups that would reignite the old fascism. And there is what Traverso calls ‘post-fascism’. This is the hybrid phenomenon rising up across the world today, which is not a straightforward reproduction of the old fascism, but shares many of its characteristics.
Post-fascism, as Traverso sees it, is a potent mix of rightwing populism, ‘identitarianism’, Islamophobia and nationalist anti-globalization. It’s a revolution against revolutions. He writes: ‘The “good people” of the post-fascist imagination are nationalist, anti-feminist, homophobic, xenophobic, and nourish a clear hostility towards ecology, modern art and intellectualism.’
Post-fascism is not as obviously political or ideological as early 20th-century European fascism; it communicates via social media and YouTube videos rather than through political philosophy or literature. The targets may differ, but the mobilization of hatred and scapegoating is the same.
And all the fascisms (old, neo- and post-) emerge from democracy – a chilling and necessary observation. Traverso warns us that ‘once de-historicized, democracies become amnesiac and fragile’.
Which makes The New Faces of Fascism all the more urgent and essential reading. VB
The Long Honduran Night
by Dana Frank (Haymarket Books, ISBN 9781608469604)
In June 2009 the democratically elected President of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, was deposed in a coup and bundled out of the country. What followed – looting of public assets, repression of civic organizations, rigged elections, police and army brutality, and state-sponsored death squads – was straight out of the military-coup playbook. Less expected, given the Honduran history of quiescence under military rule, was the immediate and sustained popular resistance movement that sprang up. Organized under the banner of the National Front of Popular Resistance, it encompassed trade unions, campesinos, church leaders and educators, pushing back in the face of state terror.
Dana Frank, a North American academic and long-time campaigner for the rights of the Honduran people, has told the story of the last decade of repression and resistance in two strands. First, based on numerous visits to the country, she recounts in exhaustive detail the development of the struggle within Honduras, from broad national alliances to local campaigns and courageous individuals. Second, in a more autobiographical vein, she details the solidarity movement she helped to set up within the United States and its lobbying activities designed to highlight the plight of the Honduran people. As Frank shows, the Obama administration’s support for the coup perpetrators prepared the ground for Trump’s xenophobic ‘build the wall’ rhetoric. The recent Honduran migrant caravan consisted of people fleeing the calamity the US helped to create. The world desperately needs bridges not walls and it is greatly to the credit of Frank and those like her that they persist in their brave and thankless task of speaking this vital truth to power.
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird
Words: Peter Whittaker and Vanessa Baird