It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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World fiction reading challenge #4: So Long A Letter, Mariama Bâ

The more observant among you will have noticed there’s no third installment in this year’s reading challenge. That’s because March’s book was My Name is Red by Orham Pamuk and I got stuck about halfway into it. At some point I plan to return to it, but for now I’m giving it a rest. I can’t really say why I lost interest so comprehensively in the book, especially since its topic is something that normally interests me: Islamic history (albeit Turkish rather than Arabic). After reading Magda Szabó’s The Door in February, I wrote, “Two books in and already this year’s reading challenge is shaping up to be one of the best I’ve done.” Clearly, I spoke too soon…

Anyway, April’s book, which I read late, is So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ, a Sengalese writer. In fact, So Long a Letter won the first Noma Award for Publishing in Africa in 1980, and was later called one of Africa’s Best 100 Books of the 20th Century by the Zimbabwe International Book Fair. So Long A Letter was originally published in French as Une Si Longue Lettre, and was Bâ’s first novel. It was also the only one she saw in print. She died in 1981, five years before her second novel, Scarlet Song, was published.

So Long A Letter is a short book of 95 pages. Ramatoulaye is a schoolteacher and the wife of Modou. He has just died and she is now in mourning. During this period, she writes to her closest friend, Aissatou, and recounts her life – much of which involves episodes involving Aissatou. The epistolary structure allows for greater intimacy, but the fact that Ramataoulaye is telling Aissatou of events which her friend herself directly experienced does seem to spoil the effect somewhat.

Though Ramatoulaye is an educated woman – Bâ herself had to fight her parents to be educated – I’m guessing much of her life is not atypical for a Sengalese wife and mother. Such as, for instance, her husband taking up with a younger woman and marrying her – in fact, not a “woman”, but a school friend of Ramatoulaye’s oldest daughter. Also, the declaration after the funeral by Modou’s brother that he will marry Ramatoulaye – ie, “inherit” her. She turns him down. Which is not typical. In fact, Ramatoulaye is adamant she will remain single now that she is widowed. When Daouda Dieng,a past suitor from before she married Modou, asks for her hand in marriage, she also turns him down. Neither the brother-in-law nor Daouda take their rejections well.

A lot of the novel concerns the family connections of the cast. Aissatou’s marriage was considered controversial because she came from a less affluent family than her husband. Likewise, when Ramatoulaye’s oldest daughter wants to marry an impoverished student, friends of the family try to persuade Ramatoulaye to prevent it. Ramatoulaye, however, knows that her daughter loves the man, and that’s good enough for her.

There are one or two moments of outright racism:

Right from Form One, he had been top of his class in this subject; but this year for every capital letter forgotten, for a few commas omitted, for a misspelt word, his teacher knocks off one or two marks. Because of this, Jean-Claude, a white boy who has always come second, has moved up to first position. The teacher cannot tolerate a black coming first in philosophy. (p 76)

The story is filled with details of life among the Sengalese, both as Muslims and as Sengalese. At one point, Daouda delivers a lecture on the importance of true democracy in a newly-formed nation (Senegal gained independence in 1960), and though he rues the male dominance of the Assembly and admits they need more women in government, his suit to Ramatoulaye seems to expect a much more traditional “partnership”. There is also much about polygamy and its effect on women involved; not to mention their huge families – Ramatoulaye herself has twelve children.

So Long A Letter is, unsurprisingly, a very reflective novel, and it is likely it is partly auto-biographical. Though only a slim book, it does an excellent job of painting Ramatoulaye, her life and the society in which she lives. It’s a classic for good reason. I’m not so sure the story quite leads to the final paragraph – various incidents recounted in So Long A Letter demonstrate that Ramatoulaye has both witnessed the happiness of others, actively worked towards it for yet more, and even experienced it herself during the early days of her marriage:

The word ‘happiness’ does indeed have meaning, doesn’t it? I shall go out in search of it. Too bad for me if once again I have to write you so long a letter… (p 95)

So Long A Letter was a good choice for my reading challenge. I’m glad I read it. I might even one day have a go at Bâ’s other novel, Scarlet Song.


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World fiction reading challenge #1: The Fat Years, Chan Koonchung

I know very little about China and almost nothing about its literature or literary tradition. So a book from the country seemed a natural choice for my reading challenge this year. And since Chan Koonchung’s The Fat Years had recently been gaining notices, appeared to be sf masquerading as mainstream fiction, and was about, and set in, China, then it seemed the perfect book to choose.

Having read The Fat Years, I now know more about China and her recent history. I suspect I still know almost nothing about Chinese literary tradition, however, because The Fat Years is in many respects constructed like a Western novel. Except it also isn’t. More on that later.

The novel opens in 2013. Old Chen, a novelist and journalist, is a Taiwanese resident of Beijing. He is, like many middle-class Chinese, happy and contented. Suspiciously so, in fact. Further, the entire country – including the rural population – appears to be happier and more successful than they can previously remember. While the rest of the world suffers from a financial crisis, China is the happiest nation on Earth.

But not everyone is so contented. One or two people feel this happiness is artificial. It also seems to have come about after the events of February 2011, when the global economy crashed. Except there is no official record of that month. The economy crashed, and China’s “Age of Ascendancy” began – at the same time, according to the records. Old Chen finds himself dragged into a hunt for the missing month, which eventually leads him to the reason for China’s unnatural happiness. This he learns after he and some friends have kidnapped a Party leader Old Chen knows. The Party leader explains it all.

As a novel, The Fat Years is far from satisfactory. Chen meanders about, meeting friends and acquaintances, but not actually driving the plot forward. And the dénouement is one big info-dump delivered by the Party leader. According to a translator’s note, it is this last section which is of most interest to Chinese readers – chiefly because of its criticisms of Chinese society and government. Myself, I found the frequent asides and info-dumps on China’s twentieth-century history the most fascinating aspect of the book. I was even inspired to read up on some aspects on Wikipedia.

I’m glad I read The Fat Years and it is an interesting novel. But it’s also not an especially good one. It is its subject which fascinates, rather than its story or the presentation of its subject.

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