The Freedom Artist

To those of you who read books: here’s another recommendation of a compelling examination of how freedom is threatened in a post-truth society. Ben Okri says that he had wanted to write this book “for a long time, maybe all [his] life.” Reading it now in these crazy times is bound to put an even heavier weigh on your chest.

New tales were encouraged. New myths were created by the most highly decorated artists of the land. To be like everyone else was the highest distinction a citizen could hope for. All the new myths promoted this ideal. Uniqueness, individuality, curiosity, became invidious qualities. They made enemies of the state. Anyone who stood out in some way was suspect. To be different was to condemn your fellow citizens. Those who were tall learnt to walk with a stoop. The intelligent learnt to be foolish.

I started this book in an aircraft full of passengers from Freetown. Half of them had full body protective suits, gloves and plastic hoods on throughout the flight. At times, when I had a break from reading and looked around me, I felt I was still in the story! It was one of those powerful moments when you think you escape this world into a book, into that famously mythical world by Okri, and yet everything that is happening around you looks even more fictive and absurd.

Ben Okri: The Freedom Artist (Head of Zeus, 2019)

The Jungo: Stakes of the Earth

I finished two books recently: The Book of Khartoum – A City in Short Fiction edited by Raph Cormack and Mack Schmookler; and The Jungo, Stakes of the Earth by Abdel Aziz Baraka Sakin. The former is a collection of stories in a series named “A City in Short Fiction” and it is a very poetic ride and a peak in some contemporary Sudanese fiction. I would have appreciated an edition with longer excerpts though and I’m also asking: why, almost as a rule, are the original titles in literature translated from the Arabic so often missing? Anyway, if you know who is Mehdi, you will have a good time with these excerpts.

I am already missing Baraka Sakin’s novel. It’s one of those stories in which you hate to get closer to the finish because you would like the sesame-picking seasonal workers in al-Hillah, close to the Sudanese-Eritrean-Ethiopian border, to keep you company on and on. I had a few good laughs out loud with this book! The strength of this novel is in the way it is told, almost circularly with a hint of repetition on whatever strange topic or incident shakes the lives of these people.

Abdel Aziz Baraka Sakin: The Jungo, Stakes of the Earth. Africa World Press, 2015. Translated by Adil Babikir.

We headed back to the market, leaving Alam Gishi behind to get ready for her new job. It was noon, and the bank workers were hard at work. The bank would surely be up and running before the next agricultural season. Rumors were circulating that the bank was destined to change the map of wealth and power, and restructure production relations in favor of those in lower income brackets, small-scale farmers and the poor. It was meant to extend interest-free Islamic loans to every producer and farmer. Some analysts interpreted the word “producer” to be an all-inclusive term that embraced literally everyone, without exception. Based on that analysis, it included, without limitation, the big endaya owners, peddlers, ladies selling date arrack, and charcoal sellers. Wad Ammoona thought about opening a small bar by the river bank, similar to the existing one on the eastern bank of the Setit River overlooking Hamdeyit village, which was frequented by clients who would have to swim their way to the other shore, into the Ethiopian territories, carrying no passport, ID, or even a paper with their name on it. Wad Ammoona’s bar would be a blessing for those pleasure seekers and would spare them the risk of drowning in transit.” (p. 85)

Teju Cole: Open City

Teju Cole: Open City. Faber & Faber, 2011 (259 pages).

This novel is like a snapshot into the walking life of a man in New York – and briefly Brussels too – and as such falls in a genre that I tend to like: encounters with other city dwellers, observations of this and that neighborhood, moments of introspection, flashbacks from your childhood… All very familiar elements that at times were enjoyable to read and at times I wanted to speed up my reading, especially toward the end by which time there was a slight sense of stagnation in the story. I am not a particular fan of parallels with classical music (perhaps I should listen to it more?) and references to symphonies felt almost clichés, yet there were some very enjoyable, sudden drifting moments that almost left the reader in a delicious suspense.

Reading about someone who is walking in a city has always been very inspiring to me because I am such a walker myself, always curious about people around me, imagining who they are and what their stories might be, and not just imagining but often engaging with them in conversations. When I started this book I felt that if I ever write a novel myself, it might turn out something like this in genre, perhaps with a longer time span in the story though… My last thought just now when I’m finishing this entry: what is stopping me from writing that book? So, I give applause to Mr. Cole because his debut novel is pushing me to such thoughts!

Bryan Washington: Lot

Get ready for a harsh world of drug dealers, broken families, one night stands, male prostitution, unemployment and everyday monotony in which everyone would do whatever it takes to get the hell out of their working class neighborhood in Houston. Opportunities for work are scarce and gentrification is not making it any easier. Codified conversations leave you in a void and people are saying a lot by saying very little. This is a story in which everything seems to be running in circles.

Bryan Washington: Lot. Atlantic Books, 2019, 223 pages.

I expected a lot of this book – I always do – but must confess that in the beginning of my reading I was slightly disappointed. Not for the fact that the novel introduces you to a fairly large gallery of people, but because I had the feeling that I was only going to get to know very little about each of them. In the end I realized that this was perhaps the point after all, in a world that unfolds in fragments and painfully stagnating lives in which the balance between love and hope and disappointment is most fragile. Perhaps the charm of Bryan Washington’s debut novel is exactly there! His pen did leave a mark on me and now I’m looking forward to more stories by him.

Summer reading

These are my latest new entries in my home library. Once again I have come to realize how beneficial it is to read books and keep a relative distance to the online world. I have selected these titles for reasons that I hope to illuminate in separate posts after having finished each book. Those reasons mirror almost subconsciously – or should I say naturally – these times of global awakenings and protests against systemic racism and also the fact that borders, margins, in-betweens, no-man’s-lands and urban space are something I have grown very accustomed to since very long.