Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Love Anger Madness: Marie Vieux-Chauvet (Haiti)

Marie Vieux-Chauvet is considered by most to be Haiti's most celebrated writers, and reading this book it is easy to see why. Born in 1916 to parents of mixed heritage, the book was written in exile in the United States during the mid 1960's, around the time that I was born. The author died in exile in 1973.

Along with the other books that I have read as part of this challenge, I found that this book broadened my knowledge of Haiti considerably, encouraging me to explore more about its history and problems from all perspectives. I did not for instance realise that Haiti is the only country in the world which was borne from a slave rebellion. This fact alone tells you a great deal.

This book though, which is often called a trilogy, consists of three novellas, or short novels, each named after one of the three emotions of Love, Anger and Madness. The overriding theme of all three is that of fear and of what happens when it is allowed to take root and become part of the national identity. The characters in each of these books each live in fear of their leaders, and the community at large, which is to say, their own countrymen, and under this pervasive threat we see that even the stongest of family bonds begins to break down.

Vieux-Chauvet did an amazing job of portraying what life was like in her country during those times, depicting the fear and the oppression that her people felt, along with the love, anger and madness that went alongside. Each book is different, yet each book is the same, presenting these same truths in different ways to help her readers, and indeed the world, to understand. I am sure that this was not her intention, but to me at least, this book can be viewed as a reflection of the inner turmoil that we all face, with our myriad of emotions, as we confront our own madness until all that remains is love, the title of the first novella.

Love then, introduces us to Claire, the oldest and the darkest (in terms of skin colour) of three mixed race sisters. Because of her dark skin and oppressive upbringing, Claire remains a frustrated virgin at the age of 39, who lives and works as a servant to her younger sisters. Love takes the form of Claire's diary, as a testament to her hidden passions that she is unable to express in real life. One of these passions is for the husband of her youngest sister.

As the story evolves, so too does Claire. Her infatuation with her French, white skinned brother in law, and the jealousy that she harbours towards her younger siblings gradually gives way to feelings of greater self worth, as she comes to realise that she is indeed an active participant in her own destiny.

Anger as the second novella, is perhaps the most complex, and for me at least, the most difficult (at least initially) read. It follows the path of an entire family, whose land is illegally siezed by the so-called black-shirts. As they appear on the family's land, a devastating chain of events is set in place, which ultimately results in the death of at least two family members.

Each member deals with the issues in their own way - some through as the title suggests, anger, some through fantasy, some through alcholism and some through martydrom. The central figure is the daughter Rose, who allows herself to be raped (is this then really rape?) every day for a month by the black-shirts leader, in exchange for proof that the land is indeed theirs. What she chooses to experience (and it is her choice), is a symbol of the corruption and violence that Haitians at that time all faced, under the infamous Duvalier dictatorship, where the entire nation's future rested on their own ability to turn a blind eye and effectively be raped.

The third of the three novellas, Madness, centres on a group of poets, in particular Rene, who barricades himself into his hut for a period of eight days. During this time, he is joined by various poet friends, each of whom experiences their own issues of starvation, fear and eventual madness. During this time they are terrorised by beings that they refer to as "Devils", who are again synonymous with the so-called black-shirts. The poets are ultimately on a quest to reconcile the two halves of their personality, the dichotomy that we all face - the anger and despair that we experience both within and without, and also the beauty, in this case expressed through their poems.

Despite their apparent criticism of the country that Vieux-Chauvet undoubtedly loved, this wonderful book is also testament to the strength and resilience of the Haitian people. It may not be the cheapest of books (this Kindle editon that I read cost more than £12), but the best books in my experience, never are. This is without doubt, a book that I would wholeheartedly reccommend.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Cry Havoc - Simon Mann (Equatorial Guinea)

I downloaded this book shortly after Christmas as part of the 12 Days of Kindle offer that Amazon seem to feature each year, for the princely sum of 99 pence, as I felt that books based in this country would be comparitively rare, and it seemed a good opportunity to acquire one for a very good price. One of the best things about Kindle, for me at least, is how it inspires you to read so many different books that you would not have found, much less considered, in paper form, for books such as these are not to be found in the average bricks and mortar store, at least not the ones that I used to frequent.

This book though tells that tale of the infamous so called Mark Thatcher plot, to overthrow the President of that small African country and former Spanish colony known as Equatorial Guinea. I started the book knowing little about this country, and by the time I finished felt like somewhat of an expert.

I did not realise how much this book affected me until after I had finished reading, which to me came as somewhat of a surprise given its subject matter. I have noticed though over the previous few months that I am drawn more and more to books of this nature, set in war torn areas of the world that help me to understand a little more of how these things take form and the evil (I hesitate to use that word) that allows it to happen.

Along with most other people, I had a somewhat stereotyped and negative view of so-called mercenaries, for that is what Mann and his gang were, believing them to be hired thugs, who were only interested in cash, but this book in its opening chapters, helped to dispel all of those myths. It would be fair to say that although Mann did stand to make a lot of money from this plot, this was not his only or indeed primary motive, which was to make things better for the citizens of EG, which despite its massive oil revenue, remains one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in Africa.

This could in fact have been two books, detailing as it did, Mann's involvement in several other African countries, Angola and Sierra Leone. I found this inclusion of this material irritating at times, as I did not buy the book to read about these wars, but I suppose it did provide valuable background information. For me though, the book did not really get going until halfway through, when it began to detail the effects that imprisonment had on him. That for me was the important bit, and the reason that I wanted to carry on reading.

The ironic thing is that during his five years incarcerated in Zimbabwe, Mann spent much of that time fearful of extradition to EG because of the President's alleged reputation for cannibalising his victims, yet when he arrived, his physical comforts at least were looked after far better than in Zim with access to running water, electric light and medical care. None of this of course detracts from what happened to him, and the fact that he was kept in solitary confinement for months, betrayed by his friends and colleagues, yet for me this remains an irony. Maybe as the prized Westerner he was given special treatment, but whatever it was he said to his interrogators, who reported directly back to the President, evidently hit home, for things have got far better for the citizens of EG since the attempted coup, and his trial took place. Not many could have survived what this man went through, and I suspect it was his training in both the Army and later the SS and the skills that he learnt during this time that got his through.

Now that I have finished the book, I am not sure how I feel about the whole thing - was it right for him to spend five and a half years in jail for a crime that he only plotted to do but did not actually carry out, and where exactly do you draw the line? One man's freedom fighter after all, is another man's (or woman's} terrorist, so which was and is Mann, is he either of these things or none at all? And what of Mark Thatcher's involvement, where does he come into all of this? The plot made headlines and is well known to people mostly because of his involvement.

To sum up then, I would say that this book was an interesting and for me at least, very different type of read, but it was also one that left more questions than answers. The answers I suspect will come not from the book itself, but from each readers own definition of morality and justice.

Friday, 13 January 2012

The Auschwitz Violin - Maria Angels Anglada (Poland)

This book could fall into the Spanish category as well as the Polish, depending on whether you are undertaking this challenge by country of birth or by country in which the book is set. This is a beautifully written short read, at just 109 pages long, translated from its original Catalan by Martha Tennent.

The book tells the tale of Daniel, a Jewish violin maker interred in Auschwitz, who upon entry to the camp, gives his occupation as carpenter or cabinet maker. This is partly true, since the art of violin making does require a certain skill in carpentry. It is this skill that ultimately saves Daniels life.

When the Nazi's discover his skill, the Commander of the camp, a music (and red wine) affadicio requests that Daniel make him a violin. Daniel later discovers from a musician friend, also in the camp, that the Commander has placed a bet as to whether he will complete the violin within the time set required - Daniel is not aware of how long this time limit is, only that the bet has been placed, with a particularly evil Nazi Doctor who conducts medical experiments on live Jews. If the Commander wins the bet, the Doctor has to give him a case of red wine, but if he loses, he has to turn Daniel over to the Doctor as a subject in his experiments. Daniel does complete the violin in time and ultimately wins his freedomm, but not before he has been subjected to both physical and mental torture.

This is a haunting story and an excellent read, which once again brought to mind the brutalities that man can and indeed does, inflict upon his fellow man. Having travelled to Israel and visited the Museum of the Holocaust, among other sites, I felt a deep affinity with Daniel and his fellow prisoners, for both their love of music, and also their love of life, both of which ultimately won through, while the Commander and the Doctor both lost theirs - one of which at their own hands rather than face the consequences of what they had done.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Devil, Devil - GW Kent (Solomon Islands)

Sergeant Ben Kella of the Solomon Islands Police Force is only a few days into a routine patrol, yet already he has been cursed by a magic man, stumbled across evidence of a cargo cult uprising and failed to find an American anthropologist who has been scouring the mountainous jungle in search of a priceless pornographic icon.

To complicate matters further, at a local mission station Kella discovers the redoubtable Sister Conchita secretly trying to bury a skeleton — then a mysterious gunman tries to kill her.

Kella already has enough problems. Mission-educated yet an aofia, the traditional peacemaker of the islands, reluctantly the sergeant is forced to link up with Sister Conchita, an independent and rebellious young American nun, to track down the perpetrators of a series of bizarre murders. The combination of the witch-doctor policeman and the Praying Mary, set against one of the most beautiful yet dangerous and primitive areas of the South Pacific in 1960, proves combative yet unexpectedly successful.

I would never normally have considered a book such as this, were it not for the fact that I am undertaking this challenge. While it is true that I have read quite a lot of crime fiction during the past few years, most of this has been based in Scandinavian, a part of the world that I am not a lot more familiar with than the South Pacific.

Initially I found this book quite heavy going, and the characters, Kella especially difficult to relate to - I suspect this was because the culture and the way of thinking described in this book is so alien and so different to anything I have encountered before. I persevered though, and by the time I was halfway through the book I was hooked.

Where else would you encounter so many interesting characters and story lines than here - a missing anthropologist, a Melanesian detective with a white Catholic education, a feisty American nun, remote bush tribes and exotic women in grass skirts. Add to the mix, cargo cults, death curses and pornographic icons, and you have a pretty good idea as to what this book is about.

This book, written by a former headmaster and BBC producer, who lived and worked on the islands for 8 years, gives fascinating insights into a unique way of life, and to me at least, made a refreshing change form the city based crime detectives of the north that I am more used to. Devil Devil is the first of what is hoped to be a whole series of books - I look forward with anticipation to the second installment.

Friday, 6 January 2012

When Broken Glass Floats: Chanrithy Him (Cambodia)

This was the first book that I read in 2012, and the first since I officially began this challenge, also at the start of the year.

Chanrithy Him was born in Takeo province, Cambodia in 1965, and so is the same age as myself. She lives in Oregon, USA and currently works as a public speaker, Cambodian classical dancer, writer, and aspiring screenwriter. She holds a B.S. in biochemistry from the University of Oregon. She also worked as a Research Associate to the Khmer Adolescent Project, a major PTSD study on Cambodian youths who survived the Khmer Rouge era. Partly as a result of this project, Chanrithy felt compelled to tell her own tale of surviving life under the KhmerRouge in a way "worthy of the suffering which I endured as a child."

In the Cambodian proverb, "when broken glass floats" is the time when evil triumphs over good. That time began in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia and the Him family began their trek through the hell of the "killing fields." In a mesmerizing story, Him vividly recounts a Cambodia where rudimentary labor camps are the norm and technology, such as cars and electricity, no longer exists. Death becomes a companion at the camps, along with illness. Yet through the terror, Chanrithy's family remains loyal to one another despite the Khmer Rouge's demand of loyalty only to itself. Moments of inexpressible sacrifice and love lead them to bring what little food they have to the others, even at the risk of their own lives. In 1979, "broken glass" finally sinks. From a family of twelve, only five of the Him children survive. Sponsored by an uncle in Oregon, they begin their new lives in a land that promises welcome to those starved for freedom.

I found this be a powerful and very compelling book, which although disturbing for much of the time, was also strangely fascinating. One of the things that I am most looking forward to about this challenge is the opportunity to learn about different cultures and ways of thinking, so this was a great place in which to start.

This is in many ways a tale of two diametrically opposed upbringings - it tells on the one hand of an intelligent young girl prior to the conflict, with hopes and dreams, the same as any other girl of the same age, with plentiful food, a loving family and safe roof over her head. On the other hand, it also tells of a girl who after the conflict, was wrenched from her home and everything that she knew, and effectively had her childhood stolen. Forced to live in a hut on a a series of communal farms which became known as the 'killing fields', while those around her dropped like flies from completely preventable diseases - including half of her own family. We complain about our lot in this country, but really we have no idea.

It is impossible to read a book like this and not feel touched, touched by the sadness and the depth of emotions that this story brings to the surface. It is not about anger, but about trying to understand and come to terms with how something like this could ever be allowed to happen, and happen it has, not just in Cambodia, but in countless regions and in countless eras throughout history - the Jewish Holocaust, the Rwanda/Burundi genocide, the Balkans conflicts, I am sure there are many more examples. It is difficult when you read books such as this, to know exactly what you feel. One thing that I do know is that Ms Him is a remarkable person who has done a great service to the world.