issue 57: January -February 2007
index of book reviews for all issues
|Note: TBR encourages readers to buy books at their local independent booksellers, but not all UK books are available in the US and vice-versa. For on-line book ordering of UK books Amazon UK carries all titles reviewed in TBR; all US releases carried by Amazon.com unless otherwise noted.|
Measuring Time by Helon Habila: W.W. Norton, 2007
Nigerian-born poet and prose-writer Helon Habila (Waiting for an Angel, 2002), sets his second novel in the small Nigerian village of Keti. The year is 1964. Twin boys—Mamo and LaMamo—come into the world as their mother dies in childbirth. They are brought up by their Aunt Marina and a distant father, Lamang, who is more interested in pursuing women and a political career than being a father. Lamang openly favors LaMamo because the other boy, Mamo, is weak with sickle-cell anemia and is not expected to live a long life. Thus is the set-up for a novel which will follow the boys’ lives into the 70s, 80s, and early 90s.
The action really begins when the twins are sixteen years old and decide to run away to become soldiers and seek fame, but Mamo is too weak to leave and so must part with his twin brother who leaves to join a rebel group on the Chad border. LaMamo’s history comes to us scattered throughout the novel in the form of letters (filled with spelling and grammatical errors as he has had little formal education), which he writes to Mamo, who hangs on every word. We learn that after seven months he was chosen to be a part of a select group of rebels to be further trained in Libya. Here he meets Charles Taylor and joins the rebel fight. To his brother, LaMamo writes: “It is really important because we cannot continue to live like slaves even after independence from colonization—look at many African countries, even our own Nigeria, our leaders are just puppets of Western powers.” This may seem like a trite and obvious observation to those of us sitting comfortably in faraway countries, but in the context of this novel, it is appropriate because A) we see LaMamo spouting the new rhetoric he has been exposed to, and B) tired rhetoric that it is, it is not so for LaMamo and does not negate the truth behind it in any case. In other words, the reader sees it afresh as well. How to act on it is another matter. LaMamo continues his rebel exploits, but will eventually begin to show an increasing disillusionment with the fighting and killing.
Meanwhile, Mamo does well in school and eventually goes off to state university for two years. When he returns to Keti, his Uncle IIiya encourages him to teach history at the local school. Here he meets the lovely Zara. She and Mamo fall in love, though it is to be a touch-and-go relationship. Unfortunately, some rather badly written sex scenes come from this, which could qualify the author for England’s annual literary award for Bad Sex in Writing (which would put him in good company at least: Tom Wolfe, Sebastian Faulks, Melvyn Bragg and Nicholas Royle have all been recipients):
To much better effect does Habila write of Mamo who now begins to think seriously of history. He writes an article about his people which gets accepted by a historical review whose editor praised its “relaxed tone” and asks Mamo to write a follow-up piece on what he thinks comprises good history writing. Mamo doesn’t hesitate: “a true history is one that looks to the lives of individuals, ordinary people who toil and dream and suffer, who bear the brunt of whatever vicissitude time inflicts on the nation . . . if a historian could capture these ordinary lives, including their recollections of their own family’s past, then he might come close to writing a true ‘biographical history’ of a nation.” Obviously, the author’s manifesto as well.
The editor steers Mamo from straight history to biography, encouraging him to model his writing on Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. About this time, as word gets out that he is a “writer of biographies,” the ruling power, the Mai, invites Mamo to pen his biography in order to commemorate his upcoming anniversary. Actually, it is the Mai’s right-hand man, the Waziri, who has the idea to hire Mamo, a move undertaken by the Waziri for some very dubious personal motives. Mamo is given a place in the palace to write. (He is also given access to the “guesthouse” where beautiful women come to “entertain” the men.) But he soon learns the expected laudatory appraisal is not to be as his eyes are opened to the corruption all around him. What must he do?
Apart from all of this business, Mamo’s father Lamang is involved in politics, running for the party chairmanship of the Victory Party. This makes for some humor. Lamang has a television set which he places in his window for all to see, thereby filling his yard with those eager to watch—and gaining votes along the way. He is also pampered by some village widows who have set their sites on the still handsome old rogue and refuse to go away. It is no surprise that politics is as dirty a business as that of the Mai and the Waziri, and Mamo again is left with having to make some hard decisions. The nation’s plight worsens when a drought arrives and famine sets in.
We know from the beginning that Mamo will survive his disease and go on to write his biographies, for throughout the novel he frequently mentions: “When I came to write the biography of Zara . . .” or of Uncle IIiya, or his brother, or his father; thereby clueing us to his future. Thus, Mamo lives his life as his countries’ biographical historian while his twin LaMamo fights to free a torn and chaotic Africa.
The book has a somewhat rambling plot, but gives an insightful account of late 20th-century Nigeria: poverty (though the twins’ family is quite well-to-do comparatively) and hard conditions made harder by unscrupulous politicians and rulers. It also includes a brief historical account of the first white man, a Mr. Graves, to come to the area in 1917, followed by the country’s introduction to Christianity by one Reverend Drinkwater.
There is that “storytelling” element about the novel as in oral tradition; we get several stories, in fact, with some colorful characters hovering about: a “witch,” a drunken cousin, the deeply Christian Aunt Marina, two elderly sisters of the deceased Reverend, among others. I should hope the author would forgive my jibes at the sex scenes. It’s a mere quibble in the end. Habila gives us a sensitive and realistic account of the tradition and lives of the Nigerian people, and inadvertently pushes us to reflect on our own parallel lives at that time. Which gives pause. Nigeria has a powerful and moving voice in Helon Habila and he deserves to be read. JA
Death of a Superhero by Anthony McCarten: Alma Books, 2006
Fourteen-year-old Donald Delpe has leukemia and is undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. He’s the model cancer poster boy: no hair, small, sickly. His parents, Jim and Renata, do what they can; and sixteen-year-old brother Jeff hangs in there, too, while trying to get on with his own life. Sounds like a terribly depressing set-up, but New Zealand writer Anthony McCarten (Spinners, 2000) pulls off quite the contrary, filling the pages with much good humor and many unexpected turns.
Don, as he’s called, has a talent for drawing comic strips, and he loses himself in his creations. His main comic character is MIRACLE MAN, an indestructible superhero, but kind of human, too, because he “farts.” The evil one is THE GLOVE. And the love interest is RACHEL. When his comic writing and drawing isn’t keeping him occupied, he thinks about sex. In fact, he’s always thinking about sex. And besides that he takes refuge in his iPod, which contains some 2,000 songs; and, with his school mates Michael and Raff, Don burns DVDs at home and they sell them at school (until they get caught). Don also found his brother’s marijuana stash, so he’s got that for diversion. Jeff is furious, but Don knows he can’t tell their parents. So Don is pretty much a typical fourteen year old. He even has a crush on pretty classmate Shelley, but blows every chance he gets when around her.
At least all this activity is going on when Don is temporarily in remission. When the cancer reappears big time—before his hair has even grown back from the last round of chemo—he’s back on the killer drugs, and begins to lose the will to live. His parents enlist the help of cancer ward therapist Dr. Adrian King. At first Don is unresponsive, but Adrian is slowly able to draw him out, beginning with an “outing” to an art museum. He also talks straight to Don. When Don says of his dying: ”I haven’t done anything yet. It’s not fair,” Adrian responds, and it’s an amusing exchange. As in a movie script, the characters throughout the novel are introduced by name:
Adrian, who is a bit of an artist himself, takes Don along to a life-drawing art class. Don draws like crazy, looking at the naked young woman, but at the end of the class Adrian sees that Don has made her a comic character, with a tail, knee-length boots, two horns, ridiculously oversized breasts, and pubic hair groomed into a lightening bolt. So much for that excursion.
Unknowingly, Don has hit on a truth: Dr. Adrian King’s life does indeed suck. His incredibly beautiful wife, Sophie, does not want to have sex with him and has retired to their house in the country where Adrian commutes on the weekends. It’s obvious Sophie is interested in a married veterinarian, which doesn’t help Adrian’s feelings, although she swears she loves Adrian and doesn’t want a divorce. He lamely but unhappily accepts this miserable situation. Much later when he confesses all this to Don, Don says: Kick. The. Bitch. Out. It is a nice turning point, when Don actually begins to give advice to Adrian.
This is a heartwarming novel, but there is nothing sentimental about it. In fact, what I liked most was all the snappy dialogue. Some great lines, too, like when Don says: “Life is a sexually transmitted disease. It is spread by people having sex, and in the end it kills you.” Sharp prose all the way. Fast paced, engaging, humorous. Structurally, it’s a fusion of novel, film script and comic book, with MIRACLE MAN and crew making frequent appearances. I thought that might wear thin at first, but it didn’t. It works to great effect. I had a fun time reading this novel, which I have learned is based on a real-life history. JA
2007 The Barcelona Review
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