Eileen Battersby’s favourite African writers
To mark Africa Day, Ireland’s annual celebration of its African community, The Irish Times literary correspondent picks her favourite African titles
Chinua Achebe: balances the richness of African folklore and native speech with the sterile politicking inherited from outsiders, who ruled, influenced, then left, leaving their mess behind. Photograph: Jerry Bauer
Music and dance, songs full of stories and life, the celebration of Africa Day is exactly that; a celebration of cultures and traditions that span a continent of 54 sovereign countries each with a defined, individual voice. The literature, which is often sophisticated in its simplicity, eloquent and angry, is incredibly diverse; including writers from Algeria to Zimbabwe; from Egypt to Senegal. The history is a bloody one dominated by the notorious scramble for Africa as a succession of European imperial powers plundered the natural resources and murdered the native population. Colonialism ravaged Africa and along with the political crimes was the greed of white settlers, claiming the land and creating vast game parks for the amusement of tourists. The destruction of the wildlife continues through the brutality of organised safaris as well as illegal poaching. Africa has suffered oppression, famine and so many wars, yet Africa endures and outstanding writers have won an international readership. African writers are very good on dialogue: the exchanges often convey raised voices and lively exasperation. They are also passionate, candid and unafraid.
Anthills of the Savannah (1987), by Chinua Achebe
Three former school mates have risen to national prominence in an imaginary west African country obviously based on Achebe’s native Nigeria. One of them is a poet. This is an extremely political novel, full of rhetoric: “What must a people do to appease an embittered history?” It is all rich in inspired moments – a traffic jam, confrontations with stupid policemen, a memorable set piece in which an elderly man tells the history of the country from the peasant’s viewpoint. As always Achebe balances the richness of African folklore and native speech with the sterile politicking inherited from outsiders, who ruled, influenced, then left, leaving their mess behind. “Story-tellers are a threat,” declares Ikem the poet, “…they threaten all champions of control.” It is bold, not as good as the wonderful Things Fall Apart (1958), the classic Achebe which remains essential reading, nor does it possess the comic artlessness of A Man of the People (1966 ), which dissects post-independence Nigeria, yet there are plenty of reasons for reading this Booker contender.
Our Musseque (2003) by Jose Luandino Vieira, translated by Robin Patterson
Growing up in a shanty town or musseque on the edge of Luanda in Angola during the 1940s is brought to life in this fictionalised account of a childhood darkened by Angola’s move towards armed struggle against Portuguese colonial rule. Despair is undercut by the hope as well as the fear of change.
Sleepwalking Land by Mia Couto, translated by David Brookshaw
Another African who writes in Portuguese, Couto is from Mozambique. This is his first novel and follows an old man and boy who are refugees from a civil war. They seek shelter in a burnt-out bus. Alongside a dead body they find a notebook. The boy reads the contents. The story of the dead man’s life reflects their own experiences. It is a fable. Couto is a beguiling storyteller. In A River of Time (2008), also translated by Brookshaw, the central character is summoned back to this village for his grandfather’s funeral. He is to succeed him as head of the family, only his grandfather is not fully dead. Instead, having died badly, he hovers between life and death, waiting for a release which must be won. Earlier this year The Tuner of Silence (again translated by Brookshaw), about an African boy’s quest for truth, was long listed for the International Impac Dublin Literary Award and it could be his best novel to date.
Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong’o (2006) translated from Gikuyu by the author
“There were many theories about the strange illness of the second ruler of the Free Republic of Aburiria, but the most frequent on people’s lips were five” – and so begins an ambitious and lively attempt to sum up 20th-century Africa in the context of our hellish times. It is a tour de force of African storytelling, human and subversive, and all making sense. Ngugi wa Thiong’o was imprisoned by the Kenyan government and is a fearless writer. His memoir In the House of the Interpreter (2012) recalls his boyhood in the 1950s as Kenya was in turmoil. It explains the evolution of his political engagement.
Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (2014)
A younger Kenyan writer – Owuor was born in 1968 – evokes the physical landscape which is the backdrop to a family tragedy in which a brother is gunned down, leaving his sister, a modern-day Antigone, who returns from her life in Brazil to help their father to bring the young man’s body home. But there is no peace. The horrors of events in 2007 are juxtaposed with memories of earlier outrages. With a hint of Faulkner, this is a fine novel, sophisticated and unrelenting; if you don’t know your Kenyan history, Owuor has no intention of briefing her reader. “Watering holes are littered with memory ciphers. Cattle bones – casualties of past droughts, a prevailing north wind.”
The Journey of Ibn Fattouma by Naguib Mahfouz (1983), translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies
A traveller sets off, convinced that travel is the surest way to find the true meaning of life, or at least that is what his tutor once told him. He keeps a journal. This beautiful and profound parable from the Egyptian who won the 1988 Nobel Laureate for Literature retains its mysterious appeal. Wonderful indeed.
Life & Times of Michael K by JM Coetzee (1983)
Another parable from another African Nobel Literature Laureate, Coetzee won in 2003, a year after he had moved to Australia but had not yet renounced his South African citizenship, which he did in 2006. Disgrace (1999), his second Booker winner, is a stark narrative about power shifts in the new South Africa.
Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga (2012), translated by Melanie Mauthner
A girl’s boarding school may not seem the most likely starting point for a narrative which sets the scene for the horrors of the Rwandan genocide which was to follow. The society begins to unravel while, inside the school, order is maintained.
This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun (2001), translated by Linda Coverdale
The first North African novel to win the Prix Goncourt, it tells the true story of the concentration camps beneath the desert of Morocco. Working closely with one of the survivors, Ben Jelloun shaped a harrowing narrative of shocking beauty. It also won the 2004 International Impac Dublin Literary Award, one of the finest winners to date.
Tail of the Blue Bird by Nil Ayikwei Parkes (2009)
Strange things are happening in a Ghanaian village which has existed, happily unchanged, for hundreds of years. The inhabitants speak the language of the forest, their ancestors have never left and all is well until a discovery of human remains followed by a mystery disappearance upsets the balance. An oral tale that could as easily be by a Latin American yet is vibrantly African, it is sustained by humour, magic and panache.
The Village Witch Doctor & Other Stories by Amos Tutuola (1990)
Aesop and the Brothers Grimm may be kindred spirits of the Yoruba storytellers, who in their turn influenced this gifted Nigerian teller of tales.
Happiness, Like Water by Chinelo Okparanta (2013)
Charming and tender stories, also from Nigeria, about the ways in which families experience the present, deal with their past and anticipate the future.
Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar (2011)
Although born in New York City, Matar, the son of Libyan parents, was raised in Tripoli and Cairo, and this poignant, dignified novel in which a parent simply disappears, feels so African. “There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest. Other times I can barely recall the exact features of his face and must bring out the photographs I keep in an old envelope in the drawer of my bedside table…..My father has always been intimately mysterious even when he was present.”
The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut (2003)
A bold, profound novel which is both about and beyond history. Obvious comparisons with Graham Greene have been made but Galgut has his own vision and this is a masterful study. I am biased – so I would say, read all of Galgut and particularly love In a Strange Room (2010). But The Good Doctor is a very special African novel, intense and human. Interesting to note that Nadine Gordimer, whose work was so devoted to the political realities of South Africa, does not convey as strong a physical sense and is also more rooted in the urban than the rural.
Allah is not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma (2000), translated by Frank Wynne
Accurately described as an African Lord of the Flies, this account by a boy soldier caught up in war was written by a major African literary figure who came from the Ivory Coast. Kourouma (1927 - 2004) had served as a young man in the French colonial army in Indochina. His evocation of wartime Liberia and of neighbouring Sierra Leone convinced me – and I had been there reporting on it at the time.
An Unfinished Business by Boualem Sansal (2008), translated by Frank Wynne
Two estranged brothers born in Algeria and educated in France become united after their German father and Algerian mother are killed in an Islamic fundamentalist raid. Revelations about their father’s Nazi past cause one of them to begin investigating the past, leaving the other sibling to conclude the search. Sansal’s works are banned in his native Algeria. This is the first of his books to be translated and it confronts history on several levels. How African then is Camus’s classic L’Étranger (1942)?
Oil on Water by Helon Habila (2010)
Part thriller, part meditation on the deadly price in human terms of oil, this taut novel from Nigeria is set in the Niger Delta and, while it has echoes of Graham Greene’s wistful disillusion, it is also a post-colonial response to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
Mandela’s Earth and Other Poems by Wole Soyinka (1988)
Soyinka was the first African writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, when he was honoured in 1986. Urgency is his medium. His autobiography, Ake, the Years of Childhood (1981), is a truth-teller’s account of life as he sees it. “I yield a stark view of the world,” he writes – and he does.
Maps by Nuruddin Farah (1986)
This Somali writer works in English and always succeeds in making the language he uses appear new and different. In this novel he follows Askar from boyhood tragedy to a series of desperate choices as an adult confronting the realities of civil war. He seems to speak for all Africa.
So the Past Does Not Die by Pede Hollist (2014)
Born in Sierra Leone, Hollist’s debut novel tells the story of Fina, who has left Sierra Leone for Washington yet realises she must return home. Hollist describes himself as being interested in the literature of the African imagination, which in itself is an inspiring thought for any reader.
All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu (2014)
Ethiopian-born and US-raised, Mengestu manages to be cosmopolitan without losing his sense of Africa. This third novel balances both his African inheritance and American experience as the action shifts between 1970s Uganda and the American midwest. There are obvious shades of Greene and even Achebe present in this novel of political themes, which is also concerned with identity.
A Life Elsewhere by Segun Afolabi (2006)
One of the finest collection of short stories by an African writer .Afolabi is a Nigerian, whose gift is the ability to make readers experience a different way of seeing, the ultimate achievement for any artist.
A Far-Off Place by Laurens Van Der Post (1974)
“The story is like the wind,” a Bushman called Xhabbo said. “It comes from a far-off place and we feel it.” Van Der Post was born in Africa in 1906 and lived the life of a writer and farmer who also had to go to war. This is his finest book; it continues the narrative begun in A Story Like the Wind (1972). It is very much the essence of Africa and is dominated by a long trek undertaken by four characters following a massacre.
Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton (1948)
No selection of African writing would seem complete without including Paton’s beautiful human tragedy in which an elderly pastor witnesses the sins of man and the human failings that ruin lives. It remains the first great African novel to alert the world to the atrocities of apartheid and also to the literature of a continent.
Jock of the Bushveld by Percy Fitzpatrick (1907)
The hero is a courageous bull terrier, the setting is Africa and the story is real. Jock was a runt of the litter who proved loyal and generous. It is a classic animal story which is all too often overlooked and the South African Fitzpatrick, while not exactly a prose artist, conveys the majesty of Africa and its dramatic landscape. He told his story, initially written through the urging of his three children, with a simple philosophy of much charm.