magical realism

READ THE WORLD – Angola: Transparent City by Ondjaki

Translated by Stephen Henighan and narrated by Sam Peters.

In a crumbling apartment block in the Angolan city of Luanda, families work, laugh, scheme, and get by. In the middle of it all is the melancholic Odonato, nostalgic for the country of his youth and searching for his lost son. As his hope drains away and as the city outside his doors changes beyond all recognition, Odonato’s flesh becomes transparent and his body increasingly weightless.

While the blurb focuses on Odonato, really Transparent City is an ensemble book as it follows the many people who live in the apartment block who have connections to it, whether that’s the postman or local politicians and tax inspectors. The male characters are the focus though, with the female characters being cooks, wives, mothers, secretaries and objects of the men’s sexual desire. It’s the men who have pseudo-narrative arcs

Transparent City is such a weird story. There’s the magical realism aspect with Odonato. He slowly becomes more transparent and weightless as he misses his son and he lose hope of seeing him again, or of seeing his city how it used to be. That part, while odd is understandable. It’s a lot of the other things going on with the characters that is confusing and farcical. Confrontations and conversations appear to go around in circles, as they do their best to befuddle whoever they’re talking to with rhetorical questions and agreeing to disagree. It feels like there’s little point to their actions and it’s difficult to gage whether the outcome is in their favour or not.

What is clear in Transparent City is that money talks in Angola and those who have it can pretty much do whatever they want. There’s also corruption and violence. The police will only help people if they are bribed, and the politicians are far removed from the everyday issues an average person may have. There are sparks of goodness and community though. The people who live in the apartment block help each other out, for the most part, and will give what they can to those who need.

I listened Transparent City on audio and to be honest, I found it a struggle to get through. I think that was mostly down to the narrator. There’s a lot of characters in this book, both male and female, and he doesn’t do anything with his voice to differentiate between the characters when they’re talking, or when he’s narrating the narrative. It makes it difficult to follow the story and to distinguish who is who. Also, I think how the book is formatted influences that too as there’s no chapters, instead there’s what I presume to be line breaks when the story goes from one characters point of view to another, but that’s hard to pick up on when listening to the audiobook.

It’s a shame that I didn’t get along with the audiobook, and maybe if I’d physically read the book I might have been able to understand it better, but I do think Transparent City didn’t work for me for reasons beyond the narrator. There often seemed little point to characters actions, and the story itself didn’t seem to have a beginning, middle or end. It was hard to become attached to any of the characters, and there may be somethings in term of the culture and politics of Angola that I didn’t understand or get deeper meanings of, but I should’ve been able to follow the story a lot better than I did.

READ THE WORLD – Jamaica: Augustown by Kei Miller

11 April 1982 in Augustown, Jamaica. Ma Taffy may be blind, but she sees everything. So, when her great-nephew Kaia comes home from school in tears, what she senses sends a deep fear running through her. While they wait for his mama to come home from work, Ma Taffy recalls the story of the flying preacherman and a great thing that did not happen.

Augustown is a story within a story. There’s what’s happening in the present with Ma Taffy and Kaia, her story of the flying preacherman, and an almost omnipresent narrator that’s looking down on the events that are unfolding and can see the past and future. There are also other characters who live in Augstown that come in and out of the story at different times, and it’s as the story progresses that you can see all these connections between them.

Augustown is a story all about the divide in Jamaican society and how people may try and fail to bridge that divide and perhaps better themselves. There’s rich vs poor, white vs black, Babylon vs Rasta. All these differences and divisions come to a head when Kaia comes home crying after his teacher cuts off his dreadlocks. It’s a shocking thing for the young boy and the community as a whole, and soon the people start to get involved.

The writing style is almost poetic at times as it paints a vivid picture of life in Jamaica in the twentieth century. The stark differences between what the poor Augstown looks like and the rich areas of Jamaica that are in the hills and look down upon Augustown look like are clear. Also, the attitudes between the people who live in the two different areas is realised through the few times when people from each of these worlds interact. There’s talk of code-switching, how someone changes their dialect or use of slang depending on who they’re talking to, and of what opportunities are available to different people.

Augustown is a quick read with engaging themes but unfortunately while I did feel sympathy towards many of the characters, I was never fully drawn into their story. How Augustown shows the divisions of class in Jamaica is eye-opening and it shows how one person’s actions can have ramifications they couldn’t have expected.

READ THE WORLD – Mozambique: Every Man Is A Race by Mia Couto

A collection of 18 short stories that look at a range of issues including civil war, colonialism and corruption against the backdrop of post-independence Mozambique.

These short stories range from three pages long to no more than fifteen pages. Each of them features very different characters, though some of the issues they face are quite similar. A lot of the stories are about or feature outsiders, whether it’s a man who has a lot of birds in “The bird-dreaming baobab” or a Russian woman who has come with her husband to run a mine in “The Russian princess”. There are different types of outsiders, the Russian woman is a white woman so has a level of authority but has no equals or friends, in other stories, the outsiders are black people who are seen as different by the rest of the villages.

Some of the stories are very real, showing peoples lives in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and how they were blending the traditional with the new. A lot of the stories are bold though and have magical realism elements. A few of the stories seem like fables while others are just weird. It’s this combination of contrasting stories that makes Every Man Is A Race such a quick and fascinating read.

One of my favourite stories was “The rise of Joāo Bate-Certo” which is about a young man who wanted to live in a city but came home to his village and built a ladder to the clouds and appeared to find a whole new place up there. So many of the stories leave you with more questions than answers or give you a lot to think about.

Every Man Is A Race is a short story collection where there weren’t any short stories that I really disliked. They a vibrant and magical but also often sad and thoughtful. 4/5.