Friday, 25 September 2009

As the Crow Flies

If you want to love
Do so
To the ends of the earth
With no short cuts
Do so
As the crow flies.

Indeed I too would have loved to write one of those serene stories with a beginning and an end. As you know only too well, it is never like that, though. Lives mingle, people tame one another and part. Destinies are lost.

For my first concentrated foray into African literature (read my post yesterday for details about my self-project) I read As the Crow Flies by Véronique Tadjo. Translated from French by Wangũi Wa Goro, this very short and lyrical novel is set in the Côte d'Ivoire (the Ivory Coast; the Republic's government officially discourage the use of the name in English and instead wish it to be to be referred to as Côte d'Ivoire in all languages, which wasn't something I was aware of until writing this).

I only became aware of this title earlier this month when I read this post by Caustic Cover Critic about the forthcoming Penguin African Writers series reprints. Upon looking for more information about the novel I came across the above quote, which serves as a preface, and was instantly intrigued. Told through a series of vignettes, the novel has no central characters but a series of narratives identified -or not, as is the case- by pronouns. This cacophony of voices didn't work for me; I found it very confusing and I couldn't engage with random thoughts and actions of characters who weren't characterised. As the Crow Flies is poetical and reads like some poetry where commentary and events are only loosely -if at all- linked. I can understand the concept behind interconnecting voices that are each describing the various connections made in love and life but for me it didn't work as I didn't become engaged.

The landscape is indistinguishable with the setting never identified except as a city; there are two references to Africa that place it there. In one vignette the narrator mentions a conference of African writers where "one of the speakers proclaims: 'It is our duty to understand our place in the history of humanity. An African literature cannot exist until we liberate ourselves from the arrogant criticism of the West.'" This was a thought-provoking section and one that I associate with Chinua Achebe who has been vocal about the role of African literature and is very much considered the father of modern African literature (an accolade given to him by Nelson Mandela).

Some of the vignettes take the form of allegory and proverb which was interesting. In one section a couple decide to have a child; "On the following day the woman was pregnant. Before the end of the day, she had given birth to a boy."

If you enjoy gentle, lyrical prose that engages subtly with ideas then this short read is for you. Ultimately my interest wasn't sustained in the writing although there are passages of beauty:

You must leave before you die, before the flame that ignites hope fades. Leave before indifference sets in, before too much is said and silence sealed. Leave while there is still time with your desire which conquers the sea. Supreme and beautiful. An immense placenta, a liquid prison.
There will be no tomorrow, but only the sea and sky paving themselves a passage across the horizon.

Love is a story that we must never stop telling. Let yourself be lulled by its sweet words. Adorn yourself with its multiple charms but please, do not not spoil your life. True love, excuses in the name of love, sacrifices, disappointments. You must survive.

I dream of my country, which obsesses me all the time. I carry it with me all day. At night, it lies next to me, making love with me.


Anonymous said...

Oooh this sounds very different. Not sure woiuld normally be a book I would pick up, but I just might now!

Steph said...

Hmmm, I'm not sure if this is a good place for me to start my foray into African literature, mostly because I am generally wretched with short stories and don't know that I would fair better with vignettes. I do see how they could provide you with a very vivid sense of a place, but I think I tend to prefer more cohesive narratives. I did really like the snippets you posted, however!

Paperback Reader said...

Simon, it is very different and not what I would normally pick up either to read.

Steph, I had that same sense of reading some very short short stories where you have no idea what is going on. The writing is lovely though.