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20 Books of Summer #6: Slavery Explained to My Daughter by Christiane Taubira – Educational and thoughtprovoking

July 19, 2020 11 comments

Slavery Explained to My Daughter by Christiane Taubira (2002 – revised in 2015) Original French title: L’esclavage raconté à ma fille.

I bought Slavery Explained to My Daughter by Christiane Taubira at the temporary bookshop set up in the Musée d’Orsay at the end of the exhibition Black Models: from Géricault to Matisse.

Christiane Taubira is a French politician who was, among other political achievements, Minister of Justice from 2012 to 2016. She a literature lover and a feminist, as mentioned in my billet here.

As you can see it on the cover of the book, she’s a black woman. She was born in Cayenne, in French Guiana, one of the French overseas departments. And yes, Cayenne is where Dreyfus was deported, in a penal colony. Taubira was deputy of French Guiana from 1993 to 2012.

She has always fought against racism and for France to deal with its history as a slave state. During her mandate she pushed for a law about slavery. The Loi n°2001-434 was promulgated on May 13th, 2001.

In its first article, the law states that France acknowledges that the slave trade across the Atlantic Ocean and in the Indian Ocean and slavery perpetrated from the 15th century in the Americas, in the Caribbean, in the Indian Ocean and in Europe and against Africans, indigenous people, Indians and Madagascans is a crime against humanity.

The second article imposes that the history of the slave trade and of slavery be taught in schools with sufficient details and taking into account historical sources from Europe and from Africa, America and the Caribbean.

The third article says that France will push the Council of Europe, the UN and other international organizations to acknowledge the slave trade and slavery as a crime against humanity too. France must also push for a common date to commemorate the abolition of slave trade and slavery.

No wonder Taubira’s favorite author is Toni Morrison. Slavery Explained to My Daughter reflects who she is: combative, passionate, factual and non-violent. As a French, she mostly pays attention France’s history. Through the exchange with her daughter, I learnt or reread about historical facts but what I liked the most is her views on the matter.

She says that a formal and legal acknowledgment of the crime is a necessity, a ground to build the future.

She also says that Europe fabricated false reasonings to justify their crime and that even then, people knew it was not right but clung to their arguments to ease their conscience and keep making money or annexing countries. So, saying it was legal at the time is not a valid argument to brush off the matter and not look at the facts as crimes.

She’s against financial reparations because it would sell her ancestors a second time and it would be a nightmare to organize. How much should be paid and to whom? For her, the only way to compensate now is to put money into programs that will guarantee that the descendants of former slaves and white people have equal opportunities in life. I’m with her. Compensation through investing in the future, that sounds fair to me.

Besides the European side of the issue, she also stresses on slaves’ side. She puts forward slaves who fought against their condition and also reminds us of the new culture that uprooted people created to survive. She takes pride in her ancestry and shares it with the reader.

I thought that Slavery Explained to My Daughter was an intelligent book. The facts and the emotions are there. It’s educational, optimistic but also realistic. There is still a lot to do. It will require a lot of education and political goodwill. I wish my kids studied this book in school.

This was another read for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

Of Ashes and Rivers that Runs to the Sea by Marie Munkara – Indigenous Literature Week

July 14, 2018 23 comments

Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea by Marie Munkara. (2016) Not available in French

Lisa has organized an Indigenous Literature Week from July 8 to July 15th and I picked one of her suggested read, Marie Munkara’s memoirs, Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea. Marie Munkara is an Aborigine of Rembarranga and Tiwi descent. She was born on the banks of the River Mainoru in 1960 and lived her first three years with her family on Melville Island, an island part of the Tiwi Islands. For non-Australians like me, let’s look at maps to see where all these places are located. First a map of Australia showing where the Northern Territory is and where the Tiwi Islands are in said Northern Territory:

Now that we all have our geography in mind, let’s go back to Marie Munkara. Marie Munkara was 28 when she found her birth card at her adoptive parents’ place in Melbourne. She knew they weren’t her birth parents but she was shocked to discover her Aborigine background. When she was three and a half years old and like many Aborigines of her generation, she was taken from her birth parents to be raised by white parents. She belongs to the Stolen Generations. She was sent to a white family in Melbourne.

They chose me from a photograph, so she said. One of the many that had been shown to them in the welfare office as they sipped their cups of tea. Each of those photographs represented a kid who had been removed from their family while strangers organised their fate and then sent them on to other strangers. They call it child-trafficking nowadays but back then it was the government’s attempt at turning Australia into another Britain. By assimilating the black minority into the white population they hoped that the pesky problem of the blacks would eventually take care of itself by them either dying out or doing as they were told and relinquishing their culture and ways forever.

On top of the horror of being taken away from her parents, she was also given to a couple with an abusive mother and a pedophile father. Three layers of abuse were piled upon her little being. Munkara describe her difficult life with her white parents. She had to learn how to speak English and live in a world that didn’t really want her. She survived and tried to make the best of her circumstances.

After the joys of playgroup came school, which was even better. Here I learnt how words were put together, and the crazy rules of the English language, and after that reading just happened. I opened up a book one day and realised that I could read, and after that the world became a bigger and better place.

Her ability to survive abuse from both white parents is admirable. When she learns about her origins, she decides to fly to Darwin and visit her birth mother. A good part of her memoirs relates her living in Tiwi Islands with her birth mother, her siblings and her extended family. She has trouble adjusting to the Aborigines’ way of life which I found was between their traditional world and the Western ways.  Everything is a challenge for her. She was raised by prude Catholic white people in a town that’s probably one of the most British in all Australia. Shock of culture barely covers what she was confronted to.

She engaged in all her family’s activities, embracing their everyday life with gumption, totally out of her comfort zone. She has to learn everything about hunting, fishing, choosing a proper dress code, cooking. It’s not easy but she doesn’t give up. Her family welcomes her in their homes and in their lives as if she was expected. And yet, it must have been difficult for them too. Her personal journey to reconcile her two identities is long and heartbreaking at times. I wondered what she would end up doing since she didn’t fully belong to any of her two worlds.

I think this family wants to take the something out of my heart and make me black, just like the other family wanted to tame me and make me white. I know that nobody is interested in the parts of me that don’t concern them. The white parents aren’t interested in the pre-assimilation black bits because they wanted a white girl with black skin. And my real family don’t want to know about the post-assimilation white bits because they think I’m a black girl with a white heart. I know that I’ve disappointed them all. The anger from the white parents. The pitiful looks from the black. The fretful and all-consuming silences from them both. I wish I could open the doors to my mind and let them in, so they could see the world from my eyes and forgive me for not being able to fit their expectations. But I can’t because this journey is all mine. I don’t want the days when they brush me aside because I can’t get it right. I want there always to be beautiful days when the space between us is full of light and love.

Most of her journey consists in reacquainting herself with Aborigine’s vision of life, rituals, traditions and customs. She never sugarcoats what she lives and she also uncovers a side of Australia she never knew of before. For example, she sees that her birth mother limps and she’s horrified to learn she has leprosy.

Leprosy. I am shocked because I thought lepers only existed in the Bible and lived in poor countries like India and Africa. I thought they walked with bells around their necks warning people to keep clear and lived in colonies where they couldn’t infect anyone and where their limbs and appendages dropped off. I slide my ill-informed thoughts into the rubbish bin and slam the lid down tight, angry that our First World country can live in ignorant bliss of our Third World problems.

Her adaptation to her mother’s way-of-life isn’t smooth. Life in Tiwi Islands is very far from what she’s always known and her mother has reactions she can’t expect and can’t understand. The whole environment is a challenge for her and sometimes it’s hard on her.

I am disheartened by the brutality of life in this place. It’s everywhere. Dogs with broken legs that have never been set limping down the road, birds trying to fly with wings shattered by a kid’s slingshot, big green turtles turned onto their backs and carved up alive, their hearts still beating, joeys tortured. For a few minutes I long for white middle-class suburbia where ugly crap is hidden behind doors and white picket fences where I don’t have to see it.

What she describes reminded me of Kim Scott’s novel, True Country. The setting is fictional but similar: an Aborigine who lives in white Australia goes to live among Aborigines in the Northern Territory. Munkara pictures the same scenes in a hostile but beautiful nature, the poverty and rampant violence. In both books, I was shocked about how much alcohol is consumed. And I guess Scott is also disheartened by Indigenous people’s living conditions. There seem to be little progress there. Thanks to Scott’s book, I wasn’t surprised by what I read about her new living conditions.

I was mostly angry for her. I can wrap my head around colonizing a place for economic reasons. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m saying there’s a logic behind it, greed. What I can’t fathom is this arrogance of Christianism. In this case, the Catholics decided to found a mission in this Tiwi island for no other reason than bringing “superior civilization” to these poor blackfellas. And these Catholics were so sure of their worth, of their superiority and of their evangelization duties that they found normal and even desirable to retrieve children from their families. And we’re in the 1960s, not in the 16th century. This is something I can’t understand. How could they? How could the Australian government encourage it and make it legal? And to top it off, they placed her in an abusive family, proving there was no proper screening of the foster/adoptive families. This institutionalized child trafficking is appalling.

We had that kind of institutionalized child deportation in France too with the Enfants de la Creuse scandal where 2163 children were sent to mainland France from La Réunion island from 1963 to 1982. The idea was to bring fresh blood in rural departments with low natality and high rural exodus.

In Canada, 150 000 Indigenous children were sent to the Canadian Residential School system.

We, white people really have a lot to apologize for.

Despite all the misery in Munkara’s life, this is not bleak book. She’s often quite funny in describing her experiences with her family and the confrontation of life as she knew it and life as she gets to live it with her mum. It’s challenging but rewarding. While she struggles with their different views on hygiene, personal property and modesty, she learns to enjoy the nature in her surroundings and a more relaxed approach to life.

Read more about Marie Munkara in Lisa’s thoughtful review here and in Sue’s post Monday Musings about Australian Literature: about Arnhem Land.

This read also qualifies for Australian Women Writers challenge.

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

February 25, 2018 25 comments

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud (2013) Original French title: Meursault, contre-enquête.

Preamble: I downloaded a sample of the English translation on my kindle. All the translations of this post are by John Cullen who translated The Meursault Investigation into English.

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud is a story based on The Stranger by Albert Camus, told from the side of the victim’s family. The narrator is the victim’s younger brother and Daoud’s novel relates both the murder seen from the Arabs’ side and the consequences of this event on the younger brother’s life.

From the first sentence, the reader knows that The Meursault Investigation is constructed as a mirror to The Stranger. Indeed, it opens with Aujourd’hui, M’ma est toujours vivante. (Mama’s still alive today), a counterpart to Camus’s Aujourd’hui Maman est morte. (Maman died today) In a sense, the book is like a negative in photography.

In the first pages, the narrator mulls over the fact that the Arab killed in L’Etranger has no name. His first mission is to give him his name back, he says he was named Moussa. Our narrator is in a café, drinking wine and telling his story to a stranger. French is the language because this story needed to be told with the language of the colonizer. The pace of the story is in short chapters and often they end with a direct address to the reader, as if he were in the café, listening a storyteller. It’s like Scheherazade leaving cliffhangers to have her audience back the next day. You don’t see it in English, but in French, it’s said with the “tu” form and not “vous”. For me, it’s also a way to remind us that the narrator doesn’t use his native language for this story, that his native language is Arabic were the “vous” form isn’t used in spoken language.

Daoud never mentions Camus in his novel but he’s everywhere. He’s paraphrased in chapters, a mirroring text to the original, a text in reverse, the same way Arabic is written from right to left when French is written from left to right.

As I said, Camus is never mentioned directly and L’Etranger is a first-person narrative. This allows a confusion between the writer and the character, something that is very clear in this paragraph:

Comme tous les autres, tu as dû lire cette histoire telle que l’a racontée l’homme qui l’a écrite. Il écrit si bien que ses mots paraissent comme des pierres taillées par l’exactitude même. C’était quelqu’un de très sévère avec les nuances, ton héros, il les obligeait presque à être des mathématiques. D’infinis calculs à base de pierres et de minéraux. As-tu vu sa façon d’écrire ? Il semble utiliser l’art du poème pour parler d’un coup de feu ! Son monde est propre, ciselé par la clarté matinale, précis, net, tracé à coup d’arômes et d’horizons. La seule ombre est celle des « Arabes », objets flous et incongrus, venus « d’autrefois », comme des fantômes et avec, pour toute langue, un son de flûte. Je me dis qu’il devait en avoir marre de tourner en rond dans un pays qui ne voulait de lui ni mort ni vivant. Le meurtre qu’il a commis semble celui d’un amant déçu par une terre qu’il ne peut posséder. Comme il a dû souffrir, le pauvre ! Etre l’enfant d’un lieu qui ne vous a pas donné naissance. I’m sure you’re like everyone else, you’ve read the tale as told by the man who wrote it. He writes so well that his words are like precious stones, jewels cut with the utmost precision. A man very strict about shades of meaning, you hero was; he practically required them to be mathematical. Endless calculations, based on gems and minerals. Have you seen the way he writes? He’s writing about a gunshot, and he makes it sound like poetry! His world is clean, clear, exact, honed by morning sunlight, enhanced with fragrances and horizons. The only shadow is cast by “the Arabs,” blurred, incongruous objects left over from “days gone by”, like ghost, with no language except the sound of a flute. I tell myself he must have been fed up with wandering around in circles in a country that wanted nothing to do with him, whether dead or alive. The murder he committed seems like the act of a disappointed lover unable to possess the land he loves. How he must have suffered, poor man! The be the child of a place that never gave you birth…

Where does the assimilation between Camus and Meursault begin and end? The man who wrote it can be both Camus writing a novel and Meursault writing his journal. They were both born in Algeria. L’Etranger was written in 1942, before the War of Independence but I imagine that the tensions between the French colonizer and the locals were already palpable. Camus and Meursault were strangers to the land they were born to.

Let’s stop a bit and contemplate this paragraph.

Daoud perfectly nailed Camus’s style. That’s how I felt when I reread L’Etranger. I was dazzled by his words, his perfect way to describe the landscape and the Mediterranean light. Short sentences chiseled with precision. I have a reservation about the translation. When I read the French and the passage about Camus’s style, Daoud only uses the word pierre, not pierre précieuse. And John Cullen translated it with precious stone, and then jewels which takes the Anglophone reader to another path than the one I took. Perhaps Daoud told him that was his intention. That’s not the way I see it. When I read Daoud, I see carved stones, not gem stones. I see the rectilinear lines of buildings at the sea front in Algiers. I see light stones from a quarry, shaped into perfect geometrical stones to build buildings, to set up the inevitable ending of L’Etranger. I don’t see Camus as a jeweler, I see Camus as an architect and a builder.

Daoud also writes Il semble utiliser l’art du poème pour parler d’un coup de feu ! and not Il parle d’un coup de feu et on dirait de la poésie ! which would be He’s writing about a gunshot, and he makes it sound like poetry! In French, the use of art du poème is not natural and I wonder if it’s a way to show that the narrator is not a native French speaker and that he comes from a literary tradition where poetry holds a major place.

The end of the paragraph refers to the awkward place of French colonizers in Algeria. Some came to Algeria from Alsace and Lorraine after the 1870 debacle and the annexing of these regions to Germany. Part of the French living in Algeria were born there; they were not only people sent in Algeria for a few years as a military, a civil servant or an expat for a company. From an individual point of view, it was their country, in the sense of the place you were born. But of course, it was not their land because their presence was based on a conquest that took thirty years and they were living on stolen land, on a lie. Daoud’s words explain that for Algeria, Meursault was a stranger. For the French community, he was an outsider. This is why it’s difficult to clearly choose between the two titles used in English for L’Etranger, which covers both meanings in French.

I won’t tell more about the plot and how far the mirroring goes because it would spoil your reading. Suffice to say that it shows a narrator living in poverty and probably saved by the school system. (Like Camus and in the background, like Meursault) It shows Algeria after the independence, after the terrible decade of the 1990s and how a man who doesn’t comply to religious duties and drinks alcohol can feel as an outsider in his own country. The narrator might have something in common with Meursault after all.

The Meursault Investigation assumes that Camus never named the Arab who was killed because as an Arab, he was a non-entity. I don’t agree with this. I’m sure that a lot of scholars more qualified than me have written essays about it. As a common reader, when I closed L’Etranger recently, I thought this was a universal story and that the Algerian setting was incidental. Maybe Camus missed his place of birth in 1942, in the middle of the horrible WWII. To me, L’Etranger is closer to a Greek tragedy, something set up from the start, a literary machinery that corralled the character into the path designed by a writer who wanted to point out the absurdity of life, the narrowmindedness of his society and show his vision of life through a novel. I don’t read anything into the Algiers setting, sorry.

I think The Meursault Investigation is a brilliant book that left me puzzled. Its construction is skillfully done, Daoud knows Camus’s work inside out. There are obviouns references to L’Etranger but to other works by Camus like Caligula or The Myth of Sisyphus. I don’t fully agree with his interpretation of L’Etranger but Daoud wrote a compelling story and also used Camus’ novel as a stepladder to criticize his own country. I really recommend (re)reading L’Etranger before diving into The Meursault Investigation. It’s only 120 pages long and it will enhance your reading of Daoud’s novel.

Other reviews:

 

The Sea Wall by Marguerite Duras

July 6, 2016 35 comments

The Sea Wall by Marguerite Duras (1950) Original French title: Un barrage contre le Pacifique

DurasThe Sea Wall by Marguerite Duras is semiautobiographical novel. Duras was born in Indochina, near Saïgon in 1914. Indochina was a French colony then. She left Indochina in 1931 to come back to France.

The Sea Wall is the story of an unnamed mother (in the whole book, she’s called la mère) and her two grownup children, Joseph and Suzanne. The husband and father died a long time ago, leaving his family behind without a source of income. The mother put food on the table by playing the piano in a local cinema. She saved money to buy a concession, land allocated by the French authorities to settlers. She put all her savings in it and the land proved to be impossible to cultivate because it is flooded by the ocean every year. The local French authorities knew it. Several families had already been allocated this piece of land and each of them was evicted because they couldn’t pay their debts anymore. The Sea Wall denounces the corruption of the French civil servants sent there. They exploited the ignorance of settlers, making them pay higher than the market for bare land and then evicted the families without a second thought when they could cultivate the land and pay their debts.

DurasSo this family is stuck on their “property”. The mother is embittered by their situation. She tried to build a sea wall to contain the Pacific and make things grow behind the wall. But of course the ocean was stronger. The children are left with no future. The property is a rotten place, they are bored to death but it’s all they have. Leaving would mean abandoning the mother’s dreams. It would mean giving up. It would crush her even more. She’s a central character in the novel, a tyrannical figure who controls her universe and her children. She’s abusive, physically and verbally. Joseph is stronger than her now and she doesn’t dare touching him. But Suzanne, younger and weaker, is a prey.

They barely survive on this desolated land. The days go on and Suzanne is waiting. She’s dreaming of a car who would come with a man in it. She dreams of escaping this place through marriage. And the mother is ready to sell her for fresh cash.

When Monsieur Jo notices Suzanne and starts courting her, her mother sees a moneybag ready to spend cash on her daughter. She pilots Suzanne, ordering her around, asking her to request gifts and most of all forbidding her to sleep with Monsieur Jo without a ring on her finger.

Suzanne obeys but reluctantly. Like the girl in The Lover, she tries to distance herself from the scene. Joseph observes her dealings with Monsieur Jo, torn between jealousy, disgust and blind obedience to the mother.

They make a sick trio, really. I pitied Suzanne. She’s stuck on a dead-end property. Her beauty is her asset. She doesn’t have access to a proper education and marriage resembles more to legal prostitution than to the union of two people in love. And yet, she’s ready to settle for so little. She’s so disillusioned already.

Joseph loves hunting, loves his guns and he has a rather fusional relationship with Suzanne. It felt almost incestuous to me.

The Sea Wall is a great piece of literature on several accounts. Duras did an amazing job on characterization. The way the three main characters are depicted, the way they interact and leave some imprint on you. These are characters you don’t forget. You can picture them in the flesh.

The descriptions of Indochina are also fantastic. The landscapes, the people, Saïgon. It’s so vivid. She mentions the Indo-Chinese and their way of living. They’re dirty poor, with a lot of children who hardly survive. The climate is unforgiving and the land is not rich enough to feed all these humans.

I found the descriptions of the workings of the colony fascinating. On the one hand, I wondered at the mother’s naïveté. How could she think about becoming a farmer without a single hint of how to do it? She was a primary school teacher and then a pianist, for heaven’s sake! How could she be stupid enough to think she could build a sea wall without construction skills? On the other hand, I was horrified to see how men from the French administration took advantage of her. She might have been a silly fool but they were the con men who made her buy this concession.

The Sea Wall was published in 1950 during the Indochina war. (1946-1954) Her novel was nominated for the Goncourt prize but it was given to Paul Colin for Les jeux sauvages. I’ve never heard of this book or this writer. Time made its choice. The Sea Wall is excellent literature, one of my best read of the year, one I highly recommend if you haven’t read it yet.

For another review, have a look at Guy’s outstanding take on this gem of literature.

PS: As you can see it from the second cover of the novel, The Sea Wall was recently made into a film. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t tell you whether it’s good or not. I’m just surprised to see Isabelle Huppert cast as the mother. She looks thin and regal on this picture. And the mother is worn out. I could picture Yolande Moreau playing the mother. She has the physique and the intensity to incarnate this character. I suppose Yolande Moreau is less bankable than Isabelle Huppert. So, after being a redheaded Madame Bovary (a heresy in itself), she’s now a classy woman from the colonies in lieu of a woman who’s at the end of her rope. Sad.

 

In Syria by Joseph Kessel

March 21, 2015 24 comments

En Syrie by Joseph Kessel (1926) Not available in English.

Joseph Kessel was born in Argentina in 1958. His parents were Jewish and had fled pogroms in Russia. He grew up between the Urals and France. His cosmopolitan origins influenced him and he was a citizen of the world.

In 1926, Kessel was sent in Syria as a journalist. He spent around four weeks there and as he points out in the disclaimer of the book, he cannot pretend to know the region. However, his childhood memories of caravans arriving near his home in the Urals left him captivated with the Orient. En Syrie is a collection of the reportages he wrote during his assignment there. In the first one, Une vue sur Beyrouth (A view over Beirut), he writes:

La Syrie? Que savons-nous d’elle? Avouons-le sans faux orgueil : quelques reminiscences historiques sur les croisades, quelques pages célèbres, les beaux noms de Damas, de Palmyre, de l’Euphrate, voilà tout notre bagage pour une grande et féconde contrée placée sous le mandat français. Syria? What do we know about it? Let’s admit it without false pride: some historical memories about the crusades, some famous pages, the beautiful names of Damascus, of Palmyra, of the Euphrates. This is our only knowledge of a great and fertile country placed under French mandate.

Kessel_SyrieTerribly true. When we study decolonization in school, we learn about the countries rebelling against the French rule and winning their independence one by one. We learn the names of the leaders who led the fights for freedom. We linger a bit on the war in Indochina and the one which left the deepest scars, the war in Algeria. We never hear anything about Lebanon and Syria. And of course nobody tells us about the wars to submit these territories in the first place. I had to read Maupassant to realize it took thirty years to conquer Algeria. The way it’s told, you’d think these people were waiting for us to take charge. So, with the current war in Syria, I was curious to read these reportages, republished for the occasion.

The first pages reveal two things: first the cultural, historical and political context is incredibly complex for a Westerner; second, Syria is at war and it seemed nothing had changed in almost a century, except that they rebel against the French mandate. (I’d never heard about this fights.)

Depuis l’insurrection que seul –il faut le dire—a réprimée le bombardement du général Sarrail (qui peut-être ce jour-là a sauvé le mandat français), la « gouta » de Damas abrite toutes les bandes que stipendie le comité syro-palestinien qui, du Caire, dirige la révolte. Elles sont embusquées là, invisibles, guettant avec la patience orientale l’imprudent qui s’aventure sans protection suffisante. La nuit, souvent, elles attaquent les postes.« gouta » = jardin Since the insurrection that, it needs to be said, only the bombing done by general Sarrail (who may well have saved the French mandate that day) had managed to repress, the “gouta” of Damascus shelters all the groups that the syro-palestinian committee reviles while organizing the rebellion from Cairo. They lie in ambush, invisible, watching out with oriental patience for an imprudent who would wander without sufficient protection. At night, they often attack military positions. “gouta” = garden.

It sounded familia and I wondered what hope there is for this region to be at peace in a foreseeable future. I also thought that the West meddles in issues they know nothing about and probably only makes things worse.

Then Kessel takes us with him in his travels in the country. It’s not a political analysis. It’s more a colorful picture of both sides and a global message of mistrust for politicians. They’re assigned in Syria for too short a time to know the culture of the country and create a reliable network with the influential natives. They see the issues through their Parisian lenses. Consequence: they make rooky mistakes.

Kessel is a strong storyteller. The landscapes and the people come to life under his pen. His cosmopolitan origins and his unquenchable curiosity for the world are an asset. He’s never arrogant. He accepts other cultures as as valuable as his own and this approach gives the reportages a special tone. Almost a century after they were written, they are still readable without blushing of shame for all the contempt that we, colonist countries, poured down on conquered territories. He doesn’t think that the West holds all the answers or that his civilization is superior. It’s refreshing and this special angle makes that the reportages do not sound dated, even if they relate past events.

PS : sorry for the clumsy translation of the second quote, Kessel’s syntax is complicated to translate into English.

Why I had to abandon That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott

June 20, 2013 43 comments

That Deadman Dance  by Kim Scott. 2010. Not available in French.

Scott_DeadmanLisa from ANZ Lit Lovers gave me That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott as my Humbook gift last Christmas. It took me a while to start it and it took me a while to acknowledge defeat and abandon it. I so didn’t want to quit reading it but I had to, this is too great a book to be understood and enjoyed half way through the lenses of non-native English speaker. I need a French translation with a foreword and explanatory footnotes and it’s not available in French.

That Deadman Dance relates the foundation of settlements in Australia and the relationships between the first white people coming there and the natives, the Noongar. I know absolutely nothing about the history of Aborigines and lots of things were totally lost to me. I did go to an exhibition of Aborigine art in Paris after Lisa gave this novel to me, to prepare for the book but I didn’t learn much that day. French museums have a knack for lacking of educational signs in exhibitions. Either you’re in and you already know something about what you’re seeing or you get out almost clueless. Once I’ve been to one called Contemporary art told to children. We brought the children there, mind you, all the pieces were a contemporary version of a previous and famous art work. It was explained alright, but do you think they had put a picture of the painting or sculpture it referred to? Of course not. We spent the whole visit looking for the missing pictures on our smartphones and showing them to the children on a tiny screen. But back to Scott and my difficulties.

I can read what you may consider difficult books (like Henry James) because the vocabulary is rather easy, at least for a Frenchwoman. Lots of your big words look like French words anyway. Reading a book about Australia with lots of descriptions of the landscape and a narrative leaping from one voice to another is another thing. Here’s a quote, just to hum to you the music of Scott’s voice:

They followed a path, rocky and scattered with fine pebbles that at one point wound through dense, low vegetation but mostly led them easily through what, Chaine said, seemed a gnarled and spiky forest. Leaves were like needles, or small saws. Candlestick-shaped flowers blossomed, or were dry and wooden. Tiny flowers clung to trees by thin tendrils, and wound their way through shrubbery, along clefts in rock. Bark hung in long strips. Flowering spears thrust upward from the centre of shimmering fountains of green which, on closer inspection, bristled with spikes.

Evocative, isn’t it? Kim Scott writes beautifully and the story in itself interested me. (You can read more about it here, under Lisa’s pen). I stopped reading it because I was sabotaging a marvellous piece of literature and I didn’t like that a bit. Other books by Scott are available in French, I’ll try one of them and perhaps, once I know more, once my English is better, I’ll return to this one. Right now, I’m frustrated not to be able to enjoy That Deadman Dance. Thank you Lisa for bringing this writer to my attention. And thank you to Actes Sud for translating some of his former books in French. This publisher is a gem.

19th Century colonialism and oppression in the Dutch East Indies

June 27, 2011 8 comments

Max Havelaar, Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company by Multatuli. 1860. 400 pages. Brilliant French translation by Philippe Noble.

 Multatuli is the pseudonym of the Dutch writer Eduard Douwes Dekker (1820-1887). It means “I suffered a lot”. Douwes Dekker was born in Amsterdam, son of a sea captain and joined the East Indies Civil Service in 1838. He was involved in several disputes with his superiors but nevertheless got promoted thanks to his intelligence. In 1846, he married Everdine (“Tine”), Baroness van Wijnbergen and they had two children. He didn’t approve of the colonial brutalities towards the natives and eventually resigned from service in 1846. He came back to Europe, living poorly on his writing and endeavouring to improve the situation of the Javanese. Max Havelaar was published in 1860 and is largely based on his own experience. This novel is aimed at putting the situation of the Indonesian under the brightest light as possible to provoke emotion in the public leading to political changes. Multatuli had in mind Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852. It is a manifesto without the form of a manifesto. I don’t need to tell more about the plot but I sure want to explore the ideas he exposes and the literary form he chose as the adequate weapon to spread them.  

Multatuli points at the stupid system of paying the native chiefs. The Dutch remunerate them a percentage of the coffee and other raw products they sell to the Netherlands and nothing on dairy products. They are induced to impose on their people the well-paid cultures instead of rice, leading the local population to starvation. Doesn’t that ring a bell?  

Multatuli also dissects the workings of the colonial administration, from down to top. He enlightens the reader on the chain of cowardice and selfishness that ends up in suffering for the Javanese. At each stage of the chain of command, everyone bends their head down and embroiders the reports. The government in La Haye thinks that everything is fine when it isn’t. The statistics are contradictory for someone who would have a closer look at them. But no one really wants to know, they want to believe the lies. It’s more comfortable. The Civil Servants think about their career and try to smother any attempt to change. Multatuli sums up this attitude in describing “the symptoms of the General Governor’s common disease” that affects every Governor of the East Indies.  

First stage. Dizziness. Drunkenness with incense vapours. Arrogance. Excessive self-confidence. Looks down scornfully on other people and especially on “old colonials”. Second stage. Exhaustion. Fear. Discouragement. Drowsiness, need for rest. Excessive confidence in the East Indian Council. Dependence upon the General Secretary. Nostalgia about a country house in the Netherlands.

Between the two stages, as a transition – perhaps because of this transition – dysentery attacks.

He also rebels against the oppression of the Javanese people by the native chiefs with the complicity of the Dutch administration. He describes how the Dutch colonialism takes advantage of the local feudal customs. Peasants are requisitioned to work for free. Their food supplies are requisitioned to feed the chief’s large family. Worse, the buffaloes are requisitioned, leaving the peasants without a means to cultivate the fields. The Dutch civil servants know it and look to the other side, in a laissez-faire attitude, allowing the local chiefs to rob their people. They are accomplice too as they also take advantage of free work to keep up the land surrounding their colonial house.  

He demonstrates how the brutality and the stupidity of the colonial rule can only lead the natives to rebellion. They have nothing to lose. They fight. They are beaten. La Hayes congratulates the military forces who pacified the area. End of story, until despair pushes them to rebellion again.  

Max Havelaar is also a plea against racism, a prayer to consider the Javanese as equals and treat them right.  

What shocked me is how colonialism was justified by priests:

Wavelaar [A priest] said himself that God drives everything in such a way that a rigorous faith leads to wealth. “In truth”, he says “isn’t there a great wealth in the Netherlands? It comes from our faith. Doesn’t France have to face riots from time to time? It’s because the French are Catholic. Aren’t the Javanese poor? They are Pagans. The more the Dutch will deal with the Javanese, the more wealth will flow in here and the more poverty will settle there. Because this is God’s will.”

I’m not religious but as far as I know, the message of Christianity does not include robbing and oppressing poor people. Using religious texts to justify greed and want of power will always make me indignant.  

Multatuli doesn’t go as far as writing that colonialism is a wrong thing and that the European should come back home and let these people live by themselves. Even if he thought about decolonisation (I don’t know if he did), the European societies were not ready to hear that. He would have missed his short-term goal, i.e. to improve the living conditions of the people of Indonesia. He wants to reform colonialism and “only” reveals the absurdity of the system and recalls the readers that it could already be a lot better if the Civil Servants actually did their job and respected the laws.  

Multatuli used several devices to defend his cause in a light and pleasant way. The first device is rather common in literature to introduce a tale. A man, Batavus Droogstoppel, coffee trader in Amsterdam, receives a parcel from a poor man he used to go to school with. It is made of letters, essays and stories. A young German man, Stern, who lives with the Droogstoppel family decides to write a book based on this material. Droogstoppel reminded me of Scrooge (published in 1843). He acts inhumanly, only thinking about money and business. He’s narrow-minded, self-righteous, sure of his good right and his superiority as a Dutchman. He represents the right-thinking bourgeois society of the Netherlands, wrapped up in their blanket of certitudes. Droogstoppel is selfish, prosaic and compassion is totally foreign to him.  

The other devices lay in the mixed style. Multatuli is a satirist; I could feel the influence of the Enlightenment and French writers such as Diderot or Voltaire. In the foreword, the translator says he was influenced by Sterne, but I’ve never read him. His satirist tendency shows up in the names of the characters. According to the footnotes, Droogstoppel means “Dry Thatch”, and another despicable character is named Slymering (Slimy). Multatuli was also influenced by Romanticism and he particularly liked Heine. As a consequence, Max Havelaar is unclassifiable. It includes tales, poems, dialogues, classic narration and satire. It is Voltaire polished with romantic varnish, which is a strange association. Sometimes it works better than others. Sometimes it’s very funny. Eduard Douwes Dekker must have been a witted man. I suppose he’d be proud to know that his Max Havelaar is now the name of an international label for fair trade, which explains the cover of my French edition.  Western consumers, keep your eyes open and buy Max Havelaar products.

This reading is part of my EU Book Tour and contributes to the month of Dutch Reading hosted by Iris.

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As a PS, let’s digress a bit. In the comments on my post about Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, we discussed how religion influence people’s perception of poverty. I argued that in Catholic countries, poverty is a matter-of-fact. It happens. Contrary to Protestant countries, it doesn’t mean that these persons are abandoned by God. They aren’t responsible for being poor and should not be looked down with contempt. The Netherlands are a Protestant country. Here is how Droogstoppel, who speaks in the name of the Dutch society, assesses poverty and charity.

When you have so little for yourself, it is a sin to give to other people. By the way, I never give money on the streets – it is one of my principles – because as I always say when I see poor people: who knows if it’s not their fault, and I don’t have the right to reinforce their error.

This is the exact opposite reaction to a Catholic: it is a great act of faith to give the little you have to poorer than you and you have to do charity. I’m not judging here and saying one religion is better than the other, it’s just a statement. And it’s important because it is deeply rooted in our cultures and somehow explains why Latin (Catholic) and Northern European or American countries (Protestant) have difficulties to understand each other sometimes. Protestants always feel responsible for other people’s souls and assume they have to intervene, like here, Droogstoppel thinks he could comfort someone in their errors. Catholics think you’re responsible for you own salvation and if someone wants to gamble theirs by acting badly, it’s their problem.

Another priceless and chilling piece by Droogstoppel about poverty: “I don’t like poor people, because usually they can only blame themselves for it: the Lord would not turn his back on who served him with loyalty.” Scandalous. End of digression.

Indonesia mon amour.

June 16, 2011 9 comments

Sleuteloog by Hella S Haasse. 2002. French title: L’anneau de la clé. Not translated into English. 186 pages.

 This book is part of my EU Book Tour and also my participation to the month of Dutch Literature hosted by Iris. I thought it was my first Dutch book but I remembered later that I had read The Diary of Anne Frank and books by Robert Van Gulik. Anyway. Hella S Haasse was born in 1918 in Batavia (Jakarta) in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). She has written more than 20 novels, all translated into French but only a few of them are translated into English. She is known for her historical novels and the influence of her childhood in Batavia on her work. She is compared to Marguerite Yourcenar. Rien que ça.  

But back to Sleuteloog

Herma Warner was born in 1920 in Batavia. She is now over 80 and is about to leave her home to live in a nursing house. She and her late husband Tjeerd belong to the last generation of Dutch born in the Dutch West Indies. They were forced to come back to the Netherlands after Indonesia became independent (1949). Both of them spent their lives studying the history and the art of their native country. A journalist contacts Herma. He wants to interview her about the past of an activist named Mila Wychinska. The now called Mila was Herma’s best friend Dee, from her childhood in Indonesia. Herma is reluctant to give information, to remember some painful moments of her past. She gives in and starts writing what she remembers. Soon, she’s overwhelmed by her memories of that friendship and of the Batavia of that time.

When I was reading, I thought about the Pied Noirs (The French settlers in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco). I also thought of Un Barrage contre le Pacifique by Marguerite Duras, for the description of life in the colonies inAsia. I haven’t read it, it is on my TBR but Guy reviewed it. Colonialism had to be fought and all the colonies deserved their independence; it wasn’t fair. That’s history at the scale of a nation. But if we come to history at the scale of a human being, it must have been hard for people who were born there to leave everything behind and come back to a country they didn’t really know. They seemed to miss their town, the climate, the plants, the food and many other things and to feel uprooted. Herma evokes a lost paradise and she was happy to go back to Indonesia for her work.

I suppose Hella S Haasse managed to describe the society of that time and the different attitudes of the Dutch settlers towards the upcoming changes. Some were so optimistic that it was almost stupidity. Some supported the natives in their fight. Some hoped to find a middle ground. I only assume it is a vivid picture of the end of colonialism because I found this book difficult to read for several reasons. My first problem was the characters. Dee’s family tree isn’t big but I had problems remembering who was the son, brother, sister or mother of whom. I suppose I’m not the only one who get confused since there is a family tree at the end of the book.

I know nothing about the history of Indonesia and I struggled to understand what happened before and after the independence. Hella S Haasse chose a non-chronological way to tell Herma and Dee’s story. Herma recalls specific moments and relates them. She goes back and forth in time and it really reproduces the way our mind works. She leaps from one memory to another, letting her mind wander. It’s certainly a good device from a literary point of view. But for an ignorant reader like me, it didn’t help learning something about Indonesia and put events in the right order.

As I’m not Dutch, I don’t know what happened to white people after Indonesia became independent. I assume they were shipped back to the Netherlands. I got that there was something about being a mixed-raced person. Some could choose to become Indonesian and stay there and others had to go, according to some criteria I didn’t catch. I suppose it is part of Dutch history as the fate of the Pied Noirs is part of French history. Without the Dutch background, I didn’t catch all the nuances and missed something about Herma and Dee’s relationship.

Then, there was the irritating constant use of Indonesian words in the text, sometimes several in one page. As a consequence, the translator added a lot of footnotes and it broke the flow of my reading. I understand that an Indonesian word is useful when it covers a notion or a reality without a French word for it. But why write becak when the word cyclo pousse (1) exists? Does that mean that cyclo pousse doesn’t exist in Dutch, leading Hella S Haasse to use the Indonesian word and then the translator to keep the Indonesian to remain faithful to the text? Or are these words commonly used by Dutch people like the French know some Arab words after the Pied Noirs came back to France?  

I think a foreword by the translator explaining the historical context would have been really helpful. I also wonder to what extend it is autobiographical. And then after those difficulties, there was the story. This is a friendship between two people who are very different in character, one really wild and rebel while the other is quiet and respectful of the established order. Rather common. It reminded me of The Last of the Savage by Jay McInerney and I already had a feeling of déjà-vu when I read this one.

All in all, I think it’s a good book in general but not for me in particular. Now I’m reading Max Havelaar and perhaps I should have read it before Sleutehoog. It could have helped for the historical context.

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