Monday, November 7, 2011

A Short Survey of Contemporary African Literature (likely non-exhaustive)

Nelson Mandela's autobiography is quite long. I'm sure there are more refined critiques to be made of Long Walk to Freedom, but that's all I've been able to glean in three months of trying to read it, first in the form of a copy borrowed from the Yellowknife Public Library, then as a second-hand edition I picked up in the small town of Franschhoek once in South Africa. I had planned for Mandela's book to start a shift towards a theme in my reading that would be relevant to this period in my life. While the book has yet to catch on with me, the theme - cleverly, "Africa" - abides, and I have had more success with other recent picks.

After my first failed liftoff with A Long Walk to Freedom, I moved on to Carl Hoffman's The Lunatic Express. The book recounts a round-the-world journey on which the author strictly obeys a self-imposed rule to take the cheapest, most dangerous and out-of-the-way means of conveyance he can find. This is travel in the strictly utilitarian sense, undertaken among people with little or no concept of the privileged notion of tourism. I picked this one up in YOW's departure gate bookshop, and lest I dared to think of my 36-hour trans-Atlantic journey as epic, the author's tales of crammed ferries, frozen trucks and rusted tin planes put me in my place. While not at all limited to African travel, this is a favourite among my recent reads.

I once again flirted with A Long Walk to Freedom after finishing The Lunatic Express, but after the first few pages I gravitated instead towards a more everyman account of apartheid-era South Africa (which is not to say that Nelson Mandela enjoyed a privileged brand of legislated racism and inhumane imprisonment). Erich Rautenbauch's The Unexploded Boer unfolds on the streets of Cape Town in the 60s and 70s, before shifting to a prison in Johannesburg when the author gets arrested for selling weed. The account of everyday life during the brutal heyday of apartheid was as unsettling as it was matter-of-fact. And, naturally, the reader learns that prison in Joburg in the 70s was not exactly sunshine and lollipops, though apparently it did include more alcohol and assorted other intoxicants than one might have predicted. The book was at turns a little too self-aggrandizing for my tastes, and I find it hard to believe that Rautenbauch was as cavalier a young man in the face of a violently oppressive regime as he claims to have been (and even if he was, the fact that his primary objective was to fight for his right to party detracts from the moral high ground he claims). That said, he did exude a sort of social colour-blindness that could be commendable. If nothing else, the book offers a glimpse of life in South Africa during Mandela's imprisonment that Mandela himself would be unable to provide, seeing as how Nelson Mandela was in jail for the entire time that Nelson Mandela was in jail.

Half-cooked though they were, the South Africa-specific racial critiques in The Unexploded Boer left me wanting to follow that literary path, but in a more contemporary context. And so while perusing the highly recommended (by me) Clarke's Bookshop in Cape Town a week ago I was quick on the draw to purchase Khayletisha: Umlungu in a Township by Steven Otter. Khayletisha (KYE-a-LEATCH-a) is perhaps South Africa's most notorious black township, its colourful assortment of shacks and houses dominating the horizon outside of Cape Town as up to a million people call it home (exact numbers are impossible to pin down given that much of the township is settled informally). The book tells the story of the the white journalist author's daily life in the township after moving there for eleven months (though not, he claims, for the purpose of writing a book). While the chapters are more stand-alone anecdotes than a connected narrative, the story was especially relevant to me, having recently moved into a community that is almost entirely non-white. I expected to read about muggings, booze, and HIV - none which are sugar-coated or glanced over - but the way Otter was embraced by the Xhosa people of "Khaya" was unexpected and beautiful, even as it played out against a backdrop of crippling poverty.

I decided to sail my ship in a more epic and pan-African direction after reading Khayletisha, and so have just started Paul Theroux's ambitious Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town. If the book is half as good as the excerpted reviews on the back cover claim, I can anticipate weeping like a schoolgirl and being baptized anew in Theroux's bold reinvention of the written word before the end of chapter 4. Theroux is the reigning Grand Poobah of travel writing, and smug though he can be, this one is meticulously researched and boldly lived. I have yet to follow him out of Egypt, but am excited for the journey that awaits.

I know that eventually I'll need to man up and read Long Walk to Freedom. Indeed, knowing that it will likely never again be as relevant to me as it will for the next five months should guilt me into giving it a few more good faith attempts until it takes. And I anticipate being richer for further exploration of a story as courageous and important as Mandela's. Meantime, I can enthusiastically recommend it as a heavy and slightly pretentious prop on the nightstand. Two thumbs up.