Wednesday, 25 August 2010

For those who enjoy Marmite on their ice cream

A friend hinted Anita Brookner as an inspiring literary figure for anyone planning to publish her first novel in middle age.

I may have once tried to read her novel, but found her writing style too dry (and arch-British?) and the characters too miserable to make it to the end.

Now I gave her a second try, and while still holding onto my initial observations, this time, at this point in life, I begin to understand her fans. Her novels are not the most common comfort food, but serve fantastically those who enjoy Marmite on their ice cream.

I started this time with Hotel du Lac (1984), the Booker prize winner and thinnest one of them all. Although Brookner published her first novel at 56, she has already written 24 novels – and I believe all of them deal at a certain level with existential solitude.

Hotel du Lac takes us to a well-established Swiss hotel, which does not have to advertise itself, as the clients have been returning there generation after generation. The hotel is a discreet hiding place for recent widows, too senile relatives, or people who for one reason or another have lost face in front of their nearest and dearest.

Edith Hope, an author of romantic fiction, is running from a wedding she cancelled at last minute. While moping in her cardigan in the lifeless village off holiday season, she writes letters to her true beloved David, who is happily married elsewhere and intends to remain so. She describes to David the everyday encounters with the odd hotel guests in painstaking detail, but never sends the letters. Another suitor appears on stage, offering her the kind of establishment a respectable woman writer would obviously need, in order to be taken seriously by her publisher and friends. It is an odd tale of love, written in such an ironic tone that one barely remembers the romance.

I have understood that most Anita Brookner protagonists are sexually inhibited, confessional and distant at the same time, and obsessed with self-analysis. They are happiest living their lives in the familiar quarters, greeting the same shopkeepers from thirty years back, and although they dream about escaping, somehow they don’t get it done. In the novels it rains too often, and the characters try to solve their problems by taking long walks.

From a postcolonial perspective, it is peculiar to read European novels, in which all characters are white Europeans. This is becoming rare even in today’s Finnish literature. Funnily enough, I find affinities in Anita B’s writing to two other Anitas: Anita Desai from India and Anita Konkka from Finland. The writing styles of all three women may differ, but their protagonists have something in common. Anita D. has a more positive view of humanity than Anita B., and Anita K. flirts more with alternative lifestyles and feminism, but all three Anitas offer the reader a world that has not been fully chewed and digested on her behalf.

Though Brookner is a contemporary author, writing of her own times, there are deep historical layers in the characters, as if they had been born to the wrong decade or century. There is something fascinatingly displaced in all of them, a “far out” psychology that allows interpretations sensitive to other times and places.
Now I am starting a second journey with Anita, through the novel Latecomers (1988). The third one waiting on my table is Family and Friends (1985). Let's wait and see if I come to the end of the famous Brookner walk one day.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Chimamanda rocks

I first run across Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Purple Hibiscus some time in the mid-2000s, and as I happened to be planning a course on Afro-Caribbean women’s writing, I decided to include the novel in the curriculum right away. The intensity of her prose, and the difficulty of the intimate relations she was describing, struck me as something worth investing our time on. My international students loved it, and especially those who had received a Catholic upbringing could relate to the subject matter very well.
            In all Chimamanda’s books the university city of Nsukka appears as one of the focal points. The university of Nsukka was established as the first “indigenous” university of Nigeria following the independence in 1960. It has particularly excelled in astronomy, medicine and law. The country’s first university has always been the University of Ibadan (the local Oxford or Cambridge), but Nsukka has tried to differentiate from its competitor by profiling itself as the more African alternative. For anyone from the Finnish deepwoods this makes perfect sense. We greet warmly all such initiatives. I don’t even think of it as a coincidence that Biafra adopted Sibelius’ Finlandia as their national hymn during the independence war. Small nations always find one another, no matter what the odds.
            Chimamanda grew up in an academic family on the campus of Nsukka, and in her writing, the town looms larger than life. For someone also born in the shadows of an “indigenous” university, this autobiographical emphasis doesn’t seem strange. I salute it. Through Chimamanda, I have seen vivid bits of Nsukka. It is a place with a noble nationalist history and a present that unfortunately promises too little. Her third book, the short story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck, reveals the realities of campus life in the 2000s: mob violence on the campus is rampant and any degree can be bought too cheap from the examiners through bribing. It is difficult to relate this to my own “indigenous” campus experience. There probably the most daring thing one could think of would be to cycle naked around the campus at full moon – but I can’t even confess having done that.
            The second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, became an instant hit in many European countries soon after first publication. I first got hold of the book in Swedish two years ago, and sorry to say, I could not enter its universe in that language. Nigeria in Swedish was too remote to me then. I also hesitated approaching the Finnish translation, on the same grounds. Now on my holidays, I liberated an English copy of the novel on the isle of Lefkada in Greece, where someone had left it untouched at a book recycling joint. After this, her art has truly started making sense to me. I was accidentally “bounced back” to her.
            Chimamanda is only a “small girl”, in her early thirties, and critics worldwide have already rated Half of a Yellow Sun as a global classic. In the literary beehive, she has sucked all the honey too prematurely, and she may have to bear also the negative consequences of such instant fame. In my country, she is being read everywhere in local flower hat aunties’ well-meaning book clubs. I can find a Finnish translation of her novel on every petrol station of this country.    
            The novel does reflect deeply upon the horrors of the Biafran war and the ethnic divisions of Nigerian society, but first and foremost it is a document of post/colonial gender relations, in a situation where modernity and tradition clash violently. The novel has five protagonists, “her children”, as the author calls them, all of who experience lapses and doubts in their intimate relations. It offers every reader a possibility to identify with someone – not pinpointing at any character’s innate moral superiority. Everyone in the novel makes fatal mistakes, everyone is rough and edgy.
            It is a novel about heterosexuality, written in a way that doesn’t make too rigid boundaries between Africa and the West. Black and white protagonists intermingle creatively. Things happen, between the races and in-between. The notion of “race” is easily dismantled. Neither does heterosexuality mean much to the protagonists. Chimamanda offers no simple “boy meets girl” stories. This fact alone renders her writing apart from the majority of European literature. Much of recent European literature is much more heteronormative and racially confined than this.
            In Chimamanda’s world, all relationships are defined by intricate complexities. She writes: “ Olanna gently places a pillow beneath her head and sat thinking about how a single act could reverberate over time and space and leave stains that could never be washed off. (p.245) ” In this passage, Olanna is making a decision against all odds to return to her partner, who was too easily seduced to illicit sex during her short trip elsewhere. It would be difficult to think of an European Olanna, wife of a university lecturer, adopting the fruit of her husband’s lapse to brief rash lust.  Chimamanda writes very open-mindedly about common law marriages, infertility and adoption, to my understanding against the stream of everyday African sensibilities. The twin girls, Olanna and Kainene’s liberal lives seem very bizarre to me, based on the stories African friends displaced in Finland have told me about foolproof patriarchal heteronormativity and their less privileged families. The twin girls’ avant garde attitudes would have been extreme even in the Finnish 1960s – a time when “women were still women and men were still men”.
            Chimamanda insists on portraying the fringes of Nigerian society, the kinds of possibilities available if people broadened up their minds to accept the multitude of the human condition. She is positively “well ahead of her time”. I am not sure if this kind of loosening of family morality is what mainstream Africa is welcoming in this millennium. Chimamanda does not proscribe this, she only pokes at “possible lives, possible futures”  pending somewhere in the future. Having already been exposed to other kinds of sets of life, other norms of organizing everyday life, other forms of reasoning, the relationship puzzles Chimamanda brings us may be Africa’s unavoidable future.