It’s worth (re)examining the books we read if it is worth examining or talking about our unforgettable moments. And in a good book there are many unforgettable flashes that some readers would even want to trace and etch into the book by underlining, highlighting or writing in the margin. Though I have something against the practise since forever that you won’t even find my name on any of my books. Why deface a book since you don’t totally own it, or do you? The next readers of the book may find it distracting, like I usually do. It’s like you are doing their thinking for them, pointing them in your direction, ‘This is what you should pay attention to when you get here,’ minimalizing their reading experience.
Anyway, that’s that. I am meant to share my 2017 notable reads and that’s exactly what I’d be doing. But it also calls for a little reflection.
Usually, I don’t restrict my reading to any particular genre or type so as to experience what diversity or randomness may throw my way. Although I had a special interest in some literary forms last year, I did not set out to read in a particular inclination. But it is interesting now that I am examining the books on my notable reads, I can find a commonality in some of the books. My focal interest, as I now realise, is language. What can (cannot) language do? The aesthetics of language and the linguistic stylistics of different authors. The combinatorial possibilities of alphabets and numbers as a language that can be used in poetry; if scientists can express their conviction, truth and emotion thus, can poets also aspire to the same? It seems there are endless possibilities with language which brings me to the first book on my list, Solar Bones by Mike McCormark.
exceptional, bold, an exemplary model of the evolution of English language are the words that rush to my mind when I reflect on Mike McCormark’s metafiction, Solar Bones, because the entire novel is technically written in one sentence, yes, no full stops, like this,
and, although, there are close antecedent literary stylists like the Hungarian novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai and Clarice Lispector; Krasznahorkai is a beautiful long-sentence user and he sometimes cover a long chapter with a sentence while Lispector has also experimented with something like this in her niche-less book, Agua Viva, however it is McCormark’s inventiveness that must really be celebrated because it somehow displaces those, albeit not because they are translated into English, his is a feat that I have dubbed him the e e cummings of prose,
while on the other hand, about his grammaticality, there is an inversed interpellation to be made with the minimalist Ben Okri, who sometimes does a chapter of a novel with just one simple sentence to further appreciate McCormark’s grammatical realism,
of which speaking about the fragmented plot, which can be observed, of course, as seamless, partly poioumenon has the narrator, Marcus, a husband, father and citizen of Mayo, west coast of Ireland engrossed in a monologue and explores the idea of memories, family, life after death and the intimacy man share with machine as a phenomenon of substance;
the book is truly an extraordinary novel; Marcus is a solid character many readers will have no trouble identifying with as a father, husband and a dutiful citizen
Yes, I must now talk about Strange Attractors: Poems of Love and Mathematics edited by Sarah Glaz and JoAnne Growney. This is a remarkable anthology of mathematical poems by renowned mathematicians, like Jakob Bournelli, teachers and students of Mathematics moved into verse; poems of literary classics, like Shakespeare, Dickinson, Hughes and Neruda, that have mathematical nuances are also collected in the anthology.
The anthology is divided into three parts: Romantic Love, where words and numbers are infused to convey emotional love, Encircling Love, where mathematical imagery are employed in service of nature and some other reflections, and Unbounded Love, the section celebrates Mathematics and mathematicians. Of course, my bias is for the third part where poems of Ed Seykota’s ‘From Borderline – A Fractal Poem’, William J. Macquorn Rankine, ‘The Mathematician in Love’, Pablo Neruda’s, ‘Ode to Numbers’, Randall Munroe’s, ‘Useless’, famous on the internet, Hanns Cibulka’s, ‘Mathematics’ stand out and tease the brain. Some of the poems I am still trying to wrap my head around their arithmetic.
Numbers can add to the depth of emotion where words fail. They can deepen imagery. They can be musical. They can help us grasp certain realities and render them in a simple way. (I think that is why mathematicians find it easy to express profound things with them in theorems.) The anthology is many shades of that. It becomes witty and laconic at times that open up many things. Some beautiful, some funny. The numerical poems and other poems with mathematical diction, symbols and metaphors by various poets refreshes my mind about how to employ these in my ongoing experimentation with mathematical poetry. This book is a treasure to me and I will definitely keep going back to it.
Peter Akinlabi’s debut full length poetry collection, Iconography, is a work of linguistic ingeniousness that edges the boundary on the invocative power of words and what language may help us grasp. The book overwhelmed me that I worked it in cuspate exuberance, impressing some lines and stanzas in my mind.
When the poet declares:
‘I am standing at the thresholds of imagination
weighing the cost of entrance
The things I bear are small and motley;
the things I seek are faint and dark’ pg. 10
‘What I seek is a language
that may not fail translation
What I seek is a language
that may not fail in translation’ pg. 8
his interrogative poise and commitment to linguistic possibilities is at once obvious, which I identify with. His steering and his deft command of language, especially how he melds Yoruba and English, becomes sensational. In the hands of Akinlabi, language becomes a spell. He becomes a poet-paleontologist, a poetographer making modern myths and communal paeans.
But the book is not only about the beauty and intricacies of language, some other themes are neatly tucked into the work such as the themes xenophobia and loss.
Roots in the Sky. I cut my teeth last year with this book and couldn’t help it but subject myself, for more than a week, to self-shaming. I felt I had cheated myself immensely having just read this superb fiction of Akin Adesokan published since 2004. But I relented comforting myself with the afterword of the novel, its extraordinary life from manuscript stage. When I later recognised the spine of the book on a bookshelf in my university library, I had that sense of accomplishment that set me free finally from my self-shaming. This experience afforded me a nexus with an essay by Washington Irving, ‘The Mutability of Literature’. Some books are utterly underrated, but it’s all right. A book has its own life and it’s not always predictable.
The novel is a complex, multi-layered plot narrated from different POVs but mainly by Filatei. His is an unfamiliar story of a boy, from nowhere, he has no home because he was abandoned in a settlement on the outskirt of Lagos, caught in the tumultuousness of everyday Lagos. He becomes an urchin and as he finds his way in the city, the pervasive realism of Lagos subdues him. It’s Kilanko, an opinionated optimist and political activist, one of the staunch adherents of a fabled patriot, Laifa Adigun, who will eventually take him to Miracle City, a sort of camp for idealists against the corrupt military regime of the day.
It is also to be noted the title of the novel has a metaphorical connexion with the background of Filatei and others like him whose roots are up in the sky, the gist of the plot. The style of the prose is reminiscent of Okri, Marquez and Soyinka, all in one, yet at once original that can only be labelled as Adesokan’s, a kind of storytelling panache that is offhanded. You may find an excerpt of the novel here. And I guess the author is working on a sequel because of his short story in Saraba’s Money Issue.
Chuma Nwokolo is one of my all-time favourite writers who has been consistent over two decades producing brilliant books; he has to his credit several comic novels and short stories. He is a pixilated satirist who has this clever ability to render the absurdity of Nigerianism effectively; and doing that he is sometimes a farceur. His sarcastic, black humour entertains me. And comparatively, it is easy to find a parallel between him and the Chinese writer, Mo Yan. They both usually set their stories in a particular community and satirises the idiocy of institutions, humans and society. And if you don’t want to go that far, you may easily cross reference his style with Peter Enahoro and J K Randle too.
How to Spell Naija in 100 Short Stories vol. II is Chuma Nwokolo’s second and final instalment of 100 short stories in commemoration of Nigeria’s centenary celebration. Having read the first volume some years back, I had no choice but kept asking him for the second volume when it didn’t come out as scheduled. And the second volume did not disappoint neither.
The collection which comprises of 50 short stories, and even flash fiction, is a satirical vignette of Nigeria, what it means to be a Nigerian at home and in diaspora, the idiosyncrasies and incongruities of being a citizen of the most populous black nation in the world. And that Nigerian is an all-encompassing, the characters are drawn from all society strata; the lives of politicians, policemen, pastors, even armed robbers and kidnappers form the backdrop of some of the stories and offer an inlet into the minds of such people. I am sure any reader will recognise at least a type of Nigerian in the collection.
The collection is down-to-earth original. Chuma knows how to do something very well: indigenise the English language to evolve a variety of English that can only be described as Nigerian English. But unfortunately that is not one of the recognised Englishes yet. In fact, in the introduction to the book, the author laments just that. In a multi-ethnic nation like Nigeria, where the only language that unifies peoples is not recognised, there are bound to be discord.
Chuma now has another novel out, The Extinction of Menai. I can’t wait to get my hands on it.
The debut novel by Jacqui L’Ange, The Seed Thief, is a sublime, entrancing novel about migration, Afro-Brazilian spiritualism, Yoruba pantheons, climate change, amongst others. The author is not merely a storyteller; she is an enchanter. She lulls, her prose serenades with the idyllic world she creates. Even in the hustle and bustle of airport, where the protagonist tells the story, the tranquillity and empathy of the soul of the protagonist, Maddy, is heart-warming.
Maddy is a botanist. She is given an objective by a pharmaceutical company in South Africa she works for: to travel to Brazil and find an elusive seed that could supposedly cure cancer. But the trip to Brazil is also a trip down a memory lane for her. She will have to come to terms with her demons: she will have to come to terms with her father whom she has been estranged from and the travel will also afford her the opportunity to take the troubles about her relationship on a work and eventually find spiritual signification of her soul on the journey.
Voices of Marrakesh by Elias Canetti is a travel account of the writer in the ancient city of Marrakesh, Morocco. It is a travelogue that delivers in all fronts. What I particularly look out for in travel books are inherent in it. It is thoughtfully and ethically narrated. The people he writes about, even the women veiled in purdah, are colourfully drawn. A reader is led by the hand, so to speak, into the crevices of Marrakesh: the alleyways filled with beggars seeking out exotic tourist and sex workers calling for affection to be bought from the window of their apartment. The market where camels are sold, the realness and empathy he has for the camels is moving. The storytellers in the market who pull a riveted crowd. And when he visited a Jewish fortress, Mellah, in the city, the account at once becomes a documentation with political relevance. His visit also to Sheherazade, a French bar, calls to mind the well-to-dos, mostly foreigners, who frequents the place for sex tourism. Nothing escapes Canetti’s scrupulous observation. Voices of Marrakesh is a carefully observed lives of the people of Marrakesh. Anybody interested in the art of travel writing may pick it up.
In a year I read close to 20 plays, it is now right to introduce few plays starting with The Post Office by Rabindranath Tagore. This play is originally written in Bengali and translated into English in 1912 by W B Yeats. The play has been described by critics as Tagore’s magnum opus. I read it while I was on a journey and the reason why this act of motion was significant to my reading experience was the contrast of my journey and the claustrophobic feel of the protagonist, Amal.
Amal is an adopted child of his uncle, Madhav, who is diagnosed of disease and thus bedridden, or rather, confined indoors by the physician. But how long can he stay indoors when he sits by the window all day long and brought news of elsewhere by wanderer, watchman, dairyman. He couldn’t help it but fantasise about life elsewhere, imagining himself, amongst many others, as a postman going from house to house delivering letters. He would even rather choose a life of travelling than sitting all day long studying to be become a learned man which is point of interest to me. What experience a journey may offer, a book, not matter how lofty it is, may not be able to offer. Amal is like the id of travellers; he exemplifies the untraveled distances a traveller pine for, even in his dreams.
I later learnt that this play was written shortly after Tagore lost his family to a disease which gave me another insight into understanding and appreciating the play.
The Fate of a Cockroach by Tawfik al-Hakim. This absurdist drama must be a challenge for any director and producer anywhere in the world because of its theatrics. As a play for stage, it has not been performed as much as the quality of the play deserves, but as a play for reading, which Al Hakim originally intended, it is remarkable. Remarkable. Like he said, it is a ‘theatre of ideas’, a theatre of the mind.
The play satirises the tussle for dominance between the sexes and in a family; it subtly engages the class struggle of the Egyptian society. This struggle is marked in the contention of plot between Queen Cockroach and King Cockroach, and Samia and Adil.
The first scene opens in the ‘Cockroach kingdom’, a bathroom, with cockroach characters, Queen and King, argues about who is superior to each other. It’s especially laughable when King attach the claim of his superiority to his whiskers. And when his wife equally claims to possess those, he submits his is longer. This comic argument can be interpreted as a caricature of the contemporary patriarchal sentiments especially favoured in the Egyptian society. And its mockery of social inequality and struggle is hinted in the subsequent dialogue between the two cockroaches, and other self-styled cockroaches like them, when they discuss how to foil or protect themselves against their common enemy, ants.
In the following scene but in the same apartment that is the kingdom of cockroaches, there is a symbolic representation here, the human characters, Samia and Adil, have their own argument about who uses the bathroom first, the supposed kingdom of the cockroaches – this is why Al Hakim unifies the plot. While there is a contention about the ruling class, the Egyptian society is squabbling about equality between the sexes. But the playwright’s attempt is not to trivialise any of the struggles but merely unifies both. Here, he also explores the madness of everything that is nothing when a doctor, you may say a psychologist, is sent from his place of work when Adil called in sick. How this conflict about nothing is resolved many a reader should find out.
When it comes to talking about dramatic adaptation in modern African drama, there is a name that naturally comes to mind. It is Femi Osofisan. He has written over 50 plays, most of those are adaptations of the Greek classics. Recently, he was awarded the most prestigious prize for drama, the Thalia prize, where his intertextuality of the Greek classics into a Yoruba context was noted and celebrated by the institution that awards the prize.
His play on my notable reads is Richard Lander and the Travelling Polygamist, an adaptation of the diaries of the British explorer, Hugh Clapperton, last journey into Africa. The dramatic qualities employed enliven the account of the explorer. The work is important to me and literary forms; you rarely find a travel account in the dramatic genre. You may find an excerpt of the play on Fortunate Traveller.
And finally, here comes Sahel, Irene Lopez de Castro’s book of painting based on his travels and encounters in the Sahel region of the Sahara where she’s intermittently lived for years. As a matter of fact, she identifies with the place as a kind of her spiritual home.
This exhibition catalogue is something similar to a travelogue and it is overwhelming. It is a collection that imitates the colours of the Sahara which sometimes is golden, sometimes sombre, and the people, the Songhay and Tuaregs of Mali, that call the desert region home. She evokes and celebrates the beauty of their ordinariness; their rusticity if I may use the word. She is able to bring about a familiarity with the viewer in some of her personality portraits and still life.
The collection is a book of encounters indeed. Snippets of her work can be found on her website. My interview with her is also forthcoming.
Not Worth The Hype
Under this column last year, I said something I quickly wish to take back because it’s ironically moronic. I made a lame point about judging a book based on a reader’s predilection for learning. I now realise this statement is faulty and although unintended, also subscribes to a sort of populist sentiment. What it subtly means, which is rather funny to me now, is that there are no bad books just because it’s acceptable to some readers, that there is no critical standard for analysing a book; that an average reader that does not really know right from left may even be on a panel that determines the merits of a book for an award. How stupid. I take it all back.
While it is not everything taken into the body that will be used by the body, according to Schopenhauer, bad books, he encourages should be read once in a while even if one does not accidentally come across it. But not should be laboured upon. There are few bad books I read last year but my memory does not even permit remembrance now. I think I am a bit fortunate here.
Looking Forward To Read
Now that I’ve got a new Kindle, it’s made reading more interesting and books more accessible on the go that I have included another feat in my 2018 bucket list: to read 40 books by August. Some of those books that will make the numbers include Emmanuel Iduma’s travel book, A Stranger’s Pose, that will be released this year and his counterpart, Dami Ajayi’s newly-published second collection of poetry by Ouida Books, The Body of a Woman is a Country.
Similarly, I will be concluding the books I had started few months ago, James Wood’s Fun Stuff and Other Essays and The Irresponsible Self. They’ve been a wonderful companion for honing my critical craft. His critical foray on Naipaul in the two books is a gem that have demystified the absurdities and complexities of Naipaul, as a son, writer and husband.
I am also halfway through Arthur Schopenhauer’s Collected Essays. I have been eyeing an anthology of fiction by contemporary Chinese writers, Chairman Mao Would not be Amused: Fiction from Today’s China edited the renowned translator, Howard Goldblatt alongside Longthroat Memoirs by Yemisi Aribisala, A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain, Mo Yan’s Big Breasts and Wide Hips, Yoruba in Diaspora: An African Church in London by Hermione Harris and Norman Lewis’ Omnibus.
For poetry, I’d be making Tomas Tranströmer’s, Selected Poems and, Adonis’ Selected Poems my talisman for the year. Another book of poetry that I have prioritised to read is Derek Walcott’s collection of poetry and painting, Tiepolo’s Hound. It’s one of the most read books of the Kofi Awoonor Memorial Library last year.
As I am a fan of play reading, I’d be reading the plays of Henrik Ibsen and definitely more work of Tawfik al-Hakim I can find in English. Sefi Atta’s newly published collection of plays is also on top of my reading list this year. I am also quietly anticipating the NLNG prize for drama this year.
But before I put a period to this essay, let me seize this opportunity to announce my protest against the apathy aimed at the dramatic genre in contemporary African literature that I will not be submitting my work to any literary journal or magazine that does not accept submissions in the dramatic genre, except if it is a niche journal or magazine.
Tope Salaudeen-Adegoke is an editor, literary critic and poet from Ibadan, Nigeria. Tope is the co-publisher of Fortunate Traveller, a travel journal. Also, he is the administrator of the Kofi Awoonor Memorial Library in Ibadan. He writes for Wawa Book Review, Abuja, and FilmsandCinemas, Lagos. He enjoys travelling and cooking. He is presently experimenting with poetic forms, including mathematical poetry, but does not know when his debut poetry collection will be ready. @LiteraryGansta is his alter ego on Twitter.
This is the eighth of 10 pieces on Readers on Reading in 2017.