The hungry road

Written by the Nigerian author Ben Okri in 1991, this magical realism story delves into the harsh life conditions in a Nigerian ghetto during the British colonial rule and the world of spirits, which mingles with day-to-day reality.

Azaro is an unborn child who lives with his spirit companions in a world of their own, where they are free from the heartlessness of the human beings, from injustice, unfulfilled longings and the fear of dying. In fact that’s why babies cry when they are born and severed from the world of spirits.

As these unborn children approach their next incarnation, they make pacts with their spirits companions that they will return at the first opportunity. However, if they break these pacts, they will be assailed by hallucinations and haunted by their spirit companions. The unborn children who make these pacts are known as Abiku or spirit children and thay keep coming and going, dying and rebirthing, often to the same mother, causing great suffering in the family.

(Picture: The Abiku children used to be marked with razors)

Contrary to other babies, Azaro is born smiling and, despite his pact with the spirits and the hardships ahead of him, he changes his mind about his pact, decides to make his mother happy by staying and clings to life. His zest for life is greater than any threat or any fear, greater than the spirits’ constant harassment and their repeated murder attempts to have him back in their world. There’s a dichotomy between not wanting to get born at all, knowing for sure that there will be suffering, and wanting to live it all, with innocence and an open mind.

As an Abiku child, Azaro is half-way between both worlds, and sees things that nobody else can see. His world is populated with akward characters, albinos and people with weird deformities who are not really human beings, but spirits who have borrowed bits of human beings to partake of human reality: life, sex, alcohol… He encounters many of these spirits when he is at Madame Koto’s bar, where he is ’employed’ by the tough and imposing woman as a ‘lucky charm’, although in the end he seems to attract spirits and drive the regulars away.

Everyday, Azaro goes back to an extremely humble home populated by rats and mosquitoes and swarming with creditors and to his father’s fits of rage after being exploited all day. His father gets into fights, gets sacked and then work under deplorable conditions, both physical and ethical, since the boss asks the workers who they are going to vote for before letting them carry his loads.

The political arena is equally disappointing, with the politicians only interested in getting votes. The world of politics is satirically polarised into the Party of the Rich and the Party of the Poor. During their campaign, some representatives of the Party of the Rich, together with their thugs and the landlord appear in a van to deliver their speech, but people living in the poors’ quarter don’t fall for their deceiptful rhetoric and ridicule them. After receiving a ‘gift’ of rotten powdered milk to conquer their votes, the bash the politicians and burn their van.

This novel displays several different layers of existence, whether social, political, religious, cultural, colonial or spiritual; all of them woven together but occupaying different spaces at the same time, and which we see from the point of view of this peculiar and endearing child who faces every challenge without drama.

Nationalism

In order to figure out what nationalism is all about, we must firstly ask ourselves what does nation mean. Nation is an elusive concept, as all abstractions are, that defines a unified imaginary community in which an elite is chosen to speak on behalf of the people but don´t recognise the role of the less privileged or opposing views in order to convey that image of unity it is based upon.

brit nat

The sense of national belonging is forged by the exclusion or denigration of others and the nationalist discourse uses several mechanisms to try and create that delusional sense of belonging. The nation, as a myth, needs to create that feeling of belonging to something greater than oneself and does it by resorting to symbols, to a common culture, to language and traditions, as well. Also, race and ethnicity are typically used to set the limits of the nation by discriminating individuals on the ground of physical features, positing boundaries that establish who can or cannot belong to the nation according to certain parameters. Racial difference is socially and discursively constructed and used for particular porpuses within nationalism. According to Etiènne Balibar there are two main forms of racism; external racism, which involves the discrimination of those who live outside the border on the grounds of race and internal racism which discriminates those within the nation not deemed to belong to an imagined community by keeping them in a subservient position in society or, in some cases, by their extermination.

There are several well known examples of the use of race and ethnicity for privileging one racial group as the nation’s true people as a strategy to build the myth of the nation.

  • We can all recall the genocide in Rwanda, grounded on ethnicity, in 1994: the mass slaughter in Rwanda of the ethnic Tutsi and politically moderate Hutu peoples. Some estimates claim that anywhere between 500,000-1,000,000 were murdered, along with thousands of Tutsi sympathizers, with another 2 million refugees in neighbouring countries. These kinds of conflicts based on ethnicity are not rare in those countries who inherited their borders from the colonising countries, given that withing those borders many different ethnic groups, different cultures and religions can be found.

rwanda-ID-2-800x445

  • In the Basque Country, Sabino Arana and others based their nationalist discourse on some theories which established the Basque physical and genetic features, such as the fact that the Basques possessed the highest global apportion of the Rh- blood types, or that they had certain craneal and physical features. These theories were also supported by authors such as the geneticist L. Luca Cavalli Sforza, who stated that the Basques were the descendants of the Cro-Magnons, and served to build a sense of exclusive national identity which was used by Basque politician Xabier Arzalluz in 1993, not that long ago.
  • Hitler intended to foster an Aryan Germany by the extermination of other ethnic groups and those he considered defective and undertook the Lebensborn project,  a state supported association in Nazi Germany with the goal of raising children of persons classified as “racially pure and healthy” as based on Nazi ideal ethnicity.

nazi boys

 

Sources:

Beginning Postcolonialism – McLeod

http://www.worldwithoutgenocide.org

Non-Fiction Challenge (book 3): ‘Persepolis,’ by Marjane Satrapi (2001-2)

Shoshi's Book Blog

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Back in 2015, when I put together my non-fiction reading list of biographies I owned but had chronically failed to open, ‘Persepolis’ seemed to be top of the list.  From blog comments, friends’ recommendations and the wonderful first page, it was the obvious choice to kick off the project.  Something of Satrapi’s independent stubbornness must have seeped through the pages though, because January, February and now much of March have sped by and this blog still lacks an adequately detailed rave review of this most lauded of autobiographical graphic novels.*

*A small aside, a brief internet trawl has suggested that ‘Persepolis’ falls into this confusingly titled genre.  ‘Graphic autobiography’ sounds wrong and suggests a book containing ‘graphic’ imagery, rather than actual images.  On the other hand, ‘Persepolis’ isn’t a novel.   If anyone has good suggestions for the best way to categorise Satrapi’s book, please do let me know.

‘Persepolis’…

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The People of the Abyss

The People of the Abyss (1903) is an account of the life conditions of the poor in the East End of London collected by Jack London during his first hand experience staying in workhouses and sleeping in the street as part of his personal exploration of the under-world. He carried out his experiment at a time of affluence, in 1902, but during which 500,000 people were estimated to live in the described conditions: “The starvation and lack of shelter encountered constituted a chronic condition of misery, which is never wiped out, even in periods of great prosperity”, he asserted. In January 1903, there was no space left in the workhouses and the means were exhausted.

casual ward

He visits Johnny Upright’s home in order to have a place where he could receive his mail and, work on his notes, and gets a cold treatment as he usually does in his shabby clothes, until he speaks to Mrs. Upright. He then starts looking for a room, and learns that even the largest families in this stratum of society took just a room and even took lodgers in. He´s offered a room with two other lodgers and exchanges impressions with a lower class youth: “From the moment of his birth , all the forces of his environment had tended to harden him, and he viewed his wretched, inevitable future with a callousness and unconcern I could not shake”, and learn about the aged poor, a 71% of the population of London, through a newspaper article, how they age alone and die of self-neglect, 450,000 a day. “The Abyss seems to exude a stupefying atmosphere of torpor, which wraps about them and deadens them (…) the full belly and the evening pipe is all they demand, or dream of demanding, from existence”. The environmental conditions they live submerged in are poisonous, as pollution forms solid deposits on every surface.
Jack London decides to see things for himself and not merely to be informed by other people´s theoretical work on the subject of poverty, such as Engels’ or Jacob Riis’s, so that he could see the human factor: “how they live, why are they living, what for”. He finds that there was a slum at a five minute walk from any point in London, but the cabbies refused to drive to the East End, which was a neverending slum packed with a “crowd of shabby white people” belonging to a new different race of “short, beer-sodden, wretched” individuals. He stops by an old-clothes shop and the shop owner thought he was a high-class American criminal. He arrays himself in the shabby clothes and sews one gold sovereign in the armpit just in case he encounters difficulties. He then experiences the different in status effected by his clothes and notices that “all servility – towards him- vanished from the demeanour” and he was called ‘mate’ instead of ‘sir’ or ‘guv`nor’, escaping “the pestilence of tipping and encountered mean on a basis of equality (…) I had to be more lively in avoiding vehicles. Life had cheapened in direct ratio to my clothes”. Lower classes “talked as natural men should without the least idea of getting anything out of me”. The fear of the mob vanished completely as London became –in appearance- one of them.

East End 1903

He got immersed in the life of the poor and dejected population of the East End where several men lived encaged in just one room working for 15 hours a day, with their teeth worn down by the friction of the metallic brads used in their trade –shoe-making -. He witnessed the lives of those half-starved men and women dying of consumption, those who could only afford to eat rotten meat once a week, who could only wait patiently for death; cramped rooms full of undernourished infants. He lived with those who couldn’t even afford lodging and tried to sleep in the Spitalfields Garden, a surface with patches of grass here and there and a sharp-spiked iron fencing to deter them from entering its enclosed space. Others, in search of a roof, slept on the benches within Christ´s Church; people covered in rags and filth, open sores and bruises, women who would sell themselves for a loaf of bread. He experienced life in the casual ward and the workhouses. “The Abyss is a huge man-killing machine”.

“¿…Y los hombres asesinados?”

AUTOPSIA

HOMBRES VICTIMAS

Se imaginan que ante la cifra de accidentes de tráfico alguien argumentara, “sí, pero ¿y las víctimas de los accidentes laborales…?”, o que ante los datos de infarto de miocardio saliera un especialista diciendo, “sí, pero ¿y los datos de las hemorragias cerebrales…?”, o que ante una campaña contra el cáncer de mama se respondiera, “sí, pero ¿y contra el cáncer de próstata…?”

Sería absurdo y nadie tomaría en serio la pregunta, en cambio, que al hablar de violencia de género uno de los principales argumentos sea “sí, pero ¿y los hombres asesinados…?” parece correcto y oportuno, lo cual, sin duda, dice mucho de los valores de nuestra sociedad.

Cada uno de esos “sí, pero…” en verdad demuestra un no rotundo y un desprecio al problema planteado al presentar los datos y la información, porque ningún problema social se resuelve negando y desconsiderando otro.

Y no es casualidad que cada…

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Michael Köhlmeier ‘Two Gentlemen on the Beach’

South of Paris books

Two Gentlemen on the Beach is my last post for the fifth German Literature Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzy.

Michael Köhlmeier artfully mixes fact and fiction in this comparative life of Churchill and Chaplin, tying them together by their dark secret, depression.image

Chaplin and Churchill meet at a party given in California and Churchill immediately recognises the depressed state of Chaplin and proposes to him that they walk a little along the beach where they discover a strong empathy toward each other and discover amongst other things that “they shared Nietzche’s opinion that the very idea of suicide was a strong comforter which helped them over many a difficult night”.***
Chaplin explains during this walk that “I suddenly saw myself as a man moving forward as best as I could over the last twenty eight years launching thousands of projects just not to hang myself from the first tree…

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