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They talked about the war in the Sudan, about the decline of the African Writers Series, about books and writers. They agreed that Dambudzo Marechera was astonishing, that Alan Paton was patronizing, that Isak Dinesaen was unforgivable. The Kenyan put on a generic European accent and, between drags at his cigarette, recited what Isak Dinesen had said about all Kikuyu children becoming mentally retarded at the age of nine. They laughed. The Zimbabwean said Achebe was boring and did nothing with style, and the Kenyan said that was a sacrilege and snatched at the Zimbabwean’s wineglass, until she recanted, laughing, saying of course Achebe was sublime. The Senegalese said she nearly vomited when a professor at the Sorbonne told her that Conrad was really on her side, as if she could not decide for herself who was on her side.

Back during my Leaving Certificate examination year, a friendly rivalry was sparked between myself and another student. We both fancied ourselves writers, submitted essay after essay to our teachers competing for the highest mark and when that was not enough, most literary references per paragraph.

Here’s the thing – he was a far better writer than me. Plus he was a pretty interesting bloke, often telling stories about taking treks through the African veldt, or fishing with Rastafarians. After school was finished, he gave me a standing invitation to visit him in Botswana. I never took him up on the offer. Ever since I have had this abiding fascination with Africa, an itch I will have to scratch some day.

The Thing Around Your Neck collects a series of short stories by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, some autobiographical, such as the passage quoted above taken from Jumping Monkey Hill which describes the difficulties faced by African writers trying to break through the literary glass ceiling maintained by the Western canon; others contrasting the lives of ordinary Nigerians with foreigners, often Americans.

Imitation has a Nigerian woman living without her husband for many months of the year, but enjoying every comfort in a fine house in the States. Her only companion is a fellow Igbo house maid. When she begins to suspect her art dealer husband is having an affair back in Nigeria, her only confidante is this – an employee who in this foreign land is the closest thing she has to a friend. On Monday Of Last Week has another expat named Kamara find employment as a babysitter to a mixed race American couple’s child. Driven to distraction by the neurotic father – and increasingly curious about the absentee artist mother – she finds herself becoming infatuated with the other woman in the house. The Arrangers of Marriage focuses on a newly arrived bride in the States, whose naturalised husband insists on eroding her Nigerian identity.

Ghosts and Cell One both concern academics struggling to survive in modern Nigeria, as a result of profound personal grief and increasing gang violence respectively. Cell One is the first story in the collection and features a family left distraught when the eldest son is arrested for being a member of a street gang. The son is described as  over-privileged and arrogant, a result of his coddle middle-class upbringing. When he finds himself behind bars, the shock of witnessing genuine oppression changes his personality. Ghosts has a grieving widower encounter a former university colleague he believed had been killed during the Nigerian-Biafran war. At first thinking his old acquaintance to be a phantom, he stops himself from performing the traditional ritual of throwing sand on him,  remembering that he is a Western-educated academic and above such things.

This alienation from tradition and language is a recurring theme of the stories collected here. Another is the perception of Nigeria and its history by external bodies, such as the international media, American embassy staff, or indeed literary critics, in the case of Jumping Monkey Hill, my favourite story from the selection. A Private Experience alternates between an encounter between two women, one a Muslim the other a Christian, hiding in a store and the media coverage of the event afterwards, which would have these two individuals be natural enemies.

Again and again Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie seems to make the appeal that the stories of these people, of Nigerians generally, should be heard for what they are, without the intrusion of inferred Western values.

This is powerful writing, with a wry and critical tone throughout.

I showed Laurence the absurd dome of the parliament building, nailed shut and disused. I showed him the library, which had never been stocked with books. The school, which had never taught a lesson. The blocks of flats, government housing for all the workers who were going to come and run the offices and services that had been planned – and some workers did come for a while. But there was no work. And then the trouble started, and in the end they trickled away again, to the cities or back where they’d come from, except the few who could still be spotted here and there, lost in their own uniforms and all this useless space.

When Apartheid was defeated in South Africa, it became a massive media event, much like the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, which I watched one Sunday morning glued to the television screen at ten years of age. At any rate the liberal West could comfort itself with the knowledge that the widespread criticism of de Klerk’s latterday Apartheid regime had succeeded and now indigenous South Africans would enjoy a long-denied egalitarian society.

Of course that was nonsense. The widespread inequality of before continued. In fact many of South Africa’s economic were tied up in offshore holdings, allowing the same corporations who had profited from Apartheid to continue to do so. Naomi Klein dedicated a chapter in The Shock Doctrine discussing what happened during the ‘handover’.

The Good Doctor brought much of this to mind for me, as Galgut’s writing identifies how much of the divide between the different South African communities remains, how ideology fails in the face of aging enmities and hopelessness.

Frank was posted to a rural hospital literally in the middle of nowhere – a non-place in the South African countryside, created by bureaucratic fiat – seven years ago. He was promised the role of hospital administrator, a new beginning following a bitter divorce and the collapse of his medical practice. Instead the incumbent Dr. Ngema never achieved her own transfer and remained in her office, forcing Frank into a submissive position within the hospital. Understaffed and isolated, he finds an unusual source of comfort in his life in this border territory. Nothing changes there and he, in turn, is not forced to change.

Then Laurence Water arrives. Young and full of enthusiastic ideas about helping countryside communities be educated in health issues, he is given a berth in Frank’s room. Forced to spend his days and nights in the younger man’s presence, Frank quickly develops an intense resentment of him – yet at the same time feels envious of his desire to help. After all, much of his despondency is tied up with how Dr. Ngema herself often talks about change and innovation, but refuses to leave; and how the hospital’s staff are only marking time before the government finally shuts them down.

In addition, Frank is carrying a number of secrets, that in his innocence Laurence manages to stir up. His past with the military for example, which still haunts him, as well as a long-running affair with a local woman who tells him her name is Maria. Through his arrival and the increasing animosity between the two men, Frank is forced to confront his past and whether he, like old South Africa, is capable of change.

Damon Galgut‘s writing is so richly descriptive – the hospital’s state of disarray is so shocking to Laurence upon his arrival that he is left speechless – that the metaphorical content of the book is at first obscured. Still this is a profoundly moving account of how the divisions within South African society remain.

Frank’s inability to change is well captured. His disaffected view of the hospital is as much a product of his frustration with Dr. Ngema’s regime as it is a product of his own refusal to step into the breach to change things. Laurence presence is an insult to his own carefully cultivated impotence. What’s more Frank is closely identified with the ‘old South Africa’. Laurence is the future, threatening to change everything. His desire to educate the local people in HIV prevention, and the apathy of the other doctors, reflects the West’s widespread lack of interest in the epidemic throughout Africa.

Strongly developed and closely observed, this is a fantastic novel.

Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these.

There is a moment during this book when a character discusses a fable about the origin of the tortoise’s rough shell, how he was tricked by a host of birds and crashed to hard ground from a great height. Afterwards his shell was repaired, with the sticking together of the shattered pieces the reason for the roughness of the tortoise shell ever since.

I have heard this story before. I came across it in a book of fables when I was a kid. It was not attributed to a collection of African fables, instead simply presented as a legend from ‘long ago’.

Achebe’s novel describes the history of a village and a man who lived in it. Okonkwo was known as the best fighter and most powerful warrior in the village of Umuofia. He excelled in his work as a farmer as he remained embarrassed by the memory of his father’s laziness, who died debts to many of his neighbours. Okonkwo became determined to grow his own yams, care for his wives and children with the money he earned and never be thought of as lazy. To his mind that would be unmanly.

Umuofia was known by neighbouring villages to count many strong warriors among its menfolk, as well as powerful magics. So whenever a dispute was raised in relation to the town, a peaceful solution was sought to avoid any disastrous conflict. To give the village a hostage was one solution and in just such a situation the doomed boy named Ikemefuna was entrusted to Okonkwo’s family. The boy was raised as one of his sons. Okonkwo was pleased to see that the boy from another village was a positive influence on his own son, Nwoye, whom he was afraid, took too much after his own father.

When the rules of the tribe force Okonkwo to pay a terrible price, the result will haunt not only his own family but the entire village of Umuofia. The white man is coming, with his modern guns and ‘iron horses’, and a new god, greater than any spirit that the village calls upon.

Much of this story sounds familiar. The family curses, the taking of hostages and the hubris of a great man are all familiar themes from myths and legends from every culture. Achebe invests it with a unique energy all of its own. Okonkwo’s pride and cruelty to his family is at once familiar, yet emotionally wrenching. The book contains phrases and words particular to its setting, with the story allowing for a growing understanding of this culture.

The final pages reveal the ultimate tragedy, of these lives and experiences being reduced to the words themselves, now rendered alien.

Heartbreaking, intimate, a revelation.

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