courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore
First of all, I do not recommend reading this book without your smartphone or Oxford English Dictionary close at hand. For good or for ill, the English translator has faithfully followed the Francophone writer’s vocabulary choices. I do not think there is a “25-cent word” that the author doesn’t know and use. (It’s beautiful, but come on. Who are you trying to impress? Sometimes I liked it–I sure learned a lot! Sometimes I didn’t, when the elevated diction seemed at odds with the education and life experiences of the character who was supposedly speaking.)
The first story in the collection deals with the narrator’s father, who is well into the process of “zombification” brought about by chewing Khat. In the slums, even when a fire breaks out, the khat-chewers do not bestir themselves to save each other, or even their own lives. The firemen come too late. “Fire, that malicious Promethius, chews arrogantly upon the work of the city planners…”, though surely they didn’t plan for slums.
How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love The Bouti
The second story in the collection tells how the country got its name. “First there was the ogress, the forgotten mother, the creature sprung from the swamps…” (I kept seeing Fiona and Shrek in my mind’s eye, but that isn’t what the author has in his mind. She seems a bit more like Kali the Destroyer or perhaps Baba Yaga.)
Hideously ugly, she is variously listed as “a Roman she-wolf…the accomplished predator of men…the mother who gives and takes away life…a cruel hairy creature…the nourishing mother…the patron saint, the cannibal godmother…the whale from the abyss with the unfathomable belly”.
Since Djbouti is a country filled with Muslim Somalis, I did wonder about all the Judeo-Christian references. It didn’t make sense to me until I learned that Islam contains many of the same scriptures and references, like Gehenna for hell, Jonah and the Whale, the Christ story, and more.
Things I Had to Have Explained to Me
There is a very lengthy introduction to this book. I NEVER read the introductions until I have FINISHED the book, because I don’t want to be told what the book is about before I have read it. I don’t want others’ opinions and interpretations given to me. I want to form my own opinions as honestly and purely as I can.
Well, I broke my cardinal rule with this one. About halfway through, I realized I had NO idea what the author was talking about, so I read the intro. All 17 pages of it. It was then that I learned that:
- The book is divided into two parts. The first part is before Independence and the second part is after.
- Some of the stories speak to the civil war in Djbouti and the famine and civil war in Somalia. (I must have missed that due to the Bachelor being on.)
- A story called “Nabsi” cites a story called “Harvest of Hate” by the Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka in what the intro calls “an overt comparison” of events in Somalia with those in the Nigeria-Biafra civil war. Wasn’t overt to me. (There’s a Nigerian Nobel Laureate?!)
- Adoua refers to the “historic” defeat of Italy by Abyssianian emperor Menelik II. Yup, never heard of it. Thanks, World History class in high school. Now that I think about it, I don’t remember learning ANY African history there. Hmmmm…..
The Good, the Bad, and the Hideous: And No, It Isn’t the Ogress
My favorite story was the one titled A Ferrous Tale, which describes the coming of the railroad, and how it changed ordinary Djboutians’ lives. The railroad is a character in the story with a birthday in 1897 and poetry written about it:
It will cross the real country,
It will cross the dream country
It is birthed by French engineers, Swiss planners, Afar sultans, Somali workers, Abyssianian soldiers…statistics are on its side. How many human lives lost? No one kept count.
People will come to auscultate it, (listen to its health as through a stethoscope) photograph it, ask its opinions on the psychology of the autochthonous (indigenous) peoples…(I’m telling you, vocabulary!)
One caveat: There was a story describing the indigenous tradition in a way that I can only see as rape culture, and it bothered me a great deal. This is my perspective as a white American, but also as a woman. Ugh.
Overall, I enjoyed this book a lot. The stories are gripping and they are short and beautifully written. I would give this book four camels and a half! (A baby camel that is.)