A book for every country — D
One of these books is the best of the 21st century — and you have never heard of it.
There are amazing books out there that will never, ever cross your path. That is why I am reading one book from every country in the world – from A to Z. This selection, including four absolute classics of 21st century world literature from countries beginning with D — from DRC and Denmark to Dijibouti and the Dominican Republic — is proof of it.
Democratic Republic of Congo
Koli Jean Bofane — Congo Inc: Le Testament de Bismark (2014)
Setting: DRC, mainly Kinshasa
What it’s about: How do you write about a country as big as Europe, ravaged by decades of war that have taken six million lives? With cold, mocking irony, and an instinct for the ridiculous that alone can do justice to so many injustices.
A kaleidoscopic, wild ride across a society in the midst of upheaval: beset by terrible war but full of vim; suffering the legacy of colonialism, but also the country that gave the world the uranium that made the first atomic bomb—a society starting to write its own story after a century of colonial domination and postcolonial intervention.
The central figure is a short pygmy, Isookanga, who decides to “get into globalization”, leaves the jungle the seek modernity in the capital Kinshasa. We find him in superdry jeans and a Snoop Dog t-shirt at the beginning, desperate to leave his remote jungle community for a 21st century world where “people at least talk about networks or the absence of networks, USB keys, compatible interfaces”. He spends the book engaged in a “globalization” role-playing war game online called Raging Trade using a laptop he steals from a young doe-eyed anthropologist, in which he competes for natural resources with opponents like Mass Graves Petroleum and Skull and Bones Mining Fields. He justifies stealing the laptop as “a repayment of the colonial debt”. When his village elder comes to the city to find him, he lambasts his old ways:
“You don’t know how to communicate. You’ll never be on Twitter.”
The story quickly expands to draw in new characters, teenage street gangs, their leader, a girl who we meet frenetic escape through the jungle to escape war lords, war lords who dream of clearing the jungle with napalm to clear the way for mining (“they call it lungs, how are you supposed to breath in a place like that, the trees suffocate everything.”), church groups with shell companies, corrupt UN soldiers, and Chinese entrepreneurs (with whom Isookanga goes into business selling heavily branded cold water). At the heart of the interweaving stories lie war crimes in Eastern DRC whose dark role in the characters lives slowly unravel throughout the book.
It is a book where the colonial legacy is not the dominant theme, but an ever present ingredient in people’s choices and interaction. In one scene Isookanga meets the Belgian anthropologist again, who sleeps with him out of colonial guilt, feeling every act like a recompense for a historical crime:
“Every shake of her sensitive stomach reverberated like the salvos of savage neocolonialism: like the diktats of the IMF, like UN resolutions, like a new edition of Tintin in Congo, like the Dakar speech of an uninformed French president, like racist words spread on the twittersphere.”
The conflict minerals that are Congo’s curse are also a strongly felt presence. In another scene, the girl who fled Kivu is turned sex worker for a Lithuanian UN soldier, who after sleeping with her sits down to eat the meal she has cooked, devouring not just her innocence but the very essence of a country divided up for its spoils — Congo Inc:
“He savoured every bite, savouring every flavor, absorbing them, forging images in his mind: protides, lipids, salts, oligo elements, iron, aluminum, tantalite, magnesium, germanium, cobalt, copper, uranium bauxite…”
Or, more directly as the war lord puts it:
“Is it with tree trunks that you make powerful computers, iPhones and missiles? We need copper, steel, cobalt, coltan.”
The definitive book from DRC? It captures the many tragedies of the country, remembering the colonial legacy without making it the sole driver at the expense of the agency of today’s actors. There is a wealth of Congolese literature out there: if you want more, start with Emmanuel Dongala Sony Labou Tansi.
Why you should read this: This is by far the best book I have read this century.
When I worked in Berlin, some colleagues came from several African countries for a meeting. When asked what sights they would see with their free time, they said nothing to do with the Second World War or the Cold War. Instead they wanted to see the place where the 1884 Berlin conference took place the conference were European powers divided Africa.
That is the legacy of Bismark the title refers to. That building doesn’t exist any more and the spot is marked with a tiny plaque, fitting for a moment in history forgotten in Europe but which still haunts Africa today. (Ironically, I randomly discovered this book in a Berlin library — otherwise I would never have heard of it either).
But the story is dominated not by this history but by the characters, for whom the author has great sympathy and the toxic historical legacy they have to carry, as he tells us in the last lines:
“In an environment tainted by lethal waves of uranium, cobalt, tantalite, what can we expect from individuals passed through this mixer, evolving in a context of a last generation nuclear reactor? Permanent radiation doesn’t bring innocence, it leads to rage. Too bad for those sensitive souls if the place of concentration and fission is Kinshasa, laboratory of the future, and incidentally, capital of the nebulous, Congo Inc.”
Further reading: This is the kind of book that deserves to be featured in a review in the London or New York Review of Books. In the meantime, settle for a review of the latest history of Congo:
Africa, it's said, is the mother of modern civilisation, but it's probably more accurate to say that Congo is. Consider…www.lrb.co.uk
Jean Koli Bofane speaks powerfully about what drove the book in several (French) interviews:
L'invité de " Littérature sans Frontières " est l'écrivain congolais In Koli Jean Bofane, à l'occasion de la…www.rfi.fr
Rating: *** (think of the rating system like Michelin Stars: *=good, **=great, ***=masterpiece)
Dorthe Nors — Minna needs a rehearsal space / Karate Chop (2013)
Setting: Very much modern-day Denmark.
What it’s about: Pastoral scenes of modern life, told in very sparse, unadorned prose that lays bare everyday life with a simultaneous sense of humour, respect and irony. These are stories about the small towns and small people you won’t see on TV (except maybe reality TV).
The short texts take on cancer, bullying, domestic violence, depression, and internet addiction unsparingly, compellingly getting straight to the heart of the matter without ceremony.
Nors has a brilliant, sympathetic eye for the seedy sides of life, like when she describes the town drunks:
“Like rooks, they tended to attract each other so that certain parts of the town or clusters of people with indistinct a pronunciation and chinking shopping bags.”
Why you should read it: It has been pitched as a book for the digital age, for those with short attention spans thanks to the internet. It has been published very originally by Pushkin Press, with one longer novella on one side, and a series of short stories on the other (hence the cover).
That novella is poetically composed purely of one-liners, a conceit that works brilliantly in depicting loneliness in the digital age. In The Guardian, Nors describes it as “a novel in headlines”. The composer, Minna “is alone but surrounded”, starts by being dumped by text message, which spurs her to go to an island to escape city life:
Minna has gotten Lars to elaborate on his text.
Lars has written, but I’m not really in love with you
Lars has always understood how to cut to the chase
Minna can’t ring anymore out of him
Lars is a wall
Lars is a porcupine
The stream of headlines gives a simple story and great pace, and a gentle irony to the simple annoyance of life, like bumping into annoying people you don’t want to talk to:
“Disappointment inhabits her mind like rainy weather”
is immediately followed by
“Minna really wants an asshole filter”.
Further reading: A great interview with the author in The Paris Review:
Photo: Simon Klein Knudsen This month marks the release of Dorthe Nors's Karate Chop, the Danish author's first work to…www.theparisreview.org
and in Electric Literature:
We’ve asked some of our favorite international authors to write about literary communities and cultures around the…electricliterature.com
While this reading in the New Yorker gives a great feel for the other stories:
And my favourite story, in which a government speechwriter tires of telling “international lies” and instead (mis)runs an NGO, is now on BBC Radio 4, available for a limited time only:
A dejected government worker decides to become a Buddhist. By Dorthe Nors.t.co
You’ll like it if you liked: Etgar Keret, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver.
The definitive Danish novel? Of modern Denmark. For a historical novel, try The Prophets of Eternal Fjord, for a tasteful, compelling tale that takes a missionary through late 18th century Copenhagen to the Danish colony of Greenland. The events in the book cleverly crossover with the timeline of the French Revolution, alluding to events there without ever directly being affected by them. One of those “present tense” historical novel that has great rhythm to it, without feeling contrived, but rather a sense of place and an eye for detail.
Abdourahman Waberi — The United States of Africa (2005)
Setting: An alternative reality where “The United States of Africa” is a wealthy powerful bloc of nations turning its back on European refugees fleeing failed states are hunted and abused when they arrive on the shores of Libya and Ghana. A world where the World Bank is based in Asmara, with a McDiop restaurant chain, with streets named after Patrice Lumumba and Toussaint-Louverture.
And where the rich states show a familiar hyocritical amnesia to their past sins, especially in the ports of North-East Africa made rich by a different slave trade:
“Once bathed in the blood and sweat of hardened workers from the West like the Batavian vegetable seller, the Icelandic fisherman, the Basque fishmonger…”
What it’s about: The story revolves around a girl from impoverished Normandy adopted and raised by wealthy African parents and her quest for identity. She becomes an artist and helps other European refugees.
It is an original and throught-provoking concept that turns the way the West treats refugees on its head, but the idea loses steam as the book progresses, as the central plot doesn’t really go anywhere, apart from a brief stint at the end where the girl finds her birth mother in war-torn Paris. Too few interesting characters flit by without development, from the Swiss refugee in Banjul to the photographer who abandons the warzones of the Balkans for the fashion scene in Tipaza. Also, does the reverse of continental fortunes have to imply a reverse of cruelty, do European refugees have to have hassled and hunted on African shores? It would have been interesting to explore whether a role-reversal could have seen more humanity.
There is a powerful message at the end, a plea for the World Bank from its headquarters in Asmara to add a tiny sliver to its aid budget to provide developing nations with translations not just of the Bible, but great works of world literature:
“If people learn to identity with personas from beyond their borders, it will certainly be a first step towards peace.”
The best book from Djibouti? Abdourahman Waberi is the predominatant figure in the country’s literary scene, so alternatives are most likely to come from within his rich oeuvre.
Jean Rhys — Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)
No surprises here, this well-known, dark tale of madness in a bitterly divided colonial Jamaica in the nineteenth century, written as a prequel and response to Jane Eyre four years after the country’s independence.
This story of the violent dark legacy of colonialism and madness driven by accumulated cruelty and suffering is still very much relevant today. The heroines hopes and good intentions wrecked by cynical and venal colonial men. In love with the nature of her island, she is a contrast to the man who is bribed to marry her, who grows to hate the tropical climate. While he drives her mad, he too is damaged by his role as the oppressor.
Junot Diaz — The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007)
Setting: DR and New Jersey.
What it’s about: An immigrant family struggling to through of the legacy of dictatorship, and in a deeper sense, the dark history of the Caribbean. The story starts with a fat, nerdy American boy but gets very powerful when it tells the story of his family, unravelling a litany of injustices the narrator explains as an ancient curse that goes back to the original Spanish conquest of the Dominican Republic.
Why you should read it: I only got into this at the second reading. The tale of the main protagonist, the nerdy Oscar, did not grab me until I first read, later in the book, the central tale of his mother trying to fight her way out of poverty, and his grandfather’s Fall under the dictator despite keeping his head down and following “the Tao of Dictator Avoidance”.
Above all is the slangy, firey, rough prose, with DR’s history coiled through it in punchy footnotes and all delivered with tasty, obscure references to Oscar’s beloved Tolkien. But the fantasy is delivered in just the right quantity to make palatable the harsh story — the raw cocktail violence, the machismo, the mysogyny that would be too hard to swallow without the narrator’s swagger.
A mix of Bronx argot, Spanish and Tolkien and other pop culture, from comic books, video games and movies — a half century of brutal history told by a young American man on the front stoop:
The conservative family before their ruin display,
“A guardedness so Minas Tirith in la pequena that you’d need the whole of Mordor to overcome it”.
Trujilo’s henchmen, footnotes tell us, are Nazgul, Balrogs, or Morgul lords, one of their wives sits in her house like “a shelob in her lair”
While on their own they may appear incongruous, coming as they do in between the two parts of the nerdy immigrant’s son lost using his fantasy references to understand the past, they appear wholly natural and a clever way to deal with the horror of dictatorship, and a way to juxtapose the safe evil of fantasy to the harser evil of real life, such as describing the violence unleashed when Trujillo is killed:
At the end of The Return of the King, Sauron’s evil was taken by a “great wind” and neatly “blown away” with no lasting consequence to our heroes: but Trujillo was too powerful, too toxic a radiation to be dispelled so easily. Even as his death his evil lingered. Within hours of El Jefe dancing bien pegao with those twenty-seven bullets, his minions ran amok — fulfilling, as it were, his last will and vengence. A great darkness descended on the Island…Even a woman as potent as La Inca, who with the Elvish ring of her will had forged within Bani her own personal Lothlorien, knew that she could not protect the girl against a direct assault from the Eye.”
The best book from DR: Unless you prefer a more sentimental take on the Trujillo era in the shape of Julia Alvarez and her story of three sisters killed for standing up to the dictator in In a Time of Butterflies. It is much more composed and formal than TBWLOW.
Read this if you liked: Un prophet, the dark 2009 film by Jacques Audiard which has that same mix of gritty, cruel realism with a pinch of fantasy. And of course, any fantasy novel from Tolkien to Dune.
Rating: * (In a good way)
Sun-won Hwang — Book of Masks (1989)
Setting: Soeul. Since most literature that emerges from North Korea is biography, I have gone for a short story writer born in what is now DPRK. These short stories from pre-war Korea largely take place in Soeul-by a writer born in what is now the north.
What it’s about: They are gritty, dark stories set in a repressive, domineering urban society.
Much like the Dorthe Nors’ stories from Denmark, the concerns of the everyday are given sympathetic but brutally honest space: the man wandering the grimy depths of the city killing time before he kills himself; the boy catching squirrels for a living; the student who visits a prostitute who saved his life during a police attack on a protest; a girl begging to feed her starving mother.
You’ll like this if you enjoyed: Guy de Maupassant. One story is particularly reminiscent of ‘The Idyll’ (grown men breast feeding — you need to read it to understand). Or Dorthe Nors above.
Rating: * (In a bad way)
Highlight: Dorthe Nors’ short stories are truly unique, but Jean Koli Bofane’s Congo Inc is a masterpiece that must be read. It is an absolute tragedy, and a condemnation of the book trade, that it is yet to be translated into English.
Previous editions here: