Africa snapshot: Things still falling apart

05 May 2015 - 11:10 By Yewande Omotoso

Yewande Omotoso reviews five books that examine African lives. Leila Marouane - The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris (Algeria)This story is of Mohammed, a 40-year-old man living two lives. That of Momo, living with his mother and younger brother in the Algerian neighbourhood of Saint Ouen, and that of Basile Tocquard.Tocquard takes great pains to maintain his pale skin and straighten his hair, all in order to pass for white, get a good job in a plush part of Paris, secure an apartment and lose his virginity to a bouquet of white women.In Marouane's hands Mohammed is both a buffoon and a tragic antihero. The reader at turns feels repulsion for his self-hate and a tender pity for this man-boy who cannot tell his mother that he is seeing a psychiatrist because a real man shouldn't need sleeping pills. Gradually, the story takes on a hallucinatory quality as Mohammed must wage a metaphysical fight against himself, his culture and the culture he covets.Maaza Mengiste - Beneath the Lion's Gaze (Ethiopia)Mengiste renders a world rarely explored in fiction - Addis Ababa 1974, on the eve of the revolution that will topple Emperor Haile Selassie.Through the lives of a family living in a middle-class neighbourhood, Mengiste captures the inevitable contradictions of war, the way revolution draws hard lines that cut across family, love and friendships - the toll of struggle. Mengiste's style is elegant and deeply moving. She doesn't cower away from depicting the horror and melodrama that delineate such occasions in our history.Marie NDiaye - Three Strong Women (Senegal)What runs through these three linked stories is an almost palpable anguish. In the first, Norah has travelled from France to Senegal at her father's bidding.His son, whom he kidnapped many years ago from his then estranged wife, is now in jail charged with murder.In the second, Rudy Descas, a Frechman, spends the entire story hyperparanoid about the fidelity of his Senegalese wife and mother of his son. His life seems to be slipping away and he doubts he has the wherewithal to rescue the situation. His mediocrity is a life sentence.In the final, a childless woman's husband dies suddenly and her in-laws sell her. She escapes and embarks on a life in which she finds herself making tough decisions in order to survive.In all three tales NDiaye makes reading feel like running, trying to catch up with these troubled people in trouble.Odia Ofeimun - The Poet Lied (Nigeria)The poems in this collection should be read over and over again to remind us that we are fallible, and cure us of any propensity for self-righteousness.In the title poem Ofeimun tells of an artist who moves from someone who "wanted to rise up to the moment" to being someone who "wanted to be left alone, to spin his shy songs".This surreptitious turning away from what matters, from the suffering of his compatriots and the rotting of his country, would be his undoing.The poem culminates in a quiet but damning conviction: because he tried to change/ the exuberant colours of life/ into sallow marks, relieving death/ of its hurt, its significance,/ the poet lied, he lied hard.The hard lie seems to be the attempt to live as if we are disconnected.Diriye Osman - Fairytales for Lost Children (Somalia)As promised in the title, these stories, set in Kenya, Somalia and south London, are told using the leitmotif of the fairytale.In an interview Osman explained that he was doing three things - building on a fascination with the darkness beneath the Grimm brothers' stories; borrowing from the great folkloric tradition of Somalia; and turning the often derogatory use of the word "fairy" when referring to gay men into something "visceral, sexy and affirming".Osman's characters are young, gay and lesbian Somalis navigating the challenges of identity, tradition and self-actualisation in contexts that are at best indifferent and hostile, at worst violent.Yewande Omotoso's debut novel, 'Bom Boy', was short-listed for the 2013 Sunday Times Fiction Prize. Her new novel, 'The Woman Next Door', will be published later this year by Chatto & Windus

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