21 June 2021

American culture through South African eyes

Cion (Toloki #2)

Cion by Zakes Mda
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first book of Zakes Mda that I read was Ways of Dying, featuring Toloki, who decides to be a professional mourner, and appears again as the protagonist in this book. But I read it 20 years ago, so I can't remember much of it, and perhaps I need to read it again to understand this one.

In Cion Toloki has achieved some success in his career as a professional mourner in Johannesburg and is touring the world to study professional mourners in various cultures. He does this at the instigation of the mysterious sciolist, who I cannot remember from the first book at all. 

St Chad's College, Durham
I would like to know more, because the first place the sciolist sent Toloki to was Durham in England -- more specifically to Durham Cathedral, to the tombs of St Cuthbert and St Bede. And the sciolist himself appears to be connected with St Chad's College, just over the road from the cathedral. I am particularly interested in that because I spent two years studying at St Chad's College, one of them in a room with a view of the chapel of Nine Altars at the Cathedral, and the other with a view looking the opposite way over the River Wear and Kingsgate Bridge, and the People's Gin Palace, officially known as Dunelm House, now threatened with demolition after 60 years, whereas the cathedral has stood for about 900, all of which can be seen in the picture (taken from the tower of Durham Cathedral). So I really would like to know more about the sciolist.

In this book, however, Toloki spends only a short time in Durham, apparently as a tourist, but stays for more than a year in the small hamlet of Kilvert in south-eastern Ohio, where he spends much of the time with the Quigley family, Mahlon and Ruth, and their grown-up children Obed and Orpah. And the rest of the book is about a South African's attempts to make sense of the contradictions of American culture as shown in the microcosm of one family.

There are excursions into the family's past where some ancestors had been slaves in neighbouring Virginia, and it tells the story of the escape of two of them across the Ohio River, which is the River Jordan in the mythology of the slaves. And perhaps by some strange coincidence I had recently read and reviewed Seven Days to Freedom by John Davies. who has quite a bit to say about the symbolism of the River Jordan and the Ohio River in relation to slavery and freedom.
The message of the Bible has been transmitted across the centuries, and its symbols carry a rich cargo of meaning. It tells us that there is a ‘Red Sea’ for us to cross out of our present condition, and a ‘Jordan’ for us to cross into a new world. ‘Jordan’ remains still a boundary in the Middle East – a physical, social, and political symbol of the most intransigent of the world’s troubles. But also, ‘Jordan’ is, for many of us, the boundary which we look forward to crossing when we die. But also again, the original singers of songs like ‘Deep River, my home is over Jordan’, were slaves in the southern states of the USA, yearning for an escaperoute. For them ‘Jordan’ was the Ohio, the boundary between the southern slave-owning states and the free.

Reading Zakes Mda's book so soon after reading that made both seem more real. Part of the mythology of the slaves, and their descendants, involves the making of quilts, which, according to family legend tell the story of escaping from slavery.

In Ohio, the family ends up being a representative mix of most of the ethnic groups that make up the USA -- Shawnee, Cherokee, slaves of African descent, Irish and various "Caucasians", described by Toloki with a wry sense of humour, yet he grows to love them for all their foibles and idiosyncrasies, and they grow to love him with all his.

This is not my favourite book by Zakes Mda, perhaps because the cultural setting is so unfamiliar to me. I have spent only two weeks in the USA, and saw only a small part of it. Mda has spent much longer, and presumabably knows it better. What I do know, however, is that his books set in southern Africa, where he grew up, books like The Madonna of Excelsior and Black Diamond tell the truth about South Africa. They tell it like it is, and was. And so I suspect that his observations on American culture and American history in this book are spot on too, and that what he writes about slavery and slave life are substantially accurate.

Much of the book is written in the present tense, which I found a little strange, and I'd be interested in reading the reactions of Americans to this book, especially those who live, or have lived, in Ohio and Virginia.

On a more personal note, which doesn't really belong in the GoodReads review, is that I compared the experience of Toloki in a strange culture with my own, and with a chapter of a book I have been editing. 

The book chapter is about the reverse -- people of African descent in the New World who emigrated to Africa, mainly to places like Liberia and Sierra Leone, and whose attitudes to the local African people tended to be very similar to that of European settlers in Africa. 

When I went to England to study, I left in haste, because a security policeman wanted to give me a banning order which would have prevented my going overseas to study. With 8 months to wait before the term at St Chad's College started, I worked as a bus driver in London, and lodged with a landlady from Sierra Leone for seven months. But unlike Toloki, I was rather shy and retiring, and only really spoke to the landlady, Mrs Williams, when I paid the rent each week. Even after seeing them in church one Sunday, at St Leonard's Church in Streatham, I didn't speak to them much. I was too shy even to ask how the hot water system in the bathroom worked. Only towards the end of my stay did I begin to have actual conversations with the daughter, who was finishing high school and planning to go to university, and we talked about subjects we studied and things like that. 

So reading about Toloki made me think that I had missed really getting to know the family I was staying with, and the only real human contact I had was when I crossed London to visit other people I had known in South Africa. Toloki's relationship with the family he stayed with had its ups and downs, but in the end it seems that on balance both he and they benefited.

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13 June 2021

The Dark is Rising

The Dark is Rising

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When a reviewer of one of my books, Of Wheels and Witches, compared it with this one, and suggested that it might have been influenced by the The Dark is Rising sequence, I thought I'd better read it. So I read Over Sea, Under Stone which I enjoyed a lot, and now have read this one, which I didn't enjoy quite so much, and in writing this I'm trying to work out why I gave the first book 5 stars, and this one only 4.

There is little to link the two books. Over Sea, under Stone was set in Cornwall, this one is set in Buckinghamshire, with a completely different set of characters. Will Stanton is the youngest of a family of nine children, and discovers , on the day before his 11th birthday, that he is an "Old One" and that he has a quest to perform, to collect six signs made of different materials.


He is helped in this by a more experienced Old One, Merryman Lyon, who is the only character who seems to have been in Over Sea, Under Stone, and another family who live on a nearby farm, whom he discovers are also Old Ones, and he is hindered in his task by a couple of characters called The Walker and The Rider.

*** Possible spoiler alert -- if you haven't read this book, and want to, you might want to stop reading at this point, as it has possible plot spoilers ***

The book never explains who the Old Ones are, but we are told that they have a lot of superpowers not accessible to ordinary people, and the young/old Will Stanton learns how to use these powers by instantly absorbing a magic book. And this is, I think, why I liked this story less than Over Sea, Under Stone. The children in that book, unlike Will Stanton, are ordinary children with no superpowers. As G.K. Chesterton puts it, in his book Orthodoxy:

...oddities only strike ordinary people. Oddities do not strike odd people. This is why ordinary people have a much more exciting time; while odd people are always complaining of the dulness of life. This is also why the new novels die so quickly, and why the old fairy tales endure for ever. The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling; they startle him because he is normal. But in the modern psychological novel the hero is abnormal; the centre is not central. Hence the fiercest adventures fail to affect him adequately, and the book is monotonous. You can make a story out of a hero among dragons; but not out of a dragon among dragons. The fairy tale discusses what a sane man will do in a mad world. The sober realistic novel of to-day discusses what an essential lunatic will do in a dull world.
Will Stanton, however
... wondered how to explain to an elder brother that an eleven-year-old was no longer quite an eleven-year-old, but a creature subtly different from the human race, fighting for its survival

That makes Will Stanton seem like something out of The Midwich Cuckoos other than being on the side of the good guys. It cuts him off from normal human relations with his family, but not for normal human reasons, but rather for inhuman ones.

The reviewer of my book also detected the influence of Charles Williams, whose novels I have read, and whose influence I freely acknowledge. Interestingly enough The Dark is Rising has several scenes which are reminiscent of Charles Williams's novel The Greater Trumps. In both books the family goes to church on Christmas day for Anglican Mattins, and on the way home rescue a homeless wanderer from a snowstorm which turns into a supernatural blizzard. The difference is that in The Greater Trumps the characters are normal human beings, though they do have access to magical objects. In The Dark is Rising, however, there is a deus ex machina in almost every chapter, and sometimes more than one.

At one point Will Stanton does face a moral choice where his decision could make a difference, when the bad guys have kidnapped his sister Mary, and they threaten to kill her if he does not hand over the signs he has gathered. He refusesw, but Mary is in no real danger, because she is rescued by a deus ex machina.

I did enjoy reading the book, but I don't think it was as good as the first one.

And then, going beyond simply reviewing this book, I come to the comparison with my own. If there were some things I didn't much like about this book, how did I do it differently (or try to -- it is for the reader to judge whether I succeeded) in my books?

In my children's book Of Wheels and Witches and its sequel The Enchanted Grove the child characters are normal human beings, with no superpowers. Some of their opponents are human, and some have magical or supernatural powers, so there is a fantasy element in the books, but I have tried to give the children moral agency, so that their choices do make a difference, and do have consequences, some of which could be foreseen and others not. But as I said, it's up to the reader to judge how well I succeeded.

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