A Long Way from Douala, We Are Not In the World and The Art of Losing are very different novels but they share a common humanity; their exploration of themes of emigration, identity, family and belonging is searching, evocative and enlightening. Each involves a migration in one form or another but the real journey is to the heart and soul.
A Long Way from Douala by Max Lobe, translated by Ros Schwartz
Cameroonian-Swiss novelist Max Lobe is a brilliant young talent and I expect he has a bright future. This defiant and uplifting immigrant’s story is powerful and persuasive, engendering an empathy with the young men at its heart as they make their way north through west Africa toward Europe. People migrate for a better life, they give up a lot for that, but that seems to be held against by people who are afraid of the changing face of Europe – in similar circumstances who would do any different?
The tragedy of grief weighs on a Cameroonian family already mired in poverty, turmoil and political strife. For all that, this is a surprisingly upbeat and hopeful tale of migration, not for achieving the goal of coming to Europe but for the indomitable spirit of the characters in making the journey. This novel is very revealing of the reasons people uproot from their lives and risk everything for that one chance of a better future. We see the hopes and dreams of these the boys who make the journey and recognise in them the things that have made this a natural human endeavour in many different directions for centuries. As I’ve implied, one of the remarkable things about this migrant tale it’s optimism and humour. Make no mistake it’s a poignant tale, empathetic, at times brutally raw but Max Lobe is a hopeful writer. A Long Way from Douala is stylish and colourful tale, rich and insightful.
Claude has a stroke in front of his family and dies in hospital. His wife struggles to cope, her two boys face an abusive upbringing. Everyone is trying to deal with their grief in their own individual, unhappy way:
‘Since Pa’s death, Ma either talks non-stop, or she is silent. There’s not one evening when she doesn’t cry and ask the Good Lord what she’s done to deserve this.’
Roger suffers at his mother’s hand until, eventually, he decides to run away. A road trip across Cameroon ensues as Jean goes in search of his older brother. Roger has dreams of success in Europe as a top class footballer, just like any young boy on the streets of Barcelona or Madrid. Jean and, brother-by-another-mother, Simon, set out from Douala, their journey becomes an exploration the country; culture, landscape and people. They head north to Nigeria and the story is infused with magnificent vibrancy and colour; people in the marketplaces, welcoming despite the different social and religious customs and traditions. The darker side comes from boko haram, police brutality, corruption, rotten politics, religious divisions, intolerance and the violent smugglers as people gather to attempt the treacherous crossing to Europe.
‘On the road, police search is a more and more frequent. Each time, it’s the same song and dance: get out of the vehicle, present your ID, be frisked by officers with metal detectors, then get back in a few metres further on. There is an even stronger police presence on the road between Garoua and Maroua.’
Lobe is a gay man, now living in Geneva, his sexuality present additional challenges to his acceptance in Europe due to prejudice but nothing like the stigma and brutality people have to face across much of Africa. This is more a tale of friendship than sexuality but it is a plea for tolerance. A Long Way from Douala is sympathetically translated by Ros Schwartz, who not only has an empathy for the characters but does not Anglicise the language by rewording the Camfranglais, a mix of English, French, pidgin and local Cameroonian languages that colour the narrative. A lyrical and thought provoking novel.
Hope Road, Paperback, ISBN 9781913109011, out now
We Are Not In the World by Conor O’Callaghan
A complete change of texture and tone for this extraordinary novel from a poet who gets the essence of the longer form, the novel.
‘She is: behind me on the other side of the bunk’s shut curtain, twentysomething, not supposed to be here. I am: in the driver’s seat, officially alone, on the lam.’
That in a nut shell is the plot of We Are Not In the World. Paddy, an émigré Irishman, is driving an HGV from the north of England to France, his daughter is a stow away in the back of the vehicle; a wild child, spiky and combative. Will their time together on the road give them the opportunity, and do they have the desire, to heal the wounds of the past, their broken relationship? Memories and the emotional fall of the past haunt them at every turn. This is a musing on love, family, loss and regret. Why they are making this journey together and where they are going is mystery, this is an inverted Godot, travelling not waiting for answers. It’s clear though that what matters is the scarring, shame, anger and frustrations of the past And this is not about redemption.
The prose is fragmentary and dense, sentence and thoughts tail off begging the reader to complete them or to understand the absences they leave. Much of the description is poetic, keenly observed and disturbingly frank. This novel is in your face from the first to last page. The conversations between father and daughter are often barbed and always edgy. This can feel like watching a train wreck happening live. As the relationship between Paddy and his daughter is revealed over time we learn about their family, about their dysfunction; Paddy’s marriage, the betrayals, his love affair, the time spent away. It’s not difficult to see where the anger and resentment comes from with his daughter but, of course, she has her own faults. This is a story about a man dislodged from his Irish roots and how the sins of the fathers are visited on the generations to come. The gloves are off, nothing is off limits in the verbal jousting between the pair, their chats are mocking, spiteful and disorienting for the reader but there’s a black humour in play too. This is fascinating, you can’t look away.
‘She’s quite close to her only uncle… She has her own direct line to him. They’ve always texted. Mostly sarcastic emojis, so far as I can tell, at one another’s expense. Have they been texting since we came on the road? She always seems well informed.’
O’Callaghan is best known as a poet but either instinctively or by study he has grasped that the novel is a different beast, not so much about the precision of the language as a feat of ‘imaginative engineering’ O’Callaghan’s own words. That said We Are Not In the World, not big on plot, is loaded with emotional truth; wicked jokes, a sense of melancholy, sarcastic questions, Irish folklore, and tales of life in America, France and England.
The reason for the journey is obscured but it doesn’t really matter, if the ugly can be described as beautiful and the brutal as enriching this powerful read is both.
Doubleday, hardback, ISBN 9780857526854
The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter, translated by Frank Wynne
Of these three very impressive novels here this is my favourite. An epic that rootles around in the past, in cultural diversity and contemporary life to describe modern Europe is and what it’s relationship with Africa really means.
‘On the pretext that, in a moment of anger, the Dey of Algeria struck the French Consul with a fan – though it might have been a fly whisk; account of the incident differ – the French army began its conquest of Algeria in the first days of the summer of 1830, during a sweltering heat wave that would only get worse.’
Thus began a story that has unfolded ever since, never think that pain and memory are diminished by time. The Art of Losing is a sweeping saga that explores seventy years in the life of a French-Algerian family; first life in Algeria and then France as the family was forced to flee for their safety during the Algerian War of Independence. The catalyst for the story is French born Naïma’s desire to know more about her family past than the obvious fact that they came from Algeria, until now this hasn’t been an issue for Naïma. But why did her grandfather Ali and family make the journey to France to wind up in a refugee camp, then later, a small flat in a Paris banlieu, mired in poverty? The family have been silent about the past but it’s not factual history that is buried so much as the raw emotional experience of their past, experiences share by many of those who came to France at that time. Naïma’s father Hamid Kabyle casts off any discussion by saying he doesn’t remember, he was a child when the family arrived in France. Why was Ali forced to leave his homeland in order to save his life? Naïma travels to the homeland to find out about her family for herself. What she finds is bound up in colonialism and the divisions of a brutal civil war. Ali was a rich man, doing well, the family had status in the community but that vanished for a harsh, destitute life in France when he found himself on the wrong side.
The Art of Losing is about the power of the human spirit to survive; to adapt, to face adversity again and again and again to survive it. This is also about identity, this is a family blighted by the trauma of relocation in the aftermath of war; they carry the silence and the guilt of the past. This is also a tale about intergenerational issues; language, custom, culture, divisions that grow between young and old. The pressure to assimilate, the desire to fit in, to be French and Algerian at the same time, it leaves future generations dislocated, in a no man’s land. Naïma needs to understand her heritage and her French citizenship. The descendants of Algerian parents are not tourists in Europe, they are Europeans, just as much as the people who can trace their lineage back hundreds of years on French soil. Immigrants don’t ask for anything except the chance to prove themselves valuable citizens and barriers are constantly put in the way of that. This novel exposes racism, othering, bitterness and prejudice and couldn’t be more relevant but it’s a celebration of resilience and courage.
I don’t believe you can understand France during the twentieth century without understanding it’s role in Indochine and, particularly, Algeria. Most of history is written from the point of view of the victor and for the lifetime of Algerians in France it’s been negative, imperialist and reaffirming of the virtues of empire; even now in France, as in Britain, many people resent a challenge to traditional/laughable views of benevolent colonialism. Novels like this help to redress the balance, it gives voice to the Harkis of Algerian descent who have been little heard to date. This history is complex but by focusing on one family, by allowing Naïma to explore the story of her family, the loss of home and livelihood, the devastation and grief, Zeniter gives us a compassionate and intimate view of suffering, in an attempt to understand belonging, courage, humiliation and taboo subjects. At the time people didn’t care about the arrivals from Algeria who were put in camps in Normandy, they should understand better now.
“Naïma sometimes things that life is like a dog if it senses no fear it doesn’t attack.’
But Naïma can compare her experience and that of her family with French confidence and a lack of fear that comes from never having been challenged about your origins. Ultimately The Art of Losing is about the immigrant experience, about what we understand Europe to be. A staggeringly Poignant and thought provoking tale.
Alice Zeniter is an award winning novelist, translator, scriptwriter and director. This powerful novel is beautifully translated from the French by Frank Wynne.
Picador, hardback, ISBN 9781509884117, out now
All three are 5* reads and would be stimulating group reads.
Reviewed by Paul Burke