/ 24 December 2008

The beauty of books

<i>Mail & Guardian</i> reviewers celebrate the page-turners and head-turners in their Best Reads of 2008.

Spain were the surprise winners of this year’s European Cup. They played elegant football for most of the tournament, in the final defeating Italy — the country that frightens them the most. The same Italy described by Spanish daily, Marca, as “experts in the other football”. Luis Aragones, Spain’s coach, might have used Jonathan Wilson’s brilliant book on the history of football tactics, Inverting the Pyramid (Orion Books), or a similar book.

Inverting the Pyramid is an exhaustive, charmingly written account of the evolution of tactics in modern football. It notes the rather straitened British way of playing, the crucial role of the Hungarians for whom football was “a matter for intellectual debate” and that special moment when the Brazilians freed the game from the strictures imposed by the English, adding flourish and improvisation. Wilson is aware of the dichotomy, “that tension between beauty and cynicism, between what Brazilians call futebol d’arte and futebol de resultados“. Short-listed for the William Hill sports book for this year, Wilson’s book lost out on the prize. Inverting the Pyramid, nevertheless, is a must-have for serious fans.

Away from the passion of the football pitch, the tragedy in Zimbabwe continues to occupy the world’s attention. Heidi Holland’s Dinner with Mugabe (Penguin, 2008), a biography of Zimbabwe’s president, allows us to peep into the psyche of the man who has dominated Zimbabwe’s politics for over three decades. This is the most authoritative book of the man that we have.

The Whistler is by Ondjaki who comes from Angola. This novel comes from Flame Books, a small United Kingdom publishing house that translates fiction published in Spanish, Portuguese, isiZulu and other languages into English and distributes it globally. The Whistler and Jose Eduardo Agualusa’s The Book of Chameleons (Arcadia Books), which came out in translation last year through a different publisher, confirms Angola as rich soil from which some of the most luxuriant literature is sprouting. When they do magical realism, they do it properly; it doesn’t feel contrived in the way The Wizard of the Crow (Random House) by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, say, does.

Wa Thiong’o first came out in the Heinemann’s African Writers Series, recently relaunched. The series’ former editor, James Currey, brought out Africa Writes Back, a social history of the African Writers Series. After I did my largely glowing review of the book, a friend wrote to me to say he disliked the book’s “self-congratulatory paternalism” and Currey’s failure to be more “reflexive about the cultural [and] colonial role of the African Writers Series”.

The friend “found the parts on Dambudzo [Marechera] particularly infuriating — the reduction of his politically charged work to the tribulations of a child-genius who remained unable to fit in society — ” It’s a largely fair account; those who personally knew Marechera have a tale to tell about him. “There’s no disputing the role of [the] African Writers Series in selling African writing, but for me too much of Currey’s selective memory sounds like: where will you be without us?” he added. Valid points, I guess, but as the Nigerian proverb goes: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

Henning Mankell’s The Eye of the Leopard (Harvill Secker) may be disliked for similar reasons. It’s set in Zambia and is narrated by Hans Olofson, a Swede who finds himself in Africa and in the centre of particularly rabid racism. The book tries to interrogate racism, and how most of it seems crude and foolish. As someone argued elsewhere, to embrace an ism, even an offensive one, say racism, someone needs to have read a certain amount of history and philosophy. Still, someone in Mankell’s book declares: “Of course I am racist. But I am not a stupid racist.” Which statement invites the riposte: “As opposed to a clever racist?”

The Blind Kingdom (Ayebia Clarke Publishing) by Veronique Tadjo is about stupid black rulers. I feel Tadjo’s book would be lovely to read in the French in which it was originally written. Yet even in English its poetic force is not diminished. The book is a handy manifesto, sans the sloganeering and the singing, on nation building. Indeed a character in the book says the “goal is not to kill, but to create”.

One literary creator is Nthikeng Mohlele, who came out this year with The Scent of Bliss, an outstanding poetic piece of work. Minor faults aside, Mohlele’s voice is novel and shows a concern, largely absent in most of the new works I read this year, for beautiful language for its own sake. I struggled to read works whose texture wouldn’t be out of place in manifestos for the feminists, anti-consumerists, Aids and other activists.

All this brings me back to where I began, to that eternal struggle in football to find the perfect balance between pragmatism and beauty. Is winning by any means the ultimate aim? Is it possible to win and still play beautifully? It’s a question equally relevant for South Africa’s new literature. Activists are writing manifestos; nothing wrong with that. What’s worrying though is the lack of attempt, or a reluctance, to employ the devices that have been traditionally used in fiction.

Spain’s victory over the Italians’ pragmatic approach (catenaccio) shows that one can still play beautifully and win.