‘And So I Love It’

Review of Clarice Lispector, Near to the Wild Heart trans. Alison Entrekin;
The Passion According to G.H. trans. Idra Novey; Água Viva trans. Stefan Tobler;
A Breath of Life trans. Johnny Lorenz (New Directions, 2012).

Towards the end of Clarice Lispector’s first novel Near to the Wild Heart (Perto do coração selvagem, 1943), there is an exchange between Joanna, the heroine, and her bemused husband Otávio, that seven decades on has the capacity to shock:

‘It’ll only be over when I have a child, she repeated, vague, obstinate.
Otávio opened his eyes at her. ‘A little contrived this idea, don’t you think?’ he asked ironically.
‘What has been between us isn’t enough in itself. Whereas after a child there will be nothing left for us but separation.’
‘And what about the child?’, he asked. ‘What will the poor thing’s role be in this whole wise arrangement?’
‘Oh, he’ll live,’ she answered.
‘Is that all?’ he said, trying sarcasm.
‘What else can you do besides that?’
Otávio, thinking she was waiting, despite his shyness and anger at obeying her, concluded hesitantly:
‘Be happy, for example.’
Joana raised her eyes and looked at him from afar with surprise and a certain glee – why? – Otávio wondered frightened. He blushed as if he had made a ridiculous joke.

Otávio has been caught out expressing a hope. In Joana’s world of introspection and impulse, where there are no ideals or obligations, just freedom from such illusions, he has spoken like a child. Momentarily, though she quickly recovers, she loves him for it.

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Where Poetry Flows

My compass keeps avoiding all the facts
To find that South is its magnetic mover.
(Walcott, A Map of the Antilles)

Auden’s dictum ‘For poetry makes nothing happen’ is familiar and often contested. Less well remarked is how the passage continues – ‘it survives / In the valley of its making where executives / Would never want to tamper, flows on south …’

I was reminded of this association of poetry with non-utility and the non-executive, and of both with ‘south’, when I read Michael Collins’s fascinating piece on ‘John Ormond in Tuscany’ (PW 35, 4). Ormond published his first volume of poems in 1943, and soon after burned everything he had written. It was a visit to Tuscany in 1963 which, in his own words, ‘broke the blockage that had kept me virtually silent for too many years’ and led to his writing ‘Cathedral Builders’ in ‘twenty minutes flat’. Thereafter, Ormond visited the small town of Cortona every summer to drink the white wine and write poetry. At home, he was a television man, an executive of sorts. In Cortona he felt able, in his Puccini-derived Italian, to declare ‘Sono poeta’.

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There’s no such person as the ‘other’

‘Landeg’. The Portuguese receptionist hesitates. I pass her my bilhete de identidade, and she copies it out, a letter at a time. Sometimes, my wife spells it out – with an el, an arr, an enn, a day, an ay, and a jay.   Occasionally, puzzlement overtakes politeness. ‘Landeg, what kind of name is that?’ It’s Welsh, I tell them. This resonates. Like Wales, Portugal is a small country, overlooked by its powerful neighbour. More, we have Celtic words in common. More too, Wales’ powerful neighbour happens to be Portugal’s oldest ally, in another marriage of unequals. By this stage, I’m well on the way to being embraced.

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The Dignity of Merchants

Review of Manthia Diawara, In Search of Africa
(Harvard University Press, 1998)

Towards the end of Eddy Harris’s Native Stranger: a Blackamerican’s Journey into the Heart of Africa, he spends two despairing weeks waiting at Lisala on the bank of the Zaire River for a steamer to take him to Kisangani. Behind him are North Africa, Franco-phone and English-speaking Africa, and a disastrous foray into the former black American colony of Liberia; behind him, too, 300-pages of mounting exasperation with the poverty, filth, incompetence and sadistic bullying he has encountered on all sides. Finally the steamer arrives and he falls with relief into conversation with Justin, an English passenger. The captain remarks on this: ‘his ancestors stole your ancestors from this place and took them to America as slaves. How can you live with them?’ Thinking back on all he has seen and experienced, Eddy Harris ‘turned to Justin and thanked him’.

It is a climax of appalling irony, to some readers an obscenity, like joking about the holocaust. How could, a black American, even temporarily deranged, how could he celebrate the slave trade as a good thing, releasing him from a ‘heart of darkness’ homeland? Yet Harris’s ‘thank you’ is not just a perversity. It finds an echo in Richard Wright’s question: ‘What does an African facing an African American see?’ It finds an echo in Manthia Diawara’s answer: ‘I see Toni Cade Bambara, I see Kamau Brathwaite, I see James Baldwin, I see Bob Marley, I see James Brown, I see C.L.R. James, I see Muhammad Ali, I see Paule Marshall, I see Malcolm X, I see Edwidge Danticat, I see Walter Mosley, I see Maryse Condé, I see myself. I am free to see a human being, a person, an individual’.

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Palpable Inventions

Review of Stephen Howe, Afrocentrism, Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes (Verso, 1998)

Did Napoleon mutilate the nose of the Great Sphinx because he thought it looked too ‘African’? Is the star Sirius B a storehouse of energy and information transmitted to earth specifically to people whose bodies are rich in melanin (the chemical which pigments skin)? Are Christmas trees, chocolate bars, baseballs, Spanish bulls (and what’s done to them by way of chopping, biting, thwacking and impaling) all symbols of black male genitalia? Were the first white women lepers who fled to the Caucasus and coupled with jackals to produce the white race? Do surnames like Dunn, Grey and Douglas, and place names like Dublin and Blackpool, indicate concealed African origins? Were the Mende people of West Africa the first to navigate to Peru? Did Egyptians build Stonehenge? Is AIDS the outcome of a genocidal white conspiracy to eliminate Africans? More to the point, do you believe these are serious questions, requiring patient and scholarly rebuttal?

Stephen Howe’s subject is Afrocentricism which, he says, comes in two varieties. The first is an interest in Africa and its culture reinforced by the belief ‘that Eurocentric bias blocked or distorted knowledge of Africans and their cultures’. This has been around for some time, most effectively expressed over the last four decades in the rise of the new academic discipline of African history. It is the second or ‘stronger version … a far more cohesive, dogmatic and essentially irrational ideology’ which has developed over a much longer period which is his subject. He doesn’t add, but it is his premise, that this second form of Afrocentricm is dangerous. The parallels he invokes are with Germany in the 1930s and Serbia in the 1990s.

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