Wednesday, 20 June 2012

#2: Eritrea















To Asmara
Thomas Keneally (Australia, 1990)
★ ★ ★
"Asmara seemed to be, to her, Eritrea focused on a mountaintop. It never gave over to the ancient kingdom of Axum. It permitted the Turks to build towers in its foothills but never declared itself theirs. It was awarded to the Italians, in the time of the European carve-up of the Horn, but only because it was so resistant to the Ethiopian Emperor. Through the Italian and British years, sixty-two of them, Asmara - in Amna's interpretation of history - kept its clear, high head."
- Darcy

For the next novel we travel right across Africa from the west coast to the northeast, from the savanna and mangrove swamps of Guinea-Bissau to the dust bowls and highland plateaus of Eritrea.

This was rather more what I expect from travel-writing than Whispers of a Secret God - perhaps because this, unlike the former, is in fact travel-writing. Well, "an attempt at fiction" is how Keneally himself, author of Schindler's Ark, describes it.

The novel presents the fictionalized account of one Mr. Darcy (I tried to find literary significance in the protagonist's name, but it seems to be incidental) a BBC journalist travelling from Khartoum to Asmara to report on the Ethiopian-Eritrean war. Along the way, he accumulates an unlikely group of companions, including Christine Malm├ędy, a young Frenchwoman in search of her elusive cinematographer father, and Mark Henry, an American aid worker whose motives are unclear.

Anything would have tasted good after Whispers of a Secret God, but I still had quite a few problems with this book. I'm always suspicious of anything that is self-consciously partisan, and Keneally leaves little doubt as to his own views on the conflict. That said, he's not uncritical; a recurring narrative technique has the group's Eritrean guide telling what appear to be tall stories of the Ethiopians' barbarity, only to then be verified by the narrator's own eyes. All of this is based upon Keneally's own experiences of Eritrea, so I'm loath to doubt him. But clever or not, well-informed or not, this is a piece of pro-Eritrean propaganda for a Western audience.

"Don't you know the West has to believe famine's an act of God? If they believe that, they only have to make a donation. But if they believe it's an act of bloody politics, they have to really do something, and that's too, too complicated. So what's the story? The story is you guys will fall on your own fucking swords, because you've got this crazy idea that the world will allow you to be perfect!"
- Mark Henry

My biggest problem, though, was in the way he chose to tell the story. Keneally's gone for a realistic structure which befits the journalistic tone, with little direction and no clear resolution. But, perhaps to give it more of a novelistic feel, he's chosen to intersperse the action with flashbacks - in the form of a diary - to Darcy's failed marriage, and occasional 'Editor's Interjections' from a third party.

Neither of these techniques worked for me. The marriage storyline was drawn out and, unless there was some extended metaphor that I missed (it's probable), largely irrelevant to the Eritrean storyline. The narrator consistently draws parallels between Australia (Keneally's native country, where the flashback sub-plot takes place) and war-torn Eritrea, and I consistently failed to see them. As for the Interjections, these were even more destructive to the pacing. Though blessedly few, each one felt like running up against a brick wall, and sadly the action in Eritrea was not compelling enough to make me want to power through these sections.

Overall, this book was something of a plod. Keneally is a master of portraying inhumanity and brutality, and I would never deny him that. But the fact that the book addresses serious issues in a well-researched and evocative manner doesn't change the fact that, structurally, it's a bit of a mess.