Michel the Giant: An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie: from Togo to Greenland

From the sublime to the ridiculous: a man from Togo visits Greenland, the land of his dreams.

You wouldn’t imagine there would be many similarities between life in sub-Saharan Africa and one of the coldest inhabited places on Earth, Greenland. Thanks to An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie from the West-African Togolese Republic, I discovered that there are.

This is based on the life story and journey of a young Togoan man who dreams at an early age of visiting the strange and exotic land of Greenland. After running away from his duties and a string of lucky breaks working hard in the right places, his dream comes true. The book gives a really interesting insight into traditional life in an African country, with snakes, medicine women and polygamy, then into traditional life in Greenland, with hunting, large amounts of whale blubber, alcoholism, permissiveness (traditional or not?) and an unexpected amount of correlation between the two ways of life. Fascinating.

Weird and wonderful book connections

I often notice strange and unexpected connections between the book I’ve just read and the one I’m reading now. The book I read before this one was The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles, about an American couple travelling in North Africa. There isn’t much connection between the two books, unless you count the fact that both The Sheltering Sky and An African in Greenland are about travels in a foreign land, both beginning somewhere in French-speaking Africa (Algeria and Togo). There is also a passage in this book where the author describes a huge moon rising low over a frozen sea where he specifically says it reminds him of the desert and even before he made that comparison, it was triggering memories of descriptions in The Sheltering Sky of the moon over the desert. In addition to that, the descriptions of unappetising food are similar, though Greenland takes it to a whole new level of disgusting.

Many reviews I have seen on Goodreads comment on how ungrateful Kpomassie seemed for the food and lodgings provided to him by his hosts in Greenland. However, that was not the impression I got. If you come from a culture of hospitality where it is normal to invite visitors to share what you have, however little that may be, then it is also normal to accept hospitality. In Greenland, he seems to have been accepted as a visitor without any problem. Perhaps extremes of temperature make a culture more likely to take a stranger in, whether to protect them from scorching sun and dangerous wild animals or from freezing to death.

Where is the author now?

As I was wondering what happened to Kpomassie after his trip to Greenland had finished, I was searching the internet and discovered a blog post by a journalist who visited him in Paris and corresponded with him. He now lives in France, but was later able to travel back to both Greenland and Togo. Update 2 March 2022: At the grand old age of 81 he is planning to leave France and spend the rest of his life in Greenland. The Guardian published an excellent interview with him which is well worth a read.

Final verdict: Not the best travel book I’ve ever read, but interesting nevertheless.

Surprise new translation

While scrolling The Guardian at the weekend at the end of February 2022, I was astounded to see a review of An African in Greenland, as I read it so long ago. A new translation by James Kirkup has appeared as a Penguin Modern Classic, presumably due to the current level of interest in reading books in translation and books by people of colour. This particular book also has bonus points for ticking the boxes for those difficult-to-find countries Togo and Greenland for ‘reading the world’ readers, which is why I read it in the first place.

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene – thoughts and quotations

Set in Mexico, often considered Graham Greene’s best book, The Power and the Glory is oppressive and beautifully written.

Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory is a feverish tale of fear and abandonment read in the feverish throes of bronchitis and influenza (or, less dramatically, just a cold and cough), alternating between consciousness and oblivion, with the logic of day and night losing all semblance of reality. At least I wasn’t being attacked by beetles.

Unlike the priest in this short novel, who is travelling incognito, denying adamantly that he is a priest because under the Mexican regime of the time, the Catholic Church is banned. As the novel progresses, we realise that he is deeply flawed, trapped in his role of priest, when he could have given in and married, like many other priests. However he isn’t so much brave as unable to escape. In one village that begs him to perform a mass, he repeatedly refuses, denying he is a priest, hence echoing Peter’s denial of Jesus. Harking back to this story, on p.100, “a cock crew”, which rather surprised me because in every version of the Bible I have read it says “the cock crowed three times.”

The setting for the book is both dismal, with abject poverty, an oppressive regime and various scenes set in unlit rooms. The whole feeling is oppressive.

In spite of this, it was a fascinating tale which draws you in. The priest has done enough illegal or immoral things to make us alternately sympathetic and repulsed. The action and the pursuit of the priest by the lieutenant keeps the plot moving along. There are moments of humour, moments of pathos, moments of horror.

At one point the priest is captured, but he has changed since the photo on the wall that the soldiers are using to identify him was taken, but it is not only his appearance that has changed, it is his whole outlook. Back in the past, “Then, in his innocence, he had felt no love for anyone; now in his corruption he had learnt . . .” (p.139)

I hadn’t really expected to enjoy this book and yet I did, mostly because of the language, which was beautiful. I’m not sure why that was my feeling going in. I’ve read and enjoyed two Graham Greene books in the past: ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘Brighton Rock’, but with those it was very much the plot that kept me interested rather than the prose. I’ve written out a number of quotations below and commented briefly on some.

Final verdict: I need to read more Graham Greene!

Quotations and imagery

Dedication: To Gervase
Gervase Mathew OP (d.1976) was an English Dominican friar who lived for many years at Blackfriars, Oxford. He was a member of the famous ‘Inklings’, a group that included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

Th’ inclosure narrow’d; the sagacious power
Of hounds and death drew nearer every hour.

A phrase repeated: Ora pro nobis – pray for us

I loved these images of a pile of postcards, of memories and the future:

Home lay like a picture postcard on a pile of other postcards: shuffle the pack and you had Nottingham, a Metroland birthplace, an interlude in Southend. Mr Tench’s father had been a dentist too – his first memory was finding a discarded case in a wastepaper basket – the rough toothless gaping mouth of clay , like something dug up in Dorset – Neanderthal or Pithecanthropus. It had been his favourite toy: they tried to tempt him with Meccano, but fate had struck. There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in. The hot wet river-port and the vultures lay in the wastepaper basket, and he picked them out. We should be thankful we cannot see the horrors and degradations lying around our childhood, in cupboards and bookshelves, everywhere.” (pp.11 – 12)

What a fabulous piece of writing! The image of shuffling through a pile of postcards, then the fossilised remnant from the wastepaper basket and the humour of the parents trying to tempt a child with Meccano. Then the impact of the philosophical line about a door opening, followed by the humour about the damage our childhood can create. Marvellous!

“The glittering worlds lay there in space like a promise – the world was not the universe. Somewhere Christ might not have died. He could not believe that to a watcher there this world could shine with such brilliance: it would roll heavily in space under its fog like a burning and abandoned ship. The whole globe was blanketed with his own sin.” (p.29)

Beautiful, though the concept of being blanketed in sin is not particularly pleasant.

“He remembered Holy Week in the old days when a stuffed Judas was hanged from the belfry and boys made a clatter with tins and rattled as he swung out over the door.” (p.91) This reminds me of a similar practice in the Netherlands during Carnaval when a figure called Woeziks Jupke is burned at midnight on Shrove Tuesday to mark the end of Carnaval and the start of Lent – www.eenwagenvolverhalen.nl/popverbranden

An odd stillness dropped over the forest, and welled up in the mist from the ground. The night had been noisy, but now all was quiet. It was like an armistice with the guns silent on either side: you could imagine the whole world listening to what they had never heard before – peace.

A voice said ‘You are the priest, aren’t you?’

‘Yes.’ It was as if they had climbed out of their opposing trenches and met to fraternize among the wires in No Man’s Land. He remembered stories of the European war – how during the last years men had sometimes met on an impulse between the lines. (pp.100-101)

“It was odd – This fury to deface, because, of course, you could never deface enough. If God had been like a toad, you could have rid the globe of toads, but when God was like yourself, it was no good being content with stone figures – you had to kill yourself among the graves.” (p.102)

The poem the priest reads in Coral’s abandoned book is The Brook by Tennyson www.poemhunter.com/the-brook-2

Background reading:

  • A lecture given by Marisha Pessl, author of Special Topics in Calamity Physics (as yet unread by me): http://marishapessl.com/graham-greene
  • Contemporaries of each other, the two Catholic writers, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, were divided by one religion. Greene later seemed to see the list of Catholic sins as a challenge, whereas Waugh was a family man and saw the restrictions imposed on him as helpful boundaries, not to be crossed. This is discussed in this Guardian article:  www.theguardian.com/2003/classics.evelynwaugh
  • An interesting article on the book: www.english.op.org/the-power-and-the-glory
  • The book was filmed as The Fugitive in 1947, starring Henry Fonda as the Priest. A version for US TV and later released to cinemas elsewhere was also made in 1961 starring Laurence Olivier, of all people!

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman: democracy and civil liberties at stake

Darker themes of losses of democracy and civil liberties underpin this YA fantasy adventure in a world that isn’t quite our own.

Philip Pullman’s long-awaited addition to the His Dark Materials trilogy finally arrived at the beginning of 2018 in the form of a prequel, the first of a trilogy centred on The Book of Dust. This is more than just a fantasy: democracy is breaking down, civil liberties are being lost. This would make a great book to read and discuss with teenagers.

Young adult themes and a darker note

La Belle Sauvage is more of a rip-roaring Tale than Northern Lights. In Northern Lights, death takes place at a distance or off stage. In La Belle Sauvage, the violence is full frontal, with descriptions of how Malcolm has to attack Bonneville to protect Lyra & Pan, Alice & Ben. If it was filmed, we would have to witness it. But this is righteous anger in self defence against evil, similar to Lord Asriel’s killing of Coulter and Iorek Byrnison’s killing of the other bear in Northern Lights.

This is altogether much darker than Northern Lights, with more adult themes. Bonneville was imprisoned and had his laboratory taken away from him because of sexual crimes. Now released, even those who know nothing of him find him inexplicably repulsive, though on the surface he is charming; outwardly his evil characteristics are focused in his hyaena daemon. Uniquely, he is cruel to his own daemon, causing it deliberate pain.

Children save the day

This goes back to the adventure tales I read when I was a child, with the added spice of late 20th century children using bad language. It’s the sort of language children use when their parents and teachers are out of earshot. The BBC might not use it before the watershed, but the age group that should be reading this will undoubtedly have heard worse on Eastenders.

In the ‘good old days’, the children in adventure stories came from well-to-do homes and often had their adventures in the school holidays, more or less unsupervised by adults. In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, in Swallows and Amazons, in The Psammead or The Secret Garden, children have no responsibilities except to play and leave the adults in peace.

Malcolm and Alice

Malcolm and Alice, however, have an altogether more working class background. Both work in Malcolm’s parents’ pub, but they are different. Malcolm is happy and secure, curious, intelligent and helpful. He’s the sort of boy who would be wasted leaving school early to follow in his father’s footsteps. To start with, he and Alice are hostile to each other. I got the feeling that Alice had a background of neglect or possibly even abuse. She is sullen, but that seems to arise from insecurity, the sort of girl who would fall prey to a charming man. Later she reveals herself to have hidden depths, but in her favour from the start, she is working hard, washing all those dishes by hand. I’d be sullen if that’s what everyone thought that was all I was capable of.

Malcolm, on the other hand, is everyone’s favourite helper. Apart from helping out in the pub, he helps the carpenter and is never too busy to help Sister Fenella peel potatoes or apples. He’s observant, tactful and interested in everything. Just the sort of child to be invited to borrow books from an academic’s personal library or to get caught up in passing messages and observing the goings on of the adults around him. It’s just his misfortune that things are about to take a turn for the worse. “Becoming rich was never an aim of his; he took tips to be the generosity of providence, and came to think of himself as lucky, which did him no harm in later life.”

Humour, grammar and language

One of the things that surprised and delighted me about this book was the humour; a sort of twinkly-eyed grandfatherly, favourite teacher-like humour that sometimes takes a moment to sink in.

“ ‘I thought neat was all right,’ he said.
‘It depends on whether you want the idea of neatness to modify the act of tying the parcel, or to refer to the parcel itself once tied.’ “

I highlighted this in the book and was rather perplexed to understand what it meant until I realised it was a grammar joke. Just prior to this, Sister Benedicta has corrected Malcolm’s question ‘How d’you make them [sic] parcels so neat?’ to ‘neatly’.

Or: “as far as Malcolm knew there were no openings in scholarship for a bright boy with a canoe.”

I love the way Pullman continues to talk about grammar and language:

“ ‘Sanctuary?’ Malcolm liked the sound of the word, and he could see how to spell it already, in his imagination.” This is how I remember words. If I hear a word and can’t imagine how to spell it because I’m confused about which language is in (English or Dutch), I really can’t place it. Occasionally I have to ask someone to spell a word for me before I can understand what they are saying.

This book is full of wonderful comments about reading and imagination, too:

“ ‘These meanings – the relation between them – if they work by kinds of similarity,’said Coram, ‘they could go on a lot past a hundred. There’s no end to finding similarities once you start looking for ‘em.’

‘But what matters is not the similarities your imagination finds, but the similarities that are implicit in the image, and they are not necessarily the same. I have noticed that the more imaginative readers are often the least successful. Their minds leap to what they think is there rather than waiting with patience.’”

Oddly enough, on the day I was writing this review (or collection of quotes I love), my family had been having a discussion about whether it is better to know ‘spoilers’ before you read a book, watch a film or, in this case, play a new video game. Apparently ‘research has shown’ that spoilers enhance your enjoyment, and there are always those people who can’t resist reading the end of a book first. For me, half the enjoyment of a book is the guessing at what might happen, but it has to be said that a few choice snippets to whet the appetite in the form of blurbs or trailers can spur you on, even if they are often misleading. In that case, you still come across unexpected situations or things don’t pan out as you had been led to believe.

Threats to democracy

In this book, an evil, all-powerful organisation, the Holy Church, is recruiting young people to join an organisation, the League of St Alexander, reminiscent of the Nazis and the Hitler Youth or any number of similar organisations in totalitarian states. Miss Carmichael visits the school and tells them that “ ‘God will be very happy to know that so many boys and girls are eager to do the right thing. To be the eyes and ears of the Authority! In the streets and the fields, in the houses and the playgrounds and the classrooms of the world, a league of little Alexanders watching and listening for a holy purpose.’ “ Of course, this should throw a chill over anyone who has read anything about this tactic in pre-WWII Germany, Russia, later the DDR, China, etc., etc. It’s a common tactic to brainwash children, indoctrinating them and trying to get them to the point where they will incriminate their parents.

Conversely, Malcolm is able to use his knowledge of human nature to find out what the League is up to by asking his friend leading questions. This tactic works because “the pleasure of knowing secrets was doubled by telling them to people.”

The erosion of civil liberties and democracy

We also see how insidious the gradual wearing away of civil liberties can be. Sister Fenella is out of touch, so she doesn’t realise the story of a boy denouncing his parents, resulting in their execution is a current story. For her, that is something that happened in the distant past, and she believes bad things can sometimes lead to good: “These things are too deep for us to understand.” She is misinformed: things are gradually reverting to unusual and ancient ways of surveillance and punishment.

Hannah Relf is more aware:

“She had nothing to fear from the police, or from any other agency, except that like every other citizen she had everything to fear. They could lock her up with no warrant and keep her there with no charge; the old act of habeas corpus had been set aside, with little protest from those in Parliament who were supposed to look after English liberty, and now one heard tales of secret arrests and imprisonment without trial, and there was no way of finding out whether the rumours wer true.” The disquieting thing is, that all these things seem to be happening in our own world, particularly in the USA where President Trump seems to think nothing of stripping away hard-fought liberties with nary a thought.

This may be a YA book, but Philip Pullman doesn’t shy away from political and philosophical discussions that relate to democracy and liberty. Lord Nugent explains to Hannah that “This is a deep and uncomfortable paradox, which will not have escaped you: we can only defend democracy by being undemocratic”, i.e. keeping the mysterious Oakley Street secret. Hannah is recruited. If she joined, “You would know […] that you were making a great contribution to the progress of this war, this secret war. You know who the enemy is, so you know what we’re fighting. Think what is at stake. The right we have to speak and think freely, to pursue research into any subject under the sun, all that would be destroyed. That is worth fighting for, don’t you agree?”

A minor mystery

One rather strange thing struck me, having read Northern Lights/The Golden Compass back to back, and that is that Mrs Coulter’s hair has changed colour. In La Belle Sauvage, when Malcolm meets Mrs Coulter, “The woman’s name hit Malcolm like a bullet. This was Lyra’s mother. She was the most beautiful lady he had ever seen: young and golden-haired and sweet-faced, dressed in grey silk, and wearing a scent, just the very faintest hint of a fragrance, that spoke of warmth and sunlight and the south.” This is contrast to the Northern Lights, where she is described with black hair (p.66). I suspect this is through inattention rather than hair dye, but it could also have been to fit in with the filmed version of The Golden Compass. In any case, a strange thing to get wrong in the sort of book in a series that is liable to be pored over by adoring fans.

That, however, is one tiny quibble in a book full of delight and things to ponder upon. The darker themes make it altogether a more interesting book than I had expected, rather than just an escape into fantasyland. This would make a fabulous book to read and discuss with teenagers.

Verdict: Highly recommended!

Thursday Next, The Woman Who Died a Lot by Jasper Fforde: Memories, dementia and the stories we tell

Jasper Fforde’s 7th book in the Thursday Next series, The Woman Who Died a Lot, is a humorous and thought-provoking book about libraries, memory and the stories we tell. Highly recommended!

Jasper Fforde’s series of books about Thursday Next is perfect reading for book nerds who love a bit of fantasy, a lot of humour and a thought-provoking insight into our own world. I think The Woman Who Died a Lot is probably one of the best, giving me plenty of food for thought about memory, dementia and the stories we tell about ourselves.

By coincidence, this is the second book in a row I have read with a younger character called Phoebe. In ‘Christine Falls’ by Benjamin Black (a pseudonym of John Banville), she was the 19-year-old niece of Quirke, the main character. In ‘The Woman Who Died a Lot’, she is a keen young detective, Phoebe Smalls.

What’s next for Thursday Next?

“All my decisions will be forgotten eventually, but it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t make the right ones.” Thursday Next, (p.333).

This is a book both absurd and thought-provoking. Where public buildings are sponsored and named after companies, including their slogans such as the Lola Vavoom Discount Sofa Warehouse See Press For Details Memorial Hospital. Where the most evil mega corporation of all is the Goliath Corporation.

At the start of the novel, our heroine, former literary detective Thursday Next is still suffering from the effects of major injury and about to be assessed by a psychiatrist for her next post. Assuming she is in line for head of SpecOps, she is downhearted to discover her ex-boss has her in mind for the new Chief Librarian. Mind you, she will be in close contact with the Special Library Service who wear “standard SLS combat fatigues, replete with the distinctive camouflage pattern of book spines for blending into library spaces” and would die protecting any book in the library.

In our world, the image of the librarian is stuffy and old-fashioned on the whole. Remember the librarian in Ghostbusters? In Thursday Next’s world, being a librarian is a cool and enviable job and “The SLS was the Special Library Service, the elite forces charged with protecting the nation’s literary heritage, either in libraries or in transit.” (p.95) I would love one of their T-shirts, ‘I don’t scare easily – I’m a librarian’. Where can I get one? The answer is in Jasper Fforde’s own online shop, wittily called after the Goliath Corporation that runs things in Thursday Next’s world: goliath-merchandising/librarian-ladies-fit-t-shirt.

“Working in fiction does give one a rather tenuous hold on reality, but it’s not the hold that’s tenuous – it’s the reality: which reality, whose reality, does it matter anyway – and will there be cake.” Thursday Next, in the psychiatrist’s chair. (p.34)

Does Jasper Fforde go into bookshops and turn his books face out and recommend them to browsing customers? Quite probably. Thursday Next does.

How the world really works

The wonderful thing about Jasper Fforde’s ridiculous take on local government and bureaucracy is that it completely explains real life. If everything becomes too well-organised, a Stupidity Surplus develops that has to be dissipated, so SpecOps’ new mission is “to generally overspend, change our minds about expensive technical upgrades, commission a plan to regionalise SpecOps with expensive state-of-the-art control rooms that we will never use, and inflate the workforce far beyond the realm of prudent management. And it is from this new culture of waste and mismanagement that we think de Poste hopes to achieve his Stupidity Surplus reduction target.” (p.44)

Dark Reading Matter and storytelling

Another of Fforde’s brilliant ideas is Dark Reading Matter. “Theoretical storyologists had calculated that the readable BookWorld makes up only 22 per cent of visible reading matter – the remainder is thought to be the unobservable remnants of long-lost books, forgotten oral tradition and ideas locked in writers’ heads when they died. A way to enter the Dark Reading Matter was keenly sought as it might offer a vast number of new ideas, plots and characters as well as a better understanding of the very nature of human imagination, and why STORY exists at all.” (p.61)

The Almighty has revealed himself to be real and the Global Religious Unification is now in a position to negotiate. “ ‘There has to be more to the ultimate meaning and purpose of existence than muddling through,’ said Tuesday with disdain. ‘Otherwise there’s no reason for the eternal quest for knowledge, and every reason for celebrity biographies and daytime soaps.’ “ (pp.80-81)

Memory, dementia and the stories we tell

“ ‘Damn,’ said my father, ‘all those memories, and none of them shared.’ “ (p.88)

Thursday’s father, having had a scandalous career at the now-defunct and deleted ChronoGuard, has manufactured memories of a happy family life which none of his family members share as they never really happened. In the book, this is contrasted with people with dementia who remember nothing of their past while their families remember all. I have to say I recognise the former state, too. I have happy memories of time spent with my children when they were young which they were too young to remember, something I hadn’t expected. On the other hand, my own father had a wealth of memories and tall stories we could never verify that have been passed on to me as somewhat hazy family stories.

Another example of Jasper Fforde’s logical explanations of the real world are the Mnemonomorphs – memory manipulators. “The stories we could tell, the things no one ever remembers. It could make your head spin. But if you’ve had that strange feeling that you’re in a room and you don’t know why, or felt that you should be doing something but can’t remember what, you can be pretty sure you’ve just had something erased.” (p.331)

The idea of memory manimpulation provokes interesting thoughts about memory. Is it important that all our memories are completely accurate or is it more important to remember how something made us feel, especially if the memory was good? This might be something we should keep in mind when dealing with people with dementia. Feeling is stronger than memory, so we should do all we can to make good memories then keep them alive by talking about them, looking at photos of happy times. And perhaps it’s worth doing our best to erase unhappy memories. If necessary, even to make false happy memories to cover them up because one day you or I may be the ones who have lost our memories and I’d like to think that the feelings I would have then would be happy ones and that anything that was sad will have evaporated.

Only believe the good stuff

Another moral lesson from this book is ‘be careful of what you wish for’ or, to be more accurate, what you believe in. Like Tinkerbell, who fades when children no longer believe, in this book, the probability of something happening is down to how many people believe it will. So the statisticians calculating the probability of an asteroid hitting the world and the journalists reporting their findings have a heavy responsibility. If the percentage goes up, more people will pay more attention and worry more and then the percentage will go up again until it becomes an inevitability. On the other hand, people have remarkably short attention spans, so they’re easily distracted by the next 5-minute wonder.

All in all, one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read by Jasper Fforde. And the standard is high, so that means this book comes highly recommended.

Further reading:

For extra features, including an interview with Jasper Fforde about the book and a discussion of why authors need to delete part of what they wrote: special features and deleted scenes

For a summary of characters and organisations: www.goodreads.com

For an interesting review by Cassie-la: www.goodreads.com

For a wonderful interview with Jasper Fforde: gulfnews.com/jasper-fforde-genre-is-the-measles-of-the-writing-world