October 2007 New Books Report: Zakes Mda, Joshua Henkin, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Here are some of my current fiction readings in progress:

Cion by Zakes Mda

I’m happy to discover a mature writer with a sly, powerful voice who I’ve never heard of before: Zakes Mda, lately of Athens, Ohio, formerly of Herschel, South Africa. Mda has had a long career writing novels with titles like The Heart of Redness and The Whale Caller (The Horse Whisperer meets Moby Dick?) and I may have to search them all out, because Cion, a satire about a “professional mourner” who leaves South Africa to inspect the United States of America in the year 2004, shows off the author’s irresistibly sharp and pungent comic voice, which seems to combine Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s wild imagination with Isaac Bashevis Singer’s folksy warmth. Here is Cion‘s hero explaining how he carried on his career in his native land:

In any event my professional mourning practice in South Africa was in a rut. Death continued every day, for death will never let you down. But the thrill of mourning was taken away by the sameness of the deaths I had to mourn on a daily basis. Death was plentiful — certainly more than before — but it lacked the drama of the violent deaths that I used to mourn during the upheavals of the political transition in that country. Now the bulk of the deaths were boringly similar. They were deaths of lies. We heard there was the feared AIDS pandemic stalking the homesteads. Yet no one died of it, or of anything related to it. Instead young men and women in their prime died of diseases that never used to kill anyone before — diseases such as TB and pneumonia that used to be cured with ease not so long ago. At the funerals I mourned, the dreaded four letters were never mentioned, only TB and pneumonia and diarrhoea. People died of silence. Of shame. Of denial. And this conspiracy resulted in a stigma that stuck like pubic lice on both the living and the dead.

Actually, that’s about the most un-comic paragraph I’ve read so far, but the book establishes and maintains a high tone of subterranean bemusement after the protagonist arrives in America and immediately finds himself in the midst of a wild bacchanal including an appearance by the protest group Billionaires for Bush.

I also like this book’s cover artwork as well as the artwork for several other Mda books in this Picador series.

Continue Reading or not? Actually, now that I realize Cion is about a character introduced in earlier Mda novels, I think I’m going to pause this one and try to start with an earlier Mda novel instead. This is the kind of book that makes you want to start at the beginning.

Matrimony by Joshua Henkin

Some kind of humorous glow illuminates Joshua Henkin’s affectionate tale of a hopeful writer’s adventures in college and in marriage. The book begins with baby Julian Wainwright yelling “Out! Out! Out!” in a car somewhere in New England, which struck me initially as a tip of the hat to Robert Frost, but as the skillful Henkin develops his comedic lines and likable characters my thoughts turn instead towards Lorrie Moore, who I believe would get along with Joshua Henkin very well.

I have only deeply loved one campus novel in my life — that would be The Secret History by Donna Tartt, for those of you who are new here — so Henkin doesn’t win any points with me by beginning his book at a hypothetical Graymont College. However, the description grabs my interest:

An alternative school, according to the Graymont brochure, on whose cover there appeared a picture of Rousseau sitting next to a cow. Henri Rousseau? Jean-Jacques Rousseau? The students didn’t know, and they didn’t seem to care.

The book is most remarkable for its breezy and gentle comedy, though I see the complexities of literary careers and idealistic marriages lying in wait for these characters and I really can’t guess what turns this story will take.

Continue reading or not? Yes, I will continue reading this funny and undeniably “nice” book. Sentence by sentence, it’s pretty much like eating candy.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I had to wait a long time to read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s award-winning historical novel about the Biafran War (1967-1970), an under-documented horror that culminated in a starvation siege that eventually broke the minority Igbo people’s will to secede from Nigeria. Maybe that’s one reason I am disappointed to find this historical novel less unique in its storytelling approach than I’d hoped. I guess I was spoiled by such original African novels like Wizard of the Crow and, above, Cion, and I made the mistake of expecting to find similar richness here. But the young Adichie’s flat prose voice and melodramatic plot recall Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner more than Crow or Cion (and, considering that Kite Runner sold a thousand times more than either of these better novels, I guess that’s the whole idea).

Half of a Yellow Sun has saving graces — a moving and funny sketch of an impoverished and eager child who is adopted as a “houseboy” and grows to be the novel’s troubled conscience, and an affectionate but critical portrait of a radical Igbo intellectual who completely misjudges the political danger signs as Nigeria tightens its hold on the emerging nation of Biafra. But most of the characterizations misfire, and the pacing is a mess. At more than one turn, painful scenes of starving children with bloated bellies and flies around their patchy scalps are interrupted so the main character — the book’s heroine — can get in touch with her feelings of jealousy towards her unfaithful husband.

I get the feeling Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wanted to write a family story and didn’t know how to combine that with a war story. Half of a Yellow Sun is the result. I do believe Adichie has talent and can do better, but based on this deliverable she’s not the new Chinua Achebe just yet.

Continue reading or not? I already finished the book, more because I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing a great ending that explained the whole thing in retrospect. Turns out I wasn’t.

I’ve got more notes to follow on my recent readings coming later this week or next.

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