Okri, Naipaul and Arundhati bushwhacked by Moscow-based reviewer

I have spent the last day trawling through my favorite new e-zine, the eXile, which is published in Moscow. Its book reviewer, John Dolan, is particularly adept at delivering kidney-punch reviews of the great and good.

This is Dolan on Aidan Hartley’s The Zanzibar Chest.
‘The first thing you notice about Aidan Hartley’s memoir, The Zanzibar Chest, is the skill with which Hartley moves from stories of his ancestors’ colonial exploits to episodes in his own pinball trajectory through contemporary African war zones. It’s not easy to switch centuries and keep the reader with you, and Hartley does it well.

The second thing you notice is that Hartley barely bothers to disguise his Tory nostalgia for Britain’s Imperial past. It irks him that he can only observe and describe Africa’s many wars, when his fathers for generations past played such an enthusiastic role in starting, stoking and stifling the conflicts of their eras.’ more here.

Dolan then sets his sights on Ben Okri, a writer so confusing that everyone I have ever met who has read him vows he is deep and heavy and will not be drawn on further discussion. I suspect that like me, most of them have not read Okri after having tried to and concluded that you need to be on mescaline to get past the first chapter. Dolan, displaying a refreshing rage and bitterness for God knows what heaping of disappointments, does not shrink from letting Okri have it from both barrels.

Then, in a bid to be generous for once, Dolan takes on Naipaul who he understands better than almost anyone with whom I have discussed the bullied, snotty, little Trini who made good by hating everyone. Let me just say that like Dolan, I really dig Naipaul even while I see just how screwed up he is.

Says Dolan, ‘he hated the black boys, big and muscular, who beat him up, who scared him. It’s the truth; let’s face it. He has been called a racist, and he is one…’

‘They, the new black rulers, didn’t want any little Indians hanging around the Presidential Palace. Naipaul — who must truly have been a nasty boy, a sneaking eavesdropper and swot, understood one thing well: though eddies of decency and culture were developing in the West Indies, none of them were in the market for a little Hindu boy possessed by a great, corrosive intellect.’

‘Other Windies could try for the patronage of the Left, which had begun to cultivate “voices of color” — but they meant righteous, Ciceronian outrage from black, not Brahmin-beige, people. And when they said “new voices,” they were not talking about a snotty brown boy’s mocking, BBC-copying voice.’

Read the entire vicious-while-being-complimentary review here.

Our merry literary assassin, writing with the freedom of a man who seems to feels he has nothing to lose, which in my experience always makes for the most interesting outbursts, turns his tender attentions to Arundhati Roy. Arundhati, she of the breathless denunciations of American imperialism and capitalism, the patron saint of latte loving, anti-globalisers everywhere. More here.

About bulletsandhoney
I read my first book when I was three, then my second one a few weeks later. It has carried on this way for decades with only temporary distractions of eating, fighting, loving, heartbreak and other such irrelevant biographical details.

15 Responses to Okri, Naipaul and Arundhati bushwhacked by Moscow-based reviewer

  1. Chepkemboi says:

    I don’t like Naipaul, and i’ve never read Hartley, any random white man who goes around writing romantically-titled novels about colonialism and war in Africa is dead to me.

    Ben Okri mystifies me. I like The Famished Road most of all his books. I liked the God of Small things, i think Roy did a good job.

    The reviewer obviously knows things I’ll never know. However I think he’s unnecessarily hard on Okri and Roy, in fact he trashes them totally. Is the criticism constructive ? Does it seek to start or elevate the existing debate about the works of these writers to a higher level ? I don’t think so.

    You see, MMK, i’m tired of African writers being held up against a white/western history/mores or values, trying to be incorporated in them. As if, without being placed in whiteness, they would disappear. So what if Roy is being used by the Americans ? So bloody what ? So what if Roy’s story is like Harper Lee’s ? It just means that it’s a human story, applicable the world over – love, loss, hatred, bigotry. These things are not owned by only one lot, or one generation. And I find the repeated references to sexual relations among people of different races rather cheap – the races have been having sex with each other for time immemorial and will continue to do so, it cannot, should not, be one of the most striking things about Roy’s book.

    What was that he said about the acceptability of Okri ? Please inform him that writers who are not white exist, and do not need the confirmation of anyone (just our readers) on the value of our work/history/worldview. And if we are going to discuss anything to do with race, let’s bring the arguments to a higher level – all the ones in this review are bone tired !!!

    Let me go before this turns into a major rant.

  2. MMK says:

    chepkemboi – thanks for writing. I can see that you take these matters seriously. I like that the reviewer is not afraid to skewer people who live on the other side of the planet; that he maintains a tone that refuses to ‘elevate the existing debate’; and that he holds up African writers to ‘white/western history/mores or values’ and reviews them seriously. The Naipaul review is particularly good if you have ever spent time reading Mr. Trini and wondering why the hell he is so pissed off and yet so good.

    There is really no such thing as an African writer whose books are available at your local Barnes and Noble who is not part of these same Western mores. Dolan does not make this point, but I am sure he appreciates the absurdity of Arundhati’s non-stop anti-Americanism which only plays well in America and among a tiny group of literati-glitterati who are all deeply western (whether white or brown). But let me be more to the point of why I put Dolan’s reviews on this blog: their scorched earth approach as opposed to those soapy, patronising tropes that accompany so many works of ‘third world’ writers. By the way, I would love it if you did turn your thoughts on white opinions on African literature into a rant and posted it here 🙂

  3. Keguro says:

    My favorite genre of critic: a white man telling us how we should read and appreciate literature.

    Every poet has bad works: read the later T.S. Eliot, much of Pound, and much as I hate to admit it, Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde had off-days. Citing one bad poem says more about the critic’s lack of charity than it does his knowledge of poetry.

    Larkin? Please, don’t get me started.

    I’d probably appreciate the critique of Okri more if it had substance, not “I found one bad poem, and look, he’s terrible!” And playing one African author against another is really just in bad taste.

    I think Roy is overrated. Having written that, The God of Small Things is an important novel, historically, culturally, thematically, and conceptually.

    But I guess we 3rd world dilettantes are too busy imitating our white masters to produce anything genuinely innovative. And, I guess when we critique the West we do so to gain brownie points with our limited “intellectual” audiences.

    If Roy has gained a stage from which she can argue against American imperialism–oh, sorry, is that being anti-American? admitting America is an empire?–and has put writing a new novel on the backburner, I applaud her.

    I mean, she could, alternatively, work on proving her artistry, laboring over tightly wrought sentences, all the while ignoring the world she inhabits. But I guess politics and aesthetics don’t mix, eh?

    Except in Larkin’s private diaries, racist and xenophobic. But I’m being much too crass, bringing in biography to skewer a genuine artist.

    And the rant continues. But I’m taking up too much space.

  4. MMK says:

    keguro – keep going, the info I have indicates that blogspot has more than enough space and I would love to hear more of your thoughts.

    I am curious about a few comments you make. One is on the issue of a white man ‘telling us how we should read and appreciate literature’. I appreciate the outrage because I also prefer to not be preached to by anyone. But tell me this, if Arundhati or Okri are published in the west, receive their Booker prizes from that same west, become best sellers there, then exactly on what basis do you believe that white people should not take on their works favorably or otherwise? I ask because I have become increasingly puzzled by the circle the wagons approach of the very people who are so intimately connected with and dependent on the enemies they would purport to be fighting.

    And why should one African writer not be set against another? What does this unity gain anyone, what literary improvements or advances can be identified by the determination to pull punches or soften blows based on pan africanist ideology? Really, is there really such a thing as an African writer in Africa or is this merely a western corporate bookselling category?

  5. Anonymous says:

    Ha, you guys are killing me, isn’t literature its self a “white man occupation/cultural practice” How many Africans are in the villages critiquing literature? Last I check the only literature books read in the third world villages are the Bible and Koran.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Ha, you guys are killing me, isn’t literature its self a “white man occupation/cultural practice” How many Africans are in the villages critiquing literature? Last I check the only literature books read in the third world villages are the Bible and Koran.

  7. MMK says:

    anon – I would swear I have seen a few James Hadley Chases and Robert Ludlums lying around when I visit any rural area in Kenya. There might not be Borders bookstores galore but reading continues. Besides, who would argue that the Bible is not literature?

  8. Keguro says:

    Ahh, now, see. You’ve gone and written another post to which I want to respond. But I’m still on this one–perhaps even more passionately as I am a literary critic by training.

    I think there’s always been a deep divide between how racial and national groups read literature, even though a real history of transcontinental reception needs to be written.

    Take, for example, Amos Tutuola, loved by Dylan Thomas, but Thomas couldn’t see linguistic complexity or the issues of translation, so thought Tutuoula wrote in a “naive” language. African writers, at least the first generation after him, felt embarassed by Tutuola’s syntax and disavowed him. He still doesn’t get much play. (I’m curious to see whether Evan Mwangi will include him in his list of African meta-fiction writers; to my mind, Tutuola offers a wonderful opportunity for us to think about translation as an impossible-but necessary-cultural and ethical practice. But I’m not really an Africanist, so will not write about him, not yet anyway.)

    I think non-western receptions tend to focus more on the fact of publishing rather than the published work, at least at times. We publish in the West because it has more money. It’s an economic reality. That fact, however, does not mean we give up ownership of political, cultural, and aesthetic questions. The critic you cite operates, it seems to me, within a very narrow frame of cultural and aesthetic frameworks. I have huge problems with theories of imitation and originality–his claims about Roy, for example, resemble those of a tourist to Africa who wants natives to be authentic, to wear wooden beads instead of glass ones. I am troubled by his anthropoligical take–he can “discern” authenticity within syntax. Please. A more sophisticated approach would note all language is borrowed, refined, translated, shaped across multiple cultural and linguistic borders. Even Shakespeare was rarely original.

    I certainly have no problems with white critics discussing non-western authors. I welcome it. But can the comparisons embed such works also in non-western canons. I see little value, for example, in comparing the early Thiong’o to, say, the 19th century bildungsroman, if one cannot also compare his work to the African oral tradition and writers such as Achebe and, of course, Tutuola, not to mention a whole other tradition of non-western, but colonial subjects writing from Asia and the Caribbean.

    As my comments suggest, I have no problem with one African writer being compared to another. I *do* have problems when the comparison pits one author as more authentic than another. Again, it’s ethnographic, in the worst possible sense. “Read the real African.” Pish. Mudimbe opens The Invention of Africa by claiming that some Africans seem to be valued by the West more than others. It’s a sad claim, not to mention one that has consequences for those of us here who go back, and are dismissed as political and economic upstarts.

    But that’s another blog topic.

    Quick note. There will be a battle over secularism in Kenya. There needs to be one. I refuse to concede democracy to the Church which, IMHO, simply props up patriarchal oppression. But I’ll respond to that blog posting later.

    Strange how one blogs a lot when writing a thesis, isn’t it?

  9. MMK says:

    keguro – you see now, I was just about to get started on my thesis and look what you’ve gone and done. I take your points on board and could not agree more with how critical you are with judgements of authenticity which are always exhausting, wrongheaded and often just plain racist. I think the reason that I like Dolan in the reviews I have included in the post is that he is fighting a quite separate fight than the one involving Roy or Okri. He is bitter and angry about the liberal left, his former homies from Berkeley and I enjoy his rants against them mightily. I also like his ability to point a finger at a small, incestuous literati class that is ever trumpeting its brave fight against the Man when it is doing nothing of the sort. Rather it spends its time seeking noble savages, irrelevance and empty breast beating. Yes, I know, I am sounding a tad overwrought. But hey, this chapter must be taken down before this coming weekend is up. Feel free to write me directly on my email, I am anxious to hear more about what you are doing.

    In time honoured procrastination mode, I had just been reading Lindsay Waters on Chronicle of Higher Ed (http://chronicle.com/temp/reprint.php?id=3ynlz6vqsby2z0cymc6gsjt2d02rwfd0) which you might want to check out if you haven’t already.

  10. Keguro says:

    One more thing:

    Waters cites Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings. Have you read it?

    I started–time disrupted the reading–but so good, so amazingly brilliant, and scary!

  11. Anonymous says:

    I must protest.

    Keguro and MMK, please DO NOT take this discussion off-line (I think MMK suggested that Keguro may write him directly.) We the people say NO WAY. We must have MORE.

    On a side note, MMK’s blog used to be at the top of my webpage favorites and was recently replaced by Keguro’s, Gukira. Now that came out wrong. I meant to say, for the long duration that MMK neglected his blog readers, I had the absolute pleasure of discovering another absolutely exquisite blog. I absolutely adore these two gents.

  12. MMK says:

    Oh my Anon – With comments like that you will make me blog every waking moment. Tis true, this keguro fella is good.

  13. aaron says:

    Great discussion guys! I think Dolan is right on about the artistic failings of that poem and Roy’s novel as well as the Naipaul’s talent. But without taking anything away from the validity of what he says, it’s interesting what he *doesn’t* say. He doesn’t, for example, talk about The Famished Road or any of Okri’s other really good stuff, and he doesn’t talk about the stinkers in Naipaul’s oevre (like Keguro said, they’ve all got them). His real point, which masquerades as literary criticism, is an attack on the West’s culture industry that grabs onto non-western writers whose brand of “otherness” is all nice and cuddly and sells well. And as far as that point goes, fair enough. But then he’s not really writing about Okri or Roy at all, except to imply in a backhanded way that there’s nothing of value in the whole of their writing. I’m not sure how much better this is than the dewy-eyed liberal approach which can never criticize and loves everything produced by subalterns or whatever the term is these days; after all, we’re still talking about a kind of criticism that is not really interested in constructively evaluating the literature itself as much as evaluating the West’s criticism of that literature. If no one in the West loved Okri and Roy, after all, Dolan would never have written that review.

  14. MMK says:

    aaron – thanks for that thoughtful insertion. You are quite correct. I was too taken with his skewering job to notice your observation.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Always fun to see African intellectuals ensconced in Western institutions pontificating…–>

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