A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
As a child, Elias Almeida loses both his parents during the uprisings against colonial rule in Angola and the Congo. As an adult and a professional revolutionary, he bears witness to mankind at its pitiless worst. Yet he continues to believe in a better world and the redeeming power of love – even though he cannot be with the woman he loves, who rescued him from thugs one snowy night in Moscow. Spanning forty years of Africa’s past as a battleground between East and West, this powerful novel explores the heights and depths of human nature as it tells a profoundly affecting story of sacrifice and idealism.
Well, gosh. It probably wasn’t going to be a particularly jolly read then, I thought as I turned to the first page and girded my loins for pain, angst and the aforementioned sacrifice and idealism. What I didn’t expect was to be muddled. In the first paragraph, we have what I took to be a third-person narrator, and then in the second paragraph the viewpoint switched instantly, with no explanation given, to a first-person narrator:
Without the love he felt for that woman, life would have been no more than a night without end in the forests of Lunda Norte on the frontier between Angola and Zaire.
I spent two days in captivity there with a colleague, a Soviet military instructor …
and so on and so on.
Something of a clumsy “info dump” in that first line too, which didn’t really impress me, but I’m prepared to overlook it in the interests of peace. I also appreciate I’m probably not the brightest lamp in the lamp-box, but over the next few pages I found myself flicking back to the beginning and forward again to try to work out (a) if I’d missed anything; and (b) what on earth was going on. Really, it’s not a great way to start a novel and I was so traumatised by these confusing viewpoints that on Page 12 I took a Biro and wrote the word “Muddled” in big letters across the text. Yes, I know, I know, the shame of it. This is possibly the Sin Beyond All Sins, but I was very cross. I wanted to trust the author on this journey, but I wasn’t entirely convinced his light was working. Ah well.
And, to be honest, I think this feeling of muddle stayed with me throughout the whole book. Though I did finally work out that the first-person viewpoint is the narrator who is actually telling Elias’ story from a distance of some years. It might have been better if they’d put that in the blurb and then I might not have needed a compass and a road-map in order to find my way through. Just a thought.
What can I say about this novel? Well, there’s a lot of rape. Well, particularly one rape – the poor Zairean woman who is held captive with that pesky first-person narrator and Elias at the start. They don’t rape her – other soldiers do. But they do keep coming back to it. Indeed I got the feeling that the narrator was rather hung up about sex. There’s a bizarre scene near the start where he’s watching a man and a woman having sex in a hotel room (for reasons I don’t fully understand and I’m sorry but I can’t bear the thought of having to revisit it again in order to find out) whilst being trapped on the roof at a conference. I think. It’s hard to say. The scene includes this rather wonderful line:
The breasts he has finally liberated look like spheres of mozzarella …
Yes, well. What can you say? They could come in handy for a late night snack – in oh so many ways. Anyway, the narrator thinks a lot about this experience too during those long forty years. He honestly isn’t the sort of chappie my mother would be happy for me to go out with is all I can say.
Apart from that, there’s a lot of politics. An awful lot of politics. In fact there’s so much politics that the concept of humanity, or any sense of character, is almost entirely absent from this novel. This may be because neither the narrator nor Elias has the charm or strength to carry the story which so quickly overwhelms them both that you hardly notice them at all. I spent a lot of time wondering whether it might have been better as a text book. On the plus side, the book does have a certain amount of poetry; I rather liked the repeated motif of a child nestling into the arms of its mother, which occurs at a number of key places in the text, even though it doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the story. It starts with a real and rather touching memory from Elias’ childhood:
He squatted down and hid his face in a place where all this world of confusion ceased to exist, in the warm, tender crook of his mother’s arm.
Sadly that moment of insight into Elias’ character isn’t ever allowed to grow, which is something of a shame. I also enjoyed the neat twist of the narrator writing his tale with the pen he stole from Elias when they were imprisoned. Also on the more exciting side, Che Guevara does turn up for a while, but to be honest I didn’t realise it was him until after he’d died and they were all bemoaning his loss. Well, they were calling him by his real name, Ernesto, until that point so I didn’t have a clue who he was. Sorry. Neither did I have the heart or the interest to reread those passages once I’d discovered the truth. In the phrase that we all seem to have to use these days, I just wasn’t that into it.
That said, there are hints within the very dense prose that this could have been a good and humane story if the characters had been allowed to live a little. I feel much more could have been made of the bleak and all too brief story of Elias’ mother, the difficult encounters between Elias and his father when they are both fighting alongside Guevara, and the relationship between Elias and Anna also needed a good overhaul. As it was, I simply didn’t believe in their apparently deep and lasting love. It all seemed very trite to me.
Which brings me to the main problem with this novel. It’s a truism, I know, but there’s simply far far too much telling and not enough showing. When Elias is sad or angry or frightened, the narrator tells us he is – we see very little of the effects these emotions have on Elias, so it’s almost impossible to accept him as a real character with whom we can sympathise. My opinion is that it was a poor editorial and writing decision to give this novel an overarching narrator at all – he only serves to keep the reader at bay and stops us experiencing the story directly ourselves. This makes it appallingly dull. In fact it made it so dull that at one point, whilst reading at the breakfast table, I was unbeknownst to me actually moaning with boredom and swaying like a stressed elephant – so much so that my poor husband offered to distract me and turn over a few pages simply in order to save me a small amount of pain. In truth I don’t think I would have noticed if he had.
It does therefore worry me that this might be what literary novels are coming to. I understand that the tradition has been for literary novels to have more aspects of telling us what is happening and not showing us than is customary in commercial fiction (although that aspect has always irritated me and does make me sigh deeply when the subject of literary fiction arises). Moreover, agent Nathan Bransford would probably disagree with my assessment of literary fiction, as his 2007 blog entry indicates. But I do think this particular novel takes the more high-brow aspects of itself to almost unreadable extremes. Surely books are too important for it to have come to this pass?
Because it’s my belief that underneath all the baggage, political posturing and sometimes rather poor writing that drag this novel down so very much lie the bones of a story that could have been told and told well. It’s a shame therefore that this isn’t it. At the moment, Human Love is nothing more or less than notes for a novel that might have been written. Perhaps another, more savvy author should try it one day.
Andrei Makine, Human Love (Sceptre 2009], ISBN: 978-0-340-93678-8
[Anne is feeling browbeaten by politics and bamboozled by cheese. To discover her human side and her burgeoning dairy phobia, click here]