Ondjaki, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret (2008; trans 2014)

9781927428658.Cover_-450x650Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by the Angolan Ondjaki is one of those books I picked up for the Speculative Africas project because it sounded like it might be sf. It isn’t. At least not in any straighforward sense. But it is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and there is something fantastical about it. And it features the astonishing mausoleum of António Agostinho Neto, which I have become mildly obsessed with since seeing photos of it in Kiluanji Kia Henda Icarus 13 installation.

The novel is set sometime in the early 1980s: Reagan is in power in the US; Jackie Chan’s The Big Brawl has reached Angola; and the mausoleum-of-agostinhomausoleum of Angola’s first president is under construction. (In reality, it ground to a halt because Neto’s successor, Jonas Savimbi, was a member of UNITA, backed by South Africa, rather than of Neto’s Soviet- and Cuban-backed MPLA. (There was a third-side in the post-independence civil war, the Mobutu-backed FNLA.) During Savimbi’s thirty year reign, he saw no reason to support its completion, and the possibility of further Soviet financing collapsed with the end of the Cold War. When the MPLA regained power in 2008, they used oil revenue to complete the structure on a much less grand scale than initially planned, and it was inaugurated in 2012, on the ninetieth anniversary of Neto’s birth. (See, I told you, mildly obsessed. Back to the book.))

It starts with an explosion in the sky over polyglot Bishop’s Beach, next to the mausoleum’s constructions site, that

woke up even the birds asleep in the trees and the dozy fish in the sea. Colours came out that had never been seen before: yellow mixed with red pretending to be orange in a bluish green, flares that mimicked the strength of the stars reclining in the sky and a warlike rumble of the kind made by the MiG planes. In the end it was a beautiful explosion that lingered in the noises of the pretty colours that our eyes looked upon and never again forgot. (9)

This is the first of several synaesthetic prefigurations – where colours and sounds get jumbled, as do birds, fish, kites and stars – in the initially episodic account of everyday life in the Bishop Beach. The cast of characters include the young protagonist’s several abuelas (Granma nineteen is not his nineteenth Granma – when Dr Rafael KnockKnock amputates her toe, she is left with nineteen digits and a new nickname); his friends Charlita and 3.14, whose real name, Pinduca, was first shortened to Pi; Comrade Gas Jockey, who faithfully, if lethargically, mans the local petrol station even though there is never any petrol; Sea Foam, who is more mad than wise, but sometimes it seems the other way around; and Soviet Comrade Gudafterov, really called Bilhardov, who is in charge of the blue lobsters, as the children call the Russian troops, and who longs to return to his snowy homeland. All of these characters have stories, and Ondjaki laces his story with glimpses of this much-storied world:

Granma Agnette … sang the music of slow Fado tunes, adapted to put us to sleep, and nobody slept. She told crazy stories about her friend Carmen Fernández who had become pregnant, but had given birth to a huge bag of ants that bit the inside of her stomach. The second time she got pregnant she finally had a baby, but it had the head and wings of a bird and, as the window was open, it flew away and escaped. Granma said that Carmen Fernández was afraid of becoming pregnant a third time, but even then we didn’t fall asleep. Then Granma started with her threats. (26)

When the young protagonist learns that Bishop Beach is going to be demolished, their houses ‘dexploded’, to make way for the elaborate grounds around the base of the mausoleum, he and 3.14 decide their only course of action is to beat the builders to it – they must steal dynamite from the construction site and blow up the mausoleum instead.

This slender narrative is made delightful by comical encounters and episodes; a bittersweet treatment of the civil war, which the children do not quite get; a romance which they do not quite perceive, either; by references to Brazilian soap operas and popular movies; and by a linguistic playfulness in which ‘gangrene’ can be misheard as ‘gangrenades’ and Sea Foam can persuasively argue that the sky is occasionally lit up by ‘fouling stars’:

a phenomena of the skies of the dark universe, the cosmic dust and so on… there are two skies: the blue sky that belongs to our eyes and to the wings of planes and little birds. And then there’s a black sky that’s as big as a desert. … Fouling stars melted in the heat of the sun and that’s why they fall towards planet world. Our planet is the only one that has water where they can cool down again. They’re fouling stars, and one day, after cooling off, I swear, those stars are going to want to return home … We’re still going to see those stars rise up from the earth to way up there, in the skies that sleep far away dressed in bright brightnesses… (12)

Needless to day, it offers an alternative explanation as to why work on the mausoleum stopped in the early eighties. A happier, if not entirely happy, one. And it is appropriate that such poetry surrounds the mausoleum of a president who was once a poet, even if he is not actually buried there.

 

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Superpower: Africa in Science Fiction

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From May 5 to July 1 2012, the Arnolfini gallery in Bristol, UK, was home to “Superpower: Africa in Science Fiction,” an exhibition curated by Nav Haq and Al Cameron. Exemplifying a recent trend for artists to view the continent through science-fictional lenses, it includes work by João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva (Portugal), Kiluanji Kia Henda (Angola), Luis Dourado (Portugal), Mark Aerial Waller (UK), Neïl Beloufa (France), Neill Blomkamp (South Africa/Canada), Omer Fast (Israel/Germany), Paweł Althamer (Poland), Wanuri Kahiu (Kenya), and Bassam El Baroni, Jeremy Beaudry and Nav Haq (Egypy/US/UK).

Some of the short films on display – Kahui’s Pumzi (2009), set in a water-scarce future Africa, and Blompkamp’s Tetra Val (2004) and Alive in Joburg (2005), the latter of which was hothoused into District 9 (2009) – might already be familiar to SFS readers. Of them all, though, the most intriguing is Omer Fast’s Nostalgia (2009), consisting of three parts, each of them continuously looped in an individually dedicated room.

Nostalgia I is a four-and-half minute HD video: in a forest, a white man in camouflage fatigues builds a trap from branches and twine; on the soundtrack, a former Nigerian child soldier talks about his childhood and how a surrogate father figure taught him how to make a partridge trap from branches and twine.

Nostalgia II runs for ten minutes on two synchronized HD screens: on the left, the former child soldier, now a man; on the right, Omer Fast. The interview subject does not seem to understand the artist’s questions, and although he describes the partridge trap his father taught him to build from sticks and twine, the artist grows skeptical of the subject’s inability to provide specific detail about growing up in Nigeria. And, depending on when you join the film, it sooner or later becomes clear that both men are actors, the interview a reconstruction.

The thirty-two minute Nostalgia III, shot on 16mm and transferred to HD, contains eight scenes, with several momentary flashforwards (or, depending on when you join the film, flashbacks). The setting, loosely sketched in passing hints, is an Africa faced with the problem of illegal immigration from Europe (it is unclear whether this is an alternative present or a future after European civilization has collapsed, but everyone dresses like they are from seventies Britain or from a seventies British adventure television series). Nostalgia III alternates scenes from two stories. One follows three British illegal immigrants, who meet their fate in secret tunnels under the African security perimeter. It is a linear narrative, albeit with two scenes actually occurring simultaneously, but the second story is a closed loop. In each scene, one character describes how to make a trap out of sticks and twine, and in the next scene, a character who has heard this information recounts it as first-hand knowledge – A tells B, B tells C, C tells D, D tells A, A tells B, and so on.

While fascinating, Nostalgia is also a little troubling. Its spiraling narrativization, and concomitant destabilization of experience, marginalizes a specific Nigerian voice, transforming his life into an art-commodity. But it is not as troubling as Blomkamp’s shorts, which contain all the problems of District 9 in embryonic form; or as Althamer’s Common Task: Mali, a photographic record of an “encounter” with Dogon villagers that reeks of colonial appropriation and the touristic gaze.

imagesThe other highlight is Kia Henda’s Icarus 13 (2008), an installation recounting the first African space mission – an endeavour every bit as foolish as the one in Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow (2006). Launched from Angola, Icarus 13 landed on the surface of the sun – at night, so as to avoid deadly heat – and successfully returned to Earth with ‘some particles from the photosphere’ for laboratory study. The six-hundred-word account of the mission covering one wall culminates in the observation that ‘from the description given by the astronauts, the Sun has the most beautiful night’, before announcing upcoming tourist flights to finance further scientific investigations. There are also a tabletop architect’s model of Icarus 13 on the launch-pad, and eight photographs. The first photograph shows Icarus 13, rising in the centre of the frame, viewed from Luanda, with a vast open sky above and beyond it. The rocket, though, is actually the mausoleum of António Agostinho Neto, Angola’s first president – its base resembles the flared rockets of a Soyuz launch vehicle, while its jagged pinnacle looks like a prototype for London’s The Shard. Other striking buildings are similarly repurposed: a domed structure is labeled “Astronomy Observatory, Namibe Desert,” despite its obvious lack of astronomical equipment, and a low, flat building whose obliquely angled walls might suggest, from above, a star shape, is described as a “Centre of astronomy and astronaut training, Namibe Desert,” although in reality it is a cinema. A medium shot of five construction workers is captioned “Building the spaceship Icarus 13,” while a yellow torus against a dark background is “First picture of the Sun’s photosphere from Icarus 13 in orbit.” The final photograph, labeled “The return of the astronauts,” prises open the gap between image and caption even further by containing nothing to which the caption could actually apply. It is a gap that frustrates, and which calls for the viewer to inflate it with story – just as Kia Henda fills the frustrating gap between the dream of independence and the nightmares of civil war and post-colonial dependence, between socialist aspiration and neo-liberal hegemony, with myth, tall tale, humour and hope.

Among related events at the Arnolfini, Roger Luckhurst (Birkbeck), Rehan Hyder (UWE) and I ran a workshop, “Martians of Africa,” on the relationship between sf and colonialism, asking what would happen if one considered such anti-colonial and post-colonial films as Les statues meurent aussi (Marker and Resnais France 1953) and La Noire de… (Sembene Senegal/France 1966) as works of sf. The exhibition’s run came to a close with a double bill of Africa Paradis (Amoussou Benin/France 2006) and Les Saignantes (Bekolo Cameroon/France 2005).

(Blompkamp’s short films, Gusmão and Paiva’s The Shadow Man (2006-7), and almost all of Beloufa’s Kempinski (2007) are available on youtube. The text of El Baroni, Beaudry and Haq’s second ARPANET dialogue – a fake conversation between Samir Amin, Steve Biko, Francis Fukuyama and Minoru Yamasaki, which would not have seemed out of place in Moorcock’s New Worlds – can be found here.

A version of this review appeared in Science Fiction Studies 118 (2012), 559–61.