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“How alike are the voices of [carnal] pleasure and death!  When one is summoned, all work at once becomes unimportant.  As on a ghost ship abandoned by its crew, be it the entries in the log, the uneaten food, the half-polished shoes, the comb left before the mirror, or even the partially knotted ropes – everything breathes of the mysteriously departed men, everything is left as it was in the haste of departure.”—Shigekuni Honda, 1952.

Shigekuni Honda, the main character in this third novel of the Sea of Fertility tetralogy by Yukio Mishima, is forty-six years old in 1940, as the novel opens.  He has matured into a successful lawyer and judge in the years since 1912 – 1914, when he was first introduced as the schoolboy friend of Kiyoake Matsugae, the son of a samurai family.  Kiyoake, however, died at a young age in Spring Snow, and his death has haunted Honda for the rest of his life.  Runaway Horses, the second novel of the tetralogy, takes place during the economic crisis in Japan of 1932 – 1933. In this novel, Honda sees Isao Iinuma, the nineteen-year-old son of Kiyoaki’s former tutor, as the physical reincarnation of Kiyoaki. Through his total dedication to the traditional, conservative goals of the samurai, a goal which author Yukio Mishima also shared, Isao hoped to eliminate all traces of foreign influence from Japan.  His horrifying death, however, added to the trauma of loss for Honda.  He was convinced that Kiyoaki “perished on the battlefield of romantic emotions” but that Isao was the first of many young men who faced death on real battlefields. “Kiyoaki and his reincarnation, Isao, had died contrasting deaths on contrasting battlefields,” the author concludes.

Yukio Mishima rallies the crowd in a failed coup attempt just prior to committing seppuku (November 25, 1970)

The Temple of Dawn takes place in the years immediately preceding World War II, just after the “China Incident” of 1936, and Honda, having abandoned his formerly altruistic ideals, is still trying to develop his own beliefs about life, death, love, the transmigration of souls, and reincarnation.  War is imminent now, as Japan, Germany, and Italy have signed a treaty against the Americans.  Having given up his judgeship, Honda lives in partial retirement, but he takes a business trip to Bangkok, where he also hopes to meet Prince Pattanadid and Prince Krisada, former school friends from his youth. The Thai royal family has gone to Switzerland, however, and the palace is empty.  The only person there is a “mad princess,” age seven, who lives as a virtual prisoner, claiming publicly that “I’m not really a Siamese princess.  I’m the reincarnation of a Japanese, and my real home is in Japan.”  Having been exposed to the idea of samsara, Honda eventually becomes certain that this little princess, “Princess Moonlight,” is the reincarnation of Kiyoake/Isao.

Ajanta cave, #19, photo by Marcin Białek

Serious discussions of Buddhism pervade the beginning of the novel, with Mishima giving great detail about Thai Theravada Buddhism and its practices as he departs Thailand for a trip to Calcutta, Benares, and the Ajanta caves in India. In Calcutta, he studies Kali worship and visits the Kalighat, observing the sacrifice of goats and the display of their heads around a fireplace burning in the rain.  In Benares he is impressed by the “extreme filth as well as the extreme holiness,” especially along the Ganges, and he notices the sexual paintings that exist in juxtaposition with the House of Widows awaiting their own deaths.  A multitude of ghats, all cremating remains in the open air in a “purification of the human body, returning its parts to its four elemental constituents.”  Honda notes that there is “no sadness.  What seemed heartlessness was actually pure joy.”  After exploring the land of the Hindus, Honda then decides to seek out “the ruins of Buddhism,” now extinct in India, by traveling to the Ajanta caves, northeast of Mumbai. The differences between Mahayana Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism, and Buddhism’s other permutations, occupy many pages in this section of the book, leading Honda to think more seriously about what is reality, what is death, what is love, and what happens after death?  Does the world even exist?  He begins to refine his ideas about reincarnation, samsara.

The red torii, which the author mentions, seen against the snowy backdrop of Mount Fuji, 1932. By Kawase Hasui (1883 – 1957)

Part II, taking place twelve years later, in 1952, opens on Honda’s fifty-seventh birthday.  Honda has just won a huge case, one begun generations ago in the late nineteenth century, but which continued up to the present, involving the redistribution of land.  As a result, he now has a large lot and house facing the magnificence of Mount Fuji.  Totally retired, and living more or less companionably with his wife Rie, Honda is still pursuing his philosophical inquiries.  The relationships between love, sex, and death now receive a longer analysis as Honda becomes infatuated with a seventeen-year-old female whom he now believes is the next incarnation of Kiyoaki and Isao. Princess Chantrapa II, known as Ying Chan or Princess Moonlight, the formerly mad princess he met in Bangkok when she was seven, is now seventeen, and she is studying in Japan.

Fuji sunset, from Hokkusai's Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji

He plans to invite her to the birthday party at his house, where he will give her an important present.  Years ago, he had located a large emerald ring at the shop of a Thai prince, and he recognized it immediately as the ring which another Thai Prince, Chao Pattanadid, his schoolmate, had intended to give to the woman he loved, Princess Chantrapa.  The ring had been stolen from their school, and Honda, after finding it, years later, in a shop belonging to another prince, had bought it but had not yet had a way to return it.  This section of the novel brings the philosophical ideas here to a head, and concludes the narrative in dramatic fashion.

Imperial Hotel, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, destroyed in 1967. The facade has been preserved in the Meiji Mura Museum.

Set as it is in the period before and after World War II, but completely skipping over the war itself, the novel has more philosophical analysis and detail than it does narrative action, and some readers who have enjoyed Spring Snow and Runaway Horses may weary of the deep discussion of the varieties of Buddhism, and the ideas of death and reincarnation which Honda traces through numerous religions and Asian cultures.  Mishima himself is clearly using the novel to try to work out his own ideals and provide a forum for discussion in the aftermath of Japan’s war-time defeat.  A total believer in the old samurai traditions, he despaired of the western influence he saw appearing in post-war Japan, and he never forgave the emperor for denying his divinity in the capitulation which ended the war.  Just after author Yukio Mishima finished the final novel in this “Sea of Fertility” tetralogy, the Decay of the Angel on November 25, 1970, he disemboweled himself in a ritual suicide—seppuku—committed in the presence of four members of his private army.  He was then beheaded, in accordance with ritual.


Ajanta Caves, India - 460 - 480 AD

Photos, in order: The author photo of Yukio Mishima delivering his speech in a failed coup attempt, just prior to committing seppuku (November 25, 1970), is from http://www.jack-donovan.com/mishima/

Cave #19, from Ajanta, ca. 460 – 480, is by Marcin Bialek:  http://commons.wikimedia.org

The red torii, mentioned in the novel, are shown here in a 1932 print by Kawase Hasui (1883 – 1957),http://www.fujiarts.com/japanese-prints

The Fuji Sunset, from the 36 Views of Mount Fuji,  by Hokkusai, appear on http://wellfrog.exblog.jp/

The facade of Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, by Frank Lloyd Wright, demolished in 1967, has been preserved in the Meiji Mura Museum.  http://www.incredibleart.org

The panorama of the Ajanta Caves is from http://en.wikipedia.org/


“Cryptography involves one genius trying to work out what another genius has done – it results in the most appalling carnage.  To succeed in this mysterious and dangerous process, you call together the finest minds at your disposal…to read the secrets hidden in a string of Arabic numerals.  That sounds kind of fun, like a game; but this particular game has ruined the lives of many men and women of truly remarkable intelligence …cryptogaphy [is] the most heartbreaking profession in the world.”—transcript of interview with Director Zheng.

Mai Jia, a popular novelist and winner of the Mao Dun Literature Prize, China’s highest literary honor, writes here under a pen name after serving for seventeen years as a member of the People’s Liberation Army and its intelligence services.  Mai’s novel Decoded, originally written and published for a Chinese audience in 2002, and newly translated and published in English, provides a fascinating study of cryptography and its dedicated cryptographers, many of whom give their lives (and even their sanity) to their work.  It is also a somewhat difficult book for a western reader, in that many of the traditions of western literature and its standards regarding literary style and structure are not applicable to this novel, which was never written for western readers.  Non-Chinese readers need to “go with the flow,” ignoring all preconceptions, both about China and about literature, and immerse themselves in the story, trusting in the lively translation by Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne, which takes into consideration our unfamiliarity with modern Chinese life and culture.  This careful and sensitive translation becomes both revelatory and exciting, providing new insights into worlds that have been closed to most of us, not just the hidden world of the People’s Republic of China and the thinking of many of its people, but also the world of cryptography and the psychological toll it takes on those who dedicate their lives to it.

Astonishing in its focus on the travails and inner torments of one major character, Rong Jinzhen, the novel features a psychological, individualized approach, something I did not expect for characters living within the group culture of China, especially among characters from the army and its secret intelligence services.  Though the novel cannot be considered a “psychological novel,” as we know it, the author does depict his main character, Rong Jinzhen, empathetically, as an individual within the state, giving him a real personality with which we can identify as he develops from childhood through early adulthood.  An orphan who grows up within two adoptive homes, Rong Jinzhen, known in childhood as “Duckling,” is a mathematical genius, called “Idiot Savvy” in school, but he never stops feeling isolated and apart, however praised he might be for his brilliance and dedication to intellectual goals.  He counts ants, the days that his “Daddy” has lived on earth before his death at age eighty-eight, invents his own multiplication tables, and becomes a chess player at the highest level of competition.  No one else is close to him in his mathematical abilities, and when he goes to high school, he solves problems so quickly that, within days, the school wants to advance him by several grades.

Crouching Tiger, 18th century jade belt ornament, worn by Jinzhen's adoptive mother.

The older and more dedicated he becomes to what he is learning, however, the more preoccupied – even autistic – he becomes.  With his lively mind focused totally on intellectual goals, he evokes our concern as he fails to make friends or find any happiness or inner peace. When he is eventually selected to work as a cryptographer for the state, he must leave behind everything he has ever known to participate at a remote and secret location on a project which will eventually consume him – the deciphering of PURPLE, the most difficult cipher ever created.  As he gets ready to leave “home,” his adoptive mother wants to give him a jade pendant of a crouching tiger from her belt for “good luck,” but his adoptive father takes it away, telling Jinzhen, “You are a genius, and you are going to make your own luck.”  For his own parting gift, he takes out an old Waterman pen that he himself has used for half a century, telling him “you can use it to make note of your ideas.  If you don’t let them run away from you, you will find that no one can even come close to you.”

Waterman fountain pen, about 1910, given to Jinzhen by his adoptive father.

Once Rong Jinzhen (often called Zhendi by those who remember him) disappears into Unit 701, he is essentially lost to his family.  His only real acquaintance at the facility where he lives is a paranoid schizophrenic, a lunatic with whom he plays chess almost constantly, a man destroyed by his own work in cryptography.  In his “spare time,” Jinzhen reads novels and becomes interested in dreams and their interpretation, and some of those in power begin to believe that because he appears not to be working on cryptography, that he is unintelligent.  Then, suddenly, without warning, only a year after his arrival at Unit 701, Rong Jinzhen has a breakthrough which changes everything.

Original Chinese edition of this novel, 2002.

The remainder of the novel appears in the form of interviews with two people, Master Rong, a female member of his family whom he saved during the Cultural Revolution, and Director Zheng, the man who persuaded him to join the cryptography unit.  These interviews convey Jinzhen’s history and his story, but they feature much “telling about” the action, instead of creating lively stories told from “inside the moment.” The author’s use of dreams, often disorderly, reveal Jinzhen’s state of mind, and a shift in style from narrative to Jinzhen’s internal reveries to convey his inner turmoil in the middle section of the novel show his alarming changes.  Often tantalizing the reader by announcing at the end of a chapter what will happen in the next section, the author then proceeds to tell how these events came about, dampening the suspense for the reader but giving ideas of what to look for in the coming chapter. In the concluding section, the author provides some of his own thoughts about writing, his intentions with the book, and eventually the outcome for Jinzhen, creating a feeling that he wants us to be on his side and share the events with him.  A literary novel, unique in its focus, setting, and subject matter, Decoded lives up to its title, providing exciting new insights into many aspects of life in the People’s Republic of China – and if a reader also happens to be a mathematician or serious games player­, this novel will be utterly irresistible.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on http://www.chinese-shortstories.com

The crouching tiger jade belt ornament, 18th – 19th century, worn by Jinzhen’s adoptive mother, becomes a symbol which reappears near the conclusion of the novel when Director Zheng says, “I daresay his spirit was that of a tiger. He tore apart problems as a tiger would relish gnawing meat of the bones of a recent kill…”  Photo from http://www.eliteauction.com/

The Waterman pen, about 1910, given to Jinzhen by his adoptive father, is from http://oldfountainpensjustforfun.blogspot.com

“When you start swaying on your legs, when you light another cigarette to kill five more minutes even though your throat is stinging and your mouth is so furred up you feel like you’ve eaten a tarpaulin, and then the others also light cigarettes and linger a while longer – when all that happens, then it really is time to go home to bed.” – from the Prologue, as three young men meet after four a.m. and then decide to go home.

Valuing the idea that “keeping it simple” is important to the success of mystery stories, author Marco Malvaldi draws deliberate parallels between the conclusion in Leonardo Sciascia’s, A Simple Story, in which the main character suddenly finds “where the light switch is,” the clue that allows him to solve the entire mystery, and the final resolution in Malvaldi’s own Game for Five,  as bartender Massimo Viviani suddenly solves the murder of a young woman. Simple deductions have been the key to his success.  This short, uncomplicated, and often very funny novel depends for its success on more than the mystery itself, however.  Quirky characters, three of them in their mid-seventies and one in his eighties, gather regularly at Massimo’s Bar Lume to pass the time playing heated games of briscola and gossiping about everyone and everything in their coastal community outside of Pisa.  Massimo, the thirty-ish bartender/owner of the Bar Lume, humors these characters, often joining in their card game as a fifth player when times are slow, and chatting and sharing their lives with them, valuing their commentary on all subjects and offering his own, sometimes contrary, observations to keep things lively.

Massimo, whose point of view drives this story, finds himself drawn unexpectedly into a murder mystery, which makes him the center of much interest among the patrons of his bar and in the community at large.  Late one long night, after four in the morning, as Massimo has been cleaning up his bar, three young men, so inebriated they can hardly walk,  are standing beside a green Nissan Micra across the street, with two of them trying to talk the drunkest youth, the owner of the car, out of driving home.  The young man insists on driving off, but half a mile from the bar where Massimo is working, the youth pulls off the road to relieve himself in a trash barrel.  When he discovers that the barrel is “occupied” by the dead body of a beautiful young woman, he also learns that his cell phone is dead.  Returning to Massimo’s bar to call the police, he is so drunk he is unable to make himself understood, and it is Massimo who accompanies him back to the woods and summons the police, thereby involving himself in this murder mystery.

The young man who eventually discovers a woman's body in a trash can is standing beside his green Nissan Micra, like this one, at 4:00 a.m., across from Massimo's bar, before leaving for home in a drunken stupor.

Massimo’s Bar Lume has been used for years as the regular card-playing hangout of a group of elderly men, who also serve as Massimo’s sounding board when he becomes increasingly convinced that the police, acting too quickly, have detained the wrong man for the murder. Ampelio, age eighty-two, is a retired railroader and “uncontested winner of [a] cursing competition” held unofficially at a local festival each year.  Aldo is the owner of a relatively upscale restaurant; Gino is a retired postal worker; and Pilade, who “apart from being ill-mannered [and] a pain in the butt,” has been employed at the town hall.  Because of their former jobs and their naturally gregarious natures, they know just about everyone in town, and they become conduits for information, bringing rumor and gossip to Massimo as he works on freeing the young man he believes innocent, and, unfortunately, conveying every scrap of information they learn from Massimo to the rest of the town.  Scenes from their ferocious games of briscola are so lively and so full of natural dialogue, as conveyed through the ironic and sometimes hilarious point of view of Massimo, that the reader feels as if they are all people s/he knows and enjoys.

The unique deck for playing briscola contains these cards.

At times during the action of the novel, the static setting of the bar and the teasing back-and-forth of the characters, as they sort things out and convey their lives and attitudes through their conversations, make the novel feel like a play, with much of the action taking place off-stage and Massimo acting as the Stage Director.  Often farcical, the action that does occur features some typical, often stereotyped characters – arrogant but clumsy police; a sensitive local doctor;  a bouncer with muscles for brains; teenagers experimenting with sex, drugs, and alcohol; a society woman more interested in upward mobility than in her family; and the hard-working and honest, but single, Massimo, who has been disappointed in love.  As complications arise in the investigation of the murder and the focus shifts among a series of suspects, Massimo becomes convinced that he knows who the guilty party is, but, he says,  “I feel like the main character in…Sciascia’s A Simple Story, when his superior tells him where the light switch is…and he understands the whole thing, who the murderer is and how he did it.  And like him I don’t know who…to tell.”

Pineta, where the action takes place, is described as being a coastal village near Pisa, newly gentrified, perhaps similar to Viareggio, here. Note the outdoor bar/cafe.

The solution to the mystery, which is delayed till the very end, is almost unimportant to the fun of the book.  It is Massimo’s point of view which carries the novel – his comments about life in the town, about its people, and about Italy, reflect his good nature and his never-failing sense of humor, making this novel closer to comedy than to noir. The author’s descriptions and his dialogue are often unique:  At one point, Massimo asks that Tiziana, his busy assistant, come in to cover for him during her time off, giving her a set of instructions to which she answers: “Yes, Bwana.  Do you also have instructions about the cotton harvest?”   The character of another person is conveyed through this description:  “[As a child], many questions had come into his mind, such as ‘How long will it take this lizard to die after I’ve cut off its head?” and “Why don’t cats fall on their feet if you tie a weight to their tails?” And when Massimo eventually decides to ask the four old men if he can play cards with them, “he wondered if thinking that playing cards with four old geezers mightn’t be a symptom of something strange about him, but he immediately dismissed the thought.  Can I at least decide what I like? he thought, and focused his attention on the High Priest who was about to open the gates of the Temple to him.”  Short, snappy, filled with humor, and great fun, this is a light entertainment, perfect for a change of pace or for summer reading.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo may be found on http://www.festivaletteratura.it

The green Nissan Micra, like the car owned by the young man who discovers the woman’s body in the trash can, appears on http://www.caradvice.com.au

The unique briscola cards are shown on http://www.seeyouinitaly.com/

Viareggio, perhaps similar to Pineta, the “coastal community near Pisa” which has recently become gentrified, may be seen here:  http://italyholidays.wordpress.com/

ARC:  Europa Editions

Note: This novel was WINNER of the Prix Littéraire Francophone International in 1981, and its English translation was one of The New York Times‘ Notable Books of the Year in 1983.  It is a New York Review Books Classic.

“The view from my room overlooked the scattered houses, and I could see straight into the fjord where icebergs floated.  An intense light slanting onto the houses, casting long shadows and reddening the tundra, showed that it was early morning.  A morning after a night without darkness…Nothing moved in this strange morning light.  The silence was overwhelming.”—the author’s first experience with “the midnight sun” in Greenland.

If the title of this book doesn’t pique your curiosity from the outset, the photo of the author, below, probably will.  The astounding ironies – the contrasts between what we are seeing in the author photo vs. what we expect when we see someone wearing traditional Eskimo (Inuit) dress – are only the first of many such ironies as Tete-Michel Kpomassie, a young man from Togo in West Africa makes a journey of discovery to Greenland.  Kpomassie, the sixth of his father’s children by five wives, has lived a traditional life in his African community, attending school through the sixth grade, earning money by making straw mats from coconut fronds, climbing tall palms to get coconuts, and even saving lizard grease to improve virility.  On one of his family’s trips into the dense vegetation to get coconuts, Tete, then sixteen, climbs to the top of a tall palm, then finds himself face-to-face with an enormous python sharing the top of the tree.  As he tries quietly to slide back to the bottom of the tree, unnoticed, the snake follows him, and when he drops to the ground, he experiences intense pain, then falls unconscious.

Days and nights of traditional treatments for snake bite fail, and as his delirium increases, his father decides, at last, that the herbal medicines he has been using may, in fact, be poisoning his son.  The only alternative is to take his son into the Sacred Forest where he can be treated by priests of the python snake cult. Days later, after a terrifying experience with more pythons as part of his cure, Kpomassie is well enough to travel, but there is a catch.  He is now pledged to the python gods who have saved his life.  When, during his recovery at home, he visits an Evangelical Bookshop, he discovers a book called The Eskimos of Greenland in Alaska by Dr. Robert Gessain, which he buys with his savings.  The fact that Eskimos have a hunting tradition like his own but live where there are no trees, no snakes, and no hot weather appeals to him far more than the life of a priest in the cult of the python.  He decides at that moment to run away.

Double-click to enlarge map.

For the first sixty pages, the author describes life in Togo in lively detail, setting the scene for his lengthy journey from Togo to Copenhagen to get a visa for Greenland, an autonomous country within the kingdom of Denmark.  As he travels over the years through Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Senegal, and Mauritania, before arriving in Marseille, Paris, Bonn, and eventually Copenhagen, he clearly establishes his background and experiences and the mindset and cultural background he will be bringing with him when he finally gets to Greenland after ten years of working toward that goal.  In the interim, he reads constantly, learning about life in other parts of the world, befriending citizens of these countries, becoming fluent in German and French, and sensitively observing the differences between his culture and those of the other countries in Africa and Europe in which he has lived.  By the time he is finally able to get a visa for Greenland, he is twenty-six, a highly skilled “anthropologist,” observing cultures and recognizing what is important, having learned what he needs to know through his own unconventional daily life.

Iceberg at Cape Farewell, the southernmost tip of Greenland

In June, sometime in the mid-1960s, he leaves, at last, for Greenland, ill-equipped but full of enthusiasm, trusting in his ability not only to make his way in that country, which has fascinated him for years, but also to become part of the Eskimo culture there.  Taking off in a cargo boat with eight other passengers, he enjoys the long days of the midnight sun (with the ladies on board sunbathing till eleven o’clock at night), before experiencing a horrific gale, followed by dangerous ice floes and icebergs as he approaches Cape Farewell, the southernmost tip of Greenland.  His arrival in Julianehab (called “K’akortoq” in the book, and “Qaqortoq” on most internet sites), is at least as exciting for the inhabitants waiting at the dock as it is for Kpomassie:  “As soon as they saw me, all talking stopped.  So intense was the silence, you could have heard a gnat in flight.  Then they started to smile again, the women with slightly lowered eyes…”  Eight inches taller than the average Inuit, he is deemed kussanna (handsome) by the local women, a word he is to hear many times over the next sixteen months as he lives with the people of Greenland.

Photo of Qaqortoq (K'akortoq), the first village where Kpomassie stays. Note the pervasive snow on the ground. Photo by Kunuk Abelsen

The local inhabitants are universally hospitable, perfectly happy to provide a place for him to stay and to share meals and drink. Their children are allowed to do what they want, with little discipline, a pattern that extends to the schools, where teachers are extremely patient, rather than strict.  Though people work for most of the day when there is sunlight, they get “tanked up” early at night and celebrate all occasions, with a whole month dedicated to celebrating Christmas. The Inuit willingly provide him with the fur clothing he needs in the winter, and the women in the families with whom he stays make him the specially sized boots and garments that he needs. Cooked rare reindeer steak is the tastiest food on the menu, which also includes the raw lungs and livers of seals, raw seal meat, raw birds, fish, the dried skins of whales, and the fat from seals and whales.  Even dog meat is part of the diet.  Cooked food is the exception, and in the winter, with temperatures that can be minus forty-five degrees, it is not unusual for food, even when heated, to contain ice crystals.

Inuit child in traditional dress (plus binky). Photo by Joel Sartore/Getty/National Geographic

With a wonderful eye for the telling detail, Kpomassie observes the differences between Greenland, the world in which he grew up, and the world in which he has lived in Europe.  He becomes real, a stand-in for the reader who will enjoy living through his journey vicariously. The people he meets not only represent their culture but emerge as individuals through their interactions with him.  Despite language differences, he is able to communicate and share their lives, and because of his honesty and his curiosity about their culture, he makes many friends in Greenland – and with the reader who shares his enthusiasm for discovery.  His departure from Greenland is bittersweet, but eventually he feels that it is his “duty to help the youth of Africa to open their minds to the outside world.”  His return to Europe and his later life as a citizen of the world, are testimony to his sense of adventure and his commitment to looking beyond the local to the universal.

Double-click to enlarge map.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from http://samfunnet.sib.no/

The map of West Africa, by Mondo Magic, is found on http://upload.wikimedia.org/ (Double-click to enlarge.)

The Iceberg at Cape Farewell, the southernmost tip of Greenland appears here:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/

Qaqortoq (K’akortoq), the first village where Kpomassie stayed, is colorful but snow-covered.  Photo by Kunuk Abelsen.  http://www.capscandinavia.com/

The Inuit child, photographed by Joel Sartore/Getty/National Geographic, is shown in traditional dress (plus binky).  http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/

The Map of Greenland is from https://www.maps.com/ Double click to enlarge.

“The sun is at the vertical, and shade is as scarce as charity on Biashara Street.  Where it exists -  shop fronts and alleyways, like cave mouths and canyons – life clings: eyes blink, and patiently they watch.  They see a man and a boy walking along the sidewalk, the boy turning every third or fourth step into a skip to match his companion’s rangy stride.  Their posture suggests that if either reached out a hand the other would grasp it, but for their own reasons, neither will offer.”  Opening scene, Nairobi, Kenya, 2007.

These vibrantly descriptive opening lines introduce a chapter that is a textbook example of good writing, drawing in the reader, establishing an atmosphere, suggesting character, hinting at a father’s relationship with his son, and presenting a familiar scene of a child who can hardly wait for his first bicycle.  By the next page, the author has created a much broader, more dramatic context for these characters, expanding the setting, placing this small episode in the context of the larger community, and suggesting ominous new directions for the action.  In less than three hundred words, I was hooked.  The author’s writing is so confident that I, too, became confident that this debut novel would deliver a well-wrought story with well-developed characters within the fraught atmosphere of Nairobi in 2007, and that it would do so with style and intelligence.  It does.

Author Richard Crompton, a former BBC journalist who now lives in Nairobi with his family, understands the city’s social, economic, and political conditions and reveals them through his precise descriptions, his insights into his characters’ motivations, and his appreciation of the tribal loyalties and conflicts which affect virtually every aspect of daily life within this complex society.  The main character, forty-two-year-old Police Detective Mollel, has been a national hero for his selfless actions during one national emergency, but he is now a pariah within the department for challenging his superiors and often expressing his rage at the lack of  “justice” he sees in society.  Otieno, the police superintendent, has even threatened to get rid of him:  “Justice is a luxury.  Peace is a necessity,” he pronounces. “You want justice, move to some first-world state with sophisticated crime labs and DNA tests and judges who can’t be bought off…Better still, become a judge yourself.”

Young Massai, with one ear lobe hanging and one folded up. Photo by Hilary Wheeler.

Mollel, a Maasai within a society dominated by Kikuyu and Luos, is often mocked by his peers for his hanging ear lobes, a tribal tradition which teenage Maasai boys accept as part of their maturation.  He is, however, often sought out by other Maasai who do not trust police officers from other tribes.  Mollel’s immediate assignment is to investigate the death of Lucy, a young Maasai woman, thought to have been a prostitute, whose bloody body is found in a sewer which extends from Uhuru Park, the huge central park in Nairobi, to Orpheus House, a decrepit, former refuge for prostitutes, now owned by the megachurch of George Nalo Ministries.  When Mollel learns from witnesses that the park has been used recently for night-time drills by a paramilitary group just days before the 2007 election, he is alarmed.  President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, is unpopular, and his opponent, Raila Odinga, supported by the Orange Democratic Movement and the Luos is widely expected to win the popular vote – unless it is stolen by thugs from the General Service Unit working for the President and his Kikuyu supporters.

The Kajiado Plain, which stretches between Nairobi and Tanzania, is where Mollel grew up.

As Mollel investigates Lucy’s murder with the help of her friend Honey, also a prostitute and also Maasai, his own family relationships unfold.  Mollel is a loner.  His father, his younger brother, his mother, and his wife are all “gone,” and his young son often stays with his mother-in-law in the crumbling outskirts of the city as Mollel pursues justice with a ferocious anger.  He senses a similar rage boiling within the city as the prospects of a “stolen” election grow.  “Enkai Nanyokie, The [Maasai] Red God, [is] vengeful and capricious, full of jealousy and wrath,” and the Maasai believe that “The Hour of the Red God is a time when madness descends.  When people turn against each other and when anger is the only human instinct.”  Mollel sees that Hour coming.

Violence breaks out after the 2007 elections in Kenya. Over 1200 people are killed. Photo by Roberto Schmidt/AFP

As Mollel has warned (and as historians already know), the Kenyan elections of 2007 are filled with unimaginable brutality which kills over twelve hundred people.  As voting day approaches, all available police are assigned to polling places to act as “peace-keepers.”  Stores are empty of supplies, since the populace knows that they may not be able to leave their houses for days, and police, like Mollel, never know where the next fire and bloodshed will take place.  Many police are seriously injured, all are worried about their own families, and all fear the worst.  At the same time, the novel’s other threads, including the murder investigation of Lucy and the possible involvement of the leaders of the megachurch, continue.

UN Sec. General Kofi Annan (L) brokered an agreement between President Mwai Kibaki (C) and Raila Odinga (R), in which Odinga became Prime Minister, thereby ending the violence after the disputed election of 2007.

In the last third of the novel, the action sometimes loses its way, overcome by the sheer density of events.  Occasionally, an unnecessary scene will intrude: As a group of tourists leaves their safari for the airport in a truck which Mollel accompanies, the author veers into the clichés of the “ugly tourist,” which add nothing new to the novel.  The tourists make patronizing statements, like “You have to expect this sort of thing in Africa…tribal tensions are never very far from the surface,” “All the aid we give them is part of the problem. If you treat people like children, you can’t be surprised when the throw their rattle out of the stroller,” and “They are children, really…I sometimes think they’d be better off if the modern world just left them alone in their mud huts.”  Visions of the future, expressed by one African character, offer an easy transition into the action to come, and twists and surprises at the conclusion resolve the action neatly, though sometimes through unrealistic coincidences.

Kawangware, one of the largest slums in Nairobi, is the area where Mollel's mother-in-law lives, though she claims differently. This area is now the subject of work by a foundation for children and youth, the Lee Oneness Foundation. Please see credits.

Still, this outstanding debut novel, while not perfect, wonderfully depicts the various cultures of Nairobi and its social issues, in addition to some of its legends and beliefs. The novel moves quickly in prose which is often stunning with its imagery, and Mollel, as a main character, never ceases to be intriguing and often unpredictable in his actions.  The book’s cover calls this “A Detective Mollel Novel,” suggesting that this is the first of a series.  Thoughtful and engrossing, this novel of modern Nairobi and its people is sure to gain fans for any succeeding novels to follow.   I will be one of the first in line.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from http://www.telegraph.co.uk

A young Maasai, with his elongated ear lobes, shows one ear with decorations and one folded up.  Photo by Hilary Wheeler at http://www.wanderlust.co.uk/

The Kajiado Plain between Nairobi and the Tanzanian border may be seen here:  http://www.distancebetweencities.net

Post election violence in Nairobi is photographed by Roberto Schmidt/AFP for http://www.theguardian.com/

Following the disputed 2007 election, UN Sec. Gen. Kofi Annan brokered an arrangement whereby Mwai Kibaki, the incumbent President, remained in office as President, and Raila Odinga, whose Luo supporters believe he won the election, became Prime Minister.  The photo appears on http://blogg.fn.no/2013/04

In Kawangware, the Lee Oneness Foundation for Kawangware Street Children and Youth works to help children.  Over 400,000 people here, 65% of them children, live on less than a dollar a day.  I hope you will read the story of this group’s efforts to provide clean water for the area.  http://www.leeonenessfoundation.com/projects/kawangware

ARC: Picador

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