Isegawa, M., Snakepit,999, Netherlands, as Slangenkuil; New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004, in English)
Snakepit by Moses Isegawa is a courageous novel. By this I mean that the author – Moses Isegawa is not his real name – has tackled a subject that, to some extent, is, for some in the West, a taboo area in the modern history of Africa, the society that existed under Idi Amin’s brutal dictatorship. He is brave, too, in tackling the nature of evil, for that is what it is like opening this book: entering a pool of evil. He refers to it, in the title, as a snakepit. Those who control the levers of power are like a nest of vipers. Bob Ashes (guess who he), the Englishman who becomes Amin’s confidant, is described as the white snake. The General just under Amin, who hates Ashes and Bat, is absolutely hideous. The hero, Bat, is flawed. He is needed by his country to run vital ministries, but he succumbs instantly to temptation in Saudi Arabia, when he is offered a bribe as part of a deal his country is making with a prince over some islands. This renders him vulnerable and leads to a chain of disastrous events from which he is only saved by a friend of his from Cambridge, a fellow graduate and MP in the UK Parliament. The evil in the book is palpable. I cannot say it is a book that I could not put down, although that is in a way true. I HAD to put it down on several occasions. I simply could not take the onslaught. We all know that things were very bad under Amin. Moses tells how bad they were and in a way that is almost too painful to endure. The book is very well researched and although fiction, has the powerful ring of truth about it. I strongly recommend this novel to anybody who wants to understand in greater depth Uganda’s “missing years”, the 1970s. Robert Edward Gurney, London, 2017.
GELU VLAŞIN: A Modern Mystic?
by Robert Edward Gurney
English version of the Prologue to Gelu Vlașin, El último aliento, Amargord Ediciones, Madrid, 2017.
These are poems that tug at the very strings of the soul. In a few words they cover a huge area of human experience, of what it is like to be human. They are the words of a soul in torment, a soul that finds itself alone, unable to connect with the object of its desire. They are about unrequited or lost love. The poet kneels in prayer, exchanges looks, searches for the loved one, but their two existences rarely overlap. He wants to be in harmony, in a positive relationship but is unable to achieve it. The metaphorical pain in his left knee – he uses the human body as a metaphor for the soul – comes from so much traveling over rough terrain to reach, or fail to reach union or re-union. He wants to link up with the lost source that will nourish him. He does not despise his need. It appears that he once practically had the love that is now lacking. The tú, the thou and thee of his poems, once used to curl up on his soul after an act of love but, even then, that love felt like cold lava. His soul pours out a cascade of words as a lament for a lost love, in the vain hope that the loved one will return to him and give him the attention he used to enjoy, albeit qualified. The book mourns the impossibility of love. It describes in detail the hopeful journey of a lover towards an idea of love fulfilled. However, the vine leaf is no more than a green stain in his wandering, searching head. The words of the loved one no longer reach his ear. As the book unfolds, we learn that the object of the poet’s desire, of his intense spiritual thirst, is almost deified. She can no longer reach him. The hunter finds only a dried-up stream where once the Jordan ran. There is no longer any spiritual sustenance to be found. The grass is dead and it kills. The book is a lament for a lost faith in love. He wants to reconstruct his soul, a soul that would reach out unhindered towards the loved one but it is all in vain. He is left feeling that his existence is a product of mere chance. Perhaps his words will survive him, only to be devoured by the crows. Perhaps he will achieve vision of love after death, spiritual eyes, but they will only to weep at his bodily disappearance. Yet he retains the certainty that the loved one is there in the future with her arms crossed, waiting. He sees that figure, standing out clearly in his mind against the deathly mould of nothingness. These thoughts assail his hemmed-in soul at night-time but, lightening his dark condition, he feels, for a moment, the refreshing intimation of eternal sleep. Perhaps the idea of that restoring sleep is enough to calm his metaphysical anguish. Perhaps it is more. If only it could be true that the sick body will grow wings at the time of physical death. His words are, nevertheless, impotent, he feels. The hand [with which he writes] is crippled. Ideas teem in his mind at the scorched landscape he beholds. Can suffering lead to the saving of a soul? Is there any way that his terrible longing, these tears, can lead to his overcoming the looming darkness? At his Beloved’s side, he begs her to feel his suffering, or just to recognise him. He addresses the Beloved close up. He attempts to restore the relationship, to try to re-establish it in the space that lies between them. Look at my deceiving lips, he begs – blaming himself for the separation. He begs the loved one to take him back knowing that his words, his thoughts are doing damage as he does so. Images of the hunter, the hunted and the prey recur, suggesting that only death lies at the end of this search: a murdered destiny. He brings in images of violence, of lightning claws scratching at day’s belly, the day through which the nothingness of his being flows into the beyond. Poem after poem begs the loved one to come closer. But all he sees is the dying of the light in the Other’s eyes and his reflected crucified face disappearing is those dying eyes. He feels he is drowning in the glass of his own words. He cannot stop writing about the object of his desire. He considers drastic measures: he will destroy his former ways of thinking. Perhaps then his loved one will reappear. The figure of a mother appears late in the book. He has sewn her face into his soul, he tells us. He writes of a brother whose faith sustains him (the poet) and enables him somehow to carry on. His father, we learn, had not wanted to enter into these realms of thought but his mother showed him how to rise above the mundane. He finds some consolation for his inner darkness in the pallid light of the moon. He says that marijuana is a Toledo sword that cuts your mind off. He refers to the ears cut off at the end of a bullfight as a brace of dead partridges – man’s cruel and absurd reaction to the human condition, his taunting of mortality, his debased hunt. He reprimands Thomas for not recognising how things are, how humanity needs to escape from the muddy waters of doubt in which it finds itself drowning. Like the bullfighter he takes on a death that is sharpening its teeth on his mind. Memories, like the lead soldiers of childhood, threaten to deprive him of his mind, his sanity, but he remains determined to assassinate death, to overcome it somehow in his mind. Yet he keeps coming back to the fact that he is filled with a blinding darkness. The loved one’s cherished eyes and lips could, he feels, destroy the dry, arid road he is on. But then he feels he is losing the power of speech, that his words are getting him nowhere. He feels like a lover who has lost his loved one. The only word he hears is loneliness. His lover’s words no longer enter his ears, only birds of prey enter that tear out his power to hear. He is ageing. Only painful sounds fill his head now, like old women’s gossip. He is becoming the prey, the prey of and to chaos. The lover’s hair becomes like a cross to bear. He feels he is being crucified by his memories of lost love. His thoughts are moribund. Retreating from his quest, it is as if madness descends from the sky and he feels only death beckoning. He feels as he has been trampled underfoot by a black horse – the bullfight theme returning. His bones begin to fall away and to utter words. He feels that death is almost on him. Life begins to feel like a bullfight in which he is losing. His life is all a game, a game that he is losing. The book approaches it conclusion with meditations on the end of things: the sand of the infinite, the last breath.
Again and again, when reading these astonishing poems, one is reminded of Juan Larrea’s poetry and that of the Spanish mystics San Juan de la Cruz and Fray Luís de León and the Song of Songs.
Denis Hills, The Last Days of White Rhodesia, Chatto and Windus, London, 1981. 196 pages
Imagine entering somebody else’s nightmare, one in which in one way everything is normal, tennis and bowls in the evening, rugby and football at the weekends. People are going about their daily business in a conscientious way. Except that some things are not normal. A group of Elim missionaries is lined up and shot. Some say it is the “terrorists” who did it. Others say it was the Selous Scouts. In Parliament in London a firebrand MP, Andrew Faulds, is claiming that the Rhodesian government organised it. Nobody seems to know. Men, women and children were lined up and beaten to death with lumps of wood, one by one. A Viscount airliner carrying tourists is shot down near Victoria Falls. Young men from every part of society are being killed on a daily basis. Small children have nightmares about men coming in to kill them in the night. Hotels are blasted by shells. We all have strange nightmares but this one actually happened. Denis Hills in his book The Last Days of White Rhodesia describes it as it was, as he saw it and experienced it, often camping out at night in dangerous places to capture the pulse of the country. He describes literally a nightmare situation in which everybody suffered. Reading this book is like entering an Alice in Wonderland world where violence holds sway. (Posted on Amazon)