Dimples and Scars

Sameer Rahim

  • The Drift Latitudes by Jamal Mahjoub
    Chatto, 202 pp, £14.99, February 2006, ISBN 0 7011 7822 1

In Jamal Mahjoub’s Wings of Dust (1994), a Sudanese exile pauses halfway through his memoir to let his thoughts catch up with his writing: ‘I must set down the pen to prevent the words colliding into one another and producing only confusion where I am searching for clarity.’ Sharif arrives at Oxford in the 1950s and maps the future with other aspiring post-colonial leaders. After years of travelling round Europe with a beautiful jazz singer, he returns to build an independent Sudan; but political conflict causes him to flee to France, to a decaying hotel, from where he attempts to shape his turbulent life. Wings of Dust is itself a reshaping of a post-colonial classic published nearly thirty years earlier. In V.S. Naipaul’s The Mimic Men, Ralph Singh, exiled from the island of Isabella and living in a shabby London hotel, also finds control in setting things down: ‘Writing, for all its initial distortion, clarifies, and even becomes a process of life.’

The clarity the two writers pursue is not the same. At the start of The Mimic Men, Ralph’s ‘present urge’ is ‘to secure the final emptiness’ of his political aspirations for Isabella. Through the clean and tight sentences Naipaul writes for him, Ralph develops a vision that sees through idealism. Although Wings of Dust traces a similar arc from confidence to disillusion, the characters who embody hope for Sudan, unlike their counterparts in Naipaul, are neither charlatans nor fantasists. A friend of Sharif’s from Oxford returns to teach comparative literature at a Sudanese university. He wants to translate Ulysses into Arabic, even though his colleagues ‘regarded the book as untranslatable’ or ‘obscene and in bad taste’. He is determined to bring together his native language and the best literature in English: ‘If we are ever to rebuild this country in our own mould,’ he argues, ‘we must have a broad cultural foundation.’ Mahjoub is generous though not indulgent; the translation never happens, but in that moment of ambition it’s possible to imagine what a diverse Sudanese culture might look like.

Mahjoub was born in London in 1960 to an English mother and a Sudanese father. He moved to Liverpool and then Khartoum, before studying geology at Sheffield University. All six of his novels revolve around stories and metaphors of mixed heritages. In his first book, Navigation of a Rainmaker (1989), 26-year-old Tanner has a similar background to the author’s. He moves from England to Sudan hoping to find his way ‘back to some point of divergence’; but he soon becomes estranged owing to his lack of Arabic, and spends his free time rereading old copies of Newsweek. Only when his oil company sends him out of the city do his life, and the novel, accelerate. An act of violence rouses him from his lethargy – the plot is not unlike that of L’Etranger – but his sense of displacement remains.

Navigation of a Rainmaker has the self-importance of a work that knows the significance of its themes. Often this leads Mahjoub to try to squeeze too much life out of his images: ‘The map of the Sudan looked like a face, the face of a man gazing down; the face of a man in mourning.’ More tantalising are the hints of a wider catastrophe at the edge of Tanner’s story. When his girlfriend returns after doing charity work among the southern tribes, she comments that the drought will ‘lead to genocide and the government does nothing’; later, Tanner hears of men ‘flogged for brewing beer in tin tubs’ and ‘rumours of slave-trade revivals and genocide’. In the year the novel was published, the government of Sudan was overthrown by Omar al-Bashir, a soldier who exacted ruthless punishments in the name of Islam. Perhaps not surprisingly, Mahjoub’s next book, Wings of Dust, described the failure of Sudanese national aspirations.

In his third novel, which is his most successful, he looks back to the late 19th century and examines how a radical Islamic militia managed to defeat the colonial powers and briefly rule Khartoum. In the Hour of Signs (1996) begins when a hermit called the Mahdi claims to be a sign from God – an ayatollah. One of his followers sums up his creed to a local politician: ‘The people whom you represent have squandered their dignity and corrupted the true meaning of the word “Islam”. You drink wine and smoke tobacco. You have been consumed by the vanities of the world.’ In the Hour of Signs follows the Mahdi’s army as they try to defeat the Turks (the nominal rulers) and the British (the genuine powerbrokers). The novel moves between a variety of times, locations and armies in intense, five or six-page-long chapters, and describes the action from the point of view of sympathetic characters from each side. It’s a complicated history and Mahjoub smoothly covers a wide landscape. Occasionally, he brings his characters together in the same chapter, usually on the same battlefield, allowing their different perspectives to overlap and inform each other.

In one chapter, the Bash-Buzuq, an irregular cavalry division of the Ottoman army, captures families sympathetic to the Mahdi. Juma, the captain of the Bash-Buzuq, is enraged when the prisoners turn out to be more insolent than fearful, and prepares a cruel and unusual punishment for two of them:

When the men returned with wood, two large crosses were constructed, rough and uneven like two deformed trees in the middle of the sandy plain. The old man and the mute were nailed on by their hands and feet, their waists bound to the stakes with rope to carry some of their weight, so that the nails should not tear through their flesh. The women wailed and screamed, but Juma was unrelenting.

Other forms of torture could have been imagined, but for these insurgents crucifixion is pointedly humiliating. ‘Let them try to enter paradise fastened to the crosses of the unbelievers,’ Juma remarks. The Ottomans would like to see themselves as the biblical Romans; but in persecuting a messiah-figure from their own faith, they have more in common with the Pharisees. Juma seems to have forgotten that the soldiers of the mightiest army in Sudan were, nominally at least, followers of Christ. He wields a Christian symbol to degrade other Muslims, but its meaning turns on him and, like the Mahdi, eventually slips his grasp.

When his Egyptian soldiers complain at the fruitlessness of the search for the Mahdi, General Hicks feels ‘rather like Jesus Christ must have felt among the Jews’. The officer to whom he makes this remark is Captain Ellesworth, the character who represents the British viewpoint. In a letter to his fiancée, Ellesworth expresses a puzzled sympathy for the ‘wretches’ of Sudan: ‘It is hard to explain, Milly,’ he writes, ‘but their world here is so different that we can hardly be expected to understand their way of thinking.’ Later, wounded in the desert, he survives only because a Sudanese girl gives him some water. A few months after his rescue, General Gordon Pasha (beheaded at the siege of Khartoum) questions him about the Mahdi’s inspiration: the Quran. ‘I glanced at it once, sir. Very flowery, I thought,’ he replies. It is unclear whether ‘flowery’ is a judgment based on reading a translation, or the result of glancing at the loops and swirls of Arabic script. Whichever it is, neither captain, Ellesworth or Juma, can read the other side’s signs.

There are occasions, however, when the signs are conducive to cultural understanding. Just before she saves Ellesworth’s life, the Sudanese girl introduces herself to a boy-soldier from the Bash-Buzuq: ‘I am Noon,’ she says. ‘But he already knew her name;the eye of the sun floating over the sky.’ This last comment is puzzling. How could a boy with no English elaborate a pun on ‘noon’? In fact, ‘the eye of the sun floating over the sky’ also describes the shape of the Arabic letter noon, which is written ن. The coincidence of sign and meaning in Arabic and English looks forward to Noon’s conciliatory gesture to the dying Ellesworth.

Mahjoub’s next three novels strive for such clarifying moments. In The Carrier (1998), a 17th-century astronomer called Rashid travels to Europe to look for an optical device that enlarges perspective. He is shipwrecked off the coast of Jutland, and saved from intolerant Danes by a fellow astronomer, who discovers only later the expertise of his dark-skinned servant. The novel is pleased with its conceit of the universe as a gateway to the universal. When Rashid is in Algiers he reflects that ‘the motion of two orbs could be measured in angles and distances, while the course of his life eluded all such method and order’; when living with the Dane he hopes to ‘establish the line of thought connecting the two apparently separate spheres of East and West’. These metaphors struggle for effect since they are not specific to either culture, while the telescope is a very familiar symbol of new vision.

Yasin, the narrator of Travelling with Djinns (2004), once again has an English mother and a Sudanese father. He has left his Danish wife and is taking their seven-year-old son, Leo, on a trip through Europe, during which he tries to explain his multiple heritage. His son’s insistence on his exact age leads Yasin to think that ‘six months in the life of a seven-and-a-half-year-old is one-fifteenth of their life. Six months in the life of a 37-year-old is one-seventy-fourth – his time is more precious than mine.’ It’s as if turning his life into a formula will enable him to control its outcome. Mahjoub’s new novel, The Drift Latitudes, is more floridly written – we see ‘sunlight bobbing in minuscule globes on the yellow tips of daffodils and the frail tendrils’ of a girl’s hair – but in their different styles, both novels again investigate the theme of mixed inheritances.

At the start of The Drift Latitudes a German refugee called Ernst Frager is staring at the Irish Sea. It is 1957 and he has abandoned his English wife and daughter in London and moved to Liverpool; during the First World War he had served in a U-boat patrolling these waters. In a local jazz club, he meets a West Indian singer with whom he falls in love and has another daughter. The novel is mainly set in the present day and split between the viewpoints of the two half-sisters. The girl Ernst left behind, Rachel, is trying to adjust to life in Khartoum after marrying a Sudanese man; his other daughter, Jade, is a successful architect in London who becomes more curious about her father’s past when a refugee dies on her building site. Flashbacks to Ernst in his U-boat in 1918 give us clues as to why he decided to marry and settle in the enemy’s country. There is an obvious connection here with Rachel’s life: her son joins the Sudanese army enthusiastic to fight – and if necessary die – in the counter-insurgency. The three lives are linked by a shared unease about family history, how much our lives are defined by it, and how much we can construct for ourselves.

Nothing in our mental lives ‘which has once been formed can perish’, Freud wrote in Civilisation and Its Discontents. The earliest memory-traces are like the ‘remains of ancient Rome’ which exist alongside those buildings ‘grown up in the last few centuries since the Renaissance’; an observer need only alter his view slightly ‘to call up the one view or the other’. The Drift Latitudes uses physical structures to describe the immigrant mind. After separating from her French husband, Jade reshapes her home and her life. ‘Much of the interior of the house had been ripped away to let in more light, more open space’; but she restores the façade to make it still look ‘part of an ordinary Victorian terrace’. When the refugee dies on her building site, she discovers that a German V-2 rocket was once dug up from its foundations. At the novel’s end she walks past a rapidly transforming church: ‘From Taekwondo to bingo, through Gospel choirs and percussion,’ she thinks, ‘it had served as a Zen temple, a mosque, as well as a healing centre providing lessons in Shiatsu, Reiki, Tai Chi and something called “Astral Voyaging”.’

These metaphors are too neatly aligned with their meanings. A woman may indeed decide to make alterations to her house after a separation, but the symbolism involved in hollowing out its insides and keeping the front intact is too obvious, as is the business of the German rocket and the German family history or the church overrun by every multicultural fad. Mahjoub’s urge to explain makes The Drift Latitudes his most heavy-handed novel. In Wings of Dust the use of a similar trope is more refined. Sharif returns home and sees that a river has shaped a ‘landscape whose dimples and scars contained both my beginnings and my end’. When seen as dimpled the shore is a reminder of his childhood, but seen as scarred it anticipates what his land will inflict on him. Just as the Nile converges, Sharif’s plural ‘beginnings’ lead to a singular ‘end’.

In Travelling with Djinns, Yasin cannot summon enthusiasm for a metaphor he knows lacks shading: ‘I had read about a 14th-century church nearby which had a frieze of interspliced arches supposedly inspired by Arab architecture, but this, too, seemed a little pallid.’ Colouring becomes emblematic for Yasin. His two parents, ‘one dark and the other pale’, gave him a mixed inheritance. Without his effort the Arab quarter of his ‘little pale’ son will fade. Under his mother’s direction the boy was named Leo, but Yasin insists on calling him Hamdi. He stops only when children twist the name into ‘Hamdi Damdi sat on a wall.’ In The Drift Latitudes Rachel is given bad news by ‘Djibreel, to you Gabriel’; in Navigation of a Rainmaker, the anglicised Tanner rarely uses his other name, Tariq, since ‘if there is an importance in the naming of things then it is that the name should be appropriate.’ Mahjoub spoke recently on French radio about his ‘access to diverse cultures’, and how he tried to synthesise them ‘in the process of creation’. Yet he kept using the word procès (‘trial’) instead of processus (‘process’); an easy slip in an acquired language, but perhaps one that captures the difficulty of naming when your words are not quite your own.

In The Mimic Men Ralph Singh reads Le Rouge et le noir and, ‘full of the closeness of Stendhal’, sees blood in Isabella’s red sky. ‘How easy it is,’ he writes, ‘to turn that landscape, which we make ordinary by living in it and becoming part of it, into the landscape of the battlefield.’ In the Hour of Signs, despite the spilling of many nations’ blood, reads the sky more optimistically:

The weaver birds burst from the trees at sunrise, like a confusion of thought erupting from an unruly head. They scattered, and then, sweeping back together, they curved upwards and over like a comma: the sign of the letter Wao. These are the signs by which we know the miracle of existence. The letters of learning; the language we use to describe the world and which in turn describes us.

Once again the novel explores the orthographic similarity between Arabic and English signs. The letter wao is written و, its shape the same as a comma and the swoop of the weaver birds. Wao means ‘and’ in Arabic and functions in a sentence the same way a comma does in English: by allowing us to pause for thought, then link to something new.