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.

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