Posts Tagged ‘Africa’

West with the Night

March 18, 2013

Apologies for not writing a post last week – I was away on hols, in beautiful Cordoba, finding it hilarious that the husband and I were getting a little sunburnt while all the Spanish were shivering in their winter coats. We live in the wrong country, I tell you. This post is about a book set somewhere even hotter, and I hope it will chase away the last of the winter blues.

Beryl Markham’s extraordinary memoir West with the Night is a peculiarly feminine tale of African adventure and derring-do. Here are many escapades of breath-holding, fist-clenching excitement, but written about in thoughtful, lyrical prose. It’s an unusual combination, and a brilliant one.

Beryl Markham grew up in Kenya – although back then it was British East Africa – at the beginning of the twentieth century. She describes her wild childhood, hunting with a local tribe and getting mauled by a lion, then her adolescence when she helped her father train racehorses. This idyll is shattered by the First World War, and then by a drought which brings financial ruin to her father. He summons Beryl, aged seventeen, and tells her he is going to Peru. He asks her if she’d like to come with him or stay behind in Africa. Bold and courageous, Beryl decides to stay in Africa, reluctant to sever the connection she feels with the land. She rides north on her horse Pegasus to start training racehorses on her own:

I had two saddlebags, and Pegasus. The saddlebags held the pony’s rug, his brush, a blacksmith’s knife, six pounds of crushed oats and a thermometer as a precaution against Horse Sickness. For me the bags held pajamas, slacks, a shirt, toothbrush, and comb. I never owned less, nor can I be sure that I ever needed more.

Evidently, she is not your average seventeen-year-old girl.

After a successful spell training racehorses, Beryl changes tack and becomes a pilot, carrying mail, passengers, and then scouting for elephant. Later she flies to England, and then, from England, she makes the first solo East-West Atlantic flight.

I suppose it is an exciting life by any standards, and yet I was surprised by how entranced I was by it. I know and care nothing for horses or horseracing, but the chapter about a horse race had me edge-of-my-seat mesmerised. I don’t care much for aeroplanes, finding them at best noisy machines that make me feel nauseous, and at worst unnatural aberrations which are likely to send me to an untimely death. But in Markham’s prose, they are transformed into beautiful, incredible machines that conquer the vast land of Africa:

We swung over the hills and over the town and back again, and I saw how a man can be master of a craft, and how a craft can be master of an element. I saw the alchemy of perspective reduce my world, and all my other life, to grains in a cup. I learned to watch, to put my trust in other hands than mine. And I learned to wander. I learned what every dreaming child needs to know – that no horizon is so far that you cannot get above it or beyond it.

Flying an aeroplane becomes a means of empowerment and a metaphor for life. I might never fly a plane, but I will happily take that inspiring knowledge that you can always get above or beyond the horizon.

There is something emblematic in Beryl’s graduation from horse to aeroplane, from living thing to machine. It is echoed in the moment when Arab Ruta – her childhood friend who follows her into adulthood as her loyal servant – gives her a clock as a goodbye present when she departs for England:

What a sad substitute, that hysterical jingle, for the soft and soothing voice that used to say, just after dawn, ‘Your tea, Memsahib?’ or long before, ‘Lakwani, it is time to hunt!’

It is also echoed in the way the Murani tribesmen are made to replace their spears with guns to fight in the First World War. A spear to a Murani, is not just a spear, but:

as much a part of himself as the sinews of his body … he will always hold it while there is strength in his arms and no cloud of age before his eyes. It is the emblem of his bloody and his breeding, and possessing it, he is suddenly a man.

When a Murani is killed in the war, this spear – almost part of his body – had been swapped for a gun, and ‘some said [his death] was because he had forsaken his spear.’

West with the Night is in many ways a chronicle of progress – from horse to plane, servant to alarm clock, spear to gun. What makes it such an intriguing book is that the nostalgia inherent in a memoir is coupled with excitement for the new. The looking back over a past life is met with Beryl’s looking forward to the next adventure. Her sadness at leaving Africa – ‘seeing it again could not be living it again… while you remember that unforgettable valley, the valley no longer remembers you’ – is swiftly replaced with eager anticipation of flying to America. It stops it from being a schmaltzy paean to a lost time, and instead makes it a beautiful record of a thrilling surge of life.

I loved every page of West with the Night and I was delighted that absolutely everyone at yesterday’s meeting of The Walking Book Club loved it too. But what none of us could quite believe was how selective Beryl had been in her self-portrait.

I was captivated by her life of adventure, filled with admiration at how she held her own as a woman in such a masculine world – but then, having reached the end and done a little digging around, I discovered the other side of her life. Beryl had three husbands and yet she mentions none of them in West with the Night. She had countless affairs, and while some of her lovers feature in the book, none of them is written about romantically. She also had a mother, brother and son – all of whom are absent from the book. Why did she leave all these major characters out of her life story?

It’s a puzzle, for sure. Perhaps she wanted to write about Africa, about her relationship with the land, rather than with these people. Perhaps, she didn’t want to undermine her rare position as a woman allowed into British East Africa’s macho male society by writing about such typically feminine concerns as love affairs, husbands and children. Whatever her reasons, I suppose being selective is the privilege of the memoirist. It just did feel like a little bit of a betrayal to have spent so many pages beside Beryl, learning about so much of her life, to discover that so much has been edited out.

There is a biography of Beryl Markham, Straight on Till Morning by Mary Lovell which looks good. Perhaps I need to read that to fill in the gaps a little more satisfactorily. Until then, I’ll leave you with a quotation from one of Hemingway’s letters:

Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West With The Night? … She has written so well, and marvellously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers … it really is a bloody wonderful book.

Apparently Hemingway made a pass at Beryl and she rejected him – hence, perhaps, why he thinks of her as ‘a high-grade bitch’ – but he still gives her writing his seal of approval. Indeed, when a Californian stumbled upon this mention of Beryl Markham in the 1980s, it inspired him to get West with the Night republished, leading to its popular rediscovery, forty years after its initial publication. I have to admit that I’ve never particularly got on with Hemingway’s writing – such short sentences, so much machismo, so utterly dissimilar from Markham’s prose! But I take my proverbial hat off to him for lauding her in this letter. Were it not for Hemingway, this inspiring, beautiful and thoroughly enjoyable book might never have come to light.


Some literary mistakes

October 11, 2010

Last week, I wrote a piece for the Spectator’s Arts Blog about the mess-up surrounding publication of Jonathan Franzen’s latest book Freedom. A week after its much-hyped, viciously embargoed, British release, it was revealed that the publishers had accidently printed an earlier draft of the novel, not the final version. Apparently typos and grammatical mistakes peppered the text, in addition to some ‘small but significant’ changes to characterisation.

Now, after a great deal of fuss, and a great deal of pulping, the copies of Freedom in the shops are free from error. And I am left with no further comment other than that I pity the journalist or PHD student who has been instructed to compare and contrast the two different versions.

In my article (which you can read here), I suggested that typos aren’t the end of the world. Don’t they reveal the human fallibility of the author? Isn’t that somewhat reassuring? And isn’t that particularly apt for a novel about human fallibilty?

Most readers disagreed and I was left with a couple of comments insisting on the ghastly interference of typos.

But the Franzen debacle led me to wonder about other literary mistakes … here are a couple that sprang to mind.

One case is Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (which I actually happened to mention in the article because of the repeated typo of ‘Rusdie’ in the author biography in my old paperback). There are some more notorious mistakes in Midnight’s Children. To mention a few:

The characters Picture Singh and Saleem go on a train from Delhi to Bombay which is said to pass through Kurla; land is reclaimed in Bombay using concrete tetrapods; and the singer Lata Mangeshkar is on the radio in 1946.

These are all errata, factual impossibilities: Kurla is on a different railway line; the tetrapods in Bombay have only ever been used to protect the sea wall against coastal erosion – not for land reclamation; and Lata Mangeshkar didn’t enjoy any real success until the 1950s.

But for those who aren’t particularly well-versed in Indian railways, Mumbai’s coastal protection policies, or Bollywood singers, they could easily slip through the net – why would one suspect these things to be false? A more serious error is getting the date of Gandhi’s assassination wrong, which is highlighted in the text when the narrator, Saleem, says:

Rereading my work, I have discovered an error in chronology. The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi occurs, in these pages in a wrong date.

Why the mistakes? Why all these factual errors? How is one to trust Rushdie or his copyeditor ever again?

In an essay written in 1983 Rushdie defends these mistakes, claiming that they are intentional, deliberate errors. They interrupt the narrative and force the reader to question the narrator, Saleem (the reader isn’t supposed to question the actual author, Rushdie). With all these mistakes, Saleem is portrayed as full of human fallibility and unreliability. Saleem is, after all, remembering his story and Rushdie emphasises the distorting process of memory:

One of the simplest truths about any set of memories is that many of them will be false … as I wrote the novel, and whenever a conflict arose between literal and remembered truth, I would favour the remembered version.

He highlights the notion of ‘memory’s truth’, to which he gives more importance than actual historical accuracy.

All rather shakey, unreliable ground.

The other literary mistake that springs to mind might be rather less intentional. It arises in a fantastic book – Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih.

The narrator, Meheimed, returns to his native Sudan after spending seven months in England. Salih makes it clear that Meheimed wants to return to his village in Sudan and see it unchanged, as though he never left. But this desired vision of continuity is repeatedly disrupted, most emphatically through the character Mustafa Sa’eed, a newcomer to the village. As the novel progresses, it transpires that this character has also spent time abroad, in Cairo and in England, and Meheimed begins to piece together Mustafa Sa’eed’s story.

The ‘mistake’ occurs when, one evening, Mustafa Sa’eed recites in English, ‘in a clear voice and with an impeccable accent’ a poem, which the narrator says he later found in an anthology of First World War poetry. Here is the extract that appears in the book:

Those women of Flanders

Await the lost,

Await the lost who never will leave the harbour

They await the lost whom the train never will bring.

To the embrace of those women with dead faces,

They await the lost, who lie dead in the trenches,

the barricade and the mud.

In the darkness of night,

This is Charing Cross Station, the hour’s past one,

There was a faint light,

There was a great pain.

There’s no point in googling this, or leafing through anthologies searching for the first line ‘Those women of Flanders’. This poem would never be found in a First World War poetry anthology. What would be found in its place is Ford Madox Ford’s ‘In October 1914 (Antwerp)’. Here is the corresponding extract:

These are the women of Flanders.

They await the lost.

They await the lost that shall never leave the dock;

They await the lost that shall never again come by the train

To the embraces of all these women with dead faces:

They await the lost who lie dead in trench and barrier and foss,

In the dark of the night.

This is Charing Cross; it is past one of the clock;

There is very little light.


There is so much pain.

Mustafa Sa’eed is reciting a bastardised version of Ford Madox Ford’s poem. How on earth has this happened?

Season of Migration to the North was originally written in Arabic and so the poem, in the original text, must have appeared in Arabic as well. When Denys Johnson-Davies translated the novel into English in 1969, he translated the poem into English. Perhaps he didn’t recognise the poem’s provenance and so didn’t find the original for quotation. It seems a bit mean for Tayeb Salih not to have let him know!

What we have now in Season of Migration to the North is an English translation of an Arabic translation of English. It shows what a complicated and distorting process translation can be – how impossible it is to neatly reverse, instead bringing one further and further away from the original.

It is a bit like the distorting process of memory, pointed out by Salman Rushdie. When remembering something, one can’t just reverse time and go straight back to the unchanged moment. In the process of going back things change, details slip, factual impossibilities occur.

And if one takes translation on a bigger scale – the literal ‘bearing across’ not just of language but of a person – a similar distortion occurs. Season of Migration to the North is about the translation of the narrator and Mustafa Sa’eed from Sudan to England and then back to Sudan. And, as I mentioned, Tayeb Salih is keen to emphasise the changes in Sudan when each character returns:

We pass by a red brick building on the Nile bank, half finished…I tell him that when I was here only seven months ago they hadn’t even started building it.

If change happens in physical translation, then surely in this tiny microcosm of Ford Madox Ford’s poem, then change must happen too. It can’t move seamlessly from English to Arabic and then back to English – change and disruption must leave their mark. Perhaps Denys Johnson-Davies deliberately continued the process of translation rather than finding the original poem.

Or else there’s rather a glaring mistake. Lucky for the publisher that Tayeb Salih isn’t still around to make such a Franzenesque fuss about it.