Little diversion ahead

Posted on July 27, 2013

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plage-hamouro-1999A fool and water will go the way they are diverted: Comoros proverb

The last gap between posts has been woeful. This is because, much as I hate to admit it, I struggled with Salim Hatubou’s Hamouro.   It was rather like turning up to a dinner party. The host/ess has spent weeks preparing and hours cooking and then s/he serves up a beautifully presented dish that you don’t like (for me, say, Gazpacho). To be polite you eat a tiny spoonful at a time, trying not to taste any of it in any part of the mouth, while making grateful and appreciative noises along with everyone else.  Between each miniscule sup, you stuff yourself on bread and drink too much, while half your brain wonders how much is too much to leave politely.   To criticise the host/ess would be wrong. The problem lies solely with one’s own tastes. If only there were a dog or a plant pot to offload a few mouthsful on.  Of course, the thank you letter underlines/lies how yummy the food was, which runs the risk of the host/ess plonking a bigger bowl of Gazpacho in front of you next time.

Such was my experience with Hamouro.  I spent a lot of time over the last month reading the sliced white bread equivalent of literature – crime fiction –in order to avoid having to take up my allegorical spoon to read Hatubou’s political allegory.   Yet, to be fair to Hatubou, I couldn’t tell you why.    Was it because I was reading it in French? Not really. The French is no more complicated (in fact less so) than the novels I read for ‘A’ level. Was it because it’s been too hot to concentrate? I managed to finish Brazzaville Beach, Riddle of the Sands, and 4 (yes, 4) crime novels so, er, no, I’d say the heat hasn’t slowed me down any.   Was it just not interesting? Well, if you are trying to find the rub, there it be.

The book is about an island, Rocher Hippocampe, which, unlike its three sister islands, has decided not to claim independence from its colonial power. So far so Comoros.  After a cyclone the political and business chiefs move everyone from one of its towns, Hamouro, to a new town where they can be governed more closely and their labour and former land more efficiently exploited. One mad, old man remains believing that the town can be resurrected and a utopia, free from the colonial power, can be created.  Life, human nature, and political allegory being what they are, of course Utopia is not forthcoming.

For me, the novel’s problems are two-fold.   First, the story itself and second, its form. This is not a new tale. Not that that should matter, as they say, there are only 6 stories all told, but it just doesn’t match up to its forebears.  Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies, for instance, genuinely surprised me when I read them first as a teenager.  Hamouro holds few surprises.  Of course, Hatubou can’t be held responsible for my aging or for the sheer volume of things I’ve read, but if there are to be no surprises, the story needs to be told in a way that holds one’s interest.  I suspect that, because the story holds too closely to events that happened on the Comoran Island of Mayotte, its allegorical elements just don’t work.  Which leads us on to problem number two.  The form of the book doesn’t drag us along. It reads as a string of mini narratives with each new character entering and telling their back-stories without interruption. This puts a brake on the flow and pace of the novel, leaving the plot more flat line than arc.  It’s all just a bit disappointing.  There were times when I felt as though I were re-reading Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories insofar as they’re both just too wafty for my taste and lacking in warp and weft.

Still, I managed to finish the course while shoving another piece of bread in my mouth (Garden of the Evening Mists) to take away the taste of tomato.

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