beyond a shadow

Posted on April 2, 2014

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eqguinea If you dream of moving mountains tomorrow, you must start by lifting small stones today: Equatorial Guinea Proverb

Have you ever picked up a cup of tea and taken a few sips only to realize that it’s coffee? Or started reading a book and read a fair few pages before realizing that the main character is a man and not a woman? That the voice in your head is wrong? There’s a moment of disorientation, a readjustment, but a never quite total re-engagement. One’s sense of security has been shaken. This is what happened reading Donato Ndongo’s Tinieblas de tu memoria negra (Shadow of Your Black Memory). To begin with, I had no idea (I have a D.Phil in Spanish so really should have known better) that Spain had an African colony.   Then, even having read a little about Equatorial Guinea, having placed ‘Spanish Guinea’ on a map and read all about the difficulties of understanding the Spanish spoken in this unique hispanoparlante African country, I kept being tripped up. I would read a chapter and build mental images of some imagined South American geography only to be repeatedly shocked, like a dementia patient, on being reminded that I was in Africa. This sense of dislocation was aggravated by the similarity of the post-colonial narrative of Ndongo’s story and that of many South American writers: the search for identity, the Freudian breaking away from the Spanish father country and the Catholic mother Church, before an acknowledgement and re-integration of old traditions and, at last, an acceptance and synthesis of those parts on one’s own self that had, colonially, been designated ‘exotic’ and ‘barbaric’. Throughout, I had the feeling of walking into the house of my childhood only to find that the furniture had been moved by inches and the walls painted in subtly different tones.

All that aside, Shadows of Your Black Memory, is a supremely clever novel. It offers two competing visions of Equatorial Guinea. The Guinea of the nameless protagonist’s father who has accepted wholesale the teachings of the Catholic Church and the culture of the Spanish colonials, and the Guinea of his uncle, head of the tribe and keeper of the collective tribal memory. The novel’s structure is like the Einstein/Marilyn Monroe picture doing the rounds. Your eye flips between the two recognizable portraits without being able to quite extinguish the aura of one from the other.   There is, for example, an extremely graphic (but rather moving) description of a circumcision ritual which is superimposed over a description of the body and blood ritual of a first communion.   There’s a heartbreaking description of the protagonist’s decision to leave the seminary which is superimposed over the description of his country’s nascent struggle for independence.

There is one other small but joyful (for me anyway) feature I’d like to point out. Each chapter is numbered with the number spelled out in full (which is quite satisfying in itself). This would not be note-worthy except that the numbering starts with ‘zero’ which makes me wonder a lot about beginnings, endings, infinity… or perhaps I’m just over-thinking it and making a mountain out of very small pebbles.

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