Marabou Stork Nightmares, African Psycho, Freddy Mercury, Spice Touring and FlÂneuring in Zanzibar
For anyone that hasn't had the pleasure of meeting a Marabou Stork, they are truly the vilest creature on this planet. Here's a video I got of some doing some dirty deeds in eastern Kenya if you don't believe me.
I read most of the book coming back from Thailand and then in Nairobi and finished it waiting for our plane to Dar es Salaam. The story takes place mostly between South Africa and Scotland, though he passes through Nairobi and maybe even Dar at some points. Thankfully there are not a lot of Marabou Storks in Nairobi. The only time I see them in Nairobi is on the way to and from the airport.
From what I could gather from the book, Roy Strang is narrating from a coma of some sort and is piecing together all these memories, cobbled with what people are saying to him while he is in this comatose state. It was all very stream of consciousness and surreal so it was hard to tell what was what, if storyline is what you're after (in which case there's nothing redeeming about the book). It's pretty violent, at one point Roy and three other soccer hooligans gang rape a girl. He tries to play the part of the innocent bystander, though he is not exactly a reliable narrator and in the end she comes back to haunt him, so I get the sense that this is all some sort of fabrication of his guilt-ridden (and abused-as-a-child) mind. I think this is what the Marabou Stork is supposed to stand for, the embodiment of his redemption, though I don't think Welsh really connects the dots or numbers them so you can connect them.
The language itself is a different story. If I hadn't've seen Trainspotting (perhaps the only movie necessitating English subtitles even though it was in English), it might have been hard to follow. The vernacular is similar in Marabou Stork Nightmares. Here's an example of a typical conversation:
It's really a dialect all to itself, the way the working class Scots speak. He experiments a lot with textual formatting as well, though I'm not sure how much of it serves the book except to catch your eye if you are flipping through it. There's different fonts, all upper case rants, sloping lines of broken text, etc. most of it rather gimmicky and more of a distraction to break up the surreal diarrheal prose. Unless you're reading for the intricacies of the Scot-speak language, or share an obsession with Marabou Storks, I wouldn't recommend it. In the end, I'm not even sure he gets the Marabou Stork (though I admittedly got bored and started skim-reading after a while).
Speaking of "bad" and gratuitiously violent books, I also read African Psycho by Alain Mabanckou. It also has a gimmicky premise, it begins:
At the time I bought the book, at the Soft Skull table at the Brooklyn Book festival, he was touted as the hip new African writer from the Congo or some such thing. Call me a sucker. If the hook didn't sink the first time, Mabanckou forcibly reiterates it often, like at beginning of chapter 5:
I was like alright already, quit saying what you're gonna say and just say it. I read up until the part where he pretends he's a taxi driver, picks up a girl, beats her over the head and tries to rape her. I'm losing my patience with such gratuituous rape scenes. Rather than exorcise their fantasies on us, perhaps the like of Welsh and Mabanckou should seek help. At least Marabou Stork Nightmares had some interesting language, African Psycho had no redeeming features (unless something was lost in it's translation from French). It's been done before, you could summarize it as American Psycho meets Crime and Punishment, written by an African. Yawn. That said, I didn't have the patience to finish it and left it, along with Marabou Stork Nightmares, on the plane like you'd dump sandbags from a hot air balloon. Less baggage for the trip.
Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar
Our plane was cancelled and we were put on a flight six hours later, which even then was a hassle to get onto. Such is Africa. We got in late, and the Spicer came in even later, all the way from NYC. If Jess is all about nutrition, the Spicer is all about education. They had some meetings and work to do the first morning. I walked around Dar some (not much to write home about) and went to the Zambian High Commissioner to get a Zambian visa, but it was too expensive and too much of a hassle to get (drop off your passport with them for 3 days, etc.), so Zambia will likely not be in my itinerary. When Jess got back, we caught a ferry to Zanzibar. I'm using the word "caught" like you just show up shirtless in flip flops and step onto a boat. It's not nearly as easy as that. They say "hakuna matata" here a lot, but they are just words said to make you feel uptight because you won't fall prey to their scams. "My friend, I'm different from them, I just want to talk to you, find out where you are from. By the way, if you don't need a ferry ticket, what about some marijuana? Don't worry, be happy." The Bobby McFerrins of the world can kiss my tight-lipped ass. Once you manage to get yourself on the right boat, up on the deck and the boat starts moving, the ferry is the only way to travel.
Until I was maybe 18, I always though Zanzibar was a fictitious place. A veritable Shangri-la. I think it lived up to that reputation. It's at this truly unique crossroad of Bantu, Arabic, Persian, Portuguese, Indian and other spice-trader cultures. And it's no wonder, they couldn't have picked a better island to plant their seeds. This is the place that spawned Freddy Mercury. Enough said. Most people go to Zanzibar for it's beaches, but we skipped that altogether and stayed in Stonetown in the Shangani area. Mostly we spent our time flâneuring through the labyrinth of alleys...
Given the choice between beaches or spices, we chose spices. At least Jess and I did, the Spicer had already done the spice tour. Touristy maybe, but well worth it. We didn't do the organized group thing, but got a driver to take us up to the plantation once all the tours were over, and we got our own guide. It was pretty cool, we wandered through this spice plantation and saw, fingered, smelled and tasted all sorts of spices and crops: cinnamon, vanilla, lemon grass, limes, ginger, cardamom, curry plant, henna, turmeric, pepper, cloves, etc.
One other thing about Zanzibar, is that the food rocks. Especially coming from mainland Africa.
African Short Stories
In Zanzibar and on the ferry back, I read a book of African Short Stories, edited by Chinua Achebe and C.L. Innes (from the Heinemann African Writers Series). There was a story by Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Africa, that was one of the better ones in the collection. It was about an elephant who sticks his trunk in this guy's hut to keep it dry from the rain. It escalates from there, the elephant takes over his hut, the man builds another hut which is taken over by another wild animal. It's an allegory I'm sure, the animals hold a tribunal to decide whether it's just and outvote the man. In the end, the man gets all the animals into one house and sets it on fire, an ending eerily reminiscent of the church-burning during last years Kenyan post-election violence.
I also liked "Bossy" by the Tanzanian Abdulurazak Gurnah, maybe because I was in Zanzibar where it takes place when I was reading it, so it was interesting in that respect. "Protista" by the Zambian Dambudzo Marechera took the cake though. Id like to read more by him. The rest of the stories were too conventional for my tastes, in that Chinua Achebe easy-listening way. And of course he puts himself in the collection even though he curated it.
The Road (actually Rail, Boat or Plane) Onward...
We ferried back to Dar and then early the next morning caught a (mud) puddle jumper westward to Tabora, where I'm uploading this from if I can manage to get connected.