Kenya redux III: No Room on the Ark in Kitui & the nouveau roman [alla Robbe-Grillet]

nzambani rock top

EXT. day. view from Nzambani rock

24.05.2011. Tigoni, Kenya [reading Robbe-Grillet]

read Robbe-Grillet my last few days in Tigoni, Two Novels packaged as one: Jealousy & In the Labyrinth. Alain Robbe-Grillet was one of the pioneers [with Nathalie Sarraute] of the nouveau roman trend. & though Sarraute seems to the be the more famous of the two, i was more blown away by Robbe-Grillet [then again, i have never managed to get my hands on Sarraute's Tropisms]. Robbe-Grillet works his magic at a level that is between sentence level & chapter level, in fifteen minute chunks. the sensation is similar to watching Memento—as if Robbe-Grillet suffered from short-term memory loss. not that it's repetitive—it's more iterative, or canonical. it would also seem, based on his meticulous descriptions & methodical attention to detail, that Robbe-Grillet was obsessive-compulsive, at least in his writing. but not in a neurotic sense—in fact, there's something hypnotic about reading Robbe-Grillet. this canonical iteration makes reading him like listening to music, like Indonesian gamelan, or Philip Glass with his jaded time-signatures, not iterative in a definitive way [like for example how the The Sound and the Fury is fractured], but in a way that is non-linear & undefined. this description [of workers singing] within Jealousy perhaps alludes to the very process in which he writes:

Because of the peculiar nature of this kind of melody, it is difficult to determine if the song is interrupted for some fortuitous reason—in relation, for instance, to the manual work the singer is performing at the same time—or whether the tune has come to its natural conclusion. Similarly, when it begins again, it is just as sudden, as abrupt, starting on notes which hardly seem to constitute a beginning, or a reprise.

Jealousy was somewhat relevant to read here in Kenya because it takes place on a banana plantation, in an unspecified tropical location though there are many allusions to Africa, including talk of a novel within the novel that both main characters are simultaneously reading:

Now both of them have finished the book they have been reading for some time; their remarks can therefore refer to the book as a whole, that is, both to the outcome and to the earlier episodes (subjects of past conversations) to which this outcome gives a new significance, or to which it adds a complementary meaning. They have never made the slightest judgment as to the novel's value, speaking instead of the scenes, events, and characters as if they were real: a place they might remember (located in Africa, moreover), people they might have known, or whose adventures someone might have told them.

the story seems to be told through the point of view of an omnipresent or absent narrator, who is only observing, voyeuristically—never actually a part of any of the conversations or actions. this is inferred by details like the number of place settings at the table. Robbe-Grillet is meticulous with his descriptions, describing the architecture & layout of the plantation & house in which Jealousy takes place in great detail. mostly it is descriptive & speculative & not a lot of «real» action takes place, except that a centipede is squished, which is described in minute detail, over & over, from at least a dozen perspectives, leading us to suspect that this is [or stands for] a smoking gun [to validate the narrator's jealousy]:

The details of this stain have to be seen from quite close range, turning toward the pantry door, if its origin is to be distinguished. The image of the squashed centipede then appears not as a whole, but composed of fragments distinct enough to leave no doubt.

otherwise they lazily bide the days away, in some tropical/colonial setting, in the heat, drinking gin, with servants to wait on them. there is talk of a long drive into the nearest town, but it is vague & speculative & the way it is rehearsed over & over you wonder whether it is a planned escapade, the suspected lovers rehearsing their story to tell after the fact, or something that already happened that someone [the jealous husband] is mulling obsessively over in his mind, suspiciously speculating. to add to this effect, much of it is viewed through slats of venetian blinds, such as this scene:

It is only at a distance of less than a yard that the elements of a discontinuous landscape appear in successive intervals, parallel chinks separated by the wider slats of gray wood: the turned wood balusters, the empty chair, the low table where a full glass is standing beside the tray holding the two bottles, and then the top part of the head of black hair, which at this moment turns toward the right, where above the table shows a bare forearm, dark brown in color, and its paler hand holding the ice bucket.

it's all vague & non-linear enough that you can read into it how you like. which is not to say it is scattered or spontaneous, to the contrary there is an exact precision to the writing that carries a conviction of truth, it is just a truth that is veiled beneath layer after layer of physical descriptions of the objects of the world in which they live without the insult of telling you what to think. in this sense it also reads like a screenplay, like set directions, under the influence of the French la nouvelle vague movement or Italian neo-realism [most notably Antonioni].

robbe-grillet jealousy

the second novel, In the Labyrinth, was similarly fractured, canonical & non-linear, evolving iteratively—this one about a defected soldier lost in some snowy [presumably French] city. & with the same attention to detail, where you suspect that in the descriptions we are peeling an onion to find the true meaning amidst the superficial uncertainty. & in In the Labyrinth it gets to the point where we are not even sure which character we [as omnipresent narrator] are following.

Since the spacing of the chevroned soles corresponds to his own stride (that of a man at the end of his strength), he has naturally begun putting his feet in the footprints already made. His boot is a little larger, but is scarcely noticeable in the snow. Suddenly he has the feeling he has already been here, ahead of himself. But the snow was still falling, at this moment, in close flakes, and no sooner were the guide's footprints made than they immediately began to lose their clarity and quickly filled up, becoming more and more unrecognizable as the distance increased between him and the soldier, their mere presence soon becoming a matter of doubt, a scarcely noticeable depression in the uniformity of the snow's surface, finally disappearing altogether for several yards...

you can't help but to wonder if Stephen King was under the influence of Robbe-Grillet when he wrote The Shining.


chameleon [in Tigoni]

it's not so much that the narrator is unreliable [in both stories], but he is admittedly uncertain, as if he is merely transcribing events as given to him, like he is describing scenes of a film as it unfolds, without any background knowledge of why we detectives are seeing what we are seeing, but trying to make sense of what happened from clues left in the environment. for example, he describes a bloodied soldier lying on his back, then in the next paragraph he says: No. Actually it is another wounded man who occupies the scene, outside the door of the busy cafe. & then again:

He must be dead for the others to leave him like this. Yet the next scene shows him in the bed, the sheets pulled up to his chin, half listening to a confused story the same young woman with pale eyes is telling him: ...

this sort of story-telling gives a certain weight of authenticity, as if he is merely the messenger recounting the details as he knows them & it is up to us to do what we want with this information. i'd count this as one of the best books i've read in the past year.

katui shepherd

on the way to Kitui

27.05.2011. Kitui, Kenya [reading Alan Moorehead]

yesterday we packed up & said goodbye to Logo & Leadbelly then went down to the World Agroforesty Centre. j had been coming here everyday, but this was my first time down to revisit the place where i spent quite a few of my days when we lived in Nairobi. made the rounds & said hi to whatever friends were still there, then had lunch. it was merely coincidence that j was back at the World Agroforesty Centre as she now works somewhere different [Bioversity] but their Nairobi office is housed in the same building. she's visiting mainly for some conference they had in Kitui & as usual i get to tag along. so a dozen or so of us [from Kenya, Uganda, Benin, Italy, etc.] packed into a small bus for the 4-hour drive east. we'd been on the first part of this drive east a few times, when we went out towards Garissa [dispatch from our trip in 2007 & again in 2008]. but about half-way to Garissa, we took a turn south into the Kitui region. right before we got to to the town of Kitui, we rose a bit, so it's not quite as dry as the rest of Eastern Kenya, but still fairly parched. & low enough for malaria to be a problem & there was mosquitoes everywhere when we went to the bar to get a Tusker. had dinner last night with j's colleagues & then breakfast this morning & now they all went off to their conference & here i am so i'm going to take a walkabout to see what Kitui is about...

kitui market

marketplace in Kitui

i also read No Room in the Ark by Alan Moorehead in Kitui, a book i pilfered from the shelves of Leadbelly & Logo [since i've already gone through all the ones i brought with]. No Room in the Ark chronicles some trips Moorehead took to Africa in the 50s, mostly to big game parks, right about the time big game became something not to shoot with guns but with cameras. problems with poachers & hunters, as well as diseases like that carried by the TseTse fly [to which the solution back then was to simply shoot the animals that carried it] were perhaps worse back then & few had conservation or naturalist mindsets. Moorehead didn't have a background in biology, but journalism, so while he didn't have the biological mind of say, Gerald Durrell, he does make some acute & interesting observations. & he doesn't have a bleeding-heart tone of conservation, but rather a laissez-faire attitude of a transparent observer, epitomized in sentences like:

It is the inevitability of these things, the idea that since they do happen it is right they should happen, that excuses you from feeling pity; and in Africa it is quite easy to let this same indifference insulate you from human tragedies as well.

& serendipitously, although Moorehead is Australian, he lived in Rome, so there's a few times he would contrast Africa coming from Italy. & like me he also thought the place you read a book contributes a lot to the book, not only in reading books relevant to where you are traveling through, but books that strangely contrast with your immediate environment. he talks about The Golden Bough, by James Frazer [mainly in talking about the influence of Africa on Italy, to the extent of implying that Italy has roots in Africa], in such a way that now i really want to read it. mostly Moorehead describes wildlife & not peoples, which is probably a good thing, as the few descriptions of peoples he encounters are not exactly politically correct in today's standards, for example this description of the pygmies in the Congo:

They smell like no other living creature on earth, and it is not the sort of smell that can be politely ignored. Then, too, it is not so much their smallness that impresses you: it is their shape and by no indulgence can this be called anything but repulsive. With their swollen stomachs, their spindly little legs, and their clutching hands, they remind you somewhat of the gnomes & gargoyles on medieval cathedrals in Europe.

his observations & descriptions of animals are spot on—he nails their certain peculiarities & characteristics in ways you wouldn't typically find in your standard field guide. & even back then, in the 50s, Moorehead had the cynical presence of mind to know the impact tourism was having on Africa:

And yet it was not real. It had neither the vicarious reality of the theatre nor any reality in life. There had been no war to justify this was dance, nothing to inspire them except their professional skill and perhaps the thoughts of the £25; and so they were a little self-conscious in the way that children sometimes are when, against their instincts, they have been persuaded to dress up and make a performance at a party.

Moorehead even talks about the honey guide [a bird that guides honey badgers to bee hives] some, but no mention of honey badgers. in fact, he says the honey guide is a bird that guides people to bee hives. there's also a chapter on gorillas & i'd have to agree with him that they are without a doubt the most awe-inspiring animal you can hope to meet in the wild [here's the post when we went to see them in Rwanda]:

He was the most distinguished and splendid animal I ever saw and I had only one desire at that moment: to communicate. This experience (and I am by no means the only one to feel it in the presence of a gorilla) is utterly at variance with one's reactions to all other large wild animals in Africa. [...] with the gorilla there is an instant sense of recognition. You might be badly frightened, but in the end you feel you will be able to make some gesture, utter some sound, that the animal will recognize and understand.

there's some great photos in the book, but i'm not able to scan them in since i'm on the road. L&L also had this other book in their library, a photo book by Mirella Ricciardi called Vanishing Africa that had some amazing photos in it, like these:

Mirella Ricciardi


Mirella Ricciardi

i walked into town but it wasn't too exciting. Kitui is Kamba turf. Kambas seem more laidback & friendly & to themselves then other Kenyan tribes. for the most part you might say they have broader faces & squatter noses, but the physical differences between tribes in Kenya is somewhat trivial [as is the difference between say Tutsis & Hutus in Rwanda] & it's always a wonder it could lead to such discrimination & violence. but it's typically the first thing a Kenya will want to know when speaking of another Kenyan. Kambas also seem a little more well-to-do, or at least no one in Kitui has asked me for money or hussled me. not that there's a thriving economy but everyone seems to do something & not with a desperation, but merely like it's their place.

roaster maize vendors

getting my daily roasted maize fix

i asked a few people about this notorious Nzambani rock [that will change your gender when circumnavigated 7 times], but no one has been there & they don't really know where it is. i also asked about Kitui national reserve [which on the map looks not so far] & finally found someone knowledgeable, who told me that it wasn't safe & that you couldn't go through that gate without a pre-paid «smart card», which i remember from past experience in other Kenyan parks. the only way to get a smart card was to go back to Nairobi or go through the Tsavo East gate, which is a long 3+ hour drive from here [here's my post from before about Tsavo East]. & i'm not sure what else is around Kitui besides this rock, so looks like i'll get a lot of reading done. another of j's italian colleagues that lives in Kenya also came to this meeting & he brought his wife who just recently came to join him in Kenya. so i had lunch with her & walked around Kitui some more.

kitui market

then i went for a long run to the outskirts, towards what i was guessing to be Nzambani rock [a big rock that looks like Ayer's rock in Australia]. of course you get weird looks, a long-haired & tattooed mzungu with a silver beard running along the dirt roads, i'm sure i look like Forest Gump, though a few people shouted «Jesus!». but mostly they chuckle shyly & the braver kids will say «how are you?» and when i say good, how are you, they look shocked & don't answer back like they don't realize it's a question. some of them say «mzungu?» but with not much authority, as if they are not even sure what i am. one guy called me «italiano!» which was strange, unless he heard from the grapevine that there were some mzungus from Rome in town. i ran past some cops taking bribes & they laughed at me & when i asked where Nzambani rock was they said to the right only 2 or 3 kilometers down the road. but the rock that i'm guessing is Nzambani rock seemed to the left & i kept getting conflicting info when i asked other people [most of whom just stared at me blankly]. i ran a few more kilometers & the large rock was still far away & it was hot & i was thirsty so i turned back.

nzambani rock distant

Nzambani rock from a distance

28.05.2011. [Nzambani rock]

this morning after breakfast i set out to see about a sex change. went to the market & asked around for a matatu. in usual fashion was ushered into a dilapidated matatu & was told it would leave in a few minutes. there was half a dozen or so guys in the matatu waiting & we waited & waited & problem is just when we'd take on another passenger, someone would lose patience & go find another matatu. sat there for 45 minutes & filled every seat but it still wasn't good enough. i had a guy half-sitting on my lap & people hanging out the door that couldn't shut we were so crammed in. finally we took off down the same road i went running on the day before, but i'd probably gotten only half-way.

matatatu lure

the art of luring passengers into your matatu

when i could see Nzambani rock close by [fortunately i had a window otherwise you couldn't see shit] i slapped the roof of the matatu & he stopped. had to empty the whole thing out before i could extract myself. some guy on the side of the road tried to tell me i needed to get a ticket or a guide & pointed to some kiosk, but it was just a regular kiosk selling coke & batteries so i waved at them & acted like i didn't speak english & kept walking until i found the sideroad towards Nzambani rock. when i got to the legitimate shack that labeled itself as the Nzambani visitor's office the only one there was some electrician from Nairobi who was doing work in the area & wanted to see the rock. but he couldn't find the gatekeeper. a cute little miniature brahma bull came running toward me & almost knocked me over & the herder came following after. we asked him about seeing this rock & he said we needed to find this gatekeeper who had keys to the gate [they'd built this ugly monstrosity of a scaffolding up one side of the rock & there was a locked gate to get into it]. i said i may as well hike around it 7 times while i was waiting to turn into a woman and they both laughed but then had a somewhat serious look & said «you realize that's just a myth, right?» to which i responded «how can you be sure until you try it?» they said nobody was crazy enough to try it & it would take all day to go around 7 times & there wasn't really a trail around it. if i hadn't been reading the day before about all the venomous snakes [vipers & mambas] in the Kitui region the day before i would've quickly ran around 7 times, but i wasn't keen on bush-whacking through snake-filled bush.

nzambani rock

Nzambani rock

we sat around shooting the shit for half an hour or so waiting for the AWOL gatekeeper until i convinced them that since the gatekeeper wasn't there we should find another way. so we hiked up to the scaffolding & i climbed the outside until i could get into the stairwell, but they were afraid to do it so i went the rest of the way up on my own & had the rock all to myself. it's really a pebble compared to, say, Ayer's Rock, but considering there's not much else around, it begs to be climbed. some of the sheer rockfaces in fact look worthy of establishing some technical routes. nice views from the top, could see back to Kitui [& know i sit on our patio in Kitui writing this looking back at the rock].

kamba water donkey

water-toting donkey on way to Nzambani

i descended & paid the cow herder the fee for letting me surpass the locked gate then started walking back. i saw a matatu go by right before i got to the main road so i just started walking back & if it wasn't for the glaring sun & risk of skin cancer i might've walked the whole way. i found a motorcycle taxi & paid him 200 shillings—a much more pleasant way of going than by matatu. then went into town & had lunch in some restaurant overlooking the main street where i could sit & people watch. there's something really cool & laidback about Kitui that grows on you. everyone is super chill & friendly but not in an artificial or obnoxious in-your-face-way like they want something from you. even though i haven't seen any other mzungus here besides us & suspect not a lot pass through, the Kamba don't stare & they treat you like anyone else. kind of like Ethiopians, perhaps without the snobbish arrogance that many other Africans say Ethiopians have. for dinner we went to the Parkside Villa & had nyama choma [roasted goat] with all sorts of good side dishes [though it took two hours for them to prepare it]. i also had githeri a few times & one day for lunch at «Flavor Flav» where i had pilau, all pretty decent, better than other parts of Kenya.




©om.Posted 2011 Derek White