The Spirits of Al Faw by Francisco A Ojeda

Reflective of Ojeda’s personal experiences, the book brings out the deeper conscience and understanding of someone who’s seen things closely.

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Title: The Spirits of Al Faw

Author: Francisco A Ojeda

Publisher: Xlibris

Date of Publication: 15 June 2017

Rating: 5/5

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Simple yet sophisticated is the writing style of Ojeda’s The Spirits of Al Faw. Opening at the Baghdad International Airport, the novel recounts innumerable experiences in the working career of Master Sergeant Deveroe,  the operations sergeant for a military intelligence battalion deployed in Iraq in 2006.

Looking at the Iraqi sky, he recalls his time in war torn Kuwait and the smell of burned ash, charcoal and diesel that spread through the air adding to the excessively hot climate. From the very first word of the first page, the eye for detail in The Spirits of Al Faw is incredible. Every tiny bit mentioned adds to building the scenes as well as the plot. The plot moves at a smooth and moderate pace. Reflective of Ojeda’s personal experiences, the book brings out the deeper conscience and understanding of someone who’s seen things closely.

Though written in the form of a fiction, it is the mark of personal experiences that adds to creating a real and believable atmosphere in which nothing seems out of place or proportion. Ojeda’s writing style also includes a knack for including only that which is necessary making the plot free of over cramming. It is a brilliant insight into the difficult lives of military personnel who trade personal comfort and safety for causes in favor of national security. Instances of camaraderie, personal individual issues and team work are emotionally moving but not overly sentimental. Ojeda maintains a resistance to over dramatizing things which helps to keep up the balance between the plot line and the multiple climaxes. As a result, the novel feels very much like a spine chilling thriller. Though not hurt in the ambush that Deveroe suffered, it is his desire to return to combat with his unit. It is this decision that proves to be life changing and life threatening for Deveroe. What follows are thrills unmanageable and conspiracies of superlative standards in this happening novel that takes its readers to the heart of some of the worst political crises involving the mystic, mysterious and magestic lands of the Middle East.

The information regarding fighter planes, tanks, trucks and other equipment is very interesting. Opposed to this is an officer’s devotion and dedication at stake in this thrilling and equally chilling novel of new perspectives that is bound to pin the reader down from the start. The multiple climaxes keep readers engaged but each flows into the other with ease so it is not too hard to digest or too sudden to comprehend. Climax after climax, the story only seems to get denser and more adventurous.

However, set at 426 pages, the book is quite lengthy and time consuming to read. The various plot twists make for a challenging read. The book does not have any chapter divisions and is written in a single go. Those who do not enjoy political thrillers or war fiction will have a hard time getting through the bulk of practical and scientific information. That is not to deny that it is an exciting comprehension of a world about which little is known. Ojeda’s writing style is his strong point and through it he is able to create miracles on paper that assuredly should not bore the regular reader. Also, the addition of a supernatural angle to the plot in the form of mental disturbances or hallucinations to the protagonist is a unique twist including other episodes of insurgency and wild animal attacks. Sadly, the book cover needs more work and is too plain in comparison to the contents of the story.

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

They are every bit dark, sinister and respond only after having put through suffering. Like the snake sheds its skin, the spirits shed their old forms after the naming ceremony of Ada.

Title: Freshwater

Author: Akwaeke Emezi

Publisher: Grove Atlantic

Date of Publication: 13 February 2018

Rating: 5/5

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When a child is born the whole family remains involved with it. Chima’s next born Ada is no exception. She is the apple of every member’s eye. Ada is adored by all but little do they know that she’s special in a different way. Not just is she a fast learner, she’s also a bright and happy child with supernatural powers. Told from an initially confusing second person narrative, the story moves between the perspective of Ada and the spirits that reside within her.

A frightened Ada runs away when a coiled snake snarls at her during potty training in the bathroom corner. It is a similar snaky reptilian shape shifting figure in the image of an other worldly divinity that has been stuffed within her. These spirits are of the few who have been able to traverse the supernatural realm into the human world to reside within as individualistic masks. It is only in the second chapter that things start to get clearer when the coiled figures of ‘we’ identify themselves as the voices of the spirits. The child is often disturbed by their presence and is rattled in the middle of the night because of nightmares. What holds this enchanting story is its interesting narrative style. Emezi’s writing embodies lucidity to the core. It is as fluid and swift as a snake’s slithering maneuver. These spirits have been separated from the ‘brothersisters’ of their kind but each with a varied potentials and personalities just as it is with humans.

The story is highly desolate, very dense yet subtle at the same time. Certain lines can be picked up and hung around as universally true quotations. Almost each chapter leads to newer speculations that are never ending. “Love is almost protection enough” but at its heart the story dissects all kinds of love only to showcase the futility of loving in the face of difficult circumstances. There is only hurt, separation and more hurt to be braved. Anuli’s accidental run down by a truck is considered a sort of baptismal release of the spirit in the best possible fluid. The incident itself is dark, gory and graphic. Focusing on the couple Saul and Saachi who are both professionals and have a nuclear family. Their difficult financial status forces Saachi to work in Saudi Arabia as a nurse. Saul hates the money she makes but needs it. The woman takes up the role of the man as the bread earner of the family and Emezi proclaims that the best way to break a child is by taking the mother away.

These unnamed spirits take God like forms and like holy rituals are thirsty for holy sacrifice. These forces consider themselves Godly but they have none of God’s mercy, protection or forgiveness. They are every bit dark, sinister and respond only after having put through suffering. Like the snake sheds its skin, the spirits shed their old forms after the naming ceremony of Ada. Is she cursed or is the world? The pace of the story is moderate and easy to follow though very adventurous in a topsy turvy world. There is a constant cycle of birth and death, movement and invariability, sorrow piling upon sorrow with no little joys to steal from grim predicaments. What remains persistent throughout are the spirits. They are metaphoric of narcissism, self gratification and demons within our own selves, possession, spiritual awakening and teleportation. The metaphors function on several levels and are hard to do away with.

Though based on the ‘ogbanje’ things get darker as the narrative enters deeper into Igbo ontology. Moving to America is a whole new experience. Ada is a black person, sidelined and living on the margins of societal existence. University is not a pleasant experience as the treacheries of worldly pleasures take over her. Sins pile up as mountains but confession is a long way despite the fact that she’s guilt ridden. Forgiveness is not hoped for as it is hard to seek. The story remains disturbing throughout as Ada experiments with drugs, hormone pills, attempts suicide several times and looks schizophrenic and hallucinatory most of the time. The ‘we’ is not plural and the ‘I’ is not singular. The polyvocality infuses with the multiplicity of personalities which ultimately subsides into a single voice- the Satanic voice of evil whisperings:”…..and wallahi, I was unforgiving and petty and vindictive.”

Freshwater is almost like a fresh glass of water to a thirsty reader who’s waited too long to read something that’s never been done before. To sum down in a single adjective the story is ‘indescribable’. It is a sensual and breathtaking but must be read to be experienced. Freshwater is too mind boggling for a debut and will leave readers speculating over numerous abstractions like never before.

Surreal, mesmerizing and phenomenal.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino

It creates a beautiful mirroring effect which blurs the distinction between the reader inside the book and the real reader outside. This travel is like a ride through the book and also through the vastness of life in general in which reading is the only constant companion.

Title: If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller

Author: Italo Calvino

Publisher: Vintage Classics

Date of Publication: 1998

Genre: Modernism and Post Modernism

Rating: 4/5

 

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Dodging from story to story in a periphrasis of what if(s) and would be(s).

In this experimental piece of fiction, Calvino deals with the theme of quest in a uniquely circular fashion. The book begins with an omniscient narrator addressing the reader in a welcome note to begin an unguarded reading experience of this much awaited release. Although initially it may seem that the narrator is guiding the reader towards a better understanding of the contents of the text but it is in reality a lure. The omniscient narrator is a split between Calvino and a narrative voice that further dichotomises into a narrator-traveller and the reader’s own self- reflection. It creates a beautiful mirroring effect which blurs the distinction between the reader inside the book and the real reader outside. This travel is like a ride through the book and also through the vastness of life in general in which reading is the only constant companion. Travelling at a railway station is juxtaposed with notions of time travelling in a world encased in lexical structures that entraps anyone who enters it. “Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade,” almost serves as a tagline.
Calvino engages the reader in the reading process that is both empirical and cognitive. Reading begins much before the book is opened; in the cover picture, the size of the book, the quality of pages and blurbs. The text is then more in the mind of the reader than in the words on the page. Reading is not restricted to texts alone. It also engages people just as the Reader is engaged in understanding the psychology of the Other Reader, her reasons behind choosing a particular book and estimating her tastes. Both the Reader and Other Reader have to constantly deal with the frustration of printing errors as the first section of each book they buy is repeated over and over in subsequent pages. Though the book stores guarantee to replace faulty copies, the new print editions are equally damaged. The books end abruptly at key junctures and climaxes are dashed to unfold a whole new set of characters in an unfamiliar setting with a completely different storyline. Chapters are titled alternately with numbers and names. While adding to the suspense and absurdity, it coalesces the usual spacio-temporality leading to jolts of inertia as we are thwarted in and out of tales. Though the book endlessly weaves up tales which never conclude but that should not be assumed as supposedly meaningless.
The text is episodic but contiguous. The Reader exchanges numbers with the Other Reader Ludmilla who is a voracious reader. Her phone is answered by her sister Lotaria who is of an opposite nature. She is grim and grumpy. From her the Reader learns of Ludmilla’s experiments at the Lab of Cimmerian Languages run by Professor Uttzi Tuzzi. The episodes combine comedy and satire while reflecting the difficulties of research in extinct languages or the loss of importance in the study of languages that has been replaced by scientific experimentation. The Non- Reader is a highly memorable figure who vows to never read even sign boards. This is his manner of silent protest against the indoctrination of reading as a compulsion since childhood. Another important figure is Silas Flannery and his suffering of the writer’s block. Echoing J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, this episode sets into motion the relation between the real and the illusion as also that of the writer with the reader, the audience, the publishing house and the cultural image of authorship.
Calvino’s style is analogous to the elasticity of his themes. He glides between ideas just as each incomplete story flows into another incomplete story repetitively. The suspense that is built initially is elevated and held till the very end. The last chapter being the shortest, sees the marriage between the Reader and Other Reader as this engaging process of reading and interpreting becomes never ending. Travel does not lead to physical displacement but a mobility in and out of textual nuances enclosing poetic fluidity.

A thrilling topsy turvy ride compressing the existential exuberance within the literary community and book loving circles.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Set in the idyllic paradise of Macondo, Melaquides’ gypsies bring along a set of inventions that increases Buendia’s obsession to establish contact with civilisation.

Title: One Hundred Years of Solitude

Author: Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Publisher: Penguin

Date of Publication: First published in 1967

Genre: Modernism and Post-Modernism

Rating: 4/5

An enticing tale of love, lust and kinship of a generation doomed to eventual solitary confinement.

Embedded in a magically realistic world that hazes the distinction between the real and the illusive, One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of the best outcomes of the Boom Literature. Condemned to repeat the mistakes of their previous generations, Marquez has given his protagonists a very limited selection of names. The men are named Jose Arcadio or Aureliano and the women are named Ursula, Amaranta or Remedios. This not only foregrounds the cyclical repetitiveness of historical events that obstructs chronological order but also highlights the circumlocutive narratology. The patriarch of the family Jose Arcadio Buendia is impulsive and inquisitive. The novel opens with the necessity of avoiding the conception of a child with a pig’s tail that serves as a Barthian “narrative enigma”. The entire novel takes place between this fear and its fulfilment although it remains metaphorical as most characters don’t even think about it. Lust abounds with consanguineous marriages while aunts seduce nephews. Set in the idyllic paradise of Macondo, Melaquides’ gypsies bring along a set of inventions that increases Buendia’s obsession to establish contact with civilisation. The innocence and ignorance of isolation is wrecked as Ursula discovers a route to the outside world. She returns with fashionable outfits that are totally unknown to Macondo.
This channelizes a series of events generating a domino effect. The residents of Macondo suddenly realise their link to the greater world and the impressionistic effect of this world on them. It leads to the mysterious arrival of Rebecca who eats mud and whitewash. Two Indian siblings suffering from the insomnia plague arrive and inflict the town which slowly begins to lose memory that is restored by Melaquiades’ return from death. It is the first death they have ever heard of. This short lived joy is overshadowed by civil war between the Conservatives and Liberals amidst the influx of modern technology and arrival of the railway creating a capitalistic society and the eventual murder of peacefully protesting banana plantation workers.
There is a parody of organised governance that is only outwardly democratic. Capitalism provides increased employment but it takes away the true value of the worker who is reduced to a neglected tool of the administration. Violence grips Macondo as Amaranta dies a virgin while Meme turns mute and is interred into a convent. Incessant cleansing rains eat away all of Aureliano Segundo’s fortunes as Aureliano’s (II) newborn is devoured by ants. Fulfilment of Melaquides’ prophecies abruptly ends the novel in ruthless solitude. A work of true genius imbibing unrealistic dimensions into a holistic, thought provoking masterpiece.
The narrative is turbulent and fast paced. The oft recurring names can lead to a lot of confusion. Events from Columbian history have been mixed with magical occurrences that call for some knowledge of Latin American history and politics. On the whole, One Hundred Years of Solitude is not a book for leisure reading. It requires close attentive reading to avoid confusions that may arise due to unfamiliarity. Metafictionality adds to the black humour and satire of real political events.

Recklessly gripping with tinges of dark humour and pathos.

Click the book cover to grab your copy. Happy Reading!