Switzerland vs. Cameroon [Women's World Cup of Literature: First Round]
This match, the first of the tournament, was judged by Lori Feathers, a freelance critic and Vice President of the Board of Deep Vellum Publishing. You can follow her on Twitter at @LoriFeathers.
I cannot think of a better way to kick-off the Women’s World Cup of Literature than a match-up between these two impressive novels: Cameroon’s Dark Heart of the Night by Léonora Miano and Switzerland’s With the Animals by Noëlle Revaz.
While in many respects these two novels are as different as the two countries from which they come, reading them in close succession reveals a common theme—what happens when an insular, primitive people are confronted with progressive thoughts and ideas from the outside.
With the Animals is the story of Paul and his wife Vulvia (or “Vulva” (!) as she is called) who live with their six children on the family farm in the French-speaking countryside of Switzerland. Paul is nothing short of crude in his relations with his wife and children. He devotes his life to running the farm and demands work, obedience, and docility from his family, along with occasional sex from Vulva. His behavior towards his children fluctuates between harsh discipline and total indifference, and he feels no remorse about delivering daily blows to both Vulva and the kids. Paul hires a summer farmhand from Portugal, Jorge, who comes to live on the farm and in many respects becomes more of a husband and father to Paul’s wife and children than Paul himself. Jorge (or Georges as Paul calls him) does things that Paul would never do like engaging in conversations with Vulva, teaching the kids, and cooking meals when Vulva is ill.
Paul’s voice, one that will stay with me for a long time, is coarse with distain, paranoia and misogyny and only rarely is it softened by the tender feelings he reserves for his cows and the memory of his deceased father. It is a credit to both Ms. Revaz and translator W. Donald Wilson that Paul always feels original and authentic, never a caricature.
Dark Heart of the Night takes place amongst the Bantu tribe in southern Cameroon. The tribe is locked in the vice of tradition and attitudes that elevate survival of the tribe above all else. Ayané is the daughter of a deceased tribesman and a “foreign” woman from a neighboring village. Neither Ayané nor her mother were ever accepted by the tribe but because both are considered witches they were tolerated even after the death of Ayané’s father for fear that they might cast an evil spell on the tribe. Ayané was always treated differently from the other children in the tribe; her parents sent her away to be educated and she eventually enrolled in college in Paris.
During Ayané’s return to care for her dying mother the tribe is overtaken by rebels seeking young men to recruit for a violent overthrow of the government. Ayané witnesses with incomprehension the docility and fatalism of the tribal members in the face of killings and other brutal acts by the rebels against the tribe’s members, including its children. She struggles to reconcile her relationship to the tribe and to come to terms with what the tribe means for her self-identity. Ayané has spent most of her life rejecting and being rejected by, the tribe. And with her mother’s death she can leave the tribe behind, forever. But for the first time she feels the need to belong, to identify with something larger than herself. Ayané’s inner conflict between her tribal and cosmopolitan “selves” forces her to question her Western ideas about the intrinsic nature of morality and reconsider whether the tribe’s actions when faced with the rebels’ brutality, were immoral. It is in looking at this conflict between Western and tribal ideas of morality that Ms. Miano’s novel excels.
I really admired both of these books and hate to see either eliminated but, as they say, the games must go on! With a tied score of 1-1, Cameroon’s Dark Heart of the Night squeaks-by to defeat Switzerland’s With the Animals by a penalty kick.
Next up, Cameroon’s Dark Heart of the Night will face off against either Revenge by Yoko Ogawa (Japan) or Beyond the Islands by Alicia Yánez Cossío (Ecuador) on Wednesday, June 24th. Tomorrow’s match is one of the most anticipated, with France’s Apocalypse Baby squaring off against Mexico’s Texas: The Great Theft.