Books of fiction have been a constant companion to me ever since I can remember. This is my normal but now writing this, I can’t help but ponder if I am actually a bit odder than I think I am?
Like for example, I rail up at the extensive news coverage given to sporting events. I get the need for sport, but why is golf, say, an event of national importance demanding constant updates? Why not, then, ‘book of the week’ or ‘essay of the week’?
One organisation at least that might agree with me, is the Booker Prize Foundation. Every year the foundation offers the Booker Prize, for the best work of fiction in English, published in the UK and Ireland, as well as the Booker International Prize, for the best book translated into English, published in the UK or Ireland.
Thirteen books made the 2021 Booker Prize longlist, and the final six were shortlisted on September 14. The 2021 winner will be announced on November 3. The 2021 International Booker Prize has already been announced, with the accolade going to ‘At Night All Blood Is Black’, by David Diop, published by Pushkin Press and translated by Anna Moschovakis.
My Booker Prize pick
My personal favourite of the six on the Booker Prize shortlist is ‘The Fortune Men’, by British Somali novelist Nadifa Mohamed, published by Viking.
Mahmood Mattan is the main character. He is from Somalia, born into a proud desert tribe. He is also an adventurer and fortune seeker, who finds himself shovelling coal aboard a ship heading to Tiger Bay in Cardiff, Wales, in the early ’50s. “Those days when the three Somalis were entombed and fell into the same hypnotic rhythm, the bunker felt almost like a mystical space. Their shovels plunging and flying up to the same beat, old work songs from the desert pulling their hoarse voices together in low, monotonous tones, the sweat, the pain, the heat exorcising every last thought from their minds, a makeshift ‘Zaar’ at the bottom of the sea.” (A Zaar is a ritual dance of spiritual possession.)
Cardiff’s Tiger Bay in the ’50s was a melting pot of Somali and West Indian sailors, Maltese businessman and Jewish families. It was a strange world for Mattan to navigate.
He fell in love with a young Welsh woman, they married and had three sons which he dearly loved. Adventure had led him there, but he could never belong there. They were virtually ostracised from Welsh society. “Until one day, he had just had enough. A woman had given him a real stinker of a look, a real ‘get back to your hole’ look. At him! With his three piece suit and silk scarf, while the old bat had on a rain jacket that hadn’t seen a laundry since the war.”
He would ‘become the devil that they always took him for’, a petty thief, a chancer and a gambler. So when a shopkeeper and loan shark is murdered by a black man, he is arrested and accused of a crime he didn’t commit.
He had faith in the truth saving him, but he hadn’t banked on the prejudice, conspiracy and lack of humanity that saw him facing the death penalty should he be found guilty.
‘At Night All Blood is Black’ author David Diop was born in Paris and grew up in Senegal. He now lives in France, where he is a professor of 18th-century literature at the University of Pau.
The central characters in his book, Alfa Ndiaye and Mademba Diop, are two Senegalese soldiers fighting for France in World War I. They are life-long friends and brothers in arms.
During the war, black soldiers were ‘respected’ as being warriors, and the two friends wholeheartedly encourage each other in the trenches. But when Mademba is killed, Alfa is tortured by his death. He becomes the savage the other soldiers had joked about, silently encouraged and expected him to be. But now they fear him, and Alfa appears to be on the brink of insanity.
The story itself is told by Alfa, observing the madness of war and his descent into his own madness. It is a dark tale from a dark time. Yet a stark, almost unbelievable beauty shines through the writing, and we are taken on a trance-like journey with the protagonist.
Then and now
Both of these stories are admittedly heartbreaking but stunning in their depiction of the realities of life for black Africans in a predominately white Europe in the 1900s. I am left wondering, how far have we come since then?
Bríd Conroy and her husband Neil Paul run Tertulia – A Bookshop Like No Other at The Quay, Westport.