Whichever history the whites chose for you

The Gurugu PledgeThe Gurugu Pledge
by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel
translated by Jethro Soutar

This is the first of three books I read last weekend that create fiction from real-life accounts. It hadn’t even occurred to me before that was a genre!

On the Gurugu mountain in Morocco next to the border with the small Spanish enclave of Melilla, people from all over Africa hide in caves and tents in a makeshift camp, waiting to make their attempt on the border wall that could get them to European soil. To pass the time, the people on Gurugu mountain tell stories about where they have come from and play football (which also keeps them warm on this northerly point of the continent).

“There are some five hundred of us, black Africans all, and we just want to live, you know? We just want to live, but living is a serious business in Africa, for it’s often very hard and lots of people barely manage it…we need to eat. Do you understand me, Sir? Eat or manger, according to whichever history the whites chose for you.”

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Sunday Salon: Narrative computer games

The Sunday SalonI wouldn’t call myself a gamer by any stretch, but I’ve always played the occasional computer game. I was quite young when we had our first home computer (possibly an Amiga? I don’t really remember) and it was pretty much just for playing games on (a PC followed a few years later with its multifunctionality). I was never an obsessive gamer, tending to give up if I failed a few times.

Computer games have been enough a part of my life that I have never considered them a bad thing or in any way at odds with my love of reading. But it’s only in recent years that I’ve started to interrogate their value as a narrative artform. They certainly are an artform, that’s without question for me, but are they a form of storytelling? And if so, are they a good format for stories?

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Most stories about the past have an element of pain

Maddaddam

Maddaddam
by Margaret Atwood

This is the third instalment in Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy, following on from Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, so this may review contain spoilers for the previous two books. Once again we are in a post-apocalyptic future that feels at once entirely alien and all too possible.

Like the previous two books, this novel looks back to a pre-“flood” story, while also dealing with the post-flood present, but there is more of the present than there has been previously, because really here that’s the emphasis – is this the new way of things? Can humanity survive and if so, how?

The pre-flood story that is slotted into the narrative is mostly about Zeb, who was a fairly minor character in The Year of the Flood but turns out to be an important link between everyone and everything else. However, this wasn’t clear at first and it seemed strange that the flashbacks should linger for so long on him. In particular, there’s an early episode about him having killed a bear that frankly dragged a bit. But once the pace of his back story picked up and some of the links to the wider story became clear, I did enjoy getting to see all the same events again from yet another fresh perspective.

“Will this be a painful story? It’s likely: most stories about the past have an element of pain in them, now that the past has been ruptured so violently, so irreparably. But not, surely, for the first time in human history. How many others have stood in this place? Left behind, with all gone, all swept away.”

The post-flood story is less contemplative than it had been in the previous two books; in fact there’s quite a bit of action. The plague-surviving humans (a mix of God’s Gardeners and Maddaddamites) and the Crakers are learning to understand each other and co-exist, and this raises a lot of issues. Are the Crakers human – and indeed, what is the nature of humanity? Are culture and storytelling innate or taught? Can/should the humans protect the Crakers from bad stuff and teach them knowledge, or should their innocence be maintained as Crake intended? Are the Crakers the only hope for the future?

“He could sense words rising from him, burning away in the sun. Soon he’d be wordless, and then would he still be able to think? No and yes, yes and no. He’d be up against it, up against everything that filled the space he was moving through, with no glass pane of language coming between him and not-him.”

One of the recurring scenes in this book is the Crakers’ story time. The Crakers insist on the daily ritual that Jimmy/Snowman began in Oryx and Crake, and though the storyteller now varies, the style is the same – a somewhat stilted, sanitised version of the truth. These sections are at first odd, irritating even, but gradually become familiar and often humorous, and finally they become the backbone of the whole novel.

“In the beginning, you lived inside the Egg. That is where Crake made you. Yes, good, kind Crake. Please stop singing or I can’t go on with the story…All around the Egg was the chaos, with many, many people who were not like you. Because they had an extra skin. That skin is called clothes.”

This was a satisfying end to the trilogy but it didn’t quite match up to the high point of The Year of the Flood for me.

Published 2013 by Bloomsbury.

Source: Bought at an author event run as part of Bristol Festival of Ideas.

Margaret Atwood at Bristol Festival of Ideas

Maddaddam
St George’s Hall, Bristol, 28 August

It seems whenever I book tickets for something months in advance, life conspires to try to spoil it for me. Like last night. Once again, Tim wasn’t able to come with me (thankfully some friends from work also had tickets so I wasn’t alone for the journey there at least) and my knee was randomly super painful, particularly on steps. And St George’s Hall has a lot of steps (it is very pretty though). But on the plus side I got to see Margaret Atwood in real life and hear her speak and get her to sign not one but two books for me! So that part was pretty good.

I met Margaret Atwood today

The event was primarily about the Oryx and Crake trilogy, and in particular the third book Maddaddam, which was published in the UK yesterday. So obviously I bought the brand new hardback and got it signed even though I have the other two books in paperback and now they won’t match or even fit on the same shelf. Oops. But it seemed like it would be silly not to, while I was there and she was there. Right?

The interview started with the influences on the trilogy, which is perhaps an easy list to guess for anyone who’s read any of the books, but Atwood embellished with interesting facts and plenty of dry wit. There really are glowing green rabbits (created by splicing jellyfish genes with rabbit), which she says were originally developed for a magician, and spider-goats, developed to create bulletproof silk – “people have opened the genetic toybox and they’re mixing and matching”. When asked if she sees herself as a critic, observer, satirist or optimist of issues such as gene-splicing, Atwood replied that she’s all of those things (which is interesting as I thought the books came down firmly against, but perhaps I misread the tone). She went on to say that people are afraid of what they don’t understand and we’re right to be afraid of our own power but wrong to be scared every time.

Anthropology and psychology seem to be big influences on Atwood (indeed, she subscribes to New Scientist and devours all the popular science, especially biology and epidemiology, she can). When asked about how she was able to describe people living after the, ahem, event of this trilogy, she made the acute observation that basic human traits, “our essential smorgasbord”, have not changed since the days of the caveman – we’re all susceptible to love, rage, jealousy, etc, therefore no changes in technology – or loss thereof – are going to change human emotions.

Talking more generally about storytelling, Atwood said “the reader is the violinist of the text…I’m just the originator”. She also touched on a subject that fascinates me: the link between memory, language, storytelling and religion. Memory evolved to allow us to anticipate the future. And once a language has a past and future tense, we start telling stories, and an important part of that is a theology of where we came from. And that brings us back to Maddaddam, which apparently develops the religion of Crake’s children.

There were many more highlights that I scribbled down but I’ll finish with the story that Atwood seemed most eager to tell: the cover design. The first cover she was sent was flowers and a bee: totally girly and not at all reflecting the content of the book. Inspired by Maureen Johnson’s excellent Coverflip challenge Atwood asked for something different, something dynamic and maybe even scary. It took a lot of revisions but you have to admit that the new cover may have pink on it but it sure isn’t girly. Freaky, unnerving and intriguing, yes.

This event was part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas.