by Gabriela Babnik
translated from Slovene by Rawley Grau
This is a strange book, difficult to follow at times, but always lyrical and occasionally outstanding. It’s my Slovenia book for the EU Reading Challenge, written by a Slovene author and starring a Slovene main character, but actually set in Burkina Faso. It seems extra appropriate for this project as its publication was co-funded by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union.
The book opens with two people in bed together in a hotel room in Ouagadougou. They are Ana – a 62-year-old artist here on holiday – and Ismael, a 27-year-old local who spent much of his life living on the street. It’s an unlikely pairing and one that doesn’t seem destined to last, but as the narrative alternates between their points of view, we discover things they have in common. In a way they are both running away from their daily lives, and as they gradually open up to each other, we learn that neither of them is quite what you expect.
As the title implies, the story takes place during the dry season in Burkina Faso and this natural phenomenon is reflected in the book’s themes. There is an overwhelming loneliness surrounding both characters, perhaps rooted in the fact that they are both orphans and both had surrogate parents who didn’t really show them love. Ana wonders whether it is fair for a woman of her age to “steal” a young man’s chance of having children. She already has a grown son, one she never really wanted and has ambivalent feelings about. She worries about whether her life has produced anything in the end. Ismael has spent most of his life with nothing, largely alone, and his worries and dreams are less abstract. But he is still a thinker, an intellectual.
“When as a child, a tiny, pointless little girl, I would go with him to the butcher’s, I was always obsessed by the idea that it could be us lying there in the display case – me, Mama and father. We’d lie there and the dismembered pieces would buy us. Probably this was also because as a child, more than now, I was aware that we were corpses that still had life in them.”
The story explores – though not in a straightforward way – some interesting, complex subjects. Ana has lived a life of relative privilege and comfort, but she has also suffered great unhappiness and sometimes struggles to stop herself from getting lost inside her own thoughts. Ana never mentions any friends, only exes (and family members she doesn’t get on with). Ismael has no family, but he has found friends whom he considers family. He tries to resist some of the illegal activities of his friends, but feels a duty to those friends.
There are several sex scenes, and descriptions of bodies at other times that are more explicit than the sex. There is also some violence, but the one thing that really shocked me was the use of the N word. It was in Ismael’s sections, applied to another Burkinabe man, but I still felt uncomfortable that the translator had used this word.
“I did not really think it was all that likely that Rougou had had sexual relations with his grandfather. It was just that Rougou, like all of us who survived on the street, could not renounce the charm of the stories we told… ‘We start wit da blood, and later you go back to da books. Okay well. Talk me some poetry. I like to listen to dat shit,’ he said… I cleared my throat and hoped my body’s rhythm would not betray me. If I could do this, I could do everything else too… And one day, if luck was kind, I would stand in front of an open window and ask permission to cross the sea.”
Some of the events depicted seem extreme, and it’s not clear whether everything should be taken at face value or if there is an element of fantasy/altered reality here. Ana has a tendency to flit between past, present and things she has read or seen in films, which gives all of her sections a certain unreliability. Ismael is more straightforward, though his story includes at least one ghost and other elements of superstition that muddy the truth.
This is not an easy read. It is at times uncomfortable, and has a style that demands to be taken slowly. I understand why some readers are ebullient with praise for it, but my reaction was less certain.
Sušna doba published 2013 by Beletrina Academic Press.
Winner of the 2013 European Union Prize for Literature.
This translation published 2015 by Istros Books.
Source: Bought direct from the publisher.