A Week in Books: Fiction can transport us into areas of the real Africa

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The Independent Culture

What with G8, Live 8 and the attendant palavers, this has been a great year for African spectacles. But spectacles have a nasty habit of turning into blinkers. So the dinosaurs of rock pack out green parks while the brown desert of Niger threatens millions with extinction. The gesture-politics of culture has its place, but it should show us Africa and not just tell us about it. At the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, the great Baaba Maal quietly thanked the Proms organisers for inviting some African music into the schedule. He and his band then launched into a barnstorming blinder of a two-hour set that utterly washed away the sickly taste of feeble-minded, patronising Afro-schmaltz such as Richard Curtis's The Girl in the Café.

Fiction, as well, can transport us into areas of the real Africa beyond the reach of posturing and punditry. During 2005, British publishers have done passably well at hosting voices from the continent. From established figures of the calibre of Abdulrazak Gurnah, Nuruddin Farah and Zakes Mda (see page 23) to newcomers such as Helen Oyeyemi, Delia Jarrett-Macauley and Uzodinma Iweala (also reviewed on page 23), a fair sprinkling of English-language novels from or of Africa have graced their lists. As usual, the fiction of Francophone regions has fared far less well, although Penguin has now issued a new UK edition of Tahar Ben Jelloun's bleakly brilliant prison novel, This Blinding Absence of Light. Formidable new works from those enigmatic super-predators of South African literature, J M Coetzee and André Brink, will arrive very soon.

Many of these writers have sought to hew good art out of bad times. And Zimbabwe has recently had to shoulder more than its fair share of evil African days. Unfeeling, a first novel by the young Harare teacher Ian Holding (Scribner, £10.99), shows us one corner of this tragic landscape with a raw intensity that mocks his title. This is headline-hugging fiction, driven by the expulsion, persecution and murder of white farmers.

Davey, Holding's 16-year-old hero, has endured the slaughter of his parents in the course of a land confiscation and found refuge on another farm. As he sets out for home on a vividly rendered journey of revenge ("a boy walking across Africa"), our picture of his parents' life and death fills in with a multitude of tender, and horrific, touches. Holding writes with a visceral urgency that leaves little room for nuance. He makes a stab at evoking the historical cycle of theft, cruelty and injustice in southern Africa ("black blood spilt a hundred years ago still stains their hands"). But he cannot, maybe for good personal reasons, match the eerie, delphic detachment of Coetzee's Disgrace. So Scribner should not have saddled him with a cover design that summons up that gnomic masterpiece.

It's no surprise that Holding's voice should mimic the single-minded pain that marked many African novels from the end-of-empire period. Mugabe's militants feature here as murderous grotesques alone. His story has no more time for the outlook of the "savage fuckers" who butcher whites than his forerunners' did for the feelings of the mzungu colonial bullies in sun-helmets.

Unfeeling compels attention for the crackling anguish of its mood and the rustling grace of its scenery. Now, I hate to bang the dull race drum in this or any other literary arena. So it's a shame that Scribner does by calling Holding "one of the first of a new generation of novelists describing the white experience of Africa". I look forward to reading the others. But I also hope to see a time when a media giant such as Viacom (Scribner's owner) bothers to introduce us to the fiction of non-white Zimbabwean authors - such as Charles Mungoshi, Chenjerai Hove, Shimmer Chinodya, Brian Chikwava and the late Yvonne Vera.

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