September 6, 2012 by markstani
You get a grip of what’s in store from the first paragraph of the second book of Jakob Ejersbo’s Africa Trilogy, Revolution:
It’s all in my horoscope: I’m going to hate Danish hippies, fall head over heels in love with a French fakir, be Agent 007 in Morocco, starve in Sudan, smuggle gold in my cunt, be robbed by Idi Amin and carry six different kinds of worm around in my intestine, the sixth of which is very special indeed.
Ejersbo’s books instantly blow away the inevitable assumptions that anything originating in Scandinavia these days needs to be a slowly unfurling thriller: his tales of teenage alienation are sharp, spiky and ravenously readable.
If the youthful delinquency genre is as well plundered as the Larsson-inspired avalanche of detective fiction, Ejersbo has made his undeniably unique by their choice of setting: his first book, Exile, concentrates on the listless lives of teenage expats at Moshi’s International School; ‘Revolution’ shifts the focus to the African and Indian Tanzanians they live amongst.
The books capture Ejersbo’s own restless spirit: he lived twice in Tanzania before going missing for five years: he emerged with his completed Africa Trilogy, but tragically died before any of his books were published, first in Danish in 2009, now in beautiful form (and seamless translation) by MacLehose Press, with the final part of the trilogy, ‘Liberty’, due for release in 2014.
‘Exile’ is a powerful opener, whose brilliantly conceived main character, Samantha, exemplifies the rootlessness of expat youth. Samantha’s mother has headed back to England, which Samantha, having been born in Africa, cannot consider home, while her mercenary father is frequently absent, shuttling his daughter between school and various tourist lodges, where she seeks solace with her friends in sex and drugs.
Until an awful event three-quarters through the book lends its ending an unputdownable urgency, ‘Exile’ is largely plotless in the conventional sense, preferring to drift along with the whims of Samantha. It is the same kind of wayward narrative which made James Franco’s debut collection ‘Palo Alto’ such a triumph, and is all the better for it. In doing so, it highlights themes of wealth and privilege and the modern-day, capitalist-driven brand of colonialism which is further explored in Ejersbo’s follow-up, ‘Revolution’, released this month.
Here, through a series of unconnected short stories, Ejersbo draws the polarisation between and within different societies and generations in Tanzania into sharper focus, pursuing the post-school lives of a handful of expats from the first book, but most successfully shifting towards the locals: Moses, who risks his life daily in a brutal Tanzanite mine, and Rachel, who dreams of a better life but is lured ever more towards a life of prostitution.
In ‘The Path Of The Snake’, Moses begins:
Seven years I’ve spent in darkness. Pebbles, scraps, that’s it. Enough to replace the worn-out shirt on my back and buy a little bhangi and gongo so I can escape into sleep – but only just. I sit in the shade under the lean-to and eat my wages: corn porridge and beans. The tin roof crackles in the scorching sun. I lie down on my back and close my eyes. How can it have been seven years? They stink like a dead dog on the roadside.
These are dark, raw stories that spare the reader no detail, and make no apologies for it. The translation by Mette Petersen is spare and crisp to the point where it probably not only retains the potency of the original, but embellishes it. These books – plus, presumably, the upcoming ‘Liberty’, provide a brilliant breath of fresh air. It is just a shame the fantastically talented Ejersbo is not around to see his work so feted, nor to produce any more.