This year (2019)

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Arthur Japin:
    The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi
Christian Kiefer:
    The Infinite Tides
Arthur Japin:

The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi, by Arthur Japin

     Kwasi Boakye was a real-life person who lived from 1827 to 1904, and this is the story of his life told not as true biography but rather as a kind of historical novel. When reading the book as a novel, the story sometimes seems rather contrived, difficult to believe. And yet in an Afterword the author explains how he has used the personal letters of Boakye and his correspondents, along with many further historical documents, so it must be true to life.
    Boakye's father was the king of Ashanti, a kingdom on the west coast of Africa in modern day Ghana. And thus he was a prince. But he was not the crown prince. Instead his cousin, Kwame Poku, the son of the sister of the king, was the crown prince owing to the fact that in Ashanti, inheritance was passed down through the matriarchal line.
    At the beginning of the story, Kwasi and Kwame are very close friends, doing everything together. They live in great privilege in Ashanti as princes, telling us about their lives, and we see them contrasted with all the slaves in the community. There is a Dutch military presence which had been organizing the slave trade, a fort to hold the slaves which had been bought from the local slave traders before they were shipped off to the Dutch colonies in the Americas and elsewhere. Kwasi's father was much involved in this.
    But then Kwasi's father, the king, decided to send both Kwasi and Kwame off to Holland with a Dutch expedition which had reached their country, presumably in order to allow them to become educated in the ways of Europe and so bring back this knowledge to Ashanti. Thus the two young princes, perhaps 10 or 12 years old, were transported by the Dutch navy to Holland where they were enrolled in a small private school.
    They were treated as princes. Being guests of the Dutch royal family, becoming intimate friends with one or another of the Dutch princes and princesses. And they became highly educated. Somehow the ties with Ashanti became weaker. Kwasi gradually thought of himself as being Dutch, rejecting what he remembered of the life in Ashanti. But Kwame returned. Staying in the Dutch settlement on the coast, he sent written inquiries to the Kingdom, asking if he could come home. But he had forgotten his native language and so his letters were written in Dutch. The King thus refused to answer and wanted nothing more to do with him. After years of vegetating as a guest in the Dutch garrison, he committed suicide.
    Kwasi on the other hand remained in Europe, going on to university in Germany, becoming a mining engineer. He was then sent by the Dutch to Indonesia to be involved in mining operations. But this was extremely unsatisfactory. His superior was an old school rival who treated him badly. He was unable to obtain advancement in his profession. Eventually he learned that the Dutch authorities had decided that it would not be appropriate for an African, a non-European, to be in a leading position in the colony of Indonesia since it was important to maintain the idea that only Europeans could be allowed to be leaders.
    And so much of the book takes place towards the end of Kwasi's life in the tropics of the East Indies, not East Africa. People still respect him as a true prince. He has had a family and children. But somehow he is not fulfilled. Perhaps he could have remained in Europe where he could have followed his profession more successfully as a mining engineer.

The Infinite Tides, by Christian Kiefer

    The story imagines an astronaut, endlessly circling the earth in the international space station. He has a euphoric, almost religious feeling during a space-walk. But then Houston calls and he is told that his daughter has been killed in a car accident. Furthermore his wife has decided to leave him, going off to live with her parents somewhere far away from Houston. He is devastated by all this, becoming wracked by migraines, unable to fulfill his duties in the space station. Only after weeks of delays due to technical problems with the launching of rockets was he able to be sent back to the earth.
    And so we meet him in his empty house in some soulless, half developed suburb of new houses somewhere in the neighborhood of Houston. His wife had cleared everything out, leaving him with a gigantic sofa which he hated. She also left a bare bed and the basics of the kitchen. But he goes to the local diner to eat hamburgers and drink coffee.
    He is alone. Splitting headaches. He drinks lots of beer. He notices a loud-mouthed foreigner, perhaps drunk, at the diner making inappropriate remarks to the young waitress. And then there is a young woman, a mother, wearing tight-fitting clothes, grabbing his attention in the newly built house near to his, separated by a couple of vacant lots. Eventually he winds up in her bed. There are strange scenes. Her business-suited husband returns from some sort of business trip or other and greets him as a friendly neighbor. But it turns out that while the astronaut was up in space he slept with the astronaut's wife.
    The loud-mouthed man at the diner turns out to be an immigrant from Slovakia where he was a technical assistant at an observatory. So he and the astronaut spend late evenings out on the next weed-infested vacant lot, sitting on the sofa which they have moved out there, drinking beer and occasionally looking at stars through an old telescope set up on a tripod.
    The astronaut meditates about his treatment of his dead daughter. He considers that he has a special relationship with numbers. They all have different colors for him. And his daughter experienced that too. So he imagines that she was a genius. But he has pushed her too far. She was supposed to go to a special school for geniuses and devote herself to calculating astronautical things. Despite the fact that she was a "straight A" student in her (normal) high school, she defied him by becoming a cheerleader. And so he went off to space, endlessly circling the world, and she drove her car into tree, having had too much to drink.
    This depressing story was redeemed by the idea of floating through space.

Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje

    This one takes place in England just after the Second World War. The story is narrated by Nathaniel, who is at first 14 years old. We are not told what the family was doing during the war, but now his parents tell Nathaniel and his sister that they will be leaving for some time, going to the Far East. Singapore or something. The father leaves, the mother stays on for a few extra weeks and then leaves as well. They are not left alone at home. Instead various strange characters seem to inhabit the house.
    Nathaniel takes on a few odd jobs. He washes dishes and gets to know a waitress a few years older than himself and we learn of his erotic introduction to sexual affairs. One of the strange characters about the house is given the name of The Darter, and he seems to be involved in smuggling greyhounds into England in the dead of night in order to manipulate the dog races. Nathaniel becomes very much part of The Darter's affairs, eventually thinking of him as a kind of replacement for his father.
    Suddenly Nathaniel and his sister are attacked by some unexplained, mysterious people, and all the mysterious people who had been living at his house, together with his mother who appears from nowhere, save both his sister and him.
    Then the story progresses 10 or 15 years to the late 1950s. Nathaniel has been recruited into the British Secret Service. He works in a mysterious, anonymous office building in London, working in the archives. He secretly looks up the files on his mother. The story is that after the end of the war she was involved in covering up the war crimes committed by the British, eliminating people who might prove to be an embarrassment to future British history.
    Well, the book was nicely written and it was fun to read of Nathaniel's adolescent adventures. The rest was a bit too mysterious for me. Undoubtedly though, such things are true to life.
    Michael Ondaatje is the author of The English Patient, which was made into a famous movie. I did see the beginning of the movie on television years ago, but after a half hour, the arrogance of the main character put me off and I stopped watching.