This year (2019)
Previous years: 2018;
Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi
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letters of Boakye and his correspondents, along with many further historical
documents, so it must be true to life.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 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
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.
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