Since poetry became, without intention, this week’s theme at St. Orberose, I figured before leaving for the weekend I’d write some words about a writer who is sporadically a poet.
Ondjaki is the pseudonym of Ndalu de Almeida, an Angolan writer born in Luanda, in 1977. Writing since his teens he made his literary debut in 2000 exactly with a book of poems, which he submitted to a literary contest. He got the second spot and the book was published. Since then he’s built a steady body of work that includes poetry, short-story collections, novels, children’s books, and recently theatre, and he’s received awards in Angola, Ethiopia, Portugal and Brazil, where he currently lives and is much admired.
Of all the Angolan writers I’ve read – and all really only comes down to José Luandino Vieira, Pepetela, Ana Paula Tavares, and José Eduardo Agualusa – Ondjaki is the youngest, and the only one to be born after the country achieved independence, in 1975; on the other hand that means he’s also the only one who was a child during the civil war that started ravaging Angola shortly afterwards, a reality he often depicts in his work, through the perspectives of his many child narrators, delicate fictions intermingled with his memories. In interviews, Ondjaki doesn’t hide that his early books had a strong autobiographical content, as he repeated in his short-stories countless variations about children growing up, their days spent in school, their relationships with their Cuban teachers (during Angola’s communist years), their games, their understanding of the world, and their inner life, to which Ondjaki is so well attuned. He lists amongst his many influences Jorge Amado, Clarice Lispector, Mario Vargas Llosa, Guimarães Rosa and Gabriel García Márquez, and if he’s never written anything I’ve read that matches anything by one of these masters, his work however is a wide window to post-colonial Angolan society and a vibrant, heart-warming chronicle of his people’s difficulties and aspirations.
Like almost each countryman of his mentioned above, with the exception of Paula Tavares, who remains untranslated, Ondjaki has known a brief moment of fame in the English-speaking world; in 2008 two of his books were translated: the novella The Whistler, and the novel Good Morning Comrades. It got good reviews; I’ve chatted with people on message boards who’ve even read them, and liked them. And then he returned to oblivion. This tends to be the fate of Portuguese-speaking African writers. Even heavyweights like Pepetela and Mia Couto haven’t gotten new translations in years. Agualusa’s winning the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize didn’t do him much good either since, after an apparent rise of interest in the English-speaking world, translations stopped coming out after 2009. I wonder why the initial impetus always loses power so quickly? Is it lack of interest? Poor sales?
Well, if his prose doesn’t sell, I guess it’s even more unlikely that his poetry will ever be translated. To date he’s published four collections; the latest came out in 2009. His poetic influences are as impressive as the ones that inform his prose: Ruy Duarte de Carvalho, Fernando Pessoa, Mia Couto, Manoel de Barros, and Ana Paula Tavares. Lyrical, dream-like, less autobiographical but more intimate, funny in a melancholy way, charged with wordplay. Ondjaki’s poetry is less mediated by history and society than Paula Tavares’, it feels completely different. I’m still trying to find out if I like it. I leave you with two of his poems:
in my house’s garden I crossed paths with a slug.
she offered a look. I saw the world through the slug’s seduction:
everything trapped with simplicity.
I offered a sadness: it almost gave in to transparencies.
I learned with the slug: a sadness shouldn’t be
the world, even shared,
is everyone’s skin.
the slug waved goodbye with its body.
and rain came.
Thus we relearn the place of our souls.
construction of a house [and the house’s interior]
construction of a camp fire [and the fire, and the flame, and the ashes]
construction of a person [from the embryo to books]
construction of love
construction of sensibility [from the pores to music]
construction of an idea [including what the other one said]
construction of a poem [and of feeling the poem]
[there’s something of “de” in the word construction]
deconstruction of a prejudice
deconstruction of misery
deconstruction of fear
deconstruction of stiffness
deconstruction of the ego’s swelling
deconstruction simply [as an exercise]
deconstruction of a poem [for its rebirth]
construction is a word
that causes sweating
on being uttered.
I think that’s a beautiful sweat.