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These stories were a very mixed bag. Whilst most of them were very short there was the odd longer one in there. Their material was diffuse and they often seemed to be delicate ephemeral affairs. It’s a difficult book to describe because the stories are so varied, and there isn’t even the voice of one author to run as a common thread through it all. And the subject matter varies from legend and myth, through colonial and into post colonial Africa.

There are some gems in here. For example,  Minutes of Glory by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, about a prostitute’s search for meaning and love in her life, for a moment of recognition of her existence and that she is a soul, or Nadine Gordimer’s searching tale, The Bridegroom, about a white man’s struggles with his conscience over how his relationship with his black workers in a remote outpost will change when he brings a wife out there.

But there were many others that were beyond me, confusing me, alienating me, or just leaving me unmoved. So, overall I have mixed feelings about this book. Many of the stories moved me, especially the ones about women protecting their daughters in the face of a male world, but I think less than half of them affected me. I’m not sure of the reason,  maybe my lack of understanding of many of them was cultural.

The book does order the stories from where in Africa they came from and, as described in the introduction, I think this is helpful, as certain patterns do emerge: the predominance of race in the south, the sparseness of the northern stories, although all the stories still have an ‘other’, Africa, flavour, at least to me. 

So, a mixed collection, some very good, some mediocre. Worth dipping into through, as there are sparkling pleasures.

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This isn’t a likeable book. It doesn’t keep you up at night turning the pages. But it is well written and it does tell an important story about human greed and corruption – although there is very little positive to be found in the telling of it.

The novel describes a nameless man, ‘the man’, who could be anyone in Ghana in the last days of Nkrumah, well anyone who isn’t one of the ‘big men’, struggling in his dead-end job managing pointless movements of trains on the railway and trying to keep some dignity in his life: unsuccessfully. His problem is that he won’t be bribed. He refuses to play the game and become corrupt, to seek power and material wealth through dishonesty. And in Ghana at that time any man who tries to keep himself clean, above the filth of corruption, is viewed as a fool.

The futility of his task is reflected is the decay and filth of the physical aspects that surround him, as if the moral decay of the country has sunk into the very fabric of the buildings and the land. For example, a banister on the staircase at his work has, “something uncomfortably organic about it” and in a ditch, “the unconquerable filth was beginning to cake together in places”. These vivid descriptions of dirt and disgust are the most memorable parts of the novel, described in careful, delicate, lingering prose they are sickening, and they made me almost physically recoil from the book at times: Armah found a very powerful metaphor to describe Ghana under the last days of Nkrumah.

The man is also despised by his wife and mother-in-law for his inability to bend his will to the spirit of the times, and reap the rewards of dishonesty. Whilst not incriminating himself he does eventually assist his wife in her aim to be of some assistance to a ‘big man’ who used to be an old friend of his. The apparent cleanliness, crispness and deep richness of Koomson’s possessions are contrasted with the dirt and squalor outside, yet underneath the dishonesty is still there. The man is drawn to the material wealth and comfort – for the ‘loved ones’ – and becomes trapped between his inability to become dishonest and his anger with himself for wanting something he cannot bring himself to take or fully despise. 

Whilst in the end there may be some glimmer of hope for his relationship, with a wife who can perhaps start to understand his stance, there is no real escape. Both he and Koomson are covered in shit as the ‘big man’ falls, and even when he is washed clean by the sea his final observation shows that a change of government does not bring a change in the moral fibre of the country.

This is a rich, earthy book, physical and bold and I liked it for that even when, as it aimed to, it disgusted me. At times the prose is a little stilted and it takes time for events and purposes to unfold, but it is an interesting novel. Whilst it references the colonial period and seems at times to blame the country’s predicament on black men trying to ape old white colonial men it doesn’t spend all its time looking back. Instead it is pointing out what is wrong with Ghana at that point in time, but because of its lack of concentration on possible causes and possible cures it seems strangely isolated. It tells a story, and holds up a harsh and unrelenting mirror to Ghana as it was then, but what of it? In the end I would have liked to see it do some more, and suggest a way out of the spiral of death, corruption and decay.