Sunday, July 08, 2007

"on the edge of disarray"

Mosquitoes' lives may be ephemeral, their deaths almost always brutal. But during their transitory span, absolutely nothing will stand in the way of their two formidable guiding desires: to soak up human lifeblood, and to reproduce.
~A Mosquito's Life, J.R. Churin, 1929
Fiona Sweeney, the American librarian, in The Camel Bookmobile believes that books offer "vicarious tastes of infinite variety," and it is those vicarious tastes that she would like to bring to the plains of Africa with her. The author, Masha Hamilton, also does an excellent task of bringing some of those tastes to this single novel. The novel is told from the perspective of a number of different people: Scar Boy (a boy scarred by a hyena at the age of three); his father the drum maker; the American librarian; an African librarian who administers the library that sends the books to the villages; a teacher of the African village of Mididima; his wife; a girl of the village who longs for the wider world; and her grandmother. Hamilton does a deft job of giving each of these people their own, unique voice.
The people of Mididima speak in metaphor and simile~metaphor and simile that tastes of a connection with the earth. When Hamilton describes the drumming, singing, and dancing that the men perform each night within the kilinge, i was taken back to one of the best New Year's Eves i ever had. My drummer boyfriend and i went over to another musician's house where we all had drums of one type or another and we spent hours in a drum circle creating our own rhythms, music, and worlds with just the beats of drums. I drummed (for the first and only time) even though my hands and body grew tired and ached. And within that circle i imagined the history and future of life the universe and everything. It was like a wonderful trip without the aid of hallucinogenic drugs.
The teacher, educated in Nairobi, like his father, but still a son of the land understands the vaporous nature and imprecision of words. As an interesting corollary to the Western world the Mididimans see the bible as containing interesting stories while believing in the truth of their own "mythology". They understand the world as being under the dominion of the "hundred legged one" (derived from the rays of the sun).
The African librarian, Mr. Abasi, was educated in London and chose his profession because he wished to do as little work as possible (what a coincidence, that's exactly why i became a librarian, NOT). He speaks with derision of the semi-nomadic people of the Kenyan plains.
Fiona is idealistic and has dreams of bringing literacy and hope to people who have none, people who see cities where their boys will become street-sweepers and their girls will become street-sleepers.
Fiona's ambitions seem to be failing when "Scar Boy" either loses or refuses to return two of the books he has borrowed which threatens to halt the visits of the camel bookmobile. Some people of the village do not want the visits to continue though they do not wish to be dishonored through failing an agreement.
The life of mosquitoes and their habits seem to figure prominent in this story. Quotes from various entomologist studies and other thoughts about these insects who have feasted on dinosaur blood to those who inhabit the planet today open each section of the book. In this manner their brief lives parallel those living in the arid bushlands of Kenya. Ultimately this is an evocative, haunting, and enduring tale of the clash between cultures which many never be resolved. The voices of the book stay with you long after you have closed it.

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