The Jive Talker or How to Get a British Passport (Jonathan Cape, 2008)
Aminatta Forna delights in the adventures of an African Huckleberry Finn, The Daily Telegraph: Early last Sunday morning, alive with insomnia, I started reading The Jive Talker, Samson Kambalu’s memoir of growing up in Malawi. Ten minutes later I was weeping.
It is an African memoir unlike any other I have read and the reason is this – it is absolutely hilarious and I was crying with laughter.
Living for a few years in Zambia in the 1970s, I knew Malawi only as the place where hippies were made to have their hair sheared at the airport and women had to wear skirts below the knee. The country was ruled by Hastings Banda whose tolerance for dissent was no greater than his tolerance for men with long hair.
This is the world into which Samson Kambalu was born in 1974.
Samson’s father was a man of varying fortunes, an eccentric, egotist, bully and drunk, the eponymous Jive Talker who would rouse his entire family at night to deliver them a lecture on Nietzsche.
The walls of the house were decorated with his father’s affirmations: ‘I am a multimillionaire’, and illustrations from Where the Wild Things Are.
Samson was raised on his father’s wisdom, often senseless but containing the odd nugget of excellent advice: ‘Stay away from the backpacker, and don’t let the tourist take your picture, next thing you know you are in an Oxfam appeal.’
At the centre of the house was the mighty Diptych, home to the Jive Talker’s eclectic collection of books, where the answer to all Samson’s questions might be found.
And the young Samson, a kind of black Huckleberry Finn, full of courage and appetite, had a great many questions. For this was a time of social change in Malawi, the old ways were being ripped up by the roots, Samson’s father was in love with modernity and despised all things ‘native.’
The counter trend was the rise of religiosity, the battle between different church factions for the souls of ordinary Malawians.
Kambalu relates all this with a child’s pinpoint sense of the absurd. His description of actors struggling to keep going during an amateur production of The Last Supper while at the same time being picked off by rogue wild bees is what had me crying that Sunday morning.
Kambalu’s triumph is to give us a portrait of Africa which for once is multidimensional.
His childhood is one of Dr Seuss and the Jabberwocky, of practising dance routines to Carl Douglas’s Kung Fu Fighting (we did that in my house, too) and of learning to French kiss, but also of tsetse, malaria and masquerades, leprosy and a lion in the backyard.
Over it all presides the figure of his nutty father, and then his mother, a woman of such gentle stoicism that when all her maize is stolen she merely grows blue agapanthus instead, and when her husband destroys those in a fit of rage, gives up growing things altogether.
It is no wonder that in this environment and with parents not remotely familiar with the term ‘risk averse’, Samson grows up to be a rather creative child.
His search, aged nine, for the Antichrist is supplanted by the founding of his own religion, Holyballism, whose icon is a football covered in pages torn from the Bible. For a few years he dallies with the notion of becoming a rock star, before finding his true vocation in conceptual art.
All of this makes glorious reading. Then Samson’s father contracts Aids, eventually passing the virus to Samson’s mother.
And here the book loses its way somewhat, for what we want is an exploration of Kambalu’s response to his father’s sickness and death; instead he falls into the pitfall of too many male memoirists – giving way too much information about his sex life.
It is of course, a displacement activity, in this case in literature as much as in life.
The book is called The Jive Talker, but by now Samson’s father has virtually faded from the narrative. The braver thing would have been to consider his father’s impact on his life, the man who at times all but destroyed the family, who killed Samson’s mother, but from whom Kambalu’s talents clearly derive.
Still, that aside, this is a book filled with wonder, humour and hope. It is a magnificent achievement.
The Jive Talker in the collection of artist novels ‘The Book Lovers’ by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp
Uccello’s Vineyard (Appleluck, 2012)
Amazon Review: This is an extraordinary book. Though it has the subtitle ‘a novel’, it is in many ways not novelistic, and could also be called an alternative history of the Reformation and Renaissance, a parable or a meditation on the nature of art and its relationship to religion. The book’s central conceit is that a friar called Uccello invents photography around the turn of the 16th century, and the story then describes the repercussions of this and the upheaval it causes across Europe. The Pope bans the new technique, but many artists who have seen or heard of it now decide high art can go no further, and attempt to return to the more simple and spiritual early Christian art or reject art altogether and decide to make art in the way they live their lives. These ideas then become entwined with the new religious movements arising in Europe, and culminate in the anarchic happenings in the city of Munster. Though the ideas the radical artists put forward seem very modern, Kambalu shows how they fit amazingly well into the early 16th century context, and how there are parallels between the ideas of modern art and those of radical religious reformers 500 years ago. Perhaps this means religion can be seen as a type of work of art, or rather is art a form of religion? Is modern art perhaps not so divorced from religion as it might seem? If these ideas could seem rather dry, the book itself is anything but and is filled with vivid, extraordinary and outrageous incidents and characters. The events chronicled take in a large part of the history of the high Renaissance and Reformation, and there is a vast cast of historical, semi-historical and fictional characters ranging from Martin Luther to Pope Leo X, Raphael to Jan van Leyden, tailor king of the Anabaptists in Munster. Interested in Luther’s bowel problems, the Borgia banquet of the chestnuts or how Raphael cheated when creating his most famous paintings? All this and much more is here. Though it may seem very different to Kambalu’s previous memoir ‘The Jive Talker’, it has much of the same playful and subversive humour, fearlessness and natural ability to tell a good story. I can guarantee that if you buy this book it will be unlike any other you read this year.
Uccello’s Vineyard in the collection of artist novels ‘The Book Lovers’ by The Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp
Uccello’s Vineyard on Amazon Kindle