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The Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the Gods by Jamala Safari

The Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the Gods by Jamala Safari

Reviewed by Friederike Bubenzer of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation

"I have tended to shy away from the many books that have emerged over the last years which tell the gruesome and often unbelievable stories of child soldiers in the Great Lakes region of Africa. Though this literature forms a core part of my work in the realm of justice and reconciliation, I prefer to read fiction that doesn’t compound my nightmares and keep me awake at night. And so I was all the more positively surprised to read the beautifully titled debut novel The Agony and Pure Laughter of the Gods by Cape Town based writer and poet Jamala Safari.

Having now turned the final pages of the book and having had the time to reflect on this fine piece of African writing, what strikes me most about what I have read, are the carefully constructed descriptions of the impact of war on the very fibre of its’ victims and perpetrators. Safari crafts a vivid portrayal of the transition from victim to perpetrator which I found very evocative and thought provoking and which has highlighted to me, again, the complexity of the ongoing conflict in the DRC. And so to me this text is a vital piece in the puzzle of how we, who work in the realm of post conflict reconstruction and reconciliation, approach the rebuilding of war affected societies. It is a brilliant portrayal of conflict in Africa-how it affects its’ people, how its’ social relations are shattered and how easily, if not properly repaired, societies like these re-emerge into conflict. Silencing the guns after conflict is not enough-equally important is the re-stitching of broken communities, addressing deep levels of psycho-social trauma and inter and intra-personal mistrust and suspicion.

I read most books pen-in-hand, just in case I need to underline a particularly striking piece of prose. When a book starts with sentences I want to underline, I know I am onto a good read. A nimble crafter of an eloquent narrative, Safari uses visual analogies to make his plot come wonderfully alive. And so we read of a moon which hangs like a fire-ball in a blanket in a dark sky, of fisherman and their boats who dance to the rhythm of the gentle waves of the lake and of our heroine Néné, who walks with the grace and rhythm of a Congolese Zebra.

Safari uses dreamy descriptions of a blissful childhood in a peaceful DRC to contrast the horror his protagonist experiences in captivity. One moment the reader is immersed in colourful descriptions of a boyhood in Bukavu: endless days adventuring through forests and rivers catching crabs and  collecting mushrooms, first experiences of true friendship and a great love whose ‘teeth flashed like lost diamonds in the night’.  I was reminded of my own childhood in South Africa, traipsing barefoot through the forests catching tadpoles and selling the neighbours flowers for pocket money along the side of the road. And just as we are reminded of the riches of local customs and traditions, of family relations and friendships shaped by the spirit of ubuntu, Safari tears us out of our pleasure into the pain and suffering of young Risto as he is abducted into a local rebel group and is torn out of his childhood into a life of gruelling hardship, violence and murder.

I will refrain from giving away any more of the plot other than to add that the reader is awarded with a goosebumped happy ending. The book contains an important documentation, beautifully crafted, of how resource-conflicts have devastated the core of what was once a beautiful, bountiful and peaceful society. The journey the reader embarks on is a rewarding one as Risto’s journey of pain and suffering takes an almost fairytale like ending which leaves one feeling strangely relieved and hopeful.

I was struck, more than once, by the sad reality that I was not reading about something that is, as yet, in the past. I find that the displeasure of reading conflict-related literature is often assuaged by the fact that one is reading about past atrocities and of places and people who are now living in peace. Sadly, while reading Safari’s book, the situation in the DRC was again worsening. This left me with a mild sense of frustration which I am sure many readers will sympathy with: now that I have read this, what can I do, how can I help?

Finally, an afterthought. How fair is it to really critique the style and content of a book which documents a story as hard, as punishing and as violent as this one? Can we really ask for more adjectives or less nouns in describing this awfulness or is the writer-in this case the witness of some of the horror, by virtue of his lived experience of this dread, not entitled to use the words and the style he finds commensurate of his experience?

This is a rewarding and important read of a brave journey that is increasingly common across Africa and which brings us a little closer to understanding this troubled but hopeful nation."

About the book:

Risto Mahuno’s agony is what happens to his sweetheart Néné, to his cousin, and to himself. In the east of the Congo, where the border with Rwanda is also the border between life and death, the boys are abducted and forced to become soldiers, the girls raped.

Risto’s story is based on real experiences.

Click here for more information on The Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the Gods


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