All entries for April 2008

April 16, 2008

Big Bob Mugabe – The Wreckoning

Stepping down has never been a favourite do among
bureaucrats and politicians. No matter how putrid the dead
rats may turn, there they remain until democracy gets the upper
hand and the electorate starts feeding its spirit on hope again.
But despite our local exemplars, in terms of epic gaffes against
one’s own country, none of our local baddies past or present
comes anywhere near Robert Gabriel Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s
octogenarian chief.
In a matter of years, President Bob has wreaked havoc
on one of the most stunningly beautiful corners on earth.
Zimbabwe is today plagued by a collapsed economy, poverty,
inflation, the decimation of entire communities, forced seizure
of land, assassinations and torture. Living in Zimbabwe today,
expect to be around 37 years old when you pop off. If you are
lucky, that is. Bread, sugar and petrol have become luxuries to
kill for. Unemployment is at a scary 80 per cent while inflation
hovers around 7,600 per cent, which means that for the price
of a single slab of stone in today’s Zimbabwe you would have
bought yourself a nice detached villa with breathtaking views
of the Zambezi back in the 80s. Zimbabwe is running on much
less than empty.
The bespectacled revolutionary who stood up to Ian Smith’s
government, led his country to independence and took the helm
in 1980 is now clinging to power for life like a frightened animal.
He knows that if he steps down, he may not be as lucky as
fellow crook Idi Amin. His placid, matter-of-fact ruthlessness
has made of Robert Mugabe something of a myth. Admittedly,
some of us have at some point marvelled at this Ultimate Big
Man of Africa, surviving well into the 21st century, with an army
solidly behind him, hatcheting opposition as if he had no other
care in the world.
My South African colleagues, budding diplomats from
Cambridge and the UCL, cut me short as I harangue them on
Mugabe and why on earth is he still in power? “He’s an iron
fist. And he has stolen the limelight.” Arm-wringing EU leaders
bickered last year over whether to let Bob into the EU-Africa
summit. In the cut and thrust, the British Prime Minister, of all
people, pledged he would skip the talks if the Zimbabwean
dictator were to be let in. So the PM failed to be there as
Bad Penny Bob turned up, to the pomp and circumstance of
flashing cameras. Adding heavier insult, a sober faced German
Chancellor-ess scolded Mugabe’s regime, gravely pointing out
that, “The situation in Zimbabwe concerns us all, in Europe and
in Africa” and that “we don’t have the right to look away when
human rights are trampled on”. Tut tut, mein lieber Gott, Frau
Merkel, I didn’t know that one!  
What a good thing that Vaclav Havel, Nadine Gordimer and
Wole Soyinka accused the Europe-Africa summit organisers of
political cowardice. How come the people of Zimbabwe and
Darfur were not that high on the summit agenda, they wrote.
In a country crippled by dictatorial whims, hardship and
a parched economy, juiciness comes in one brand: Grace
Mugabe. Zimbabwe’s classy First Lady abuses the media’s
attention on her husband, having it easy with her Parisian
shopping sprees in the meantime. Mrs Mugabe shops with far
greater gusto than all of the Wags put together. So far, she has
blown around £2.1 million on shopping alone. She is reported to
spend around £75,000 in a two-hour spree alone. Some think
that, more than just her husband’s wallet, Grace has battered
Bob’s very taste for the rule of law. 40 years his junior, she
has even coaxed the President into getting her the luxurious
DC-9 airliner previously owned by Playboy mogul Hugh Hefner.
Another half a million pounds of government funds have gone
into Gracelands, her 30-bedroom palace in Harare, Zimbabwe’s
capital. Her latest property project is a £6 million mansion outside
the capital, a plum three-storey property complete with Italian
baths and Oriental carpeting. Not to mention the estimated
£200 million of jet fuel siphoned into Lady G’s forays around the
world’s poshest shopping centres, courtesy of Air Zimbabwe.
Ah, and those infamous Ferragamos. Asked about the thick
wads of notes she blows on shoes, Ms Mugabe remarked: “I
have very narrow feet, so I wear only Ferragamo.”
In many ways, Grace Mugabe reminds me of Louis XVI’s
wife Marie Antoinette lost in her lavish daily hairdos while flour
prices soared and the French people bent over in famine.
Contrary to popular Maltese folklore, the word ‘deficit’ was not
coined by a Maltese government. Back in pre-revolutionary
France, as the guillotine days loomed large, Marie Antoinette
was already dubbed ‘Madame DeFicit’. Only, the reckoning
did come to France in the end, whereas in Zimbabwe it is
taking forever.
A meek Kenneth Kaunda, former President of Zambia and
friend of Mugabe, has thoughtfully let us know that, “It is my
humble prayer that South African President Thabo Mbeki and his
regional colleagues will meet Robert Gabriel Mugabe, who will
be ready in his soul, mind, and body to respond to the advice
they give him and the people of Zimbabwe.” Give that gibberish
to the marines, Ken. Mbeki and friends will not lift a finger for
Zimbabwe’s sake. And not because they still worship Mugabe
for the revolutionary he once was. That too is hogwash. They
fear the hardline groups within their own countries, who would
use any anti-Mugabe move to hint that their leaders are caving
in to the whims of Europe and the US.
Even if my hometown teems with red-hot chillies hanging
from Escort-Mark-1 rear-view mirrors, church gossip and
witchcraft of every kind, I have never been superstitious.
Sometimes, however, the gods leave warnings we cannot
ignore. As I created the new ‘Mugabe’ file at the time of
writing, my brand-new Mac crashed and offered me the
Force Quit.
2008 will have to be kinder to the people of Zimbabwe. Or
no one else will.

April 09, 2008

Clamouring to be read

Boasting tens of thousands of visitors and millions of books on display, the Leipzig Book Fair runs from the 13th till the 16th of March. A showcase of international standing, this is one of the best book exhibitions in Europe. Norbert Bugeja was there

 As I enter the main hall of the New Leipzig Fair Grounds, an irrepressible sense of exhilaration takes hold. I am at the Leipziger Buchmesse, a foremost German book fair hailed by many as the most prestigious of its kind. For three days, Ian Richie’s levitated glass hall – the world’s largest –serves as an Entrance Hall to a sprawling 20,000 square metres of printed matter. Thousands of people enter this place every hour. I inch my way forward. Journalists, TV and radio crews are there, covering a list of eminent writers: Ken Follett, Charlotte Roche, Miro Gavran, Feridun Zaimoglu. For any ardent reader, I tell myself, this is sheer gold dust.


Our Captivity 

I am here as the guest writer for Malta, thanks to an excellent collaboration between the Malta Council for Culture and the Arts, and the Embassy of Malta in Berlin. I will recite A Tango for the Stairs of Valletta, a lyrical triad that will feature in my upcoming collection, ‘Bliet’ (Cities), now kindly taken up by a major publisher. My first reading is at the bustling ‘Small Languages, Great Literatures’ stand. I read in Maltese, followed by a reading in German. Then I comment on my work. The audience is visibly captivated by the rhythms and sounds of Maltese. They inquire about the Mediterranean context in my poetry. Among them is Zvonko Makovic, one-time president of the Croatian PEN, and perhaps the greatest living Croatian poet. We nod at each other. I met Zvonko for the first time in 2005 at the Lodeve Poetry Festival, where he volunteered valuable comments about my writing. Zvonko is very keen on getting to know the Maltese creative milieu. At a Croatian stand brimming with translated works I spot the novelist Roman Simic, who was in Malta some time ago on an LAF/Inizjamed collaboration. He pours me a glass of Dalmatian wine. I am introduced to two Cypriot authors: Yorgos Trillidis, who quips about our desire to “become” writers of fame, and the charming playwright Eurydike Pericleus-Papadopoulou. We see a stronger network of Mediterranean writers emerging, a generation clamouring to shed obscurity, to emerge from the shadows of the world’s “official” languages, to speak of regional and cultural spaces rather than of canons and of nations. Deep down, we all know what the pickle is. We are imprisoned in the languages that contain our work, held up by the very tools that we use so deftly, hindered by the medium that nourishes us. Maltese is my national language as a Maltese citizen, and my gilded Alcatraz as a Maltese writer. The natural course of action for the Maltese writer today is to shun the shallowness of provincial rhetoric and patriotic discourse, to rebut the impulse of ramifying and wallowing in one’s own tradition, to spread one’s wings and fly into other languages. The fare will not be low-cost, but the destination is inexorable. 


To read, yes - but what? 

On Friday morning, I improvise my way through the labyrinth. Every publisher is here. The Reclam, Diogenes and Suhrkamp-Insel stands heave with translated editions of prose, poetry, and essays from all over the world. In an increasingly globalized book-world, every shelf speaks Translation. Translation is not an exercise any longer, but a language in itself. What’s more, it has become the language par excellence of the book fair - the ensemble of translated works available here testifies to cultures speaking across and through each other. The book fair marks a step ahead of online purchasing, or even of going through one’s local retail agent. There are people here crowding the bookshelves, handling books, poring over their content, deciding what to lump and what to dump. There are many education representatives, checking out the latest products and consulting their editors as to the adequate material to carry back home. I think of Malta where, in spite of the truly impressive improvements in our education, some dated textbooks have lingered on even as their usage blatantly misguides our students’ cognitive abilities. Are our education scouts doing their work out there, eyes peeled on the European bookshelves, sounding out the publishers in order to bring the best and latest educational material to our college and University libraries, where a number of our academic sections are desperately wanting? I watch as clusters of school children meander through the bookstands. Over here, promoting reading in terms of getting people to read will look gross and naive. Leipzig flaunts a perception of reading as a priori the principal factor in shaping healthy and judicious mindsets, especially among young readers. It is about giving our young ones the necessary tools to discern, to choose their book, the thinking skill of reflecting, as autonomously as possible, on what will be their most fruitful choices for reading throughout their lives. Giving our students the opportunity to visit these Fairs might not be a bad idea. They will obtain rich, cutting-edge exposure to the very latest publications hailing from the cultural realities of other regions and countries within their continent and beyond.


Next Stop, Istanbul 

Tourism-wise, if only we were to invest in such an effort, our presence as a country in large-scale European book fairs will make a lot of sense. My jaw falls as I wind my way about the Turkish book stand, a shining example of aesthetic marketing. I learn yet another lesson: online and TV advertising, bill-boards, Malta-painted buses and high-brow magazine reviews are effective – but are they as real to the potential tourist as the actual touching and handling of the Malta product even before one chooses to visit it? We need to take our movable products - our printed books, that is - out there and make them available to these eager readers. Any avid book reader who is in ‘pre-tourist’ stage will want to handle as much in-depth information as possible about their target destination. This means that one of the next steps Malta now needs as part of its tourism policy is a massive, unprecedented effort of translation. By this I mean not only translation of our writers, but of a very significant and eclectic chunk of our Melitensia and of the research work that has and is being done a propos Malta’s people, heritage and cultural present. We need to get this material, including all of those nice English-language folio editions, translated into all the major European languages, possibly even in Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese etc. If we do not have the required resources, then let us approach major international publishers who keep churning out mouth-watering print editions and e-books. Surely, negotiations at ministerial level may achieve the desired goals. Meanwhile, having myself wormed through a pile of full-colour folios, I have decided - the next holiday is Istanbul.


Through Bach's Back Door 

My last reading takes place at the Schille Theater, a quaint old venue almost in the shadow of the steep-roofed St Thomas Church where Bach worked and is buried, and where Marthin Luther introduced the Reformation in Leipzig. The audience is fascinated by the phonetic beauty of our language. I end up reciting, impromptu, other works I happen to know by heart. I face another barrage of questions by Lithuanian, German, Estonian listeners, asking about the Maltese literary vista. I oblige, and with pleasure, thinking about an emerging generation of writers who, with proper financial assistance in their staggering challenge of translation, may reach out to these readers and hold their own with any other literature.

I wish to thank Davinia Galea, Bernardette Glanville and Adrian Mamo at the Malta Council for Culture and the Arts for making my visit possible. I also wish to thank the Malta Embassy in Germany, especially Kornelia Klenner who, besides organizing my visit to the last detail, is busy working on bringing the young literature of Malta to the attention of German publishers and audiences. Finally, my heartfelt thanks to Dominik Kalweit and Ray Fabri, whose thorough German translations of my work have elicited many a smile, nod, expression of wonder and requests for encores from my German audiences.


Norbert Bugeja  in performance


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