In the wetter parts of Africa, bamboo provides for many household needs. African bamboo, it must be said, is a giant bamboo, just as Africa is a giant continent. African bamboo can grow to eighty feet tall, a huge swaying stalk and a gluttonous lover of soil. Gallant too, for it likes to bow, to kiss the ground and sleep at the feet of its surroundings, though it usually rises up majestically, pointing triumphantly to the zephyr, the sky of the thousand night stars that shine madly in certain parts of Africa. Anyone who has had the good fortune to set foot on African soil, in its wettest and windiest parts, will have noticed that bamboo is a prime building material, and they will have doubtless seen two or three boys amusing themselves with bamboo toys. Bamboo can be used to make a thousand household utensils, and weapons too, useful when confronting the natives, whether from flora or fauna, for both can be overly exuberant in certain parts.
Anyone who’s been to Africa but not woken up with a stiff neck after sleeping on a hard bamboo bed, hasn’t really been to Africa, or at least hasn’t experienced the true beauty of Africa, never mind talk of thousand-year-old landscapes and supposedly flowering economies. Dried bamboo leaves provide the fluffy insides of mattresses, serving our daily appointment with the God of Rest, while bamboo forests provide myriad possibilities to men and women in love, for when the sun sets across Africa, the continent becomes a great scene of secret courting. To speak of bamboo is, therefore, to speak of life in Africa, a life that is flourishing, fluid and sometimes secret, a life that is hidden behind a thousand cloths of a thousand different colours, conveyed by a thousand songs and a thousand different ways of giving names to reality.
For there are languages in Africa, indigenous forms of talking, and some languages have been around for thousands of years, though when we say thousands of years we may not mean real years, for there’s always room for imagination in Africa. These languages, these means of describing reality, are sometimes so peculiar that they defy the miracles of science, and some even took it upon themselves to cross borders, artificial borders erected long after everything else, to later appear in books left behind as testimony. But despite their being peculiar and nomadic, the few thousand people left in my grandmother’s village, now that the grandchildren have set out on hundreds of different paths towards particular norths, haven’t stopped speaking these languages, just as they haven’t stopped using bamboo, and the rain hasn’t stopped falling, pitter-patter, in the nearby forest.
To speak of books left behind as testimony is to speak of knowledge, understanding, imagination. Ultimately it is to speak of how hundreds of butterflies come down from the bamboo plants and settle on village floors wet with rain, in those parts of Africa where rain comes more than a few days a year. Ultimately it is to speak of how those butterflies imprint their sensations onto leaves, so that future generations of butterflies might learn to travel without risking anything other than their own fear. Art, literature, creation on paper. The sublime art of evoking experiences, of bequeathing knowledge to future generations, of passing on survival instructions to women and men, girls and boys, in villages of forests and rain.
That’s to say, in order for there to be a language, somebody must speak it, use it, make sense of the world with it. For every book there are a thousand other tales of rain and bamboo that are never written down due to more pressing needs. Artistic books, that’s to say literature, tell of unknown, faraway places, lands and languages fighting for survival, impervious to the fact that stories are sold in books these days, and mostly in English, or two or three other powerful languages. Lands where bamboo is still used, despite the fact that it has been replaced elsewhere by elastic or some conglomeration of metals ripped from African soil.
Books bring glimpses of lives that people don’t see, lives lived in languages of little weight and reach. So when the learned sit down to discuss the real, or supposed, quality of books produced by people from bamboo places, they should bear two things in mind: that these works offer traces of lives lived under different circumstances, lives where the book as product means nothing; that stories will go on being told, just as they’ve always been told, but in fewer voices, destiny having allowed mortal silence to ravish entire bamboo communities. So if we want to speak of the art of writing, it is a terrible injustice to have certain works undermined just because their author didn’t know, despite himself, the language of those who decide things in the modern world. To do so is to do more than kill the artist of the unknown language, it is to kill art itself.
You can read more about Jethro Soutar’s experience of translating Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel.
More information about Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel can be found at his author profile at the Foyles website.