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The Heart of the Matter: A Review of The Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the Gods by Jamala Safari

I was afraid of this book. When we read what others have written, their words become part of us. The prose sinks into our layers like sediment. It settles there into awareness and cannot be unread.

And I was right to fear it.

Jamala Safari‘s The Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the Gods is about the unmaking of a person, a community, a country – a journey, as the author’s last name suggests, in the land of desolation.

But it is also the story of remaking those identities.

Risto Mahuno is 15 when he sees his two best friends blown to bits on the soccer pitch. Hoping to protect him from the same fate, his middle-class parents send Risto away from their home town of Bukavu, in the eastern war-torn Congo.

The exodus has become common: boys (who run the risk of being coopted into the rebel militias) and girls (who suffer gang rape and slavery as the rebels’ “wives”) must go to their grandparents’ villages to escape unwanted attention, but the ploy is unsuccessful.

Risto is captured and quickly realises his survival depends on his cooperation. He becomes one of the most feared kadogo – “the small ones” in the Mashi dialect, a word that carries with it the abomination of training children to kill.

How Risto retains his sanity is the true subject of this book: the real gore and terror end halfway through, when Risto, beset by cerebral malaria and his vicious rival, Amani, end up in hospital.

He travels in stages more than 2000km to a refugee camp in Mozambique. Even then, it is not enough to recover physically from his travails: Risto hears voices, thinks he is followed by the ones he has killed and has himself become a ghost. Whereas before he was stunned into silence, now he cannot stop talking, even in his sleep.

Safari’s book is a catalogue of the institutions to which we are all subject, voluntarily and involuntarily: family, church, hospital and militia. This sense of community, of belonging for better or worse to some group larger than oneself, is the most fundamental organising principle of humanity.

When we find ourselves expelled from those groups, or when we choose consciously to reject them, we are lost.

But we can relocate ourselves with our stories. We tell them to other people. We write them, and others read them.

Safari dedicates The Great Agony to his cousin, Willy-wa-Bene Kagayo, who was kidnapped from their home in Bukavu by the militia. The prose devastates. It should not count more because it is real, but it does: because this is still going on; because the author is providing a chronicle of an atrocity that becomes – by its narration – part of an archive.

That archive is not simply one of loss, brutality and horror: it is about the end of the katabatic journey, the narrative we hear only because its subject has withstood his suffering, the song of the survivor. Living well really is the best revenge.

The self-making of Safari has itself spawned a mini-mythology. Having studied science at tertiary level in the Congo, in South Africa as a refugee he was reduced to working as a car guard in Franschhoek. He taught himself English – his fourth language – and eventually completed a biotechnology degree at UWC.

The dense lyricism of his idiom makes for a language so rich that nearly every sentence in The Great Agony had to be recast, so that it could be understood by native English speakers.

“Why,” asked Helen Moffett as she painstakingly edited his work, “did you not simply write in French and translate it afterwards?” It did not occur to him, Safari told her.

For this man, who works with refugees in South Africa, the simplest way to the heart of the matter is always straight through whatever lies in his way.

Review brought to you by Books LIVE Wire. Books LIVE Wire books sponsored by Exclusive Books.

                                                   But you couldn't touch my heart or my soul, where my wounds lie; nobody can help me. I have been damaged to a                                                                                            point that no psychiatrist or medical doctor can heal. I can't bear it anymore....

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