by Edem Awumey
translated by Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott
Mawenzi House, 2017
Descent into Night is not an enjoyable book to read. There is no pleasure to be derived from this morbid prose, but admiration gradually rises to the surface, too, as we come to appreciate the style and performance.
We begin with Ito Baraka:
“His nose pressed to the window of the train speeding through a world bleached white in the darkness of the night. […] He looks at the fan with its rusty blades stilled, useless now, in a crumbling ceiling, and remembers his country and a failed spring.”
There is enough failure and pessimism to fill a Samuel Beckett novel, the train “a long reptile slithering through the night jungle […] a noise and a dull ache running through his veins” as the narrative switches back and forth between Baraka’s journey from Quebec City to his life in Hull and his recollections of this failed spring some twenty years ago.
The writing is complex and slippery, dense. Realizing they’re in the same, immovable shit as Beckett’s characters, Baraka and his fellow students in the unnamed dictatorship he recalls living in come to the following conclusion:
“When you are in shit up to your neck, there is nothing left to do but sing.”
Note the lack of optimism, of purpose. What good might possibly come of singing? And yet there is nothing left to do.
“I remember the easy parallel we drew between the old people in Beckett’s play and the human wrecks and relics in the streets of our city, in front of the houses, coughing and sighing, worn out, finished, ruins of wrinkled flesh with the toothless expression of zombies.”
Hopeless is the word that comes to mind.
The pointlessness of life is summed up by one of the characters in a variation on “Try again. Fail again. Fail better”:
“You come out of the brothel and set out again, and one day you end up putting a bullet in your head.”
Or perhaps the image that best sums up this sad, all-pervading state of despair is the parents boiling water all evening to make their children think there is something to eat for supper, waiting until they “fall asleep on the laps of their sad, crushed mamas” before they turn off the heat. There will be no dinner. There is nothing to eat.
This is a world, then, that seems perfectly suited to distributing Beckett quotations as a form of political dissent, a joyless, unnamed land “consumed with stupidity” and “stained with blood,” its open-air sewerage running alongside the houses “like veins carrying bad blood under the skin of a stoic, dying man who doesn’t give a damn.”
The narrative provides little forward momentum—let alone cause for optimism—as we are shunted back and forth between these two realities, mirroring Ito Baraka’s own impression “that the train, instead of carrying him forward, is taking him down under the ground.”
But Baraka refuses to be “a rat crushed by the weight of the city and the centuries.” He and his friends distribute snatches of poetry in bright colours.
“In the houses and the streets, they called the leaflets adomenou, which meant guts, those disgusting tubes inside the belly. […] For the first time we were able to glimpse what the shit from our guts could represent, set out on sheets of paper.”
The dissent is met with demonstrators, then police and soldiers. Columns of fire and young, bare-chested men hurling stones and Molotov cocktails:
“A springtime born of a few words printed on pieces of paper.”
Baraka is hauled off to a prison camp, where drunk and nervous guards keep watch:
“In the high grass, they could shove anything they wanted into the bodies of those unfortunates, including themselves.”
Darkness is everywhere on the reader’s descent. A rare gleam of light turns out to be “the shine of barbed wire under a timid sun,” a song is no more than “the racket of the mosquitoes that came to brighten our evenings.” A fire is “lonely and sad,” breasts are “deadly grenades with the pins pulled, aiming at invisible targets.”
Ito eats “without appetite” in his apartment, his “tattered carpet” a “devastated battlefield,” the yellow paint on the walls flaking in “his burrow with its damp, silent walls.”
It’s almost comically depressing, too dark and overdone. I laughed in surprise when a glass was literally described as “half-full” rather than half-empty. It’s not subtle. In fact, it lays the gloom and the melancholy on a bit thick, slathering and smothering the reader in an inescapable sense of hopelessness. We recognize the sentiment immediately when a publisher in the book returns a manuscript, warning that “in spite of the undeniable qualities of your writing, it is difficult to enter your world.” As readers, we can’t be expected to root for or identify with characters when we’re being asked to do neither. Just to wallow in the gloom.
It’s powerful. And depressing. They say it’s the hope that kills you. I’m not even sure that Descent into Night has hope. And with a title like “Descent into Night,” we can’t say we weren’t warned. It was a novel that I wanted to finish, but that I wanted to be finished with, too.
Review by Peter McCambridge