The God who Begat a Jackal by Nega Mezlekia

19/07/02, The Times Literary Supplement

Unoriginality is not a sin. Writing with a canny eye on getting a toehold in the space created by a greater writer, for reasons of lucre, fame, or artistic affiliation, isn’t a crime either, but it does tend to produce, more often than not, works of stunning mediocrity. Besides, there seems to be something distasteful about piggybacking on someone else’s originality and achievement. We’ve had droves of Garcia Marquez-Lite, and Diet-Rushdie and even Helen Fielding manquée. None of which has been the Real Thing. Nega Mezlekia joins the teeming fold of the pass-notes authors.

The God Who Begat a Jackal is a strange beast. Set in the kingdom of Hararghe in eighteenth-century Abyssinia, it tells the story of a hopelessly riven feudal country where slavery, internecine wars, overlord-vassal conflict and unimaginable superstition have corroded the very fabric of humanity. In the middle of this strictly hierarchised society, the unthinkable happens: Aster, Count Ashenafi’s daughter, falls in love with Gudu, her father’s slave and court entertainer. Two important events are entwined around this central story: the slow rise of the reformist and progressive religion of the Ammas which threatens to dismantle the oppressive hegemony of the state religion and the right wing counter reformation of zealous crusaders led by the crazed and unscrupulous Reverend Yimam.

One might be forgiven for thinking that all this would make a ripping yarn. Perish the very thought. For a start, the novel suffers from a damaging unlocatability of tone. The prose is sometimes condescending, as if a clever adult is telling a story to a slow and unintelligent child, and at other times, an unsavoury cocktail of the periphrastic and the cod literary. There is an indiscriminate accumulation of magical and fairy-tale episodes, each competing with the other in outlandishness but all somehow puerile and pointless; they never add up to anything or contribute to the propulsion of the story. This is the Sainsbury’s Offer novel: the three-for-the-price-of-one attitude so permeates the storytelling, the irritated and patronised reader is left wondering about the purpose of it all. The effect is often bathetic. So Aster, with her power of reading minds, uncovers dire diplomatic plots hatched against the Emperor, exposes his brother as a scheming usurper, and then reveals that a diviner is sleeping with a farmer’s wife. There is a real sense of strain to come up with original events; what is achieved is a type of childish ‘freak-list’.

This is most conspicuous in the promiscuous overuse of magical-realist topoi: anger leads to smoke billowing from a character’s nose and ears, frequent levitations pepper the pages (in fact, Aster ascends to the heavens at the end), people become literally transparent with outrage or grief … the list is endless. Almost every line piles on the ‘magic’. Unassimilated Marquez, particularly the Marquez of Of Love and Other Demons and Innocent Erendira, has clearly given the author indigestion. And reading about the particular timbre of Gudu and Aster’s love – ‘What brought them together was a primeval love, love that is sown in the isle of the blessed and harvested in hearts of the innocent’ – gives us indigestion too.

There is an infuriating inconsequentiality to the events narrated: they neither develop plot nor add to depth and texture. With perverse obstinacy, two and two add up to two point two in this book, never four. As the novel progresses, twists and turns occur at the rate of a dozen a page, the result of whimsy and Mezlekia’s stylistic tic of overegging the custard. Cumulatively, they become contretemps on the part of the author, rather than a gathering density of linked events, because their triviality and immature shock value induce only laughter.

Mezlekia’s novel is a staccato, stuttering compilation of bizzarerie and exoticism. The novel strains for ‘Exotic African Writing in English’ status. Who is it written for? The white liberal intelligentsia who uncritically lionise all English writing emerging from Africa and India and the Caribbean to advertise their oh-so-cosmopolitan credentials? How else does one explain the sanctimonious and self-congratulatory ‘Historical Postscript’ appended to the novel?

When Mezlekia writes of an edict ‘creating burgeoning discord between intention and comprehension’, he has, with characteristic turgidity, described his own hapless work. Magical realism? More abracadabra hocus-pocus.