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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Granma Nineteen and
the Soviet's Secret


by
Ondjaki


general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret



Title: Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret
Author: Ondjaki
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 167 pages
Original in: Portuguese
Availability: Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret - US
Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret - UK
Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret - Canada
Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret - India
  • Portuguese title: AvóDezanove e o Segredo do Soviético
  • Translated by Stephen Henighan

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Our Assessment:

A- : charming and profound childhood tale of 1980s Luanda

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

       As the title suggests, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret is still set before the collapse of the Soviet Union -- yet the story is also (subtly) one of a colonial master whose influence is already curtailed, and an ideology in decay and more than just symbolically self-destructing. It is set in the Luanda, Angola, of the 1980s, a time when the nation was still racked by civil war (though it hardly intrudes here) and Angola was one of the Soviet's prize pieces in the Cold War struggles. The novel is narrated by a young boy, and the perspective is decidedly childish and local throughout: Ronald Reagan gets a mention, but geopolitics barely figure among the boy's childish concerns and interests, and the world of the novel is restricted entirely to the Bishop's Beach (Praia do Bispo) neighborhood where he lives.
       Bishop's Beach is the narrator's little world, a community of kids to play with, grandmothers (Granma Nineteen is just one of them), neighbors, and even a local fool-like figure. There is, however, a Soviet presence -- specifically around a major construction project being undertaken there: the building of the mausoleum for former Angolan president Agostinho Neto (who died in 1979 and has been kept on ice -- well, stored, embalmed, by the Soviets -- until his final resting place is finished). A towering landmark when it was finally completed (see, for example, here), the structure already resembled a rocket ... and it's no surprise kids would want to think of exploding it to the sky ..... The construction goes on nearby but doesn't seem to have been too intrusive -- life goes on as always -- but now there's the threat of change in the air, as it is becoming increasingly clear that the Soviets plan to pack everyone up and move them out, resettling them while they take over the entire neighborhood to complete the project.
       From his childish perspective the Soviets are presented largely as benign if odd (and smelly) beings; the kids -- and the grandmas -- get along well enough with those they come in contact with. The armed guards aren't feared much more than the neighbors who might tell on them when the kids play around. Yet underneath it all the situation is a dark and unpleasant one, the colonial master preparing to uproot the locals, literally taking their land (again).
       The childish solution is to get rid of the problem: the construction site. So the kids get the bright idea of blowing the damn thing up. Instead of letting the Soviets clear them out and dexplode their houses, the kids figure: why not dynamite the mausoleum-tower ? (Regarding their terminology: the book is full of child-speak; as to this: "I prefer dexploded" (to 'exploded') is the sensible explanation.)
       The novel practically begins with an explosion, and readers know this horrible structure: "had started to no longer exist", but then turns back a bit to recount how it got to that point. Knowing the outcome would suggest the kids were successful in their grandiose scheme, and part of the fun is, of course, in seeing how that is possible (not to give too much away, but Ondjaki doesn't disappoint with his explanation of how things turn(ed) out).
       So the main plot is this ridiculous kids-take-on-the-Soviet-empire idea, which has all the makings of a terribly unbelievable kids' movie -- but, despite that, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret turns out to be something rather different. Narrated by a young boy, life realistically is all one big adventure -- which includes the most mundane, like afternoon naps and time spent with the grandmas, as well as exploring the neighborhood and playing any number of childish games. Everything is diversion and if much is mysterious there's also no need to look for adult explanations: much is simply childishly rationalized and dealt with that way.
       Ondjaki's use of a child-narrator makes for a very different approach to the story than having an adult recount it. Ondjaki impressively inhabits this character, the voice and perspective an entirely convincing childish one -- unlike most fiction featuring such narrators, who are often inexplicably wiser than their years (or seen through now-adult eyes, which tends to also age and color their recollections). There is a real shift in priorities: what might be of more obvious interest or significance to adults does not stand out nearly as much, while the entirely mundane (like remembering to wash his armpits) remain signifcant parts of his daily routine-life, recounted with as much earnestness as far more serious matters also are. So also Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret is successful in presenting the quotidian along with the extraordinary (because for the narrator there more or less isn't much of a difference: in a child's eye everything can be both simultaneously full of wonder and entirely unremarkable).
       The scene that perhaps best sums up Ondjaki's talents has the boy walking hand in hand with his grandmother, and him telling her:

I like our conversations a lot, even when we don't manage to say anything.
       Much of Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret involves fairly simple childhood adventures, and everyday events -- not much of anything, on the surface -- yet the larger picture that emerges is a rich one of local life that goes far beyond what the child seems to be aware of.
       One of the very appealing aspects of Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret is also the use of language, from the local Angolan (the Portuguese they speak) -- with its childish variations among the kids -- to Cuban (Spanish, spoken by a doctor) and Russian. Like the kids, the Spanish-speaking doctor and the Russians mangle the language badly -- "These Soviets are a disgrace to linguistic socialism", one grandmother complains. Ondjaki (and translator Henighan) also effectively use it for both broad comedy and something with a much sharper edge, as when the 'Boss General' tries to explain to a local:
     Comrades, beach close for temporary, orders of Comrade President: Workers must finish Muzzleum verk. Your collaboration, please.
       A letter from one of the Russians commanders is, tellingly, just like a child's in how it mangles the language, beginning with the salutation: "Deer Komrad Frend". Even while his explanation is, in a sense, 'adult', his inability to express himself in proper grammatical form suggests again just how suspicious Ondjaki is of language, a reminder that we are easily misled by the artful use of language, that just because something is eloquently and grammatically expressed does not make it any more true or valid. In (mis)using language so extensively here, both through his child-narrator as well as many of the adults (from the local madman to the Russians), Ondjaki forces the reader to look more closely at what's behind what they are trying to communicate. (An amusing aside has the Russian's letter one of several that he passes on to the children to give to the grandmother: he knows: "your grankildren like destroy" and, indeed, the kids get rid of several copies of the message, sensing that this serious, adult form of more permanent communication might be dangerous.)
       In the shadow of the towering mausoleum-story, the other major event in the novel is the one that leads to Granma Nineteen getting her new name (she starts off as Granma Nhé) -- a simple operation to remove a gangrenous toe. There's not too much drama around this, and yet Ondjaki handles it very well, too, from the childish uncertainty about what is happening to how he sees the older generation reacting to these events.
       Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret seems like a slice of very foreign and distant life -- even presumably in Luanda itself, as the capital of oil-rich Angola has undergone a transformation as radical as any major metropolis over the past three decades -- and with its young narrator and simple narrative can seem almost like a YA-novel, but readers shouldn't be misled by the deceptive surface-simplicity. This is, ultimately, a profound novel, perhaps a definitive one of collapsing Soviet power and influence in 1980s Africa -- but one that never forces its serious side on readers. (It's not surprising that it has won literary prizes both as adult fiction and as best young adult-novel.)
       Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret can seem very much like children's-fiction, even as English-language YA looks and feels very different, but adult readers shouldn't be put off by that. It is, in fact, a very mature work, and a much more skillful piece of writing (and translating) than it seems at first sight. It's also a just plain nice, innocent story -- well aware of a darker world around it, but careful in what shadows it throws on these pages.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 June 2014

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Links:

Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret: Reviews: Ondjaki: Other books by Ondjaki under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Angolan author Ondjaki was born in 1977.

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© 2014 the complete review

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