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the Complete Review
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To purchase Yaka

Title: Yaka
Author: Pepetela
Genre: Novel
Written: 1984 (Eng. 1996)
Length: 303 pages
Original in: Portuguese
Availability: Yaka - US
Yaka - US (Portuguese)
Yaka - UK
Yaka - Canada
Yaka - France
  • Portuguese title: Yaka
  • Translated by Marga Holness

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Our Assessment:

B : solid epic of colonial Angola

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Yaka is an epic of colonial Angola, set between 1890 and independence from Portugal in 1975. The two central figures are Alexandre Semedo, born in Benguela in 1890, and a Yaka statue that his father had won at gambling.
       The statue is:

nearly a metre tall and has a man's body, but the face is strange, looking sometimes human and sometimes like an animal.
       Alexandre believes: "It seemed to see everything", and it was always his confidant, the one object-being that shared his life. Late in his life (but early in the book) he admits:
I feel increasingly that it speaks to me. But I don't understand.
       The novel is divided into sections that focus on the major stations in Angolan history over the past century or so. only the first covers a longer period of time, 1890 to 1904. Here it is less Alexandre's childhood than his father Oscar's life that is the focus. An exile from Portugal, he was banished to the colony in 1880 (for killing his wife) and became first a farmer and then a shopkeeper.
       All the years are marked by violence, civil unrest being the norm, but around this turn of the century there are also other major upheavals. First, the rubber trade collapses, destroyed by competition from Asia, destroying the commercial foundation of much of the country. Second, plans are made to build a railway line from the coast to the eastern border of the country, opening up the interior and theoretically paving the way for greater economic prosperity -- until the devastating news comes that the place where it would head into the interior from would not be Benguela, but a more suitable (if undeveloped) port thirty kilometres to the north, consigning Benguela to backwater status.
       Alexandre helps his father in the family shop -- a position he's not particularly well suited for and doesn't much like. From there he sees more of history than actually gets involved in it. The book moves on to sections set in 1917, 1940-1, 1961, and finally 1975.
       Alexandre becomes a father (and then grandfather), his children (burdened with names from Greek myths such as Achilles, Euridice, and Orestes) also playing their various parts in the turmoil that is Angola during these years. The larger events affect domestic life, but Yaka remains as much family-saga as historic epic, concentrating also on the individual stories -- or at least on the family story.
       Told mostly in the third person, the narrative slips -- occasionally in the same paragraph -- into the first person, an unsettling shift in perspective. But then this is an always unsettled story: there is little security, no safe haven. History is relentless, violence inevitable. The struggles are on so many levels -- social, racial, economic, national -- that there is no balance to strike. Politics is always dangerous, and there are too many enemies. Even independence does not bring a conclusion, but rather only the promise of more civil conflict. (Even a brief Epilogue, dated 1983 (the book was first published 1984) does not offer a conclusion yet, as the situation in Angola at the time was still unsettled.)
       The jumps make for a lack of continuity, and the shift between detail -- close description and dialogue -- and larger changes covered in a few lines somewhat lessen the impact. Alexandre is a useful central figure, and the stations of his life fairly effectively presented, but it is a crowded book, and some of the characters and stories get a bit lost in the mix. Pepetela's politics (he was a guerilla fighter in the MPLA, after all) aren't too blatantly presented, and Yaka isn't unpleasantly dogmatic, but for the most part can't quite live up to its grand ambition. A good survey-epic of Angola over the past century or so, with some nice detail (both of local colour and psychological insight), it's interesting but not quite satisfying.

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Yaka: Reviews: Pepetela: Other books by Pepetela under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Pepetela (actually: Artur Carlos Maurício Pestana dos Santos) was born in Benguela in 1941. He is one of Angola's leading writers.

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