Ondjaki - Good Morning Comrades
Good Morning Comrades is set during the final weeks of Angolan student Ndalu's school year as the Cubans, who for years had aided the Angolans in their struggle against Apartheid South Africa, begin to leave the country. Ndalu recognises that, “here in Angola there's no doubt that something's going to happen...”, but for him this is a cause for excitement, not concern.
Ndalu is at an age where the strange and hard truths of adulthood are becoming difficult to ignore, though for now every day is a laugh and his Comrade Teachers are as much the proponents of the Communist way of life as they are the butt of jokes and pranks. Ideology, which forms a solid core in the lives of Ndalu's parents, teachers, and government, is accepted as easily and casually as his certainty that 'Empty Crate', a shadowy gang known for abducting school-children, is coming one day to get his class-mates. Put simply, Ndalu is on the cusp of something – maturity, puberty, adulthood, awareness – though he doesn't quite know it yet. He senses that things will change, that what is can no longer be, and what will be may not be quite what he wants. But for now he is a child, and loving life.
And how he loves it. Ondjaki's achievement comes from the immense likability of his protagonist. Ndalu is a great kid, funny, smart, positive, and just wise enough to recognise, as the end of his school year approaches and the Cubans being to leave, that he is leaving something important behind as time passes. Particularly in the first half, Ndalu makes statements such as, “I was stunned, wow”, “it was terrific”, “I was charmed”, and he often mentions how he wakes up feeling great in the morning. He has the pleasantly egoistic demeanour of the child who believes everything exists for his own delight. One chapter begins with, “I woke up early and felt great. I had two amazing things to do that day: one was going to the airport to meet Aunt Dada, and the other was going on National Radio to read my message to the workers.”
To the more aware adult reader, however, things are not what they seem. Ndalu knows, and reveals in off-hand comments and casual description, that Angola is in the midst of turmoil, that guns, knives, bloodshed and death are real and present dangers, and that there are enemies of the state that could put him and his family in real danger. But he is flippant about it all, partly due to his wealth (Ndalu's parents own a car while one of his schoolmates sleeps in a shack so ill-equipped against the elements that when it rains, not all of the family is protected), and partly due to his age. “Oh yeah, that's right, sometimes they talked about the situation in South Africa, where the African National Congress was. Anyway, these were the names that you started to pick up over the years.” War is on, and it's real, but it's only ever truly exciting when the radio tells of explosions and killing.
Our surrogate, then, becomes Aunt Dada, who lives in Portugal. The Portuguese – and this is only hinted at, because, for Ndalu, it's ancient history and doesn't really apply – controlled the Angolan people and their resources for centuries before the Angolan people achieved independence. Aunt Dada remembers statues that have since been knocked down, she recalls the old names of hospitals that have shifted from honouring Catholic Saints to Communist heroes. Ndalu repeatedly expresses amazement that Aunt Dada does not have to deal with ration cards, and that she is able to purchase as much of a product as she wishes – and she doesn't have to tell anybody!
The menace of Angolan life is slowly revealed to Aunt Dada. Ndalu gleefully relates the terrible tortures meted out to captures thieves, ranging from the relatively benign (a severed finger per infraction), to the downright horrible (trapped within a pile of burning tires, while onlookers gape and point). He recognises, however, the danger in not conforming to the rules when the President of Angola drives down a street in his bulletproof Mercedes, and becomes quite agitated when his Aunt fails to follow his frantic instructions quickly enough.
But life continues, and so do the stories. Good Morning Comrades shows first one, then another, then many more, aspects of Angolan life, with Ndalu as the cheerful lens through which all is seen. As the end of school approaches, and his Cuban teachers begin their tearful goodbyes, two strains emerge from the novel. The first is the ever-increasing mention of guns, warfare, bloodshed and violence, chattered about excitedly by himself and his classmates. And the second is Ndalu's awakening maturity, alone among his friends, which stems from his reluctant acceptance of change as a necessity in his life. In a particularly sad passage, he notes that “You don't have to explain much: it's enough to look.” Much of his maturity comes from his growing friendship with Romina, a sensitive girl who encourages Ndalu to express himself beyond the childish excitement shown by his friends. Wisely, Ondjaki stays away from sexualising their relationship, though of course their budding puberty plays an element. Romina represents the pull of adolescence as Ndalu is slowly dragged away from the buoyancy of innocence and irresponsibility.
Good Morning Comrades is short, and it refrains from seeking too much closure. Life goes on, though life has changed, and Ndalu accepts this, though he doesn't like it much. Much of the flippant, charmingly positive boy remains by the end of the novel, though his personality has now become tempered with the truths he has realised. Stephen Henighan, who translated Good Morning Comrades from the Portuguese, provides a brief overview of Angola's troubled history since gaining independence, which provides an excellent postscript to Ondjaki's novel. On a second read-through, many of Ndalu's offhand comments become clearer, and the sad shape of Angola begins to coalesce.
Ondjaki's debut novel is very strong, thanks in large part to the charisma of its narrator. Ndalu is very much the sort of young boy you would expect to become a writer, or reporter, or academic, or even politician. He is, in short, an intellectual, a curious boy who will, we hope, become an even more curious man. Ondjaki himself is an astonishingly productive author, having written nine novels and directed a documentary about Luanda, his home city, the capital of Angola, and the setting of Good Morning Comrades – and this all from a man barely into his thirties. Good Morning Comrades is a charming novel, subtle in its examination of the political difficulties of a small, poorly known African nation. Well recommended.
||Good Morning Comrades
(Original Title: bom dia camaradas)