where the writers are
N°77 Postcard from the Past #12 OK, Let’s Go, Please
bibliomaniac
Amazon.com Amazon.com
Powell's Books Powell's Books

The main -and probably vain- motivation behind this recent series of blogs has been a desperate attempt to flog a few books. However, there was also a secondary impulse, and that was to give something extra, a few bonus tracks if you like, to people who have already been kind enough to read Standing At The Crossroads. This posting is, above all, for you, a scan through the text, summarizing some of the inspirations behind the emotional and physical topography of the book. If you haven't read the novel, skip this and remedy your inexplicable omission forthwith.

Ok, let's go, please.

That phrase appears somewhat less frequently in the novel than it did in the first draft. I have a fascination with repeated phrases, persuaded that they achieve a cumulative power, adding a kind of music to a text, almost like a mantra or an hypnotic Sufi chant. Unfortunately, most people seem to disagree, telling me, "Yes, all right, get on with it, we've understood"! People really are mystifying sometimes, but if they are kind enough to read my manuscripts and even go so far as to turn them into books, it’s not for me to argue.

Consequently, "Ok, let's go, please", got whittled out, as did other refrains, but it remains as the first and last lines of the book, conjuring circularity and implicitly sending the reader back to the start to do the reader’s re-creative work. It is a quote, not from Sudan, but from a DJ in Ivory Coast who presented a jazz programme on the radio. He clearly thought that throwing this English phrase into his French patter was pretty hip and used it to preface nearly every piece of music he played, tickling us no end.

The other obvious quote is the title, lifted from the blues classic that has taken numerous forms, notably Robert Johnson's Crossroads and Elmore James' Standing At The Crossroads. Originally, I had intended incorporating the lyric into the text or as an epigraph, but decided it was not coherent with the narrator's obsessions, so dropped it. However, by then I had grown accustomed to the title, so I kept it, even though it made little direct reference to the book's themes, only to the climactic event. I justified my decision with the thought that Umberto Eco chose ‘The Name of the Rose’ from several possible titles because it was the least pertinent to the story he was telling. I was briefly tempted to rename the book The Barefoot Librarian, which has a certain ring to it, but rejected it because it sounded like a cynical attempt to cash in on the success of bestsellers like The Bookseller of Kabul, which has already spawned a plethora of imitations. Subsequently, several readers have seen titular over and undertones of which I was unaware, but then that was half the point of the book.

The concept of the barefoot librarian was obviously inspired by the Chinese 'barefoot doctors', and fitted nicely with my twin themes of walking and writing. It was a complete fabrication. Only later did I discover that something very similar exists in Peru, where there is an itinerant librarian carrying his books about on the back of a donkey. I was delighted. It's happened before that I've invented stuff that subsequently 'became' true, but this was one fiction-into-fact I had not anticipated. It’s one thing, though, to ‘invent’ a fact, quite another to make it live. Whether I have pulled off the difficult trick of making an utterly implausible voice sound plausible is not for me to judge

The physical topography of Standing At The Crossroads is a hodge-podge of fact and fiction, observation and distortion. The town where the narrator meets Kate was loosely based on En Nahud in Kordofan, the regional capital they want to reach on Kordofan's El Obeid, but I shifted both places to Darfur and stuck Jebel Mara between them. Anxious to write something that was timeless and placeless rather than a piece of reportage, I never name Sudan or Darfur, even if the ascription is implicit. However, I hope my scene painting rings true to anyone familiar with Sudan and that they will at the same time excuse the sometimes excessive liberties I have taken.

Jebel Mara does exist, the dusty, talc like soil on the southern slopes is accurate, the sulphurous lake is there, and the ways into and out of the crater are much as I describe them. Though the geology is fabricated, I did scramble up the 'wrong' way out, the escape route taken by my characters, a steep couloir in which another English teacher had broken his back the preceding year, only being rescued because there happened to be a dignitary visiting Darfur with a helicopter. It took us three-and-a-half painstaking hours to get out of the crater. And I had an attack of vertigo not quite as acute but not so very far removed from the one suffered by Kate. I did get lost on the disorienting northern flank of the mountain above the Libyan desert, spending several hours becoming increasingly dehydrated, stumbling about trying to find the village that was meant to be on the other side. And I did discover paradise or, at least, was shown it by a shepherd.

The oasis is nothing like as large as I describe, though every bit as paradisical, and I cannot tell you how pleased I was when my colleague from En Nahud, who is now a successful World Music producer with his own record label, recognized paradise in an early draft. He wasn't with me. He was already far too experienced a walker to get so helplessly lost. But he had traversed the mountain earlier in the year and had dipped into paradise on his way down.

I only visited Darfur once and that in the mid 1980s, my trip taking in the main cities of El Fashir and Nyala, plus Jebel Mara and countless villages, among them Taratonga, Deriba (also the name of the crater on Jebel Mara as I recall), Ouala, Nyertiti and Zalinje. For the most part, these have dwindled to mere names in my diaries, but some of the images and memories that remain have fed into the topography of Standing At The Crossroads.

Of other tropes and incidents: ‘dream reading’ is something I have done regularly over the years, mentioning it several times in my Sudanese diaries; the Battle of Jabberwocky is not my invention, George Melly claiming to have scared off a couple of muggers in London using precisely that technique; the Warriors of God are my invention, though the ‘men with guns and horses’ are all too real; mineral wealth is an important motivator in the various conflicts taking place in Sudan, though not necessarily so explicitly as I intimate . . . .

Well, you get the picture. I have invented much and taken many liberties - and it’s all true!

Ok, let's go, please.