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Book Review: Towards Asmara by Thomas Keneally

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Towards Asmara by Thomas Keneally was eventually disappointing. As a process, the experience was strewn with beauty, vivid images and arresting phrases. The author, for instance, described desert vegetation ready to burst into life at the first “rumour” of moisture. The writing style has a quirky inventiveness that regularly surprises. Where Towards Asmara eventually breaks down, however, is its inability to take the reader past the credibility hurdle that spans observer and participant.

Not that one particularly wants to participate: war, famine, being shot at, placed under house arrest or being tortured are all experiences to avoid on most working days, and Towards Asmara is packed with them. The journalistic skill with which the book’s events are described is enormous. We are introduced to enough history for context, enough current events to situate and enough political interests to begin an understanding.

So if the style is good and the context is engaging, where is the problem? The answer is in the book’s characters. Darcy is an Australian, a bit mixed up after his ethnically Chinese wife ran off with an Aborigine jailbird back home. Now she won’t even deal with him. There’s Amna, an Eritrean guerrilla who has suffered every imaginable torture at the hands of the Dergue. There’s Julia, a British lady of some class who is researching women’s issues for the Anti-Slavery Society. There’s Masihi, a film maker, and Christine from France who finds a role working with him.

And here is the problem. Towards Asmara claims the status of an African novel, but we never experience any aspect of the plot from within an African or local psyche. The place, its people and the events that unfold there are seen from without, via an external interpreter’s filter. The immediacy of war, ambush, famine, conflict becomes lost in the second nature of the characters’ experience. Also, the complications of the personal lives of these observers neither complement nor contrast with the exigencies of fighting for a cause. Eventually, everything seems unlikely, not least the very involvement of those involved with the events that unfold.

At one point, there was a suggestion that Darcy’s ethnic minority wife back home in Australia might be offering an intellectual parallel with the Eritrean struggle. She, an apparent outsider, was allying herself and choosing to travel with an indigenous oppressed race, just like her estranged husband was doing with the Eritreans of Ethiopia. But that idea fizzled out, thankfully, because it could never have been sustained.

Towards Asmara is a thoroughly enjoyable read. At times the style and language are a complete joy. But, when it avoids polemic, it approaches caricature. The reader, like its foreign observer participants, is left out of the understanding and experience the book promised to deliver.

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