Saturday, September 14, 2013

Guest Writer: Abraham T. Zere


                                    Beyene Haile’s Mezghebe Enters Wider Readership

 Beyene Haile’s first novel Abdi do Tibluwo (1964) is now translated and published in English by Huriy Ghirmai under the title Mezghebe: would you say he was mad? (AZAB publishers, 2013).

With its excellent translation and universal theme, the book is expected to bring more attention and critical studies of the literature produced in indigenous African languages. Eritrean literature, being mostly produced in indigenous languages, has been least read and never assumed its proper place in the study of African or world literature in one facet, but greatly helped production of original works on the other. As the great critical thinker Ngugi wa Thiong'o proposes it is only through translations that such original works could reach wider readers.

When first published in 1964, Abdi do Tibluwo was summarily neglected for its complex narration and its thematic concerns by most of the Eritrean readers then.Only after its re-publication in 2003
did it start to have wider readership and critical acclaim. The book holds important place for its thematic concerns,complex style of narration and its transnational spaces.                                            

Mezghebe narrates the life and times of a bohemian painter and cum-sculpt named Mezghebe. Set in Adi-Girat of Ethiopia and Asmara-Eritrea the book, through four main narrators shows how the enigmatic Mezghebe lived his life until his early death. Mezghebe, who showed interest in sculpture and painting at very young age slowly immerses in his world until he “got to such a point that he took to demanding that people enter his house through the window”(152). Mezghebe’s unique passion, considered as madness by most people, diverts him slowly from all regular interaction with people. He drops his studies, secludes himself in a distant house and lives an aloof life. The book shows an absolute dedication and readiness to pay the highest prize for art.

While most of his contemporaries compromised their art because most took the stand of an educator, Haile took a different position and portrayed that it is only through arts that a society could heal its wounds. He made his stand very clear right in his preface by stating that “most of the current writers seem to naively believe that they should primarily educate, admonish and even lead their readers.” As a result, as Haile puts they “veer away from the idea of pure beauty.”

Mezghebe’s very complex narrative technique is another angle that needs further scholarly research. The book is narrated by four different narrators associated with Mezghebe, including one chapter
by himself. All the narrators, except of course Mezghebe, the rest three are ‘I-witness’ narrators who have some role in the story and tell their perspectives of Mezghebe.  Very focused, the story starts
when Mezghebe was bedridden during his final days and the police detective asks Mezghebe “Do you remember?” In the first chapter, Captain Berhe simultaneously addresses the reader and Mezghebe as “you.” Told against the traditional suspense stories, the story comes to full-circle at the end and connects with the first chapter.


I found Mezghebe’s narrative technique very similar to Nuruddin Farah’s Maps (1986) that was published 22 years later. Both the books are narrated through different narrators and the main protagonists are implicated with deaths for bigger causes. Askar of Maps is implicated with the death of his foster mother, Misra, for national cause and Mezgebe with Hagos for arts. Only at the end of the two books do readers learn that the whole story was narrated orally to police detectives. At the end, Farah’s Maps tells the story was told by Askara to ‘himself, by himself’:

And that was how it began -- the story of (Misra/Misrat/Masarat and)Askar.
First he told it plainly and without embellishment, answering the police  officer’s
questions, then he told it to men in gown, men resembling ravens with white skulls. (259)

Similarly, Mezghebe ends:

     He had risked life and limb in order to destroy all evidence of its existence,
     yet now here it was in his hospital room, and instead of a doctor, there was only
     Captain Berhe, a famous police detective standing by his bedside. The captain,
     a close acquaintance of Mezghebe’s parents who knew him from childhood,
     implored him to tell him all that he remembered.

     Without a single hesitation, Mezghebe began to tell the captain the whole
     story openly without leaving out a single detail. (159)

The book transcends different established traditions in Eritrea. For example, Mezghebe’s view of school and education is different than  most people. He does not see formal education as an ultimate end and the only means of success in life. He tells Ti’be:

       “Haven’t you realized that I’ve had enough education now? School took up
        a lot of my time and distracted me from work -- I remained in school because
         I thought it would make all of you happy. It’s enough now, that’s it, it’ll be enough for me.
         I can’t afford to let my dreams go unrealized because of education.” (137)

Similarly, Haile’s representation of women not only transcends his contemporaries, but also perfectly meets the current feminist literary view. All the women characters are strong, independent and educated. Kidsti for example, goes beyond her physical disability to achieve higher goals.

Haile’s main characters do not also fall on the traditional track of education that was common in developing societies. For example, Kidsti and Tekali went to Columbia University in US but chose
different field of studies than most of their contemporaries would choose. Unlike most of Eritreans of that period and to a great extent now, they did not pursue their higher studies in engineering or
medical schools. Kidsti studies General Education and Home Economics while Tekali studies archaeology.

Mezghebe’s works go beyond limited geographical and cultural spaces. Never did he care to sell any of his works and earn more money, but some of his works end-up in museums in Italy. Mezghebe’s stand as a true global citizen is articulated in Tesfay’s letter (162-165) to his sister after Mezghebe’s death.

Huriy Ghirmai’s translation gives glossary of terms at the end of the book. He did not try to find their equivalent meaning to most of Tigrinya terms which carry greater cultural contexts. It was an excellent decision to give the English readers the cultural contexts of most of the terms.

Beyene Haile, the leading literary figure in Eritrea, has published other two novels --Duquan Tiberh (2003) and Tsbit Bahgu (2006)-- that are also considered milestones in history of Eritrean literature.
Similar initiatives to translate the other works can help Eritrean literature assume its proper place and introduce Haile’s works.

For the works of the late Beyene Haile, check out the following website: