Discretion by Elizabeth Nunez (thoughts)
Elizabeth Nunez is a powerful novelist: she brings an intelligence equally at home with classic literature and global politics, a sense of observation that fills her books with a strong sense of place and brings characters to life, a generosity that portrays their deep moral struggles without alienating the reader, and a sense of timing that keeps the plots page-turning. Needless to say, she has become one of my favourite authors, and thus I began Discretion knowing I was in good hands. It did not disappoint.
Oufoula, the narrator, is a man born in French colonial West Africa (his country is never named but reminds me of Niger) whose childhood included both traditional life and a missionary boarding school and whose adulthood is devoted to diplomacy. Outwardly, he has all the trappings of success: he becomes an ambassador at a young age, enjoys a close relationship with his president, acquires wealth, has a beautiful wife and successful children. But inwardly, he is torn between competing values, traditions, and desires. He tells the story as a middle-aged man reflecting back on his life, and the mingled tone of nostalgia, inevitability, storytelling power, and moral anguish is perfectly maintained throughout. I found myself empathising with both him and the book’s other characters, caught up in their struggles to reconcile their lives with their ideals.
But this is more than the story of a few individual’s lives. Nunez integrates the challenges of postcolonial African nations, torn between tradition, the desires of their contemporary citizens, and the pitiless gaze of the West. She throws in the Caribbean viewpoint, connected to both Africa and America but also its own entity. There are the complicated eddies of gender, with Oufoula reflecting on his younger self’s unthinking sexism without seeming to see his older self’s reliance on patriarchy. The discrepancy is made all the more powerful by the way Nunez trusts the reader to notice this without it being made explicit. After all, isn’t that what privilege is? Even when the privileged become aware, it doesn’t disappear. It remains, broadening their options and empowering their actions.
Like every Nunez novel I’ve read, Discretion works on multiple levels simultaneously, and leads to a rich and satisfying reading experience. I love her novelistic range, too: while this and Grace feature male narrators struggling with personal moral dilemmas and a contemporary New York setting, Bruised Hibiscus and Prospero’s Daughter take place when the Caribbean was still officially colonised and revolve around violence against women. What they all have in common is how wonderful and rewarding they are. Nunez is one the reasons I can’t imagine restricting my reading to only classic literature. I highly recommend her to every thoughtful reader I know; you can begin anywhere (if you love Caribbean gothic, go with the latter two) but Discretion is as good a place as any! Oh, and have I mentioned how wonderful she is at drawing you in right from the beginning? Here’s the opening paragraph of Discretion:
When I was a child no one envied me. I was born the son of a mannish woman and womanish man. Who in Africa would envy me such a fate?
Suggested Companion Reads
- So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba: by a Senegalese feminist, this epistolatory novel explores polygamy (also featured in Discretion) from women’s points of view.
- In My Father’s House by Kwame Anthony Appiah: I never blooged about this essay collection, but I loved it! Appiah is a Ghanaian academic who lived in the UK and now lives in the US. He’s written quite a few interesting books, but I think this one exploring African identity in the postcolonial world is the strongest. It’s also very relevant to Oufoula’s life and struggles. (I also could have listed Chinua Achebe’s essay collection The Education of a British Protected Child here, or for that matter his famous Things Fall Apart, which the characters of Discretion read and discuss, but I figured Achebe is already well known!)
- Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote by Ahmadou Kourouma: if the political aspects of Oufoula’s life intrigued you, this novel brings a magical realist approach to the life and career of a West African dictator.