I received an advanced review copy of this title from Istros Books. Dry Season was the winner of the European Union Prize for Literature in 2013. This book was originally written in Slovene and this English translation has been done by Rawley Grau.
I have to admit that before I read this book I really knew nothing about the small West African nation of Burkina Faso. The setting alone of this story in this small and politically volatile country taught me so many things, but the book as a whole is also a fantastic read.
From all outward appearances, the two main characters of this story could not be more different. Anna is a 62-year-old white woman from Slovenia who has had a successful career as a textile artist. Ismael is a 27-year-old black man from Burkina Faso who has grown up on the streets and has never had any real job or career. It is surprising, even shocking that Anna and Ismael become lovers, but the author weaves their tales together so perfectly that in the end we are convinced that this relationship has had a powerful impact on both of them.
The narrative alternates between the point of view of both main characters. We learn that Anna was rescued from an orphanage by her parents who, in a last ditch effort to save their marriage, agree to adopt a child since they cannot have one of their own. But her parent’s strained relationship takes an emotional toll on her as a little girl as she is mostly left to be raised by a housekeeper. Anna’s father is busy with his multitude of extramarital affairs and Anna’s mother remains aloof from her daughter while she constantly works at her sewing machine making women’s lingerie. Anna eventually falls into an unhappy marriage with a man whom her mother chose for her and her only son from this marriage ends up in a mental institution. Anna abandons her home, her family and her past to find some peace and quiet in Africa.
Ismael, when he was very young, lived in a remote African village with his mother who was an outcast. Ismael never knew who his father was and he is constantly witnessing his mother being abused by fellow villagers as she is tied to the “shaming pole” and spit upon. We are never told exactly what his mother’s sin is in the eyes of the villagers, but there is reason to suspect it has something to do with Ismael’s lack of a father. Ismael and his mother eventually migrate to the streets of Ouagadougou, the capital city of Burkina Faso, where they live in cardboard boxes under a bridge. When Ismael’s mother is killed and he is left alone in a city full of dangerous people, he is taken in by strangers who never really fulfill the role of a family for him. He stays with an “ebony” woman and her husband for a while who have lost their own son and are trying to keep Ismael as their surrogate child. Ismael also stays with a man named Baba who has been the only positive male role model in his life. But Ismael gets pulled into the illegal and dangerous activities of Baba’s son Malik.
Even though they are born on different continents and decades apart there are some important ties that bind Anna and Ismael together. They both feel abandoned and isolated, neither of them knows their real father and both of their mothers are emotionally distant. Anna and Ismael have separate and distinct stories told in alternating chapters, but the way in which the author gradually weaves together their stories is brilliant. At first appearance it would seem that Anna and Ismael are using their sexual relationship to suppress their feelings of abandonment and isolation. But as they share their stories with one another a deeper, emotional bond is forged.
Set against the backdrop of the harmattan, the dry season in West Africa, this novel is a must read for anyone who enjoys brilliant literary writing with strong and intense characters. I kept asking myself throughout the novel why, of all places on earth, Anna would pick this obscure West African country to flee to. The dry season is one of extremes: extreme amounts of dust, extreme changes in temperatures, extreme fog and eventually extreme downpours of rain when the season ends. This is the perfect setting for two characters who are, much like the dry season itself, both going through the extremes experiences of human existence.
This is my first title from Istros Books, an Independent British publisher that specializes in translating books from Eastern Europe into English, and I am very excited to see what else they have in their catalogue.
About the Author:
Gabriela Babnik was born in 1979 in Göppingen, Germany. After finishing her studies at Ljubljana University, she spent some time in Nigeria before working on a master’s degree on the modern Nigerian novel. Since 2002, she has regularly contributed articles to all major daily and weekly publications in Slovenia. In 2005, Babnik graduated in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Ljubljana.
Her first novel Koža iz bombaža (Cotton Skin) was published in 2007 and was awarded the Best Debut Novel by the Union of Slovenian Publishers at the Slovenian Book Fair. In 2009, her second novel V visoki travi (In the Tall Grass) was published, which was shortlisted for the Kresnik Award in 2010.
Babnik lives with her family in Ljubljana.