Revolution, by Jakob Ejersbo

Raw and real, Revolution is by some distance the best fictional depiction of life in contemporary Tanzania I’ve come across. Unlike Ejersbo’s previous book, Exile, this was about the real Tanzania, of the daily struggles to get by and to get on in the world of young Tanzanians living in or close to poverty. Gone, for the most part, were Exile’s unlovable and self-absorbed expat brats; I was glad to see the back of them. In their place, Revolution was built around a series of portraits of African, Indian and Arab Tanzanians, with just the odd westerner thrown in.

There was Rachel, a young girl from the village, new to town life, dreaming of love and trying to make something of her life, but finding it ever harder to make progress without being drawn into prostitution. There was an artisanal Tanzanite miner, Moses, dreaming of striking rich but finding his humanity sucked out of him by the conditions of the mines and the uncaring brutality of his bosses.

Their lives intersected only peripherally, and Ejersbo resisted what must have been a strong temptation to pull the various threads together into a single overarching plot. But this was more, much more, than a series of unconnected short stories. The themes of youth, ambition and poverty gave coherence to the whole, with all the main characters sharing a common determination to break free from the social and economic constraints that bind them and to carve out a different path.

The road less travelled is less travelled for a reason, and there is no romance here. The stories are told with a refreshing, at times brutal honesty.

But nor is this poverty porn, revelling in the hardships of people living difficult lives. Yes, the lives lived by Rachel, Moses and the others are difficult, but we are not expected to sympathise. These are fully rounded characters, painted in light and shade; we are supposed to understand them, not to feel sorry for them. It works.

Books by western authors rarely give such prominence to African characters, undiluted and uninterpreted by a more familiar western, or perhaps Indian, hero. I know of none that tell their stories with such sensitivity and humanity.

The writing is bare, with little description of scenery or the characters’ emotions, but the characters come to life. We do understand them, their motivations and ambitions, their desires and needs.

A year ago, when I came to the end of the English translation of Exile, I felt let down. Here was a writer who could clearly write, and who had chosen Tanzania as his backdrop. I hadn’t waited for a new book with the same level of anticipation for years. But he chose core characters and a plot that failed to do the country any justice.

With Revolution, Ejersbo has more than made up for this. Even the reappearance of characters from Exile, deftly woven into the narrative, put me in mind to re-read the earlier book and give some of its secondary protagonists a second chance.

Now, I can’t wait to get hold of the English version of Liberty, the final book in the series. It’s not due out until 2014. If it’s anything close to Revolution, it will be worth the wait.