prose

Ivan Sršen: Harmattan

Ivan Sršen’s novel Harmattan deftly tracks the plight of Uhunoma, a young Nigerian woman caught in the logic-defying limbo of the German penal system for doing nothing more than trying to live a better life. But as Uhunoma learns as she comes to terms with the circumstances that have delivered her and other women to this facility, the abyss of European Union bureaucracy has little interest in the individuals whom are subjected to its whims, the same as the unforgiving Saharan
winter wind, which the novel is named after, cares not about what it relentlessly covers and smothers with dust year after year. While Uhunoma’s only crime was entering Europe without the proper papers, her incarceration brings her into close contact with myriad criminals from all over Africa and Eastern Europe—drug dealers, murderers, and women forced to make tough decisions just to survive. Harmattan tells a story that is becoming all too universal as borders the world over become more porous and less defined, both literally and figuratively. The implications of this on the human spirit transcend all boundaries.
AUTHOR BIO: Born in 1979. In 2007 he started the Zagreb-based
independent publisher Sandorf and he is also an editor, translator, writer, and literary agent. Prior to Harmattan, published in 2014 by Durieux, Sršen had published a book of short stories (2010) and a popular study on the history of Zagreb’s libraries (2010; co-authored by Daniel Glavan).
He has translated from English Croatian editions of Get in the Van by Henry Rollins and The Real Frank Zappa Book by Frank Zappa. Along with two other translators, he translated selected works of Robert Graves to Croatian, and edited Zagreb Noir for Akashic Books, while still writing novels and short stories.



 

HARMATTAN

 
(an excerpt)

                                                                  30.

Uhunoma entered the cell. Amanda was sitting on the bed with her palms behind her head. She seemed relaxed, but she was carefully monitoring Uhunoma’s movements.

“Sorry about that morning thing.” Amanda said. “Should’ve beaten you harder.”

Uhunoma moved away from the bed, not knowing what to expect.

“Ha ha, come on, don’t be scared, I’m too tired to hit you now. Come, sit!”

Uhunoma didn’t want to sit on what only last night was Nana’s bed, especially next to this violent kid. Amanda was probably five or six years younger than Uhunoma but she punched like she’d been boxing since the age of nine. But what other option did Uhunoma have? She cautiously sat on the very edge of the bed, so Amanda would have to lean forward to hit her.

“You think they’ll re-schedule the visit to the supermarket again next week since it was cancelled this week?” Uhunoma asked, straining to remove the discomfort from her voice.

Amanda looked at her like she’d just declared her desire to bed a turtle, or eat soap for breakfast. “Of course not,” she righted herself in the bed before Uhunoma could react and get up, and then put her hand on Uhunoma’s shoulder and told her the truth through contemptuous giggles, “supermarket outings are every second Thursday of the month and that’s it. Oh, my illiterate African warrior, didn’t you read the prison schedule? You gotta wait for next month, but it’s not certain they’ll put you on the list again.”

Uhunoma seemed to lose her voice. She wanted to say something, stand up to Amanda, but she didn’t have the strength to do it. Her desire to have someone feeling compassion toward her prevailed, even if it was Amanda.

“Am I ever going to get to that payphone?”

“You are not,” Amanda said with satisfaction as her pupils dilated. In the cell’s shadowy afternoon darkness Amanda seemed like an unreal being from the fantasies of lustful men. The whites of her eyes shone in the dimmed light, her pretty young face seemed to relish its own lines, and her pink palms touched various parts of her body, as if communicating with each other and playing some game of seduction, this time on Uhunoma. Perhaps it was unconscious? Or is being convinced of one’s own beauty also an expression of superiority?

Uhunoma swallowed her pride once again and tried from the beginning. “Could you help me make a phone call?”

Amanda first laughed, for about ten seconds. Then she got into Uhunoma’s face, close enough that Uhunoma felt her warm, sweet, somewhat heavy breath, but she didn’t budge. Amanda stared into her eyes, studied her lips and nose, like she was checking if some cheap and pretty dress wasn’t a knock-off. Uhunoma also looked at Amanda’s clean face, radiating youth and wildness, with no tribal scars. She was still a child, an aggressive spoiled child, the kind who wanted to fight, prove herself. Uhunoma cracked a smile, thinking about what Nana would do if she were put in a cell with Amanda.

“What are you laughing at, jungle girl? Y’all is just cut up bitches. Fucking with no feeling. I’d kill myself if I was you. Tell me, what’s it like being without a clit? What’s it feel like? Wait, wait, don’t tell me, I know, it’s like being a man, only with no dick!”

Amanda was right and Uhunoma wasn’t hurt too much by this. Almost all the girls from Benin City whose parents left the village to live in town were circumcised. It had been done for centuries. Uhunoma enjoyed sex, but she couldn’t say if it’d be better if she weren’t circumcised. Her peers didn’t do it to their children, which was enough of an answer to the question of what’s better. She silently wished that Amanda would get circumcised. She hoped she’d fall under some short-sighted aunt’s razor blade.

“Besides, what you need a payphone for anyway?” Amanda said. “Ain’t y’all in Nigeria got special powers? Ain’t y’all into voodoo, ain’t y’all fucking witches? What you need a phone for when you can connect with your thoughts. What’s it called? Telepathy. You can talk to Africa for free!”

The arrogant American just couldn’t stop, and it was becoming more and more interesting to Uhunoma.

“A minute of that phone call is worth more to me than all the telepathies of the world. I need to hear the voice of the people I love, to know they’re still alive,” Uhunoma said, more to herself.

“What are you mumbling?”

“Nothing, I’m wondering who invented the phone.”

“It wasn’t the Nigerians, that’s for sure!”

 

Read more here.

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