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Fiction



In December 2013, Toby Green's first novel, Imaginary Crimes, was published by Mkuki na Nyota, the Dar-es-Salaam based publisher whose founder Walter Bgoya was central in launching the Africa Books Collective, and who published Walter Rodney's seminal How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. His second novel, Colombian Roulette, was published by Mkuki na Nyota in November 2016.

"I am really thrilled to be published by Walter Bgoya and Mkuki na Nyota," said Toby Green. "Walter Bgoya is a legendary publisher and has produced works of real importance. It is a real privilege to be published by one of Africa's leading publishers, to step outside the traditional mechanisms of the publishing industry. As a historian of Africa who has worked for years in Africa, and with African scholars and archives, I could not be more delighted."


BLURB FOR IMAGINARY CRIMES

 

4 cities, 4 lives, 1 crime…

 

In Madrid, an Argentinian bookseller gets caught up in the scheme of an American professor to prevent an appalling crime. Her sidekicks soon include a Gambian migrant in Paris and a Spanish waitress in London. Seeking some sort of companionship in their exiles, the four characters join forces in a quest that becomes a dangerous obsession.

 All four lives seem to be fatefully connected. But how to get people to take the crime seriously if it does not yet exist? In Buenos Aires, the criminals are remorselessly pursued. They cross paths with a Nigerian judge, the wife of one of General Franco’s thugs, a caretaker to the wealthy, and Peter Halbtsen, an expert in Chinese culture.

 It is early March 2004. Halbtsen has spent years deciphering a book which may hold the key to the mystery. But where is the crime? Who is the criminal? And can anything be done to prevent humanity from reaping the whirlwind?




 BLURB FOR COLOMBIAN ROULETTE


Elvis Jaramillo is a poor kid from a shantytown; Julián Restrepo is a rich kid taxi driver dreaming of becoming a rock star; Pamela Oswald the NGO worker from London who becomes fatally intertwined in their lives....

 

In an unnamed Latin American country, society eats itself from the inside. Leila Halabi, a 2nd generation Palestinian immigrant, offers to house Pamela Oswald while she works at a rehabilitation centre for poor kids who are self-harming. But when Oswald discovers that Halabi’s previous guest disappeared in unexplained circumstances, she becomes uneasy...

Julián Restrepo picks Oswald up from the airport when she arrives in the capital city, Santa Fé, and the two become friends. Restrepo introduces her to the other members of his band: Jhonny Cruz the guitarist, Robert Stone, a cynical English journalist, and Raúl Bontera, a Chilean poet who tells Oswald of a new game he discovered in Colombia: Colombian Roulette – like Russian Roulette without the safety of the empty chambers...

In a shantytown in distant Guadalajara, Elvis Jaramillo works alongside a mechanic calling himself the Angolan, a testament to his enslaved African ancestors. The Angolan shows Jaramillo how to make a life and survive. But then one of the Angolan’s friends makes an offer Jaramillo can’t refuse, and he leaves the only world he knows – a world where violence is the best opportunity going, and safety a luxury for those who can forget the past.

How to achieve a lasting peace where human weakness and the political order will not allow it? It soon is clear that accepted truths are built on lies, and every alternative offers a route to disappearance. Restrepo and Oswald embark on a dangerous quest for the truth which brings them and Jaramillo together, in a country where the present implodes as the violence of the past is excavated, and the only war that has yet been declared is against itself.

 

Reviewed in The Morning Star on January 15th 2014:
"deeply satisfying...a powerful description of our current bewilderment at the opportunities and threats presented by the globalised trade in people, goods and ideologies"

Morning Star Review

 

To give a flavour of Imaginary Crimes, the first chapter is available to read here:

IMAGINARY CRIMES BY TOBY GREEN
Copyright Toby Green/Mkuki na Nyota Publishers


PART I

 

 

 

 

MADRID 2004

 

 


I

 

What would it be like to steal a soul? Had there ever been such a thing except in that blinding flash of fire that heralded this universe of ours and all its joy and suffering?

These were questions I asked myself more and more as I worked in the bookstore. I’d been prompted to do the modern equivalent, to get hold of someone’s papers. Few people thought that souls existed any more, it was assumed that they’d been disposed of by the three high priests of the Anglo-Saxon canon, Darwin, Dawkins and Dennett. But I’d read my Gogol and still had a romantic nature. I could still dream that such a horrible theft could be possible, that somehow paper souls could be transubstantiated into that mythical and otherworldly essence which used to provide all of us with meaning.

It was a thoughtless idea, I knew that, and dangerous. Gogol went mad in the end and I didn’t want to follow him. So if stealing a soul was even remotely possible I certainly wasn’t going to accept all the responsibility. I had read so much since arriving in Europe that I felt imprisoned in the fantasy that people longed for crimes like this, thefts that fed the soul its stolen milk. I wondered if secretly they didn’t want  what was even more forbidden, a sacrifice in a world where sacrifices were taboo, a crime so atrocious that it might forestall all others and yet stand for them as a totem. Perhaps it’s irresponsible to cast all the blame on others and yet without their imaginations, piling up daily in towers of bones in the news, I never would have had the courage to act.

I mulled the idea over for a few days as I worked in the store. Very quickly it became obvious what a brainless daydream it was. For days I tried to spot one from the bookstore where I worked on the Puerta del Sol. There passed the people heavy in the city’s lustful heat. Ah, so much potential there was, for just one soul, but there was a constant tugging at the groin, sleepily, just like they were all sucking at one another in the dark whilst only half awake. With their half-formed desires the souls were always just escaping me. There weren’t any souls left in the Spanish-speaking capital. There weren’t any souls anywhere. The bottom had fallen out of their market and there wasn’t even any room for them in hell any more so they had fallen out of there.

I would just have to settle for procuring the papers instead. It would be illegal but that did not matter. Wasn’t the law developed by those who wanted to legalise their own crimes? What really bothered me was the moral question of whether I could prevent a crime by committing one. I tried to convince myself that I could, and should. The crime we all imagined had to be possible exactly because we loved what might be stolen or destroyed.

            I had plenty of time to think about souls just then. I felt as if this was my job, since customers came to the bookstore hoping for some recommendation which might set them onto a better and more humane path. I wasn’t much occupied by the rest of my work. Of course I pretended to carry on doing what my employers thought of as my job, stacking the books on the display tables by the window. I did this work, easy as it was, and I was paid for it. It was all so boring. The only spark of interest was with the manager, who really irritated me. I think he sensed the strength of my emotion but mistook it for something else, which is easy to do in this city where the sun is always jumping you with more energy. He would come close by just to criticise me. But all I had to do was smile, say I’d try harder. You won’t last long, Elena, he’d respond.

            Perhaps I didn’t keep my eyes peeled as well as I might have done. I was distracted by the manager and by the activity of the Puerta del Sol where the bleached tourists from the North slobbered over their ice creams and ran their hands over their stomachs like an imperial army coming to terms with its newly expanded territory. I knew I needed to try some place else. One day I demanded permission to leave early. The manager did not refuse me. I picked up a couple of volumes as I left and walked up the hill towards Gran Vía past some of the rival bookstores. Most of the people heading this way barely glanced at the shop windows. They seemed more interested in the trinkets which the African hawkers set out on fraying black sacks curled up at the edges of the pedestrianised precinct. I sensed that it might be just here that I would discover something, in a space which no one else seemed to care about.

            I’d been eyeing up the Africans for some time. Finally I’d realised that my best chance of getting hold of some papers was among them and the cheap goods which they sold in the middle ground between indifference and pointless possessions. These were the most vulnerable people in the city. They didn’t have the money to leave. Perhaps even sharks worry about the bluntness of their teeth sometimes, since not even credit card companies would take a chance with them so that they could raise 500 Euros and flee back home. Instead the cops used to taunt them by strolling along the road so that they had to wrap up their goods in their sacks and stand back against the shop fronts, innocent and law-abiding citizens. Everyone knew that the cops came down here off duty to see how the land lay, to calculate how best they could humiliate these wretches.

            Luckily, the day I found my mark there were no cops about. Soon after leaving work I was sizing up the Africans. I went up and down several times. Perhaps I was taunting them although I didn’t mean to. I felt as if souls were rising, as if they’d found their way to the surface and recovered their will to breathe again. Here in Madrid one could spend days, weeks, knowing without thinking that one’s soul was slowly rotting like an unpicked fruit on a tree. It was a constant struggle to hold on to the soul, something that required the sort of thought which no one bothered much with any more. It was a battle I’d often felt as if I was losing, so that when I looked in the mirror I would see someone I wouldn’t like to meet, someone I couldn’t think well of.

Eventually I settled on one. I watched him from a distance for twenty minutes. There was a touch of softness and compassion about him even though he was selling even less than the others. Here was someone whose character might be one that I could touch. Weren’t we both immigrants from the same kind of boat, washed up by unhappy circumstance in this city which neither of us cared for and yet which somehow we both helped to subsist? He was unusually tall, thin like they all were, with those ritual scars below each eye which told their own story of a different world and of its losses. He had a gold bracelet on his right arm, though at the time I couldn’t understand why he hadn’t sold it and tried to better his lot. None of the others spoke to him. He seemed so solitary, and I felt a mixture of sadness and desire when I saw him. Surely, he would want to offer me something. What did he care about his papers? What did any of us care?  I hoped he might sell them for very little, next to nothing, provided I approached him in the right way.

“What are you selling?” I asked, and he gestured without words at what was on the floor before him. “I’m interested in something larger than that,” I replied. I had decided to create a false sense of mystery, to lure him in as if he were a reader. It was what the professor had done with me. I’d use a trick which would make me and my plan seem much more important than we really were. “What I want is to buy a secret,” I told him. “But I can’t tell you what it is. Let’s just say that in fact, it’s your soul.”

He eyed me there in the Madrileño late afternoon. I think he questioned my sanity. I suggested going to a bar to discuss it but he said that he needed to stay and earn money. We eyed each other, animals and strangers both. “I’ll come back,” I told him in the end.

            For days  I went back to the same place during my breaks from the shifts at the bookstore. He took to smiling when he saw me approaching. He told me his name: Gabriel Cissoko. But he was shy of leaving his post on the pedestrianised street. I think he was afraid that if he left another member of his nameless class would take his place and he would never be able to return there. I joked with him. We kept on laughing whenever I mentioned this business about buying his soul. He’d lead me on. I think he thought it as crazy and senseless and yet as true as I did. So I kept on asking him to tell me about his soul: they were very rare commodities these days, I pointed out, and his could fetch more than he imagined.

            He’d laugh, then, his eyes alight with humanity. I was right, he’d tell me in mock seriousness, he’d learnt that no one was interested in souls any more. “It’s not just the supply of souls that has dried up,” he joked one afternoon. “There’s no demand for them any more either.”

            “How do you know?”

            “You’re the first person who’s come to make an inquiry.”

            “Perhaps you haven’t been advertising properly.”

            He looked at me strangely, then. I think for a moment he’d thought I was serious, that I believed all this myself. And in a way I did, because of course he was right; souls required a moral sensibility which these days in most fields was a hindrance.

            There was a certain absurdity about the exchanges I had with Gabriel, I won’t deny that. And in the end it was absurdity which swung things in my favour. One afternoon I brought along a newspaper and showed him a headline from the inside pages: “Divorce Boosts Economy, Experts Claim”. It turned out that some economists at Harvard had shown how divorce benefited production and economic growth. With the break-up of the family home there was a need for two dishwashers and two washing machines and more sets of crockery had to be bought. There might even be an extra car. The construction industry was a notable beneficiary. This was how the economy kept moving, it was through increasing separation into parallel realms of nocturnal fantasies that the world did not shatter. He didn’t think much of the article. I challenged him: perhaps he didn’t have divorce in his country? To that he was silent. He did agree, though, to go with me to a bar.

We went up to Gran Vía and then up Fuencarral towards Tribunal. Walking with him I felt more of a foreigner in the city than I ever had done before. In Buenos Aires we always used to sneer at Madrid. Argentina was richer, and better at football. Those ideas must have sustained me on my arrival and I had never really sensed my inferiority. But the Spanish are a racist lot, even worse than us. We Latinos were barely tolerated and those Africans who did manage to reach Madrid were treated as if they did not exist. That struck me as I walked up Fuencarral with Gabriel, where I swear I saw two old matronas cross the road so that they didn’t have to share a sidewalk with us. They were such antediluvians that they didn’t even realise that they were surrounded by homosexuals. But they knew a black guy when they saw one and that was enough for them, even though they must have hated homosexuals just as much.

            When we reached Tribunal we turned down Palma and made our way towards the small plaza in Malasaña where there was a good restaurant. I wanted to show him the possibilities of his situation, of course, but also I wanted him to eat well. It had clearly been a long time since that had happened.

            “Come on,” I told him, “we’re going in here.” He seemed agitated. It had to be the smell of the food, I thought, the excitement that comes with consumption. “What’s the matter?” I asked. For a moment I allowed myself to feel a genuine sense of pity even though I had sworn not to feel any emotional connection to the person whose papers I was after. “What’s the matter?” I repeated, as we stood outside.

            “They won’t serve chicken.”

            “Probably not. They may do, I never asked.”

            “I don’t want chicken,” he said, allowing himself to follow me in.

            “We don’t have to have chicken,” I said.

            We sat down. It turned out that the last time Gabriel had ordered chicken somewhere, they’d brought him just a plate with some bones.

            I ordered a tajine and some houmous. Soon we were eating.

            “Tell me about your divorce.”

            “How did you know?”

            I told him that he was sad. It was obvious that he was sad and I recognised that because he touched my own sadness. We were both far from home. We were both prey to the sad desires of solitary people. I could see, though, that once it had not been like that for him.

            “The divorce,” he muttered. “In my country, it is a big problem. Women marry, the dowry’s paid, but there are problems and they return to their family compound, taking the children and the property with them.”

            “So it was with you?”

            He did not reply at once, breaking a pitta. “So I came,” he said in the end. “But there is no work in Madrid. Nothing. Everyone says that Paris is better, but I have no money to get to Paris.”

            I gestured at the gold bracelet on his right arm: “Why haven’t you sold that?”

            “It was a present from my grandfather,” he said. “It is from an ancestor of ours, a man who was saved by a miracle of God from being sold into slavery.”

            I had nothing to say to that, but in any case I told him that it was easy to get to Paris. The trains left Chamartín station daily at seven o’clock, and if he was prepared to sell his papers to me I’d buy him a ticket. “That could be the price,” I told him, “your passage to Paris. I can get you a passable European identity card too. It’s all thrown in.”

            It was no problem, I told him, we could have his real name written on his identity papers too if he wished. The professor had assured me about that when we had discussed our plan involving the books which he had to take to Paris for us.

            “Books? The professor?” He pushed his plate away and sat there, taking me in. “This is quite an operation,” he said.

            “Not really,” I said. “It’s some mad scheme, really. The professor hasn’t even explained all of it to me and I still don’t know how seriously to take it. But it’s intriguing, and that’s something.”

            I didn’t tell him anything about the wider plan, not then. He had to be lured in slowly, by stages. This story he had just come upon was for him like a book whose meaning and emotional resonance would not become clear until the final page. I was offering him entrance to a mystery, a mystery rather like the one which the professor had led me into. Like all stories it moved around, in circles, sometimes seeming to advance and at others to go backwards. Like the most appalling crime, it had to be imagined before it could become real.

“What do you want?” he asked.

            “I’ve told you.”

            “My papers, yes. But what has the professor got to do with it?”

            “You’ll meet him soon enough.”

            “How can I help? I can’t justify all the books you want me to transport.”

            He laughed with a bitterness that I tried to pass over. The waiter came by. I got his attention, and ordered some mint tea.

            “The Moroccans do make good tea,” Gabriel said grudgingly.

            I leant over and touched his arm. There was no need for this ever to happen again, I pointed out. He still had his papers, I could see that, but they were doing him no good in Madrid. No one cared. All he had to do was to pass over all the documentation from his home country. He would be freed then of the identity which had plagued him. He could sell that worthless paper soul to me. What did it mean, after all? Just let him forget about the professor, about anything to do with books. If he did as we asked he could go to Paris and become something more than he was.

            We left the restaurant after we had drunk the tea from opaque glasses. It was one of those fresh, optimistic Madrid evenings. People sit out till late and the kids kick balls about until after dark. There in the Malasaña plaza the people were out. The bar was doing big business and a wave of energy and laughter fluxed there in the emptying light. The tables were occupied by glasses of beer and baskets of fried potatoes. Life was full of possibility again. As we passed the tables set out beneath the bare plane trees, a football landed in among the drinking people.

            “Those kids again!” I’d seen them do this here many times.

            “You watch them,” Gabriel said. “You will see that they are not children.”

            One of the football crowd, an Asian kid with shades pushed up above his forehead, came to get the ball. The old man who’d picked it up refused. It’s the third time now, he said. They argued for a little while. Then the kid pushed the old guy. But he was no coward, he pushed the kid back and squared up to him. One or two of the drinkers stood up. The other footballers rushed over, bounding up the stairs from the sunken area where they were playing. They all surrounded the old man who still had the ball. They looked cold. Surely they couldn’t attack him? But none of the other drinkers had come to his rescue, and a hunted look came over him. I stepped forward, ripped the ball out of the man’s arms, and hurled it back to the grey concrete where the idiots had been playing. There’s your ball, I shouted.

            I’ve noticed that with angry men before. Put an angry woman in front of them and all their threatened violence withdraws. It’s as if they’ve come in their pants. Of course the cabrones slunk away. Probably they forgot about the humiliation or turned it on its head and remembered only how their group had humiliated the old man.

            “Come,” Gabriel said, after the incident was over, “I must go back.”

            “What do you think of my plan?” I asked him, although I hadn’t told him much about it. The professor hadn’t fully explained it even to me by that point. He’d talked a lot, and about so many different subjects. He took himself seriously, of course, but that didn’t mean that I had to. And in the midst of his discussions of Chinese history and of the possibility that the universe would stop expanding, and crunch, and time would start to implode back towards the big bang, he’d suddenly developed this strange tic, this idea that we were all in danger and had to follow his plan if our world was not to combust. It had all sounded strange but strangeness has its own fascination. That was why I had decided to follow the professor in the first place, to see if he was right about the crime and the plan he had that could prevent it. “What do you think?” I asked Gabriel again.

            “I’ll consider it.”

            As he said that I felt I’d made the right choice. He was indeed the type to go for the professor’s plan. The apparent absurdity of it all would appeal to a lost soul such as he was. Mind you, I couldn’t be sure that he wasn’t deceiving me, pretending to be someone he wasn’t. That would have made him as bad as me, another person up to no good and looking for a mast to tie themselves to and so find a sense of direction.

            “It’s easy,” I said to him then, as we made our way past international call centres back towards Fuencarral.

            “You’re the first European ever to show an interest,” he said, stopping outside a sign offering cheap calls to West Africa.

            “I’m from Argentina, from South America. I’m not European.”

            “Will my papers really help?” he asked.

“We need your soul,” I joked. “It’s an urgent matter.”

            He smiled at that, and then turned to go, adding as he went: “We’ll discuss it.”

            He went into the call centre. He was much too precious to lose, I decided, and as I turned away to carry on to my flat I knew I’d be seeing a lot more of him.






























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