A Sudanese Muslim woman thinks about her lover - an English teacher - who returned to England 40 years ago to write a novel she inspired. Believing he is now dead, she wonders how he portrayed her in his book ...
The Blue Nile, sometimes blood red, dawn green, or, as the title suggests, the colour of a wound or bruise, runs through my epic 746 page novel, Red over Blue like an artery. In 2014, many years after the novel was published, during which it seemed I’d lived another three life times and become better known as a painter than a writer, since its uncanny prescience still haunted me, I decided to distil the essence of this massive work into a form which could be absorbed in a single half hour’s reading.
The result is Book, a 17 page oceanic poem as passionate and overwrought as a Mahler symphony, written from the point of view from the girl who, forty years earlier, during the two years I lived and worked in a village on the edge of the Sahara by the Blue Nile at the local school as an English teacher, inspired me to write Red over Blue.
The raw material for Red over Blue had been obtained at great personal risk and once I’d returned to England I began to realise with a sense of fear and foreboding as I wrote draft after draft that I’d committed however many years it would take of my life to shape this material into a work of art that could on the one hand do justice to this material and to the great country and the humanity of the extraordinary characters I’d known in Sudan who’d inspired it and to document their story, and on the other, to transcend them and their socio/political/religious issues in the hope that I’d achieve something autonomous, that had an existential value in its own right, something so unique, unprecedented and timeless in its mystery, its emotional range and visionary power that if I died the very next day after finishing the work I’d feel even more grateful for the novel than for the wonderfully challenging and spiritually enriching experiences without which I could never have embarked on such a gruelling literary journey in the first place, which as it turned out, far exceeded my original expectations and developed into something that was not of modest ambition , and indeed, since all the political and religious issues that the work was addressing then have even more relevance today, and not just an historical value, make the novel seem astonishingly prophetic.
All the same, during the eight years I lived in my Cambridge bedsit by the Botanical Gardens working on my novel there were times when I felt the dreadful reality of what was now happening in Sudan was too big for me to write about, real life was more important than art and, despite my own severely debilitating illness (cancer of the bladder and bleeding ulcers) and poverty, I felt compelled to abandon the novel and return to Sudan to be with my loved-ones and friends, to be physically present to support them in their suffering. However I was unable to raise the fare to return and to obtain the all-essential visa. Also, the letters I was receiving from my friend George, the doctor in the village where I’d lived and who’d saved my life when I was very ill with malaria, indicated that if I did return, there was nothing I could do to help – I’d simply be another mouth to feed. So, all I could do was to continue my work on the novel, which, since it was now being written in the ‘blaze of events’ as it were, continued to be fed with updates from George in his letters on the political, social, racial and religious situations that exacerbated the famine and fanned the flames of conflict in the civil war, and which I had to weave into the novel not as mere reportage like a newspaper correspondent, but filtered through the characters themselves and their interactions, decent ordinary folk whose lives were controlled by corrupt political and religious masters not of their own choosing.
I designed the musical support for Book after I’d sat for many hours, immersing myself in the music of Sudan – in particular songs by the late, great Muhammad Wardi, whom I’d met when he was the singer at a wedding I attended in the village where I lived, and the girl group Al Balabil (the Nightingales) who came from the village. I’d brought back cassette tapes of these and other singers from Sudan, and I used them as reference. Listening to this wonderful music again after many years made me very homesick for Africa, especially Sudan. I also decided to use an excerpt/aria from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly which seemed appropriate to the spirit of the poem.
I’m grateful to James Gasson for the many diligent hours he worked on Book after I’d left his little studio in Portslade having completed the recording in April, 2016.