The Drift Latitudes (an excerpt)

by Jamal Mahjoub

The Drift Latitudes: A Synposis

The Drift Latitudes is a position of uncertainty. A human condition which is increasingly commonplace. A sense of belonging to more than one country, the feeling that we are moving through a world which is no longer firm and fixed, but is fluid and constantly changing.

Over the course of a century, this novel tells the story of three strands of the same family and their attempts to give their lives shape in a world where the firm outline of the places that we call home are constantly sliding away, countries are born or abandoned, borders dissolve and are transgressed.

From typewriters to submarine warfare, taking in the architectural heritage of the slave trade, and civil war in Africa, The Drift Latitudes is a complex, moving novel that examines how people deal with the dilemmas of the world we live in. A remarkable and poignant story of our times. It tells the story of Jade’s urge to fill in the blanks in the story of her life. And of Rachel, her half sister, now married and living three thousand miles away on another continent. It is also the story of their father, Herman Lenz, the inventor who travelled to London from Germany between the wars and sets off to rediscover a world he has lost faith in.

The Drift Latitudes is about how we belong to the places where we live, about the bonds that spread across the world like lines on a map drawn by emotional need and the urge for change.

The Drift Latitudes: An Excerpt

I watch them in the late afternoons, when the sun has worn itself blunt and the light is so gentle and fine-spun that the world takes on the aspect of a faded charcoal sketch. The scene has a petrified, timeless character, as if the clock has stopped. Nothing moves along the streets at that hour save for the odd straggler. A boy sent on an errand, say, or a milkman hurrying by, perched side-saddle on a sorry-looking mule, both of them making their knock-kneed way home.

This is my time, my own private moment when the world halts its rumble and fuss and I am reminded that this is the way things are when we are not engaged in the burning pursuit of satisfying one appetite or another. It only lasts a short while, this interlude, this tranquil moment of lucidity. The clay of the earth slides from the leached colour of dusty tombs to a livid red that grows deeper still until it all turns gracefully on its head and the stars emerge, blinking like startled silverfish in a pool of nocturnal dye. And then the radios come on, of course, and the shouting takes up where it left off a couple of hours ago, and car ignitions sputter, and the whole mad whirligig starts up again.

They always come walking through our neighbourhood at that particular time of day, just when I am watering the plants. I haven’t a clue where they come from or where they are going. I have never asked, you see, because I never mention it to anyone. Perhaps I am afraid of losing the solace I derive from my afternoon vigils.

Secretly, a part of me worries they might just disperse or evaporate like sprites if I were to speak their existence aloud. I cherish their presence, I don’t want to dispel them, not just yet.

They walk in single file, silently, never appearing to speak to one another, their silence a sign of unspoken communion with nature. All the more ironic because they are no longer within their own landscape, with the cattle kraals, smoky dung fires, and grass huts of the unbound tracts from where they hail, far away to the south in those vast muddy swamplands of theirs. They have been plucked out and set down here like spindly butterflies pinned to a sheet of vellum. Here in a sleepy suburban side street in a run-down quarter on the outskirts of the capital city of a backwater nation of the world. Not a nation at all, really, but a collection of disparate peoples herded together by the muddle-headed rulers of a bygone imperial age. We live in the wake of history like a new picture that sits badly in an old frame.

Amin, who is my husband, would think I was mad if he caught me standing here alone watching them walk by. He already thinks me half-cracked, so this would simply be grist to the mill, as we used to say. Added to the fact that, like most of the sophisticated urbanites of this city, he considers people from the south, from the remote regions of the country in general, as primitives, animists, pagans, idol worshippers and ultimately, of course, what their ancestors used to be - slaves. 

I suppose that I am drawn to them because I see something of myself in their predicament. Not that I would ever describe myself as being either a pagan or the descendent of slaves even, far from it. But we are bound together by the fact of our displacement. 

All of this would be lost on Amin, I am afraid. Perhaps one day you will meet him. He is not the man I married thirty years ago. Oh, perhaps I am being too harsh, the poor dear is still in there somewhere, but time and circumstance have taken their toll. He is kind to me, can still be endearingly considerate at times, and I cannot begin to imagine what I would do if he were no longer around. I used to think it was habit rather than need which kept us together, but now I am not so sure. Sometimes I think of us as two separate planets with thousands of leagues of darkness between us. Both vaguely aware of one another’s existence across the numb void, but unable to draw nearer, or pull away.

So the afternoon vigil is mine alone. In those silent figures slipping through the antique light, I see the echo of my absent son. A time of mourning, then, of communion with the dead.

I go out there when the heat has burned itself down and there is an hour or so for me to water the plants. I wander through the garden spraying them all. The oleander, bougainvillea, and the big lime tree whose leaves are flecked with dust. They turn a virulent green the instant water strikes them, giving off an invigorating scent. In my own quiet way, I suppose I am quite proud of my garden, which is crammed full of all manner of herbaceous life: tamarind, papaya and hyacinth, cassia, guava, even grapes (although these have not been very successful). It is a small garden, and for most of the time it seems dust-bound and immobile, but in the afternoons when I walk through it seems to stir, filling the air with the most delightful blend of fragrances, and all the colours become vivid and alive again.

It is there, standing in the midst of that window box of an orchard, my own private little Eden, that I spy them furtively through the iron grille of the back gate. Off in the distance. Frail, desiccated figures slipping across the periphery of my world, hinting at distant perturbation. It takes a moment to place them, like a hazy memory - almost gone, but not quite. 

Why do they come by here exactly during my time, for me to witness alone, I wonder? Is it merely coincidence, or something more? 

I have never been a great believer in astrology and predestination and whatnot, but recently I have been unable to help myself wondering. I am actually quite a pragmatic type of person by nature, with little time for histrionics of one ilk or another. This won’t do. I am wandering about in circles. The point is that I have never believed that things happen according to a predestined scheme of rhyme or reason, until now, that is. Religion, for me, is associated with memories of my childhood, not a constellation that bodes well. In particular, with the stern education drummed into me at St Joseph’s Convent school in Hendon. More than a world away. 

While standing there in silence watching the procession file offstage, I wonder if perhaps they have always been there, and it is I who have simply been unable to see them. I have been blind to so many things; your existence, for one. It is almost as though all the lost moments of one’s life - time squandered, opportunities wasted - all of those things which one thought consigned to the past were in fact hidden amongst the leaves, like fine spiderwebs stretched between the branches which you miss until you happen to look more closely.

Published by Chatto & Windus 2006 

Jamal Mahjoub was born in London and raised in Khartoum. His stories and essays have appeared in The Guardian, Le Monde, Die Zeit and other publications around the world. His novels have been widely translated and won a number of awards including, the Guardian/Heinemann African Short Story Prize, the NH Vargas Llosa prize and the Etonnants Voyageurs Prize. He is a contributing editor at Guernica Magazine and has recently begun a new life in crime fiction as Parker Bilal – The Golden Scales was published by Bloomsbury in 2012.