The JRB presents an excerpt from JG Jesman’s debut novel Chisoni, or Conversations on a Plane About Life and Death.
Chisoni, or Conversations with a Stranger on a Plane About Life and Death
Penguin Random House, 2022
JG Jesman is a James Joyce fan, so it’s a happy coincidence that his debut novel is being released in the centenary year of Ulysses.
‘I did do a lot of research on Ulysses. I like Joyce’s uninhibited voice. He says what’s on his mind, as Brendan does, sometimes intentionally challenging the reader both in his writing and philosophy. That’s important. Brendan says things like, “Time is a bloated old bladder that pisses away our dreams,” and, “Us Irish—and you Africans too—are free. It’s reflected in our arts.” Though his comments or voice can at times make you cringe for being impolitically correct, we forgive him for the honesty of his conviction.’
The episodic nature of the novel was also inspired by Ulysses:
‘Chisoni tries to deal with just one idea or main theme in a chapter. Death. Gender. Food. Technology. Politics. Art. Music. It’s not all just mixed in, though it may seem that way. It was important to have it separate because for me, this was a semi-philosophical/spiritual work. What wisdom have I gained in my little life? How can I share it? And how do I examine what I know when faced with grief?’
Read the excerpt:
Death is cunning.
It’s sly as a crow with a silver coin, looting what it can’t use.
‘Hullo there, neighbour!’
The words startle me. Over my left shoulder, a pale-skinned man hauling a book the size of a Stone Tablet grins. I’m on a twelve-hour flight. The last thing I need is a Samaritan. As I return the greeting, his cheeks linger at the corners of his eyes till I’m forced to smile back.
‘Jammy bastards,’ he says, to no one in particular.
I buckle my seatbelt.
His forehead points to the business cabin.
‘As much as I hate class systems—of any kind!’ he says, wagging a finger in my face, ‘I’d kill to be in there.’
‘Wouldn’t we all … shame the cleaver is in the luggage, huh?’ I say with jiggling eyebrows so he knows I’m joking. A jealous man makes light of other people’s success, as our churlish laughter confirms.
‘Brendan!’ he declares, his breath tinged with alcohol.
I say, ‘Chisoni.’
His book lands on the seat beside mine and a vigorous handshake follows. As I watch him wriggle out of his tweed jacket, green, and elbow-patched, I figure he must be in his mid-thirties, a red-haired Cosmo Kramer with sandpaper stubble. His blue-checked shirt, corduroy trousers, and chestnut-brown Chelsea boots would do any hipster proud. With me (jammed against the window) in a sky-blue suit, we’re like two Congolese sapeurs overdressed for the occasion.
The plane continues to fill up. I’m dreading more conversation, but he says nothing. Thick reading glasses are balanced on his nose. A teacher, surely? He heaves the book and plonks it over his lap, its pages unfurling like paper wings. It’s a beautiful hardback, leather-bound and gold-embossed: Ulysses by James Joyce. Tucked neatly among its pages are tiny Post-its with handwritten notes. There’s something admirable about this guy, but I do wish someone had told him mankind has been producing digital versions of this book for over a decade—which are much lighter to carry.
Noticing that I’m staring, he turns to me.
‘D’you like Joyce?’
‘James Joyce? No. Well, not no. I just haven’t read his books.’
He sighs, expelling the foetid air of economy class.
‘He’s unparalleled! Hands down the greatest author who ever lived—and I’m not just saying that ’cause I’m Irish. This is my third reading of Ulysses.’
‘Is that so?’
‘Yap, first read it when I was eighteen, then again in my twenties. Great literature …’
Chin pointed to the ceiling, he monologues.
I look around the cabin.
‘… any great book requires rereading.’ He’s still at it. I try to look like I’ve been listening.
‘I’ve seen plenty of people take on Ulysses when they haven’t read a single story in Dubliners, let alone A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. You gotta know the context. Otherwise it’s like starting in the middle of a race, you know?’
I don’t really know, but I like his passion, so I nod.
‘What’s it about?’
‘Life … a day in the life of a Jewish clerk in Dublin in the early nineteen-hundreds.’
He licks an index finger and leafs through the pages.
‘The way he plays with form,’ he says with an excited lilt. ‘Like this episode.’ He points to a page of dialogue written like a play. ‘And this one, Aeolus, is like a newspaper. He does this sort of thing throughout, but it’s not a gimmick. This book is about the human condition, life and death, you know?’
The word death lingers, dampening my spirit. My hands rush to my nose as a female flight attendant sprays twin aerosol cans in the air. A few people wheeze and grunt in protest, but the insecticide wins.
‘Isn’t it a difficult read?’ I say, pointing at the book. ‘My neighbour’s given up on it like a hundred times.’
‘Is he English?’
‘Yes, a history professor.’
‘I’m sorry, but their arses are far too clenched, the English. They couldn’t possibly appreciate a work like this.’ He leans in for a whisper. ‘They’re crippled with colonial guilt. That’s why they haven’t produced anything worth a damn this past century. Us Irish—and you Africans too—are free. It’s reflected in our arts.’
I stare out of the window to let the prejudice dissipate. It’s carbon-black outside. Red, blue and yellow lights picket the darkness in straight, shimmering lines along the runway. Large letters above the glass-walled building beside us read: OR TAMBO INTERNATIONAL, JOHANNESBURG. It’s 9 p.m.
‘Where are you from, Chezoni?’
‘Any authors I should read from there?’
‘There’s a great memoir by Legson Kayira, about his journey from Malawi to America on foot.’
‘Education. He was inspired by the life of Booker T Washington, who went from being a slave to an advisor for the White House, to follow his own dream of getting an American college degree. At sixteen, when he finished studying at the local missionary school, he walked two-thousand miles to Sudan. Border officials were so moved by his passion for education that they helped him attain a scholarship.’
‘Fair play to him.’
‘Yeah. It was a New York Times bestseller for weeks in the Sixties. Very few Malawians have enjoyed that kind of literary success.’
‘Tell us his name again?’ he says, reaching for a pen.
We have missed the safety video and the captain now prepares us for take-off.
‘Beautiful isn’t it? South Africa,’ he says.
‘Yes, it is. It is …’
‘Goin’ to London for business then, Chezoni?’
‘Just going home, and yourself?’
‘I used to be a primary school teacher,’—I knew it!—‘now I’m self-employed.’
He hands me a metallic business card which reads: Cabal of Kefir.
‘It’s a hundred per cent Irish but my partners and I are going global. Soon, I’ll only be available in first class.’
His snigger comes with a hard nudge to my rib. Still buzzing from alcohol, evidently.
‘What were you doing in Malawi?’
‘I went to a funeral.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry pal. Who died?’
‘My brother … My brother …’
As the plane staggers into the sky, darkness rushes to catch it. Babies cry, knees jitter, fingers cross and everyone holds their breath as gravity abdicates its power. Slowly, a few overhead lights flicker, lighting up the cabin like fireflies on a moonless night. My neighbour wrestles his book in the dim light and I turn to the flashing wing buffeting the air. Below us, the biggest airport in Africa shrivels to a dot and in this moment I, too, wish I could vanish.
- JG Jesman grew up in Malawi and works as an animator in the United Kingdom. Before writing this first novel, he ran a blog in which he invited academics, authors and creatives to discuss the human condition.
Following his brother’s funeral, Chisoni, a thirty-three-year-old Malawian, embarks on a long-haul flight to England, where he lives. His neighbour on the plane is a loquacious Irishman who speaks openly about many things, including the loss of his own father. Over the course of their thirteen-hour flight, the two form a genuine connection, sharing their thoughts, fears and ideas about life and death.
A man with high anxiety, Chisoni analyses his childhood, his family, and the events that led to his brother’s untimely death. He is consumed with guilt for his role in his brother’s decline. In his jacket pocket is a note, addressed to their father, handwritten by his brother shortly before his death. In a drunken hand, it begins: Dad, I’ve been trying to meet you but all efforts are proving futile … Chisoni cannot bring himself to look at the note, let alone deliver it. Is it his duty to fulfil his brother’s request, or will doing so only break their father’s heart?
Thought-provoking and at times humorous, this honest account of grief embraces the themes of addiction, brotherhood, and the relationship of fathers and sons.