Cláudia Sousa Pereira

Telling the war and saving the world in the space of the book:
Ynari by Ondjaki, from Angola to the World

Cláudia Sousa Pereira
CIDEHUS.UÉ – Évora, Portugal

Ynari a Menina das Cinco Tranças was edited in Portugal by Caminho in September 2004 and is Ondjaki’s first book for younger readers.

In the foreword, the author unveils the genesis of the book, pointing to a possible meaning of it.  Ondjaki tells us that the story of Ynari developed not only from a dream he had, but also from the dreams he shared with other authors and adults, namely with the illustrator of the text, Danuta Wojciechowska, the Portuguese candidate to the Hans Christian Andersen Prize of Illustration in 2004.

That inspiring dream is not only collective, which is in itself a revelation; it also owes a lot to the evocation of the childhood of each one of them, a situation common to the great authors of children’s literature.

Broadly speaking, Ynari a Menina das Cinco Tranças tells the story of a little girl who once met a little, nameless man. Together and during five days, they live an adventure. The girl visits  not only the village where her little new friend lives, but also five other villages which are at war due to the fact that their inhabitants do not know how to use the five senses in the best way possible.

Ynari was born with five plaits of which she sees no utility (her old granny with whom she has a close and affectionate relationship tells her that, sooner or later, she will discover its utility). The little girl will experience war and will know the heart of those who make it; however, with the help of the Little Man, she will  restore peace in all the five places of that little, oneiric universe, drawn after our own world.

In the texture of the narrative, and in this world of dreams, readers and characters alike find the appearance of wonderful elements a natural thing; they also find it easy to be in a time and space organized by affections and not by minutes or meridians. From the universe of childhood hope is announced by those who have their whole life ahead and who can make use of the inheritance of the past to learn and to repair its mistakes.

In the dedication, the author offers this book, and I quote “to all the Angolan children, to all the children in the world and to you, Angola”, taking us into the present context of a generation of African authors “condemned” to optimism.

Ondjaki, an author who lives mostly an urban, oral tradition, brings back the rural ambience, though slightly contaminated, as we shall see; this ambience seems to better contextualize the primordial place of the origins, where beginning afresh seems to be more possible, due both to the proximity of the natural world, similar to the one of the origins of Man, and to the origins of life in society. By starting the World as we start life, in the continually reborn hope of each child’s birth, we, disillusioned adults, will change the deep negative aspects daily found in the contemporary urban societies.

On the one hand, this primordial ambience is enhanced by the oral style of the narrative, which either through the punctuation of descriptive bits of text or through concise and direct dialogues takes the word to its first form, echoing primarily oral societies.

On the other hand, the short moments of description join the conditions of the landscape with the characteristics of the characters, turning the human element closer to Nature .

What we shall do here is a possible reading, interpreting the hints we are given right at the beginning of the book by such paratextual elements as the foreword and the dedication. But our interpretation derives also from the reading of  that other text, the iconic one, the illustrations by Danuta, which, in such African  local colours, give us a gallery of figures composed not only by the characters of the book, but also by a set of images which are the result of a clear interpretative ‘imaginary”.

These elements, repeated on the margins of the text, allow the adult reader another level of reading which converges into the sense we might attribute to the book: the birds as symbols of the heart; the butterfly as the representation of the child; fish as the food to be shared by a whole community; and the turtles connected to the notion of ancient.

Inside the front cover and on the back cover we actually find a map, a kind of a synopsis or reading hint which the illustrator seems to offer to the smaller readers/audience and which represents Ynari’s adventure.

Being a book for little children, the visual aspect is of utmost importance as it is through the sense of sight that the characters are introduced: they are named after what they show. But both characters and readers gradually perceive that the words, even the ones which fit a simple physical description, refer to relative concepts and that the same word has got different values when applied to different beings. That’s the case of the word “small” collocated with “heart”: as a referent, the word “heart” is a “small” part of the body, but as a symbol, its size varies.

When the magical character, the Little Man, mentions the magical element –Ynari’s five plaits – the difference between the two fades away and they seem to be ready for action. Fear, the first obstacle to the adventure of life, is linked to the animal, as it so many times happens in reality, outside the stories. After a conversation introduced by the Little Man (now not so little), where he speaks about the several layers of meaning of the word “fear”, the obstacle is overcome.

Introductions are done, and, from now on, Ynari and the reader know that to think and to talk is also to play with the words. In that first night, Ynari has already got a secret (her friendship with the Little Man), has defeated fear (by seizing the word) and she is now a little girl ready to become the heroine of an adventure starting on the following day, when the two characters meet and talk again about the power of the words . From the words rises a concrete situation where they witness a battle between groups of armed soldiers. Ynari acknowledges, for the first time, that war comes from those who act even before they understand and consider the power of words in the resolution of conflicts.

In her first contact with the war, the little girl only watches and tries to understand what is going on; she discovers that rage as the result of irrationality leads to conflict, only possible to solve due to the magical intervention of the Little Man. And Ynari understands that that might be her own yet unknown world.

The Little Man takes her to know his own magical world, a village where everybody has a well determined social function, and where two old people, a man and a woman, seem to be the wisest sages. They are the “old man who invents words” and the “old woman who destroys words”: a couple who sums up the power of language and of communication in the organization of that parallel world. Their speeches seem like an urban folklore practice of a today’s city in Angola – the estigas – a game of words, in form of “tenção”, a poetic dispute dating from the medieval troubadours, where an individual makes a short and improvised speech to mock the other. This war of words embodies a reality known to the warriors but makes use of intelligence and of humour, instead of weapons. These two elderly people, in turn, set the tone of the estigas, but in this dispute there is no loser, a situation which allows a balance of forces and the pertinence of their existence.

The enigmatic, chained words, coming from incantatory speeches, symmetrical in their positive and negative poles, can only be unveiled to the infant reader, if the reading is supervised by an adult. The same happens to the magic of the enigma of Ynari’s plaits; it can only be unveiled if one reads the whole adventure.  In the end, and when the mystery is unveiled, the book invites to a second and more detailed reading of the speeches.

The old estigadores offer Ynari the word “exchange”, a keyword to open the magic, a keyword equivalent to the readers’ knowledge of the way language works, a knowledge which enables them to fully understand the meanings of the text: to read with a sense and the sense of reading cross in a subtle way in this book about war and men’s power to avoid it.

The keyword “exchange” whose meaning is unveiled to Ynari in her dreams is also the key to Peace. This deeper sense can be found in a text where to tell a story of war can save the world. From this moment on, Ynari gets in touch, for the first time, with that useless word . Today’s infant readers have only got, as Ynari had, a remote idea of the word “war”, something far from their daily life. However, through the word of the text, they become acquainted with it, as the warriors Ynari meets in her adventure did. On the following days, she learns and starts to understand such words as “listen”, “speak”, “see”, “smell” and “taste”. When Ynari exchanges her five plaits, she manages to destroy the word “war”, not only on her behalf but also on the world’s.

To have the plaits cut in exchange for Peace is equivalent to the estigas of the old woman who destroyed useless words and to the estigas of the old man who invented new words: the word “war” is destroyed and the word “peace” is born.

Ynari is, after all, the legitimate heiress of an ancestral wisdom. In the end of an adventure which thus becomes an initiation rite, she and her heart hold the power embodied by the two old people of the Litlle Man’s village, so modern in their way of saying estigas. We hope that they can be understood by the little readers of a new Luanda, or by little European readers who may have the opportunity to be taught to read Ynari a Menina das Cinco Tranças.