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Book Review

  • Katena – A very Readable Crime Story

Until recently, I had high interest in  crime stories, Sherlock Holmes being  my most favorite detective. I don’t  think I have grown out of my love for  Holmes though I am not as keen as I  used to be about crime or detective  stories.

Holmes still fascinates me  because he amazes me with his  observation and deductive skills.  His deductive skills used to solve his  cases based on reasoning, scientific  evidence, and the psychology of the  criminals still fill me with wonder.  For this and other reasons, I still  tremendously enjoy Conan Doyle  and Agatha Christie though I hate  reading real crime stories.

Real crime stories, being what  they are, tales of hatred, cruelty and  pain inflicted on flesh and blood,  unlike fictional stories, fill me with  pain, certainly not as much as the  pain the victims receive at the hands  of the perpetrators (i.e. if they are not  killed). So often I avoid magazines  that report such terrible events.

Crime fiction is a newcomer to  Tigrigna literature, so I read crime  or detective stories in English. The  crime stories we have in Tigrigna  literature are translations from  Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.  The only original crime story I  remember reading is a book titled,  ‘Geresit – Ruba Mot’ (Geresit – the  River of Death), a Tigrigna story  I read when I was 14 or 15. My  recollections about the book are so  vague that my comments may not be  valid statements about the book. In  fact, I don’t remember its author, the  names of the characters, and the final  verdict of guilty or innocent passed  on the killer or killers. I don’t even  remember if the criminals were many  or not. I don’t remember whether it  was a fictional tale or a true story.  The only thing I remember about  the book is its title and that it had  many articles of law, which bored  me so much that I hated the book.  My assessment of my reading of  the book is that I was not ready at  that time to read and understand, let  alone appreciate the book.

Geresit Ruba Mot was, therefore,  the only original Tigrigna crime  book I had read until I came across  Katena (The Necklace) by Mr. Tesfai  Ogbai recently. In other words,  for me Katena is the first original  Tigrigna crime story I have read.

I knew that Mr. Tesfai Ogbai, the  author, to be a staff writer of Hizbn  Polisn, a magazine published by the  Eritrean Police and therefore has  some knowledge about crime, crime  detection, and the work of the police  as some of his stories in the magazine  show. Other than this, however, I had  no information about the author.

I began reading Katena with all  this background information about  the author, crime fiction in English  literature and in Tigrigna. I didn’t  know what to expect. I didn’t expect  much because the genre is new in  Tigrigna literature, and, therefore,  unless the author read such literary  works from other cultures or unless  he has made much out of his  experience in Hizbn Polisn, there was  no way he would gain experience to  write such a successful crime novel.  He can’t learn from other Tigrigna  writers because (as far as I know)  there are no crime writers in Tigrigna  literature.

Katena is a small book about a  theft, an attempted murder, and an  illegal abortion. The story has 16  short chapters, each no more than a  few pages in length, the book being  only 116 pages long. The story starts  with a theft in a church, and leads on  to a failed murder. It then concludes  with an illegal, attempted abortion  (committed much earlier than the  two other crimes but comes after  both in the book, which gives the  impression that it was committed  after they were).

A man named Ato Ghidey arrives  at Asmara Airport from the USA, we  are told, for his only son’s wedding.  He goes to his hometown and finds,  one of his closest friends deep in  trouble, for this friend accidentally  kills a fellow villager. With evil  intentions in his heart, Ato Ghidey  gives his friend, Ato Haile, some  money not out of charity but because  he wants to use him in an illegal act.  Ato Haile uses the money to pay his  debt and then finds himself trapped  when Ato Ghidey asks him either to  return the money or help him in his  criminal act. Left with no choice, the  man steals a necklace donated to the  church (in the village) by a friend of  both men.

Zaid, Ato Haile’s daughter, who  lost her mother has a quarrel with  her father and steals some gold, her  mother’s jewelry, and some of the  money Ato Ghidey gave her father.  First, she is thought to have stolen  the necklace from the church because  her father reports her as the thief that  has stolen his money and gold from  his house. The police suspect her of  stealing the necklace and start their  hunt for her. Knowing that the police  were following him, Ato Ghidey  tries to leave the country.

A young police captain, named  Hiriyti, collating the information  she and her colleague gather from  suspected people and other people  related with them, comes to the man  that masterminded the theft and tried  to kill Zaid.

In Chapter 12, five chapters before  the book comes to a close, a new  story starts. We meet Weizero Miraf,  Captain Hiriyti’s mother, and we  see Hiriyti’s and her mother’s story  unfold. For the next five chapters,  we read nothing but about Hiriyti,  her maternal grandparents, and  her mother’s boy-friend, named  Ghirmay. In these chapters, Ghidey,  Haile, Zaid, and the other characters  we read about in the previous 11  chapters are not mentioned. Only as  the threads (of both stories) are tied  together do we hear of them again in  the last three pages.

One of the strengths of the book  is that the villagers are so real,  especially the way they speak. The  language they speak is typically used  in rural Tigrigna areas. This is one  of the reasons that makes the book a  pleasure to read. The characters curse  as villagers in Eritrean highlands do,  and communicate with each other  as Tigrigna farmers do in the rural  areas. One can see that the writer has  worked hard on this to make sure  that the characters in his story were  believable and convincing.

Despite our knowledge of the  perpetrator of the crime, the author  was able to hold our interest in  the story. He makes us see how  successfully Captain Hiriyti and her  aide, Seid, handled the information  they had to draw the right conclusions.  We see and evaluate every step of  their decisions, and the author helps  us decide if they are to solve the case  successfully or not because we are  given information Captain Hiriyti,  Seid and Major Zerai didn’t have.

As it is the story is fascinating.  But I think it would have been more  interesting if Captain Hiriyti’s and  her mother’s story were intertwined  with the story of Ato Ghidey and Ato  Haile. Instead of starting Hiriyti’s  and her mother’s story in Chapter 11,  I think the author, Mr. Tesfai, should  have started it much earlier, at least  when Captain Hiriyti is introduced  into the story. Now that the story is  appended to the main-story it looks  as if it was an afterthought, a deus ex  machina, a part added to help solve  the problem, because no mention is  made of Ghirmay, Miraf, or the other  characters that appear after Chapter  11.

Another aspect of the story should  have received a more closer attention.  Even without the author telling us,  we could easily see the story is an  adaptation from a movie because we  see parts that have not been properly  adapted for reading. In many places  in the book, scenes are introduced  without background information  about the characters, the setting or  the problem. Obviously, these were  intended to be viewed, not read.

It looks as if the author has  overlooked the fact that the camera  and the pen work in different ways.  In a movie, the camera does many  things for you so you don’t need to  write about the characters and the  setting. At least, the viewers don’t  read such descriptions because the  photographer makes sure that his  camera presents viewers with such  information. You don’t need to worry  about the physical appearance of  your characters or the setting for the  camera will do that for you. You need  only to worry about the dialogue,  which moves the story forward. In  a novel, you have to describe the  characters, their feelings, and the  setting. We don’t see this happening  in many places in Katena.

Taking the fact that this book is  one of the foremost crime stories in  Tigrigna, Katena is a well-written  story. In addition, taking the fact  that it was adapted from a script for  a movie, it was almost writing from  scratch and, hence, a book that has  been written twice. In short, the  author’s efforts have not been wasted  for Katena is a very readable story.

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