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Tesfaye Gebreab’s The Nurenebi File translated by Alemseged Tesfai

Sona Berhane

The Nurenebi File is the English translation of the Amharic historical novel Yenurenebi Mahder, written by journalist and author Tesfaye Gebreab. It depicts the past one hundred and twenty odd years of Eritrean history with such intensely intertwined accuracy and descriptive honesty.

Beginning with the terrible drought that swept across the country during the end of the 19th century, this chronicle follows the apparently ill-fated life of Nurenebi and his family. Theirs is a tale that spans across several generations. Written in the author’s characteristically engrossing style, the book is a lucid and cogent narration of this family’s lifelong trek, and reads as a coherent, well-informed historical text.

As you read this book and come to know the characters, you will experience a certain familiarity. What provokes this feeling is the unstated truth that their exceptionality lies in their ordinariness – their familiarity. They endured what all Eritreans endured and they longed for what every Eritrean longed for. Their lives are the lives of all Eritreans. Reading this book brings about a wave of nostalgia, and then leaves you with a quiet sort of understanding.

The history of this family stretches around the history of this country. The book’s crowning achievement is its readability. The tale moves along swimmingly, and does not tax or overwhelm. In his narration, Tesfaye includes references, historic accounts, commentaries, and brackets, these little asides here and there (which I found particularly enjoyable); none of these hinder the motion of the story and only serve to orient the reader.

Over the course of this historical saga, the reader is taken across Kebessa and Metahit, left to fume on the humid coast and brought to stay on the lush plateaus; to meet a variety of formidable historical figures and confront every facet of colonial maltreatment; and yet, in the long arduous journey, is never led to lose sight of the essence of Eritrean folk. I imagine this was the personal experience of the author when, in the course of assembling the book, he embarked on his intensive study of Eritrean history.

In what would sadly be his last work, Tesfaye again combines the journalist’s impulse for research and factual accuracy with the novelist’s ability to grant them life. As he admits in his introduction, a box of old documents, a historical period heavy with untapped potential, and the creative challenge of blending the historical with the fictional were simply too fascinating to resist.

Featuring actual historical figures lends this novel much credibility. It testifies to the author’s imaginative flexibility to portray their interactions so realistically. Indeed, so convincing are the parts of the novel that were of the author’s making that one would be hard-pressed, as I was, to clearly identify where historical chronicling ends and author’s imagination begins. And while I understand that a historical novel cannot be otherwise, there were moments I was unnerved by its seamlessness.

But it must be remembered that this book is a novel. In fact, in his introductory note, Tesfaye takes care to let us know that over half of it is imagined. Still, keeping in mind that he was able to achieve this while being constrained to remain true to the people and events of the family on whom the story is based, one cannot help but think of the stories that could be told, the lives that could be examined if the creative imagination is made to roam free over the rich, fertile soil of Eritrean history.

As for the translation itself, it was done by the immensely talented writer-historian, Alemseged Tesfai. It will be evident to those who have read either the Amharic or Tigrigna versions that Alemseged has not strayed too far from the original text, either in tone or form. He has not imposed himself on the text. His style is often times praised for its simplicity. It is easy to forget the degrees of attention and constraint involved in creating effortless simplicity. There is no question as to his mastery of the language: his translation is neither affected nor showy. Nor does it feel strained. The claim that his translations read as originals is not an exaggeration. And yet, there is a distinct quality to the way he translates, not always discernible but always there, that sets it slightly apart.

Altogether, in terms of significant cultural and literary elements that could have been (and usually are) sacrificed for the sake of translational coherence, Alemseged has managed to preserve almost perfectly the essence of the text that has made this superb English version as intelligible and, more importantly, as Eritrean as its Tigrigna counterpart. (I read the book in the translated Tigrigna not the original Amharic.)

From its intimate acquaintance with its subject to its highly relatable characters, the smoothness of its flow to its calculated backstops, the Nurenebi File is a book that one can, with earnestness and a touch of pride, recommend to others. And not only because it would, as Tesfaye humbly suggests, make for a delightful Sunday afternoon, but also because it is over a century’s worth of Eritrean history in a beautifully narrated nutshell.

On the 24th of December, two weeks after the launching of the translation of his book, Tesfaye Gebreab died while receiving medical treatment in Kenya. His untimely death was a great loss. Knowing he had produced numerous outstanding works in the domains of both journalism and the historical novel, I could not help but feel that we had lost him just as he was getting started. Through his writings, Tesfaye had been a friend and an ally to the helpless, and a voice for the voiceless. This had garnered him wide admiration and respect. It had also incurred quite an opposition. But if the measure of a man is to be inferred by the enemies he makes, then it can be said that Tesfaye lived his life in the pursuit of a worthy cause. He will be remembered for his remarkable ability to wield the pen and his devoted search for truth. Tesfaye Gebreab closed his eventful and highly productive career with The Nurenebi File, a seminal book about his country of origin.

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