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REVIEW: The Quarry

The Quarry

The quarry1The Quarry

Iain Banks

Little Brown

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

Guy and his son Kit live in a ramshackle old house on the edge of a quarry.

This simple statement stretches to incorporate a universal truth with “ramshackle old house” standing in for “the body”, and “on the edge of a quarry” being a metaphor for the brief moment of consciousness wedged between our birth and our death.

Banks, however – at least when writing as Iain Banks and not the science-fiction writer Iain M. Banks – does his trade in big ideas not in the market place of vague concepts, but in the smallish inner rooms of domesticity and relationships. And so he narrows the action of The Quarry down to one setting, one weekend and one group of friends reunited, probably for the last time before Guy, who has cancer, dies.

For older readers this outline might recall memories of two movies: The Big Chill (made in the eighties) and Peter’s Friends, starring Stephen Fry, made in the UK in the nineties. Both were about a group of old friends coming together for a weekend in a big house.

The location and proximity between the characters at once highlight a shared history, a comfortable rapport and comradeship between the friends, while also showing how time has isolated them, has shoved each on to his or her own life trajectory, away from youthful hopefulness and a sense of belonging, towards the more solitary pursuit of making a life.

In each of those, as in The Quarry, death is the magnet that draws old friends together again. In The Quarry, death’s imminence lives fully and rudely on every page. This is partly thanks to Guy who rages – sometimes theatrically, but never pointlessly – against the premature dying of his own light, and partly because Kit seems to have Asperger Syndrome and doesn’t “do” euphemism.

“How’s Guy?” asks one of the friends who arrives for the weekend.

“Oh, still dying,” I tell her.

“Jeez, Kit” she mutters.

iain banks

Iain Banks, who died earlier this year.

Fans of Banks – and there are, for good reason, many of those – will know that this prolific writer died of cancer earlier this year. It is startling almost to the point of incomprehension that most of The Quarry was written before he was diagnosed with cancer of the gall bladder. In a sharp reminder of how comfortable Banks was with gallows humour – displayed in abundance in his last novel – he said in an interview before he died that it was typical of him to leave his research too late.

He did not have cancer while he was writing this book, and yet he captures its outrages and indignities, the laments it engenders, the rage it elicits, breathtakingly. Guy is a cantankerous old git, made so not by terminal illness, but by inborn arrogance and defiance. His character is a wonderful carrier for conveying the affront that cancer is.

Kit, his son and the book’s narrator, is eighteen, horny, odd, and a world master of a computer game.  The detailed descriptions of this parallel universe complement, contrast and accentuate – even satirise – the “real” world.

To Kit falls the unpleasant and thankless task of nursing his father, coaxing him to take his tablets, wiping his bottom, feeding him, all the while being abused and shouted at by his father.

The friends who come for the weekend are recognisable, even stereotypical: the stoner, the carer, the self-serving lawyer with political ambitions, the lovely but tiresomely zealous journalist and the ambitious couple. The supposed purpose of the weekend is to find one of the movies the group made together in their wild, spaced-out student days. The elusive tape gains monstrous proportions in their minds, but meanwhile, they are doing the sort of things old friends do: they carp and tussle, argue about politics, drink too much and go on a pointless expedition – decidedly more difficult with a dying man in tow.

Banks is exceptional at gathering odd characters together and making them talk. His dialogues – all the way through from The Crow Road, to Dead Air, to The Steep Approach to Garbadale, to Stonemouth – are bitty, bitchy and bolshie, often leaving the reader dizzy with amazement and amusement at the casually profound insights that come streaming in between the funny nonsense.

In The Quarry, there is much of that. I hesitate to say this about a writer I admire for precisely this, but almost too much. There are times when you want to walk out of the kitchen or the living room where they are all sitting, gabbling at one another along what are clearly well-established paths of thought for each of them, instead of engaging authentically in proper conversation.

Yet, this slight irritation contributes powerfully to the sense of closeness and claustrophobia already activated by the single-setting location, and also provides an antidote to the strong reminders of life’s brevity, of the pull of nihilism so amply underscored by the fact that the weekend’s action takes place on the rim of a quarry which soon will expand to suck in the house and all that it means to those who have lived there.

Banks has succeeded, sadly for the final time, in providing a close look at family and friends, at the comforts of atheism and pragmatism, at the big questions of morals and meaning and making-do in an imperfect, infuriating world.

REVIEW: Americanah

americanah-chimamanda-adichie

americanahAmericanah

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Fourth Estate

REVIEW: Bongani Kona

At several points during my reading of Chimamanda Adichie’s third novel, Americanah, which centers on the life of a Nigerian woman living in America, I found myself thinking about my own journey from Harare to Cape Town. So finely rendered is the black migrant experience in Americanah that it washed ashore a tide of memories I had long forgotten: the nervous wait at the visa office, the gradual estrangement from friends and family ‘back home’, the difficulty of establishing roots in a foreign land.

Even if the crossing of borders has become a feature of modern life that most of us, at one time or another, by fate or by design, have to endure, such departures – tinged as they are with loss – are always a kind of mourning. Like most immigrants, the memory of where I come from – regardless of the passage of time and maybe because of it – is never far from my mind. And perhaps this is what it means to live in diaspora: it is to live with the memory of loss – a place, a community – of something that is no longer there.

Ifemelu, the headstrong heroine of Americanah, moves to the United States after a series of protracted strikes halt her studies in Nigeria. The novel opens with her sitting in a hair salon in Trenton, New Jersey, and moves back in time through a series of flashbacks chronicling her 13-year sojourn in the U.S. and her earlier life in Nigeria. She has, at this point, given up her fellowship at Princeton and shut down her popular satirical blog, Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those formerly known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black, in order to rekindle her lost love affair with Obinze in Lagos.

The thoughtful and scholarly Obinze is the novel’s other main protagonist. Americanah also charts his journey from Lagos to London and back again. While Ifemelu after a desperate start to stay afloat manages to build some semblance of a successful life, Obinze has no such luck. He is plunged into the dark underworld of undocumented migrants and has to make do with menial jobs and the constant threat of deportation hovering over his head. It’s a life of unremitting misery and he finds solace only in visiting book shops.

To show the drudgery of his existence: at some point he gets a job cleaning toilets and one day he gets to work only to find a mound of faeces on the floor. Instead of cleaning it up, he removes his gloves and disappears into the London streets. At a later juncture he finds work with a delivery company using someone else’s national security number but he has to handover hefty percentage of his salary every month. Eventually, and the outcome is almost inevitable, Obinze is deported. However, homecoming is good to Obinze. Not long after his return, albeit through underhanded dealings, he becomes a real-estate mogul and marries a former beauty queen.

chimamanda-adichieAmericanah is at heart an epic 500-page love story spanning three continents yet it more than that. To paraphrase Ifemelu, a novel doesn’t have to be about only one thing. Adichie’s previous novels, the Orange Prize-winning Half a Yellow Sun, and Purple Hibiscus found their lifeblood by delving into Nigerian history. This is her best work to date, and both old and new readers of her fiction will marvel at her writing. She might still be in her mid-thirties and yet she can be counted as one of the leading writers of our time. Americanah is hotwired by some of the urgent issues of our time, namely immigration, race – and the politics of black women’s hair.

“You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country” an African-American writer says to Ifemelu halfway in the novel. “If you write about how people are really affected by race, it’ll be too obvious.”

Yet both Ifemelu (writing her blog) and Adichie are undaunted by this advice. Ifemelu starts blogging in response to her growing awareness of race and how it plays out in American life. “I did not think of myself as black” she writes, “I only became black when I came to America”. It’s an acknowledgement that identity is not only a matter of how we see and label ourselves but also a matter of how we are seen by others.

Elsewhere she also writes: “Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or Ghanaian. America doesn’t care. So what if you weren’t “black” in your own country? You’re in America now.”

It took Adichie five years to write Americanah and she joked during a radio interview that she spent four-and-a-half of those years watching YouTube videos of how to style her hair without using chemicals. It’s not coincidental that Americanah opens with Ifemelu get her hair braided.

It may be a minor act but it’s an act of reclaiming oneself and that, I believe, is the lesson here. – Kona is a freelance writer and he works in advertising.

 

COLUMN: Finishing your book

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By Karin Schimke

It has been a month of starts and no finishes.

The most enthusiastic start, with the sharpest finish, was with the current German bestseller, a satire that imagines the illogical return of Hitler – arising fully intact from a spot on a field in the middle of Berlin, as though waking after a brief nap in his uniform – in new century.

er-ist-wieder-da-T-KHKKLxThe book, called Er Ist Wieder Da, by Timur Vermes, daringly pokes fun at a great many things – most notably and hilariously the current media culture – and its dry delivery induced long-lasting fits of laughter.

But then, suddenly, I’d had enough and stopped reading it.

I also started and then stopped Julian Barnes’ latest novel Levels of Life. It’s not the first time I’ve given up on Barnes either, though there are books of his I read easily and happily to the end.

I hope my father never reads this column. He’d be mortified. Giving up on a book is, in his opinion, an act of sacrilege, not unrelated, perhaps, to his position that one eats every morsel on your plate. He was a little boy during WW2 – he knew what it was like to feel hungry. Later, perhaps in response to the cruelties and privations of childhood in a post-war society, he became a voracious reader of adventure stories, usually featuring brave boys or intrepid young men.

An unfinished book, like an unfinished plate of food, is, I think, a sign to him of both ingratitude and unconscionable waste.

I might offer the sweetener – were I to get into a conversation with him about this – that life’s too short to waste time on bad books. Yet I don’t only give up on bad books. Neither of the two mentioned above are sloppy, thoughtless books.

The reason I don’t give up on bad books because I seldom start bad books. This is a skill most avid readers develop eventually: the ability to find a friend or colleague whose opinion you value, a reviewer you trust, a handful of authors you can rely on, so that you no longer have to wade through the waist-high piles of rubbish that are on offer to find that which floats your particular literary boat.

In an essay entitled “On reading and books” – which, by the way, is utterly worth reading beginning to end, if only to remind yourself of the provoking one-sided parley you enter with a dead philosopher when you read his or her work – the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer says that “in order to read what is good one must make it a condition never to read what is bad; for life is short, and both time and strength limited”.

While his quaint views on women are unfortunate, I do agree with the old chauvinist on the matter of how I would like to spend my reading time.

Yet, there are many people like my father who will hack and chop their way through a literary unpleasantness come hell or high water in order to come out the other end being able merely to say “I finished it”. I think they are misguided: giving up on bad books is not just “not terrible” it is almost a duty to yourself.

But it still doesn’t explain why I’d give up on books I could very well expect to be good. And I do. I frequently give up on books I am enjoying very much.

This is the point in a piece of writing where the writer would reveal some deep insight. In this case, where I’d be able to offer a perfectly reasonable explanation for my treason. But I can’t.

I can only offer, instead, that I am reading Sons and Lovers (DH Lawrence) for the second time, and if I was reading right now instead of writing, I’d have finished it this morning. – Schimke is an author, poet and independent journalist, and the editor of the Cape Times books pages.

  • This column first in the Cape Times in August 2013

COLUMN: The Roots of Rhythm

The_Highwayman

By Karin Schimke

Worker’s Day was filled with chores. I was folding the washing when my daughter asked me whether she could read me “The Highwayman”, a poem by Alfred Noyes. (To see some artists’ impressions from the poem click here.)

I haven’t read or thought of the poem for many years, its narrative long forgotten. My daughter, having heard it read by her teacher, read in a mesmerising tone, the ancient, story-telling voice, which like music and rhythm, is hard-wired into our responsive brains.

Resistance was futile.

“He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there/but the landlord’s black-eyed daughter/Bess, the landlord’s daughter/plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.”highway3

My hands had ceased folding and I was there on that “purple moor”, at that landlord’s inn. By the time King George’s men arrived, I might have – had I paused to take stock – noticed, a subtle vibration under my skin. Not just of rising tension about the soldiers’ menacing arrival (and the universal fear of all women everywhere when a band of men darkens the doorway) but an almost physical straining towards what happens next.

Later on Labour Day I went for a run. I recently found a way to motivate myself to run for longer: I pick an album and listen to it in its entirety, something I haven’t indulged in much since I was a student. I picked Paul Simon’s Graceland album, which I’ve not listened through since my student days.

I was running, singing in my head and planning the next day’s performance of poetry at my daughter’s school. The lyrics from the song “Under African skies” broke through the endorphine haze: “This is the story of how we begin to remember/This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein/After the dream of falling and calling your name out/these are the roots of rhythm and the roots of rhythm remain”.

For the second time in one day “the best words in the best order” – as Samuel Taylor Coleridge explained poetry – snuck up and raised goosebumps from their indifferent slumber on my arms.

I do not know, I never will, what precisely poetry is. What is it meant to do? Why it is so consistently and amply and richly written when its spread amongst the general population is so thin, when so few people read it for pleasure because (they usually claim) they don’t “get it”. Why do these same people turn towards it when they “need” a poem for a funeral or a birth or a marriage?

I will never know what poetry is. Yet this morning I will be visiting a school to talk about poetry. I will perform “Jabberwocky” and perhaps recite “The Witches’ Chant” from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, or “Tarantella” by Hilaire Belloc or “On The Ning Nang Nong” by Spike Milligan, to a bunch of ten-year olds.

I can bet that not one of them will “get” every poem. But I also know, from often having spoken to children about poetry, that they will be rapt. They will pay attention simply because resistance will be futile. They will be slaves of the best words in the best order. They will know without knowing that they’ve seen poetry for what it is: outrageous, subversive, puzzling stuff that makes your skin tingle and brain fire like a newly oiled machine; that makes space for quiet awe, or unrolls a festival of raucous wolf-whistling and laughing.

Because no-one will have told them yet that they are required to beat the meaning out of a poem in order to “get” it, they’ll be free to just feel it.

I will hold my thumbs tightly that somewhere along the road to adulthood, they don’t learn to un-feel it.

  • This column first appeared in the Cape Times in May 2013
  • Schimke is an independent writer, a poet and the editor of the Cape Times books pages.

REVIEW: The Accidental Apprentice

accidental apprentice
The Accidental Apprentice

The Accidental Apprentice

The Accidental Apprentice

Vikas Swarup

Simon & Schuster

REVIEW: Jennifer Crocker

Vikas Swarup took the reading world by storm with his first novel Q&A, which was subsequently made into a mega-hit movie Slumdog Millionaire. In the Accidental Apprentice he returns to a familiar theme: What would happen to you if your whole life was changed by chance?

As with Q&A Swarup begins his story with an apparently ordinary main character, her name is Sapna Sinha and she is a dutiful daughter to her sickly mother and her somewhat wild younger sister Neha. Sapna works as a sales clerk in an electronics store. She is diligent and bright. Too bright for her job, too constrained by her responsibilities to further her studies or pursue her dream.

On her weekly visit to a temple she meets one of India’s richest men, Vinay Mohan Acharya. He has a startling proposition for her: he wants to make her his CEO and the heir to his vast business kingdom. Sapna, being a sensible girl thinks he is mad, but he persists with what is comedic in an almost Shakespearian manner. Sapna is told that he has recognised a spark in her that he has not seen in any of his underlings or protégés. Sapna turns him down at first, but then when her family is faced with being thrown out of their apartment, and her mother’s gold dowry bracelets are stolen from her, she reconsiders.

Acharya’s offer though is not unconditional; before assuming the powerful position he is offering her and the wealth that goes with it, Sapna must pass seven tests. She is not to be told what they are, but tests they will be.

And so begins a marvellously touching and hilariously funny story.

Probably the main reason that Swarup succeeds in telling a story that is totally absurd in many regards is that he has the skill to weave a story in such a way that the reader is drawn into believing the very unlikely events that unfold within it. The fact that he writes with beautiful style and elegance, overlaid with sly wit does not hurt either.

It would be true to say that there is not one wasted or incidental character in this book. Whether he is drawing a pen picture for us of a main character or a beggar by the wayside he colours them in with near perfect characterisation.

Sapna is sworn to secrecy about her quest to pass her seven tests, and this allows Swarup to add another layer to the book. As we read about the absurd situation she is in, we also follow her day-to-day life. She has to deal with her sister’s refusal to accept that they are poor; she makes sacrifices for her mother, and deals with their batty neighbour who goes on a Ghandi-like quest to fight corporate corruption.

She meets a young woman reporter who becomes an integral part of the story, and keeps on working at the appliance store.

Through the conflation of the theatre of the absurd and the drudge of daily life, Sapna is being led through her seven tasks. They are not without danger and every single one of them requires her to make a moral decision.

Of course the danger exists with a complex and slightly mad plot that the book could spin out of control, but Swarup avoids this by maintaining a strict control over the sometimes circus-like ride of The Accidental Apprentice. He threads a strong sense of morality through the book, making it almost like a modern morality play without ever preaching. The overarching message of this book is that extraordinary things are happening to a young woman who is trying to maintain a façade of normality while at times doubting her own sanity.

Not only does the author achieve this feat, but he also manages to thread in a thriller-like component to the tale that turns Sapna into not only an heiress in waiting but also into an unwilling sleuth.

As she is forced to use every ounce of cunning and guile to survive her tests, Sapna will have to make deeply moral choices, she will also discover on her journey exactly who she is.

India is not known for magic realism in its literary canon, but it is known for making the mystic part of everyday life, Sapna is a modern woman, but carries within her deep traditional beliefs, she has normal desires and normal temptations, but she will learn to value what it is that she truly believes a and stands for. The reader is drawn through her experiences and in reading the book invited to evaluate their own choices. At times the book feels like it is asking the reader: what would you do if you were in this situation.

Drawing on the past and the present of India, Swarup has written a book that is light and funny at times, and deeply moving at others. This is an author who can write about deeply serious issues while taking himself with an apparent pinch of salt. Perhaps this is the magic of his books? An utterly wonderful book about self-discovery and fulfilling a dream in a way that is unexpected and surprising. A pure delight.

  • This column first appeared in the Cape Times in July 2013

REVIEW: The Hired Man

the hired man

the hired manThe Hired Man

Aminatta Forna

Bloomsbury

REVIEW: Ruth Browne

The Hired Man is a story told simply, of a piece with the heat and the smell of sage in Gost, a town near the coast of Croatia. Duro Kolak is the narrator, distinguished by his quiet and restraint. He lives alone with his two hunting dogs and is as much a part of Gost as the trees and the sky. When an English family moves into the blue house on the outskirts of town, Duro helps to renovate their holiday home. In the process, Gost’s painful history of conflict and betrayal resurfaces.

Aminatta Forna is Scottish-Leonean, and seems the most unlikely author imaginable for Duro’s passive-aggressive rural Croatian masculinity. But her characters never lack credibility, and her own experiences run parallel to the horrors of the Yugoslav Wars of Duro’s past.

Her 2002 debut novel, The Devil that Danced on the Water, is a memoir dealing with the civil war in Sierra Leone, where Forna spent her childhood. The early nineties saw both the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the start of the devastating war in the west African state, and The Hired Man is in this sense almost a comparative history. In a Guardian interview with Maya Jaggi, Forna commented on how genocide is perceived depending on its context. Eastern European slaughters are sanitised through discussions of politically-motivated “ethnic cleansing”, while Africa is still seen as the dark continent where unreason prevails.

In the fictional town of Gost, it is understood that old crimes and hatreds linger in all communities where neighbours have turned on one another. The mechanics are different, from machetes in Sierra Leone to hunters’ rifles in Croatia, but the aftermath is the same: the scar of the past always distorting the present.

Laura and her two children are oblivious holidaymakers in Croatia, and in Duro’s account we, too, see and hear nothing but the tranquility, the countryside and the taciturn townspeople. Duro is a man of habit, and the gradual progression towards the truth is his way of remembering. The methodical business of laying new roof tiles, cutting down a dead tree or uncovering a startling mosaic mimics his own journey into the past, and a second, darker narrative becomes visible beneath his courteous interactions with the visiting family.

Forna is well-travelled, and holds a degree in law from London University. During her career as a BBC journalist, she witnessed and reported on international conflicts, grounding her latest work in ten years of experience. But she is also an author whose previous novel, The Memory of Love, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Forna is recognised both for her ability to excavate past conflict and trauma and for her particular literary talent.

Her style in The Hired Man is almost bland, beginning simply, with a timeless feel that plays on the town’s ethereal name. As the demons of the past are revealed, one discovers Duro’s complexity as a character, and the buried evils that moulded him and his whole community take shape against a meticulously researched historical backdrop.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in July 2013

REVIEW: Ride The Tortoise

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ride the tortoiseRide The Tortoise

Liesl Jobson

Jacana

By Karin Schimke

Jobson drops her reader into the middle of a narrative and continues talking as though you’ve been privy to the story since its beginning.

It’s rather like being invited to step on to a treadmill with someone who has already achieved a certain pace and who is delighted to have you along but makes no concessions for your lateness in arriving. After a few pages, and almost without warning, the treadmill halts and you get off again.

The experience is bracing but oddly satisfying. In the space of 175 pages, the reader of Ride The Tortoise gets to ride the lives of over 15 South African characters.

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Liesl Jobson

Jobson has an uncanny ability to slip fluidly under the skin of such a variety of characters, it is sometimes hard to believe they all sprung from the pen of one author. Her modus operandi is to put readers inside their un-edited minds where they privy to their oddest and most embarrassing thoughts, their deepest longings, their guilt and their worries.

It is impossible not to overlay some of the self on these characters, whom Jobson presents without artifice or an attempt to pretty-up. The characters’ apparent lack of an inner editor is startling, funny and produces both discomfort and something akin to admiration.

The narrators are not always likable, but each evokes such empathy, that you feel protective towards him or her; that you rage for him or her against the manipulations and cruelties of their loved ones, but you also love alongside them their lovers’, parents’ and childrens’ quirks and failings.

Jobson has a sharp eye and a fine ear (each no doubt the result of her two other passions, photography and music), but what sets her apart from others is her great attraction to the verges of where mental illness dwells amongst us. Her characters are frightened, floundering, flawed and flayed. Sometimes the stories capture moments of madness in them, of un-grace, of slippage. Jobson has a familiarity with the stranger recesses of the human psyche, which she presents in a way that neither glamorises nor disdains oddness and eccentricity. It is her characters’ ordinariness that successfully conveys that peculiarness is pedestrian, even mainstream.

I interview Jobson at the launch of her book in Kalk Bay on Tuesday and asked whether she herself could find a common element in the mixed milieu and fractured, dissonant lives of her characters. She answered that they all shared some trauma.

And here is precisely where her work rises out of the personal and into the public domain: her characters are utterly, recognisably South African, finding ways to live in a country which is – to nick one of Jobson’s own recurring themes – an inconsistent, cruel, manipulative mother.

Jobson is a master storyteller. Readers with a curiosity or reluctance towards the short story form would do well to start with Ride The Tortoise to familiarise themselves with how – when it’s done well – a short story can be as satisfying and all encompassing as a novel.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in April 2013

REVIEW: Thoughts on the New South Africa

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Thoughts on the New South Africa

Neville Alexander

Jacana

REVIEW: Kavish Chetty

Unavenged histories return in Alexander’s critique of post-apartheid South Africa. He inaugurates this, his last collection of essays, with the remark that there has been a “virtual blocking of all channels of memory that do not […] relate to the historic activities of the Congress movement,” and from here attempts a retrieval of the repressed memories that haunt the national consciousness.

In short, the ambition is to reveal the lurking continuities between the system of apartheid and the present, and to this he summons the analytic complex of language, race, power and class – that last, among the most occlusive categories of political inquiry.

Alexander is to be commended from the outset for the sense of unity he brings to his materials: reflexive and critical, his writing is still edged with optimism among the “palpable signs of social breakdown”, and he does direct himself toward a common enemy – even if it is the consuming catch-all of “neoliberalism”, the black hole of leftist aggression. It is a thing, which – in a country that quarantines its social failings until the point of irruption – needs to be spoken about more.

The volume divides itself historically across the chasm of 1994, searching for the links and ruptures across the two periods, and then opening up inquiries into race, affirmative action, “afrophobia” and other fraught socio-cultural issues.

Alexander’s background is socialist: he conceives of the independence struggle as being split into two stages – national liberation and then socialist democracy. This vantage gives him a South Africa of “incomplete revolution”, one in which the fundamental economic, political and social relationships (of apartheid) remain intact due the organising force of “racial capitalism”. The despair can be registered in the failure of the African continent to decouple itself from “imperialism”, and anyone familiar with the novels of Ayi Kwei Armah will know that sense of material and existential alienation that attends this incompleteness. Consider Frantz Fanon, writing in The Wretched of the Earth: “When [the nationalist bourgeoisie] has vanished, devoured by its own contradictions, it will be seen that… everything must be started again from scratch, since that class has done nothing more than take over the unchanged legacy of the economy, the thought, and the institutions left by the colonialists.”

South Africa finds itself enmeshed in its unchanged history. Alexander writes of “no revolution”, only a “regime change”. He identifies the monstrous enormity of “neoliberalism”, and critiques the “fraudulent doctrine of individual enrichment”, the corruption of an ascendant political elite. Such ideas find a productive tension with dominant right-wing thoughts. In The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama adopts the term “getting to Denmark”, as a metaphor for how the rest of the world, by moderating and strengthening its institutions, can become as wealthy and stable as Denmark. This is pure fantasy, misrecognising the connective tissue which runs from one prosperity to another crisis; an entanglement of complicities. Indeed, Alexander writes that such stabilities as are enjoyed by European countries, are the product of “super-dividends that have accrued from colonialism, slavery and centuries of exploitation.” He himself takes the radical position that structural and global imbalances preclude such utopian possibilities. He speaks of “the continuing scissors-effect of the abysmal gap between rich and poor”, and says that South Africa is “facing one of its deepest crises”.

Alexander’s register is sociological, gesturing toward the academy, but resisting its complicated-ness in favour of more general, impressionistic arguments. It is disillusioned, yet hopeful writing, but one which conducts itself in a stately, elegant manner, sometimes dispassionate or regimented. It does not have the conversational tone of some recent volumes by public commentators, but certainly offers a greater level of sophistication.

In the later stages of the work, having diagnosed the “barbarism of real capitalism”, having charted the uneven and textured processes of resistance – in which, Alexander is quick to inform us, the ANC was only one player among others – attentions are turned to the materials of public debate. Alexander offers a robust critique of Black Economic Empowerment (“deepens inherited class inequalities”), and the “myth of an exploding black middle-class”.

His signature take on the problem of language and multilingualism is both affirmative and problematic, and its pursuit throughout the volume is never less than provocative.  What Alexander encourages, in effect, is a vast re-thinking of South Africa since 1990. His emancipatory interests are, however, allied with those of the dispossessed and forgotten, and he compels a critique of this country’s premature triumphalism, and the prevailing attitudes of self-entitlement, among both complacent middle-classes and glutted elites. Alexander himself believes that “another world is possible, indeed probable”. His death last year is an impoverishment to public discourse. – Chetty is a graduate scholar of critical theory and literature

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in July 2013

REVIEW: Way Back Home

way back home

Way Back Home

Niq Mhlongo

Kwela Books

REVIEW: Bongani Konaway back home

There is an undercurrent of disillusionment running through South African life at the moment. You can sense it in the newspaper editorials daily bristling with outrage at governmental failures and corruption, in the artworks of Ayanda Mabulu and Brent Murray and in the musical polemics of Simphiwe Dana. So too in Niq Mhlongo’s third novel, Way Back Home. It’s a disillusionment borne out of the perceived betrayal of everything 27 April 1994 stood for by those at the helm of our society.

Kimathi Fezile Tito, the amoral man at the centre of Mhlongo’s novel, is the archetype of a tenderpreneur – a parasitic class of business people who have built their vast wealth on the back of corruptly awarded government contracts. He always wears two watches, a Breitling and a Rolex, and drives expensive cars and drinks glasses of Johnny Walker Blue at R600-a-tot. Together with his former comrades they have all but secured a multi-million rand tender from the department of Public Works because they have a man on the panel. In short, life couldn’t get any better.

However, beneath the flamboyant exterior is a deeply troubled man going through a multitude of problems, albeit most of his own making. He is estranged from his wife and daughter, Anele and Zanu, but what troubles him the most – and this drives the narrative – is that he’s started seeing ghosts, vivid imaginings of a woman from his past. As a solider for The Movement in Angola during the late 80s, Kimathi committed atrocities he had repressed until the woman comes to him demanding atonement.

“Your past deeds are so shameful that only by forgetting have you been able to live with them” she says to him.

From then on Kimathi loses his sure hold on life as inexplicable events start happening. His best friend from exile, and the man with the decision-making power to award the multi-million rand tender, dies under mysterious circumstances.

After collapsing twice, and both times winding up in hospital for a stretch of days, a doctor suggests that Kimathi goes to a therapist because he is suffering “from the aftereffects of some kind of past trauma”. He rejects the idea and instead opts to go and a see a sangoma who instructs him to go back to Angola and face up to his past.

The action in Way Back Home unfolds in two different time zones, between Angola in the late eighties and present day South Africa and the two narrative strands dovetail at the end. It’s a good read and one that’s in step with the sentiment of the times. However, Way Back Home is also a radical departure from Mhlongo’s other novels, Dog Eat Dog and After Tears. Although those books dealt with equally weighty subjects they were memorable because of Mhlongo’s gift for humour writing. Way Back Home is no doubt an important addition to South African literature but I wished at times that Mhlongo had made us laugh more.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in June 2013

COLUMN: Containing opposites

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By Karin Schimke

Emotional intelligence is a rare thing to come across and a delicate thing to explain. A first check point in assessing emotional intelligence is often checking in with where you place responsibility for your feelings. If it’s with outside sources – your boss, your ancestors, your partner, your fate, the place where find yourself, your income – then you have still have some learning to do.

You also have to be willing to feel your feelings: not suppress them or hide from them. Not bat them away using your razor-sharp intellect, nor employ any of the other enormous number of defenses – including passive or active aggression, an unquestioned surrender to substances, or the donning of the martyr’s cloak.

Emotionally intelligent people are skillful in communicating their feelings appropriately at appropriate times and are able to express themselves positively without resorting to aggression or sulking.

But perhaps the highest achievement of emotional intelligence is the ability to entertain opposites. No one is wholly good, completely evil, absolutely lovely, entirely obnoxious, all the time, throughout their lives. When we are able to see that we – and every other human being – can be both generous and greedy, gentle and harsh, lazy and diligent, cheerful and despairing, and are able to bear these contradictions with grace, then we’re psychologically grown-up.

Fiction is often seen as a source for developing emotional intelligence, a view I support for instinctive, rather than scientific reasons.

The book I read this month dealt overtly with containing opposites – and with the difficulty of acquiring emotional intelligence.

Rosarium_Philosophorum_(1550)The Chymical Wedding, by Lindsay Clarke is dense, complex and brilliant, while also being suspenseful and entertaining.

One of the abiding themes is “marriage”, not just in the common traditional understanding of a formal bond between one man and one woman, but the marriage of all opposites. The first wedding must take place inside the individual: each must accept that he or she contains also his or her opposite gender. One of the characters says to another: “We’re trying Laura – me, Edward, all of us…But the old ways of being male…they don’t work any more. The meaning’s drained from them. And there are no easy options, so we have to use our minds. It’s a precious thing this capacity for thought. We have to use it.”

Laura answers: “To the exclusion of everything else?”

The mind is only one half of the quest for understanding. The other half is contained in the heart.

I mention all of this also because I believe that if the two journalists who earlier this month made jokes about corrective rape – and then were nonplussed by the public outrage that followed – were more emotionally whole and mature, they would have spared our country a whole lot of pain. Instead they highlighted how emotionally stunted in our development we – South Africans – really are.

The journalists were dismissed. They offered what can only be read as a non-apology, their indignation more than their contrition clearly apparent.

Their defenders reared up like a single monsterous pustule spewing hate and hellfire.

If only they, and their defenders, could see that rape was not a woman’s problem, but a problem of humanity; if they were able to recognize their own vulnerabilities, acknowledge that they contain in themselves contradictory multitudes – including the female psyche – then they would not have ridden roughshod over other people’s pain, but would be able to see rape as the affront it is not just to women, but also to men.

If each of us could allow ourselves to feel our own feelings, we’d be better able to imagine those of others. If all of us were a little more emotionally intelligent and could marry the good and bad within ourselves instead of placing blame elsewhere, and if there were more internal weddings of our own conflicts, then we’d be a little closer to the kind of world we all would like to live in.

  • This column first in the Cape Times in July 2013.
  • Schimke is an independent writer, a poet and the editor of the Cape Times books pages.