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REVIEW: Whoever Fears The Sea

dhows

Whoever fears the seaWhoever Fears the Sea

Justin Fox

Umuzi

Review: Ken Barris

J.M. Coetzee is quoted on the cover: “An engagingly romantic, fast-paced tale of sailing-ship adventures of the myth-laden East African coast, with plenty of sex and action, plus a serious revisionist message regarding modern-day Somali piracy.” Agreed (partly), but is this nothing more than a good airport thriller?

The main character Paul Waterson is a scriptwriter doing research for a documentary along the Kenyan coast. And Justin Fox is an experienced travel writer and photographer, as well as a man deeply knowledgeable about (and in love with) sailing boats. The real romance in the novel is not the sex, which is formulaic at best and comical at worst. It lies more in the sense of place that Fox builds extremely well. He writes about Mombasa, Malindi and Lamu with the assurance of a traveller who knows the country, and he makes the beauty and vitality of place shine out. A further thread of this romance is his evocation of the history of the Swahili as a nautical culture, their trade links with the East, and their bitter experience of Portuguese imperialism. His treatment of this history is enriched by dreamlike interludes in which Paul encounters figures from the past, such as the slave Mariamu, or the aristocratic trader Ahmed Suleiman.

The core of this romance, though, is Fox’s treatment of the vessel that dominated Indian Ocean trade, namely the dhow and all its variants such as the ghanjah and the spectacular mtempe, a boat made without nails, in fact sewn together. This thread is well researched, and I found it fascinating. Fox cleverly builds these sailing craft into his narrative, folding what could otherwise be abstract information neatly into the action.

Paul’s encounter with Somali pirates unfortunately comes across as an afterthought, taking up a small part of the narrative. Nor is the “serious revisionist message” that Coetzee identifies particularly convincing. The message is that Somali piracy today is a strategic Islamist response to economic colonialism (foreign trawlers, for example, stripping Somalian fishing resources, and related incidents). In other words, a contemporary jihad, led by a pirate pointedly named Mohamed. I could possibly take this seriously if the argument (and Mohamed’s character) were developed with at least some complexity, or if the greed and brutality of piracy were not so lightly dismissed. There is a further lost opportunity, in that Paul shows indications of Stockholm syndrome, another seam that might have been mined to good effect. Instead, Fox brings it all to a rather abrupt happy ending, leaving these elements inadequately explored.

The short-windedness of the pirate zone, however, did not spoil this novel for me. The strengths of Whoever Fears the Sea overbalance its limitations and make it an enjoyable read. Treatment of place is authentic, the dhow-sailing episodes are absorbing, and Fox’s engagement with Indian Ocean history is refreshing.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in March 2014

REVIEW: Slow Fires

roxandra's pig

slow firesSlow Fires

Poems by Dan Wylie

Etchings by  Roxandra Dardagan Britz

Fourth Wall Books (ISBN: 9780987042941)

There has always been good reason for the refined art of book illustration. Poetry too, with its courtship of language structures, will often polish typography and print for the reader’s edification and pleasure.

The etchings by Britz, crisply reproduced in this handsome publication, classically toned in printer’s sepia, are a reminder of how visual imagery can extend and enrich the reading experience. Fred Smeijers’ calculated typography – sorry Kindle readers – too sharpens that enjoyment.

With a waywardness that sometimes slips from simple realism – suggesting myth or signalling mystery – these pictures are an enhancement of the layers Wylie weaves in the anthropomorphic construct that themes his anthology: Africa’s animals in mournful contemplation of the environment, transposing to metaphor the melancholy and concern about the state of Africa, of Time, of Man.

As accompaniment the images work well with the poems, which, at times, resonate in sonorous expression. These are indeed words to be heard as well as read. They lock in senses as the poet plays with synesthesia.

A sculptural sense for constructing phrases and a tuned ear for the sharp edge of individual words often lift Wylie’s phrases off the page. It compounds the sadness, drives the urgent message.

The dehorned rhinoceros (Britz portrays the animal with an ironic neutrality that singes with dark assertion) laments: “I hear  the harrier’s cry, but can’t interpret it/ The ring of hills hovers in blue bewilderment./ I no longer recognise my world,/ can no longer map the thickets that shade me”.

With the “long hand of my compass broken”, the great beast’s “nowhere to go” becomes the reader’s  moral wasteland to negotiate. The dramatic battle of survival shifts squarely onto human shoulders, through the title “Be bounteous and kill me”.

This is taken from a quote from Jonson’s famous Jacobean comedy Volpone, a sly satire about greed which parallels animals as cover for human failure. The contemporary message is rivetingly clear.

All Slow Fire titles reference a variety of literary sources, and Wylie supplies these as enhancing notes at the back of the book. The integration of this material is pure reader pleasure.

Not all of Wylie’s poems in the book are as tight and dynamic – or as dark – as the one mentioned.

A playfulness peaks through from time to time. A hyena is urged to “Be economical in movement, tireless in the chase./ Savour life, down to its essential bone”.

The dung-beetle complains about his “spindly barbed shanks sticky with shit,/ black carapace dusty with servitude”.

Anthropomorphism can come unstuck in unwieldy hands, and while Wylie doesn’t always avoid the awkward bump, his compassion for the natural world flows readily and smoothly.

The dramatic title for the baboon and baby poem – “That worst of beasts upon the edge of stone” – may be from Dante, but the mother’s commonsense warning is an African reality:  “Know that rightness comes easy,/ but evil more easily still./ Ride your luck when I’m gone;/ but unbridled,/ and beautiful”.

You want to read all of this and more.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in March 2014

REVIEW: Invisible Others

invisible quote

invisible-others-cover1Invisible Others

Karina M. Szczurek

Protea Book House

Review: Ken Barris

Cara Judson is a talented South African writer living in exile in Paris. She is exiled from her past life, specifically from the notoriety that followed a disastrous love affair in South Africa with a famous painter, Lucas Stutterheim. The disaster lies in the fact that his wife Dagmar has committed suicide, and the media have blamed Cara.

The core of the matter is that Cara has written a novel entitled Triangle, which is more than based on their affair. It ends with the suicide of the fictional wife before Dagmar takes her life in reality, so the novel has not merely anticipated the tragedy, but according to public opinion, has actually caused it.

Another triangle develops in Paris in the present between Cara and a Polish researcher named Konrad, who falls in love with her more than she does with him; and with Lucas Stutterheim, whom Cara encounters again at a retrospective of his work. The novel then alternates between past and present, delicately linking the two timeframes.

There is much play on the gaze, on seeing. As Konrad looks at Cara, for example, he imagines that he can read into her character, indeed enter it: “Her eyes seem rounder and bigger than usual. She holds her lips perfectly still, they glow red against her ashen-pale skin… A blank openness, he thinks, as if no expression has ever formed within its features, open and eager to be inscribed.” The irony is that Cara is not particularly available for inscription, at least by Konrad. This is because there are two of versions of her. In Konrad’s presence she is controlling, alternating between vulnerable openness and sudden rejection. The window of her soul only opens briefly for him, and then slams shut. In response to Lucas, however, she is seldom in control, and far more abandoned.

Lucas is a libidinal trickster, in both art and life. He is a serial philanderer, with men as well as women. His work is charged with erotic energy, which is the basis of his fame. This eroticism is connected to gaze, as Konrad walks into the Stutterheim retrospective where he feels scrutinised by the pictures, “exposed, naked, as if he were on display”. Conversely, Cara is aroused by her own nude image in a portrait by Lucas. This link between seeing and eroticism reaches a paradoxical moment where Cara masturbates to the image: her sexuality is awakened on seeing herself from outside, as if the mirrored body, “her other self”, was separate from her.

Invisible Others is well structured, and the situations and characters are absorbing. The opening chapters are elegantly written, but this fluency is not sustained. The syntax can become convoluted occasionally, with awkward negotiation of tenses, and a few malapropisms. This should not be a problem though: Szczurek is Polish, as was her illustrious compatriot Joseph Conrad. His style was also influenced by his mother tongue, and it did his career no harm. In all, an excellent debut novel.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in April 2014
  • Barris’s novel Sunderland, a collaboration with Michael Cope, will be available in May.

Review: Arctic Summer

arctic summer

Arctic summer

Review: Karina Magdalena Szczurek

The publication of every new book by Damon Galgut is a literary event par excellence. Two of his latest three novels were shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. He is the recipient of many other accolades, including the local CNA Prize for The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs (1991) and the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book from the Africa Region for The Good Doctor (2003). Galgut’s beautifully supple prose, his mastery of narrative forms, and his feel for characterisation always offer a rewarding literary experience.Arctic Summeris no different.

Like Galgut’s last novel, In a Strange Room (2010), Arctic Summer is partly set in India. Galgut’s descriptions of the places his astutely drawn characters traverse are as always a feast for all senses. In many other respects, however, it is a great departure from Galgut’s previous work. Evoking the early life of the British novelist E.M. Forster (1879-1970), Arctic Summer is a biographical novel, focused on its protagonist’s travels to India and Egypt as well ashis relationship with his mother and with the few men who stirred his love and desire.

It is the time after Oscar Wilde’s trial and exercising caution in the display of one’s sexual longings is paramount to one’s survival. For most of the novel, Morgan’s yearnings remain unfulfilled. The struggle to articulate what is one of the greatest taboos of his time and to put his desire into practice – whether in life or his work – takes centre stage in the novel.

Arctic Summer opens in 1912 with Morgan on board a ship heading for India where he intends tovisit Syed Ross Masood, a young Muslim man to whom he had been a tutor in England.The two men developed a deep, yetoften unsatisfying, relationship, which is clouded by Morgan’s love for Masood and his heterosexual friend’s inability to respond to his unwanted advances.The trip unfolds in unexpected ways. But it is Masood and the stay in his native country that eventually will inspire Forster’s masterpiece, A Passage to India (1924).

It is only in Egypt during the First World War when Morgan volunteers to work for the Red Cross that,at the age of thirty-seven,he is seduced by a recuperating soldier. Then he meets and falls in love with Mohammedel-Adl, a tram conductor, who despite being also heterosexual and later happily married, allows Morgan certain sexual liberties and appears to share his affections.

During Morgan’s later sojourn in India he becomes embroiled in a relationshipwith Kanaya, a barber at the court of the Maharajah Bapu Sahib to whom Morgan becomes Private Secretary. Devoid of feelings which he so desperately craves and blackmailed by Kanaya, Morgan feels lonelier than ever.

Galgut brilliantly describes not only the precarious situation in which gays, or “minorities” in Morgan’s terminology, found themselves at the beginning of the twentieth century, but also the pitfalls of power relations across race and class that accompany Morgan’s ventures into the land of mostly unreciprocated love. The subtlety with which Galgutimagines the shifts in Morgan’s psyche and the wayhis discoveries impact on his work, especially A Passage to India, the posthumously published Maurice and the unfinished Arctic Summer from which Galgut’s own title derives, is remarkable.

Even though with this novel Galgutenters the well-established fieldof fictional author biographies (locally, MichielHeyns’sThe Typewriter’s Taleor J.M. Coetzee’s Foespring to mind), there is a great risk with imagining the lives of real people, especially well-known historical figures. Reading Arctic Summer, I often had the feeling that it is a novel where it should have been a biography and a biography where it should have been an autobiography. It is specifically Galgut’s dedication of his novel which echoes Forster’s original dedication of A Passage to Indiato Masoodthat makes one question the real inspiration and background of Arctic Summer. The parallel suggests that at least some of the emotional and psychological texture which Galgut ascribes to Forster’s and Masood’srelationship in Arctic Summer might have an autobiographical source.

dg

Damon Galgut

Judging from the acknowledgements, Galgut’s research into E.M. Forster’s life must have been extensive. But like most readers, I’m neither a Galgut nor a Forster scholar, so it is impossible for me to judge where and to what extent the lines between Forster’s life andGalgut’simagination and own experiences blur. Even more difficult is to define why such “untidy borders”, in the words of critic Ellen Rees, trigger occasional twinges of unease when reading the novel.

And yet, there is no doubt that this meticulously crafted book is a tribute to an intriguing man and his work.A deeply felt, melancholic novel which charts the subliminal links between creativity and desire and brings to life a fascinating literary figure, it is another bright feather in Galgut’s literary cap.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in April 2014

REVIEW: To Catch A Cop

to catch a cop

to catch a copyTo Catch a Cop: The Paul O’Sullivan Story

Jacana

By Marianne Thamm

REVIEW: Donald Paul

This is the tale of an epic clash between an underdog hero and ubiquitous villains. To Catch a Cop reads like a thriller, with the many strands of Paul O’Sullivan’s spiderweb organogram precisely and inexerobaly brought together by Marianne Thamm to culminate in the trial and disgrace of the once national police commissioner Jackie Selebi.

But a nagging thread runs through this tangled rats’ nest that Marianne Thamm so deftly unravels and rewinds into a neat ball, a strand that won’t tuck away neatly. You unpick the niggle early, when the disgraced national commissioner of police Jackie Selebi recounts how he was chosen for the job.

According to Selebi the then president Thabo Mbeki took him aside and said he had a “list of 100 potential candidates” to replace outgoing commissioner George Fivaz. The president then said, “I looked at this list and the only name that I found that I can think of is you.” And therein lies the rot that continues to destroy our “state of Denmark”.

Why did Mbeki — and scores of other seemingly honourable men and women — not only support this odious man, but also wilfully attempt to cover up for him? Even months before his fall, with the evidence of his corruption and mendacity mounting, Mbeki renewed Selebi’s contract for a further year.

Thamm tells a brilliant story of these murky slime pool lizards with such clarity and elegance, you really only need to wash your hands after each chapter. By the end of it, you are left nodding agreement with the tenacious and probably slightly unbalanced Paul O’Sullivan, that life is a simple but sustained struggle between the good and the bad and that it gets ugly in between.

The list of names that fall into the bad category is long and many of whom are very much alive and continuing with their suspect behaviour, for example suspended crime intelligence head Richard Mdluli. He’s now biting the hand that feeds him, turning on Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa (consipcuously absent from these pages, but appointed by President Jacob Zuma in 2009, just four months before Selebi went on trial). According to the M&G (2 March 2014) Mdluli claims to have evidence that “[Mthethwa] and top generals knew about fraud and corruption in the police’s crime intelligence unit but did not act on the knowledge”.

Selebi never spent a single day of his 15-year sentence in a prison cell — he was pardoned for health reasons — and was protected by people as high up as the then president of the country. Nothing seems to have changed within the current crop ruling the country’s police force. O’Sullivan is more sanguine and firmly believes that there are more good cops on the beat than bad ones; that good will triumph over evil.

But there is that niggley thread that you want to keep pulling: why was Selebi appointed in the first place? Why is the subsequent crop of ministers and commissioners untouchable? It is obvious that these decisions have resulted in a spectacular faillure by government to reform the South African Police Service.

O’Sullivan has one simple answer: greed. And when you read about the amount of drugs being moved freely about the country; the profits from prostitution, human trafficking and smuggling that are being laundered through South African businesses, it is hard to come up with any other reasonable answer. “If there is one thing I have learned from life,” said O’Sullivan to Thamm, “it’s that a lot of people prey on greed.”

If you thought that the collapse of policing in South Africa was a problem, then reading this book will explode even your most serious criticisms. The rot is deep, insidious and vicious — the body count in To Catch a Cop makes most thriller fiction read like a nursery rhyme — and there appears to be no attempt by government to do anything about it other than talk platitudes. Right to the end of his trial, Selebi and his supporters tried to paint a picture of O’Sullivan as simply a white “foreigner” with a racist dislike for an honourable black cadre.

O’Sulivan does not ride off into the sunset victorious. He may have won the battle against Selebi but the war continues. The last section of the book moves on to another figure in this heinous cabal of comrades and crooks: Czech fugitive Radovan Krejcir, currently under arrest and charged with, among other things, attempted murder. His target: Paul O’Sullivan.

And like any good thriller, there’s a sequel to come.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in April 2014