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REVIEW: The Alibi Club

the alibi club

the alibi clubThe Alibi Club

Jaco van Schalkwyk

Umuzi

REVIEW: Lwandile Fikeni

The first chapter of Jaco van Schalkwyk’s debut novel is fraught with anxiety. Countless faceless, nameless people are desperate to enter into the United States. People here have no names: only designations. You have Visas and Citizens. Our narrator and protagonist is number A98108755 – a Visa making its way through Customs and Immigration.

“I carry documents certifying I am free of hepatitis A and B, influenza, polio, tetanus, rubella, measles and rotavirus. I am able to prove that I am a good number with sufficient funds, that knows the address to my final destination,” the narrator tells us. The last bit, of course, is a contradiction, which reveals itself as the book unfolds. In the book, this “final destination” is as elusive as the reasons our protagonist is so desperate to get into America.

The story opens in 1998 and catalogues the narrator’s ups and downs in vivid, sharp prose reminiscent of gonzo journalism. One can sense an acute sense of self-disgust in the tone of the book. It begins to feel as though the language and style is used as a tool with which to try speak of the psychological trauma of having grown up in the conservative silence of white apartheid South Africa and the white post-apartheid fear of the unknown. The novel is hinged on a character who has left a new constitutional democracy led by a government of what he must have been taught to believe to be terrorists, to the crafting of a new American identity in post 9/11 that was founded, quite overtly, on the imagining and cultural production of “the terrorist” as a Muslim body, and how that affected the American psyche.

In one of the most superb understatements in the book, the 17-year old protagonist, who has just left South Africa exclaims, “I feel anonymous and free,” upon setting foot on American soil. Soon, he’ll find himself at The Alibi – a seedy bar in Brooklyn where he finds work cleaning toilets and mopping vomit off the mottled floors before graduating to become a barman of a mangled bar. In short, staccato sentences that sting, the narrator catalogues the drunks and the drug dealers and the drugs; the racists and the whores and the warmongers – every moiling muppet who finds himself along DeKalb Avenue in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, New York.

This is the Fort Greene soon-to-be gentrified, a place that is miffed by the looming presence of bull-horned hipsters. This Fort Greene is still rowdy and unpredictable. Our narrator survives the violence and the drabness of his new home by drowning in drink. We are never told about the narrator’s past in Cape Town, South Africa. We are never allowed even a glimpse into the nature and reason for his despair and detachment from his home country. Perhaps here the author aimed to navigate away from the niggling bits of contemporary South African history and its racial politics.

It is through the unsaid that one might say The Alibi Club represents a liminal space for our narrator. Between 1998 and 2007 his life dangles aimlessly on crumbling American ground and the birth of a dangerous Americanism built of war on terror and a fickle urbanism built on the faux-culture of hipsterism. During this time of transition, of waiting, and of not knowing what to do next or what will happen next, he finds refuge in the smoky haze of an ‘old time bar’ – The Alibi Club – where he meets the characters that give the novel such sharp luminosity.

It is these skeptical, cynical characters – desperate and dejected by the changes in their environment and with America at large – and the author’s tight-fisted language that lends the novel its pungent stench. Take for instance:

“Everybody has an Amy. Amy has a Hotmail account. Amy is crazy. Amy makes me crazy. Amy eats uppers out of plastic wrappers. I’m mad about Amy. I think we’re mad about each other. Amy wants me deep inside her. She has her reasons.”

Or:

“Tommy is a boss while Owen is gone. His hands get sick. Boils from inside his palms. He can’t paint. His skin breaks out in a rash up to his elbows. He says it’s from washing dishes.”

Or:

“Before Jean-Baptiste disappeared entirely, he owned an Alfa Romeo. Nobody owns an Alfa Romeo in Brooklyn. His was a red 1974 Spider Veloce. When it didn’t look like rain, JB drove around the neighbourhood in his Spider. The Spider moved into the raw space on Waverly Street, between Myrtle and Willoughby, before he did. Later, above the garage, he fashioned a room with a bed and a glass coffee table on which he could do more cocaine.”

The book follows this logic and economy until the very end. It is filled with countless characters that enliven its every page. However, they never quite give you any depth or any real insight into their lives and motivations and despair. As one reads further, the characters begin to feel more like caricatures and the novel begins to feel like an assemblage of images than a construction of meanings. Perhaps, this owes to the author’s background as a visual artist or perhaps, it was an artistic choice in the composition of the novel itself.

Stylistically, the novel is great and the narrative voice is captivating. It is unfortunate that we never get to know why our narrator left South Africa in 1998. It would’ve been ideal to learn the source of the character’s desperation to get into America during that transitional era of his home country. One only gets a sense of skeletons lurking in the shadows. Every sap and sod who finds themselves at The Alibi seems to drag a few of these skeletons to dissolve them in a drink or two, or more, while something sinister encroaches on the bar and DeKalb Avenue’s way of life.

In conclusion, perhaps, one could say that the book is about an imagined community among strangers. More precisely, The Alibi Club is a support group of people who leaned against each other for support during a tumultuous time in the history of America and the world.

 

REVIEW: Books That Matter: David Philip Publishers during the apartheid years

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41BVsmOHteLBooks That Matter: David Philip Publishers during the apartheid years

Marie Philip

David Philip Publishers,

REVIEW: Karina M. Szczurek

As I see it, in publishing there is a significant difference between accidental and nurtured bestsellers. Nowadays, the market is dominated by the former. But every now and then you get a publisher who will understand the value of the latter.

Reading Marie Philip’s memoir about the famous publishing house she and her husband established in South Africa during the dark years of apartheid, I was reminded of how precious such an approach is in the book world. It is even more precious and definitely rarer when it is combined with a moral and social conscience which Marie and David Philip and their team exemplified.

It is difficult to imagine the South African literary scene without David Philip Publishers (DPP). Over the years, they have launched or assisted the careers of such writers as Richard Rive, Nadine Gordimer, Mandla Langa, Stephen Watson, Alan Paton, Sindiwe Magona, Ivan Vladislavić and Lyndall Gordon. The list of their titles, which Marie Philip includes at the end of her incisive book, is astounding, to say the least. Just to give you a sample, among their seminal publications are: Don Foster’s Detention and Torture in South Africa, Mamphela Ramphele’s A Bed Called Home, Michael Fraser’s A Fynbos Year, The Essential Evita Bezuidenhout, Ellen Kuzwayo’s Sit Down and Listen, and Being Here: Modern Short Stories from Southern Africa (compiled by Robin Malan). Because of their
independence the Philips “had the freedom to take risks and be bold, and even eccentric”, as well as to tune into their “own publishing instincts”. While it was important to survive, money was not their “main concern”. The combination of these factors turned out to be a recipe for great success in all respects.

And it all began with a penguin in the early 1970s. Once they had founded their publishing house and had their logo, Marie Philip wrote the story of a “resourceful penguin” surviving the oil spills of tankers diverted around the Cape because of the closure of the Suez Canal at the time. Published simultaneously in English and Afrikaans, the thin hardback with a dust jacket, Gregory, Jackass Penguin (Gregory, Kaapse Pikkewyn), was a hit in its English edition. It also taught DDP a first valuable lesson about the nature of publishing in Afrikaans in a highly charged socio-political environment.

Soon after the penguin story, manuscripts began to arrive. They decided to accept “any good book that came along”, including the perceived ‘unsaleables’: poetry, essays,
and short stories. As Russell Martin notes, “David’s choices were guided by a feeling for what made a good book and his belief that good books would sell (unlike today’s belief that if a book sells, it is good).” DDP understood and lived by T.S. Eliot’s dictum: “A nation that doesn’t value its poets is in danger of losing its soul.”

With the books came responsibilities way beyond the call of duty in present-day publishing. The Philips joined a group of oppositional publishers and eventually founded the Independent Publishers Association of South Africa (IPASA). They continued producing books which they believed in, even if they were banned and confiscated. Books That Matter documents the courage it took to confront censorship and harassment from the security police under the apartheid regime. Despite hardship, sales and awards followed, and within a relatively short period of time, David Philip Publishers was a firmly established company, not only locally but also on the international publishing stage.

The Philips were publishers who cultivated strong personal ties with their authors to whom their doors were always open. A glass of wine was always ready to welcome visitors. Arderne Cottage, where the publishing venture was initially based, was often a safe house for activists. Lifelong friendships developed. One comes across authors all the time who reminisce about these close-knit relationships which sustained them through all kinds of difficulties, whether of political, literary or personal nature. In 2009, Nadine Gordimer wrote: “David Philip was the kind of publisher every writer would like to have. His dedication was to the Word as literature, not on the calculated Best Seller but as an art in illumination of the mystery of human existence.”

Marie Philip recalls her husband quoting the publisher Faber during a trip to the UK: “Books don’t make money”. To which an Ethiopian librarian who overheard the statement responded: “No, but they make a difference.” DPP’s legacy testifies to the fact.

In his commemorative lecture of 2010, “Let it be known: The heritage of David Philip and the needs of the nation”, Stanley G.M. Ridge stated: “David Philip’s deep conviction made the publisher a vital agent in the process of building the nation and nurturing it to health. Without such publishing, there is a gulf between the promising intellectual growing points in the society and those who need to engage with them. It is by building relationships with writers that those growing points can be discovered and nurtured, and it is often by taking significant risks that the works see the light of day.” To comprehend this role is as crucial today as it was before 1994, but few are up to the challenge. In the same lecture, Ridge said: “In a multicultural society, particularly one in an accelerated process of finding itself, it is vital that people across social boundaries come to see beyond the caricatures and enter imaginatively into other people’s lives.” What better vehicle for such imaginative leaps than the stories we can share through literature? May those who refuse to reach out across those boundaries take heed.

Richly illustrated, beautifully told, Books That Matter is a gem of local literary history. If there ever was a book that mattered, this is certainly one.

QUICK REVIEW: Do Not Go Gentle

gentle_breeze_by_jamuna

DO NOTDo Not Go Gentle

Futhi Ntshingila

Modjaji

Mvelo’s life is a constant living hell. It is tainted with every injustice and evil, and condemned with every ridiculous superstition and damaging scrap of ignorance that it is possible for a single society to muster. Mvelo is the poster child for an economically and morally impoverished country.

Her story grabs the reader by the hair and drags them through the roughest and dirtiest places that our almost broken country has given birth to.

And then it does a remarkable thing: it turns into a fairytale. Not of rags to riches, but of isolation to embrace.

Told in the plainest language, this story – Mvelo’s story, which is so many people’s story – unfurls unexpectedly (even a little soppily) into a drama of redemption. I can’t remember when last a book made me cry from happiness. Someone needs to make this one into a movie.  – Karin Schimke

REVIEW: Leaving Before the Rains Come

rain

Leaving Before the Rains Come jacketLeaving Before the Rains Come

Alexandra Fuller

Harvill Secker

REVIEW: Karina M. Szczurek

I must have been quite a disconcerting sight: weeping my eyes out in the middle of O.R. Tambo International Airport. I couldn’t help myself. That is what a good book can do to you. I was passing the wait for my flight home with the final few chapters of Alexandra Fuller’s latest memoir, Leaving Before the Rains Come, when the tears just started spilling over. It wasn’t the first time one of Fuller’s books had made me cry. But perhaps it was most fitting since this particular story feels as if it had been written through a lot of intimate pain.

Mostly known for her international bestseller, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Fuller is the author of four other books. She is one of those writers who will either irritate the hell out of you or steal your heart. She stole mine with The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, the incredibly moving story of a young cowboy who died on the oil rigs in Wyoming, and I have been reading her work ever since. My other favourite is Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier in which Fuller captured her haunting encounter with a veteran of the Rhodesian war. In hindsight, the book can be read as a companion to Leaving Before the Rain Comes.

Readers familiar with her other memoirs will know that the Fuller family “gets over it, whatever it is, and they move on.” Accustomed to war, insanity, loss, fear, violence, grief, drinking, death, and the wonder and chaos that are Africa, the Fullers don’t do boring. When Alexandra, or rather Bobo, as she is known, meets Charlie, an American, in Zambia in 1991 and decides to settle down with him and their family in the United States, she believes that she is choosing a life of “certainties, safety nets, and assurances” which all seem terribly alluring after an existence based on “perpetual insecurity”. She is young, she thinks that “the only thing that stood between me and oblivion was love”, but, as we all find out sooner or later, love is hardly ever enough. Even if it is a love that is strong and true as theirs undoubtedly was: “The sudden shock of coming into such sharp focus – the sheer, unlikely, extraordinary luck of being loved by this man – was wonderful, but it was also confusing. The few other men I had been with had found my intensity off-putting, unseemly, alarming, but Charlie calmly, fearlessly turned toward it, as if warmed by the heat I threw off.”

When Bobo gives birth to their first child and nearly dies of malaria, the romance of adventure begins to wear off. Eventually they decide to settle in Wyoming, paying bills, bringing up their kids, and in Bobo’s case, trying to fit in. But with the looming financial crisis of recent years, Charlie’s loss of income, an engulfing silence between them, and Bobo’s ingrained ache for Africa, they begin to feel “undone from one another”.

Many years ago, a friend gave me valuable advice: When in doubt, listen to your body; it never lies. This is something Fuller discovers herself when amidst the crisis she falls seriously ill. She also understands that Africa doesn’t easily let go of her own. And no matter how hard it is to face the possibility, the idea of a divorce begins to creep into their marriage.

In most cases it takes more courage to get out of a marriage than to stay in it. Fuller is no coward; she has been inducted into ‘getting over it’. “We’d come together with too much passion to break apart gently”, she writes. There is unbearable heartache, warfare, betrayal, separation and return: “But in every real way, we steered assiduously away from one another.” Throughout it all, Fuller tries her hand at writing, one rejected novel after another, until one day someone makes clear to her that fiction might not be her métier. She also discovers what it means to be independent, financially literate, and “that for a woman to speak her mind in any clear, unassailable, unapologetic way, she must first possess it.” In the middle of it all something staggering and totally unpredictable happens. Once again it becomes obvious that it is in the face of calamity that we forge our true selves.

Fuller does not hold back. Her ability to expose the most hidden corners of the soul in a way that is respectful and kind, towards herself and others, is beautiful. Her powerful insights are clad in a language to match: “Then there was an abrupt release, and there she was: a long-limbed, waxy, blood-smeared baby unfurling on my chest, her lips a perfect rosebud of query, and everything I had ever thought I knew about pain and love and fear of death raced out of me and was replaced by a fierce, murderous adoration. I looked at Mum in astonishment. ‘I know,’ she said…” The entire book is full of such astounding scenes and observations which leave you breathless, or in tears, or roaring with laughter.

The cocktail of searing honesty, relentless humour and gorgeous storytelling Fuller serves up in Leaving Before the Rains Come is intoxicating.

REVIEW: It Might Get Loud

locusts

locustIt Might Get Loud

Ingrid Winterbach

Translated by Michiel Heyns

Human Rousseau

REVIEW: KARIN SCHIMKE

Take the title as a warning. Or as an invitation. Either way, you’re not going to get what you generally expect when you pick up a South African novel: the gentle prising of our of violent past, present and (undoubtedly) future through hyper-real interaction between recognisable characters.

What you will get is a cacophony of realities. It Might Get Loud is a vast and clamorous story that mixes the unmitigated presence of the dead, of demons and spirits and mysteries, into the prosaic lives of the two main characters, Maria Volschenk and Karl Hofmeyer.

The characters don’t know one another, and while they do skim past one another towards the end of the book, they never meet and are unaware of one another. Yet they have much in common: both journey from Durban to Cape Town on the impetus of their relationship with a troubled sibling.

In this sense, Winterbach’s tenth novel typifies the quest in literature, where the journey is both symbolic and the spine around which the plot is assembled. Karl’s journey in particular, is full of trials as he heads to Cape Town in his car, trailing through the country’s “godforsaken” backwaters.

What both characters need to retrieve (retrieval being an element of the quest novel) is an answer: Karl needs to understand what has happened to his brother that he is “causing havoc” on the urban farm where he is living, while Maria is trying to make sense of her sister Sofie’s suicide.

Neither Karl nor Maria return to Durban with answers, but neither does either seem to have turned any obvious corners in their own development. Which leaves the journey-as-plot aspect of the novel apparently unfulfilled – things happen, in sequence, but the traditional course of cause and effect – the “and so” – is missing.

This is not to imply any failure. The novel’s hazy irresolution is precisely the point: it avoids pronouncements.

Central to both stories is a farm (the place actually exists), an old military store in Tamboerskloof that became neglected and was taken over by Josias Brand, a hippy artist with a will of iron and heart for society’s misfits. Karl’s brother Iggy has ended up here amongst the animals, strugglers and survivors, but has fallen foul of Brand.

This farm is enormously symbolic as a geographic marker, referencing the well-established plaasroman in Afrikaans, but turning it on its head, so that here it represents more fully the country’s liminal spaces. It is a place where previous social orders are evident, but crumbling. It is the crackled surface that might lie between what is concrete and what, for so many South Africans, regardless of race and culture, is an “other side”; the unseen, but vividly experienced world of the spirit.

On the way to Cape Town, Karl reads letters Iggy has written him in which he sets out a grand, occultish fantasy that plays off inside the old storage halls on the farm, in which Iggy says he has had to fight for his “soul” against demonic forces. That Iggy is, in medical terms, delusional, is borne out by the real-world situation in which Karl finds him when he gets to Cape Town: drugged on a psychiatric hospital bed.

Karl’s confusion and hopelessness in the face of his brother’s strange ramblings and his fate – indeed in the face of life – is contrasted starkly with his obsession for heavy metal music.

Winterbach details – sometimes perhaps gets a little carried away with her research – this obsession, when Karl comes across as similarly obsessed metal fans on his way to Cape Town and they discuss bands and gigs together. In fact, the English title of this book comes from a 2008 documentary about some prominent heavy metal musicians.

The muscular, uncompromising aggression of this rock genre is the polar opposite of Karl’s personality. He washes his hands obsessively and is superstitious to the point of paralysis about numbers. But he is also a realist and Iggy’s otherworldly obsessions are a cypher to him.

Numbers are important in the story – Maria is a bookkeeper, whereas her sister was a poet – but they are not the only heavily loaded symbols. There are biblical images of plague, small creatures, domestic farm animals, movies, opera – It Might Get Loud is in fact exactly the kind of amplified distortion that heavy metal is, and a source of endless intertextual references, so varied in scope and historical time that even the experienced reader would have to read it more than once to pick up and hold on to all the threads.

The result is often puzzling, but also exceedingly pleasing. It Might Get Loud is intelligent, boundary shifting and unafraid of itself.

The novel is rather like Sofie’s poems, which one character describes as having “a kind of spirit…that no longer takes account of things like your normal, predictable aesthetic.”