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REVIEW: Hitler, Verwoerd, Mandela and me

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thamm-book-coverHitler, Verwoerd, Mandela and Me – A Memoir of Sorts
Marianne Thamm
Tafelberg

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

The age of identity politics has ushered a strange medley of ghosts into our lives.

Strange, because they sit so uncomfortably together, at once positively affirming that difference is a good thing (and that in smoothing over these, many are required to sublimate not just identity, but lived experience) and somehow trampling over the idea of “shared humanity” in a worryingly divisive way.

Thamm’s book enters this prickly, haunted era simultaneously banging her own identity drum with panache, while imbuing her memoir-of-sorts with a benevolent warmth that recalls what now feels like an outmoded idea: inclusivity.

With 5 000 Facebook friends and 16.3 K followers on Twitter, it is not too much of a stretch to say that Marianne Thamm’s first first-person book is one of the most highly anticipated non-fiction releases in South Africa in recent years.

Journalist Marianne Thamm

Journalist Marianne Thamm

Thamm – like most old-fashioned journalists – has worked behind the scenes for most of her career as an almost-anonymous news reporter and writer of books. She has done and seen much more than your average opinion punter and knows a great many people. The gradual but steady emergence of her own voice has been earned in a rather quaint way: through sheer hard yards.

She has worked the South African beat – to borrow the parlance of newspaper journalism, where she cut her teeth – for so long, and is so au fait with the country’s personality, foibles and mis-beats, that her commentary comes packaged in a charming robe of Actual Knowledge and Experience, a somewhat rare accoutrement in these days of the ubiquitous phenomenon of cheap opinion.

It is not surprising that she has also dabbled in comedy as this voice has developed, because Thamm, like most comedians, is not so much blessed with the gift of the gab (that too) as she is blessed with laser vision: an ability to see complexity, but also the overall picture, give it context, provide contrast and comparison, and convey all of this in few words.

This voice is what South Africans have come to love and admire, because it manages to convey criticism with warmth and humour, and to cut through BS as suavely as a hot knife cuts through butter. Which is not to imply that she doesn’t have her critics – and I anticipate the anti-Nelson Mandela brigade enthusiastically revving their engines to climb into her for unashamedly admiring Mandela – the eponymous foil of the two malignant leaders, Adolf Hitler and Hendrik Verwoerd, who she believes shaped her and the 20th Century she hated so vehemently.

Pared down to its essence, this rather awkwardly titled book is the story of a father and a daughter.

Georg Thamm immigrated to South Africa in the early 60s, with his Portuguese wife Barbara, and their two small children, Marianne and Alfred. Georg had served in Hitler’s Luftwaffe, while Barbara grew up an orphan during the Salazar reign of terror Portugal.

Coming to South Africa allowed Georg to slide easily into the confident role that history had bequeathed him: a natural recipient of all that was good and easy to gain as a white man. And it infuriated Marianne. From the time that she became sensible to the Holocaust at a young age, until her father was well into his eighties – she was enraged that she was bound, by blood, to a man who had played a part, no matter how small, in mass murder.

This is what shapes Marianne politically: that she is genetically implicated in murderous abuse of power. And her anger is fuelled as she grows “surrounded by adults who seemed to be oblivious of, conspiring with, afraid of, or in complete support of” systems of oppression like apartheid.

Beginning with the death of her loving mother, which throws her and her father into close pragmatic proximity of one another as they deal with the bureaucracy of death – a closeness that was uncomfortably borne for the years her mother was institutionalised after a debilitating stroke – the book picks up on a chronological story.

It starts in verkrampte Pretoria, where Marianne seems determined from a very young age to live right up in the face of the hideous world, playing wildly and independently and acting fiercely and vociferously against the expectation that girls wear dresses, don’t fight and allow themselves to be pawed and ogled and accosted by men. Her mother – in all other ways the embodiment of feminine conformity – shapes her indignation at the latter, one day marching down the road to shout at the café owner who had rubbed his erection against her daughter as she was choosing sweets he’d said she could have for free.

Her father, on the other hand, is nonplussed when Marianne tells him that a family friend pounced on her inappropriately while she was reading in the living room. Georg, while not essentially a bad person, was afflicted with that peculiar blindness from which those who benefit from the status quo often suffer.

And so the rebellious child becomes a news journalist. The reader is given a vivid account of her early adult years, golden years in journalism, but a period of extreme and violent suppression by the apartheid government of the majority of the country’s citizens.

This section is entertaining and provides some very visceral “remember when” moments for anyone over the age of 40. However, it is of necessity less concerned with the parental apparition that is Georg, which renders the narrative both more rollicking, but also more superficial.

However, just as one begins to worry that the writer might have slid into glibness, she unexpectedly becomes a mother. To be specific: a white lesbian mother of two black girls.

The narrative, though not overtly so – is never far from the question of identity, though at the same time, this is precisely the book’s obsession: how do we become what or who we are?

Marianne is a white lesbian of (what most white South Africans would regard as) radical politics. Her father is entrenched in his white-man ideas of how the world should work. Her daughters are black.

What makes them who they are is the world into which each is born. Georg becoming a man in Nazi Germany. Marianne, a community outsider in white Pretoria because of her immigrant status and her wild streak, but a winner on the South African chess board in which she plays for the white team. And her daughters who, though born into a free country, are reminded daily by the insouciance and arrogance that are the hallmarks of whiteness, that they are black.

And built into these is suspicion – “[t]his is the burden of history”, says Thamm.

What redeems them, makes them human, is their connectedness to one another. What redeems anyone is seeing that each human being is more far more complex than a mere representation of a type. And while politics moves us in innumerable and insidious ways along the paths of our lives, it’s within intimate relationships that we can become fully the people we are.

Thamm heroically sidesteps cliché and (for the most part) the catch-all phrases of modern socio-political interaction that are rendered meaningless through over-use, in order to write a book that is at once too specific in identity detail to have universal appeal, but yet which transcends the narrow confines of identity. This is a very particular South African story, but it will have a wide and appreciative audience.

Because while there is much that separates us, a well-told story is a magnet for disparateness.

  • An abridged version of this review appeared in the Financial Mail in November 2016.

 

REVIEW: Letters of Stone

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Letters of StoneLetters of Stone – From Nazi Germany to South Africa

Steven Robins

Penguin

REVIEW: KARIN SCHIMKE

There is no easy way into and through the telling of a family history when the story has been shaped by intergenerational trauma. At every turn there is a trap: an alienating adherence to fact and detail at the one extreme; mawkishness, sentimentality or spluttering outrage at the other. Robins has avoided every one of them.

Perhaps the fact that almost 30 years have passed since this South African anthropologist became interested in the story of his father’s family has helped to shape this extraordinary narrative. Perhaps what is necessary to tell a story of such import with such clarity is time: the slow accrual and organisation of information, the gradual realization of the vastness of what shaped you, the gradual integration of the complex interwoveness of identity and once-removed emotions guilt, anger, fear and despair.

Robins’ father Herbert never spoke about his childhood as a German Jew in Berlin and Robins never asked. Until it was almost too late. Herbert was 82 in 1989 when it first occurred to Robins to interview him. Herbert had emigrated from Berlin in Germany to Port Elizabeth here in South Africa in 1936 after the Nazis came to power.

Central to Letters of Stone is a photograph of three women that stood in Robins’ Port Elizabeth home when he was a boy, but about which no one ever spoke. During his interview with his father – which covered “every aspect of his life in Poland and Germany”, he never once asked about the photograph of the three women who, it turned out, were his grandmother Cecilie flanked by his aunts Edith and Hildegard.

Cecilie had five children with her husband David. Their son Artur emigrated from Berlin two years after Herbert and settled in what was then Northern Rhodesia. This was the only family Robins knew. “[T]here seemed to be,” he writes “an unstated agreement that the rest of [my father’s] family were not to be spoken about.”

Once his father died, Robins began a piecemeal – and often oddly serendipitous – retrieval of his father’s family history. One small revelation would lead to another, one clue would unlock a previously invisible door. The very shortened version of this story is: the family that remained in Germany died. And from these very bare and terribly brittle bones, Robins has constructed a behemoth of interconnected social and political histories across the globe in the twentieth century.

This book’s value does not rest purely on the intrinsic power of its central story. Its value is in the depth and scope that it reaches through the veritable pinhole of one family’s story.

Robins’ experience as both an academic researcher and a writer of nuance renders Letters of Stone a work of immeasurable beauty. It folds towards itself and then unfolds again in a pastiche of personal experience and feeling, photographs, letters and anecdotes, but through it all runs the muscle of twentieth century history. And it is this muscle that makes this work an absolute triumph of storytelling.

Not satisfied – or perhaps even able – to see any detail as isolated, Robins creates a kind of meta-context for his family’s story that encompasses eugenics, various genocides, war, apartheid, subjugation, dehumanization, nationalism, cultural assimilation, exile and the creation of political situations that result in a desperate search for refuge across international borders.

While this might sound like a project in which ambition could outstrip coherence, Robins again manages this vast body of information with enormous elegance, creating three distinct but intertwined story lines: the story of his need to connect to his family, the story of the family left behind in Germany and the story of the catastrophe of prejudice and subjugation.

Each of these narratives follows its own arc and Robins controls the tension admirably. It builds and builds so that one becomes enthralled to the extent that it is hard to close the book for any period of time.

The story of what happens to his family – revealed in letters found after his father Herbert and his Uncle Artur’s deaths – emerges through the hand of his grandmother Cecilie. The growing anxiety, the narrowing of the geographic and social spaces from which she reports and the desperation to escape from Germany, create a stifling claustrophobia that must have deeply affected Robins during the research.

There is much to admire, consider, talk about and take heed of in Letters of Stone. I cannot think of a single South African for whom this book would not have relevance. Especially now. Especially here. Especially this week.

  •  This review first appeared in the Cape Times in March 2016

 

 

REVIEW: THIS ONE TIME

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This One TimeThis One Time

Alex van Tonder

Macmillan

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

You keep thinking, as you read This One Time, that it will be revealed to you how the despicable protagonist became himself. There had to have been a terrible childhood, some awful trauma, early signs of mental disturbances – or perhaps evidence that it was the drugs that turned rendered him devoid of any humanity.

It’s not forthcoming.

Unless you want to head the route of social context and blame “The Internet” and “Social Media In General”, you can get no hook on how a mildly failing and flailing nobody can turn into such a crass, conscience-less, life-destroying maniac.

So you head the way of social context, following the author’s lead, and decide that there is indeed, something inescapably putrid, disruptive and corrupting in social media’s ability to merciless exploitation of even the mildest person’s narcissistic tendencies.

Jacob Lynch had dreams of becoming a writer – in the old-fashioned sense of the word – but when he gets to New York no one is interested in him. “Sonny, you’re not the only writer struggling. We’ll see what we can do, but the internet has changed everything for writers,” a recruiter tells him.

Over a game of chess and some beers with his best friend, Brodie Lomax the blogger is born. Brodie starts off as a parody of the kinds of men Jacob overhears talking about their sexual conquests, but turns into the King of Women Haters and the internet duly rewards him. He becomes the blogger shleb every brand wants to associate with so that he will Tweet and Instagram their products. Brodie knows creating outrage is the quickest link to click-success. He posts revenge porn and leaked sex tapes and his followers lap it up, liking and sharing and retweeting him to fame/infamy.

It gets dirtier and dirtier as Jacob-the-greedy gobbles up the attention, free gifts and endless sex that gets hurled Brodie’s way. And because being a blogger doesn’t necessarily mean a comfortable bank balance, Jacob/Brodie pitches the ultimate plan to the marketing people at a beer company: reality television that works on consumer-generated content. His followers get to Tweet what he should do as he cockroach-crawls his way around New York picking up women and taking them home without them knowing that they are appearing on television in real time.

Van Tonder’s handle on the PR, advertising, television and marketing scene is rock-steady and she is entirely inside the brain of decrepit berk that Jacob has become. When his thoughts lean towards self-insight, she rips him back on to his path of self-destruction before the reader starts nurturing delusions that there might be a scrap of compassion inside Jacob.

The novel shuttles between two locations: the glitz of the New York blogger high life and the isolation of a Gothic Alaskan hunting lodge – complete with stuffed dead animals – where Jacob has retreated to finally write the book his agent has already sold for millions. In the former he is a swaggering miscreant; in the second he is ineffectually pleading for his life while tied to a bed and wallowing, quite literally, in the pigsty he’s made of his life.

He’s being held there by a ghastly kook of a woman, yet you cannot help being just a little bit glad that someone is finally keeping the Brodie toxins off the interwebs. Comeuppenance for the creep doesn’t really play out the way you think it will though.

This thriller is Van Tonder’s first novel (she is, incidentally, a blogger herself) and her ear for external dialogue in the coruscating faux world of money-and-clicks is spot on. The internal dialogue is somewhat less convincing. Also, the New York parts of the book are more riveting than the horror scenes in Alaska, which are too drawn out in places.

This is The Truman Show meets Misery, updated to encompass the gory dog show that is our obsession with and addiction to entertainment and outrage – and all the channels through which those two reach us.

  • This review appeared in Business Day