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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