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.
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.