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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

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

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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

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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.”

REVIEW: 101 Detectives

101 detectives feature image

correct 101 detectives101 Detectives

Ivan Vladislavić

Umuzi

REVIEW: Ken Barris

I expected excellent writing from Ivan Vladislavić when I began reading this collection of short stories, and found it in abundance. However, I did not expect the hilarity I encountered in some of the tales. Not that Vladislavić is humourless by any means, but I seldom have the pleasure of laughing out loud when I read his work.

The title piece exemplifies this humour. A detective suffering an anxiety disorder travels to the 101 Detectives: Sub-Saharan Africa conference. He sees the name “Joseph Blumenfeld” in red letters on a white background. His reaction seems inspired by the low comedy of Inspector Clouseau: “For a moment he froze and a tight fist of fear clenched in his gut. That name rang a bell. And then he remembered that he was undercover. I am Joseph Blumenfeld, he thought.” Not atypically for Vladislavić, however, his satire of the genre begins to unravel at the edges, allowing glimpses into a fluid play of meanings and sounds that bubbles inside or under narrative, as in “He dug this snub-nosed lingo slubbing out of his pug-ugly mug.”

It is difficult in this limited space to do justice to the versatility of the collection. “The Fugu Eaters” is a detached, ironic description of two security policeman waiting in a hotel room for a subject under surveillance to arrive. Their humanity is suspect not only because of what they think and say, but also because of the surveillance to which they are subjected by the writing, which holds them under a cold, detached light. “Hair Shirt” and “Lullaby” are conventionally structured short stories about moving human situations, though both are subtly observed; in the latter story, the narrator’s detachment is unable to contain the sadness of the climax, allowing emotion to emerge freely.

“Exit Strategy” is the tale of a corporate storyteller who must operate in a world of corporate jargon and management speak, echoing Vladislavić’s enduring satiric reiteration of commercialised language, as if to reproduce its banality. The storyteller experiences a crisis on discovering that there is also a corporate poet. As a result of her consequent dip in performance, she is obliged to undergo sessions in a “recitation pod,” a claustrophobic device that envelopes her head. According to the manual, it “gives your words weight and returns them to you, ‘delivers’ is the technical term, in an apparently tangible form.” The pod is also a literary device, however. It points to the muteness and entrapment of a creative mind that can only think and imagine in the grotesque terms imposed by her hackneyed, flattening linguistic environment.

Similar themes emerge in “The Reading,” though with much greater emotional resonance. Maryam Akello is a refugee who has written about her traumatic experience of abduction and captivity. She does a reading in Germany in her native language Acholi, before an audience in which only one person understands her. The narrative structure is one of the most interesting features of the story, in that it dips into the point of view of various audience members, so building up an account of a listening as much as of a reading. It is only after she has completed her reading that a translation follows. The spotlight then falls on her translator, Hans Günther Basch, who reads his German translation, and subsequently on how he is affected by its content, and how that in turn affects the listeners. In this way writing, reading and listening are again made to cycle around each other, exposing more slippage and eccentricity than even human clockwork should have to endure.

Despite my admiration, I felt at times that Vladislavić’ speaks too much to himself, like Akello reading in a tongue that is opaque to her audience. “Dead Letters,” for example, makes partial sense if you have read his novel Double Negative. There we encounter a Mrs Pinhiero, who possesses a set of dead letters (i.e. letters that were never delivered and have fallen out of the system). The fiction in 101 Detectives presents a selection of these dead letters, without context or coherence. Framed as baldly as this, it makes too little sense. I had similar reservations about “The Trunks – a Complete History,” in which the writer-narrator struggles to represent the life of a long-dead stranger by combing through the objects, books and pictures he has left behind. The distance is too great to be overcome, however, the objects are insufficiently interesting – particularly because the life behind them has to be inferred, which is a dry business – and so I found this story tedious.

In balance, these flaws are a side-effect of Vladislavić’s considerable structural and thematic range. He is always willing to go out on a limb, an appetite for risk that has delivered some of the finest prose written in this country today.

  • Barris is a writer and researcher, and works at Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

REVIEW: Best White and Other Anxious Delusions

2015-05-17 22.11.26

best whiteBest White and Other Anxious Delusions

Rebecca Davis

Pan Macmillan

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

When there is grand hype around the release of the book, it can often be a disappointing read. Not necessarily because it is bad, but because it is quite good – and nothing more.

Cultish admiration of an author’s public persona can sometimes obscure the quality of their work.

The debut work of Rebecca Davis, possibly one of the best known journalists currently working in South Africa – not only because she has covered some of the most newsworthy events of recent years, but because she is very active and has a large following on Twitter – is in such danger.

She comes across as likable (though not everyone likes what she has to say). It would be easy for her fans to approve of her first foray into book publishing simply because she wrote it.

And the hype around the release of Best White and Other Anxious Delusions is – well, it’s big.

So the chances of this book fizzling like a giant balloon are great.

Does it?

No. Not once. Not even when you read it cover to cover (an episodic approach over a period of time is more recommendable, however).

Over 32 chapters, Davis maintains a consistent level of “edunewsatainment”, a made-up word you’ll find in the chapter entitled “Look It Up”, and which would refer to a “media product which is part education, part news, and part entertainment”, if it were, in fact, a word.

Davis herself calls Best White a collection of essays. Which, indeed, is what they are.

Sarah Bakewell, writing about Michel de Montaigne’s essays in How To Live, says his essays have “no great meaning, no point to make, no argument to advance. It does not have designs on you: you can do as you please” with them.

It counts for Davis’s essays too.

What this requires on the part of the reader is a certain amount of tolerance. Do not approach Best White expecting answers because, in the best tradition of the form, Davis answers nothing. If you like your non-fiction authors and journalists to dole out wisdom and point their finger with authority at a direction in which they believe you should move, then Davis is not for you.

If, however, you can plop around happily in puddles of randomness without such expectation, read Best White, because not only will you laugh really hard sometimes (and want to interrupt family members in their own business to read some paragraphs aloud), but you’re likely to learn stuff.

Because Davis, like all good essayist and journalists, has a voraciously curious mind.

She is able to impart the most fascinating nuggets of information that seems completely unrelated to her topic in such a way that you feel you might want to spend an hour or two – as soon as you’ve managed to put her book down – doing a little bit of research into types of winds, Kitty Genovese and the possible legal complications of an accident involving two self-driving cars.

What makes her writing so funny – quite apart from the fact that she has a clear, authentic and consistent voice – is that she uses the essay as a lens for close observation of the world. And when the world – and here, particularly South Africa – is viewed closely, its inherent absurdity is revealed.

For inconclusive, self-effacing, informed humour, delivered with often almost perfect pitch by an openly ambivalent writer (she often questions her own take on things), you’d be hard-pressed to find a more satisfying example of essay writing in South Africa.

And if the zeitgeist has you chewing your cuticles to shreds, then that’s all the more reason to read Davis’s collection of wild anecdote that manage, admirably, also to capture a social and historical moment that both has us in its thrall but which is, like all other social and historical moments, transient.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in June 2015.