The Alphabet of Birds
REVIEW: Melvyn Minnaar
For those familiar with the Afrikaans version that appeared in 2011 – and won acclaim and awards – one of the pleasures of this roman à tiroirs is the precision of the translation (a rewrite, more accurately) in echoing the nuances of the original.
While the settings and tone of Naude’s seven haunting inter-linking stories have, what Damon Galgut, in a pointed introduction to the book, calls a “cosmopolitan gloss”, all are anchored in that particular starkness that Afrikaans sometimes shares with the outer edges of society and characters of our country.
It’s a language that harbours a particular emotional grittiness – such as J.M Coetzee brought so energetically to his first books, and provides the vivid graphics for Marlene van Niekerk’s fine novels.
Naude uses it in polished translation to densely weave the melancholic line of displacement/alienation that runs through all these stories. The glimpses of, and Afrikaans names are also a subtextual meditation on those speakers’ place in a much changed world and the country of today.
Often his mastery of words opens up possibilities beyond the obvious and foregrounded narrative. The reader is drawn into the telling of the tales as they unfold, unlocking meaning in sentences, negotiating time frames and the evolution of the plot, finding deep delight in the passion of prose.
This is Joschka, a baker’s assistant, and ‘alternative lover’ of the worldly, high-flying expatriate narrator, a banker in London: “He has hands that are capable of anything. Hands that start shaping each day when it breaks. Hands that track the shape of whichever body may be at hand that day. Hands that knead and mould dough.”
This poetic erotic charge focuses the central clash of personalities, places and philosophies in the story of ‘A Master from Germany’. The ironies of homelessness are at tipping point here.
This tension is the edge where all the central characters find themselves as they weave in and out of the first person, main narrative that frames the book so neatly.
Most are travellers, returning to places that are now different and challenging. Street-smart in the foreign worlds they’ve explored, their old homes, past histories, become demanding testing ground, throwing up existential questions.
Sex had its place and provided pleasure in the diaspora, but is neutered in the home-coming. Cancer is a thread through three pieces, a theme of creeping despair. Ironically, that unfolding of bleakness and the highly personal provide a key to some form of understanding, if not resolution.
The latter, as the book’s title suggests, is in the domain of the birds. Birds are referenced in casual encounters throughout the stories, detail in the décor, often as markers of frustration.
Theirs is language that we don’t understand, but yearn to know. Ancient and poetic metaphor of the unknown, inaccessible logic and the mysterious, Naudé elegantly activates this mythical framework in contemplation of the human condition.
The Alphabet of the Birds is a marvellously dense book and rewarding for that. Layers unfold as references (names, for example, are highly charged) reveal themselves and connections fall into place. Personal histories are stylishly pieced together in jigsaws of time.
Yet while the stories point to loss, if not inexorable tragedy, Naudé has composed such beautiful, honed prose that it drives you passionately and cerebrally from page to page, from story to story. The darkness of the unanswered questions is lit by the vividness of words.
His characters will ring in memory – often for the simplest, briefest detail ascribed to them and their actions.
There’s Sandrien, in the brilliant first story ‘Van’, who self-destructs in a relentless pursuit of redemption in the moral chaos of modern South Africa. Mrs Nyathi, who appears in this tale, and again later, is a colourful, cigar-smoking matron-hotelier. Sam is a freewheeling man of the new South Africa, and of the dance. Ondien is a musician-singer in search of herself as a cultural being deep in the alienated country.
They are people that could only inhabit or come from contemporary South Africa. They carry in person, philosophy and actions the complicated social issues of this land, which makes Naudé’s book also an open-ended morality tale.
When it appeared in Afrikaans in 2011, Naudé was widely praised as an exciting new voice. Many reviewers made particular reference to the fact that it should not be limited to that language. And so it has come about – brilliantly.