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REVIEW: Synapse



Antjie Krog

Human & Rousseau

ISBN: 9780798167901

Karina Magdalena Szczurek

Reading Antjie Krog’s latest volume of poetry translated into English, Synapse (Mede-wete in Afrikaans), I was faced with an old personal dilemma: How much hard work is too much in order to reach that moment where meaning and aesthetic pleasure reveal themselves to you as a poetry reader? I don’t have an adequate answer. Perhaps everyone’s threshold is different anyway. In the end all you have is your very individual frame of reference.

In any poetry volume you will find poems which will immediately speak to you. Others will require a specific key to unlock a feeling of appreciation. Rereading, research, or exploration of context will eventually reward your effort. Some poems will forever remain inaccessible no matter the amount of goodwill you put in. And then there will be those which will simply leave you cold. The poems in Synapse fit into all these categories.

The volume is divided into two parts: The Yard and Four Efforts in Linguistic Synapse Tracing. The first part opens with a series of epigraphs which are followed by thirteen poems, all focused on the images of the yard and the farm. These I find the strongest and most captivating in the book. In the epigraphs we are introduced to spaces in which the land and its ownership take centre stage and gender roles are clearly defined. The poems speak of the death of a patriarch, familial roots which reach into a troubled past, grief, guilt, race relations, and the ancient questions of owning and belonging.

As the poem 11. fossilised tree trunk makes clear, everything is connected, embedded, echoed throughout history. And yet, everything changes: “after all the years we gurgle (the only outlasting ones) / burdened with the dying light and bloodsick with heritage / : the new ones prepare to enter the yard” (13. old yard). At the heart of one’s relationship with the land are beauty and language: “places that could always snap my skeleton into language / coil me into voices bore into my entrails / expose a certain wholeness of belonging as my deepest tongue / tear chorales and something like discord from my brain” (6. live the myth).

This is the kind of poetry that leaves one gasping for air, which opens up new spaces in one’s understanding and feeling about the past and everyday reality in this country.

The Yard continues with poems which grapple with morality and reconciliation.The idea of interconnectedness is challenged in hold your ear to the tear in the skin of my country where already the format of the poem signals separate spheres of understanding the concept of forgiveness. The words of the speaker of the first section, Cynthia Ngewu, who testified in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about the murder of her son, one of the Gugulethu Seven, cascade onto the page like a waterfall. The neat couplets which follow represent an ordered attempt to understand the motives and worldviews of the officer who was involved in the killing. In the end, we are told, “it was futile to try to weave interconnectedness into / the concrete bunker that lives inside Mr Barnard’s whiteness”.

The bleakness of moving beyond such divisions is captured in miracle where South Africa’s relatively peaceful liberation is juxtaposed with present-day, all-consuming greed and violence: “we have become the prey of ourselves caught up / in ethnic avarice and total incapacity for vision”.

More intimate poems about ageing, memory, grand-motherhood, domesticity, or the I-you constellation of lovers reveal the wonders of the world along deeper philosophical questions about our capabilities and responsibilities. The tone ranges from sombre to light-hearted. Krog is one of the few poets out there who can smuggle Skype, wifi, the Internet and memory sticks into poetry and make them look as if they almost belonged. Also, when she swears, she makes it count.

The poem convivium astounds with its breadth: “what use my caress in the breath-earthed night if a centre- / less universe opens space in the nonexistent for dark / matter to overpower a few broken beads of light?” The poem, like the human body at the core of its universe, “tuneforks such abundance”.

Apart from a handful of exceptions, especially the Lament on the death of Mandela, the latter part of the volume, specifically the obfuscated Four Efforts in Linguistic Synapse Tracing left me baffled. The tightness and clarity of the preceding poems dissolved in musings where it became more and more difficult to follow the poet on her journey. The academic in me insisted I persevere and come to grips with the pieces, but the Sunday morning reader just wanted to return to the earlier poems in the collection or open another book.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in December 2014.

REVIEW: Invisible Others

invisible quote

invisible-others-cover1Invisible Others

Karina M. Szczurek

Protea Book House

Review: Ken Barris

Cara Judson is a talented South African writer living in exile in Paris. She is exiled from her past life, specifically from the notoriety that followed a disastrous love affair in South Africa with a famous painter, Lucas Stutterheim. The disaster lies in the fact that his wife Dagmar has committed suicide, and the media have blamed Cara.

The core of the matter is that Cara has written a novel entitled Triangle, which is more than based on their affair. It ends with the suicide of the fictional wife before Dagmar takes her life in reality, so the novel has not merely anticipated the tragedy, but according to public opinion, has actually caused it.

Another triangle develops in Paris in the present between Cara and a Polish researcher named Konrad, who falls in love with her more than she does with him; and with Lucas Stutterheim, whom Cara encounters again at a retrospective of his work. The novel then alternates between past and present, delicately linking the two timeframes.

There is much play on the gaze, on seeing. As Konrad looks at Cara, for example, he imagines that he can read into her character, indeed enter it: “Her eyes seem rounder and bigger than usual. She holds her lips perfectly still, they glow red against her ashen-pale skin… A blank openness, he thinks, as if no expression has ever formed within its features, open and eager to be inscribed.” The irony is that Cara is not particularly available for inscription, at least by Konrad. This is because there are two of versions of her. In Konrad’s presence she is controlling, alternating between vulnerable openness and sudden rejection. The window of her soul only opens briefly for him, and then slams shut. In response to Lucas, however, she is seldom in control, and far more abandoned.

Lucas is a libidinal trickster, in both art and life. He is a serial philanderer, with men as well as women. His work is charged with erotic energy, which is the basis of his fame. This eroticism is connected to gaze, as Konrad walks into the Stutterheim retrospective where he feels scrutinised by the pictures, “exposed, naked, as if he were on display”. Conversely, Cara is aroused by her own nude image in a portrait by Lucas. This link between seeing and eroticism reaches a paradoxical moment where Cara masturbates to the image: her sexuality is awakened on seeing herself from outside, as if the mirrored body, “her other self”, was separate from her.

Invisible Others is well structured, and the situations and characters are absorbing. The opening chapters are elegantly written, but this fluency is not sustained. The syntax can become convoluted occasionally, with awkward negotiation of tenses, and a few malapropisms. This should not be a problem though: Szczurek is Polish, as was her illustrious compatriot Joseph Conrad. His style was also influenced by his mother tongue, and it did his career no harm. In all, an excellent debut novel.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in April 2014
  • Barris’s novel Sunderland, a collaboration with Michael Cope, will be available in May.

Review: Arctic Summer

arctic summer

Arctic summer

Review: Karina Magdalena Szczurek

The publication of every new book by Damon Galgut is a literary event par excellence. Two of his latest three novels were shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. He is the recipient of many other accolades, including the local CNA Prize for The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs (1991) and the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book from the Africa Region for The Good Doctor (2003). Galgut’s beautifully supple prose, his mastery of narrative forms, and his feel for characterisation always offer a rewarding literary experience.Arctic Summeris no different.

Like Galgut’s last novel, In a Strange Room (2010), Arctic Summer is partly set in India. Galgut’s descriptions of the places his astutely drawn characters traverse are as always a feast for all senses. In many other respects, however, it is a great departure from Galgut’s previous work. Evoking the early life of the British novelist E.M. Forster (1879-1970), Arctic Summer is a biographical novel, focused on its protagonist’s travels to India and Egypt as well ashis relationship with his mother and with the few men who stirred his love and desire.

It is the time after Oscar Wilde’s trial and exercising caution in the display of one’s sexual longings is paramount to one’s survival. For most of the novel, Morgan’s yearnings remain unfulfilled. The struggle to articulate what is one of the greatest taboos of his time and to put his desire into practice – whether in life or his work – takes centre stage in the novel.

Arctic Summer opens in 1912 with Morgan on board a ship heading for India where he intends tovisit Syed Ross Masood, a young Muslim man to whom he had been a tutor in England.The two men developed a deep, yetoften unsatisfying, relationship, which is clouded by Morgan’s love for Masood and his heterosexual friend’s inability to respond to his unwanted advances.The trip unfolds in unexpected ways. But it is Masood and the stay in his native country that eventually will inspire Forster’s masterpiece, A Passage to India (1924).

It is only in Egypt during the First World War when Morgan volunteers to work for the Red Cross that,at the age of thirty-seven,he is seduced by a recuperating soldier. Then he meets and falls in love with Mohammedel-Adl, a tram conductor, who despite being also heterosexual and later happily married, allows Morgan certain sexual liberties and appears to share his affections.

During Morgan’s later sojourn in India he becomes embroiled in a relationshipwith Kanaya, a barber at the court of the Maharajah Bapu Sahib to whom Morgan becomes Private Secretary. Devoid of feelings which he so desperately craves and blackmailed by Kanaya, Morgan feels lonelier than ever.

Galgut brilliantly describes not only the precarious situation in which gays, or “minorities” in Morgan’s terminology, found themselves at the beginning of the twentieth century, but also the pitfalls of power relations across race and class that accompany Morgan’s ventures into the land of mostly unreciprocated love. The subtlety with which Galgutimagines the shifts in Morgan’s psyche and the wayhis discoveries impact on his work, especially A Passage to India, the posthumously published Maurice and the unfinished Arctic Summer from which Galgut’s own title derives, is remarkable.

Even though with this novel Galgutenters the well-established fieldof fictional author biographies (locally, MichielHeyns’sThe Typewriter’s Taleor J.M. Coetzee’s Foespring to mind), there is a great risk with imagining the lives of real people, especially well-known historical figures. Reading Arctic Summer, I often had the feeling that it is a novel where it should have been a biography and a biography where it should have been an autobiography. It is specifically Galgut’s dedication of his novel which echoes Forster’s original dedication of A Passage to Indiato Masoodthat makes one question the real inspiration and background of Arctic Summer. The parallel suggests that at least some of the emotional and psychological texture which Galgut ascribes to Forster’s and Masood’srelationship in Arctic Summer might have an autobiographical source.


Damon Galgut

Judging from the acknowledgements, Galgut’s research into E.M. Forster’s life must have been extensive. But like most readers, I’m neither a Galgut nor a Forster scholar, so it is impossible for me to judge where and to what extent the lines between Forster’s life andGalgut’simagination and own experiences blur. Even more difficult is to define why such “untidy borders”, in the words of critic Ellen Rees, trigger occasional twinges of unease when reading the novel.

And yet, there is no doubt that this meticulously crafted book is a tribute to an intriguing man and his work.A deeply felt, melancholic novel which charts the subliminal links between creativity and desire and brings to life a fascinating literary figure, it is another bright feather in Galgut’s literary cap.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in April 2014