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REVIEW: 101 Detectives

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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: Tales Of The Metric System

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TalesTales of the Metric System

Imraan Coovadia

Umuzi

REVIEW: Ken Barris

Imraan Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System is divided into ten chapters, spanning the period 1973 to 2010. They can be read as individual pieces, although they play loosely into each other. Certain characters (or their children instead) reappear from time to time, so advancing not only their individual accounts, but providing an intelligently devised chronicle of South Africa’s political trajectory from the depths of apartheid to the affirmative symbol that was the World Cup, so wonderful while it lasted. The intelligence lies in the proximity of Coovadia’s characters to historical centres of power. Although they orbit at various distances from key figures in the anti-apartheid constellation, the narrative is always focused on these more or less peripheral figures, rather than their political masters. So while the novel sketches notables such as Saths Cooper, Essop Pahad, Thabo Mbeki, Shabir Shaik and others, more attention is paid to their less luminous associates. The result is a novel that beautifully foregrounds the experience of ordinary people against a backdrop of the larger history that frames them.

The first sequence is dated 1970. The metric system has recently been introduced, and the hard winter of apartheid is at its height. It is obvious which is more significant, but it is typical of Coovadia’s indirectness that the title is drawn from the metric system (all the more whimsical because the device disappears fairly rapidly after the first sequence). This tale is told from the perspective of Ann, the wife of activist professor Neil Hunter. Her life is not easy, because Neil is under surveillance, and arrest is a constant possibility. As the biograpical details accumulate in this sequence, and in later sections in which Ann appears, it becomes clear that Neil represents Rick Turner, the influential University of Natal activist who was assassinated in 1978. Ann later marries a writer named Sebastian, as indeed Turner’s ex-wife Barbara married Ken Follett.

While the action of this chapter is rich and compelling enough, Ann’s vision is the real centre. She is a subtle and emotionally fluid observer, a woman whose understanding is shaped not only by her critical attention to experience, but also by her rueful self-knowledge. The political drama into which she is drawn would probably dominate the telling in less original hands than Coovadia’s. Instead, the historical struggle is filtered through the mesh of Ann’s perspective, without straining out the individual complexity of being alive in difficult times.

Ann, however, is not the only lens. Each chapter introduces a new situation and witness, drawn from divers corners of society, advancing in time as the country suffers and celebrates the bewildering transitions that lead to the present. The narrative moves, for example, from a men’s hostel in Pietermaritzburg, where a passbook is lost with terrible consequences for its young owner, Victor Moloi; to Boxing Day in Phoenix Township in Durban, 1979, where a musician named Yash battles to retain his dignity in the face of his wife’s antagonism, and the racist hostility of his employer; to London in 1985, where Ann returns, working for an anti-apartheid organisation.

There is structural brilliance in Coovadia’s compound eye and its episodic gaze. It enables him to survey a period of broad social change economically and fluently, without having to write War and Peace. Secondly, the tempo and timbre of each chapter changes to suit its particular occupants. The writing is excellent too, never precious or strained, and I sometimes read descriptions or metaphors over again because I enjoyed them so much.

Attention is also paid to continuity, with threads of anticipation stitched into earlier chapters. In a chapter about a Shabir Shaik analogue set in 1995, for example, we meet his son Vish, gay and horribly thin, with suggestions of undisclosed ill health. This becomes full blown in the 2003 chapter entitled “Sparks”. It is named after Sparks Mokoena, a deftly named caricature of Parks Mankahlana. Mankahlana was Thabo Mbeki’s spokesman, one of the two principal defenders of Mbeki’s AIDS denialism. With tragic irony, he died of AIDS (a few years earlier than Sparks), while his death was attributed to chronic anaemia (his wife), and the toxic effect of anti-retrovirals (the ANC). It is a savage lampoon, and the ironies become vitriolic, particularly in its treatment of the relationship between men in power and those who serve them. Even more seriously, in its treatment of how meaning can be abused and surfaces manipulated. It is a climactic chapter, though it is not the last, because that troubled relationship between the world of politics and private life blares out as loudly as a vuvuzela.

The concept of South African literature is not a fashionable one in academic circles, but Coovadia has magnificently finessed a defining tension in what South African writers do: between the compelling world of history, and the even more necessary world of individual life, between the great actors who make our history, and the small men and women who make our country. – Barris is a novelist and researcher, and works at Cape Peninsula University of Technology. His novel Life Underwater won the 2013 University of Johannesburg prize.

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

 

REVIEW: Whoever Fears The Sea

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Whoever fears the seaWhoever Fears the Sea

Justin Fox

Umuzi

Review: Ken Barris

J.M. Coetzee is quoted on the cover: “An engagingly romantic, fast-paced tale of sailing-ship adventures of the myth-laden East African coast, with plenty of sex and action, plus a serious revisionist message regarding modern-day Somali piracy.” Agreed (partly), but is this nothing more than a good airport thriller?

The main character Paul Waterson is a scriptwriter doing research for a documentary along the Kenyan coast. And Justin Fox is an experienced travel writer and photographer, as well as a man deeply knowledgeable about (and in love with) sailing boats. The real romance in the novel is not the sex, which is formulaic at best and comical at worst. It lies more in the sense of place that Fox builds extremely well. He writes about Mombasa, Malindi and Lamu with the assurance of a traveller who knows the country, and he makes the beauty and vitality of place shine out. A further thread of this romance is his evocation of the history of the Swahili as a nautical culture, their trade links with the East, and their bitter experience of Portuguese imperialism. His treatment of this history is enriched by dreamlike interludes in which Paul encounters figures from the past, such as the slave Mariamu, or the aristocratic trader Ahmed Suleiman.

The core of this romance, though, is Fox’s treatment of the vessel that dominated Indian Ocean trade, namely the dhow and all its variants such as the ghanjah and the spectacular mtempe, a boat made without nails, in fact sewn together. This thread is well researched, and I found it fascinating. Fox cleverly builds these sailing craft into his narrative, folding what could otherwise be abstract information neatly into the action.

Paul’s encounter with Somali pirates unfortunately comes across as an afterthought, taking up a small part of the narrative. Nor is the “serious revisionist message” that Coetzee identifies particularly convincing. The message is that Somali piracy today is a strategic Islamist response to economic colonialism (foreign trawlers, for example, stripping Somalian fishing resources, and related incidents). In other words, a contemporary jihad, led by a pirate pointedly named Mohamed. I could possibly take this seriously if the argument (and Mohamed’s character) were developed with at least some complexity, or if the greed and brutality of piracy were not so lightly dismissed. There is a further lost opportunity, in that Paul shows indications of Stockholm syndrome, another seam that might have been mined to good effect. Instead, Fox brings it all to a rather abrupt happy ending, leaving these elements inadequately explored.

The short-windedness of the pirate zone, however, did not spoil this novel for me. The strengths of Whoever Fears the Sea overbalance its limitations and make it an enjoyable read. Treatment of place is authentic, the dhow-sailing episodes are absorbing, and Fox’s engagement with Indian Ocean history is refreshing.

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

REVIEW: Invisible Others

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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.

Two men, one novel

collaboration black board

Poets and authors Mike Cope and Ken Barris have known one another for decades. Now they’ve written a novel together. KARIN SCHIMKE interviews them on Facebook.

ken and mike

Mike (left) and Ken have been friends for over thirty years. Picture: Sky Cope

Ken arrives late for the Facebook date. Karin calls him on his cellphone and reports back to Mike, waiting on-line:

KARIN: I called him and we were cut off, but not before he said “oh” in a way that made me realise he forgot/has the wrong time. It’s engaged now.

MIKE: I’m glad he forgot. During the writing of the book I forgot a meeting or two and felt guilty.

KEN: (Arriving on-line): Schadenfreude, Mike. Goeiemôre!

MIKE: Hi Ken! The very same ; )

KEN: Môre ouks. Jammer ek het vergeet.

KARIN: No sweat. I’m going to ask the questions one at a time and I’d like you both to answer before I ask the next one. So that you don’t crib.

How long have you two been friends?

MIKE: Since some time in the eighties, when we met at various poetry readings and literary events?

KEN: As far as I can recall, we met more seriously around the time Mike wrote a very complimentary review of my first poetry collection – but it was around poetry readings and so on.

So we’re looking at a friendship of some 30-odd years. You’ve just written a book together. Are you still friends?

KEN: Of course!

MIKE: Yes. Why shouldn’t we be?

Artistic differences? Getting to know someone you like in a different way? No. I do know that you’re still friends. But what’s it like writing a book with someone else? All fun and happiness?

KEN: No, we had disagreements, and – I think more from my side – they were resolved with a degree of heat. Mike, in fact, was very diplomatic. Bear in mind that writers (well, this writer anyway) feel very strongly about what they’re doing, it’s fuelled by a great deal of energy. That is the interpersonal side, of course. On the other hand, I got great joy out of collaborating with a creativity like Mike’s, and the technical challenges were unusual, complex, and therefore tremendously interesting.

MIKE: Writing together was mixed but mostly fun for me. It turns out that writing together was a way of giving form to a friendship in the midst of the chaos of regular life. Of course we had some spats, but that’s normal I think, and nothing we couldn’t sort out. And yes, I think we did get to know each other better through it. Without it we would certainly not have spent so much time in each other’s physical and intellectual company.

Let’s move on to the book. Mike, I remember some years ago you wrote a novel and were told that it wasn’t “South African enough”, or something along those lines. What is “South African enough” when it comes to novels?

MIKE: Karin, I have no idea. It was something long ago in a rejection slip. I suppose that there are certain niche markets and “South Africa” is certainly one.

KEN: I think it is a term that has lost its currency. It echoes the demands of engaged literature dating back to the Struggle years, but it doesn’t seem sustainable in a transnational world – which doesn’t mean that I think particularly South African themes/textures, political or otherwise, are out – it just means that there is far more choice for South African writers and readers (and of course publishers).

MIKE: But because I have another job and don’t have to make a living from writing I find that I can write what I am interested in without regard for these ideas.

And the book you’ve written together is called Sunderland. If I take the word as literally as I can, it seems to be a title that cuts to the very heart of South Africaness, so perhaps the book is “South African enough”, whatever that means. Tell me about it.

KEN: It’s a tale about a major South African writer who has died of brain cancer. His family hires a wannabe writer and researcher to reconstruct the fragments of his last novel left on his computer. Everything goes wrong from there.

MIKE: It’s a novel of ideas, and a satire, and a literary experiment. And a few other things.

Why did this book require two authors? Is it because you came up with the idea together one day over a glass of wine? Or did one of you ask the other to help out?

MIKE: I came up with the overall idea, but I needed another voice as I was forced into doing all sorts of ventriloquism by having a character who was a writer, and his texts. Ken’s dry ironic voice was the obvious choice.

KEN: It’s a novel of two voices, and it was Mike’s conception. At his invitation, we met over breakfast and discussed it. I asked Mike the same question – why don’t you write both voices? Mike replied that he only wanted to write the fragmented work of the dying writer, which (I think) was the centre of his original preoccupation, his inspiration. I was immediately fascinated by the idea.

Does that imply, Mike, that you had no idea of how Ken would respond? Or was the unfolding carefully plotted?

MIKE:  Both. Ken had wide scope for the creation of his character and what he got up to, as well as various sub-plots. But it all had to fit with the stuff I was producing, as well as converge on the ending. I did make a few futile attempts to steer his character in my preconceived direction at first, but Ken was unresponsive, it was unnecessary, and I soon gave up.

KEN: We got together over several breakfasts and built up background to the characters in discussion. Their original conceptualisation (as opposed to their characterisation in detail) was pretty much guided by Mike, though in discussion. Then it was my job to plot the younger writer’s narrative in detail (his name is Art), and to write that.

How did the actual writing proceed? Was it ping-pong in the ether, with one doing something, and the other responding?

MIKE: As I recall, we both just wrote when we could, met occasionally for breakfast, and kept files updated on the cloud. I had to write the fragments of my character’s unfinished novel, so that Ken’s character could have something to write about.

KEN: It was more complex than that. We had a shared cloud folder. But Mike wrote his voice in a series of fragments, while I wrote mine as a more traditional narrative – then I would feed sections of Mike’s narrative into mine as both unfolded. Always in consultation, sometimes disagreeing.

MIKE: But mostly agreeing. There were some stages when it was quite exciting, and we felt that we were creating something interesting/good/hot.

When did you begin and how long afterwards did you consider the novel “finished”?

KEN: It was roughly two years, taking up most of 2011/2012. I thought it was finished at the end of 2012, but I was wrong about my part – following feedback from various sources, I added a bit of material around September 2013. But I only feel a novel is “finished” when it’s been published, and been through the cycle of response and reception.

MIKE: We started, I think, in early 2011. My guess is that we were done two years later. I had been thinking about it for a year before that.

KEN: I’m glad we’re agreed on the years. I was getting a bit worried.

MIKE: Years of bad living have taken a toll on both our memories.

KEN: As I demonstrated this morning. Ahem.

MIKE: You can still redeem yourself through prayer.

KEN: I can’t remember any.

MIKE: Karin?

KARIN: Yes, here I am. I was stopping to laugh.

But now the novel has a publisher. Was it hard to find one?

KEN: Not very. We had two rejections first, and the third one bit. It’s being published by Jacana.

MIKE: We did have a couple of rejections.

When will the book appear on the shelves?

KEN: In May this year, they tell us.

MIKE: In May. Jesus, is this an echo chamber?

KARIN: Mike, is that you reminding Ken how to pray?

MIKE: Yes. If you’re a writer you just make it up.

KARIN: Okay, let’s get professional again.

How many novels has each of you written?

MIKE:

I have written two novels and a memoir, which is sort of novel-ish. I have two published volumes of poetry and several chapbooks. And some stuff on the web. I have a volume of poetry under consideration with an editor

KEN: Six. And a collection of short stories, and two volumes of poetry.

You both have “real” jobs (I’ll duck here for the brickbats from the full-time writers). What do you do to put bread on the table? (As an aside, I’m a full-time writer. There is seldom bread on my table.)

MIKE: I make jewellery.

KEN: I work at Cape Peninsula University of Technology, but most of my income is from book reviews.

A question just for Ken: Does book reviewing and book writing have a built-in tension?

KEN: Yes, very much so. I’m aware of how bad it feels to get a crap review, and vice versa. On the other hand, it’s not a critic’s job to make people feel good regardless. So I find the balancing act personally difficult in certain situations. Of course it’s easy when you’re reviewing a terrific book.

When you are writing a book, do you imagine what you, as a critic would say about it?

KEN: I always do, but that happened long before I was a critic. I think there is a valuable split in myself (and probably other writers) between writing and reading sides: it’s so important to try and see your work clearly (to the degree that it’s posisble).

Okay, last question: what question do you wish I’d asked you about Sunderland? And please answer it. 

KEN: You’ve got me stumped.

MIKE: I wish you’d asked about the ending, which was the originating idea of the whole project. I would have been able to be evasive, but say that it’s a great ending.

This seems a good place to stop: at the ending. The book sounds intriguing. I look forward to reading it.