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REVIEW: It Might Get Loud

locusts

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: A Sportful Malice

david & goliath

A Sportful MaliceA Sportful Malice

Michiel Heyns

Jonathan Ball

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

It is possible to rampage into a book by a favoured author without heeding any of the clues he or she has put on the reader’s path. Thus I found myself, a third of a way into Heyns’ new book, increasingly irritated and then, mercifully, puzzled, by the narrator.

Mercifully, because if my slow-arising suspicions had not been stimulated, I might not have wrung half the fun I eventually did from this, his seventh novel. Heyns is too controlled and too practised a writer to present a character like Michael Marcucci without also poking fun at him.

Michael’s is the prissiest and most pompous voice I’ve encountered in a novel in a long time. He writes letters to his partner in Joburg from England and Italy, where he has gone to wrap up research on his studies.

Michael, whose father was Italian and mother South African, is interested in how writers have “appropriated” Tuscany for themselves by writing about it. He has the cynic and scholar’s distance to this appropriation, which in turn causes him to be blind to how he appropriates, and is appropriated by, this place about which so much has been written by Anglo-Saxon writers.

Michael is an insufferable snob. But clever snobs can be very funny, and Michael’s bitchiness provides the reader with moments of great mirth. His letters expose him as clever and witty, but also as vain and superficial, concerned largely with appearances.

Indeed, how things appear (as opposed to how they really are) is a motif that runs through this “comedy of revenge”, as the (observant) reader is alerted just under the title. The author’s intertextual references abound. The idea of a comedy of revenge calls to mind Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors and the novel deploys – successfully – some of the hammed-up elements of farce.

Farce develops its humour from the foolishness of unintelligent people and Michael – for all that he is a scholarly smarty pants – is monstrously foolish. While he is cuttingly observant about other’s foibles, and sharp in his observation of art, literature and the beauty that surrounds him in Tuscany, he is blind to his own faults.

An almost tragic self-awareness, coupled with comical lack of self-insight, creates the axis for the action.

In Tuscany, having inadvertently acquired a hulking yob of a “friend” on the flight from Stansted airport to Florence, Michael stays in a house owned by a geriatric couple of British artists. Augustus appears to be an absent-minded old man, and his caustic partner Sophronia, a witch from deepest Belgravia. Both are cast in rich chiaroscuro. Being hosted by the couple provides Michael with plenty of material to write home about.

Before arriving in the Tuscan village of Gianocini, Michael has used his time in England and in Florence to indulge his appreciation of art, visiting an exhibition of Caravaggio paintings in London, and various exhibitions in Florence.

Art’s function in the novel opens two main intellectual paths for Heyns to draw the reader along.

In the first place, it provides an arena for discussions about representative versus conceptual art, the latter being anathema to Augustus and Sophronia, who emphasise technique above all else when it comes to art.

(In one of the most amusing episodes in the book, Michael has an extended conversation with an art dealer, a conversation that pulls out every possible stop on the pretentious language employed by those who consider themselves aficionados.)

In the second place, the preoccupation with classical art rubs up against the thoroughly modern topic of social media.

Caravaggio, whose painting of David with the head of Goliath is shown on the front cover, was a painter who inserted his own image into many of his paintings. Notably, in the picture represented on the back cover of the novel, his face is the one that adorns Goliath’s severed head.

The artist therefore presents himself to the world, very much as people now present images of themselves on social media for public consumption.

Can the artist be the art?

A young artist who has piqued Michael’s sexual interest has been mentored by Augustus and Sophronia. While thoroughly schooled in classical technique, Paolo has developed an interest in conceptual art, but knows that his mentors’ disdain would put him at a dangerous disadvantage were he to tell them. And yet he finds the idea of presenting himself as Michaelangelo’s David – naked in public in the famous sculpture’s fey pose – beguiling.

In much the same way, Michael has represented himself – and presented a concept of himself – on Facebook.

Narcissism is not new and, for all its apparent sophistication in some instances, it remains a foolish and un-endearing trait.

Michael’s interaction with the characters he meets in Gianocini is what this story is built around, but for all its intellectual preoccupations, it reveals itself as unpretentiously plain, even slapstick in places.

But slapstick, in the hands of this master storyteller, is delightful and invigorating.

I thoroughly, happily, greedily enjoyed this farce.

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

REVIEW: Lost Ground by Michiel Heyns

LOST GROUND

Michiel Heyns

Jonathan Ball

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

There is the story of the story, and then there is the writer’s story, of which the reader is often not aware. Sometimes, the writer too, remains ignorant of how his or her story underpins and overlaps journalistic observations; moves and feints around the building blocks of the narrative they are constructing.

Peter Jacobs, the narrator of Lost Ground is a writer who trips over his own story in an attempt to write a long feature article for an international newspaper. Of course, the elements for involvement are already there: he is a man returning to the Little Karoo town he grew up in because his enchanting cousin  Desirée has been murdered.

The richness of the material for a piece that would interest an international audience is easy to spot: Desiree comes from a conservative white Afrikaners family, her father a former mayor of the tiny town of Alfredville. Desirée’s husband is the coloured police chief of the town and former ANC activist Hector Williams. He is also the suspect in the murder and has been arrested, leaving the town’s law in the hands of his deputy Bennie Nienaber.

Explaining his writerly interest in the story, Peter tells his new friend in town – a psychologist called Nonyameko – that the press covered the events of the murder but “I want to find out what the facts mean, what they tell us about the possibilities or impossibilities of a non-racial South Africa”. He believes that the murder is more than just a “bad marriage” gone wrong, but that there was also some “significant confluence of events”.

There was indeed a significant confluence of events that lead to Desirée’s skull being bashed in by a small household statue: Peter’s involvement with the ‘characters’ in his story is not merely as the inquisitive eye of social analyst, but he finds that, in spite of his twenty year absence from South Africa and the fact that he has not had contact with his cousin or other family, nor with his school best friend Bennie, he is central to – even it seems implicated in – Desirée’s death.

It all sounds very heavy, doesn’t it? Where history and politics of a country crash into the history and politics of the individual, the consequences are seldom gentle sentimental waves, but devastating emotional tsunamis. And yet, Ground Work doesn’t give off any of the airs one sometimes expects from novels that deal with Important Topics. It grows lushly, in fact, out of the simplest elements of successful story-making: interesting basic  “facts”, believable and entertaining dialogue, well-paced information release, a gentle tension that builds gradually, an acute sense of time, place and character and, most triumphantly, humour.

It is, however, Heyns’ style – his dry, funny scrutiny of his characters, his narrator’s self-effacing and slightly self-mocking personal insights, his ability to convey the grainy texture of even the simplest emotion – that makes Ground Work  an unmitigated novelistic happiness to stumble into. Not that one stumbles into Heyns – not, in any case if one is an avid reader of South African literature. That he is enormously and impressively awarded for both his novel writing and his translation of major Afrikaans novels into English is no secret.

Readers who may “stumble” into him by way of alluring book displays in airport books shops or in mall shop windows are likely to buy the book because of its – richly fulfilled – promise of a mystery/murder story, but will be pleasantly surprised by the multi-facetted, diamond-like quality of this wonderful work of fiction.