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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: It’s a black/white thing

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It's a blackwhite thingIt’s a Black White Thing 

Donna Bryson                             

Tafelberg

ISBN: 9780624065180

REVIEW: Sue Townsend

Donna Bryson has written a thought-provoking book. Given our obsession with race (and that’s what this book is all about), it should be mentioned that Bryson is an African American journalist who has lived in South Africa – in the late 1990s and again from 2008 – 2012. She brings her own experiences to the table as well as many interviews with students, academics and administrators at the University of the Free State.

Using the infamous Reitz video as her peg, she explores the attitudes (both changing and unchanging) at that University; extrapolating her findings to discuss the racial tensions; the attempts to diffuse them and the strategies employed by UFS in the last five years to achieve genuine integration – both in the lecture halls and the residences.

Professor Jonathan Jansen, the Rector of UFS, is a well-known figure to most thinking South Africans. In 2010 he instigated a programme in which dozens of first year UFS students travel abroad to experience university life in another country.   Bryson followed a number of these students to Texas A&M University and has held extensive interviews with them, as well as with the students and staff with whom they interacted. Contextualising all her discussion within the history of segregation and enforced integration in the USA in the 1960s and drawing on the similarities in post-Apartheid South Africa, she skilfully uses this as a microcosm for South African society today.

Having taught in South African schools that defied the Nationalist Government and opened their doors to children of all races as long ago as 1976, I was particularly dismayed to realise just how verkramp the UFS was when it was forced to accept students who were not white or Afrikaners when South Africa was liberated in 1994 – and how this history still haunts its corridors. But then, as Bryson quotes Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu: ‘Forgiveness is not for sissies”. It takes hard work and much determination on the part of leaders to move towards genuine integration. Bryson has also interviewed the Rectors that preceded Jansen, both of whom took great strain as they paved the way for his inspired determination to turn UFS into a beacon of enlightenment in this troubled land.

An interesting snippet, in the light of the ongoing debate around our own University of Cape Town’s admissions policy, in 2008 a white student sued Texas A&M, claiming that she had been discriminated against on racial grounds. The USA Supreme Court ruled that any university should have substantial leeway ‘both in the definition of the compelling interest in diversity’s benefits and in deciding whether its specific plan was narrowly tailored to achieve its stated goal.’

Jonathan Jansen deserves the final word: ‘I absolutely enjoy being here’ he says. ‘I’m completely at ease with the whole of myself.’ And he predicts that UFS will not see a race crisis like the Reitz video ever again. I hope he is right; the struggle is far from over, not for UFS, not for Bloemfontein and not for the country.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times

REVIEW: To Catch A Cop

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to catch a copyTo Catch a Cop: The Paul O’Sullivan Story

Jacana

By Marianne Thamm

REVIEW: Donald Paul

This is the tale of an epic clash between an underdog hero and ubiquitous villains. To Catch a Cop reads like a thriller, with the many strands of Paul O’Sullivan’s spiderweb organogram precisely and inexerobaly brought together by Marianne Thamm to culminate in the trial and disgrace of the once national police commissioner Jackie Selebi.

But a nagging thread runs through this tangled rats’ nest that Marianne Thamm so deftly unravels and rewinds into a neat ball, a strand that won’t tuck away neatly. You unpick the niggle early, when the disgraced national commissioner of police Jackie Selebi recounts how he was chosen for the job.

According to Selebi the then president Thabo Mbeki took him aside and said he had a “list of 100 potential candidates” to replace outgoing commissioner George Fivaz. The president then said, “I looked at this list and the only name that I found that I can think of is you.” And therein lies the rot that continues to destroy our “state of Denmark”.

Why did Mbeki — and scores of other seemingly honourable men and women — not only support this odious man, but also wilfully attempt to cover up for him? Even months before his fall, with the evidence of his corruption and mendacity mounting, Mbeki renewed Selebi’s contract for a further year.

Thamm tells a brilliant story of these murky slime pool lizards with such clarity and elegance, you really only need to wash your hands after each chapter. By the end of it, you are left nodding agreement with the tenacious and probably slightly unbalanced Paul O’Sullivan, that life is a simple but sustained struggle between the good and the bad and that it gets ugly in between.

The list of names that fall into the bad category is long and many of whom are very much alive and continuing with their suspect behaviour, for example suspended crime intelligence head Richard Mdluli. He’s now biting the hand that feeds him, turning on Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa (consipcuously absent from these pages, but appointed by President Jacob Zuma in 2009, just four months before Selebi went on trial). According to the M&G (2 March 2014) Mdluli claims to have evidence that “[Mthethwa] and top generals knew about fraud and corruption in the police’s crime intelligence unit but did not act on the knowledge”.

Selebi never spent a single day of his 15-year sentence in a prison cell — he was pardoned for health reasons — and was protected by people as high up as the then president of the country. Nothing seems to have changed within the current crop ruling the country’s police force. O’Sullivan is more sanguine and firmly believes that there are more good cops on the beat than bad ones; that good will triumph over evil.

But there is that niggley thread that you want to keep pulling: why was Selebi appointed in the first place? Why is the subsequent crop of ministers and commissioners untouchable? It is obvious that these decisions have resulted in a spectacular faillure by government to reform the South African Police Service.

O’Sullivan has one simple answer: greed. And when you read about the amount of drugs being moved freely about the country; the profits from prostitution, human trafficking and smuggling that are being laundered through South African businesses, it is hard to come up with any other reasonable answer. “If there is one thing I have learned from life,” said O’Sullivan to Thamm, “it’s that a lot of people prey on greed.”

If you thought that the collapse of policing in South Africa was a problem, then reading this book will explode even your most serious criticisms. The rot is deep, insidious and vicious — the body count in To Catch a Cop makes most thriller fiction read like a nursery rhyme — and there appears to be no attempt by government to do anything about it other than talk platitudes. Right to the end of his trial, Selebi and his supporters tried to paint a picture of O’Sullivan as simply a white “foreigner” with a racist dislike for an honourable black cadre.

O’Sulivan does not ride off into the sunset victorious. He may have won the battle against Selebi but the war continues. The last section of the book moves on to another figure in this heinous cabal of comrades and crooks: Czech fugitive Radovan Krejcir, currently under arrest and charged with, among other things, attempted murder. His target: Paul O’Sullivan.

And like any good thriller, there’s a sequel to come.

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

TOP TEN SOUTH AFRICAN BOOKS 2013

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TOP TEN BOOKS 2013

By Karin Schimke

There are a great many contenders each year, but here’s my pick for The Star’s Top Ten Books of 2013. Sheesh, what challenge to narrow it down.

 

 

Categories of Persons: Rethinking Ourselves and Others

Edited by Megan Jones and Jacob Dlamini

Picador Africa

These nine engrossing essays grasp way beyond stereotype towards richer understandings of what it means to be South African. In lucid prose, each essay reveals the intimate politics of body, language or role. Outstanding writing and exciting slant-wise thought on the absurdity and inefficiency of simple identity markers.

Endings and Beginnings

Redi Tlhabi

Jacana

The rigorous and unflinching story Tlhabi’s childhood and of her friend Mabegzo – who started well but went down in flames – is driven by truth not ego. It’s savagely intense and moral without being preachy.

The Spiral House

Claire Robertson

Umuzi

Archaic language makes it difficult to get into this book with its two intertwined narratives in across two centuries, but the rewards are manifold. Complex and rich with experience and sensation.

Wolf Wolf

Eben Venter

Tafelberg

A harrowing book with a shocking sting in the tail, Wolf Wolf tells the story of a young gay man looking after his dying father. Masterful tale about people losing control.

From Quantum to Cosmos: The Universe Within

Neil Turok

Faber and Faber

This SA-trained scientist weaves personal experiences and thinking into a wide-ranging tour through science’s history and philosophy, presenting thrilling ideas plainly but lucidly.

Zebra Crossing

Meg Vandermerwe

Umuzi

An albino teenaged orphan and her brother flee Zimbabwe for Cape Town. There are no clichés in this kaledeiscopic debut about the life of immigrants on the fringes of society.

False River

Dominique Botha

Umuzi

This story of lefty Afrikaans farm kids making their troubled way into adulthood is lyrical and memorable. Poignant, funny and richly poetic, it’s not just another South African farm story.

My children have faces

Carol Campbell

Umuzi

The Karoo gypsies – known as karretjiemense – are given faces in this debut novel full of intrigue and drama. Fast-paced and filled with romance, tenderness, jealousy and revenge.

The Imagined Child

Jo-Anne Richards

Picador Africa

A jaded city woman seeks a fresh start in a small town in this gently humorous story, which explores parenthood, secrets, guilt and fear. Increasing suspense makes it absorbing.

Penumbra

Songeziwe Mahlangu

Kwela

This astonishing debut explores modern urban life and its attendant dangers for a young graduate with a cushy first job. It calls to mind the work of K. Sello Duiker and Phaswane Mpe.

LAST YEAR: 1.The Big Stick 2. The Garden of Evening Mists 3. My Father, My Monster 4. The Hungry Season 5. The Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the Gods 6. The Long Way Home 7. This Book Betrays My Father 8. Eloquent Body 9. Biko 10. Absent Tongues