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REVIEW: The Sea of Wise Insects

the sea of wise insects

The Sea of Wise Insectsthe sea of wise insects

Terry Westby-Nunn


REVIEW BY: Aly Verbaan

Once in a bluish moon a reader is treated to a run of good books, which naturally sets the bar for the next one higher and higher, eventually rendering it virtually impossible to sustain, much like a sky-diver reaching terminal velocity. I scored a hat trick this week with local writers, but Terry Westby-Nunn is the blinder of the bunch.

The difference is that formulae may sell books, but imagination makes literature. The latter is an art, but the former is a safer bet for publishers, particularly before the holidays, when many readers may be inclined towards beach entertainment rather than mind expansion. The Sea of Wise Insects is the solution to those given to indecision: here is a potent and enviable conte that feels instinctual rather than constructed.

The Sea of Wise Insects uses a fascinating, if macabre, substructure: Alice Wolfe’s body is a quilt of bad luck. She wears her scars – a script of her life – like tattoos. “They say I am accident-prone. Ill-fated Alice who draws a dark little world of scars around her. My skin, a parchment of tales. … I have always been unlucky.” A would-be suitor suggests she has a persecution complex, but, as Alice points out, it does seem that she is indeed being persecuted – by life, by fate.

Alice is not ashamed of the evidence of her quirky and accident-prone nature – in fact, she is well aware that there are those who are drawn to her precisely because of her apparently calamitous karma – but she chooses carefully with whom she shares her idiosyncrasies. Enter Ralph.

Alice, who is from Cape Town, is working in a decidedly freaky establishment in London – euphemistically called the Hotel Tisca. The Tisca is in fact a cul-de-sac of life, where those in mental disarray wander aimlessly and largely unrehabilitated, supposedly recovering from an array of illnesses – drug addiction at best, self-nominated amputeeism at its March Hare worst.

When Ralph meets Alice he asks her whether she is for real. “No. This is the Tisca. Nothing here is real. It’s all part of the collective subconscious”, comes the reply. Very Hotel California. However, Ralph appears to be quite sane, “too normal”, as Alice puts it. As with so many ill-fated relationships, there is a portent that Alice doesn’t recognise for what it is. Falling for Ralph alarmingly quickly, Alice tells us: “My only defence was to rag him about his GQ look, telling him he was a sick voyeur who enjoyed the Tisca spectacle. He chuckled at that, entertained by what he called my ‘endearing doubts’ and reassured me that his ordinary façade masked a strange and irreverent writer, who plucked characters from the Tisca for an off-kilter novel he was writing, ‘something surreal and yet… disturbingly real.”

The Sea of Wise Insects is cleverly four-squared: where many a writer would have been satisfied with the progression of this narrative as a solo, Westby-Nunn interweaves subplots of Alice’s complicated family tapestry; a gripping current situation in which her sister-in-law-to-be is killed in a car accident that Alice takes the blame for (not that she was fond of Veronica by any stretch of the imagination); her life in Cape Town with the Baron von Münchhausenesque Ralph, and the mounting horror of the realisation of what Ralph has done; plus the goings-on at the Tisca, where, for the only time in her life, Alice felt she fitted in. Down the rabbit hole indeed.

You are likely wondering what insects have to do with all this. Here comes the overlay that makes this more than the usual “ripping good yarn”. Westby-Nunn comes out of left field with her use of factual information bytes to head up each chapter, extracted from existent biological works, for example: “‘Full investigations have been made into the extraordinary way some insects can remain alive and even active when such apparently vital parts of the body as the head have been removed.’ From Man and Insects by L. Hugh Newman”, and “I like writing about the firefly, too, for the very reason that this little insect is still wrapped in intriguing mystery. What is the motive of the light? What is the light? I can tell you very well what it is not, but the opposite side of the balance sheet will remain blank’, from The Soul of the White Ant by Eugène Marais. Or beautiful aphorisms, such as Emile Cioran’s “‘What  would be left of our tragedies if an insect were to present us his?” And this from Salvador Dali: “When I was five years old I saw an insect that had been eaten by ants and of which nothing remained except the shell. Through the holes in its anatomy one could see the sky.”

Impeccable choices all.

A vicarious murder escalates the intrigue, while wickedly dark humour relieves the intensity, putting one in mind of the arthouse film, Delicatessen.

Westby-Nunn’s imagery is startlingly original, by turns grotesque and enchanting, and the bodily and emotionally scarred Alice’s dates with destiny and disaster border on the existential.

Naturally there is a twister of a twist that leaves one hanging, which is oddly satisfying, in the way that books are when readers are left to draw their own conclusions.

The Sea of Wise Insects is an inimitable debut and undoubtedly my pick for the local book of the year. One certainly looks forward to a second, and soon.

This review first appeared in the Cape Times in June 2012.


REVIEW: The Dinner


The Dinner

Herman Koch

Atlantic Books

(Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett)

REVIEW BY: Aly Verbaan

NOTHING says bourgeois quite like the Western five-course dinner.  A metonymic drama in five acts — aperitif, appetiser, main course, dessert and digestif — The Dinner is diabolically postmodern, dancing in the ruins and toying with the fragments of one family’s takedown.the-dinner-jacket

An obscenely ostentatious restaurant in The Hague, stocked with the quintessential maître d’, and where the waiting list is no less than three months for a table next to the toilets, is the darkroom where four diners’ negatives are fixed and held up to the light.

Aspiring prime minister Serge Lohman is nothing if not pretentious. Brother Paul obscures his revulsion of Serge by the narrowest of margins.

But now the brothers have another problem — possibly the only thing they have in common — that forces them to conspire with each other rather than against. Their teenage sons have, quite casually and apparently unapologetically, done something terrible – with wide and worrying consequences – and only their parents know it.

Now seated before microscopic swanky dishes, Serge and wife Babette, and Paul and wife Claire thrust and parry until the topic becomes too weighty to ignore. They awkwardly plough their way through “lamb’s-neck sweetbread marinated in Sardinian olive oil with rocket … the sun-dried tomatoes come from Bulgaria” and grapes “lying beside a deep purple piece of lettuce, full two inches of empty plate away from the actual main course, “fillet of guinea fowl wrapped in paper-thin sliced German bacon”.’ Observing his dish, Paul points to that most definitive element of avaricious restaurants — the vastly unpopulated plate: “… I am well aware that, in the better restaurants, quality takes precedence over quantity, but there are voids and then there are voids. The void here, that part of the plate on which no food at all was present, had clearly been raised to a matter of principle.”

The grandiloquence of the fare is patently meant to reflect the gluttonous self-gratification of its capitalistic protagonists.

This edifice is perhaps somewhat synthetic, but it’s also convincing, and Koch toys with the reader, queueing signs and red herrings, introducing an itchy skepticism. “It’s like when someone leaves a pistol during the first act,” Paul tells us, “you can bet your bottom dollar that someone will be shot with it before the curtain falls. That’s the law of drama.” In this metafiction, the gun is Michel’s cellphone, which has stored the crime.

As the couples surreptitiously try to establish who knew what and when, skeletons in the closet come out into the light, contextualising the boys’ actions, with unanticipated coalitions being formed as it becomes clear just how far parents are prepared to go to protect their children — and themselves.

The overarching erotema is “what should honest citizens do?” Who of the four will ask themselves that, and what actions will they take? To what extent can the sins of the son be blamed on those of the father? Because we soon discover that Paul is not a sympathetic protagonist after all. His vicious streak, juxtaposed with his apparent need to play Happy Families with his wife, reveals him as that most familiar of dramatis personae: an exceptionally unreliable narrator.

As a protagonist, Paul’s own psyche is also the antagonist, and here Koch factors in another dimension: that time old conundrum of nature versus nurture. What is the nature of evil? Is it a genetic defect, like Down’s Syndrome or haemophilia? Was his son Michel’s hypocrisy and involvement in a heinous act just a matter of time? It would be disingenuous of Koch to attempt to foist an answer on the reader, but, by subverting the rules of social interaction and familial loyalty, one is led to a single universally disturbing conclusion: a pointless random act can change not only the course of many lives, but even the course of history.

The back-cover blurb suggests a comparison to Christos Tsolkas’s Booker longlisted The Slap, but, to my mind, it is rather less contentious but more engaging. The ethical heft of The Dinner and Koch’s composed, sociological eye gives witness to how powerful fiction can be in irradiating the modern world. The reader will leave the restaurant not sated and replete, but with dyspepsia, or perhaps even food-poisoning. The Dinner is sure to find a placemat on the tables of those who enjoy seeing the smug confidence of middle-class families smashed on the floor, when the watery façades of decorum and etiquette are tossed aside, revealing the savage beasts that sit down to the chicanery of the modern dinner.

This review first appeared in the Cape Times in December 2013.


REVIEW: Silent House

Silent House

Silent HouseSilent House

Orhan Pamuk

Faber & Faber

(Translation from the Turkish by Robert Finn)

REVIEW BY: Aly Verbaan

CRACKING the spine of Orhan Pamuk’s second novel, Silent House, we are required to read through the overlay of time and translation: Silent House was written 30 years ago when Pamuk was 31, writing frenetically on the back of two military coups d’état and the proxy wars of America and the then USSR that so divided Turkey’s left and right.

Silent House precedes the Pamuk opus that English-language readers are likely to be familiar with: The White Castle; The Black Book; My Name is Red; Snow; The Museum of Innocence.

How, then, should we judge Silent House? Should we view Pamuk as a writer then trying to get into his stride, or should we, perhaps unfairly, hold Silent House up to the same light as his later, more honed works?

Set over a week in the summer of 1980, with Turkey on the brink of a military coup, Faruk, Nilgün and Metin pay their annual visit to their 90-year-old grandmother, Fatma, at her decaying mansion in Cennethisar, a one-time fishing village now increasingly given over to trendy resorts and modish tourists.

The story is told through the rotating stream-of-consciousness perspectives of five characters: Faruk, corpulent and inebriated, an amateur in the study of history; Metin, an underpaid tutor who dreams of making a fortune in America; and their sister Nilgün, a dilettantish left-winger. The Miss Havisham-like Fatma is waited on by Recep, the illegitimate son of her dead husband. He serves her loyally despite her incessant maltreatment; he is a dwarf — perhaps intended by Pamuk to embody the traditional feudal subordination of Turkey’s oppressed.

Fatma is plagued by the memory of her late husband Selahattin, a secular liberal who gave up his medical practice to work on a never-to-be-completed “encyclopedia of everything” that he believed would enlighten the benighted East about Western thought and science. In one of several soliloquies, we learn that Selahattin made Fatma sell her jewellery to fund his attempt at writing the encyclopedia: “… so that the East, which has been slumbering for centuries, will wake up”. To the dismay of the God-fearing Fatma, Selahattin’s intention with the encyclopedia was to disprove the existence of God. In this way Silent House examines the role of literature and writing in a tortured society, and now we learn that Faruk is following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps in working on a manuscript that will seek to “explain Turkey and the universe”.

When her mind is in the present, Fatma lives in paranoid fear that Recep will reveal to her grandchildren that he is one of Selahattin’s two illegitimate children.

Hasan, the son of Selahattin’s other lovechild, is a high-school dropout who runs with fascists, collecting protection money, daubing walls in graffiti. Vague, full of misdirected yearning, Hasan is soon fixated on Nilgün (they don’t know that they share a grandfather) and dreams up elaborate plans for them to meet, but when Nilgün spurns him, his reaction lays down the framework for a climacteric event later in the novel.

Hasan imagines piloting a revolution, while Metin dreams of escaping to America, returning victorious. Both answer rejection with violence. Hasan, in a prescient vision, looks neither to the West nor the East or even Turkey as his pointer, but to Islam. He runs with a group of politicised young men whose catch-phrase question is: “Are you first a Muslim or a Turk?” and who persecute the local newsagents, destroying their copies of the communist newspaper and tearing down pinups of women. To these agitators, an Elvis Presley LP in a Turk’s possession is proof of treason.

Pamuk captures the melancholy of towns that used to be ports, the nebulous world of beach shops, insalubrious taverns, Anatolian nights where the indigenous serve the entitled.

Meanwhile, Nilgün sunbathes, reading Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons — a novel that pits nihilism against romanticism — underscoring Silent House’s tense mood of incompatible doctrines.

As with Pamuk’s other works, Silent House is characterised by an uncertainty or erosion of identity precipitated by the conflict between Occidental and Oriental values; and tradition and secularism. It is disquieting, and at times outright alarming, but never gratuitous either in plot or character.

It is said that Turkish is an absurdly difficult language to translate into English. Maureen Freely, who has translated many of Pamuk’s books (but not this one), compares it to “carrying a bunch of groceries around without a grocery bag”. The country’s language revolution of the 1930s, which sought to rid Turkish of Arabic and Persian influences, effectively gutted Turkish vocabulary, and many writers since that time, Pamuk included, have seen it as their duty to reforge the language anew.

It’s hard to say, then, how much of the novel’s frequent clumsiness is due to Pamuk’s then-unhoned skills as a writer and how much to Robert Finn’s translation. It has a few of Pamuk’s strengths, but its real interest may be to bear witness to how a fledgling writer may, stutteringly, grow into a Nobel Prize laureate.

Although Silent House is an engaging story that deserves to be read in and of itself, it is sadly afflicted by its publication after the writer’s more mature works, as well as its amateurish translation. The novel certainly sheds light on his evolution as a novelist; but those new to his work would do best to start elsewhere.

This review first appeared in the Cape Times in January 2013.