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Retold stories escape usual malady

rag and bone man

rags & bonesRags & Bones: New Twists on Timeless Tales

Edited by Melissa Marr and Tim Pratt


REVIEW: Ruth Browne

Short story collections are largely hit-and-miss. This collection, with its emphasis on the retelling of “classic fairytales and twisted tales”, has an especially long way to fall in this regard. In recent years, publishers (not to mention directors) have bought into this genre of recycling wholesale, and readers consume it just as eagerly. However dark and macabre, familiar stories based on tropes of nostalgia both confirm a collective identity and soothe like a childhood lullaby. But there are only so many times a story can be reworked before it becomes tiresome and tawdry, displaying not the heights of imagination but its pronounced absence.

Rags & Bones escapes some of the worst of this malady by having authors choose stories that “moved them, influenced them, and fascinated them”, making room for sincere and passionate retellings. That’s how Neil Gaiman gets away with yet another “Sleeping Beauty”: gruesomely inverted fairytales are a specialty of his, and The Sleeper and the Spindle continues the trend. The hero who rescues the princess turns out to be Snow White, a woman who knows her way round a sleeping spell, and things within the thorn-bound castle are not what they seem. Gaiman’s first imagining of Snow White was as an undead fiend with a necrophiliac paramour in Snow, Glass, Apples (1994), so his place in this collection is guaranteed.

Interspersed with black and white illustrations by Charles Vess, the stories tend toward the contemporary or the futuristic. Carrie Ryan’s Kafkaesque rendition of E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” follows a surface-dweller into the forbidden underground, where squat hairless humans sit in their cells sharing esoteric knowledge and having all their needs seen to by the Machine. Saladin Ahmed’s story, inspired by Sir Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, also flips the given perspective. He takes the part of the maligned and nameless Saracens forced to fight and die in service of an allegory, shedding light on the uglier aspects of this early epic fantasy.

Rick Yancey’s When First We Were Gods is a probing inversion of sci-fi narratives of immortality. Inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark”, it proposes a society in which the gap between rich and poor also means the difference between eternal life and inescapable death. At its heart, it is about the ephemeral nature of beauty and the excesses of human power and desire. There is also Kelley Armstrong’s clever retelling of “The Monkey’s Paw”, playing with the three-wishes setup in a world overrun by yet another variant on the zombie apocalypse. Perhaps the best story is Tim Pratt’s The Cold Corner, sourced from Henry James’ “The Jolly Corner”, a particularly well-told story of a man who returns to his home-town in North Carolina only to find that dozens of versions of himself still live there – other Terrys whose lives have taken different paths.The other stories, even the “inimitable” Garth Nix’s (gangrenous with comma splices), are at best unlikely to give offence. As usual for such collections, there’s a fair amount of dross concealing a little gold.

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



South Africa, twenty years on

Max du Preez

rumours of springA Rumour of Spring: South Africa After 20 Years of Democracy

Max du Preez

Zebra Press

By Don Paul

In December 2010, a 26-year-old street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, who had sold vegetables on the streets of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, for seven years, had his trolley and all the vegetables thereon confiscated by a police officer. When he attempted to pay the $7 “fine” for trading, the officer slapped him and basically told him to get lost. This was not his first run-in with arbitrary and random police actions and he decided to take it to the local provincial authorities. They, the corrupt and arrogant, ignored him.

That slap was to be the proverbial slap heard around the world. Bouazizi planted himself in front of the provincial headquarters, doused his body in petrol and set himself on fire. He died 18 days later. Thus began the Arab Spring.

The title of Max du Preez’s book, A Rumour of Spring alludes to this “spring” — this moment when democracy blossomed, or should have.

Four months later, at the other end of the continent, a 33-year-old mathematics teacher Andries Tatane joined a protest of more than 4 000 people in a march on the Setsoto Municipal Offices in Ficksburg, Free State, South Africa to protest against poor service delivery.

They were met by the SAPS who turned water cannons on the crowd and then started arresting people. Tatane attempted to intervene. He was beaten and then shot in the chest twice by SAPS officers. He died on the street. All the officers were acquitted. Political analysts thought these would be the shots that would reverberate, if not around the world, at least around South Africa.

Du Preez is right: it was just a rumour.

Tatane’s death would be eclipsed 16 months later when the SAPS killed 34 striking platinum miners outside the small town of Marikana. Again, analysts pontificated about “watershed moments”, “turning points”, “tipping points” and “seminal” moments. Again, it was all a rumour.

Yes, Du Preez is an Old White Male (OWM) but if you think that is ground for dismissal, then you probably also believe that Julius Malema is a hopeless politician because he’s black. Du Preez brings his cynical, inquisitive and compassionate intelligence to the table in discussing South Africa after 20 years of democracy and the role played by the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC). It’s an intelligence that has won him numerous awards, including the Excellence in Journalism award from the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of Southern Africa (1996)and the Yale Globalist International Journalist of the Year (2006).

If you’ve read any of his regular columns or one of his many books you will know roughly where he is going with this book. But it is in the details, the conscientious examination of events that make this one of the ‘must read’ books about our country. It is his conscience that is troubled, and this is best revealed in his anecdotes. The story of meeting Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso in Ouagadougou in 1987 with Thabo Mbeki and other ANC members, and thinking: ‘Surely these guys have a similar commitment to genuine liberation of our people?’

‘Ouch,’ he says, he was wrong. Just another rumour.

Sankara was killed three months later in a coup staged by his comrade Blaise Compaore. Now, 26 years later Burkina Faso is a textbook example of what Acemoglu and Robinson describe in How Nations Fail: The origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty. Burkina Faso is a nation of extractive institutions, embedded with corruption and cronyism, where important offices in the government are given to supporters of the president who operate with impunity and where the political/economic elite flaunt their opulence.

Du Preez covers the familiar territory of Jacob Zuma’s rise to power but includes all the elements that make the whole story read like a political thriller. Except that it is true. The way Mbeki was outmanoeuvred and humiliated, the way Zuma manipulated the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and how he gathered around him a security cluster of ‘100% Zulu Boys’ — Jeff Radebe, Nathi Mthethwa and Siyabonga Cwele. Shades of PW Botha’s ‘Imperial Presidency’ and his State Security Council, which we now know served mainly to intensify the environment for structural corruption?

Surely not, but it does sound like the same dogs barking. Du Preez quotes Prof Njabulo Ndebele on the Nkandla debacle — more than R200-million of taxpayers’ money spent on Zuma’s private residence. ‘Nkandla,’ says Ndebele, ‘manifests an advanced stage in the systemic nature of corruption in South Africa that has been growing over an 18-year period and gathered momentum in the past five years.’

Zuma reveals himself not so much a leader of the nation or even the government. He is a leader of the ANC, and as long as he remains as such, he is in essence protected from prosecution (there are more than 700 legal cases outstanding against him). And because the nation is rudderless, the technocrats that may have made the country viable have long been replaced by political appointees, mostly inept, some corrupt and largely indifferent but yet filled with grandiose schemes (think e-tolls, nuclear reactors, SAA).

Another telling anecdote. Du Preez recounts a story told him by a colleague of how the Indian government built a dam to supply Mumbai with 455-million litres of water that the city required per day. But if the city had simply fixed all the leaking pipes it would have saved more than 600-million litres per day. The moral for South Africa is that ‘we should first fix our leaking pipes and taps before we build a new dam’.

Du Preez thinks the nation will be saved from becoming a Burkina Faso, a Zimbabwe, a Russia or a Greece because of two things: our Constitution and the Independent Electoral Commission. That, as he says, ‘no one has tried to mess with it [the Constitution] so far’ and that the ‘credibility and efficiency’ of the IEC ensuring the ‘credibility of our elections are never in doubt’.

Well, the constitution is under threat — Zuma has said it needs to be changed. And the Electoral Court ruling last year that IEC officials were wrong to bar individual candidates in the Tlokwe by-election goes to the heart of its credibility.

All this may be theory, another rumour. For in the wings, as Richard Poplak has so cogently argued in the Daily Maverick (‘Hannibal Elector: The rise and rise (and rise) of the EFF’) is Julius Malema and the EFF. His followers are ‘ready to throw the ideals and rhetoric of liberation out of their shacks with the day’s rubbish… [they] want to hear that the system will come up for a review, and that title deeds are going to be shredded, banks nationalised, the Mzansi flag raised over the mine shafts’.

It may be too late to fix the pipes.

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

REVIEW: A Passion For Freedom


passionforfreedomA Passion For Freedom

Mamphela Ramphele


Review: Sonwabiso Ngcowa

Medical doctor, academic, director of companies and former director at the World Bank. More recently, leader of her own political party. And now presidential candidate for the Democratic Alliance.

Ramphele writes about family, activism, love, intimacy, detention, being a mother and, above all, her “passion for freedom”. She shares events in her life with an aim to bear out this passion, the most recent being the formation of Agang.

The book is organised in short, concise chapters, titled using quotes from the text. This is one of its very attractive features.

She relates that she was born to a primary school teacher mother, and a father in the same profession. She had, from a young age, “cultural capital” because of her access to her father’s “sizeable library”. However, what she saw and read in the Encyclopedia Britannica made her yearn for a life she was “not supposed to live”. She grew up in a system that clearly believed there was no need to show a Bantu child greener pastures – they were not going to get there anyway.

It is her refusal, from a young age, to be dictated to in key aspects of her life that sees her triumph over adversity. Will she survive now her unpopular decision to wed herself to the DA? Certainly, there was no foreshadowing in the book of her move this week, though it does contain some of her most negative perceptions of the DA.

After her primary school education and medical training, Ramphele explores the spaces she had joined and shaped. Together with Steve Biko, the pioneer of Black Consciousness, she understood that dignity for all had to come, and lived this belief to the extent of banning orders, detention and close encounters with death. She would not back down.

Her trail left telling landmarks. In Zwelitsha, King Williams Town, she started Zanempilo Clinic. In Linyenye, Limpompo, too, she would start a health care centre, even though she had been exiled there on a banning order. The University of Cape Town was another landmark, as the first female ever, let alone a black female, to be Vice Chancellor.

One criticism of the book is that the writer chose not to warn the reader with italics when switching from English to Sesotho or isiXhosa. However, this criticism becomes somewhat insignificant when levelled against a book that seeks equality at all levels, in the social constructs of race and gender, so why treat languages any differently?

The book initially struck me as an unapologetic story, but on reflection I understood the seemingly unapologetic stance to be more of a protective shield. I missed some of the vulnerability she may have felt at times. The author was certainly strong and fearless, but she presents a woman who has far too little regret, or none at all.

And yet her narrative is sincere and unashamed, and there is no sugar coating of battles.

This is a recollection of a rich life told with great integrity, generosity and honesty.

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


To marry a black girl…


Marrying Black Girls for Guys who aren’t Blackmarry32

Hagen Engler

MF Books

REVIEW: Pieter Odendaal

In Marrying black girls for guys who aren’t black, Engler narrates the story of his relationship with Baby, aka Nomfundo, in an informal, frank and unapologetic manner. Along the way, he shares all the confusion and insights that their interracial marriage has led to.

In a word, the book is refreshing, despite the well-established SA tradition of using interracial love as a springboard to talk about general race relationships – probably because the book steers clear from trying to be politically correct. Rather than prancing around the political, Engler bites right into it, laying out our history of colonialism, persistent systematic racism and the generational legacies of apartheid. He helps to render whiteness visible, pointing to its privilege and its disconnect from Africa, and identifies key aspects of what he calls “white culture”: crap tattoos, Carte Blanche, shorts, extreme sports, the DA, and so on.

And yet, despite Engler’s self-confessed whiteness, he almost never comes across as a typical liberal who attempts to solve all our problems in one swoop. He acknowledges that his marriage hasn’t made him a de facto authority on blackness in a country where the fictitious notion of race has led to particularly large gaps between races. Rather, he says, we are all in a state of “racist rehab”, trying to rid ourselves of our addiction to prejudice.

Part of this rehab entails telling our own stories, which is precisely what Engler does: he tells us how he met Baby at a kwaito gig in Newtown, how he proposed one morning, without pants, by throwing a paper bag containing the ring onto their bed, how he learnt about the importance of lobola negotiations in getting to know one’s in-laws, and how he has had to renegotiate the notion of race after their son’s birth. This personal narrative is interspersed with tips for whiteys looking to pick up black girls, a particularly enjoyable open letter selling whiteboys to black women, and tidbits about everything from the importance of BEE to the intricacies of black hair.

At times Engler even performs his whiteness, choosing rap as his vehicle. It is precisely his self-aware perspective and tendency to self-ridicule that enables him to address the kinds of issues which we usually prefer to avoid. He uses both comedy and sincere self-questioning to disarm, to lure, to sway.

One blind spot which Engler acknowledges is his representation of women. In a later chapter, entitled “The other struggle”, he shares the insights he has gained about how FHM, rather than simply celebrating women, distorts our conception of beauty and denies women their subjectivity by reducing them to consumable objects. He blames his past bigotry on having been “brandwashed”. And yet his wife’s silence throughout the book and his continued obsession with looks show us that past ways influence and perhaps even limit present ways of seeing, and therefore how we act and interact with each other, whether it be as people of different genders or races.

Despite this reservation, Engler must be commended for his contribution to the growing archive of ways in which we are re-imagining ourselves as South Africans (also see the recent Categories of Persons, edited by Megan Jones and Jacob Dlamini). He shows us what we’ve known all along – that culture is not static, but malleable, and that new categories of persons come into being whenever different cultures meet. Hence his keenness to force us whites out of our comfort zones into spaces where we are not in an artificially created majority, so we can realise how min whiteys there really are in Africa and the importance of embracing our shared Africanness in order to grow this country collectively.

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

The goal and its challenges


Having spent time in December making the goals, I spent most of January trying to remember them. This poem sums up the challenges:

Bullseye-Desktop-WallpaperThe Three Goals

By David Budbill

The first goal is to see the thing itself
in and for itself, to see it simply and clearly
for what it is.
No symbolism please.

The second goal is to see each individual thing
as unified, as one, with all the other
ten thousand things.
In this regard, a little wine helps a lot.

The third goal is to grasp the first and the second goals,
to see the universal and the particular,
Regarding this one, call me when you get it.