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COLUMN: Violence to the reader

girl with book

Violence has many modes.

Subtle, sly and underhand. Overtly, erratically aggressive, or relentlessly “gently” teasing.

It is the unquestioned daily terror of powerful institutions against individuals, and the small daily terrors of weak individuals displaying their intellect, muscle or money like weapons to cow others.

It can be passive, psychic, verbal, physical, sexual, global, local. It can mask itself as “Mommy knows best” or “Daddy is the boss” or “God says”.  It is not gendered. It has all colours, all dogmas, all cultures in its thrall. It is doesn’t only hold sway in the province of human interaction, but thunders in the sky, from under the earth, in the wind and on the waves.

We can let life pass us by by every moment fearing it. Many do. We can do our best to avoid it. We can assert (and believe) that we are incapable of it. We can resist it, plot ways to neutralise it. Narrowly sidestep it, or crash right into by accident. We can even use violence against it, pre-emptively or in response to it.

But violence remains. Violence is.

The story of extreme violence – the kind the religious might pray fervently to avoid, while the irreligious engage in other forms of magical thinking – is what one Eli Sanders wrote about in her 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning feature article entitled The Bravest Woman in Seattle. She reports on the testimony of a woman in court, who must comb-through and nitpick, under cross examination, a night of such chilling brutality, it almost seems unreal.

Sanders’ writing is so simple that its effects on the reader seems disproportionately perverse. Before the reader’s un-avertable eyes, a woman speaks in court, and Sanders reports on it.

No violence is done to the reader, but to read it, is to absorb violence. Its diminishing aftershocks – washing on to my shores years later, from a place I have never been, done to a woman whose name I do not know, and conveyed through the miracle of satellite and fibre-optic cable – made me heave. Where my hand was clapped over my mouth, tears pooled. I will never forget that story. Not its details, nor how it was told.

In my German novel, In Zeiten des Abnehmenden Lichts by Eugen Ruge, I read about institutional violence, enforced through fear of betrayal and personal disgrace. It is the multi-generational story of a politically active family in the DDR and spans several decades. It is painfully beautifully written, each voice so idiosyncratically personal  in tone and content, it seems impossible it was written by only one person. It is also my favourite kind of novel: one which explores the inevitable intersection between the political and the personal.

The English translation of the title is “In times of diminishing light”. It won the Deutscher Buchpreis, and translation rights have been sold, so it should soon be available in English.

I was briefly interrupted in this when I picked up When in Broad Daylight I Open My Eyes, by Greg Lazarus, to assess which reviewer to give it to, but got hooked in by its menacing undercurrents of violence. It consumed me quickly.

In between I judged short stories for the South African Writers College annual short story award (all violent), and read This is my Land.

And I began to thoughtfully chew on the flavoursome, knotty gristle of Johann de Lange’s poems in his latest collection, called Vaarwel my effens bevlekte held.

Content, tone, imagery, reaction. It was a month of violent reading. I continue to wrestle.

This piece first appeared in the Cape Times and can also be read here: Books SA

Image Pictoral Review by Nickolas Muray (American 1892-1965) from George Eastman House Collection