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REVIEW: Weeping Waters

weepingwaters_700-400x302

weeping-watersWeeping Waters

Karin Brynard

Penguin

ISBN: 9780143539124

REVIEW: Jonathan Amid

Released in 2009 to critical acclaim, Karin Brynard’s Plaasmoord, now translated ably into English by Maya Fowler and Isobel Dixon, laid bare just how farm murders have infiltrated our nation’s psyche – particularly the collective unconscious of the Afrikaner minority, their ties to the land intimately connected to a sense of being and being at home.

Brynard, renowned journalist and political correspondent for Rapport for many years, was canny enough to construct a white knuckle crime-thriller that stood out for marrying acute social diagnosis and socio-political commentary with a deep understanding of the need for suspense and tension and the exploitation of reader fears and anxieties.

An assured debut – intriguing from its inception, punchy, gritty, by turns gruesome, sensitive, dense and ever evocative, covering much from stock theft to muti murders, and everything in between – it was Brynard’s background in journalism, one shared by fellow Afrikaans krimi writers Deon Meyer, Chris Karsten and Rudie van Rensburg, that allowed her to get to the heart of the story she was telling.

And it’s far less political than some readers might expect.

Although I was anxious over the way that Brynard’s emotive brand of storytelling would play out in translated form, the end result is a worthy, well-weighted grappling with language and meaning, capturing on balance the unsettling tone and menace of the original, the unctuous dialogue and the crackling different dialects, while the translated text evinces its own gut-punch poetics.

Weeping Waters is an excellent title for this translation, a lead-off into the way that the novel functions is carried ahead by a large and finely drawn ensemble cast, of whom I can only mention a few here. Among the most memorable and well-drawn of these translated figures – a translation of characters that are by definition variations of the Afrikaner, thus allowing for a process of deep cultural translation in the work being done by the writing from Afrikaans into English – are the central figure of artist Freddie Swarts, coming into the Huilwater farm after the death of her father.

Freddie is the central absence that hovers over the action, the brutally slain adoptive mother of a young girl of colour who is also killed. The translated title sets up a change from the more politically discursive and incendiary Plaasmoord, literally “farm murder”, into the more measured but no less resonant Weeping Waters. What this change achieves in relation to the death at the novel’s heart – both a metonymic kind of death and a tragic culling of individual life and livelihood – is to focus a jaundiced eye on the way that space functions in relation to both real people that populate our country, and fictional subjects that help us to understand these actual living beings in the real world.

The extended metaphor of weeping – of lamentation, of trauma bottled up but also released – extends from the Huilwater farm and Freddie herself to her troubled relationship with her sister Saar. Brynard sidesteps an (exclusive) focus on farm murder discourse, and reveals how murder both political and intensely personal.

In bitter conflict with Freddie about the affairs of her ailing father and his estate before his death, Saar becomes one of the novel’s most central figures, her loss and pain over the death of her father and sister flowing directly into the way that we see the main suspect in the eyes of the community and police. Dam, or Adam, is a direct descendant from the bloodline of historical figure Adam Kok, the Griqua leader who by all accounts had a fascinating relationship to Empire and missionaries in South Africa.

Dam is painted in lush strokes and with a terrific eye for interiority and motivation by the translation (much like in the original text), and through the unpacking of the complex relationship between Dam and Freddie – who drew remarkably lucid but disturbing visions of her impending death before it happened – we are able to see just how skilled Brynard is at setting up wave upon wave of paranoia, mistrust and fraught intimacy.

If Freddie’s relationship with her immediate community allows Brynard to dig deeply into issues around land, the erosion of community ties, right-wing obsessions, rural ways of life amid growing political discontent, Brynard’s narrative is always grounded in the reader’s identification with the everyman investigator Inspector Albertus Beeslaar, the novel’s flawed but compassionate figure of detection who must grapple with both the transition from the evils of the city and a personal life in crisis and the darkness of men’s (and women’s) hearts in the rural idyll.

Ultimately, what Weeping Waters gets spot on is the introduction of another compelling leading man, an indisputably goodman, who can allow readers in English to traverse the diverse social strata that make South Africa such a fertile ground for its skilled writers.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2014.

REVIEW: A Bit of Difference

a bit of difference

abitofdifferencesefiattaA Bit of Difference

Sefi Atta

Jacana Media

ISBN-10: 1566568920

REVIEW: Jonathan Amid

Protagonist Deola Bello, born into affluence in Ikoyi, Nigeria, finds herself living in a London “overrun with immigrants”. An expatriate working for an international charity, Bello is thirty-nine, single, wary of men and marriage and disillusioned with her current prospects and co-workers.

As auditor in service of European capital, Deola evaluates the merits of various funding concerns involving Africans in need. Neither fully at home in London nor unaware of the ethical quandaries attendant on being an African that “judges” African others, Deola travels home for the fifth anniversary of her father’s passing. Her life choices and outsider’s gaze will be under intense scrutiny from her own family, and Deola’s own perceptions about the world and herself will come into sharp relief.

Moving between Atlanta, London and Lagos, the first part of this slow-burning yet searingly perceptive novel (Atta’s third) is a carefully hewn tapestry of Deola’s impressions, opinions and interactions with co-workers and friends.

Atta’s prowess in terms of characterization is most evident in the three friends that Deola spends time with in London: Subu, trained at the same school of accountancy as Deola in Nigeria, refuses to return home. Her born-again Christian status allows Atta a platform to critique the rise of different forms of religious fundamentalism both in London and Nigeria (just think of prophet TB Joshua), and Deola’s impressions (and skepticism) are acidly funny.

Equally engaging is the portrayal of the misanthropic writer Bandele, admirer of James Baldwin and JM Coetzee, whom Deola knows from home. Sexually fraught and depressed, Bandele feels out of place in London. His moving portrayal and poignant interactions with Deola reinforce Atta’s rapport with the underdog, and notable are the scathing barbs after the prize-giving for African writing when Bandele loses out to another writer deemed to need it more. Tessa, rounding out the trio of Deola’s friends, has known her since boarding school, and considers a move to Australia with her husband. How Deola relates to Tessa, her choices and the roundedness of Tessa’s character, are further highpoints.

If the novel’s first part deliberately limits its cast of characters, it must be categorically noted how Atta simultaneously and to good effect creates depth from a wide array of digressions, all from Deola’s perspective, yet told in the third person. With an effect that combines distance and intimacy, immediacy and aloofness, these reflections – some more banal than others – allow for fascinating insights into the myriad of influences that shape and foster individual (migrant) subjectivity.

The wide variety of discourses around Africa – a continent seemingly always under symbolic (re)construction, with all of its colour and contradictions emanating from spheres of culture, commerce, civil war, tribalism, racism, minorities and factionalism, contradictions, abuses of power, tradition and modernity – are interrogated in observations sharp and often brutal. Atta’s lean, limber prose moves far beyond a mere “anthropological curiosity”, a phrase that Deola uses at one point.

One such digression sees Nigeria described as a country where even the ‘passive aggressive’ land is stubbornly “too damn African”: When “a car dealership opens… the road in front of it splits, as if to say, ‘I told you I couldn’t handle it’.”

Linguistic flights of fancy are largely dispensed with, yet thoughtfulness remains: “Once in a while, Africans will be confronted with the notion that Africans are disposable and of much consequence to humanity as waste material. This may not be personal… Their daily trauma is trying to survive systems that did not start off with their continuity in mind.”

The neat trick of the novel’s second half, somewhat more formulaic, linear and plot-centric, moves Deola out of the shadows of introspection and observation into the realm of being observed, seen more closely by the reader and once again by her own family after years apart, in Nigeria. We meet her mother, demanding and intense; her brother Lanre, who has taken up the charge as one of the directors at the bank started by her father, and her sister, the doctor Jaiye, unhappily married. Yet Deola’s interaction with her immediate family, and many others part of her extended family, is secondary to her meeting with Wale, an affluent widower who will change the course of her life forever. It is in this second half of the novel that Deola, flawed, recognizable, humane, is revealed to the reader through her interactions with her family and with Wale. This is where Atta proves equally adept with the conventions of story and setting as with larger socio-political ruminations such as the nature of filial ties and affiliative connection in a seemingly transnational world.

Laden with irony, bitterness, poignancy, and wit, this commanding novel invites the patient and introspective reader to cherish fragments of connection as we untangle complex bits of difference.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2014.