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REVIEW: The Alphabet Of The Birds


The-Alphabet-of-Birds-_-RGB-300x460The Alphabet of Birds

SJ Naudé


ISBN: 9781415207130

REVIEW: Melvyn Minnaar

For those familiar with the Afrikaans version that appeared in 2011 – and won acclaim and awards – one of the pleasures of this roman à tiroirs is the precision of the translation (a rewrite, more accurately) in echoing the nuances of the original.

While the settings and tone of Naude’s seven haunting inter-linking stories have, what Damon Galgut, in a pointed introduction to the book, calls a “cosmopolitan gloss”, all are anchored in that particular starkness that Afrikaans sometimes shares with the outer edges of society and characters of our country.

It’s a language that harbours a particular emotional grittiness – such as J.M Coetzee brought so energetically to his first books, and provides the vivid graphics for Marlene van Niekerk’s fine novels.

Naude uses it in polished translation to densely weave the melancholic line of displacement/alienation that runs through all these stories. The glimpses of, and Afrikaans names are also a subtextual meditation on those speakers’ place in a much changed world and the country of today.

Often his mastery of words opens up possibilities beyond the obvious and foregrounded narrative. The reader is drawn into the telling of the tales as they unfold, unlocking meaning in sentences, negotiating time frames and the evolution of the plot, finding deep delight in the passion of prose.

This is Joschka, a baker’s assistant, and ‘alternative lover’ of the worldly, high-flying expatriate narrator, a banker in London: “He has hands that are capable of anything. Hands that start shaping each day when it breaks. Hands that track the shape of whichever body may be at hand that day. Hands that knead and mould dough.”

This poetic erotic charge focuses the central clash of personalities, places and philosophies in the story of ‘A Master from Germany’. The ironies of homelessness are at tipping point here.

This tension is the edge where all the central characters find themselves as they weave in and out of the first person, main narrative that frames the book so neatly.

Most are travellers, returning to places that are now different and challenging. Street-smart in the foreign worlds they’ve explored, their old homes, past histories, become demanding testing ground, throwing up existential questions.

Sex had its place and provided pleasure in the diaspora, but is neutered in the home-coming. Cancer is a thread through three pieces, a theme of creeping despair. Ironically, that unfolding of bleakness and the highly personal provide a key to some form of understanding, if not resolution.

The latter, as the book’s title suggests, is in the domain of the birds. Birds are referenced in casual encounters throughout the stories, detail in the décor, often as markers of frustration.

Theirs is language that we don’t understand, but yearn to know. Ancient and poetic metaphor of the unknown, inaccessible logic and the mysterious, Naudé elegantly activates this mythical framework in contemplation of the human condition.

The Alphabet of the Birds is a marvellously dense book and rewarding for that. Layers unfold as references (names, for example, are highly charged) reveal themselves and connections fall into place. Personal histories are stylishly pieced together in jigsaws of time.

Yet while the stories point to loss, if not inexorable tragedy, Naudé has composed such beautiful, honed prose that it drives you passionately and cerebrally from page to page, from story to story. The darkness of the unanswered questions is lit by the vividness of words.

His characters will ring in memory – often for the simplest, briefest detail ascribed to them and their actions.

There’s Sandrien, in the brilliant first story ‘Van’, who self-destructs in a relentless pursuit of redemption in the moral chaos of modern South Africa. Mrs Nyathi, who appears in this tale, and again later, is a colourful, cigar-smoking matron-hotelier. Sam is a freewheeling man of the new South Africa, and of the dance. Ondien is a musician-singer in search of herself as a cultural being deep in the alienated country.

They are people that could only inhabit or come from contemporary South Africa. They carry in person, philosophy and actions the complicated social issues of this land, which makes Naudé’s book also an open-ended morality tale.

When it appeared in Afrikaans in 2011, Naudé was widely praised as an exciting new voice. Many reviewers made particular reference to the fact that it should not be limited to that language. And so it has come about – brilliantly.
















REVIEW: A Tale for the Time Being

ruth ozeki

a tale for the time being

A Tale for the Time Being

By Ruth Ozeki


REVIEW: Melvyn Minnaar

Halfway though this complex, driven ‘double story’, there is a theatrical rift between novelist Ruth and her environment-artist Oliver about the diary of a 16-year-old Japanese girl Nao she had found, washed up near their house on a remote island coast in British Columbia.

In their purposely slow read, over some time, of the compelling diary, they had come to a point where the urge to find out whether the girl died in the 2011 tsunami or committed suicide, as she constantly threatened, had forced their own relationship to a flash point.

Oliver defuses the situation be reminding Ruth that what they had been reading was ten years old. A decade had passed since Nao’s passionate private reports on pages inserted under cover of Proust’s A la recherché du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time).

The penny dropped: the urgency that they had experienced to ‘save’ or find the troubled teenager had been overtaken by the reality of history. Time had become an impossible deal, the moment of life and death paradoxical.

At this point the deliciously poetic title of this remarkable, ground-breaking and beautiful novel is driven to a climax. The dense and yet clearly conveyed philosophy of perception and experience of time is nailed down in superbly exposed human emotion and real passion.

Author Ruth Ozeki, shortlisted for Man Booker Prize for this, her third novel, had set the intrigue from the start. “My name is Nao, and I am a time being… someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and everyone of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”

Those opening lines of the diary set an ambiguous trap for the reader, into which we happily fall.

As does the fictional Ruth, because as a novelist, she had been struggling with a memoir. Her ‘writer’s block’ – and subsequent tension with her easy-going partner – is contrasted with the blabbermouth writing of the young, outspoken, clever, girl. (Exquisite writing by Ozeki makes this first-person voice memorably vivid.)

This establishes also the format of the novel. Alternative chapters tell the two stories as they unfold in two historic time zones, places and communities. With this Ozeki sets a nifty rhythm for the reader.

Nao sets out to tell the life story of her 104-year-old anarchist feminist Buddhist nun great-grandmother Jiko. Yet the diary entries in purple ink relate her own sad life.

Displaced in Japanese society after her early childhood in the USA, she writes candidly about the bullying at school, the humiliation, sex and her dysfunctional parents. Shreds of youthful, tragi-comic humour shines though as, after her father’s second failed suicide attempt, she complains that if he is going to do something, he should at least follow through with it.

Her exploration of Buddhism exposes mature intelligence. She discovers that zazen meditation is to “enter time completely”. She responds to Jiko and admires her great-uncle Haruki, who was forced to become a kamikaze pilot and wrote a secret diary in French.

As Ruth reads this on the other side of the world, her life too moves towards clarity – a kind of spiritual understanding of herself as writer. A planned memoir had been stuck for years, as if life simply wouldn’t get on.

The cunning narrative that Ozeki constructs – and it is truly a most readable story with colourful characters, vivid settings and dramatic turns – evolves gently to meditation of the meaning of time. And, ultimately, the significant, private experience of life.

Death is the counter part, the defining moment, the instant history stops: old people dying (Nao’s beloved great-grandmother the Buddhist nun Jiko and Ruth’s mother), persons threatening to commit suicide (both Nao and her hapless father), or having to commit suicide (her great uncle, a kamikaze pilot in the war).

Ozeki is not shy to spread the simulacra and symbols of time around: a war-time watch rewound after many years, faded diaries and old letters, sea currents that take years to move, a nun endlessly old, the change of seasons, and plenty of quotes from Buddhist sages and poets.

Naturally this points to the nature of writing itself. The diary and memoir as report. The novel as a construct of both writer and reader in time. (There is a dynamic ‘magical realist’ moment of reader panic when Ruth discovers or dreams that the rest of Nao’s diary contains only blank pages, hence no conclusion to her story.)

It is all marvellously evocative – and purposefully complex to hook the reader to the arguments. It’s a superb read.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in October 2013.