Tuesday, 4 February 2014
By Michiel Heyns
Ernest Hemingway famously maintained that all American novels could be traced back to Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. That may have been an overstatement, but it is true that the basic pattern of Huck's story - a raft trip down the Mississippi with a runaway slave on board, in flight from "civilisation" and its constraints - is a recurring one in American fiction and film.
Movement, in American fiction, is freedom or gives the illusion of freedom, no matter that the flight more often than not ends in capture or death. Ultimately, keeping going is more important than any destination that may at some stage have lent some spurious illusion of purpose to the flight.
Amity Gaige's wonderful novel, Schroder (Faber & Faber) is squarely in this tradition, though the specifics are entirely original: Eric Schroder, a first generation refugee from East Germany, involved in a heated custody battle for his six-year-old daughter, Meadow, resorts to the simple expedient of abducting her, ostensibly to show her Mount Washington, but in fact because he can't stand being without her.
The endeavour is of course doomed, as we know from the first paragraph of the novel, which is written from jail, as a letter to his estranged wife, Laura.
The novel's achievement is in the creation of Eric Schroder - or Eric Kennedy, as he reinvented himself at age 14. Quite aware of his own failings - irresponsibility, impulsiveness, duplicity - without being abject about it, he nevertheless manages to make the reader root for him unreservedly: we want him to have the daughter he loves to distraction, and we resent his prosaic, unimaginative, conventional wife for her lack of generosity. (I should mention that not all reviewers have been as easily charmed by Eric Schroder.)
Since this is a first-person narrative, it is hardly surprising that we side with the narrator against The Opposition, as he calls the combined forces of his wife, her parents and her lawyer. Eric himself, however, is generally fair to Laura, or tries to be: "You were prompt," he tells her, "You were responsible. You were deliberate. You were health conscious. ? You were easily offended. There was a whole list of social issues over which you took quick offense."
In short, Laura has every virtue except warmth, generosity and humour, and if she sounds like a bit of a prig, that is not because Eric thinks she is one. To him, she is the model young American woman, and, as a first-generation immigrant, he admires all things American - to the extent of adopting a false identity as Eric Kennedy.
This fraud is perpetrated at age 14, at summer camp, when he decides that in order to be fully American he must have an American name, and selects for himself the most illustrious America name he knows.
He also invents a childhood near the Kennedy enclave at Hyannisport to go with his distinguished surname. When people assume he is related to "Those Kennedys", he denies the assumption only vigorously enough to seem modest. "I had chosen my own childhood," he reflects. "I had found a past that matched my present."
But Eric does not reinvent himself only in order to be an American: he is also trying to divest himself of his East German past, and of the mother who, he suspects, obtained an exit visa from East Berlin for him and his father through services she rendered to a Communist functionary: "All I knew was that for as long as I was Eric Kennedy, she was neither living nor dead." Creating a new identity, he opts for a past in which his mother "did not exist at all" - and if it also involves negating his gentle, patient father, that is a price Eric is prepared to pay.
This has been a dramatic year in the world of letters. The death of Chinua Achebe, who was affectionately known as the "father of African literature", and Doris Lessing, the British Nobel laureate for literature, were obviously the biggest and saddest news in the literary fraternity.
However, there was more growth than loss, as we saw the emergence of new voices, the return of seasoned writers from the solitude of literary production, as well as the excitement around literary awards.
Sabata-mpho Mokae scooped two M-Net Literary Awards for his Setswana novel, Ga ke Modisa. South Africa embraced the Zimbabwean-born NoViolet Bulawayo, whose shortlisting for the Man Booker Prize was announced while she was at a literary festival in Cape Town.
It was also a year of reckoning for short story writing. The greatest news was the announcement of Canadian short story writer, Alice Munro, as the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
We also saw the return of former chief executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Achmat Dangor, with a collection of short stories, Strange Pilgrimages (Pan MacMillan). His previous novel, Bitter Fruit, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2004.
Other notable authors who published short story collections include Reneilwe Malatji, Russell Kaschula, Liesl Jobson and Makhosazana Xaba.
The release of Zakes Mda's novel, The Sculptures of Mapungubwe, was like the falling of rain after a long spell of drought. The internationally acclaimed novelist had deprived readers of his creative genius (in a form of a novel) since the release of Black Diamond in 2009. The Sculptures of Mapungubwe deploys history as a means of commenting on the present.
The story is set in the timeless kingdom of Mapungubwe, beginning in 1223 CE, "except in Mapungubwe they didn't count years that way". It is an epic tale of the royal sculptor who had two heirs whose talents and rivalry set them apart as they got older.
With this fantastical novel, Mda affirms his status as a cartographer of words and a fabulist of note.
The much anticipated third novel by Lauren Beukes, Shining Girls, took the world by storm. Beukes created a whirlwind as she travelled the US and the UK, promoting her book.
It is probably her ability to transcend different cultures, historical moments as well as geographical boundaries that places Beukes's work in an elite class of world literature.
With this time-travel thriller set in Chicago, Beukes makes it more difficult to define African literature.
Angela Makholwa burst into the scene in 2007 with a crime novel, Red Ink, and followed with a mellow feminine narrative, Thirtieth Candle, in 2009. The curious question has always been whether Makholwa is more comfortable with the latter or the former.
Her latest novel, Black Widow Society, confirms her insatiable penchant for bloody crime scenes. Black Widow Society is a gripping thriller of a secret society of women who have taken control of their destinies, as well as those of their husbands.
Makholwa's grisly crime narrative is written with great erudition and acumen, which makes it seem so authentic and hard not to believe. The strangest thing is that she still has a husband?
I did not read all the novels I intended to in 2013 (when does one ever?), so my list may not be as representative as it might have been.
Still, my three chosen novels are by no means here only because they're the frontrunners in a small field; they could hold their own in any company - this despite the fact that two of the three are debut novels. It is heartening that publishers continue to invest in the unlucrative field of literary translation. This year we had, among a few others, Etienne van Heerden's In Love's Place (Penguin), Leon de Kock's translation of the 2005 In Stede van die Liefde (Human & Rousseau).
Van Heerden's forte is the interaction between the city and the country. Here, too, he moves effortlessly between the hamlet of Matjiesfontein and the big city in dynamic interaction. A large canvas, painted with the ease of an Old Master.
But Robertson's take is fresh and original: Katrijn van de Caab is a freed slave, and works as a wigmaker's apprentice at the end of the 18th century. As in Van Heerden's novel, the interaction between the metropolis and the hinterland is intriguingly explored, the discoveries of the Enlightenment jostling against the unquestioned verities of rural life. The 18th century narrative is intercut with a 20th century story featuring another type of enslavement, that of Sister Vergilius to her order.
A beautifully written, meticulously researched work of the imagination.
Another well-visited sub-genre is the childhood-under-apartheid. Dominique Botha's False River (Umuzi, published simultaneously in Afrikaans) fits into this mould, with her largely autobiographical account of growing up in the conservative heartland of the Free State, living, at times rebelliously, with parents active in opposition to the government of the day.
Botha's account of the absurdities of apartheid are horrifying and yet often hilarious but the novel is also a sobering account of the life and early death of her brother. A powerful and moving novel.
My South African novel of the year has to be Dominique Botha's False River, a semi-autobiographical novel triggered by the tragic death of the protagonist's brother - but in fact it is the narrator's journey from adoring and diffident younger sister to fully mature adult writer that makes the novel memorable for me.
Botha has written the book in both English and Afrikaans - so it is available in both languages. I hope this is the first of many more novels by a writer of major talent and remarkable emotional and psychological range.
I also thoroughly enjoyed Stephen Boykie Sidley's Stepping Out, which follows the misfortunes of Harold Cummings, a middle-aged middle-class American who leaves his comfortable bourgeois existence in search of something more urgent and meaningful.
This is a funny, moving and humane novel by a writer who has only gathered in strength since his award-winning debut novel Entanglement.
He is also one of several South African novelists who is beginning to set his stories outside the constraints of contemporary South Africa.
For younger readers, I recommend Hamilton Wende's delightful Arabella, the Moon and the Magic Mongongo Nut, which takes place in Parkview and tells the story of Arabella, who is grieving over the death of her father.
From the Grimm stories onwards, magic in stories for young people usually erupts out of extreme necessity or suffering - and this book takes us on a journey through a world at once familiar - with its mealie ladies and hadedas - and completely transporting.
Listening to Patricia Glyn talk about her experiences during her foot travels around South Africa is a mesmerising experience at best. Being able to discuss them with her and reading her most recent work, What Dawid Knew: a Journey with the Kruipers (Pan Macmillan), has been a moving encounter, both with author and text.
Perhaps, more than anything, they have suffered either from reprehensible neglect or a patronage which - at opposite ends of the scale of concern - have been deeply divisive.
Without illusions, Glyn set off to discover something of the truth concerning a particular community and tapped into the heart of a history which she tells with moving honesty, admitting to often being stumped for answers and profoundly changed by the experience herself.
It is the story of parallel journeys, and important reading for anyone wishing to understand life at the margins. It is told without sentiment and without apology, and is written by an engaging storyteller, a courageous and deeply compassionate woman.
On a lighter note, there has been a plethora of local cookbooks adding to the cooking frenzy on TV and the new celebrity of chefs. Therefore, it was a comfort to stumble upon a cookbook written by Margaret Wasserfall, the well-loved writer, journalist and editor. Called My Granny's Pantry: a Kitchen Memoir (Jacana ) and beautifully illustrated and presented, Margaret's book takes cooking off the stage, strips it of pretension and posturing and returns it (reliably!) to the family kitchen. It's a delight - a book for real people. - published January 5, 2014.
Wednesday, 22 January 2014
By Mary Corrigall
Of all the rape scenes depicted in cinematic products it is the infamous one in the 1972 American film Deliverance that the real horror of the act is driven home, proposes author Margie Orford.
This prompted him to pen a 1989 editorial in The New York Times, where he recognised his "own anxious desire to distance himself from the victimisation of the role".
The gritty rendering of that rape scene is directly related to the gender of the victim, suggests Orford. Violence against women in the realm of fiction (and perhaps in how it is reported in the press) is portrayed in quite a different manner; it is "so built into the aesthetics of pleasure and pornography which has bled into everything", says Orford. Certainly, it is a feature of crime writing.
"The genre is a misogynist genre, based on killing the femme fatale. Women must be shown their place," observes the Cape Town-based writer over a cup of tea at 54 on Bath. The genteel setting seems at odds with the dark subject matter.
The misogynist aspect to crime writing presents somewhat of a dilemma for Orford, who by all accounts (including her own) is pegged not only as a crime writer, but one of the most celebrated, both here and abroad - she recently signed a five-book deal with a UK publisher.
Water Music (Jonathan Ball) is the fifth novel in the Clare Hart series, but she admits that she hasn't quite worked out how to resolve the ethical dilemma that working with the crime genre entails.
"I wanted to disrupt (the model) and avoid the torture of women as spectacle and entertainment; you have to find a way to disrupt that visual pleasure cycle but it is really difficult."
It's a familiar refrain; Lauren Beukes struggled with a similar trope while writing Shining Girls, a sci-fi serial killer thriller that pointedly deals with femicide. There has been much discussion in literary circles around the value of the crime genre as an alternative model for the political novel - in fact, it was a review of Orford's last novel, Gallows Hill, that sparked the discussion. However, it can't be a coincidence that it has proved a vehicle for female writers interested in upturning the gender politics attached to genre literature. Can this be done without perpetuating the model they reject?
Thursday, 16 January 2014
By Rob Gaylard
A feature of this year's Caine Prize collection of stories, A Memory this Size and Other Stories (Jacana), is the prominence of what one might call diasporic stories, such as Tope Folarin's prize-winning story, Miracle. Given the salience of novels like Brian Chikwava's Harare North and NoViolet Bulawayo's We Need New Names, this seems to reflect an emerging trend in African writing. (Bulawayo was the 2011 Caine Prize winner.)
There are five short-listed stories of which four are, rather remarkably, by Nigerian authors (or authors with a connection to Nigeria). A further 13 stories came out of this year's Caine Prize workshop, held on the shores of Lake Victoria. Four of these 13 stories were submitted by Ugandans.
The first story in the collection is Folarin's Miracle - on the evidence of this story, the author is clearly Nigerian/American. He tells us, "I'm a writer situated in the Nigerian disapora, and the Caine Prize means a lot - it feels like I'm connected to a long tradition of African writers."
It seems pointless to debate whether someone who was born in America can be described as an "African" - one infers from the story that the author's Nigerianness is an important part of his identity, and he falls squarely within the definition of "African writer" inscribed in the Caine Prize rules.
The story explores the issue of faith and belief, and provides a vivid first-person account of a revivalist service at which a blind prophet performs what are alleged to be miracles. The story does not confirm that any miracle has taken place - but it does affirm the ties of family and community, and suggests that "both (truths and lies) must be cultivated for the community to survive".
The congregation consists entirely of Nigerian exiles or sojourners in America, and the story balances the narrator's scepticism against the repeated affirmation, "We need miracles".
The American connection is reinforced by the second story in the collection, Pede Hollist's Foreign Aid. The story is a deftly narrated, somewhat ironic, cautionary tale about the folly of the "Been-to" who imagines he can return to his native land (in this case Sierra Leone), rather like a deus ex machina, putting right whatever is wrong and making up for his 20-year absence (and neglect of his family).
As the story unfolds the scales are lifted from Logan's eyes and he comes to realise the futility of his efforts. His sister, Ayo, points out, "Out here. We manage. We do what we have to do". The story could have been subtitled The Americanisation of Balogan/Logan: it explores the dissonance set up by the manners and expectations of the returnee, Logan, the "self-made man from ICU (the Inner City University)", whose "fanny pack" of dollars rapidly runs out. One quotation will help to illustrate the inventiveness of the writing:
"Logan was left severely to himself. He felt powerless, useless like a kaka bailer who arrives at a large family latrine with only a small tamatis cup, unable to and incapable of handling the crap that had been generated."
Ironically, much of the "crap" has been generated through Logan's efforts to assist his family.
In contrast, Elnathan John's Bayin Layi, set in a Hausa-speaking and predominantly Muslim part of Nigeria, plunges us in media res. The narrator is Dantali, one of a group of homeless boys who sleep under the kuka tree in the town of Bayan Layi.
These boys "like to boast about the people they have killed". We are introduced to their seemingly amoral perspective: without the security or guidance of home or parents, they are easily sucked up into what seems to be standard election-time violence in Nigeria.
Driven by desperation or greed, they stop at nothing; in their hands machetes become lethal weapons. They seem to have internalised the worst aspects of the society around them. These include ethnic hatred (one boy is killed partly "because he has the nose of an Igbo boy") and homophobic violence (another victim is referred to as "a disgusting dau dauda" (or effeminate homosexual).
The effect of the plain, unvarnished narrative is chilling: "I am not thinking as we move on, burning, screaming, cutting, tearing. I don't like the feeling in my body when this machete cuts flesh so I stick to the fire and take the matchbox from Banda." At the end our narrator is running "far, far away from Bayan Layi" - but to what possible future? The references to Allah and the call of the muezzin form an ironic backdrop to the grim action of the story.
By Leon de Kock
One of the effects of the globalisation of the novel, leading to that contentious creature referred to nowadays as "world literature" - a supposedly "post-national" phenomenon - is that anyone can now, more easily, write about anywhere, including South Africa.
Two recent novels show that commentary from outside is both salutary and refreshing: Adrian van Dis's Betrayal (excellently translated from the Dutch, Tikkop, by Ina Rilke, Maclehose Press, London) and Patrick Flanery's Absolution (Riverhead, New York, 2012).
Flanery's novel attracted at least one local review in which his characterisation of South African mannerisms was questioned, but on the whole his novel is absorbing, if somewhat bland. It has received good reviews, especially in the international media.
Van Dis's Betrayal, the more recent of the two, raises some interesting issues. It is a riveting tale of post-apartheid disillusionment which plays out in a little Cape fishing village where Mulder, an old "struggle" collaborator from the Netherlands, meets up once again with a formerly exiled Afrikaner ANC comrade.
Their lives conjoin in the stewardship of Hendrik, an intelligent coloured teenager who is addicted to tik and who - at a critical moment in the novel - must choose between material and spiritual goods, raising the issue of what is known in contemporary scholarship as "uneven modernities".
Instead of accepting the good intentions of the two well-off former struggle "heroes" and their way of helping him get his life back into shape through education, Hendrik instead runs away with their stuff: a laptop computer, a hairdryer and the rich silver belonging to the wealthy old house where he's been put up by the rebel scion of patriarchal Afrikanerdom.
What else did these whiteys expect? Imagine for a moment the possibility - at this late stage in the post-industrial era, and more than 10 years into the new millennium - that you still have never seen a lighted oven, not to mention a gleamingly slim computer containing Google Earth and info on cool-dude Chinese punks?
Or, even worse - you see these goodies via their media representations, on massive advertising boards, flapping in the wind as newspaper images, mockingly out of your reach, but you're supposed to make peace with the fact that Facebook and Twitter are for the rich only. And for the most part, that means for whites only, even in 2013.
Hendrik's destiny, as he sees it, is a life without gadgets and connectivity, and although Van Dis occasionally pushes the limits in his characterisation of a rural coloured boy who has never before seen an oven, it's nevertheless a no-brainer when such a boy must choose between modernity's goodies on the one hand, and Protestant values like forbearance and patience on the other.
By Gary Baines
The body of literature on the "Border War" has grown exponentially in the last decade or so. These writings have included veterans' memoirs, novels, unit histories and military histories.
Leopold Scholtz's work falls squarely into the last category for he posits that his The SADF in the Border War 1966-1989 (Tafelberg, 2013) is "primarily a military rather than a political history".
He labelled the approach of those who argued that major changes were determined by the outcome of significant military engagements as "battle-centric" history. Scholtz does not fall into this trap but he comes close to doing so.
Scholtz is well qualified to write a military history of the border war but he feels a need to defend the role of historians in providing balanced, well-informed accounts of the border war against those who uphold the authority of the eye witness as somehow inviolable.
Contributors to the recent collection of SADF veterans' writings compiled by (retired) General Jannie Geldenhuys under the title We Were There claim to know what "really happened" by virtue of their participation in specific battles or campaigns.
But they merely offer a perspective that should be subjected to scrutiny as with any other version of the events.
Personal narratives or experiential stories have their own particular shortcomings as history. But, then, the same is true of other primary sources. Scholtz has drawn upon a vast array of documents, interviews and published accounts to provide a comprehensive history of the border war.
It surpasses extant works by military journalists such as Willem Steenkamp and Helmoed-R?mer Heitman because of the author's willingness to approach the subject of the SADF critically rather than as an apologist.
However, Scholtz still avoids addressing thorny questions about the morality of the war and the criminal conduct of the SADF.
Nor is he prepared to acknowledge that the armed struggle waged by military wings of Swapo and the ANC might have had significantly more political legitimacy than the counter-insurgency of the SADF and its surrogates.
Although there can be no denying that the liberation movements, too, were guilty of human rights abuses and the TRC pronounced all military formations "perpetrator organisations", the level of violence committed by the SADF was disproportionate to the perceived threat to the country - especially when it is remembered that most of the destruction was wrought upon innocent victims in neighbouring states.
Scholtz is critical of the upper echelons of the SADF for micromanaging the war and so limiting the freedom of the commanders on the ground.
He argues that the SADF's strategic objectives in Angola/Namibia were blunted by generals who were concerned about losses of national servicemen and the concomitant political fall-out among the white constituency.
By Christine Emmett
Mattheüis Duiker walks into his father's study and cannot help but aspire to this as the domain of private reflection and exclusively masculine exchange. In Michiel Heyns' English translation of Eben Venter's novel, Wolf, Wolf (Tafelberg), Heyns captures this pleasure, as well as the emphasis placed in the original syntax of the Afrikaans version. Mattheüis' father is dying, and the house will be part of his inheritance, "His, the study will be." This symbolically imbued space, positioned in a Cape Dutch house in Cape Town's southern suburbs, epitomises the Afrikaner patriarch, Benjamin Duiker's wealth.
This painting reappears throughout the novel indicating issues surrounding Afrikaner inheritance. In Afrikaner nationalist mythology, the Battle of Blood River was used to legitimate Afrikaners' role as an independent and politically dominant group in South Africa. The battle, taking place on December 16, 1838, purportedly involved a clash in which the Voortrekkers were vastly outnumbered by Zulu warriors. It's claimed that Sarel Cilliers made a covenant with God that would secure his people's victory. Because, among overwhelming odds, the Voortrekkers succeeded in winning the military encounter, this event became mythologised as proof of legitimate (because it appeared divinely ordained) occupation and political sovereignty in South Africa. It is no surprise then that Mattheüis, a young, gay, white South African, would want to leave this part of the past and his father's ideological beliefs behind. These ideologies, dated and prejudiced, are effectively the same ones which deny the legitimacy of Mattheüis' relationship with his lover, Jack. At his most accommodating, Benjamin Duiker can only say: "That's your business. But not in my house. I won't allow it. It flies in the face of my principles."
The house, the container of Benjamin Duiker's values and prejudices, is the same one which Mattheüis wants to inherit. This gives rise to a number of issues in the new South Africa: what is to be made of Afrikaner wealth and privilege? Bestowed on the previous generation by discriminatory policies which benefited both Afrikaner material wealth and Afrikaner culture, what is the new generation of Afrikaners to inherit? Can one appropriate the privileges of apartheid and use them to forge a new subject position? Can they be manipulated, changed, and have the core ideologies vacated, as the disavowal of the Blood River painting suggests?
The patriarch's death is a slow one. A significant part of the novel is dedicated to detailing this decline. Benjamin has lost his sight and his internal organs are deteriorating as a result of the chemotherapy administered to fight off his lymphoma. His son, nursing him, experiences both anger and guilt amid the forced intimacy which frailty necessarily effects. These details underlie the miscommunications and painful moments in which both parties hope to secure something of their lives before Benjamin expires.
In this way Venter represents both the anguish and ambivalence of familial passing, and the ambiguous and fraught relationship between Afrikaners and their past. Wolf, Wolf is at times graphic and visceral, but for the most part, remains an emotional and sensitive account of the slow and painful extinguishing of human life.
Within this bleak context, hope is vested in two aspirations: the fast food business which Mattheüis hopes to open in Observatory, and the house, which he is certain his father will pass on to him. This will be the place in which he will start a new life once his father has died.
This allows Venter to dramatise the struggle involved in the desire of a younger generation of Afrikaners to distance themselves from the prejudices and values of their cultural heritage, while holding on to the material legacy it facilitated. As an Afrikaner in the new South Africa, Mattheüis must adapt his inheritance - not only the house, with its emblems of Afrikaner nationalism, but the general way of life and world view passed down between generations. Venter suggests two problems inherent in this action: firstly, the extent to which people are able to choose their inheritance in this way; and secondly, what new values will substitute the outdated ones.