Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Dark Shadows of the Mind

By Mary Corrigall 

Roger Ballen has an office. Of course, this makes practical sense; as an internationally recognised artist with museum and commercial shows running concurrently throughout the world, he requires assistants and administrative staff who would need to work from somewhere.
Yet the idea of an artist, and one like Ballen whose work is defined by haunted dark spaces, working out of an office in a plush corporate building in Parktown, Joburg, jars with expectations.
We should be meeting inside a crumbling, dirty building or perhaps in a tranquil garden surrounding a mental institution - the outskirts of a place that deals with the "shadows of the mind" as he dubs the main drive of his photography.
It is not an ordinary office - shelves in a waiting area are lined with the macabre ephemera I recognise from some of his photographs; disused toys, animal |skins, cages.
It could be the prop room for a horror movie, except for the plush furniture and industrious assistants who frequently check a large printing device that is churning out Ballen's black and white prints.
His macabre photography is big business. Maybe it does belong in an office park after all.
The scale of his photographs has grown, too, as have all photographers' work here. Photography has fast become an immersive medium, a condition which is undercut by photography books, which deny this and limit the impact of images.
Yet it was via his books, in particular Platteland (1994), a photographic essay documenting impoverished white people living on the fringes, that Ballen cemented his career. His seemingly negative portrayal of this population - some subjects are the products of inbreeding - may also have contributed to the interest the book generated.
Nevertheless, the book format has allowed him to more clearly set up relationships between images, and in past years, to reconsider his oeuvre. His new book, Asylum of the Birds (Thames & Hudson) includes photographs dating from as far back as 2005, tracing the trajectory of the bird motif.
It is hard to overlook this theme, not only in the book, which features image upon image in which a bird (mostly white) is present, but in his office, where birds are cooing in the background. The live props are kept in a storeroom with other creatures.
When the lanky American artist emerges from his office and I remark on the birds and his attachment to animals in his work, he brings out a cage to show me some baby rats. They are cute and it is kind of surprising to see Ballen revel in this. He could easily be a member of the Adams family or described as the High Priest of Darkness, a title borne out not only by a fixation with macabre subject matter but his serious, brooding demeanour.

Cape Flats Novel falls Flat

By Christine Emmett

Cape Town is a divided city. The spatial engineering of the apartheid government banished non-whites to the peripheries of the city, using infrastructure and the landscape as physical barriers. 
This mapping produced a lack of continuity which still abounds from the unlit and anarchic streets of Khayelitsha to the gentrified tourist mecca of the city and the DA's sleepy southern suburbs. 
On the level of symbolism, it's no surprise that protesters flung faeces from the township on the city's elegant colonial buildings last year. 
And it's in this vein that the protagonist of Songeziwe Mahlangu's novel, Penumbra, a young black middle-class UCT graduate living, moving and partying across these boundaries and barriers, becomes an important voice for South Africans to hear. Unfortunately, however, this particular author seems to have very little to say.
Penumbra (Kwela) opens with the narrator flitting around the streets of Rondebosch, Cape Town, paranoid and anxious, reading significance into everything and clasping at his bible in a state of delusional fervour. It's presumed that a mixture of drugs, a sense of meaninglessness and his own wastrel existence have lead Managliso to the tip of psychosis. 
The burden of the novel, as its title suggests, is to map this trajectory, figured through the play of light and dark in a lunar eclipse.
The fictional representation of Cape Town by black South Africans has a limited but esteemed history, featuring the likes of Alex La Guma and K Sello Duiker. It's the fairly sparse style and the first-person narration of Mahlangu's novel that reminds one of K Sello Duiker's own exploration of Cape Town in Thirteen Cents. 
In this novel Duiker has Azure, a young street kid, describe his experiences in the underbelly of Cape Town. But the important distinction is that where Duiker uses a minimalist style to emphasise Azure's youth and naivety, he still imparts observations which are insightful and unexpected. Of the gangster/ pimp, Allen, he notes: "When you're dressed properly grown-ups give you a bit of respect. But as long as I'm me and have no home and wear tattered clothes, Allen will never give me proper clothes because that would mean that I can look like him.
"And no one who knows Allen looks like him. He makes sure of that. Even if it means he strips you himself." 
Duiker's succinct description of clothing, which tells us everything about status, prestige and the pecking-order of the streets, uses this small incident to paint a big picture. By contrast, in Penumbra Managliso's observations sound startlingly myopic. When the narrator's friend, Nhlakanipho, makes a pass at one of the narrator's potential sexual conquests, he melodramatically states "Nhlakanipho has torn me too many times. In my body the waters are rising. He has been abusing me since varsity. Our friendship is a falsehood. He even influences how others perceive me." 
Unsurprisingly, this incident in Mahlangu's novel is neither developed nor elaborated upon. These clichés are never taken further, and nothing is made of this incident. The reader is unwillingly drawn into the vapid exploits of an inflated and narcissistic ego.

A model of African Fiction

By Aghogho Akpome

In The Sculptors of Mapungubwe (Kwela Books), Zakes Mda makes an impressive attempt to recreate one of the most interesting legends of the southern African region.
It is the history of Mapungubwe, an ancient settlement that was located between the Limpopo and Shashe rivers just by the confluence of present day South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe.
Mapungubwe has been hailed as "the most complex society in Southern Africa" by respected academic Thomas Huffman, who Mda acknowledges in the novel's preface.
Since an archaeology student stumbled upon relics of this10th-13th century kingdom in 1933, the location of Mapungubwe has been made a national park and declared a Unesco heritage site.
A museum is dedicated to it at the University of Pretoria; it is the name of the country's top national award and has inspired an annual cultural festival in Limpopo province.
And now it is the subject of a major work of fiction by one of the most prolific contemporary South African novelists.
The Sculptors of Mapungubwe is a story of rivalry, fraternal strife, love, hubris, and the power of art, set in a prosperous, bustling yet peaceful city state with a highly rigid and dichotomous class system.
Mda tells this story - as many acclaimed black African writers before him have tended to do - with redolent descriptions of landscape, family life, and indigenous culture, plus the resourceful deployment of oral narrative devices and words from indigenous languages.
The story is also an ambitious ideological project that embraces several themes, ranging from social division, cultural differences and pre-colonial history to the power of the imagination, modernism and migration.
One of the novel's strongest points is the way these issues resonate with contemporary conditions.
In Mapungubwe, the upper class live literally at a higher altitude - up the hill - while the common people live in the plains below.
There is also a rift between the town's "old residents", who are descendants of its earlier inhabitants, and the "new residents", whose forebears had migrated there more recently and who now dominate the kingdom.
These divisions provide a graphic frame for the rivalry at the centre of the story between its two male protagonists, the brothers Chatambuza (Chata) and Rendani, who are the town's most respected sculptors, practitioners of an elevated art form regarded as sacred in the kingdom.
Although both are sons and apprentices of Zwanga, the revered former Royal Sculptor, Chata is a commoner while Rendani is a noble, or "grandee", a term Mda uses generously.
Chata is regarded as a mere ward to whom Zwanga had been a magnanimous foster parent. Chata is never acknowledged as a son, and only learns of the fact through gossip after Zwanga's death.
He is thus a kind of bastard; not only was his mother not married to Zwanga, she was also a phuli or slave, and belonged to the presumably primitive and nomadic Zhun/twasi race which Mapungubweans despise in a benign manner.
Being the legitimate son, Rendani inherits Zwanga's exalted office of Royal Sculptor after the latter's death.
It is a position for which he had been groomed in spite of the fact that Zwanga had been more impressed by Chata's talent and potential as a sculptor.
Zwanga's overt favouritism serves as the basis of Rendani's resentment of his brother and sets the stage for the rivalry that plays out between two of the town's most illustrious "brothers".
From contesting for their father's attention as boys, the two would later clash over Chata's wearing of silk (considered by Rendani as a preserve of nobles), proceeds from Zwanga's mine, and a maiden Rendani seeks to make his new wife but ends up as Chata's partner.
Through the valorisation of the arts of sculpting and dancing in this community, Mda seems to be taking an obvious position in the timeless debate on the value of the imaginative vis-?-vis the empirical: Chata's powerful image of a Khoikhoi woman and the maiden Marubini become a compelling religious and ritualistic attraction to many members of the community before it is destroyed by his envious detractors.
Furthermore, Marubini becomes transfigured by a trance and performs an enchanted dance that ends a prolonged drought, saves the|kingdom from starvation, and earns her the sobriquet of Rain Dancer.
The novel can also be read as a celebration of indigenous African cultures and simultaneously as a critique of modernism and/or modernisation.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

The Life Cycle of a Literary Vanguard

By Siphiwo Mahala

'I was born at Baragwanath Hospital and my parents are Judah and Meikie Duiker. I was named Kabelo Sello  Duiker. I was given my second name after my grandfather, who unfortunately died four months before I was born. My birth date is the thirteenth of April 1974."
This is an excerpt from a school project entitled, My Life Story, dated 1987. It is reported that the book was neatly bound, and on the cover the following words were written in bold capital letters: "AUTHOR AND PUBLISHER KS DUIKER." 
This is when a writer took residence in the boy who would grow up to become multi award-winning author, K  Sello Duiker.
Duiker must have been 13 at the time, and in retrospect, this is the number that would prove to be very special to him. 
His dream of becoming a published writer was only realised 13 years after he had written this school project. Since 1995, Duiker had been interacting with Annarie van der Merwe, publisher at Kwela Books, a new imprint established at the time of our country's transition to democracy in 1994. 
Kwela Books was established with the purpose of "looking for fresh young talent," a statement that could be interpreted as a euphemism for "young black writer". 
The dominant notions in our literary discourse during apartheid were largely informed by binary opposites as a result of living in an oppressive state. The narratives of black and white, hegemony and anti-hegemony, and the victim and perpetrator had to make way for new transitional themes. 
The South African literary landscape was desperate to discover an "authentic" black voice that would go beyond the paradoxes of the apartheid narrative. 
For Kwela Books, that voice came in 1995, in the form of Duiker, then a student at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. 
Although Kwela could not publish his first manuscript, Duiker's potential was obvious and he struck up a very good relationship with Van der Merwe. They soon started working on his next project - The Quiet Violence of Dreams.
It was during the process of pruning this manuscript that the aspirant author came up with another new manuscript. In typical publisher response, Kwela told Duiker to focus on nurturing The Quiet Violence of Dreams before looking into other projects.
However, they did not forbid him from taking the new manuscript to a different publisher. David Phillip publishers accepted the manuscript, and Thirteen Cents was published in 2000 to critical acclaim. 
It won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book in Africa Region. Thirteen years later, Kwela had to buy the publishing rights of Thirteen Cents from David Phillip - though surely not for thirteen cents. 
The Quiet Violence of Dreams, which Duiker had been working on with Kwela books over the years, was finally published in 2001. 
The publication of Duiker's two novels in quick succession marked a turning point in the South African literary landscape. He was young, black and presented fresh and unconventional stories of the marginalised. 
He was soon to be paraded, perhaps justifiably so, as a poster boy for the so-called "black writing" in post-apartheid South Africa. 
Thirteen Cents chronicles the journey of a 12-year-old homeless orphan in the streets of Cape Town.
Azure is exposed to the cruel world of gangsterism, and substance and sexual abuse. 
This fantastical novel resonates with the work of Ben Okri, one of Duiker's major literary influences. Duiker was never shy to admit to his admiration of Okri, and even the naming of his protagonist, Azure, is obviously appropriated from Azaro, the protagonist in Okri's The Famished Road. 
The number of years Duiker spent on The Quiet Violence of Dreams is evident. It is a thick book - the second edition that came out earlier this year is a staggering |609 pages. 
The effort is even more evident when you get to read the book, which you flip through without noticing its length. Duiker adopts quite an experimental approach in The Quiet Violence of Dreams, which is narrated by multiple characters. 

The Quest for Meaning

By Michiel Heyns

EM Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, took Henry James to task for what he saw as an over-valuing of design at the expense of life. Conceding the perfection of the design of James's The Ambassadors, Forster yet deplores the fact that James apparently believes "most of human life has to disappear before he can do us a novel". 
For James, according to Forster, "a pattern must emerge, and anything that emerged from the pattern must be pruned off as wanton distraction." But "who so wanton as human beings?" asks Forster: for him, the perfectly structured novel is deficient exactly because of its perfection.
Damon Galgut, in Arctic Summer (Umuzi), his monumental recreation of a central period in Forster's life, seems to have been led, in this as in other respects, by the example of his subject. 
He catches, with perfect pitch, the elusive plainness of Forster's style, the unadorned yet elegant phrasing, the understated humour, the quiet authority of the judgements. 
And his novel, too, leaves us with an impression of not having been subjected to a pre-ordained design or thematic blueprint: we follow Forster's travels with a kind of traveller's-journal minuteness, every stop recorded, every meeting minuted. 
Indeed, Galgut seems to have drawn on an astonishing array of primary and secondary materials, notably Forster's own journals. 
As a novel about the writer's life, Galgut's book invites comparison with Colm To�b�n's The Master and David Lodge's Author, Author, both about Henry James. 
But Galgut's novel is more satisfying than either of these, more in accord with its subject: the novel is Forsterian in a way that neither Toibin's nor Lodge's novels is Jamesian. 
Galgut inhabits his subject, both stylistically and temperamentally, more completely than either of the other two. 
One of the many pleasures of Galgut's novel lies in its richness of detail, in the sheer promiscuity of the minutiae of travel. 
But, by the same token, the reader looking for a clear pattern, for a paring-down of detail in the interest of design, may be left dissatisfied, may feel that this novel at times reads too much like biography - not unmediated biography, since no biography is ever unmediated, but almost documentary in its painstaking reportage.
This is not to say that Arctic Summer lacks art: the meticulously shaped sentences, the careful displacements of chronology, the imaginative recreation of setting and dialogue are all highly crafted. 
But what the novel eschews may be artifice, that is, the self-conscious shaping of the material to serve a central notion, a thematic matrix, the pointing of dialogue to align the characters more definitely with the novel's themes. 
It is, in short, more Forsterian than Jamesian. This is not a weakness: it is a choice, and a courageous choice, and ultimately becomes the novel's subject. 
Galgut's novel is something of a companion piece to Forster's A Passage to India and, though it can stand perfectly well on its own, gains considerably by being read with that novel - if for no other reason than to appreciate the skill with which Galgut has woven Forster's novel into his own and vice versa. 
Galgut's novel gives us many insights into the makings of Forster's novel, and indeed into the making of his own. 
Because if the reader of Arctic Summer at times feels disorientated, grasping for a substantial subject under the plethora of biographical detail, this, it turns out, replicates Forster own struggle to forge a fiction out of the multitude of impressions he received during his visit to India: 
"He found himself noting little moments, or particular people, with an eye to using them later. 
"He didn't really know what he would do with them; only that they were part of a fabric he'd begun to weave. (?) 
But the trouble with Mr Godbole, and all the other bits and pieces |he was gathering, was that they remained loose strands - little pieces of talk, or momentary impressions gleaned in passing - with nothing to knot them together. 
"In writing his previous novels, there had always been something at the middle of the narrative, a thickening into solidity, around or over or through which the story had to pass. 
"Everything would lead up to it, and then everything would lead out of it again. 
"Without that obstacle in his way, he couldn't even begin. But although his mind had been preoccupied with his Indian book for quite some time, he still had no sense of what that central density might be." 
Forster's search for something "to knot them together" is also Galgut's reaching for a unifying thread in the wealth of material he has assembled. And Forster's quest, in more senses than one, becomes Galgut's subject.
The complex relation of Galgut's novel to Foster's is signalled by his dedication of Arctic Summer: 
"To Riyaz Ahmad Mir and to the fourteen years of our friendship," echoing Forster's dedication of his novel "To Syed Ross Masood and to the seventeen years of our friendship". In both instances, the novel is in some sense a tribute to a friendship that we assume to be central to the impulse behind the novel. 
It may be, then, that Galgut is inviting us to see Arctic Summer as his own Passage to India.
I don't know how far the parallels can be taken, and it would be impertinent to speculate beyond the limits of the novel itself, but the dedication does open a passage, as it were, between this novel and Galgut's previous book, the masterly (and, in this country, under-appreciated) In a Strange Room, with its overtly autobiographical slant. 
In In a Strange Room the protagonist undertakes three journeys, one of them to India, in a restlessly circular quest for love, or for the kind of meaning that love is reputed to give to existence. 
Forster's own quest, as Galgut interprets it, also represents an attempt to wrest a meaning from emptiness, from the absence of a ready-made significance. 

Quest for the Elusive African Identity

By Christine Emmett

An obituary in The Guardian for the late cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, quotes from a 2012 interview with the Jamaican-born Oxford-educated academic, where he observes, "three months at Oxford persuaded me it was not my home, I'm not English and I never will be.
"The life I have lived is one of partial displacement. I came to England as a means of escape, and it was a failure."
Contextualising this, the author of the obituary, Stuart Jeffries, points out that the significance of Hall's work has ensured it could never be construed as failure. But what rings so heavily through Hall's speech here is something more significant than personal grievance. 
Hall has been hailed as "the father of multiculturalism" - his work focused on race, racism and the growing prominence of immigrants and the diaspora. He mobilised new ways of thinking about nations and citizens. 
But what becomes clear is that even Hall, after working with these issues for years, recognised that the identity of the immigrant was built around "partial displacement". 
In its most basic and negative expression, this displacement tells us: this is not my home and I do not belong here. And this problem can seldom be resolved by simply returning to the country of origin.
The protagonist in Esi Edugyan's re-issued first novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, exists within this fracture. Samuel is a Ghanaian, living in Canada with his wife and twin girls, but if he seems homeless in Canada, he doesn't seem to belong back in Ghana. 
The novel is set in 1968, with Samuel clearly a member of a small African diaspora. The late sixties also finds America in the midst of the Vietnam war and the American civil rights movement. 
Despite the flurry of activity we know must underpin the narrative, Samuel lacks interest and investment in the political events around him. Conversely, he also hasn't acknowledged the political independence of his country of birth. 
He and his wife, Maud, still refer to Ghana, which reached independence in 1957, by its colonial title, "Gold Coast"; as he notes, "the country would always be 'Gold Coast' for them; having lived so long away from it, in their minds, it was largely defined by its name". 
His dislocation and alienation may stem from the fact that Samuel is self-absorbed; engulfed by personal problems of day-to-day life, he is unable to focus on the interests or the existence of the outside world. 
Indeed, he has his own share of strife: an alienated and recalcitrant wife, two emotionally distant children and a boring job.
Added to this is the ubiquitous racism so implicit and woven into the texture of people's actions and speech, it characterises most of the interactions in the novel.
It's conceivable then, that Samuel would want to change his life so when his estranged uncle dies, leaving him his house in the small Canadian village of Aster, Samuel jumps at the opportunity. Not only is owning the land and house in which you live suggestive of being part of a community, but having it passed down from a previous generation suggests a more steady notion of belonging.
What this change might occlude though, is that even in moving to a new place, Samuel is in part trying to move back to some kind of home. 
The move to Aster is as much about trying to find one's roots in what has been passed down, as it is about forging a new, second life.
Samuel should be able to return to a golden past but this is unfeasible. It's not that the notion of returning to your roots isn't a tendency of the immigrant imagination. 
The ludicrous fantasy of an uninterrupted return was represented quite unintentionally by Isidore Okpewho's novel, Call me by my rightful name (2004). 
In it, the protagonist, an unsuspecting African-American basketball player, suffers from unexplained bouts of shouting Yoruba during college parties. Luckily before he is consigned to a mental institution, he is sent somewhere in Nigeria to "find himself". 
The ridiculousness of Okpewho's novel inheres not merely in spontaneous outbursts of Yoruba, but the notion that deep-down beyond the African-American identity remains an unchanged and true African one. If by some bizarre notion one's identity hasn't been altered by the last few hundred years, then we are still left with the essentially racist notion that Africa is somehow waiting in a timeless primitive zone - that it remains a part of an unchanging past.
So for Samuel, taking up residence in his uncle's house, is some kind of return to what was familiar - a longing for the "Gold Coast" of his past which no longer exists. The idealism of Samuel's move is exhibited and ingrained in Edugyan's representation of the house. As one character observes, "a house is the direct reflection of its owner" and by this logic, the house Samuel inherits is itself a mixture of signs and symbols that are tangled and complex: "Brown and ivory, it sat fat and pacified among the overgrown foliage. Thick, thorned vines veined its face. It had the white front stoop so classic of Aster culture, but flanked by colonial pillars, as if built by a Confederate. It was beautiful in a brooding sort of way." 

A leisurely portrait of companionship

By Michiel Heyns

Is it possible to write a novel about a group of intelligent and likeable adults behaving rationally? Or rather, is it possible to keep a reader's interest with such an unpromising cast? After all, most plots are generated by the foibles and failures of the protagonists, their pride and prejudice, their atonement for their wrongdoings, their absolution from their sins, the disgrace they land themselves in through their actions - in short, stuffing up would seem to be the stuff of fiction. 
To judge by its title, Necessary Errors (Penguin) is no exception to this tendency. Yet, I have seldom read a novel in which the characters are so free of major flaws, and their relationships so civilised and affectionate. Errors there are, yes, but necessary, as the title states, to the business of maturing. (The title is derived from WH Auden's poem, 1929, in which he talks of choice - any choice - as "a necessary error".) 
The characters are almost without exception young adults, probably in their early twenties, and few of them have settled into a career. Most of them, including the main character, the young American Jacob Putnam, are teaching at a language school in Prague; few of them know how long they'll stay or where they'll move on to. They find their most permanent attachment in each other: not just those who fall in love, but also those who value each other's friendship. 
This is, then, a novel of transition - also in the sense that it is set in the Prague of 1990, that is, just as this city was emerging tentatively from communist rule into the pleasures and perils of capitalism. 
Jacob, too, is tentatively emerging - from the closet - and exploring his gay identity. Errors are necessarily made, but he's remarkably fortunate in the two young Czech men he has relationships with in the course of the novel even though one turns out to be a darker horse than at first he appears. 
The sexual encounters, like most encounters in this well-behaved novel, are low-key but satisfying. Especially Milo, the second of Jacob's lovers, who deals with admirable tact and maturity with Jacob's occasional petulance and with the knowledge that he, like the other ex-pats, will leave Prague for his "real" life, is an erotic presence. 
But if sex provides Jacob's most absorbing exploration in the novel, the abiding theme is friendship. The young people are consistently referred to, without irony, as "the friends". They delight in each other's company, spend their evenings together in whatever new pub a member of the circle has discovered, and are as much taken with each other as with the beautiful city they are discovering: 
"Their time together was wonderfully insular: it sometimes felt to Jacob as if the world beyond their table, beyond the ring of his friends, did not exist. It sometimes felt as if they were all falling in love with one another, as a group." 
The knowledge that this interlude cannot last, that they are fated to go their separate ways again, serves both to intensify the pleasure and touch it with sadness. In Jacob's case, his pleasure in his new friends is complicated by the arrival of an old friend from college, Carl, one of the straight men he'd been in love with while adjusting to his sexual identity. Like the rest of the group, Jacob delights in Carl's presence, and yet, that presence is to prove disruptive of the harmony, as he and the beautiful Melinda fall in love - another of the book's necessary errors, perhaps. 
The novel is narrated in the third person, but only rarely with the kind of authorial omniscience that traditionally marks realist narrative. For the most part, the narrative is filtered through the thoughts and feelings of Jacob; his "quest" as he thinks of it forms a central thread of the book. That quest, which he formulates as "trying to come close to the revolution", remains somewhat abstract, and I suspect it's unclear to Jacob, too: he feels that, like Prague, he is in a state of transition.
The narrator comments about this quest that "he wouldn't have understood that it took the shape of a story he wanted to live out. Without knowing it, he was looking for people who were heroic, so he could join them."
Jacob, in fact, thinks of his experiences as story, for instance, his failed first relationship: "According to one way that he found of looking at it, he had tried to tell a story about himself and a lover, and it hadn't ended well, but rather than feel it was a story with an unhappy ending, he preferred to think he had made an error in the telling." 
Jacob's concern with story may stem from his belief that he is a writer, even though he has produced little actual writing, struggling as he does with the problematic relation of story to life and vice versa.
Indeed, on the assumption that Jacob in this respect resembles his author, it took him long to resolve that quandary: this is Caleb Crain's debut novel, at the relatively advanced age of forty-something. It is one of the postmodern ironies that it might well be the story its main character was trying to tell 25 years ago. 
Like his character, Crain spent 1990-91 in Prague, and the substance of the novel is the minutiae of daily life there: not just the interactions between the friends, but the business of getting around on the endearingly rattletrap tram system, of finding a shop that sells potatoes or, miraculously, cornflakes! Of contending with a landlord who regards the telephone as a luxury to be rationed. The Prague streets and squares and bridges are described with a meticulousness that seems an end in itself, as if Crain is trying to recapture the gritty texture and slightly melancholy mood of that city before it became Europe's Disneyland. 
Crain's beautifully plain style is perfectly adjusted to the rather drab realities of a city just disengaging itself from the uncongenial embrace of Communism: "They had to walk to the head of the street to cross the highway, because of the concrete wall that shielded the neighbourhood from it. The night tram's line ran through a field on the far side, a large empty field adjacent to a factory that built engines and industrial machinery. It was lit by street lamps, which looked out of place because there was no street. There were only the tram tracks and the high dead grasses, and here and there curving wet furrows where the wheels of a backhoe or a truck had bitten through the raw soil. At the bottom of the gully, a dozen unused concrete sewer pipes were stacked in a shoddy pyramid."