Thursday, 28 March 2013
SA evoked through rural battle: For the Mercy of Water
By Konstantin Sofianos
Karen Jayes's For the Mercy of Water (Penguin) is a strange, challenging novel, and a revelation. It makes much post-apartheid literature look banal, in its concerns, and amateurish, in execution.
At a time of severe water-crisis and drought, administration over this essential resource has been handed to the corporate control of "the company", which oversees the marketised supply of water in the big cities, and ruthlessly safeguards its dwindling sources in the parched, rural hinterland. The countryside has been largely abandoned following the imposition of ferocious tariffs on water-use, left to the silent transit of convoy-trucks, and to the rule of corporate militias, the "company men".
The absolute predominance of the company, guaranteed by the extension of executive powers in the national interest, is contested only by women, those too young or too old to make the harried trek into the cities, who launch daring night-raids on the reservoirs, or re-route the life-bearing corporate pipes and conduits. In this context of a simmering conflict, an unexpected rainfall brings the company soldiers to a desolate valley-town, where they confront a group of girls in the care of an aged school-teacher, known simply as Mother.
The narrative circles around the "unfortunate incidents" that ensue from this encounter, that will leave most of the girls dead, one soldier blinded, one girl, Eve, in flight, and the apparently traumatised schoolteacher under the ambiguous protection of NGOs and aid workers. A brief online report will draw Jayes's writer-protagonist and narrator to the valley, who arrives there in the novel's opening chapter, to be followed soon after by the company's organised effort to secure the area, and establish the official narrative of events.
All of this is to say precious little about the actual experience of reading Jayes's novel. The book opens with an epigraph by the aestheticist poet Rilke, and concludes with a citation from the Qur'an, and by acknowledging the support of, amongst others, André Brink. Between those unlikely coordinates a remarkable writerly capacity unfolds, which perhaps owes something to each, and it is through this finely-wrought instrument of style that the novel's actions and scenes are relayed.
Except for the girls, the novel's figures remain unnamed (and unraced), referred to only by their occupation. The story's time and place is further left implicit, but the characters and settings are made vivid and distinct by the suggestive force of Jayes's descriptive prose. Like her protagonist, she is "alive to the strangest details". The desiccated rural terrain teems with particularity. From the scratches on the rock-face of a glacial fault, "this footprint of a once-creeping ice river", strange plants and bushes straggle up "as if they had come from another time". It is a landscape "where rocks made of clay and holed by insects made my way slow and stumbling", of wind-bent trees with "peeling bark and deep cracks", and of staring, straight-necked birds, "their legs moving like forks picking through leftovers on a dirty plate".
There is a river-stream, "muddied and tender" in the wake of the rains, delicate "as an infant vein", and from its "crumbling sand edges" one might see tiny seeds drifting over the water's surface, "furred capsules; tiny brown stars; spiked bags; feathery knobs", and reeds sprouting along the embankment, turning "the deep cream of moist bones".
Jayes conjures a thunderstorm, its pall of muted colours and smell of "metallic earth", the luminous heat peeling off the sands, and the spangled infinity of the taut|night-canvas, with something like awe. In the huddle of tents struck by aid workers and company officials, all sounds are amplified, "tent zips whining, plastic boxes slamming shut, a match tearing alight? I heard one of them suck on a cigarette, heard the dull fizz of the tobacco end burning in".
Remarkably, this heightened sensory awareness is maintained across the novel's near-400 pages, without ever dragging the narrative, but illuminating it.
It persists even with the bewildered protagonist's return to the city, with its cracked apartment blocks and dirt-shouldered roads, on which "the sand had been baked a hard, pale orange and there were no weeds", the brick factories and "the railway tracks tattooing their way to the east", ragged notices fluttering amidst the fried oil scents of the hawker-stalls and food shops.
One of the most immaculate sequences in the book occurs, over 10 pages, when the protagonist steps into her shut-up, dusted-over flat, and takes a bath.
From here, she will track the maimed company soldier first to a private hospital, then to his flaking apartment building, and Eve to a squalid women's penitentiary. We are given thoughtful portraits of the female warden and of the principal of an outreach NGO for displaced rural girls, though Jayes is otherwise scathing about the international "guilt and aid business". Amidst the paranoia of company persecution, an intimate solidarity develops between the narrator and an underground journalist.
Jayes generates a powerful erotic charge from some few moments and gestures of physical closeness.
One wonders why this novel has not received the acclaim that is its due, and greater public attention. This may be bound up with two misconceptions, reproduced across the early reviews, which we should clear up right away: that the novel offers an essentially ecological warning about water scarcity, and its supposed universality, in its placeless, nameless depiction.
On the former, the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen made his reputation by demonstrating that environmental events like famine or drought are never simply natural catastrophes, but always social ones, their impact distributed according to relations of power that are exacerbated in moments of sharpened resource-competition.
This is not a novel about drought, but about the privatisation of water, and so, by implication, of the ever greater extension of corporate|governance over public goods and society.
Seen from this perspective, its quality of descriptive intensity assumes a political implication: the company blankly bureaucratises the rural surrounds as the "C-water catchment area", but in Jayes's gentle delineation of sensuous, tactile distinctness, the world of things is returned to itself. The characters may be reduced, under pressure of indigence, to job-titles, but here, the briefest personal contact is acute with meaning.
To suggest that this narrative is universal is either to affirm a banality - if artistic expressions didn't cross borders all our cinemas and book-stores would shutter - or to be guilty of cowardice. It is entirely possible to imagine the novel playing out anywhere in Africa or across the Middle East, but this should not for an instant detract from the recognition that it might, with chilling credibility, be set here.
For the Mercy of Water has roots that stretch deep into South African literature. Its apocalyptic suggestion of country landscapes given over to violence recall the rural-dystopian fictions of Schoeman, Coetzee or Gordimer, while the tense city-action reminds one of Brink's apartheid thrillers. The nature descriptions and prison scenes resonate with the literary past, while the disjointed parables in which Mother knowingly offers her testimony are as vivid and perplexing as any of Schreiner's Dreams, or an old, old, folk tale.
There can be no doubt, finally, that Jayes's is a South African vision, and a contemporary one. The cityscape presented to view is one defined by minibus taxis, inner-city markets, polished malls and distant, segregated suburbs. Things are "concertinaed" together, characters occasionally utter things like "It's fine? don't stress," and remember a time when "the country was still hopeful". The threat of a media tribunal cows the journalist, installed to stamp out "anonymous sources" in the national interest.
A society that has lived through the Marikana massacre and the slaughter of Anene Booysens should recognise something in both Jayes's projection of rural districts subordinated to corporate imperatives, and in the repeated depictions of gender violence and rape, never lurid but clear eyed, or be ashamed.
With fierce clarity, the novel reveals the deeply gendered nature of disempowerment, and that, in such a context, rape is not about gratification, but an instrument whereby defeat is handed down.
It further demonstrates that there is nothing inherently inexpressible about sexual violence, and that such forthright depictions may, or perhaps must, exist beside scenes of great beauty and tenderness.
The reader leaves Jayes's novel not debilitated but exhilarated. In part, this is due to the seriousness with which it treats its female characters, and the rich complexity it recognises in them.
A sense of subdued euphoria gathers across its many moments of limpid evocation and carefully-laid symbolic structure, and this is reinforced by an implicitly religious sub-text, which should be acknowledged. The novel is far from dogmatism or vague spirituality, but Jayes is a convert to Islam.
The novel quietly enfolds a metaphysical dimension, which lends an added gravity to its concerns, and which is mainly disclosed in the wondrous apprehension of things at every instant, moments received as gifts, so many qualities of mercy. This, as ever, falleth like the gentle rain. - published March 3, 2013.