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.