Book review: Invisible Others by Karina M. Szczurek


“And your work – is it inspired by soul or conscience?”


A writer from South Africa, Cara meets a Polish historian, Konrad in Paris, both trying to deal with scars of their complex pasts. Cara recovering from an affair with a famous painter, Lucas that ended tragically; Konrad still grieving over the death of the women he loved. There’s also Lucas and his wife Dagmar who have their own ghosts to deal with. All these characters’ journeys are touching and exquisitely written.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”  This book, although fiction, makes you hang on to that saying and you realise again how much truth there is to it.

Thank you to my friend Louis Wiid (Author of Submerged) for suggesting this book. I cannot remember when last I was moved this deeply by a book. The story evokes…

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Book review: Flame and Song – A Memoir by Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa and How to Open the Door by Marike Beyers


cover-marike-beyers_how-to-open-the-doorIn 2013, South African-born author Deborah Levy published Things I don’t want to know, a response to George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Why I write”. The Notting Hill Editions version of this exquisite book flourishes two quotes on the cover. On the front: “To become a writer, I had to learn to interrupt, to speak up, to speak up a little louder, and then louder, and then to just speak in my own voice which is not loud at all.” On the back: “Perhaps when Orwell described sheer egoism as a necessary quality for a writer, he was not thinking about sheer egoism of a female writer. Even the most arrogant female writer has to work over time to build an ego that is robust enough to get her through January, never mind all the way to December.”

Flame-and-Song-front-cover-320x480Levy’s incisive essay was very much on my mind when I was reading two recent titles published by Modjaji Books: the poetry volume How to open the door by Marike Beyers, and the memoir Flame and song by Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa. But it took me a while to figure out what the connection my intuition had been suggesting was, and then it hit me: since its inception, Modjaji Books has been offering a publishing platform for loud books by authors with soft voices – the kind of soft which utters the most powerful messages. No shouting necessary, please; we are getting all the way to the end of the year here.

“A female writer cannot afford to feel her life too clearly. If she does, she will write in a rage when she should write calmly,” says Levy. Exploring what it means to be a woman who wants to write, and echoing Virginia Woolf’s classic A room of one’s own (1928), Levy speaks up for the things one desires, about “being in the world and not defeated by it”.

Marike Beyers is a poet. Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa is a storyteller, with published poetry and children’s books to her name. How to open the door and Flame and song are books about “being in the world and not defeated by it”…

Continue reading: LitNet


Book review: The Shallows by Ingrid Winterbach

The Shallows“Winterbach is the kind of writer any literature could be envious of” – Marlene van Niekerk is quoted on the cover of The Shallows, Ingrid Winterbach’s latest novel translated from the Afrikaans into English. The original, Vlakwater, was published in 2015. One of South Africa’s most distinguished novelists, Winterbach is the author of ten other highly acclaimed novels, five of which are also obtainable in English. Anyone who has engaged with her work will understand what a privilege it is to have it available in translation. She is a quintessentially Afrikaans, South African, writer; her narratives are deeply rooted in the local consciousness. However, their appeal is truly universal. The stories she tells, the way she tells them, remind me of authors like the American Siri Hustvedt, or the Pole Olga Tokarczuk, or the Israeli Etgar Keret. They come up more easily for comparison than other compatriots. In fact, the only writer I can think of locally whose work displays a similar storytelling intuition is the translator of The Shallows, Michiel Heyns. The supple prose of his translation testifies to the perfect match.

Winterbach once spoke about her novels as not being plot-driven. She compared writers to sea creatures: some have impressive, strong fins with which they propel themselves through the twists and turns of the novel’s plot; others develop short flippers that serve similar purposes, but perhaps less obviously and with fewer display tendencies. She felt she belonged to the latter group. Despite the title of her latest novel, Winterbach’s powerful flippers in The Shallows take the reader into the deepest waters of what it means to be human, especially a creative being, in our contemporary world.

The novel begins at an undertaker where two people go to view the body of a deceased friend: “The time there was sacred. That is how I see it in retrospect.” The woman telling the story confesses on the first page: “In the course of my life I’ve done irresponsible things. I have at times been dishonest and unfaithful. But I am loyal to those I love.” She is one of a stellar cast of intriguing, if not bizarre, characters we encounter in The Shallows, and Winterbach is a master of characterisation: “I was born with a cleft palate and a harelip. I have a broad, flattish nose, a narrow forehead and hair as abundant as that of a Catholic saint… I couldn’t drink properly as a baby and I had trouble learning to talk. As a result I was a furious and frustrated child.” The nameless narrator adds: “People of both sexes find me sexually either irresistible or repulsive.” After the death of her friend, she decides to write a monograph on the famous Olivier twins whose moving-image work has conquered the international artist scene. For the book, she interviews the brothers’ father with whom she shares a dark past.

Her narration is interspersed with the story of Nick Steyn, a painter who moves from Stellenbosch to Cape Town after separating from his long-term partner. He takes on a lodger, Charelle, a young promising photographer with whom he develops a tentative friendship. He also becomes friends with Marthinus, one of his neighbours, after discovering a pig belonging to the man roaming in his garden: “Side by side they stood on the stoep contemplating the creature. A big, black pig serenely grazing.”

Over beers and obscure masterpieces of world cinema, Nick and Marthinus exchange recollections of a man they both knew in the past: the writer Victor Schoeman who disappeared from their lives under suspicious circumstances. Victor is the author of a book – the titular The Shallows – which suddenly begins to resonate in the events happening around Nick and Marthinus: “Just look at The Shallows, Victor liked unusual angles, he liked complicating things, he liked unexpected twists, he liked ambiguity, he liked to shock and intrigue.” They suspect that Victor is masterminding, or is at least somehow implicated, in the strange coincidences occurring in their lives.

One day, Charelle disappears without a trace and the notorious artist Buks Verhoef makes an offer on Nick’s house. Soon after, Verhoef is shot in a coffee shop in Stellenbosch. He dies in the arms of the nameless narrator we are introduced to on the opening pages of Winterbach’s delightfully peculiar novel – the other The Shallows we are holding in our hands.

Winterbach is never afraid to take risks, to experiment with form and style. Her work provides intellectual and aesthetic pleasure. She challenges her readers: makes us think and cry and laugh. There are moments of sublime tenderness in her narratives which take your breath away, and all you can do is sit in silent wonder, marvel at the ordinariness and the mystery of our reality unfold right in front of our eyes. None of it is contrived.

There is a scene in the novel where Nick remembers the last trip with his former partner: “Isabel had one day, sitting across from him in the museum cafeteria, suddenly interrupted her bitter diatribe and said: Console me. It was so unexpected that he didn’t know whether he’d heard her aright. Console me, she said again. He was caught unawares. They looked at each other. He didn’t know what to say. She looked down. She’d seen his incapacity. There were tears in her eyes. She got up.”

In contrast, Winterbach’s writing has the astounding capacity to console, to find meaning in a meaningless world.

The Shallows

by Ingrid Winterbach

translated by Michiel Heyns

Human & Rousseau, 2017

Review first published in the Cape Times on 31 March 2017.

Interview: Patriots & Parasites

Dene Smuts

In her remarkable memoir, Patriots & Parasites, the late Dene Smuts writes:

“If the question is whether South Africa can evade history, then we need, at least, to hold up as true a record as possible of that history. The best way of doing so where records are not available, or are as contested…, is to give as many accounts of what occurred as possible. This memoir is one such contribution to our recent history.”

Smuts writes from within history, a passionately lived history. Her fight against censorship as the editor of Fair Lady in the 1980s, her understanding of Thabo Mbeki’s legacy, and her reading of the recent Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall movements are illuminating. She is not infallible, but she is constantly aware of the fact that hers is one of many accounts, and her integrity is beyond reproach. Smuts finished her memoir shortly before her death in April last year. Her daughter, Julia Smuts Louw, guided the manuscript towards publication.

Karina M Szczurek: You became the custodian of your mother’s papers after her death. Please describe the process of the memoir’s publication under your curatorship.

Julia Smuts Louw: My mother had already been in preliminary discussions with Quivertree by the time of her death. I picked up the conversation as soon as I could, knowing that my mother had been happy with the relationship and the direction. By the time she passed away, there was a completed first draft, but it was quite different to the final version. My mother was very detail-orientated – a trait which can be a mixed blessing, as I know, having inherited it myself. Consequently, she had created quite an epic tome, which required some shortening and reorganising to make it readable for those who aren’t quite as devoted to the law as she was. It was, and remains, a book about the ideas and issues close to her heart, however. I am indebted to Angela Vogel as editor, and Jan-Jan Joubert as fact-checker and general Drawer of Hard Lines. In terms of my involvement, I became a sort of general project manager, making sure the edits made sense, overseeing picture research, writing the cover copy and press materials, collating the Festschrift tributes and so on.

KMS: The striking title was your choice. Did your mother have a different working title, and if yes, why did you choose the present one for the book?

Continue reading: LitNet

Patriots & Parasites: South Africa and the Struggle to Evade History
Dene Smuts
Publisher: Quivertree Publications
ISBN: 9781928209607

Your body never lies

K is for KarinaA while back, I spoke to a friend about the phrases ‘to handle something’ or ‘to have a grip on something’ in connection with the physical ability to hold, handle, or have a grip on something as a manifestation of an emotional and psychological capability.

Another friend once told me: your body never lies. She was adamant that we have to listen to our bodies in order to keep our minds and souls healthy.

A pain in your hands or arms could be a true psychosomatic symptom of your lack of grip on life. You are no longer capable of handling things. Metaphorically, something is slipping through your fingers and you are in no position to stop the process.

I can no longer move my right arm without experiencing pain. In fact, I am in constant pain no matter what I do. I type and write through pain. My body has been screaming for a long time now, and I have been trying really hard to listen to it attentively, but I realise that I have lost my grip on something, perhaps many things, and it is no wonder that I have been dreaming of rest, of doing nothing, of simply relaxing and allowing myself to recharge the batteries that have been empty for many months. I am no longer handling my everyday life the way I would like to. My mind, body and soul find no peace. In the last three years I have been through so much that expecting anything different would be expecting miracles. Grief, illness, theft, evil, betrayal, injustice, incompetence, car accident – any of these blows of fate would be enough to break you. Facing all within a relatively short period of time takes a lot out of you. No; not a lot. Everything.

Listening to your body is one thing. Action is another. Or rather inaction.

Since February I have been telling friends that I would be taking some time off to rest. No deadlines, no creative or critical writing, no editing, no translating, no appointments – no work of any kind actually. Just rest: meeting friends, reading for pure pleasure, sleeping late, walking, swimming, watching TV, basking in the sun, laughing (a lot!).

I have never been bored in my life. Maybe I could get bored for once? How long would it take?

K is for kindness tooI had this grand plan of learning how to quilt while resting (I always find it reassuring, comforting, to see something come into being in my hands – activities like crocheting, knitting, or ironing soothe me). But now, not only has my plan of a self-imposed sabbatical been delayed because of work-related commitments I simply cannot get out of (I know, I know!) by two to three weeks, I actually cannot quilt, at least not until my arm recovers.

It is pathetic.

I realise that it is so much easier to take care of others. Now, I have to learn to truly take care of myself. I will do my job, because it is important to me, but I also have to grant myself some proper rest – because I am important to myself. When you live on your own, it is a surprisingly difficult lesson to learn. But, in the words of Manuel: “I learn, I learn!”

Be kind to yourself, they tell me. I try.


Review: Stanzas No. 4

Stanzas 4Stanzas No 4
June 2016
Editors: Patricia Schonstein and Douglas Reid Skinner
Publisher: African Sun Press

Poetry is balm for the soul. Even when touching on rough or depressing topics, there is something about the distilled, focused, observant quality of the form that brings comfort. Stanzas is a poetry quarterly featuring established and emerging South African writers, as well as local and international poets in translation. Publishing predominantly in English, it also includes translations into and from Afrikaans. It promises “an open space where poetry matters”, and offers a versatile selection of voices.

Any conscious language practitioner will know how heavily loaded words can be. Language is a record; every word contains a universe of memories. Poets have the ability to draw on that wealth and create snapshots of time and place, people and emotions, where whole worlds collide to hold diverse images in their manifold constellations…

Continue reading: LitNet

Review: Easy Motion Tourist by Leye Adenle

Easy-Motion-Tourist-UK-cover“She knew these girls, these women. She understood their world. For them, prostitution was not a choice; it was a lack of choice.” Amaka, a gutsy lawyer trying to protect the sex workers of Lagos, knows that most of them will never get off the streets. Leye Adenle’s thriller Easy Motion Tourist is their story.

All Amaka wants is that the women in her care stay as safe as possible under the circumstances. Sometimes keeping them simply alive is as much as she can hope for. She establishes a secret network of contacts and a database of details on clients who pay for sex. The women Amaka works with can phone in and keep tabs on each other’s movements. Then, one day, one of the prostitutes turns up mutilated and dead in front of a bar where Guy, a British journalist, is trying against better judgement to appease his curiosity about local nightlife: “I was a white boy in Africa for the first time, on assignment to cover a presidential election that was still weeks away, the outcome of which was a foregone conclusion. This was only my second day in Lagos and the first night I’d gone out alone – exactly what I’d been advised not to do.”

Witness to the body-dump, Guy is arrested for questioning and rescued by Amaka at the police station where he see another gruesome murder of a suspect in police custody and has to fear the worst for himself. Together with the streetwise and brave Amaka, he embarks on a mission to find out who is behind the horrific killing of the prostitute, but he is completely out of his depth. He pretends to work for the BBC but is actually a reporter for a start-up internet TV news channel.

Guy decides to write about what he had witnessed, suspecting like everyone else that the murder was one of many ritual killings. “Every time there is an election we find dead bodies everywhere,” he is told; people are “doing juju to win elections”. During the investigation Guy begins to fall for Amaka, but is unsure whether she returns his feelings.

The story of the murder is reported on CNN, causing a lot of unease among the Lagos elites. Pressure is put on police inspector Ibrahim to solve the case and to protect the affluent from the ensuing chaos. A lot seems to be at stake, but no one truly knows what is happening behind the scenes and who is the mysterious Malik. Is he running the show? Is someone killing these women for witchcraft or illegal organ trade?

From luxurious hotel rooms to the gutters of Lagos, Easy Motion Tourist presents an uneasy, brutal metropolis where only the toughest survive: “a city of armed robbers, assassinations and now, it seemed, ‘ritualists’ had to be added to the list.” But among the ruthless violence and corruption there are rays of light, and Easy Motion Tourist offers an intriguing ending which might mean a promising sequel.

Easy Motion Tourist

by Leye Adenle

Cassava Republic Press, 2016

An edited version of this review appeared in the Cape Times on 10 March 2017.


Book review: The Bitter Taste of Victory – Life, Love and Art in the Ruins of the Reich by Lara Feigel

bitter-tasteLara Feigel is a cultural historian and a literary critic, combining her interests to write about the meeting point between life, literature and history. In her last two books, she looks at how people whose quintessential purpose in life is the search for beauty and meaning survived their antithesis: war. In her The Love-charms of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War (2013), Feigel wrote about five authors who were based in wartime London, driving ambulances, fighting fires, being creative, and loving passionately while desperately trying to remain alive.

In her latest offering, The Bitter Taste of Victory: Life, Love and Art in the Ruins of the Reich, Feigel picks up where she left off in her previous book, at the end of the war, and introduces a new, larger cast of characters – writers, intellectuals and artists – who were sent by the Allies to defeated and occupied Germany to assist in denazification and rebuilding the nation they had been trying systematically to annihilate over the past few years.

Their idealistic mission is an opportunity like no other, placing cultural activities at the centre of the plans to reconstruct the country. For a brief moment in history “a new united Europe, underpinned by shared heritage that would allow nationalism to be replaced by a common consciousness of collective humanity” seems like a viable option for the continent’s future.

Germany is a wasteland. Poverty, hunger and despair rule. Survivors grapple with guilt. Exiled German writer Peter de Mendelssohn arrives to establish newspapers in the British zone. He notes that “new eyes” and “totally new words” are needed to describe the devastation.

The horrors perpetrated in the concentration camps come to the surface of the world’s consciousness, and with them questions of complicity, responsibility and justice. In the light of the revelations and the Germans’ lack of immediate repentance, the Allied artists and reporters sent to the country find it nearly impossible to “make sense of the postwar world” or to emphasise with the people they encounter.

Among them is the photographer and war correspondent Lee Miller. After a visit to Dachau, she photographs herself in Hitler’s bathtub. Like others, she is “troubled by the ordinariness of Nazi leaders.” German-born Hollywood star Marlene Dietrich, “in army uniform, low-voiced, funny and adoring” has to face the fact that her family members collaborated with the Nazis.

Eerily echoing our own, this is the time of the Nurnberg trials, the nuclear bomb, migration, displacement and rising tensions between the other ideologies taking hold of post-war Europe, resulting in the division which will most strikingly manifest in the Berlin Wall. A sense of failure and helplessness sets in. But Feigel ends her brilliant portrayal of this turbulent period with Austrian-born Jewish American filmmaker Billy Wilder who “was able to laugh off the bureaucratic absurdity of communism, the megalomaniac blindness of American imperialism, and the fascist conformity of the Germans by satirising them all in equal measure” and standing “defiantly on the side of life.”

The Bitter Taste of Victory: Life, Love and Art in the Ruins of the Reich

by Lara Feigel

Bloomsbury, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times, 24 February 2017.

Review: Patriots and Parasites – South Africa and the Struggle to Evade History by Dene Smuts

denesmutsDene Smuts once said that “there are two approaches to opposition lawmaking work: making a noise and making a difference.” Throughout her courageous life she chose to make a difference. Smuts completed the manuscript of Patriots and Parasites: South Africa and the Struggle to Evade History shortly before her unexpected death in April last year. Her daughter Julia midwifed the project to completion.

In the Festschrift included at the end of the book, Jeremy Gauntlett notes Smuts’s “portable spine” which she lent out “often to many weaker people.” Before entering politics, she took a stance against censorship as a journalist and editor of Fair Lady. She resigned from the magazine in protest when her editorial independence was threatened over a story she ran about Winnie Mandela. She insisted on “readers’ right to know”. The longest-serving female parliamentarian, the first female chief whip, a lawmaker renowned for her work on the Constitution, Smuts was central to the birth of the new South Africa. She understood the importance of “cultivating the garden” that is our country.

The memoir is not a blow by blow account of Smuts’s private life. But when you read closely, the person who emerges from between the lines is a remarkable, inspiring human being who led by example. The book is testimony to her brilliant mind and fierce integrity. You might not always agree with what she has to say, but you never doubt that her heart is in the right place. She is unflinching in her analysis of contemporary socio-political developments and does not hesitate to call a spade a spade, or to mention when she is “incandescent with anger”.

There is no pussyfooting around burning issues of racism, polarisation, affirmative action, corruption, or reconciliation: “Just as apartheid was triggered by fanning the embers of cultural resentment of colonialism into the fire of Afrikaner nationalism, Thabo Mbeki brought out the bellows to reignite black resentment against white rule, both colonial and Afrikaner nationalist, when both had become history.” It is just another example of the ancient adage that we do not learn from history. And if anything, South Africa is one of the best embodiments of the effectiveness of the well-known policy: divide and rule (or conquer).

This is not the time to look for differences when common causes have to be addressed in order for the country to thrive as a whole, and Smuts’s incisive scrutiny of Mbeki’s legacy and the present government’s “misrule” points to the pitfalls we are facing. Only if we can all feel that we are “contributing to a new country”, will we be able to feel “at home”. Smuts recalls Jakes Gerwel’s words: “we had created the institutional mechanisms to deal with” the “remnants of the racist past”; “we should build on the positive foundations of transition and the Constitutional order to develop the non-racial reality already emerging.”

Patriots and Parasites is a passionate account of the importance of free speech, which Smuts championed in all her incarnations, whether as journalist or legislator. She points out the dangers of political correctness if allowed to stultify vigorous and necessary debate. Dialogue is pertinent to a healthy democracy. Communication consists as much of voicing concerns as listening. Smuts reminds of the occasion when in 1985 Ellen Kuzwayo was asked by white fellow women writers what they could do to help the cause: “All you can do is listen, listen.” Smuts herself kept her ear close to the ground as she knew the power of informed decision-making.

She gives compelling insight into the nitty-gritty of law-making, taking us back in time to the transition and recalling the turning points in history that made political change possible. The forces at play in the writing and implementing of the 1994 Interim Constitution and the 1996 Constitution are recorded in fascinating detail. Smuts remembers Kader Asmal acknowledging that “probably never before in history has such a high proportion of women been involved in writing a constitution.”

At the core of Patriots and Parasites is the knowledge that this is just one account of the palimpsest that is history. Other stories have to be told: “If the question is whether South Africa can evade history, then we need, at least, to hold up as true a record as possible of that history. The best way of doing so where records are not available, or are as contested … is to give as many accounts of what occurred as possible. This memoir is one such contribution to our recent history.” We owe it to ourselves to nurture and study these testimonies; not to allow recorded history to fall “into disarray, or decay”. Looking back, Smuts warns against apathy towards diverse manifestations of evil. Otherwise, as the reality around us shows over and over again, we will be “doomed to inhabit a world of false narratives”.

Smuts writes that “all we have to defeat this time, however hopeless it may sometimes look, is misrule and the erosion of everything we have already achieved”, and ends on an optimistic note: “It will be easier, this time.”

Patriots and Parasites: South Africa and the Struggle to Evade History

by Dene Smuts

Quivertree, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times, 17 February 2017.