Review: Intruders by Mohale Mashigo

intrudersMohale Mashigo is a well-known musician who debuted two years ago as an author with the best-selling and award-wining novel, The Yearning. Since then, she has adapted a movie for a young adult novel, Beyond the River, and co-written comic books for the Kwezi series. Intruders is her first short story collection.

In her author’s note, Mashigo dedicates the stories “for the weird, the wonderful … and us, who never see ourselves in the stars but die in seas searching for them.” Before we are allowed to jump into the extraordinary stories of this volume, Mashigo offers us a thought-provoking essay on Afrofuturism: “What I want for Africans living in Africa is to imagine a future in their storytelling that deals with issues that are unique to us”, she writes and encourages writers on the continent to engage in a “project that predicts (it is fiction after all) Africa’s future ‘post-colonialism’; this will be divergent for each country on the continent because colonialism (and apartheid) affected us in unique (but sometimes similar) ways.”

Mashigo’s own stories shine the light as she lets her imagination explore these future territories. A young woman has to deal with the consequences of her actions when she discovers her family’s legacy and their connection to the sea in Manoka. A mother disappears and leaves a long letter with instructions for her fifteen-year-old child to follow into safety and to find family members who will be able to assist with her own challenging inheritance in Nthatisi. When people’s hearts are extracted and those responsible are burned by vigilantes, Koketso tries to save his friend Steven against all odds in Ghost Strain N. Café Ferdi in The Palermo is a place where you agree to having your memories stolen when you enter: “The only way to access those memories was to come back and have them play out like a movie in front of you.” Two orphans hunt monsters in BnB in Bloem and a woman kills a man with her shoe and grows wings in The High Heel Killer. An unlikely couple set up a home in an abandoned zoo with guinea fowls and pigs in Once Upon a Town. The three stories Untitled I to III take more unexpected twists and turns.

Synonyms for ‘intruders’ are listed at the back of the collection’s cover: “trespassers, interlopers, invaders, prowlers, infiltrators, encroachers, violators” – the characters in Mashigo’s stories are all of these and more. They might be werewolves, mermaids, apocalypse survivors or vampires, but they also feel familiar as their author taps into emotional worlds which are common to most of us.

Intruders is story-telling at its most eclectic: Mashigo challenges us to be “fantastical” – as in “conceived or appearing as if conceived by an unrestrained imagination; odd and remarkable; bizarre; grotesque” – and “to remain true to ourselves.” The resulting collection lives up to its remarkable promise.

Intruders

by Mohale Mashigo

Picador Africa, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 4 January 2019.

Review: The Lion’s Binding Oath and Other Stories by Ahmed Ismail Yusuf

btrhdrWritten over many years, the short stories included in Ahmed Ismail Yusuf’s debut collection have a mythical quality to them and tell a tale of a people searching to find peace in a time of turmoil. Yusuf grew up as a nomad in his native Somalia and relocated to the United States where he still lives and where he discovered his love for books and storytelling.

Set during the years preceding and spanning the civil war in Somalia, the individual stories in The Lion’s Binding Oath and Other Stories are deceptively simple in structure, but read together as a whole, they reveal a rich mosaic of voices and lives that are at once of a different time and place and yet strikingly familiar.

The opening story, A Slow Moving Night, explores the ties of a rural family through the eyes of a boy shepherd. The five stories of The Mayxaano Chronicles focus on the life and influence of a remarkable woman in the time of war and peace. Old legends allow a young man to survive hardship and find a way back to his people in the titular story.

Broad socio-political and religious themes form the background to Yusuf’s stories about ordinary people who would otherwise remain anonymous in official histories. It is exciting that, among a growing list of other intriguing title from across the continent, the American Catalyst Press is now making these stories available to our local reading public in The Lion’s Binding Oath and Other Stories.

The Lion’s Binding Oath and Other Stories

by Ahmed Ismail Yusuf

Catalyst Press, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 28 December 2018.

Literary dreaming: A visit on board of Queen Elizabeth II

btrhdrI have only done it once. On the Hurtigruten’s Trollfjord many, many years ago. It was spectacular – the fjords, the North Pole, the Northern Lights. A few hundred members of the Norwegian Book Club and many Norwegian and international writers were on board. A dream cruise for any literature lover.

Since that bookish adventure on the Trollfjord, however, I have never really considered going on another ship cruise. After reading Sarah Lotz’s Day Four, I gave up on the idea altogether. For a while, I was intrigued by the possibility of travelling as a passenger on a cargo ship, but then I watched the silver screen version of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi and decided to abandon that idea, too. Yet, somewhere, somehow, a vague dream persisted of a week or two of uninterrupted plain sailing across the globe’s oceans, of sipping piña coladas next to a pool, of writing and reading the days away on deck, and of watching spectacular sunsets before retiring for a night of midnight blue solitude that a ship cabin with a view can offer.

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And then, Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth II sailed into Cape Town’s arms and reawakened these subliminal longings. I had the opportunity to go on board with CapeTalk’s broadcasting team and was enchanted.

If you have never sailed on one of these ships before, it is difficult to imagine what to expect. During CapeTalk’s special outdoor broadcast, John Maytham interviewed Nikki van Biljon, the events manager of the luxurious ship, about her job and its joys and challenges. Listening, I remembered J.M. Coetzee’s descriptions of an author’s life on board of such a cruise in his Elizabeth Costello. A series of lectures or readings with captivated and appreciative passenger audiences would appeal to me as a writer, I think.

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I was definitely thrilled to discover Susan Fletcher, one of my favourite authors, in the Library on board of Queen Elizabeth II. Her latest, House of Glass, is also already on my bookshelf and I look forward to reading it in the near future.

the last hurrahI recently read Graham Viney’s marvellous book, The Last Hurrah: The 1947 Royal Tour of Southern Africa and the End of Empire, and while boarding the ship named after one of the 1947 tour’s main royal guests, I recalled the evocative way Viney had described the approach of the ship that carried the royal family into Cape Town’s harbour in 1947.

Viney also records Princess Elizabeth’s reaction on first seeing the Mother City: ‘It was a wonderful day as we approached Cape Town and when I caught my first glimpse of Table Mountain I could hardly believe that anything could be so beautiful.’

fbtThe ship named after now Queen Elizabeth impresses with its elegant interiors, an old-world charm that is irresistible to hopeless romantics like myself. You enter the main hall and cannot help thinking of similar scenes from the movie Titanic – the opulence and the beauty, the promise of an adventure (before the encounter with The Iceberg, of course). The live harp music started playing just after six pm, in time for dinner. Luckily, nobody was sinking. I did not count the restaurants and bars on board, but there seemed to be many, something for every taste.

I painted my nails pale blue, wore my dark blue princess dress and perfume, and felt unusually glamorous.

fbtA selfie with the Queen seemed compulsory. She celebrated her twenty-first birthday during that famous tour of 1947. In a few days, I will be twice her age of the time. The average on board of the QEII is probably thrice as much or even more, so maybe a sea voyage like this should wait for a while yet. But ever since visiting the ship, I have been fantasising about sailing for two or three weeks, a stranger among strangers, and writing, writing, writing. With no everyday distractions, and only the sea as my companion, I could probably have a rough draft of a novel at the end of such an expedition. The mere possibility is incredibly tempting…

So while I dream on, here is my review (first published in the Sunday Times on 23 December 2018) of Graham Viney’s book:

The monarchy is not my cup of tea, thus I was rather surprised how thoroughly Graham Viney’s The Last Hurrah had charmed me. Talking about the book to other readers, it has also been intriguing to discover how firmly this particular historical moment is lodged in the psyche of the country, no matter where you or your family stood on the broad spectrum of local politics of the era. Viney’s portrayal of the complex time before the infamous elections of 1948, and the role the royal visit played in it, brings the bygone days with all their vibrant possibilities and uncertainties to life. There is a strong sense that it all could have turned out differently. It is a dizzying thought which should not be underestimated, especially at present, when South Africa is once again transitioning before a potentially monumental election and so much could be at stake.

Viney writes with flair. His is a strikingly literary tour of the British royal family’s grand visit to South Africa as he puts his readers in the front seat, or rather in the main carriages, of the White Train that transported the distinguished guests over vast distances around the country from February to April 1947. Viney asks us “to conjure up the pervading smells of heat and dust, of acrid railway-engine smoke and cinders, of eucalyptus and pepper trees, of Yardley’s Lavender and the friendly tang of the Indian Ocean on a summer’s morning”, among a list of other sensations that his evocative descriptions capture for us to enjoy. They allow a total immersion into the past, akin to time travel.

“I could hardly believe that anything could be so beautiful”, wrote Princess Elizabeth after her first sighting of Table Mountain. Up close, we witness the royals arriving in Cape Town by ship, trekking across this part of the continent as far as Victoria Falls and Durban, and stopping along the way wherever people gathered to welcome them. It was a spectacle like no other. “‘We have to be seen to be believed’ is an oft-repeated adage of the Royal Family,” as Viney reminds us. Anyone who’d followed the most recent royal wedding in Britain might understand how everywhere the royal family appeared at the time (long before television and the internet), people of all races and creeds flocked to see them. The visit provided rare opportunities “in the context of the segregated society” when all people could still come together to participate in some of the events scheduled.

Viney records the triumphs and tribulations of the journey, including the King’s Opening of Parliament and, “to the astonishment of everyone”, his few lines in Afrikaans; the slight caused by the royal itinerary which allocated only two days of their time to Johannesburg; the Ngoma Nkosi at Eshowe; the tea the royal family had with Mrs Smuts and other guests who were secretly in attendance; as well as “the climax of the tour” – Princess Elizabeth’s 21st birthday celebrations and her moving speech which was broadcast worldwide to around 200 million people.

The book is richly illustrated and includes never before published photographs. Viney’s meticulous research and fluent prose result in a full-bodied portrait of the royal tour, its charged politics and all the major players involved, each with his or her own agenda. However, his narration is never bogged down by unnecessary details as he sweeps us along on this remarkable trip, when “for one brief shining moment much of South Africa had put their best foot forward and pulled together.”

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You Make Me Possible at the Woordfees

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One of my favourite events of the year opens the literary festival season and I am really looking forward to speaking about You Make Me Possible at the Woordfees with Kerneels Breytenbach on 6 March 2019, at 12:00, in the ATKV Boektent.

OUR LOVE LETTER

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Karina Szczurek, in gesprek met Kerneels Breytenbach

 Aangebied deur Protea Boekhuis

Haar man het haar met briewe die hof gemaak, vertel Karina Szczurek van die skrywer André P. Brink, met wie sy ’n dekade getroud was. Nou is dié briefwisseling sedert hulle ontmoeting in Desember 2004 in Oostenryk deur Karina gebundel as laaste liefdestaak teenoor André. You Make Me Possible begin in die roes van die ontdekking van ’n geesgenoot, dokumenteer die brose begin van ’n byna onmoontlike verhouding, en daarna die verdieping daarvan tot ’n volwasse verhouding in ’n nuwe wereld van saamwees en erkenning. Kerneels Breytenbach vra haar uit.

6 Maart 12:00

60 min | ATKV Boektent

R55 | R70 by die deur

You Make Me Possible at the KKNK

The KKNK is turning 25 this year and it is my great pleasure to be part of the writers’ programme at the festival.

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“Die KKNK bied hope geleenthede om die room van die Suid-Afrikaanse kunste in verskeie genres, dissiplines en vorms te beleef. Vermaak vir oud en jonk word met ’n program propvol drama, humor, musiek, diskoers en vermaak aangebied. Die fees gee aanleiding tot die skep van nuwe materiaal soos toneelstukke wat spesiaal vir die KKNK geskryf word en jaarliks word die topkunstenaars en-produksies by die Fees vereer met Kanna-toekennings.”

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YOU MAKE ME POSSIBLE: THE LOVE LETTERS OF KARINA M. SZCZUREK & ANDRÉ BRINK

MET Karina Szczurek en Erns Grundling (gespreksleier)

Novelist André Brink married Karina Szczurek when he was 71 and she was 29. They were together for ten years before he died on a plane, beside her, high above Africa in February 2015.

Selected and edited by Karina M. Szczurek, the love letters between herself and André included in You Make Me Possible tell in detail the story of how they met in Austria in December 2004, fell in love, and decided to forge a future together. The intense correspondence which followed in the weeks after their fateful encounter recounts their courtship in words, revealing their initially unacknowledged attraction, their fears and longings, and writing a new world of recognition and togetherness into being. The letters chronicle the time between their first meeting and Karina’s decision to relocate to South Africa to be with André in 2005 – a relationship which lasted until his death in 2015.

Engels | Gesin | 60 min

22 Maart 15:30

 

Being a cat

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In the Acknowledgements of my novel, Invisible Others, I wrote: ‘My furry family, Glinka, Salieri and Mozart, true experts at life, keep trying to teach me how to make the most of it; I hope they will succeed one day.’ It is four years later, but no matter how desirable, being a cat is not an easy task. I might, however, be closer than ever. ‘Your immediate goal is to be a cat’, writes Jaron Lanier in the introduction to his Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (2018), a book that is, despite its title, ‘about how to be a cat.’

‘Cats have done the seemingly impossible: They’ve integrated themselves into the modern high-tech world without giving themselves up. They are still in charge. There is no worry that some stealthy meme crafted by an algorithm and paid for by a creepy, hidden oligarch has taken over your cat. No one has taken over your cat; not you, not anyone… Cats on the internet are our hopes and dreams for the future of people on the internet’, says Lanier. And he should know, not only as a Silicon Valley insider, but as someone who shares his life with cats – Loof, Potato, Tuno and Starlight – who taught Lanier ‘how not to be domesticated’.

Books, like cats, have the ability to change lives. I read Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now over the festive season and it did exactly that: changed my life. I haven’t deleted the only social media account I have (yet?); that, too, is ‘part of your prerogative, being a cat’, as Lanier emphasises. But I did decide to change the way I interact with social media.

The problem with social media that Lanier identifies – ‘relentless, robotic, ultimately meaningless behaviour modification in the service of unseen manipulators and uncaring algorithms’ – is, of course, something that many of us have been aware of for quite a while. But it was ultimately his book that encouraged me to do something against it in my own private capacity. I am tired of the exploitative, manipulative, addictive, artificial, often toxic and aggressive, nature of social media. It seems that no matter how much you try to curate your experience, there is no way of avoiding all the negative side effects of engaging with the diverse platforms. There are just so many accounts that you can block without feeling that you are totally wasting your time and could invest it in something much more creative and positive, something that perhaps you yourself – and not some ruthless, greedy company – can profit from, if not exactly financially, then definitely intellectually and emotionally. It’s time to ‘detach from the behaviour-modification empires for a while’, as Lanier says.

‘Go to where you are kindest,’ he suggests, and it resonates with me deeply. Kindness is essential to my survival. It is kindness that has carried me to safety across the roughest storms of my life, and there have been way too many in recent years. I want kindness and calm in my life, and cats and books. That is what makes me happy, what makes life worthwhile for me.

What has changed? Nothing drastic. I stopped tweeting on 31 December. Mid-January, I am still missing it sometimes (it is addictive, after all), especially the interaction with friends and followers I truly care about but, mostly, I feel a lot of relief. I still look at notifications every now and then and acknowledge the ones which I would have in the past, and I use DMs to communicate with a few people, but I completely ignore my timeline. Many social media accounts are of interest to me, but I look at them directly when I feel like it. Basically, I shifted from an active participant to a passive observer. I want to give it a few months to see how I will feel about it all later in the year.

It is amazing how much time I save every day by not engaging with social media. And I decided to use that time for creativity. As Lanier says, the internet is not the problem, the problem is how we use it and how it is being used against us. Producing and sharing creative content about topics I am passionate about, that I or others can also profit from – directly or indirectly (from the exchange of ideas or book sales, for example) – feels right. It is crucial to consider, in Lanier’s words, ‘sustainable, dignified business models’ where a transaction between two parties does not have to go through a third one ‘who is paying to manipulate them.’ Lanier asks for social media that he can pay for, and where he can ‘unambiguously own and set the price for using my data, and it’s easy and normal to earn money if my data is valuable.’ I like that idea very much.

Lanier asks, ‘What if listening to an inner voice or heeding a passion for ethics or beauty were to lead to more important work in the long term, even if it measured as less successful in the moment? What if deeply reaching a small number of people matters more than reaching everybody with nothing?’

What if? Indeed.

I upgraded my blog, so that it does not feature any ads I cannot control; I love the new, clean look which is focused on my – personally chosen – content. The costs involved were minimal in comparison to the benefits.

I decided to choose my online news and entertainment sources directly and to pay for content I find valuable. Well-researched, -considered, -written and -presented content costs money to produce and I want its creators to be well-paid for their intellectual and creative work. Quality, not quantity – that’s what I seek.

The word ‘content’ itself deserves more attention. I find it problematic, but that’s a thought that needs further consideration.

I love paper and never read e-books if I can help it. Reading print media of diverse nature during the festive season made me remember how good it feels to lie next to the pool and turn the pages of an informative, fun magazine. I want more of that in my life again, too.

There is a wonderful passage about writing in Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. It turns a premise writers live by on its head: ‘You can’t read well until you can write at least a little’, claims the author, and continues, ‘The reason we teach writing to students is not in the hopes that they’ll become professional writers… Instead, we hope they’ll learn what it means to write, and to think, which will make them more thoughtful when they read.’ And he adds, challenging us: ‘You can’t use the internet well until you’ve confronted it on your own terms, at least for a while. This is for your integrity, not just for saving the world.’

Integrity, like kindness, deserves to be cultivated with the utmost care.

Finally, I find Lanier’s description of certain questions as ‘tender’ beautiful. Let’s ask more of those ‘tender questions’ together.

Empathy is the fuel that runs a decent society.’

— Jaron Lanier

(PS I tweeted the link to this post and pinned it to my timeline as a way of explaining my disappearance from Twitter; my friends have been asking whether everything was all right. It is. Thank you for caring!)

Stephen Johnson – a tribute

Stephen Johnson was one of the first people my late husband André Brink introduced me to when I made Cape Town my permanent home. He was André’s publisher, advisor and, along with Kerneels Breytenbach, a trustee of The André P. Brink Literary Trust from the time it was established in 2003. Above all, Stephen was a friend André cherished and trusted.

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In the past four years since André’s death in February 2015, I had the exceptional privilege of working along Stephen, Kerneels and André’s son Gustav Brink as one of the trustees of André’s Literary Trust. Stephen’s input has been essential to all our decisions and he will be greatly missed in this capacity.

Stephen and I were never personally close, but in my dealings with him, I admired his erudition, his impeccable taste, his love for the written word and the objects which contain it, and his integrity. Seeing Stephen handle a beautiful book and hearing him talk about the writing he admired was pure pleasure. He was an extraordinary, perceptive reader. I remember his eloquence and his voice, both magnificent. He was an old-school publisher – he knew and cared about his writers and befriended many. To him, publishing was an art form as described by another illustrious contributor to this field, the Italian publisher Roberto Calasso. Stephen recognised and revered true talent and treated his authors like royalty. He saw us primarily as creative beings, not only as potential goldmines to be exploited. Expertise, imagination, loyalty and empathy were the cornerstones of his achievements.

It was Stephen who gave me my publishing break when he took on the project which resulted in Touch: Stories of Contact, my first major publication as an editor ten years ago. And more recently, he was one of the people who had helped me navigate the rough waters of a storm I had feared might end my publishing career for good. It is now two published books later and I feel that I have arrived in a safe harbour. I owe a lot of that safety to his wisdom and guidance.

Professionally and personally, we lost a fine man. Whenever we corresponded, he signed his letters with ‘fond regards’ and I associate the phrase with him. His last communications came through on 29 December, one of them also signed thus. I will remember him with the fondest of regards and would like to offer my condolences to all his loved ones as well as the people who were substantially enriched by his presence in their lives. May he rest in peace.

What is Up Lit?

Kate Mallinder - a writer's blog...

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I recently had the pleasure of speaking on a panel about Up Lit at the Society of Young Publishers’ annual conference. With me on the panel were Lisa Highton from Two Roads, publisher of The Keeper of Lost Things and Martha Ashby, editorial director of Harper Fiction, but specifically in this case, editor of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. It was a fascinating session, so here is what was said about this relatively new genre of ‘Up Lit’.

 

What is Up Lit?

Highton commented that the term Up Lit was first coined about 18 months ago in a Guardian article talking about books with kindness at their centre. Ashby added that these books aren’t saccharine however – they deal with some big life issues; mental illness, loss, grief. But this is where it differs from other stories tackling similar themes; these books have a strong sense of community…

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Review: Call Them by Their True Names – American Crises (and Essays) by Rebecca Solnit

Call Them by Their True NamesThe importance of truth and the careful use of language cannot be underestimated. “Precision, accuracy, and clarity matter, as gestures of respect toward those to whom you speak; toward the subject, whether it’s an individual or the earth itself; toward the historical record. It’s also a kind of self-respect”, writes the award-winning author and intellectual Rebecca Solnit in her latest collection of essays, Call Them by Their True Names. The individual pieces draw our attention to the roots of the present crises facing America and beyond: the infamous election of 2016, inequality, and climate change.

“Sometimes the state of our union seems like an absurdist thriller film that we would not have believed was possible, let alone likely, let alone real, had we been told about it a couple of years ago.” Unfortunately, current reality cannot be simply switched off. Creative effort is required to stop the rot.

Solnit considers “the act of naming as diagnosis”. She is very much aware that by diagnosing a “grim” situation, you will not necessarily be able to change or solve it, but “you’re far better equipped to know what to do about it.” Also, any “revolt against brutality begins with a revolt against the language that hides that brutality.”

In her usual fashion, Solnit’s astute analysis galvanises readers into action and supplies us with hope. We need to return to that state of affairs “in which you are, as the saying goes, as good as your word.” Addressing such diverse topics as isolation, cynicism, rage, activism, gentrification, violence, homelessness, revisionism, journalism, and the justice system, Solnit shows how not to remain passive, but to fight for what we believe in and are passionate about. With its integrity and clarity, Solnit’s writing is, as always, exhilarating.

Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays)

by Rebecca Solnit

Granta, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 2 November 2018.

Review: Packing My Library – An Elegy and Ten Digressions by Alberto Manguel

Manguel.indd“Loss helps you remember, and loss of a library helps you remember who you truly are”, writes the remarkable Argentine-Canadian wordsmith, Alberto Manguel. Nine years ago, I had the great fortune of spending an afternoon in his company. It was just after a visit to the special collection of a library in the French province of Champagne where I had seen manuscripts from the Middle Ages. The librarian responsible for them handled the treasures in white cotton gloves and, for understandable reasons, would not allow anyone else to touch them. Still spellbound, I told Mr Manguel of the encounter with the precious books and how much I had longed to touch their pages. That is when I found out about his own famous library, located in the home he shared with his partner near Paris, and containing thousands of books, some as ancient and unique as the ones I had seen. And in his kindness, he said that if I ever came to visit, he would allow me to hold these books in my hands.

Sadly, I never had the opportunity to take him up on this generous offer, but the dream remained with me until I read Packing My Library, Alberto Manguel’s farewell to the library he told me about, an extraordinary collection of thirty-five thousand books “housed in an old stone presbytery south of the Loire Valley, in a quiet village of fewer than ten houses.” He doesn’t go into details why the home – and the library – had to be packed up in 2015, but the experience had been clearly traumatic. To adapt an African proverb: When an old library dies, a man burns to the ground.

“I’ve often felt that my library explained who I was, gave me a shifting self that transformed itself constantly throughout the years.” With the help of friends, the books are catalogued and put into boxes before being shipped to Canada. Packing My Library is, as the subtitle suggest, a lament for the absent books and the lost space where they had come to rest for many years, where the author “never felt alone”. Manguel recalls how the library took shape throughout his nomadic life, how individual titles became part of the collection and how they influenced the author’s reflections. The digressions of the subtitle are short pieces on topics as diverse as literary creation, revenge and Jorge Luis Borges, the writer who at one stage of his life became the director of the National Library of Argentina, a post now occupied by Manguel.

Most known for his outstanding A History of Reading, Manguel has been sharing his love of language and reading with us for decades. Packing My Library is a touching tribute, an obituary to a self formed and informed by a library now dormant until – hopefully – its next “unpacking”.

Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions

by Alberto Manguel

Yale University Press, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 2 November 2018.