Monthly Archives: August 2014

Review: The Visitor by Katherine Stansfield

The VisitorThere are these magical moments in life when your call of longing is answered by the ideal book. Katherine Stansfield’s debut novel, The Visitor, was such a book for me. Despite having grown up in a picturesque mountain landscape, for most of my life I have felt that I belonged to the sea. In the last few weeks I have been thinking about the influence that sense of affinity with the sea has had on me as a person and a writer. Stansfield spent her childhood in Cornwall and lectures at the University of Wales which overlooks Cardigan Bay. The sea is in her blood and it is one of the main protagonists of her stunning novel.

Meticulously crafted, submerged in wisdom and yearning, The Visitor opens with a gem epigraph, a line by Ruth Bidgood: “When I have pictured a calm sea, there is your boat, waiting.” Set in a fictional fishing village in Cornwall towards the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, the novel tells the story of Pearl, Jack and Nicholas: “The three of them live on the same street, three houses all in line and Pearl’s house in the middle. The three fathers go out in the lifeboat when the flare goes up, and everyone goes to chapel. Each family works together in pilchard season.”

Playing together as children, Pearl, Jack and Nicholas test the boundaries of the friendship that binds them. As young adults they begin to form new allegiances with one another and the community around them. When the pilchards stop coming, the lives of those dependent on the fish for their livelihood change irreversibly. Nicholas is a dreamer ready for adventure and distant shores. The steadfast Jack believes in the continuation of traditions. Pearl knows to whom her heart belongs, but some choices are not hers to make.

Years later, Pearl is forced to abandon her home. Once again everything around her transforms as her small village is flooded by tourists and modernity. At the same time she grapples with an infinitely more tragic loss as she tries to hold on to the precious memories of the love of her life: “What was remembered was true.” Haunted by a past which seems more real than anything else around her, Pearl waits for him to return and sneaks away to revisit the places where they’d experienced flashes of happiness together. On her wanderings she encounters cairns which remind her of all that is lost. She carries a cairn inside her, “weighed down by its stones”. Because of her precarious health, she is not allowed to swim, but the sea is the only thing which restores her to herself: “They were old friends. They had an understanding.”

A constant companion to the human drama unfolding at its shores, the sea continues with its own rhythms. Stansfield is also a poet. Her debut collection Playing House will be published in October. No wonder The Visitor’s prose shimmers with breath-taking beauty.

The Visitor
by Katherine Stansfield
Parthian, 2013

First published in the Cape Times, 29 August 2014, p. 32.

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Open Book Festival 2014

Between 17 and 21 September the literary community in Cape Town will gather for the fourth Open Book Festival.
Open Book
In past years, apart from attending as a passionate reader, I have had the pleasure of interviewing some of my favourite authors at Open Book: Craig Higginson, Rachel Zadok, and Kgebetli Moele among them.

This year, I am in for another treat: I’ll be talking to Andrew Brown, Ekow Duker and Jonny Steinberg about the impact that the content of their books has on them (OFF THE PAGE, Friday 19 September, 4-5pm, Fugard Studio).

The day before, I’ll be chairing Open Book’s TRIBUTE TO NADINE GORDIMER with Imraan Coovadia, Billy Kahora and Margie Orford who will read from Nadine Gordimer’s work and share stories about her influence on their creative lives (Thursday, 18 September, 2-3pm, Fugard Theatre).

And last but not least, I’ll be the ‘little rat’ (=szczurek) next to two literary greats: Michiel Heyns and Damon Galgut. Our session – WRITING SEXUALITY – will be chaired by Karin Schimke (Wednesday, 17 September, 2-3pm, Fugard Studio).
Emma-van-der-Vliet-and-Patrick-DeWitt
For the full festival programme click here: Open Book 2014.
Imraan-Coovadia-and-Sarah-Lotz
Photographs: Open Book 2013.

My dreams are back

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAI’m a dreamer. I dream with abandon, remembering up to four dreams a night, all vivid as if seen on a silver screen just moments before. Some of these dreams end up as my stories. Others I keep in my diary. As a child, I had a recurring dream about an island surrounded by dark waters. Many of my dreams are linked to the sea. In the last few weeks I’ve been through some rough waters. Under pressure, I stop eating, sleeping, and, worst of all, dreaming. The last dream I remember before last night is the one I wrote about in my Nadine Gordimer tribute. And now, over a month later, I’m surfacing and this morning I woke up remembering two dreams! One is for the diary. The other one for sharing.

But first a few memories. Many years ago I saw a movie which made a deep impression on my young mind; the most striking image from the movie involved women clad in crimson. Much later, at university in Austria, I read my first Margaret Atwood novel: Cat’s Eye. It triggered my fascination with Atwood’s work. I read a few other of her titles. Then, while doing research at the university library in Aberystwyth, Wales, I was passing a row of books when a red smudge on a book spine caught my eye: the crimson women. I think I read The Handmaid’s Tale in one sitting through the following night.

A few years ago, I had the remarkable honour of sitting at the same table as Margaret Atwood at a gala dinner in New York. We did not talk much, mostly because the Oscar-winning composer right next to me wanted to touch my hair, which was luckily all braided and pinned and meant for another. So sadly, I remember only one exchange with Atwood that night. We discussed peanut butter sandwiches. Really!

Fast-forward to last year. Venice. Another gala dinner, Atwood at the same table, for most of it right next to me. And this time I felt like a woman in one of her stories, battling with her voice. I stopped speaking all together for a week after that evening (acute laryngitis). Atwood took over the conversation and the erudite editor on my other side was just as entertaining. But I can’t say that I was much of an articulate presence.

Photo: Krystian Szczurek, New York 2011

Photo: Krystian Szczurek, New York 2011

And then a few days ago, I saw the wonderful news that Atwood’s latest short-story collection is to be published before the month is over. I’m eagerly awaiting the day it reaches South African bookshops. So, I suppose, given all of the above, it is no surprise that one of my dreams last night was about Margaret Atwood. In the dream, I was living in a small town. I found myself sitting next to Atwood on a park bench and she was telling me about attending a literary festival nearby. ‘This morning just after 5am, they came into my hotel room, saying that I needed to go with them to sign books, and they brought me here, and now I’m stuck, because nobody wants to take me back,’ she said, but she did not seem concerned at all, just perplexed, and a bit amused. Naturally, I offered to drive her to her hotel. And then I woke up, delighted to be dreaming properly again, and remembering how generously Atwood had signed my books in New York and Venice.

What would Dr Freud say?
Dr Szczurek says: Get Stone Mattress!

Stone MattressAbout Stone Mattress:

“A recently widowed fantasy writer is guided through a stormy winter evening by the voice of her late husband. An elderly lady with Charles Bonnet’s syndrome comes to terms with the little people she keeps seeing, while a newly-formed populist group gathers to burn down her retirement residence. A woman born with a genetic abnormality is mistaken for a vampire. And a crime committed long-ago is revenged in the Arctic via a 1.9 billion year old stromatalite. In these nine tales, Margaret Atwood ventures into the shadowland earlier explored by fabulists and concoctors of dark yarns such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Daphne du Maurier and Arthur Conan Doyle – and also by herself, in her award-winning novel Alias Grace. In Stone Mattress, Margaret Atwood is at the top of her darkly humorous and seriously playful game.”

Over the years, I have reviewed a few of Atwood’s books:

The TentThe Tent (2006)

Margaret Atwood’s latest collection of writing The Tent is a visual and intellectual delight. Provocative and full of wisdom it provides plenty of food for thought, not always readily digestible. A little book with big ideas. Beautifully designed and illustrated by the author, it has the feel and look of a private notebook one would want to carry around in one’s breast pocket at all times. One feels tempted to add personal comments on the few blank pages in-between the many voices of Atwood’s narrators, living and sharing their thoughts full of anxieties and hopes with the readers in a world which is hostile and frightening.

From the drawing of the cover to the last page of the book one image persists: a tent full of words, surrounded by beastly creatures. When the narrator of the title piece in the collection tells us “you’re in a tent”, we just have to take the book and put it up on its covers’ edges to realise how deliciously suggestive the image is in its multiple meanings. “It’s vast and cold outside, very vast, very cold. It’s a howling wilderness…But you have a small candle in your tent. You can keep warm…The trouble is, your tent is made of paper. Paper won’t keep anything out. You know you must write on the walls, on the paper walls, on the inside of your tent.” With your writing you must describe the howling and the truth, you must write about the ones you love and the things you love and try to protect them, even though your “obsession with calligraphy” is not always appreciated and understood. And your tent is fragile and endangered by the howlers sniffing around outside, “but you keep on writing anyway because what else can you do?”

Xenophobia, violence, despotism, gender inequality, terrorism, crime, environmental crisis, tyranny, war – our global society is drenched in conflict, “a howling wilderness” indeed. If anybody had any doubt about the role of the intellectual in these difficult times, Margaret Atwood’s gem of a collection shows the path to take. The title piece is probably the most honest, humble as well as forceful, statement on the precarious situation of the writer and the importance of writing in recent years. In another piece, “Voice” the situation is again exemplified. The first-person narrator tells us she has been “given a voice”. No matter what glory and adoration it gives her, she knows one day it will begin to shrivel. Until then it is “attached like an invisible vampire to my throat.”

The whole book is like a little tent written against the evils of the world. Balancing on the border of fiction and non-fiction, Atwood’s collection with its generic mixture of fables, essays, dreams, monologues, dialogues, rewritings of myths and legends, satires, allegories and poems, is a subtle and razor-sharp analysis of the world around us. No preaching, just small precise revelations on the madness of our global society.

“Thylacine Ragout” explores the follies of genetics and the power of money to buy anything it wants. “Plots for Exotics” deals with our prejudices and xenophobia. Pieces such as “Heritage House” and the magnificent poem “Bring Back Mom: An Invocation” take up gender issues.

“And there you’ll be, in your cotton housecoat,
holding a wooden peg
between your teeth, as the washing flaps
on the clothesline you once briefly considered
hanging yourself with –”

“Eating the Birds” tells us of complicity, choice and unrighteous wanting of something that does not belong to us: “We’re ankle-deep in blood, and all because we ate the birds, we ate them a long time ago, when we still had the power to say no.” When in “Chicken Little Goes too Far” the chicken finds out that “the sky is falling”, he has to pay a high price for wanting to save the world.

Although some of the other pieces are more introspective, quiet, even funny, there is little comfort in the volume. However it is a nourishing piece of work that goes straight to the heart and makes one want to take up the pen and write on the blank pages in-between. For what else can you do?

Bertolt Brecht once said that thinking is something that follows problems and precedes action. This is precisely where Atwood’s little big book stands. In the last piece of the collection “But it Could Still” the narrator begins by saying: “Things look bad: I admit it. They look worse than they’ve looked for years, for centuries. They look the worst ever. Perils loom on all sides. But it could still turn out all right.” There are many stories, winter’s tales, that keep up the faith. “We want to huddle round them, as if around a small but cheerful fire.” And there are the tulips you planted before the winter frost “in the brown earth” where “already hundreds of small green shoots…intending to grow despite everything” were waiting. The narrator contemplates in the end: “What would you call them if they were in a story? Would they be happy endings, or happy beginnings? But they aren’t in a story, and neither are you. You tucked them back under the mulch and the dead leaves, however. It was the right thing to do on the darkest day of the year.”

Atwood’s Tent is full of thoughts on humanity. Like the small green shoots intending to grow despite everything, they will survive the dark cold winter and blossom proudly in spring. Outside of a story I would call them hope.

First published in the Sunday Independent, 4 June 2006.

Moral DisorderMoral Disorder (2006)

Margaret Atwood, by now the author of over three dozen books, has always been a prolific writer. Last year, however, was a special treat for all the fans of her fiction. After the publication of The Penelopiad (one of a series of myth rewritings by internationally acclaimed authors) and The Tent (a collection of shorter miscellaneous pieces), the end of the year witnessed Atwood’s latest release, Moral Disorder. This intriguing book is yet another representative of a genre which is not exactly new, but is increasingly coming into its own on the international literary scene, and even more so on our local market. Moral Disorder could be termed a ‘short story novel’. It comprises a collection of interrelated short stories, which can be read separately as individual pieces in their own right, but which reveal the total scale of their meanings only within reference to each other, interacting in this way to form a whole which could be read as a novel.

In South African fiction, recent examples of this fascinating – at times also controversial (some of us will remember the debate surrounding the nomination of Ivan Vladislavić’s The Exploded View for the Sunday Times Fiction Award in 2005) – genre range from Mary Watson’s beautifully intricate Moss (2004) to Byron Loker’s freshly rewarding New Swell (2006). As Miki Flockemann pointed out in her review of Moss, it is not unexpected that this genre “has become a noticeable trend in recent South African writing on account of the simultaneous embrace of cohesion and fragmentation.” It fictionally embodies the instable and diverse nature of the reality around us.

The short story novel is not foreign to Canadian fiction either. Alice Munroe’s Runaway (2005) will ring a bell for many readers. Now, Atwood’s Moral Disorder, “a collection of eleven stories that is almost a novel…or a novel broken up into eleven stories”, as the inside cover suggests, embarks on a journey through time and space and reveals, in glimpses, the intertwined lives of its characters.

We are first introduced to the main protagonists, Nell and Tig, as an ageing couple in “The Bad News”. The bad news of the title arrives in the form of a newspaper headline Tig shows to Nell, who is not ready to receive it, “Not before breakfast…You know I can’t handle it this early in the day.” Nell knows that this sort of news – about explosions, oil spills, genocides, famines – will always be followed by others like it, and is unwilling to confront it unless it concerns them directly. Instead, she escapes into the distant past, remembering a holiday in France. The memory merges into a daydream, which makes her realise that bad news has always arrived at our doorstep and will always do so, until eventually it pounces and “you reach out in the night and there’s no more breathing.”

The second story, “The Art of Cooking and Serving”, takes us back in time to when Nell was eleven and her mother was expecting her second daughter. While Nell decides to knit a layette for her sibling, she is frightened of the “listless, bloated, version” of her mother, who by changing her own future also changes Nell’s “into something shadow-filled and uncertain.” After her sister is born, Nell suddenly finds herself taking over from her mother, baby-tending and doing the chores, until she rebels in order to lead the normal teenage life she witnesses other girls enjoying. We encounter her at that stage in “The Headless Horseman” and “My Last Duchess”.

In “The Other Place” Nell is a young adult on the run from herself and the world until she meets Tig, and later recalls: “then followed the cats and the dogs and children, and the baking, and even the frilly white window curtains, though they eventually vanished in their own turn”.

All stories are told in the first person, apart from the following four, “Monopoly”, the title story “Moral Disorder”, “White Horse”, and “The Entities”, which switch to the third person, allowing us a fuller perspective on the lives of the characters, and a different insight into Nell, who has been the storyteller until now.

The four third-person stories centre on the complex relationship between Nell and Tig, who brings into the equation two sons and Oona, his demanding first wife whom he is in the process of divorcing. We watch Nell navigate between the moods and wishes of the people in her life as well as trying to fulfil her own dreams and guard her own integrity in the process: “Nell felt intimidated by this marriage, and small and childish in comparison with it. It had a certain oversized and phosphorescent splendour about it, like a whale decaying on the beach. It made her seem pallid, at least to herself: pallid, banal, insipidly wholesome. She did not have nearly as much operatic and tenebrous and sanguinary melodrama to offer.”

Rich in memorable characters and evocative settings, Moral Disorder offers deeply moving reflections on all stages of life, including ageing and death, which feature strongly especially in the two last pieces: “The Labrador Fiasco” and “The Boys at the Lab”.

Atwood is one of the best storytellers alive. In all the stories of Moral Disorder the importance of literature in our lives as guide, companion, mirror, filters through, and because of the honesty and insight with which all of them are told, we find ourselves looking at our own lives reflected in them and, once again, begin to marvel at the miracle of it all.

First published in the Sunday Independent, 14 January 2007.

PaybackPayback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (2008)

In this time of financial crisis, reading an entire book about the concept of debt is not an enticing idea. This is the reason why as a devoted fan of Margaret Atwood’s work I’ve eagerly picked up her latest publication, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, in the bookshop, and then, upon finding out what it was about, returned it to its shelf with a deep sense of mistrust, almost fear. I resisted the thought of hearing any more about debt, even if it was from one of my favourite writers.

Then a copy of the book arrived in the post for reviewing, and in the end, I couldn’t be more grateful for it. But my intuition about Payback was right. It is a scary book, although it does not begin as such. Payback comprises of five chapters, each focusing on a different aspect of the debt concept, and the first four are rather funny and light-hearted. It is only the last one that brings all the entertaining insights together in a devastating conclusion about us and our future.

As Atwood explains in the opening chapter “Ancient Balances”, Payback is not about such things as debt management, national debt, or shopaholics; it’s about debt as a human “imaginative construct”. Atwood goes on to expound that such inner foundation stones of humanness as instant gratification and fairness underlie this construct, presenting many fascinating experiments to illustrate her point. She also examines the moral and economic concepts of debt through a mythological and religious lens and traces them back to the idea of logos: without the possibility of keeping track of debt, it ceases to exist.

The second chapter “Debt and Sin” explores the idea of debt as a fashion: “We seem to be entering a period in which debt has passed through its most recent harmless and fashionable period, and is reverting to being sinful.” A lot of us have lost the ability of living within our means when it became acceptable to take the easier path. There was a time when going to a pawnshop was considered a terrible disgrace, a sin. Today, we all live on credit, however unaffordable it has become.

In spiritual terms, as Atwood shows, there is a close link between a pawnshop and redemption. She tells intriguing stories of St. Nicolas, the patron saint of thieves; the Sin Eater, who for a reward symbolically consumes a deceased person’s sins (spiritual debts) at the funeral; or the Devil and his careful bookkeeping of who owes him what.

The next chapter “Debt as Plot” builds on such stories and investigates many literary classics and their famous characters, especially Christopher Marlow’s Doctor Faustus and Charles Dickens’s Scrooge, offering a fresh insight into the art of storytelling and our perception of the primary mechanisms on which literary plots rely.

As its title suggests the next chapter, “The Shadow Side”, turns to the dodgy side of debt and traces the historical and present consequences of what actually happens when individuals or nations fail to settle their financial or ethical dues, i.e. when “big debts can make history and rearrange the landscape.” Atwood gives many terrifying examples of how the strategy of getting rid of debt by killing or expelling creditors has survived successfully throughout the ages. “The Shadow Side” also includes a sober, or rather satirical, look on tax: “There are two kinds of taxation systems: ones that are resented, and ones that are really resented.”

Atwood writes about the symbiotic relationship between the debtor and the creditor in the light of the Jungian theory of the Shadow, “our dark side, the repository of everything in us we’re ashamed of and would rather not acknowledge”. From there she moves to the concept of forgiveness and presents no other than Nelson Mandela and the TRC as her examples of how moral debt does not have to be evened out by revenge, but by the one thing which can undermine an eye-for-an-eye approach: forgiveness. If for nothing else, Payback is worth reading for this rather short section and Atwood’s fascinating thought experiment of what would have happened, had the president of the United States sent a message of forgiveness instead of revenge to the people responsible for 9/11.

“Payback”, the final chapter of the book by the same title takes us on a journey through time with a 21st-century version of Scrooge and the Spirits of Christmas. What Scrooge “Nouveau” experiences is scary, but Atwood does not wag her forefinger, she just wants us to wake up to the reality round us. As a human species we have incurred a debt to the planet that will also have to be settled, rather sooner than later, and if we want to be around to see the thereafter, we have to act now by paying back what we owe.

Payback includes a thorough bibliography, a good index and above all some valuable notes which can help readers think about realistic solutions to the many problems we face today.

First published in the Sunday Independent, 8 March 2009.

In Other WorldsIn Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (2011)

Margaret Atwood opens her latest non-fiction offering with a clear declaration:

In Other Worlds is not a catalogue of science fiction, a grand theory about it, or a literary history of it. It is not a treatise, it is not definitive, it is not exhaustive, it is not canonical. It is not the work of a practicing academic or an official guardian of a body of knowledge. Rather it is an exploration of my own lifelong relationship with a literary form, or forms, or subforms, both as reader and as writer.”

In short: In Other Worlds is a love song for a genre. Most importantly, precisely because it does not have any of the aspirations Atwood negates in the above statement, it will be appealing to many readers, of her own work and of science fiction (in all its manifestations).

The book is divided into four parts. The first includes the three Ellmann Lectures Atwood delivered at Emory in 2010. They constitute some general and theoretical deliberations on SF as well as on Atwood’s own full-length forays into what she calls “ustopia-writing”: The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. The second is a series of essays and reviews Atwood wrote on some classics of the genre, such as H. Rider Haggard’s She or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. The third is a tribute section for which Atwood selected some of her shorter ustopias. The final section, “Appendices”, features the open letter Atwood wrote to the Judson Independent School District which banned The Handmaid’s Tale (cautionary reading for our times in South Africa), and an article on Weird Tales covers of the 1930s, published recently in the US edition of Playboy.

It might seem like too much of a mixed bag, but the pieces are carefully chosen and well integrated into the whole. From the start, Atwood explains her understanding of the genre under discussion and the terminology she applies to its many subforms, introducing her own terms and clarifying where she differs from other practitioners. The most important to her is the umbrella term which she uses to refer to her own work: ustopia, a combination of utopia and dystopia – “the imagined perfect society and its opposite – because, in my view, each contains a latent version of the other.”

Atwood includes many stories about her “tangled personal history with SF, first as a child, then as an adolescent, then as a one-time student and academic, then as a reviewer and commentator, and then, finally, as a composer.” She also focuses on the literary and cultural context in which stories about alien invasions and possible futures have developed, offering a enticing overview of the field’s many fascinating aspects and paying homage to the path breakers like Swift or Verne. Atwood’s reading of well-known proponents of SF are highly enlightening and made me want to return to some of my favourites. But even if you are a LeGuin or Lem devotee, a staunch Trekkie, or a vampiramas addict, some of Atwood’s insights might add to your understanding and appreciation of the genre. And if you are one of those who’d rather stay away from SF altogether, even if it is offered by somebody of Atwood’s calibre, please remember that “in brilliant hands…the form can be brilliant”, in spite of its “downright sluttish reputation.”

In Other Worlds is also an astute analysis of SF’s function in our lives. As Atwood concludes one of her essays: “We are not only what we do, we are also what we imagine. Perhaps, by imagining mad scientists and then letting them do their worst within the boundaries of our fictions, we hope to keep the real ones sane.” There is little doubt that we are still very much on target towards one of Atwood’s own fictions: a brass cylinder with a rough outline of what humanity once was before eradicating itself. She ends the piece, “Time Capsule Found on the Dead Planet”, with the crushing line: “Pray for us, who once, too, thought we could fly.”

Informative, humorous and intriguing, In Other Worlds is dedicated Ursula K. LeGuin – a worthy tribute to the reigning queen of SF.

First published in ITCH e.10 (May 2012).

MaddAddamMaddAddam (2013)

The day the Nobel Laureate for Literature was announced in October was a great day for the short story, for women writers, for Canadian literature, and for the remarkable Alice Munro. Yet, my heart bled for another Canadian writer: Margaret Atwood. The ways of the Nobel committee are unfathomable, but given the choice between a brilliant Canadian woman short-story writer, and a brilliant Canadian woman short-story writer, novelist, essayist and poet all in one, it’s hard not to wonder what went through their minds.

Undoubtedly, there is a prejudice against so-called genre writing, even when it transcends such reductionist labels with the impeccable quality of its offerings, as do most works stemming from Atwood’s pen. Her The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is a classic. Not that Atwood’s work can be lumped into any category. In the last decade, Atwood has published extensively, but the emphasis has been on the speculative fiction trilogy which began with the Booker-shortlisted Oryx and Crake (2003) and now concludes with MaddAddam. Perhaps the genre has torpedoed Atwood’s chances with the committee? If so, it is regrettable. But having said so, this is not to take anything away from the recognition of Munro’s work of which I am an avid admirer.

Also, I hope the above will testify to my respect for Atwood’s prolific writing and put my disappointment in her latest novel into context.

Oryx and Crake blew me away. Set in a not too distant future, it tells the story of Jimmy, the seemingly last human survivor of an apocalyptic plague unleashed on the world by his best friend Crake. In Jimmy’s care are the Crakers, a genetically engineered, green-eyed, blue-penis-swinging, eerily singing and purring humanoid species – Crake’s idea of an improvement on depraved humanity. The novel ends when Jimmy, injured and hallucinating, encounters three other human beings.

The follow-up, The Year of the Flood (2009), recounts the same story from another perspective and also leads up to the charged encounter. The three people Jimmy sees are Amanda, previously of the God’s Gardeners, an eco-sect founded by Adam One and led by the street-wise Zeb, and her malevolent kidnappers who have raped and tortured her. As it turns out, two others are also watching the confrontation: Ren, Amanda’s best friend, and Toby, their erstwhile teacher at the God’s Gardeners, who have likewise survived the pandemic. They are the protagonists of The Year of the Flood.

Having loved the ingenious predecessors, I reread them before turning to the trilogy’s highly anticipated conclusion. The joy I got out of the rereading turned out to be the best part of the whole experience. MaddAddam aptly wraps up some of the loose ends of the other novels, but it far from delivers on their considerable promise.

How is the handful of remaining humans going to build up a new life from the ruins of the post-pandemic world where genetically spliced plant and animal species sprawl and roam free, dangerous pig-human hybrids among them? What role will women, previously mass exploited and brutalised, play in this newly-fledged society? What is their interaction with the naïve, peace-loving Crakers going to be like? How will Jimmy feature in the mix, especially since three of his ex-girlfriends are among the survivors, and two of them have been inadvertently raped and impregnated by the Crakers who still see Jimmy as their creator’s prophet? What will they all make of Crake’s brilliantly insane plan for humankind and their own involvement in its execution?

The potential conflicts appear ripe for the picking. But MaddAddam only skirts these issues. Instead, the novel focuses on the backstories of Zeb and Adam One, and the enfolding relationship between Toby and Zeb. The former dominate large chunks of the narrative and unnecessarily demystify two of the most intriguing characters of the trilogy. The latter descends into the ludicrous stuff that soap operas are made of.

The mutations the main characters undergo in MaddAddam are baffling. Top-notch scientists, hackers and revolutionaries turn into bitchy fashionistas. The strictly vegetarian God’s Gardeners tuck into juicy steaks and crisp bacon. The tough, mysterious Zeb transforms into a chauvinistic jerk – “beneath vulgar”, in the words of his brother. Most discouraging, the once resilient and wise Toby begins acting like a lovesick teenager. Jimmy is comatose for nearly the entire time and when he finally regains consciousness, most of his conflicted, poignant nature stays behind in the coma.

The tension and the emotional intelligence of the first two novels are irreparably compromised in MaddAddam. But not all is lost. Moments of dark humour, the homage to the power of storytelling, some twists in the inter-species relations, and above all Atwood’s powerful prose, provide some satisfaction. But compared to the first two incisive instalments of the trilogy which both ended with a bang, MaddAddam is a mere whimper.

First published in the Cape Times, 15 November 2013.

Book mark: Love Tastes Like Strawberries by Rosamund Haden

Book mark_Loves Tastes Like StrawberriesLove Tastes Like Strawberries opens with an obituary of the painter Ivor Woodall. After his death, his partner Tony organises an exhibition of Ivor’s most recent portraits. All members of Ivor’s Friday life drawing classes receive special invitations to the opening. In all the addressees the invitations trigger uncomfortable memories of events from a distant and more recent past. Haden reveals their stories through the perspectives of several of the class participants. The web of intrigue tightens, forcing the characters to confront what haunts them. Alternating between present-day Cape Town, Rwanda of the time of the genocide, and timeless Greece, the novel portrays the precarious ties which bind people to one another across decades. Haden’s prose is smooth and lyrical, carrying the reader along. She explores seemingly insignificant incidents and gestures that can have far-reaching consequences for those involved, and conveys startling insights about loss, grief, and longing.

Love Tastes Like Strawberries
by Rosamund Haden
Kwela, 2014

An edited version of this book mark appeared in the Cape Times on 22 August 2014, p. 10.

Review
After her highly acclaimed debut The Tin Church a decade ago, Rosamund Haden returns with her second novel for adult audiences, Love Tastes Like Strawberries, which opens with an obituary. When the painter Ivor Woodall dies, his partner Tony Fox organises an exhibition of Woodall’s most recent portraits and extends a special invitation to the opening to all members of Woodall’s Friday life drawing classes.

As the invitations reach the individual artists whom Woodall had taught, each triggers uncomfortable memories of events from the distant or more recent past. The sisters Françoise and Dudu, Rwandan refugees, return to Cape Town to find their feet again after Dudu’s reckless act of stealing a car. It is Françoise’s portrait that features on the exhibition invites. Françoise is hoping to reunite with Timothy, a book seller and writer of obituaries. But Timothy seems to be missing. His friend Stella is also searching for him. She needs to reconcile with the events of a Greek summer holiday long past and the tragic death of her mother. When her mother drives over the edge of an abyss, Stella inherits her house and with it many haunting reminders of the holiday when they both fell under the spell of a promising young artist. Now in her early thirties Stella falls again, for Luke: “there’s something about him that’s so magnetic, so addictive. He should have a warning attached to him,” Jude, one of Luke’s many lovers, warns Stella. But Stella’s reasons for wanting to seduce Luke are complicated: she desires not only him, but also revenge. And Jude, perhaps the most talented of them all, has her own plan how to steal everyone’s show.

All of them have different reasons for attending Ivor Woodall’s classes. The meetings and ensuing parties gradually reveal the undercurrents of all the relationships Ivor’s students spin around their small circle until the web of intrigue and hidden agendas becomes too suffocating for some to bear and comes to a startling conclusion.

Alternating between present-day Cape Town, Rwanda of the time of the genocide, and timeless beaches of Greece, Love Tastes Like Strawberries explores the ties which bind people to one another across decades.

Haden’s prose is smooth and lyrical, it carries you along. Her characters are believable, even if theirs are very different to one’s own experiences. She explores the small, seemingly insignificant, incidents and gestures in life that can have far-reaching consequences for those implicated. There were times where I felt the narrative did not explore those moments deeply enough, and yet Haden manages to convey many unsettling insights about the way we deal with loss, grief, longing, and “foolishness that is painful”.

Review: Garden of Dreams by Melissa Siebert

garden-of-dreams-coverMelissa Siebert’s debut novel Garden of Dreams is the story of Eli de Villiers, a teenage wannabe rocker from Cape Town who travels to India with his mom Margo, a journalist. They explore the country on their way to Kathmandu, Nepal, where Eli is to visit his estranged father Anton, a world-renowned peacemaker. During their stay in Jaisalmer on the edge of the Thar Desert, Margo suddenly decides to abandon her son in the middle of the night to pursue a story on witchcraft allegations back home in Limpopo. She asks Badresh, the manager of the guesthouse where they are staying, to ensure that Eli is taken to the airport in Delhi to continue his journey north safely on his own. Margo’s staggeringly reckless decision (Eli is not even fourteen!) and blind trust in a complete stranger sends her son on a trip through the hell of child trafficking. He is kidnapped and taken to a brothel in the red-light district of Delhi, where he lands in the clutches of the vile Auntie Lakshmi, a lowlife criminal who develops a highly disturbing fascination with Eli. In the brothel Eli befriends some of the other children who are being drugged and raped for profit…

Continue reading: LitNet.

Book mark: Divided Lives – Dreams of a Mother and Daughter by Lyndall Gordon

Divided Lives_book markDivided LivesWith their profound insight and stylistic elegance Lyndall Gordon’s biographies of such renowned authors as Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, or Emily Dickinson have been enriching the biographical genre for decades. She is also the author of one previous memoir, Shared Lives (1992), chronicling the fates of three women she grew up with. In Divided Lives, Gordon shines a light on another unique woman in her life, her mother, and their remarkable bond which shaped both their lives. From early on, Gordon was invited to be her mother’s confidant, to take part in her inner world of literary pursuits and hidden passions. More of a sister or a close friend than a daughter, Gordon witnessed her mother’s struggles with illness, lack of opportunities and recognition. All the while she continued the search for her own voice, trying to navigate the path through the wonders and challenges of childhood and womanhood.

Divided Lives: Dreams of a Mother and Daughter
by Lyndall Gordon
Virago, 2014

An edited version of this book mark was published in the Cape Times on 15 August 2014. My full-length review of this title is to follow soon.

Feeling glamorous

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I don’t like shopping, especially for clothes & shoes. For special occasions, I still wear the dress I bought for my first high school reunion in 1997. I still wear the red shoes I bought at university, patches, tears, new soles & all (the other day I found the picture I drew of them in my diary at the time of the first fit…). I don’t wear make-up. I go to the hairdresser once a year. The last time I dressed up, had my hair put up, and asked a friend’s sister, a make-up artist, to do my face, it was for the M-Net Literary Awards dinner in 2011. I was a judge for the English category and wanted to celebrate the evening (Ivan Vladislavić’s remarkable Double Negative won).

INSIGYesterday, I had coffee with my lovely editor, Danél Hanekom, and we discussed my next novel. We also spoke about girly stuff like rugby. Awards dinners were mentioned. I remembered the M-Net evening, and how people approached my husband asking where I was while I was standing right next to him. Nobody seemed to recognise me all made up. I also recalled the day when Erns Grundling, Antonia Steyn, and an entire team of make-up artists, hairdressers, and assistants descended on our house to interview André and me for Insig a few months after our wedding in 2006. They took three hours to make me look the way I did in the photographs. I wore red lipstick! Next day, my back was sore from sitting up on a make-up chair for those three hours. When during a break I went to the bathroom, I looked up from the sink and got a fright – I did not recognise the face in the mirror.
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After meeting Danél, I passed a boutique on the way to my car. On a whim, I went in and looked at all the long dresses they had. There was one that, like my red shoes so many years ago, had my name on it. They had my size. The silk felt like heaven on my skin. I haven’t been sleeping well lately and I have lost some weight, so my poor figure and pale face looked tired in the fitting room’s mirror, but with a dress like that flowing from my shoulders I had to smile, and I simply felt glamorous again. So I bought it. Now, all I need is an invitation to another awards dinner…
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Photographs by Antonia Steyn.

What I’ve learned about my brain in love

FogFor Women’s Day, my husband and I attended a special lecture-breakfast with Mark Solms at Solms Delta yesterday. We arrived in a dense fog, left bathed in sunshine. It wasn’t only the weather, but the illumination which came after the lecture entitled “The Brain In Love”.

Most of us know what love is. It’s individual and universal. The sum of all world literature is the grand story of love. Love is also science.

Scientifically speaking, it seems, there are five main observable components of love:
~ Bonding, forming attachments, pair-binding; it starts the moment you are born, first it’s the baby-carer bond which is naturally induced by opioids (love is a true addiction), then it develops into all the other attachments we form during our lifetimes; losing an attachment figure results in panic, ‘air-hunger’, withdrawal, which can shift into despair; then (if you are lucky) you let go and form other attachments.

Mark Solms with guests

Mark Solms with guests

~ Nurture and care, as opposed to the need of a child to bond; on average females (in all mammals) are more attached and caring than males.

~ Reward mechanism, also called the wanting mechanism, or the seeking system, or the basic appetite system, or optimism system – by whichever name it is dopamine-controlled; this is what makes us go out there into the world and seek fulfilment; it generates desire, doesn’t satisfy it.

~ Play, which is essential for survival; establishing the rules of engagement is crucial, it is all about finding boundaries; the 60-40% rule applies, which simply put means that none of us want to be submissive for more than 40% of the time, on average the 40% will apply to women, the 60% to men; if the 60-40% rule is upset, it usually ends in tears, fear, anger, or in the worst-case scenario in abuse.

~ Sex drive (obviously).

SunshineAll of us mammals engage in these activities. What makes humans unique is our developed pre-frontal lobe in relation to all emotional mechanisms. It is responsible for inhibition. This is our override mechanism. We can control our emotions. This is why we ‘don’t know our emotions as well as all other animals do…we are opaque to ourselves.’

Memorable quotes:
‘Love comes at you, it’s all about feeling…it’s not a cognitive business.’
‘Love matters to us.’
‘Love and randiness are not the same thing, but it comes into it.’
‘We scientists call it copulation – a simple matter.’

André's PHILIDA at the Solms-Delta Museum van de Caab

André’s PHILIDA at the Solms-Delta Museum van de Caab

‘No thinking happens during orgasm.’
‘You don’t have to give birth to your boyfriend to love him.’
‘Don’t overestimate the frontal lobes.’
On marriage: ‘I promise to be with you together forever even though I have a seeking system.’
On love: ‘It’s a complicated thing.’
(Don’t we know!)

The Day We Became Delta

(An edited version of the following article was published in the Sunday Independent on 9 November 2008; a bit of the background story to the post I want to write next.)

New lifeThey thought that he was just another white man come to make their lives miserable. The previous owner of the Zandvliet Delta farm filed for insolvency. The new one announced himself to the farm residents, wanting to meet every family individually. Nico Jansen, an outspoken member of the community, remembers his first encounter with Professor Mark Solms: “We were scared that he would want us off his land. But I knew we had to stand up for ourselves, because we belonged here.” He told Solms straight out, “You’re not going to kick us off!”

Mark Solms had no such intentions. Namibian-born, he emigrated in 1988 in search of better career opportunities. After having made a name for himself as a world-leading researcher into the brain mechanisms of dreaming, in 2002, he decided to follow his own dream of returning to Southern Africa. His late relative, Friedrich 4th Prince of Solms-Baruth, knew that Zandvliet Delta had been lost to creditors and recommended it. “He thought I would recognise the value of this place,” Solms recalls. “I came to look at the land after the great veld fires of that year. I remember the smoke-heavy air and the rustling of leaves when I walked around the farm. No decision had to be made; it was exactly the place I was looking for.”

The land in question, which became known as the Solms Delta, is situated in the Franschhoek Valley just off the R45 between Franschhoek and Paarl. The sheer beauty of the region and the quality of the wines produced here are world-famous. But Solms knew that settling and making wine in the area required a sensitivity to the historical burdens embedded in the local communities living in the Valley: “Very consciously, on a local scale I wanted to contribute to the transformation which was taking place in the country. I saw the farm as an opportunity. Only after getting here, I realised how challenging the whole project would be.”

Mark Solms was unprepared for the lack of enthusiasm and engagement he met with on the farm: “There seemed to be no common purpose or hope. The lethargy and depression were overwhelming.” For centuries people had lived here with strictly predetermined possibilities and would not think beyond them. He had to confront the “deeply uncomfortable role of a white farmer” which he suddenly personified. The attitude of most people on the farm was that, since he was the owner, they must be scared of him; or, if he does not live up to the role, then he can be taken advantage of. “We had to work around layers and layers of scar tissue,” he says. Moreover, he had to confront “the racism that exists in oneself”, and the tendency to transform while maintaining one’s own privileges.

Jansen was very sceptical about the plans Solms had for the Delta. “It was very difficult for us to believe in white people’s good intentions,” he remembers. But then Prof, as Jansen refers to Solms, took them by surprise. He met with all the families on the farm and addressed their fears directly. He also recognised Jansen’s leadership qualities and the young man became a facilitator between himself and the community: “He told me the reason he liked me was that I said what I thought, about him and the situation. It wasn’t a smooth path. There was a lot of mistrust on our part at first. But then Prof did two things that made people begin to respect him. He told us to work on our houses at the same time as we worked on his. Then he asked us what we were passionate about. Our answer was sports, especially rugby. So he had DSTV installed in all our homes.” These events were “attitude changing, real eye-openers,” Jansen recalls. “From the beginning Prof treated us as humans, and we decided to meet him halfway. Prof told us that he wanted to set right the things his people had done wrong. And I felt I could guide Prof’s dreams. I am proud of the fact that he didn’t break any of his promises.”

Shortly after his first visit to the Delta, Jansen telephoned Solms to tell him that the residents of the farm had organised “a prayer meeting to thank the Lord for sending them an owner they didn’t have to be scared of.” Solms knew that transformation would take time. Given human nature and the injustices of the past, “nobody can take your word for it in this place, sincerity has to be proven.” The changes have been gradual, but if he had to define the turning point, it would be the Bastille Day parade in Franschhoek last year. Tokyo Sexwale suggested using the festivities to celebrate, not the storming of the Bastille, but our local freedoms: the Huguenots’ freedom from religious persecution, freedom from slavery, Mandela’s freedom. The Solms Delta people created a unique float for the parade: a pyramid of wine boxes, each representing an inhabitant of the farm. They walked with the float, wearing t-shirts with their hands imprints on them in the colours of the South African flag, making music and waving to the crowds. It was “nation building on a small scale,” Solms remembers, “That day we were one, we were Delta, all of us.” The farm workers suddenly felt that a commercial event for the elites had turned into a festival in which there was a place for them. And to crown their achievement, they were awarded the prize for the best float. The feeling of belonging made Solms realise that they had “genuinely transformed the farm, in structure and feeling.”

In 2005, the Solms family established the Wijn de Caab Trust to benefit all the historically disadvantaged residents of the farm and other employees of the Solms-Delta wine company. In due course, Mark Solms convinced a dear friend from Britain, Richard Astor, to buy an adjacent farm, Lubeck Delta, and the Trust was restructured in the process. With the help of loan funding secured by the Solms and Astor families, the Trust purchased a third adjoining farm, Deltameer. The three linked properties now became equal partners in a common enterprise.

Alex van Heerden with Richard Astor and the Gramadoelas

Alex van Heerden with Richard Astor and the Gramadoelas

Richard Astor first visited his friend on Solms Delta in 2003. He returned several times and the beauty of the place grew on him, but he never considered settling here. In 2005, because of personal misfortune he needed a change and that was when Mark Solms suggested he buy the adjoining farm: “Mark managed to communicate his passion to me. I have been looking for a cause I could get involved in and it was suddenly easy to see the opportunities to make a difference here.” There was only one obstacle: “I love wine, but I can’t take it seriously; I don’t have the palate or Mark’s passion for it. He sees wine as an art form. I told him that the one art form I can be passionate about is music.”

The idea for the annual Oesfees (Harvest Festival) was born. Celebrated for the first time in April this year, it was an enormous success. Farm workers from the entire area were invited to participate in the festivities, involving traditional music, local food and wines. Richard Astor, a cornet player, performed on stage with the likes of David Kramer and the Delta Optel Band, consisting of Solms Delta residents and led by the young Cape music enthusiast, Alex van Heerden.

Farm youth dancing

Farm youth dancing

“Alex fitted perfectly into the project. He brings music out of people,” Astor says in admiration. Employed by the Delta Trust (established by Astor), van Heerden can now pursue a lifelong passion: “I have always wanted to uncover the common musical heritage we Afrikaans-speaking people share in this area.” In the mid-1990s van Heerden founded the “Gramadoelas” band and began his field research work in the rural areas of the Cape to get material for them. The project was not financially viable; nobody was ever interested in getting properly involved. Coming to work for the Trust has been a dream come true for van Heerden. Forty people are now directly involved in the music projects on the farm. Two bands, the Delta Optel and a brass band, meet regularly for practice. Van Heerden and historian Tracey Randle are collecting materials for a music heritage centre which is to open on the farm in 2010. Van Heerden is also in charge of the Saturday evening concerts which will begin in December. “I feel healed by making music with my people,” he says, clearly moved, “There is a feeling of unconditional sharing involved.”

Mark Solms with David Kramer

Mark Solms with David Kramer

Richard Astor knows that “all these great people on the farm can’t be a coincidence.” He says of his friend, “Mark brings out the best in people in a realistic way. He builds confidence and helps people realise their potentials.” The pool of talented individuals involved in the Solms Delta projects attests to this.

Cathy Macfarlane began as administrator at the farm in March 2007. A former teacher with no experience in administration, equipped only with vast enthusiasm, she swiftly adapted: “Working here has been an adventure. It’s tough at times, but I love my job.” As Solms Delta’s administrator, she coordinates all the entities on the farm, interviews new staff members (mostly appointed internally), and until recently was responsible for the certification of wine. Her latest projects are a fynbos reserve and “Fyndraai”, a restaurant which from December onwards will delight farm visitors with traditional Khoi cuisine based on the dedicated research of food scientist Renata Coetzee.

Tracey Randle was fresh out of university when she came to work at the farm in 2004. Finding vast amounts of artefacts during the renovations of Delta, Solms had an idea for a museum on the farm and employed Randle to direct it. A passionate historian, she shares his vision on how history can be told in a multitude of voices, an idea inspired by André Brink’s novel A Chain of Voices. In 2005, Brink was invited to open the Museum van de Caab which became one of the most sought after tourist attractions of the region. The Museum is unique in that it seeks to present history from individual perspectives of all the people who have ever lived, worked and died on the farm. There is no attribution of blame, just a display of the resilience of the human spirit.

In 2004, Medwin Pietersen and Johan O’Rayn came to work at the Delta as security guards, but both had a passion for history, which they have been given the opportunity to develop at the Museum and by completing heritage management courses. Later this month they will be travelling abroad for the first time in their lives on an exchange program to Sweden: “We’ll be visiting museums and schools in Malmö and learning how best to teach children about history, heritage and culture at school,” says Pietersen.

At home, Pietersen’s wife is one of the teachers involved in supervising the farm children in their after-school activities. The after school is an initiative coordinated by Frances Semmelink, a social worker employed by the Wijn de Caab Trust to represent all its beneficiaries. She began working for the Solms family as an au-pair while studying social work at the University of Stellenbosch. Recognising her potential, Mark Solms invited her to invest her skills in helping the Delta community after she completed her degree. Her focus is education: “It’s crucial that we break the cycle of poverty and dependency, so that children can move on if they wish to in the future.” By providing financial assistance for education on all levels, private health care and encouraging independent home ownership, the Trust aims at broadening the horizons for its beneficiaries. Semmelink coordinates various other projects, including all sports activities on the farm: a rugby team coached by the cellar manager, Fanie Karolus, a young basketball team led by a noted American player, Kyle Ray, and a walking team participating this month in the Big Walk in Cape Town. Semmelink knows that one has to remain “realistic about change, it’s a slow process,” but people see that it is real and that they are truly making a difference. “There is still drinking and domestic violence, but it’s on the decrease. The community realises that they have the power to control and stop things. They recognise their responsibility.” She adds with a confident smile, “People are happy.”

Even though he swore early on in life that he would never work on a farm, today Nico Jansen is the estate manager of Solms Delta. “Before, I used to work for a construction firm. I never believed in farming because it had broken my people, but now I love it.” He is proud of all the achievements on the farm. “People started taking care of themselves, they drink less. They feel that they can uplift themselves and restore their dignity,” he says. “Every week people come to me asking for work here, and it’s not about money. It’s about the respect and equality we all share here.”

The cycle of fatalism has been broken. People on Solms Delta know they are the masters of their future and that their fates are interlinked. “If you can transform one farm, why not a valley or a province?” asks Solms. What is he happiest with? Being greeted with a smile by every person on the farm and hearing the spontaneous eruptions of music on his daily walks. He explains, “Music is a genuine expression of pleasure and cultural participation.”

As I leave Solms Delta inspired by these stories, the voices of all the people fuse into the words of Theresé Willemse, a young woman working at the Museum van de Caab: “We are a whole big family here.”

When shit happens…

Piran przypadek…Read and write, choose your stories wisely
…Wandering exhausted in your dreams aim for the doors of friends in Woodstock (thank you, Verushka)
…Listen to Lana del Rey and put on a red dress tonight
…Walk along the sea, not into it
…Eat rare steaks for breakfast
…Chocolate is the answer
…Remember Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson who never had alcohol, but sipped champagne daily
…Acknowledge your dark places
…Embrace the beyondness of beyond, the loveliness of lovely, and the wonder of wonderful
…Hug a hot water bottle
…Talk to cats, they know everything
…Cast your hair
…Be kind
…Believe in miracles
…Love deeper