Monthly Archives: February 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.

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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.

Bookmark: Bookshops by Jorge Carrión

bookshops-jorge-carrionThere are times when people proclaim either the death of reading, or the death of the book as a physical object, or the death of bookshops, and no matter how much sceptics try to kill off one of the most engaging and enriching human experiences, it prevails and with it does the book and its private and public homes: bookshops and libraries. As any passionate reader will verify, bookshops can be oases of literary bliss. Jorge Carrión travelled around the world to visit many of them and wrote a fervent reminder of why they matter: “Every bookshop is a condensed version of the world.” South African readers will delight in the mention of local authors and favourites places such as the Book Lounge: according to Carrión “the best bookshop in Cape Town”. Originally written in Spanish, Bookshops pays homage to literature and its practitioners, both writers and readers alike.

First published in the Cape Times, 17 February 2017.

Bookshops

by Jorge Carrión

Maclehose Press, 2016

Bookmark: How to Open the Door by Marike Beyers

cover-marike-beyers_how-to-open-the-door“Who would want to read them?” we are asked at the back of Marike Beyers’s poetry collection, How to Open the Door. The answer is as easy as it is true: “Anyone interested in the recent inflection of various Englishes and … inflections of the ‘soul’.” In deceptively simple words Beyers captures complex memories of family scenes and relationship dynamics, stretching across time and space. There is loss, tenderness and pain: “here I am all razor blades / and concrete rubble / all corners sharp”. She is just as aware of language as of silence: “but there you stood / your mouth of broken birds”. There are people who live “outside of words”, but not the poet; “is it all too simple / is home then / this standing // in an open door”, she asks, and invites us to follow into the space of her poetic vision.

How to Open the Door

by Marike Beyers

Modjaji, 2016

Bookmark first published in the Cape Time, 17 February 2017.

Review: Prunings by Helen Moffett

 

pruningsThe image on the cover of Prunings, Helen Moffett’s second collection of poetry, is an exquisite unfinished painting of a broom karee branch. The poems in the slim chapbook are similarly delicate and unusually fragmented. Together with her editor and founder of uHlanga Press, Nick Mulgrew, Moffett decided to display the editorial process of pruning the individual pieces, but also entire poems which were cut from the volume and yet are still included in square brackets with horizontal lines struck through them. It is work in progress on show. The final effect of this innovative collaboration is one of wonder. What is supposedly excluded is as powerful as what remains: [no. It’s a failure. / I keep on in the hope that one day / I’ll figure out how to write this.]

In an interview, Moffett revealed that unlike in many other poems, the “I” in this intimate collection is not an assumed persona, but the author herself. There are three clearly identifiable clusters of poems in Prunings, sometimes overlapping in theme: musings on travels, often to exotic or dream-like locations; poems of loss and longing; and those which centre on memory and witnessing. In Barbados, Moffett records: “Drinking coconut water in / a rum-shop in the north, / talking cricket, liming. / This happened. We were there.” Closer to home, we witness in Kleinmond in Summer “Wind gone to bed, / water streaked with snail-trails. / Fading mountains exhale, / letting go the heat of day.”

The format of Ex-lover is more telling than the couplet which makes up the poem: “It’s about time I wrote you a poem; / everyone else has one.” The touching Wisdom is dedicated to one of our greats, Antjie Krog, and opens with: “I’m inclined to trust her, / this woman with a child’s clear vision, / who points out the scabrous sores / on the Emperor’s bare bum, / and sees magic in unpropitious dust.” Moffett also has the gift of noticing both, the sores and the magic. Prunings is a fine embodiment of her poetic vision. It ends with my favourite line, echoing Antigone: “[hmm, no.]”

Review first published in the Cape Times, 10 February, 2017

 

Review: Holding My Breath by Ace Moloi

holding-my-breathHolding My Breath by Ace Moloi is a heart-wrenching, deeply inspirational grief memoir. Written in the form of a letter addressed to Moloi’s late mother, it tells his story before and after his mother’s death. He writes in the Prologue to the book: “I have decided to break the silence between us. I am starting this conversation to remind you of your younger son and to update you on my life.” Moloi points out that mourning is like learning a new language – “the language of living without you.” His mother died of an unexplained illness when he was thirteen and left him and his older brother to fend for themselves. Their father was absent when they were growing up. The boys had to rely on other family members for support. They encountered abandonment, hunger and despair as the divided family was mostly incapable of caring for them.

Moloi tries to hold on to the memory of his mother for guidance: “Through the power of your narratives, we were able to piece together the fragments of our history. You empowered us by interpreting events and people to provide a larger picture of who we were. And with every laugh, every remark, every shake of the head at your too-good-to-be-true stories, we forced the universe to take us seriously.”

Moloi is bright and talented, but without the support of a nurturing family for most of his young life, it takes an immense amount of strength and courage for him to get through school. He graduates in the top one hundred students of his province. Eventually he manages to enrol at university and with the help of a bursary completes his studies: “I fixed my concentration on defying my history by finishing school and going to university. I was tired of living with a false sense of family. I needed to work hard so I could start my own family, throw off the reigning curse and set a new generational trend.”

However, the cycles of rage and violence catch up with him. He unleashes his anger at those closest to him. In a moment of utter desolation, he attempts to take his life. His faith helps to anchor him, and he begins keeping a journal. As a student, he excels at a university newspaper and as a student leader. He tries to reconnect with his father, but realises that not having him in his life might have been a blessing in disguise.

Despite all the adversities he faced, Moloi continues making a name for himself as a communicator and writer. He wants a different future and understands the significance of his success not only for himself, but also for others facing similar hardships: “My village needed something to boast about. The kids playing in the dust needed a role model. Their fathers had abandoned them. Their fathers were drunkards who beat their mothers. They were orphans. Their families divided. They needed me to prove to them that it was possible to disobey history and break the curse of poverty and despair.”

Holding My Breath: A Memoir

by Ace Moloi

BlackBird Books, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times, 3 February 2017.