Monthly Archives: February 2018

Review: The First Law of Sadness by Nick Mulgrew

first-law-of-sadness_nick-mulgrewThe short story continues to fascinate me for two reasons: the precision of thought and execution it attracts as well as its unpredictability. If well done, it can surprise and satisfy like nothing else in literature. And Nick Mulgrew does the genre justice like few other contemporary South African writers. His work has been recognised with multiple awards and his vision and skill have been highly acclaimed by critics. Mulgrew is also an editor and the director of the flourishing poetry press, uHlanga, which published his debut poetry volume, the myth of this is that we’re all in this together, in 2015. In his many impressive literary incarnations, Mulgrew understands that short art forms require meticulous attention to language. He knows how to make words count.

Mulgrew’s debut collection of stories, Stations (2016), was a stunning accomplishment. His latest, The First Law of Sadness, expands on the predecessor’s sound foundations and takes us to the heart of sorrow: “There is the universe, I have come to know, and it is full of pain. This pain can neither be created nor destroyed: only transferred. For every pain healed in someone, a new one is felt in another.” This is the titular “first law of sadness”. Sadness in these pensive and beautifully crafted short stories comes in many guises, manifesting as loss, loneliness, melancholy or anguish. Each piece is accompanied by a colour photograph from the series “Robot Run” by Michael Tymbios, a Cape Town-based graphic designer. The images add a soulful dimension to the narrations.

The First Law of Sadness opens with a thought-provoking, and unsettling, epigraph by Genna Gardini: “Horror’s not the seedling. It’s the pot.” It is followed by an eerie prose passage in italics which includes this paragraph: “Your body, face-down. Ripples from the skin. Buoy at the edge of the world. Your body, it turns. Blue face, neoprene. A smile of teeth, beckoning. A hand of fingers, divining.

Then a photograph and the title “Anew” announce the first story in the collection. The image is of skid marks on a road heading into an overpass tunnel on a clear, sunny day. Human presence is implied by its absence. There is a suspicion that despite appearances, something is out of control, that the calm of the surroundings is only an illusion. You never know what will shift a straightforward situation into a different gear or what will be needed to survive. The opening lines of “Anew” confirm the sense of instability and passing, setting the tone for the entire book: “Like water, it evaporates. Some small memory, in the sitting room, with the green damask carpet, the Lladros a silent audience. Sifting pictures on the floor, captured light, un-mounting paintings from the wall-paper. Last week’s newspaper, bubble wrap, boxes in the ruin. Strange how there is no memory now of what was living, but only the cleaning, the division of spoils.”

The First Law of Sadness includes ten other short stories, each introduced with a striking photograph by Tymbios. The images, ranging from an empty petrol station at night to a flower arrangement on display next to a car seem mundane at first glance, but closely observed, they can reveal moving stories in their own right and enrich the eerie atmosphere of the collection.

In “For Sale: Set of Secondhand Imported Momo Mags for Toyota Corolla (Mint Condition), Bargain”, an online sales ad for the item described in the title tells the tale of heart-breaking loss, reminiscent of the famous six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

“Ever Elizabeth” captures the moment of return to a place of one’s past, when anything but escape felt like a trap. Elizabeth comes back to Port Elizabeth where, from the moment she lands at the airport, everything feels out of joint: “Everything built for a future that never became a present. An international airport with flights only as far as Johannesburg. An arrivals hall with one rotating carousel. Unused custom booths, filing cabinets gathering the receipts of years.”

In “Bootlegger”, Yerodin Fermin, a foreign student at Rhodes, runs over a duiker on his way to Grahamstown while under the influence of drugs. He comes up with a wild idea what to do with the carcass of the animal. In “Rise of the Shogunate”, the narrator tries to deal with the challenges of his post-divorce life with an interest in Japanese aesthetics. An encounter with an albino turtle exposes a heart-breaking vulnerability in “The Turtle-keeper”. A dog is killed by a bird of prey in “Smaller”; the incident brings the pet owner’s ugly emotions to the surface. Unwillingly, a man becomes an internet porn sensation in the sinister “Patron”. The removal of a man’s tattoos tells his story in “Therapist”. Seeing the Springboks after their World Cup win, Kip’s life takes a new turn in “Jumper”. Help arrives in an unexpected form after a freak plane accident in “A Descent”.

The last image in the book is of a dark ash-grey gargoyle statue with burning red eyes. But the gargoyle is not perched on a building as usual and is unable to fulfil its traditional architectural function (to convey water away from the structure it aims to protect). It just sits there panting on the ground in front of a dull brick wall. Another creature seems to be attached to the wall behind it, but it is impossible to discern what it is, as only a part of a curled tail is visible at the top of the picture. I wasn’t sure whether the image is meant to go along with the photographer’s biographical note on the next page, or whether it is a visual comment on the proceeding texts. If the latter, it is a brilliant conclusion to the collection: a displaced gargoyle and an unidentified tail are the perfect symbols for a book of stories in which everything and everyone seem lost in one way or another.

The First Law of Sadness

by Nick Mulgrew

David Philip, 2017

Review first published in the Cape Times on 23 February 2018.

Review: The Mother of All Questions – Further Feminisms by Rebecca Solnit

The Mother of All QuestionsIt was by pure chance that I discovered a recent online essay by Rebecca Solnit in which she was writing about women, art, motherhood and selfishness. As a creative woman who chose not to have children, I found it most affirming. After some research about the author, I could not believe that I had never encountered Solnit’s work before. But fortunately, the article led me to her impressive oeuvre and the latest piercing collection of essays, The Mother of All Questions: Further Feminisms. In the introduction, Solnit mentions “the rapid social changes of a revitalized feminist movement” and how it is “changing our understanding of consent, power, rights, gender, voice, and representation.” She speaks of the movement as being “gorgeously transformative”.

This book was published before the #MeToo Campaign and its momentous recognition of the inequalities and abuse women, bafflingly and unforgivingly, still face today – everywhere and at all times. But Solnit’s collection, divided into two parts (“Silence is broken” and “Breaking the story”), seems prophetic in her anticipation of such a quantum leap in understanding the crisis. She writes that “when words break through unspeakability, what was tolerated by a society sometimes becomes intolerable.” How we proceed from there is essential: “A free person tells her own story. A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place.”

The Mother of All Questions “is a tour through carnage,” she writes, “a celebration of liberation and solidarity, insight and empathy, and an investigation of the terms and tools with which we might explore all these things.” In her essays, Solnit examines what it means to be a woman in relationship to our biology as well as to creative and intellectual pursuits. She looks at the history of silence and its dehumanising and exclusionary effects on women’s lives. Solnit stresses the importance of empathy as “a narrative we tell ourselves to make other people real to us, to feel for and with them, and thereby to extend and enlarge and open ourselves.” She explores the roles shame, language, violence and power play in the making of our lives. We need to imagine, articulate and work towards more favourable realities and opportunities than patriarchy offers: “there can be, must be, something better.” Art is a vital tool in this creation.

Above all, Solnit looks at the question most of us seek to answer: how to live a meaningful life? The reply will be highly individual for every person, but it is crucial to consider “addressing our own suffering while learning not to inflict it on others” as “part of the work we’re all here to do. So is love, which comes in so many forms and can be directed at so many things.”

What I love most about Solnit’s feminism is that it is encompassing and not alienating. She makes sure that we can all feel comfortable embracing her ideas. Accessible, wise and beautifully tender, The Mother of All Questions is a brilliant companion to our times.

The Mother of All Questions: Further Feminisms

by Rebecca Solnit

Granta, 2017

Review first published in the Cape Times on 16 February 2018.

Review: Knucklebone by NR Brodie

KnuckleboneA house robbery “gone bad” is sadly not an uncommon occurrence in South Africa, in reality or in fiction. The one with which NR Brodie’s debut thriller Knucklebone opens seems routine enough: two young men try to break into a home in Johannesburg; one escapes but is eventually caught, the other one is shot dead by the owner. But here, nothing is at it appears.

Old colleagues, Ian Jack and Reshma Patel, meet on the scene of the crime. Ian is a former police officer who now lectures at the university and is present because he’d accompanied the armed response team on their call for his research. Reshma is investigating the case.

It all looks simple in the beginning, but then there is something unusual about the shot wound of the victim, and the strangely unperturbed woman who killed him is definitely not who she claims to be. Born in Romania, Eva Lecca runs a thriving enterprise as a taxidermist, but it soon transpires that she has lethal secrets to hide. Did she fire her gun in self-defence or did she have a completely different motive? “Eva stepped closer to him, her shadow making a grotesque short shape against the wall. Ian pressed his back against the brick, trapped between the building and the woman. His mouth was dry. He couldn’t understand why, but every nerve in his body screamed danger.”

When unexpectedly the apprehended robber, Njabulo, has a diabetic fit in the interrogation room, collapses and ends up in a hospital, things go from strange to otherworldly and then to outright scary. It becomes clear that there are other thieves involved who deal not only in house break-ins, but also animal poaching and trafficking. Soul kidnappings or demon possessions are also not beyond them.

A monkey’s paw leads Ian and Reshma to a much more gruesome find in a hidden warehouse. A collection of one-cent copper coins are found during an autopsy. Demons are on the loose. And a friend goes mysteriously missing. Reshma and Ian do not really know what or who they are dealing with and they have to keep their minds open to face the eerie challenges of this case. They seek the help of a sangoma and a coven of witches to understand and survive the forces they are trying to bring to justice.

Ian has a personal history with Reshma and encountering her again brings back memories of their failure at a relationship while they were still working together in the past. His hope for another chance is rekindled when she responds positively to his invitation to dinner, but is her returned interest real or is she under the influence of some sinister power?

Knucklebone is set in an African metropolis where people from all over the world live and practice their rich and intriguing beliefs. Brodie brings them seamlessly into the story. Reshma finds out about a “Witchcraft Indaba” – “Africa’s first multi-national conference dedicated to sharing knowledge and information about magickal [referring to real magick] practices around the continent!” – and gets in touch with the organisers to help her solve the uncanny puzzle of her case. Ian does not know what to believe when he witnesses an exorcism – which is one of the best scenes of the novel, Brodie’s descriptions making you want to scream and run and simultaneously keep you glued to the page:

“Njabulo arched his neck, his mouth falling open in a wide grimace. He started breathing harder, his breath coming in laboured pants. His features were so swollen that it was hard to make out any expression on his face.

“Ian was about to ask if he should get help when he saw something.

“A fingertip emerged from the inside of the boy’s mouth.

“Then it was joined by another, waving from the cavity between his teeth. The two fingers, edged with blackened nails, curled around the outside of Njabulo’s lips.”

When Ian questions what he saw, the sangoma performing the ritual, MaRejoice, tells him: “Everything is real, Mr Jack. It all depends on what you want to see”. I don’t believe in witchcraft, but I find the way Brodie writes about it and weaves it into her storyline fascinating and wonderfully convincing. You see magic or spiritual and religious practices at work through the eyes of her characters and even though you might not think any of it possible, it seems quite real in the most ordinary way within the context of the narrative. While reading, I often found myself thinking of The X-Files UFO poster displayed in Agent Mulder’s office, stating: “I want to believe.”

Brodie is an established journalist and the author of five successful non-fiction books, among them one about the Mother City and one about Joburg – its history, places of interest and people. It is thus no surprise that the Joburg of Knucklebone is as vividly portrayed as its striking characters: “The eastern part of town had once been the heart of the city’s garment district. Now it was a mix of semi-abandoned industrial buildings and offices as it bled from City and Suburban into Jeppestown and Troyeville. The noise from the highway rumbled down through concrete, to where the traditional Mai Mai market carried on its business just a few blocks away from the new hipster cool of the Maboneng precinct.”

Brodie’s crisp writing, her short chapters which often end in nail-biting cliff hangers and a great plotline drive the narrative along. She brings all its strands together in a stunning magical finale which I found highly satisfying.

This is Brodie’s first foray into the thriller genre. Her take on it is very refreshing. I don’t read thrillers often, and I am usually not too keen on fantasy either, but I found Knucklebone’s pace and imaginative prowess invigorating and could not put the book down. A sequel is something to be wished for.


by NR Brodie

Macmillan, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 16 February 2018.



Home is…

Going home with SAAI have been away.

It wasn’t easy – nothing that takes three years to do is – but I finally made it: I got on a flight to Europe and came back.

The last time I was in Europe, I was married and my world seemed like a safe place. During our return flight on 6 February 2015, my husband André passed away while we were flying over Brazzaville. And I became a widow. The memories of that day have haunted my attempts at flying for the past three years. I have managed – with more or less success – a few short local flights, but all attempts at the Big One had failed until now.

In my mother's kitchenThe occasion for trying to fly long distance again was of high importance: Miś, aka our mother, was celebrating her 70th birthday this month and all she wished for was to have both her children in the same room. For most mothers this is no problem whatsoever, but for our mother – with me living in South Africa and my brother’s itchy feet – the two of us in one room is a rare occurrence. She lives in Austria. The last time she was in the same room with both her children was in Cape Town three years ago when she was here to take care of me after André’s death. But she couldn’t stay here forever.

Miś bought a new house in Upper Austria almost two years ago, but until this month, I only saw it in photographs. I keep in touch via Skype and letters, but that precious thing – one another’s company – seemed impossible for such a long time because I feared getting on a plane for twelve hours. Before that fateful day in the beginning of 2015, I used to visit regularly, three or four times a year…

A kind travel agent in Cape Town explored all the possible routes for me and we settled on one which felt safest: Cape Town – Johannesburg – Munich. My family lives nearby, next to the border between Bavaria and Upper Austria. I wanted the long leg of the trip to take me directly to Miś, so that no matter what happened during the flight, I would land in her waiting arms, in her new home, where she sits every day at the table which used to stand in my kitchen when I still lived in Austria.

Hiking with KrystianAnd now, finally, we sat there all together as a family and ate the traditional Sacher Torte and celebrated Miś’s 70th birthday for an entire week. It snowed. There was water. And my favourite beer, Uttendorfer. To welcome me, Miś prepared the special dish I always ask for when I visit. We spent a few days around her birthday – one of them was the anniversary of André’s death – in Bad Ischl. Thermal springs, a hike on the Katrin, the Zauner restaurant, and the ghosts of the imperial past lingering everywhere. The birthday dinner was a Hauben-delight.

Mom and Krystian

We lit a candle for André and remembered.

Mattig in winterDuring my visit, I had lots of coffee with Miś who is solely responsible for my addiction; had long chats with Krystian sitting next to him and not in front of a computer screen; saw old friends and knew exactly why they have always been so dear; in my mother’s attic, found the small green fork I used to eat with as a child; walked along my beloved Mattig; spoke German; sat quietly in my mother’s guest bed in the mornings when everyone else was still asleep and read Rehana Rossouw’s latest novel, New Times, set in Cape Town, in preparation for my interview with the author in March at the Woordfees in Stellenbosch. And no matter how glad I was to be back, to be able to celebrate this very special occasion with our mother, to have flown to Europe again, I knew two things. The first was that, most likely, my life would have been good and meaningful if I had never met André and moved to Cape Town to be with him, but it would have been nothing in comparison to what it became with him. The second was that even if he was no longer alive, I understood and felt – unequivocally – where I belonged, where my home was: in Cape Town.


Review: The White Book by Han Kang

The White BookLike most readers across the world, I first became aware of the South Korean writer Han Kang when she won the Man Booker International Prize two years ago for her phenomenal novel, The Vegetarian. It was recommended to me by a friend who bought it because of the award. Since then, I have read Han’s other works translated into English: the harrowing Human Acts and her latest, The White Book.

The Vegetarian tells the story of a woman who, after years of obedience to repressive societal norms and expectations, decides to defy them by first becoming a vegetarian and then insisting on her complete independence to become who she wants to be. She undergoes a haunting, intimate transformation, and in the end, demands her right to make the ultimate choice – how and whether to live or to die. It is an astounding portrayal of a woman’s emancipation and its possible consequences. The main character is South Korean, but the power of her story lies in the fact that most women can identify with her.

Human Acts, although it focuses on a specific historic event (a brutally supressed student uprising which took place in South Korea in 1980) is just as universal. Told from the perspective of a few people affected by the horrific violence, it narrates a story of suffering and survival. Its descriptions of the massacre made me think a lot about the brilliant English title (which is different to the original, translating directly as The Boy Is Coming) and how the words ‘human’ and ‘inhuman’ can be misleading.

In comparison to her previous novels, the recent The White Book concentrates on another intensely personal story which hints at grand historical narratives of death and destruction, as well as renewal. The book opens with a list of white things, ranging from swaddling bands to a shroud. The narrator writes them down in the hope that the process “would be transformative, would itself transform, into something like white ointment applied to a swelling, like gauze laid over a wound. Something I needed.” At the centre of the story is loss. As she moves to a new home in a country she’s never visited before, the narrator recalls her older sister’s death: “My mother’s first child died, I was told, less than two hours into life.” She understands that she was born and grew up “in the place of that death.” Thinking about this fate, she wanders the streets of her new home which had been nearly wiped out of existence by Hitler’s military campaigns and rebuilt after the war. She realises that nothing in the city “existed for more than seventy years”. Everything had been “faithfully reconstructed” and stands on the ghostly remains of the past. When the narrator compares herself to the city, the personal becomes universal in a passage which gave me goose bumps when I first read it: “A person who had met the same fate as that city. Who had at one time died or been destroyed. Who had painstakingly rebuilt themselves on a foundation of fire-scoured ruins. Who was therefore something new. Who, some broken pediment having survived, has ended up bearing a strange pattern, the new distinct from the old.”

There is a story about a man who believed that the soul of his brother, who died very young in a Jewish ghetto, lived inside his own and communicated with him. The narrator contemplates whether her own sister might have “sought her out” in a similar way, but having been only an infant when she died, the little one had no knowledge of language: “That some vague sensation I had known as a child, some stirring of seemingly unprompted emotion, might, unbeknown to me, have been coming from her. For there are moments, lying in the darkened room, when the chill in the air is a palpable presence… Turned towards indecipherable sounds laden with love and anguish. Towards a pale blur and body heat. Perhaps I too have opened my eyes in the darkness, as she did, and gazed out.”

Han’s exquisite words look fragile and small on the pure white pages of The White Book. They are accompanied by black and white photographs and film stills by Choi Jinhyuk. Together they evoke feelings of pristine melancholy. I was particularly touched by the series of images of a white pebble. In one of the photographs, the pebble is covered in salt and lies in the palm of a hand. In another, it is being washed tenderly in a bowl of water. The third image is a close up of the rinsed pebble. The narrator considers the phrase “to pour salt on a wound” and makes us wonder what happens when wounds come in contact with the “white things” of her list, when the narrative itself is a cleansing process. There is pain and healing in reflection.

In interviews, Han confirms that the book is autobiographical; her parents lost a daughter, and Han was born soon after. We have an identical, uncanny story in our family: my father was born on the exact day of the first anniversary of his elder brother’s death. The fact always haunted my imagination, but that is by far not the only reason why Han’s confrontation with her parents’ grief and her own, the sense of loss and the miracle of revival in The White Book strike such a deep note in my own soul. Mourning is as much an individual as it is a communal process, and both aspects of it are of great importance to our perception of who we are as people and nations. Han’s narrator reminds us “of certain incidents in her own country’s history, the country she had left in order to come here, of the dead that had been insufficiently mourned.”

It is seldom that a text reads so flawlessly that it brings tears to my eyes. I was moved by the perfect construction of the novel and the seeming ease with which it is executed. Han’s translator, Deborah Smith, has been accused of not being faithful enough to the originals, but she works closely with the author and has her approval. I cannot compare the two versions myself, but I delight in Smith’s interpretation of Han’s prose. And the contents of Han’s books feed my imagination and mind like few other contemporary authors. The White Book is sublime. I look forward to rereading it before the next title by this remarkable author is available in English.

The White Book

by Han Kang

Portobello Books, 2017

Review first published in the Cape Times on 9 February 2018.

Review: Tell Me How It Ends – An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

Tell Me How It Ends“The true character of a society is revealed in how it treats its children.” Nelson Mandela’s famous words echo the understanding that we can be judged by the way we treat the most vulnerable members of our communities, whether these are children, the elderly or the differently abled. Reading Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, we are reminded how we fail to protect those who need our care. The story she outlines is set across the two Americas, but it resonates with so many other tales across all continents where displaced people are escaping horror or looking for decent opportunities to build their lives.

As a volunteering translator at the federal immigration court in New York City, Luiselli has witnessed and given voice to some of the most terrifying stories about unaccompanied migrant children coming from Mexico and many countries south of its border into the United States, seeking refuge. She recounts only a few of these heart-breaking cases in her book. The questions of the subtitle are the ones asked of the children when they are apprehended and handed over to officials. The main question of the title is asked by one of Luiselli’s own children: her daughter wants to know how the story of the migrating children ends. There is no easy answer.

“The whole thing is a mess,” Luiselli writes, “a puzzle impossible to piece together using common sense and logic. But this much is clear: until all the governments involved – the American, Mexican, Salvadoran, Honduran, and Guatemalan governments, at least – acknowledge their shared accountability in the roots and causes of the children’s exodus, solutions to the crisis will be impossible.” We are speaking about thousands upon thousands of children making their way across the borders to either be reunited with the families already living in the US, or searching for ways out of impossible conditions at home, or both. They are running from poverty, abuse, trafficking, gangs, or military conflicts. Their perilous journeys often end in tragedy, and miraculously arriving in the US is often only the beginning of another ordeal which under the current Trump administration will see them most likely deported again.

Luiselli describes the challenges the children face, often despairing at her own inability to assist in more productive ways. But she points out that “perhaps the only way to grant any justice – were that even possible – is by hearing and recording these stories over and over again so that they come back, always, to haunt and shame us. Because being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable. Because we cannot allow ourselves to go on normalizing horror and violence. Because we can all be held accountable if something happens under our noses and we don’t dare even look.”

Luiselli does not look away. Driven by “a combination of anger and clarity”, she allows the reader to share in her emotions and thoughts about one of the most distressing realities of our present.

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions

by Valeria Luiselli

4th Estate, 2017

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