Category Archives: Memories

The Grandfather Clock

The Grandfather Clock

The clockmaker came out only at night. He arrived at the young widow’s house shortly after half-past eight. Books and remnants of a simple dinner lay across the table in the sitting room where the grandfather clock had been standing silent for a year. The woman pointed at the ancient instrument in the corner and folded her hands in front of her as if in prayer.

‘Sorry for your loss,’ he said.

‘Thank you.’

In the silence that followed, she could feel her heart galloping in her chest.

‘How long has it been now?’

‘A year, today.’

‘Ah. I’m sorry.’

They stood facing each other as time passed in slow motion.

‘So, what would you like me to do?’

She had summoned him earlier in the day, the explanation for the call vague. Something about an anniversary.

‘My husband had always taken care of it. It stopped when he died,’ she said.

‘So there’s nothing wrong with it? You just want me to get it going again?’

‘Yes.’ A prayer. ‘And please teach me how to keep it working.’

He nodded and opened his tool box, trying to concentrate on the task ahead instead of the woman beside him, tense like a coiled spring.

As the clockmaker set to work, she stepped back, watching from a distance. He asked about the key. She did not know what he meant, but eventually remembered the small black handle her husband had used to wind the clock. She was surprised how easy it was to keep the mechanism running.

‘It should be fine for a while,’ the man explained, turning the clock’s hands to the correct time, ‘but I’ll have to take it in for proper servicing soon.’

The clock chimed for the first time in a year. It took all her strength to keep her composure. Time stood still.

 

Before he left, she asked, ‘Tell me, do you think it’s true what they say, about your whole life flashing before you when you are about to die?’

‘I am not sure, dear,’ he said, reverting to the familiar address, not knowing how else to comfort the young woman.

He refused to take money from her. ‘Next time, when I service it properly,’ he said.

She thanked the clockmaker and gently closed the door after bidding him a good night. Alone, she leaned her head against the passage wall and cried.

The clock chimed nine. She counted the heartbeats and wiped the tears from her face with the back of her hand. She walked over to the grandfather clock. It towered above her in the silence of the night. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. The stories of a long-lost friend returning home. She listened to the soothing whispers of its hands telling her about the future. They reminded her of violin music announcing a new dawn.

 

 

One of our greats in the making: Alastair Bruce’s Boy on the Wire

Wall of DaysThe first one arrived in manuscript form for evaluation. I started reading it in bed in the morning and nearly didn’t get up until I was finished. The exhilaration of the encounter is still with me years later. I thought I was reading one of South Africa’s greats. Galgut or Coetzee came to mind – not a debut novelist.

My reader’s report glowed with praise. The novel was eventually published as Wall of Days (2010), locally and abroad, also in translation. The author turned out to be a young man from PE who moved to the UK. Last year, Alastair Bruce published his second novel, Boy on the Wire, and it is just as haunting as his first.

In the Prologue of Boy on the Wire, John Hyde walks cautiously through his childhood home in Port Elizabeth. In one of the rooms, he sees a man, “or he imagines he can see the man … He knows, too, he cannot touch him, cannot touch the lying man. If he even touched the tip of his fingers to the man’s forehead, it would all be over.” Nothing is “clear”. What is real, what is imagined? Everything hinges on the distinction. The confrontation with the “man who lied, who told the story, a wild, fanciful story, about the death of a child, a hard and unyielding story” is what the novel is about.

Boy on the WireThe narrative takes us back to a Sunday in the December of 1983 when John, his brothers Paul and Peter, and their parents travel to the mountains in the Karoo for a family holiday. But only four of them return home. And there are no real survivors. The tragedy literally plunges them all into an abyss.

Trauma disrupts time, memory and narrative. Storytelling can be one of the most efficient mechanisms of attempting to deal with it. In order to cope with the death of one his brothers, John tells a story. But his version of the events leading up to the tragedy has severe consequences for the family: “The death of a child – there’s no coming back from that.”

We encounter John again in his thirties. In his early twenties, he’d left his family and South Africa behind, making a clean break and emigrating. Alienated from his past, and from himself, he marries Rachel and makes a successful living in London. But one day he sees a figure outside his window which draws the illusions of his past into the fragile reality he has built around him, and he is forced to return to South Africa to confront the mystery of that fatal December day in the Karoo. But as Rachel will realise: “If you examine a mystery closely enough, for long enough, certainty will follow. Certainty, but not necessarily truth.”

Boy, Bruce can write! It is austere writing, but not without a certain lyricism. No words go amiss, all hit the target. At times, the narrative tension becomes relentless, even to a point of frustration. Bruce is a master of creating smokescreens for his readers. In both, Wall of Days and Boy on the Wire, you are never sure what the real story is, or who in the story is real or imagined. The beauty of his novels lies in the intriguing mind games – it is impossible not to want to know what happened. But Boy on the Wire is not a light, entertaining read. The novel is emotionally exhausting. It creeps under your skin.

Boy on WireWhereas Wall of Days was as close to perfection as a novel can get, I had some difficulties with the characterisations in Boy on the Wire. The portrayal of John and Rachel’s relationship after his return to South Africa wasn’t convincing enough for me. I could not relate to Rachel’s responses to the unfolding of the events and found the explanations of her behaviour implausible in a few moments. Furthermore, I am not sure that readers who are unaware of the effects of trauma on the mind will find enough narrative guidance in the story to read John’s mental states as plausible. I also found my suspension of disbelief tested when it came to the simple day to day logistics of inhabiting an inherited house.

Despite these reservations, which took very little away from the impressive impact Boy on the Wire had made on me, I can’t wait to see what Alastair Bruce will do next. Without any doubt, he is on his way to becoming one of our greats.

Boy on the Wire

by Alastair Bruce

Umuzi, 2015

“Your library is your soul”: Reflecting on Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins

A God in Ruins_Costa

Despite her substantial literary success, I did not know Kate Atkinson’s work before A God in Ruins was recommended to me by a friend whose taste I value. It won the Costa Novel Award in the beginning of this month, as did Atkinson’s previous novel, Life After Life (2014). The two are related, but can be read independently. I hope to turn to the sibling soon, as A God in Ruins is one of the most exquisite novels I have ever read, and the idea of Atkinson’s backlist reassures me greatly.

A God in Ruins is many things. It is the story of a British family set against the historical background of the past century. It is a novel about war and its aftershocks. It is a fine enquiry into human nature. But above all, it is a declaration of love for literature, its power and its manifold mysteries. And it is highly ambitious. What astounds about A God in Ruins is that it never falls short of these formidable ambitions. Such novels are rare. They take root in your mind and blossom in your soul. Even ferocious readers encounter a novel like this only once in a while.

The way it captures fiction’s ability to heal, to open up spaces in us we never even knew existed is striking. It is poetic in style as well as in its wisdom. For me personally, A God in Ruins was a magical key. It opened two doors in my life. Two doors connecting the past to my fragile present: one appeared while I was still reading, the other after I’d finished the novel. I stepped through the first, an imaginary one, during one of those serene nights when you are at peace with the world and yourself. It was around midnight. I was lost in the arms of a comfy easy chair; a soft caramel light illuminated the room. When I looked up from the book, I saw something so beautiful that I wanted to hold on to it forever. But I was scared to disturb the scene by searching for my camera, so I turned to the last blank page of A God in Ruins and drew a sketch of what was in front of me: a moment of flickering hope. It is also engraved in my heart.

The second door was real. It is the door to my late husband’s library. There are innumerable books in our house. We have roamed among them with the great pleasure that exploring books can bring only to two readers in love. When I finished A God in Ruins, I was crushed by the inability to share it with André. It was published a few weeks after his death. But I knew, had he been alive, I would have passed the novel to him the second I was finished with it that early Sunday morning, and I would have asked him to read it immediately so that we could discuss it in detail. Instead, I was all alone in an empty bed and all I could do was weep. What I have discovered about grief and loneliness is that it is not the lows which are unbearable, but the emptiness of the highs, when all you want to do is experience them with the person you love and there is no-one there to hold you…

Continue reading: LitNet

Chris Barnard 1939 – 2015

“And now Chris Barnard…” Breyten Breytenbach wrote for today’s Die Burger.

I did not know Chris and his wife Katinka well, but the few times I spent in their wonderful company are locked away in my heart as warm memories. They were both kind to me, open, welcoming. André loved them. We visited their home in Mpumalanga in 2007 where I took this shot of a photograph hanging in their house (Chris and André in the middle):
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More recently, I remember a day when we sat together in the sun outside their house in Onrus, drinking what from that day on became my favourite South African bubbly: Krone Borealis. There were strawberries and laughter. The warmth of friendship.

My thoughts are with Katinka and her loved ones.

The opening passage of the chapter “Sestigers, Censors and Security Police” from André’s memoir, A Fork in the Road:

It was during the years leading up to my return to Paris in ’68 that censorship turned really bad. The situation was surprisingly complicated. Among the events that held me in South Africa, there was the emergence of a new generation of Afrikaans writers, the Sestigers (‘Sixtiers’); among those that prompted me to leave was the almost simultaneous crackdown of censorship. The complication lay in the fact that, in the South Africa of the Sixties, neither could be imagined without the other.

Within only a few months of my return in August, 1961, I received a letter from the young author Chris Barnard (no relation, I should make very clear, of the surgeon who a few years later became famous for succeeding with the world’s first heart transplant). Chris was then fiction editor of the magazine Die Brandwag, for which I had during my student years, and even during my stay in Paris, written potboiler short stories. He offered me an opportunity of emptying my drawers of old manuscripts. But much more importantly, he broached the subject of ‘a new generation’ of writers in Afrikaans. This was something that had much preoccupied me in Paris. I had even written an impassioned essay for the magazine Huisgenoot pleading for such a new wave of writing: taking my cue from the Dutch writers known as the Tagtigers (‘Eightiers’) of the previous century, who had swept away all the dead wood of conventional writing in Holland to establish a spectrum of bold and passionate prose and poetry that infused the Romantic movement in the Low Countries with the inspiration of Impressionism and Symbolism. In our context, of course, it was no longer a matter of Romanticism, but all the ripple effects of Modernism and Existentialism. My essay wasn’t published until several years later, as a kind of nostalgic backward glance, but from the correspondence with Chris it was soon evident that we were fired by the same kind of vision for a drastic overhaul of Afrikaans fiction.

Ever since the Thirties, when a group of young Afrikaans poets had boldly established radical new forms of individualism, our literature had been striving to break away from the more conventional expressions that had characterised it since the time of the First Language Movement in the late 19th century. Various spasms of renewal had followed, but these were invariably restricted to poetry. Fiction and drama still lagged depressingly behind; and by the time European literature was already experimenting with exciting new forms of writing, Afrikaans fiction was still largely stuck in 19th century Naturalism, echoing, at second or third hand, the surface features of the bleaker endeavours of the form, but without the passions of the great Russians, or the genius of a Hardy or a Hamsun, let alone an Undset, a Proust or a Musil. Our fiction, as the poet N. P. van Wyk Louw characterised it, was still locked in a local, cosy kind of realism dominated by locusts, drought and poor-whites.

Now came the discovery that a new generation of Afrikaans prose writers was waiting in the wings: we had widely different backgrounds and styles and interests, but one passion we shared – to bring Afrikaans literature, particularly fiction and drama, up to date with the rest of the world. Most of us, by that time, had spent shorter or longer periods abroad, mainly in Paris, and that experience emphasised the parochial closeness of the local cultural scene. Chris had not yet taken his gap year, but was preparing for it – in spite of the misgivings of his then wife. I can remember her arguing: ‘I’m really not eager to go to Europe. I’m scared that it may change my view of the world, and I’m so happy with the one I have right now.’ What made the comment memorable was that it exactly captured the attitude of all too many Afrikaners at the time.

Several authors had begun to move into prominence during the fifties. The early leading figure was Jan Rabie (born 1920) with his piercing brown eyes and defiant black goatee, strongly inspired by French writers like Henri Michaux and the Existentialists during his long stay in Paris, whose work was in no small measure one of the reasons why I ultimately decided to go to Paris myself – and one of the consolations about coming back in 1961, when he broke new ground with his passionate explorations of the Afrikaners’ early interaction with Africa. There was also Etienne Leroux (born 1922), a Mephistophelian figure always obscured behind dark glasses, soon to become the leading novelist of the generation, whose outrageous satires in the vein of the myth-mongering of his time provoked the religious and political establishment with his irreverence and wit. But he presented this establishment with a peculiar challenge: as the son of a respected cabinet minister in the Nationalist Government, he was not an easy target for ostracism or attack. Bartho Smit (born 1924), a dramatist, deceptively gentle in manner and appeareance. As a publisher, uncomfortably ensconced in the right-wing house of Afrikaanse Pers-Boekhandel, later Perskor, he became something of a mentor to most of the rest of us and was the moving spirit behind the quarterly journal Sestiger which, for the two years of its existence, became the mouthpiece of the whole group. After early work in a conventional, if charming, vein, Dolf van Niekerk (born 1923), a self-effacing loner, made an electrifying impression with his existentialist reimagining of early 20th century Afrikaner history. The other Sestigers were younger. Adam Small (born 1936) was the only coloured writer in the group, an affirmative presence with his angry and satirical poetry, his virulent rejection of apartheid, and his brilliant play, Kanna hy kô hystoe (Kanna Comes Home), which brought Afrikaans drama up to date with what had been happening in the rest of the world: an evocation of the lives of a coloured family who are forced to bear the brunt of the only one among them who manages to break away and lead a prosperous life in Canada, until the death of the materfamilias, Makiet, forces Kanna to return home. Abraham (Braam) de Vries, born in 1937, whose eyes, forever gleaming behind thick glasses, missed nothing, soon became adept at exposing the terror and magic that lurk below the surface of the everyday. And of course Chris Barnard (born 1939), a gentle giant, revealed an early interest in the taboos of apartheid before making a decisive break with realism in favour of symbolism, and an exploration of the absurd.

On the fringes of the Sestiger group the most important new writer was Breyten Breytenbach, who had settled in Paris in 1960, while I was still there, although we did not meet until 1964, when Ingrid and I were on our disastrous way to Spain. Breyten hit the world of Afrikaans letters like a force of nature, splashing a Black-Southeaster rain of surrealism, existentialism and Zen Buddhism across the still rather arid South African landscape. For many years, and in the minds of many people, the appellation of Sestiger applied pre-eminently to Breyten. Yet he persistently refused to be regarded as a member of the ‘movement’, both before and after his imprisonment from 1976 to 1983 on largely trumped-up charges of ‘terrorism’.

Others on the periphery of the core group of Sestigers included the master of Chekhovian impressionism, the short-story writer Hennie Aucamp; Elsa Joubert with her explorations of Africa and her persistent redefinitions of the Afrikaner world and heritage; and Karel Schoeman, who rather preciously cultivated the image of the enigmatic outsider, whose delicate prose explores the human condition within a South African context. In his best work he is a consummate novelist, but he resolutely steered a course separate from that of the Sestigers.

And then there was Ingrid. Who was a Sestiger in all but name, and who produced the major poetic work of the time in Afrikaans. Her prose alone, a handful of exquisitely wrought stories and sketches, should qualify her for inclusion in the group. So did her dramatic break with the ancien régime represented by her father, her uncompromising rejection of apartheid, and her embracing, under the influence of Uys Krige, of the free-verse forms of Lorca and his South American successors.

Last year, for Chris’s 75th birthday, André wrote the following tribute (published in Die Burger, if I remember correctly):

Dit was in die vroeë jare van die Sestigs, toe ek nog in Parys aan die studeer was, toe ek vir die eerste keer ’n brief van Chris Barnard uit Parys ontvang het. Daarmee het ’n korrespondensie aan die gang gekom wat tot vandag toe nog nie heeltemal sy einde bereik het nie, ofskoon die klimmende jare ons al op verskillende maniere probeer bykom of stilmaak het.

Op ’n tyd het Chris beplan om met sy destydse vrou, Annette, vir die eerste keer op Grahamstad by my en Estelle, my eie eerste paaltjiewagter, te kom kuier. ’n Nogal rampspoedige eerste kennismaking, want soos dit teen donkeraand geblyk het toe die Barnards hul bagasie uit die motor wou gaan haal waar ek die tasse al met die intrapslag uit die motor in die straat vlak voor die voordeur wou gaan aflaai en ons gesamentlik agtergekom het dat daar g’n teken meer was van ’n tas klein of groot nie. Waarskynlik het ons toe al pens en pootjies ingesleep geraak by die gesprek waarmee ons toe reeds begin het en waarby daar tot heden vandag toe nog nie tekens van ’n verslapping sigbaar is nie.

In die loop van daardie aand het Annette al wat flikker is, uitgehaal om dit aan die twee jong konstabels by die gestrande motor te vertoon, toegelig met histrioniese vermoëns wat vir my heelwat meer beïndruk het as vir Estelle: sy het verseg om in die swyende tweestryd tusen die twee vroue kans gesien om selfs maar ’n aks bes te gee. En Chris het ’n oorpyn ontwikkel wat vir niks wou skrik nie. Maar dit alles het minder as niks geweeg vergeleke met ’n lotsbestemming nie.

In die tussenjare was daar in die vriendskap al korter of langer hiate, om beter of swakker redes, van die soort wat jy maar in byna elke menslike verhouding teenkom; maar nooit – selfs nie in die maande wanneer dit tydelik tot stilstand gestotter het as een van die twee, of soms albei, deur ‘omstandighede buite ons beheer’ – voorlopig onkapabel was nie, was daar werklik enigiets gewigtigs in die weer nie. Chris was vir ’n ruk weg Parys toe, en daarna weer ek, en daarna is hy weer getroud, en toe weer ek, en toe weer ek, en toe weer ek, ensovoorts. Maar iets het tussen die twee van ons bly aanloop asof daar nooit enige onderbreking was nie. Op ’n onderwaterse vlak het ek en hy daardie gesprek tot vandag toe bly deurvoer. Nou is hy en Katinka saam, en ek en Karina, hy in Mpumalanga en ek in die Kaap. En mits die vlees geneë voel en die vermoë behou, behoort dit tot in lengte van dae so voort te gaan. Onder destyds se Sestigers is daar vandag nie danig veel meer oor nie, so ons sal maar aanhou tot waar die karrentjie sy staanplek kry.

Daar is min wat hierdie afgelope jare – nou waaragtig al meer as vyftig! – nie neerslag gekry het in ons korrespondensie nie. Soveel veugdes, soveel hartsere. Soveel huwelike, soveel egskeidings. Toe ek Ingrid destyds ontmoet het, was Chris een van die eerste vriende wat in ’n brief daarvan gehoor het; en ook hy wat heel eerste was om van die patetiese digpogings te siene gekry het wat ek vir Ingrid geskryf het. Oor die jare was ek jare lank een van sy eerste lesers, en omgekeerd (en vandag bly hy een van die bestes). Dit was – en is – wat ons probeer eerlik hou het teenoor mekaar. En dit is nie te versmaai nie.

Tussen hom en Bartho is die eerste gedagtes oor die moontlikhede vir vormgewing van Orgie gewissel. Met verloop van tyd het ek en hy elkeen, as ek nou reg tel, vier kinders verwek, en hande vol romans, verhale, draaiboeke en ander pennevrugte die lig laat sien. Oor en weer het ons gehelp om probleme uit te stryk, kritici uit te sorteer, idees te toets, mekaar op die skouers te klop, skoppe onder die gat te gee, of so na aan trane afvee te kom as wat ’n mens jou gevoeglik durf veroorloof het. Nie een van ons het verwag om so oud te word dat ons dertig van die agterkant af sou kon bekruip nie. En destyds was Sestig nog net ’n literêre begrip, g’n werklikheid of ’n simbool of ’n ding nie. Vandag is die wêreld ’n anderster plek. Maar op die een of ander manier probeer ons byhou. En ons kan nog altwee, deur die genade of een of ander moedswilligheid ons variasie probeer opsê van: Ek was toe Bart Nel, en ek is wragtag nog hy. En halleluja!

(Thank you, Izak de Vries, for proofreading the original text.)
Chris's books

Great, even life-changing – the books of 2015

Another great year of reading is coming to an end, although it did not start that way. I am grateful to the love that has returned my passion for reading to me when reading – when life – became unbearable.
books2015
Knowing how few books one can read in a lifetime (I won’t depress you with the estimate), I have become quite selective and wise about what I read. Thus, out of the sixty-three books I have read this year (until today, some not for the first time), almost all were good, thirty-one were great – among them were a few which were life-changing – and only two I did not finish. Of these two, one was brilliant, but I was reading it on 6 February and have not been able to return to it. The other one I had wonderful hopes for, but I was so disappointed and frustrated that after a hundred pages I decided not to waste more of my time on it. In the spirit of the festive season, the perpetrator shall remain unnamed.

The great ones I have finished, I would like to divide among four categories: relevant, delightful, exquisite, and life-changing (whereas some, of course, overlap).

There are old-time favourite authors on my list like Alexandra Fuller and Ivan Vladislavić, but also new discoveries like Pamela Power or Mark Winkler.

Relevant
Ingrid Jonker: A Biography by Louise Viljoen
Back to Angola: A Journey from War to Peace by Paul Morris
A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
J. M. Coetzee and The Life Of Writing: Face-To-Face With Time by David Attwell
Books That Matter by Marie Philip

Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.
(A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion)

Delightful
The Unknown Unknown by Mark Forsyth
What Poets Need by Finuala Dowling
Ms Conception by Pamela Power
What I Didn’t See and Other Stories by Karen Joy Fowler
Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov
The Chameleon House by Melissa de Villiers
Embers by Sándor Márai
Tribe by Rahla Xenopoulos
The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell

I had a very efficient guano maker installed in my bath.
(The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell)

Exquisite
The Long Dry by Cynan Jones
Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller
101 Detectives by Ivan Vladislavić
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
The Dream House by Craig Higginson
The Alphabet of the Birds by SJ Naudé
We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Sugar Man: The Life, Death and Resurrection of Sixto Rodriguez by Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom
the myth of this is that we’re all in this together by Nick Mulgrew
Wasted by Mark Winkler
Notes from the Dementia Ward by Finuala Dowling

We have to admit our massive love for people. If we don’t ever need to know its depth, we just feel the light on the surface.
(The Long Dry by Cynan Jones)

Life-changing
Flame in the Snow / Vlam in die Sneeu by André Brink and Ingrid Jonker
Killing Floor by Lee Child
Water: New Short Fiction from Africa
Mountains in the Sea: A Celebration of the Table Mountain National Park by John Yeld and Martine Barker
The Art of the Publisher by Roberto Calasso

I would like to single out two books I haven’t written about. Yet. Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins and Roberto Calasso’s The Art of the Publisher.
A God in Ruins
Atkinson’s novel is one of the most exquisite books I have read in my life. Its beauty and its declaration of love for the power of literature to capture eternity, to heal, to open up spaces in us we never even knew existed are staggering. Personally, I will always associate the novel with two seminal moments in my life. While reading it during one of those serene nights when you are at peace with yourself and the world, I saw something beautiful and drew a sketch of the scene at the back of the book. It is also engraved in my heart. And when I finished A God in Ruins, I was crushed by the inability to share it with André, but then something happened which gave me comfort and hope and the book will always be at the source of these feelings when it comes to reading. I hope to write about it before the year is over.
The Art of the Publisher
Calasso’s book speaks about everything I have ever known, felt, dreamt about or hoped for in publishing. I have known for years that one day I would become a publisher myself. The Art of the Publisher made me realise that the time has come to make that day become reality.

In/sanity: Mark Winkler’s Wasted

WastedWhere does sanity end and insanity begin?

Can anyone who intentionally kills or violates another person be thought of as sane?

Earlier today while driving, I saw a man, probably homeless, standing next to a garbage bin and talking to himself. It might have been the same man who a few months ago passed me in the street and out of the blue started screaming at me, forcing me off the pavement into heavy traffic. I was fortunate that cars avoided hitting me just in time. I wasn’t hurt, but petrified. I haven’t walked that route since.

I still like walking in our neighbourhood though, and do it nearly daily (it helps to keep me sane).

There were times this year when I did not feel sane myself. Grief is not a mental illness, but it is a state of vulnerability that makes you often act insane. I have experienced some really mad stuff since February. There were days when I thought of Valkenberg, and the idea seemed strangely serene. There are times in one’s life where all you want to do is lie down and let others take care of you. Just some peace and quiet, punctuated by kindness. We all have moments when we long for such spaces.

Water coverI finished reading Mark Winkler’s second novel, Wasted (Kwela, 2015), this morning, hence all these thoughts about in/sanity. I picked up the book because of the excellent story Winkler contributed to Water: New Fiction from Africa (forthcoming from Short Story Day Africa). I felt this was an author I wanted to get to know better. I have not been disappointed. Wasted is one of the best novels I have read this year. Well written (with an opening that is impossible to resist, and a middle and end that are even better), tense, darkly humorous, unpredictable and thought-provoking throughout, Wasted is one of those novels that creep under your skin. It strikes an admirable balance between seriousness and entertainment. Winkler manages to pull off that tough task of making you care for quite an unsavoury protagonist: Nathan Lucius is an enigma for most of the book and one approaches the unfolding of his story with trepidation, but you simply need to know what makes him tick.

We know he sleeps with the light on, has a dubious approach towards personal hygiene, does not allow anyone into the sanctuary of his flat where he collects old photographs of strangers he imagines as members of his family, and his relationships with his work colleagues, his widowed neighbour, a friend suffering from cancer, and his real family are unusual (if that is the right word), to say the least. The why behind his behaviour comes as quite a shock around two-thirds into the novel. But even earlier, around one-third into it, we come to the first unsettling revelation. The ending blows your mind.

What fascinates me about the novel is the portrayal of this character who is so recognisable and yet so foreign. You read along, and, if you’re honest, you allow yourself to realise that, yeah, I have done some similarly crazy shit, and, yeah, I have had similarly dark thoughts. The lights, the solitude, the blackouts, longing for forgetting, incapability of dealing with the frustrations of the everyday – been there, done that (perhaps not exactly to such extremes, but the point is that one can associate with it). Not wanting to spoil the surprise, let me just say that fortunately most of us don’t end up like Nathan. But it is a fine line that we all tread. That is what makes him such a great character. It’s easy to feel him.

Winkler is also the author of An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Absolutely Everything (Kwela, 2013) that I hope to get my hands on tomorrow at the celebration of The Book Lounge’s 8th birthday party. Wow, time does fly! Allow me to hope that it heals, too.

The heart has spaces – the love letters of André Brink and Ingrid Jonker

Drawing in Ingrid's letter of 15 October 1963
In the beginning there were the women of his past, a ghost among them. André Brink had never been afraid to love. After the life-defining relationship of his youth with Ingrid Jonker, her suicide, and four divorces, at the age of 69 he had the guts to say yes to a delicate possibility.

When we met in Austria towards the end of 2004 I was terribly young, on the verge of a divorce, broken by betrayals, and almost paralysed by mistrust. Continents and cultures apart, 42 years between us, the odds staked against us could not have been higher. Yet we somehow mustered enough courage to dare the impossible and turn it into reality. For ten years, the first thing we did every morning after waking up next to each other was to smile. No matter what. Of course it hadn’t been easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is. And coming to terms with our respective pasts was our greatest challenge.

André first introduced me to Ingrid in a letter on 23 December 2004:

She was a year or so older than me, and light-years older in terms of sexual experience. It was an incredible, hectic, heady, head-over-heels love of extremes, swinging wildly from ecstasy to the depths of misery; and it became just too exhausting and demanding. After two years (and several break-ups and new starts) she started a new love-affair, and then I did too (both of us, I think, grasping at possibilities of getting out of our own relationship which had become suffocating). And so it ended. She had one more mad love-affair, and committed suicide.

Coming to live with André in the South African spring of 2005, I very quickly realised that in order to know him – truly know him – I had to understand what had happened between him and Ingrid 40 years earlier. We both had to. No other woman in André’s life had left as indelible a mark on him as Ingrid. No other haunted me as much in the beginning of our relationship.

I am proud of countless things André and I have achieved together, but the one that made all else possible is the space we created in our relationship for sharing, for being painfully open with each other. André and I met at Vienna International Airport when I went to pick him up and accompany him on the train journey to Salzburg, where he was participating in a symposium I’d helped organise. On that trip we began a conversation which, literally, lasted ten years until I told him I loved him for the last time and closed his lips with a final kiss just before he died earlier this year. It was a stripping of minds and hearts. Time after time, we stood completely soul-naked in front of each other, risking everything, and eventually knowing that love would prevail, always, no matter how terrifyingly ugly the revealed truth – on both sides – was. It is the kind of knowledge which can lay any ghost to rest.

At the end of Everything I Know I Learned from TV: Philosophy for the Unrepentant Couch Potato, my favourite philosopher, Mark Rowlands, writes: “If I could repay you with a wish it would be that you find something in your life so important that without it you would not be the same person. If you’re lucky you’ll have it already.” The relationship with Ingrid was such a thing for André. He wrote in his memoir, A Fork in the Road (Harvill Secker, 2009): “On that memorable afternoon of 15 April, 1963, a group of us were gathered in the lounge of Jan Rabie’s rambling old house in Cape Town, when Ingrid walked in, barefoot and provocative, and the movement against censorship officially began, and the course of my life was changed.” Her influence permeated everything: his personal life, and, just as crucially, his writing. One only needs to look at André’s women characters, walking in Ingrid’s footprints across the pages of his novels, to comprehend what an impact their meeting had on his creativity. And they are only the most obvious example. But despite the evidence, for many years André was exceedingly reluctant to speak or write about Ingrid after her death.

At the time of our engagement in early 2006, together with Antjie Krog and Ingrid de Kok, André was working on the new translations of Ingrid Jonker’s poems which would result in the publication of Black Butterflies: Selected Poems (Human & Rousseau, 2007). It must have been during this period that he showed me his and Ingrid’s correspondence for the first time. He kept the letters in the same place as his diaries which he reread for the writing of the introduction to Black Butterflies, the first text of its kind after many years of silence. An intimate treasure and a chunk of literary history many had wondered about for decades, even back then the letters had an irresistible appeal for me. Although my grasp of the Afrikaans language and literature was shaky at this stage, I understood their importance as a key to André’s life story and to the creative and intellectual forces culminating in the literary movement of the Sestigers. We looked at them together, he told me their story, and allowed me to comment on the translations as well as on the introduction. The title for the collection followed from a suggestion I’d made. Being included felt like a form of exorcism.

I wrote in my own diary of the time: “Dear Ingrid, are you smiling at us after all?”

Continue reading: LitNet

How to Survive Christmas

It hit me the other day that Christmas this year is going to be bloody awful to survive. And yesterday, I was hit by another thing which almost made it unnecessary to survive anything else as it nearly killed me: a tome of André’s collected short stories. It fell on me from a high shelf while I was reaching for other books. I suppose a fitting end to someone like me who lives for books, but Lady Fate decided that it was not my time to go yet. So I still have some surviving to do next month…
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André always maintained that he was not a short story writer, but in fact he started off as one. Short stories are a fine way to “cut your teeth”, as a friend who visited today remarked when I told her about it. Indeed. Back in the day, it was also a way to earn some serious pocket money, and so to support himself in his student days André wrote short stories for magazines in the 1950s (he was barely twenty years old at the time – sigh! – some writers were born with a pen in their beautiful little chubby hands). He collected the individual magazine copies and had them bound into big leather tomes. I estimate there should be just over a hundred stories. Early André Brinks. How exciting is that! I knew about the collected tomes as they are stored in the little André Brink Library next to my study. But until recently I did not feel confident enough in my grasp of Afrikaans to attempt reading them. However, I do now!

When Christmas revealed itself as the nightmare that it is going to be this year, I started compiling a list of survival strategies. Since travelling is a bit of an issue, I can’t go to my family in Austria or Poland. And anyway, being away from home this year is simply impossible to imagine. So, Christmas in Cape Town it is going to be.

Karina’s How to Survive Christmas this Year List:

One: Watching all Sissi movies (for the hundredth time – hey, anything to survive!).
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Two: Star Wars (whoever planned the release date for the latest Star Wars movie can pick up a really passionate kiss of gratitude from me, anytime – all yours, whoever you are!)
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Three: Throwing the Christmas Party of the Year for my friends, divine Polish Christmas dishes and fireworks included.
Four hit me on the head: Reading all of André’s early short stories (some were written especially for Christmas!).
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Five was added this morning: I was invited and accepted to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with my other family, the families of dear friends.

If I won’t be killed by falling books in December, I might be around for 2016! Pray for me.

Why Jack?

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It might have been the attitude with which he left the diner. Or his ice blue eyes. Perhaps the way he had his coffee.

He arrived, as always, unexpected. Without a clue how badly he was needed.

Nobody calls him Jack. Not even his mother. But that is who he is to me.

I reached out to Killing Floor at a time in my life when everything had become difficult, including breathing. And to stay alive, I need breathing as much as I need reading. It is a matter of survival, of being who I am. In the early stages of widowhood, I had to learn everything anew. How to breathe, to sleep, to eat. To smile. I picked up books in the hope of reclaiming a little bit of myself, a sense of stability, some solace, and an escape from my unbearable new reality, but every page was a struggle. Books which would have taken me two or three days to read, lasted for long agonising weeks. I was desperate. Until I picked up Jack Reacher on a roadside, typically hitchhiking out of town.

Lee Child’s hero is 21st-century’s Mr Darcy. “All men want to be like him and all women want to fuck him,” as Reacher was introduced to another fan who related the comment to me.

But why? Ungainly tall, mostly scruffy, socially awkward, a man of few words, he is not exactly the most attractive individual out there. But his allure is undisputed. Millions of fans around the world breathlessly awaiting the publication of the next instalment in the series every September can attest to the fact.

Jack Reacher grew up as a military brat, a third-culture kid, at home everywhere and nowhere. I relate to that. We have a coffee habit and a thing for numbers in common. When we know what we want, we go for it. We don’t do regrets.
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Jack went to West Point, served thirteen years in the military police and retired in the rank of Major. Since then, he roams the American landscape (with only occasional detours abroad), a folded toothbrush in his pocket and some cash in the bank, taking on odd jobs when necessary, stepping in whenever injustice crosses his path. He has a heart of gold and an admirable integrity. He never walks away from a situation before both are satisfied.
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Killing Floor (1997), the first in the now 20-titles strong series, is breathtakingly good. I was hooked after only a few pages. The exhilaration of devouring a book again at breakneck speed came with such a relief that I immediately bought the next one, and the next, and the next (once I even ventured out into a freezing and rainy Sunday night at quarter to nine and sped like a maniac through town to Exclusive Books before they closed because I’d just finished a Reacher novel and couldn’t bear to face a night without the following in my hands). By about the third or fourth, I was telling all my friends and all strangers willing to listen about my fascination (obsession or addiction might better describe it), and my gratitude (infinite). With the Reacher books, my hunger for all kinds of reading returned to me. Back in full force, it is the only thing from my past which has pulled through the greatest loss of my life unscathed.

With the exception of the latest, Make Me (which I simply could not resist), and Worth Dying For (which I turned to when I couldn’t find a copy of 61 Hours in time), I am reading the series in the sequence of publication. I intend to trace all the Jack Reacher short stories next. And then, the long wait until next September will set in. But like Jack, I am extremely patient.

It has been interesting to see how the series and the protagonist develop, responding to technological innovations (cell phones, ATMs, WWW) as well as changing socio-political realities (for example, Gone Tomorrow’s astute post-9/11 commentary), or ageing, human vulnerabilities. As the series progresses, chapters become shorter, cliff-hangers more irresistible. The writing is great. Just great. Child switches between first- and third-person, exploiting the diverse advantages both offer (although I do prefer the former). The dialogue is crisp and intelligent. The sense of humour deliciously dry. I enjoy the feminist touches: women are treated as equals in all respects. Jack has no ‘type’: the women he falls for come from different backgrounds, and are all strong, independent characters. Descriptive passages (landscape, weather, architecture, and especially the fight choreography) are intricately balanced between fast pace, slow motion, and, at times, pure poetry.

“It was raining and grey on the western peaks, and in the east the sun was slanting down through the edge of the clouds and gleaming off the tiny threads of snow in the high gullies.”
(The Visitor)

Child can capture the essence of a character in a few phrases.

“She looked like a solid, capable woman. She was about sixty years old, maybe more, white, blunt and square, with blond hair fading slowly to yellow and grey. Plenty of old German genes in there, or Scandinavian.” (Worth Dying For)

Consider a few of the opening lines:
“I was arrested in Eno’s diner.” (Killing Floor)
“The cop climbed out of his car exactly four minutes before he got shot.” (Persuader)
“They found out about him in July and stayed angry all through August.” (Without Fail)
“Moving a guy as big as Keever wasn’t easy.” (Make Me)

I can no longer count how many people I got into Jack. Only one person was disappointed with my recommendation. All others are as addicted as I am. It has been delightful to discover which of my friends had been fans for much longer than I. I keep getting messages of thanks. We all share stories of how Jack features in our lives. To me, he has become a trusted, reliable friend. I turn to him for adventure and smart entertainment – always a bloody-good read!
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Tense, entertaining, intriguing and never predictable, the Jack Reachers thrillers belong to the best of their kind.

And! The sex is good.

To find out more, join us for Cape Town’s celebration of Jack Reacher, and get Make Me at a 20% discount on the night!
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IF IN DOUBT, READ REACHER!

Under my skin

It is one of those moments that has the potential to alter your entire life. Your hand and mind freeze. Time passes. Tentatively, you begin to move your fingertips again. Touch. Feel. You remember to breathe, but your thoughts are racing towards denial.

Finding a suspicious lump in your breasts is one of the most frightening experiences. And no matter how much you are aware of what needs to be done under the circumstances, for at least a while you live in a limbo of trying to explain the reality of the find away. It took me a few days to make an appointment with a doctor. I suspect that it might have taken me even longer if it hadn’t been for the second lump I discovered: much smaller than the first one, but so painful I could no longer put on a bra.

I made the call. In the afternoon I watched the doctor’s worried face as she examined me, finding many more lumps. I confessed that I had been too scared to touch my breasts after the second discovery. The doctor said that what we were feeling was most likely caused by hormonal changes that come and go and that I had nothing to worry about, but there was one lump – the first – that was unusual and that it was better to check it out. She immediately phoned the radiologist and made an appointment.

Driving home, it was tough not to give in to tears and despair. I have been through so much this year, but the last few weeks have been different, more stable, calmer. And suddenly I was facing another possible game changer all over again. I felt suspended, unable to grasp the options unfolding in front of me. I remembered the good advice of one of my Austrian doctors: “Karina, go home, go for a brisk walk along the Mattig, drink a glass of red wine, and go to bed,” he said. I was lying with my head down on his desk, so ill that I thought I would never get healthy again.

“But I have a serious fever, am taking antibiotics, it’s minus ten outside, and snowing,” I mumbled into the desk.

“Do as told, go!” he ordered.

I did. After the walk and the wine, I fell into a deep sleep on my brother’s couch. When I woke up hours later, I felt better. It was a turning point. After weeks of struggling with terrible infections, I began to recover.

And so, remembering the good doctor, I drove home, went for a long walk along the Liesbeek River, had a glass of red wine and went to bed with a book (yes, Jack Reacher).

A week passed in which I tried to keep the fear at bay, tried really hard not to think about the near future too much. On the day of my mammogram (my first ever), driving to the hospital, I was fully aware that this could be the day when everything changes and life is never the same again.

The examination was nothing like I heard or imagined. Painless, quick and done with a lot of care and understanding, despite the fact that apparently bony women with tiny breasts experience the most discomfort. I am both, but I didn’t. The ultrasound afterwards was more unpleasant, but also performed with so much care that I felt safe and in the best of professional hands.

I didn’t have to wait long for the results. All clear. All benign. Nothing sinister.

The relief was so enormous I wanted to jump and dance at the hospital. Instead I sent messages to friends who wanted to know my news. Two were waiting with coffee and croissants. We celebrated. The day did not turn out to be THAT DAY. I am lucky. But many other women go through the trauma of a cancer diagnosis on days like these. For them life changes irrevocably. Many recover, but not all. Moira died earlier this year. She was my age. When she was diagnosed, it was much too late to do anything. I wonder whether she had felt the threat, but was overwhelmed by denial for too long to be saved.

October is breast cancer awareness month. Be wiser than me: Don’t wait, don’t let the fear paralyse you, act. Please.