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Review: Midwinter by Fiona Melrose

midwinterIn an act of idiotic drunken bravery, two friends, Tom and Vale, steal a boat in a storm. The consequences for both of them are enormous. The incident lays bare a past supressed for a decade and a future which is just as heavy to carry. The laden, rain-drenched darkness of the night of the theft sets the tone for this atmospheric narrative. Fiona Melrose’s stunning debut novel Midwinter tells the story of loss, the way it breaks you down and the effort it takes to put together the shattered pieces.

Melrose was born in Johannesburg and is now – after years of living abroad – once again based in the city of her birth where she is working on her next novel. She completed an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London, and spent a lot of time in Suffolk where Midwinter is partly set. Told from the alternating perspectives of Vale and his father Landyn, the book recounts two seminal episodes of their lives: the period on their farm in Suffolk after the boys’ boat theft and the time Landyn spent with his family living and farming in Kabwe, Zambia, ten years earlier.

From the beginning we are aware that something horrendous happened to Vale’s mother during their sojourn in Zambia. The relationship between Vale and his father is troubled by guilt and blame. Much has been left unspoken, and when it surfaces between them, rage and violence erupt: “You can set the dark aside for just so long before it comes after you and rolls you back under its weeds and rocks.” Both of them are suffocating in the silence between them. As it spreads to Vale’s other relationships, it threatens to destroy all that is still worth living for.

Landyn holds on to the sightings of a fox in their neighbourhood – “fine, sharp as a whip, keen-eyed and sleek.” The beautiful animal embodies for him his late wife. He also cares for his sickly dog Pup. The attempts of the father and son to reach out to each other, to find comfort and healing, often go astray, but relentlessly they continue trying: “We just stood there in the wet air looking at each other with all that hurt between us. The whole morning held its breath.” Perhaps when nothing else is left, love will prevail after all?

Vale’s friend Tom comes from a different type of dysfunctional family. When his mother goes off with another man, his father in unable to deal with the abandonment in any other way than by turning to stupefying drinking. Tom is neglected and lonely when Vale and his family take him under their wings, but when they emigrate to farm in Zambia he is left behind to fend for himself for a while until their return. And then, during the storm, he is severely injured and his future looks even bleaker than ever before.

Between the crushing heat of Kabwe and the merciless cold of Suffolk, Melrose evokes the landscapes and seasons of her settings with succinct prose: “Sitting in the motor with Vale hissing and biting next to me, I could feel all the dust and grit rolling up over the deserts from Kabwe. It was as if from the moment I read about the place for the first time, the two places could never be separated again. I’d struck my boy and now we were all in this great sucking bog. Tom was in it with us. There was nowhere to go with all that. Nowhere at all.”

Midwinter is the story of broken people, whether they are broken by colonialism, war, grief, or cowardice. Melrose is very subtle with her critique of current global socio-political affairs – her focus is definitely on the intimate, personal spaces in and between us, but the war in Iraq and the trauma of colonial exploitation lurk between the pages of Midwinter and lend the novel powerful gravitas. It is because none of it is in any way laboured, it is one of the strongest aspects of the book.

fiona-melroseThe author should also be commended for doing what much too often writers shy away from: writing entirely from a (gender) perspective which is not their own. At no time in the novel did I ever feel that I was not in the heads and hearts of a young man and his ageing father. Melrose uses first-person narrators for both to great effect: “For ten years I’d shirked the memories. I always felt them scratching at the darker corners of my mind, still feral; but sitting on a tree stump in the gathering dark, all of it – the space, the fear, the sorrow – all seemed to find me again.”

The title refers to Vale’s and Landyn’s family name, but also to temporal and spatial thresholds as well as the emotional landscape the two men have to cross. Melrose’s rendering of what awaits them beyond is heart-wrenching and beautiful as it will ring true to anyone who has suffered unbearable loss.

You can judge this book by its exquisite cover which attracted me to it in the first place. Midwinter is lyrical and intriguing in its gorgeous starkness.

Midwinter

by Fiona Melrose

Corsair, 2016

An edited version of this review was first published in the Cape Times, 6 January 2017.

 

Review: Incredible Journey – Stories that Move You, edited by Joanne Hichens

incredible-journey“Every nation needs its awkward truth-tellers”, Sindiwe Magona quotes Ben Okri in the foreword to Incredible Journey: Stories that Move You, the latest in the Short.Sharp.Stories Awards anthologies, edited by a champion of the South African short story and founder of the project, Joanne Hichens. Magona makes two succinct points about the collection: it shows “the country’s rich diversity that, perhaps, is found only here and nowhere else”, and, it allows the reader “to better understand intimate secrets, dreams, yearnings, fears and the wounding that walks our streets, all too often looking as normal as you please.”

Produced in conjunction with the National Arts Festival, the anthology includes twenty stories, the longlisted and winning entries of the Short.Sharp.Stories Awards, and is the third of its kind, after Bloody Satisfied and Adults Only. Hichens understands “that there are many stories to tell, from entirely different perspectives, sensibilities and cultures; we are hardly a one-dimensional society, nor would we want to be” and aims to be “inclusive and representational”. The project succeeds on all these fronts. The book includes diverse voices and many striking stories – it will offer something for most people, whatever your reading preferences might be.

The winning story, “Train 124” by Andrew Salomon, features an uncanny first-person narrator on his way to a doctor’s appointment. His reading and interpretation of the world around him are scary, to say the least. During the train ride, Salomon manages to create a sense of tension and claustrophobia despite the fact that his character is on the move. Original, crisp writing completes the winning package.

Two short stories from the collection were shortlisted for the prestigious Caine Prize: Bongani Kona’s superb “At Your Requiem”, and Lidudumalingani’s Short.Sharp.Stories Awards runner-up, “Memories We Lost”, which eventually won the Caine Prize. These two young voices hold so much promise that one can only watch and wonder as their talents unfold.

The other runner-up in the collection is the remarkable “The Infant Odysseus” in which Bridget Pitt tells the story of a woman who spots a baby crawling in a busy street of Johannesburg and decides to abandon her husband in their car to rescue the child. The encounter triggers a chain of emotions which lead her to make life-changing decisions.

Authors interpreted the theme of the competition in myriad ways. The most obvious take, a physical journey from point A to B, has been emphasised only in a few of the stories. The others concentrate on an internal transitioning from one state of being to another. Some combine both to great effect. The subtitle of the anthology says it all: “stories that move you.” The most incredible journeys happen inside:

“I’m sitting by the jacaranda tree where the story of your life ends. I can’t rewind time and bring you back. What happened between us – between you, Aunt Julia and me – at the house on St. Patrick’s Road, burned through our lives like mountain fire in a high wind. There’s nothing left. Everything is ravaged.” (Bongani Kona, “At Your Requiem”)

In Sean Mayne’s “The Pyramid of Light”, two conscripts get more than they ever bargained for when hitchhiking home on a pass. Homophobia and a search for personal purpose are the subject of Tebello Mzamo’s poignant “My Room”. Máire Fisher exposes tense family dynamics in “Space”, in which a small boy dreams of the stars as he clandestinely watches the night sky through his father’s telescope.

It is fascinating to see how different genres feed into the mix of the anthology. Dan Maré in “Watermeid” or Chantelle Gray van Heerden in “Voodoo Karma” do not shy away from fable and magic realist elements in their stories. In “The Island”, Megan Ross reimagines an initiation ritual for young women along the lines of the kind which Xhosa boys undergo to become men. Merle Grace examines a myth surrounding people with albinism in “Disappeared”. And Stephen Symons writes about a Cape Town of the not too distant future in his speculative story “Red Dust”.

A personal favourite in the collection is Tiffany Kagure Mugo’s “Return Unknown”. It centres on a heavy trunk the narrator’s grandmother brings with her into the house when her family decides it is time for her to move in with them in her old age. The story ends with the warmth of the trunk to the narrator’s touch, and one’s heart.

Publisher’s choice went to Bobby Jordan’s “Shortcut” which recounts a man’s tumultuous trip on the Bedford Road between Johannesburg and Grahamstown late at night. The story has a magnificent ending, and since it is the last one in the anthology, it leaves the reader deeply satisfied.

Book confessions

simonsalento

  1. Have you ever damaged a book?

Minor damage only. During the week I usually only read in bed and if I give up on a book it can end up thrown across the bedroom. If they hit the wardrobe at an angle, they usually glance off, but if it’s a direct spine-on hit, the damage is visible.

  1. Have you ever damaged a borrowed book?

Never that I remember. Someone must really like a book to recommend it, let alone lend it, so that would be unforgiveable, as would damaging a library book.

  1. How long does it take you to read a book?

It depends on the book and on where I am and what I am doing. Earlier in the year I took 6 weeks to finish a book, while when I was holiday I was reading one a day or every two days.

  1. Books you haven’t finished?

Too many…

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A peak inside the mind of Jostein Gaarder

Write On

Dressed all in black from head to toe, Jostein Gaarder does not come across as an internationally acclaimed best selling author and novelist.

“Human beings have always asked philosophical questions”. This would have been the first sentence of Sophie’s World according to Jostein Gaarder if fate had not intervened. He almost groans in pain at the thought. When Gaarder first started writing Sophie’s world, he assumed that it would make no money. It started out originally as a manual on philosophy before the protagonist Sophie came to him.

His shoes are scuffed, his hair uncombed but from afar, he seems happy and animated. When Jostein talks, he does so with gesticulation and enthusiasm – it’s as if he can’t get the words out fast enough. Knowing that he was a philosophy teacher prior to becoming an author, one can almost imagine him standing in front of blackboard in that when…

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Unbreakable: FLF 2016

Pam with Paige's quote

Pamela Power arriving at her first FLF

The feeling of impending doom had declared itself about a week in advance. André and I had been coming to the Franschhoek Literary Festival since its inception, sometimes as participating writers, always as readers. I can recall missing out on only one of the festivals because of travelling abroad. Since last year, I have been coming alone. Franschhoek in May is full of memories, literary and personal; before 2015, only positive. The FLF is a place where literature shines; where readers can mix and mingle with their idols or discover new books and writers to look forward to; where writers come out of their solitude to talk about their craft and passions, (re)connect, share stories, drink wine (occasionally wishing afterwards that it hadn’t been so freely available). Every year at the FLF, I have encountered fascinating readers and writers, met, or sometimes even only glanced, people who became very important to me, now dear friends.

 

Last year had been tough, but amazing in every respect. In one unexpected moment, I broke down, completely and utterly, but was held (thank you Alison Lowry), comforted (thank you Patricia Schonstein, who not knowing how to help otherwise, ran out into the night and brought me a volume of poetry where I found Karin Schimke’s poems, and reading them through the tears which insisted on spilling, I found inner calm again – enough to help another friend in distress later that night). I was alone, yet never alone.

This year, the loneliness beforehand was different, but just as overwhelming. And the closer the festival approached, the more desperate I became, reaching out for and grasping at anything which could save me from drowning. I felt so vulnerable, I nearly forgot how to breathe again. And once again, the beautiful people in my life – and the magic of their stories – provided a lifeboat, held me, comforted me.

Thursday morning found me soul-naked, on the edge of an abyss. Frightened, but brave, holding on. Loved. I knew what I had to do. At noon, I visited Parliament to pay my respects to a woman who crossed my path only briefly, but was a pathbreaker for numerous others all her life: Dene Smuts. Her family, friends and colleagues gathered in the old assembly building to celebrate this remarkable woman. I sat next to a friend who asked whether I had visited the place before. No, I said. She pointed out the spot just opposite us where Verwoerd was shot. And then pointed up at the gallery, and said she’d been present that day. This was also the room where the interim and current Constitutions were drafted, a process which Dene Smuts was closely involved in… Julia, her daughter (a fine writer who contributed to Touch), spoke beautifully about her mother. She moved me deeply with her tribute. Joanne Hichens was there, a friend of the family; now, my friend who – when she was still a stranger – came to me when I most needed her, bringing wisdom and care. I felt grand and intimate histories seeping in. Reeling, I drove home to meet another friend, freshly arrived from Joburg to spend the afternoon before the FLF with me: Pamela Power, the wonderful author of the equally wonderful Ms Conception. We had a late lunch at the Vineyard Hotel, basking in the sun in the Garden Lounge. She spoke about her idea for her next novel which sounds absolutely brilliant. In her hands, the theme and characters will thrive. I just know it!

Pamela at the Vineyard

In the evening, we drove out to Solms Delta where Richard Astor, Shaun Johnson, Mark Solms, Letebele Masemola and Vivian Bickford-Smith presented Jeremy Lewis’s recently published biography of Richard’s late father, David Astor: A Life in Print. To say that the event was inspiring would be the understatement of the year. Letebele Masemola reminded us that if it hadn’t been for The Observer’s coverage of the Rivonia Trial which brought it to the world’s attention, the accused would have been most likely condemned to death. David Astor was editor of the newspaper at the time. The stories and reports he ran saved those people’s lives. Just imagine if… Unimaginable! The power of the word, spreading, making it impossible for people to say, I didn’t know. History continuing to seep in…

David AstorRichard told me that our celebration of André’s life on Solms Delta the previous year the evening before the FLF sparked the idea for the celebration of his extraordinary father’s life this year. The link touched me.

Before the event, Pamela and I walked around Solms Delta at dusk and I showed her Philida’s bamboo copse. We drank divine Solms Delta wine and Astor pear cider, met up with book friends, made new ones, laughed, bonded. The celebrations continued at a Penguin dinner in Franschhoek later that evening. It was beautiful to see Pamela falling in love with Claire Robertson – sensitivities and wicked senses of humour connecting.

But I was on the verge of breaking again, despite everything. I drove home that night to seek refuge in my own bed, with my Furry Family, the place where I feel safest. Restored sufficiently to face the next day, I went back to Franschhoek to have breakfast with Austrian friends who were in town for the festival before attending my first session: Elinor Sisulu paying tribute to Sindiwe Magona, a woman of true greatness, our national literary treasure. Then, a brilliant panel on “breathing life into history” with Nigel Penn, Claire Robertson and Alex Eliseev, chaired to perfection by Mike Wills.

Then, sheer despair.

Everything seemed out of control. What could have been was slipping through my fingers, and there was nothing I could do. Helpless, small, I went into shock. It wasn’t the impossible that I longed for, but that which remained possible and was drifting away.

I was still in tears five minutes before the first session I was meant to chair, with three of my favourite authors: Niq Mhlongo, Mark Winkler and Nick Mulgrew. Friends witnessed my distress, but felt as helpless as I was. I was hugged, there were reassuring hands on my arms. I took a deep breath, dried my tears, and went into the Hospice Hall, knowing that no matter what, I would not fail these authors I admired and respected.

Fortunately, my voice doesn’t shake when my body goes into shock spasms. I doubt anyone in the audience guessed that I was on auto-pilot, trying to control my trembling legs. I have sometimes hated myself for being able to graduate at the top of my class while my family home was breaking apart, but that’s how it was. Perhaps it is time for me to accept that this is who I am, always have been?

Niq spoke about witches being ordinary beings in his culture. I said I was a witch, but a rather modern one. I have given up on brooms and travel by vacuum cleaner only.

And I’d felt all along that safety nets would be required to survive the weekend, that I would have to rely on the love of my friends and safe places to do what was required of me. Days in advance, I had already arranged to have dinner with close friends that evening. After the event, with people telling me how much they had enjoyed our panel, all glowing and smiling with literary pleasure, all I could think of was: Get on that vacuum cleaner, Karina, fly away… I fled, forgot to have my books signed.

Something stirred in me that evening, watching the breath-taking sunset on the old Elephant Path which Philida, all courage and pride, walked before me to lay her complaint centuries ago. Against all odds. And just look how far she has come! In the car, I listened to a Mozart CD I got for my last birthday. Surrounded by all this beauty, seeping in.

At dinner, I was told that it was all right to feel misery at times. I was told of that one time when my friend was also in a tough spot, confessed to his buddy, only to be told, “I am sorry for all your shit.” I was told other stories that made me – made all of us – weep with laughter. A little boy I love dearly slept in my arms after dinner. The food was delicious. I might have had too much wine. But in bed that night I felt blessed. I slept, a realisation dawning which should have been obvious, but never occurred to me as clearly as that night. Unbreakable. I am fucking unbreakable, I said to my mirror image the next morning.

And that is when all else fell into place.

During the first session I chaired on Saturday morning with David Cornwell, Chinelo Okparanta and Nthikeng Mohlele, we spoke about “writing relationships” and I was no longer afraid to quote from one of the books under discussion, Nthikeng’s Pleasure:

Pleasure_quote3

It has not escaped me that reading this novel in preparation for the FLF, finding this quote in the book the previous weekend, was at the heart of my distress that entire week. Because I know that not being even forty, I can die now. Transformed. I understand the chances of me being allowed to live this kind of love twice lie in the realm of magic. But I am patient, fearless. I can cast spells.

Meeting Nthikeng was a different kind of magic. He is the real deal, a writer of wisdom and beauty. What he wrote into my copy of his book assures me that there is a lot we can learn from one another. And I am eager. What an inspiration. What pleasure!

with Sindiwe

Photo: Fiona Snyckers

I arrived at the André Brink Memorial Lecture, given this year by our dear friend Sindiwe Magona, ready to celebrate love. Sindiwe made us reflect, laugh, cry – her words so deeply personal and universal at the same time. The way she spoke about André made me think about her: they both dare to speak truth to power. They do what writers do when at their best, and this insight was confirmed to me only minutes after the lecture for which Sindiwe received standing ovations: a woman walked up to the stage, asking Sindiwe to sign her copy of Chasing the Tails of My Father’s Cattle. “By reading this book, I have understood so much. Thank you. Your words are an inspiration,” she said.

 

So simple, so obvious, so magnificent.

I sat next to Sindiwe and thought: This is what it’s all about, those precious moments of truth, recognition, connection. This is why we are all here. This is what gives meaning to what we do. It was a powerful and timely reminder.

For a moment I was angry with myself, that I hadn’t realised any of this earlier, allowing pain and anxiety to nearly spoil it all for me.

Jacqui and ScarlettI attended other sessions. Wonderful to get to know Scarlett Thomas a bit. As always a pleasure to hear Jacqui L’Ange talk about one of the best novels of last year, The Seed Thief. Victor Dlamini and Leon de Kock spoke brilliantly about Flame in the Snow. Listening to Victor, I could only hope that he would be the next person to give the Memorial Lecture. Listening to Leon, I thought: I can’t wait to read his biography of André.

At the tiny gathering for the official announcement of the Ingrid Jonker Prize for poetry that afternoon, we heard beauty captured in words.

At the Sunday Times Literary Awards shortlists announcement just after, we were joined by evil. The juxtaposition beyond bizarre. I still feel discomfort about the entire event, something inside does not want to come to peace, although who am I to feel disturbed when there were others present who had suffered the unspeakable at the hands of this man. Who invited him? Why did he accept? Why did he cry? Do psychopaths cry? Who had the right to ask him to leave? How much faith in justice do we have? Did we have the right to tell his story, discuss it, him, and not allow him to listen? I thought of other men whom regimes turned into murderers, who were responsible for the deaths of thousands, but who were welcome among us. The word ‘complicity’ was flashing red in my mind.

Dazed, I rushed off to a dinner which could have been a complete disaster, but was saved by wonderful readers. When invited, I hadn’t been briefed properly what was expected of me at the event. I went thinking I would just be a guest. It turned out I was there to entertain other guests as a writer at their table. The horror of the situation struck me for a second. As an introvert, I need to prepare, brace myself for such occasions. But I was lucky. I think a lot of luck was on my side that entire weekend. I ended up at two tables full of fascinating people, who were passionate about books, life. I asked for their stories. They shared willingly.

FlameI slept peacefully that night, far away from my home and my Furry Ones, in a king size bed covered in books. On Sunday, I woke up to a picturesque view of the Franschhoek vineyards. The glorious autumn weather was screaming, Isn’t it just wonderful to be alive!? I had my own last session about literary letters in which Finuala Dowling (one of my favourite poets, writers; also perfect at chairing such panels – I sometimes attend events she moderates, just because of her) spoke to Margaret Daymond about Everyday Matters: Selected Letters of Dora Taylor, Bessie Head and Lilian Ngoyi and Karin Schimke and me about Flame in the Snow. Friends were there in the audience again, glowing from what they had witnessed. Full of praise and encouragement. I attended my last session of the festival with a huge smile on my face, which only widened listening to Jenny Crwys-Williams interview Kathryn White, Paige Nick and Scarlett Thomas about “sex on the page”.

On the way home, I visited a friend in the Devon Valley near Stellenbosch, was awed by the ridiculous views. We spoke about books and love and the nature of evil, had Nespresso and Mexican chocolate-covered nuts and coffee beans. She returned one of my Reachers to me, all satisfied with her latest adventure with Jack.

In the evening, the Furry Ones were eager to welcome me back home. I entered the house just in time to see Murray beat Djokovic in the Rome final. Miracles do happen. I went to the Waterfront to do some shopping: the bliss of driving through Cape Town on evenings like these… (Madonna dance tracks on full volume)! Before going to bed I looked up another dreaded piece of news, but both Poland and Austria seem to have scrapped through the Eurovision contest without embarrassing themselves too much this time (I watch every year if I can… yeah, I am South African by heart, but an Eurovision enthusiast still lives in there somewhere…).

On Thursday, Pamela told me about the energy one sends out into the world. That you must take care what you allow to go out as it will be returned to you. I thought of all the possibilities of experiencing beauty and meaning I, clouded by the pain, had nearly missed. Luckily – luck, that word again – only nearly. Luck is what we make of our opportunities.

I slept back home, covered in cats. In the morning I flew over to Noordhoek Beach where I always go to in times of pain and joy. I had the place to myself. Calm and beautiful. I sometimes think that my soul actually never leaves the beach. Perhaps that is why I have to visit often, to be fully restored to myself.

I walked, proud that I will continue gathering strength from walking along the sea, that there is no danger of me ever walking into the freezing waves. My footsteps all alone in the sand, I remembered that famous parable about Jesus… But I am not religious.

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During the most trying periods of my life, it seems I know how to carry myself.

The power of love, literature is the sea that sustains me. Because all stories are love stories.

And I can do fucking magic.

 

 

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Flame in the Snow: The Love Letters of André Brink and Ingrid Jonker

Tears in the Fence

Translated by Leon De Kock & Karin Schimke (Umizi 2015)

Afrikaans, one of the official languages of South Africa, spoken by some seven million speakers and widely recognised by the leadership of the African National Congress for its contribution to dissident literature has produced a number of writers of global significance. It remains a vibrant literary culture as the writing of J.M Coetzee, Marlene van Niekerk, and others testify. The love letters of novelist, André Brink and poet, Ingrid Jonker, written between April 1963 and April 1965, return to the reader to a time of protest against censorship when no criticism of South Africa’s race policy was tolerated, and is perhaps a timely reminder for South Africans.

Brink, at the beginning of his career as a novelist, teaching at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, and Jonker, writing her second poetry collection, whilst working as a proofreader in Cape Town, fell head over…

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2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here's an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 11,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Book mark: The Night Watchman by Richard Zimler

The Night WatchmanChief Inspector Henrique Monroe of the Lisbon Police Department is brilliant at what he does, but gets help from a very unusual source. When a successful businessman is murdered under strange circumstances in his home, Monroe is called to investigate. The complex case awakens memories of Monroe’s distant past of growing up in Colorado with his younger brother Ernie, and threatens to unravel the fragile new reality the cop had been constructing around himself in Portugal ever since. His search for truth takes him to the country’s highest echelons of power. What he finds is horrifying, but tragically common. The Night Watchman portrays a troubled, corrupt society any South African reader will recognise. Tense, deeply felt, the novel asks a pivotal question: “Was it a paradox that truths left unspoken ended up taking away your voice?” The disquieting answers it provides are heart-breaking.

The Night Watchman
by Richard Zimler
Corsair, 2014

Book mark first published in the Cape Times on 12 December 2014.

In 2007, I reviewed one other novel by Richard Zimler:

The Seventh GateThe Seventh Gate
Constable, 2007

In 1990 the discovery of seven manuscripts of the sixteenth-century Kabbalist Berekiah Zarco sparked Richard Zimler’s internationally bestselling novel The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon (1996). Following its success, Zimler, an American living in Portugal, published two other novels about the Portuguese-Jewish Zarco family: Hunting Midnight (2003) and Guardian of the Dawn (2005).

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon explores the fates of the Jewish community at the time of the Lisbon massacre of April 1506. Partly set in nineteenth-century Africa, Hunting Midnight is the story of a friendship between the Portuguese John Zarco Stewart and an African healer and freed slave named Midnight. Guardian of the Dawn takes us back to Goa at the time of the Catholic Inquisition in the seventeenth century.

The fourth novel in Zimler’s independent historical novels series is The Seventh Gate. Set in Berlin of the 1930s, it portrays Hitler’s brutal rise to power and the effects it had on the Jewish community and the disabled long before Second World War began. It subtly exposes how a whole nation could succumb to the madness of the Nazi regime; some willingly, others under extreme pressure. Meticulously researched and vividly brought to life, Zimler’s Berlin of the 1930s is a nightmarish place where loyalty between family members and friends as well as each individual’s sanity and heroism are tested to the limits.

In spite of its harrowing topic, The Seventh Gate is the kind of novel that makes you relax after the first twenty pages, knowing that there is another five hundred in store for you before the final curtain falls. Driven by superbly drawn characters, strong dialogues, and the unusual but beautifully touching love story at its centre, The Seventh Gate is a tribute to all the people who suffered similar fates at the hand of the Nazis as the characters in the novel.

The story is told by Sophie. In the Preface of the novel she is a fragile eighty-nine year old living in America and being taken care of by her nephew. After a spell in the hospital she decides to entrust him with her memories of the past when she was a teenage German girl in Berlin of the 30s and the world began to fall to pieces.

Sophie tells the story of Isaac Zarco, a descendant of the Kabbalist Berekiah Zarco, and the members of The Ring, now a clandestine group of Jewish activists trying to fight the Nazi regime. It is also the story of her brother Hansi, a distant child whom Sophie loves dearly and whose life is threatened by the Nazis. Misunderstood by her mother, betrayed by her father and Tonio, the boy she has a crush on, Sophie has to make some tough choices, trying to protect Hansi and her friends from the Nazi onslaught. The sudden wave of mysterious murders, disappearances and forced sterilizations makes her and Isaac realise that Berekiah Zarco’s worst fears might be about to come true, centuries after he wrote his manuscripts.

Artistically talented and mischievous, Sophie is a heroine one will not easily forget. Her passion for the cinema, her growing sense of righteousness, her awakening sexuality, and her selfless devotion to the people she loves sparkle with authenticity. The novel is interspersed with the poignant sketches she draws of her friends, adding to this overall effect.

Much has been written on Hitler’s Germany, but Zimler’s The Seventh Gate reveals a side of its inhumane machinery which has not been as prominent in the renderings of the time as it should have been, as the novel carefully examines how the horrors we associate with the time of the war already started happening in the early 30s with everyone watching almost in complete silence. Zimler probes the questions of how power is consolidated by intimidation and propagandistic lies, but also shows how small acts of courage and integrity can stand in its way. As Sophie comments on her younger self: “I’m still too young to know that people need only be frightened for their lives to swear that night is day. And that they can believe it’s really true.”

In an interview with Boyd Tonkin, Zimler stated that the relationship between the siblings Hansi and Sophie is his “monument” to the victims of the Nazi war on the disabled. The author expressed his wish that “every reader who reads the book with an open heart will be devastated by what happens to them both.” Because of the powerful storytelling of The Seventh Gate one cannot help but be.

Review first published in the Sunday Independent on 25 November 2007.