Category Archives: What I’ve Read

Review: Patriots and Parasites – South Africa and the Struggle to Evade History by Dene Smuts

denesmutsDene Smuts once said that “there are two approaches to opposition lawmaking work: making a noise and making a difference.” Throughout her courageous life she chose to make a difference. Smuts completed the manuscript of Patriots and Parasites: South Africa and the Struggle to Evade History shortly before her unexpected death in April last year. Her daughter Julia midwifed the project to completion.

In the Festschrift included at the end of the book, Jeremy Gauntlett notes Smuts’s “portable spine” which she lent out “often to many weaker people.” Before entering politics, she took a stance against censorship as a journalist and editor of Fair Lady. She resigned from the magazine in protest when her editorial independence was threatened over a story she ran about Winnie Mandela. She insisted on “readers’ right to know”. The longest-serving female parliamentarian, the first female chief whip, a lawmaker renowned for her work on the Constitution, Smuts was central to the birth of the new South Africa. She understood the importance of “cultivating the garden” that is our country.

The memoir is not a blow by blow account of Smuts’s private life. But when you read closely, the person who emerges from between the lines is a remarkable, inspiring human being who led by example. The book is testimony to her brilliant mind and fierce integrity. You might not always agree with what she has to say, but you never doubt that her heart is in the right place. She is unflinching in her analysis of contemporary socio-political developments and does not hesitate to call a spade a spade, or to mention when she is “incandescent with anger”.

There is no pussyfooting around burning issues of racism, polarisation, affirmative action, corruption, or reconciliation: “Just as apartheid was triggered by fanning the embers of cultural resentment of colonialism into the fire of Afrikaner nationalism, Thabo Mbeki brought out the bellows to reignite black resentment against white rule, both colonial and Afrikaner nationalist, when both had become history.” It is just another example of the ancient adage that we do not learn from history. And if anything, South Africa is one of the best embodiments of the effectiveness of the well-known policy: divide and rule (or conquer).

This is not the time to look for differences when common causes have to be addressed in order for the country to thrive as a whole, and Smuts’s incisive scrutiny of Mbeki’s legacy and the present government’s “misrule” points to the pitfalls we are facing. Only if we can all feel that we are “contributing to a new country”, will we be able to feel “at home”. Smuts recalls Jakes Gerwel’s words: “we had created the institutional mechanisms to deal with” the “remnants of the racist past”; “we should build on the positive foundations of transition and the Constitutional order to develop the non-racial reality already emerging.”

Patriots and Parasites is a passionate account of the importance of free speech, which Smuts championed in all her incarnations, whether as journalist or legislator. She points out the dangers of political correctness if allowed to stultify vigorous and necessary debate. Dialogue is pertinent to a healthy democracy. Communication consists as much of voicing concerns as listening. Smuts reminds of the occasion when in 1985 Ellen Kuzwayo was asked by white fellow women writers what they could do to help the cause: “All you can do is listen, listen.” Smuts herself kept her ear close to the ground as she knew the power of informed decision-making.

She gives compelling insight into the nitty-gritty of law-making, taking us back in time to the transition and recalling the turning points in history that made political change possible. The forces at play in the writing and implementing of the 1994 Interim Constitution and the 1996 Constitution are recorded in fascinating detail. Smuts remembers Kader Asmal acknowledging that “probably never before in history has such a high proportion of women been involved in writing a constitution.”

At the core of Patriots and Parasites is the knowledge that this is just one account of the palimpsest that is history. Other stories have to be told: “If the question is whether South Africa can evade history, then we need, at least, to hold up as true a record as possible of that history. The best way of doing so where records are not available, or are as contested … is to give as many accounts of what occurred as possible. This memoir is one such contribution to our recent history.” We owe it to ourselves to nurture and study these testimonies; not to allow recorded history to fall “into disarray, or decay”. Looking back, Smuts warns against apathy towards diverse manifestations of evil. Otherwise, as the reality around us shows over and over again, we will be “doomed to inhabit a world of false narratives”.

Smuts writes that “all we have to defeat this time, however hopeless it may sometimes look, is misrule and the erosion of everything we have already achieved”, and ends on an optimistic note: “It will be easier, this time.”

Patriots and Parasites: South Africa and the Struggle to Evade History

by Dene Smuts

Quivertree, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times, 17 February 2017.

Bookmark: Bookshops by Jorge Carrión

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

First published in the Cape Times, 17 February 2017.

Bookshops

by Jorge Carrión

Maclehose Press, 2016

Bookmark: How to Open the Door by Marike Beyers

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

How to Open the Door

by Marike Beyers

Modjaji, 2016

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

Review: Prunings by Helen Moffett

 

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

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

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

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

 

Review: Holding My Breath by Ace Moloi

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

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

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

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

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

Holding My Breath: A Memoir

by Ace Moloi

BlackBird Books, 2016

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

Review: Cove by Cynan Jones

coveI was born in Poland, but as a student I used to live in Wales. About two years ago, I read a glowing review of Everything I Found on the Beach by the young Welsh writer Cynan Jones. The reviewer mentioned that the novel featured a Polish character. A Welsh novel with a Polish character was an irresistible combination for a reader with my literary background. I ordered and devoured it, and since then I have read every other novel or novella I could get hold of by the same author: The Long Dry, The Dig, and the latest, Cove.

Cynan Jones has become one of my favourite writers and I await each new book of his with fervent anticipation. I have never been disappointed. His work offers two elements which I find most exciting in literature: the ability to lay bare the intricate landscapes of the human heart and soul, and a prose powerful enough to match what is revealed: the brutality and beauty of our existence. Jones is constantly being compared with the greats of modern literature – rightly so. But his voice is distinct, unforgettable.

Cove opens on a beach. A child is missing. A doll is washed up by the tide. And a dead pigeon is found: “The head was gone, the meat of its chest. The breast-bone oddly, industriously clean.” The man who finds it feels a sense of horror that the bird “knew before being struck. Of it trying to get home. Of something throwing it off course.” He removes the rings from its leg to return them to the owner who will be wondering about its fate.

As the epigraph explains, a cove can be “a small bay or inlet; a sheltered place” or “a fellow; a man”. Cove tells the story of a man who finds himself adrift in a kayak after he is struck by lightning. His recollections of how he got there and who he is are vague. He is injured, covered in ashes: the remains of someone who will definitely not return. The shore seems unreachable, but intuitively he knows that someone is waiting for him to come back: “The idea of her, whoever she might be, seemed to grow into a point on the horizon he could aim for.”

Cove is a quest for survival – man versus the elements: “Stay alive, he thinks.” Jones knows how to tell unique stories with universal appeal. He is fearless in his explorations of places most of us are terrified of. As in life, death is a constant in his stories. He reduces his plots to essentials and by doing so magnifies what is truly important. His work reminds us of the strengths and brilliance of the novella, an underestimated form in our time.

When you face the impossible, and all seems wrecked and lost, not many options remain: “If you disappear you will grow into a myth for them. You will exist only as absence. If you get back, you will exist as a legend.”

Cove

by Cynan Jones

Granta, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times, 13 January 2017.

Review: Zero K by Don DeLillo

zero-k

I would have bought Don DeLillo’s latest novel, Zero K, just for the exquisite, elegant cover. However, the nostalgia I feel for the author of the book ever since I read his stunning White Noise (1985) at university was its strongest selling point.

The essence of the title, the slick prose, the reduction of plot to bare essentials, the narrative’s minimalist beauty are all reflected in the cover design. You get what you see. The story is seemingly simple: billionaire Ross Lockhart invests in Convergence, a futuristic secret place somewhere in Asia where people are allowed to die on their own terms. They are kept in a state of stasis with the hope of being reawakened at a distant point in time when whatever ailed them can be overcome.

Artis, Lockhart’s second wife, is terminally ill and has decided to undergo the procedure. Ross asks Jeff, his only son from his first marriage to Madeline, to witness the transition. Deeply in love with Artis, in a moment of longing and desperation, Ross chooses to join his spouse, but then other considerations complicate the decision. Artis herself reveals a wish which throws Jeff off balance.

Jeff remembers his mother and her torturous death from cancer after Ross had left the family when the boy was still growing up. The relationship with his father is distant and troubled. Jeff’s entire adult life is a counter reaction to his father’s abandonment and ambitions. Now in his early thirties, Jeff is simultaneously confronted with the past they share and the future his father imagines.

In Convergence their fears and desires collide. The compound’s artistic design is a stark reminder of all that is sublime and evil in the world. The one does not seem to be able to exist without the other. It is a space of contemplation and a certain type of finality which offers the beyond so many dream of. But in what kind of world would we really be prepared to face eternity? Surely not the deteriorating, plagued, violent planet of our own making, the one we currently so carelessly refer to as home. The ancient question persists: “What’s the point of living if we don’t die at the end of it?” Is a surrender in which we gain instead of relinquish control and power worthwhile?

Zero K – the title derives from “a unit of temperature called absolute zero” – is a powerful meditation on life, the current state of global affairs and our uncertain future. The only thing I could fault it for is the weary sterility of the emotions it stirs, but then again: it reflects much of what we have come to accept about our fragile world: “I knew what I was feeling, a sympathy bled white by disappointment.” Only a few of us notice one of those moments “never to be thought of except when it’s in the process of unfolding.” And it will be our novelists and artists who will keep reminding us what is at stake.

Zero K

by Don DeLillo

Picador, 2016

First published in the Cape Times, 6 January 2017.

Review: Losing the Plot by Leon de Kock

losing-the-plot-coverLosing the Plot might seem like a book for academics and students of literature only, but I am certain it will appeal to anyone with an interest in contemporary South African writing. Leon de Kock – academic, translator, poet and novelist – has been a defining presence on the local literary stage for many years. In his latest book, he concentrates on a specific aspect of postapartheid writing: how it “pivots around a continuing problematised notion of transition”. He reads the literary output of the last two decades in the light of the “initial wave of optimism, evident in the early phase of the upbeat transitional ferment,” and the disillusionment which followed.

Desperately, we are all trying to make sense of the reality around us, and most of it is too much to handle. De Kock points out that “the boundaries between right and wrong have blurred”. Readers turn to writers and intellectuals for guidance on how to deal with the confounding state of our lives. We are confronted with such staggering levels of pathological behaviour in the country (and beyond) that it is difficult to know where to search for meaning, and some sense of safety. It is no wonder that “the quest to uncover what’s going on in an obscured public sphere became a consuming obsession for many writers.”

In the seven incisive chapters of Losing the Plot, de Kock outlines general trends in postapartheid writing and focuses on a variety of its proponents such as genre fiction, life writing and creative nonfiction, but not exclusively. He returns to earlier seminal texts such as Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying or Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull and shines a light on more recent ones which are bound to become classics such as Imraan Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System, Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City, or Jonny Steinberg’s A Man of Good Hope.

Crime writing “may have come to stand in for what used to be seen as political or engaged fiction,” de Kock suggests. Let down by institutions and society, we crave to see justice at work, even if it is only in fiction. Through crime thrillers we identify the good guys and point fingers at evil. This begs the question of how much of what literature is doing post-1994 is actually new? De Kock also considers our haunting past and how the “reality hunger” of the twenty-first century impacts present-day South Africa. He does not shy away from hashtags and the complex issues leading up to their prevalence. The most illuminating section in the book is on the Marikana massacre. There is no denying the woundedness we grapple with, the challenges we are facing as individuals and a society.

What shines through in Losing the Plot, however, is the restorative capacity of storytelling, especially the possibility of the “restitution of dignity via the power of narrative”. One should never underestimate either. The key to both is compassion, nourished by our imaginations. Not all is lost, yet.

 

Review first published in the Cape Times, 30 December 2016.

Review: Things Unseen by Pamela Power

things-unseen-by-pamela-powerFounded and headed by author Sarah McGregor, Clockwork Books is a new independent local publisher with a growing list of fascinating titles. Its latest release is Pamela Power’s second novel, Things Unseen, a psychological thriller set in the posh suburbs of Johannesburg. I first read it in manuscript form, and remember that I had to pause and take a deep breath after the shocking violence of the opening scene in which we witness the terrifying demise of a person and an animal. Let’s just say that the rest of the book is also not for sissies.

Not at first glance, but the following chapters are perhaps just as disturbing as the beginning. The novel attempts to describe the kind of violence which is nearly imperceptible to outsiders – emotional and psychological violence. We meet Emma and her husband Rick at their university reunion. Emma works for a local theatre company and she is friends with her boss Gay and her partner Sophie, a psychologist. Rick is an ambitious gynaecologist with a roving eye who treats Emma like a trophy, not a wife. She is aware of his numerous affairs, but turns a blind eye until she encounters Craig, her first big love, at the event. He is visiting from the UK where he’d settled many years ago. Faced with the question of what could have been, Emma begins to re-examine her life.

All is brought to an abrupt end the evening of the reunion when Emma, distressed about not being able to reach her mother nor their domestic worker Lizzie on their phones, abandons the alumni gathering and rushes back to discover her mother brutally murdered in their home, a mansion on a vast property meant for a large family with kids. Despite many attempts, Emma and Rick are childless. Their infertility is a source of great distress to Emma. The couple drifts further apart during the murder investigation and the tensions between them escalate upon the arrival of Ross, Emma’s troubled brother who lives in Australia. Emma is convinced that the main suspect in their mother’s murder – their gardener who is missing – could not be responsible for the gruesome deed although most clues point to the contrary. When her mother’s lawyer explains the unexpected wishes of the dead woman to her family, everyone is taken by surprise. And then Emma encounters a sickly sweet smell in their garden and the events of the night of the murder take on another evil twist.

Craig, a former policeman turned security expert, assists Emma in her search for truth. She refuses to look at the facts alone when her gut feeling tells her that they simply do not make sense. Craig trusts her intuition and applies his investigative skills to help her. Everything becomes even more complicated when they rediscovers their long-buried feelings for each other and begin falling in love again.

The main narrative is interspersed with a sequence of dark images from the past which gradually reveal the portrayal of the horrendous abuse of a child. It is clear that the child grew up to be one of the protagonists, an innocent victim turned ruthless perpetrator, but Power keeps the plot cards close to her chest and has the reader guessing who did what until the spectacular showdown at the very end.

Things Unseen is a fast-paced, haunting thriller which addresses our most intimate fears of invasions and violations in the context of present-day crime realities of the country, but also free of the socio-political context. What Emma and her family members experience could happen to anyone anywhere in the world. The challenges of the betrayals and losses she faces in her marriage will be known to many women, independent of race and class. The madness of grief and the inability to make sane choices when you are in its grips are part of the story. And Johannesburg, with all its social woes, is very much a character in the novel. Readers will recognise the everyday realities of the upper-middle-classes – the glamour and the horror of the rich and beautiful – but these form only part of the narrative drive, not a closer study of the underlying societal struggles.

Power is a scriptwriter and editor. Her dialogues are vivid, her characters are recognisable, and feel real. She has a wicked sense of humour which shines through despite the sombre themes. At the heart of her novel is a love story, a woman’s quest to reclaim and follow her dreams despite the horrific circumstances she finds herself in. Emma is surrounded by a tightly knit group of friends who help her to pull through and pursue her own path towards fulfilment. The characters grow on one as the story progresses and one can only hope for a sequel.

Things Unseen will appeal to readers who like to get lost in a good yarn. I can imagine that many will want to finish it in one sitting, so perhaps start reading when you have a nice pot of tea or a glass of wine ready on standby and know that, if you wish, you can disappear for a few hours into the world of Things Unseen.

Things Unseen

by Pamela Power

Clockwork Books, 2016

Review: There’s Always Tomorrow by Abner Nyamende

theres-always-tomorrowThe overwhelming impression I had while reading Abner Nyamende’s There’s always tomorrow was that the novel had not been edited properly, if at all. It began with the first page, where the word “darkness” features six times without apparent reason. And the unnecessary repetitions are only the tip of the iceberg. After finishing, out of curiosity I looked up Partridge, the publishing house, and was informed that, although backed by a giant international trade publisher, the company provides only self-publishing services to their authors. Editing seems to be part of the professional packages on offer, but I cannot imagine that it was employed in this particular case. In this regard I was appalled at the quality of the final product, and it is a pity, because the book has an important story to tell. If the author did pay for editing of any kind, he was cheated…

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