Tag Archives: Afrikaans

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

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Polish – Afrikaans magic

This morning I received the following message (in Afrikaans, nogal!):

“Koop vandag se Rapport! Groete Jerzy”

To which I automatically replied:

“Ek sal, baie dankie! K”

And I did. Inside, was an article about Jerzy Koch’s A History of South African Literature: Afrikaans Literature 17th – 19th Centuries (Van Schaik, 2015).
Jerzy Koch_Rapport
The article and our exchange reminded me of something I wrote for Die Burger in 2008.

Found in Translation: Two Poles in South Africa
(Die Burger 28 July 2008)

There is only a handful of people in his home country with whom the Pole Professor Jerzy Koch can easily converse in the language which over the last fifteen years has become his great linguistic passion – Afrikaans. His home in Wrocław in the South of Poland is perhaps the only place in the country where one will be welcomed with homemade bobotie and some biltong which always features on his shopping list whenever he visits South Africa.

When he is here, people are pleasantly surprised with his fluent and articulate Afrikaans and his incredibly diverse knowledge of local culture, literature and history. Koch’s work forms one of the strongest cultural and intellectual bridges between Poland and South Africa, and between the two languages, Polish and Afrikaans.

Suitably, his African adventure began with magic. Sometime in the 1980s, with his students of German, Koch was celebrating Andrzejki (St Andrew’s Day). According to Polish tradition, he poured some beeswax through the hole of a key into a bowl of cold water. The ensuing wax figurine, which was to foretell his future, was interpreted as having the shape of either a heart or of Africa. Not surprisingly, a few years later, Koch lost his heart to Africa when, after completing his doctorate at the Belgian Catholic University of Leuven, he participated in a conference in Potchefstroom in 1992.

In the introduction of his latest book, Hottentot Venus and Other Essays on South African Literature (published in Polish by Dialog, 2008), he recalls his fascination with South Africa of the early 1990s: “The fact that the transition in Poland was happening at the same time as the South African one made interest in South Africa, at least in my eyes, obvious.”

In 1993, our paths crossed for the first time in the most unusual manner and unbeknown to both of us at the time. After Daniel Hugo recited some of Ingrid Jonker’s verses to him at Three Anchor Bay, Koch translated a selection of Jonker’s poetry from Afrikaans into Polish. The volume was edited and published by WitrynArtystów, a small publishing house run by none other than my uncle, Bogusław Michnik. Jonker’s poetry collection was most likely the first book ever translated from Afrikaans into Polish. It is one of numerous translations from Dutch and Afrikaans for which Koch received the Martinus Nijhoffprijs in 1995.

Jerzy Koch is also the author of several monographs and numerous articles on South African literature in general, and Afrikaans literature in particular.
Jerzy Koch_booksHis previous book of local interest, History of South African Literature: Afrikaans Literature – 17th-19th Century, published in Polish in 2004, was the first study of its kind written by a non-South African for a non-South African audience. It is comprehensive, wonderfully illustrated history of Afrikaans literature which is an excellent point of entry for Polish students of South African studies at two Polish universities, University of Wrocław and the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, where Koch introduced this particular field of inquiry. In translation, it might offer an inspirationally fresh look at literary history for Afrikaans speakers.

Koch is currently working on the sequel to this publication, a history of twenty-century Afrikaans literature and on the first Afrikaans-Polish dictionary, apparently the fourth ever bilingual dictionary that includes Afrikaans. He is also editor of the annual publication Werkwinkel: Journal of Low Countries and South African Studies. Its third issue on its way to us as I write.

Jerzy Koch, André and I in Stellenbosch in 2006.

Jerzy Koch, André and I in Stellenbosch in 2006.

In South Africa, he is presently a research fellow at the UFS in Bloemfontein and since 2005 a member of the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns, an honour rarely bestowed on a foreign scholar.

Easily recognised by his old-fashioned, long, curled moustache, Jerzy Koch was, fittingly, the first person I ever spoke Polish to in South Africa when we met at last in person in 2006 during one of his visits to the Cape. Ever since I came to live here myself in 2005 I have been absorbing Afrikaans. One day, Jerzy Koch and I will have a conversation in Afrikaans about Langenhoven. We share a passion for this country, its people and their cultural treasures, believing that it is of the utmost importance to forge understanding between peoples through explorations of the unknown with the help of the known. And a little bit of magic.

(When André and I first visited my uncle who published Tęsknota za Kapsztadem, he proudly presented the volume to us, not in the least aware of the connection between Ingrid Jonker and André. He was just proud of having published a South African author in translation. I remember I had tears in my eyes when he handed the book over to us and I paged through it, looking for a poem dedicated to André. I found one, pointed at the dedication and then at André, and said to my uncle in Polish: “It’s the same person, you know.” Tears flooded all our eyes. Magic. And Jerzy and I texting to each other in Afrikaans – that’s magic, too.)

Review: 101 Detectives by Ivan Vladislavić

101 DetectivesOm te sê ek was verward, is om dit sagkens te stel. Die eerste drie verhale in 101 Detectives, Ivan Vladi­slavic se jongste versameling, het my met hul onvoorspelbare vreemdheid van balans af gehad.

In die wete dat die naam op die boekomslag sinoniem is met bobaas van die kortverhaalkuns, het ek ­egter volhard. Ek is ryklik beloon.

Hierdie outeur se boeke het my nog nooit teleurgestel nie. Uitgedaag, gestimuleer, verryk – ja! Maar nie teleurgestel nie.

Sy skryfwerk verg die leser se aktiewe deelname. Toegegee, ek het nie al die woorde in elke paragraaf van die titelverhaal getel nie, maar die truuk wat gebruik word skemer aan die einde van die verhaal deur sonder dat lesers hul somme hoef te maak.

Tel of nie, jy kan nie bloot deur die boek blaai en ontsnappingsvermaak verwag nie. Ek was derhalwe bereid om my ongemak met die ­begin van die versameling opsy te skuif en met sorg te lees om die ­genot te smaak.

Die vierde storie het my reeds oortuig ek is op die regte spoor.

“Exit Strategy” (let op die titel) bevat dalk ’n paragraaf wat die sleutel tot die hele versameling inhou. Nadat sy ’n man die wolkekrabbers waarin sy werk, sien uitklim het, merk ’n vrou op: “It’s a distressing idea: this might be the most interesting thing that’s ever happened to me . . . and yet it feels like a cliché. Everything surprising has already happened before or is about to happen again. No matter what I do or say, or how I remember it or tell it, it will never be interesting enough.”

Die vrou is ’n korporatiewe storieverteller wat, figuurlik en letterlik, bo haar vlak by die werk probeer uitstyg, maar ook na uitkomkans soek…

Continue reading: Media 24

Review: Synapse by Antjie Krog

SynapseReading Antjie Krog’s latest volume of poetry translated into English, Synapse (Mede-wete in Afrikaans), I was faced with an old personal dilemma: How much hard work is too much in order to reach that moment where meaning and aesthetic pleasure reveal themselves to you as a poetry reader? I don’t have an adequate answer. Perhaps everyone’s threshold is different anyway. In the end all you have is your very individual frame of reference, as a friend recently reminded me.

In any poetry volume you will find poems which will immediately speak to you. Others will require a specific key to unlock a feeling of appreciation. Rereading, research, or exploration of context will eventually reward your effort. Some poems will forever remain inaccessible no matter the amount of goodwill you put in. And then there will be those which will simply leave you cold. The poems in Synapse fit into all these categories.

The volume is divided into two parts: The Yard and Four Efforts in Linguistic Synapse Tracing. The first part opens with a series of epigraphs which are followed by thirteen poems, all focused on the images of the yard and the farm. These I find the strongest and most captivating in the book. In the epigraphs we are introduced to spaces in which the land and its ownership take centre stage and gender roles are clearly defined. The poems speak of the death of a patriarch, familial roots which reach into a troubled past, grief, guilt, race relations, and the ancient questions of owning and belonging.

As the poem 11. fossilised tree trunk makes clear, everything is connected, embedded, echoed throughout history. And yet, everything changes: “after all the years we gurgle (the only outlasting ones) / burdened with the dying light and bloodsick with heritage / : the new ones prepare to enter the yard” (13. old yard). At the heart of one’s relationship with the land are beauty and language: “places that could always snap my skeleton into language / coil me into voices bore into my entrails / expose a certain wholeness of belonging as my deepest tongue / tear chorales and something like discord from my brain” (6. live the myth).

This is the kind of poetry that leaves one gasping for air, which opens up new spaces in one’s understanding and feeling about the past and everyday reality in this country.

The Yard continues with poems which grapple with morality and reconciliation. The idea of interconnectedness is challenged in hold your ear to the tear in the skin of my country where already the format of the poem signals separate spheres of understanding the concept of forgiveness. The words of the speaker of the first section, Cynthia Ngewu, who testified in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about the murder of her son, one of the Guguletu Seven, cascade onto the page like a waterfall. The neat couplets which follow represent an ordered attempt to understand the motives and worldviews of the officer who was involved in the killing. In the end, we are told, “it was futile to try to weave interconnectedness into / the concrete bunker that lives inside Mr Barnard’s whiteness”.

The bleakness of moving beyond such divisions is captured in miracle where South Africa’s relatively peaceful liberation is juxtaposed with present-day, all-consuming greed and violence: “we have become the prey of ourselves caught up / in ethnic avarice and total incapacity for vision”.

More intimate poems about ageing, memory, grand-motherhood, domesticity, or the I-you constellation of lovers reveal the wonders of the world along deeper philosophical questions about our capabilities and responsibilities. The tone ranges from sombre to light-hearted. Krog is one of the few poets out there who can smuggle Skype, wifi, the Internet and memory sticks into poetry and make them look as if they almost belonged. Also, when she swears, she makes it count.

The poem convivium astounds with its breadth: “what use my caress in the breath-earthed night if a centre- / less universe opens space in the nonexistent for dark / matter to overpower a few broken beads of light?” The poem, like the human body at the core of its universe, “tuneforks such abundance”.

Apart from a handful exceptions, especially the Lament on the death of Mandela, the latter part of the volume, specifically the obfuscated Four Efforts in Linguistic Synapse Tracing left me baffled. The tightness and clarity of the preceding poems dissolved in musings where it became more and more difficult to follow the poet on her journey. The academic in me insisted I persevere and come to grips with the pieces, but the Sunday morning reader just wanted to return to the earlier poems in the collection or open another book. The Sunday morning reader won.

Synapse
by Antjie Krog
translated by Karen Press
Human & Rousseau, 2014

A ‘butchered’ version of this review appeared in the Cape Times on 19 December 2014, p. 12.

Review: in a burning sea – Contemporary Afrikaans Poetry in Translation edited by Marlise Joubert

in a burning seaMy Afrikaans is sufficient enough to follow everyday conversations, watch Afrikaans soapies and read Die Burger. But ever since hearing Antjie Krog read in her deep, melodic voice from her impressive oeuvre in Afrikaans I have wanted to understand more than just basics. Until that moment arrives, only translations allow me to savour some of the riches of Afrikaans writing. In poetry, these are not easy to come by. Of the few available in recent years in English, Krog’s Body Bereft (2006), Ingrid Jonker’s Black Butterflies (2007) and Wilma Stockenströrm’s The Wisdom of Water (2007) in particular belong to my all-time favourites.

in a burning sea is thus a highly anticipated publication which will hopefully pave the way for more translations. Altogether the anthology features thirty contemporary Afrikaans poets. Alphabetically arranged by authors’ names, the collection takes its title from a poem by Breyten Breytenbach, one of only a handful widely translated practitioners of the craft: “how often were we here / where only silver shadows stir / only through you I had to deny myself / through you alone I knew I had no harbour / in a burning sea”.

The editor Marlise Joubert, author of seven volumes of poetry herself and editor of four Versindaba anthologies (a publication inspired by the annual poetry festival by the same name), asked established poets and newcomers (but with at least two published volumes to their name) to submit ten poems from which a selection was then made for the book.

Among those included are the exciting young voices of Ronelda S. Kamfer (“the bullet nestled in his throat / his mother did not cry / the politicians planted a small tree / and the Cape Doctor tore it out / and flung it where the rest of the Cape Flats dreams lie – // on the flats”), Danie Marais (“On seconds thoughts, Stellenbosch, / you are a violated classic – / a bergie with an 1840s gable / for a hat…”), Carina Stander (“in the weak sunlight / filtering into the kitchen / mothers like calabashes / nattered on knitted goatskin”), and Loftus Marais (“and when i have to stand before Him / i’ll curtsy effeminately / and carefully explain to Him / that my catsuit / (folded in the suitcase next to the vanity case) / is fire resistant” – from The Second Coming) who hold more than their own along such greats as Breytenbach, Krog, Stockenström, Petra Müller, T.T. Cloete or Marlene van Niekerk.

Top translators of the likes of Michiel Heyns or Leon de Kock, often in collaboration with the poets, and the authors themselves made the work available in English. Hardly ever was I aware of reading translations, the Afrikaans poems feeling very much at home in their new incarnations. The originals are presented alongside the English for parallel reading.

André Brink’s introduction gives a short historical overview of Afrikaans poetry and its various trends, placing the selection in context. Most poems included are very recent, with a few exceptions dating back as far as M.M. Walter’s Apocrypha XII (1969): “When Eve clad herself amidst the grove of figs / in fashions by the heavenly Hartnell –”. Some poems had not been published at the time of submission, including Marlene van Niekerk’s eulogy Hamba kakuhle, Madiba.

What strikes one immediately when reading the anthology is how well local flavours mix with global traditions. The anthology opens with a landscape poem by Zandra Bezuidenhout about the last days of summer in the Midi: “the night is balmy with bonhomie / and aromas linger like tongues”. Bezuidenhout’s other poems are steeped in an irresistible sensuality whether she describes the sharing of a fig (“and offer the plum-red sweetness / as token of our bonded state”) or an exhibition by Marlene Dumas (“how transparent the nipple-bud / bleeding in berry-red passion”).

Universal themes are presented along concerns closer to home such as in Martjie Bosman’s Scorched Earth (From Ouma Makkie’s stroke-stricken mouth I inherit / two bitter words: insult and scorn / and the mournful knowing that generations / settled this family land in vain”), or Daniel Hugo’s in memoriam poem to Ingrid Jonker, Escape (“I love walking – drunk on ozone – / up to Three Anchor Bay…everywhere sewage smells / algae, seal vertebrae, mussel shells / a clotted, stinking ink-fish / and – stone-cold sober – you see / at times a poet’s body”), or Krog’s colonialism of a special kind (“people are made ashamed that they have forgiven // because at the deepest level / we respect anger / understand hate / admire revenge”).

in a burning sea gives one an enticing taste of what is happening in Afrikaans poetry at this point in literary history. Not all the poems selected take one’s breath away, but they definitely put one in a mood for more.

in a burning sea: Contemporary Afrikaans Poetry in Translation
edited by Marlise Joubert
Protea Book House, 2014

An edited version of this review was published in the Cape Times on 14 November 2014.

Book mark: The Alibi Club by Jaco van Schalkwyk

The Alibi ClubJaco van Schalkwyk is an artist and a writer with enormous promise. His visual and literary imageries correspond. Published simultaneously in Afrikaans and English, his debut novel The Alibi Club is a poignant, meticulously constructed narrative, written in a starkly revealing prose. It tells the story of a medley of striking individuals who frequent the titular club in Brooklyn where booze and drugs flow in abundance, the jukebox and the pool table provide entertainment, and human relationships are forged and discarded through the nights. The narrator is a young South African who progresses from cleaner to bartender at The Alibi. He arrives in Brooklyn in 1998 and departs nearly a decade later. His observations paint an incisive portrait of the neighbourhood during that time, especially the radical transformation it experienced after the horrific attacks of 9/11.

The Alibi Club
Jaco van Schalkwyk
Umuzi, 2014

First published in the Cape Times on 24 October 2014.

Our Brass Bed

Home AwayBraunau am Inn | Geretsdorf | Salzburg, Austria, 7 p.m.

You are like me. You feel safer on the right side of the road, sitting on the left in the car, changing gears with your right hand, looking over your right shoulder to reverse. The little white Daihatsu was an unexpected gift from your father; he bought it for peanuts and renovated it so that you could have a car of your own. You should actually sell it now. Ever since your move to Cape Town, you drive it only during occasional visits to your parents, at most a few weeks every year. For the rest of the time, the reliable little car loiters in the yard gathering dust. It is much smaller and less comfortable than the respectable Mercedes you and your husband share at home, yet you feel safe in it. The idea of parting with it is painful to you, even though you know this would be the sensible thing to do. It’s what your father urges you to do every time you come to visit. He sees no point in keeping it. But no matter how hard it is to admit, even to yourself, you see it as another loss of part of your life. You have experienced too many losses; you can’t reduce it to an ordinary transaction of exchanging money for an object. This object is too special. The car and you share a history.

You have always been an intrepid traveller, and the Daihatsu has taken you to many remote corners of Europe. It has never let you down. When you were at university, you drove it to Salzburg every day, fifty kilometres each way. You would rather have it stand around and rust in the backyard of your parents’ house than sell it to a stranger. The thought of returning to it is always comforting. There was a moment when you seriously considered having it shipped to South Africa, but you soon realised that the transfer costs would have exceeded the car’s worth. It was a silly idea.

Your plane landed yesterday. You travelled from Cape Town to Munich via Amsterdam, and took the train from the airport to Simbach, Braunau’s twin, where your brother Krystian picked you up from the station. Nowadays, with the borders in the European Union abolished, the two towns are divided only by the Inn River and the usual neighbourly mistrust. For many years you lived in Braunau am Inn, Hitler’s Austrian birthplace, until your parents decided to move to the countryside and bought a house in the nearby village of Geretsdorf. Still at university, you moved with them because you had no other choice. All your life you had little say in the places you learnt to call home. Until now, that is. You moved to Cape Town because you wanted to – a traumatic liberation.

You do not visit your old house in Braunau any more. You went once and it broke your heart to see the building modernised, its small fairy garden replaced by a standard lawn, all the trees reduced to stumps. The old staghorn sumac which leant on the garage wall and in whose branches you used to read was gone. So were the deceptively straggly-looking plum trees which bore baskets of fruit every second year. Worst was the complete disappearance of the tall emerald arborvitae hedge which surrounded the entire property and gave your family privacy in the densely populated area. The place looked stripped and exposed. You felt just as violated.

You remember the time when you moved into the house after living in the States for more than two years. It was small and dilapidated, but with combined effort your family quickly turned it into a home. Here you listened to your brother dream-laugh in the bedroom next to yours; your mother filled the house with the smell of plum jam in autumn; your hard-working father fell asleep on the kitchen bench every evening after supper. This suddenly became the place where all your journeys began and ended. Even today returning to Braunau feels like a homecoming to you; it was the longest pause in your itinerant life. Nine years may not seem long, but it meant nine years of certain stability you had not experienced before.

In the early nineties, Braunau became a place of safety, in spite of its many contradictions. As an Ausländer – a foreigner – you had to stay at home when thousands of neo-Nazis descended on the town each April to celebrate the Führer’s birthday. But on other days you took your friends and visitors to the front of the house where he was born to have a look at the monument placed there. Brought over from the concentration camp in Mauthausen in 1989, the stone commemorates the victims of fascism: Für Frieden, Freiheit und Demokratie. Nie wieder Faschismus. Millionen Tote mahnen. (For peace, freedom and democracy. Never again fascism. Millions of dead warn.)

It is not a warning the generals of the former Yugoslavia took to heart when the wars broke out in 1991. You remember watching the daily media reports from the region just across the Austrian border and translating for your grandma who was staying with you at the time. The images brought back her own memories of war and displacement; it was the only time you heard her speak about that distant past. Every day she wanted to know how many more aid trucks with medicine, blankets, food and clothing had left Austria for the conflict zones. Thousands and thousands, you assured her. Somebody pointed out to you that it was not only a humanitarian gesture, but also a way of keeping the flow of refugees into Austria under some kind of control. Many came anyway. For a few months of high school you ended up sitting next to a tall, dark-haired girl whose face you still see but whose name escapes you. She told you in broken English that she didn’t know where her father and brothers were, whether they were still alive. She’d escaped only with her mother. You did not dare imagine the horrors she must have seen, the courage it must have taken to flee, what and whom they’d had to leave behind. Your own refugee past – escaping communist Poland in the late 1980s, going through refugee camps, and migrating through the world for four years – was insignificant in comparison. Your life had never been in danger. Staying at home on Hitler’s birthday to avoid creepy looks and verbal abuse from neo-Nazis hardly seemed relevant.

Earlier today, with history on your mind, you passed the Mauthausen stone monument on your way into town. The medieval Stadtplatz, the main square, was bustling with activity. The place had first been mentioned as Prounaw in an official document from 1120. As you drove into the centre, it struck you how ancient all these buildings were in comparison to the place where you lived now. Your Victorian house or even the Castle in Cape Town seemed like toddlers when compared to these Methuselahs.

In August, the light is still bright in the evening, but you had to hurry before the last shops closed at seven. Your flat in your parents’ house in Geretsdorf had stood empty for a couple of months. All day long you swept, vacuumed and dusted; then you unpacked your heavy suitcase and rushed to town to buy a few essentials. Suddenly, German was all around you. You feared to open your mouth, afraid that nothing would come out, the language you’d been speaking most of your life somehow forgotten, engulfed by a terrified silence. In the chemist, you carried a tube of your favourite toothpaste and panty liners (you always schlep both to Cape Town because you cannot find satisfying local substitutes for them) to the counter and tried your luck: Ich möchte bitte mit der Bankomatkarte zahlen. (I want to pay with my debit card.) The words flew out of your mouth, automatically. You remembered the pin code for your Austrian debit card. The woman at the counter looked familiar. At Billa you bought some Leberkas, the traditional Austrian sausage meatloaf, and a few bottles of Uttendorfer beer from a local brewery. You would have one in a hot bath later.

Now, driving back from Braunau to Geretsdorf, you think how easy it is to return, to go unnoticed, to pass as one of the locals again. The Daihatsu slides through the Upper Austrian landscape, surreally lit by the setting sun. With your right hand you smoothly shift the gear to accelerate for a takeover manoeuvre. Just as smoothly your mind shifts into a narrative mode and you describe the surroundings to yourself in your head. The kitsch pastoral scene, suddenly outrageously beautiful in the setting sun, demands some concentration: The ink-smeared horizon, the bruised horizon, dotted with eerie clouds, punctuated by clouds, glowing orange, blushing orange, from the touch of setting sunrays … The words swirl in your mind like candy around a child’s tongue. Shocked, you spit them out as you drive on and stare at the sun setting over the barley fields, the grand square, white farmsteads, the small herd of cows, and you force yourself to describe the scene in German: Der Himmel, der Horizont, blau, die Wolken, die Sonne, orange. Individual words and their particles come to you, but they refuse to turn into smooth, peppermint-sweet images. You are startled.

***

Once you’d mastered all three, you divided your languages into favourites. Polish for speaking. German for writing. English for reading. Since your move to Cape Town you have been assimilating Afrikaans into the mix, for socialising. Driving towards Geretsdorf, you recognise that a shift has taken place. The carefully ranked categories no longer apply. English has taken over.

It shouldn’t surprise you. You lived in the States for over two years, continued learning English at school in Austria, and later you studied English literature at university for twelve years. Since 2005, you’ve been living in Cape Town where it is the lingua franca. You and your husband speak English to each other and you are at home with it; it is at home with you. English has inadvertently become the language you work in, as a critic and finally – yes, finally – as a writer. You know that this last shift is the crux (even if at this very moment you have to look up the exact meaning of ‘crux’ in a monolingual dictionary to make sure that it is actually the word you mean).

English has become the language of your creativity; your intimacy with it derives from living in South Africa. But you’ve only just realised it now, on this road from Braunau to Geretsdorf. It unsettles you, this shift of paradigms which has happened so automatically, so unconsciously, and you need time to take it in; you need to think it through. In English. You recall the Chinese-Canadian writer Ying Chen speaking in Lyon about her mother tongue and the tongue of her fiction; she compared one to an arranged marriage and the other to a love affair. You can identify with the idea of English as your lover.

You arrive in Geretsdorf enlightened, in love, park the car in front of the house, and do not lock the door. At home in Cape Town, long before you get to the garage you have to start checking whether you aren’t being followed. In Geretsdorf, there are no security bars on your parterre windows, no alarms, no terrifying daily Neighbourhood Watch reports, no stories of friends’ hijacked cars, no neighbour arriving at your gate with knife wounds in his face, no phone calls from your stepdaughter traumatised after an armed robbery, no funerals of murdered family members, no foreigners burnt alive in the streets. At least not since 1945.

You derive pleasure from the unlocked car door. You enter the house with a smile and open the terrace door wide open to celebrate this sense of freedom, and to let in some fresh air before the sun sets completely. The only reason to lock up later will be to keep the mosquitoes out of your bed tonight.

From upstairs your mother calls that dinner will be ready at eight. You have a while to relax, to settle further in to one of your many former homes where everything is still so familiar. You moved into this flat after your return from a student-exchange year in Wales, and lived here for four years before you decided to make South Africa your home. It was in this very study, on this desk in front of you, where you’d planned your first journey to Africa, on a research grant for your PhD on Nadine Gordimer’s post-apartheid work. Most of your books, travel guides and maps are still here, now filed away with the photographs and study materials you’d brought from South Africa in 2004; the defended and published thesis added to the collection in 2008. There is also the photograph of you with your future husband and other participants from the ‘South Africa in Perspective’ Symposium you helped to organise at the University in Salzburg at the end of 2004. Next to it is a postcard of the picturesque Schloss Leopoldskron, where the last event of the symposium took place and where you fell in love with the man who would become your husband, even though you did not dare admit it at the time. You and your husband have returned time and again to Salzburg, the city you both love so much, the city that brought you together, with its centuries-old architecture, dignified opulence, and mummified socio-historical structures, all glossed over with gold and red for Sound of Music fans descending in their thousands, clicking away pictures in tourist-crowded alleys, stuffing themselves with grilled chestnuts or oven-baked potatoes topped with sour-cream and chives, buying useless gifts at the rustic Christmas Market, gathering next to the cathedral around the handsome Russian balalaika player, drinking hot chocolate or iced coffee at Tomaselli, ascending in cable cars to the medieval fortress that squats on top of the miniature mountain (which sometimes reminds you of another that you can see every day from your stoep in Cape Town), attending endless music concerts, trampling on the roses in the Mirabell Garden where Copernicus sits wondering whether he is German or Polish. And yes, yes, Mozart! Mozart is everywhere, more golden and reddish than anything else in the famous city of Salzburg, reclaimed covetously by a place that never wanted him during his lifetime.

You know there is more to Salzburg; it’s hidden, quiet, small, a little grey – yours. Alone, one January evening before midnight, you walked the fog-veiled streets of the old town and decided to leave Salzburg, Geretsdorf, Austria – for good. The final link in a long chain of events which began in 1999, when Edwin Hees (now a dear friend), arrived in Salzburg to share his passion for the arts of the Beloved Country and brought your whole world to a standstill. After his lecture, you rushed into the departmental library with burning cheeks and a famished mind and tried to absorb everything possible about South Africa’s past and present. You were overwhelmed by the intensity of the historical moment only five years after the first democratic election. You were moved by the promise of a new future, by the vibrancy of the emerging post-apartheid literature. History was happening then and there, at the multilingual tip of the foreign continent; it was not something confined to outdated school books. It was a time of chaos and possibility.

Travelling to South Africa for the first time in 2004 only confirmed all you’d learnt and hoped about the country in the five years since Edwin’s first lecture; strangely, you felt instantly at home in this distant, foreign, multitudinous place. No wonder that a year later, you had come home for good. South Africa was a forge, shaping history as you watched, shaping you as you lived. You abandoned the shadow of a medieval fortress, unchanged for centuries, and exchanged the crystallised reality of Europe for the muddle of a lived present. Its complexity finally tipped you over the edge of impassivity and allowed the creative impulse that you’d been harbouring for years to emerge onto the stark white light of a published page.

Now, on this visit to your parents, you sit in your old study in Geretsdorf and stare at the books that represented South Africa before it became your home. On the desk is a little pile of presents you brought for your family, among them a collection of short stories which includes one of your own. You take up a pen and dedicate the book to your parents and your brother, relieved that the content has nothing to do with them. The story is about rape and domestic violence. As one of the lucky ones, you have never experienced anything like it in your own life, but it is part of the reality of your new home, and you constantly feel the need to confront it in your writing.

South Africa is in constant flux. Positive and negative forces of change are entangled and nothing is clear-cut or easy. You sometimes think that living compartmentalised lives is the only way to survive in this fractured place. But you still want to have coffee with your gardener on the stoep while discussing the rain clouds and the mole invasion. Surely that shouldn’t be so much to ask for? Yet you know the mere suggestion makes the poor man want to sink into the nearest mole hole. (Madam?) And no matter how hard you try to explain this to your European mother, she doesn’t understand. You foolishly thought you could apply your straightforward idealism to a country that was anything but ideal. South Africa is far from unique in this respect, but this doesn’t make anything right, just more desperate. This society’s vibrancy comes at a high price. You aren’t going to change the world. The world is changing you. To try to understand, you write.

You live in a country at war with itself. It’s not paranoia, or some obscure statistics; it’s reality. Daily, thousands of people are dying around you, of preventable diseases, preventable crime, preventable poverty and, most recently, preventable xenophobia. You realise that this time the keyword of hate speech had been makwerekwere. What if the next time it is whites; will you burn to ashes in the streets with bystanders watching you helplessly or, worse, with joy? But you need not even think that far. Every day, other words are pronounced with hatred around you: baby, woman, HIV positive, privilege. There is always somebody too vulnerable for their own good. And the disquiet, the omnipotent force of history – ironically – is gathering to pounce again. But you do not stand up and fight, nor do you leave for safer shores; paralysed, from a vantage point of relative safety on your private island, you watch the ongoing catastrophes around you as if in slow motion, hoping it won’t happen to you, knowing precisely that you might be next.

Waking up from nightmares, you sometimes indulge in daydreams of fleeing, and think about the old Victorian brass bed you share with your husband, with its soft, duck-down pillows (a Christmas present from your parents), fresh linen with cream-and-yellow flower patterns (a wedding gift from your Aunt Zosia), and the luxurious, snow-white duvet cover (a token of gratitude from your Italian friend Michela).

***

Selma. Her name was Selma. You remember. The tall, dark-haired girl from Yugoslavia. What a coincidence; she shares an initial with the heroine of Slavenka Drakulić’s As If I Am Not There, the 1999 novel that has been haunting you for weeks, ever since you saw the photo of the man burning in the street.

It’s a simple, cruel story: “S. is a teacher in a Bosnian village; twenty-nine, gentle, clever and pretty, with a love affair and an apartment of her own. Until one spring day a young Serb soldier walks uninvited into her kitchen and tells her to pack her bag, and her life is interrupted. As the sky turns black with smoke behind her, S. enters a new world, where peace is a fairytale and there are no homes but only camps: transit camps, reception camps, labour camps, death camps.”

Still in her kitchen, at first S. is too shocked to do anything but offer the soldier a cup of coffee. She had known something terrible was about to happen, all the signs were there. There was time to flee, but she’d clung to a hope that it wouldn’t be necessary. She didn’t want to give up her familiar, ordinary, happy life.

S. ends up in a camp where she is repeatedly raped and tortured. She falls pregnant. After liberation, in exile in Sweden, she gives birth to a child whom she decides to keep and nurture. Slavenka Drakulić’s novel is fictitious; it doesn’t tell the story of any particular woman, but it is the story of thousands of women in the Balkans, of women all around the world. In your nightmares, it is your story.

***

Under extreme pressure, you imagine how relatively easy it would be to return to Geretsdorf or Salzburg, to make a new-old life for yourself and your husband there. In these visions you see yourself taking him by the hand, grabbing your passports, putting your cats in their transport cages and taking the quickest route to the Austrian consulate or directly to the airport. In your mind, you are ready to pack and go anytime. You’ve done it in the past, as an Eastern European refugee, moving from one place to another, always in a hurry, hardly ever allowed to take anything with you. You know you can survive.

***

Ultimately, nothing can happen without loss. Two things represent all: a language and a bed. You fear the necessity of having constantly to negotiate between a husband and a lover. You have made your bed, and now you want to sleep in it. The affair is too passionate and precious to end. You do not want the practicalities of living in a German-speaking world to invade this space. You fear your adulterous mind, knowing how flippantly it had switched before, making you dream, think, live in another language. But it had never been as creative as in English, in this turbulent, divided country that you call home.

Yes, you choose to continue waking up from nightmares next to your husband and your cats in your old Victorian brass bed – this silent witness to over a century of marital bliss, estrangement, passion and loneliness. This is the place where your family gathers, where you sleep, make love, eat, watch rugby on TV, read, laugh, talk, pick your way around the cats. Where you listen to the sounds of the house and the constant low hum of the city at night, fearing malevolent footsteps.

Should you ever decide or be forced to leave, the bed – and almost everything else – would have to stay.

***

You aren’t good at dealing with this kind of loss. You grow instantly attached to objects. You surround yourself with charms, dream-catchers; Rudolf, your small, plush guardian angel, never leaves your side; hundreds of books (As If I Am Not There among them), clothes (the black top you found in Aberystwyth), mugs you collect (the tall handmade dark-blue one from the Norwegian island Ona), furniture (mostly bookshelves), a few jewels (the silver peacock brooch with turquoise stones from your grandma), photographs (of you with your husband and Madiba), shoes (the beige slippers from Paris), paintings (a Jan Vermeiren commissioned by your husband for your twenty-ninth birthday), mirrors (the one that waited a year for you at the Naked Truth in Stellenbosch), a laptop (with your creative output saved in it), cameras (both from your father), the camera bag from your mother, the stuffed rag rat your Aunt Iwona made for your namesday when you were fourteen, the circle-of-friends candleholder from your best friend Isabella, the Swatch your father gave you fifteen years ago, the Winnie-the-Pooh eraser from your brother, and the white lace tablecloth from your great aunt. These items are worthless, but priceless. Like your small Daihatsu, standing unlocked in front of your windows, you want to keep it all, to collect it even in writing.

But whereas you don’t have to worry about the little car or anything else you own in Austria, all these precious possessions are in danger in Cape Town, if not of being stolen (who would want you great aunt’s lace tablecloth?), then of being left behind if worst comes to worst. The mere idea of it makes you ache inside. You want to curl up somewhere safe and not think about it. Throughout your migratory childhood and youth you didn’t allow yourself to grow too attached to people; it was safer to grow attached to the few things you could carry.

The Victorian brass bed in Cape Town embodies your new-found creativity. The thought of losing it fills you with a dread greater than the fear of finding a soldier in your kitchen. You understand S., even though nothing about all this is rational. You are a bundle of intuitions and anxieties. Split in half, you know you should be leaving, and yet you insist on staying on your island, hoping against hope, against all facts, against the statistics of the reality around you. Instead you dream, love, laugh and put your creative energies to good uses. Every day, you stand on your stoep and look up at Devil’s Peak and know you will never want to trade it for a medieval fortress. And in the small hours of the night, you lie awake in the brass bed, waiting for your soldier to come, to serve him coffee.

***

Dziecko, kolacja gotowa.’ (Child, dinner’s ready.) Your mother calls from upstairs and you look at your Swatch; it’s eight. You get up from behind your desk and, hugging the dedicated book to your heart, you close the terrace door with your right hand to keep the mosquitoes out at night. It is almost dark, the sky the colour of spilt ink. Your Daihatsu looks grey in the twilight. The emerald arborvitae hedge your parents planted around their new property is almost as tall as the old one in Braunau, but you can still see the lights going on in your neighbour’s house across the street. After dinner you will call your husband at home and wish him goodnight. You will miss him and the cats for the next ten days of your visit. You will have a bubble bath with an Uttendorfer. The practical IKEA double bed you have in Geretsdorf will seem empty and cold, even in the middle of summer. You will read before falling asleep, marvelling at the silence of the countryside around you. You will be preoccupied with the corrections to an essay about the recent xenophobic attacks in the country; there will be no foreign footsteps invading these thoughts. When your light is off and the silence absolute, nobody and nothing will disturb your dreams about your old Victorian bed in Cape Town.

***

I am like you. It’s terrifying.

First published in Home Away, edited by Louis Greenberg (Zebra Press, 2010).

The Image of a Pie: Reflections on Open Book 2014

Niq Mhlongo, Chris Beukes, Malaika wa Azania and Natalie Denton
I cried twice. No matter how much I tried to control myself, the tears kept coming and I was grateful for the pack of tissues I had in my handbag. I should have started shedding tears at the beginning of the event, when the woman who is our national treasure, Sindiwe Magona, noticed that we were only a few people in the audience while the whole of South Africa should have been attending. But it was only when Sixolile Mbalo, the soft-spoken, beautiful author of Dear Bullet, Or A Letter to My Shooter (2014), pointed to herself with her most articulate hands and used the possessive pronoun “my” to refer to the man who raped, shot, and left her for dead, that the dam of anguish broke inside me. In my own personal reality I speak of “my friend”, “my brother”, “my husband”. To have to survive a reality where a rapist is internalised into “my rapist” is nearly unbearable to think of, and yet, as Ekow Duker, the third panellist of the Open Book Festival event presented by Rape Crisis, mentioned, “We get more upset when our soccer team loses than when a woman is raped.” That is the reality Mbalo lives, and courageously survives, every single day of her life. All of us should take note and salute her. Any moment, her fate could become that of “our friend”, “our sister”, or “our wife”.

“Women are ghost heroes in our struggle.” – Niq Mhlongo

This year’s Open Book unfolded over five days from 17 to 21 September in Cape Town. It was filled with insight and inspiration. Apart from the moment described above, laughter dominated. The second time I shed tears, they were also an expression of joy. Speaking about her touching Good Morning, Mr Mandela (2014), Zelda la Grange told Marianne Thamm that Madiba destroyed all her defences just by holding her hand when they met. La Grange’s life bears testimony to one of Thamm’s remarks: “Mandela made us better people; that’s what good leaders do.” The conversation between these two powerhouse women was undoubtedly a highlight of the festival. Judging by the faces and comments of people present at the event, most felt its magic.

“Let it all come out and let us talk about it.” – Mandla Langa

Sixolile Mbalo’s and Zelda la Grange’s life stories capture the immense span of the spectrum of South African everyday experience. And it is essential for our humanity to pay as much attention to the one story as to the other, even though it is in our nature to gravitate towards happiness and success.

“Memory is always a fiction we tell ourselves.” – Rachel Zadok

Continue reading: LitNet.

Jonny Steinberg, Mervyn Sloman and Mark Gevisser
Niq Mhlongo, Geoff Dyer and Zukiswa Wanner
Raymon E Feist, Deon Meyer and Andrew Salomon
Zelda la Grange and Marianne Thamm

Our Literary Felines

Mozart after finishing Imre Kertész's Liquidation

Mozart after finishing Imre Kertész’s Liquidation

Inspired by a chat over dim sum and pu-erh tea with Alex Smith and her recent Three Cats blog post, as well as an exchange of cat photographs on twitter with Katherine Stansfield whose four Cats seem as literary as our Feline Family, I decided to share a few stories and photographs here with you.
Anya and Mozart supervising the writing of my PhD thesis on Nadine Gordimer

Anya and Mozart supervising the writing of my PhD thesis on Nadine Gordimer


MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA
André and I don’t want to remember the ordinary boring life we led before Anya and Mozart (named after Anna Netrebko and Amadeus – they were born in the Mozart year) arrived on a KLM flight from Austria in 2006. It was quite a dramatic occasion, because their documents got lost along the way and their trip was postponed by 24 anxious hours. However, at last we received the news that they were safely on their way and we could pick them up from the airport. The plane landed, all the passengers – human and non-human – deboarded and we were told that we would get ‘our dog’ in a few minutes.
‘But we are expecting two cats,’ we protested with hearts in our throats.
The man glanced at the documents in his hands, ‘Yeah, right.’
Minutes passed, we remembered the lost documents and began to prepare ourselves for the Rottweiler travelling on Mozart’s pet passport while he and Anya were on their way to Australia for all we knew.
The airport official returned empty-handed, but assured us that ‘our dog’ was on his way.
‘You mean our TWO CATS!’ we shouted, but he was gone again.
At last, he returned with a cage containing two very vocal Kitties we recognised. Relief, relief!
We had read all the available cat books and prepared the house for their welcome, stressing about getting it all right, but Anya and Mozart were completely blasé about the entire trip to the other side of the world. The moment we arrived home, we let them out of the cage and stood around helplessly, watching for any signs of distress. They stretched, looked around, located the litter box, did their business, saw the food and the water, helped themselves, sniffed a bit around, and literally twenty minutes later were both stretched out on our bed, looking up as if to say, ‘So, when are you coming to bed?’

Our lives changed that day. They became a million times better!

Anya with one of her favourite novels, Jeanette Winterson's Lighthousekeeping

Anya with one of her favourite novels, Jeanette Winterson’s Lighthousekeeping


To lose Anya to a speeding car a few months later was shattering, for all three of us, worst for Mozart of course, but we all didn’t know how to deal with the loss. I still see her strolling through the house, waving her gorgeous bushy tale as if the world belonged to her. It did. We miss her terribly.
Mozart showing Salieri the ropes of supervising my PhD on Gordimer

Mozart showing Salieri the ropes of supervising my PhD on Gordimer


After the tragedy, friends recommended a kitten. That is how Antonia Salieri came into our lives in 2007. Born in a sewage pipe, she was a bit of a rough diamond at first, and so tiny that she constantly got lost under Mozart’s feet when he tried to play with her. Eventually, out of desperation, I presume, not knowing how to engage her otherwise, he danced on the scratching pole for her, bum and tail high in the air like a real pro. None of us will ever forget the performance, least of all the flabbergasted Salieri. Once she recovered from the shock, they settled into a co-habitation of mutual respect. Salieri quickly realised that the circumstances of her birth shouldn’t stand in her way of behaving like royalty and she earned herself the nickname Principessa from an Italian visitor to the Brink household. She only eats her food if served on the kitchen table (Royal Albert plates), takes up half of my half of the bed (she doesn’t care much for my back problems), and screams at me if I misunderstand ‘Catlise’, the most important language for any human to understand. Any cuddles happen only and entirely on her terms when she is ready for them.
As a kitten Salieri read Olga Tokarczuk

As a kitten Salieri read Olga Tokarczuk


Salieri pensive after reading the Sunday newspapers

Salieri pensive after reading the Sunday newspapers


Salieri shocked how little she knew about Paris after reading The Most Beautiful Walk in the World by John Baxter

Salieri shocked how little she knew about Paris after reading The Most Beautiful Walk in the World by John Baxter


Salieri supervising André's translations of Ingrid Jonker's poetry for Black Butterflies

Salieri supervising André’s translations of Ingrid Jonker’s poetry for Black Butterflies

Salieri getting her teeth into Roget's Thesaurus

Salieri getting her teeth into Roget’s Thesaurus


Salieri trying to put some order into the chaos on André's desk

Salieri trying to put some order into the chaos on André’s desk


Mozart is our wanderer and partly adopted the neighbours as his other family. He is very wise, speaks Polish, German, English, Afrikaans, and Catlise fluently, understands many more languages and loves David Attenborough bird documentaries.
Mozart contemplating whether to read Granta magazine or Gordimer's Selected Stories next

Mozart contemplating whether to read Granta magazine or Gordimer’s Selected Stories next


Mozart searching for a dictionary

Mozart searching for a dictionary


We never thought of another cat to join the household, but when Michela Glinka was placed in my hands with a red bow around her neck and we were told that she desperately needed a home, we had no choice. She arrived in 2008 with a tummy problem and kept us awake the whole first night. Between trying to somehow help her and changing our bed sheets for the third time, I was ready to give her back, but when we eventually all fell asleep in the morning and woke up together, I knew she was here to stay. She is now sleeping on my chaise longue in one of her nests.
Glinka in a nest

Glinka in a nest


Glinka5
Glinka is the ultimate nest-builder, fresh laundry is best, but any blankets or quilts will do. We also call her our birdie-cat because she chirps like a little bird. The moment I set foot out of the bed in the morning, she will be running through the house, chirping along the way to welcome me into the day. We make coffee together and then return to bed where she will sit on my chest (as close to my face as possible), have rusk crumbs, and read with me or go over to André to check whether his book is more interesting. Most of my writing happens with her in my lap or somewhere in the room.
Glinka with Lauren Beukes's Moxyland toy

Glinka with Lauren Beukes’s Moxyland toy

Glinka pondering a word she'd just looked up in a German-English dictionary

Glinka pondering a word she’d just looked up in a German-English dictionary


Glinka inspiring my writing

Glinka inspiring my writing

Glinka and I writing in winter close to the fireplace

Glinka and I writing in winter close to the fireplace


Glinka is most famous in the literary circles around the world as the cat who inspired Kleinkat in André’s Philida (2012), recently also published in Taiwan (I love the cats on the different covers).
Philida3Philida2Philida cover TaiwanFrom the acknowledgements of my Invisible Others: “My furry family, Glinka, Salieri and Mozart, true experts at life, keep trying to teach me how to make the most of it; I hope they will succeed one day.”

Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014)

An edited Afrikaans version of this article appeared as “Die miesies hy skryf” in By on 26 November 2011.

The madam he write

At eighty-eight Nadine Gordimer is throwing some more logs in the fire. Karina Magdalena Szczurek spoke with her about “certain kinds of attention”.

‘Do you know this author?’ I ask a waitress, pointing at Nadine Gordimer’s name on the cover of a book I am reading.

She shakes her head.

I pay for my lunch and walk from the restaurant to Parktown West, Johannesburg. A jacaranda petal falls on my head as I approach the angular white house which Nadine Gordimer has called her home for the past fifty years.

The first time I arrived here in 2004, I’d felt sick with worry for a week beforehand, duly warned about Gordimer’s reputation as an interviewee who suffers no fools. And this was my first interview, ever.

With Nadine during our first interview in 2004.

With Nadine during our first interview in 2004.

But when she realised that I wasn’t there to ask about her breakfast (the type of personal question she usually refuses to answer), she let down her guard. It was an invaluable experience.

My present visit is a déjà vu in this and other respects. I’m again first met by a staff member and inspected by an eager Weimaraner before being invited into the house. I walk through the kitchen, down a passage and past the narrow, light-filled study where Gordimer’s typewriter squats proudly on a small desk. She is waiting in the lounge. As I enter she folds a newspaper and puts her reading glasses aside.

It is the same room where we first met, but the furniture is arranged differently. She settles in an elegant rocking chair. I sit on a sofa opposite with a coffee table between us.

I have seen her look her age in badly taken photographs, but never in person. Today she looks radiant in a gracefully long white kaftan dress with a soft blue pattern. Her grey hair is stylishly arranged. Delicate earrings adorn her ears.

This time I am more at ease, but I still notice my hands trembling slightly as I set up the voice recorder. I can feel Gordimer’s lively brown eyes on me. A beauty at her age – she turned eighty-eight this month.

Few literary oeuvres can match Gordimer’s. Between the publication of her first story as a child in 1937 and today, the world has seen fourteen novels, ten short-story collections, and six volumes of essays. In 2010, her stories and essays were collected in two large tomes: Life Times: Stories 1952-2007 and Telling Times: Writing and Living 1950-2008.

When in the beginning of 2006 Ampie Coetzee spoke to Gordimer at a literary breakfast organised by Die Burger Book Club in Cape Town, she told him that her memory no longer allowed her to think in novel-terms.

The collection of stories Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black was published a year later.

Now she’s finished writing another novel after all. I remind her of what she’d said at the breakfast.

She smiles. ‘I don’t know what was wrong with me then.’

Since 2001, when her husband Reinhold Cassirer died, all her books carry his life dates and the dates of their relationship on their front pages. The dedication moves me every time.

Throughout her writing life Gordimer has stuck to a strict routine, devoting the first part of the day to her work only: ‘I still feel in the morning when I get up now, I’ve got to be at my desk.’

André Brink recalls how many years ago, before he knew better, he tried to phone her before lunch. A staff member informed him that Gordimer was not available.

At André's 70th birthday in Johannesburg.

At André’s 70th birthday in Johannesburg.

‘The madam he write,’ he was told firmly, and he had to try again in the afternoon.

The statement is extremely telling, even if it was not intended as such.

Gordimer grew up into a position of privilege in apartheid South Africa. And yet, while many others went with the flow, she devoted her life to fighting injustice. Even though she is most uncomfortable about the designation, for decades she was considered the ‘voice’ and ‘conscience’ of South Africa in the world.

I first encountered her work at university. The story “The Moment Before the Gun Went Off” (1991) pricked my interest in South African literature, and eventually brought me here for research, then for life.

It tells the story of an Afrikaner farmer on trial for shooting one of his farm workers. The racial and political circumstances condemn him, but the last line of the story overturns all our expectations: “The young black was not the farmer’s boy; he was his son.”

Gordimer has often been accused of portraying Afrikaners unfairly in her work. Asked about it, she reminds me that when the time to protest came there was no prejudice. ‘We did it together!’

She is also quick to point out how Uys Krige was the first person who published anything of hers: ‘He encouraged me tremendously, gave me the most helpful criticism and was a very dear friend.’

She reads Afrikaans writers in translation, and regrets that she lost the Afrikaans she learned at school, or that she never learned any of the other indigenous African languages. ‘As I say, it’s terrible; I’m a very poor linguist.’

Gordimer’s work is not everyone’s cup of tea, mostly considered too political or / and too challenging. But both judgements rest more on hearsay than an engagement with her actual work.

Occasional stylistic density prevents a more leisurely read, but allowed to sink in, her thought-provoking stories can be inspiring, revelatory, and life-changing.

Many see her 1994 novel None to Accompany Me as a purely political reflection of the transition period in South Africa’s recent history. Rereading it now, I am stunned by the accuracy with which she prophecies the dangers facing the fledgling democracy. But for me personally, the novel is one of the most profound portrayals of a woman’s journey to selfhood.

This again brings to mind the statement with which André Brink’s morning phone call was fended off, and another quality which has defined Gordimer’s career – her ambivalence towards feminism. ‘All writers are androgynous beings,’ she states repeatedly.

She caused an uproar when she withdrew The House Gun (1998) from the shortlist of the prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction, reserved for women only.

‘I have been indeed and still am sometimes tackled, because I withdrew…and then I made this rather rude, I suppose,’ she reconsiders, ‘frank remark that we don’t write with our genitals.’

One of her stories, “A Journey”, was reprinted in the South African October edition of Playboy.

‘How do you feel about being published in the magazine?’

There is no issue for her. She does however make one crucial distinction. ‘I would hate to be published anywhere which was racist,’ she says. ‘I would refuse.’

Her parents were Jewish, but she is a self-declared atheist. She recently caused, in her own words, ‘great offence in America’ with her story “Second Coming” (2011) in which the son of God walks across a desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape. The possibility of life’s or humanity’s re-creation is rendered impossible, because as the last one-sentence paragraph tells us: “The sea is dead.”

‘What was the Americans’ problem with it?’ I’m curious.

‘Well, it’s not for me, sitting here in South Africa, this little unbeliever in any religion to say that Jesus is coming…using this as the ultimate example it should be, for people who revere Jesus and the idea of a second coming, that he should find the world destroyed. It’s a story about the environment.’

Gordimer’s Get a Life (2005) was probably the first green novel in South Africa. She is one of a handful of local writers who now consistently champion the environment in their work.

* * *

While she gets some tea, I glance around me. On three sides of the room shelves brim with books and CDs. A vase of strelitzias and a few sculptures of different origins catch my eye. A walking stick rests against the other side of the sofa. The room opens on a large patio and a magnificent garden in full bloom. The cushioned bay window looks like an ideal place for reading. It makes me think of something she’s just said:

‘I have recently reread Anna Karenina and War and Peace, and I have reread the whole of Marcel Proust and now I can read French sufficiently to read it in French. And there are so many others. When I look at my bookshelf, I say, my God I must read that again before I die.’

Bodo, the dog, appears at the same time as the tea tray. Marie biscuits are on offer.

‘How do you like your tea, weakish?’ she asks.

‘Strongish’

‘Oh good!’

Bodo is allowed one cookie while she pours the tea. As she lifts the heavy pot her fragile hands betray her age for the first time.

I cannot help but think of the three thieves who forced their way into her home in 2006 and brutally removed her wedding ring from her finger.

‘Did the attack have any lasting effects on you?’

‘You know, I hesitate to answer this because it sounds as if I’m saying that I am brave. I’m not… The only thing of consequence, practical consequence, is that I now have these wires around the house… But I’m not brave…I choose to go on living here…my reality is here.’

With Sontag at Wits in 2004.

With Sontag at Wits in 2004.

She has been accused of lacking courage to criticise the ANC. But following her late friend, the American intellectual Susan Sontag, Gordimer believes that ‘to be a moral human being, is to be obliged to pay certain kinds of attention.’

Very often she is the first to pay attention and fight with any means available to her for the causes she believes in.

Recently, together with André Brink, she drew up a petition against the planned legislation curtailing freedom of speech in South Africa and introducing ‘apartheid-type censorship all over again.’ The petition was not only signed by just about every writer in the country, but also many international writers whom Gordimer approached at the time during a visit in Sweden.

‘Let’s keep [the protest] going. Throw another log in the fire!’ she says.

The presidency was not impressed.

‘President Zuma didn’t have the courtesy to send us, representing so many others, an acknowledgement.’

In a recent HARDtalk interview she told Stephen Sackur that real loyalty to the ANC means the right to criticize the party, of which she is a member. She spoke of the disappointment she felt about the values that were being betrayed by the ANC. I prod her for more particulars.

‘First of all the fact that power is used in a very personal way.’

She is also deeply disappointed about the government’s handling of education.

‘The schooling is so bad.’ She is shocked at the discrepancy in entry requirements for university students from different backgrounds.

‘We can’t keep our black comrades out of universities. My God, who would want to? But what is the point of them coming in if they can’t cope. It’s humiliating for them…’

With Carlos Fuentes and André at home in 2006.

With Carlos Fuentes and André at home in 2006.

On the way to O.R. Tambo I ask the shuttle driver whether he knows the author Nadine Gordimer. I also ask a few SAA attendants. No recognition.

While awaiting my flight, I pose the same question to the middle-aged gentleman next to me. He is the only person to respond positively to my question. Does it matter that he is white and at least two decades older than the other people I’ve approached?

I am confident most Poles would at least have heard the name of the Polish Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska at school.

* * *

Still in Gordimer’s lounge, I dare ask a personal question.

‘What makes you really happy?’

A short silence; my heart stops.

‘André would say chocolate,’ I volunteer out of desperation.

‘Well, that’s an evasive answer… I’m also very fond of black chocolate, but of course that’s a taste happiness.’

Another pause.

‘I have been unbelievably lucky by having forty-eight years with the love of my life, and I have that to treasure. Sometimes it is painful to do so, but other times…it’s there, I had it.’