Tag Archives: crime

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.

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).

My dreams are back

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAI’m a dreamer. I dream with abandon, remembering up to four dreams a night, all vivid as if seen on a silver screen just moments before. Some of these dreams end up as my stories. Others I keep in my diary. As a child, I had a recurring dream about an island surrounded by dark waters. Many of my dreams are linked to the sea. In the last few weeks I’ve been through some rough waters. Under pressure, I stop eating, sleeping, and, worst of all, dreaming. The last dream I remember before last night is the one I wrote about in my Nadine Gordimer tribute. And now, over a month later, I’m surfacing and this morning I woke up remembering two dreams! One is for the diary. The other one for sharing.

But first a few memories. Many years ago I saw a movie which made a deep impression on my young mind; the most striking image from the movie involved women clad in crimson. Much later, at university in Austria, I read my first Margaret Atwood novel: Cat’s Eye. It triggered my fascination with Atwood’s work. I read a few other of her titles. Then, while doing research at the university library in Aberystwyth, Wales, I was passing a row of books when a red smudge on a book spine caught my eye: the crimson women. I think I read The Handmaid’s Tale in one sitting through the following night.

A few years ago, I had the remarkable honour of sitting at the same table as Margaret Atwood at a gala dinner in New York. We did not talk much, mostly because the Oscar-winning composer right next to me wanted to touch my hair, which was luckily all braided and pinned and meant for another. So sadly, I remember only one exchange with Atwood that night. We discussed peanut butter sandwiches. Really!

Fast-forward to last year. Venice. Another gala dinner, Atwood at the same table, for most of it right next to me. And this time I felt like a woman in one of her stories, battling with her voice. I stopped speaking all together for a week after that evening (acute laryngitis). Atwood took over the conversation and the erudite editor on my other side was just as entertaining. But I can’t say that I was much of an articulate presence.

Photo: Krystian Szczurek, New York 2011

Photo: Krystian Szczurek, New York 2011

And then a few days ago, I saw the wonderful news that Atwood’s latest short-story collection is to be published before the month is over. I’m eagerly awaiting the day it reaches South African bookshops. So, I suppose, given all of the above, it is no surprise that one of my dreams last night was about Margaret Atwood. In the dream, I was living in a small town. I found myself sitting next to Atwood on a park bench and she was telling me about attending a literary festival nearby. ‘This morning just after 5am, they came into my hotel room, saying that I needed to go with them to sign books, and they brought me here, and now I’m stuck, because nobody wants to take me back,’ she said, but she did not seem concerned at all, just perplexed, and a bit amused. Naturally, I offered to drive her to her hotel. And then I woke up, delighted to be dreaming properly again, and remembering how generously Atwood had signed my books in New York and Venice.

What would Dr Freud say?
Dr Szczurek says: Get Stone Mattress!

Stone MattressAbout Stone Mattress:

“A recently widowed fantasy writer is guided through a stormy winter evening by the voice of her late husband. An elderly lady with Charles Bonnet’s syndrome comes to terms with the little people she keeps seeing, while a newly-formed populist group gathers to burn down her retirement residence. A woman born with a genetic abnormality is mistaken for a vampire. And a crime committed long-ago is revenged in the Arctic via a 1.9 billion year old stromatalite. In these nine tales, Margaret Atwood ventures into the shadowland earlier explored by fabulists and concoctors of dark yarns such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Daphne du Maurier and Arthur Conan Doyle – and also by herself, in her award-winning novel Alias Grace. In Stone Mattress, Margaret Atwood is at the top of her darkly humorous and seriously playful game.”

Over the years, I have reviewed a few of Atwood’s books:

The TentThe Tent (2006)

Margaret Atwood’s latest collection of writing The Tent is a visual and intellectual delight. Provocative and full of wisdom it provides plenty of food for thought, not always readily digestible. A little book with big ideas. Beautifully designed and illustrated by the author, it has the feel and look of a private notebook one would want to carry around in one’s breast pocket at all times. One feels tempted to add personal comments on the few blank pages in-between the many voices of Atwood’s narrators, living and sharing their thoughts full of anxieties and hopes with the readers in a world which is hostile and frightening.

From the drawing of the cover to the last page of the book one image persists: a tent full of words, surrounded by beastly creatures. When the narrator of the title piece in the collection tells us “you’re in a tent”, we just have to take the book and put it up on its covers’ edges to realise how deliciously suggestive the image is in its multiple meanings. “It’s vast and cold outside, very vast, very cold. It’s a howling wilderness…But you have a small candle in your tent. You can keep warm…The trouble is, your tent is made of paper. Paper won’t keep anything out. You know you must write on the walls, on the paper walls, on the inside of your tent.” With your writing you must describe the howling and the truth, you must write about the ones you love and the things you love and try to protect them, even though your “obsession with calligraphy” is not always appreciated and understood. And your tent is fragile and endangered by the howlers sniffing around outside, “but you keep on writing anyway because what else can you do?”

Xenophobia, violence, despotism, gender inequality, terrorism, crime, environmental crisis, tyranny, war – our global society is drenched in conflict, “a howling wilderness” indeed. If anybody had any doubt about the role of the intellectual in these difficult times, Margaret Atwood’s gem of a collection shows the path to take. The title piece is probably the most honest, humble as well as forceful, statement on the precarious situation of the writer and the importance of writing in recent years. In another piece, “Voice” the situation is again exemplified. The first-person narrator tells us she has been “given a voice”. No matter what glory and adoration it gives her, she knows one day it will begin to shrivel. Until then it is “attached like an invisible vampire to my throat.”

The whole book is like a little tent written against the evils of the world. Balancing on the border of fiction and non-fiction, Atwood’s collection with its generic mixture of fables, essays, dreams, monologues, dialogues, rewritings of myths and legends, satires, allegories and poems, is a subtle and razor-sharp analysis of the world around us. No preaching, just small precise revelations on the madness of our global society.

“Thylacine Ragout” explores the follies of genetics and the power of money to buy anything it wants. “Plots for Exotics” deals with our prejudices and xenophobia. Pieces such as “Heritage House” and the magnificent poem “Bring Back Mom: An Invocation” take up gender issues.

“And there you’ll be, in your cotton housecoat,
holding a wooden peg
between your teeth, as the washing flaps
on the clothesline you once briefly considered
hanging yourself with –”

“Eating the Birds” tells us of complicity, choice and unrighteous wanting of something that does not belong to us: “We’re ankle-deep in blood, and all because we ate the birds, we ate them a long time ago, when we still had the power to say no.” When in “Chicken Little Goes too Far” the chicken finds out that “the sky is falling”, he has to pay a high price for wanting to save the world.

Although some of the other pieces are more introspective, quiet, even funny, there is little comfort in the volume. However it is a nourishing piece of work that goes straight to the heart and makes one want to take up the pen and write on the blank pages in-between. For what else can you do?

Bertolt Brecht once said that thinking is something that follows problems and precedes action. This is precisely where Atwood’s little big book stands. In the last piece of the collection “But it Could Still” the narrator begins by saying: “Things look bad: I admit it. They look worse than they’ve looked for years, for centuries. They look the worst ever. Perils loom on all sides. But it could still turn out all right.” There are many stories, winter’s tales, that keep up the faith. “We want to huddle round them, as if around a small but cheerful fire.” And there are the tulips you planted before the winter frost “in the brown earth” where “already hundreds of small green shoots…intending to grow despite everything” were waiting. The narrator contemplates in the end: “What would you call them if they were in a story? Would they be happy endings, or happy beginnings? But they aren’t in a story, and neither are you. You tucked them back under the mulch and the dead leaves, however. It was the right thing to do on the darkest day of the year.”

Atwood’s Tent is full of thoughts on humanity. Like the small green shoots intending to grow despite everything, they will survive the dark cold winter and blossom proudly in spring. Outside of a story I would call them hope.

First published in the Sunday Independent, 4 June 2006.

Moral DisorderMoral Disorder (2006)

Margaret Atwood, by now the author of over three dozen books, has always been a prolific writer. Last year, however, was a special treat for all the fans of her fiction. After the publication of The Penelopiad (one of a series of myth rewritings by internationally acclaimed authors) and The Tent (a collection of shorter miscellaneous pieces), the end of the year witnessed Atwood’s latest release, Moral Disorder. This intriguing book is yet another representative of a genre which is not exactly new, but is increasingly coming into its own on the international literary scene, and even more so on our local market. Moral Disorder could be termed a ‘short story novel’. It comprises a collection of interrelated short stories, which can be read separately as individual pieces in their own right, but which reveal the total scale of their meanings only within reference to each other, interacting in this way to form a whole which could be read as a novel.

In South African fiction, recent examples of this fascinating – at times also controversial (some of us will remember the debate surrounding the nomination of Ivan Vladislavić’s The Exploded View for the Sunday Times Fiction Award in 2005) – genre range from Mary Watson’s beautifully intricate Moss (2004) to Byron Loker’s freshly rewarding New Swell (2006). As Miki Flockemann pointed out in her review of Moss, it is not unexpected that this genre “has become a noticeable trend in recent South African writing on account of the simultaneous embrace of cohesion and fragmentation.” It fictionally embodies the instable and diverse nature of the reality around us.

The short story novel is not foreign to Canadian fiction either. Alice Munroe’s Runaway (2005) will ring a bell for many readers. Now, Atwood’s Moral Disorder, “a collection of eleven stories that is almost a novel…or a novel broken up into eleven stories”, as the inside cover suggests, embarks on a journey through time and space and reveals, in glimpses, the intertwined lives of its characters.

We are first introduced to the main protagonists, Nell and Tig, as an ageing couple in “The Bad News”. The bad news of the title arrives in the form of a newspaper headline Tig shows to Nell, who is not ready to receive it, “Not before breakfast…You know I can’t handle it this early in the day.” Nell knows that this sort of news – about explosions, oil spills, genocides, famines – will always be followed by others like it, and is unwilling to confront it unless it concerns them directly. Instead, she escapes into the distant past, remembering a holiday in France. The memory merges into a daydream, which makes her realise that bad news has always arrived at our doorstep and will always do so, until eventually it pounces and “you reach out in the night and there’s no more breathing.”

The second story, “The Art of Cooking and Serving”, takes us back in time to when Nell was eleven and her mother was expecting her second daughter. While Nell decides to knit a layette for her sibling, she is frightened of the “listless, bloated, version” of her mother, who by changing her own future also changes Nell’s “into something shadow-filled and uncertain.” After her sister is born, Nell suddenly finds herself taking over from her mother, baby-tending and doing the chores, until she rebels in order to lead the normal teenage life she witnesses other girls enjoying. We encounter her at that stage in “The Headless Horseman” and “My Last Duchess”.

In “The Other Place” Nell is a young adult on the run from herself and the world until she meets Tig, and later recalls: “then followed the cats and the dogs and children, and the baking, and even the frilly white window curtains, though they eventually vanished in their own turn”.

All stories are told in the first person, apart from the following four, “Monopoly”, the title story “Moral Disorder”, “White Horse”, and “The Entities”, which switch to the third person, allowing us a fuller perspective on the lives of the characters, and a different insight into Nell, who has been the storyteller until now.

The four third-person stories centre on the complex relationship between Nell and Tig, who brings into the equation two sons and Oona, his demanding first wife whom he is in the process of divorcing. We watch Nell navigate between the moods and wishes of the people in her life as well as trying to fulfil her own dreams and guard her own integrity in the process: “Nell felt intimidated by this marriage, and small and childish in comparison with it. It had a certain oversized and phosphorescent splendour about it, like a whale decaying on the beach. It made her seem pallid, at least to herself: pallid, banal, insipidly wholesome. She did not have nearly as much operatic and tenebrous and sanguinary melodrama to offer.”

Rich in memorable characters and evocative settings, Moral Disorder offers deeply moving reflections on all stages of life, including ageing and death, which feature strongly especially in the two last pieces: “The Labrador Fiasco” and “The Boys at the Lab”.

Atwood is one of the best storytellers alive. In all the stories of Moral Disorder the importance of literature in our lives as guide, companion, mirror, filters through, and because of the honesty and insight with which all of them are told, we find ourselves looking at our own lives reflected in them and, once again, begin to marvel at the miracle of it all.

First published in the Sunday Independent, 14 January 2007.

PaybackPayback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (2008)

In this time of financial crisis, reading an entire book about the concept of debt is not an enticing idea. This is the reason why as a devoted fan of Margaret Atwood’s work I’ve eagerly picked up her latest publication, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, in the bookshop, and then, upon finding out what it was about, returned it to its shelf with a deep sense of mistrust, almost fear. I resisted the thought of hearing any more about debt, even if it was from one of my favourite writers.

Then a copy of the book arrived in the post for reviewing, and in the end, I couldn’t be more grateful for it. But my intuition about Payback was right. It is a scary book, although it does not begin as such. Payback comprises of five chapters, each focusing on a different aspect of the debt concept, and the first four are rather funny and light-hearted. It is only the last one that brings all the entertaining insights together in a devastating conclusion about us and our future.

As Atwood explains in the opening chapter “Ancient Balances”, Payback is not about such things as debt management, national debt, or shopaholics; it’s about debt as a human “imaginative construct”. Atwood goes on to expound that such inner foundation stones of humanness as instant gratification and fairness underlie this construct, presenting many fascinating experiments to illustrate her point. She also examines the moral and economic concepts of debt through a mythological and religious lens and traces them back to the idea of logos: without the possibility of keeping track of debt, it ceases to exist.

The second chapter “Debt and Sin” explores the idea of debt as a fashion: “We seem to be entering a period in which debt has passed through its most recent harmless and fashionable period, and is reverting to being sinful.” A lot of us have lost the ability of living within our means when it became acceptable to take the easier path. There was a time when going to a pawnshop was considered a terrible disgrace, a sin. Today, we all live on credit, however unaffordable it has become.

In spiritual terms, as Atwood shows, there is a close link between a pawnshop and redemption. She tells intriguing stories of St. Nicolas, the patron saint of thieves; the Sin Eater, who for a reward symbolically consumes a deceased person’s sins (spiritual debts) at the funeral; or the Devil and his careful bookkeeping of who owes him what.

The next chapter “Debt as Plot” builds on such stories and investigates many literary classics and their famous characters, especially Christopher Marlow’s Doctor Faustus and Charles Dickens’s Scrooge, offering a fresh insight into the art of storytelling and our perception of the primary mechanisms on which literary plots rely.

As its title suggests the next chapter, “The Shadow Side”, turns to the dodgy side of debt and traces the historical and present consequences of what actually happens when individuals or nations fail to settle their financial or ethical dues, i.e. when “big debts can make history and rearrange the landscape.” Atwood gives many terrifying examples of how the strategy of getting rid of debt by killing or expelling creditors has survived successfully throughout the ages. “The Shadow Side” also includes a sober, or rather satirical, look on tax: “There are two kinds of taxation systems: ones that are resented, and ones that are really resented.”

Atwood writes about the symbiotic relationship between the debtor and the creditor in the light of the Jungian theory of the Shadow, “our dark side, the repository of everything in us we’re ashamed of and would rather not acknowledge”. From there she moves to the concept of forgiveness and presents no other than Nelson Mandela and the TRC as her examples of how moral debt does not have to be evened out by revenge, but by the one thing which can undermine an eye-for-an-eye approach: forgiveness. If for nothing else, Payback is worth reading for this rather short section and Atwood’s fascinating thought experiment of what would have happened, had the president of the United States sent a message of forgiveness instead of revenge to the people responsible for 9/11.

“Payback”, the final chapter of the book by the same title takes us on a journey through time with a 21st-century version of Scrooge and the Spirits of Christmas. What Scrooge “Nouveau” experiences is scary, but Atwood does not wag her forefinger, she just wants us to wake up to the reality round us. As a human species we have incurred a debt to the planet that will also have to be settled, rather sooner than later, and if we want to be around to see the thereafter, we have to act now by paying back what we owe.

Payback includes a thorough bibliography, a good index and above all some valuable notes which can help readers think about realistic solutions to the many problems we face today.

First published in the Sunday Independent, 8 March 2009.

In Other WorldsIn Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (2011)

Margaret Atwood opens her latest non-fiction offering with a clear declaration:

In Other Worlds is not a catalogue of science fiction, a grand theory about it, or a literary history of it. It is not a treatise, it is not definitive, it is not exhaustive, it is not canonical. It is not the work of a practicing academic or an official guardian of a body of knowledge. Rather it is an exploration of my own lifelong relationship with a literary form, or forms, or subforms, both as reader and as writer.”

In short: In Other Worlds is a love song for a genre. Most importantly, precisely because it does not have any of the aspirations Atwood negates in the above statement, it will be appealing to many readers, of her own work and of science fiction (in all its manifestations).

The book is divided into four parts. The first includes the three Ellmann Lectures Atwood delivered at Emory in 2010. They constitute some general and theoretical deliberations on SF as well as on Atwood’s own full-length forays into what she calls “ustopia-writing”: The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. The second is a series of essays and reviews Atwood wrote on some classics of the genre, such as H. Rider Haggard’s She or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. The third is a tribute section for which Atwood selected some of her shorter ustopias. The final section, “Appendices”, features the open letter Atwood wrote to the Judson Independent School District which banned The Handmaid’s Tale (cautionary reading for our times in South Africa), and an article on Weird Tales covers of the 1930s, published recently in the US edition of Playboy.

It might seem like too much of a mixed bag, but the pieces are carefully chosen and well integrated into the whole. From the start, Atwood explains her understanding of the genre under discussion and the terminology she applies to its many subforms, introducing her own terms and clarifying where she differs from other practitioners. The most important to her is the umbrella term which she uses to refer to her own work: ustopia, a combination of utopia and dystopia – “the imagined perfect society and its opposite – because, in my view, each contains a latent version of the other.”

Atwood includes many stories about her “tangled personal history with SF, first as a child, then as an adolescent, then as a one-time student and academic, then as a reviewer and commentator, and then, finally, as a composer.” She also focuses on the literary and cultural context in which stories about alien invasions and possible futures have developed, offering a enticing overview of the field’s many fascinating aspects and paying homage to the path breakers like Swift or Verne. Atwood’s reading of well-known proponents of SF are highly enlightening and made me want to return to some of my favourites. But even if you are a LeGuin or Lem devotee, a staunch Trekkie, or a vampiramas addict, some of Atwood’s insights might add to your understanding and appreciation of the genre. And if you are one of those who’d rather stay away from SF altogether, even if it is offered by somebody of Atwood’s calibre, please remember that “in brilliant hands…the form can be brilliant”, in spite of its “downright sluttish reputation.”

In Other Worlds is also an astute analysis of SF’s function in our lives. As Atwood concludes one of her essays: “We are not only what we do, we are also what we imagine. Perhaps, by imagining mad scientists and then letting them do their worst within the boundaries of our fictions, we hope to keep the real ones sane.” There is little doubt that we are still very much on target towards one of Atwood’s own fictions: a brass cylinder with a rough outline of what humanity once was before eradicating itself. She ends the piece, “Time Capsule Found on the Dead Planet”, with the crushing line: “Pray for us, who once, too, thought we could fly.”

Informative, humorous and intriguing, In Other Worlds is dedicated Ursula K. LeGuin – a worthy tribute to the reigning queen of SF.

First published in ITCH e.10 (May 2012).

MaddAddamMaddAddam (2013)

The day the Nobel Laureate for Literature was announced in October was a great day for the short story, for women writers, for Canadian literature, and for the remarkable Alice Munro. Yet, my heart bled for another Canadian writer: Margaret Atwood. The ways of the Nobel committee are unfathomable, but given the choice between a brilliant Canadian woman short-story writer, and a brilliant Canadian woman short-story writer, novelist, essayist and poet all in one, it’s hard not to wonder what went through their minds.

Undoubtedly, there is a prejudice against so-called genre writing, even when it transcends such reductionist labels with the impeccable quality of its offerings, as do most works stemming from Atwood’s pen. Her The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is a classic. Not that Atwood’s work can be lumped into any category. In the last decade, Atwood has published extensively, but the emphasis has been on the speculative fiction trilogy which began with the Booker-shortlisted Oryx and Crake (2003) and now concludes with MaddAddam. Perhaps the genre has torpedoed Atwood’s chances with the committee? If so, it is regrettable. But having said so, this is not to take anything away from the recognition of Munro’s work of which I am an avid admirer.

Also, I hope the above will testify to my respect for Atwood’s prolific writing and put my disappointment in her latest novel into context.

Oryx and Crake blew me away. Set in a not too distant future, it tells the story of Jimmy, the seemingly last human survivor of an apocalyptic plague unleashed on the world by his best friend Crake. In Jimmy’s care are the Crakers, a genetically engineered, green-eyed, blue-penis-swinging, eerily singing and purring humanoid species – Crake’s idea of an improvement on depraved humanity. The novel ends when Jimmy, injured and hallucinating, encounters three other human beings.

The follow-up, The Year of the Flood (2009), recounts the same story from another perspective and also leads up to the charged encounter. The three people Jimmy sees are Amanda, previously of the God’s Gardeners, an eco-sect founded by Adam One and led by the street-wise Zeb, and her malevolent kidnappers who have raped and tortured her. As it turns out, two others are also watching the confrontation: Ren, Amanda’s best friend, and Toby, their erstwhile teacher at the God’s Gardeners, who have likewise survived the pandemic. They are the protagonists of The Year of the Flood.

Having loved the ingenious predecessors, I reread them before turning to the trilogy’s highly anticipated conclusion. The joy I got out of the rereading turned out to be the best part of the whole experience. MaddAddam aptly wraps up some of the loose ends of the other novels, but it far from delivers on their considerable promise.

How is the handful of remaining humans going to build up a new life from the ruins of the post-pandemic world where genetically spliced plant and animal species sprawl and roam free, dangerous pig-human hybrids among them? What role will women, previously mass exploited and brutalised, play in this newly-fledged society? What is their interaction with the naïve, peace-loving Crakers going to be like? How will Jimmy feature in the mix, especially since three of his ex-girlfriends are among the survivors, and two of them have been inadvertently raped and impregnated by the Crakers who still see Jimmy as their creator’s prophet? What will they all make of Crake’s brilliantly insane plan for humankind and their own involvement in its execution?

The potential conflicts appear ripe for the picking. But MaddAddam only skirts these issues. Instead, the novel focuses on the backstories of Zeb and Adam One, and the enfolding relationship between Toby and Zeb. The former dominate large chunks of the narrative and unnecessarily demystify two of the most intriguing characters of the trilogy. The latter descends into the ludicrous stuff that soap operas are made of.

The mutations the main characters undergo in MaddAddam are baffling. Top-notch scientists, hackers and revolutionaries turn into bitchy fashionistas. The strictly vegetarian God’s Gardeners tuck into juicy steaks and crisp bacon. The tough, mysterious Zeb transforms into a chauvinistic jerk – “beneath vulgar”, in the words of his brother. Most discouraging, the once resilient and wise Toby begins acting like a lovesick teenager. Jimmy is comatose for nearly the entire time and when he finally regains consciousness, most of his conflicted, poignant nature stays behind in the coma.

The tension and the emotional intelligence of the first two novels are irreparably compromised in MaddAddam. But not all is lost. Moments of dark humour, the homage to the power of storytelling, some twists in the inter-species relations, and above all Atwood’s powerful prose, provide some satisfaction. But compared to the first two incisive instalments of the trilogy which both ended with a bang, MaddAddam is a mere whimper.

First published in the Cape Times, 15 November 2013.