Tag Archives: Karina M. Szczurek

Book review: The Bitter Taste of Victory – Life, Love and Art in the Ruins of the Reich by Lara Feigel

bitter-tasteLara Feigel is a cultural historian and a literary critic, combining her interests to write about the meeting point between life, literature and history. In her last two books, she looks at how people whose quintessential purpose in life is the search for beauty and meaning survived their antithesis: war. In her The Love-charms of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War (2013), Feigel wrote about five authors who were based in wartime London, driving ambulances, fighting fires, being creative, and loving passionately while desperately trying to remain alive.

In her latest offering, The Bitter Taste of Victory: Life, Love and Art in the Ruins of the Reich, Feigel picks up where she left off in her previous book, at the end of the war, and introduces a new, larger cast of characters – writers, intellectuals and artists – who were sent by the Allies to defeated and occupied Germany to assist in denazification and rebuilding the nation they had been trying systematically to annihilate over the past few years.

Their idealistic mission is an opportunity like no other, placing cultural activities at the centre of the plans to reconstruct the country. For a brief moment in history “a new united Europe, underpinned by shared heritage that would allow nationalism to be replaced by a common consciousness of collective humanity” seems like a viable option for the continent’s future.

Germany is a wasteland. Poverty, hunger and despair rule. Survivors grapple with guilt. Exiled German writer Peter de Mendelssohn arrives to establish newspapers in the British zone. He notes that “new eyes” and “totally new words” are needed to describe the devastation.

The horrors perpetrated in the concentration camps come to the surface of the world’s consciousness, and with them questions of complicity, responsibility and justice. In the light of the revelations and the Germans’ lack of immediate repentance, the Allied artists and reporters sent to the country find it nearly impossible to “make sense of the postwar world” or to emphasise with the people they encounter.

Among them is the photographer and war correspondent Lee Miller. After a visit to Dachau, she photographs herself in Hitler’s bathtub. Like others, she is “troubled by the ordinariness of Nazi leaders.” German-born Hollywood star Marlene Dietrich, “in army uniform, low-voiced, funny and adoring” has to face the fact that her family members collaborated with the Nazis.

Eerily echoing our own, this is the time of the Nurnberg trials, the nuclear bomb, migration, displacement and rising tensions between the other ideologies taking hold of post-war Europe, resulting in the division which will most strikingly manifest in the Berlin Wall. A sense of failure and helplessness sets in. But Feigel ends her brilliant portrayal of this turbulent period with Austrian-born Jewish American filmmaker Billy Wilder who “was able to laugh off the bureaucratic absurdity of communism, the megalomaniac blindness of American imperialism, and the fascist conformity of the Germans by satirising them all in equal measure” and standing “defiantly on the side of life.”

The Bitter Taste of Victory: Life, Love and Art in the Ruins of the Reich

by Lara Feigel

Bloomsbury, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times, 24 February 2017.

Advertisements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Dene Smuts

Quivertree, 2016

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

One day at The Star Soweto Literary Festival

Pam and BontleCamaraderie. That is the word which comes to mind when I think back to the one day I spent at the fabulous Soweto Theatre, attending the inaugural The Star Soweto Literary Festival. It was quite a whirlwind affair. A day of talks, improvisation, laughter and tears. I invited myself. The moment I heard that the festival was happening – and it was organised in a shockingly short amount of time – I volunteered to speak, chair sessions, whatever, just to be there. I felt it in my bones that it would be special, and I wanted to be part of it.

I was not disappointed.

Darryl Earl David, the founder of the three-day festival which took place last weekend, first announced his intentions at the end of June: “To create a truly non-racial literary festival in a black township, something that has never ever been done before. A start has been made in Khayelitsha. But that was more a book fair, not a literary festival. I have always maintained Soweto looms large in the literary imagination of South Africa … Soweto is the cradle of black literature. It was home to the canon of black literature in South Africa – Mongane Wally Serote, Sipho Sephamla Njabulo Ndebele, Miriam Tlali, Ellen Kuzwayo and Benedict Vilakazi.”

Pam and MohaleThe day I was there, Saturday, the presence of the spirits of these literary giants was palpable. The attempt to establish “a truly non-racial” space for writers, artists and the public to engage with one another’s ideas was a great success. I attended with a dear friend, Pamela Power, the author of Ms Conception and the upcoming psychological thriller, Things Unseen. We came away inspired, glowing, and moved to the core.

Continue reading: LitNet

with Pam and Kalim

Book review: Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew by Susan Fletcher

Susan FletcherI welcome every Susan Fletcher novel with open arms. Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew is her sixth. It completely delivers on the promise of its predecessors. Set in the Provencal town of Saint-Rémy where Vincent van Gogh spent a year of his life in an asylum and painted some of his most widely recognised works, the novel tells the story of a local woman whose life is disrupted by the arrival of the Dutch painter. Jeanne Trabuc is the wife of the asylum’s warden. In her fifties, a mother of three, she goes about her daily routines, remembering her adventurous youth and watching out for the mistral, “wind of change, of shallow sleep.”

Something about her husband’s latest patient unsettles Jeanne. Her curiosity about the man who is known for having harmed himself and for having appeared naked in public leads Jeanne to break her husband’s rules about not visiting the asylum or engaging with any of its patients. She goes to meet the fascinating stranger and a tentative friendship develops between them. Jeanne makes it possible for Vincent to leave the asylum to paint: “And he walks, Jeanne thinks, as reapers walk back from their trees: a sense of a day’s work done. And does he glance at the white-painted cottage as he goes? Jeanne likes to think he does. A glance, as if in gratitude. This newly untethered bird of blue overalls and gold.” She recognises his talent, believes in his sanity. He in turn reawakens her senses and long forgotten dreams.

Jeanne thinks of her grown-up sons who are making a way in the world for themselves and her friend Laure whose desire for freedom had led her to abandon her husband. She recalls the crippled woman who took care of her when Jeanne’s mother died after giving birth to her. And her loving father whom Jeanne nursed towards the end of his life after he’d suffered a stroke.

As a young woman, Jeanne had “been bold, reckless. Not caring for rules.” She’d once stood half-naked in the yard, “her wet hair, like a wing”, and understood the freedom and power of such exposure. Now, her body ageing, her marriage empty of tenderness, she realises that there is still something that she wants from fate, and it is not what she has, “a little life of washtubs and duty.”

Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew is a story about change and courage, about breaking silences and not being afraid to reach out for what we expect from the people we share our existence with. Fletcher’s portrayal of Jeanne’s awakening is subtle and profoundly moving.

Fletcher’s prose is mesmerising, seductive. There is no other way of putting it. She paints emotions with sensitive strokes, but in bold colours. As she caresses language, words glow under her pen. Her work is full of light and nuance. Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew is a joy.

Review first published in the Cape Times, 19 August 2016.

 

Book review: A Good Life by Mark Rowlands

A Good LifeThroughout the years, few oeuvres have enriched my intellectual life as much as the works of the Welsh philosopher Mark Rowlands. At some stage, we are all confronted with the question of what makes life worthwhile, how to make the time we have on this planet meaningful. Unfortunately, not enough of us ask how to live in such a way as not only to enjoy the journey, but simultaneously do as little harm as possible to our fellow travellers, whether they be other humans, animals or the environment. We all muddle on. Rowlands does not claim to have the answers, but his attempts at approaching possible conclusions are fascinating to engage with.

Some of Rowlands’s books are written for experts in his field of knowledge and are not as easily accessible as his bestsellers Running with the Pack: Thoughts from the Road on Meaning and Mortality or The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death and Happiness (still a personal favourite which belongs to that wonderful category of books I claim as life-changing). His latest, A Good Life, is also written for the general public and comes with an intriguing twist that will thrill all passionate readers, even more so if they happen to be writers as well.

Unlike Rowlands’s other books, which are clearly non-fiction and often include autobiographical elements, A Good Life is actually a novel. It is a philosophical inquiry into what constitutes the titular good life, but it comes in the form of dystopian speculative fiction. In 2054, while South Florida is quickly sinking into oblivion because of the rising sea levels, the fictitious character Nicolai finds a manuscript written by his late father and annotated by his mother. He decides to complete it with his own comments on the narrative his parents had left behind, never certain how much of their text is fiction and how much is fact. The book seems to be telling their life story by tackling such crucial issues as abortion, compassion and empathy, marriage, animal and environmental rights, euthanasia, and death. The discussion of these topics is at times unsettling, as it shakes up many widely held beliefs. At the same time, anything that Rowlands writes is always full of delightful humour and reassurance that not all is gloom and doom. There is hope and real goodness in the world.

It is not too late to recognise how we are all connected; not only to each other, but to the planet we call home. Compassion is one of our main tools. It is fuelled by the imagination. A Good Life as a whole makes a stunning case for the “colossal power” of literature: “We are all just words somewhere.” When you reach the final pages of the book, the different strands of the narrative intertwine to reveal something quite simple, and yet it feels as if a miracle had unfolded right in front of your reading mind. That is the beauty of a Mark Rowlands book.

Rowlands on lit

A Good Life: Philosophy from Cradle to Grave

by Mark Rowlands

Granta, 2015

Review first published in the Cape Times, 5 August 2016.

Book review: The Scattering by Lauri Kubuitsile

The ScatteringIt is December 1907 in Tsau, Bechuanaland, after the Herero and Namaqua genocide perpetrated by the Germans occupying German South-West Africa, today’s Namibia. The Herero couple Tjipuka and Ruhapo have survived “the scattering”, but lost nearly everything in the process. When we first encounter them, they are together, but terrifyingly estranged. Tjipuka traces her husband’s body, trying to remember all that she’d loved about it, but the memories are overshadowed by his distance and the blood and cruelty of lies which haunt them: “Being dead made a lot of things uncertain.”

The narrative takes us back to the moment of their first encounter in Okahandja in 1894. We witness their falling in love, the certainty with which they decide to face the future together, their courage and strength. The juxtaposition of the image of these young lovers with the ruins of the people they’ve become is shattering. One anticipates that whatever had happened to them in the intervening years must have been horrendous and will not be easy to read about, but it is impossible to resist the urge to know. The Scattering recounts their journey.

Interwoven with theirs is the story of Riette. After her brother dies, her parents have little use for her on their farm in the Transvaal and even though she had trained to be a nurse and wishes nothing else but to pursue the profession in Kimberley, she is married off against her will to a widowed neighbour: “Riette wondered how two people could be so unknown to each other, and yet so intimate.” At the beginning of the Second Anglo-Boer War, her husband goes off on commando and leaves her alone on the farm to fend for herself and his two daughters. As a result of Kitchener’s scorched earth policy, the three women end up in a British concentration camp where Riette forms an unlikely alliance. Hardship, sickness and death prevail in the camp, but Riette finds protection in a forbidden love relationship. “They would survive this war, this horrible, bloody war, and find their lives on the other side”, she hopes. Betrayal and loss will accompany her on her path: “She didn’t want to live with the shadow of who she was and what she’d done forever darkening her life.”

In 1904, across the border, the tension between the Germans and the Hereros rise. The infamous German commander Lothar van Trotha issues his gruesome orders: “Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle, will be executed. I shall spare neither women nor children. I shall give the order to drive them away and fire on them. Such are my words to the Herero people.”

Believing in the beginning that they can take on the German army, Ruhapo and other Herero leaders decide to attack and reclaim their land around Okahandja, now occupied by the enemy. “Have they not taken enough? I would rather die, my blood watering this land, this land of the Herero, our land, than let them take anything else”, Ruhapo tells his wife. Full of foreboding, Tjipuka is afraid. In the next three years, she and her people will have to face evil in all its incarnations, and attempt to survive against all odds.

But what does it mean to survive if everything you believe in, everything you love is gone? Repeatedly, she will ask herself whether the price to be paid is not too high: “They were no longer complete humans. They were something else. Something less than that.” In the desert, she will look at the familiar stars at night-time and wonder how they could remain “unchanged by all the evil they have witnessed?” Separated from his family, Ruhapo will ask himself what is the worth of pride, land or cattle when loved ones have to be sacrificed for them? Nothing could have prepared any of them for what awaits ahead.

The Scattering impresses on several fronts. Through the life stories of two seemingly insignificant women Kubuitsile links two seminal events of the early twentieth century history in Southern Africa. Two fates out of millions, but they personify the remarkable resilience of women throughout history: “War is for men. It’s always for men. They have a dark place where war grows.” Without consciously pointing to it, the novel exposes the cradle of the worst evils to emerge in the twentieth century: eugenics, concentration camps and the mass extinction of peoples believed to be inferior by those in power.

Kubuitsile’s depictions of war, violence and oppression are vivid but never gratuitous. Her writing is lyrical, affecting. It allows the reader to develop a deep sympathy for the characters, especially when they are confronted with impossible choices which leave no one unscathed. Her portrayals of people on all sides of the diverse conflicts are strikingly balanced. She shows the ambivalence of our passions and the decisions we make in order to survive. The Scattering is one of those superb historical novels which live on in the reader, simultaneously sounding a warning and shining the light of hope.

The Scattering

by Lauri Kubuitsile

Penguin Books South Africa, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times on 24 June 2016.

Of romance, rugby and refugees: Intertwined at the inaugural Jewish Literary Festival in Cape Town

Meg Vandermerwe, Anne Landsman, Diane Awerbuck, Helen Moffett, Karina with Nadine, and Rachel ZadokSunday, 22 May, one of those glorious winter days in Cape Town: all light and revelation. It wasn’t even 9 am, but the queue in front of the Gardens Community Centre in Hatfield Street looked overwhelming.

“Do you by any chance have a spare ticket for sale?” a woman near the entrance asked as we approached. I shook my head in confusion, and her pleading eyes moved on to the next person. My companions, the writers Helen Moffett and Diane Awerbuck, looked just as surprised as I felt. This was no rock concert, nor a sports event. We were here for the inaugural Jewish Literary Festival. We’d heard that the tickets had sold out about a week in advance, but people desperate to get into a literary festival seemed quite unusual.

We were spotted by one of the friendly volunteers assisting festival participants and visitors (the lucky ones with tickets) and ushered through the security and registering desks. The crowds inside buzzed with excitement. “Are they giving away something for free?” I wondered aloud.

The idea for the festival was born in July last year. In February the organisers – Joanne Jowell, Cindy Moritz, Viv Anstey and Gary Anstey – asked Beryl Eichenberger and Caryn Gootkin to help with the marketing. Together they reached out to a team of volunteers, secured the venue and the sponsors, and began composing a programme which would “appeal to all ages and cover a range of genres” with the aim “to promote constructive dialogue and discussion in the true spirit of Jewish life without promoting any single political or religious agenda”. From food, sports, politics, academia and journalism to fiction, poetry or memoir, the topics on offer were geared to satisfying nearly all tastes. Seven venues, 49 different events, and a palpable atmosphere of being part of something special made for a wonderful mix. There was a programme for children, but I attended only events for adults. However, I often spotted young people in the audiences, which is always heartening.

The festival opened for me with “Faribels and foibles in fiction”. Next to me in the Nelson Mandela Auditorium sat a woman crocheting, while Rachel Zadok, Rahla Xenopoulos, Marilyn Cohen de Villiers and Liesl Jobson spoke to Helen Moffett about the faribels and foibles which drive their writing. What could easily have turned out to be a light-hearted conversation quickly became a serious discussion, as an appreciative audience member commented afterwards.

In A Beautiful Family, the first novel in her Alan Silverman saga, Cohen de Villiers wrote about abuse and domestic violence to counter the myth that “it doesn’t happen to us”. She was initially scared that she would be accused of fanning the flames of antisemitism, but her work had been received with gratitude. Similarly, Zadok, Xenopoulos and Jobson are not afraid to explore mental illness in their fictional and autobiographical writings, often giving voice to experiences which would otherwise remain unnamed. Asked about how to cope with the exposure, Xenopoulos, who has written a memoir about being bipolar, said, “You owe your reader the truth. In a room, the person telling the truth, the one most vulnerable, is the one with the most power.” To which Zadok added that “there is something about owning your story”, as well as about not fearing to communicate how difficult being a writer actually is…

Continue reading: LitNet

JLF

 

 

Book review: Pleasure by Nthikeng Mohlele

PleasureThe title of Nthikeng Mohlele’s fourth novel delivers on its promise. Pleasure is a mesmerising, unusual book. At times I was hesitant to call it a novel. The story of Milton Mohlele, his dreams and musings, which he attempts to distil into writing, reads like a meditation. As literary history echoes in his name, Milton could be an alter ego for most writers seeking to find not only meaning but pleasure in the written word – to capture that elusive something which makes us sigh deeply with content when, if ever, we truly encounter it.

Pleasure opens in a bathtub, with Milton reminiscing about the women in his life and his late father, who was a writer of note. One of Milton’s preoccupations is to figure out how to avoid having to tread in his footsteps: “What more is there to say other than that the man was brilliant and is deceased?”

Often, I found my mind drifting, with the book’s images and insights as my guide. Exquisitely written, Pleasure allows you to abandon yourself to language: “This made me happy; a feeling that fell like snowflakes, like confetti showered on couples at weddings, like raindrops illuminated by car headlights, fireworks exploding sky high in magnificent, temporary fiery arrangements, falling back to earth in languid, crystal, dazzling, smoky slow motion.” Milton assures us that he “notices things”, “even the smallest, most insignificant of them”.

The observations are precise, beautiful, also in the face of evil (“a word stripped of all pretensions”). A dream sequence in the book adds a profound dimension to Milton’s considerations. In the dream, an American soldier’s life is spared and he is taken prisoner by a SS commandant. He meets an alluring woman at Wolfschanze, Hitler’s headquarters, where he finds himself among men “who could will anything into being”, including a reality in which the ash of their victims rains into coffee cups across Europe.

Once awake and contemplating the meaning of his vision, Milton is not oblivious to the fact that similar horrors happen right next to him, in present day Cape Town. He insists that Africans “should dream, or imagine themselves outside of only being black and colonised and enslaved”, that we are all part of a wider world. Towards the end, he also realises that depending on context, killing can be an act of kindness.

Pleasure never lulls us into easy answers, not everything can be “scrutinised, fully known, owned.” But it is a book full of wisdom which invites the reader to ponder the intricacies of existence. Its proclamations on love and the preciousness of the opportunities life offers are stunning: “Pleasure, I have learned, is a solitary phenomenon; it does not mix well with remorse and regrets and mistakes…at its most elementary pleasure survives on selfishness, on discreet contracts, undemocratic arrangements.” After all, most of us “want to die being able to say, I have loved in my life – truly loved, been molten and cooled and hammered by love, cast and polished.” Some of us, transformed, write.

Pleasure

by Nthikeng Mohlele

Picador Africa, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times on 20 May 2016, p. 10.

FLF 2016: my scheduled events

FRIDAY 13 May:

Water coverStationsAffluenza

[45] 16h00 Writers of few(er) words

Karina Szczurek chats to Mark Winkler (Ink), Nick Mulgrew (Stations) and Niq Mhlongo (Affluenza) about the art of keeping it short while ensuring impact.

 

SATURDAY 14 May:

[67] 11h30 Writing relationships

Under the Udala TreeLike It MattersPleasure

Chinelo Okparanta (Under the Udala Trees), David Cornwell (Like It Matters) and Nthikeng Mohlele (Pleasure) get to the heart of how writers depict love, sex and friendship through their characters. Chaired by Karina Szczurek (Invisible Others).

[74] 13h00 André Brink Memorial Lecture

Sindiwe MagonaAndré

(Photographs: Victor Dlamini)

Karina Szczurek welcomes you to the second annual lecture in honour of her late husband André Brink, and will introduce Sindiwe Magona (prolific author and writer-in-residence, University of the Western Cape). She will offer an outsider’s take on this giant of South African letters in a talk titled “André Brink: enigma, betrayer, villain or hero?”    

 

SUNDAY 15 May:

[116] 11h30 Literary letters

Everyday MattersFeatured Image -- 1244

Finuala Dowling chairs a discussion with Margaret Daymond (Everyday Matters: Selected letters of Dora Taylor, Bessie Head and Lilian Ngoyi), Karin Schimke (Flame in the Snow) and Karina Szczurek (Flame in the Snow), about what the personal correspondence of significant figures reveals about their writing, themes and lives.

Book tickets here: FLF 2016 

KarinaMSzczurek

 

 

KARINA M. SZCZUREK is the author of Truer than Fiction: Nadine Gordimer Writing Post-Apartheid South Africa. She is also the editor of Touch: Stories of Contact, Encounters with André Brink; Contrary: Critical Responses to the Novels of André Brink (with Willie Burger), and the 2015 SSDA anthology, Water: New Short Fiction from Africa (with Nick Mulgrew). She also writes short stories, essays and literary criticism. Her debut novel Invisible Others was published in 2014.

Review: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes AirReading dead authors is not unusual, but opening the late Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air feels different. He wrote it knowing he was dying and it was published by his widow a year after his death. The immediacy of the knowledge is uncannily palpable. For me, the experience was even more intimate on two different levels. Firstly, I also had a cancer scare recently and Kalanithi was my age when he died. In retrospect, his memoir made me count my blessings, again, as I am healthy and have escaped with just a fright. Secondly, like me, as a young person he struggled to choose between two vocations: medicine and literature. Unlike me though, he chose medicine. But literary longings had never left him and when life became unbearable, like many of us he found some amount of solace in the written word.

The striking title of the book derives from lines of an Elizabethan sonnet: “You that seek what life is in death, / Now find it air that once was breath.” To contemplate it alone is already an experience in itself. In the forward, we are told: “Be ready. Be seated. See what courage sounds like.” Can one ever be ready for death? I doubt it, especially not when at the age of thirty-six, with the most promising medical career ahead, you look at a CT scan of your lungs and become aware that they are riddled with tumours.

At this stage of his life, Paul is about to complete the decade-long training necessary for becoming a professor of neurosurgery. He is married to Lucy, also a doctor. Because their relationship is strained, he does not know at first how to break the dreadful news to her.

When Breath Becomes Air tells Paul’s story before and after the lethal verdict. We see his aspirations taking him to the heights of what is possible in his field. Every day he is confronted with illness, decay, and death – of others. He is constantly challenged to question what makes life meaningful. Some of the descriptions of his daily routines as a medical student and doctor are not for the faint-hearted. Even less so is the narrative of him becoming a patient. It is gut-wrenching to realise how the potential Paul had worked so hard to build will “go unrealised”. With searing honesty, he describes his attempts at making the most of the time left at his disposal and the ambition that drives him in the face of ultimate defeat. He writes how, paradoxically, the illness heals his marriage, and how he makes the courageous decision to become a father to a child who will most likely not remember him. Knowing that his words will outlive him, he writes the book.

When Breath Becomes Air is published with a beautiful epilogue by Lucy, “his wife and a witness”, who carries on with “love and gratitude alongside the terrible sorrow, the grief so heavy that at times I shiver and moan under the weight of it.”

When Breath Becomes Air

by Paul Kalanithi

The Bodley Head, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times, 22 April 2016.