Tag Archives: Karina M. Szczurek

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.

Review: The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

WintersonJeanette Winterson is one of my favourite writers of fiction and non-fiction. Her recent memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal (2011) was a revelation. I was introduced to her work at university with the by now classic novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985). Her Lighthousekeeping (2004) is one of the most moving love stories I have ever read. Among many texts, it echoes Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The main character Silver reappears in other Winterson novels. As does the line: “Tell me a story.” Winterson is known for her retellings of myths and legends, her writing is rich in intertextuality. I loved her modern rendering of the Atlas myth, Weight (2005).

The Gap of Time, Winterson’s latest novel, is also a cover version of a famous classic, no other than Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. It is the first book in a series launched in October last year which aims to reimagine Shakespearean works for our generation. Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name was published last month. Upcoming titles include such promising treats as Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood’s take on The Tempest, or Gillian Flynn’s version of Hamlet.

One does not have to be a Shakespeare buff to enjoy The Gap of Time. For those unfamiliar with The Winter’s Tale, the original is summarised in the beginning of the book. But Winterson’s brilliant interpretation is self-reliant and can be read independently.

“The story has to start somewhere”, but not necessarily at the beginning. The Gap of Time begins in the middle: Shep, a jazz bar owner, and his son Clo witness a murder. At the same time, they discover a little girl “as light as a star” in a baby hatch of a hospital nearby. Because the child reawakens Shep’s belief in love, which he lost when his beloved wife died of cancer, he decides to adopt her.

The story moves back in time to when the ruthless businessman Leo accuses his wife pregnant wife MiMi of having an affair with their best friend Xeno, and of carrying his child. Although both deny the accusation vehemently, Leo attempts to kill Xeno and refuses to acknowledge his daughter when she is born. His rampant jealousy results in a tragedy which leaves no one unscathed.

Years later, fate leads two young people to fall into love, but their respective family histories might ruin their chance at happiness. With great emotional and psychological depth, Winterson’s tale examines the notions of family and what it means to love, “to know something worth knowing, wild and unlikely and against every rote.” She exposes the foolishness of taking love for granted and allowing chances at redemption to slip us by.

As Winterson writes in the end, the reason Shakespeare endures is because stories of revenge, tragedy and forgiveness are universal. This superb twenty-first century retelling speaks straight to our contemporary, post-Freudian consciousness and touches our ancient hearts which continue longing for the recognition of the magic they are capable of.

The Gap of Time

by Jeanette Winterson

Hogarth Shakespeare, 2015

Review first published in the Cape Times, 1 April 2016.

 

Book mark: The Chameleon House by Melissa de Villiers

The Chameleon HouseMelissa de Villiers was born in Grahamstown and educated at Rhodes, but she is a citizen of the world. She lives in Singapore, travels widely, and often returns to South Africa. The nine stories in her debut The Chameleon House are informed by migrations. The concept of home is interrogated, as is contemporary South Africa and its difficult past, “old ways unextinguished and forever edging forward, smudging boundaries”. A woman inherits her grandfather’s weekend house and with it the question of ownership. Another is the victim of sly abuse. An illicit couple is caught up in a blackout. Lust and power mingle with loneliness, an “emptiness – desolate and cold – that would claim her should her hold on him flicker and fail.” Loyalties are tested when four friends sharing a house in London unwittingly harbour a traitor among them. This is powerful storytelling from a writer to watch.

The Chameleon House

by Melissa de Villiers

Modjaji, 2015

First published in the Cape Times, 25 March 2016.

Book mark: Unsettled and Other Stories by Sandra Hill

UnSettledThe feeling one is left with after reading Sandra Hill’s debut story collection Unsettled is reflected in the title of the book. Hill paints vivid portraits of what it means to be a woman in different places and times. It is a finely layered picture of the everyday and the unusual. The mother of one of the characters insists that one should read poetry “slowly, expectantly, the way you eat oysters”, as the “magic…comes after you swallow.” Although every story is a fully contained piece, read together, they acquire that magic of swallowing oysters. Saturated with local flavours, settings, history, Unsettled offers evocative, intimate glimpses of women’s lives – their dreams, desires, worries and regrets – many readers will find uncannily familiar, sometimes perhaps difficult to acknowledge: “Life can take us away from where we belong, but we don’t lose the longing for it… If we are lucky we get to make our way back.”

Unsettled and Other Stories

by Sandra Hill

Modjaji, 2015

First published in the Cape Times, 25 March 2016.

Book review: Roberto Calasso’s The Art of the Publisher

The Art of the PublisherEvery now and then, a book comes along which changes your life. For me, Roberto Calasso’s The Art of the Publisher is one of them. But you don’t have to be – or, like me, want to become – a book publisher to find this gem an inspiration.

For quite a while now, publishing has been steeped in a pervasive atmosphere of gloom and doom, especially in South Africa. The threat of the internet, the e-book, the retail giant Amazon, and the financial crisis have made life for the printed book difficult. Locally, a seemingly general disinterest in South African fiction and foolish political decisions have made survival tougher for our publishers, and consequently, of course, for us writers. Book sales are not encouraging. Publishers scaling down even less so. Yet, watching developments like the self-publication of Paige Nick’s latest novel, Death by Carbs, or new publishing ventures like uHlanga and Tattoo Press, I have a feeling that some creative and daring people in the country are on to something which gives me many reasons for optimism.

Roberto Calasso’s essays collected in The Art of Publishing attest to the fact that it all comes down to basics. And the basics are vision and quality. It is these two aspects of publishing that readers throughout centuries have best responded to with enthusiasm. These are no trade secrets, just simple rules which those who have been successful in publishing have always followed.

Critic, writer, and a publisher himself, Calasso has been at the forefront of Italian publishing for decades. His love for literature and the book shines through every single paragraph of The Art of Publishing. His passion is one of beauty. His insights are heartening to read.

When it matters, publishing is not about money, although, as with all art forms, moderate financial rewards cannot and should not be excluded. There are enough examples out there to prove the case. All aspects of the form play an integral part in its success: “choice and sequence of titles published…texts that accompany the books, as well as the way in which the books are presented as objects.” Calasso does not deny that this is “the most hazardous and ambitious goal for a publisher, and so it has remained for five hundred years”, but he also reminds that “literature loses all of its magic unless there’s an element of impossibility concealed deep within it.”

He goes into the fascinating history of publishing, asks what constitutes culture, celebrates the great publishers of our times, explores the relationship between the publisher and the writer, demonstrates how crucial the nourishment of writers and the care for the book as an object are to a thriving publishing environment, and most importantly, to our intellectual and emotional lives.

Calasso also shows that even if often unbeknownst to us why a particular publisher attracts our enthusiasm, as readers we understand the value of our “repeated experiences of not being disappointed.” And that is what only a publisher of vision and quality can offer.

The Art of the Publisher by Roberto Calasso

Translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon

Penguin Books, 2015

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

Two comments:

When I truly enjoy a book I have the need to share it with others. I have already bought several copies of The Art of the Publisher for friends, two more today…

I was attracted to the book in the first place because it appealed to me as an object. I saw it displayed at the Book Lounge in Cape Town and could not walk away from it…