Tag Archives: Karina Magdalena Szczurek

The Break-up

Break-Up LitNet illustration

It was an awkward situation. I was standing there, in front of my best friend’s door, with a cardboard box and an old suitcase in my arms, feeling foolish. I could hear her drying her hair inside. Taking a deep breath, I pressed the bell.

“Coming!” Marlene shouted, switching off the hairdryer.

When she opened the door, the dark hallway of the flat building was flooded with sunshine. It was the beginning of a hot summer day, the humidity in the air promising rain later in the afternoon. Marlene’s damp red curls looked on fire in the bright morning light.

She hovered in the doorframe, staring at the box and the suitcase, twisting one of her curls between a forefinger and a thumb.

“Hi,” I volunteered.

“Hi, come in.” She disentangled her fingers from her hair and swept her hand aside in a gesture of welcome. The flimsy bathrobe she was wearing came undone as she did so, and I glimpsed a perfect, small breast before she tied the garment tighter around her waist.

“This is weird,” she said, following me into the flat.

I pressed my lips together and agreed. “You can say that again.”

We were facing each other, not really knowing how to proceed. Nothing had prepared us for this odd situation.

“I don’t know.” She paused. “I don’t know whether all the clothes will fit into this suitcase.” She rushed through the second part of the statement. “The box might also be too small for all the other stuff,” she added with a shy smile.

“That’s alright, maybe you’ll have a bag or something for me?” I looked her straight in the eye, without returning the smile. I didn’t know what was really expected of me. Was I supposed to be distant? Angry? Sympathetic? I had no clue. Deep inside, I simply wanted to be neutral, but that didn’t feel right either. But how was I to pick sides?

“Right!” She gracefully turned on her bare heel. “Let me show you the stuff first.”

She led me to her bedroom. As always, the place was in a state of chaos. I never saw her make her bed, or pick up all the magazines and books from the floor. She was the fastest and least discriminating reader I knew; the likes of Dan Brown and Virginia Woolf were strewn all around us. We shared the passion of reading, but I was more careful with my choices, and I liked to be organised. Pedantic, is how Marlene described it. I preferred to think of myself as fastidious.

“That’s all I could find.” She pointed at a pile of clothes on the bed next to one of the crumpled pillows. “Some pieces were still in the laundry basket, so he might want to check.”

She reached for the box I was carrying. “Let me try to get the other stuff in here for you.”

While I was packing the suitcase, she put some DVDs, CDs, computer games and comic books from another pile on the floor into the box.

“I’ll get a plastic bag for the sneakers and the roller blades,” she said and left the room.

With difficulty I zipped up the bulging suitcase and looked at the box. I recognised the top CD cover: Lady Gaga. Kester once played the record for us. I tried to keep up with the latest in music, but some developments were beyond me.

Marlene returned, packed the remaining items, and handed me the bag.

“This won’t change anything between us, will it?” She was facing the window and the lucid sunlight illuminated her features again. I knew her well enough to recognise what was coming. I wasn’t good with tears, especially not hers.

“Of course not,” I reassured her, put the bag aside, and pulled her into a loose embrace. Her hair smelled like summer rain on hot concrete.

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Book review: The Seed Thief by Jacqui L’Ange

The Seed ThiefThere are writers and then there are writers. Most of us can only dream of becoming the kind of writer Jacqui L’Ange already is, and the stunning The Seed Thief is only her debut novel. Her prose is luminous. It feels as if her words are caressing the pages they are printed on. Enthralled from the beginning, I was reading with bated breath, afraid that the author could not sustain such excellence through an entire novel, that she would take a false step, get lost along the way, and lose me as a reader. But The Seed Thief is one of those rare books which deliver on all fronts and leave you completely satisfied.

The novel tells the story of Maddy Bellani, a South African botanist with migratory roots. She works for one of the world’s seed banks in Cape Town, specialising in fynbos and dedicated to preserving the floral diversity of our planet for future generations. Brazilian by birth, Maddy is sent on a mission to Salvador, Bahia, to locate and secure the seed of the Newbouldia mundii, an African tree extinct on its continent of origin, but rumoured to have survived in Brazil, where it had been taken to by Africans during the slave trade. The plant is desired not only for preservation, but specifically for its medicinal properties. And some people are prepared to do anything to get their hands on it.

Maddy embarks on the mission after the break-up of her relationship with Nico: “Only now that it was finally ending, could I admit how much I’d wished we could have turned the mutual vulnerabilities that brought us together into something less fragile.” She is haunted by a family tragedy from the past and the relationship with her estranged father who finds out about her visit to their home country and attempts to get in touch: “Just knowing that he knew I was here made my emotional barometer plunge.”

Keen on redefining herself in Brazil, Maddy flies to the other side of the world in pursuit of the elusive Newbouldia mundii. The seed is protected by the practitioners of Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religious community worshipping gods and goddesses called orixás. Negotiating their different customs and loyalties is not easy and, as Maddy discovers, sometimes what you get in the end is not exactly what you set out to find.

Seeds are like love, unpredictable in the paths they travel. They take root in the most unlikely places, often against all odds. In order to gain access to the treasure she seeks, Maddy has to gain the trust of the Candomblé terreiro (the house of worship) and Zé, the mysterious man who guards their garden: “The rhythm of our interaction became a gentle ebb and flow. He would open up and play, then retreat and observe. Whenever he retreated, I found myself wanting to follow, to draw him back out and close to me. When he came in too close, I pulled back just enough for him to gather himself like the tide.”

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wanting_The Seed Thief

“Your library is your soul”: Reflecting on Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins

A God in Ruins_Costa

Despite her substantial literary success, I did not know Kate Atkinson’s work before A God in Ruins was recommended to me by a friend whose taste I value. It won the Costa Novel Award in the beginning of this month, as did Atkinson’s previous novel, Life After Life (2014). The two are related, but can be read independently. I hope to turn to the sibling soon, as A God in Ruins is one of the most exquisite novels I have ever read, and the idea of Atkinson’s backlist reassures me greatly.

A God in Ruins is many things. It is the story of a British family set against the historical background of the past century. It is a novel about war and its aftershocks. It is a fine enquiry into human nature. But above all, it is a declaration of love for literature, its power and its manifold mysteries. And it is highly ambitious. What astounds about A God in Ruins is that it never falls short of these formidable ambitions. Such novels are rare. They take root in your mind and blossom in your soul. Even ferocious readers encounter a novel like this only once in a while.

The way it captures fiction’s ability to heal, to open up spaces in us we never even knew existed is striking. It is poetic in style as well as in its wisdom. For me personally, A God in Ruins was a magical key. It opened two doors in my life. Two doors connecting the past to my fragile present: one appeared while I was still reading, the other after I’d finished the novel. I stepped through the first, an imaginary one, during one of those serene nights when you are at peace with the world and yourself. It was around midnight. I was lost in the arms of a comfy easy chair; a soft caramel light illuminated the room. When I looked up from the book, I saw something so beautiful that I wanted to hold on to it forever. But I was scared to disturb the scene by searching for my camera, so I turned to the last blank page of A God in Ruins and drew a sketch of what was in front of me: a moment of flickering hope. It is also engraved in my heart.

The second door was real. It is the door to my late husband’s library. There are innumerable books in our house. We have roamed among them with the great pleasure that exploring books can bring only to two readers in love. When I finished A God in Ruins, I was crushed by the inability to share it with André. It was published a few weeks after his death. But I knew, had he been alive, I would have passed the novel to him the second I was finished with it that early Sunday morning, and I would have asked him to read it immediately so that we could discuss it in detail. Instead, I was all alone in an empty bed and all I could do was weep. What I have discovered about grief and loneliness is that it is not the lows which are unbearable, but the emptiness of the highs, when all you want to do is experience them with the person you love and there is no-one there to hold you…

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The heart has spaces – the love letters of André Brink and Ingrid Jonker

Drawing in Ingrid's letter of 15 October 1963
In the beginning there were the women of his past, a ghost among them. André Brink had never been afraid to love. After the life-defining relationship of his youth with Ingrid Jonker, her suicide, and four divorces, at the age of 69 he had the guts to say yes to a delicate possibility.

When we met in Austria towards the end of 2004 I was terribly young, on the verge of a divorce, broken by betrayals, and almost paralysed by mistrust. Continents and cultures apart, 42 years between us, the odds staked against us could not have been higher. Yet we somehow mustered enough courage to dare the impossible and turn it into reality. For ten years, the first thing we did every morning after waking up next to each other was to smile. No matter what. Of course it hadn’t been easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is. And coming to terms with our respective pasts was our greatest challenge.

André first introduced me to Ingrid in a letter on 23 December 2004:

She was a year or so older than me, and light-years older in terms of sexual experience. It was an incredible, hectic, heady, head-over-heels love of extremes, swinging wildly from ecstasy to the depths of misery; and it became just too exhausting and demanding. After two years (and several break-ups and new starts) she started a new love-affair, and then I did too (both of us, I think, grasping at possibilities of getting out of our own relationship which had become suffocating). And so it ended. She had one more mad love-affair, and committed suicide.

Coming to live with André in the South African spring of 2005, I very quickly realised that in order to know him – truly know him – I had to understand what had happened between him and Ingrid 40 years earlier. We both had to. No other woman in André’s life had left as indelible a mark on him as Ingrid. No other haunted me as much in the beginning of our relationship.

I am proud of countless things André and I have achieved together, but the one that made all else possible is the space we created in our relationship for sharing, for being painfully open with each other. André and I met at Vienna International Airport when I went to pick him up and accompany him on the train journey to Salzburg, where he was participating in a symposium I’d helped organise. On that trip we began a conversation which, literally, lasted ten years until I told him I loved him for the last time and closed his lips with a final kiss just before he died earlier this year. It was a stripping of minds and hearts. Time after time, we stood completely soul-naked in front of each other, risking everything, and eventually knowing that love would prevail, always, no matter how terrifyingly ugly the revealed truth – on both sides – was. It is the kind of knowledge which can lay any ghost to rest.

At the end of Everything I Know I Learned from TV: Philosophy for the Unrepentant Couch Potato, my favourite philosopher, Mark Rowlands, writes: “If I could repay you with a wish it would be that you find something in your life so important that without it you would not be the same person. If you’re lucky you’ll have it already.” The relationship with Ingrid was such a thing for André. He wrote in his memoir, A Fork in the Road (Harvill Secker, 2009): “On that memorable afternoon of 15 April, 1963, a group of us were gathered in the lounge of Jan Rabie’s rambling old house in Cape Town, when Ingrid walked in, barefoot and provocative, and the movement against censorship officially began, and the course of my life was changed.” Her influence permeated everything: his personal life, and, just as crucially, his writing. One only needs to look at André’s women characters, walking in Ingrid’s footprints across the pages of his novels, to comprehend what an impact their meeting had on his creativity. And they are only the most obvious example. But despite the evidence, for many years André was exceedingly reluctant to speak or write about Ingrid after her death.

At the time of our engagement in early 2006, together with Antjie Krog and Ingrid de Kok, André was working on the new translations of Ingrid Jonker’s poems which would result in the publication of Black Butterflies: Selected Poems (Human & Rousseau, 2007). It must have been during this period that he showed me his and Ingrid’s correspondence for the first time. He kept the letters in the same place as his diaries which he reread for the writing of the introduction to Black Butterflies, the first text of its kind after many years of silence. An intimate treasure and a chunk of literary history many had wondered about for decades, even back then the letters had an irresistible appeal for me. Although my grasp of the Afrikaans language and literature was shaky at this stage, I understood their importance as a key to André’s life story and to the creative and intellectual forces culminating in the literary movement of the Sestigers. We looked at them together, he told me their story, and allowed me to comment on the translations as well as on the introduction. The title for the collection followed from a suggestion I’d made. Being included felt like a form of exorcism.

I wrote in my own diary of the time: “Dear Ingrid, are you smiling at us after all?”

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Entertaining and insightful: Pamela Power’s Ms Conception

Ms ConceptionEver wanted to kill your beloved kids? Shag your psychotherapist? Take revenge on the Floozy lusting after your husband? Write a nasty email to your Boss from Hell? You are not alone! Jo de Villiers, the delightful heroine of Pamela Power’s debut novel Ms Conception (Penguin, 2015), knows exactly how you feel. Soapie scriptwriter, wife, mother of two, daughter and friend, Jo, like so many women before her, is trying to juggle domestic and professional responsibilities without going insane in the process.

Pamela Power is not afraid of dark truths. Motherhood is not for sissies. It can ravage your body, play havoc with your mind, put strain on your relationships, and ruin your chances of getting ahead in your career: “Nobody ever warns you that, much as you love your children, there will be times when you hate them just as fervently. And that the guilt you feel for being such a useless, inadequate excuse for a mother will sometimes completely overwhelm you.” But Ms Conception with its brilliant title and wonderful cover is anything but a dark book. Power does not shy away from afterbirths, baby poos, or cracked nipples. Nor from tackling other serious topics such as peer pressure, HIV, and infidelity, but she does it all with such a mischievous sense of humour that one can’t help smiling on every page. In fact, my introduction to the book was via a friend who picked up my copy, started reading before me, and chuckled every few paragraphs. I felt exactly like that when it was my turn and devoured the book in two sittings. It ends with a ‘delicious’ bang and a recipe which will make you squirm!

Pamela Power made me think of the way difficult issues were handled in my family. We would sit around the dinner table and tease each other about the things that bothered us or tell some funny, seemingly unrelated, meandering stories which would illustrate our worries. It might not have been the ideal way of confronting conflict but it had its uses as it was an easy way of avoiding direct offence. And yet, despite having perfected this skill while growing up and using it in my early experiments in writing, I am hopeless at writing humour. I have endless admiration for writers who approach tough subjects with a light touch and make one laugh. Power is definitely one of them.

Thirty Second WorldMs Conception also reminded me strongly of another local novel, Emma van der Vliet’s Thirty Second World (Penguin, 2013), which paints a similarly humorous picture of a woman’s attempts to survive modern motherhood. Some of the most striking and strangely hilarious descriptions in both books involve breastfeeding and breast pumps and I am tempted to lump them into a new genre: ‘breast pump fiction’. There is something liberating and empowering about reading novels which reveal the often mundane everyday horrors of being a woman without batting an eyelid while cracking jokes at the same time.

Power dedicated Ms Conception to “childminders everywhere”, stating “You deserve a raise!” Women – and men who know what it’s like and do their share! – are the superheroes of our daily lives. And Pamela Power is definitely a writer to watch.

Review: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

To Kill A Mockingbird“It is what it is, says love” is a phrase from a poem by the Austrian poet Erich Fried which echoed in my head while I was reading Harper Lee’s highly anticipated Go Set a Watchman. Published decades after her Pulitzer Prize-winning, internationally bestselling To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Lee’s only other novel to date, no matter what its merits or lack thereof, Go Set a Watchman is a literary milestone.

How the two books relate to each other reminds one of the ancient question about which came first: the chicken or the egg. It’s complicated. Or not? Although first to be published, To Kill a Mockingbird was written after Go Set a Watchman. Both tell the story of the Finch family, but they are set twenty years apart. In the late 1950s, Harper Lee was told by an editor who saw the manuscript of Go Set a Watchman, where the main characters are all grown up but frequently return in their memories of an earlier time throughout the book, to rework it to focus on those childhood stories. This rewrite became To Kill a Mockingbird. Without any doubt there are good reasons why the initial book hasn’t seen the light of the published page until now. And all kudos to the editor who saw its potential back then and challenged Lee to write another novel which millions of readers across the world have come to love over the last half a century.

My personal love affair with To Kill a Mockingbird began in grade 8. I still have my school copy of the novel with a dust jacket I designed for it myself. It is one of only a handful of books which travelled with me across three continents to settle in Cape Town. I mention this to emphasise the important part that the tale of the siblings, Scout and Jem, and their wonderful father, Atticus Finch, plays in my life. Full of wisdom and tenderness, beautifully written, poignant and funny, the richly layered To Kill a Mockingbird is a true classic. It is set in the imagined county of Maycomb in Alabama of the 1930s. Through Scout’s innocent eyes, it tells the story of her and her brother’s fascination with their reclusive neighbour, Boo Radley, and their father’s fight for fairness for a black man accused of raping a white woman in the Jim Crow South. The children learn that it’s easy to fear what you do not understand and that more often than not law has very little to do with justice. But what they also discover is that there are certain things in life worth fighting for.

When I reread the novel recently, my love of it was reaffirmed. And when you love something so much, it is easy to have your heart broken if somebody tampers with it in ways which are uncomfortably unpredictable…

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Book review: The Death’s Head Chess Club by John Donoghue

Deaths Head Chess ClubA friend has recently suggested that my reluctance to read Second World War novels might be similar to many South Africans’ reluctance to read apartheid fiction, and that saturation might be at the heart of it. True, having grown up in Poland and Austria, I have heard, seen and read plenty about the war – the stories as related by both sides. It is not that I shy away from the horror, even though after having visited the Mauthausen concentration camp as a teenager I was unable to accompany my husband when he wanted to see the concentration camp in Auschwitz (throughout, I sat very still in a coffee shop just outside and wept without going in). Imagination and empathy can be deadly for a soul. But I understand that these (hi)stories must be told and listened to. Today, in the midst of xenophobia, racism and violence, we need to grasp, perhaps even more than ever, what is at stake when we declare others as subhuman…

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The Death’s Head Chess Club
by John Donoghue
Atlantic Books, 2015

Christmas Story: Mrs Obama’s Garden

‘Rubbish!’ Nkosi spat out. Drunk, he stood before Zuki with crumpled Christmas gift paper piling around his naked feet. He tossed the last of the presents, still partly wrapped, across the room. ‘Rich people’s rubbish,’ he hissed and fell back on his bed. A few seconds later he began to snore.

Zuki surveyed the scene before her. Nkosi had just come back from one of his ‘trips to town’, as he and his buddies called their looting excursions to the affluent suburbs of the city. They never went for anything big, specialising in petty crime only. But the last trip had been a total disappointment. They’d cruised for hours without an opportunity presenting itself until, at last, they saw a woman put a heavy box into the boot of her 4×4 and return to her house without locking the car. Nkosi grabbed the box and they made their escape. At least that is what Zuki had gathered from her brother’s earlier rant.

Now, the contents of the box lay strewn in front of her and Zuki felt a pang of guilt when she imagined how it would feel to discover the box gone. She picked up a piece of the Christmas paper which had landed near the door. Half a gift card was still attached to it. Zuki fingered it and straightened out the wrapping around it. One by one, Zuki traced the letters with her forefinger, deciphering them with some effort and pronouncing them softly under her breath: ‘TO KRISTIN AND WIGGO FROM…’ The giver’s name was missing.

Zuki crouched and retrieved the object which had so infuriated her brother. She hugged the stolen present to her chest. On tiptoe she made her way back to the sofa in the front of the house where she slept. The air was stagnant with the summer heat. Her father was asleep in the only other room.

The full moon illuminated the sofa through the window. Once settled, Zuki finished unwrapping the present and found herself staring into the lovely face of the American First Lady whom she’d recently seen on TV during the coverage of the her husband’s re-election campaign. She suddenly realised that she hadn’t properly held a book since dropping out of school three years ago when her mother died and Zuki took over her work as a char at Ms Murray’s. Ms Murray had shelves and shelves of books in her house, but Zuki only ever approached them with a feather duster.

Michelle ObamaPointing out the letters with her finger, Zuki gradually made out the title of the book and smiled. On the cover, Mrs Obama held a basket full of vegetables in all the colours of the rainbow. Even though Zuki did not recognise most of the vegetables, the picture made her mouth water. Especially the cucumber. In summer, Ms Murray often made cucumber sandwiches for her tea and always shared them with Zuki.

Inside the book, Zuki found many more photographs of Mrs Obama, surrounded by children, working in a garden, all busy with wheelbarrows and spades and rakes, then proudly showing off their vegetables in front of the camera. The people in the book appeared so relaxed and happy.

Zuki hadn’t known happiness since her mother’s death. Although it was difficult to admit, deep down inside she knew that her father was a drunk, her brother a chancer, and that her mother died because her father ordered her to visit a witchdoctor when she discovered lumps in her breast, instead of taking her to a clinic. But Zuki preferred not to dwell on things beyond her control. She was grateful for a roof over her head and didn’t mind giving most of her earnings to her father, just as long as he left her enough to feed them all. Even if what they could afford was mostly umngqusho or rice.

In one of the photographs, Mrs Obama was crouching next to a patch of plants Zuki did not recognise. The small-print text next to the picture looked daunting. At the top of the page, spelling the words carefully to herself, Zuki could make out a caption: “How Times Have Changed”.

In her dreams that night Zuki was in a garden and suddenly found herself face to face with the First Lady who held out to her a funny-shaped, purple vegetable. ‘Do you know what this is?’ Mrs Obama asked her. Zuki had to shake her head.

Waking up she felt her stomach grumble. Her dream made her feel ashamed. She hid Mrs Obama’s book under her sofa.

At work that day, Ms Murray was surprised to find Zuki paging through the commemorative U.S. election special issue of Time magazine. Ms Murray had not liked the idea of Zuki being torn out of school to work for her, but understood the situation and was glad that there had been at least something she could do for the family when her mother passed away. Zuki had never complained or indicated that she missed school, so it somehow surprised Ms Murray to see her looking so intently at the magazine in front of her, pointing, and mouthing the letters which stood to attention before her nail. She was so absorbed that in answer to Ms Murray’s hello she jumped up from her chair, spilling the remains of her tea over the magazine.

‘I didn’t mean to scare you,’ Ms Murray said and turned on the kettle.

Apologising, Zuki started wiping off her tea from the full-spread picture of the American First Family.

‘Don’t worry,’ her employer assured her. ‘I’m finished with it. You are welcome to have it when it’s dry.’

Zuki hesitated.

‘Are you happy that Obama was re-elected?’ Ms Murray asked unexpectedly. They had never talked politics before.

‘I know very little about –’ Zuki paused.

‘But you are interested to find out, I see.’

‘I’m not good at – ’

‘Reading?’ Ms Murray probed and Zuki nodded tentatively.

‘But you seem eager to?’

Zuki remembered the book at home and nodded again.

‘You know, I could help you,’ Ms Murray said. ‘Would you like that?’ she added carefully.

Zuki raised her eyes. In them Ms Murray found her answer.

In the afternoon, still glowing from the offer, Zuki went outside with a cool drink for Ms Murray’s gardener.

‘Do you mind if I take some of these home?’ she asked, pointing at some plants which resembled the ones she remembered from Mrs Obama’s book.

Alone on her sofa late that night, Zuki opened Mrs Obama’s garden book and held the thyme and rosemary twigs close to her nose. She smelled change in the palm of her hand.

***

Originally published as “Mevrou Obama se tuin” in By on 21 December 2013.

Christmas Story: A Silver Spoon

IMGP2891Sanna never liked polishing the silver. She would have preferred to iron the white damask tablecloth the new Mrs Joubert brought over from home. She told Sanna her mother had given it to her as a parting present. Sanna listens to the huffs and puffs of the iron in the next room. She puts aside the last spoon and continues with the forks. Forks are tricky. You have to work the cloth carefully around the tines; the task is too much for her impatient chubby fingers. She takes a deep breath, trying to keep her cool. A cinnamony smell penetrates her nostrils. She looks at the big pot of stewing dried fruit, bubbling happily on the stove. It could also be the half-moon cookies Missus has put in the oven.

Rubbing Silvo into the cutlery, Sanna thinks of going home this afternoon; of her sister’s house in Worcester; the kitchen there buzzing with activities; her nieces and nephews, eagerly awaiting the next morning. She takes a sip of coffee Mrs Joubert has made for her before ironing. She still cannot get used to the idea of having anything served to her, especially not by the Missus – or Zosia, as she insists on being called. Old Mrs Joubert would never even have thought of it. But this one, this one was not born and bred here; she is different with her strange European ways. Sanna likes her.

In the other room, Zosia glides the iron over the intricate patterns of the white tablecloth. She breathes in the damp, warm smell of ironing. Her mother taught her to do it, insisting early on that she must know how to take care of herself. Housework always makes Zosia feel close to her. In this house, having Sanna to do most of it for her is difficult to get used to, but she understands the necessity of providing her with a job. When the tablecloth is ready, Zosia walks to the dining room holding it up between her outstretched arms. She places it carefully on the table and smoothes it around the edges with her hands. She puts the red placemats she bought for the occasion on top. She can already see how beautiful the silver will look on them.

‘Sanna, how are you coming along?’ Zosia calls into the kitchen.

‘Almost ready,’ Sanna replies, polishing the last knife.

Zosia puts long red candles on the table, then takes out some plates and glasses from the side cupboard. As Sanna comes through with the cutlery a few minutes later, Zosia is busy placing red and silver cone-shaped napkins into the neatly arranged soup plates.

Sanna sees the three placemats and is perplexed, but remains silent in her inscrutable way. Zosia smiles at her raised eyebrows and, bending over the table to put another wineglass into place, explains: ‘We have a tradition in Poland. On Christmas Eve, we always set the table for one extra person, just in case somebody stops by.’

Sanna shakes her head slowly, placing the cutlery next to the plates. ‘The most important Christmas meal on the 24th; twelve different dishes; no meat, just fish; waiting for the first star in the sky to appear before sitting down to dinner; opening presents on Christmas Eve; setting the table for a guest who never comes…’ In her head, Sanna repeats the list of strange customs Zosia has told her about in the last few days.

Seeing the dubious look on Sanna’s face, Zosia continues, arranging a few fir twigs around the tall candles. ‘There is a German saying, Andere Länder, andere Sitten. Other countries, other customs. I won’t be cooking twelve dishes for Johan and me tonight though,’ she reassures Sanna. ‘But there won’t be any meat, and we’ll have to cheat about the first star. We’ll starve if we wait for one to appear in this summer sky,’ Zosia looks outside. ‘In Europe we have snow for Christmas,’ she says and turns back to Sanna, ‘What is your sister cooking for your family?’

‘Chicken.’ Sanna does not say more. The single word fills her memory with smells and sounds of home and she looks at the grandfather’s clock in the dining room. Zosia catches the furtive glance. ‘You must be eager to go. Please, could you just vacuum the lounge and put the fresh linen on I have laid out on our bed.’ Before Sanna turns away, she adds, ‘Thank you,’ and, ‘I will make a small salad for us for lunch, and make sure that Johan remembers about taking you to the station on time.’

The ancient Hoover reminds Sanna of the old Mrs Joubert, always insisting on having the house vacuumed daily. She never said ‘please’ or ‘thank you.’ She passed away at the beginning of the year. After the funeral Johan decided to move back home with his outlandish wife whom he had married overseas without inviting the family. His mother never forgave him for it.

Sanna tucks the duvet in underneath the mattress and smoothes over the bed before putting the pillows in place. She hears Zosia call that lunch is ready. In the kitchen, she picks up her plate and takes it to her room in the back of the house where she always eats alone.

‘I wish she’d join us,’ Zosia tells her husband sitting at the kitchen table.

‘Years of conditioning. And you know how shy she is; give her time.’

Zosia sighs impatiently.

In her room, Sanna enjoys the salad. Her little suitcase is packed and ready to go. An extra bag leans on it. With the unexpectedly generous Christmas bonus she has bought some treats for her family.
Sanna wants to wash up the dishes after lunch, but Zosia tells her to leave them. ‘I can do it, no problem, and Johan is ready to take you to the station.’

‘Thank you,’ Sanna says and before she turns to go adds a shy ‘Merry Christmas’.

‘And merry Christmas to you, too. Enjoy your holiday, Sanna. We’ll see you after New Year.’ Zosia walks up to her and gives her a cautious hug. Sanna does not know how to react. She rushes out of the kitchen.
At the station, the bus is late. Johan insists on staying until it arrives, but Sanna tells him not to worry and to go back home. Half an hour later it is announced that the bus to Worcester has broken down and no other will be going there until the next day.

Back at the house, Johan helps Zosia with the preparations for their first Christmas dinner together. For the first time in years he is excited about the festive season. Overseas there was nobody really to share the occasion with before they met, and he never felt like coming back home to his mother’s overbearing presence and suffocating piety. He’d left on a job contract the moment an opportunity arose. Meeting Zosia on one of his business trips to Berlin where she was working at the time was like discovering a new continent.

All day long Johan has been watching her rituals for the festivities, which felt refreshingly like a safety net and not a wet bag. He has been delegated to set up the Christmas tree and get fresh Cape salmon from town. Zosia insisted on a local fish and recipe for tonight. He happily obliged.

While she is busy with the last touches on the dinner, Johan goes into the dining room to admire the decorations on the table and choose a wine to go with the Cape salmon. They both look up at the sound of the door bell.

‘Who could…?’ Johan strides over to the intercom, followed by Zosia, wiping both hands on her apron.

‘Beggars?’ she asks.

‘No, it’s Sanna!’ Johan buzzes the gate open for their housekeeper. Flustered, she explains about the bus. While Johan considers other options for getting Sanna safe home for Christmas, Zosia comes up with a simple solution.

‘You must stay with us for dinner, Sanna. Please, we would love to have you. And first thing tomorrow morning, we can both take you to your family in Worcester.’

‘But…’ Sanna is at a loss for words.

‘No buts, please, come. You can tell me how the salmon turned out. And for once, the extra plate at the Christmas table won’t remain empty.’ She smiles reassuringly and ushers Sanna through to the dining room, taking her luggage from her.

A while later Zosia is busy dishing out the food in the kitchen and Johan opens a bottle of wine. Sanna sits alone at the decorated Christmas table and does not know what to do with her fidgeting hands. With the left one she raises her fork, turns it, and watches the candlelight reflect off its polished tines. She puts it down again. Then with her right hand she picks up the spoon and inspects her image in its concave surface. Upside down, her head looks small, her torso elongated. She likes the slimmer version of herself. She turns the spoon and sees her still distorted face, but now the right way up, staring back. Her mouth is bigger than all her other features. She twitches her lips, opens them slightly and smiles. Slowly, from ear to ear.

‘Dinner is served,’ Zosia enters with the salmon from the kitchen.

First published as “’N SILWER LEPEL” in By on 20 December 2008.

Book mark: The Night Watchman by Richard Zimler

The Night WatchmanChief Inspector Henrique Monroe of the Lisbon Police Department is brilliant at what he does, but gets help from a very unusual source. When a successful businessman is murdered under strange circumstances in his home, Monroe is called to investigate. The complex case awakens memories of Monroe’s distant past of growing up in Colorado with his younger brother Ernie, and threatens to unravel the fragile new reality the cop had been constructing around himself in Portugal ever since. His search for truth takes him to the country’s highest echelons of power. What he finds is horrifying, but tragically common. The Night Watchman portrays a troubled, corrupt society any South African reader will recognise. Tense, deeply felt, the novel asks a pivotal question: “Was it a paradox that truths left unspoken ended up taking away your voice?” The disquieting answers it provides are heart-breaking.

The Night Watchman
by Richard Zimler
Corsair, 2014

Book mark first published in the Cape Times on 12 December 2014.

In 2007, I reviewed one other novel by Richard Zimler:

The Seventh GateThe Seventh Gate
Constable, 2007

In 1990 the discovery of seven manuscripts of the sixteenth-century Kabbalist Berekiah Zarco sparked Richard Zimler’s internationally bestselling novel The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon (1996). Following its success, Zimler, an American living in Portugal, published two other novels about the Portuguese-Jewish Zarco family: Hunting Midnight (2003) and Guardian of the Dawn (2005).

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon explores the fates of the Jewish community at the time of the Lisbon massacre of April 1506. Partly set in nineteenth-century Africa, Hunting Midnight is the story of a friendship between the Portuguese John Zarco Stewart and an African healer and freed slave named Midnight. Guardian of the Dawn takes us back to Goa at the time of the Catholic Inquisition in the seventeenth century.

The fourth novel in Zimler’s independent historical novels series is The Seventh Gate. Set in Berlin of the 1930s, it portrays Hitler’s brutal rise to power and the effects it had on the Jewish community and the disabled long before Second World War began. It subtly exposes how a whole nation could succumb to the madness of the Nazi regime; some willingly, others under extreme pressure. Meticulously researched and vividly brought to life, Zimler’s Berlin of the 1930s is a nightmarish place where loyalty between family members and friends as well as each individual’s sanity and heroism are tested to the limits.

In spite of its harrowing topic, The Seventh Gate is the kind of novel that makes you relax after the first twenty pages, knowing that there is another five hundred in store for you before the final curtain falls. Driven by superbly drawn characters, strong dialogues, and the unusual but beautifully touching love story at its centre, The Seventh Gate is a tribute to all the people who suffered similar fates at the hand of the Nazis as the characters in the novel.

The story is told by Sophie. In the Preface of the novel she is a fragile eighty-nine year old living in America and being taken care of by her nephew. After a spell in the hospital she decides to entrust him with her memories of the past when she was a teenage German girl in Berlin of the 30s and the world began to fall to pieces.

Sophie tells the story of Isaac Zarco, a descendant of the Kabbalist Berekiah Zarco, and the members of The Ring, now a clandestine group of Jewish activists trying to fight the Nazi regime. It is also the story of her brother Hansi, a distant child whom Sophie loves dearly and whose life is threatened by the Nazis. Misunderstood by her mother, betrayed by her father and Tonio, the boy she has a crush on, Sophie has to make some tough choices, trying to protect Hansi and her friends from the Nazi onslaught. The sudden wave of mysterious murders, disappearances and forced sterilizations makes her and Isaac realise that Berekiah Zarco’s worst fears might be about to come true, centuries after he wrote his manuscripts.

Artistically talented and mischievous, Sophie is a heroine one will not easily forget. Her passion for the cinema, her growing sense of righteousness, her awakening sexuality, and her selfless devotion to the people she loves sparkle with authenticity. The novel is interspersed with the poignant sketches she draws of her friends, adding to this overall effect.

Much has been written on Hitler’s Germany, but Zimler’s The Seventh Gate reveals a side of its inhumane machinery which has not been as prominent in the renderings of the time as it should have been, as the novel carefully examines how the horrors we associate with the time of the war already started happening in the early 30s with everyone watching almost in complete silence. Zimler probes the questions of how power is consolidated by intimidation and propagandistic lies, but also shows how small acts of courage and integrity can stand in its way. As Sophie comments on her younger self: “I’m still too young to know that people need only be frightened for their lives to swear that night is day. And that they can believe it’s really true.”

In an interview with Boyd Tonkin, Zimler stated that the relationship between the siblings Hansi and Sophie is his “monument” to the victims of the Nazi war on the disabled. The author expressed his wish that “every reader who reads the book with an open heart will be devastated by what happens to them both.” Because of the powerful storytelling of The Seventh Gate one cannot help but be.

Review first published in the Sunday Independent on 25 November 2007.