Tag Archives: Karina Szczurek

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.

Old writer, young wife: The life and times of the fifth and final Mrs Brink

karina-in-austria

Afrikaner novelist André Brink married Karina Szczurek when he was 71 and she was 29. They were together for 10 years before he died on a plane, beside her, high above Africa. She has just finished writing her memoir, in which she recounts her life with South Africa’s most celebrated and controversial novelist. Andy Martin went to Cape Town to talk to her about life after André…

Continue reading: INDEPENDENT

Review: Stations – Stories by Nick Mulgrew

StationsIt’s difficult to believe that this is only Nick Mulgrew’s debut collection of stories. Stations reads like the work of a seasoned writer. Here is someone with acuity and a perfectly pitched voice. Not surprisingly, his writing is already highly acclaimed.

As the title suggest, the individual pieces in the book take their cue from the Stations of the Cross, in which Jesus’s last steps before crucifixion are commemorated. The dialogue between the structural skeleton of the book and each tale is striking. “Athlone Towers”, the volume’s first story, or “stop on a slow road to purgatory” as the spine of the book professes, uses the powerful image of the demolition of the famous Capetonian landmark to portray the demise of a relationship. At the same time it echoes Jesus’s condemnation to death. In the fourth “stop” of the book, “Ponta do Ouro”, a young man accompanies his mother on a fraught Christmas holiday to Mozambique. His parents are in the middle of a divorce. The corresponding station reflects Jesus’s encounter with his own mother shortly before his death. In “Restaurant”, a hopeful entrepreneur has to close down her restaurant. Her suffering mirrors Jesus’s death on the cross. In all of the stories, the devotional references are very subtle but enrich the reading substantially.

The way the stories engage with their religious context reminded me of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Decalogue, the Polish director’s ten films based on the Ten Commandments. What captures the reader’s imagination is the way the teachings are translated into a modern, often secular, narrative that we can all relate to.

Mulgrew’s characters are in transit, on the verge of a discovery or transformation. His stories are set around South Africa and beyond, even in the afterlife. The titular story takes us on a trip through the purgatory, which is reimagined as an alternative version of the Cape Peninsula: “Everything was familiar, but not familiar enough to be comforting… My heart dropped. This place had a geography that had to be relearned.” It is one of the most profound readings of the tensions and dilemmas of present-day Mother City. “Mr Dias”, “Posman”, or “Die Biblioteek vir Blindes”, also grapple with contemporary issues such as racism, affirmative action, or intolerance, but are more preachy and a slightly less successful.

The stories which spoke to me best were of intimate nature, focusing on topics close to the heart: rites of passage, grief, revenge, sexuality, or relationships between siblings, lovers and strangers. It is in these spaces that Mulgrew connects with the reader most poignantly, describing what might otherwise go unnoticed: “You lean to kiss me between the back of my ear and the top of my neck; in that place that doesn’t have a name.”

Mulgrew and I co-edited a book of African short stories. Watching him as an editor was a fascinating experience. His fine-tuned sensitivity and attention to detail are exceptional. He is also a fine poet, a true language practitioner. These talents reverberate in the arresting prose of Stations.

Stations: Stories

by Nick Mulgrew

David Philip, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times on 18 March 2016.

Book review: I’m Travelling Alone by Samuel Bjørk

TravellingAloneDespite my irredeemable addiction to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, I do not often turn to thrillers or crime fiction for entertainment. But Night School, the next Reacher adventure, is coming out only in September, and since the nights are getting longer, it is nice to have a few good stand-ins in the meantime. Locally, I really enjoyed the recently published Sweet Paradise by Joanne Hichens: tight plotting, great writing, a scary villainess, and a heroine with balls. It surprised me, and that is a quality I truly appreciate in genre fiction.

I remember picking up Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing and realising how it would end just after a hundred pages. For the rest of the book, I had hoped the author would astonish me, but he didn’t. That kind of disappointment is not easily forgiven. But Scandinavian crime and thriller authors have been making huge waves on the international literary scene in the last decade or so. I devoured Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy and like millions of readers around the world could not get enough of its intriguing main characters, Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist.

It seems that there is a new kid on the Scandinavian crime block, Samuel Bjørk (pen name of the Norwegian writer and musician Frode Sander Øien). His I’m Travelling Alone is making international headlines, reaching the prestigious German magazine Der Spiegel’s number one bestselling spot and selling TV series rights to ITV. It comes with a quote on the cover, warning his compatriot Jo Nesbø to “watch out”. Being unfamiliar with Nesbø’s work, I cannot compare, but judged solely on its own terms, I’m Travelling Alone is a spine-chilling, page-turning novel.

In 2006, a baby disappears from the maternity unit of Ringerike Hospital in Hønefoss in the south of Norway. Half a dozen years later, a six-year-old girl is found dead hanging from a tree. Dressed like a doll with an airline tag which reads “I’m travelling alone” around her neck, the girl is soon believed to be the first victim of a serial killer about to strike again. A race against time begins. Holger Munch is put in charge of finding and bringing the killer to justice. Despite, or precisely because of, being the typical middle-aged, overweight, chain-smoking, sadly divorced, veteran police investigator, Holger is instantly endearing. As is his partner, the deeply disturbed but fascinating, thirty-something Mia Krüger.

In the beginning of the book, Mia is living in complete solitude on an island, drugged and drunk, mourning her beloved sister and awaiting her own death. It takes some persuading from Holger to sway her to postpone her suicide in order to help him solve the case. They both have a troubled past to atone for, and have no clue how it is about to surface to haunt them.

The next girl is found murdered and two more go missing. But then the ruthless killer changes his (or her? the police are uncertain) MO and contacts a journalist writing for a daily, placing him and his editorial team in front of an impossible choice: Who dies next? And when Mia and Holger discover that the next intended victim is someone they both know and care about, the urgency to track down the perpetrator intensifies unbearably. The hunt leads them to a mysterious sect and an old-age home where Holger’s mother lives. What at first seems a dead end reveals itself as a deadly possibility. And the murderer is always a step ahead.

The two investigators, the police squad, and family and friends around them are all well-drawn characters one takes immediate interest in and liking to. They propel the story forward. Additionally, to a certain extent, I’m Travelling Alone felt like armchair travel. I have a very soft spot for Norway, having travelled the country, loved its landscape, read some of its brilliant classics, and made a few Norwegian friends for life. I actually visited some of the places mentioned in the novel, have experienced the weather and tasted the food. Reading all the everyday details of the characters’ lives has brought back many great memories. I couldn’t resist and had some herring again while reading.

I was spellbound almost to the end. However, the last twenty pages let me down. To be honest, I am not sure that I understood how all the puzzle pieces of the story fit together or whether the author managed to tie up all the loose ends, yet it somehow did not matter. I found the ride as far as the last four or five chapters exhilarating and the strangely abrupt ending did not spoil the fun. I sincerely hope that Mia and Holger will return and I look forward to the next Samuel Bjørk crime novel with great anticipation.

Review first published in the Cape Times, 4 March 2016.

I’m Travelling Alone

by Samuel Bjørk

Doubleday, 2016

 

 

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.

Continue reading: LitNet

Book review: The Penguin Lessons – A True Story by Tom Mitchell

The Penguin LessonsLast year, I realised that I have a penchant for penguins with foreign names. Midyear, I was enchanted by Misha, the penguin who stars in Andrey Kurkov’s wonderful novel, Death and the Penguin (originally published in Russian in 2002). Towards the end of 2015, I fell in love with Juan Salvado, the protagonist of Tom Michell’s memoir, The Penguin Lessons.

When he was in his twenties, Tom Michell travelled to Argentina to teach at a boarding school during the politically volatile 1970s. In his free time, he explored South America. On one of his trips, he arrived at a Uruguayan beach to discover a massacre: corpses of oil-coated penguins scattered all around on the sand. There was one survivor among them, a Magellan penguin barely moving, covered in oil and tar like all the other birds, but clearly still alive.

“I needed a penguin like a penguin needs a motorbike,” Michell writes, but on the spur of the moment, he resolved to rescue the penguin and took him back to the flat he was staying in. The ensuing story of their initial encounter and the fascinating relationship which developed between the young man and the sea bird is one of most moving books I have read last year.

After a nearly disastrous but hilarious attempt at cleaning the penguin in the pristine bathroom of his hosts’ home, Michell tries to set the bird free, but his new acquaintance is extremely reluctant to be abandoned again. Not knowing what else to do, he names the penguin and devises a plan to smuggle him into Argentina. And so their adventures and a remarkable friendship begin.

Back at the boarding school, Juan Salvado forms the most extraordinary relationships with the students and staff alike, irrevocably changing all their lives. Michell’s commentary on the socio-political situation of Argentina of the time is subtle but highly intriguing. His descriptions of penguin and human natures and how the two can relate to one another are simply beautiful.

Magallan penguins do not live forever and since all of this had happened four decades ago, I assumed that there would be heartbreak at some stage in the book. I was reading the dreaded scene in a coffee shop where another customer became quite concerned about me when she saw my copious tears falling. I was too choked up to articulate my sorrow, but she understood when I pointed at the open book in front of me. I cried again before the last page, but not because of sadness. There are two revelations towards the end of the book which touched me deeply: one concerns the reason why Juan Salvado refused to go back to the sea when Michell first met him, the other is a description of a recent find among Michell’s memorabilia. If there ever was a feel-good book, The Penguin Lessons is it. It goes to show that, occasionally, we all need a penguin in our lives.

The Penguin Lessons: A True Story
by Tom Mitchell
Penguin Books, 2015

First published in the Cape Times, 15 January 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading: LitNet

The magic of Open Book 2015

Helen MacdonaldSo, who else has fallen in love with Helen Macdonald during Open Book 2015 in Cape Town? H is for Hawk has been on my radar for a while, but I’ve only decided to get the book when I heard about Macdonald’s generous endorsement of Stray: An Anthology of Animal Stories and Poems, edited by Diane Awerbuck and Helen Moffett (all royalties donated to TEARS Animal Rescue). How cool is that? Macdonald showed up at the Open Book Stray Readings and stole my heart reading the passage in which she first saw and fell for Mabel, the goshawk who helped her cope during her time of bereavement. At one of her other Open Book events, Macdonald spoke about how you can’t tame grief and how sometimes you have to do mad things in order to survive it.

This was my first Open Book since André’s death. Last year, we were still mourning Nadine Gordimer – together. We’d thought that we might celebrate the tenth anniversary of our first and only public interview (at Schloss Leopoldskron in Salzburg in 2004) with an event at the festival, but André was recovering from a knee operation and did not feel up to it. We did pay tribute to Nadine: with Margie Orford, Billy Kahora and Imraan Coovadia reading from her work and sharing stories about her influence on their lives and writing. André read from his own work at another event. We attended a few others, gathering memories which all returned to me this year when I was walking around The Fugard Theatre – alone.

At the opening ceremony, Mervyn Sloman said that every year Open Book is infused with magic. How true. “You’re a magician,” someone magical in my life said to me once. Perhaps I can conjure miracles when inspiration and desire strike, but I would like to think of myself as a magician of a different kind, one who can recognise the magic of the everyday. Even when suffocating in the clutches of grief.

with SallyMagic was all over The Book Lounge and The Fugard Theatre during Open Book this year. In the stories I read preparing for the festival (discovering my love for the work of Karen Joy Fowler, Melissa de Villiers and Andrey Kurkov in the process); in the warmth of a friend’s grip around my arms at the opening ceremony; in Karen Joy Fowler’s humour; in the melody Petina Gappah sang during her interview with Lauren Beukes; in a walk in the sun between events; in Stephen Segerman’s and Craig Bartholomew Strydom’s devotion to the Sugar Man story; in Claire Robertson’s mesmerising reading voice; in seeing the first cover designs for the special edition of Flame in the Snow; in Elleke Boehmer’s, Henrietta Rose-Innes’s and Craig Higginson’s inspiring eloquence; in a dim sum lunch, a bubbly and a Glenfiddich shared with friends; in Beverly Rycroft’s moving honesty; in a friend’s sparkling eyes which could have been clouded by loss but weren’t; in the hospitality of Fugard’s Iris who with her colleagues took such great care of all of us; and, last but not least, in S.J. Naudé’s careful thoughts about our craft – the magic and beauty of it all.

with KarenI loved chairing the three events I was asked to. I loved seeing old friends and meeting new ones. I loved interacting with writers whose work has meant so much to me over the years. I loved buying books and talking about literature with people who care. I loved being asked to sign my novel. I loved feeling that I was close to returning to my own creative writing. I loved every single memory from the past. I loved making new ones.

Thank you, Mervyn, Frankie and all the other magicians at The Book Lounge.

You can’t tame grief. Grief is this creature that moves into your home when death strikes. It lurks, ready to pounce at all times, especially when you least expect it. It never leaves again. You can’t tame it, but you can tame the way you react to it. And live. And experience joy again, in a story and in your life. And smile. And appreciate the magic. That moment.
with Andrey and Andrew

(Photos: Books Live and PEN SA)

Polish – Afrikaans magic

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

“Koop vandag se Rapport! Groete Jerzy”

To which I automatically replied:

“Ek sal, baie dankie! K”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jerzy Koch, André and I in Stellenbosch in 2006.

Jerzy Koch, André and I in Stellenbosch in 2006.

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

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

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