Tag Archives: Leon de Kock

Review: Losing the Plot by Leon de Kock

losing-the-plot-coverLosing the Plot might seem like a book for academics and students of literature only, but I am certain it will appeal to anyone with an interest in contemporary South African writing. Leon de Kock – academic, translator, poet and novelist – has been a defining presence on the local literary stage for many years. In his latest book, he concentrates on a specific aspect of postapartheid writing: how it “pivots around a continuing problematised notion of transition”. He reads the literary output of the last two decades in the light of the “initial wave of optimism, evident in the early phase of the upbeat transitional ferment,” and the disillusionment which followed.

Desperately, we are all trying to make sense of the reality around us, and most of it is too much to handle. De Kock points out that “the boundaries between right and wrong have blurred”. Readers turn to writers and intellectuals for guidance on how to deal with the confounding state of our lives. We are confronted with such staggering levels of pathological behaviour in the country (and beyond) that it is difficult to know where to search for meaning, and some sense of safety. It is no wonder that “the quest to uncover what’s going on in an obscured public sphere became a consuming obsession for many writers.”

In the seven incisive chapters of Losing the Plot, de Kock outlines general trends in postapartheid writing and focuses on a variety of its proponents such as genre fiction, life writing and creative nonfiction, but not exclusively. He returns to earlier seminal texts such as Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying or Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull and shines a light on more recent ones which are bound to become classics such as Imraan Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System, Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City, or Jonny Steinberg’s A Man of Good Hope.

Crime writing “may have come to stand in for what used to be seen as political or engaged fiction,” de Kock suggests. Let down by institutions and society, we crave to see justice at work, even if it is only in fiction. Through crime thrillers we identify the good guys and point fingers at evil. This begs the question of how much of what literature is doing post-1994 is actually new? De Kock also considers our haunting past and how the “reality hunger” of the twenty-first century impacts present-day South Africa. He does not shy away from hashtags and the complex issues leading up to their prevalence. The most illuminating section in the book is on the Marikana massacre. There is no denying the woundedness we grapple with, the challenges we are facing as individuals and a society.

What shines through in Losing the Plot, however, is the restorative capacity of storytelling, especially the possibility of the “restitution of dignity via the power of narrative”. One should never underestimate either. The key to both is compassion, nourished by our imaginations. Not all is lost, yet.

 

Review first published in the Cape Times, 30 December 2016.

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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?”

Continue reading: LitNet

Review: in a burning sea – Contemporary Afrikaans Poetry in Translation edited by Marlise Joubert

in a burning seaMy Afrikaans is sufficient enough to follow everyday conversations, watch Afrikaans soapies and read Die Burger. But ever since hearing Antjie Krog read in her deep, melodic voice from her impressive oeuvre in Afrikaans I have wanted to understand more than just basics. Until that moment arrives, only translations allow me to savour some of the riches of Afrikaans writing. In poetry, these are not easy to come by. Of the few available in recent years in English, Krog’s Body Bereft (2006), Ingrid Jonker’s Black Butterflies (2007) and Wilma Stockenströrm’s The Wisdom of Water (2007) in particular belong to my all-time favourites.

in a burning sea is thus a highly anticipated publication which will hopefully pave the way for more translations. Altogether the anthology features thirty contemporary Afrikaans poets. Alphabetically arranged by authors’ names, the collection takes its title from a poem by Breyten Breytenbach, one of only a handful widely translated practitioners of the craft: “how often were we here / where only silver shadows stir / only through you I had to deny myself / through you alone I knew I had no harbour / in a burning sea”.

The editor Marlise Joubert, author of seven volumes of poetry herself and editor of four Versindaba anthologies (a publication inspired by the annual poetry festival by the same name), asked established poets and newcomers (but with at least two published volumes to their name) to submit ten poems from which a selection was then made for the book.

Among those included are the exciting young voices of Ronelda S. Kamfer (“the bullet nestled in his throat / his mother did not cry / the politicians planted a small tree / and the Cape Doctor tore it out / and flung it where the rest of the Cape Flats dreams lie – // on the flats”), Danie Marais (“On seconds thoughts, Stellenbosch, / you are a violated classic – / a bergie with an 1840s gable / for a hat…”), Carina Stander (“in the weak sunlight / filtering into the kitchen / mothers like calabashes / nattered on knitted goatskin”), and Loftus Marais (“and when i have to stand before Him / i’ll curtsy effeminately / and carefully explain to Him / that my catsuit / (folded in the suitcase next to the vanity case) / is fire resistant” – from The Second Coming) who hold more than their own along such greats as Breytenbach, Krog, Stockenström, Petra Müller, T.T. Cloete or Marlene van Niekerk.

Top translators of the likes of Michiel Heyns or Leon de Kock, often in collaboration with the poets, and the authors themselves made the work available in English. Hardly ever was I aware of reading translations, the Afrikaans poems feeling very much at home in their new incarnations. The originals are presented alongside the English for parallel reading.

André Brink’s introduction gives a short historical overview of Afrikaans poetry and its various trends, placing the selection in context. Most poems included are very recent, with a few exceptions dating back as far as M.M. Walter’s Apocrypha XII (1969): “When Eve clad herself amidst the grove of figs / in fashions by the heavenly Hartnell –”. Some poems had not been published at the time of submission, including Marlene van Niekerk’s eulogy Hamba kakuhle, Madiba.

What strikes one immediately when reading the anthology is how well local flavours mix with global traditions. The anthology opens with a landscape poem by Zandra Bezuidenhout about the last days of summer in the Midi: “the night is balmy with bonhomie / and aromas linger like tongues”. Bezuidenhout’s other poems are steeped in an irresistible sensuality whether she describes the sharing of a fig (“and offer the plum-red sweetness / as token of our bonded state”) or an exhibition by Marlene Dumas (“how transparent the nipple-bud / bleeding in berry-red passion”).

Universal themes are presented along concerns closer to home such as in Martjie Bosman’s Scorched Earth (From Ouma Makkie’s stroke-stricken mouth I inherit / two bitter words: insult and scorn / and the mournful knowing that generations / settled this family land in vain”), or Daniel Hugo’s in memoriam poem to Ingrid Jonker, Escape (“I love walking – drunk on ozone – / up to Three Anchor Bay…everywhere sewage smells / algae, seal vertebrae, mussel shells / a clotted, stinking ink-fish / and – stone-cold sober – you see / at times a poet’s body”), or Krog’s colonialism of a special kind (“people are made ashamed that they have forgiven // because at the deepest level / we respect anger / understand hate / admire revenge”).

in a burning sea gives one an enticing taste of what is happening in Afrikaans poetry at this point in literary history. Not all the poems selected take one’s breath away, but they definitely put one in a mood for more.

in a burning sea: Contemporary Afrikaans Poetry in Translation
edited by Marlise Joubert
Protea Book House, 2014

An edited version of this review was published in the Cape Times on 14 November 2014.