Tag Archives: longlisted

Reading Paul Morris’s Back to Angola: A Journey from War to Peace

Back to Angola…without language we are left to watch each other carefully…
– Paul Morris

I went to see it twice. I still don’t really understand why, but Anthony Akerman’s Somewhere On the Border (1983) moved me deeply. The scene when Bombardier Kotze crushes the conscripts’ cake with his boot still haunts me.

When you think about it for a second, war is so pointless that it’s impossible to imagine why we are still doing it in the twenty-first century. I don’t mean the greed and politics behind it, nor the ideologies abused to wage it – I get all of that. I mean the everyday, human aspect of it.

No, as a species we haven’t learned much.

I have this fantasy that, like during that famous Christmas Truce of 1914, one day soldiers all over the world will be compelled to simply put down all their weapons, exchange smiles, and go home to their loved ones. And never, ever pick them up again. Not because some government or leader has said they shouldn’t, but because they simply have had enough. I know I will never live to see the day, but just imagine it: it is a simple as that – a communal decision, a definite, ultimate NO. To greed, exploitation, violence and death.

Reading Paul Morris’s Back to Angola: A Journey from War to Peace (Zebra Press, 2014), I was constantly reminded of my naïve fantasy, of the heart-breaking Somewhere on the Border, of my grandfather’s dark recollections of Second World War, of my father’s mindboggling stories from his two years in the Polish Army around the time when I was born, of my brother’s strangely defining eight months of service in the Austrian Army when we were at university, and especially of a dear South African friend’s horror stories from the Angolan border. I am infinitely grateful that, to me, these are just stories. That I have never had to experience war or train for it myself. I hope I never will. The war stories I know, now Morris’s among them, bring home to me how, if it doesn’t kill you, soul-destroying and utterly futile war is.

In the beginning of Back to Angola, Morris mentions that he doesn’t consider himself a brave man. But only a brave man could have written this book. It is “my truth”, he says, but it is the kind of personal intimate truth which has universal appeal. A quarter of a century after his first involuntary visit to Angola in 1987 at the height of the military conflict, Morris decided to return to the country of his nightmares and confront what he refers to his “shadow side”. To fully experience the present-day Angola and to come as close as possible to its people, he chose an unusual way of travelling and went by bike. Assisted by friends and former enemies, he cycled for hundreds of kilometres to revisit the places haunting him and to transform the sinister image of Angola of the past into something different, more positive, more real today.

It is a parallel journey into the past and into the present; both have their challenges, both require guts, a lot of guts. During both, Morris confronts his understanding of courage, masculinity, loyalty, borders, and forgiveness. Confessional, shatteringly honest, beautifully written, Back to Angola tells a story of great relevance, specifically because it is told from a profoundly personal perspective. It captures the essence of why an entire generation of South African men is still dealing with the unimaginable.

A story about death is transformed into a story about life and facing up to one’s demons and responsibilities. It is a story of reaching out, of going back only to move forward. Back to Angola is also a chronicle of a riveting adventure in contemporary Africa. Not an easy read, but necessary. Highly recommendable.

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Wednesday

When I get a little moneyEver since the summer of 1993, I’ve had this thing about Wednesdays. Special things used to happen to me on Wednesdays. But when I came to live in Cape Town, for a while Wednesday became my least-favourite day of the week. Fortunately, routines can change and miracles do happen. About two years ago, Wednesday reverted to being an ordinary day like any other. But yesterday, Wednesday hit again with the full force of all its magic and I was reminded of kisses, falling stars, the Baltic Sea, literary lectures, and the colour blue. Yes magic.

Most of my days centre on books, but yesterday brought with it an avalanche of bookish delights.

Beijing OperaRecently, I read a book which mentioned a dim sum restaurant in Cape Town with the glorious name Beijing Opera. I discovered my love of dim sum during a trip to China in 2008. It was soon afterwards that I met Alex Smith and read her wonderful account of travels in Asia, Drinking from the Dragon’s Well. She loves dim sum and tea as much as I do, so it was a no-brainer whom to invite to go with me on an exploration of Beijing Opera. We celebrated the recent publication of her latest YA novel, Devilskien & Dearlove, with some delicious gao, bao, and pu-erh tea.

I returned home already smiling to the fantastic news that one of my all-time favourite authors was longlisted for the Man Booker with a novel which I adore: Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World.

In the evening, on my way to Alex’s reading at Clarke’s Bookshop in Longstreet where Devilskien & Dearlove is set, I stopped at two of my other regular hunting grounds, the Protea Bookshop in Rondebosch and the Book Lounge, to pick up three books that have been waiting for me. I am struggling to finish Stephen King’s The Shining (I was expecting more creepiness; as it is, the only thing that creeps up on me on nearly every page is the word ‘overindulgent’), but I do not want to give up on him just yet, so I ordered the one book apparently every beginning writer should read: On Writing. I believe in second chances, and staying away from creepy hotels.

Divided LivesThe other two books were Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform and Lyndall Gordon’s Divided Lives: Dreams of a Mother and Daughter. I have read all books written by Gordon. Her biographies of writers – Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Brontë, T.S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, and Mary Wollstonecraft – are simply brilliant. I don’t know how I would have survived many periods of doubt in the last few years without these insightful, empathetic, passionate, beautifully written books on lives of writing. Divided Lives (what a cover!) is different, because it is a memoir. I’ve been following its reception in the UK and have a feeling that I am in for a magical treat.

I found out about Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform through the New York Times. I have been reading books about the internet for years in order to be able to participate more consciously in its evolution, i.e. to use it wisely instead of being stupidly abused by it. Not sure that I am succeeding, but in the words of Manuel (Fawlty Towers): “I learn, I learn!” Perhaps now that I have joined twitter I need the books more than ever, but so far, my experience with the service has been quite positive. I treat it like a radio station: I tune in and out when I feel like it. Occasionally, I tweet. I follow God and Jennifer Lopez, so I feel in safe hands. (I might even make it to Facebook one day – in the words of my compatriot Conrad: “The horror! The horror!”)

Alex with son Elias after her reading at Clarke's

Alex with son Elias after her reading at Clarke’s

So: There I was at Clarke’s Bookshop, still smiling from the dim sum lunch and the longlist announcement, with a handbag full of books I couldn’t wait to get into bed with, listening to Alex’s beautiful reading voice, surrounded by shelves and shelves of exquisite second-hand books, then chatting to friends and other book lovers about Stephen King and literary podcasts, when…DDDRUM RRROLL…I spotted a copy of Nadine Gordimer’s Face to Face (1949), the first book she ever published. And because my handbag was stuffed with only three books, and because after the shopping spree I was on the verge of being completely broke again (“When I get a little money…”), I bought it, of course.

I flew home on the wings of a booklover’s happiness and arrived to the news of winning a copy of Jane Austen by David Nokes in the Great Faber Finds Summer Reads Giveaway:

“We are about to shut up Finds Towers for the summer, pack a bag full of odd-sized vintage paperbacks and catch a plane to somewhere sunlit and contemplative. In case you haven’t got your own bag packed yet we can, perhaps, make it all a bit easier for you. We are giving away a copy of each of the following thirty (that’s 30) superior Faber Finds titles.”

What a way to end a Wednesday!

How did I find out about the giveaway?
On twitter.

I’m off with my own bag full of odd-sized books in search of a glass of sherry and a fireplace…

Happy reading everyone!
And have a great Thursday. (It’s Set Menu Dinner Club time at Beijing Opera tonight.)