Tag Archives: violence

Review: Things Unseen by Pamela Power

things-unseen-by-pamela-powerFounded and headed by author Sarah McGregor, Clockwork Books is a new independent local publisher with a growing list of fascinating titles. Its latest release is Pamela Power’s second novel, Things Unseen, a psychological thriller set in the posh suburbs of Johannesburg. I first read it in manuscript form, and remember that I had to pause and take a deep breath after the shocking violence of the opening scene in which we witness the terrifying demise of a person and an animal. Let’s just say that the rest of the book is also not for sissies.

Not at first glance, but the following chapters are perhaps just as disturbing as the beginning. The novel attempts to describe the kind of violence which is nearly imperceptible to outsiders – emotional and psychological violence. We meet Emma and her husband Rick at their university reunion. Emma works for a local theatre company and she is friends with her boss Gay and her partner Sophie, a psychologist. Rick is an ambitious gynaecologist with a roving eye who treats Emma like a trophy, not a wife. She is aware of his numerous affairs, but turns a blind eye until she encounters Craig, her first big love, at the event. He is visiting from the UK where he’d settled many years ago. Faced with the question of what could have been, Emma begins to re-examine her life.

All is brought to an abrupt end the evening of the reunion when Emma, distressed about not being able to reach her mother nor their domestic worker Lizzie on their phones, abandons the alumni gathering and rushes back to discover her mother brutally murdered in their home, a mansion on a vast property meant for a large family with kids. Despite many attempts, Emma and Rick are childless. Their infertility is a source of great distress to Emma. The couple drifts further apart during the murder investigation and the tensions between them escalate upon the arrival of Ross, Emma’s troubled brother who lives in Australia. Emma is convinced that the main suspect in their mother’s murder – their gardener who is missing – could not be responsible for the gruesome deed although most clues point to the contrary. When her mother’s lawyer explains the unexpected wishes of the dead woman to her family, everyone is taken by surprise. And then Emma encounters a sickly sweet smell in their garden and the events of the night of the murder take on another evil twist.

Craig, a former policeman turned security expert, assists Emma in her search for truth. She refuses to look at the facts alone when her gut feeling tells her that they simply do not make sense. Craig trusts her intuition and applies his investigative skills to help her. Everything becomes even more complicated when they rediscovers their long-buried feelings for each other and begin falling in love again.

The main narrative is interspersed with a sequence of dark images from the past which gradually reveal the portrayal of the horrendous abuse of a child. It is clear that the child grew up to be one of the protagonists, an innocent victim turned ruthless perpetrator, but Power keeps the plot cards close to her chest and has the reader guessing who did what until the spectacular showdown at the very end.

Things Unseen is a fast-paced, haunting thriller which addresses our most intimate fears of invasions and violations in the context of present-day crime realities of the country, but also free of the socio-political context. What Emma and her family members experience could happen to anyone anywhere in the world. The challenges of the betrayals and losses she faces in her marriage will be known to many women, independent of race and class. The madness of grief and the inability to make sane choices when you are in its grips are part of the story. And Johannesburg, with all its social woes, is very much a character in the novel. Readers will recognise the everyday realities of the upper-middle-classes – the glamour and the horror of the rich and beautiful – but these form only part of the narrative drive, not a closer study of the underlying societal struggles.

Power is a scriptwriter and editor. Her dialogues are vivid, her characters are recognisable, and feel real. She has a wicked sense of humour which shines through despite the sombre themes. At the heart of her novel is a love story, a woman’s quest to reclaim and follow her dreams despite the horrific circumstances she finds herself in. Emma is surrounded by a tightly knit group of friends who help her to pull through and pursue her own path towards fulfilment. The characters grow on one as the story progresses and one can only hope for a sequel.

Things Unseen will appeal to readers who like to get lost in a good yarn. I can imagine that many will want to finish it in one sitting, so perhaps start reading when you have a nice pot of tea or a glass of wine ready on standby and know that, if you wish, you can disappear for a few hours into the world of Things Unseen.

Things Unseen

by Pamela Power

Clockwork Books, 2016

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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.

Review: Synapse by Antjie Krog

SynapseReading Antjie Krog’s latest volume of poetry translated into English, Synapse (Mede-wete in Afrikaans), I was faced with an old personal dilemma: How much hard work is too much in order to reach that moment where meaning and aesthetic pleasure reveal themselves to you as a poetry reader? I don’t have an adequate answer. Perhaps everyone’s threshold is different anyway. In the end all you have is your very individual frame of reference, as a friend recently reminded me.

In any poetry volume you will find poems which will immediately speak to you. Others will require a specific key to unlock a feeling of appreciation. Rereading, research, or exploration of context will eventually reward your effort. Some poems will forever remain inaccessible no matter the amount of goodwill you put in. And then there will be those which will simply leave you cold. The poems in Synapse fit into all these categories.

The volume is divided into two parts: The Yard and Four Efforts in Linguistic Synapse Tracing. The first part opens with a series of epigraphs which are followed by thirteen poems, all focused on the images of the yard and the farm. These I find the strongest and most captivating in the book. In the epigraphs we are introduced to spaces in which the land and its ownership take centre stage and gender roles are clearly defined. The poems speak of the death of a patriarch, familial roots which reach into a troubled past, grief, guilt, race relations, and the ancient questions of owning and belonging.

As the poem 11. fossilised tree trunk makes clear, everything is connected, embedded, echoed throughout history. And yet, everything changes: “after all the years we gurgle (the only outlasting ones) / burdened with the dying light and bloodsick with heritage / : the new ones prepare to enter the yard” (13. old yard). At the heart of one’s relationship with the land are beauty and language: “places that could always snap my skeleton into language / coil me into voices bore into my entrails / expose a certain wholeness of belonging as my deepest tongue / tear chorales and something like discord from my brain” (6. live the myth).

This is the kind of poetry that leaves one gasping for air, which opens up new spaces in one’s understanding and feeling about the past and everyday reality in this country.

The Yard continues with poems which grapple with morality and reconciliation. The idea of interconnectedness is challenged in hold your ear to the tear in the skin of my country where already the format of the poem signals separate spheres of understanding the concept of forgiveness. The words of the speaker of the first section, Cynthia Ngewu, who testified in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about the murder of her son, one of the Guguletu Seven, cascade onto the page like a waterfall. The neat couplets which follow represent an ordered attempt to understand the motives and worldviews of the officer who was involved in the killing. In the end, we are told, “it was futile to try to weave interconnectedness into / the concrete bunker that lives inside Mr Barnard’s whiteness”.

The bleakness of moving beyond such divisions is captured in miracle where South Africa’s relatively peaceful liberation is juxtaposed with present-day, all-consuming greed and violence: “we have become the prey of ourselves caught up / in ethnic avarice and total incapacity for vision”.

More intimate poems about ageing, memory, grand-motherhood, domesticity, or the I-you constellation of lovers reveal the wonders of the world along deeper philosophical questions about our capabilities and responsibilities. The tone ranges from sombre to light-hearted. Krog is one of the few poets out there who can smuggle Skype, wifi, the Internet and memory sticks into poetry and make them look as if they almost belonged. Also, when she swears, she makes it count.

The poem convivium astounds with its breadth: “what use my caress in the breath-earthed night if a centre- / less universe opens space in the nonexistent for dark / matter to overpower a few broken beads of light?” The poem, like the human body at the core of its universe, “tuneforks such abundance”.

Apart from a handful exceptions, especially the Lament on the death of Mandela, the latter part of the volume, specifically the obfuscated Four Efforts in Linguistic Synapse Tracing left me baffled. The tightness and clarity of the preceding poems dissolved in musings where it became more and more difficult to follow the poet on her journey. The academic in me insisted I persevere and come to grips with the pieces, but the Sunday morning reader just wanted to return to the earlier poems in the collection or open another book. The Sunday morning reader won.

Synapse
by Antjie Krog
translated by Karen Press
Human & Rousseau, 2014

A ‘butchered’ version of this review appeared in the Cape Times on 19 December 2014, p. 12.

Review: The Gonjon Pin and Other Stories – The Caine Prize for African Writing 2014

The Gonjon PinThe Caine Prize for African Writing has a reputation of launching literary careers. Previous winners include Helon Habila, NoViolet Bulawayo, and Henrietta Innes-Rose. The Caine Prize collections of stories comprise each year’s shortlisted entries and pieces written during a workshop organised in conjunction with the prize.

By nature an anthology of short stories is usually a mixed bag. This year’s volume, apart from some excellent exceptions, is not particularly accomplished. Reading most of the contributions one senses amazing talent and potential, but the stories, even two or three of the shortlisted ones, feel unfinished. They intrigue, but do not wow despite varied themes, innovative approaches to form and content, and moments of stylistic beauty. All the elements of great short-story writing are present, but they hardly ever feature together in one piece.

African writing has a certain reputation, on the continent and beyond. Depending on individual tastes, readers either fear or count on stories of socio-political relevance, everyday hardship and disillusionment, the diaspora experience, violence and abuse, the HIV pandemic, neglect or instability. There is a prevalent feeling of ‘things falling apart’. The Gonjon Pin and Other Stories includes all of the above and in that sense does not disappoint.

The shortlisted stories stand out for their originality. In Diane Awerbuck’s Phosphorescence (South Africa), a suicidal young woman bonds with her daring grandmother over the bulldozing of a city landmark. While following the election back home on television, a Zimbabwean family tries to negotiate between a quarrelling couple in Tendai Huchu’s The Intervention (Zimbabwe). Billy Kahora’s protagonist develops an uncanny relationship to a zoo gorilla in The Gorilla’s Apprentice (Kenya). And in the winning entry, My Father’s Head by Okwiri Oduor (Nigeria), a woman tries to conjure up her dead father by drawing him, but his head refuses to fit into her sketches.

The shortlisted story which impressed me the most, however, was Efemia Chela’s Chicken (Ghana/Zambia). A young writer of remarkable assurance, Chela has that rare gift of making you pause again and again to appreciate a striking image or a perfectly balanced sentence while never allowing you to take your mind off the story she is telling. Chicken is about a woman who cuts the ties to her family and tries to survive on her own in the big city by making some tough choices.

Of the twelve workshop stories, the titular The Gonjon Pin by Martin Egblewogbe (Ghana) and The Lifebloom Gift by Abdul Adan (Somalia/Kenya) were a true discovery. Reminiscent of the mad and irresistible story-telling of such authors as the Israeli Etgar Keret or the Welsh Alex Burrett, these surreal tales made me sit up, laugh, shake my head, and marvel at the incredible power of the genre. Egblewogbe has his characters dealing with a man’s functioning genitals hanging on a study wall. Adan creates a world where an unusual man spreads cult love by stimulating people’s moles. It is gems like these that make reading anthologies worthwhile.

The Gonjon Pin and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2014
Jacana/New Internationalist, 2014

First published in the Cape Times, 10 October 2014.

Review: Entanglement by Steven Boykey Sidley

EntanglementProfessor Jared Borowitz, a renowned, well-liked American physicist in his mid-forties, has one pet hate: belief of any kind, whether it is spiritual, dietary or homoeopathic – as long as it is not founded on sound logic and scientific proof it won’t make it past his personal bullshit detector: “Aside from fundamentalists, creationists, UFO nuts and astrologists, health foodies are next in the pantheon of idiocy,” he attests. He used to be able to laugh off what he perceives as ignorance, but now it awakes a sense of rage in him.

A recovered philanderer, Jared is divorced from his first long-suffering wife, Gwen, and living in a relationship with Katherine, a no-nonsense psychologist with a strict moral core despite her damaged past. Having learned from bitter experience, Jared decides to be faithful to Katherine and sees a clear future with her at his side…

Continue reading on LitNet: Review of Entanglement by Steven Boykey Sidley

Entanglement
by Steven Boykey Sidley
Picador Africa, 2012

Book marks: White Wahala and Dying in New York by Ekow Duker

White WahalaA finalist in the 2011/12 European Literary Awards, White Wahala is a modern tall tale with a dark South Africa twist. When Alasdair Nicholson, a spoilt young banker from a wealthy family, heads towards Soweto with his little sister to buy drugs, he sets in motion a chain of disastrous events which will put his entire family in grave danger, expose a long-buried secret, and end up in the headlines amidst an intrigue of national proportions.

White Wahala is populated by exaggerated characters whose outrageous actions and the dubious reasoning behind them take us to the heart of the misunderstandings and fears we encounter in everyday life as South Africans of all backgrounds. Ekow Duker’s take on the present state of the country has the potential to generate a lot of debate. It is impossible to remain neutral towards the story. My own personal response was a mix of incredulity and anger.

White Wahala
by Ekow Duker
Picador Africa, 2014

First published in the Cape Times on 26 September 2014.

Dying in NYIt is difficult to write about Ekow Duker’s second novel, Dying in New York, without giving away the ending, an unexpected twist on which the entire narrative hinges. The book’s pre-teenage protagonist, Lerato Malema, suffers horrendous abuse at the hands of her father. Her mother, also a victim, unable to protect her daughter, stands by hopelessly. One day, the dynamics of the setup change with fatal consequences.

The only thing that keeps Lerato going is a vague fantasy about the city of New York which she shares with her mother. Propelled by her vivid imagination, she embarks on a roller-coaster ride through contemporary South Africa where she encounters the worst of what the country has to offer, with very little to relieve the alienation, horror and pain of her dark adventures. Reality and fantasy blur uncomfortably, revealing a highly unsettling picture of violence and insanity.

Dying in New York
by Ekow Duker
Picador Africa, 2014

First published in the Cape Times on 3 October 2014.

My dreams are back

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAI’m a dreamer. I dream with abandon, remembering up to four dreams a night, all vivid as if seen on a silver screen just moments before. Some of these dreams end up as my stories. Others I keep in my diary. As a child, I had a recurring dream about an island surrounded by dark waters. Many of my dreams are linked to the sea. In the last few weeks I’ve been through some rough waters. Under pressure, I stop eating, sleeping, and, worst of all, dreaming. The last dream I remember before last night is the one I wrote about in my Nadine Gordimer tribute. And now, over a month later, I’m surfacing and this morning I woke up remembering two dreams! One is for the diary. The other one for sharing.

But first a few memories. Many years ago I saw a movie which made a deep impression on my young mind; the most striking image from the movie involved women clad in crimson. Much later, at university in Austria, I read my first Margaret Atwood novel: Cat’s Eye. It triggered my fascination with Atwood’s work. I read a few other of her titles. Then, while doing research at the university library in Aberystwyth, Wales, I was passing a row of books when a red smudge on a book spine caught my eye: the crimson women. I think I read The Handmaid’s Tale in one sitting through the following night.

A few years ago, I had the remarkable honour of sitting at the same table as Margaret Atwood at a gala dinner in New York. We did not talk much, mostly because the Oscar-winning composer right next to me wanted to touch my hair, which was luckily all braided and pinned and meant for another. So sadly, I remember only one exchange with Atwood that night. We discussed peanut butter sandwiches. Really!

Fast-forward to last year. Venice. Another gala dinner, Atwood at the same table, for most of it right next to me. And this time I felt like a woman in one of her stories, battling with her voice. I stopped speaking all together for a week after that evening (acute laryngitis). Atwood took over the conversation and the erudite editor on my other side was just as entertaining. But I can’t say that I was much of an articulate presence.

Photo: Krystian Szczurek, New York 2011

Photo: Krystian Szczurek, New York 2011

And then a few days ago, I saw the wonderful news that Atwood’s latest short-story collection is to be published before the month is over. I’m eagerly awaiting the day it reaches South African bookshops. So, I suppose, given all of the above, it is no surprise that one of my dreams last night was about Margaret Atwood. In the dream, I was living in a small town. I found myself sitting next to Atwood on a park bench and she was telling me about attending a literary festival nearby. ‘This morning just after 5am, they came into my hotel room, saying that I needed to go with them to sign books, and they brought me here, and now I’m stuck, because nobody wants to take me back,’ she said, but she did not seem concerned at all, just perplexed, and a bit amused. Naturally, I offered to drive her to her hotel. And then I woke up, delighted to be dreaming properly again, and remembering how generously Atwood had signed my books in New York and Venice.

What would Dr Freud say?
Dr Szczurek says: Get Stone Mattress!

Stone MattressAbout Stone Mattress:

“A recently widowed fantasy writer is guided through a stormy winter evening by the voice of her late husband. An elderly lady with Charles Bonnet’s syndrome comes to terms with the little people she keeps seeing, while a newly-formed populist group gathers to burn down her retirement residence. A woman born with a genetic abnormality is mistaken for a vampire. And a crime committed long-ago is revenged in the Arctic via a 1.9 billion year old stromatalite. In these nine tales, Margaret Atwood ventures into the shadowland earlier explored by fabulists and concoctors of dark yarns such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Daphne du Maurier and Arthur Conan Doyle – and also by herself, in her award-winning novel Alias Grace. In Stone Mattress, Margaret Atwood is at the top of her darkly humorous and seriously playful game.”

Over the years, I have reviewed a few of Atwood’s books:

The TentThe Tent (2006)

Margaret Atwood’s latest collection of writing The Tent is a visual and intellectual delight. Provocative and full of wisdom it provides plenty of food for thought, not always readily digestible. A little book with big ideas. Beautifully designed and illustrated by the author, it has the feel and look of a private notebook one would want to carry around in one’s breast pocket at all times. One feels tempted to add personal comments on the few blank pages in-between the many voices of Atwood’s narrators, living and sharing their thoughts full of anxieties and hopes with the readers in a world which is hostile and frightening.

From the drawing of the cover to the last page of the book one image persists: a tent full of words, surrounded by beastly creatures. When the narrator of the title piece in the collection tells us “you’re in a tent”, we just have to take the book and put it up on its covers’ edges to realise how deliciously suggestive the image is in its multiple meanings. “It’s vast and cold outside, very vast, very cold. It’s a howling wilderness…But you have a small candle in your tent. You can keep warm…The trouble is, your tent is made of paper. Paper won’t keep anything out. You know you must write on the walls, on the paper walls, on the inside of your tent.” With your writing you must describe the howling and the truth, you must write about the ones you love and the things you love and try to protect them, even though your “obsession with calligraphy” is not always appreciated and understood. And your tent is fragile and endangered by the howlers sniffing around outside, “but you keep on writing anyway because what else can you do?”

Xenophobia, violence, despotism, gender inequality, terrorism, crime, environmental crisis, tyranny, war – our global society is drenched in conflict, “a howling wilderness” indeed. If anybody had any doubt about the role of the intellectual in these difficult times, Margaret Atwood’s gem of a collection shows the path to take. The title piece is probably the most honest, humble as well as forceful, statement on the precarious situation of the writer and the importance of writing in recent years. In another piece, “Voice” the situation is again exemplified. The first-person narrator tells us she has been “given a voice”. No matter what glory and adoration it gives her, she knows one day it will begin to shrivel. Until then it is “attached like an invisible vampire to my throat.”

The whole book is like a little tent written against the evils of the world. Balancing on the border of fiction and non-fiction, Atwood’s collection with its generic mixture of fables, essays, dreams, monologues, dialogues, rewritings of myths and legends, satires, allegories and poems, is a subtle and razor-sharp analysis of the world around us. No preaching, just small precise revelations on the madness of our global society.

“Thylacine Ragout” explores the follies of genetics and the power of money to buy anything it wants. “Plots for Exotics” deals with our prejudices and xenophobia. Pieces such as “Heritage House” and the magnificent poem “Bring Back Mom: An Invocation” take up gender issues.

“And there you’ll be, in your cotton housecoat,
holding a wooden peg
between your teeth, as the washing flaps
on the clothesline you once briefly considered
hanging yourself with –”

“Eating the Birds” tells us of complicity, choice and unrighteous wanting of something that does not belong to us: “We’re ankle-deep in blood, and all because we ate the birds, we ate them a long time ago, when we still had the power to say no.” When in “Chicken Little Goes too Far” the chicken finds out that “the sky is falling”, he has to pay a high price for wanting to save the world.

Although some of the other pieces are more introspective, quiet, even funny, there is little comfort in the volume. However it is a nourishing piece of work that goes straight to the heart and makes one want to take up the pen and write on the blank pages in-between. For what else can you do?

Bertolt Brecht once said that thinking is something that follows problems and precedes action. This is precisely where Atwood’s little big book stands. In the last piece of the collection “But it Could Still” the narrator begins by saying: “Things look bad: I admit it. They look worse than they’ve looked for years, for centuries. They look the worst ever. Perils loom on all sides. But it could still turn out all right.” There are many stories, winter’s tales, that keep up the faith. “We want to huddle round them, as if around a small but cheerful fire.” And there are the tulips you planted before the winter frost “in the brown earth” where “already hundreds of small green shoots…intending to grow despite everything” were waiting. The narrator contemplates in the end: “What would you call them if they were in a story? Would they be happy endings, or happy beginnings? But they aren’t in a story, and neither are you. You tucked them back under the mulch and the dead leaves, however. It was the right thing to do on the darkest day of the year.”

Atwood’s Tent is full of thoughts on humanity. Like the small green shoots intending to grow despite everything, they will survive the dark cold winter and blossom proudly in spring. Outside of a story I would call them hope.

First published in the Sunday Independent, 4 June 2006.

Moral DisorderMoral Disorder (2006)

Margaret Atwood, by now the author of over three dozen books, has always been a prolific writer. Last year, however, was a special treat for all the fans of her fiction. After the publication of The Penelopiad (one of a series of myth rewritings by internationally acclaimed authors) and The Tent (a collection of shorter miscellaneous pieces), the end of the year witnessed Atwood’s latest release, Moral Disorder. This intriguing book is yet another representative of a genre which is not exactly new, but is increasingly coming into its own on the international literary scene, and even more so on our local market. Moral Disorder could be termed a ‘short story novel’. It comprises a collection of interrelated short stories, which can be read separately as individual pieces in their own right, but which reveal the total scale of their meanings only within reference to each other, interacting in this way to form a whole which could be read as a novel.

In South African fiction, recent examples of this fascinating – at times also controversial (some of us will remember the debate surrounding the nomination of Ivan Vladislavić’s The Exploded View for the Sunday Times Fiction Award in 2005) – genre range from Mary Watson’s beautifully intricate Moss (2004) to Byron Loker’s freshly rewarding New Swell (2006). As Miki Flockemann pointed out in her review of Moss, it is not unexpected that this genre “has become a noticeable trend in recent South African writing on account of the simultaneous embrace of cohesion and fragmentation.” It fictionally embodies the instable and diverse nature of the reality around us.

The short story novel is not foreign to Canadian fiction either. Alice Munroe’s Runaway (2005) will ring a bell for many readers. Now, Atwood’s Moral Disorder, “a collection of eleven stories that is almost a novel…or a novel broken up into eleven stories”, as the inside cover suggests, embarks on a journey through time and space and reveals, in glimpses, the intertwined lives of its characters.

We are first introduced to the main protagonists, Nell and Tig, as an ageing couple in “The Bad News”. The bad news of the title arrives in the form of a newspaper headline Tig shows to Nell, who is not ready to receive it, “Not before breakfast…You know I can’t handle it this early in the day.” Nell knows that this sort of news – about explosions, oil spills, genocides, famines – will always be followed by others like it, and is unwilling to confront it unless it concerns them directly. Instead, she escapes into the distant past, remembering a holiday in France. The memory merges into a daydream, which makes her realise that bad news has always arrived at our doorstep and will always do so, until eventually it pounces and “you reach out in the night and there’s no more breathing.”

The second story, “The Art of Cooking and Serving”, takes us back in time to when Nell was eleven and her mother was expecting her second daughter. While Nell decides to knit a layette for her sibling, she is frightened of the “listless, bloated, version” of her mother, who by changing her own future also changes Nell’s “into something shadow-filled and uncertain.” After her sister is born, Nell suddenly finds herself taking over from her mother, baby-tending and doing the chores, until she rebels in order to lead the normal teenage life she witnesses other girls enjoying. We encounter her at that stage in “The Headless Horseman” and “My Last Duchess”.

In “The Other Place” Nell is a young adult on the run from herself and the world until she meets Tig, and later recalls: “then followed the cats and the dogs and children, and the baking, and even the frilly white window curtains, though they eventually vanished in their own turn”.

All stories are told in the first person, apart from the following four, “Monopoly”, the title story “Moral Disorder”, “White Horse”, and “The Entities”, which switch to the third person, allowing us a fuller perspective on the lives of the characters, and a different insight into Nell, who has been the storyteller until now.

The four third-person stories centre on the complex relationship between Nell and Tig, who brings into the equation two sons and Oona, his demanding first wife whom he is in the process of divorcing. We watch Nell navigate between the moods and wishes of the people in her life as well as trying to fulfil her own dreams and guard her own integrity in the process: “Nell felt intimidated by this marriage, and small and childish in comparison with it. It had a certain oversized and phosphorescent splendour about it, like a whale decaying on the beach. It made her seem pallid, at least to herself: pallid, banal, insipidly wholesome. She did not have nearly as much operatic and tenebrous and sanguinary melodrama to offer.”

Rich in memorable characters and evocative settings, Moral Disorder offers deeply moving reflections on all stages of life, including ageing and death, which feature strongly especially in the two last pieces: “The Labrador Fiasco” and “The Boys at the Lab”.

Atwood is one of the best storytellers alive. In all the stories of Moral Disorder the importance of literature in our lives as guide, companion, mirror, filters through, and because of the honesty and insight with which all of them are told, we find ourselves looking at our own lives reflected in them and, once again, begin to marvel at the miracle of it all.

First published in the Sunday Independent, 14 January 2007.

PaybackPayback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (2008)

In this time of financial crisis, reading an entire book about the concept of debt is not an enticing idea. This is the reason why as a devoted fan of Margaret Atwood’s work I’ve eagerly picked up her latest publication, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, in the bookshop, and then, upon finding out what it was about, returned it to its shelf with a deep sense of mistrust, almost fear. I resisted the thought of hearing any more about debt, even if it was from one of my favourite writers.

Then a copy of the book arrived in the post for reviewing, and in the end, I couldn’t be more grateful for it. But my intuition about Payback was right. It is a scary book, although it does not begin as such. Payback comprises of five chapters, each focusing on a different aspect of the debt concept, and the first four are rather funny and light-hearted. It is only the last one that brings all the entertaining insights together in a devastating conclusion about us and our future.

As Atwood explains in the opening chapter “Ancient Balances”, Payback is not about such things as debt management, national debt, or shopaholics; it’s about debt as a human “imaginative construct”. Atwood goes on to expound that such inner foundation stones of humanness as instant gratification and fairness underlie this construct, presenting many fascinating experiments to illustrate her point. She also examines the moral and economic concepts of debt through a mythological and religious lens and traces them back to the idea of logos: without the possibility of keeping track of debt, it ceases to exist.

The second chapter “Debt and Sin” explores the idea of debt as a fashion: “We seem to be entering a period in which debt has passed through its most recent harmless and fashionable period, and is reverting to being sinful.” A lot of us have lost the ability of living within our means when it became acceptable to take the easier path. There was a time when going to a pawnshop was considered a terrible disgrace, a sin. Today, we all live on credit, however unaffordable it has become.

In spiritual terms, as Atwood shows, there is a close link between a pawnshop and redemption. She tells intriguing stories of St. Nicolas, the patron saint of thieves; the Sin Eater, who for a reward symbolically consumes a deceased person’s sins (spiritual debts) at the funeral; or the Devil and his careful bookkeeping of who owes him what.

The next chapter “Debt as Plot” builds on such stories and investigates many literary classics and their famous characters, especially Christopher Marlow’s Doctor Faustus and Charles Dickens’s Scrooge, offering a fresh insight into the art of storytelling and our perception of the primary mechanisms on which literary plots rely.

As its title suggests the next chapter, “The Shadow Side”, turns to the dodgy side of debt and traces the historical and present consequences of what actually happens when individuals or nations fail to settle their financial or ethical dues, i.e. when “big debts can make history and rearrange the landscape.” Atwood gives many terrifying examples of how the strategy of getting rid of debt by killing or expelling creditors has survived successfully throughout the ages. “The Shadow Side” also includes a sober, or rather satirical, look on tax: “There are two kinds of taxation systems: ones that are resented, and ones that are really resented.”

Atwood writes about the symbiotic relationship between the debtor and the creditor in the light of the Jungian theory of the Shadow, “our dark side, the repository of everything in us we’re ashamed of and would rather not acknowledge”. From there she moves to the concept of forgiveness and presents no other than Nelson Mandela and the TRC as her examples of how moral debt does not have to be evened out by revenge, but by the one thing which can undermine an eye-for-an-eye approach: forgiveness. If for nothing else, Payback is worth reading for this rather short section and Atwood’s fascinating thought experiment of what would have happened, had the president of the United States sent a message of forgiveness instead of revenge to the people responsible for 9/11.

“Payback”, the final chapter of the book by the same title takes us on a journey through time with a 21st-century version of Scrooge and the Spirits of Christmas. What Scrooge “Nouveau” experiences is scary, but Atwood does not wag her forefinger, she just wants us to wake up to the reality round us. As a human species we have incurred a debt to the planet that will also have to be settled, rather sooner than later, and if we want to be around to see the thereafter, we have to act now by paying back what we owe.

Payback includes a thorough bibliography, a good index and above all some valuable notes which can help readers think about realistic solutions to the many problems we face today.

First published in the Sunday Independent, 8 March 2009.

In Other WorldsIn Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (2011)

Margaret Atwood opens her latest non-fiction offering with a clear declaration:

In Other Worlds is not a catalogue of science fiction, a grand theory about it, or a literary history of it. It is not a treatise, it is not definitive, it is not exhaustive, it is not canonical. It is not the work of a practicing academic or an official guardian of a body of knowledge. Rather it is an exploration of my own lifelong relationship with a literary form, or forms, or subforms, both as reader and as writer.”

In short: In Other Worlds is a love song for a genre. Most importantly, precisely because it does not have any of the aspirations Atwood negates in the above statement, it will be appealing to many readers, of her own work and of science fiction (in all its manifestations).

The book is divided into four parts. The first includes the three Ellmann Lectures Atwood delivered at Emory in 2010. They constitute some general and theoretical deliberations on SF as well as on Atwood’s own full-length forays into what she calls “ustopia-writing”: The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. The second is a series of essays and reviews Atwood wrote on some classics of the genre, such as H. Rider Haggard’s She or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. The third is a tribute section for which Atwood selected some of her shorter ustopias. The final section, “Appendices”, features the open letter Atwood wrote to the Judson Independent School District which banned The Handmaid’s Tale (cautionary reading for our times in South Africa), and an article on Weird Tales covers of the 1930s, published recently in the US edition of Playboy.

It might seem like too much of a mixed bag, but the pieces are carefully chosen and well integrated into the whole. From the start, Atwood explains her understanding of the genre under discussion and the terminology she applies to its many subforms, introducing her own terms and clarifying where she differs from other practitioners. The most important to her is the umbrella term which she uses to refer to her own work: ustopia, a combination of utopia and dystopia – “the imagined perfect society and its opposite – because, in my view, each contains a latent version of the other.”

Atwood includes many stories about her “tangled personal history with SF, first as a child, then as an adolescent, then as a one-time student and academic, then as a reviewer and commentator, and then, finally, as a composer.” She also focuses on the literary and cultural context in which stories about alien invasions and possible futures have developed, offering a enticing overview of the field’s many fascinating aspects and paying homage to the path breakers like Swift or Verne. Atwood’s reading of well-known proponents of SF are highly enlightening and made me want to return to some of my favourites. But even if you are a LeGuin or Lem devotee, a staunch Trekkie, or a vampiramas addict, some of Atwood’s insights might add to your understanding and appreciation of the genre. And if you are one of those who’d rather stay away from SF altogether, even if it is offered by somebody of Atwood’s calibre, please remember that “in brilliant hands…the form can be brilliant”, in spite of its “downright sluttish reputation.”

In Other Worlds is also an astute analysis of SF’s function in our lives. As Atwood concludes one of her essays: “We are not only what we do, we are also what we imagine. Perhaps, by imagining mad scientists and then letting them do their worst within the boundaries of our fictions, we hope to keep the real ones sane.” There is little doubt that we are still very much on target towards one of Atwood’s own fictions: a brass cylinder with a rough outline of what humanity once was before eradicating itself. She ends the piece, “Time Capsule Found on the Dead Planet”, with the crushing line: “Pray for us, who once, too, thought we could fly.”

Informative, humorous and intriguing, In Other Worlds is dedicated Ursula K. LeGuin – a worthy tribute to the reigning queen of SF.

First published in ITCH e.10 (May 2012).

MaddAddamMaddAddam (2013)

The day the Nobel Laureate for Literature was announced in October was a great day for the short story, for women writers, for Canadian literature, and for the remarkable Alice Munro. Yet, my heart bled for another Canadian writer: Margaret Atwood. The ways of the Nobel committee are unfathomable, but given the choice between a brilliant Canadian woman short-story writer, and a brilliant Canadian woman short-story writer, novelist, essayist and poet all in one, it’s hard not to wonder what went through their minds.

Undoubtedly, there is a prejudice against so-called genre writing, even when it transcends such reductionist labels with the impeccable quality of its offerings, as do most works stemming from Atwood’s pen. Her The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is a classic. Not that Atwood’s work can be lumped into any category. In the last decade, Atwood has published extensively, but the emphasis has been on the speculative fiction trilogy which began with the Booker-shortlisted Oryx and Crake (2003) and now concludes with MaddAddam. Perhaps the genre has torpedoed Atwood’s chances with the committee? If so, it is regrettable. But having said so, this is not to take anything away from the recognition of Munro’s work of which I am an avid admirer.

Also, I hope the above will testify to my respect for Atwood’s prolific writing and put my disappointment in her latest novel into context.

Oryx and Crake blew me away. Set in a not too distant future, it tells the story of Jimmy, the seemingly last human survivor of an apocalyptic plague unleashed on the world by his best friend Crake. In Jimmy’s care are the Crakers, a genetically engineered, green-eyed, blue-penis-swinging, eerily singing and purring humanoid species – Crake’s idea of an improvement on depraved humanity. The novel ends when Jimmy, injured and hallucinating, encounters three other human beings.

The follow-up, The Year of the Flood (2009), recounts the same story from another perspective and also leads up to the charged encounter. The three people Jimmy sees are Amanda, previously of the God’s Gardeners, an eco-sect founded by Adam One and led by the street-wise Zeb, and her malevolent kidnappers who have raped and tortured her. As it turns out, two others are also watching the confrontation: Ren, Amanda’s best friend, and Toby, their erstwhile teacher at the God’s Gardeners, who have likewise survived the pandemic. They are the protagonists of The Year of the Flood.

Having loved the ingenious predecessors, I reread them before turning to the trilogy’s highly anticipated conclusion. The joy I got out of the rereading turned out to be the best part of the whole experience. MaddAddam aptly wraps up some of the loose ends of the other novels, but it far from delivers on their considerable promise.

How is the handful of remaining humans going to build up a new life from the ruins of the post-pandemic world where genetically spliced plant and animal species sprawl and roam free, dangerous pig-human hybrids among them? What role will women, previously mass exploited and brutalised, play in this newly-fledged society? What is their interaction with the naïve, peace-loving Crakers going to be like? How will Jimmy feature in the mix, especially since three of his ex-girlfriends are among the survivors, and two of them have been inadvertently raped and impregnated by the Crakers who still see Jimmy as their creator’s prophet? What will they all make of Crake’s brilliantly insane plan for humankind and their own involvement in its execution?

The potential conflicts appear ripe for the picking. But MaddAddam only skirts these issues. Instead, the novel focuses on the backstories of Zeb and Adam One, and the enfolding relationship between Toby and Zeb. The former dominate large chunks of the narrative and unnecessarily demystify two of the most intriguing characters of the trilogy. The latter descends into the ludicrous stuff that soap operas are made of.

The mutations the main characters undergo in MaddAddam are baffling. Top-notch scientists, hackers and revolutionaries turn into bitchy fashionistas. The strictly vegetarian God’s Gardeners tuck into juicy steaks and crisp bacon. The tough, mysterious Zeb transforms into a chauvinistic jerk – “beneath vulgar”, in the words of his brother. Most discouraging, the once resilient and wise Toby begins acting like a lovesick teenager. Jimmy is comatose for nearly the entire time and when he finally regains consciousness, most of his conflicted, poignant nature stays behind in the coma.

The tension and the emotional intelligence of the first two novels are irreparably compromised in MaddAddam. But not all is lost. Moments of dark humour, the homage to the power of storytelling, some twists in the inter-species relations, and above all Atwood’s powerful prose, provide some satisfaction. But compared to the first two incisive instalments of the trilogy which both ended with a bang, MaddAddam is a mere whimper.

First published in the Cape Times, 15 November 2013.

Of Treks, Wars and Stars

HeirToTheEmpireI still don’t really understand how it happened, but when I was about seven or eight years old and still living in the then Communist Poland, our school went to see Star Wars: Return of the Jedi in the cinema. The film made an enormous impression on me, at that stage not necessarily a good one. I was too young to digest the violence, especially when perpetrated against the cuddly, cute Ewoks. The scene where one of the Ewoks realises that their friend is not moving and will not get up again haunted my childhood dreams for many months to come. Despite this heartache and trauma, there was something about the Star Wars Universe that captured my imagination. When a few years later, I had the opportunity to see the entire original Star Wars trilogy, I was hooked for life. I cannot count how many times I have watched these movies, and how many more times I still will. I don’t seem to ever tire of them. I have also read some of the accompanying books, of which Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy is my absolute favourite.

I am not a huge fan of the recent Star Wars film trilogy, although I love the way it portrays Anakin’s path to the Dark Side. And, obviously, I am counting the days until the first film in the latest Disney trilogy is released next year. I hope I can go and see it with Krystian, my brother, who is just as much a fan as I am. The fact that the original actor trio: Carrie Fisher (whom I also adore as an author), Harrison Ford, and Mark Hamill are going to be starring in the trilogy is fantastic. I have followed their careers with great interest for many years (I saw another all-time favourite for the first time – The ‘Burbs – just because Carrie Fisher starred in it).

Fisher Ford HamillTo see them reunited on a film project makes my heart sing. When I was thirteen and had a terrible crush on Luke Skywalker, I promised myself that one day when I am old enough, I am going to travel to Hollywood, declare my love to him, and we will live happily ever after, travelling through the Universe and defending it from all Evil (at that stage, I didn’t differentiate much between an actor and his role…). Then I grew up (and found out that Mark Hamill was one of the few people in Hollywood who actually seemed happily married and not looking to go on quests to rescue the Universe with some crazy Jedi wannabe).

imagesR77R8SAFAt some stage, while I was still at high school, my friend Thomas suggested that as a Star Wars fan I might enjoy watching Star Trek which he did religiously. I had accidently seen a few scenes from the series when zapping through TV channels but hadn’t found anything appealing in them. But then, Thomas asked me to just watch one full episode before passing final judgement. To humour him, I agreed, and that very afternoon settled down after to school to watch. I am not sure that I recall that first episode I saw correctly, but I know it blew my mind. That is how I became a Trekkie. Since them, I have also seen everything that there was to watch connected with the franchise, including the first seasons of Star Trek from the 60s. I was amazed how watchable they still were. A year or so ago, one of our channels available in South Africa repeated all the Star Trek feature films. I’ve always enjoy seeing those, too. What I like about them most is their subtle or not so subtle commentary on contemporary socio-political developments. J.J. Abrams’ latest Star Trek: Into Darkness’s take on ‘the hunt for a dangerous war criminal’ is not exactly subtle but brilliant nevertheless. It just shows you that real baddies are not always easy to identify.

Whether trekking or warring, these movies/series make one think beyond their special effects (no matter how spectacular), and that is what I treasure about them most. That, and the humour, the values, and the friendships they portray (Spock and Kirk, or Data and Geordie, or Luke and Han).

wishfuldrinkingI like the fact that the first Star Wars movie was born the same year I was.

My brother and I greet each other like Vulcans.

Once I tried wearing my hair like Princess Leia but my friend Jeremy pointed out that it rather looked like Chewie’s.

I drink Earl Grey tea when I write, a habit inspired by Jean-Luc Picard. Too bad I can’t order it from a replicator. Well, at least not yet…

I like reaching for the stars.

\\//_

May the Force be with you!

And a belated happy birthday to George Lucas!