Tag Archives: Wales

Review: Cove by Cynan Jones

coveI was born in Poland, but as a student I used to live in Wales. About two years ago, I read a glowing review of Everything I Found on the Beach by the young Welsh writer Cynan Jones. The reviewer mentioned that the novel featured a Polish character. A Welsh novel with a Polish character was an irresistible combination for a reader with my literary background. I ordered and devoured it, and since then I have read every other novel or novella I could get hold of by the same author: The Long Dry, The Dig, and the latest, Cove.

Cynan Jones has become one of my favourite writers and I await each new book of his with fervent anticipation. I have never been disappointed. His work offers two elements which I find most exciting in literature: the ability to lay bare the intricate landscapes of the human heart and soul, and a prose powerful enough to match what is revealed: the brutality and beauty of our existence. Jones is constantly being compared with the greats of modern literature – rightly so. But his voice is distinct, unforgettable.

Cove opens on a beach. A child is missing. A doll is washed up by the tide. And a dead pigeon is found: “The head was gone, the meat of its chest. The breast-bone oddly, industriously clean.” The man who finds it feels a sense of horror that the bird “knew before being struck. Of it trying to get home. Of something throwing it off course.” He removes the rings from its leg to return them to the owner who will be wondering about its fate.

As the epigraph explains, a cove can be “a small bay or inlet; a sheltered place” or “a fellow; a man”. Cove tells the story of a man who finds himself adrift in a kayak after he is struck by lightning. His recollections of how he got there and who he is are vague. He is injured, covered in ashes: the remains of someone who will definitely not return. The shore seems unreachable, but intuitively he knows that someone is waiting for him to come back: “The idea of her, whoever she might be, seemed to grow into a point on the horizon he could aim for.”

Cove is a quest for survival – man versus the elements: “Stay alive, he thinks.” Jones knows how to tell unique stories with universal appeal. He is fearless in his explorations of places most of us are terrified of. As in life, death is a constant in his stories. He reduces his plots to essentials and by doing so magnifies what is truly important. His work reminds us of the strengths and brilliance of the novella, an underestimated form in our time.

When you face the impossible, and all seems wrecked and lost, not many options remain: “If you disappear you will grow into a myth for them. You will exist only as absence. If you get back, you will exist as a legend.”

Cove

by Cynan Jones

Granta, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times, 13 January 2017.

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Even better: Best of second half of 2014 book giveaway

GiveawayIn July last year, I listed here my best reads of the first half of 2014 and gave one of the titles away to a randomly chosen person who commented on the post. The lucky winner was Solomon Meyer and I sincerely hope he has enjoyed his copy of The Maze Runner.

I would like to do the same for the second half of 2014 which turned out to be an even greater reading success than the first. Old friends & new discoveries made the list. I decided, however, to concentrate on fiction & non-fiction only. In no particular order:

?????????????????????????I love historical fiction and it hardly ever comes better than Claire Robertson’s The Spiral House (Umuzi, 2013). I heard Robertson speak at the FLF last year and was immediately intrigued. During the festival, the novel was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize and won subsequently to my, and many other readers’, delight. Written in a mesmerising prose which takes you into the heart of local history, the novel is a rare gem which should not be missed. Apart from anything else it is such a beautifully produced book. Well done, Umuzi!

The VisitorAnother historical title, Katherine Stansfield’s The Visitor (Parthian, 2014), will feature on all my favourites lists for a long time to come. I had the pleasure of reviewing it for the Cape Times. A gift from Robert, a dear friend with whom I studied and practised fencing at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth, this beautiful debut novel came to me when it was most needed. Set in a fictional fishing village in Cornwall towards the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, it tells the story of three friends and their community. The sea is their constant companion and witness to the love, loss and longing unfolding at its shore. Last year, I wrote an essay about the sea and its influence on my own life as a woman and a writer. The Visitor has triggered many memories and helped me focus on the task at hand. Stansfield is also a remarkable poet. Her debut collection Playing House is a delight.

People's PlatformI love engaging with the internet even though I am deeply aware of its pitfalls. I still remember AltaVista, the first chat rooms, or waiting for a page to open for twenty minutes (if you were lucky!) while doing my homework on the side. I have been fascinated by the medium for nearly as long as it exists on a global scale. The People’s Platform – Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age by Astra Taylor (Fourth Estate, 2014) is one of those must reads if you want to consciously participate in the digital age and not be simply reduced to a consumer, abused by power and greed. Culture is one of our most precious resources and treasures. To allow it to waste away in this precarious environment is criminal.

Dont Film YourselfAnother must for the internet age: Don’t Film Yourself Having Sex and Other Legal Advice for the Age of Social Media (Penguin, 2014) by Emma Sadleir and Tamsyn de Beer looks at the legal implications of our interaction with social media. The authors spell out the dos and don’ts of the diverse platforms: Twitter, Facebook, etc. The book is informative and strangely enough very funny despite telling some very grim internet stories of people losing their reputations, jobs, friends and serious money over online blunders. Also essential reading for anyone wanting to marry Kate Winslet.

Divided LivesAnybody who reads me will know how much I admire Lyndall Gordon‘s work. Her latest, Divided Lives (Virago, 2014), raises my admiration to another level. Just looking at the shelf where I keep all her wise, powerful biographies and memoirs reassures me. She has brought so much sustenance and joy into my life as a reader, writer and woman that I am certain I would be a very different, and much poorer, Karina today without having encountered her books. May there be many more to come.

adultsonlycoverA rather racy read, and not all the stories in this anthology were my cup of tea, but there were some which I found very exciting, on the literary not literal level, of course ;) Showcasing some of the talent we have here in South Africa, these erotic short stories cater for nearly all tastes. Funny, thrilling, and exquisite at times, it is a rewarding read (see my review: Adults Only – Stories of Love, Lust, Sex and Sensuality edited by Joanne Hichens, Mercury, 2014).

A_Man_of_Good_Hope_frontA Man of Good Hope (Jonathan Ball, 2014) is Jonny Steinberg at his best. I have a friend who says that when she grows up she wants to be Jonny Steinberg, and I can’t blame her. In his latest, Steinberg tells the story of a man on the most remarkable journey which takes him from Mogadishu via South Africa to even more distant shores. Asad Abdullahi goes through hell and back and on his trip teaches us what it means to hope and dream when it seems that all is in vein. I listened to and interviewed Steinberg during the Open Book Festival last year. For my reflections on the festival see “The Image of a Pie”.

invisible_furies_coverAnother of my favourite authors, Michiel Heyns, launched A Sportful Malice at the FLF last year and the novel featured in my July giveaway, but later in the year I turned to his previous title, Invisible Furies (Jonathan Ball, 2012) and enjoyed it just as much, not only because it is set in my beloved Paris. After a long absence, Christopher travels to Paris where he encounters a world of beauty and intrigue. He is there to help Eric, the son of a friend, come to his senses and return to South Africa. But Eric has some surprises in store for him. Nothing is what it seems in the City of Love.

The Snowden FilesThe Snowden Files – The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man by Luke Harding (Guardian Books/Faber and Faber, 2014) is another eye-opener when it comes to the workings of the internet and governments all over the world. Harding reveals the background to the Snowden story and all its scary implications. A tense read of history unfolding in front of our eyes. I hope there will be a follow-up book and some kind of decent resolution to this saga on all fronts.

The Alibi ClubA discovery from last year’s Open Book Festival, Jaco van Schalkwyk’s The Alibi Club (Umuzi, 2014) is one of the most refreshing South African fiction debuts of the last few years. Set in New York in the decade around 9/11, it tells the story of a South African working at a club and interacting with its regulars in the heart of Brooklyn. Tight, impact prose, distinct characters, well-paced storytelling – the stuff of a great promise. I am very curious what Van Schalkwyk will do next.

Travels with EpicurusNot only a delightful book, but a reminder of what good booksellers are for: Travels with Epicurus – Meditations from a Greek Island on the Pleasures of Old Age (Oneworld, 2013) by Daniel Klein was recommended to me by Johan Hugo from the Protea Bookshop in Rondebosch. Johan and I have been talking books for years now, so he knows what André or I might enjoy. With this enlightening read he was spot on for both of us. We literally devoured the little book. It is one of those that makes you feel good about the world and your place in it. And it was only written because of Klein’s initial fear of acquiring dentures… Inspiration is a curious thing indeed.

LullabyThis is also a book Johan introduced me to, knowing that I would be interested in another Polish-speaking author writing in English: Anna’s family emigrates in the 1980s before the changeover in Poland and settles in New York. Missing her roots and extended family, every summer Anna returns to Poland on her own and spends the holidays in her old neighbourhood where she befriends Justyna and Kamila. Together, they survive the ups and downs of puberty: jealousies, hang-ups about their developing bodies, the turbulences of first loves, budding sexualities and substance abuse. Some things go horribly wrong and one day Anna refuses to come back for another visit. Years later, another tragedy brings the three friends together again. Poland is undergoing its own transition while the young women face the new reality and try to pick up the pieces of their broken dreams. The Lullaby of Polish Girls (Quercus, 2013) by Dagmara Dominczyk is a fast-paced story of growing up in a migratory world.

MoonTigerI have a friend whom I see roughly once a year for coffee or lunch. Every our encounter inspires me and gives me food for thought for the next year. The last time we spoke, Penelope Lively came up and he recommended that I read Moon Tiger (André Deutsch, 1987). I have read some of Lively’s other novels and there was even a time when I contemplated writing a thesis on her work, but it was not meant to be. Moon Tiger, however, made me want to go back to her writing again. It is an intense, beautiful study of the nature of history with a grand love story at its centre.

TalesAnother local novel that made a huge impact on me this year: Imraan Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System (Umuzi, 2014). I was asked to review it for LitNet and decided to do some catch-up Coovadia reading in the process, which proved most entertaining. But this latest is, for me, Coovadia’s best up to date. We speak about ‘post-apartheid’ fiction all the time, but I sometimes wonder how many novels deserve the title in the sense that they have been truly written from that perspective. Tales of the Metric System is definitely one of them.

The DigAn absolute highlight of last year’s and this year’s reading is the discovery of the Welsh author, Cynan Jones. I subscribe to the New Welsh Review. I was reading an old issue of the magazine which included a review of Jones’s rewriting of a Welsh myth, Bird, Blood, Snow (Seren, 2012) and I was intrigued. I googled, as one does, and found that he’d written a novel with a central Polish character, Everything I Found on the Beach (Parthian, 2011). A Welsh author writing a Polish character was too much to resist, so I ordered the novel and Jones’s latest, The Dig (Granta, 2014). Last night, I started The Long Dry (Parthian, 2007) and am enthralled by it like by the other two titles. In the meantime, I have discovered that Jones has also published two other novels which might be tricky to get since they seem to be out of print, but I am patient and persistent, and eventually, I intend to write a longer piece about his work. Literary discoveries get seldom better than this. I am a fan for life.

Station ElevenEmily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (Picador, 2014) was sent to me for reviewing. Also a writer to watch out for. The novel is speculative fiction at its finest and belongs with the Atwoods & Le Guins of the literary world. It is a genre which has always appealed to me and I hope to write in it myself one day. Station Eleven tells the story of a handful of survivors of a lethal flu which wipes out most of the human race. Disturbing and touching at the same time, it contemplates the big questions in life while telling a gripping story.

The Night WatchmanRichard Zimler has been a friend since we first corresponded about The Children’s Hours: Stories of Childhood. His work is an inspiration. I have been a fan for years. His latest novel, The Night Watchman (Corsair, 2014), is set in Portugal, but it tells a very familiar story of abuse, power, corruption and the sense of hopelessness we all face in this world when confronted with any of these evils. Zimler never goes for easy answers. His stories are nuanced, beautifully written (he is a master of dialogue) and always full of life’s wisdoms. It is an honour to know and to read him.

D&DTokoloshe SongTwo local friends, Alex Smith and her partner, Andrew Salomon, have published novels last year with Umuzi (again, gorgeous covers): Devilskein and Dearlove, Tokoloshe Song. Both are fantasy novels, very different though, but equally entertaining. Most days I am not a fantasy fan, but when it is done well, like these two heart-warming and enchanting books, even a non-believer’s heart melts. I loved the characters, their unusual universes filled with magic and wonder, and their stories which kept me spell-bound. I might convert after all!

Devil's HarvestAnd speaking of the devil, Andrew Brown’s Devil’s Harvest (Zebra Press, 2014) is not an easy read. Heart-wrenching and honest, it tells the story of a British botanist and a Sudanese woman who is a survivor of a genocide. The story of their journey through South Sudan is one of those that had to be written and has to be read. Brown did an excellent job at making sure that it is not forgotten. This was my first of his novels, and certainly not the last. Something to look forward to in 2015!

OctoberAn accidental encounter on twitter, of all places, revealed that I share a publisher with Réney Warrington. October (Protea Book House, 2013) is a subtle love story of how two damaged women struggle through emotional numbness to find a way back to life. The photographer Jo is shell-shocked by the divorce of her parents and her sister’s homophobia. When she meets the famous pop singer Leigh who has to overcome a serious illness and a troubled past, Jo does not expect to ever heal again. Despite serious doubts, they decide to give their relationship at least a fleeting chance…
Warrington is also a photographer and October includes a few startling images that poignantly illustrate the narrative.

This DayAnother twitter encounter resulted in my reading this meticulously crafted novel about a day in the life of a grieving woman. Having lived through the worst imaginable ordeal for a parent, Ella now has to take care of her husband who is suffering from severe depression. As each heart-breaking day dawns, she leaves massages in the sand for the sea to wash away. It is in the water that she also confronts her deepest hopes and worst fears. Poetic, full of insights, and simply beautiful, Tiah Beautement’s This Day (Modjaji Books, 2014) is an remarkable achievement.

Please let me know:
1) which books have made such an impact on you in the second half of 2014 that you wanted to share them with others?
2) which of the titles I’ve mentioned above you would be interested in reading yourself?
From your comments, I’ll draw one name at the beginning of February 2015 and send you the book you have chosen from the list of my favourite titles.
(Just to clarify, it seems this wasn’t clear: The winner will get a brand-new copy of the book they chose from my list.)

Our Brass Bed

Home AwayBraunau am Inn | Geretsdorf | Salzburg, Austria, 7 p.m.

You are like me. You feel safer on the right side of the road, sitting on the left in the car, changing gears with your right hand, looking over your right shoulder to reverse. The little white Daihatsu was an unexpected gift from your father; he bought it for peanuts and renovated it so that you could have a car of your own. You should actually sell it now. Ever since your move to Cape Town, you drive it only during occasional visits to your parents, at most a few weeks every year. For the rest of the time, the reliable little car loiters in the yard gathering dust. It is much smaller and less comfortable than the respectable Mercedes you and your husband share at home, yet you feel safe in it. The idea of parting with it is painful to you, even though you know this would be the sensible thing to do. It’s what your father urges you to do every time you come to visit. He sees no point in keeping it. But no matter how hard it is to admit, even to yourself, you see it as another loss of part of your life. You have experienced too many losses; you can’t reduce it to an ordinary transaction of exchanging money for an object. This object is too special. The car and you share a history.

You have always been an intrepid traveller, and the Daihatsu has taken you to many remote corners of Europe. It has never let you down. When you were at university, you drove it to Salzburg every day, fifty kilometres each way. You would rather have it stand around and rust in the backyard of your parents’ house than sell it to a stranger. The thought of returning to it is always comforting. There was a moment when you seriously considered having it shipped to South Africa, but you soon realised that the transfer costs would have exceeded the car’s worth. It was a silly idea.

Your plane landed yesterday. You travelled from Cape Town to Munich via Amsterdam, and took the train from the airport to Simbach, Braunau’s twin, where your brother Krystian picked you up from the station. Nowadays, with the borders in the European Union abolished, the two towns are divided only by the Inn River and the usual neighbourly mistrust. For many years you lived in Braunau am Inn, Hitler’s Austrian birthplace, until your parents decided to move to the countryside and bought a house in the nearby village of Geretsdorf. Still at university, you moved with them because you had no other choice. All your life you had little say in the places you learnt to call home. Until now, that is. You moved to Cape Town because you wanted to – a traumatic liberation.

You do not visit your old house in Braunau any more. You went once and it broke your heart to see the building modernised, its small fairy garden replaced by a standard lawn, all the trees reduced to stumps. The old staghorn sumac which leant on the garage wall and in whose branches you used to read was gone. So were the deceptively straggly-looking plum trees which bore baskets of fruit every second year. Worst was the complete disappearance of the tall emerald arborvitae hedge which surrounded the entire property and gave your family privacy in the densely populated area. The place looked stripped and exposed. You felt just as violated.

You remember the time when you moved into the house after living in the States for more than two years. It was small and dilapidated, but with combined effort your family quickly turned it into a home. Here you listened to your brother dream-laugh in the bedroom next to yours; your mother filled the house with the smell of plum jam in autumn; your hard-working father fell asleep on the kitchen bench every evening after supper. This suddenly became the place where all your journeys began and ended. Even today returning to Braunau feels like a homecoming to you; it was the longest pause in your itinerant life. Nine years may not seem long, but it meant nine years of certain stability you had not experienced before.

In the early nineties, Braunau became a place of safety, in spite of its many contradictions. As an Ausländer – a foreigner – you had to stay at home when thousands of neo-Nazis descended on the town each April to celebrate the Führer’s birthday. But on other days you took your friends and visitors to the front of the house where he was born to have a look at the monument placed there. Brought over from the concentration camp in Mauthausen in 1989, the stone commemorates the victims of fascism: Für Frieden, Freiheit und Demokratie. Nie wieder Faschismus. Millionen Tote mahnen. (For peace, freedom and democracy. Never again fascism. Millions of dead warn.)

It is not a warning the generals of the former Yugoslavia took to heart when the wars broke out in 1991. You remember watching the daily media reports from the region just across the Austrian border and translating for your grandma who was staying with you at the time. The images brought back her own memories of war and displacement; it was the only time you heard her speak about that distant past. Every day she wanted to know how many more aid trucks with medicine, blankets, food and clothing had left Austria for the conflict zones. Thousands and thousands, you assured her. Somebody pointed out to you that it was not only a humanitarian gesture, but also a way of keeping the flow of refugees into Austria under some kind of control. Many came anyway. For a few months of high school you ended up sitting next to a tall, dark-haired girl whose face you still see but whose name escapes you. She told you in broken English that she didn’t know where her father and brothers were, whether they were still alive. She’d escaped only with her mother. You did not dare imagine the horrors she must have seen, the courage it must have taken to flee, what and whom they’d had to leave behind. Your own refugee past – escaping communist Poland in the late 1980s, going through refugee camps, and migrating through the world for four years – was insignificant in comparison. Your life had never been in danger. Staying at home on Hitler’s birthday to avoid creepy looks and verbal abuse from neo-Nazis hardly seemed relevant.

Earlier today, with history on your mind, you passed the Mauthausen stone monument on your way into town. The medieval Stadtplatz, the main square, was bustling with activity. The place had first been mentioned as Prounaw in an official document from 1120. As you drove into the centre, it struck you how ancient all these buildings were in comparison to the place where you lived now. Your Victorian house or even the Castle in Cape Town seemed like toddlers when compared to these Methuselahs.

In August, the light is still bright in the evening, but you had to hurry before the last shops closed at seven. Your flat in your parents’ house in Geretsdorf had stood empty for a couple of months. All day long you swept, vacuumed and dusted; then you unpacked your heavy suitcase and rushed to town to buy a few essentials. Suddenly, German was all around you. You feared to open your mouth, afraid that nothing would come out, the language you’d been speaking most of your life somehow forgotten, engulfed by a terrified silence. In the chemist, you carried a tube of your favourite toothpaste and panty liners (you always schlep both to Cape Town because you cannot find satisfying local substitutes for them) to the counter and tried your luck: Ich möchte bitte mit der Bankomatkarte zahlen. (I want to pay with my debit card.) The words flew out of your mouth, automatically. You remembered the pin code for your Austrian debit card. The woman at the counter looked familiar. At Billa you bought some Leberkas, the traditional Austrian sausage meatloaf, and a few bottles of Uttendorfer beer from a local brewery. You would have one in a hot bath later.

Now, driving back from Braunau to Geretsdorf, you think how easy it is to return, to go unnoticed, to pass as one of the locals again. The Daihatsu slides through the Upper Austrian landscape, surreally lit by the setting sun. With your right hand you smoothly shift the gear to accelerate for a takeover manoeuvre. Just as smoothly your mind shifts into a narrative mode and you describe the surroundings to yourself in your head. The kitsch pastoral scene, suddenly outrageously beautiful in the setting sun, demands some concentration: The ink-smeared horizon, the bruised horizon, dotted with eerie clouds, punctuated by clouds, glowing orange, blushing orange, from the touch of setting sunrays … The words swirl in your mind like candy around a child’s tongue. Shocked, you spit them out as you drive on and stare at the sun setting over the barley fields, the grand square, white farmsteads, the small herd of cows, and you force yourself to describe the scene in German: Der Himmel, der Horizont, blau, die Wolken, die Sonne, orange. Individual words and their particles come to you, but they refuse to turn into smooth, peppermint-sweet images. You are startled.

***

Once you’d mastered all three, you divided your languages into favourites. Polish for speaking. German for writing. English for reading. Since your move to Cape Town you have been assimilating Afrikaans into the mix, for socialising. Driving towards Geretsdorf, you recognise that a shift has taken place. The carefully ranked categories no longer apply. English has taken over.

It shouldn’t surprise you. You lived in the States for over two years, continued learning English at school in Austria, and later you studied English literature at university for twelve years. Since 2005, you’ve been living in Cape Town where it is the lingua franca. You and your husband speak English to each other and you are at home with it; it is at home with you. English has inadvertently become the language you work in, as a critic and finally – yes, finally – as a writer. You know that this last shift is the crux (even if at this very moment you have to look up the exact meaning of ‘crux’ in a monolingual dictionary to make sure that it is actually the word you mean).

English has become the language of your creativity; your intimacy with it derives from living in South Africa. But you’ve only just realised it now, on this road from Braunau to Geretsdorf. It unsettles you, this shift of paradigms which has happened so automatically, so unconsciously, and you need time to take it in; you need to think it through. In English. You recall the Chinese-Canadian writer Ying Chen speaking in Lyon about her mother tongue and the tongue of her fiction; she compared one to an arranged marriage and the other to a love affair. You can identify with the idea of English as your lover.

You arrive in Geretsdorf enlightened, in love, park the car in front of the house, and do not lock the door. At home in Cape Town, long before you get to the garage you have to start checking whether you aren’t being followed. In Geretsdorf, there are no security bars on your parterre windows, no alarms, no terrifying daily Neighbourhood Watch reports, no stories of friends’ hijacked cars, no neighbour arriving at your gate with knife wounds in his face, no phone calls from your stepdaughter traumatised after an armed robbery, no funerals of murdered family members, no foreigners burnt alive in the streets. At least not since 1945.

You derive pleasure from the unlocked car door. You enter the house with a smile and open the terrace door wide open to celebrate this sense of freedom, and to let in some fresh air before the sun sets completely. The only reason to lock up later will be to keep the mosquitoes out of your bed tonight.

From upstairs your mother calls that dinner will be ready at eight. You have a while to relax, to settle further in to one of your many former homes where everything is still so familiar. You moved into this flat after your return from a student-exchange year in Wales, and lived here for four years before you decided to make South Africa your home. It was in this very study, on this desk in front of you, where you’d planned your first journey to Africa, on a research grant for your PhD on Nadine Gordimer’s post-apartheid work. Most of your books, travel guides and maps are still here, now filed away with the photographs and study materials you’d brought from South Africa in 2004; the defended and published thesis added to the collection in 2008. There is also the photograph of you with your future husband and other participants from the ‘South Africa in Perspective’ Symposium you helped to organise at the University in Salzburg at the end of 2004. Next to it is a postcard of the picturesque Schloss Leopoldskron, where the last event of the symposium took place and where you fell in love with the man who would become your husband, even though you did not dare admit it at the time. You and your husband have returned time and again to Salzburg, the city you both love so much, the city that brought you together, with its centuries-old architecture, dignified opulence, and mummified socio-historical structures, all glossed over with gold and red for Sound of Music fans descending in their thousands, clicking away pictures in tourist-crowded alleys, stuffing themselves with grilled chestnuts or oven-baked potatoes topped with sour-cream and chives, buying useless gifts at the rustic Christmas Market, gathering next to the cathedral around the handsome Russian balalaika player, drinking hot chocolate or iced coffee at Tomaselli, ascending in cable cars to the medieval fortress that squats on top of the miniature mountain (which sometimes reminds you of another that you can see every day from your stoep in Cape Town), attending endless music concerts, trampling on the roses in the Mirabell Garden where Copernicus sits wondering whether he is German or Polish. And yes, yes, Mozart! Mozart is everywhere, more golden and reddish than anything else in the famous city of Salzburg, reclaimed covetously by a place that never wanted him during his lifetime.

You know there is more to Salzburg; it’s hidden, quiet, small, a little grey – yours. Alone, one January evening before midnight, you walked the fog-veiled streets of the old town and decided to leave Salzburg, Geretsdorf, Austria – for good. The final link in a long chain of events which began in 1999, when Edwin Hees (now a dear friend), arrived in Salzburg to share his passion for the arts of the Beloved Country and brought your whole world to a standstill. After his lecture, you rushed into the departmental library with burning cheeks and a famished mind and tried to absorb everything possible about South Africa’s past and present. You were overwhelmed by the intensity of the historical moment only five years after the first democratic election. You were moved by the promise of a new future, by the vibrancy of the emerging post-apartheid literature. History was happening then and there, at the multilingual tip of the foreign continent; it was not something confined to outdated school books. It was a time of chaos and possibility.

Travelling to South Africa for the first time in 2004 only confirmed all you’d learnt and hoped about the country in the five years since Edwin’s first lecture; strangely, you felt instantly at home in this distant, foreign, multitudinous place. No wonder that a year later, you had come home for good. South Africa was a forge, shaping history as you watched, shaping you as you lived. You abandoned the shadow of a medieval fortress, unchanged for centuries, and exchanged the crystallised reality of Europe for the muddle of a lived present. Its complexity finally tipped you over the edge of impassivity and allowed the creative impulse that you’d been harbouring for years to emerge onto the stark white light of a published page.

Now, on this visit to your parents, you sit in your old study in Geretsdorf and stare at the books that represented South Africa before it became your home. On the desk is a little pile of presents you brought for your family, among them a collection of short stories which includes one of your own. You take up a pen and dedicate the book to your parents and your brother, relieved that the content has nothing to do with them. The story is about rape and domestic violence. As one of the lucky ones, you have never experienced anything like it in your own life, but it is part of the reality of your new home, and you constantly feel the need to confront it in your writing.

South Africa is in constant flux. Positive and negative forces of change are entangled and nothing is clear-cut or easy. You sometimes think that living compartmentalised lives is the only way to survive in this fractured place. But you still want to have coffee with your gardener on the stoep while discussing the rain clouds and the mole invasion. Surely that shouldn’t be so much to ask for? Yet you know the mere suggestion makes the poor man want to sink into the nearest mole hole. (Madam?) And no matter how hard you try to explain this to your European mother, she doesn’t understand. You foolishly thought you could apply your straightforward idealism to a country that was anything but ideal. South Africa is far from unique in this respect, but this doesn’t make anything right, just more desperate. This society’s vibrancy comes at a high price. You aren’t going to change the world. The world is changing you. To try to understand, you write.

You live in a country at war with itself. It’s not paranoia, or some obscure statistics; it’s reality. Daily, thousands of people are dying around you, of preventable diseases, preventable crime, preventable poverty and, most recently, preventable xenophobia. You realise that this time the keyword of hate speech had been makwerekwere. What if the next time it is whites; will you burn to ashes in the streets with bystanders watching you helplessly or, worse, with joy? But you need not even think that far. Every day, other words are pronounced with hatred around you: baby, woman, HIV positive, privilege. There is always somebody too vulnerable for their own good. And the disquiet, the omnipotent force of history – ironically – is gathering to pounce again. But you do not stand up and fight, nor do you leave for safer shores; paralysed, from a vantage point of relative safety on your private island, you watch the ongoing catastrophes around you as if in slow motion, hoping it won’t happen to you, knowing precisely that you might be next.

Waking up from nightmares, you sometimes indulge in daydreams of fleeing, and think about the old Victorian brass bed you share with your husband, with its soft, duck-down pillows (a Christmas present from your parents), fresh linen with cream-and-yellow flower patterns (a wedding gift from your Aunt Zosia), and the luxurious, snow-white duvet cover (a token of gratitude from your Italian friend Michela).

***

Selma. Her name was Selma. You remember. The tall, dark-haired girl from Yugoslavia. What a coincidence; she shares an initial with the heroine of Slavenka Drakulić’s As If I Am Not There, the 1999 novel that has been haunting you for weeks, ever since you saw the photo of the man burning in the street.

It’s a simple, cruel story: “S. is a teacher in a Bosnian village; twenty-nine, gentle, clever and pretty, with a love affair and an apartment of her own. Until one spring day a young Serb soldier walks uninvited into her kitchen and tells her to pack her bag, and her life is interrupted. As the sky turns black with smoke behind her, S. enters a new world, where peace is a fairytale and there are no homes but only camps: transit camps, reception camps, labour camps, death camps.”

Still in her kitchen, at first S. is too shocked to do anything but offer the soldier a cup of coffee. She had known something terrible was about to happen, all the signs were there. There was time to flee, but she’d clung to a hope that it wouldn’t be necessary. She didn’t want to give up her familiar, ordinary, happy life.

S. ends up in a camp where she is repeatedly raped and tortured. She falls pregnant. After liberation, in exile in Sweden, she gives birth to a child whom she decides to keep and nurture. Slavenka Drakulić’s novel is fictitious; it doesn’t tell the story of any particular woman, but it is the story of thousands of women in the Balkans, of women all around the world. In your nightmares, it is your story.

***

Under extreme pressure, you imagine how relatively easy it would be to return to Geretsdorf or Salzburg, to make a new-old life for yourself and your husband there. In these visions you see yourself taking him by the hand, grabbing your passports, putting your cats in their transport cages and taking the quickest route to the Austrian consulate or directly to the airport. In your mind, you are ready to pack and go anytime. You’ve done it in the past, as an Eastern European refugee, moving from one place to another, always in a hurry, hardly ever allowed to take anything with you. You know you can survive.

***

Ultimately, nothing can happen without loss. Two things represent all: a language and a bed. You fear the necessity of having constantly to negotiate between a husband and a lover. You have made your bed, and now you want to sleep in it. The affair is too passionate and precious to end. You do not want the practicalities of living in a German-speaking world to invade this space. You fear your adulterous mind, knowing how flippantly it had switched before, making you dream, think, live in another language. But it had never been as creative as in English, in this turbulent, divided country that you call home.

Yes, you choose to continue waking up from nightmares next to your husband and your cats in your old Victorian brass bed – this silent witness to over a century of marital bliss, estrangement, passion and loneliness. This is the place where your family gathers, where you sleep, make love, eat, watch rugby on TV, read, laugh, talk, pick your way around the cats. Where you listen to the sounds of the house and the constant low hum of the city at night, fearing malevolent footsteps.

Should you ever decide or be forced to leave, the bed – and almost everything else – would have to stay.

***

You aren’t good at dealing with this kind of loss. You grow instantly attached to objects. You surround yourself with charms, dream-catchers; Rudolf, your small, plush guardian angel, never leaves your side; hundreds of books (As If I Am Not There among them), clothes (the black top you found in Aberystwyth), mugs you collect (the tall handmade dark-blue one from the Norwegian island Ona), furniture (mostly bookshelves), a few jewels (the silver peacock brooch with turquoise stones from your grandma), photographs (of you with your husband and Madiba), shoes (the beige slippers from Paris), paintings (a Jan Vermeiren commissioned by your husband for your twenty-ninth birthday), mirrors (the one that waited a year for you at the Naked Truth in Stellenbosch), a laptop (with your creative output saved in it), cameras (both from your father), the camera bag from your mother, the stuffed rag rat your Aunt Iwona made for your namesday when you were fourteen, the circle-of-friends candleholder from your best friend Isabella, the Swatch your father gave you fifteen years ago, the Winnie-the-Pooh eraser from your brother, and the white lace tablecloth from your great aunt. These items are worthless, but priceless. Like your small Daihatsu, standing unlocked in front of your windows, you want to keep it all, to collect it even in writing.

But whereas you don’t have to worry about the little car or anything else you own in Austria, all these precious possessions are in danger in Cape Town, if not of being stolen (who would want you great aunt’s lace tablecloth?), then of being left behind if worst comes to worst. The mere idea of it makes you ache inside. You want to curl up somewhere safe and not think about it. Throughout your migratory childhood and youth you didn’t allow yourself to grow too attached to people; it was safer to grow attached to the few things you could carry.

The Victorian brass bed in Cape Town embodies your new-found creativity. The thought of losing it fills you with a dread greater than the fear of finding a soldier in your kitchen. You understand S., even though nothing about all this is rational. You are a bundle of intuitions and anxieties. Split in half, you know you should be leaving, and yet you insist on staying on your island, hoping against hope, against all facts, against the statistics of the reality around you. Instead you dream, love, laugh and put your creative energies to good uses. Every day, you stand on your stoep and look up at Devil’s Peak and know you will never want to trade it for a medieval fortress. And in the small hours of the night, you lie awake in the brass bed, waiting for your soldier to come, to serve him coffee.

***

Dziecko, kolacja gotowa.’ (Child, dinner’s ready.) Your mother calls from upstairs and you look at your Swatch; it’s eight. You get up from behind your desk and, hugging the dedicated book to your heart, you close the terrace door with your right hand to keep the mosquitoes out at night. It is almost dark, the sky the colour of spilt ink. Your Daihatsu looks grey in the twilight. The emerald arborvitae hedge your parents planted around their new property is almost as tall as the old one in Braunau, but you can still see the lights going on in your neighbour’s house across the street. After dinner you will call your husband at home and wish him goodnight. You will miss him and the cats for the next ten days of your visit. You will have a bubble bath with an Uttendorfer. The practical IKEA double bed you have in Geretsdorf will seem empty and cold, even in the middle of summer. You will read before falling asleep, marvelling at the silence of the countryside around you. You will be preoccupied with the corrections to an essay about the recent xenophobic attacks in the country; there will be no foreign footsteps invading these thoughts. When your light is off and the silence absolute, nobody and nothing will disturb your dreams about your old Victorian bed in Cape Town.

***

I am like you. It’s terrifying.

First published in Home Away, edited by Louis Greenberg (Zebra Press, 2010).