Tag Archives: women

Coven by S.A. Partridge

1-covenA spider scuttled across the dusty window.

Carmelita watched it curiously. The webs that clung to the panes were brown with age. It must have crawled out the floorboards. She looked down at the floor and caught a swift movement in the corner.

Old houses held so much life, she thought.

Through the window she could just make out the overgrown bushes and trees shaking in the seasonal Cape winds.

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She hated summer. She didn’t mind the wind too much. She loved the wildness of it. It was the unforgiving heat she hated, that made even sitting still uncomfortable. And there was always a burning in the air. Fires were an inevitability in Cape Town. It made her nervous, but that was a natural anxiety for a witch. There would always be someone wanting to see you burnt. Even for simply existing.

She looked up at the sound of laughter and caught an unfamiliar phrase in German. Marta was Skyping with one of her European friends again. The thought made Carmelita long for tall, cool forests and frozen oceans. Marta had visited almost every country in the world for her work and had friends in every one. Carmelita would never understand why her friend had abandoned the iced gingerbread houses of Vienna and settled in the sweltering, windy South African city instead. Carmelita was only ever happy when it rained, or when it was cold.

Marta’s laughter rang loud and clear from the other room. It was easy to be Marta’s friend. She was an old soul who had devoted her life to studying alchemical texts and world magic. An Academical. Carmelita was a Wildling. Their magical natures couldn’t be more different, but their friendship met somewhere in the middle.

Marta’s old Victorian home was an oasis from the heat. The wooden floorboards and high stone ceilings created a cool sanctuary. Carmelita loved it there. All old houses held on to their history like words stored in books. As a Wildling she felt it deeply. The house spoke to her through its creaks and cracks. It whispered to her in the way Marta’s books whispered to her. Raw magic was all around her.

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She jumped as one of the resident cats sprang through a window. The heavy scarlet drapes were thick with fur.

“Tea or something stronger?” Marta asked as she swept into the room in her long cotton dress. She placed a scented candle down on the coffee table, which flickered in the dust and filled the air with the scent of jasmine.

“It’s too hot for tea,” complained Carmelita, her eyes fixed on the flames. “And honestly, do you really need to ask? How long have we been friends and when have I ever asked for tea?”

“Gin it is,” said Marta happily, moving to an Oak cabinet.

Marta collected glasses and the cabinet contained an assortment of sizes and coloured glass, as well as trinkets she had collected on her travels. She opened the glass doors and took down two crystal glasses with twisted stems, like vines.

Wild glass for a wild thing, thought Carmelita.

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Marta placed a glass down next to the candle and settled on to a deep purple divan. No sooner had she lifted her feet than a small grey cat leaped up to bury itself in the folds of her skirt. She pulled her long brown plait over her shoulder and twisted it absently.

“Ingrid sends her love, as always,” she said.

Carmelita nodded. She had met the Norwegian witch twice before. Another mad European who loved the sun. The last time she had visited, her skin was splotchy and angry pink and her young daughter had run across the wooden floorboards stark naked.

“It must be wonderfully icy up there,” she said wistfully.

Marta smiled. “Oh yes.”

They drank in silence for a few moments.

“They’re all excited for the Raven’s Feast. The bonfires they make are a true wonder. I hope you get to see it one day.”

Carmelita sighed. “Well at least there’s the Sabbath to look forward to.”

The Witch’s Sabbath traditionally took place on Christmas Eve, or Mōdraniht, as the old Norwegians called it.

They both smiled. Feasts and holy festivals were one thing. Witch’s Sabbaths were quite another.

“Do we know what the moon is doing on that night?” Carmelita asked.

Marta shrugged a slender shoulder. “Does it matter? We’re going to celebrate regardless. And there’s the sacrifice. I’ve been looking forward to it all year.” Her eyes flashed deliciously.

Carmelita grinned. “Then it will be a Blood Moon, surely,” she said.

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They roared with laughter, causing the cat to dart off in irritation.

 

On the day of the Sabbath, Carmelita spent the morning in her flat’s tiny kitchen preparing lunch for her parents. Roasted pork belly with caramel sauce, crispy roast potatoes, sweet carrots and creamed spinach. While the gravy finished boiling, she laid out chocolates and homemade mince pies. Her parents stayed an hour then left. They weren’t a close family and even after thirty years had no idea their daughter was a witch.

Carmelita’s childhood had been a wild, imaginative time spent in her own head. She preferred the fairies and spirits she believed lived in the overgrown garden and spent long days outside making up stories and climbing trees. The outside was alive. A friend. When she was sad, dry leaves would swirl in the wind around her feet to make her laugh and bright orange Black-Eyed-Susan’s would make a comforting bed to lie in while she watched the sky.

She suspected her imaginings were true when the house began to send her secret messages. Her doll would suddenly move for no reason, and mould would appear in her room alone – in large clumps that mushroomed from the carpet.

Wildlings were creatures of nature. If one lived in a place for too long, the garden would begin reclaiming the house. Birds would move into the roof and weeds would claim the rest.

Carmelita could predict the future in a puddle of rain, and read the past in a moss-covered tree trunk.
After her parents left, she texted her boyfriend to see how his own family lunch was going. They had recently started dating, and while he found her moods challenging, he loved her weird nature. Most people thought of her as a non-conformist, but in reality she preferred the invisible world to the real one.

She lifted her feet up onto the couch, already starting to sprout mould at the edges and noticed the row of Starlings on her washing line. She wouldn’t mind them so much if only they left her herb garden alone.

Benjamin was looking forward to seeing her. It was going to be their first Christmas together and they were planning on spending the day picnicking at Kirstenbosch Gardens. She had an extra batch of mince pies ready, and the leftover pork was going to make delicious sandwiches.

She sealed off with a kiss and a promise to say goodnight before she went to bed. She had a big night ahead of her and didn’t want to be distracted by her phone. Long strips of cloud were extending across the afternoon sky. It meant the cold was coming back. A good omen, she thought.

 

The first thing Carmelita noticed when Marta opened the door was her wide-brimmed black hat. The next was her smile.

“Welcome”, she said happily.

The interior was lit by hundreds of flickering candles that cast long shadows. Laughter could he heard from the dining room where a small group of women chatted animatedly over wine. The long oak table was covered in an assortment of cheese, fruit and cakes. Carmelita added her tupperware container of mince pies to the spread and popped an olive into her mouth.

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“How are you, darling?” asked a familiar singsong voice.

She turned and was immediately enveloped into Edythe’s warm, motherly embrace. Edythe was also an Academical. They had met many years ago at a Coven meeting, and had clicked almost at once. Edythe was well-loved in the community and renowned for taking young witches under her wing.

“I’m great. Super excited for tonight. It’s so good to see you. It’s been ages.”

Edythe nodded and plucked a cherry from the table. She closed her eyes in delight. “Oh I do love a good Sabbath,” she said.

Carmelita spotted her friend Charlotte on a divan, clutching a glass of red wine. Charlotte’s lustrous jet-black mane and ruby-red lips made her instantly noticeable in a crowd. The young witch was an Academical in training and had only been part of the Coven for a few months. Carmelita liked her very much. They waved at each other excitedly.

The only other Wildling was Linda, an old soul like Marta. She could disappear for days on her canoe to be one with nature. She smiled faintly and drifted towards the window.

The witches stopped talking as Marta appeared in the doorway with a large basket of twigs. “Are we ready?” she asked. “I can’t wait a moment longer.”

 

The Coven assembled on divans and leather armchairs, each taking a handful of twigs which they would tie together with lengths of twine.

Carmelita swallowed a mouthful of wine. No one could truly appreciate wine as much as a Wildling. They could taste the earth and vines in every drop, the dew on the grapeskin, the wood of the barrel.

She shook off the pull of the grapes and concentrated on the task at hand. Every ring of twine bound the spell to the twigs. Her fingers worked the string, and she felt the flicker of life through her fingertips. The magic they were casting needed both the skill of the Academical and the raw power of the Wildlings. The Academicals understood the spell, the cause and effect. They created the words that held the magic together and knew the ancient incantations that would hold them fast. Wildlings drew power from the world around them and added the spark of life needed to quicken the spells.

It would take all their combined power to cast the spell.

Carmelita watched as Marta wound heavy twine around her hands methodically. Round and round and round. She was creating the head – the most important part of the sacrifice.

 

“We missed you at the last Sabbath.”

Carmelita looked up absently. Charlotte was smiling at her cheerfully.

Guilt pricked at her. She had always been secretly jealous of her Academical friends. They were cool and composed, kilometres above everyone else. Carmelita went mad more than she could sometimes stand. It was easier to lock herself away, like a werewolf at full moon. Quiet absence was better than wild-eyed raving.

She smiled and made up some excuse, feeling even guiltier for it. She hated lying. But she hated being seeing as unstable more. She had missed the last Sabbath and felt terrible about it. She concentrated on her bindings, and hoped Charlotte wouldn’t pursue the conversation. She didn’t.

The afternoon lifted and opened into quiet night.

The witches listened as Edythe told them about a Winter Solstice ceremony she had participated in during her Oxford days. Her student Coven drank plum wine till midnight, when they finally stole into the night to make their sacrifice. It was an anxious, exciting time when being a woman was just as bad as being a witch. Being both was practically scandalous. It took a long time for Edythe to realise she wasn’t wicked.

More wine was poured and the snack table was quickly swept away to make room for their bundles.

“Where shall we do it?” asked Charlotte. “I can’t drive like this. I think I’ve drunk and entire bottle of Pinotage on my own already.”

They exchanged nervous glances. No one was in any condition to drive.

Marta smiled and picked up an armful of bundles. “There’s no need. There’s a reason I’ve let the garden go to seed. The trees are so wild it’s become a leafy fortress. No one will be able to see what we’re up to.”

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They left the house in single file. The stoep creaked as they walked, and long branches scratched and pulled at their skirts. Carmelita could see the swell of stars above them. A frog chirruped from somewhere in the garden and she immediately relaxed. She wasn’t afraid of the dark shadows and rustling. She felt most at home with what scared others.

They built a fire. While the others watched the flames build, Marta and Edythe constructed the sacrifice. They were the most senior Academicals and had performed this ritual many times before. Charlotte watched their movements with bright-eyed concentration, memorizing every step.

Carmelita slipped into the shadows and hung a smaller twig effigy from a tree branch. It was three twigs bound together to create Algiz, the rune of protection -her own private gift to Marta. Her friend would discover it in her own time, when it would hopefully bring a smile to her face.

She returned to the fire to discover the likeness of man tied to a spike in the ground. Flames licked the bottommost twigs, singing the mossy ends. It would catch soon.

Edythe stepped forward and sprinkled a handful of earth into the flames.

“Tonight we celebrate the end of another year and with it the end of a terrible reign over our souls. With these words I banish the influence of a most odious spirit. May his evil never touch us. And may the new year be free of his malevolence.”

Marta stood in front of the burning figure solemnly.

Carmelita knew the intention of this ritual was mostly for her friend’s benefit. As much as the witches tried to live above the world and its mundane cruelty, there were some people whose cunning was beyond logic and reason. Sometimes being brilliant and beautiful attracted the jealousy of bad people who wished those gifts for themselves.

Marta was the most brilliant woman she knew, and preternaturally beautiful. It was an unearthly beauty like the ancient elves and fairies who had learned long ago to hide themselves from the world.

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Linda stepped forward and flicked a glistening branch towards the flames. Drops of blood clung to the bound twigs. “With this blood I consecrate this site in the name of Jörð, goddess of the earth.”

Charlotte tossed a handful of basil into the fire, her pretty young face illuminated by the flames. “I protect this site in the name of Frigg, who we honour this Mōdraniht.”

“Protect us from treachery,” intoned Carmelita, invoking the sign of Eihwaz with her fingers.

“And may the new year bring with it mercy,” said Marta, cupping her hands.

They watched the effigy burn and concentrated on their own wishes. Carmelita knew that Marta was secretly wishing for justice and Edythe strength. What Charlotte and Linda wanted she did not know. She herself wished for peace.

Inside they could hear Marta’s old grandfather clock strike twelve times for midnight.

When the sacrifice had burned down to ashes they returned to the house to consume the Mother’s Feast, knowing the new year would bring all that they had wished for.

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Blue light at Temenos

light

How often can you shatter and remain whole?

Death. Loss. Grief.

House break-in.

Cancer scare.

Institutions breaking you down by sheer incompetence and lack of understanding.

Death, again. And again.

Car accident.

And then…         . A void, a negation of time and space, of reality. How do you describe something or someone whom you tell, repeatedly: ‘I can’t breathe. I am in unbearable pain. I feel small. I am fragile. Vulnerable. Skinless. Please do not hurt me…’ And they violate your body and soul regardless? I do not know. Perhaps some things cannot be described. Sometimes words are too good to contain this, this…          ? blue-light-too

I care about words.

Another shattering.

Another loss.

What remains are the pieces. And a life-long illness. Deal with it, Karina.

turn-withinIn a corner, with no way out, when everything seems lost, broken, incomprehensible, a tiny light might save you. Holding on to that light is not an act of bravery. It is an act of compassion. I survive because I have kind people in my life. Perhaps recognising and reaching out for that kindness is courage? I do not know. I know that the sharing, the true care of friendship, have saved me from utter despair. The women in my life. I repeat: The women in my life. I do not know what I would have done without You. I salute and cherish you!

blue-lightThe first time I travelled to Temenos in McGregor, the retreat was recommended to me by my friend Margie. She knew what I was going through and said that the beauty and silence would be good for me. I fell in love with the place. One-and-a-half years later I went back, for the beauty and the silence. It is a silence punctuated by the outrageous screams of peacocks and the reluctant striking of the church tower clock. People smile, from the distance.

breakfast-at-temenos  sirloin  bemind

You can do things, or just be. Read. Sleep. Eat well. There is a bric-a-brac shop in the middle of McGregor which sells the best olives in the country. Tebaldi’s, the restaurant at Temenos, serves delicious meals. There are donkeys. Wine estates. Dusty heat. Tarot card readers and aroma therapists. Kindness, in the place and its people. The veld. And lazy sunsets which make you believe in tomorrow. It is all right to go to bed before 8pm. To read next to the pool for hours. To start brewing coffee at 5am and drink it on the stoep of your cottage while watching the light yawn and rise in the magical garden around you. Meditate, or just sit doing nothing at Temore, The Inner Temple of the Heart, with its soothing blue light.

reading-next-to-the-pool  falling

Wherever I go, I find coins. I call them my lucky coins. In South Africa, usually, 5c or 20c; 50c if I am really lucky. When I arrived in the gardens of Temenos, I found a R2-coin next to my car. Then, a few hours later, another R2-coin next to the pool. And the next day, while I was telling this story to my friend Helen (our stays at Temenos overlapped for one day and one night) during our sunset walk in the veld – in that very moment – I found another one next to our path. I want to believe that good things are coming. That despite the insanity of reality surrounding us in these troubled times, the kindness of people will prevail.

helen-in-the-veld-at-sunset

questions-from-the-seaDuring the last McGregor Poetry Festival a poem was inscribed on the walls of Temenos, my favourite one from Stephen Symon’s stunning debut collection Questions for the Sea. What synchronicity to find it there when I was returning home last night for the Q&A at Stephen’s reading/launch at Wordsworth Books in Gardens. On the way to the Gardens Centre, I stopped at The Book Lounge to pick up a book I’d ordered earlier, only to find out about the violence in the streets outside the bookshop just hours before. Louanne and Werner spoke about lost children and fear. They cancelled the event scheduled at the bookshop for that evening. The book I was buying was a gift for my friend Louisa who recently shared the remarkable Falling by Elizabeth Jane Howard with me. I started reading it at Temenos. Uncanny is not the word… There is a collective wisdom of women out there, to tap into it, to allow it to nourish and heal you, that is what I am reaching out to.

with-resident-catI arrived at Wordsworth Books rattled, but there were good friends, cheese and wine, and poetry – subtle, soul-restoring poetry. Beauty, like light, can save you. How precious that it can be contained in words. Thank you, Stephen and Nick, for caring about words.

My words are safe. I find strength in the beauty of peahens. I love my Friends. I can’t wait to share my McGregor olives with them.

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And I am very curious what R6 of luck will gift me.

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Book review: The Scattering by Lauri Kubuitsile

The ScatteringIt is December 1907 in Tsau, Bechuanaland, after the Herero and Namaqua genocide perpetrated by the Germans occupying German South-West Africa, today’s Namibia. The Herero couple Tjipuka and Ruhapo have survived “the scattering”, but lost nearly everything in the process. When we first encounter them, they are together, but terrifyingly estranged. Tjipuka traces her husband’s body, trying to remember all that she’d loved about it, but the memories are overshadowed by his distance and the blood and cruelty of lies which haunt them: “Being dead made a lot of things uncertain.”

The narrative takes us back to the moment of their first encounter in Okahandja in 1894. We witness their falling in love, the certainty with which they decide to face the future together, their courage and strength. The juxtaposition of the image of these young lovers with the ruins of the people they’ve become is shattering. One anticipates that whatever had happened to them in the intervening years must have been horrendous and will not be easy to read about, but it is impossible to resist the urge to know. The Scattering recounts their journey.

Interwoven with theirs is the story of Riette. After her brother dies, her parents have little use for her on their farm in the Transvaal and even though she had trained to be a nurse and wishes nothing else but to pursue the profession in Kimberley, she is married off against her will to a widowed neighbour: “Riette wondered how two people could be so unknown to each other, and yet so intimate.” At the beginning of the Second Anglo-Boer War, her husband goes off on commando and leaves her alone on the farm to fend for herself and his two daughters. As a result of Kitchener’s scorched earth policy, the three women end up in a British concentration camp where Riette forms an unlikely alliance. Hardship, sickness and death prevail in the camp, but Riette finds protection in a forbidden love relationship. “They would survive this war, this horrible, bloody war, and find their lives on the other side”, she hopes. Betrayal and loss will accompany her on her path: “She didn’t want to live with the shadow of who she was and what she’d done forever darkening her life.”

In 1904, across the border, the tension between the Germans and the Hereros rise. The infamous German commander Lothar van Trotha issues his gruesome orders: “Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle, will be executed. I shall spare neither women nor children. I shall give the order to drive them away and fire on them. Such are my words to the Herero people.”

Believing in the beginning that they can take on the German army, Ruhapo and other Herero leaders decide to attack and reclaim their land around Okahandja, now occupied by the enemy. “Have they not taken enough? I would rather die, my blood watering this land, this land of the Herero, our land, than let them take anything else”, Ruhapo tells his wife. Full of foreboding, Tjipuka is afraid. In the next three years, she and her people will have to face evil in all its incarnations, and attempt to survive against all odds.

But what does it mean to survive if everything you believe in, everything you love is gone? Repeatedly, she will ask herself whether the price to be paid is not too high: “They were no longer complete humans. They were something else. Something less than that.” In the desert, she will look at the familiar stars at night-time and wonder how they could remain “unchanged by all the evil they have witnessed?” Separated from his family, Ruhapo will ask himself what is the worth of pride, land or cattle when loved ones have to be sacrificed for them? Nothing could have prepared any of them for what awaits ahead.

The Scattering impresses on several fronts. Through the life stories of two seemingly insignificant women Kubuitsile links two seminal events of the early twentieth century history in Southern Africa. Two fates out of millions, but they personify the remarkable resilience of women throughout history: “War is for men. It’s always for men. They have a dark place where war grows.” Without consciously pointing to it, the novel exposes the cradle of the worst evils to emerge in the twentieth century: eugenics, concentration camps and the mass extinction of peoples believed to be inferior by those in power.

Kubuitsile’s depictions of war, violence and oppression are vivid but never gratuitous. Her writing is lyrical, affecting. It allows the reader to develop a deep sympathy for the characters, especially when they are confronted with impossible choices which leave no one unscathed. Her portrayals of people on all sides of the diverse conflicts are strikingly balanced. She shows the ambivalence of our passions and the decisions we make in order to survive. The Scattering is one of those superb historical novels which live on in the reader, simultaneously sounding a warning and shining the light of hope.

The Scattering

by Lauri Kubuitsile

Penguin Books South Africa, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times on 24 June 2016.

Book mark: Unsettled and Other Stories by Sandra Hill

UnSettledThe feeling one is left with after reading Sandra Hill’s debut story collection Unsettled is reflected in the title of the book. Hill paints vivid portraits of what it means to be a woman in different places and times. It is a finely layered picture of the everyday and the unusual. The mother of one of the characters insists that one should read poetry “slowly, expectantly, the way you eat oysters”, as the “magic…comes after you swallow.” Although every story is a fully contained piece, read together, they acquire that magic of swallowing oysters. Saturated with local flavours, settings, history, Unsettled offers evocative, intimate glimpses of women’s lives – their dreams, desires, worries and regrets – many readers will find uncannily familiar, sometimes perhaps difficult to acknowledge: “Life can take us away from where we belong, but we don’t lose the longing for it… If we are lucky we get to make our way back.”

Unsettled and Other Stories

by Sandra Hill

Modjaji, 2015

First published in the Cape Times, 25 March 2016.

Why Jack?

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It might have been the attitude with which he left the diner. Or his ice blue eyes. Perhaps the way he had his coffee.

He arrived, as always, unexpected. Without a clue how badly he was needed.

Nobody calls him Jack. Not even his mother. But that is who he is to me.

I reached out to Killing Floor at a time in my life when everything had become difficult, including breathing. And to stay alive, I need breathing as much as I need reading. It is a matter of survival, of being who I am. In the early stages of widowhood, I had to learn everything anew. How to breathe, to sleep, to eat. To smile. I picked up books in the hope of reclaiming a little bit of myself, a sense of stability, some solace, and an escape from my unbearable new reality, but every page was a struggle. Books which would have taken me two or three days to read, lasted for long agonising weeks. I was desperate. Until I picked up Jack Reacher on a roadside, typically hitchhiking out of town.

Lee Child’s hero is 21st-century’s Mr Darcy. “All men want to be like him and all women want to fuck him,” as Reacher was introduced to another fan who related the comment to me.

But why? Ungainly tall, mostly scruffy, socially awkward, a man of few words, he is not exactly the most attractive individual out there. But his allure is undisputed. Millions of fans around the world breathlessly awaiting the publication of the next instalment in the series every September can attest to the fact.

Jack Reacher grew up as a military brat, a third-culture kid, at home everywhere and nowhere. I relate to that. We have a coffee habit and a thing for numbers in common. When we know what we want, we go for it. We don’t do regrets.
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Jack went to West Point, served thirteen years in the military police and retired in the rank of Major. Since then, he roams the American landscape (with only occasional detours abroad), a folded toothbrush in his pocket and some cash in the bank, taking on odd jobs when necessary, stepping in whenever injustice crosses his path. He has a heart of gold and an admirable integrity. He never walks away from a situation before both are satisfied.
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Killing Floor (1997), the first in the now 20-titles strong series, is breathtakingly good. I was hooked after only a few pages. The exhilaration of devouring a book again at breakneck speed came with such a relief that I immediately bought the next one, and the next, and the next (once I even ventured out into a freezing and rainy Sunday night at quarter to nine and sped like a maniac through town to Exclusive Books before they closed because I’d just finished a Reacher novel and couldn’t bear to face a night without the following in my hands). By about the third or fourth, I was telling all my friends and all strangers willing to listen about my fascination (obsession or addiction might better describe it), and my gratitude (infinite). With the Reacher books, my hunger for all kinds of reading returned to me. Back in full force, it is the only thing from my past which has pulled through the greatest loss of my life unscathed.

With the exception of the latest, Make Me (which I simply could not resist), and Worth Dying For (which I turned to when I couldn’t find a copy of 61 Hours in time), I am reading the series in the sequence of publication. I intend to trace all the Jack Reacher short stories next. And then, the long wait until next September will set in. But like Jack, I am extremely patient.

It has been interesting to see how the series and the protagonist develop, responding to technological innovations (cell phones, ATMs, WWW) as well as changing socio-political realities (for example, Gone Tomorrow’s astute post-9/11 commentary), or ageing, human vulnerabilities. As the series progresses, chapters become shorter, cliff-hangers more irresistible. The writing is great. Just great. Child switches between first- and third-person, exploiting the diverse advantages both offer (although I do prefer the former). The dialogue is crisp and intelligent. The sense of humour deliciously dry. I enjoy the feminist touches: women are treated as equals in all respects. Jack has no ‘type’: the women he falls for come from different backgrounds, and are all strong, independent characters. Descriptive passages (landscape, weather, architecture, and especially the fight choreography) are intricately balanced between fast pace, slow motion, and, at times, pure poetry.

“It was raining and grey on the western peaks, and in the east the sun was slanting down through the edge of the clouds and gleaming off the tiny threads of snow in the high gullies.”
(The Visitor)

Child can capture the essence of a character in a few phrases.

“She looked like a solid, capable woman. She was about sixty years old, maybe more, white, blunt and square, with blond hair fading slowly to yellow and grey. Plenty of old German genes in there, or Scandinavian.” (Worth Dying For)

Consider a few of the opening lines:
“I was arrested in Eno’s diner.” (Killing Floor)
“The cop climbed out of his car exactly four minutes before he got shot.” (Persuader)
“They found out about him in July and stayed angry all through August.” (Without Fail)
“Moving a guy as big as Keever wasn’t easy.” (Make Me)

I can no longer count how many people I got into Jack. Only one person was disappointed with my recommendation. All others are as addicted as I am. It has been delightful to discover which of my friends had been fans for much longer than I. I keep getting messages of thanks. We all share stories of how Jack features in our lives. To me, he has become a trusted, reliable friend. I turn to him for adventure and smart entertainment – always a bloody-good read!
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Tense, entertaining, intriguing and never predictable, the Jack Reachers thrillers belong to the best of their kind.

And! The sex is good.

To find out more, join us for Cape Town’s celebration of Jack Reacher, and get Make Me at a 20% discount on the night!
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IF IN DOUBT, READ REACHER!

Review: Divided Lives – Dreams of a Mother and Daughter by Lyndall Gordon

Divided LivesOn 26 November 2012, Time published this tiny obituary: “DIED Valerie Eliot, 86, who married TS Eliot in the last years of the great poet’s life; she edited an edition of his epic The Waste Land that included annotations by Ezra Pound.” Not even three dozen words to sum up the life of a woman who was infinitely more than just an editor of her famous husband’s most famous work. When they married towards the end of his life, “Eliot at last found himself ready for forgiveness. Horror, gloom, and penitence came to an end with his discovery of the unconditional love of a young woman,” writes Lyndall Gordon in TS Eliot: An Imperfect Life (1998).

In her biography of Eliot, Gordon retraces the poet’s insatiable search for perfection and his troubled relationships with the women who accompanied him on his quest: “His passion for immortality was so commanding that it allowed him to reject each of these women with a firmness that shattered their lives.” The exception was his second wife, Valerie, who despite being his junior by nearly four decades was the one who bestowed grace upon the final years of his life. Gordon’s biography emphasises the profound change Valerie’s love brought to Eliot in the light of all his previous precarious commitments.

In her biography Henry James: His Women and His Art (1998, revised edition 2012), Gordon sums up the distinguished writer’s ability to explore “the inward life: the unvoiced exchange and the drama of hidden motives … his skills, as well as a power, beyond that of any other man, to plumb the unknown potentialities of women”. James never openly acknowledged the influence such strong, independent women as the American writer Constance Fenimore Woolson had on his writing life and his heroines, but it was immeasurable, as Gordon’s biography shows. While in Venice last year, I was reminded of a striking scene she describes in the book: Henry James helplessly trying to drown Fenimore’s black dresses in one of the lagoons a few weeks after her death. Like balloons the dresses kept surfacing…

Continue reading: Review of Divided Lives: Dreams of a Mother and Daughter by Lyndall Gordon

Published by Virago Press, 2014

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).

A Miracle Worker from Baghdad

Saad Eskander1It took four flights and twenty-seven hours for Dr Saad Eskander to reach Molde, a coastal town in Norway, home to the annual Bjørnson Festival. Arriving late on Friday, he is to give a lecture the next day and embark on the same, tiring journey back to Baghdad, his home, on Sunday morning. To add to the strain, the two nights he spends in Molde, he hardly sleeps. “I cannot sleep longer than half an hour at a time when staying at a hotel,” he tells me. He has come to Molde as a guest of the festival, asked to speak about his work as director general of the Iraqi National Library and Archive (INLA) in Baghdad. His lecture, entitled “Rising from the Ashes: The Destruction and Reconstruction of INLA (2003-2008)”, is one the highlights of this year’s Bjørnson Festival and is preceded by a moving poetry reading. The poet, Nada Yousif, lives in Norway in exile with her husband Thamer A.K. Al-Shahwani, a musician, and their small baby. Accompanied by her husband’s clarinet, she recites the original verses in a deep voice full of pain. English translations of her work are given to us before the lecture. She begins with the poem “The Last Flower” which ends with these telling lines: “My dwelling is now a tent at the borders / And my homeland… / A cemetery”.

Nada Yousif’s poetry reading sets the mood for Saad Eskander’s lecture. “The story I’m about to tell is a sad story, and it is always difficult to tell a sad story,” he admits and reminds his audience of John Milton’s remark that the destruction of books equals the destruction of reason. Throughout the history of humankind both have been constantly under threat. In this respect the fate of the INLA has not been unusual. During Saddam Hussein’s reign the library, like other cultural institutions in the country, served the dictator, not the nation. The regime was hostile towards any forms of creativity and did not participate in any rational planning to preserve the rich cultural treasures of Iraq. A small budget, shortages in acquisitions, ancient equipment, denial of access for scholars, unbearable working conditions, isolation from the international community, and censorship, contributed to the gradual demise of the library and archive holdings. Undesirable items were either removed from the institution or made inaccessible to the public. Constant surveillance by secret agents placed in the ranks of the library’s staff spread fear and intimidation. With salaries amounting to US$ 3 per month corruption thrived; quick and efficient access to the INLA became impossible without bribery.

The regime’s downfall in April 2003 put the INLA in an even more precarious situation. The institution became a target not only for the arsonists of the defeated regime wanting to destroy any criminal evidence, but also for professional thieves hunting for goods to sell to private collectors, and for ordinary looters who plundered the already minimal furnishings and equipment of the INLA. The cultural losses were enormous. With sixty percent of the archival materials and twenty-five percent of the institution’s publications, including rare books and periodicals, looted and destroyed, some of the remaining holdings scattered, ruined and lost, the events of the time can only be described as a national disaster. The building of the INLA itself was terribly damaged by fires, bombardments and vandalism.

The Coalition Provisional Government (CPA) of the time (2003-2004) did not prioritise cultural matters and failed to implement any goals for the INLA. The institution seemed doomed until the appointment of Saad Eskander as director of the INLA in December 2004. With a PhD in international relations and history from the London School of Economics and coming from a family known for its political integrity, Eskander was well-equipped to do the job. A former Kurdish fighter, after thirteen years of living in the UK he decided to return to his home country with a group of exiled Iraqi artists and intellectuals after the 2003 invasion to help with reconstruction. From the group, he was the only one to remain in Iraq permanently. He became well-known for the diary he wrote about the terrifying time of the civil war in Baghdad. The diary was made available worldwide through the British Library’s homepage where it was published.

Although he was told to wait with any plans and actions for the INLA when he took over the library as director at the end of 2004, he decided to open the institution without any help from the Ministry of Culture. There was literally nothing in the building to work with: no electricity, water, furniture, or security. With the help of some volunteers he organised looting parties and plundered specifically targeted buildings for some equipment and furniture. One of those targets was the club of Saddam Hussein’s son. All these actions were illegal, but they proved highly successful. The INLA opened officially after only a few weeks of preparations. The working conditions were appalling at first. The building was dark, cold and situated in a very dangerous neighbourhood. The people trying to restore the INLA had to overcome many obstacles and placed their life in danger to fulfil their task. Eight people died in the process, dozens of others were injured or displaced.

Those who persisted had to confront the rubble heaps covered by soot and dust that constituted the library. Eskander is full of praise especially for the women who got involved in the project: “Women are good leaders, they immediately took initiative and set to work.” From the beginning, democratisation of the INLA’s inner life and gender equality have been strongly encouraged under his policy. Knowing that corruption was one of the greatest challenges to be dealt with, he immediately curtailed his own power (his own people have the power to fire him anytime) and substituted the former culture of taking orders with a culture of initiatives. Women have formed their own association within the library’s governing structures and publish an independent journal. New people from all sections of the population – Kurds, Sunnis, Shias – are employed and skilled permanently.

The Czech Republic and Italy were the two nations first to offer their assistance to the INLA (funding, equipment, skill-exchange). Some of INLA’s staff members travelled to these countries to be trained in restoration and preservation of materials on the most modern equipment available. Other countries and NGOs followed suit. Eskander’s work has been recognised abroad. He was awarded the Archivist of the Year Award at Columbia University in 2007. The same year he also won the MESA Academic Freedom Award of the Middle East Studies Association of the University of Arizona. But his greatest achievement remains the look of satisfaction on the thousand of people’s faces visiting the INLA, hungry for knowledge. Access to the INLA’s holdings and to online resources is free for all.

Today, the INLA’s staff counts four hundred employees. The average salary is about US$ 300. The building of the INLA has been almost completely renovated and all working conditions tremendously improved. Self-sufficiency and resistance to all forms of censorship are high on the INLA’s agenda. When, in 2007, the INLA refused to be turned into a military base, the Iraqi army invaded the institution as punishment. They soon realised the futility of the action and retreated. However, the headquarters of the US forces remain opposite the INLA building. The coming and going of helicopters can be heard in the background at all times. Sometimes a misguided bullet or shrapnel finds its way into the library, reminding the workers and visitors of the constant threat and instability of the outside world. And even though the worst seems to be over, the INLA continues to face innumerable challenges.

In a recent interview with the Guardian’s Stuart Jeffries, Eskander explained his motivation of taking up the job, “I thought I could help Iraqis understand their past and build their future.” Not a small task, but one he seems to be the perfect person to attempt.

During his lecture at the Bjørnson Festival in Molde, with obvious pride, he tells the audience about a file recently discovered in the INLA’s archives, portraying historical events unknown until now. He knows how crucial these and other findings are for the understanding and interpretation of history. As he ends his presentation on a very uplifting note, sharing with us some recent photographs of the beautifully renovated library, full of busy employees and engrossed visitors, most of us are moved to tears by Saad Eskander’s story. I do not manage more than a simple thank you and a handshake after his lecture.

In this context, it is a disconcerting anticlimax to hear the announcement of the next speaker, Vigdis Moe Skarstein, who will be talking about Norway’s National Library and the challenges of digitalisation the institution is facing. There will be no talk about security threats, blackouts, stray bullets, corruption, people displaced or killed – the everyday hardships of all the people working with Eskander to keep the library and archive going from on a daily basis.

Saad Eskander2Before he has to leave the next day, Eskander joins a few of the festival participants for dinner, even though it is very late and he is not used to eating at this hour. While we others enjoy the local specialities, he sips some wine and patiently replies to our endless questions. We all want to know whether he believes Barack Obama can bring about change in Iraq if he is elected president of the United States. Eskander does not seem optimistic. “No matter who is elected in November, the US foreign policy will continue on its own terms,” he says.

During our conversation we discover a lot of similarities between present-day Iraq and South Africa. The challenges of diversity seem all too familiar; both societies are trying not only to come to terms with their multiethnic, multilingual and religiously diverse makeup, but also to profit from the opportunities it offers.

At the end of the evening, Eskander shares a personal tragedy with us. Three days before his departure for Norway, a dear friend of his who served as the Advisor to the Minister of Culture was assassinated near his home. “Kamel Shayaa’s death shocked everybody in Iraq, as he was an exceptionally nice and gifted person. He spoke four European languages and had an MA in philosophy. Like me, he returned from exile (Belgium) to Baghdad after Saddam’s downfall.” Immediately after the funeral, Eskander boarded the plane to Norway only because he had given his word to the festival organisers that he would attend. “I did my best to conceal my sadness,” he writes to me after his return to Baghdad.

As we say goodbye after the dinner, we wish him a safe journey to that place which he, in spite of all, chooses as his home. A place I knew previously only through the horrific images of war and destruction favoured by the world media. Through the stories Saad Eskander shared with us, Baghdad became a place of hope.

First published in New Era on 3 October 2008 and an edited version in the Sunday Independent on 9 November 2008.

For updates see:
Wikipedia
Interview with Saad Eskander (2013)

In 2012 during Open Book, I spoke about Saad Eskander with the amazing Anne Nivat, who was on her way to Iraq. Watch her documentary in which she meets up with Saad Eskander:

Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014)

An edited Afrikaans version of this article appeared as “Die miesies hy skryf” in By on 26 November 2011.

The madam he write

At eighty-eight Nadine Gordimer is throwing some more logs in the fire. Karina Magdalena Szczurek spoke with her about “certain kinds of attention”.

‘Do you know this author?’ I ask a waitress, pointing at Nadine Gordimer’s name on the cover of a book I am reading.

She shakes her head.

I pay for my lunch and walk from the restaurant to Parktown West, Johannesburg. A jacaranda petal falls on my head as I approach the angular white house which Nadine Gordimer has called her home for the past fifty years.

The first time I arrived here in 2004, I’d felt sick with worry for a week beforehand, duly warned about Gordimer’s reputation as an interviewee who suffers no fools. And this was my first interview, ever.

With Nadine during our first interview in 2004.

With Nadine during our first interview in 2004.

But when she realised that I wasn’t there to ask about her breakfast (the type of personal question she usually refuses to answer), she let down her guard. It was an invaluable experience.

My present visit is a déjà vu in this and other respects. I’m again first met by a staff member and inspected by an eager Weimaraner before being invited into the house. I walk through the kitchen, down a passage and past the narrow, light-filled study where Gordimer’s typewriter squats proudly on a small desk. She is waiting in the lounge. As I enter she folds a newspaper and puts her reading glasses aside.

It is the same room where we first met, but the furniture is arranged differently. She settles in an elegant rocking chair. I sit on a sofa opposite with a coffee table between us.

I have seen her look her age in badly taken photographs, but never in person. Today she looks radiant in a gracefully long white kaftan dress with a soft blue pattern. Her grey hair is stylishly arranged. Delicate earrings adorn her ears.

This time I am more at ease, but I still notice my hands trembling slightly as I set up the voice recorder. I can feel Gordimer’s lively brown eyes on me. A beauty at her age – she turned eighty-eight this month.

Few literary oeuvres can match Gordimer’s. Between the publication of her first story as a child in 1937 and today, the world has seen fourteen novels, ten short-story collections, and six volumes of essays. In 2010, her stories and essays were collected in two large tomes: Life Times: Stories 1952-2007 and Telling Times: Writing and Living 1950-2008.

When in the beginning of 2006 Ampie Coetzee spoke to Gordimer at a literary breakfast organised by Die Burger Book Club in Cape Town, she told him that her memory no longer allowed her to think in novel-terms.

The collection of stories Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black was published a year later.

Now she’s finished writing another novel after all. I remind her of what she’d said at the breakfast.

She smiles. ‘I don’t know what was wrong with me then.’

Since 2001, when her husband Reinhold Cassirer died, all her books carry his life dates and the dates of their relationship on their front pages. The dedication moves me every time.

Throughout her writing life Gordimer has stuck to a strict routine, devoting the first part of the day to her work only: ‘I still feel in the morning when I get up now, I’ve got to be at my desk.’

André Brink recalls how many years ago, before he knew better, he tried to phone her before lunch. A staff member informed him that Gordimer was not available.

At André's 70th birthday in Johannesburg.

At André’s 70th birthday in Johannesburg.

‘The madam he write,’ he was told firmly, and he had to try again in the afternoon.

The statement is extremely telling, even if it was not intended as such.

Gordimer grew up into a position of privilege in apartheid South Africa. And yet, while many others went with the flow, she devoted her life to fighting injustice. Even though she is most uncomfortable about the designation, for decades she was considered the ‘voice’ and ‘conscience’ of South Africa in the world.

I first encountered her work at university. The story “The Moment Before the Gun Went Off” (1991) pricked my interest in South African literature, and eventually brought me here for research, then for life.

It tells the story of an Afrikaner farmer on trial for shooting one of his farm workers. The racial and political circumstances condemn him, but the last line of the story overturns all our expectations: “The young black was not the farmer’s boy; he was his son.”

Gordimer has often been accused of portraying Afrikaners unfairly in her work. Asked about it, she reminds me that when the time to protest came there was no prejudice. ‘We did it together!’

She is also quick to point out how Uys Krige was the first person who published anything of hers: ‘He encouraged me tremendously, gave me the most helpful criticism and was a very dear friend.’

She reads Afrikaans writers in translation, and regrets that she lost the Afrikaans she learned at school, or that she never learned any of the other indigenous African languages. ‘As I say, it’s terrible; I’m a very poor linguist.’

Gordimer’s work is not everyone’s cup of tea, mostly considered too political or / and too challenging. But both judgements rest more on hearsay than an engagement with her actual work.

Occasional stylistic density prevents a more leisurely read, but allowed to sink in, her thought-provoking stories can be inspiring, revelatory, and life-changing.

Many see her 1994 novel None to Accompany Me as a purely political reflection of the transition period in South Africa’s recent history. Rereading it now, I am stunned by the accuracy with which she prophecies the dangers facing the fledgling democracy. But for me personally, the novel is one of the most profound portrayals of a woman’s journey to selfhood.

This again brings to mind the statement with which André Brink’s morning phone call was fended off, and another quality which has defined Gordimer’s career – her ambivalence towards feminism. ‘All writers are androgynous beings,’ she states repeatedly.

She caused an uproar when she withdrew The House Gun (1998) from the shortlist of the prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction, reserved for women only.

‘I have been indeed and still am sometimes tackled, because I withdrew…and then I made this rather rude, I suppose,’ she reconsiders, ‘frank remark that we don’t write with our genitals.’

One of her stories, “A Journey”, was reprinted in the South African October edition of Playboy.

‘How do you feel about being published in the magazine?’

There is no issue for her. She does however make one crucial distinction. ‘I would hate to be published anywhere which was racist,’ she says. ‘I would refuse.’

Her parents were Jewish, but she is a self-declared atheist. She recently caused, in her own words, ‘great offence in America’ with her story “Second Coming” (2011) in which the son of God walks across a desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape. The possibility of life’s or humanity’s re-creation is rendered impossible, because as the last one-sentence paragraph tells us: “The sea is dead.”

‘What was the Americans’ problem with it?’ I’m curious.

‘Well, it’s not for me, sitting here in South Africa, this little unbeliever in any religion to say that Jesus is coming…using this as the ultimate example it should be, for people who revere Jesus and the idea of a second coming, that he should find the world destroyed. It’s a story about the environment.’

Gordimer’s Get a Life (2005) was probably the first green novel in South Africa. She is one of a handful of local writers who now consistently champion the environment in their work.

* * *

While she gets some tea, I glance around me. On three sides of the room shelves brim with books and CDs. A vase of strelitzias and a few sculptures of different origins catch my eye. A walking stick rests against the other side of the sofa. The room opens on a large patio and a magnificent garden in full bloom. The cushioned bay window looks like an ideal place for reading. It makes me think of something she’s just said:

‘I have recently reread Anna Karenina and War and Peace, and I have reread the whole of Marcel Proust and now I can read French sufficiently to read it in French. And there are so many others. When I look at my bookshelf, I say, my God I must read that again before I die.’

Bodo, the dog, appears at the same time as the tea tray. Marie biscuits are on offer.

‘How do you like your tea, weakish?’ she asks.

‘Strongish’

‘Oh good!’

Bodo is allowed one cookie while she pours the tea. As she lifts the heavy pot her fragile hands betray her age for the first time.

I cannot help but think of the three thieves who forced their way into her home in 2006 and brutally removed her wedding ring from her finger.

‘Did the attack have any lasting effects on you?’

‘You know, I hesitate to answer this because it sounds as if I’m saying that I am brave. I’m not… The only thing of consequence, practical consequence, is that I now have these wires around the house… But I’m not brave…I choose to go on living here…my reality is here.’

With Sontag at Wits in 2004.

With Sontag at Wits in 2004.

She has been accused of lacking courage to criticise the ANC. But following her late friend, the American intellectual Susan Sontag, Gordimer believes that ‘to be a moral human being, is to be obliged to pay certain kinds of attention.’

Very often she is the first to pay attention and fight with any means available to her for the causes she believes in.

Recently, together with André Brink, she drew up a petition against the planned legislation curtailing freedom of speech in South Africa and introducing ‘apartheid-type censorship all over again.’ The petition was not only signed by just about every writer in the country, but also many international writers whom Gordimer approached at the time during a visit in Sweden.

‘Let’s keep [the protest] going. Throw another log in the fire!’ she says.

The presidency was not impressed.

‘President Zuma didn’t have the courtesy to send us, representing so many others, an acknowledgement.’

In a recent HARDtalk interview she told Stephen Sackur that real loyalty to the ANC means the right to criticize the party, of which she is a member. She spoke of the disappointment she felt about the values that were being betrayed by the ANC. I prod her for more particulars.

‘First of all the fact that power is used in a very personal way.’

She is also deeply disappointed about the government’s handling of education.

‘The schooling is so bad.’ She is shocked at the discrepancy in entry requirements for university students from different backgrounds.

‘We can’t keep our black comrades out of universities. My God, who would want to? But what is the point of them coming in if they can’t cope. It’s humiliating for them…’

With Carlos Fuentes and André at home in 2006.

With Carlos Fuentes and André at home in 2006.

On the way to O.R. Tambo I ask the shuttle driver whether he knows the author Nadine Gordimer. I also ask a few SAA attendants. No recognition.

While awaiting my flight, I pose the same question to the middle-aged gentleman next to me. He is the only person to respond positively to my question. Does it matter that he is white and at least two decades older than the other people I’ve approached?

I am confident most Poles would at least have heard the name of the Polish Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska at school.

* * *

Still in Gordimer’s lounge, I dare ask a personal question.

‘What makes you really happy?’

A short silence; my heart stops.

‘André would say chocolate,’ I volunteer out of desperation.

‘Well, that’s an evasive answer… I’m also very fond of black chocolate, but of course that’s a taste happiness.’

Another pause.

‘I have been unbelievably lucky by having forty-eight years with the love of my life, and I have that to treasure. Sometimes it is painful to do so, but other times…it’s there, I had it.’

Women who roam The Blazing World, Part II

The Blazing World_HustvedtThere are some intriguing and inspiring real-life creative women mentioned in Siri Hustvedt’s latest novel, The Blazing World, which is about a fictional artist, Harriet Burden, who believes that she does not receive the recognition her art deserves because she is a well-off, middle-aged woman. To remedy the situation Burden employs three young, upcoming male artists to front her next three exhibitions. The project has some unexpected consequences. I reviewed the novel a few weeks ago.

Yesterday, I presented three of the amazing women who roam The Blazing World. Here are three more:

Simone WeilSimone Weil (1909 – 1943)
Guided by compassion, the French philosopher, activist, and Christian mystic Simone Weil wrote consistently throughout her life, but her work began to be truly appreciated only after her death. She was prepared to suffer hunger or fight in Spanish Civil War for her beliefs. Shortly before her death, she joined the French Resistance in London, but never returned to France because of her poor health. For an introduction to her writings see Simone Weil: An Anthology (1986, reprinted in 2005 as a Penguin Classic). Apparently, Albert Camus said of her that she was “the only great spirit of our times”. And she herself said: “Imagination and fiction make up more than three quarters of our real life.

Susanne LangerSusanne K. Langer (1895 – 1985)
An American philosopher who specialised in art and the mind. Best known for her Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite and Art (1942), she was a pioneer in her field as one of the first women to lead a successful academic career in philosophy. It is interesting to note that the book has ten customer reviews on Amazon.com which were written between 1998 and the present. All but one reviewer gave the title a five-star rating. The latest review (14 June 2014) by LOGICRAT is titled “EVERYONE on the internet needs to read this book” and includes the following quote: “This is a profoundly important book, and is extraordinarily relevant to human life today.”

Fraces YatesFrances A. Yates (1899 – 1981)
Yates was an English Renaissance scholar renowned for her studies Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), The Art of Memory (1966), and The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (1972). The Art of Memory is considered as one of the most significant non-fiction books of the past century. Between 1964 and 1981, Yates regularly contributed to The New York Review of Books. Yates was also a Shakespeare scholar and author of Shakespeare’s Last Plays: A New Approach (1975). Her last review for the NYRB, “An Alchemical Lear”, of Charles Nicholl’s The Chemical Theatre (1981), appeared posthumously with this note from the Editors: “We mourn the death of this brilliant and original scholar, a longstanding contributor and friend.”

Sources: Wikipedia, Amazon, Brainy Quote, The New York Review of Books Homepage

Interested in receiving a copy of The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt? Please take part in my BOOK GIVEAWAY this month and stand a chance of having it (among others) sent to you. Good luck!