Thursday, 25 October 2012
André Brink's latest novel, Philida (Harvill Secker), deals with the life of a slave woman immediately before the announcement of the emancipation of slaves, which took place at the Cape in 1834. Only in 1838 were they finally free to leave their masters.
The first chapters of the novel record that she suffered gross sexual exploitation, a commonplace of slavery. There was a shortage of women; slaves were in almost every sense the property of their masters and the law was administered by white men who had a strong interest in evading provisions designed to protect slaves.
Perhaps the most inhuman feature of the concubinage of slave women was that their children by their masters were included in the slave group, and often sold by their biological fathers.
The paradox at the root of slavery is that slaves are as much at the disposal of their owners as a chair or a bowl, yet both parties to this horrible relationship know them to be as human as their owners. This produced a climate of secrecy; everyone knew but owners refused to acknowledge that all kinds of abuse, from rape to murder, were taking place. Historical sources - the diaries of Lady Anne Barnard are probably the best example - make this clear, but they leave the novelist with a problem. If no one was allowed to speak of these horrors, in what voices can an author tell the story of slavery? Brink's answer in 1983, when he published A Chain of Voices, was the casting of his narrative into a series of internal monologues, as he has done here, where the story is told in the thoughts of the interacting slaves, owners and officials. Here the thoughts of Philida, her master, his son and the official to whom she testifies are used to tell the story. As in A Chain of Voices, the agonies can seem overemphasised, and the reaction of this reader was often, in the first section, "I've got that point now".
Friday, 19 October 2012
"Think about it. A bunch of German and American kids meeting up in Berlin and Paris between the wars to make all this joyful music before the Nazis kick it to pieces? And the legend survives when a lone tin box is dug out of a damn wall in a flat that once belonged to a Nazi? Man. If that ain't a ghost story, I never heard one."
This is one summary - bare as it is - of one of the two central narratives in Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, which has been nominated for the Man Booker Prize. Both narratives are narrated by Sid Griffiths, a jazz bassist and a native of Baltimore in the US who in 1927 found himself gigging in Berlin. This precis does not add "flavour to the story", observes Sid when he reflects on an insignificant detail of another summary of the same story.
Completing the rhythm section with Sid is drummer Chip Jones, also from Baltimore and a friend since childhood. They are both black, but Sid is light-skinned - he has family members who pass for white in the US - and there are times in Berlin where this is to his advantage. As war approaches in Berlin (and soon will break out), Sid and Chip meet up with various German musicians and eventually form the Hot-Time Swingers, a band now comprised of Sid and Chip, a black German trumpeter, Hieronymous Falk, a Jewish German pianist, Paul Butterstein, and two white Germans, Ernst von Haselberg on clarinet and Fritz Bayer on saxophone. The band becomes popular in Berlin, eventually gaining even the interest of Louis Armstrong all the way in Paris.
At the centre of the band and the story stands Hieronymous. A prodigy, Hiero can play: "Stupid young for what all he could do on a horn. You heard a lifetime in one brutal note." And thus Armstrong's interest in meeting the band.
But Hiero is a mischling, literally translated as "bastard", "mongrel", "half-caste" or, indeed, the "half blood" of the book's title. Born in Germany to an African dad and a German mother, Hiero is "so dark no soul ever like to guess his mama a white Rhinelander? [But] if his face wasn't of the Fatherland, just bout everything else bout him rooted him there right good".
On the eve of World War II, then, and on the run following a brawl with a group of Nazis during which Chip kills one of their attackers, Hiero, Sid and Chip make their way to Paris. Paul, it turns out, will have been captured and sent to Saschenhausen, Fritz will join a Nazi-approved band, and Ernst, from a wealthy and influential family, will remain in Germany for reasons unclear. Soon, war breaks out and, not long after, Germany invades and occupies France, which is where the story begins.
Wednesday, 10 October 2012
The longer I spend in Michiel Heyns's company, the more convinced I become that Christopher Turner, the main protagonist in his latest novel, Invisible Furies, is his spectral double.
It's his uneasiness with being the subject, rather than observer, that gives root to this idea. Of course, the latter is the default position for writers and while Turner is an astute spectator, and Heyns fixes him in this role, he lacks the courage to write - he prefers to edit, refine other people's work.
"I am attracted to the outsider concept. In my other novels, too, with the exception of Bodies Politic, the characters are observers, they stand and they watch. I am attracted to Christopher, a main characters who is an observer of the action. It goes with the whole thing of showing and acting that the novel explores."
Heyns is already holding a large glass of white wine when I find him in the plush lounge of the Southern Sun Hyde Park Hotel. It's late afternoon and he probably has a few Joburg interviews lined up before the launch of Invisible Furies at Exclusive Books in the adjoining mall. I imagine the process to be slightly excruciating for the retired Stellenbosch academic-turned-novelist. He doesn't hint at this; there is a degree of weariness to his manner.
The wine has taken the edge off any obvious signs of discomfort, and he is settled back confidently in a chair. It may be his humility, or his desire to go unnoticed, that evokes Turner.
"I don't think of myself as a writer. I would never write down writer next to 'profession' on a form. I would write 'pensioner'. I still see writing as something I do on the side. I am a dog walker who happens to write novels," he says with a gentle smile.
This declaration is unexpected, unsettling even: he has penned five previous novels and won numerous awards for his writing - how could he not consider himself a novelist? I turn this question around in my head for days after our meeting and eventually decide that denying this designation is precisely what frees him up to write.
Friday, 5 October 2012
By Konstantin Sofianos
The eateries and drinking-holes of Cape Town's CBD rang with literary chatter, bustling suburbanites mingled with hipsters along the pavements, and in the men's room someone observed that they found the preceding speaker "trenchant", not your average urinal conversation. It was the annual Open Book literature festival in Cape Town, which ran through five densely-packed days across the Heritage Day weekend, September 20th-24th, and featured over a hundred individual events, all steadily attended, and many packed out.
An initiative of the Cape Town Book Lounge, and organisers Mervyn Sloman and Frankie Murrey, the Open Book festival, only in its second yearly iteration, is already poised to establish itself as the premier cultural event of its kind in the country. Its distinction lies in the calibre of international and local authors it has been able to attract: this year's guests included two recent Booker Prize winners, in Alan Hollinghurst and Kiran Desai, book-club staples Lionel Shriver and Joanne Harris, authors respectively of the blockbusters We Need to Talk About Kevin and Chocolat, revered American science fiction writer Neal Stephenson, beguiling children's book author Emily Gravett, and notable emerging talents like Esi Edugyan and Anjali Joseph. These are not tired literary icons dragged out "on the circuit," in Auden's phrase, but rather active contemporary writers who retain an apparent intellectual openness, and an infectious fascination with their developing craft.