Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Dark Shadows of the Mind

By Mary Corrigall 

Roger Ballen has an office. Of course, this makes practical sense; as an internationally recognised artist with museum and commercial shows running concurrently throughout the world, he requires assistants and administrative staff who would need to work from somewhere.
Yet the idea of an artist, and one like Ballen whose work is defined by haunted dark spaces, working out of an office in a plush corporate building in Parktown, Joburg, jars with expectations.
We should be meeting inside a crumbling, dirty building or perhaps in a tranquil garden surrounding a mental institution - the outskirts of a place that deals with the "shadows of the mind" as he dubs the main drive of his photography.
It is not an ordinary office - shelves in a waiting area are lined with the macabre ephemera I recognise from some of his photographs; disused toys, animal |skins, cages.
It could be the prop room for a horror movie, except for the plush furniture and industrious assistants who frequently check a large printing device that is churning out Ballen's black and white prints.
His macabre photography is big business. Maybe it does belong in an office park after all.
The scale of his photographs has grown, too, as have all photographers' work here. Photography has fast become an immersive medium, a condition which is undercut by photography books, which deny this and limit the impact of images.
Yet it was via his books, in particular Platteland (1994), a photographic essay documenting impoverished white people living on the fringes, that Ballen cemented his career. His seemingly negative portrayal of this population - some subjects are the products of inbreeding - may also have contributed to the interest the book generated.
Nevertheless, the book format has allowed him to more clearly set up relationships between images, and in past years, to reconsider his oeuvre. His new book, Asylum of the Birds (Thames & Hudson) includes photographs dating from as far back as 2005, tracing the trajectory of the bird motif.
It is hard to overlook this theme, not only in the book, which features image upon image in which a bird (mostly white) is present, but in his office, where birds are cooing in the background. The live props are kept in a storeroom with other creatures.
When the lanky American artist emerges from his office and I remark on the birds and his attachment to animals in his work, he brings out a cage to show me some baby rats. They are cute and it is kind of surprising to see Ballen revel in this. He could easily be a member of the Adams family or described as the High Priest of Darkness, a title borne out not only by a fixation with macabre subject matter but his serious, brooding demeanour.

Cape Flats Novel falls Flat


By Christine Emmett

Cape Town is a divided city. The spatial engineering of the apartheid government banished non-whites to the peripheries of the city, using infrastructure and the landscape as physical barriers. 
This mapping produced a lack of continuity which still abounds from the unlit and anarchic streets of Khayelitsha to the gentrified tourist mecca of the city and the DA's sleepy southern suburbs. 
On the level of symbolism, it's no surprise that protesters flung faeces from the township on the city's elegant colonial buildings last year. 
And it's in this vein that the protagonist of Songeziwe Mahlangu's novel, Penumbra, a young black middle-class UCT graduate living, moving and partying across these boundaries and barriers, becomes an important voice for South Africans to hear. Unfortunately, however, this particular author seems to have very little to say.
Penumbra (Kwela) opens with the narrator flitting around the streets of Rondebosch, Cape Town, paranoid and anxious, reading significance into everything and clasping at his bible in a state of delusional fervour. It's presumed that a mixture of drugs, a sense of meaninglessness and his own wastrel existence have lead Managliso to the tip of psychosis. 
The burden of the novel, as its title suggests, is to map this trajectory, figured through the play of light and dark in a lunar eclipse.
The fictional representation of Cape Town by black South Africans has a limited but esteemed history, featuring the likes of Alex La Guma and K Sello Duiker. It's the fairly sparse style and the first-person narration of Mahlangu's novel that reminds one of K Sello Duiker's own exploration of Cape Town in Thirteen Cents. 
In this novel Duiker has Azure, a young street kid, describe his experiences in the underbelly of Cape Town. But the important distinction is that where Duiker uses a minimalist style to emphasise Azure's youth and naivety, he still imparts observations which are insightful and unexpected. Of the gangster/ pimp, Allen, he notes: "When you're dressed properly grown-ups give you a bit of respect. But as long as I'm me and have no home and wear tattered clothes, Allen will never give me proper clothes because that would mean that I can look like him.
"And no one who knows Allen looks like him. He makes sure of that. Even if it means he strips you himself." 
Duiker's succinct description of clothing, which tells us everything about status, prestige and the pecking-order of the streets, uses this small incident to paint a big picture. By contrast, in Penumbra Managliso's observations sound startlingly myopic. When the narrator's friend, Nhlakanipho, makes a pass at one of the narrator's potential sexual conquests, he melodramatically states "Nhlakanipho has torn me too many times. In my body the waters are rising. He has been abusing me since varsity. Our friendship is a falsehood. He even influences how others perceive me." 
Unsurprisingly, this incident in Mahlangu's novel is neither developed nor elaborated upon. These clichés are never taken further, and nothing is made of this incident. The reader is unwillingly drawn into the vapid exploits of an inflated and narcissistic ego.

A model of African Fiction

By Aghogho Akpome

In The Sculptors of Mapungubwe (Kwela Books), Zakes Mda makes an impressive attempt to recreate one of the most interesting legends of the southern African region.
It is the history of Mapungubwe, an ancient settlement that was located between the Limpopo and Shashe rivers just by the confluence of present day South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe.
Mapungubwe has been hailed as "the most complex society in Southern Africa" by respected academic Thomas Huffman, who Mda acknowledges in the novel's preface.
Since an archaeology student stumbled upon relics of this10th-13th century kingdom in 1933, the location of Mapungubwe has been made a national park and declared a Unesco heritage site.
A museum is dedicated to it at the University of Pretoria; it is the name of the country's top national award and has inspired an annual cultural festival in Limpopo province.
And now it is the subject of a major work of fiction by one of the most prolific contemporary South African novelists.
The Sculptors of Mapungubwe is a story of rivalry, fraternal strife, love, hubris, and the power of art, set in a prosperous, bustling yet peaceful city state with a highly rigid and dichotomous class system.
Mda tells this story - as many acclaimed black African writers before him have tended to do - with redolent descriptions of landscape, family life, and indigenous culture, plus the resourceful deployment of oral narrative devices and words from indigenous languages.
The story is also an ambitious ideological project that embraces several themes, ranging from social division, cultural differences and pre-colonial history to the power of the imagination, modernism and migration.
One of the novel's strongest points is the way these issues resonate with contemporary conditions.
In Mapungubwe, the upper class live literally at a higher altitude - up the hill - while the common people live in the plains below.
There is also a rift between the town's "old residents", who are descendants of its earlier inhabitants, and the "new residents", whose forebears had migrated there more recently and who now dominate the kingdom.
These divisions provide a graphic frame for the rivalry at the centre of the story between its two male protagonists, the brothers Chatambuza (Chata) and Rendani, who are the town's most respected sculptors, practitioners of an elevated art form regarded as sacred in the kingdom.
Although both are sons and apprentices of Zwanga, the revered former Royal Sculptor, Chata is a commoner while Rendani is a noble, or "grandee", a term Mda uses generously.
Chata is regarded as a mere ward to whom Zwanga had been a magnanimous foster parent. Chata is never acknowledged as a son, and only learns of the fact through gossip after Zwanga's death.
He is thus a kind of bastard; not only was his mother not married to Zwanga, she was also a phuli or slave, and belonged to the presumably primitive and nomadic Zhun/twasi race which Mapungubweans despise in a benign manner.
Being the legitimate son, Rendani inherits Zwanga's exalted office of Royal Sculptor after the latter's death.
It is a position for which he had been groomed in spite of the fact that Zwanga had been more impressed by Chata's talent and potential as a sculptor.
Zwanga's overt favouritism serves as the basis of Rendani's resentment of his brother and sets the stage for the rivalry that plays out between two of the town's most illustrious "brothers".
From contesting for their father's attention as boys, the two would later clash over Chata's wearing of silk (considered by Rendani as a preserve of nobles), proceeds from Zwanga's mine, and a maiden Rendani seeks to make his new wife but ends up as Chata's partner.
Through the valorisation of the arts of sculpting and dancing in this community, Mda seems to be taking an obvious position in the timeless debate on the value of the imaginative vis-?-vis the empirical: Chata's powerful image of a Khoikhoi woman and the maiden Marubini become a compelling religious and ritualistic attraction to many members of the community before it is destroyed by his envious detractors.
Furthermore, Marubini becomes transfigured by a trance and performs an enchanted dance that ends a prolonged drought, saves the|kingdom from starvation, and earns her the sobriquet of Rain Dancer.
The novel can also be read as a celebration of indigenous African cultures and simultaneously as a critique of modernism and/or modernisation.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

The Life Cycle of a Literary Vanguard


By Siphiwo Mahala

'I was born at Baragwanath Hospital and my parents are Judah and Meikie Duiker. I was named Kabelo Sello  Duiker. I was given my second name after my grandfather, who unfortunately died four months before I was born. My birth date is the thirteenth of April 1974."
This is an excerpt from a school project entitled, My Life Story, dated 1987. It is reported that the book was neatly bound, and on the cover the following words were written in bold capital letters: "AUTHOR AND PUBLISHER KS DUIKER." 
This is when a writer took residence in the boy who would grow up to become multi award-winning author, K  Sello Duiker.
Duiker must have been 13 at the time, and in retrospect, this is the number that would prove to be very special to him. 
His dream of becoming a published writer was only realised 13 years after he had written this school project. Since 1995, Duiker had been interacting with Annarie van der Merwe, publisher at Kwela Books, a new imprint established at the time of our country's transition to democracy in 1994. 
Kwela Books was established with the purpose of "looking for fresh young talent," a statement that could be interpreted as a euphemism for "young black writer". 
The dominant notions in our literary discourse during apartheid were largely informed by binary opposites as a result of living in an oppressive state. The narratives of black and white, hegemony and anti-hegemony, and the victim and perpetrator had to make way for new transitional themes. 
The South African literary landscape was desperate to discover an "authentic" black voice that would go beyond the paradoxes of the apartheid narrative. 
For Kwela Books, that voice came in 1995, in the form of Duiker, then a student at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. 
Although Kwela could not publish his first manuscript, Duiker's potential was obvious and he struck up a very good relationship with Van der Merwe. They soon started working on his next project - The Quiet Violence of Dreams.
It was during the process of pruning this manuscript that the aspirant author came up with another new manuscript. In typical publisher response, Kwela told Duiker to focus on nurturing The Quiet Violence of Dreams before looking into other projects.
However, they did not forbid him from taking the new manuscript to a different publisher. David Phillip publishers accepted the manuscript, and Thirteen Cents was published in 2000 to critical acclaim. 
It won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book in Africa Region. Thirteen years later, Kwela had to buy the publishing rights of Thirteen Cents from David Phillip - though surely not for thirteen cents. 
The Quiet Violence of Dreams, which Duiker had been working on with Kwela books over the years, was finally published in 2001. 
The publication of Duiker's two novels in quick succession marked a turning point in the South African literary landscape. He was young, black and presented fresh and unconventional stories of the marginalised. 
He was soon to be paraded, perhaps justifiably so, as a poster boy for the so-called "black writing" in post-apartheid South Africa. 
Thirteen Cents chronicles the journey of a 12-year-old homeless orphan in the streets of Cape Town.
Azure is exposed to the cruel world of gangsterism, and substance and sexual abuse. 
This fantastical novel resonates with the work of Ben Okri, one of Duiker's major literary influences. Duiker was never shy to admit to his admiration of Okri, and even the naming of his protagonist, Azure, is obviously appropriated from Azaro, the protagonist in Okri's The Famished Road. 
The number of years Duiker spent on The Quiet Violence of Dreams is evident. It is a thick book - the second edition that came out earlier this year is a staggering |609 pages. 
The effort is even more evident when you get to read the book, which you flip through without noticing its length. Duiker adopts quite an experimental approach in The Quiet Violence of Dreams, which is narrated by multiple characters. 

The Quest for Meaning


By Michiel Heyns

EM Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, took Henry James to task for what he saw as an over-valuing of design at the expense of life. Conceding the perfection of the design of James's The Ambassadors, Forster yet deplores the fact that James apparently believes "most of human life has to disappear before he can do us a novel". 
For James, according to Forster, "a pattern must emerge, and anything that emerged from the pattern must be pruned off as wanton distraction." But "who so wanton as human beings?" asks Forster: for him, the perfectly structured novel is deficient exactly because of its perfection.
Damon Galgut, in Arctic Summer (Umuzi), his monumental recreation of a central period in Forster's life, seems to have been led, in this as in other respects, by the example of his subject. 
He catches, with perfect pitch, the elusive plainness of Forster's style, the unadorned yet elegant phrasing, the understated humour, the quiet authority of the judgements. 
And his novel, too, leaves us with an impression of not having been subjected to a pre-ordained design or thematic blueprint: we follow Forster's travels with a kind of traveller's-journal minuteness, every stop recorded, every meeting minuted. 
Indeed, Galgut seems to have drawn on an astonishing array of primary and secondary materials, notably Forster's own journals. 
As a novel about the writer's life, Galgut's book invites comparison with Colm To�b�n's The Master and David Lodge's Author, Author, both about Henry James. 
But Galgut's novel is more satisfying than either of these, more in accord with its subject: the novel is Forsterian in a way that neither Toibin's nor Lodge's novels is Jamesian. 
Galgut inhabits his subject, both stylistically and temperamentally, more completely than either of the other two. 
One of the many pleasures of Galgut's novel lies in its richness of detail, in the sheer promiscuity of the minutiae of travel. 
But, by the same token, the reader looking for a clear pattern, for a paring-down of detail in the interest of design, may be left dissatisfied, may feel that this novel at times reads too much like biography - not unmediated biography, since no biography is ever unmediated, but almost documentary in its painstaking reportage.
This is not to say that Arctic Summer lacks art: the meticulously shaped sentences, the careful displacements of chronology, the imaginative recreation of setting and dialogue are all highly crafted. 
But what the novel eschews may be artifice, that is, the self-conscious shaping of the material to serve a central notion, a thematic matrix, the pointing of dialogue to align the characters more definitely with the novel's themes. 
It is, in short, more Forsterian than Jamesian. This is not a weakness: it is a choice, and a courageous choice, and ultimately becomes the novel's subject. 
Galgut's novel is something of a companion piece to Forster's A Passage to India and, though it can stand perfectly well on its own, gains considerably by being read with that novel - if for no other reason than to appreciate the skill with which Galgut has woven Forster's novel into his own and vice versa. 
Galgut's novel gives us many insights into the makings of Forster's novel, and indeed into the making of his own. 
Because if the reader of Arctic Summer at times feels disorientated, grasping for a substantial subject under the plethora of biographical detail, this, it turns out, replicates Forster own struggle to forge a fiction out of the multitude of impressions he received during his visit to India: 
"He found himself noting little moments, or particular people, with an eye to using them later. 
"He didn't really know what he would do with them; only that they were part of a fabric he'd begun to weave. (?) 
But the trouble with Mr Godbole, and all the other bits and pieces |he was gathering, was that they remained loose strands - little pieces of talk, or momentary impressions gleaned in passing - with nothing to knot them together. 
"In writing his previous novels, there had always been something at the middle of the narrative, a thickening into solidity, around or over or through which the story had to pass. 
"Everything would lead up to it, and then everything would lead out of it again. 
"Without that obstacle in his way, he couldn't even begin. But although his mind had been preoccupied with his Indian book for quite some time, he still had no sense of what that central density might be." 
Forster's search for something "to knot them together" is also Galgut's reaching for a unifying thread in the wealth of material he has assembled. And Forster's quest, in more senses than one, becomes Galgut's subject.
The complex relation of Galgut's novel to Foster's is signalled by his dedication of Arctic Summer: 
"To Riyaz Ahmad Mir and to the fourteen years of our friendship," echoing Forster's dedication of his novel "To Syed Ross Masood and to the seventeen years of our friendship". In both instances, the novel is in some sense a tribute to a friendship that we assume to be central to the impulse behind the novel. 
It may be, then, that Galgut is inviting us to see Arctic Summer as his own Passage to India.
I don't know how far the parallels can be taken, and it would be impertinent to speculate beyond the limits of the novel itself, but the dedication does open a passage, as it were, between this novel and Galgut's previous book, the masterly (and, in this country, under-appreciated) In a Strange Room, with its overtly autobiographical slant. 
In In a Strange Room the protagonist undertakes three journeys, one of them to India, in a restlessly circular quest for love, or for the kind of meaning that love is reputed to give to existence. 
Forster's own quest, as Galgut interprets it, also represents an attempt to wrest a meaning from emptiness, from the absence of a ready-made significance. 

Quest for the Elusive African Identity


By Christine Emmett

An obituary in The Guardian for the late cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, quotes from a 2012 interview with the Jamaican-born Oxford-educated academic, where he observes, "three months at Oxford persuaded me it was not my home, I'm not English and I never will be.
"The life I have lived is one of partial displacement. I came to England as a means of escape, and it was a failure."
Contextualising this, the author of the obituary, Stuart Jeffries, points out that the significance of Hall's work has ensured it could never be construed as failure. But what rings so heavily through Hall's speech here is something more significant than personal grievance. 
Hall has been hailed as "the father of multiculturalism" - his work focused on race, racism and the growing prominence of immigrants and the diaspora. He mobilised new ways of thinking about nations and citizens. 
But what becomes clear is that even Hall, after working with these issues for years, recognised that the identity of the immigrant was built around "partial displacement". 
In its most basic and negative expression, this displacement tells us: this is not my home and I do not belong here. And this problem can seldom be resolved by simply returning to the country of origin.
The protagonist in Esi Edugyan's re-issued first novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, exists within this fracture. Samuel is a Ghanaian, living in Canada with his wife and twin girls, but if he seems homeless in Canada, he doesn't seem to belong back in Ghana. 
The novel is set in 1968, with Samuel clearly a member of a small African diaspora. The late sixties also finds America in the midst of the Vietnam war and the American civil rights movement. 
Despite the flurry of activity we know must underpin the narrative, Samuel lacks interest and investment in the political events around him. Conversely, he also hasn't acknowledged the political independence of his country of birth. 
He and his wife, Maud, still refer to Ghana, which reached independence in 1957, by its colonial title, "Gold Coast"; as he notes, "the country would always be 'Gold Coast' for them; having lived so long away from it, in their minds, it was largely defined by its name". 
His dislocation and alienation may stem from the fact that Samuel is self-absorbed; engulfed by personal problems of day-to-day life, he is unable to focus on the interests or the existence of the outside world. 
Indeed, he has his own share of strife: an alienated and recalcitrant wife, two emotionally distant children and a boring job.
Added to this is the ubiquitous racism so implicit and woven into the texture of people's actions and speech, it characterises most of the interactions in the novel.
It's conceivable then, that Samuel would want to change his life so when his estranged uncle dies, leaving him his house in the small Canadian village of Aster, Samuel jumps at the opportunity. Not only is owning the land and house in which you live suggestive of being part of a community, but having it passed down from a previous generation suggests a more steady notion of belonging.
What this change might occlude though, is that even in moving to a new place, Samuel is in part trying to move back to some kind of home. 
The move to Aster is as much about trying to find one's roots in what has been passed down, as it is about forging a new, second life.
Samuel should be able to return to a golden past but this is unfeasible. It's not that the notion of returning to your roots isn't a tendency of the immigrant imagination. 
The ludicrous fantasy of an uninterrupted return was represented quite unintentionally by Isidore Okpewho's novel, Call me by my rightful name (2004). 
In it, the protagonist, an unsuspecting African-American basketball player, suffers from unexplained bouts of shouting Yoruba during college parties. Luckily before he is consigned to a mental institution, he is sent somewhere in Nigeria to "find himself". 
The ridiculousness of Okpewho's novel inheres not merely in spontaneous outbursts of Yoruba, but the notion that deep-down beyond the African-American identity remains an unchanged and true African one. If by some bizarre notion one's identity hasn't been altered by the last few hundred years, then we are still left with the essentially racist notion that Africa is somehow waiting in a timeless primitive zone - that it remains a part of an unchanging past.
So for Samuel, taking up residence in his uncle's house, is some kind of return to what was familiar - a longing for the "Gold Coast" of his past which no longer exists. The idealism of Samuel's move is exhibited and ingrained in Edugyan's representation of the house. As one character observes, "a house is the direct reflection of its owner" and by this logic, the house Samuel inherits is itself a mixture of signs and symbols that are tangled and complex: "Brown and ivory, it sat fat and pacified among the overgrown foliage. Thick, thorned vines veined its face. It had the white front stoop so classic of Aster culture, but flanked by colonial pillars, as if built by a Confederate. It was beautiful in a brooding sort of way." 

A leisurely portrait of companionship

By Michiel Heyns

Is it possible to write a novel about a group of intelligent and likeable adults behaving rationally? Or rather, is it possible to keep a reader's interest with such an unpromising cast? After all, most plots are generated by the foibles and failures of the protagonists, their pride and prejudice, their atonement for their wrongdoings, their absolution from their sins, the disgrace they land themselves in through their actions - in short, stuffing up would seem to be the stuff of fiction. 
To judge by its title, Necessary Errors (Penguin) is no exception to this tendency. Yet, I have seldom read a novel in which the characters are so free of major flaws, and their relationships so civilised and affectionate. Errors there are, yes, but necessary, as the title states, to the business of maturing. (The title is derived from WH Auden's poem, 1929, in which he talks of choice - any choice - as "a necessary error".) 
The characters are almost without exception young adults, probably in their early twenties, and few of them have settled into a career. Most of them, including the main character, the young American Jacob Putnam, are teaching at a language school in Prague; few of them know how long they'll stay or where they'll move on to. They find their most permanent attachment in each other: not just those who fall in love, but also those who value each other's friendship. 
This is, then, a novel of transition - also in the sense that it is set in the Prague of 1990, that is, just as this city was emerging tentatively from communist rule into the pleasures and perils of capitalism. 
Jacob, too, is tentatively emerging - from the closet - and exploring his gay identity. Errors are necessarily made, but he's remarkably fortunate in the two young Czech men he has relationships with in the course of the novel even though one turns out to be a darker horse than at first he appears. 
The sexual encounters, like most encounters in this well-behaved novel, are low-key but satisfying. Especially Milo, the second of Jacob's lovers, who deals with admirable tact and maturity with Jacob's occasional petulance and with the knowledge that he, like the other ex-pats, will leave Prague for his "real" life, is an erotic presence. 
But if sex provides Jacob's most absorbing exploration in the novel, the abiding theme is friendship. The young people are consistently referred to, without irony, as "the friends". They delight in each other's company, spend their evenings together in whatever new pub a member of the circle has discovered, and are as much taken with each other as with the beautiful city they are discovering: 
"Their time together was wonderfully insular: it sometimes felt to Jacob as if the world beyond their table, beyond the ring of his friends, did not exist. It sometimes felt as if they were all falling in love with one another, as a group." 
The knowledge that this interlude cannot last, that they are fated to go their separate ways again, serves both to intensify the pleasure and touch it with sadness. In Jacob's case, his pleasure in his new friends is complicated by the arrival of an old friend from college, Carl, one of the straight men he'd been in love with while adjusting to his sexual identity. Like the rest of the group, Jacob delights in Carl's presence, and yet, that presence is to prove disruptive of the harmony, as he and the beautiful Melinda fall in love - another of the book's necessary errors, perhaps. 
The novel is narrated in the third person, but only rarely with the kind of authorial omniscience that traditionally marks realist narrative. For the most part, the narrative is filtered through the thoughts and feelings of Jacob; his "quest" as he thinks of it forms a central thread of the book. That quest, which he formulates as "trying to come close to the revolution", remains somewhat abstract, and I suspect it's unclear to Jacob, too: he feels that, like Prague, he is in a state of transition.
The narrator comments about this quest that "he wouldn't have understood that it took the shape of a story he wanted to live out. Without knowing it, he was looking for people who were heroic, so he could join them."
Jacob, in fact, thinks of his experiences as story, for instance, his failed first relationship: "According to one way that he found of looking at it, he had tried to tell a story about himself and a lover, and it hadn't ended well, but rather than feel it was a story with an unhappy ending, he preferred to think he had made an error in the telling." 
Jacob's concern with story may stem from his belief that he is a writer, even though he has produced little actual writing, struggling as he does with the problematic relation of story to life and vice versa.
Indeed, on the assumption that Jacob in this respect resembles his author, it took him long to resolve that quandary: this is Caleb Crain's debut novel, at the relatively advanced age of forty-something. It is one of the postmodern ironies that it might well be the story its main character was trying to tell 25 years ago. 
Like his character, Crain spent 1990-91 in Prague, and the substance of the novel is the minutiae of daily life there: not just the interactions between the friends, but the business of getting around on the endearingly rattletrap tram system, of finding a shop that sells potatoes or, miraculously, cornflakes! Of contending with a landlord who regards the telephone as a luxury to be rationed. The Prague streets and squares and bridges are described with a meticulousness that seems an end in itself, as if Crain is trying to recapture the gritty texture and slightly melancholy mood of that city before it became Europe's Disneyland. 
Crain's beautifully plain style is perfectly adjusted to the rather drab realities of a city just disengaging itself from the uncongenial embrace of Communism: "They had to walk to the head of the street to cross the highway, because of the concrete wall that shielded the neighbourhood from it. The night tram's line ran through a field on the far side, a large empty field adjacent to a factory that built engines and industrial machinery. It was lit by street lamps, which looked out of place because there was no street. There were only the tram tracks and the high dead grasses, and here and there curving wet furrows where the wheels of a backhoe or a truck had bitten through the raw soil. At the bottom of the gully, a dozen unused concrete sewer pipes were stacked in a shoddy pyramid."

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Passing of a great intellectual

Mbulelo Mzamane

By Siphiwo Mahala

When I first read Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane's Mzala (1980), a series of comical short stories about misadventures in townships, the short story genre instantly became my favourite. At the time the author was also the vice-chancellor and principal of the university I was attending.
The year was 1995 and I was a first-year student at the University of Fort Hare. Mzamane was the first post-apartheid vice-chancellor. It would paradoxically become the highest and lowest point of his career. In later years he would confess that it was not in his interest to be at the helm of the university. He always saw himself as a teacher: he wanted to teach.
As a vice-chancellor he was one of the most dynamic and cosmopolitan personalities we had ever known. Born in Port Elizabeth in 1948, Mzamane grew up in Brakpan and attended high school in Swaziland before completing a Master's degree at the University of Botswana and receiving a doctorate from the University of Sheffield (England). He had held academic, research and visiting appointments at Sheffield (UK), Vermont (US), Essen (Germany); Ahmadu Bello University (Nigeria), Yale (US), Boston (US), the University of South Australia and the Australian National University, among others. He had won numerous awards for his creative and scholarly works and published several works of fiction, essays and academic articles.
He was loved and respected by the late president Nelson Mandela and other leaders across the continent. Mandela described him as "a visionary leader, (and) one of South Africa's greatest intellectuals". He had been appointed by Mandela and later president Thabo Mbeki to various national positions, including the SABC Board and the Heraldry Council, and served as the director and chairman of several structures in the arts, culture, education and communications sectors. On the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the University of Fort Hare in 1996, Mzamane was able to bring to Alice Fort Hare alumni including Mandela, Robert Mugabe, Julius Nyerere and other prominent individuals across the continent. The image of Mandela and Mugabe standing on the university sports field and sharing jokes with students was unforgettable!
As an educationist, Mzamane promoted a culture of reading. He would give impromptu lectures whenever there was a platform. He was a popular choice as a guest speaker on literary, arts and educational matters. In his essay, Continuities and Discontinuities in South African literature, he argues, "Mental dexterity, the love of learning, and the intellectual life of a nation depend on an early obsession for reading." He also opines: "It is widely accepted that history is written by the conquerors. The converse must be equally true that, if previously colonised people have not begun to write their own history, they still have a mental bondage."

Exposing prejudice in Austen's Pride


By Mary Corrigall

If you were lucky (or unlucky) enough to have avoided a close study of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice during your school education, undoubtedly you would not have escaped viewing an adaptation of this popular classic on TV or at a cinema.
It's hard to account for its popularity in this age; universal themes may tie us to this period piece but its almost as if we are gripped by a nostalgia for this very unprogressive period of British history where class and gender completely determined someone's fate.
Such limits provide the friction in the fiction. Of course, Austen embedded her social discourse in an understated brand of British prose. Her commentary is so subtle - a snide remark made over a cup |of tea or a look that betrays disappointment.
The characters in this book occupy a coded world governed by conventions and a kind of language that like the layer of petticoats women wore in that era to conceal their bodies, keeps the truth buried beneath a fluff of civility. This is perhaps why the novel makes such a feast for English lit students; every banal exchange or incident requires rigorous decoding.
Not surprisingly, part of our assiduous dissection of this classic novel has also taken the form of revisionist postmodern literary products where authors' reworking of the novel results in a new narrative or is fused with another genre to produce something familiar, though novel.
Such was the case with PD James's Death comes to Pemberley (2011), where the British crime queen sets a whodunnit in the world Austen created in Pride and Prejudice. Other writers have pursued more unlikely genre mash-ups, such as Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009).
Jo Baker's Longbourn (Random Struik House) isn't in this vein; it is not a parody nor is Pride and Prejudice transplanted in genre literature; instead Baker creates a parallel narrative that maps the invisible worlds and characters that might have existed at the periphery of Austen's original.
In this way, she brings the unseen or unexplored territory at the edges into view. In the context of this 19th century class society, the invisible world and characters are the servants and their living conditions. The Bennets' home, therefore, remains the main setting, but instead of Elizabeth and her sisters functioning as the characters upon which the story pivots, Sarah and other servants, such as Mrs Hill, her husband and Polly become the focus.
This is not an upstairs/downstairs drama, in the mould of the uber popular TV series Downton Abbey for we are not fully privy to the world upstairs belonging to the Bennets, the Bingleys and such. We only learn of the events that take place in Austen's novel from a distance; in this way, the narrative focuses on the servant's perspective entirely, rendering Austen's characters as the ghostly "other". As such, Baker reverses the perspective on Austen's story so that she fleshes out Pride in Prejudice in interesting ways that overturn our conceptions of the original. More plainly put: she kills the romance of Pride and Prejudice, forcing us to question this fascination for British period pieces that focused on the landed gentry and the morality of this perspective when such gross exploitation supported this dominant social echelon.
Primarily, Baker sheds light on the overlooked minutiae of the period and the hard work behind the scenes that allowed the upper classes and their relatives to exist. The cleaning, cooking and tedious labour required to keep these large family homes running are the initial focus of the narrative. Baker has obviously relied on research into that period to impart an accurate picture, but it's a work of imagination too as she envisages the psychic cost to the servants, who because of their duties and activities or supporting roles are made to feel as if they are less important than their employers.
For example, when one of the Bennet daughters is prevented from walking into town to purchase ribbons for a dance because of the risk to her health, Sarah is sent instead and indeed catches a cold from making the trip in inclement weather. Her life and health are negligible in comparison to those she serves. Polly, the younger servant, is forced to adopt this name because she couldn't share the name Mary with one of the Bennet girls. At every turn, the servants' status as secondary citizens is affirmed, though in instances they are reminded how fortunate they are to have a place to live - both Sarah and Polly are orphans who have spent time in the poorhouse and the world outside Longbourn or other family homes is presented as being dangerous and difficult to survive in. Domestic service is therefore positioned as offering safety and security, making it that much harder for individuals trapped by it to escape it.

Stepping out of Biko's Shadow


By Rob Gaylard

Mamphela Ramphele's name will always be linked with that of Steve Biko - as she points out, she is a kind of honorary "widow" - but here in A Passion for Freedom (Tafelberg) we have her own story, in her own words. It is a story of loss and (although this sounds clichéd) survival and triumph over adversity. It is told dispassionately and honestly, with grace and dignity.
Her academic training affords her a degree of detachment - she is, to use her own term, a kind of "participant observer" - and allows for perceptive analyses of her position as a black female activist in the struggle, as a community health worker, as a medical doctor - and eventually as an academic, as vice- chancellor of UCT, as a director of the World Bank, and lately as the leader of Agang and now presidential candidate for the DA.
A common thread runs through her story: this is her determination not to be dictated to by circumstances, and her passionate concern for the freedom and advancement of the people of South Africa.
Her story starts with an exploration of her familial roots in Kranspoort, situated in what is now Limpopo Province, and she takes care to delineate the communal fabric of life in her home village. As a young black woman she seems destined to become a teacher (few other options were available to black women), and her first life-defining assertion of independence is her decision to become a medical doctor: "I would not become a teacher."
This leads her to the University of Natal Medical School - and to her encounter with Biko and the circle of activists he led. The story of her difficult, multi-faceted relationship with Biko is the pivot around which the book turns. Theirs was a deep, personal and political engagement, complicated by the fact of Biko's marriage. She pays tribute to his presence and personality.
This period was also her initiation into activism: "The formation of SASO and the subsequent maturation of the Black Consciousness Movement into a political force to be reckoned with became the main focus of Steve Biko's life.
"One could not help admiring this tall, handsome, eloquent and totally dedicated activist."
This resulted in the transformation of Ramphele "from an innocent rural girl to a person who became alive to the vast possibilities which life has to offer". It was in the crucible of BC activism that her personality as a fighter and political actor was forged.
Ramphele is relatively silent on the position she must have found herself in as a result of the predominantly masculinist discourse and orientation of the BC movement, as evidenced by the default use of the masculine pronoun, and the restricted use of the term "man". The overwhelming emphasis on race as the determining factor in South African life and politics led to a neglect of gender and of sexual politics.
Ramphele indicates (later in the book) that she had yet to develop a full awareness of the role of gender in personal and societal relations. However, she does describe her growing self-confidence and self-assertion ("I became quite an aggressive debater and was known for not suffering fools gladly") and records the emergence of a group of "similarly inclined women? who became a force to be reckoned with at annual SASO meetings".
At the same time, she states that "ours was not a feminist cause"; it was, rather, an insistence on the need to be taken seriously as activists in their own right.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Dissecting the American Identity: Amity Gaige


By Michiel Heyns

Ernest Hemingway famously maintained that all American novels could be traced back to Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. That may have been an overstatement, but it is true that the basic pattern of Huck's story - a raft trip down the Mississippi with a runaway slave on board, in flight from "civilisation" and its constraints - is a recurring one in American fiction and film.
The road movie - Easy Rider, Thelma and Louise - and the road novel - Jack Kerouac's On the Road, Cormac McCarthy's The Road - have become a genre unto themselves; and nearly always the protagonists are outlaws on the run? think of Bonnie and Clyde, or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Movement, in American fiction, is freedom or gives the illusion of freedom, no matter that the flight more often than not ends in capture or death. Ultimately, keeping going is more important than any destination that may at some stage have lent some spurious illusion of purpose to the flight.
Amity Gaige's wonderful novel, Schroder (Faber & Faber) is squarely in this tradition, though the specifics are entirely original: Eric Schroder, a first generation refugee from East Germany, involved in a heated custody battle for his six-year-old daughter, Meadow, resorts to the simple expedient of abducting her, ostensibly to show her Mount Washington, but in fact because he can't stand being without her.
The endeavour is of course doomed, as we know from the first paragraph of the novel, which is written from jail, as a letter to his estranged wife, Laura.
The novel's achievement is in the creation of Eric Schroder - or Eric Kennedy, as he reinvented himself at age 14. Quite aware of his own failings - irresponsibility, impulsiveness, duplicity - without being abject about it, he nevertheless manages to make the reader root for him unreservedly: we want him to have the daughter he loves to distraction, and we resent his prosaic, unimaginative, conventional wife for her lack of generosity. (I should mention that not all reviewers have been as easily charmed by Eric Schroder.)
Since this is a first-person narrative, it is hardly surprising that we side with the narrator against The Opposition, as he calls the combined forces of his wife, her parents and her lawyer. Eric himself, however, is generally fair to Laura, or tries to be: "You were prompt," he tells her, "You were responsible. You were deliberate. You were health conscious. ? You were easily offended. There was a whole list of social issues over which you took quick offense."
In short, Laura has every virtue except warmth, generosity and humour, and if she sounds like a bit of a prig, that is not because Eric thinks she is one. To him, she is the model young American woman, and, as a first-generation immigrant, he admires all things American - to the extent of adopting a false identity as Eric Kennedy.
This fraud is perpetrated at age 14, at summer camp, when he decides that in order to be fully American he must have an American name, and selects for himself the most illustrious America name he knows.
He also invents a childhood near the Kennedy enclave at Hyannisport to go with his distinguished surname. When people assume he is related to "Those Kennedys", he denies the assumption only vigorously enough to seem modest. "I had chosen my own childhood," he reflects. "I had found a past that matched my present."
But Eric does not reinvent himself only in order to be an American: he is also trying to divest himself of his East German past, and of the mother who, he suspects, obtained an exit visa from East Berlin for him and his father through services she rendered to a Communist functionary: "All I knew was that for as long as I was Eric Kennedy, she was neither living nor dead." Creating a new identity, he opts for a past in which his mother "did not exist at all" - and if it also involves negating his gentle, patient father, that is a price Eric is prepared to pay.

Best Novels of 2013: SA Authors share their picks


Siphiwo Mahala: 

This has been a dramatic year in the world of letters. The death of Chinua Achebe, who was affectionately known as the "father of African literature", and Doris Lessing, the British Nobel laureate for literature, were obviously the biggest and saddest news in the literary fraternity.
However, there was more growth than loss, as we saw the emergence of new voices, the return of seasoned writers from the solitude of literary production, as well as the excitement around literary awards.
Sabata-mpho Mokae scooped two M-Net Literary Awards for his Setswana novel, Ga ke Modisa. South Africa embraced the Zimbabwean-born NoViolet Bulawayo, whose shortlisting for the Man Booker Prize was announced while she was at a literary festival in Cape Town.
Another major African voice, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, released her third novel, Americanah.
It was also a year of reckoning for short story writing. The greatest news was the announcement of Canadian short story writer, Alice Munro, as the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
We also saw the return of former chief executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Achmat Dangor, with a collection of short stories, Strange Pilgrimages (Pan MacMillan). His previous novel, Bitter Fruit, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2004.
Other notable authors who published short story collections include Reneilwe Malatji, Russell Kaschula, Liesl Jobson and Makhosazana Xaba.
The release of Zakes Mda's novel, The Sculptures of Mapungubwe, was like the falling of rain after a long spell of drought. The internationally acclaimed novelist had deprived readers of his creative genius (in a form of a novel) since the release of Black Diamond in 2009. The Sculptures of Mapungubwe deploys history as a means of commenting on the present.
The story is set in the timeless kingdom of Mapungubwe, beginning in 1223 CE, "except in Mapungubwe they didn't count years that way". It is an epic tale of the royal sculptor who had two heirs whose talents and rivalry set them apart as they got older.
With this fantastical novel, Mda affirms his status as a cartographer of words and a fabulist of note.
The much anticipated third novel by Lauren Beukes, Shining Girls, took the world by storm. Beukes created a whirlwind as she travelled the US and the UK, promoting her book.
It is probably her ability to transcend different cultures, historical moments as well as geographical boundaries that places Beukes's work in an elite class of world literature.
With this time-travel thriller set in Chicago, Beukes makes it more difficult to define African literature.
Angela Makholwa burst into the scene in 2007 with a crime novel, Red Ink, and followed with a mellow feminine narrative, Thirtieth Candle, in 2009. The curious question has always been whether Makholwa is more comfortable with the latter or the former.
Her latest novel, Black Widow Society, confirms her insatiable penchant for bloody crime scenes. Black Widow Society is a gripping thriller of a secret society of women who have taken control of their destinies, as well as those of their husbands.
Makholwa's grisly crime narrative is written with great erudition and acumen, which makes it seem so authentic and hard not to believe. The strangest thing is that she still has a husband?

Michiel Heyns:

I did not read all the novels I intended to in 2013 (when does one ever?), so my list may not be as representative as it might have been.
Still, my three chosen novels are by no means here only because they're the frontrunners in a small field; they could hold their own in any company - this despite the fact that two of the three are debut novels. It is heartening that publishers continue to invest in the unlucrative field of literary translation. This year we had, among a few others, Etienne van Heerden's In Love's Place (Penguin), Leon de Kock's translation of the 2005 In Stede van die Liefde (Human & Rousseau).
Van Heerden's forte is the interaction between the city and the country. Here, too, he moves effortlessly between the hamlet of Matjiesfontein and the big city in dynamic interaction. A large canvas, painted with the ease of an Old Master.
When Claire Robertson's The Spiral House (Umuzi) landed on my desk, I was apprehensive - yet another historical novel with a slave woman as a main character?
But Robertson's take is fresh and original: Katrijn van de Caab is a freed slave, and works as a wigmaker's apprentice at the end of the 18th century. As in Van Heerden's novel, the interaction between the metropolis and the hinterland is intriguingly explored, the discoveries of the Enlightenment jostling against the unquestioned verities of rural life. The 18th century narrative is intercut with a 20th century story featuring another type of enslavement, that of Sister Vergilius to her order.
A beautifully written, meticulously researched work of the imagination.
Another well-visited sub-genre is the childhood-under-apartheid. Dominique Botha's False River (Umuzi, published simultaneously in Afrikaans) fits into this mould, with her largely autobiographical account of growing up in the conservative heartland of the Free State, living, at times rebelliously, with parents active in opposition to the government of the day.
Botha's account of the absurdities of apartheid are horrifying and yet often hilarious but the novel is also a sobering account of the life and early death of her brother. A powerful and moving novel.

Craig Higginson:

My South African novel of the year has to be Dominique Botha's False River, a semi-autobiographical novel triggered by the tragic death of the protagonist's brother - but in fact it is the narrator's journey from adoring and diffident younger sister to fully mature adult writer that makes the novel memorable for me.
The writer's evocations of the Free State landscape and her description of a politicised Afrikaans family during apartheid may feel like familiar territory, but Botha is already a remarkable writer with a style entirely her own and her book sits quite comfortably alongside the best "farm novels" that have been written.
Botha has written the book in both English and Afrikaans - so it is available in both languages. I hope this is the first of many more novels by a writer of major talent and remarkable emotional and psychological range.
I also thoroughly enjoyed Stephen Boykie Sidley's Stepping Out, which follows the misfortunes of Harold Cummings, a middle-aged middle-class American who leaves his comfortable bourgeois existence in search of something more urgent and meaningful.
This is a funny, moving and humane novel by a writer who has only gathered in strength since his award-winning debut novel Entanglement.
He is also one of several South African novelists who is beginning to set his stories outside the constraints of contemporary South Africa.
For younger readers, I recommend Hamilton Wende's delightful Arabella, the Moon and the Magic Mongongo Nut, which takes place in Parkview and tells the story of Arabella, who is grieving over the death of her father.
From the Grimm stories onwards, magic in stories for young people usually erupts out of extreme necessity or suffering - and this book takes us on a journey through a world at once familiar - with its mealie ladies and hadedas - and completely transporting.

Marguerite Poland:

Listening to Patricia Glyn talk about her experiences during her foot travels around South Africa is a mesmerising experience at best. Being able to discuss them with her and reading her most recent work, What Dawid Knew: a Journey with the Kruipers (Pan Macmillan), has been a moving encounter, both with author and text.
The Bushmen have long been the subject of research, interest and also exploitation. Their unique position - historically, culturally and (more urgently) within the context of a modern technological age - has put pressures on their communities, which are complex and tragic.
Perhaps, more than anything, they have suffered either from reprehensible neglect or a patronage which - at opposite ends of the scale of concern - have been deeply divisive.
Without illusions, Glyn set off to discover something of the truth concerning a particular community and tapped into the heart of a history which she tells with moving honesty, admitting to often being stumped for answers and profoundly changed by the experience herself.
It is the story of parallel journeys, and important reading for anyone wishing to understand life at the margins. It is told without sentiment and without apology, and is written by an engaging storyteller, a courageous and deeply compassionate woman.

On a lighter note, there has been a plethora of local cookbooks adding to the cooking frenzy on TV and the new celebrity of chefs. Therefore, it was a comfort to stumble upon a cookbook written by Margaret Wasserfall, the well-loved writer, journalist and editor. Called My Granny's Pantry: a Kitchen Memoir (Jacana ) and beautifully illustrated and presented, Margaret's book takes cooking off the stage, strips it of pretension and posturing and returns it (reliably!) to the family kitchen. It's a delight - a book for real people. - published January 5, 2014.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Upending representations of violence against women


By Mary Corrigall

Of all the rape scenes depicted in cinematic products it is the infamous one in the 1972 American film Deliverance that the real horror of the act is driven home, proposes author Margie Orford.
So close was the line between fiction and reality that the actor, Ned Beatty, who played the victim of the rape in the "squeal like a pig" scene, suffered so many taunts after the movie, that he eventually felt he had been victimised.
This prompted him to pen a 1989 editorial in The New York Times, where he recognised his "own anxious desire to distance himself from the victimisation of the role".
The gritty rendering of that rape scene is directly related to the gender of the victim, suggests Orford. Violence against women in the realm of fiction (and perhaps in how it is reported in the press) is portrayed in quite a different manner; it is "so built into the aesthetics of pleasure and pornography which has bled into everything", says Orford. Certainly, it is a feature of crime writing.
"The genre is a misogynist genre, based on killing the femme fatale. Women must be shown their place," observes the Cape Town-based writer over a cup of tea at 54 on Bath. The genteel setting seems at odds with the dark subject matter.
The misogynist aspect to crime writing presents somewhat of a dilemma for Orford, who by all accounts (including her own) is pegged not only as a crime writer, but one of the most celebrated, both here and abroad - she recently signed a five-book deal with a UK publisher.
Water Music (Jonathan Ball) is the fifth novel in the Clare Hart series, but she admits that she hasn't quite worked out how to resolve the ethical dilemma that working with the crime genre entails.
"I wanted to disrupt (the model) and avoid the torture of women as spectacle and entertainment; you have to find a way to disrupt that visual pleasure cycle but it is really difficult."
It's a familiar refrain; Lauren Beukes struggled with a similar trope while writing Shining Girls, a sci-fi serial killer thriller that pointedly deals with femicide. There has been much discussion in literary circles around the value of the crime genre as an alternative model for the political novel - in fact, it was a review of Orford's last novel, Gallows Hill, that sparked the discussion. However, it can't be a coincidence that it has proved a vehicle for female writers interested in upturning the gender politics attached to genre literature. Can this be done without perpetuating the model they reject?

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Diaspora writers dominating the Caine Prize


By Rob Gaylard

A feature of this year's Caine Prize collection of stories, A Memory this Size and Other Stories (Jacana), is the prominence of what one might call diasporic stories, such as Tope Folarin's prize-winning story, Miracle. Given the salience of novels like Brian Chikwava's Harare North and NoViolet Bulawayo's We Need New Names, this seems to reflect an emerging trend in African writing. (Bulawayo was the 2011 Caine Prize winner.)
A second feature of the collection is the absence of any stories from South Africa. Since our writers have clearly not suddenly stopped writing short stories, this seems surprising, and may be a comment on the process of selection or the criteria for inclusion in the collection.
There are five short-listed stories of which four are, rather remarkably, by Nigerian authors (or authors with a connection to Nigeria). A further 13 stories came out of this year's Caine Prize workshop, held on the shores of Lake Victoria. Four of these 13 stories were submitted by Ugandans.
The first story in the collection is Folarin's Miracle - on the evidence of this story, the author is clearly Nigerian/American. He tells us, "I'm a writer situated in the Nigerian disapora, and the Caine Prize means a lot - it feels like I'm connected to a long tradition of African writers."
It seems pointless to debate whether someone who was born in America can be described as an "African" - one infers from the story that the author's Nigerianness is an important part of his identity, and he falls squarely within the definition of "African writer" inscribed in the Caine Prize rules.
The story explores the issue of faith and belief, and provides a vivid first-person account of a revivalist service at which a blind prophet performs what are alleged to be miracles. The story does not confirm that any miracle has taken place - but it does affirm the ties of family and community, and suggests that "both (truths and lies) must be cultivated for the community to survive".
The congregation consists entirely of Nigerian exiles or sojourners in America, and the story balances the narrator's scepticism against the repeated affirmation, "We need miracles".
The American connection is reinforced by the second story in the collection, Pede Hollist's Foreign Aid. The story is a deftly narrated, somewhat ironic, cautionary tale about the folly of the "Been-to" who imagines he can return to his native land (in this case Sierra Leone), rather like a deus ex machina, putting right whatever is wrong and making up for his 20-year absence (and neglect of his family).
As the story unfolds the scales are lifted from Logan's eyes and he comes to realise the futility of his efforts. His sister, Ayo, points out, "Out here. We manage. We do what we have to do". The story could have been subtitled The Americanisation of Balogan/Logan: it explores the dissonance set up by the manners and expectations of the returnee, Logan, the "self-made man from ICU (the Inner City University)", whose "fanny pack" of dollars rapidly runs out. One quotation will help to illustrate the inventiveness of the writing:
"Logan was left severely to himself. He felt powerless, useless like a kaka bailer who arrives at a large family latrine with only a small tamatis cup, unable to and incapable of handling the crap that had been generated."
Ironically, much of the "crap" has been generated through Logan's efforts to assist his family.
In contrast, Elnathan John's Bayin Layi, set in a Hausa-speaking and predominantly Muslim part of Nigeria, plunges us in media res. The narrator is Dantali, one of a group of homeless boys who sleep under the kuka tree in the town of Bayan Layi.
These boys "like to boast about the people they have killed". We are introduced to their seemingly amoral perspective: without the security or guidance of home or parents, they are easily sucked up into what seems to be standard election-time violence in Nigeria.
Driven by desperation or greed, they stop at nothing; in their hands machetes become lethal weapons. They seem to have internalised the worst aspects of the society around them. These include ethnic hatred (one boy is killed partly "because he has the nose of an Igbo boy") and homophobic violence (another victim is referred to as "a disgusting dau dauda" (or effeminate homosexual).
The effect of the plain, unvarnished narrative is chilling: "I am not thinking as we move on, burning, screaming, cutting, tearing. I don't like the feeling in my body when this machete cuts flesh so I stick to the fire and take the matchbox from Banda." At the end our narrator is running "far, far away from Bayan Layi" - but to what possible future? The references to Allah and the call of the muezzin form an ironic backdrop to the grim action of the story.

South Africa seen from beyond the border


By Leon de Kock

One of the effects of the globalisation of the novel, leading to that contentious creature referred to nowadays as "world literature" - a supposedly "post-national" phenomenon - is that anyone can now, more easily, write about anywhere, including South Africa.
In the old days of struggle literature, "outsiders" would tread warily on "insider" turf, and writing about South Africa from an outsider point of view tended to take the form of non-fiction rather than confidently imagined novels which delivered commentary on the "state of the nation". No more.
Two recent novels show that commentary from outside is both salutary and refreshing: Adrian van Dis's Betrayal (excellently translated from the Dutch, Tikkop, by Ina Rilke, Maclehose Press, London) and Patrick Flanery's Absolution (Riverhead, New York, 2012).
Flanery's novel attracted at least one local review in which his characterisation of South African mannerisms was questioned, but on the whole his novel is absorbing, if somewhat bland. It has received good reviews, especially in the international media.
Van Dis's Betrayal, the more recent of the two, raises some interesting issues. It is a riveting tale of post-apartheid disillusionment which plays out in a little Cape fishing village where Mulder, an old "struggle" collaborator from the Netherlands, meets up once again with a formerly exiled Afrikaner ANC comrade.
Their lives conjoin in the stewardship of Hendrik, an intelligent coloured teenager who is addicted to tik and who - at a critical moment in the novel - must choose between material and spiritual goods, raising the issue of what is known in contemporary scholarship as "uneven modernities".
Instead of accepting the good intentions of the two well-off former struggle "heroes" and their way of helping him get his life back into shape through education, Hendrik instead runs away with their stuff: a laptop computer, a hairdryer and the rich silver belonging to the wealthy old house where he's been put up by the rebel scion of patriarchal Afrikanerdom.
What else did these whiteys expect? Imagine for a moment the possibility - at this late stage in the post-industrial era, and more than 10 years into the new millennium - that you still have never seen a lighted oven, not to mention a gleamingly slim computer containing Google Earth and info on cool-dude Chinese punks?
Or, even worse - you see these goodies via their media representations, on massive advertising boards, flapping in the wind as newspaper images, mockingly out of your reach, but you're supposed to make peace with the fact that Facebook and Twitter are for the rich only. And for the most part, that means for whites only, even in 2013.
Hendrik's destiny, as he sees it, is a life without gadgets and connectivity, and although Van Dis occasionally pushes the limits in his characterisation of a rural coloured boy who has never before seen an oven, it's nevertheless a no-brainer when such a boy must choose between modernity's goodies on the one hand, and Protestant values like forbearance and patience on the other.

Morality of Border War goes unquestioned


By Gary Baines

The body of literature on the "Border War" has grown exponentially in the last decade or so. These writings have included veterans' memoirs, novels, unit histories and military histories.
Leopold Scholtz's work falls squarely into the last category for he posits that his The SADF in the Border War 1966-1989 (Tafelberg, 2013) is "primarily a military rather than a political history".
The eminent British military historian John Keegan was critical of practitioners who disregarded or downplayed the broader socio-political and economic context in which wars were waged.
He labelled the approach of those who argued that major changes were determined by the outcome of significant military engagements as "battle-centric" history. Scholtz does not fall into this trap but he comes close to doing so.
Scholtz is well qualified to write a military history of the border war but he feels a need to defend the role of historians in providing balanced, well-informed accounts of the border war against those who uphold the authority of the eye witness as somehow inviolable.
Contributors to the recent collection of SADF veterans' writings compiled by (retired) General Jannie Geldenhuys under the title We Were There claim to know what "really happened" by virtue of their participation in specific battles or campaigns.
But they merely offer a perspective that should be subjected to scrutiny as with any other version of the events.
Personal narratives or experiential stories have their own particular shortcomings as history. But, then, the same is true of other primary sources. Scholtz has drawn upon a vast array of documents, interviews and published accounts to provide a comprehensive history of the border war.
It surpasses extant works by military journalists such as Willem Steenkamp and Helmoed-R?mer Heitman because of the author's willingness to approach the subject of the SADF critically rather than as an apologist.
However, Scholtz still avoids addressing thorny questions about the morality of the war and the criminal conduct of the SADF.
Nor is he prepared to acknowledge that the armed struggle waged by military wings of Swapo and the ANC might have had significantly more political legitimacy than the counter-insurgency of the SADF and its surrogates.
Although there can be no denying that the liberation movements, too, were guilty of human rights abuses and the TRC pronounced all military formations "perpetrator organisations", the level of violence committed by the SADF was disproportionate to the perceived threat to the country - especially when it is remembered that most of the destruction was wrought upon innocent victims in neighbouring states.
Scholtz is critical of the upper echelons of the SADF for micromanaging the war and so limiting the freedom of the commanders on the ground.
He argues that the SADF's strategic objectives in Angola/Namibia were blunted by generals who were concerned about losses of national servicemen and the concomitant political fall-out among the white constituency.

When the safety net is removed: Wolf, Wolf


By Christine Emmett

Mattheüis Duiker walks into his father's study and cannot help but aspire to this as the domain of private reflection and exclusively masculine exchange.  In Michiel Heyns' English translation of Eben Venter's novel, Wolf, Wolf (Tafelberg), Heyns captures this pleasure, as well as the emphasis placed in the original syntax of the Afrikaans version. Mattheüis' father is dying, and the house will be part of his inheritance, "His, the study will be." This symbolically imbued space, positioned in a Cape Dutch house in Cape Town's southern suburbs, epitomises the Afrikaner patriarch, Benjamin Duiker's wealth.
A comfortable and secure prospect; though as Mattheüis is apt to point out, he will have to change aspects of the house to fit with the changing identity of Afrikaners in post-apartheid South Africa - "The Battle of Blood River picture, that can be chucked out".
This painting reappears throughout the novel indicating issues surrounding Afrikaner inheritance. In Afrikaner nationalist mythology, the Battle of Blood River was used to legitimate Afrikaners' role as an independent and politically dominant group in South Africa. The battle, taking place on December 16, 1838, purportedly involved a clash in which the Voortrekkers were vastly outnumbered by Zulu warriors. It's claimed that Sarel Cilliers made a covenant with God that would secure his people's victory. Because, among overwhelming odds, the Voortrekkers succeeded in winning the military encounter, this event became mythologised as proof of legitimate (because it appeared divinely ordained) occupation and political sovereignty in South Africa. It is no surprise then that Mattheüis, a young, gay, white South African, would want to leave this part of the past and his father's ideological beliefs behind. These ideologies, dated and prejudiced, are effectively the same ones which deny the legitimacy of Mattheüis' relationship with his lover, Jack. At his most accommodating, Benjamin Duiker can only say: "That's your business. But not in my house. I won't allow it. It flies in the face of my principles."

The house, the container of Benjamin Duiker's values and prejudices, is the same one which Mattheüis wants to inherit. This gives rise to a number of issues in the new South Africa: what is to be made of Afrikaner wealth and privilege? Bestowed on the previous generation by discriminatory policies which benefited both Afrikaner material wealth and Afrikaner culture, what is the new generation of Afrikaners to inherit? Can one appropriate the privileges of apartheid and use them to forge a new subject position? Can they be manipulated, changed, and have the core ideologies vacated, as the disavowal of the Blood River painting suggests?
The patriarch's death is a slow one. A significant part of the novel is dedicated to detailing this decline. Benjamin has lost his sight and his internal organs are deteriorating as a result of the chemotherapy administered to fight off his lymphoma. His son, nursing him, experiences both anger and guilt amid the forced intimacy which frailty necessarily effects. These details underlie the miscommunications and painful moments in which both parties hope to secure something of their lives before Benjamin expires.
In this way Venter represents both the anguish and ambivalence of familial passing, and the ambiguous and fraught relationship between Afrikaners and their past. Wolf, Wolf is at times graphic and visceral, but for the most part, remains an emotional and sensitive account of the slow and painful extinguishing of human life.
Within this bleak context, hope is vested in two aspirations: the fast food business which Mattheüis hopes to open in Observatory, and the house, which he is certain his father will pass on to him. This will be the place in which he will start a new life once his father has died.
This allows Venter to dramatise the struggle involved in the desire of a younger generation of Afrikaners to distance themselves from the prejudices and values of their cultural heritage, while holding on to the material legacy it facilitated. As an Afrikaner in the new South Africa, Mattheüis must adapt his inheritance - not only the house, with its emblems of Afrikaner nationalism, but the general way of life and world view passed down between generations. Venter suggests two problems inherent in this action: firstly, the extent to which people are able to choose their inheritance in this way; and secondly, what new values will substitute the outdated ones.