Sometimes when I finish a really good book I just can’t wait to dash off to the computer and write my review – I want to tell everyone about it. That’Sometimes when I finish a really good book I just can’t wait to dash off to the computer and write my review – I want to tell everyone about it. That’s the way I feel about A Blade of Grass by South African/Canadian author Lewis Desoto, which was longlisted for the Booker in 2004. It’s a story of an inter-racial friendship set on the contested South African frontier in the 1970s during the apartheid era. I found it to be a remarkable debut novel that was engaging from the very beginning yet managed to raise complex issues about entitlement to land; about power and gender; and about the destructive effects of fear of The Other.
So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered from some outraged comments at GoodReads that some readers are very cross about this book. For some, there is too much lyrical description, for others too much symbolism. One who thought that DeSoto also has absolutely no place in writing from a female perspective took issue with the way that the peace and harmony of the relationship between two female protagonists, one Black, one White, is disrupted by jealousy over a man. Someone else is peeved about the stereotyping of entrenched racist Afrikaaners; ambivalent, hopeful Britishers; and resentful, disenfranchised Africans. (There was also a reader who thought it was set during the Boer War. The less said about that the better, eh?) The novel copped a very negative review at 'Culture Wars' too.
I don’t think that I read this novel uncritically, so I was relieved to see not only some positive views amongst the others at GR, but also this one from Quill and Quire. I felt that this novel rendered the complexities of living in a racist society with the respect it deserves. The two central characters, Marït and Tembi, are creatures of the society in which they grew up and their identities are forged by the black/white divide. Even when they transcend this divide, as Desoto renders it, they inevitably retain some habits of thought and behaviour, and in moments of crisis they revert to old habits even if intellectually and emotionally they reject them. This seems entirely realistic to me.
I was familiar with Damon Galgut’s work from The Good Doctor, which was shortlisted for the Booker in 2003, so when I saw The Impostor as an audio booI was familiar with Damon Galgut’s work from The Good Doctor, which was shortlisted for the Booker in 2003, so when I saw The Impostor as an audio book I borrowed it from the library. It’s very good indeed…
It’s the story of Adam Napier, a bit of a loser, who comes to live in a small town in the Karoo (South Africa). He’s lost his job to a Black African intern that he himself trained, because in the new post apartheid South Africa, white men do – though you get the impression that Adam was probably not much good at his job anyway. He certainly doesn’t have any initiative: his brother warns him that his neighbourhood is going down-market and he should sell his house while he can, but he doesn’t, and he ends up dependent on his more successful brother for a roof over his head. Living in a run-down house that Gavin has as a holiday place, Adam makes no attempt to clean it up and the weeds which grow profusely are a metaphor for the way life has overtaken him.
By chance he meets up with Kenneth Canning, who recognises him from school days, though Napier has no memory of this. Canning is a small-time developer, out of his depth because he doesn’t really understand just how corrupt his business partner is. Napier knows nothing about this until it’s too late: he gets sucked into being complicit in dodgy deals and as an unwitting participant he ends up at risk of real harm.
In the wake of the death of Nelson Mandela, it seemed an appropriate time to read La Guma’s book, In the Fog of a Seasons’ End which I bought from theIn the wake of the death of Nelson Mandela, it seemed an appropriate time to read La Guma’s book, In the Fog of a Seasons’ End which I bought from the Africa Book Club a little while ago. It is one of the Heinemann African Writers Series, and while the book paints a bleak and almost hopeless picture of the struggle against apartheid when the regime was at the height of its power, it is also a vivid depiction of the heroism of activists who refused to submit to it.
Alex La Guma (1925-1985) was a distinguished South African author who was also one of the leading figures in the struggle against apartheid. According to the brief bio in the front of the book, he joined the Communist Party as a young man, and was active in the movement until it was banned in 1950. In 1956 he was among those who drew up the Freedom Charter and was one of the 156 accused in the notorious Treason Trials. He wrote for a progressive newspaper called New Age, and was under house arrest by 1962. But before his sentence had elapsed the authorities passed the No Trial Act and La Guma and his wife were placed in solitary confinement. Shortly after their release, they fled to Britain in 1967 but ended up in Cuba until his death in 1985.
This brief outline of his life gives moral authority to every word of this short novel. It’s only 180-odd pages long, but it’s a powerful work, the more so because it is undramatic. The sombre prose brings to life the courage and tenacity of men like Nelson Mandela and his supporters who struggled so long against an implacable and immoral regime.
The novel begins with the capture, imprisonment and torture of an unnamed man. The reader doesn’t find out who this man is until towards the end of the book, which adds to the tension because even when one knows the likely outcome, one can’t help but wish for it to be different.
There are two main characters, Elias and Beukes. Beukes, whose task it is to distribute handbills about a forthcoming strike, reminded me in some ways of the couple in Hans Fellada’s Alone in Berlin who distributed postcards around Berlin to alert people to the evil of the regime. Beukes risked the same appalling penalty if caught, and was also engaged in a seemingly hopeless task. The difference in La Guma’s novel is that while few can be trusted because of fear of reprisals, Beukes works as part of a clandestine network and he has the silent support of the Black Majority behind him. The other difference is that the struggle in South Africa went on for decades. This meant that there was a constant struggle not to give in to apathy or despair.
Although I’ve read quite a few books from South Africa, most of them have been written in English. I’ve read nearly everything J.M. Coetzee wrote befoAlthough I’ve read quite a few books from South Africa, most of them have been written in English. I’ve read nearly everything J.M. Coetzee wrote before he migrated to Australia; some by Nadine Gordimer and Gillian Slovo; the Martha Quest books by Doris Lessing; Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, and in recent years I’ve tried to keep up with the work of Damon Galgut because I find his books intriguing.
Shortlisted for the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, Bundu by Chris Barnard is one of the few books I’ve read that has been translated from the Afrikaans. Barnard (b.1939) is a highly regarded author in South Africa, winning multiple prizes including a South African Literary Award for Lifetime Achievement. According to Wikipedia he (along with André Brink, an author whose unforgettable 2001 novel The Other Side of Silence I read back in 2004) was a prominent member of Die Sestigers (“The Sixty-ers”), a literary movement which was influenced by contemporary English and French trends and used the Afrikaans language in protest against the apartheid government.
But times have moved on since the 1960s and the battle for democratic government, and Barnard’s short novel of only 219 pages is more concerned with social issues. In one of the most misleading blurbs I’ve come across, the publisher calls it on the book cover ‘an unforgettable African story full of romance and adventure‘ – but anyone expecting a bodice-ripper will be sadly disappointed by this melancholy tale of drought and starvation in the bundu. It’s actually a most unsettling book which left me sleepless after I finally finished it.
By coincidence yesterday I heard Rev Tim Costello talking about Australia’s foreign aid budget on The Religion Report on ABC Radio National. Australia is a long way short of contributing 0.7% of GNP which we signed up to do through the international Millennium goal. We give only 0.35%, but even so, that miserly amount last year saved the lives of 200,000 men, women and especially children. With a federal election later this year and politicians of all stripes talking cost-cutting measures, Costello spoke up on behalf of our aid agencies to advocate that there be no further cuts to the foreign aid budget which has become progressively meaner since the 1950s under Robert Menzies.
What Bundu does is to bring the need for foreign aid into sharp focus. Brand de la Rey is an environmental researcher living in a remote region near the fluid border between South Africa and Mozambique. He lives a monastic sort of existence with his assistant Vusi, a Zulu who experiences life in a mystical sort of way which causes occasional conflict with Brand’s evidence-based way of looking at the world. At the hospital some distance away there is Vukili the (possibly not really qualified) doctor, a couple of nuns and Julia, a quixotic and headstrong woman who is volunteering in order to work off her feelings of worthlessness and rage about the politics of South Africa. Yes, there is an instant but fraught attraction between Brand and Julia, but trust me, it is not the focus of the book.
In a Strange Room is a strange, unsettling trio of novellas about a young man, Damon, who makes a series of unresolved journeys. The author, Damon GalIn a Strange Room is a strange, unsettling trio of novellas about a young man, Damon, who makes a series of unresolved journeys. The author, Damon Galgut acknowledges that this book is autobiographical, and indeed it’s rather like a memoir written sometimes in the first person and at other times as if his older self is observing his younger self. The tone is melancholy, and the act of reading it feels somehow intrusive, as if snooping in a diary.
The young Damon is born in South Africa but does not feel as if he belongs there, though that is where he aimlessly returns when his wanderings fail to resolve his loneliness. He aches to connect with others, but does not know how. Conversations begin, falter and drift away. This is the pattern of his relationships.
Everybody knows the story of Winnie Mandela, venerated as the stoic wife of the world’s secular saint Nelson Mandela while he languished in prison onEverybody knows the story of Winnie Mandela, venerated as the stoic wife of the world’s secular saint Nelson Mandela while he languished in prison on Robben Island under the South African apartheid regime, only to be vilified as a wicked woman in the last few years before his release.
This remarkable book, The Cry of Winnie Mandela, A Novel uses the story of Penelope from Greek myth, to analyse the untenable position of women whose husbands are absent for long periods of time. It’s written from a post-colonial and feminist view of the world, and it draws on all kinds of postmodern flourishes: •It’s faction, blending fact and fiction and using real living people; •It plays with intertextuality because while the references to Homer absorb the myth, it also will change the way you read the Penelope story (unless you’ve already read Margaret Atwood’s playful feminist reworking of it in The Penelopiad). It also alludes to a famous story called The Suit by Can Themba (1924–1968), a banned South African short story writer who fled to Swaziland and wrote about the frustrations of tertiary-educated urban black people. That story focuses on the extreme punishment meted out to an unfaithful wife. •It’s a pastiche, beginning on the very first page with ‘a blurb from an imaginary book about a South African woman during the long years of struggle against apartheid’. A blurb within the pages of a book: I haven’t seen this before. Here it is:
So what does a woman do in the absence of her husband, who is in jail, in the mines, in exile, or is dead, or away studying, or spends most on the road as a salesman, or who, while not having gone awywhere in particular, is never at home because he just busy fooling around? This woman has seen all kinds of departures, has endured the uncertainties of waiting, and has hoped for the return of her man. Departure, waiting and return; they define her experience of the past, present and future. They frame her life at the centre of a great South African story not yet told. This book tells the stories of four unknown women, and that of South Africa’s most famous woman, who waited. (p1)
I read The Conservationist in a kind of appalled fascination, repelled by the language South African Whites use to talk to and about the Blacks in theI read The Conservationist in a kind of appalled fascination, repelled by the language South African Whites use to talk to and about the Blacks in the book. Nadine Gordimer, the Nobel Prize winning author of this Booker Prize winning story, depicts her characters routinely using the language of master and servant in the most disparaging way, a kind of amused contempt exacerbated by its casual delivery. Reading it, one feels besmirched simply by being privy to the perspective of its White anti-hero, Mehring.
However as the tale unfolded, the main thing I noticed about The Conservationist was the sense of isolation of this principal character, Mehring. Unlike the dispossessed and powerless characters who work for and around him and enjoy companionable relationships with others, he – the rich, powerful white man in South Africa under Apartheid – is alone. As the story progresses he isolates himself even more, refusing all invitations and camping out in increasing discomfort rather than participate in society. Eventually his friends give up on him and the invitations dry up…