Having finished this book, I fell asleep, my mind a-buzz, and dreamed that a crocodile swam up to me as I stood shivering...moreChronicles of a Crocodile Man
Having finished this book, I fell asleep, my mind a-buzz, and dreamed that a crocodile swam up to me as I stood shivering, waist-deep in the river. Because I had no weapon, I tried to fend the beast off with my hands. But he was not intent upon attack. Instead, he nudged and nuzzled me like a friendly cat.
And so fear became wonder, and when I awoke I spent several weeks contemplating, perhaps pointlessly, why crocodiles behave like crocodiles. Mainly because I could not bear to blow the brains out of this menacing metaphor. Instead, I set about imagining a man in a crocodile suit, who grows weary of the anger, hate and fear he inspires. And so he gradually slips off his suit, a gruesome metamorphosis, until he emerges naked and hurriedly fashions his discarded hide into a loincloth, a hat, cowboy boots, and a rough satchel in which to carry his diary, his memory, his most prized possession.
Imagine, if you will, what kind of reception our Crocodile Man might expect from the world. The crocs in the river would be filled with hate and perhaps even envy at his trickery. The relatives of his former victims would look upon his transformation with suspicion. Those unaware of his past might see him as an eccentric exhibitionist. Those who dare to engage with him may marvel at his scaly past, but would remain wary of his dormant crocodile temperament.
And then there are those who know better than to blow the brains out of a walking metaphor. Those who want to open the man’s croc-skin bag and read his diary. I have. And it is more absurd, unlikely, entertaining and intriguing than this review. Somewhat tattered and stained in places, full of madness and rage, sometimes spiteful, sometimes remorseful, often hilarious, always brutally honest, as one might expect from a man who has lived the life of a crocodile and dreamed crocodile dreams. (less)
"A must-read!" according to Mrs. Brown, my English teacher, which immediately cast a deep, black shadow of doubt on the whole enterprise. This book ma...more"A must-read!" according to Mrs. Brown, my English teacher, which immediately cast a deep, black shadow of doubt on the whole enterprise. This book made me acutely aware that the playboy lifestyle I had always hoped to live was not necessarily going to be as fulfilling as I'd imagined. I remember making a mental note to scrap the pool when the architect brought round the plans for the mansion.(less)
Cry Freedom, Steve Biko, Kevin Cline, Denzel Washington, Drakensberg, casinos, Maseru (or was i...more(Spirited into Lesotho by Morabo Morojele.)
Cry Freedom, Steve Biko, Kevin Cline, Denzel Washington, Drakensberg, casinos, Maseru (or was it Mbabane?), and a picture postcard of a horseman wearing a colourful straw hat that looked like the roof of a small rondavel – that was the sum total of my knowledge of Lesotho before I read your book, which seemed out of synch with the witty rogue I met in Cape Town. I was expecting “Four Weddings and a Funeral” at high altitude, but I got a poignant, melodic tale of unremitting grief and hardship that meandered irrevocably to the death of Puso.
I'm not even going to attempt to shout it louder than Zakes Mda on the cover: “This is a deeply thought novel, rich in images and poetic descriptions. Oh, what a turn of phrase!”
Or the blurb: “…a lyrical account of veiled truths and panoramic splendour where the true nature of change is revealed in a detailed narrative collage that saturates the senses.”
Yours is the kind of writing that makes me feel like a clay-clogged boer at a jazz gig – I dig the vibe and rhythm, but my feet remain firmly planted in the soil. And so, in deference to your linguistic improvisation skills, I shall let your book sing for itself, by selecting five riffs from five random pages.
“A river gently gurgled its way across the length of the valley until in the far distance, it disappeared into the dark blue fog of mountains crouched against the horizon.” (p. 41)
“The air is dense at this time. It sits like a blanket over the village. Things pass through it. Animate things like bats and night birds, and when the wind is very strong, dust and debris and bits of paper and leaves. And things also that we do not have names for.” (p. 80)
“An adult’s face in grief is a slack, dumb, hanging muscle. Or it is grimacing and grinding at the teeth as if against a cold buffeting wind or against a light that shouts and bounces off the surface of things. A child’s face on the other hand, does not know the shape of grief.” (p. 113)
“No ancestors there, but haunting all the moments between every sound, between every shade of refracted light, here in this tent. Implicated in each and every of Thembi’s words that were floated across the air to me like wishing.” (p. 162)
“Then make a song for it of words no one would understand, then fainter and fainter into the years, the words blurred by the language of men, the clamour of living, to the point of forgetting. Until it comes to you, suddenly and always and only at the point of your undoing.” (p. 229)
(Morabo Morojele's book How We Buried Puso was published by Jacana Media in 2006.) (less)
Although the title suggests otherwise, God is nowhere to be found on the pages of this little masterpiece. Tragicomical proof that America is like an...moreAlthough the title suggests otherwise, God is nowhere to be found on the pages of this little masterpiece. Tragicomical proof that America is like an eccentric aunt who is fun to have around but fortunately lives elsewhere. (Ranks among my recent favourites.) (less)
Have you ever achieved divine climax in unison with your beloved, only to have her suddenly break out in song – West-...moreSlaying Them With Peace
Have you ever achieved divine climax in unison with your beloved, only to have her suddenly break out in song – West-Side-Story style – waxing lyrical about the great sex you’ve just had, the breakfast you’re about to have, the Saturday shopping that needs doing, and the kids’ dental appointments?
I hope not. But that was the feeling I got upon sipping the dregs of your otherwise highly satisfying Bitches’ Brew. I recommend this book to anyone who would like to take a ruthless ride on the lawless border between jazz and crime with a band of unforgettable brigands and molls – but only on condition that they first turn briskly to page 314 and then rip out and burn the remaining pages, including the back cover, whose blurb was born from the loathsome loins of Chapter 39. What made you do it, Fred? Why wouldn’t you let me savour the moment? Why wouldn’t you let me spend a little more head time with the wonderful characters you so skilfully moulded with great depth and detail? Lettie, Bra Zakes, Sis Jane, Bhazabhaza, Bra Viv and even Deutsche Dieter are all still dancing in my cerebral shebeen, as the Zeppelins belt out tune upon tune until dawn.
Your book was a gateway to a harsh and untamed terra incognita (which apparently existed just beyond the horizon of the sterile, white world I grew up in). This squalid and dangerous place is inhabited by men and women hell-bent on survival, seeking any opportunity to gain a little edge over others, building brittle towers of privilege that are immediately visible to others and therefore worth tearing down. A dog-eat-dog, cat-scratch-cat, stab-out-your-eye-motherfucker kind of world, with little islands of affinity and empathy here and there. Unfortunately, these little islands almost invariably consist of quicksand, making them more hazardous than bootlegging and drug peddling. And all this madness and pain is tied together by a tragic tale of unrequited love. Bitchin’!
But you couldn’t leave it there, Fred. Were you ten pages short? Was it once the intro? A synopsis? Why oh why did you have to break out the lederhosen and take us yodelling with the Von Trapps?
Fred Khumalo’s Bitches’ Brew and his latest book Seven Steps to Heaven are published by Jacana Media
A truly harrowing story – told in reverse. Love affairs start with a slap in the face; yellow cabs pay their passengers up front; and terrified women...moreA truly harrowing story – told in reverse. Love affairs start with a slap in the face; yellow cabs pay their passengers up front; and terrified women are abandoned in parks to be cured by rape. The impact of atrocities is intensified by forcing the reader to digest every event twice. (Ranks in all-time Top-5.)(less)
(Warning: This is a skatebike review in that it combines elements of two classic forms – the anecdotal...moreThings Fall Apart Again, Raising More Questions
(Warning: This is a skatebike review in that it combines elements of two classic forms – the anecdotal vignette and comprehensive literary analysis – to create an utterly useless monstrosity that is neither one nor the other. In short, you will be made to pedal really hard without getting anywhere.)
I first read Things Fall Apart (TFA) as a teenager at school in Johannesburg. This was back in the early 1980s when Apartheid was girding its loins for the “Total Onslaught” from “Commies” gathering on our country’s northern borders. The following passage gives you some idea of the anxious atmosphere that had been contrived at the time:
...“Boys in blue and grey uniforms are marching in the afternoon sun. Ten sad rectangles move back and forth between the rugby posts, like human concertinas easing out a tune as the back rows lag, catch up, then lag again. These are the men who will fight the acronyms that have launched a Total Onslaught on The Border: SWAPO, PAC, ANC, MPLA, FNLA, ZANU, ZAPU, UNITA. Some are bad, others good, say the papers, “but when push comes to shove, each and every one of them would rape your mother and hang you little white turds upside down by your balls,” says Mr Cloete, our PT teacher, an ex-drill sergeant.”
The question that has plagued me since the 50th anniversary of Things Fall Apart is: why was this book prescribed to us at school? In retrospect, it seems odd that a book intended as a counterpoint to racist perspectives and narratives of Africa espoused in European literature should be placed on the reading lists of students who were, quite frankly, being overtly and covertly brainwashed with a view to perpetuating white dominance and privilege in South Africa. This seemed so implausible that I even began to doubt whether I had actually read TFA at school. But when I expressed these doubts previously, others confirmed that they too recalled having read the book at school. I soon decided that the only way to unravel this conundrum was to re-read this classic novel. Having done so – more than a year after announcing my intention – I fear I am not much closer to the truth.
The world described in Things Fall Apart is not a pretty one. Much of the story revolves around Okonkwo, a power-hungry, wife-beating, son-killing potentate, whose only redeeming feature seems to be an unwavering struggle against more perverse forces encroaching on his realm. While there are other characters who represent a variety of alternative perspectives and moralities, the story paints a grim picture of a community governed by customs, traditions and superstitions threatened by an influx of white missionaries and colonists bringing their own customs, traditions and superstitions. To put it bluntly, the average reader might quite easily characterise the book as: black savages being threatened by white savages carrying more powerful weapons.
Because I am not untainted – I was suckled on Apartheid’s grotesque breast – I began to wonder whether deep-seated remnants of racism may be causing me to miss the point of this story. Surely Achebe never intended to confirm or perpetuate common prejudice about Africans as savages eking out an existence on the edge of the forest, threatened by drought, war and disease?
This question led me to the author’s essay “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’” (Massachusetts Review. 18. 1977. Rpt. in Heart of Darkness, An Authoritative Text, background and Sources Criticism. 1961. 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough, London: W. W Norton and Co., 1988, pp.251-261), which wasn’t too difficult to find online In this critique of Conrad’s classic, Achebe writes: “Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world,’ the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man's vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant beastiality.”
Achebe subsequently cites various passages from Conrad’s book illustrating the racism underlying the author’s perspective on Africans. I have not read Heart of Darkness, but I am more than willing to take Achebe’s word for it that a white author, writing about Africa in the 19th century, would harbour some downright prejudicial views of any culture beyond his Anglo-Saxon frame of reference. Achebe himself arrives at a similar conclusion, but ultimately aims his sharpest arrow at the fact that Conrad’s book still ranks as a classic and is still a setwork for students of literature.
“The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot.”
All of which brings me back to Things Fall Apart, which is, to the best my knowledge, today considered as much a classic of English literature as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It is often argued that Achebe wrote his book as a counterpoint to the narrow portrayal of Africa and Africans in European literature. One online study guide characterises TFA as follows:
“Its most striking feature is to create a complex and sympathetic portrait of a traditional village culture in Africa. Achebe is trying not only to inform the outside world about Ibo cultural traditions, but to remind his own people of their past and to assert that it had contained much of value. All too many Africans in his time were ready to accept the European judgment that Africa had no history or culture worth considering.”
But does Achebe’s novel indeed achieve this high-flown objective? Or does the fact that TFA was prescribed to us at high school in Apartheid South Africa point towards a more sinister side-effect of Achebe’s effort to redress Conrad’s one-sided perspective? Was it perhaps prescribed because it inadvertently confirms white prejudices about savage Africans eking out an existence on the edge of an evil jungle?
One thing is certain, this book has set me scouring the internet for further analyses. Some of these have offered new insight into how the text should be read, and I have every intention of seeking out other texts on the topic. More specifically, samples of African scholars’ perspectives on this book. However, I doubt whether the average reader will take the trouble to do so. And I wonder whether they will be able to extract the true essence and meaning of this book without a guide to put things into perspective for them.
In the closing passage of his essay, Achebe writes: “Although the work of redressing which needs to be done may appear too daunting, I believe it is not one day too soon to begin. Conrad saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth. But the victims of racist slander who for centuries have had to live with the inhumanity it makes them heir to have always known better than any casual visitor even when he comes loaded with the gifts of a Conrad.”
Is it possible that Achebe too was “strangely unaware” to what extent his book might be misinterpreted or misrepresented? And to what extent is my own re-reading of his novel tainted by the frame of reference from whence I come?
Bijgaand een aantal recensies uit de Nederlandse pers en een foto van de prachtige etalage bij Athenaeum Boekhandel op het Spui in Amsterdam.
'Niemand...moreBijgaand een aantal recensies uit de Nederlandse pers en een foto van de prachtige etalage bij Athenaeum Boekhandel op het Spui in Amsterdam.
'Niemand ontsnapt aan zijn verantwoordelijkheid, zelfs de lezer niet. Want dankzij De Nooys vernuftige verteltechniek word je zo diep het verhaal in gesleurd dat je af en toe schrikt van iets waarom je eerst hebt gelachen. En dan besef je hoe gemakkelijk je medeplichtig kunt worden.' Trouw (De volledige recensie. Let wel: Mogelijke spoilers.)
‘Vele grappige, ontroerende en morbide scènes in dit met vaart, humor en empathie geschreven boek.’ Het Parool (Het volledige interview.)
'Een vermakelijk postmoderne 'black comedy' die de lezer bij de strot grijpt.' Het Financieele Dagblad
'De fragmentarische vertelvorm draagt bij aan de spanning, evenals de rauwe stijl. Dit alles tegen het grimmige decor van het Zuid-Afrika van die tijd zorgt ervoor dat het verhaal je met een ongemakkelijk gevoel achterlaat.' Onze Wereld
Master crime novelist James Ellroy wove this hard-boiled autobiography around his quest for his mother’s killer. Halfway through this painfully honest...moreMaster crime novelist James Ellroy wove this hard-boiled autobiography around his quest for his mother’s killer. Halfway through this painfully honest memoir, I began wondering what would have become of Ellroy if he hadn’t started writing. Conclusive proof that fact and fiction are moulded from the same clay. (Ranks in my all-time Top-5.)(less)
I seem to recall a boy, his father (the narrator), his ex-wife, her lover, and a group of literarti and academics gather at a large country home. Some...moreI seem to recall a boy, his father (the narrator), his ex-wife, her lover, and a group of literarti and academics gather at a large country home. Somehow they were fabulously intertwined, but - evidently - not memorably so.(less)
The mind-boggling, four-page descriptions of characters who are only marginally relevant to the plot make this a hugely entertaining m...moreMy First Russian
The mind-boggling, four-page descriptions of characters who are only marginally relevant to the plot make this a hugely entertaining masterpiece. A novel that takes its time - like a train trip fraught with misfortune that ultimately proves to be the most memorable part of a holiday.
You read it when? About 10 years ago.
Impact rating: 8 out of 10 (some scenes and style exercises have become intra-cranial graffiti)
I made the mistake of reading Lolita while I was writing my first novel. I promptly decided I was wasting my time. The next morning, I punished myself...moreI made the mistake of reading Lolita while I was writing my first novel. I promptly decided I was wasting my time. The next morning, I punished myself by typing “I am not Vladimir Nabokov” 100 times with my forehead. I got the message around line 57, and went out to buy a new keyboard.
My wife worries about our kids being kidnapped by a homicidal maniac in a...morePanem et Circenses
(Breathing out the Ghost with Lions at My Heels)
My wife worries about our kids being kidnapped by a homicidal maniac in a clown suit who drives around in a funky little panel van containing three litters of Labrador puppies and a bagful of candy, dispensing good cheer and trauma nationwide. I mostly worry about our kids being run over by acne-riddled imbeciles on scooters whose sole aim in life is to deliver pizza at 320 km/h, labouring under the misapprehension that “Game Over” is invariably followed by “Play Again?”
My wife reads a lot of thrillers. I don’t. Herein lies the key, I think.
Don’t get me wrong: I like thrillers. Yours is without doubt one of the very best I’ve ever read. A cross between James Ellroy’s “My Dark Places” and Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”, two of my all-time favourites, exploring the very darkest corners of human nature, drawing the reader into the hearts and minds of characters, ultimately holding up a mirror and compelling them to see themselves, look within, wonder what they would do.
That said, I also know that accidents claim many more lives than sexual predators and that most violent crime is perpetrated by people who know their victims. What concerns me is that, while my wife is willing to accept the aforesaid, sexual predators remain the prime source of her maternal anxiety. I firmly believe that this anxiety is largely fuelled by books and films that perpetuate the myth that we should fear strangers, when in fact we have more to fear from ourselves, our relatives, our friends, our neighbours. I would even go as far as to say that my wife and I are more much likely to harm our own kids or someone else’s through our own negligence – late for school again! – than we are to suffer the trauma of the parents in your book, whose children have been taken from them and murdered by free-ranging psychopaths.
All this is further compounded by the fact that cinematic and literary “experiences” are assuming an increasingly important place in our lives. People discuss characters from soap operas as if they live next door, or conversely, they are more preoccupied with the lives (and deaths) of celebrities than they are with those of their neighbours. I believe this “media-driven” reality, fed by fiction, causes people to grossly overestimate some risks, distracting them from the far greater risk presented by their own actions or inertia.
Taking this one step further: I sometimes wonder to what extent thrillers and other fictional fare are modern versions of the age-old “bread and games” doled out to appease the masses, distract them from more pressing matters, keep their eyes on Bin Laden and away from the terrorist within.
And so your book has lured me out into the centre of an empty arena. Before the lions are released, I’d like to thank you for an excellent read that seems to have provoked more thought than I could ever have anticipated when I set out to write this review.
(Rediscovery Blog – Leg IX – Cracking the Coconut with Dr. Matlwa)
You are roughly half my age, yet somehow y...moreAre You Getting White With Me?
(Rediscovery Blog – Leg IX – Cracking the Coconut with Dr. Matlwa)
You are roughly half my age, yet somehow you have written a book that is unnervingly “mature” in its dissection of a theme that, in my opinion, is the placenta that feeds many of the world’s great novels – the quest for identity and autonomy.
To be quite honest, I was expecting African chicklit. Fortunately, you gave me a whole lot more. The purpose of my Voyage of Rediscovery is to broaden my horizons and to explore worlds that are generally inaccessible to a middle-aged, white guy (which is, sadly, what I have turned out to be). That means I read fiction in the hope that it reflects fact in such way that I am forced to reconsider my perceptions of the real world – my real world. In short, a good book raises questions. And your produced plenty of milk for my hungry mind.
To keep things in perspective, I have boiled my many musings down to a single train of thought (even blending metaphors to extract the coconutty essence of it all).
You may be interested to hear that the Creole community in Holland have their own term for “coconuts.” They refer to people who are brown outside but white inside as “Bounties” – a reference to a popular chocolate bar which has a white, coconut filling (how apt). This implies that the pursuit of “whiteness” (whatever that may be) is not only frowned upon in South Africa, but also in Amsterdam, where race is not necessarily a hot issue.
All this brings to mind the odd expression: “Are you getting white with me?” I’m not sure if this is still commonly used in South Africa, but in my youth it served to firmly remind supposedly inferior parties (of all races) of their place in the pecking order.
All of these terms – coconut, Bounty, white – are almost invariably expressed at an interpersonal level in reference to perceived attempts to achieve or express superiority. I suppose it all boils down to that age-old question: “Do you think you’re better than me?” This blunt shard of rhetoric becomes even more lethal when it is dipped in racial poison. In essence, the coconut or Bounty is accused of misplaced superiority with regard to an entire race or community, and not just at an interpersonal level.
What I find intriguing is that, to my knowledge, none of the characters in your book is ever accused of being a coconut. However, they all portray various dimensions of this theme: Fifi wants to be accepted by her white friends; Fiks wants to escape her dire circumstances; Uncle has allowed himself to be exploited to consolidate the superiority of his white bosses; and Tshepo is struggling to achieve superiority on his own terms.
Your book is especially impressive in that it does not choose sides, but allows characters to play out different dimensions of the struggle for identity, autonomy and superiority. Naturally, the encounters between these different characters also offer highly provocative food for thought.
That said, I am sure Coconut will be a source of endless debate once it becomes required reading at South African high schools. I wish I could listen in on these discussions, if only to confirm that the issue at hand has as many dimensions as there are people.
I bought this at the airport in Amsterdam and read it on the way to Johannesburg. Travelling overland from Cairo to Cape Town, Theroux managed to keep...moreI bought this at the airport in Amsterdam and read it on the way to Johannesburg. Travelling overland from Cairo to Cape Town, Theroux managed to keep up with the Boeing until the banks of Lake Victoria. Sadly, I lost sight of him as he boarded the ferry. I never went back to check whether he made it across. (less)
“No, I am not feeling very well” – those were the first words I...moreDreams that Ride the Reader
(Across the Styx and Back with Ferryman Zack)
“No, I am not feeling very well” – those were the first words I ever heard you utter. Having read your book, I can well imagine that you suffer from chronic fatigue brought on by the nightmares that plague your waking and sleeping hours. Even out in the French countryside, with the sun shining bright upon its magnificent cover, your book remained a dark cavern, an underworld where dream and reality are inextricable, where the hope of salvation has dimmed to the slightest glimmer, where echoes moan a warning and ancient symbols etched by ancestors are reduced to wallpaper as you stumble blindly in search of the exit.
Your book rode me hard, Zachariah, but I stayed the course and was rewarded. My life suddenly seemed brighter, clearer, more privileged. I felt like a man who had bungee-jumped down a mineshaft, dangling for an instant in the gaping maw of hell, with a panoramic view of its inhabitants, begging for the backlash to kick in and drag me up. And I saw you, Zack, perched on a ledge above the flames, writing. You seemed to reach up to grasp my hand, but when I was catapulted back into the sunlight, I discovered you had given me your book.
I hope writing it has brought you some relief. If so, I suspect it is akin to that which concentration camp survivors get from giving guided tours of Auschwitz, bravely recounting tales of terrifying intimacy that deserve to be heard and retold for generations to come.