Jane Rosenthal assesses four novels that cast the country in very different lights.
In his first novel, The Book of War, James Whyle outlines the fate of a boy who enlists with a disparate band of mercenaries to fight for the colonial British in their attempts to drive out the Xhosa inhabitants of the Amatola mountains. The protagonist in that story of funded imperial aggression is a boy old enough to shoot well and keep up with men.
Whyle’s second novel, Walk, is set in the same area of the Eastern Cape but on the coast, and details the walk of the survivors of the wreck of the Grosvenor in 1768.
Once again the protagonist is a boy, but in this instance in a state of extreme helplessness, thrown with the other castaways on the mercy of the local people. In some places they are stoned, robbed and insulted (milk is fed to dogs in front of them), and at others, further west, the boy and other survivors are treated with kindness.
This interface of white people and the Xhosa seems to be Whyle’s current and enduring fascination, and he renders it pared down to the essentials, in measured and beautiful prose.
Original sources of diaries, reports and other documents are used to underpin a fictional realisation of events, some real and some imagined. Set in pristine paradise, it is not a read you will soon forget.
This small gem deserves a place on the bookshelves of serious readers; a cherished fragment, unpretentious and incomplete, it creates an enduring set of images: harvesting "dune figs", elephants with their "shrieking blast", bales of silk and cotton strewn over the rocks. Very few of the crew and passengers survived.
ZEBRA CROSSING by Meg Vandermerwe (Umuzi)
This tautly written novel starts out full of hope. Chipo, a young Zimbabwean, relates her story with moving and credible simplicity, making the best of a triple disadvantage in life: she’s a girl, she’s from a persecuted Movement for Democratic Change family in Harare and she has albinism.
Her mother’s shebeen is destroyed and she dies soon after; Chipo and her brother manage to escape to Cape Town to live with cousins in a small flat in Long Street. Many other refugees from Africa share the building.
At first, it seems Chipo will survive and flourish, but neglect and her own desires bring disaster to this too vulnerable child. Her own actions are her final undoing and the author shows us considerable complexity in the social backdrop as well as the psyches of these young displaced persons.
Umuzi has brought this out in hardback – the book is a beautiful object, though the cover seems far too bright for this tender and sad story.
BETRAYAL by Adriaan van Dis (MacLehose Press)
A Dutch anti-apartheid activist returns to South Africa 20 years after liberation to see what the country looks like, and to come to terms with his own somewhat romantic role that actually endangered others. He visits a fellow activist, now living in a seaside town in the Western Cape.
His observations on the perpetuation of apartheid as reflected in the continuing separation of coloured and white lives and the fears of whites living behind walls and electric gates are all well-founded, though tinged with lurid sensationalism.
He is even less accurate when it comes to the nuances of understanding fishing quotas, drug dealers and crooked cops.
Those Dutch reviewers who have raved about this book should perhaps read South African authors such as Mike Nicol, Deon Meyer and Karin Brynard if they are really interested in South Africa today.
To call Van Dis "Netherland’s own Graham Greene" is just comical publisher’s hype, promoting tourist schlock for the sanctimonious. Noticeably annoying in this book is the author’s tone of ineffable superiority – visiting the colonies again.
THE VUVUZELA MURDERS by Aryan Kaganof (Mbali Press)
It may well be that this author sees himself in the tradition of the great iconoclasts and satirists, and perhaps he especially aspires to be the William Burroughs of Cape Town.
It is true he writes well, with a racy, fluent style and has a good ear for dialogue. That said, however, this book is hectic, deranged, relentless and posturing. It seems to have been constructed out of various aspects of a story that have been cut and pasted together (in the famed style of Burroughs) from bad trips, horrible dreams and hallucinations, fantasies of power, paranoia and violent pornography.
The characters have less, far less, presence than animated cardboard cut-outs and basically provide a pretext for an ongoing fragmented rave in named venues in Cape Town (they might like to sue?), including
Valkenberg. It’s basically unreadable, except in short random snatches, and why would one want to do that?
Perhaps it’s a leaden and showy satire on sleazy filmmakers, porn dealers and other such characters that ordinary folk (heavily despised) would not really want to spend a few hours with, even in a book. If that was the intention, I think it has failed, since nothing remains in the mind after reading it other than nausea.
Because of Kaganoff’s existing reputation/profile, I read most of it. Be warned – it’s not for the faint-hearted, young people (under 25) and nice people. Out of kindness to readers I would say, don’t bother.