/ 26 May 1995

Madiba on top

SOUTH AFRICA’S book of the year has to be Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. It came out late last year, and went on to scoop the 1995 Alan Paton Prize as well as the CNA Award. It sold staggering amounts in hardcover, and is now available in a satisfyingly hefty paperback from Abacus.

Mandela tells a riveting story, the ultimate “struggle is my life” tale, from his Transkei childhood, through his years as a lawyer, treason-trialist, and Black Pimpernel, taking in nearly three decades in prison, up to the political manoeuvrings that led, finally, to his release and the death of apartheid.

It’s true that, as earlier reviewers pointed out, he doesn’t reveal anything surprising behind the “mask” of beloved statesman in a funky shirt. There are, however, charming sidelights such as his self-evaluation as a young man in the big city: “I was hardly a Don Juan. Awkward and hesitant around girls, I did not know or understand the romantic games that others seemed to play effortlessly.”

It may be a little stodgy in places, but Long Walk to Freedom is one of the great epics of our time.

How strange and enlightening, then, to revisit the last 30 years’ history from an entirely different and quite oblique angle — refracted through the poetry of Breyten Breytenbach. Die Hand Vol Vere (Human & Rousseau) is his collected poems, edited by Ampie Coetzee. Something to pore over, it is an extraordinary panoply of images and metaphors, personal and political, condensed into an Afrikaans that in every burning phrase subverts, remakes and renews the erstwhile “language of apartheid”.

As far as fiction is concerned, I’ve been recommending Jonathan Coe’s novel What a Carve Up! (Penguin) to anyone who will listen. It is, as critic Terry Eagleton so aptly says, “one of the few pieces of genuinely political post-modern fiction around”. Focusing on a ruthless upper-crust family in the years of Conservative dominance in Britain, it is written with awesome bravura and has a plot of dizzying complexity — but the kind of complexity that, like a good whodunnit, grips the reader mercilessly.

Frank Ronan’s Dixie Chicken (Sceptre) is also a brilliantly plotted novel, a mystery about one man’s life and death. It is narrated by God, who, apart from some unique personal preoccupations, sounds much like any other omniscient narrator. Dixie Chicken is funny, sad, and unputdownable.

And then there’s Poppy Z Brite, whom I’ve also recommended to many — often to be told that she’s just too much. She is, indeed, utterly over-the-top: she’s a horror writer unafraid of gory excess, an observer of human relationships who revels in carnal sensation. Lost Souls is her vampire novel, and Drawing Blood, which is even better, is a sort of cyber-thriller with a bit of haunted-house spookiness thrown in. Her stories are collected in Swamp Foetus (all Penguin).

Robertson Davies, Canada’s greatest novelist, died at 82 this year. He’d just released The Cunning Man (Viking), which looked likely to be the second novel in what would have been his fourth trilogy. Sadly, we’ll never get the final volume, but The Cunning Man is Davies at his best, and one can only be enriched by reading all his other books, too.

And, posthumously, Anthony Burgess, who died in 1993, has given us Byrne (Hutchinson), a novel in verse. Awesome and rebarbative as only Burgess could be, it tells the tale of a monster-genius composer-artist and his offspring, raising many of the questions Burgess worried at for most of his career. Like the Davies book, it makes one want to read its author’s previous masterpieces again.

Clive James’ book of literary essays, The Metropolitan Critic (Picador), was first published in 1974. It has now been reissued with an “auto-critique” by the author (in other words, he tells you in endnotes what was wrong with each essay, or how bad he felt saying nasty things about so-and-so). It is a model of refreshingly lucid criticism, a salutary lesson in how to read — and think.

Roland Barthes is another critic whose work inspires, though in a different way to James. James, in fact, would probably be ever so slightly suspicious of the slippery Frenchman, with his gnomic paradoxes and delicate fragments, such as those in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, the quasi-autobiography now reissued by Papermac. But I, for one, find him stimulating in a way few other critics are. If one is going to be puzzled, it’s a pleasure to be puzzled by Barthes.