From a thriller to a whodunnit, South African style

From A to X: A Story in Letters by John Berger (Verso)
Alan Lipman

There is a shelf devoted to John Berger’s books an arm-reach above my desk. This volume will join them in honoured display to await — as they all have done — periodic re-reading.

I first encountered Berger in the mid-1940s when his art reviews in the New Statesman overturned my views on art, politics … life. Later I fell into the grip of magisterial works such as Permanent Red, Ways of Seeing and, perhaps most markedly, the novel that he disingenuously entitled G. I was also to hear him in discussion at seminars in the University of Bristol, near to which I lived. Now, adding to his numerous novels and novelesque publications, comes the wise, tender, poetic and imaginative From A to X: A Story in Letters.

This poignant tale is presented as letters from A’ida to her long-imprisoned lover, the entombed Xavier, whom she addresses as Habibi, Guapo and similar terms of, presumably, intimate endearment. The undated letters, Berger tells us, were found in a cell — 2,5m x 3m x 4m high — among pigeonholes fashioned from discarded cigarette cartons. Xavier had been pronounced guilty of founding a terrorist network, for which he was committed for two life sentences.

Occasionally, we are told, he made notes on the back of A’ida’s letters. These are interspersed with the transcribed texts, as are letters that she wrote but did not send. The latter invariably centred on officially suspect events such as when she, a pharmacist, operated on a youth who had been shot by pursuing soldiers. Berger ends his introductory notes with the muted, barely suppressed blessing: “Wherever Xavier and A’ida are today, dead or alive, may God keep their shadows.” This is a portent of the felicitous turns of phrase on page upon page of the book.

Those pages are scattered with the author’s deft line drawings, principally of hands. There is a fist-like grip clenching a pen, eager fingers stretching forward and a pair — female to the left and male on the right — in close embrace. Another, a mite menacingly, holds a pair of scissors while others reach searchingly for one another. The sketches echo and reinforce the robust fragility of Berger’s humane writing. They underpin his beautifully, subtly conveyed tale of precarious, enduring love in a forcefield of brutal oppression. They speak simultaneously of dedicated resistance. As the back cover has it, the book “is a powerful exploration of how humanity affirms itself in struggle”.

Then there are those telling phrases — the pencil-marked snatches that disfigure my review copy for fear of forgetting where to find them — a succession of meticulously crafted conjunctions. Here a select few must suffice — enough, I trust, to savour the overall flavour; an essence that, for Berger, is rooted in the ordinary, the everyday.

First A’ida’s early morning comment: “The children like me are already awake. They have fewer reasons than the adults for sleeping, fewer things they never want to see again.” Or her loving: “Every night I put you together — bone by delicate bone.” Or, and I must resist quoting on and on: “Andrea asked me how we first met — you and I. And I told her. Now I want to tell you. You can change it, if you like. The past is the one thing we are not prisoners of. We can do with the past exactly what we wish.”

And one — only one, I promise — of Xavier’s precise notes: “Dream: the universe was open like a book … the top right hand corner of the right hand page was folded inwards to mark the place. And on that small triangle of folded paper was written the secret of materiality — which was as elegant and faultless as a fractal.”

All this is coupled with Berger’s mesmeric stories of the protagonists, for instance, when, pre-prison, Xavier took A’ida flying in a tiny, single-engine aircraft: of their upside-down loops, their “2 500 rpm”, their daring approaches to cumulus clouds. “Days later you told me I cried out. What kind of cry? Like a bird in flight, you said, like a pipit.”

Boston snowplough by Sue Rabie (Human & Rousseau) Ancient Rites by Diale Tlholwe (Kwela)
Barbara Ludman
We’re in not-so-sunny South Africa in Boston Snowplough: specifically, the Natal Midlands during a snowstorm. The local constabulary asks petrol station proprietor David Roth to take his ancient grader on to the roads. Along the way to the Edendale turnoff Roth comes across a stranded bus, which, unbeknown to the driver, is carrying a couple of killers among its more ordinary passengers. He leaves half the passengers, including the killers, at a small rural settlement and brings the rest to the tearoom across the road from his petrol station. Roth seems to spend quite a lot of time coming and going, from the tearoom to the bus to the rural settlement, back to the tearoom, on to the bus. He’s a man with a secret — and we don’t discover what it is, the mission of the killers or the twist in Rabie’s tale, until close to the end of the book.

In Ancient Rites we move north to the village of Marakong-a-Badimo, near Mafikeng. Private investigator Thabang Maje has been hired to find schoolteacher Mamorena Marumo missing and believed to have been taken out by a serial killer who might have mistaken her for his usual prey, the prostitutes who work on the highway to Botswana. Maje is a former teacher himself, so it is easy for him to pose as a substitute while looking for Marumo, whom he knew and fell in love with as a student. But he doesn’t know who his client is, what’s bothering his colleagues, or why the village has a mysterious feel to it — until he encounters some ancient rites. There are too-brief glimpses of village life, the school, the pupils; one has the impression this is the first in a series featuring Maje.

Both Rabie and Tlholwe are educators. Rabie teaches in Pietermaritzburg. Tlholwe, who has woven his book around a village school, is also a former journalist. For both authors, these crime novels mark their debut.

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Barbara Ludman
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