Facts and fictions

It’s taken me seven years to get to reading Die Laaste Afrikaanse Boek by Karel Schoeman (Human & Rousseau, 2002) and it will probably take me seven years to finish it, as it is prodigiously long and one wonders if the title is a misprint — it should be called “Die Langste …”.

I have been reading it on and off and come back to it willingly to savour its slow pace, meditative detail and its fine historical texture. Schoeman has a great deal to say and is in no hurry. He clearly understands that the complexity of a life and an era cannot be conveyed in a summary.

He explores, often with a combination of speculation and fact, his grandparents’ lives in Bloemfontein, his early years with his mother in Paarl, his schooling, the local library, impressions of neighbours.

Schoeman somehow teaches readers to slow down and appreciate not only the content of his memoir, but also their own lives, to savour and wonder and think about the context — physical, intellectual, personal — in which they find themselves. He asserts that our small lives are worthy of the kind of careful recollection he carries out without apology or literary devices.

In Summertime (Harvill Secker, 2009), JM Coetzee’s approach to autobiography could hardly be more different. Both he and Anne Landsman deal with biography at a remove, constrained by postmodern literary conceits to do with narrators and the nature of reality, memory and truth.

Whichever way one prefers, both Summertime and Landsman’s The Rowing Lesson (Kwela, 2008) are wonderful reads (reviewed earlier this year); any serious reader and collector of South African literature should have them.

The Rowing Lesson is a fictional reconstruction of the life of Harry Klein, a country doctor, based on Landsman’s own father. Warm, fast, funny and heartbreaking, it describes an era in the southern Cape that is long gone.

In Summertime, Coetzee has his early 20s and 30s narrated by women and a friend who knew him then. They are rather disparaging and one has to laugh, in the end, at Coetzee’s dry take, not only on himself but also on the women and on the delusions and issues that beset us in the 1970s.

Another straightforward autobiography, by a contemporary of Coetzee’s, is that of Wangari Maathai, Kenyan winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. This is Unbowed — One Woman’s Story (Heineman, 2007). She was one of six children in a Catholic family in rural Kenya and received all her education, right up to doctoral level, at Catholic institutions.

This in itself was remarkable enough, but she went on to found the Green Belt Movement, which pioneered a massive reforestation programme long before the world began to talk of global warming. They also fought issues of human rights during the regime of Daniel arap Moi. Her style is clear and unpretentious — a most inspiring read.

When Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (Picador, 2007) came out in 2006, I missed not only the book, but also the fanfare and furore surrounding it. So I came to it quite unaware of what I had in my hands. It grabbed me by the throat and kept me reading until 2am. Set in an almost unrecognisable post-apocalyptic United States, it tells the story of a man and his son travelling south in a wasted landscape, beset by fear and other refugees, some of whom, to survive, have reverted to mores that existed before human civilisition and cultures. It’s a devastating read — not much fun, but very good.

Michiel Heyns is full of surprises; his first few novels were hugely different from one another, but he seems now to excel in past eras. (One wonders how he would envisage the future.)

In Bodies Politic (Jonathan Ball, 2008) he dives into the early 20th century and has recreated the lives of the Pankhurst women, suffragettes and socialists. He excels in presenting the mindset of the different protagonists in their political and social milieu, giving the reader vivid and intimate portraits of powerful women who follow very different paths. This is a great achievement.

In the 10 years of its existence, the Caine Prize for African Writing has consistently produced an exciting collection of stories and this year is no exception. The collection is titled Work in Progress and Other Stories (Jacana and New Internationalist, 2009) and features work by 16 writers. It reads like the Granta of Africa — very contemporary and full of new vigour. It is a wonderful present for anyone interested in where Africa’s literature is going.

My two favourite stories are The End of Skill by Mamle Kabu, a Ghanaian, and Work in Progress by Henrietta Rose-Innes. In Kabu’s story she skilfully charts the ironies and necessities around the weaving of Kente cloth, poking fun at African-American buyers as well as engaging the old spiritual traditions around the cloth.

Rose-Innes’s story is a compressed fragment of an incident in which an aspirant writer takes a manuscript to a famous novelist for a crit. She has a bizarre and emotionally traumatic encounter with his mistress. An unforgettable story.

But the purest reading joy this year has been afforded me by poetry. I discovered, for the first time, the poems of the acclaimed Mary Oliver, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and acknowledged as the unofficial poet laureate of the US. The collection I was given is Wild Geese (Bloodaxe World Poets, 2004), first published in 1979.

These poems both rest and exhilarate the reader. Reading them in the southern Cape, where drought breeds fear of parched days and a future of dust, I include here, as a sample, her poem Lingering in Happiness.

After rain after many days without rain,
it stays cool, private and cleansed, under the trees,
and the dampness there, married, now to gravity,
falls branch to branch, leaf to leaf, down to the ground

where it will disappear — but not, of course, vanish
except to our eyes. The roots of the oaks will have their share,
and the white threads of the grasses, and the cushion of moss;
a few drops, round as pearls, will enter the mole’s tunnel;

and soon so many small stones, buried for a thousand years,
will feel themselves being touched.

And, finally, a book that was shortlisted for the Herman Charles Bosman Prize this year: Notes from the Dementia Ward by Finuala Dowling (Kwela Books and Snailpress, 2008). These poems, written mainly around Dowling’s mother’s illness, are full of celebration and life. They are clever and often funny, but, quite often, more poignant than funny.

She touches on all sorts of things, from her mother’s mind, “a castle in ruin”, to what her brother did to the gate when drunk, and a whole new way of looking at toast and butter. These are wonderful poems — you should buy a first edition. Every family should have one. Poems are the festive fare for Christmas — they’ll sustain you for longer.

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