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Adrift in a sea of guilt

WALL OF DAYS by Alistair Bruce (Umuzi)

This is a fabulous debut, both in the the strict sense of resembling a fable and the colloquial sense of an exclamation of joyful approbation. It’s the novelistic embodiment of Jorge Luis Borges sitting in a corner watching Samuel Beckett and JM Coetzee pleasuring that prostitute who is the postmodern muse.

Read two extracts from the novel here

To put it less enthusiastically but more informatively, Wall of Days will remind you of some of the great writers of modernism and magical realism. The strangely shifting city of Bran is reminiscent of Borges’s cities, or even JG Ballard’s liquefying landscapes. And the beginning of the novel, which opens with the chief (and possibly only — yes, it’s that kind of book) protagonist exiled on an island in an apparently drowning world, has echoes of Coetzee’s Foe.

The exile is Bran, named for the city-state he founded, and he is its former marshall. He has been on the nameless island for 10 years, occupying himself with Beckettian rituals — a daily placing of a stone on a pile, a constant calculation of how erosion is affecting the size of the island, and so on. This ritual behaviour is a trace of rituals from Bran’s past and speaks in various ways to it.

For example, a wall in Bran the city, with 917 scratches on it, tallies the number of people (the frail, the old, the useless) Bran had killed to ensure the survival of the city. ‘We made a small mark with a stone on the wall of the hut. The seventh line we drew crossed the previous six. At the end of fifty-two of these we started a new row. Why we measured the dead in this way, the way we measured time, I cannot recall.”

Bran’s existence is disrupted by the arrival — or so he narrates — of a man from his past, Andalus, the leader of a rival city state, who is mysteriously washed up on the beach. Bran uses this as an excuse to take himself out of exile and back to the city in an attempt to confront the guilt of his past. That journey has a nightmarish quality, both for Bran and the reader. With him, we are never sure whether, driven to extremes by his exile, he is entirely, or even partially, imagining his encounters with the past, and his attempts to negotiate a present from its ashes.

I struggled with writing the opening paragraph of this review. To make comparisons with other writers can be construed as insulting, in that you could be hinting that the book under review is derivative.

Wall of Days is anything but. Its resonance with great literature is because readers must of necessity bring their particular lexicon of references to bear on understanding anything new and this is something new. It isn’t necessarily something different, but it is new. It shares that quality with the rituals that inhabit its narrative.

Remarkably, given the style of Wall of Days, it also has some complex and appealing characters and a narrative that carries the reader along at the same time that it acts out the stultifying inertia of that particular kind of numbering, numbing postmodernism exemplified by Beckett circa The Lost Ones.

Equally remarkable is that a novel, without any overt reference to any discernible real-world location or history, can (to this particularly constituted reader, at least) be so cuttingly relevant to the way we think about guilt, responsibility and the constitution of historicity in South Africa today.

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Chris Roper
Chris Roper

Chris Roper was editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian from July 2013 - July 2015.

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