Dark heart of man
CACTUS LETTERS by Jayne Galassi (David Phillip)
It’s a night adder that sets things off on a different course in this novel set in the lush paradise of the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast, in an old garden on a terraced hillside with huge old sea fig trees and banks of bromeliads. The night adder is lying almost invisible, almost on the threshold, as the family troops in from the pool for the Sunday braai.
Jayne Galassi, in this new novel, describes perfectly the sudden transition from one reality to another, before and after the drowning of a child, while the snake is being flung over the bromeliads.
Cactus Letters examines, once again, the paradox of the natural paradise that is South Africa and the hellish dilemmas that beset and occupy us, and looks at the ‘dark and dangerous heart of man”—a phrase Dorothy, the protagonist, uses after she herself has fallen from grace.
The drowning happens at the house of Dorothy, whose son and family are temporarily living with her in KZN, after some business debacle has left them homeless.
The young family soon returns to Johannesburg to pick up their lives there and to try to cope with the loss of Joseph, the momentarily unwatched four-year-old who fell into the pool.
Dorothy is left alone in her big house; she throws herself into the work of improving her beautiful old garden with the help of her once-a-week gardener, Oupa. Together they shape, reorder and delight in this little corner of the verdant paradise of the South Coast.
But she is, as many older people are, increasingly isolated. She starts to write letters to her dead husband, William. Three years later she is found semiconscious in her garden. A neighbour, Dr Kamal, takes care of her and summons the family back from Johannesburg.
So it is Meridian, the mother of the drowned Joseph, who comes to live with her in the last months of her life and it is Meridian who finds the letters to William and reads them. They are charming, elegant, perceptive—they indicate an educated and refined woman. She describes a visit from the local minister, after which she agrees to go to church, but just for the hymns.
You were right about the flowers, Dearest — The arrangement became a delightful object of respite on which to rest the eyes between awkward gaps in the conversation. It was either that or the ceiling fan, the only thing that moved in the still and stifling heat so thick like soup, and the way it moves, you know how it does, stirring with unfound effect, a little uncertain on its axis —
But these are not the ‘letters” of the title. These ‘cactus letters” are scratched into the bases of cactuses in hidden parts of the garden by Oupa, in celebration of his happiness about working there, and in small acts of claiming ownership. For he does love this garden, is treated like a friend and companion by Dorothy who drinks tea with him and teaches him a huge amount about plants and propagation. And so provides the seed for his own business venture, Oupa’s Plant Nursery, as yet in the dreaming stage.
Oupa also works for all Dorothy’s neighbours so, even after she has dismissed him, he can see into her garden, which is rapidly returning to wild forest. Then, after a terrible storm, he sees the devastation of fallen giant trees, rampant creepers and Dorothy herself digging day after day in the crater under the ripped-out roots of an old fig.
He has no idea why she has fired him, but one day when he goes to ask for some baby bromeliads for his nursery, he finds her ‘sleeping”, half in and half out of the crater.
Something has happened to her, something more than infirmity or the loosening hold on common reality that isolation brings.
Kamal, now her new and trusted friend, eventually gets her to write about it. She is reconciled with her old friend of the garden, Oupa, but it is not an uncomplicated friendship. Nothing is that simple in this book. Meridian gradually finds out what the crisis was, while she grows to love her old mother-in-law more and more through the letters, and the healing power of the garden.
This is the interior, inner family aspect of the book. But it is in the narration of Oupa’s story that Galassi shows us the neighbours, amusingly characterised by the way they relate to Oupa—some call him ‘Johnny”, that shameful generic name for all black men, and almost all call him their ‘garden boy”. What they require to be done in their gardens and with their dogs and children also reveal much. It is skilful and sharp but also affectionate.
Dorothy, it seems, is a really sweet old woman, liked by her neighbours. She is, in fact, A Good Woman. She aspires to this. In her first letter to William, she says: ‘Have I always been the sort of person who holds on to the goodness in people? Am I denying the truth when I cling to the sweetest memories of you —”
But when spade turns to shovel, it turns out that the thing that has tipped Dorothy out of her right and good mind is not only what was done to her, but also something she herself did. However much the reader may sympathise, or not, can anyone now think of her as A Good Woman? This is the question: If one can forgive the desperately poor for turning to crime, is it also forgivable for a frail old woman to defend herself?
Galassi’s grasp of her characters is deft and perceptive. She also sketches in the events that affected the lives of this white settler family who were ‘displaced” by the Kenyan uprisings in the 1940s (Dorothy lost an eye then), again in Zimbabwe, and then ‘settled” in Natal. When Dorothy is digging in her pit, she ‘searches for something lost, the validation of Cognation, as if in the history of objects she will find a kinship that will justify her European heritage”.
Balancing these heavy matters is a perfect little cameo study of Claire, her granddaughter, beautifully youthful, springing up among all this, chatting to Oupa, feeding melktert to her dying ouma. She also whispers to her: ‘Sorry, Nan — I don’t think it’s fair. They put down my cat, you know. Two minutes and she’d gone straight to heaven.”
The book could be read without the final chapter—too resolving, too tidy. This is a small flaw in an otherwise strong and lovely novel that has resonances of Pauline Smith, Marguerite Poland and Eve Palmer.
Smith is recalled in the reflective pace, the domestic detail and her respect for poor and ordinary people, and also, which she shares with Poland, in her lyrical and gentle tone that nonetheless reaches deep into the lives of people to examine the potential for evil that resides in us all.
And Palmer, though not a novelist, has shaped the consciousness of many on matters botanical in her erudite and beautifully written books on South African gardens, trees and plants, of which the most famous is her classic, The Plains of Camdeboo.
In Cactus Letters it is the garden, which is there on almost every page. But Dorothy comes to mistrust this paradise. She says: ‘The garden, shaped and clean, holds the dreams of infants and humble sap-sweet memories. Aware it is, but oblivious. Wise it is, but ignorant of the dark and dangerous heart of man. How strange it is that it always remains as you find it.”
On her deathbed she dreams: ‘The congregation of trees bow down in deference to her life, her generous patronage. They lift her up gently so as not to wake her, pass her across the canopies on thick cool leaves and over waving banana fronds, ilala palms and milkwood, wild fig, white stinkwood and marula, towards the ocean —”
The garden, the forest, the rampant life of paradise—it is always there, an illusion that enfolds and delights us. And the snake is there too, mostly forgotten, or othered.