An exceptional harvest

Last year may have been the best one yet to take refuge in a book.

As we watched world economies behaving badly, strangely sinister manoeuvrings in local politics and COP17 offering us both hope and hell to come, it was also the year in which there was an astonishing crop of good novels from South African writers. Among these are a few, given in no particular order, that I believe will make it on to the long and shortlists of 2012’s prizes.

by Wally Mongane Serote (Jacana) is thoughtful and challenging in its description of an ageing artist reflecting on his long life, marriages, politics, tradition versus modernisation and more.

In Reports before Daybreak by Brent Meersman (Umuzi), the events of the mid-1980s in Cape Town are shown through the very different but closely connected lives of two young men on opposite sides of the struggle.
It is a moving and insightful ­depiction of that bloody era.

Homemaking for the Down-At-Heart
by Finuala Dowling (Kwela) is a study of the lives of three ­generations of women, a tribute to ­Dowling’s mother, Eve van der Bijl, but also a look at women’s lives today. It is a wonderful combination of wit and well-managed wrath.

Nineveh by Henrietta Rose-Innes (Umuzi) is the account of an independent and unusual young woman, with her own pest-exterminating business in Cape Town, on the edge of survival.

Affection and irony

Lost Ground by Michiel Heyns (Jonathan Ball) is ostensibly a thriller in which a journalist returns to his hometown to do a story on a recent murder. The town and its people are created with affection and irony and the journalist finds so much more than he expected.

Double Negative by Ivan Vladislavic (Umuzi) is narrated by a ­photographer who pursues images of residents and their stories in the eastern suburbs of Johannesburg. The book is poetic, meditative and oddly grounding.

Hear Me Alone
by Thando Mqolozana (Jacana) is a startlingly original retelling of the Christian ­nativity story in which, with admirable control, the author plunges us into another era, showing how that time has consequences for us today, especially in the lives of women. It is ­relevant to us all, regardless of ­gender or (ir)religion.

Bad Sex by Leon de Kock (Umuzi) is innovative in its energetic and amusing assertion of the vulnerability of men as it explores the life of its protagonist, a “boykie” from Mayfair who has had some rough battles in the process of growing up.

Three remarkable collections of short stories by South Africans are also available: Siphiwo Mahala’s African Delights (Jacana), The Edge of Things (edited by Arja Salafranca; Dye Hard Press) and South African Pens 2011 (Jacana).

Remarkable as the fiction supply has been, I also savoured some excellent nonfiction.

Wonderful reads
The life of struggle lawyer Bram Fischer, who was jailed for life for his activities as a communist, has been written about several times, but ‘n Seun soos Bram by Hannes Haasbroek (Umuzi) is the first biography of him in Afrikaans. It is a wonderful read, meticulously researched and footnoted, a scholarly work that is nonetheless perfectly accessible to a layperson. Haasbroek goes right back to Bram’s grandparents living in the Orange River Colony before the Anglo-Boer War and delineates both the political and social milieus from which Fischer came, the “aristocracy” of the Afrikaner people.

It is, to a lesser extent, also a ­biography of his mother, Ella (born Fichardt), who was a woman of great intelligence, industry and deep political conviction, perhaps engendered in her by having to endure, as a teenager, the occupation of Bloemfontein by the British forces in the war.

Despite their later differences in belief, Bram and Ella were cut from the same cloth of integrity and commitment. We can still learn from both of them.

Although not new, Odyssey to Freedom by George Bizos (Umuzi, 2007), one of the great “political” lawyers of South Africa, is profoundly interesting and narrated in that clear, balanced, well-remembered Bizos voice, starting from his early years and escape from Greece during World War II. It is a hefty tome but an easy read, thanks to Bizos’ characteristic clarity. He recounts his many political cases, revealing the history with insider nous and meticulous detail.

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