Meersman's follow-up novel is history come alive
FIVE LIVES AT NOON by Brent Meersman
(Missing Ink, 2013)
This is a novel for those who love history, and in particular the events that led up the demise of formal, legislated apartheid. It combines the gravitas of fact with the emotional truth of fiction and poetry. As an ex-history teacher (an endangered species) I would love the subject to be compulsory at school until grade 10, an essential part of the education of voters in this country.
Not only does history teach you who you are, who your parents are, and give you a better chance of creating a decent future for your kids, but it's also really interesting.
So, of course, I have greatly enjoyed Brent Meersman's unusually constructed novel, Five Lives at Noon, which is the sequel to his Reports before Daybreak (2010), and is as pleasing as that was.
We follow the stories of the No-nkosis and the De Konincks, specifically Zukiswa and Mfundi Nonkosi, and their mother, Alicia, as well as Joseph and Francois de Koninck, and their parents Theo and Trudy. And also Bertie Diepenaar, now a human rights lawyer. By the end of Reports before Daybreak, these five characters (the younger generation) were being whirled by the great maelstrom of revolutionary circumstance into closer and closer connection with each other. Frans and Mfundi became soldiers in the South African Defence Force and Umkhonto weSizwe respectively, whereas the other siblings both ended up in London, Joe to escape military service and Zukiswa to study.
The noon of the title reflects the 1994 election and the novel covers the era immediately preceding it. Meersman shows us Zuki and Joe coping with life in exile and a whole new way of being. But, of course, if you know your brother is a soldier in the heart of the conflict at home, you cannot really escape, and this applies to both of them.
He deals in some detail with their relationship and the difficulties they have when they return to Cape Town and want to get married – neither family is overjoyed, and nor do they know, though the reader does, that the families have another connection that involves Mfundi and Francois.
Bertie, newly qualified, is pursuing warlords and other perpetrators of human rights violations in both the ANC and Inkatha stemming from the bloodbath of the early 1990s in Natal. He provides another connection between the families as he has been asked by Alicia to find Mfundi. The reader knows from the start what has happened to the young MK comrade, but not where he is exactly nor what the final outcome is. But as the families find out more and more about Frans and Mfundi, they are spun to the edges and the centre cannot hold.
As in the first book, Meersman begins each chapter with newspaper headlines and snippets from the five years the novel spans. There are also short biographical pieces, which bring back the bizarre reality of that period: Lothar Neethling (apartheid poisoner in chief), Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Inkatha (eight pages), Chris Hani, an unknown/unnamed Khoisan soldier/tracker, the Oppenheimers and Laurens van der Post. (I'm still puzzling over the inclusion of this old poseur.)
And there are poems and laments as testimony, which lend elegance and emotional power to offset the plain biographical sections.
Meersman's great gift is to create a vivid set of characters, including the minor players – their memorable parents. He does this through dialogue and excellently observed variations in South African speech but also through domestic settings – from the shacks of the Cape Flats to designer Camps Bay and middle-class comfort in Grahamstown.
There's an element of satire in all of this, seen more obliquely in the contrast provided by massacres, assaults and scenes of degrading violations with unavoidable food rituals, including braais. It's a compelling mix of life as it is and was in South Africa, and strangely familiar.
Meersman takes the story right up to April 27 1994, and leaves the reader wondering, with some concern and interest, what has become of Mfundi and Francois.