This broken land has many faces: A review of four books

WALK by James Whyle (Jacana)

In his first novel, The Book of War, James Whyle outlines the fate of a boy who enlists with a disparate band of mercenaries to fight for the colonial British in their attempts to drive out the Xhosa inhabitants of the Amatola mountains. The protagonist in that story of funded imperial aggression is a boy old enough to shoot well and keep up with men.

Whyle’s second novel, Walk, is set in the same area of the Eastern Cape but on the coast, and details the walk of the survivors of the wreck of the Grosvenor in 1768.

Once again the protagonist is a boy, but in this instance in a state of extreme helplessness, thrown with the other castaways on the mercy of the local people. In some places they are stoned, robbed and insulted (milk is fed to dogs in front of them), and at others, further west, the boy and other survivors are treated with kindness.

This interface of white people and the Xhosa seems to be Whyle’s current and enduring fascination, and he renders it pared down to the essentials, in measured and beautiful prose.

Original sources of diaries, reports and other documents are used to underpin a fictional realisation of events, some real and some imagined. Set in pristine paradise, it is not a read you will soon forget.

This small gem deserves a place on the bookshelves of serious readers; a cherished fragment, unpretentious and incomplete, it creates an enduring set of images: harvesting "dune figs", elephants with their "shrieking blast", bales of silk and cotton strewn over the rocks. Very few of the crew and passengers survived.

ZEBRA CROSSING by Meg Vandermerwe (Umuzi)

This tautly written novel starts out full of hope. Chipo, a young Zimbabwean, relates her story with moving and credible simplicity, making the best of a triple disadvantage in life: she’s a girl, she’s from a persecuted Movement for Democratic Change family in Harare and she has albinism.

Her mother’s shebeen is destroyed and she dies soon after; Chipo and her brother manage to escape to Cape Town to live with cousins in a small flat in Long Street. Many other refugees from Africa share the building.

At first, it seems Chipo will survive and flourish, but neglect and her own desires bring disaster to this too vulnerable child. Her own actions are her final undoing and the author shows us considerable complexity in the social backdrop as well as the psyches of these young displaced persons.

Umuzi has brought this out in hardback – the book is a beautiful object, though the cover seems far too bright for this tender and sad story.

BETRAYAL by Adriaan van Dis (MacLehose Press)

A Dutch anti-apartheid activist returns to South Africa 20 years after liberation to see what the country looks like, and to come to terms with his own somewhat romantic role that actually endangered others. He visits a fellow activist, now living in a seaside town in the Western Cape.

His observations on the perpetuation of apartheid as reflected in the continuing separation of coloured and white lives and the fears of whites living behind walls and electric gates are all well-founded, though tinged with lurid sensationalism.

He is even less accurate when it comes to the nuances of understanding fishing quotas, drug dealers and crooked cops.

Those Dutch reviewers who have raved about this book should perhaps read South African authors such as Mike Nicol, Deon Meyer and Karin Brynard if they are really interested in South Africa today.

To call Van Dis "Netherland’s own Graham Greene" is just comical publisher’s hype, promoting tourist schlock for the sanctimonious. Noticeably annoying in this book is the author’s tone of ineffable superiority – visiting the colonies again.

THE VUVUZELA MURDERS by Aryan Kaganof (Mbali Press)

It may well be that this author sees himself in the tradition of the great iconoclasts and satirists, and perhaps he especially aspires to be the William Burroughs of Cape Town.

It is true he writes well, with a racy, fluent style and has a good ear for dialogue. That said, however, this book is hectic, deranged, relentless and posturing. It seems to have been constructed out of various aspects of a story that have been cut and pasted together (in the famed style of Burroughs) from bad trips, horrible dreams and hallucinations, fantasies of power, paranoia and violent pornography.

The characters have less, far less, presence than animated cardboard cut-outs and basically provide a pretext for an ongoing fragmented rave in named venues in Cape Town (they might like to sue?), including

Valkenberg. It’s basically unreadable, except in short random snatches, and why would one want to do that?

Perhaps it’s a leaden and showy satire on sleazy filmmakers, porn dealers and other such characters that ordinary folk (heavily despised) would not really want to spend a few hours with, even in a book. If that was the intention, I think it has failed, since nothing remains in the mind after reading it other than nausea.

Because of Kaganoff’s existing reputation/profile, I read most of it. Be warned – it’s not for the faint-hearted, young people (under 25) and nice people. Out of kindness to readers I would say, don’t bother.

Subscribe to the M&G for R2 a month

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

And for this weekend only, you can become a subscriber by paying just R2 a month for your first three months.

Jane Rosenthal
Guest Author

Related stories

African science fiction: rereading the The Palm-Wine Drinkard

Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola wields language as the ultimate form of technology

‘The Sweetest Ache’ extract: Dark brown and midnight black magic

An activist’s encounter with an attractive waitress leads her to take an inventory of her own body in Mercy Thokozane Minah’s ‘The Sweetest Ache’

Dambudzo Marechera’s literary shock treatment

A new book on Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera draws on both actual and imaginary archives

The Portfolio: Megan Ross

Author and poet Megan Ross designs books and cover artwork for a living. She speaks to Kwanele Sosibo about her process

A Seat at a Table, Ep 1: The writerly thing to do

Interviews can often demystify the processes behind how people create. It’s always fascinated Phumlani Pikoli to find the tricks to artists’ magic, as explored in his new podcast, ‘A Seat at a Table’

Cape Town’s Open Book Festival turns over a new leaf

In the midst of the pandemic the literary festival is hosting podcasts instead of livestreamed panels

Subscribers only

Q&A Sessions: Frank Chikane on the rainbow where colours never...

Reverend Frank Chikane has just completed six years as the chairperson of the Kagiso Trust. He speaks about corruption, his children’s views and how churches can be mobilised

ANC: ‘We’re operating under conditions of anarchy’

In its latest policy documents, the ANC is self-critical and wants ‘consequence management’, yet it’s letting its members off the hook again

More top stories

Covid-19 stems ‘white’ gold rush

The pandemic hit abalone farmers fast and hard. Prices have dropped and backers appear to be losing their appetite for investing in the delicacy

Al-Shabab’s terror in Mozambique

Amid reports of brutal, indiscriminate slaughter, civilians bear the brunt as villages are abandoned and the number of refugees nears half a million

South Africa’s cities opt for clean energy

Efforts to reduce carbon emissions will hinge on the transport sector

How designing ‘green’ buildings can help to combat the climate...

South Africa’s buildings account for 40% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. But the City of Johannesburg’s new draft green buildings policy aims to change that

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…