Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Last Train to Zona Verde by Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux, starting in Cape Town and only taking land transport, makes his way through Namibia and into Angola, a place not known for its travel hot spots. He offers a compelling, and starkly realistic portrait of this part of the world - from its small, hopeless towns, ringed by poor slums and townships, to decaying, corrupt cities such as Luanda. He probes the meaning of slum tourism in Cape Town - where busloads of tourists pour into the townships, gawking at the poor who live there – presenting both sides of the debate.

He writes: “This sort of tourism has been denounced as ‘poverty porn’ and exploitation, monetising the misery of slum dwellers who had nothing else to offer. For some day-trippers, the experience was an extreme example of curiosity bordering on voyeurism, the leering intention of the alien tourist to feel the shiver of difference, the horror interest that was indistinguishable from slumming. But there were others - sympathetic, charity-minded outsiders - who were moved to contribute money as well as to gape, and having seen the slum they were contributing with a degree of understanding.”

Taking local transport, such as decrepit 4x4 taxi  that breaks down in the Angolan bush, Theroux is right in the heart of nowhere, offered a glimpse of life there. Chewing on a piece of leathery, inedible chicken baptised by clouds of flies, he takes out his notebook, curiosity intact to ask what the drums in the distance symbolises. It turns out the young girls in the village are undergoing an initiation of sorts.

Earlier on the narrative he meets up with the San-speaking “real people” in far east Namibia, the Ju/’hoansi, a people caught between two worlds, that of the ancient hunting-gathering world and this modern world and finds them hurtling into the present, donning T-shirts and embracing the now, skins only put on for the display of tourists and curious travellers such as Theroux.  

He writes: “They observe the seasons ... years have no meaning, history has no meaning; the past is simply gone and largely unremembered. ...

Paul Theroux
Leaving them he observes the duality and the Western longing to return to ancient times through our image of these people: “The image of the Ju/’hoansi we cling to – I did anyway – is that of a wild-dwelling, self-sufficient people. We seem to need them to be that way, not merely different from us, and purer, but more different than they really are – tenacious, resourceful, generous, peaceful as if inhabiting Eden. They are reminders of who we once were, our ancient better selves. At one time, long ago, all of us were foragers on earth. What a relief it is in a world yearning for authenticity to know that though we have blighted our habitat, there is an unspoiled place on planet, and a people who have defied modernity by clinging to their old ways. The past recaptured. Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

He visits Windhoek, a clean orderly city, but like so many in Africa, ringed by poverty in the form of slums. He visits a game lodge, rides elephants in the Okavango Delta, ponders the ethics of this, and visits Etosha, home of the mass tourist in Africa, here to see the game and believing they have found the real deal. Which, as he points out, they haven’t.

Finally arriving in Luanda after a spell in the smaller city of Benguela, he alights from his rickety transport in the suburb of Benfica, “a district of heavy traffic and ugly buildings, stinking of dust and diesel fumes”. He witnesses the crash of a small car, a driver emerging with bloodied hands and face, “bystanders laughed. The bloody-faced man staggered, his arms limp, his mouth agape, like a zombie released from a coffin. He was barefoot. No one went to his aid. He dropped to his knees and howled.

Idiota,’ a man next to me said and spat in the dust.”

His entry into Angola’s capital city is a harshly true portrait of the heartlessness that some cities sear into their people, and cities are not where he wants to be, he concludes. Luanda lives on the proceeds of its oil-rich reserves – but little of that wealth reaches the majority of its citizens.

And it is here that Theroux’s journey will end – disheartened by the grinding poverty and the dust of corruption that sees a culture of bribery rise up and batter its people into submission; he acknowledges that there is no more left to see. 

The Last Train to Zona Verde is powerful portrait of a part of Africa.


Sunday, June 7, 2015

Invite to the launch of Beyond Touch, the new poetry collection of Arja Salafranca

Beyond Touch, a new poetry collection by Arja Salafranca

Arja Salafranca's third poetry collection, Beyond Touch, published by Modjaji Books and Dye Hard Press, June 2015. 

Review of The Thin Line

Real people have complex lives. The ones who, from the outside, look as though they are enjoying idyllic stress-free existences are often the sources of the most conflict. It takes work to look fine all the time. That’s often why love is such a respite – it’s an opportunity to relax the guard we construct for others. To breathe above the water, if only for a moment. But, it is reckless to believe in stability, always.

The Thin Line, a collection of short stories from South African writer Arja Salafranca, provides snapshots into the lives of real, flawed humans. Short stories seem to place more pressure on a sentence, and Salafranca’s prose is tight. Many of her descriptions had me nodding jealously, aptly capturing some characteristic of South Africanisms.

That is because these short stories are not only about people, but also reflect the changing context and themes of South African middle-class existence. The theme of crime, emigration, the fear of violence travel through many of the stories, revealing the characters through their reactions to these themes. Her devices are slick and impressive.

This collection is well-worth a read, especially for anyone who wants to write short fiction. I definitely learned a lot from her use of style and descriptions.

First published here

Monday, May 25, 2015

Three Seasons by Mike Robbins

Three novellas about
life in the 1980s
Three Seasons is an accomplished, highly readable collection of three novellas by a writer whose a master of the novella – that “almost” Cinderella of the literary world. Subtitled Three Stories of England in the Eighties, all are connected only by being set in three seasons, spring, summer and autumn.

I love reading novellas – longer than short stories, shorter than novels, yet long enough to be immersed in a world that is slightly simpler than that of the more convoluted novel.

And these were engaging indeed.

In the first, Spring, a middle-aged Hull trawler skipper, sixtysomething Skip has one last chance to make it big. Kevin, an eager young working class teen joins the crew on the boat that early morning, oozing enthusiasm and eagerness. And then there’s the young twenty-two old reporter, Katherine, reporting on the events of the fishing village. How each story edges alongside the other is part of the beauty of this piece filled with fishing and trawler detail, the vessel bobbing on the cold seas. But there’s a disaster at the heart of this story, and Robbins’ skilled hand leads us onward, breathlessly to its inevitable conclusion.

In the second, Summer, we’re in the heart of the booming merciless 1980s. Terry strides into the story, ambitious, adulterous, his eye on the booming Thames Valley property market. Terry was the least likeable or sympathetic of the characters, but nevertheless holds interest despite his bravado and arrogance. In a story that epitomises the worst of eighties greed and immorality, the story ranges across a weekend, while its roots stretch back ten years. An allegory for a decade long gone, yet immorality can never be confined to a single time.

The last, Autumn, is a mediative piece that centres on the Master of an Oxford College, Makepeace. Long married to Christine, he’s settled into a rigid severity: “Makepeace’s face was lined and rather severe, the eyes themselves of mid-blue, the hair wiry, strong, grey now of course, but complete and slightly curled.”
His two grown-up and very different sons are coming home for a viist Tim, home from working abroad in Africa and the Amazon, and James, arriving with his new wife of two weeks. Still living at home is their impressionable teen daughter, Liz. The story takes place over the night and morning of the sons’ visit, playing out against each of their histories, roving from Makepeace to Tim to James to the new wife, Tamsin with the exotic aura of being an actress about her. The story loops into the past, shedding light on how the man grew into his and how the past has the ability to not only to erode with its corrosiveness, but also how memory helps us to heal, to bend. How it is possible to release the pain of the past and ultimately learn to forgive and learn new ways of being and relating.      

Salad Anniversary by Machi Tawara

Machi Tawara's first book of fifteen poems, Salad Anniversary was first published in 1987 in Japan where, remarkably for a poetry book, it sold over two million copies. In this slim, but delightful volume, she combines the classical ‘tanka’ Japanese form of short poetry, consisting of 30 tone syllables in a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern) to document a doomed love affair.

The poetry is sensuously beautiful, yet pared down, the language deceptively simple, yet talking in unsentimental tones about the beginning and the ending of love.

In August Morning the narrator is with her lover: “You and I on a night beach face to face in silence – a sparkler softy sputters. /Breaking your hesitation, I watch you hunt for words to break the silence/Your left hand/exploring my fingers one by one – maybe this is love.” Or is it? Later on in the same poem, the narrator says simply: “Now that I wait for you no more, sunny Saturdays and rainy Tuesdays are all the same to me.” 

Longing suffuses these poems, moments are briefly captured as in the title poem Salad Anniversary: “Folding towels,/I wrap the smell of the sun – /perhaps one day I too shall be a mother.”
The love affair continues in Baseball Game, but the signs are there: “You have your future, I mine, and so we take no snapshots”, and later in the same poem, “Cooking an omelette/flavoured with tears/of coming morning and farewell.”

This achingly beautiful set of poems is accompanied by an afterward by the translator Juliet Winters Carpenter. Highly recommended.  

A Wilder Rose by Susan Wittig Albert

A Wilder Rose is the story of the
Little House books and the possible literary
deception behind them
This extremely readable novel tells the story of Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of The Little House books (Little House on the Prairie and others in the series). Or was Laura really the sole and accomplished author of the books?

Lane was already a successful popular writer when she returned to her parents’ Ozark farm in Rocky Ridge in 1928. Divorced from a husband, she had also lived abroad and had rich experiences behind her. She had a plump portfolio of investments behind her. There she imagined she would both add to her portfolio as well as build her parents a modern farmhouse wired with electricity and indoor plumbing. She was making money with her writing – and her income was going through the stock market roof. Life was good. She was accompanied by her friend Troub, with whom she had a relationship – although this is somewhat opaquely referred to in this novel.

Writer Albert re-imagines the events of these years. With a foreboding known to us through history only we read as Lane and her companion experience the horrors of the stock market crash of 1929. Lane finds herself stuck through circumstance and desperation on the farm; finds her relationship with Troub withering away bewilderingly: “We had prided ourselves on enjoying each other, without obligation. And now that we reached the end, neither of us gave way to tears – not then, anyway.” Troub would later go on to write children’s novels penning the Sue Barton and Carol Page series.

And into this chasm her mother, a pioneer girl, comes to her with a scrap of a story of her early years. It’s poorly written, hardly publishable, hardly even a book, but Lane sets out to fix the writing, and it’s eventually published with more books promised. The literary deception, begun so innocuously and innocently, is in full force. Her mother will be known as the author of the children’s books – even though the truth is, it’s more of a collaboration between mother and daughter. Or is it? 

This is a novel of that collaboration, although there is still some doubt as to the veracity of that claim, as well as of the complicated knot of the mother/daughter relationship between Laura and her only child, a tie that Lane sometimes felt like a stranglehold, and of how Lane shaped her mother’s story into publishable books.

The world of 1930s small-town America is also intricately recreated in this book – a time when modern conveniences such as electricity and plumbing were still luxuries in rural areas; and pioneer women could still remember the wagons and wildness that permeated their youth.  But it’s a bleak time in history with the country decimated by the disaster and the great dust storms. When Lane travels the country, writing a book on it, the harshness edges through: “Dust, dirt, wind. ‘We know where the dust comes from by its colours,’ one farmer’s wife told me, holding her apron across her face.”

But it is also a story of Lane herself – little known now beyond the history books – and it’s a fascinating story. A woman who lived by her own rules in a time when most women married and subsumed themselves in that bond; a woman who took up her pen and wrote her way to fortune and kept on writing even when that pile disappeared. A woman who had been born in poverty, who managed to move beyond her life’s circumstances.  Lane is an spirited woman and one of the treasures of this novel is how enormously likeable she is; with Wittig creating an empathy that leads you through the book.  Lane’s life is at times unrelentingly hard in those years: trapped, failing dental health, growing older, her life moving away from her. But I found myself compulsively reading to the end, drawn on, entranced by this woman’s strength and vigour.