Tuesday, April 4, 2017

"Their kiss tasted like sadness”

The General’s Women: a novel
by Susan Wittig Albert

"She would forever remember that moment as the point at which her old life ended and a new life began. If I survive, she thought, I will be different. I will know, always, that I am a part of something larger than myself."

The story is astonishing. The General’s Women tells the story of the love affair between General Dwight Eisenhower and a former model and now driver, Kay Summersby during the Second World War. At this point he had been married to Mamie for twenty-five years – years in which they had had two children, and lost one of their young sons to illness. Kay is married but separated, and engaged to be married to another man when she comes to work for Ike when he is stationed in London, directing military operations. Wittig Albert’s astoundingly readable novel imagines that affair – from London to North Africa and back to England.

Told mostly from Kay’s point of view, there are still sections devoted to the thoughts and lives of both Ike, and Mamie.

Mamie is in in Washington for the duration of the war, isolated, away from her husband and the frontline. And it’s Mamie who comes off badly – her portrayal, while sympathetically painted – means she comes across as a cossetted, spoiled army wife, more interested in unpacking her china than in understanding the politics of the war raging across the ocean. The world of jealous army wives is fascinatingly portrayed – wives jealous of the rankings of their friends’ husbands, and wives who revel in gossip and in repeating such gossip under the guise of being sympathetic. And Mamie hears the gossip, is sickened by it and can do no more than smile through it. You feel somewhat sorry for her. 

But set against the strong, brave Kay, driving in war-darkened London, through the infamous pea soup fogs and then in the frontline in North Africa – Mamie comes off badly. No wonder, you think, Ike would have preferred the resilient Kay to his delicate, neurotic wife. And when she reveals how far she may have gone to save her marriage, the dislike is compounded.

Author Susan Wittig Albert
Ike, the historical figure, is humanised here. A man confident when plotting war tactics, less so when declaring his feelings for another, or even admitting those feelings to himself. Kay and Ike’s romance is portrayed against the violence of war, snatched, secret moments are all they have; their time is limited, in more ways than one. Nevertheless the affair is rendered beautifully – as two people fall in love against the odds, against perceived wisdom, despite his marriage and growing fame, and despite their age gaps. Kay was in her thirties when the affair began, Ike his early fifties.

Wittig Albert writes of their togetherness: “Still, as she drifted off to sleep with Ike fitted closely against her— the two of them breathing together, their hearts, she thought, beating together— she knew that a line had somehow been crossed. Her last thought as sleep came was her mother’s word: dangerous. Yes, it was, she thought, yes.”

The story is compellingly told – and as always, Wittig’s historical fiction is gripping, fascinating, enjoyably so. The novel wears its research lightly and convincingly. Her research is based Kay’s memoirs, Ike’s letters, fellow officers’ wartime diaries, and newspaper archives. Wittig evokes deprived war-time London with an authenticity that is remarkable, and contrasts it against the harshly lit North African scenes and the claustrophobic Washington apartment scenes.

Of course this is fiction – but as you read on, astonished, you can’t help wondering where the truth lies. To this end Wittig includes an author note at the end, explaining some of her sources and reasoning, and is as fascinating to read as the novel.

There’s no spoiler in saying that of course Ike left Kay – we all know he went on to win the Presidential election in 1952 and had his wife Mamie at his side, not another woman. This novel forces us to ask who are the winners, who are the losers, and at what price does power come? If Ike had divorced Mamie in the conservative 1940s the scandal of his affair and other political machinations would surely have put paid to his political ambitions.

It also forces us to look at the real sadness that results when people put ambition, duty, fear of the consequences or the lust for power above and beyond their own feelings. Was Ike being inauthentic to his true self? Did he stay with Mamie because he knew he’d be ruined professionally if he didn’t?

In the end Kay comes across as both a warm, loving woman unwittingly falling in love with a man so charismatic and powerful that she couldn’t help herself, despite her own engagement to another, and we’re reminded through her story that love happens. Despite ourselves, love happens, even when it seems foolish and stupid to let it. But Kay’s story is ultimately a sad one – by loving all and risking everything, she also lost so much too. And the poignancy of that pervades the end of this novel.

You’re left with the questions: did Ike really want to divorce Mamie and marry Kay? You be the judge in the excellent, highly recommended The General’s Women.  

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.