Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Reg Rumney reviews Beyond Touch

I can think of no greater compliment to a poet than to say that you have read all the poems in a volume. Often, I dip into poetry books, reading some poems that look promising, or which particularly resonate, and pass over the rest. I read all of the poems in ‘Beyond Touch’ by Arja Salafranca.

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Quirky travelogue on life in an upside-down land

In Rainbow Nation My Zulu Arse travel writer Sihle Khumalo casts his gaze on our rainbow nation and it’s a zoom through our country that is funny and thought-provoking.
The first leg of the journey begins at a cracking pace. And it continues that way. Taking his wife and two children they visit areas of political, historical interest such as Sharpeville and Boipatong. He writes: “Leaving Boipatong, I spotted youngsters sitting on verandas and pavements sharing 750ml beer bottles. I checked the time. It was 09:54” — and such details of the social fabric of life in SA today pepper Khumalo’s story. Woven through his visit is an account of the Boipatong Massacre that occurred in 1993. 

Journal of a Boer girl uncovers ghostly secrets

Clare Houston’s debut novel peels back the onion skin of our complicated past. 

The story of life in the British concentration camps where Boers were held isn’t often told in contemporary local fiction. Clare Houston’s debut novel, An Unquiet Place, casts a fictional light on this episode of our history.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Expertly exploring language and the scenes we create for ourselves

Local author and playwright Craig Higginson moves seamlessly between writing theatre and fiction. He also, at times, borrows from playwrighting to fuel his novels. The White Room takes its genesis from his 2012 play, The Girl in the Yellow Dress.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Twisted realities and difficult childhood tales

Kobus Moolman, known for his award-winning poetry, has released his debut volume of short fiction, The Swimming Lesson And Other Stories, a slim but varied collection of ten stories. The volume straddles the powerless found in childhood, as experienced by a disabled narrator, and the darker, more twisted, and sometimes surreal experiences of adulthood. Read more ... 

Nthikeng Mohlele’s sixth novel takes a musical turn

Music is at the heart of Nthikeng Mohlele’s latest novel, his sixth, called Illumination
It focuses on a jazz musician and composer, Bantubonke, a man out of tune with fads. He is ageing, his cherished wife is living away from him in France, studying for a degree. Bantubonke has suffered an injury to his mouth — which means he can no longer play as he once could. Read more ...

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.


Wednesday, October 21, 2015

How to Write a Book in 30 Days

Arja Salafranca talks about writing on SABC's breakfast show Expresso on Tuesday, 20 October 2015.