Thursday, April 9, 2009

A homegrown tale to flow over the reader, like a song or a poem

Review of Quarter Tones by Susan Mann, Random House

The only regret I had, after finishing this second novel from local writer Susan Mann, was that I hadn’t read her first: One Tongue Singing. It garnered extraordinary praise when it was published, and it would have been useful to compare the two. But, after Quarter Tones, this is one reading omission I aim to make up for.

Mann’s writing is ethereal and lyrical: you slip through this novel as though in a dream. Yet it’s anything but, being rooted in everyday reality. Mann writes with such sensitivity, such almost-poetic nuance, that the writing flows over you like water. Add to that Mann’s lack of quotation marks for dialogue and the novel becomes even more mythically dream-like in style.

The story centres on Ana Delaney, back in Cape Town after a decade of living in London with her husband, Michael. Her father, Sam, has just died and she has returned to pack up his belongs and wrap up his estate. But her flight from London, from a strained marriage and a failed career as a musician, becomes a journey into a new future.

Ana’s solitude is broken when she meets Franz van der Veer, her architect neighbour, and her friendship grows with this lonely, complex man. Life becomes even more complicated when Franz’s brother Daniel returns home, mysteriously bearing a baby, Tapiwa. She is drawn to both brothers, and thus the scene is set … with the addition of other minor characters. This is a story about the struggle over whether to remain in South Africa, and a story about memory: images of Sam – Ana’s father – play out over and over again. And, ultimately, it’s also a story about letting go of the past, of the ties that may bind, rather than free you for a life of expression and fulfilment.

Ana and Michael were teenage sweethearts. They left the country when she was 18, after briefly studying music. Ana is a flautist. But a career as a musician has remained elusively unattainable in London, and after so many failed auditions her hope is gone. While Michael works she has simply existed. Doing what, we are never told, and this is the one false note in a story that otherwise flows seamlessly and believably. While Ana is certainly reticent, somewhat in Michael’s shadow, all the same you keep coming back to those missing years, thinking: Well, what did she really do with the time? It’s a small niggle, and I suspect it might not bother all who read it.

But people change – and it’s this change, prompted, or aided, by Ana’s return home that causes her to re-examine whether she wants to stay in South Africa or return to London and be with Michael, who is dead set against the idea of returning. The arguments are familiar and go back and forth: “But affirmative action is just inverse racism, he’d said. That’s not progress. Not equal opportunity. Show me what’s in place for the poor, across every sector. Otherwise it’s just the same story, different colour.”

Later on, Ana makes the plea that enormous strides have been made since 1994: “Whatever your personal feelings, you can’t deny that things are working here. You need to come back to see how things have changed, in a pretty short space of time.”

Michael too, has changed: returning is not an option. When Ana is mugged, that is more justification for not returning. “A country of ostriches. It hasn’t changed one bit in that respect,” he says, adding further on: “You know, you really need to get out of there. Get some perspective. South Africa tends to do that to you, I remember. Tends to suck you in, shows you the world through blinkers. Nothing ever seems possible when you’re there.”

Tapping into the peculiar blinkers we South Africans seem to wear: life in this country has been strange and distorted by the policies of the past; who hasn’t felt like they have been staring at the world through a bell jar?

When Michael arranges for Ana to finish her musical degree at the Sorbonne in Paris, organising an audition for her, it’s crunch time. Ana goes strolling “… in Paris, where she did not know French, she could hide. Without expectations, a fixed address, recognisable words that identified her world, there were no mirrors to reflect her… The most important things are hardest to find words for, her father once said. That’s why people make music.”

But will Ana take up the Paris offer or is it already too late? Taken up with the lives of Franz and Daniel, Ana also finds herself babysitting the young Tapiwa, falling as much in love with her as with the idea of returning to her roots. In one conversation with Daniel she probes the idea of being a South African or an African: “Well, do you know what it means to be South African? People say they’re South African because of their roots, or their hearts. You know, the ones whose ancestors were killed in Anglo-Boer wars, or in Zulu wars, as though family blood in the soil gives entitlement … But it seems to me we’re missing a trick if we spend all our time arguing about who has a right to be here and who doesn’t, who belongs and who must leave. Isn’t it more about getting to grips with the business of being an African? Issues of belonging seem almost indulgent compared with Aids, poverty, illiteracy.”

Quarter Tones is not the first novel in recent years to deal with this conundrum, this push and pull factor. In the past year alone Emma van der Vliet’s Past Imperfect and Marita van der Vyver’s Time Out, to name just two recent examples, have had as protagonists women who must decide whether or not they can and will return to the country of their birth. The results seem to be almost a foregone conclusion. And, dangerously, a form of political correctness seems to be seeping into this issue. There are rumblings and undertones. The question of whether you can really call yourself an African appears, and it is also implied that you cannot really call yourself a South African if you’re indulging in London’s riches instead.

In a way that may be true: expats are removed from the social swirl in which they grew up; you cannot always adequately follow the eddies of life back home when you’re catching the Tube every day and reading newspapers that tell you about the problems in your adopted country rather than in your place of birth.

Mann’s writing is too subtle to ram the point home. Ana will stay in character and do what she must when making her decision, just as Van der Vyver’s and Van der Vliet’s characters choose the paths that reflect their own development.

These are skilled novelists who do not, as other South African writers have done, use their protagonists as vehicles for their own ideologies. But still, it’s there, this sense that to be truly African you cannot reside overseas, that in a sense you are betraying your country if you do, and these novels are tapping into something much larger, bringing it to the fore.

“Quarter tones” is a musical term, and the thread of music certainly flows through this narrative. It’s music ultimately that will draw her back and Mann infuses the story with references to music that do not seem intrusive, even to those for whom the words “interval tone” mean absolutely nothing at all.

As I mentioned earlier, the words flow over you, much as poetry or music would, and the story moves quietly toward resolution.This feels like a quiet story, yet it is anything but, dealing as it does, variously, with Aids, crime and the ruptures of past and present. However the tones are gentle, and move you along on a quiet rhythm.

Mann is a skilled master of the form: you’re moved along, wanting more, looking forward to the furtherdevelopment of a significant talent.

Published in The Star, April 19, 2007

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