Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Short but rich South African view - a review of The Edge of Things by Jane Rosenthal

Two collections of short stories illustrate why the genre continues to garner accolades for the country

The Edge of Things: South African short fiction, selected by Arja Salafranca, Dye Hard Press

African Pens 2011, Jacana

Though they may have been somewhat neglected in recent years, there is a long tradition of short stories in South African fiction. Some of the most famous writers are Pauline Smith, Can Themba and Dan Jacobson; more recently Ivan Vladislavic, David Medalie and Zoe Wicomb spring to mind. Practitioners of this form were hard at work last year if one judges by the two collections reviewed here. As with literary awards for fiction, it's a matter of some chance as to what appears in any given year and 2010 seems to have been particularly good.

Arja Salafranca originally intended The Edge of Things to be a special short-fiction edition of the journal Green Dragon, but as she had so many submissions, it became a full-length book. This interesting and wide-ranging selection reflects the richness of the South African experience. It begins with several pieces that delineate the complexities of personal relationships, including mothers and daughters, dysfunctional marriages and the interior lives of women - all situations in which the protagonists seem to be sailing close to the edge of things.

The title piece, The Edge of Things by Jenna Mervis, is a particularly fine story about a woman and her dog, alone in a remote place, which is beset by fear and fantasy.

Other strong but even darker pieces include Tokai by Bernard Levinson, a brooding, sexualised and masculien take on birth; Telephoning the Enemy by Hans Pienaar recounts the effects of a bomb on a conservative Pretoria community; and in Solitude Dan Wylie an isolated coffee-drinker who enjoys crossword puzzles observes the lives of others from the periphery. Margie Orford's The Gift is an erotic and original meditation on freedom and commitment. Its contrast to these, Hamilton Wende's The Company Christmas Party evokes adolescents careening uncertainly but cheerfully into adulthood.

Pravasan Pillay's Mr Essop is a precise cameo of language and life in Chatsworth, in which the protagonist at first appears to be the perfect tenant.

Although there are a few less felicitious inclusions, the standard is remarably sustained. Most memorable would probably be Silke Heiss's Don't Take Me for Free, narrated by Vonny, a woman whose hold on her job as a furniture-van driver, and on her sometimes man, Azar, is extremely tenuous. This unusual story asserts the humanity of the homeless, poor and underemployed. For Vonny and Azar the stabilising symbol of their lives is a carved piece of cedar wood. This item,made by Azar, is as abitrary as fate but is seen as a spine and a road that helps to hold them. Poetic and deep, Vonny's strange existence imprints itself on the reader's mind.

The 500 stories originally submitted for African Pens 2011 were read and shortlisted to 21 by variuous volunteers (PEN readers and an editorial board) before being judged by JM Coetzee. Although Coetzee considers the standard of this year's entries to be "generally higher", he said that "the kind of short story writer we are all hoping that an award of this magnitude will attract - the newcomer with naked talent, a feel for language and a fresh vision of the world - stubbornly fails to arrive".

I thought this a little stringent - there is plenty of "naked talent" and "feel for language" - and even considerable "fresh vision". Stories that particularly show "fresh vision" would include Claremont Park (Bobby Jordan), Pinch (Martin Hatchuel) and Evolution (Jayne Bauling).

Jordan's story takes one deep into the experience of people on the fringes of Cape Town society in a lyrically light and accepting way not seen by this reader before. Pinch could be a sidebar to Deneys Reitz's great classic about the South African Anglo-Boer War, Commando, with an entirely unexpected flare, both tender and brutal. In Evolution Bauling takes the reader to a place where our existence as the dominant primate species is challenged, perhaps deservedly so. In these three we have fresh visions of the present, past and future.

The winning story, The Story, by James Whyle, is a gem. Set in Pringle Bay, it has more than one narrative layered into its cleanly written pages and concerns a man, his driver's licence, a cop, a baboon and several "whatifs". In second place is Heatwave by Beth Hunt, in which a woman, surrounded by love and good fortune, examines her conscience when a lover dies.

Of the 21 stories I considered 15 to be very good - and the rest to be almost as good. Names that are already known to readers include Liesl Jobson, with her intense, perceptive style, and Sarah Lotz, whose The Pigeon Fancier is funny as well as sad.

Both these collections of short fiction are not to be missed and contain stories that will join the ranks of the established tradition.

(Published in Mail & Guardian, July 8 2011)

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