Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Along the labyrinth of life

Pretoria - There’s a sense of timewarp underlying the feeling at Hoogland Health Hydro situated in Erasmia, east of Pretoria. In part, that might stem from the fact that this hydro has been in operation since the late 1970s. The design within the main building immediately takes you back with its smoky dark glass balustrades and somewhat old-fashioned decor in the rooms.

If you’re looking for chic and modern, you won’t find it here. You will, however, find other pleasures to compensate – not least being the peace and tranquillity of this property set in what feels like the heart of the country, hiking trails that test your mettle and leave you happily tired and yet also revived, a massage treatment that was one of the best I’ve had, and, my favourite, the chance to walk a labyrinth...Read more here

Arja Salafranca at launch of Off-ramp, Love Books, Melville November 13

Arja Salafranca at the launch of Off-ramp, by Gary Cummiskey, at Love Books, Melville, on November 13 2013. Artist and poet Lionel Murcott in foreground.

New Book, New Broom, New Coin - the launch of Off-ramp, by Rene Bohnen

Die virus tref haar tussen twee verkeersligte naby Wespark. Sy sweet en bestuur, sweet en bestuur, konsentreer deur die spitsverkeer en die yskoue prikkels in haar voete en hande. Genadiglik maak sy dit tot by die parkeer-area, sluit die motor en storm dramaties verby die wit tafels met die wynglase, verby die silwer ysemmer en camembert-broodjies, tot by die badkamer. Hoe lank bly sy daar, nee sy weet nie – deur die venster hoor sy vaagweg hoe lag en gesels die gaste wat nou reeds aangekom het vir die boekbekendstelling. ʼn Skoonmaker kom in met emmer en mop, verbaas om ʼn vrou op die vloer te sien lê naby die wasbak. Is daar fout, wil sy weet. Nee, antwoord die vrou, ek is doodreg, ek het kom foto’s neem. Ek voel soos ʼn karakter in ‘n film van David Lynch, dink sy. Of in een van Gary Cummiskey se kortverhale...Read more here

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Primal Night: a collection of short stories by Maja Kriel

Maja Kriel’s second collection of short fiction, Primal Night, revolves around the theme of travels and journeys. In many of these stories a journey away is the pivot around which the action turns – small realisations come to pass, lives change through these revelations, or a sort of acceptance is achieved. These are also, for the most part, stories told from the viewpoint of a woman in mid life – in many the husband is absent, victim to a cruel disease while in the prime of life, an absence dearly missed, but an absence the women in these stories have accepted and grown accustomed to.

At times, however, the similarity of the circumstances of the departed husband means the stories blur and it feels as it if we are reading about one woman struggling through the vicissitudes that fate has thrown at her.

The women, are for the most part alone, living out widowhood, although in The Door of Life, the widow has found another man to take the husband’s place. In this story, the depiction of love and intimacy between is tender, matter-of-fact, and its description to be applauded in a time when so much of our art – from films to literature – depicts only young love in its myriad forms.

This story, a stand-out, moves across time and memory. The unnamed female narrator recalls her marriage to Zack, now gone, while simultaneously taking pleasure in the comfort of her relationship with “the old man (who) shares my bed”.  There’s an awareness of time’s passing and how it’s taken root, in language that is vividly poetic: “My life tells its story on my face, left its spoor on my skin where I have laughed or frowned....Nature, no longer interested in my beauty, bleaches out its colour.” The old man, meanwhile, has “curiously smooth skin, plump and unblemished. ... His stomach is somewhat puffed and falls into cherubic folds.”

Back in the old days she and Zack would cross the borders of the “puritan country” to gamble and spend time in casinos where this was allowed. Children were conveniently left at home, while Zack gambles and the woman grows bored and then listless from the lack of attention. The woman recalls Georgio, “a pirate of other men’s wives without remorse or responsibility”.  And, also without remorse or responsibility the woman enters into a purely physical affair with this man; but there are lessons learned, “And I realised that the most ardent affairs of the heart happen in dark corridors, last half an hour, but endure a lifetime.” This story is a beautiful mediation of life, and the losses that accrue as we grow older and the necessary and yet quiet acceptance of the withering of the branches.

In ‘Horizon’ we witness the slow anguish of widowhood as the unnamed female narrator comes to terms with the loss of her husband and the story contains some of the most vivid descriptions of grieving. “I spent the first few weeks unwashed and undressed, looking at photographs through a magnifying glass. It was the detail of life that I needed: the green flecks of an eye, the grizzled hairs of a moustache that matched the grizzled eyebrows, the engorged veins on a leg from a lifetime of standing... I didn’t want to be seen or recognised. I felt conspicuously different, as though my experiences were immediately obvious on my face like a disfigurement.” But redemption of a complicated sort (and isn’t life so often complicated), comes later on, as the narrator meets up again with Johnny, a younger man she once knew.

In ‘Last Holiday’ we again return to the theme of the husband dying too soon and the agonising acceptance of that. Marianne and Mordechai take a last trip when they finally accept that his years are running out.  Intriguingly, and interesting the story again moves through narrative time zones as Mordecahi’s childhood in an isolated village is described, one of the few Jews in that place, while describing events of the current time as Marianne and Mordechai’s time together runs out. Another meditative, quietly contemplative piece in which an attempt is made at coming to terms with the life’s realities and losses.     

The final story, ‘The Swamp’ is another stand-out in the collection. It takes place in Botswana and is narrated by a man called Charlie. Familiar and intimate in tone – but the story he tells cuts close to the rough justice of life in an isolated post. A black man is accused of a crime – and a cruel lack of justice takes place that cuts into the heart of attitudes in that place. A shocking, and yet achingly powerful story that haunts and leaves you shuddering long after the initial reading of it.  

(Published in Pretoria News, October 24, 2013)

Launch of Gary Cummiskey's Off-ramp at Love Books, Melville, November 13, 2013

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Review of Mary Manning's Damaged in Transit

There are many odd characters who people the stories in Mary Manning’s debut collection of short fiction, Damaged in Transit. Some are beyond saving: the creepy loner in The Painter, the old woman who decides to give up in Traffic Island, or the two-time criminal in Poor Old Money. Sometimes it’s too late for redemption, as in Love You, while in Black Opal, the events of the story will play out, utterly devoid of mercy. In some stories, such as in Customer Care and The Third Great Bang, Manning explores something beyond realism, segueing into fantasy and elements of science fiction...Read more here 

Bedding down in Jozi

Fairlawns Boutique Hotel & Spa

When I think “five-star hotel in Sandton”, I immediately think “high rise chain hotel” – the ones where the staff have a stock standard greeting for each guest, rooms are decorated in the same way, the service is predictably good, and your stay is comfortable, but not memorable. Fairlawns is the antithesis of this...Read more here

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Twirling in the ocean

Durban - There’s something beguiling about standing on the balcony of a room overlooking the Indian Ocean. The sun’s been down for hours, and spread before you the incessant hiss and roar of the ocean – the sound, not unpleasant, but rather primal and even feral at times, that accompanies your days on a seaside holiday.

The sea is a vast blackness before you and the air is thick with salt, and it’s sultry there on the 14th floor of your room. The air so thick, you can taste it, and, in fact, you can feel it as you walk on the tiled floors, a sticky salty coating that never quite goes away, no matter how often the floors are cleaned....Read more here

Thursday, July 11, 2013

From mimetic punctiliousness to imaginative free play: a review of The Edge of Things

In 1958 Randall Jarrell, the American poet, edited and brought out a collection of stories, Randall Jarrell’s Book of Stories, which contains a famous introduction. The book was long out of print but has been recently republished as a New York Review Books Classic (2002). It is, naturally, very difficult to generalise about a book such as the one under review, but there is one section of Jarrell’s introduction that seems pertinent to The Edge of Things, in its mixture of complexity and comprehensiveness:

It is so good, our stories believe, simply to remember: their elementary delight in recognition, familiarity, mimesis, is another aspect of their obsession with all the likenesses of the universe, those metaphors that Proust called essential to style. Stories want to know: everything from the first blaze and breathlessness and fragrance to the last law and structure, but, too, stories don’t want to know, don’t want to care, just want to do as they please. (Jarrell 2002: x)

The range of the story: from mimetic punctiliousness to imaginative free play. Arja Salafranca’s task, as compiler ofThe Edge of Things, is not to ponder the nature of short fiction; it is to present as many works as possible, with an eye on quality, in order to promote the genre in this country. She notes that the stories submitted for publication in the book showed ‘an astonishing variety of narratives and approaches, shifting from realism to playful absurdity and crossing the boundaries from the strictly fictional to something that sits just beyond fiction, but isn’t quite nonfiction either’ (p. 7). Jarrell would have approved.

Looking at the stories themselves one finds it hard to pick out those that deserve special mention, but let me refer to some. ‘Bounce’ (p. 9), by Jayne Bauling, is a curiously gripping account (perhaps because this reviewer has tried to do the same) of the attempted rescue of a baby lourie, psychologically bound to the loss of a murdered partner. Salafranca’s own ‘The Iron Lung’ (p.18), juxtaposes two first-person accounts, those of mother and daughter, about life with the iron lung device; the device assumes a figurative significance. Cunningly different from other stories is Liesl Jobson’s ‘You pay for the view: twenty tips for super pics’ (p. 30), a life story constructed around the said tips and moments captured as camera events. The events begin with
‘1. Hold it steady’, and end with ‘20. Watch the light’, and cover a period, not always in strictly chronological order, of 32 years. In this and other stories failed marriages are at issue. I think of Gillian Schutte’s ‘Doubt’ (p. 50), with its erotic daydreams, and Karina Magdalena Szczurek’s ‘The Basket’ (p. 62), where the death of a newly-retired husband in a motorbike accident actually brings the protagonist (and the reader) a sense of relief.

In the collection’s eponymous ‘The edge of things’ (p. 78), by Jenna Mervis, the protagonist is alone with her dog in a cottage on the edge of suburban space, that appears to be spied on by possible intruders. She is without, or is separated from, a partner, and the narrator uses this absence and her sense of vulnerability to create suspense. In the end, though, Samson the dog, in the middle of a moonlit night, leads her outdoors, away from her locks and alarms, into a magical dream dimension, ‘on the edge of things’ in a different sense from that originally suggested.

Pravasan Pillay’s ‘Mr Essop’ (p.137) is a matter-of-fact, Hemingwayesque account of an instance of coldly administered cruelty to a child, with some fine moments of dialogue in Chatsworth dialect. Again, it is obviously impossible to mention all the stories in the book, but let me conclude with a brief look at Dan Wylie’s ‘Solitude’ (p. 256). Here we find a punctiliously crafted story, in deed. The protagonist is an aloof, cynical academic, complacently single, with a distaste for the life around him. He works on a crossword puzzle, clue by clue. The puzzle proves intrinsic to the plot, as the life around him, with its grubbiness and despair, enters into his puzzle (though he remains imperturbable.

The book will appeal to lovers of fiction and narrative in whatever forms. Those who relish detail, those who desire free play, are catered for. Not all the stories are of the same quality, but each, in its way, is enjoyable, and is reflective of the old cliché that everyone carries a story, or stories, within him or her. There is something of this democracy of the narrative urge in these stories, which makes of them a useful and enlightening panorama of local experience, states of mind, and states of emotion.

Nicholas Meihuizen
First published in Literator, North-West University, South Africa

Monday, June 17, 2013

Short Story Day Africa 2013 - The Interview

Do you actually enjoy writing, or do you write because you like the finished product?

I love writing – I love the solitude, the silence and the zone you go into as you create other worlds, discover things about yourself, tell stories that are roaming around in you and need an out. I couldn’t live without writing.

What are you reading right now? And are you enjoying it? 
I’m reading The Journals of John Fowles, Vol 1. I am enjoying – although reading journals means you plunge directly into someone’s world and psyche and it can be dark there at times – you need to come up for breathe from time to time. But I love reading about John Fowles’s tempestuous and confusing love life and can relate to his need to write, yet earn a living and not having enough time to do that precious writing.  Waiting in the wings is a book of travel essays on Antarctica – I’m somehow drawn to that cold, clean, austere place.

Have you ever killed off a character and regretted it?
No I haven’t, they were meant to go, if they got killed. But I did regret saying goodbye to Alexia in my novella Triangle – we’d been together three years in the writing, and it was a wrench saying goodbye.

If you could have any of your characters over for dinner, which would it be and why?
In one of my short stories, ‘Desire, with Borders’, I actually had me as the writer going to a coffee shop where some of my characters were having meals. But none of them recognised me! They weren't even interested in meeting me – so no I don’t think it would be a good idea to have any of them to dinner. Besides I don’t know their addresses ....

Which one of your characters would you never invite into your home and why?
Perhaps Tyra, she murdered her lover out of jealousy and then took on her personality, or Rivka the 18th century midwife who caused damage to a baby – oy, can’t believe I created them or that they come from me!

Ernest Hemingway said: write drunk, edit sober. For or against?
Sober! I hardly ever drink, I’m quite allergic to wine, sadly.

If against, are you for any other mind-altering drug?
No not really. When you’re writing well you’re high enough, you don’t need anything extra IMHO

Our adult competition theme is Feast, Famine and Potluck. Have you ever put food in your fiction? If so, what part did it play in the story?
 Yes there’s food in my stories, my poems, my everything. I wrote a story, ‘At the table of the short story’ in which I examined women’s attitudes to food, weight, diet and so on. Lots of characters talking about that.

What’s the most annoying question anyone’s ever asked you in an interview?
What are your themes? 

If you could be any author other than yourself, who would you be?
Anyone rich and/or making a living from writing – I could get up at 10 every morning and amble off to my study when I am finally awake and dream the day into existence.

If you could go back in time and erase one thing you had written from your writing history, what would it be and why?
 I think it all exists for a reason – although there are poems that are weaker than others, or stories, they all mean and meant something. So I’d keep everything, good, bad and indifferent.

What’s the most blatant lie you’ve ever told?
I don’t like lying, really, but now and again you tell a white lie to protect others and yourself, I think they are necessary. 

If someone reviews you badly, do you write them into your next book/story and kill them?
Nah, I stew and simmer and think they’re oh so stupid for not getting it, then I put on my adult hat and attempt to be philosophical. Notice the word: attempt. 

What’s your favourite bad reviewer revenge fantasy?
They write a book and it in turns gets reviewed badly! 

What’s the most frustrating thing about being a writer in Africa?
 Not having the luxury of many grants to apply to and fellowships – so that most of us have to toil at jobs when we should be home writing. Lack of time. 

Have you ever written naked?

Does writing sex scenes make you blush?
At times yes – but they’re so often necessary. 

Who would play you in the film of your life?
Meryl Streep for sure! 

If you won the Caine Prize for African Fiction, what would you do with the money?
Take a few months off work, hole up n my study and just write, that would be the perfect way to spend the time and money. 

What do you consider your best piece of work to date?
The novellas I finished for my MA – as they’re the most recent of my fiction. 

What are you doing on 21 June 2013, to celebrate Short Story Day Africa?
I’m on leave so I’ll be home, writing – after getting up at 10am!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Arja Salafranca in conversation with Rachel Zadok at Love Books, April 2013

Arja Salafranca in conversation with Rachel Zadok for the launch of her second novel Sister-Sister at Love Books, Melville, Johannesburg April 2013

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Sleeper’s Awake

From the moment we glimpse the scar across the face of John Wraith (Lionel Newton), the stitches bristling like ferocious insects, we’re pulled into the drama of Sleeper’s Wake.
Based on the 2009 debut novel by local author Alistair Morgan, directed by Barry Berk, I’m happy to say the film stays largely true to the events of that fiction. The read was harrowing, slowly building up to an astonishing climax, and the film provides the visual background and completes the experience....Read more here

Rowing on the river Thames

The sun, different here,
piercing, yet diffused by northern slants.
The boat glides,
the cousins talk across the years.
They try to catch up decades in the slow glide
across water, life, love,
I’d like to say there is no catching up.
But I don’t. Can’t think it.
Can only try to bridge it,
explain, expound, talk through the details.
Like: what was school like?
Or: how was it growing up with a single mother,
and, importantly, where are you going?

Our eyes are hidden behind dark glasses.
We cannot see the flickers of fear, hesitancy.
It suits us both.

Rowing is hard work.
She takes off her light jacket,
the sun dips and bounces off her muscles.
They bulge, as a man’s might,
but with a more feminine grace and fluidity.

We row, the boat glides,
at the bridge we turn around.

She’s looking at me.

Far off, on the bank of the river,
weekenders make believe summer’s here.
That’s still in the future.

There’s a small line of sweat starting to
stain her top.
Did you choose deliberately?
Her breasts are bolstered by a WonderBra.
Does she know? Can she see my eyes?
Is my nonchalance practiced enough?  

For months I will wonder at this moment,
I will write about it,
explore it in therapy,
try to excacate its depths.
And always, I will come up empty-handed.
Poor for my lack,
and made poorer still for my fear. 

First published here