The latest addition to my website is Sindiwe Magona‘s Chasing the Tails of My Father’s Cattle. This is a feminist novel, set in a traditional South African village and follows the life of Shumi, who grows up in the village. Her mother dies giving birth to her and, as her father works in the gold mines in Johannesburg, she is initially brought up mainly by her maternal grandmother, spending time with her father only when he comes home for a few weeks every year. As Jojo, her father, grows increasingly concerned about his daughter’s upbringing, he cuts back his time at the mine and then gives it up altogether, focussing on crop growing and animal rearing. As Shumi grows up, she faces sexism more and more. While Jojo is happy for her to continue her education, his family see no point in a girl being educated. They are even more horrified when Jojo makes a will leaving his estate to Shumi, instead of to his closest male relative, as is the custom. Jojo also defends his sister, who is brutalised by her husband and expects her to accept it. Both as a wife and then as a widow, Shumi holds her own, while trying not to alienate the male power structure too much. It is a fine story and presumably at least partially autobiographical.
The latest addition to my website is J M Coetzee‘s The Schooldays of Jesus, a follow on from his previous novel The Childhood of Jesus. As with this previous novel, the link with the biblical Jesus is not always apparent. Davíd, the presumably Jesus character, has been taken by his guardians, Inés and Simón, from Novilla to Estrella, in an escape reminiscent of the biblical Flight into Egypt, not least because they are escaping both the authorities and a future census. They initially work on a fruit farm, to keep a low profile, but then Davíd is admitted to a dance academy run by a couple, who share names (albeit hispanicised) with the composer Bach and his wife. He already seem to be drifting apart from Inés and Simón and the academy accentuates the drift, as he maintains that Inés and Simón do not understand the role of numbers in dancing. Indeed, one of the key themes of this book that he is clearly becoming more independent from the two of them, despite the fact that he only reaches his seventh birthday at the end of the book. It is a strange book, not least because it is not clear where Coetzee is going with the Jesus comparison, though no doubt future books will make things clearer.
The latest addition to my website is Ivan Vladislavic‘s Double Negative. This is Vladislavic’s most recent novel and, while a fine work, not quite of the same standard of his earlier work. It is divided into three sections, the first set during apartheid in South Africa, the second just after the end of apartheid and third somewhat later. It tells the story of Neville Lister who eventually becomes a photographer. In the earlier part, he meets Saul Auerbach, who takes Neville on a photographic expedition with a British journalist. In particular, they visit a street where poor blacks live and photograph two people in their houses. These photographs become famous and the whole experience has a profound influence on Neville. He will later become a successful photographer and return to the same houses. The two issues – photography and apartheid – are used to show the two key themes of the novel. These are the nature of art and the role of the good man in a bad situation. Vladislavic tells his story well and makes his point but I still preferred his earlier two novels.
The latest addition to my website is Ivan Vladislavic‘s The Restless Supermarket. This is a very funny story about a retired proofreader, Aubrey Tearle, who is fighting a losing battle against the decline in standards in general but linguistic standards in particular. Set in Johannesburg in 1993, with apartheid on the way out but not yet gone, it tells the story of Tearle’s rearguard battle against linguistic failings and, at the same time, about the Café Europa, his home from home, with his various friend who sometimes support him but sometimes think that he is too much of a nitpicker. The story starts with imminent closure of the café and the plan for a Goodbye Bash, at which Tearle plans to present his Proofreader’s Derby, his post-retirement life work intended to bring out the vital role of proofreaders in today’s society. The book is both a great learning experience about linguistic oddities but, above all, it is a very funny work about a pedant and how he struggles, usually in vain, against the Philistines.
The latest addition to my website is Ivan Vladislavic‘s The Folly. This novel, set in Vladislavic’s native South Africa, tells of a strange man, Nieuwenhuizen, who arrives to claim an overgrown plot which he seems to have inherited. He collects the rubbish and stores for it for possible future use. He sets up a two-person tent, in which he lives. The neighbours, Mr. and Mrs. Malgas, are bemused. Who is he? What does he want? Eventually, Mr. Malgas, who owns a hardware store, introduces himself and soon he is helping Nieuwenhuizen clear the land. Nieuwenhuizen then gets Malgas to get him some three hundred very long nails and he nails them into the ground and winds string around them, laying out a complex plan. Malgas initially does not understand the plan but then gradually seems not only to grasp it but sees the house completed and even goes into it with Nieuwenhuizen. This is a seemingly conventional novel which turns into a novel about an outsider arriving and completely changing the perception of another person. Absurd possibly but it is also a very original novel.
I have just returned from a distinctly unliterary holiday in South Africa and Zimbabwe, with little literary to report. The South Africans I talked to were fairly ignorant of their own literature and professed to being far more interested in the great outdoors or cricket than in books. (For those more concerned with the Panthers vs the Broncos or what the rest of the world calls football, England and South Africa have just been playing each other at cricket in South Africa for the past few weeks. It would be churlish of me to mention the fact that England won the series.) If they had read a South African author, it was Deon Meyer in both English and Afrikaans. No-one had heard of Marlene van Niekerk or Achmat Dangor and few had heard of J M Coetzee. No matter. At least England won the cricket or have I already mentioned that?
I visited three bookshops, one in Zimbabwe and two in South Africa, though both in the same chain and very similar to one another. The one in Zimbabwe sold children’s books, educational books and a few shoddy UK and US popular paperback novels. There was not a Zimbabwean novel to be seen. The one in South Africa had a big display up front but all were nonfiction (a lot about the problems of South Africa and quite a few travel books). They did have a section called African literature, which was far smaller than the general fiction section, which contained mainly UK and US novels. The African literature section had quite a few South African novels but not all of them were new. The newer ones included Imraan Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System, a story of how ten days spread across four decades send tidal waves through the lives of ordinary and extraordinary South Africans alike, coming out in the UK and US in April this year; Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer, which came out in the UK and US last year and is a novel about E M Forster; Petina Gappah’s Book of Memory, which also came out in the UK and US last year and which is about a woman called Memory in prison for murdering her adoptive father; Irma Joubert’s Het meisje uit de trein (The Girl from the Train) (no, not that one), which came out in Afrikaans in 2011 and last year in English in the UK and US, about a German Jewish girl who escapes from a train bound for Auschwitz and ends up in South Africa; Zakes Mda’s Rachel’s Blue, coming out in March in the UK and US, and concerning rape in a US college town; Masande Ntshanga’s The Reactive, already out in Kindle format in the UK and the US but only appearing in print next June, about young South Africans dealing with HIV/AIDS; Sindiwe Magona’s Chasing The Tails of My Father’s Cattle, published in South Africa last year but with no publication date in the UK and the US, about the lives of women in rural South African communities, which I hope to get to soon; and Ingrid Winterbach’s Vlakwater (it means shallow water). She writes in Afrikaans (the photo at left above shows the Afrikaans bookcase in the bookshop I visited) though some of her books have been translated into English. This one, which came out last year, has yet to be translated. It is a bizarre murder mystery.
Sadly, two writers whom I have not read but should have done, died yesterday. Assia Djebar was an Algerian writer and wrote novels with a feminist viewpoint. She was also a member of the Académie française. Several of her works have been translated into English. André Brink was a noted South African novelist, best known for A Dry White Season.
The latest addition to my website is Marlene van Niekerk‘s Triomf (Triomf). This is a very funny novel about a poor white South African family, that is totally dysfunctional. They live in the suburb of Triomf, specially built for poor whites on top of a bulldozed black shantytown, Sophiatown. The Benade family consists of Mol, her husband, Pop, her brother Treppie and her thirty-nine year old son, Lambert. Lambert is epileptic and therefore has never held a job. Nor has he had any sexual liaison, except with his mother, who early on had realised that sex was the only way to calm him down when he had one of his fits. Poor Mol also has sex with her brother and finds having sex with three men tiring but does not seem concerned about the morality of it. Lambert, who can be prone to violent outbursts, is good at scavenging useful things from rubbish bins and dustbins and good at repairing things. One of the running jokes is his continual repair of the mailbox, which he has built out of scrap metal and affixed to the gate. It gets knocked down and damaged on a regular basis, as Pop or Treppie hit it with their decrepit car. The only real plot is the lead-up to Lambert’s fortieth birthday, for which he has been promised a woman by his parents and for which he and Treppie repair two broken-down fridges in his bedroom, so as to store food and drink for the woman. However, much of the book is a series of very funny scenes, such as Lambert celebrating Guy Fawkes night by almost burning the house down and burning himself or by getting into a fight with the men next door as he spies on their wives sunbathing (he is an inveterate Peeping Tom). The family stumbles through life, with Mol and Pop the generally innocent victims of the erratic behaviour of Treppie and Lambert. Yet, somehow, they just about survive, leaving us with some wonderful literary characters and some superb-story-telling.
The latest addition to my website is Marlene van Niekerk‘s Agaat (UK: The Way of the Women; US, SA: Agaat). This a superb book about two women. The first – Milla – is a white South African woman, daughter of farmers and herself a farmer, who marries a man, Jak, who is good-looking, sociable and well-liked but who is also abusive, racist and thinks he knows everything about farming, which he does not. The second is Agaat, an African woman who, when Milla was twenty-two, was rescued from an abusive and neglectful family when she was five, by Milla, who takes her in, almost as a daughter. Agaat is intelligent, though hindered by having a stunted arm. However, she is resented by the other Africans, who see her getting what they consider special treatment and she does not mix well with them, even struggling with their language. Things get complicated when Milla has a son, Jakkie, whom Agaat takes care of, leaving both Milla and Jak fighting for his affection and loyalty. Jak wants his son to be the man he was not and he is overjoyed when Jakkie joins the South African Air Force, fighting the Cubans in Angola. Milla wants to run the farm but also have a son who loves her more than he loves Agaat. At the start of the book, Milla has motor neurone disease and can barely move and it is Agaat who looks after her – Jak is long since dead – but who now reverses the earlier roles and it is Agaat who takes command. The strength of the book is the relationship between the two women, who struggle, cope and, on occasions fail, in a world where the men are clearly the weaker sex, both black and white.
The latest addition to my website is J M Coetzee‘s The Childhood of Jesus. This book is not about the childhood of Jesus, except, perhaps, very tangentially. What it is about is the arrival of the five-year old David and the forty-five year old Simón in an unnamed Spanish-speaking country, where new arrivals seem to have forgotten everything about their previous lives and slot into fairly mundane lives, whose main excitement seems to be, at least for the men, the occasional game of football. Romance and sex are highly limited, as is quality food, most people subsisting on bread.
Not only is the title something of a mystery, so are the covers. The one above, on the left, is the UK cover and seems to have no relevance to the story at all, except, perhaps to a very minor incident in the story. The one to the right is the Australian cover and does have a bit more relevance to the story, but only towards the end. Is David, the five-year old, meant to represent the young Jesus? He is different, does not fit in, has his own language and, indeed, his own world, and is highly imaginative. As in other Coetzee novels, not all is explained. Nevertheless, this is another fine novel from Coetzee, even if not his best.