Over at dVerse Poets Pub, our resident Hobgoblin urges us to be as succinct as possible and write a really brief poem. This is how I feel after an endless winter. But do go and see the far finer efforts of the excellent poets there.
This is the first South African crime fiction novel that I’ve read, but on the strength of it, it certainly won’t be the last. I have to admit it’s all thanks to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise and her Global Reading Challenge. That is the greatest value of book bloggers and reading challenges – they push you just beyond your normal everyday boundaries. And you discover that in many cases these boundaries were entirely in your own imagination. Why had I never explored South Africa before (although I have a deep affection for the country, having been there several times on business trips)? Because it is so much easier to fall into the familiar authors and patterns of reading, obviously, but perhaps also because I feared that the very real, everyday brutality of South Africa would make its crime fiction unbearable to read.
That is, however, far from the truth. Deon Meyer does not make for comfortable reading, but there are no graphic scenes of torture or gratuitous violence here (unlike some other books I have read recently). Instead, the Afrikaans writer gives us a very perceptive picture of the tensions and contradictions in the South African society, beneath the initial optimism and affirmative action of the Rainbow Nation. His main detective, Benny Griessel, a middle-aged, doting Dad, is an Afrikaaner, but his colleagues are Xhosa, Zulu, English, coloured. They have two cases to solve. The first seems an open and shut case: the murder of a music producer in his own Cape Town home, his drunk wife found passed out next to him with no memory of the previous evening. Griessel, a fellow (recovering) alcoholic, cannot believe that the wife, a formerly successful singer in her own right, could have shot him. But before he can get too deeply involved, he is called to another crime scene. A young American backpacker has been found murdered outside a church, and there soon are indications that a second girl is on the run for her life. Traumatised by what she has witnessed, she dares not trust anyone, least of all the police. While dodging the ruthless pack of men pursuing her, she manages to place a call to her father back in the States. And so the American Consulate and local politicians put pressure on the police to find the missing girl, although no one knows why she is being hunted down with such ferocity.
Although this book (and Deon Meyer more generally) is being touted as an edge-of-the-seat suspense writer in the Harlan Coben, Lee Child and Simon Kernick, I actually found Meyer’s style more relaxed. It’s not that there isn’t enough exciting action throughout the book, but there is also plenty of breathing space. The pacing is such that we have time to meditate on corruption and justice, to find out more about Griessel’s family situation and to discover Afrikaans music. The social commentary is ever-present, yet never overdone, never slowing down the action. And I admit I am biased: Cape Town is one of my favourite cities in the world, but I loved the atmospheric recreation of its different neighbourhoods and felt I was running alongside the girl up the steep slope of Lion’s Head.
What a great introduction to South Africa – if you are going there for a visit, this book will probably tell you more than most guidebooks, as well as being far more exciting and enjoyable.
There is an article in ‘The New Yorker’ that fills me with guilt: it is an essay by Roxana Robinson, novelist, essayist, short-story writer on how she starts writing first thing in the morning. She sacrifices conversation with her husband, glancing at the news, a good breakfast and even (horror of horrors!) a decent cup of coffee in her desire to sit down and listen to her deepest thoughts and dreams.
I am full of admiration, but I also have to admit my own experience is so far removed from that, we might as well be living in different galaxies or parallel universes. Not only do I have a family who conspires to destroy my gossamer of dream-thoughts even if I wake up at 6 in the morning to sneak to the guestroom to get some writing done. But I am also a bit of an obsessive-compulsive (which means I need to have a clear desk), a coffee snob (which means taking the time to choose the right coffee), a perfectionist (I need to feel I have a clear mind, all the admin paperwork out of the way, my emails checked for any urgent messages) and… OK, I’ll admit it, a procrastinator (so I like to work up to things gradually, which means easing my way in via far too much Twitter or reading blogs or other stories etc. etc.). It’s a wonder I ever get anything written at all! (But perhaps not so much of a wonder that I have yet to publish a novel).
So this blog post below is perhaps a fairer description of what happens in my house (I was unable to reblog this, so I am cutting and pasting it from the website of Abigail Kloss-Aycardi, which is well worth a visit):
Written just before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this book by Birgit Vanderbeke is both domestic and allegorical, examining how all revolutions start with one small act of insubordination.
The story is deceptively simple. A brother and sister and their mother are waiting for the head of the family to show up for supper. They are having mussels, a food none of them like very much, but which is their father’s favourite meal. It is a special occasion, they tell each other, father is having a business meeting which may well end in a promotion. As they sit and wait, we find out more and more about this apparently ordinary German family, about the parents’ escape from East Germany and the back-breaking menial jobs their mother had to endure in order to support their father’s studying. The author does an excellent job of describing the public charm and private horror of an inflexible, tyrannical man, but she doesn’t spare the mother either. From the daughter-narrator’s point of view, her mother has colluded with her oppressor, switching to ‘wifey mode’ to appease and soothe him. Yet only a few pages further, we discover that the daughter herself likes to be thought of as ‘Daddy’s girl’ and takes sides with her father to mock the other two members of the family. The dictator’s policy of divide and conquer seeps in gradually, poisoning everything in sight. The more we find out, the more we discover this is a family reigned by fear and despair.
Presented as an ongoing interior monologue (much of it in just one paragraph), the book is an easy read, partly because of its brevity, but also because of its subtle humour and contradictory statements. Yet for anyone who has lived in a non-democratic society or in an abusive family, it is a painful read. It works perfectly well on both levels, describing the gradual descent from praiseworthy public ideals to subverted, selfish interpretations. Thus, the father’s vision of ‘a proper family’ ends in constant criticism and disappointment that his flesh-and-blood children do not live up to his ideal. His desire to be ‘doing things together’ ends in him spoiling the atmosphere and blaming everyone else when things are not quite perfect. And ‘investing in the children’s future’ becomes a pointless exercise involving an expensive stamp collection that no one is interested in.
Communism failed not because it didn’t have inspirational ideas, but because it refused to take into account human nature when putting them into practice. Marriages and families fail because we cannot allow the others to be themselves. A valuable lesson, presented in an intriguing way, with an ending that is stunning in its shocking simplicity.
I read this as part of my 2013 Translation Challenge and on that note, let me make one small aside. I was sharing this book and my delight that Peirene Press is making such work more available to an English-speaking audience with a group of aspiring or even published writers based here in the Geneva area. I bemoaned the fact that there have been few translations into English of world literature so far, and commented how pleased I was to see some new initiatives.
Their reaction surprised me a little. OK, a lot!
They said that no wonder that German and French publishers translate so much literature from the UK and the US, because that’s where the best work is produced. (Never mind that they also translate from many other languages.) And that they themselves cannot be bothered to read literature from other countries, because the style is too different ‘from our own’. Bear in mind that this is not a random group of expats, but keen readers and aspiring writers, who have been living in the local area for many years and usually speak the language very well. The lack of curiosity and insularity perhaps explains why so little contemporary fiction is being translated into English. It saddens me, because it feels like people are deliberately limiting their horizons, but what do you think?
I came across an old copy of the Canadian literary journal ‘A Room of One’s Own’ (dedicated to women’s literature) and found a moving tribute to Carol Shields written by her long-time friend and fellow writer Eleanor Wachtel. Here are some excerpts that I found particularly inspiring.
About women’s literature
I’ve never for a minute doubted the value of women’s experience. Whenever my books met with critical scorn because of their subject matter, I just shrugged. Other critical comments I listened to, but not that one.
Reading novels is not an escape; it’s a necessary enlargement of my life.
About living fully
…we have to use the time we’ve got to blurt bravely and get some words on paper and have lots of conversations with lots of people… Being interested.
About growing and developing
I never believed that people were formed at age seven and we’d never escape that inheritance. I think people are always changing… and what changes them is access to language and their ability to expand their expression of themselves through language.
I think I would have liked to know her as a person. Luckily, we still have her books.