#NovNov: Bessie Head – The Cardinals

A change from all the German-language novellas I have been reading this month. Bessie Head was born in South Africa but had to go into exile in 1964 in Botswana, where she died in 1986 at the far too young age of 49. The novella The Cardinals (115 pages) was written while she was trying to work as a journalist in South Africa in 1960-62, but was never published in her lifetime. Understandable, since it deals with illicit mixed-race relationships, which were considered a punishable crime in South Africa until 1985, but very much frowned upon for a few years after the law was repealed.

Bessie Head herself was the result of just such an illegal unions between a black man and a white woman, therefore never recognised by her family and shunted from one foster home to another during her childhood. This forms the biographical detail for the main character in The Cardinals, Miriam, who is soon nicknamed ‘Mouse’ by her colleagues at the newspaper African Beat. Just like a mouse, she is small, quiet, shy, they barely know she is there, but the name could equally imply drabness as well as a slightly pejorative affection. Mouse is very hesitant about her writing, which she learnt to do almost against all odds. She shows ‘no mean ability’ and soon improves upon the stories that her charismatic older colleague Johnny writes, but she is not the pushy, talkative investigative reporter type. She also seems afraid to open herself up through her writing, to allow her lived experience to seep through.

Writing reveals quite a lot about the writer. This bit here proves to me that you are very much alive inside. What makes you conceal this aliveness behind a mask of death?

The answer is perhaps that this is a frequent response to trauma, to lock your emotions away so that you cannot be hurt again. Mouse seems almost touchingly naive at times, at other times world-weary and cynical, but the reality of newsroom sexism, reports of racial oppression and manipulation of news certainly mature her very quickly.

She is attracted to the bossy and debonair Johnny, whose initial pity for her transforms into a desire to protect her as well as genuine love. He convinces her to move in with him, so that he can help her achieve her full potential as a writer – although it turns out he is not averse to helping her achieve her full potential as a woman too. What neither of them know, however, is that Johnny is in fact her father. The story ends before we find out if the relationship is consummated, or if they ever find out about the taboo they are about to break, but we are made to feel a lot of sympathy for the unwitting protagonists. Readers are left wondering why the author chose to show such a major taboo in a positive light.

The answer is probably because the author is testing our tolerance, while drawing parallels between the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act and the incest taboo. If you too were raised in a country where sexual relationships between whites and non-whites were considered disgusting, filthy, impossible, even before they became illegal, where the children of such unions were considered the lowest of the low, if not completely invisible… would you not consider this miscegenation to be as subversive as incest?

The other theme of the novella is the emergence of a writer, both in terms of craft, but also finding the right subject matter, those things that you are best placed to write about. Johnny is an infuriating know-it-all at times, and Mouse struggles to accept his tough medicine and advice to her as a writer and a person. Yet you cannot help but feel that the author thinks many of his principles are sound, even though he conveys them too forcefully at times.

A human life is limited so it has to identify itself with a small corner of this earth. Only then is it able to shape its destiny and present its contribution. This need of a country is basic and instinctive in every living being. I don’t care to admit it but historians may say we were a conquered race. Anyway, we were made to feel like the underdog. You cannot feel like the underdog and at the same time feel you belong to a country. It is the duty of the conqueror to abuse you, and treat you like an outcast and alien, and to impose false standards on you. Maybe we can help throw some of those imposed standards overboard. It is a great responsibility to be a writer at this time.

Writing, the author seems to suggest, is about giving voice to the countless people living a zombie-like existence – far too many hours spent on back-breaking, monotonous labour, living in crushing poverty, nothing to look forward to except an often violent death. In such a brutal existence, we have to grab what fleeting joys we can, as the final paragraph indicates:

Just don’t delude yourself you’re safe. Anything can happen. Life is a treacherous quicksand with no guarantee of safety anywhere. We can only try to grab what happiness we can before we are swept off into oblivion.

Yet, although I understood these sentiments, I was somewhat disappointed with this early work of Head’s. This is very much an apprenticeship work, full of clunky expressions. I also struggled with the characters’ motivations. I found Johnny rude to the point of being aggressive, Mouse far too passive and bland (living up to her nickname), the dialogue often too stilted and the reactions of the newspaper colleagues too over the top. Bessie Head went on to write far more subtly and poetically, but as a historical curiosity, one of the few pieces of fiction she wrote while still in South Africa, and as an example of her evolving craft, it remains nevertheless an interesting work.

#GermanLitMonth and #NovNov: Jonas Lüscher

Jonas Lüscher: Frühling der Barbaren (Barbarian Spring), 2013. Translated by Peter Lewis and published by Chicago University Press/Haus Publishing.

You might argue that a 192 page book is not a novella, but that is the length of the English-language version. The German version is roughly 120 pages, which makes me wonder whether the English translation also contains some additional notes or simply a larger font and more white spaces.

Lüscher is a contemporary Swiss novelist and essayist. He studied philosophy and therefore seems to delight in writing books that pose a bit of an ethical dilemma or a larger existential question. His second novel, Kraft, is about an aging, out-of-kilter German professor trying to win a prize by demonstrating to a Silicon Valley audience that ‘our world is still, despite all evidence, the best of all possible worlds, and how we might improve it even further through technology’. That should make it clear that the author loves satire, and this is obvious in his first book too, Barbarian Spring.

Written soon after the 2008 financial crash but well before the Brexit referendum and all that followed, the book makes fun of the UK’s banking industry (one might say ‘the pot calling the kettle black’) but has a more profound message about just how quickly our trappings of civilisation can disappear when faced with a crisis. I will share the blurb with you for a plot summary, because I don’t think I can write a better one myself:

Preising, Swiss industrialist and garrulous fusspot, finds himself in Tunisia, attending the wedding of two City traders from London. At an old Berber oasis transformed into a luxury resort, the bride rides in on a camel to take her vows. The ludicrous excesses of these braying, young, high-flying wealth-creators knows no bounds. But as they carouse the night away, sterling stands on the brink of collapse and Britannia looks set to slip beneath the waves of bankruptcy and chaos. Next morning, with thumping heads and their credit cards maxed out, and as the first rumblings of the Arab Spring grip their host country, the Bright Young Neo-Thatcherites stage a revolt of their own with unimaginably grotesque and blackly humorous consequences.

Bill and Ben Books, https://www.billandbenbooks.co.uk/general/0046356-barbarian-spring

The story is told in a rather unusual way. Preising is prattling away, telling his story to the actual first-person narrator. They are both of them recovering from some kind of mental breakdown in a sanatorium. I wasn’t sure why this distancing device was necessary in such a short novel, but it does allow the narrator to comment more critically on Preising’s own interpretation of the story. Not that we are in any doubt that he is a rather unreliable narrator, well-meaning but weak, fairly observant about others, but at the same time rather blind to his own cultural relativism and liberalism ‘shallow as a children’s paddling pool’. He is a complete Mr Average, who has inherited his family’s business, run quite efficiently by the scrappy Bosnian immigrant Prodanovic, who uses him as a figurehead of dependability, but sends him out of the way whenever important decisions are being made.

This is how he ends up in the very upmarket Tunisian resort (designed to resemble what Westerners expect a Berber or Touareg camp to be like, although the architect did point out that there were no Touaregs in Tunisia). Supposedly, he is there to finalise a deal with one of their Tunisian suppliers, who owns the resort (among many other pies), but there doesn’t seem to be much for him to do, so he befriends the parents of the bridegroom of a wedding party, a financial trader who has brought all of his equally swanky, spoilt friends to the resort.

Of course all their luxury and high jinks become a desperate scrabble for survival, as the resort manager – uncertain of ever being paid for the whole wedding party – stops giving them any food and closes the pool and other amenities, while an Arab Spring type uprising turns against the rich and corrupt Tunisian owners as well. Some Lord-of-the-Flies-type scenes follow, including a particularly graphic one involving camel death. Turns out we are never too far from descending into barbarity, but in the end the narrator is left wondering what the whole point of Preising’s story was, and whether there was anything to be learnt from it.

I too couldn’t help but wonder about that. I enjoyed the satirical tone and the scene-setting, but found it took too long to reach the point of economic collapse (aside from the fact that the complete and utter collapse of a country and its currency is rather far-fetched, Argentina, Venezuela and recent examples of bankruptcy and defaulting on debts notwithstanding). ‘While Preising slept, England went under.’ By way of contrast, the scenes following the collapse were rather too rushed, hurtling towards a somewhat unsatisfactory conclusion. The suave swerve into dystopia was not quite as elegant as with J. G. Ballard or Don DeLillo, but it was amusing nonetheless. For UK politics watchers, there was the additional bonus of visualising David Cameron in this scene (it was too early for Boris Johnson):

In effect, what Preising was presenting me with here was a variation on the theme of ‘Where were you when Britain went bankrupt?’. This genre had recently taken over from the earlier ‘Where were you on 9/11?’ […] Likewise, we all now vividly remember the moment when the fresh-faced PM in his baby-blue silk tie – which I always considered an unduly optimistic and frivolous choice under the circumstances – commenced his speech with the words ‘In thirteen hundred and forty-five, when King Edward the Third told his Florentine bankers…’ Sure, it had a far less iconic image than 9/11, but it’s still seared on our collective memory.

It’s these satirical moments about globalism that really lifted the work for me, even when it felt a little top-heavy in terms of structure. A sharp, witty debut, which certainly makes me curious to search for the second novel by this author.