Zebra Crossing by Meg Vandermerwe #47_2015

zebra-crossing

It is September 2009; the year before South Africa hosts the FIFA World Cup. Chipo is a seventeen-year old Zimbabwean girl who runs away to Cape Town with her older brother, George. Their mother died three years before and their situation in Beitbridge becomes untenable. Life has always been particularly difficult for Chipo because she is an albino. Even her brother calls her names, like “peeled potato”, while many people shun her, spit at her and even stone her to ward off the bad luck they believe she can cause them.

The story is narrated by Chipo herself and switches between the present and reflections on her life when her mother was alive. Sometimes her mother visits her as a spirit. Mama is a wonderful character who loves Manchester United, runs a tavern and is fiercely protective of her daughter. She rejects superstition and will not attend church because of the attitudes most people have to albinos.

George believes Cape Town will be a life of milk and honey but the reality is very different. From the time they are smuggled across the border, they face many challenges and scary moments. Chipo reflects on the manmade nature of borders that “exist only in the minds of politicians” and their psychological significance;

A border is where you must say goodbye. You cannot afford to turn and look back. The past is the past. That is what your brother says.

Borders rhymes with orders. You follow your brother’s orders. You have no choice. Time to go forward, he says. To look forward.

A border is where you swap home for hope. 

Chipo has a quirky habit of finding a word that rhymes with another thus moving to a different thought in a stream of consciousness way. Through this device, everything that troubles her is described. “Nationalities sound like irrationalities” sums up the hostile way foreigners from other African countries are regarded. The irony of the World Cup slogan, “It’s Time. Celebrate Africa’s Humanity”, is not lost on Chipo.

The siblings stay with twins, Peter and David, in a one room flat in a dodgy building in Long Street where the landlord exploits their vulnerability by over-charging them but overlooking the illegalities. George gets a job as a waiter while Chipo stays at home and does housework, cooking and ironing. She has a crush on David who is kind to her and sometimes takes her to museums and art galleries. It is clear that he does not reciprocate her feelings and prefers spending time with his friend, Jeremiah. This unrequited love of hers leads her to do things that she later regrets. Tragedy befalls them all once she has been to see Dr Ongani

Jean-Paul, an enigmatic tailor, who she believes to hail from the Congo shares part of the apartment and pays the lion’s share. He is kind to her and for a while she works as his assistant which is the happiest time she has in Cape Town. She wonders about his sadness and his family but does not dare ask.

This is a very sad story that brings home the fearful limbo that immigrants have to face in South Africa where xenophobia is a sad reality. Superstition is another theme that threads the narrative from the beliefs many people hold about albinism as well as their beliefs about homosexuality. The loneliness of a young girl who is rejected by most of society is poignantly expressed in her own unique voice without any sense of self-pity being conveyed.

The View from Here: What to read from South Africa

I am privileged to have been interviewed for Karen’s wonderful book blog, Booker Talk regarding my thoughts on South African Fiction.

BookerTalk

viewfromhere

We’re off to South Africa for our next country in The View From Here series on literature from around the world.  We’ll be in the capable hands of Penny who blogs at 2015 Reading Challenge – SA books only. 

Let’s meet Penny

pennyI work at one of South Africa’s major retailers. Over the years, I’ve taken on many different roles mainly relating to the buying/planning space. However my passions lie in reading, hiking and birding. My blog is called 2015 Reading Challenge – SA books only. I didn’t even know reading challenges were a thing then. In 2014, I read a chance remark, on a reading Facebook group, to the effect that there is so much South African Fiction now, one could go a whole year and read nothing else. I thought it would be fun to try that out; I keep year lists for birds in the Southern African region, so…

View original post 1,723 more words

It Might Get Loud by Ingrid Winterbach #46_2015

It might Get loud

The English title of this translated novel, It Might Get Loud, by Ingrid Winterbach references a 2008 music documentary of the same name in which Jimmy Page, the Edge and Jack White swop stories and jam together. This is a clue to the main protagonist’s passion, heavy metal and rock music; as well as to the noise going on in many of the characters’ heads. Ingrid Winterbach has a penchant for off-the-wall characters who find themselves in outlandish situations yet her keen observations render them highly recognisable.

Karl Hofmeyer, heavy metal afficionado and sufferer of severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, receives a phone call from Josias Brand, who runs a ‘haven for the have-nots’ on the slopes of Table Mountain, where Karl’s brother, Iggy has been staying. Iggy has been wreaking havoc and Josias, insists Karl comes to Cape Town to sort things out. Josias, is known as “a latter-day Lear in leather sandals”; what a marvellous phrase. In the original Afrikaans, I imagine a play on words was probably made using ‘leer’, which is the Afrikaans word for leather.

Karl embarks on a road trip from Durban to Cape Town feeling anxious about Iggy, who he has not heard from for some time. The trip is fraught with delays and chance meetings exacerbated by Karl’s many phobias like strange smells and surfaces, pets, rats, excreta and open wounds. (Some of these are more understandable than others). Certain numbers spell disaster which limits the rooms in which he can stay and even the days on which he can travel. When a woman at the Wimpy in Estcourt touches her nostril, he cannot eat his food so he pays and leaves.

A different character with seemingly no link to Karl is Maria Volschenk. She also lives in Durban with a tenant Joy Park, who lives in a garden flat on the ground floor of Maria’s house. One of the remarkable aspects of this novel, is Ingrid Winterbach’s marvellous character descriptions. She draws with words and in one sentence conjures up the image;

Joy is “more or less Maria’s age, early fifties, thin, red hair, freckled complexion, thin legs, big breasts, been round the block a couple of times, but spunky. A woman of reduced means.

Maria’s sister, Sofie, died 9 months previously and she has an unsettling dream about her. She loses interest in everything, her favourite music and her wonderful subtropical garden. In an effort to identify the source of her pain, she “compresses her memory, in an attempt to squeeze every last drop of information from it”.

Then her ex-husband phones to say Benjy, their son who lives in Cape Town is in trouble.He now lives in Cape town trying to be an artist. Maria describes Benjy in a strangely detached way, considering he is her child, even if bringing him up was complicated. She also knows Sofie left a parcel for her with Tobie, her partner.She travels to Cape Town to attempt to resolve both these issues.

Karl meets different people on his journey, such as a group of four who seem to be a Boeremag clique; Ollie of Steynsrus, Hercules of Senekal, Bertus of Holfontein and Johan. He eavesdrops on their conversation; the brilliant dialogue is written in a long continuous stream just as Karl would have heard it.

He is also tracked down by someone who has a parcel for him from brother Iggy.  This causes more delays and manifestation of his phobias are highly elevated. His fears of impending doom are infectious  while the description of this comedy of errors is also amusing, creating a strange contrasting reaction in the reader. He is further alarmed by someone he meets who knows who he is and claims there are powers battling for the possession of Iggy’s soul.

Maria and Karl’s respective journeys seem to have little to do with each other but the connection is revealed later in the novel.They both have parcels that contain information; they both are looking for answers. The weirdness continues; both situations and characters.This unusual though intriguing novel with its brilliant character descriptions and dialogue, may not appeal to all readers, but it is worth every minute spent reading it.

P.S. Despite not having read it in the original language, I believe the translation by Michiel Heyns to be excellent. Ingrid Winterbach’s highly unique voice is ever present.

 

Check out my other blog

african writing blog

I still ‘owe’ this blog 5 reviews for the South African fiction titles that I read in 2015.

They are the following books:

  1. Death by Carbs by Paige Nick
  2. The Folly by Ivan Vladislavic
  3. What Hidden Lies by Michelle Rowe
  4. Hour of Darkness by Michelle Rowe
  5. Piggy Boy’s Blues by Nakhane Toure

I will write them in due course.

This year I have no specific reading project other than to continue reading SA fiction and to expand my reading to writing from the rest of Africa as well.

If you are following this blog, check out the link below and see what I’ve been reading this year. Follow that one too if it pleases you.

https://africanwritingbookreviews.wordpress.com/

The Fetch by Finuala Dowling #45_2015

The Fetch

The Fetch; a curious title with several meanings, one of which is the usual one, another denotes the length of water over which a given wind has blown until it reaches its final impediment and a third meaning is that of an apparition or wraith. Chas is one of the central characters; he is the life and soul of the party, the one who fades and the one who needs to be fetched. The sea too, pounding on the beach at Slangkop near Kommetjie in the Western Cape, is ever present and William, neighbourhood eccentric and “wild-looking and oddly dressed” childhood friend of Chas, is fascinated by the science behind everything, explains the fetch and is the one who fetches.

The story is told from Nina’s point of view; she is a young woman in her twenties who is smitten by Chas and his party-throwing glamorous lifestyle on display at Midden House, the only “architectural jewel” in the small community. She is plumpish, modest, wears thick-soled fisherman sandals but is also blonde and fresh-faced. Her friend, Fundiswa, is less enamoured with Chas who she calls  a “man-whore”. Neville and Sharon run the caravan park and host the very slapdash community forum meeting. One of the pressing matters is how to get rid of Egyptian Geese poo from the lawns; another is, what is to be done about the outcast baboon; perhaps another symbol of the disjointedness of life in this community that each seem to be outcasts of a sort.

The setting is reminiscent of an English village with a manor house where the villagers struggle along while the nobility live the high life. However, the characters are very recognisably South African, hilariously so. The depiction of all the characters through excellent dialogue and vivid yet brief descriptions brings them to life. Sharon, in particular, is so funny. She is one of those vain woman who thinks every man has the hots for her; she brags about her kickass Kegel muscles, proclaims to all about how “lucky she is with her body” and completely fails to notice when snooty old Dot Fawkes disapproves of her revealing attire.

Despite the many laugh-out-loud moments, the novel tackles some relevant topics with a light touch that does not belie their serious and even poignant nature. When Dolly, Chas’s wife, arrives unexpectedly after a long absence, there are further adjustments to daily life and the motley crew of Slangkop are thrown into turmoil. What lies beneath reveals itself over time and Nina learns through her experiences. She is a lovable character who seems timid initially but is not afraid to put herself in awkward situations; her self-deprecatory remarks about herself are very amusing. The scene where she is at Chas’s party and pretends to be interested in the paintings to cover up the fact that no-one was talking to her seemed very familiar.

Once you pick up this book, you will be captivated by the characters, amused and dismayed by their situations and see yourselves in one way or another. A thoroughly enjoyable read.

Counting the Coffins by Diale Tlholwe #44_2015

counting the coffins

Thabang Maje, the ex-teacher turned private investigator first encountered in Ancient Rites, is back. His cynical, world-weary take on the world is heightened as personal tragedy has befallen him. His wife, Lesego, pregnant with twins, had a car crash trying to avoid a drugged teenager. She is in hospital, one twin died and the other is also in hospital battling for her life. He is grieving and struggling to get on with life as the world seemed to expect.

One of his partners hands over a file for him to peruse, an orange file that had previously been abandoned as the clients did not have the money to pursue it. His interest is piqued by the name Sandile Nkosi, father of the boy who had caused his wife’s crash, the man who had tried to lay the blame on Lesego thus causing further anger and turmoil for Thabang. He forces himself to read it but is not sure he wants to pursue it as “he was getting tired of tales of woe from people who had got ripped off by smarter crooks while plotting to rip off people less smart than themselves.” Then he thought of old MaMolefe back in Marakong-a-Badimo (the setting in Ancient Rites) who had said, “Make it mean something!” referring to their loss.

Thabang discovers that Nkosi has his fingers in many pies, such as pyramid schemes, a brothel fronting as a nightclub as well as being involved in a consortium of politically connected bigwigs who were granted a government contract to build a large shopping mall near Thokoza, east of Alberton. Everything had gone wrong and the mall was a “half-finished monstrosity”, lots of finger-pointing and missing money. Thabang is attracted to this mess in the hopes of nailing Nkosi. This decision catapults him into another world and he is embroiled in situations he could not have anticipated.

The settings add a sort of gritty realism such as the spot where he meets ex-journo and friend Tolo;  “a dark, nameless bar and restaurant in Nugget street, off route from where the trendy congregate to congratulate themselves with expensive drinks”. In one sentence he sets his character apart and from the mainstream and pronounces his distaste for contemporary life. He had previously said,  “somewhere along the line I had lost my place in the political and social dance of the country” and this commentary permeates the narrative thus making it more than a crime novel.

Tolo seems very eager to involve herself in this case and takes him to a party where the people who lost out in the mall saga would be gathering. She introduces him under a false name and he ferrets around gleaning information. Things spiral from there on as more and more is uncovered. All the while he is visiting his wife in hospital and trying to keep things from her; a fascinating recipe for page turning.

Diale Tlholwe’s books are not easily available in bookshops but try and get hold of them; you will not be sorry. A good source is loot.co.za.

 

 

Coconut by Kopano Matlwa #43_2015

Coconut

Hair; black women’s hair. They battle with it, tease it, tame it, and straighten it. The politics of hair. Right in the beginning of Coconut, Kate’s sleek, soft, long slightly wavy hair is compared to Ofilwe’s pain and agony while getting her hair straightened. Beauty defined by the white standard.

Ofilwe, her older brother, Tshepo, and their parents live in Little Valley Country Estate near Sandton city. Tshepo is a counterpoint to Ofilwe; she wants to be integrated into and accepted by white people, be invited to the parties, be one of them but Tshepo questions the way they have to adapt to white people with no quid pro quo. Yet she is often rudely reminded of the prejudices that are so inherent in her white peers and sometimes even her black peers. Imagine the hurt when the black boy she has a crush on tells her that he only dates white girls?

Coconut, as most people probably know by now, is a derogatory term denoting that someone is black on the outside and white on the inside. The ‘coconuts’ often went to previously all-white schools and have a certain twang (an accent similar to an English-speaking white person). They want to fit in amongst whites and appear to reject the values of their own community. In Ofilwe’s case, she is torn between the two worlds. She yearns to know more about the religion of her ancestors, the customs of the Pedi people and wonders about the history of her people. At school she has only learnt as far back as the Dutch East India Company. She realises that she has lost her language too and wants to get it back.

The narrative switches from Ofilwe’s middle-class perspective to that of Fikile, who works as a waitress at the Silver Spoon where Ofilwe’s family go every Sunday after church. In stark contrast to Ofilwe, she has a very tough life where every minute of every day is a struggle. Her uncle is a security guard who loves Shakespeare but he is being used as a front for the company to earn BEE points. She lives with him in a one-room shack in the back of someone else’s garden but has taken to sleeping on the cold, cement floor to avoid having to sleep in the same bed with him. She is very ambitious and has visions of using her job at the Silver Spoon to launch a glittering future. She is also antagonistic, unfriendly and not a very likeable character. Yet the reader is still able to empathise with her through an understanding of the context that shaped her personality.

The style in which the book is written reflects the turmoil of both young women’s struggle to make sense of their identity and their place in the world. The present world action takes place in one day but each looks back to earlier times when they had not been disillusioned by the way the world treats them. Their earlier naiveté and trust has been replaced with a cynicism that is sad to see in such young people.

Reading this book I was saddened, angered and frustrated at the everyday racism both Ofilwe and Fikile experience; at the daily indignities each suffers. Unfortunately the difficulties of progressing in a world of whiteness causes Fikile to turn her nose up at other black people as if they are too blame for the structural ills of society. This is represented very well in the novel and exposed for what it is by the man in the train that Fikile meets. An excellent way to complete the novel, giving one pause to consider what it means to give up your language.

Despite having been published 9 years ago, this novel is still very relevant. Written with insight, humour and a wonderful ability to capture interactions between different people, it will either open your eyes or give you a sense of recognition, depending on whether you are black or white.