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.

 

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By Any Means by Kurt Ellis #40_2015

by any means

Oupa is illiterate yet he owns a shed full of books. He is adamant that his grandchildren will succeed and he impresses upon them that they must succeed, by any means necessary. Their education is of paramount importance to him. He instils the code into the boys at a young age telling them to always look after each other; to never back down when they are right; to destroy anyone who hurts one of their own. Kyle and Captain understand “the language and the rules of being a bruinou. An eye for an eye is the first and only amendment in the Coloured Constitution”. This philosophy clashes with the drive to become educated; violence answers violence and cuts down young lives. By Any Means exposes the trajectory of this cycle and its inevitable tragic consequences.

In 2000, Kyle lives with his cousins, Jimmy and Captain, in his aunt’s house in Sydenham, Durban. All Kyle wants is a contract with Liverpool FC; he is a talented footballer and has a coach/mentor who is sure he can make it. He is troubled by the violent break-up of his parents but he also believes he should “man up”. Given what had happened, he should have been receiving trauma counselling but instead he castigates himself for being a baby.

Captain also still attends school, when it suits him. His main goal is to make money to feed his family and ensure his cousins’ education is not disrupted. He swaggers through the township knowing he is respected, or rather feared. His gang, the Godfathers, all “came from poverty, and burned with the desire to escape it”. They sell drugs and act as a go-between for a bigger fish. Initially he was a member of another gang but when their leader, Tyson, was imprisoned for hijacking, Captain seized the opportunity and set up his own contract with the big fish, Lazarus. The Godfathers had been making good profits for a year and a half but Tyson was soon to be paroled and this will change everything.

Yet Captain is a complex guy; the school will not accept his donation to buy desks because they do not want to be complicit in his shady dealings. So he insists they all pitch in and help make the desks. He loves his girlfriend, Nazneen, yet she is also a possession, a territory over which he challenges any would-be trespassers. Kyle also meets a girl, Amia, who loves his intellectual side. She has issues though stemming from previous relationships and problems with her stepfather.

The dialogue is excellent in capturing the slang with its smattering of Afrikaans, Americanisms and big deal posturing. ‘Aight’ they say instead of ‘alright’, (reminding me of the gangsters in The Wire). The narrative moves from school to house party to night club to Addington Beach. As a Durbanite, I really enjoy the familiarity with the surrounds. When these guys walk down Sparks Rd, I know exactly where they are.

The action is mesmerising, driven by the dialogue and situations which will have you on the edge of your seat. Despite the inevitable tragedy that unfolds, the trajectory of events is far from predictable.

One cannot help but compare this novel to What Will People Say by Rehana Rossouw because they both deal with gangsterism and drugs in the Coloured communities. They are nevertheless very different as By Any Means adopts the perspective of the gangsters themselves and is set in Durban in 2000’s while What Will People Say explores the issue from a parental perspective in the eighties. Read both.

 

Tales of the Metric System by Imraan Coovadia #30_2015

Tales of the Metric System

Each tale dips into a decade and focuses on people, incidents and interactions that in one way or another characterise that decade; state sanctioned murder, passbooks, communism, necklacing, the TRC, Aids and the 2010 World Cup. Tales of the Metric System spans the years between 1970 and 2010 and is a marvellous construct. It approaches the topic of the apartheid years and those struggling against this system from an entirely fresh angle. It also spills over into the years after apartheid, which adds a different perspective to the more distant past. The narrative is interlaced with personal minutiae of ordinary days and some wonderfully colourful characters. To those readers who think they have read this sort of thing before, you have not. This novel is unmissable.

The title itself is intriguing. Why are these tales of the metric system? Perhaps the metric system is a metaphor for the apartheid government and the stories and troubled lives that it spawned.  It is said that implementation of the metric system, in its full extent not only currency, was most successful in South Africa due to the kragdadigheid *(heavy-handed, uncompromising autocracy) of the Nats. “The world changed with the units of measurement”. How ironic that this conservative, undemocratic government embraced such a modern system while keeping the population in the dark ages in every other way.

Each tale has a different set of characters at its centre some of whom crop up on the periphery of a later tale. The characters seem to be a composite of real characters such as Neil Hunter, loosely based on Rick Turner. Towards the end of the novel, a particular family closely resembles the Shaik family, except they are Hindus rather than Muslims. This is a rather clever way of getting sufficient authorial distance from real people and being able to imagine them into fictional characters.

There are so many memorable characters that it is difficult to single out a few but Mr Shabangu, the caretaker of the Caledonian Christian Men’s Hostel in Pietermaritzburg, is particularly fascinating though unlikeable. He is a secretive man who steals and hordes his ill-gotten goods. He witnesses one of his youthful accomplices being necklaced by a furious community but does nothing to prevent it. Then there is Yash, who lives in Phoenix and is besotted with playing the guitar and has a record collection of pop rock music. He played in a band in a beachfront restaurant, which was not strictly legal in 1979. He goes to try to claim his pay from the restaurant owner, Colin, on Boxing Day. This does not go well and he realises that the intimacy he thought he shared had been withdrawn. “It happened with Europeans. A trapdoor opened and you fell through the floor.” This use of second person narrative is used to good effect throughout the novel. It seems to pull the reader into the action as if at one with the character. The ‘you’ statements also give the impression of something that is generally true.  The dialogue throughout the novel flows easily and convincingly. The voices of the different characters are perfectly captured by the use of different diction and turn of phrase.

The book itself is also a thing of beauty. Examine the title closely and you will see icons of the times integrated into the letters; cuffed hands make up an H, a burning tyre makes up an O. Each chapter has a title page with an icon that represents the chapter whether this be a guitar, a pass book or a vuvuzela. I have enjoyed some of Coovadia’s previous work such as The Wedding and High Low In-Between but in this novel, he has surpassed himself.

*According to Riaan Malan, kragdadigheid is an old Afrikaner philosophy; an act of power, you took what you wanted and held it with your gun and fists