Category Archives: South Africa

Around the world in 10 books

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday hosted by Broke and Bookish gives me carte blanche to write about anything that takes my fancy. I know many bloggers and readers have a goal this year to broaden their reading horizons by selecting authors from different parts of the world. I’ve been making slow but steady progress down that path for the last few years so I thought this week I would take you all on my reading journey via 10 books I’ve discovered. I’ve selected novels that either a strong sense of the country or culture or that provide an insight into its history.

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We start our journey in Asia …

  • India: I had so much choice here. In the end it was a toss up between Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry or The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee. Mistry takes us into the heart of Mumbai at a time (1971) when the country was in the midst of internal upheaval and the Prime Minister uses her secret police to undermine the forces that threaten to disrupt the whole fabric of India. In the end I plumped for The Lives of Others which takes a similar path of portraying a family caught up in political turbulence. Mukherjee’s tale takes place a decade earlier than Mistry’s novel at a time when Communist forces were trying to de-stablise the country. I chose this novel because I had no idea about that aspect of India’s history but I also enjoyed the way Mukerjee showed how the breakdown in the political world was mirrored by a breakdown in the structure of one family.
  • Japan: Norwegian Wood by Murakami Huraki is an exquisitely written novel about love and despair but I chose this because it portrayed a different side of life in Japan. This is not the Japan of kimonos and geishas, of rituals and codes of behaviour but a world seen through the eyes of its young people. Huraki sets much of this novel in Tokyo in 1969, taking us through the student world of late night bars and all night cinemas with not a karoke microphone in sight.
  • China: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Saijie. I knew before reading this novella that intellectuals were considered abhorrent by the Maoist regime in the 1970s and often lost their lives as a result. But I didn’t know that the regime also tried to ‘re-educate’ them by sending them off to live with the peasants in the countryside. Saijie’s novel follows two young boys despatched to a remote village where instead of being cleansed of all tainted ideas, they instead discover new ones through the novels of Balzac, Hugo and Flaubert that they have to hide from the authorities.

Let’s pick up our suitcases and make a brief stop in South America  …

  • Colombia: The Armies by Evelio Rosero Diago. As you sip your next cup of coffee spare a few moments to think about the country from which many of those beans originate. Diago’s novel is set at a time when citizens of Colombia live in fear of armed gangs and drug dealers who hide out in the hills. They may be killed or they may have been made to ‘disappear’. This is what Ismael −a retired teacher – fears has happened to his wife when he returns home to find the place deserted. The result is a deeply moving story about a man who cannot seek safety for himself until he knows the truth about his wife.

And now we’re en route to Africa …

  • South Africa:  I was tempted to go for Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, a classic text set just before the introduction of apartheid but decided instead on a book that shows a completely different side of the country. Fiela’s Child  by Dalene Matthee is set well before the apartheid era but the issue of colour is still very much part of this novel about a white boy who goes missing from his woodcutter family and is found many years later living as the child of a native family. It’s a story that poses a question of which bond is stronger – that of the birth family or the family who raise and nurture the child?
  • Republic of the Congo: Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou. This short novel brings some light relief from the serious issues with which a lot of African fiction is concerned. It’s set in a seedy bar and features the host of characters to be found propping up the bar and boring the pants off the other customers with their hard luck stories. In between we get some insights into their thoughts on life in the Congo, the delusional nature of the nation’s male population and the distrust of politicians and the nature of African politicians. It’s great fun to read and to try and spot Mabanckou’s numerous allusions to other texts.

And finally we land in Europe …

  • Finland: White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen. Until I picked this up from the Pereine Press catalogue I had no idea that Finland had experienced a devastating famine in the late 1860s. This novella holds nothing back in relating the misery caused by that event and the desperate lengths to which its citizens will go to save themselves. One of them – a peasant farmer’s wife from the north – is the focus of the novel. She abandons her dying husband and sets off on foot through waist-high snow with her two young children. You read this with a sense of dread about what awaits her.
  • Hungary:  Satantango by László Krasznahorkai. This is an equally grim though fascinating book which exposes the way evil materialises to take advantage of poor and desperate peasants already suffering the misery of an oppressive political regime. Not a book that will make you happy but it will certainly make you thankful not to be living under such a regime.
  • France:  L’Assommoir by Emile Zola. Paris, the ‘city of lights’,  had its dark  side in the nineteenth century. Behind the magnificent facades and glittering wealth were people living in abject poverty amid open sewers and overflowing drains. They dreamed of a different life but – according to Zola’s theory of naturalism – their inherited flaws of character or the environment around them would always bring them down. Zola always bases his novels on meticulous research so you can be sure all the detail of living conditions is far from exaggerated.
  • Italy: Inspector Montelbano series by Andrea Camilleri. I’m going to end with something which could be considered light reading compared to most of the titles in this list. Ask people to name anything associated with Italy and though some will mention ‘art’, ‘heritage’ it won’t be too long before you hear ‘wine’ and ‘pasta.’  Food and Italy are inseparable  which probably explains why Andrea Camilleri devotes so much time to describing the meals eaten by his lead character Inspector Montelbano. Few pages go by without a scene where the Inspector pops into his favourite trattoria for lunch – not for him your typical working day lunch of a sandwich while sat at the computer. This is a full blown three course affair. When he gets home at the end of a long day chasing criminals it’s to find his housekeeper has prepared him something delicious for supper. Camilleri is pretty mean to his readers by listing all these fabulous sounding meals but the tourist board of Sicily must be thrilled because the Montelbano books are guaranteed to make you want to dig out that passport and head for the island.
How are your reading travels going?

If you also are trying to broaden your reading this year, do share your experience. Perhaps you found some other gems for the countries I’ve mentioned. If you need inspiration take a look at the recommendations of bloggers who have written guest posts about the literature from their country – you’ll find them all on the View from Here page.

New acquisitions

I had a little indulgence while on my trip to the USA earlier this year and ended up with more new books than I could fit into the suitcase so had to ship some of them home. The US mailing system screwed up somewhere along the line so it took far longer than expected. By the time they arrived late last week I’d forgotten what I’d bought….

First of all three books I bought in a discounted store.

family albumI’ve read only Penelope Lively to date – her Booker winning novel Moon Tiger. It was a stunner so I’ve been on the look out for a few more titles from her. Family Album is her 16th book. As you’d guess from the title, Family Album concerns a family. In this case Alison and Charles who have established a seemingly perfect life in a restored Edwardian mansion. But when their six adult children return to the family home, their visit triggers a set of revelations and the unravelling of long-held secrets.

my revolutions

This was a completely speculative buy since I have never read anything by Kunzru. I bought it on the strength of the synopsis. The central character is Mike Frame who appears to be the kind of dad that doesn’t stick out from the crowds.  But Frame is really Chris Carver, a former member of an underground far left group that, in the 1970s, advocated violent action against the state and protested against the Vietnam War by setting bombs around London. Now a mysterious figure from those days has reappeared and wants to dig up Chris’ past.

a-dry-white-season

Last year saw me dip my toe in the waters of South African writing. Those novels proved to be some of the highlights of the year. Andre Brink is one author I’ve been aware of for some time but never got to read so when I saw this buried in a corner of the bookstore at the ridiculously low price of $1 I jumped at it. A Dry White Season  is set in Johannesburg during the time of apartheid. It features Ben du Toit, a white schoolteacher who believes in the essential fairness of the South African government until the sudden arrest and subsequent ‘suicide’ of a black janitor from his school. His quest for the truth draws him into a world of lies and corruption which then engulf his own family. Sounds terrific doesn’t it? The New York Times certainly thought so, making it a notable book of the year when it was published in 1979.

breakfast at tiffanysAnd finally, a book that I know only as a film and wouldn’t have thought about reading except for a discussion on the The Readers podcast which gave me the clue that the text of Breakfast at Tiffany’s could be far superior to the film. It’s only now looking at the book after a gap of more than 2 months that I realise this is really more of a short story at 87 pages long.

Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

crythebelovedcountryIn Cry, The Beloved Country Alan Paton expresses his love for South Africa and his fear for the future of his homeland. His anxiety proved prophetic. In 1948, a few months after the novel was published, the country’s governing National Party implemented the apartheid  system of racial segregation which remained in place until 1994.

Paton sees a deterioration in relations between South Africa’s white and black inhabitants which he believes may have reached a point of no return. While he populates his novel with white South Africans characters who exhibit enlightened attitudes to the country’s black population, he fears that by the time whites as a whole understand the injustices experienced by African blacks, it will be too late. South African blacks will have already reached an irreconcilable level of hatred.

Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and the custom gone …  cry aloud for the man and children bereaved. Cry, the beloved country, these things are not yet at an end.

Paton uses multiple voices to dramatise the differing attitudes within the country and examine the causes for the breakdown. One of the factors he points to is the destruction of the tribal system and the failure to replace it  with anything that had the same cohesive effect.

Alongside the breakdown in human relationships, Paton points to a fracture in man’s relationship with the land they inhabit. The novel opens in the remote village of Ndotsheni, in the Natal province of eastern South Africa. It’s presented as an idyllic place yet by the second paragraph Paton’s tone has changed to show how the lush green of this setting is fragile. “Keep it, guard it, care for it, for it keeps men, guards men, cares for men. Destroy it and the man is destroyed”, implores his narrator. What Paton shows is how this appeal has been ignored and instead, the land has been exploited in the rush for gold. Its young people have deserted the farms,  flocking to Johannesburg in search of work only to be sucked up by its noisy, polluted, over-crowded streets and exposed to prostitution, crime and destitution.

Paton relays his message through a dramatic rendering of multiple and dissonant voices and through individual stories. The novel homes in on one man in particular, Kumalo – a simple, devout Zulu clergyman in Ndotsheni who travels to Johannesburg to help his sick sister. While in the city  he hopes to find news of his son and brother, both of whom disappeared after they left Ndotsheni for the city.

What he discovers leaves him disheartened and alienated. He finds his sister living a life of prostitution and alcohol, his brother has become corrupted by a love of power and his own importance and his son is accused of being an accessory to the murder of a young white man campaigning to improve conditions for black Africans. Kumalo sees evidence everywhere of the breakdown of community and values, of the exploitation of workers in the gold mines and the gaping racial and economic divisions that are threatening to split his country.  Returning to his village he begins a friendship with James Jarvis, a white farmer, the father of the murdered man. In his grief over his dead son, Jarvis re-examines his attitudes towards the country’s black population and begins to act to improve life for those who live hear his farm. Together both fathers reach an understanding and they vow to build on the ruins of the tragedy.

What impressed me about this novel wasn’t simply that it is written so beautifully, or that his characters are so well-rounded but that Paton doesn’t simplify the issues or offer any easy solutions. He provides a portrait of goodness, through people like Kumalo’s clergyman friend in Johannesburg, to balance the darkness. His ending suggests there is hope if somehow, someday more people can come together like Jarvis and Kumalo to work as one for their country. But he also acknowledges that it will take individual courage to overcome fear and take the first steps necessary for mending a broken nation. As Kumalo sits alone in the mountains on the day of his son’s execution, he sees darkness engulfing the land but he also sees that the dawn of black emancipation must come. It will not happen in his lifetime but come it will just as the morning dawn “has come for a thousand centuries, never failing.”  And then they can sing “for all the people of Africa, the beloved country, Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika, God Save Africa.”

 

Cry, the Beloved Country is a novel of social protest but it is also a cry for one’s land, for justice and for hope. It’s as powerful now as it was when I first read it more than thirty years ago.

Sunday Salon: New Aquisitions

A combination of announcements about some of the leading literary prizes and a some browsing of favourite bloggers’ sites resulted in a bit of a splurge on the book buying front this week.

First up are two authors who came to my notice when they were named last week as finalists for this year’s Man Booker International Prize.

The Way of the Women by Marlene van Niekerk

Way of the Women Van Niekerk is a South African author who has been feted in her country in 2011 for her outstanding intellectual contribution to literary arts and culture through her poetry, literature and philosophical work. The Way of the Women was originally titled Agaat but  renamed when the English translation was published. It went on to be shortlisted for the 2007  Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The novel is set on a farm in the Western Cape of South Africa whose aged occupant Milla de Vet lies dying from a  wasting disease. Paralysed she has to depend on another woman Agaat Lourier with whom she has a close but ambiguous relationship forged over half a century of apartheid in South Africa.

Tree of Life by Maryse Conde

Tree of LifeMaryse Conde is a Guadeloupean author also named as a Man Booker International finalist.  I was hoping to get one of her earlier and most acclaimed novels Segu but couldn’t find a reasonably priced and decent quality second hand one. So I settled for Tree of Life instead, reassured by a comment  by Victoria at LitLove on my post about the prize, that she hadn’t been disappointed by any of Conde’s work. In this novel, Conde traces the personal story of how one Guadeloupe family rises from poverty to wealth over several generations. This has a wide range of settings, from Guadeloupe and Harlem, to the slums of  Haiti and the exclusive enclaves of the Parisian upper class.

 The recent announcement of the Folio Prize for 2015 was responsible for my third purchase:  Family Life by Akhill Sharma

Family LifeThe Folio Prize was the latest accolade for Akhill Sharma’s novel — last year it was selected as one of The New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of 2014.  It’s a semi-autobiographical work that documents the young life of Ajay Mishra, a child in a young middle-class family in Delhi. His father decides the family must leave the uncertainty of a country living under emergency rule for the ­prosperity of the West. Settled in New York the family struggle to cope with a personal tragedy and the challenge to their idea of the American Dream.

Prize announcements aside, my final two purchases were prompted by a guest post I published last year about Australian literature. Whispering Gums mentioned many authors but I chose just two to begin with: David Malouf and Patrick White.

Remembering Babylon by David Malouf 

Remembering BabylonThis novel won the inaugural IMPAC Award in 1993 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Miles Franklin Award.  Its the story of an English cabin boy who is cared for by Aborigines when he becomes marooned in the far north of Australia. Sixteen years later me moves back to the world of the Europeans, relatively new settlers who find their new home an alien place. What attracted me to this book was how its themes of living on the edge and of Australia as a fearful land reflect some of the ideas in the course on Australian literature I started a few weeks ago.

 

Voss by Patrick White

VossWhispering Gum called Voss her “absolute standout” novel from her youth, a novel which  “had it all for a teenage girl – outback drama, romance (of a cerebral and spiritual nature), and angst about life and society.” I’m long past my teenage years but this sounds like one of the classics from Down Under. The publishers’ blurb made it sound too good to miss:”Set in nineteenth-century Australia, Voss is the story of the secret passion between an explorer and a naïve young woman. Although they have met only a few times, Voss and Laura are joined by overwhelming, obsessive feelings for each other. Voss sets out to cross the continent, and as hardships, mutiny and betrayal whittle away his power to endure and to lead, his attachment to Laura gradually increases. Laura, waiting in Sydney, moves through the months of separation as if they were a dream and Voss the only reality.”

That little haul should keep me quiet for a while…..

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