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Countries in Crisis As Seen In Fiction & Non Fiction

Week 2 of Non Fiction November brings us one of the most stimulating and thought provoking topics of the whole event.

Pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

Sarah of Sarah’s Book Shelves)

I got the idea for my topic from television news reports over the past week. It was full of stories about conflicts and protests. Police and protestors squaring up to each other on the streets of Hong Kong. Catalonian separatists taking to the streets in Barcelona. Thousands of Extinction Rebellion supporters camping out in central London.

People around the world are challenging the status quo, resisting authority and campaigning for change in increasing numbers.

So I thought I’d take a look at books that can enlighten us about some of the most significant social movements from the last century. Ones that represented a paradigm shift for the country concerned.

Racial Equality in South Africa

I’ve chosen three books which deal with different periods of time in South Africa’s troubled history of relationships between the various ethnic groups within its population.

Cry, The Beloved Country  was written in 1948 just a few months before the South African government introduced the apartheid system, effectively a form of racial segregation. It was a policy that remained in place until 1994.

Through the different voices in the novel Alan Paton dramatises the differing attitudes within the country that would lead, he believed, to hatred and disharmony.

He wasn’t wrong, as Nelson Mandela’s acclaimed autobiography Long Walk to Freedom shows. Mandela reflects on his role in the campaign against the apartheid regime, which became increasingly violent with brutal crackdowns by the government. But Mandela also talks about the importance of reconciliation between the country’s racial groups  and how he sought to embrace that principle when elected as the country’s first black head of state.

Did he succeed? The picture of post apartheid South Africa depicted by one of the country’s leading authors, J. M Coetzee, is rather bleak. His Booker prize winning novel Disgrace is set at the time of Mandela’s government and shows a country in transition where the shifts in power between the different racial groups have created new tensions.

Communism In China

For 10 years until 1976. the lives of people in China were governed by the dictats of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The objective was to preserve Chinese Communism by purging remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society. But it caused huge damage to the country’s economy and led to the death of hundreds of thousands of people (some estimates put the death toll as high as 2 million.)

Wild Swans by Jung Chang is a must- read work for anyone interested in modern day history of China. Through the experiences of 3 generations of women in her family, Chang reveals a tragic tale of nightmarish cruelty but also shows the extraordinary bravery of the country’s citizens.

I’m pairing this with a memoir. Mao’s Last Dancer recounts how Li Cunxin was plucked from a poor village to become a ballet dancer, part of an experiment by Mao’s wife to put China on the world stage. Having endured a brutal training regime in which every aspect of his life was controlled, he was allowed to go to the USA as an exchange student. And there he discovered everything he had been told about the West was a lie.

Madeleine Thein’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing is my fictional choice for two reasons. Firstly because like Mao’s Last Dancer it deals with the effects of an oppressive regime on creative and artistic talent (in this case, musicians). But more significantly because it gives us a sense of the instability that continued in China long after the Cultural Revolution came to an end. Thein builds the tension powerfully, showing how it culminates in the massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989 when troops and tanks fired at demonstrators.

Nationalism In India

I’m slightly cheating here because The Jewel in the Crown is actually the first book in the Raj Quartet by Paul Scott and to get the full benefit, you do need to read all them. Scott’s novels take place in the concluding years of the British Raj in India; a time when tensions are running high between the colonial ‘masters’ and the people they are meant to govern.

The quartet begins in 1942 and ends in 1947 as India gains its independence, marking the end of decades of violent and peaceful protest. 1942 is significant because it’s the year when the man who had lead the nationalist movement –  Mahatma Gandhi – launched the the Quit India movement demanding an end to British Rule of India.

So it’s only fitting that my non fiction choice is a book which focuses on the man synonymous with Indian independence. The Words of Gandhi is a selection of the man’s letters, speeches, and published writings giving his thoughts on daily life, cooperation, nonviolence, faith, and peace. It’s a great book to dip into and a source of motivation and inspiration.

Peace sadly did not come to India as my fiction choice shows. Neil Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others, is set against a background of the Naxalite movement in the West Bengal region of the country. It was a Communist Party of India armed struggle against large landowners to forcibly take away their lands and re-distribute it amongst the landless. One of Mukherjee’s main characters gets swept along with the spirit of the movement.

I suspect I’ve left out many books that would make good reading partners on this topic. Anyone have some recommendations for me?

The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer #Bookerprize

the_conservationistBooks frequently have deeper resonance for me when I read them in the country in which they are set. This was particularly true in the case of Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist,  a 1974 Booker prize winning novel set in South Africa. Last year as I drove across the vast dry plains of the Klein Karoo, empty but for a few isolated farms, we were looking upon a landscape which is a key point of reference in this novel.

Gordimer’s novel is a character study about a rich, white South African capitalist who  buys a 400-acre farm as a tax dodge and a love nest for assignations with his mistress. Mehring soon becomes absorbed in the mechanics of running a farm, making excuses to get away from business meetings and social occasions so he can spend more time on his land. He believes he is a good steward of his land and a fair and generous employer.

We see him in a very different light however.

Mehring feels he bonds with his black labourers when he hands out cigarettes and indulges in good humoured banter. What we see is that his workers largely go about their work regardless of whether he is there to supervise. He thinks he understands how to look after the land but his Boer neighbours view him as merely an amateur, a ‘weekender’ from the city. He considers he is creating value by ensuring his land is productive, but his lover sees a man who pays starvation wages and writes off losses against tax liabilities.
He believes he has developed a physical and emotional affinity with the land.
His shoes and the pale grey pants are wiped by wet muzzles of grasses, his hands, that he lets hang at his sides, are trailed over by the tips of a million delicate tongues. Look at the willows. The height of the grass. Look at the reeds. Everything bends, blends, folds. Everything is continually swaying, flowing rippling waving surging streaming, fingering. He is standing there with his damn shoes all wet with dew and he feels he himself is swaying….
But here too he is blind to reality.  Death and violence lie beneath the surface of his idealised rural retreat, emerging quite literally in the form of a man’s body dumped in a shallow grave. As if in protest at the treatment of people like Mehring, the land rebels. Drought, followed by flood, destroy Mehring’s farm.
Such is Mehring’s inability to understand reality that he alienates all around him. His estranged wife has gone to America and he struggles to form a relationship with his liberally-minded teenage son, Terry. Though he’s frequently invited to social gatherings we get the feeling it’s Mehring’s wealth and status that is the attraction, not his personality.

Although The Conservationist concentrates on one man, it’s clear that Gordimer sees Mehring as a representative of a particular type of South African. One who reads the signs that change might coming but has no desire to take any action himself to end discrimination or improve the lot of his workers. He simply doesn’t see there is any need for change. If ever he needs a signal that he is wrong and that hold on the land is but a tenuous one, it is the body of a black man that refuses to remain buried. The corpse is the real possessor, the real guardian of the land; not Mehring. 

The Conservationist is an intense read and not simply because of Gordimer’s message. It’s the style of narrative that takes time to get used to, with its frequent flashbacks, stream of consciousness monologues and lack of speech tags.  It was hard work, necessitating many stops while I tried to work out whether I was reading a dialogue or unspoken monologue, and where in the sequence of events was this scene taking place. There is really little in the way of action – everything revolves around the farm and the different attitudes towards it exhibited by Mehring and his workers.

I respected what Gordimer was doing but can’t say I particularly enjoyed the book.

If you’d like to see another view of this book, take a look at Lisa’s review at anzlitlovers.



About the author: Nadine Gordimer is one of South Africa’s most respected authors. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991.  Over a career spanning some 60 years she dealt with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid in South Africa. She was active in the anti-apartheid movement, joining the African National Congress during the days when the organization was banned, and gave Nelson Mandela advice on his famous 1964 defence speech at the trial which led to his conviction for life.  Gordimer’s writing dealt with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid in South Africa.

The book: The Conservationist was joint winner of the 1974 Booker Prize, sharing the honour with Stanley Middleton’s Holiday.

Why I read this book: It is one of the few remaining titles on my Booker Prize project.

December 2017 Snapshot


Cape Peninsular, South Africa

In the northern hemisphere the consumer frenzy otherwise known as Christmas is in full flood. It’s been blissful to get away from it for a while on our holiday in South Africa. We haven’t escaped it completely since there are some decorations in a few of the hotels but we have been spared wall-to-wall Christmas advertising and the continuous looping of renditions of “Oh I Wish it Could be Christmas Everyday” on the radio and in store so-called entertainment systems. I don’t mean to sound a misery, I just hate all the hype.

Far more enjoyable to travel the roads of the Western Cape among the vineyards, fruit farms and ostrich farms of the interior or stopping off at magnificent bays along the coastal route. We splashed out on a treat this morning with a helicopter ride over Cape Town, Table Bay mountain and the peninsular that stretches to the southern most point in Africa. That photo above doesn’t begin to capture the magnificence of this scenery.

But enough of the travel commentary I hear you say, this is meant to be a blog post about books and reading. How right you are so without further delay I shall do what I am meant to do with these nsnapshot posts: capture what I was reading/watching/ about to read when the page of the calendar turned to December 1, 2017.

Reading now

Usually on holidays I race through books but not this time. Of the three novels I brought with me I’ve only read one so far — The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan. I chose it from my bookshelves purely at random after my more thoughtful way of deciding which books to pack for the trip just resulted in frustration. I simply couldn’t make up mind and with time running out I just went to my shelves of unread books, closed my eyes and pledged to read whatever my hand touched. It was an ok read – as you can see from my review I thought it improbable at times – but I won’t rush to read anything else by Tang. My copy now has a new home in a bookcase at a hotel in Stellenbosch in the wine region.

I’m almost halfway through my second book which is my 45th Booker Prize winner — The  Conservationist  by the Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer. I chose this because she is from South Africa and the book is set in that country so what could be more appropriate than reading it during my holiday? This is a novel I started reading about a year ago but struggled to get into at the time so put it aside. Second time around I’m finding it far more interesting. It’s a character study of a businessman who buys a farm in the Johannesburg area and becomes more engrossed in his land than anything else in his life, including his teenage son.

Thinking of reading next…

Awaiting me at home is another Booker winner, How Late it Was How Late by James Kelman which I began to read a few weeks ago but decided it wasn’t a style to suit my current mood so put it aside. It’s related in a strong Glaswegian voice which takes a bit of getting used to.

Verbatim booksI’m going home with two new acquisitions after a little venture into a delightful bookshop in the university town of Stellenbosch. The owner was more than happy to spend time chatting about African authors and then picking out local authors for me. I could have walked away with more than two books but  unfortunately my suitcase doesn’t have space available.



The Whale CallerThe Long Journey of Poppie Nongena

The Whale Caller is the fifth novel written by South African writer Zakes Mda. It is about a man named Whale Caller who develops a strong attraction to whales; especially a whale he names Sharisha. As the story progresses, he meets a woman named Saluni, with whom he falls in love but finds he cannot abandon the love he has toward his beloved whale, Sharisa. Apparently this has been adapted into a highly successful film.

The Long Journey of  Poppie  Nongena by Elsa Joubert has  been voted as one of the hundred most important books published in Africa during the last millennium and has won three major South African literary awards. Although it is a work of fiction, the novel is based on a true South African story about a woman’s experience of the apartheid era during which she is forcibly resettled in townships hundreds of miles from her home. Her anger was shared by thousands, exploding first in Sharpeville, then in Soweto and to other parts of the country. It sounds an astonishing book.

The state of my personal library

One of my goals for 2017 is to enjoy the books I already own and to reign back on acquiring yet more. I started 2017 with 318 unread books.   I’m now at 287, somewhat higher than I would like but at least it’s not growing.


Nothing! Unless you consider watching the wind rustle the trees as watching…..

And that is it for this month. My next post in this series will be coming at the start of another year.  Until then, happy reading everyone.

Fiela’s Child by Dalene Matthee – a hidden South African gem

Fiela's ChildVisitors to South Africa today frequently make Knysna a stop off point along the Garden Route (the scenic drive between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth) or before they head north to the Little Karoo region and its famous Oudtshoorn ostrich farms. Today this is an area bustling with shops and restaurants close to a peaceful lagoon but in the late nineteenth century the waters around the entrance to the town were unpredictable and treacherous, threatening the lives of fishermen and sailors. Inland, herds of bush elephants roamed the dense Knysna Forest, proving hazardous for the woodcutters who made the forest their home.

The Forest and the surrounding mountains of the Little Karoo are the settings for Dalene Matthee’s novel Fiela’s Child published in 1985.  Lukas van Rooyen, the three year old son of a white woodcutter family goes missing in the forest. Nine years later, two census officials discover Benjamin, a white, blue-eyed boy living with the native Komoetie family at their ostrich farm in the Long Kloof.

Are Benjamin Komoetie and Lukas van Rooyen the same child?  Fiela Komotie is adamant this cannot be. Benjamin was a gift of God, a foundling sent to her to care for as if he were her own flesh and blood. Having nurtured him for six years she cannot endure the idea that they may be separated. Across the forest Elias van Rooyen and his wife Barta are equally adamant that the boy is their lost son — and they want him back. However unlikely a child of three could have made his way through miles of hard mountain terrain, the officials in Knysna are convinced this is what happens. Benjamin is transported back to the forest to become Lukas once more.

Forced to change his name and to call these strange new people ‘ma’ and ‘pa’ he cannot however be forced to forget the woman who he considers his real mother.  All he can do is wait, enduring the cruelty of his new father who can think of nothing else but how get rich by killing an elephant so makes his children do all the work of shaping tree trunks into beams. The child looks every day for Fiela to find him and rescue him but as the years roll on and Fiela never arrives, he becomes a man who feels neither part of the forest nor of the mountains. But who exactly is he? This is the question Benjamin/Lukas has to answer before he can form a relationship with the woman he loves.

I’d never heard of Dalene Matthee until I walked into a bookshop on an overnight stay in Johannesburg earlier this year and asked for recommendations of local authors. Matthee wrote 13 novels, four of them bracketed as ‘the Forest novels’ because they were all set in and around Knysna Forest, an area she came to know intimately. Fiela’s Child is the second of this quartet.

It’s the picture of this region and its culture conveyed by Matthee that I appreciated most in her novel. The relationships between Benjamin and his two sets of parents are effectively portrayed but they didn’t sing to me as much as the detail about life in the forest and in the farmlands of the Little Karoo. Matthee clearly did her research so that when she describes how elephants trod ancient paths through the trees, bonding together to navigate sleep slopes and alert the herd to danger, I was there with the woodcutters watching. She provides too some fascinating insight into the habits of ostriches; how these creatures whose feathers were so beautiful they became the must have fashion accessory in the Art Nouveau period, are vicious birds who can kill with one swipe of a claw.

I’m surprised that Dalene Matthee isn’t more widely known outside South Africa. Perhaps its because although it deals, as does so much of the literature from that country, with the issue of race and colour this isn’t  the main theme. Her focus is really on the bonds of family and identity and on the individual’s relationship with their environment.

End Notes

Fiela’s Child by Darlene Matthee, is available as a Penguin Modern Classic in translation from Afrikaans.

To discover more about the author, take a look at this website which is in tribute to her memory and her achievements.

The View from Here: Books from South Africa

viewfromhereWelcome to the next country in  The View from Here series on literature from around the world. Today we get to visit South Africa for a peek into the literature of that country with the help of Mariechen who blogs at Whispers of a Barefoot Medical StudentIn case you are wondering, the “barefoot” part refers to the fact that she loves  the simple things in life and is happiest when she can walk barefoot. Mariechen spends most of the year in Cape Town although she originates  from the Eastern Province.  She says she started blogging “as a kind of a debriefing tool for my medical studies, but when I started reading again and discovered the book blogging community I widened my niche. So these days I blog about medical things, books, current affairs,traveling and anything I want to, really.”

mariechenQ. What is the first book you can remember reading and enjoying?

I learned to read with the Afrikaans edition of Spots, Feathers and Curly Tails by Nancy Tafuri when I was four years old; but the first “proper” book I remember reading was by Roald Dahl – either Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or George’s Marvelous Medicine, I can’t remember because I devoured them back-to-back.

Q. What books and author are very popular right now in South Africa?

I don’t think South Africa buzzes quite the way some countries do, but this year everyone was quite proud of Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls. Zimbabwean NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names has been quite popular this year too. We do buzz quite a bit about Western authors as well.

Q. What do you like to read – books written by local authors or books from other parts of the world?

I like a combination. When I started reading as a kid I had good combination of Afrikaans Middle Grade books and English/Foreign books. I think during my teens I read almost exclusively American or English books, but thankfully I have diversified again. I actually go out of my way to read from countries I’ve never read before, likeI just recently picked up The Calligrapher’s Daughter by Eugenia Kim, about Korea. Imake it a point to read South African authors regularly, though. I think more and more that it is incredibly important to keep our authors flourishing too.

Q. What recommendations would you have for readers who want to discover books written by authors from South Africa?

Being the “rainbow nation”, with so many cultures and languages and backgrounds,it is hard to pinpoint a type of literature. Some iconic South African books for me include A Dry White Season by A.P. Brink, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee and Heart of Redness by Zakes Mda. I would also suggest The Road to Mecca by Athol Fugard (a play) and reading some South African poets, like Antjie Krog.

We recently had a surge of YA-type South African novels. Deadlands is a dystopian zombie novel set in Cape Town by Lily Herne. The Spud novels by John van de Ruit are the hugely successful journal-type stories of a kid at a boarding school in South Africa during the early 90s – John Cleese plays in the screen adaptation of the books. For contemporaries, definitely read Zoo City or Moxyland by Lauren Beukes, set in Johannesburg and Cape Town respectively; and Sister-Sister by Rachel Zadok. Deon Meyer writes some excellent and very scary thrillers set in South Africa. A good option is to start with a short story anthology. Touch: Stories of Contact compiled by Karina Magdalena Szczurek offers a great diversity of South African authors, as does Yes, I am! Writing by South African Gay Men compiled by Robin Malan and Ashraf Johaardien.

Q. What effect has the end of apartheid had on the literature of South Africa?

I think perhaps the bigger distinction is the kind of books that are allowed these days – during Apartheid many South African authors faced censorship and published in other countries. I think the end of Apartheid really diversified what South Africans read and write – it is a little difficult to say though because I was born when Nelson Mandela was released from prison. There are a lot of guilt/suffering narratives, which I think is a normal part of our country’s healing process, but there is also a lot of forward-looking and new creations, like Zoo City which has been dubbed a “Muti Noir” and Rosamund Kendal’s The Angina Monologues which looks at the South African public health system through a fictional eye. The Apartheid Government was a censoring government, so in literature the revolution was what was suddenly allowed – criticism and satire and interracial love,all these things that were not allowed in books before. As for books read in schools, To Kill a Mockingbird and Othello are widely taught because of their applicability to our past, but books like Nelson Mandela’s A Long Walk to Freedom, Marguerite Poland’s Shades and Fugard’s The Road to Mecca are also taught.

Q. Earlier this year when the Caine Prize for African writing was announced, one author complained that the award promotes an “African aesthetic of suffering.” Is that criticism fair or unfair? 

I’ll start with addressing this aspect of African writing in general: When I think of Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch, I think of a book set in Nigeria that has absolutely nothing to do with poverty, but with magic! If there is suffering, it has more to do with the main character’s albinism. (Okorafor is a Nigerian author currently living in the USA.) Deadlands addresses suffering in a dystopian fashion. Spud has some tender moments relating to a dysfunctional but hilarious family. There are many African books out there that do have some reference to suffering in them, although often that is no longer then central theme, but a background issue.

I think it is important to remember that we write what we know and what we see. Our continent is a continent with a painful past, with guilt and with suffering. It would be foolish to expect authors not to write about that. But our continent is also a continent of intense beauty, of magic, and of some of the most interesting people you will ever meet, and it is important to portray that through literature too, which I think many authors are doing.

I can’t really comment on the Caine Prize or any other prize for that matter but I have noticed that the media around the world tends to emphasise books that conform to their impression of a place: suffering Africa, oppressive China, repressed England, and so on. And authors, marketers and READERS should be aware of those stereotypes and combat them. I know that ours is not a narrative of suffering, but I am not surprised that the perception out there is different.

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