Here’s looking at you. And you. And you.

Recognition.jpgTHERE’S SOMETHING UNMISSABLY effervescent about a beautifully written short story. It has not only to do with its brevity, but with the way in which its writer crafts a whole universe in a few pages. And with a particularly good short story, it’s a universe replete with everything, a universe that will haunt you forever. This is the kind of experience you can anticipate with David Medalie’s latest anthology of South African short stories, Recognition.

There is not one of these hand- picked, lovingly formed tales that glares out for being under par or without a voice of its own. Cohesively, this anthology offers a uniquely South African voice. It is beautifully crafted, in spite of the fact that stories deal with a wide range of issues, from feeling unwanted to being broken, from remembering abuse to articulating violence. It’s a series of tales which give you insight into the soul of South Africa, from its youngest and most vulnerable to its oldest and most hard done by.

These 22 stories by a range of South African authors – living and dead, contemporary and historical – are powerful testimonies to our ability, as South Africans, to laugh and cry, disparage truths and describe things as they are. It’s the kind of collection that you must take a breath from, every now and then, so that you can keep the memory of each story pristine in your heart and not allow them to merge.

Loosely bound by the notion of recognition, the focus of this anthology splays wide across the Karoo as it burrows into the poorest, most humble township homestead. It’s a discourse about robbers frightened in rich estates and Muslims who digress from their faith and their family, and a series of essays on hunger and meeting strangers on a train. It’s about what might happen to the widows of apartheid’s leaders, and how a blanket feels to a man who has nothing.

Many of the stories are written in the first person, but this is not to say that they are autobiographical. This is South African fiction at its finest, offering you a taste of everything in a rich and fulsome smorgasbord. Medalie is to be celebrated for putting together this brand new collection – on some levels, it evokes Encounters, a book of South African short stories, also selected and edited by Medalie, that slipped into school curricula and first saw light of day in 1998. Recognition is  the kind of book – if it does become part of South African school syllabuses – with which you know your children will be in safe hands, if they are taught with it, or gravitate toward reading it of their own accord.

As you read this book, many diverse South African voices will fill your head. The brilliance of Medalie’s curation of this selection means that it doesn’t self-censor or mute itself around terminology that is no longer considered acceptable. It doesn’t skew itself apologetically away from racist caricatures or perspectives articulated by writers or their characters. It tells it like it is. And it gives the kind of recognition to South Africans large and small, rich and poor, good and evil, that we all need to read.

  • Recognition: An Anthology of South African Short Stories selected edited by David Medalie is published by Wits University Press, Johannesburg (2017). It features stories by Herman Charles Bosman, Achmat Dangor, Nadia Davids, HIE Dhlomo, Ahmed Essop, Damon Galgut, Nadine Gordimer, Dan Jacobson, Alex La Guma, Mandla Langa, Wamuwi Mbao, David Medalie, Kobus Moolman, Njabulo S. Ndebele, Lindiwe Nkutha, Pauline Smith, Can Themba, Miriam Tlali, Chris van Wyk, Mary Watson, Zoë Wicomb and Makhosazana Xaba.
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How to make them come back for more

FreeAssociation

STEVEN BOYKEY SIDLEY has a most engaging gift. His writing flows with congruency and cunning, dipping and splashing through conceptual bumf, popular rhetoric and conventional trends, with wisdom and ease. It is searingly witty and hard-edged and reads with a fluency that makes you not want to put it down as it cuts to the heart of sacred cows in every paragraph. The narrative he constructs in this, his latest novel, plays with the values of the social-media-heavy world in which we exist, turning it this way and that, stretching its possibilities and madnesses tight and exposing its underbelly in a way which puts the reader in amongst the ‘in-crowd’. You know the flaws of the character, you recognise the secrets of his heart, and you’re there just to see how it all fits together.

And thus you get to meet Max Lurie. He’s a podcaster of 33 with credentials and history but scant self-belief as a therapist. A Los Angeles-based Woody Allen-type character, he’s excruciatingly self-deprecating. And often annoyingly so. Sometimes callous, he’s a loving son and brother who often masks his vulnerability with sheer bravado. During the slice of Lurie’s life that Sidley exposes us to, he’s rattled from side to side by issues of sex and others of lies, by violence and cruelty and by plots that don’t always pan out exactly as you might anticipate they do.

The book is constructed of interspersed podcasts and chapters which build up the narrative spine of the text very well, enabling you, as the reader, to engage with what Lurie’s listenership is being exposed to, not to forget the truths which he dilutes and dresses up in making them more palatable to said listeners. There’s a potent South African link in Lurie’s producer, a young man by the name of Bongani Maposa, who immigrated to the States and has found himself a niche and has the wordage to justify his every move and is not afraid to use it.

Then there’s a love interest with a shaven head and a tight grip on UX technology, and a couple of characters which are cast around the rapidly shifting world of hits and likes, shares and the ability to grab audience attention. Oh, and there’s also a schizophrenic homeless guy who is most likely a scientific genius, whose also the lynch pin in a tale that goes in a direction you really won’t expect.

But more than a tale about a man who makes his living out of entertaining a public to listen to his personal diatribes about nothing – the kind of thing for which Seinfeld is famous – the novel is a critique of the vanities of our world. Loosely drawing on the idea of free association which made the surrealists famous last century, his is a terrain where anything goes. It’s bitingly acerbic and surprisingly gentle in its engagement with everything from the Deep Web to Alzheimer’s. An illegal fire arm is tossed into the mix, as is a vial of Nembutal, the suicide drug.

This book, like Sidley’s play Shape, which he wrote with Kate Sidley in 2016, is an unabashed product of today. It engages with all the issues that are so central to the multiple personality disorders characteristic of our era, with charm. Words get inserted into characters’ mouths that enable them to reflect with wisdom and naiveté about the splendid and mesmerising cacophony of values and complete moral conundrums that this world is heir to. Free Association doesn’t let go until the last page: even the issue of misery making better ‘art’ than happiness comes under Sidley’s loupe, as he tears strips off the preciousness with which contemporary society views itself.

It’s a bracing novel, which dismantles nostalgia willy-nilly. Beautiful in its tightness and flippant in its sense of self, this kind of writing does fall in danger of becoming too slick, but Sidley keeps this aspect reined in. It’s a tight, easy read which has long and deep conceptual and contextual threads. You won’t be disappointed.

  • Free Association by Steven Boykey Sidley is published by Picador Africa (2017).

Unstoppable Syd and the things that matter

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AS YOU BEGIN to read this book, a niggly thought enters your mind.  ‘Who is “I”?’ it says. Is it Syd Kitchen himself, or is it the book’s author Donvé Lee in the guise of Kitchen? And why? Did Kitchen give Lee the nod that she could do this? Was he indeed as unashamedly arrogant as he is often portrayed in these pages? The whole book is written in the first person, until the last chapter, and this presence of “I” is a conundrum which never leaves you, even though, as the narrative unfolds and you get cast away on the beauty of the words and the desperate rush against time in Kitchen’s life, you forgive it.

Syd Kitchen: Scars that Shine doesn’t pretend to be a serious autobiography, but it offers the kind of portrait of the man that brings him so close to you, you can smell his second-hand smoke. It is an exhaustive body of research, edited and honed into magical life with a deft hand and a great deal of empathy for the man, his music and the Durban-centred ethos of the South Africa into which Kitchen was born and came into his own. It pulls no punches in terms of how appallingly the music industry, particularly in South Africa, treats its own by often only celebrating them in their wake.

But indeed, there’s the rub: without the skeleton of a serious autobiography, without an introduction in which we get to understand Lee’s modus operandi in this work, something is both lost and gained. If you don’t know anything about Kitchen, or the maverick brilliance of his music and the context in which he was creating fretwork with his guitar that beggared belief, this might not be the ideal starting point. If you’re not South African, it might not either – the book lacks a resource, an index, an appendix, a section in which you can find people’s names and festivals, rather, equipped with no dates or context, you just have to go with the flow of the material.

It does all fit together in the end, but this book will arguably not comfortably become a part of the annuls of formal research, and for many this might mean that the whirligig phenomenon that was Syd Kitchen, who lived for 60 years, and wrote music and poetry and gigged all over the country and very much later, the world, may be lost to formal music history. With all the delicious and sad, real and gritty anecdotes,  the work lacks a basic skeleton that would position Kitchen in South African funk or rock or jazz or ballads.

Having said that, it’s an unstoppably beautiful read, in which you feel yourself accelerating and then imposing brakes on yourself as you feel it nearing closure. It’s a book which enables you to fall in love with Kitchen and his vulnerabilities, his idiosyncrasies and his stubborn clasping of his dreams, his ability to never let go of his self-belief, even in the absence of the support of anyone else.

It’s also a tale of drugs and smoke, of whiskey and cancer, but one which guides a pure and unapologetic trajectory through all the muck of addiction and intoxication to not lead to a stern moral voice but one that celebrates the gritty, dirty business of making art that matters. When you come to the end of this extraordinary book, you will feel that you know Kitchen, the fierce hippie, the skinny leprechaun, the magician at his instrument. And maybe that is all that matters.

  • Syd Kitchen: Scars that Shine by Donvé Lee is published by Tracey McDonald Publishers, Johannesburg (2017).

In honour of the three women in the photograph

LettersofStone

When you approach this book, you might think “Holocaust biography” and sigh with a sigh replete with a sense of been there, done that; what more could be said about the European Holocaust? But you’d be completely wrong. Steven Robins’s Letters of Stone is a beautifully constructed, imminently thoughtful contemplation of history, persecution and lost souls. Treading gently on well worn histories and narratives, this is an important publication, written by an immensely astute anthropologist, but also a deeply real human being. Not only is it positioned for scholars of the Holocaust, but it also takes on a vast litany of historical and persecution realities and offers a fresh perspective on the understanding of the rents that these multiple acts of genocide through Europe inflicted on individuals and on society.

Beginning with a haunting period photograph of three mysterious women that occupied a space on Robins’s parents’ sideboard when he was a young boy, the text offers an energised and well-written insight into Robins’s foray into the identity and lives of these three women, his grandmother and two aunts. But it’s not just a familial account: citing the thinking of Roland Barthes in his approach, Robins carves out a very rich understanding and representation of what a photograph means to us as human beings, and the traces and echoes of memories and life that this image on light sensitive paper evokes.

Further to that, Robins uses this photograph as a cipher not only to discover the very sad trajectory of the lives of his family members, who his father never spoke about, but he also uses it as a key, with which he accesses family letters as well as a reflection on the German persecution of the Herero community, of the faux science of eugenics, and a very intimately woven reflection on Jewish – or more broadly, xenophobic – persecution in general. Thus, the text is able to remain deeply intimate and personal, but also universal in its reach.

The book is emotionally revealing as it cuts close to the bone, considering Robins’s anthropological education and interests and how so much intersects with his being in South Africa, a country which closed its doors to European refugees, and also one that rendered apartheid a discriminatory tool. Touching on everything from the stolpersteine (the stumbling stones, established as public testament to the Jews removed from their homes) in the streets of Berlin to the journey he undertook to discover the story his father consigned to silence, this is a truly beautiful and tragic read, which is difficult to put down, not only because the prose is thoughtful and well formed, but also because the story is so heart wrenching and human.

Part of the problem with Holocaust testament is the enormity of the phenomenon. Some six million Jews were murdered during this period – and it’s a number impossible to understand. Rather than attempting to cast statistics and well-trodden facts at his reader, Robins broaches the history from within, and the three mesmerising women from his family sideboard become the tragic heroines which lend this book its inimitable texture and wisdom.

  • Letters of Stone: From Nazi Germany to South Africa by Steven Robins is published by Penguin Books, Cape Town (2016).

Books that redefine the universe

By Sinead Fletcher

  • Sinead Fletcher is a third year fine arts student at the University of Johannesburg who recently took part in the Arts Writing course facilitated by Robyn Sassen.
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A man for all books: Professor Buzz Spector. Photograph by Sinead Fletcher.

“MAKE YOUR OWN book, Buzzy,” was the instruction that a three-year-old Buzz Spector remembers most clearly as the trigger that started his illustrious career as a book artist.  Arguably one of the superstars of the Booknesses Colloquium and Exhibition – currently on show in Johannesburg – Spector spoke to My View whilst he was in South Africa for the opening and conference hosted at the end of March.

His mother’s instruction came with his first 16-page, brown craft paper book that was sewn with red yarn. This was the paper in which his three-year-old’s sister’s diapers, freshly delivered from the laundry came wrapped in. Spector explains that this moment and this investment of a kind of creative autonomy, planted the seeds of interest which began his exploration and fascination with the book.

These days, armed with qualifications in the field from the Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, and the University of Chicago, Spector, who is currently a professor of art at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Art at Washington University in St Louis, enjoys exploring the making of artists books by way of altering already established archival, record keeping encyclopaedias and almanacs, which boast graphically and typographically identical layouts. Working with great writing – philosophical or fiction – is a difficult process, he says,  as it requires him to explore and read the texts carefully and deeply.

Not every book that makes for great reading served his purposes though. Many do not “suit my method,” he says, explaining that he can go many years before finding books which are suitable for his forms of book alteration. The criteria which Spector follows to find his ideal book include the institutional nature of the text, the quality of paper that the text is printed on, the sturdiness of the binding, the physical properties of the dust jacket and the presence or absence of mould or mildew.

“All of these concerns, from root materiality to critical reading, have to be in play for the work to begin.”

Spector knows South African art making well. He considers Willem Boshoff, who he’s known since 1995 a “kindred spirit”. Articulating great admiration for the work of William Kentridge, Spector also mentioned that recently he has become more aware of books made by artists such as Stephen Hobbs and Stephan Erasmus.

Having worked at a few paper mills, over the years, including Dieu Donné in Brooklyn, New York, Spector says he has been “impoverished” with his selections of paper thus far and is now “looking for the buffet” after being exposed to the work of Mary Hark and other young South African artists.

Describing the Booknesses Colloquium as having had a quality of urgency that showed both in the enormous emotional investment of professionals associated with the University of Johannesburg people – David Paton especially – and in artist book collector Jack Ginsberg’s desire to enable the exhibit to spark a transformative social interest in South Africa, he said this urgency was reflected a sense of caring and desire which, within the international community, he explains, “promotes urgency in reawakening our interest to go out and promote our practise.”

Spector spoke of the multiple panels in the Colloquium, which focused on a rich mêlée of books-related issues, including the notion of the book’s relevance to culture as well as the problem of the book being exhibited as a stillness of form whose “meaning arises in motion.”

  • The Booknesses exhibition, comprising the collection of Jack Ginsberg and curated by David Paton, is on show at the FADA Gallery on the Bunting Road Campus of the University of Johannesburg and the UJ Gallery on the Kingsway Campus, until May 5. Contact David Paton on: dpaton@uj.ac.za or 082 888 4859. Or visit website: http://www.theartistsbook.org.za/

Berksie deserves better

berksie

TALK RADIO HOST John Berks needs no introduction for most radio listeners. Instrumental in bringing Radio 702 to life, and in sowing the seeds for talk radio in South Africa, he had humble beginnings in Klerksdorp in the 1940s, and his is a life story that takes him to LM radio in the 1960s, to the mushrooming of South African radio in the 1980s, to the halls of radio fame, as he follows his dreams. By any accounts, it’s a story which should shimmer. But in this book, it doesn’t.

The writing is lucid enough, but unforgivably amateur inconsistencies in the spelling of names, the repetition of story threads which skew facts, and the material’s structure make you think this book was rushed through with nary a consideration for its integrity as a piece of writing, or a document of radio history.

Binckes fleshes out the irrelevant minutiae of Berks’s anecdotes in the third person. What the book gains in simplistic narrative that teeters on superficially entertaining reading, it loses in ignoring not only Berks’s voice but also the context of radio in South Africa. The few verbatim accounts of telephone gags Berks did on radio, are fabulous but alas too few, and the resulting work is a laboured, poorly written, appallingly edited read, which presents Berks as a socially inept fluke who was in the right place at the right time.

If you remember how Berks seduced the radio waves with his dulcet tones and reinvented its tradition with utter chutzpah, and complete hilarity, this amateurish book makes no sense. Binckes’s attempts to offer the back-story of this icon of South African entertainment reveals Berks as a man of monumental inadequacy with an itch and a stutter and a tendency to resign from jobs serially. Reminiscent of the Danny Kaye biography by Martin Gottfried, there’s such a focus on the man’s petty faux pas that descriptions of his talents feel hyperbolic.

The book improves as it goes; ironically, the most coherent chapter is the last which deals with Berks’s thwarted presence on RAM FM, a Palestinian/Israeli radio station under the aegis of entrepreneur Issie Kirsh.

As a biography, it’s a missed opportunity. Berks’s colourful character, his talent for mimicry and his iconic presence on air, exuding drama, sex appeal and charisma, just don’t sparkle from these pages.

  • What A Boykie: The John Berks Story is written by Robin Binckes, by published by 30° South Publishers, Pinetown (2015)

Me and my jazz guitar on the brink of hell

 

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Beginning like a mashup of Oskar’s shenanigans in Günter Grass’s Tin Drum and the gently crass lyrics of 1940s band Spike Jones and the City Slickers, the autobiography of Berlin-born jazz guitarist Coco Schumann reflects prosaic insight into the European Holocaust. It gives life to the adage that when the world is on fire, all you must do is carry on carrying on.

The book is a translation – it was originally published in 1997 in German and is translated into English here by John Howard – and it is written not by a writer, but by the man who lived through this historical kaleidoscope, and for this reason, it is fairly ordinary read. The dramatic context in which Schumann grew and played music is allowed to bubble on its own historical momentum rather than through the craft of description.

With each chapter named in honour of a jazz standard: How High the Moon, Summertime, Razzle Dazzle and Autumn Leaves, Schumann’s realisation of the stigma of his Jewish identity, his assignation to Auschwitz and his arrival at Theresienstadt where he was successful in starting his band, the Ghetto Swingers, are tucked away between the interstices of the music.

While Schumann’s writing style is understated and peppered with details of domesticity, living as we are, two generations from the reality of the Holocaust, something is lost in the placing of Michael H Kater’s informative afterword as an afterword.

The son of a Jewish woman and an Aryan man, Schumann was according to Jewish tradition, Jewish. According to Nazi tradition, he was not a full Jew, but Jewish enough to be killed. Having found his “grandmother” of a guitar, Schumann played music through arguably one of modern Europe’s most hateful periods, and not only did he live to tell the tale, but he played music through the war, and still does.

From an explanation of his hated Jewish identity to the horror of Kristallnacht, his entry into Theresienstadt, a ghetto moulded by the Nazis for PR, to his meeting the notorious Josef Mengele at the doors of Auschwitz, Schumann’s life story describes many circles of dreams awakening, being crushed and brought to life again. Ultimately, it is a satisfying read offering strong insight into the horrors of war, but more significantly, the fierce determination to keep one’s dreams flourishing.

  • The Ghetto Swinger: A Berlin Jazz-Legend Remembers by Coco Schumann is published by Doppelhaus Press Los Angeles (2016).