Of beauty and raw pumpkin

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NTHIKENG MOHLELE WRITES like an angel. His material flows so smoothly that you just cannot stop reading it, drinking in all the rhythm and song of the concatenation of the words he’s chosen and how they juxtapose and interface. But there, also, lies the rub. This work, premised on a character devised by JM Coetzee in 1983 sails away on its own sense of possibility and as a result, the read, while abstractly beautiful, doesn’t offer much in the denouement department.

Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K gave voice to a socially-disabled character, born with a harelip who travels alone and with no resources through the harshness of South African landscape to visit his mother’s birth place in the off-the-beaten-track Western Cape village of Prince Albert. It’s a kind of a take on some of the premises informing William Faulkner’s 1930 novel As I Lay Dying, as it offers an important foray in what it means to be poor, disabled and alone in a country riven by racism. It was also the novel that won Coetzee the coveted Booker Prize that year.

Mohlele’s character Miles, who is written in the first person, meets “Michael K” at the other end of his life, eating raw pumpkin and subsisting with birds, but the focus of his prose slips in and out of sharpness in this text, as “Miles” contemplates the dementia of his father, his desire to have sex with his young maid and his relationship with a man who was once his university professor. On a level, the give and take between mentor and mentee might remind you of the dialogues in Leonhard Praeg’s Imitation, but that is where the similarity ends.

You emerge from this text feeling like you’ve just returned from an immersion in beautiful poetry, but you’re less haunted by the idea of narrative than you might like to be. Mohlele’s Michael K teeters toward the self-indulgent, the self-consciously meditative for meditation’s sake and the overly reflexive. Names are dropped all over the place and if you don’t recognise them, or appreciate their value, no mercy is offered by way of context. His references to Coetzee as “the laureate in the Land Rover” smack of sense of writerly self-deprecation that is both bitter and jealous, and while there are astonishingly powerful ideas informing this literary novel, they’re not drawn out and given the kind of attention or voice they warrant.

Thus, Michael K becomes a bit of a hollow read filled with gem-like experiences in which you reach at and discover snippets of South African values in small interregnums along the way.

  • Michael K by Nthikeng Mohlele is published by the Picador Africa, Johannesburg (2018).

Jo’burg: A portrait with broken dreams

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YOU WILL RECOGNISE many characters in this debut novel by Peter Harris, not by their names, but by their amoral attitudes and cavalier actions that enable them to play loose and fast with money, values and other people’s lives. Bare Ground is absolutely unputdownable; it’s ideal holiday reading – not because it’s frothy and easy, but because it is crafted with such a deft understanding of the complexities of madness, human nature and greed with such an intelligent approach that you will race through it, your heart in your throat, in a bid to know what happens next. And you will be surprised by the nifty bends in the story, from its prologue to its very last word.

These characters are the ones who populate our news right now; you’ll find many a ‘flabby fellow’ in the tight fitting suit of a government minister, with mayonnaise from an expensive club sandwich dribbling down his front, and his face, distorted by the reflections in a whisky glass. Hell, you even encounter the president himself, who remains nameless behind dark glasses and much unmirthful laughter. He’s a man to be avoided, or cherished and adulated, depending on how much you – or your loved ones – have benefited from him over the years.

Bare Ground is the complex tale of Max Sinclair, a man born of South African privilege who seems to be piling riches on riches as he goes. With Oxford credentials, he was raised a lonely child, but has grown into someone controversially respected. Perfect though he may seem, from his sharply ironed impeccable clothing to his taste in the most expensive cars and whiskies, he’s a man not without personal horrors.

It’s also the tale of Sifiso Lesibe, an earnest hard-working geologist from the Eastern Cape who studied at Rhodes University. Like anyone in his shoes, he’s ambitious and wants good things for his young family. In every way, this chap is ideal grist for the mill of sordid hypocrisy, writhing snakes and gifts – a multitude of gifts cast in the sickly sweetness of dangerous traps, hidden resources and corporate crime on a massive scale.

And then there’s the straight lawyer, and the guy with struggle credentials who smells a rat and finds a notebook. There’s the wives who have more perspicuity than their men credit them with, and the contexts and childhoods which have left their mark on each individual. Stereotypes abound here, and the narrative is laced with the relentless sound of singing cicadas, a cipher of horror and insanity that subsists just under the surface of the unfolding events.

More than all of this, it’s a story about the mining history of this city, and how even the mine dumps, detritus of an earlier history of mining technology, become useful means to continue squeezing money from it. Think the biggest mining consortium the country has seen being put together, but also think kick backs and cartels, deals and sinister manoeuvres, the kind that keep the backstabbing in corporate jargon alive and seething. It’s a racy tale by any account, but it is written so well and has its characters and their contexts so intently and wittily described with such strong and convincing narrative line work and colour that you feel you are a part of it all.

Everything from opportunistic crime at Johannesburg’s traffic lights to the dirty little street urchins, some more horribly deformed than others, comes under the loupe of this exceptionally fine novel, playing its role in the richly textured portrayal of contemporary Johannesburg with all its rough and tumble, underhandedness and disparities. If you’re not from Johannesburg – or South Africa – you may find some of the references to real monsters in contemporary society a bit obscure, but that will not hurt the rollercoaster you will find yourself on in every one of Bare Ground’s 291 pages.

  • Bare Ground by Peter Harris is published by Picador Africa, Johannesburg (2017).

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).

Pondering the validity of the humble trout

Trout

Think of beautiful prose about the ebb and flow, the life and death of humble fish and you might turn to Margaret Craven’s remarkable little 1967 novel I Heard The Owl Call My Name  in which the salmon is celebrated with language so delicate and crisp, so succinct and gentle, it heals broken things. Duncan Brown’s publication on the legitimacy of trout in South Africa reaches in a similar direction in terms of the caveats offered to describe the poetry of fly fishing; as a researched inroad into xenophobia, it balances different writing styles with good intention.

Writing as both an academic and as a guy who fell in love with the choreography of fly fishing when he was a small boy, Brown yields a text here which teeters on the side of being too academic, and yet the intent and focus of the material which looks at the history and present of trout in South Africa is compelling, touching as it does on the mindset behind xenophobia, be it applied to people from elsewhere, trees that are not indigenous, or indeed trout, brought from 1890 to stock South African rivers to lubricate the recreational sport of fly fishing.

It’s an immensely readable book, with language succinct and clear in its articulation, but if you’re not a seasoned fisher, or one who has never indulged in the sport at all, you might find yourself being eased by Brown’s words into terrain which feels too deep with the technicalities of the field and you might experience the urge to struggle and try to escape the detailed grasp of the material.

Ultimately, it’s worth the determined focus: while it does not bring to life the urge to fish, it does offer a sensible and beautifully developed insight into how the natural world cleaves to that of humankind, replete as it is with gross inconsistencies in its moral behaviour and the rule of ego on so many levels. It’s an important book, coming at the complexities of xenophobia from what seems an unexpected angle, but in doing so it offers caveats of truths about the horrors of racist behaviour.

But more than that, the text is peppered with moments of true poetry which evoke Craven’s beautiful love affair with the salmon and make this book worth holding onto and dipping into again and again.

  • Are Trout South African? Stories of Fish, People and Places by Duncan Brown (2013: Picador Africa Johannesburg).