POEM: The end

BY PETER CLIVE

Do not fear death. Beauty
is a premonition of death.
It shows us the world without us,
and teaches us there is no end,
just a different point of view.

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POEM: INTERPELLATION or Avril’s Double: Real And Symbolic Suicide*

BY NOAH SWINNEY

Althusser’s slip-slops hit against his heels
In time to the music in his ears:
Hey, hey, you, you! I don’t like your girlfriend!
He hums along. Looks around—
Gives a little skip. A slop falls off.

 

 

 

*This poem refers to the Fake Avril Lavigne conspiracy theory. The line ‘Hey, hey, you, you! I don’t like your girlfriend!’ is the chorus from Lavigne’s single, Girlfriend.

POEM: The pozi shack

BY MOAGI MASIKE

The pozi shack,
It stands near the tuck shop,
Simple as it is

Not too tall,
It boasts it’s medium-height,
A worn and rustic beauty

It has a chimney,
And two windows with cardboards as
The window panes and a house number
On the old door

The red stoep, like a white lady’s lips,
Shines from a distance,
Mama had polished it before we opened
Our eyes in the morning

Food retailer catalogues clinging to the wall,
Buckets filled with overflowing water
And a candle is on the rickety table,
And my deceased father’s chair still
Standing there

Our pozi shack,
Built tough by rough, overworked hands
Of half-drunk men, chatting about
Football and “tarven stories” in the heat

I loved it on rainy days,
As the raindrops landed on the rooftop,
I listened to the pitter-patter of the
Raindrops and became sleepier by the
Minute

BOOK CLUB: The Café de Move-On Blues

BILL NASSON is impressed by The Café de Move-On Blues, a new book by Christopher Hope that offers an even-handed, clear-sighted and vividly-drawn portrait of the pain and paradoxes of post-apartheid South Africa.

The front matter of Christopher Hope’s latest book displays the distinctly un-neighbourly sentiment of a Pastor Ngobeza who, in the 1920s, pronounced, ‘White people have no right to be here and the White man who says he has got a farm here must roll it up, put it on a train and spread it in the land that he comes from’. It makes an uncomfortably blunt start to The Café de Move-on Blues: In Search of the New South Africa and, in a way reminds this reviewer of a very much earlier book in this exploring tradition. In 1877 the English Victorian novelist, Anthony Trollope, produced South Africa after sniffing his way around its colonial parts. ‘South Africa’, he concluded, ‘is a country of black men and not of white men – it has been so, it is so, and it will be so’. 

Trollope’s laconic vision was a deliberate rap over the knuckles of those deluded white settlers who imagined themselves to be living in an African version of Australia or a sunlit New Zealand. Nowadays, one might perhaps be tempted to envision the conservative-liberal Anthony Trollope and the EFF’s fascist Julius Malema as an unlikely pair of historical time-travellers, orbiting a country which, like Ireland, is notoriously inclined to remember the future and imagine the past.   

Although The Café-de-Move-on Blues  may, at first glance, appear to be a volume in the fairly well-worn tradition of touring the land to report on its grim realities and to tell The Story of South Africa, this is a new classic which has to be distinguished from earlier vintages such as Allen Drury’s A Very Strange Society: A Journey to the Heart of South Africa (1967) and Joseph Lelyveld’s Move Your Shadow: South Africa Black and White (1986). Firstly, and obviously, Hope’s subject is not the South Africa of high water apartheid but of its post-apartheid present. Secondly, and most importantly, his book is not the work of an outsider reporting on the South Africa drama, as the author is not some touring American journalist. The book is, instead, an insider’s immersion in South Africa, trying to get to grips with, as he puts it so masterfully in its preface, a country ‘where the more you know, the less you understand, but that in no way lessens the need to go on looking’. This lets you know, if you’d not already got it, that The Café de Move-on Blues is not just about South Africa as a place but also – far more – about the loaded character of today’s South African nation. 

Lastly, who better than an acclaimed South African novelist, non-fiction writer and poet to capture the contemporary texture and sinew of this ‘mad and absurd’ land. In this, not the least significant thing about Christopher Hope’s shrewd gaze is his personal history. With writings banned, he was harried into exile overseas in the 1970s from where he continued to show South Africa’s apartheid rulers the finger, with award-winning fiction such as the deliciously-titled A Separate Development and Kruger’s Alp. Freed from its suffocation, from distant places (like France, where he now lives) Hope has been able to benefit from the coolness of distance while all the while maintaining an exasperated yet very soft spot for the land of his birth. 

Equally, as anyone will immediately appreciate, The Café de Move-On Blues echoes with the author’s intimate, sure-footed steps across known local soil, for he certainly knows his onions, both old and new. So, when Hope leads you through Pretoria, you encounter not only that city’s hardy perennials, the blossoming jacarandas. You also come across the predictable political seasonality of its street names. For instance, what is now Jan Shoba Street was previously Duncan Street. ‘Jan Shoba’ was a member of the Pan-African Congress’s woeful Azanian People’s Liberation Army and owes his municipal elevation to the ruling nationalist party’s fondness for patronising humbug. As Christopher Hope notes, ‘those who get to change the names of suburban streets felt obliged to throw a bone’ to their old PAC rivals, propelled by the ritual reflexes of ‘transformation’ and ‘inclusiveness’. Thus, down came a British Governor-General of the Union of South Africa, Sir Patrick Duncan, and up went the PAC freedom fighter, Jan Shoba (who was, incidentally, murdered in murky circumstances in 1990).            

As The Café de Move-on Blues observes of such memorialisation, you might well say, fair enough. But you’d only say that if you had a cavalier approach to the country’s history. Hope, on the other hand, is an author who passes the test of history as assuredly as he does the test of travelogue. He points out that Duncan’s son, also Patrick, ‘was a rare and remarkable man in whose name you might name boulevards and airports’. A passionate believer in equality, a member in the 1950s of the Liberal Party and banned in the early 1960s, Duncan was the first white person to join the PAC of Comrade Jan Shoba, representing it abroad for a time and spending the remainder of his spirited life in exile. Had the name-changing commissars of Tshwane taken any account of this striking ‘Duncan’ significance when fiddling with street signs? The sound of such ironic acts of ‘decolonisation’ is surely deafening. For the thing about city streets is that they are mostly not one-way, especially in this country, where the route to so many destinations is a maze. In a myriad of ways, including its reflections on the stage-management of public symbolism, The Café de Move-on Blues is a model of truth and reason at a time when the contagious power of a spurious racial nationalism trumps a civilising enlightenment. 

Of course, this is a blight of the current world, not simply that of South Africa. It is a world in which, Christopher Hope writes, ‘borders and boundaries and patrols’ are carrying the day, from America’s Mexican border to Britain and the EU. Still, when it comes to this country, has it not been ever thus? As the author emphasises in his preface, given its ‘long hard night’ of ‘antediluvian racial dementia’, South Africa has the history to be awarded a gold medal for its assiduous hedging of ‘ethnic difference and distance, ethnic exclusivity, tribalism, partition, separation and apartness… keeping others out or ourselves in’. 

In this respect, The Café de Move-on Blues can be read as a kind of coda to Hope’s 1988 White Boy Running, an intensely personal portrayal of his first return visit to South Africa in over a decade, another forensic read in which he wields a scalpel while looking his then late-apartheid country straight in the eye. There, he peeled open a place of ‘horrifying comedy’, concluding that it’s a country over which ‘the sun is shining but it does not fool anyone. This is funeral weather’. Funereal strains are also to be found in Hope’s earlier poetry. In the aptly-titled ‘Notes for Atonal Blues’ which wraps up his 1981 collection, In The Country of the Black Pig, he ponders a land ‘already three-quarters desert’, with its dominant white society blanketing itself against apprehensions and insecurities, doggedly ‘dug in for the duration… while stocks last and wherever grass is mown’.           

In its sketching of the subsequent New South Africa, The Café de Move-on Blues finds it still dug in for the duration, steeled by its time-worn ‘amnesia and careless forgetfulness’, while finding time to assault the marble and granite of colonial heritage. Even though you can’t hurt the dead, you may as well have a go at offending some of the living. In taking as his central thread the recent bout in toppling, defacing and frothing over South Africa’s statues and monuments, Christopher Hope’s book is, in part, a distinctive – and distinguished – critical chapter in the ongoing story of today’s culture wars. His inspiration started, as he tells us, ‘by chance, one autumn morning in 2015’ when he happened to be in Cape Town, passing the university, and his eye was caught by a seething crowd ‘mobbing the large statue of a seated man’. He found himself witnessing a rare moment, a frenzied and ‘angry crowd lynching a statue’, with the university’s student protestors ‘playing their part as priests of the tribe, solemnly punishing’ the transgressor’ in an impromptu ‘public act of exorcism’. All the while their ‘opened iPads, like prayer books’, dangled ‘in front of their faces’, recording the ‘excommunication’ and ‘execution’ of Cecil Rhodes, and then, with ritual predictability, ‘each other and then themselves’. It signalled the rise of the Fall.

This is all laid on with an even-handed brush. In the author’s view, Rhodes is anything but rosy, and he ranks him down in the gutter on the historical scale of white colonial arrogance, brutality and greed. But at the same time, equally vigorously, he insists that he is also ineluctably ‘part and parcel of who we are and cannot be got rid of’. In a terse judgement, Hope wonders that if ‘reliable old heroes were now the new villains, could one redress past injustice by airbrushing such figures from the record ?’ Ultimately, you might wish to ‘forget Rhodes, but his ghost will not forget you’. 

One can only but imagine the republican Boers of Paul Kruger and the Afrikaner nationalists of D.F. Malan and H.F. Verwoerd smirking in their graves at this mighty blow against so detested a symbol of British imperialism. They, too, had every cause ‘to detest the man’ and what he embodied. For all that, though,   South Africa’s previous Twentieth Century regimes had left statues standing, ‘no matter who it was’ that they ‘remembered or offended’. But virtually everything of what was standing (even a Port Elizabeth war memorial to horses) was now fair game, as it had become open season in ‘a war of words and images’. Or, in effect, the demolishing of Rhodes was the opening shot in a shrill campaign waged against the dead, a war to cleanse places of the faded commemorative traces of ‘identifiable enemies’, never mind that they had long ago shed any magnetism as pillars of pilgrimage for white South Africa to glorify its colonizing past.   

Certainly, in that sense, the University of Cape Town assault had been a stalking horse, for as ‘everyone knew’, the frenzy ‘wasn’t really about Rhodes’. It was about purging the country of its imperial and colonial pedigree, and rebelling against a past that was continuing in the present, that of a haughty ‘”White” oppression. Twenty-odd years after the rainbow nation’s rain of freedom, South Africa was now heading into the acid rain of a pugnacious black nationalism,  

With the ‘deplinthing’ of Rhodes the first victory for the text-obsessed student avant-garde of the discontented, The Café de Move-on Blues takes us on a looping journey right around the country – the book includes a nice map depicting just how ambitious was the author’s pilgrimage to the spots of ‘mute assaulted statues’. He takes in far northern Limpopo, heads through Mpumalanga down into Kwazulu-Natal, saunters onwards both along the coast and inland through the Eastern Cape before ending up where he began, in Cape Town. There he finds, on the slopes of Devil Peak’s, the next chapter in the ruin of Rhodes. At the Memorial which bears his name, the bust had been targeted by vandals who ‘had attacked the head and knocked off its nose’. Almost relishing this a little, Hope wishes that ‘the noseless Rhodes survives’, as it is ‘so eloquent and unforgettable and portrays something of who we are and how we got this way’.

In the several parts of its travels along the roads between Rhodes, Café de Move-on Blues provides a taut string of vignettes which turn up evidence of the meanings of South Africa just about everywhere its author looks. Where what’s depicted isn’t desecration, it’s often clouded in controversy. The West Coast Fossil Park contains the prehistoric skull of a Stone Age Saldanha Man who used to be called Hopefield Man. ‘What makes him very alarmingly up-to-date’ is that he appears to have been murdered, making him ‘one of us’. In the vicinity of Kimberley, there is the Anglo-Boer War concentration camp cemetery at Orange River Station, with the names of its white dead ‘recorded and remembered’, while for black people who perished in the same war there are ‘fewer graves and scant memorials’. Turning sombre, Hope recognises this as ‘a very South African situation; as familiar as it is forlorn’. 

Along the way there are the other usual suspects, like Jan van Riebeeck, Hendrik Verwoerd, Mahatma Gandhi, Paul Kruger, and Nelson Mandela, all deftly handled and explored with polished insights and engaging wit. There is even space for spots such as the Rand Club, Fraserburg’s ‘secret monument’ (which I shan’t reveal!), and Dainfern estate, that much-mocked settlement sustained by its belief that ‘this isn’t a penitentiary; it is paradise’. His journey is told with such ease and assurance that it feels almost companionable, as if one were meandering about with him. As we roll on through the gallery there is plenty over which to pause, including surprises. In Durban, the statue of King George V, a stupid monarch associated only with collecting stamps and shooting deer, had been splashed with paint and adorned with an ‘End White Privilege’ placard. A faded and all but forgotten British royal had become Johann Rupert. 

The Café de Move-on Blues also reminds us that when South Africa’s memorials are more poignant than political, they remain forgotten. Who today remembers ‘Happy’ Sindane? He was ‘the lost boy’ from 2003 who popped up claiming that he’d been kidnapped from his white family and raised in an African township by a family which had put him to work as a slave. Briefly a celebrity, he rose like a comet only to fall not only to earth but into it, murdered a few years later by a companion on his drinking sprees. Earlier, Happy had been done in by DNA tests which revealed that he wasn’t the son of a wealthy white family who had been ‘stolen by the maid’. He was, instead, ‘the son of the maid’. Today, the ‘ugly duckling’ who ‘never made it into a swan’ is flattened by the weight of ‘an over-large monument in a far-away country graveyard’ which no-one visits. In one of this book’s most sombre and searing sketches, Hope finds Happy to be ‘the heart of the matter’, a tragic and tortured Cinderella ‘who is who we are; or he is what we have done to ourselves’.

Wherever it moves, The Café de Move-on Blues trails historical musings to tease the imagination of the general reader. A number of these fix on the fortunes of the Khoi and the San, and one can’t but wonder whether these marginal men and women may become the stuff of the author’s next piece of non-fiction. If so, I hope that it comes with something which this present book sorely lacks, an index. 

The history here jostles alongside occasional accounts, sometimes tart, sometimes touching, of the author’s interactions with an assortment of South African characters, such as Theo, the Johannesburg vet, and a radical student, ‘Thandi’, at ‘the university currently known as Rhodes’. These exchanges come across as nothing so much as a dialogue of the deaf, as Christopher Hope’s sceptical probing hits a wall of convictions and certainties. And, as is surely to be expected of a book, its writer does not skim the fiery fate of books (and paintings) at the hands of rampaging student arsonists on some university campuses, as they fanned out to split the rocks of ‘Whiteness’ and ‘Coloniality’. As always, Hope’s judgement is crisp and salutary, concluding that there could be ‘no winners’ in ‘such bonfires of the inanities’. 

Ultimately, this is a cautionary and distinctly apprehensive love letter to the mad and absurd country the author knows so well. Its tensions and ambiguities are reflected in the title of this book. Its cover is a 1964 David Goldblatt photograph of a decrepit mobile food and drink stall, a ‘café de move-on’, as the apartheid regime’s police were constantly shoving it on from place to place. It is a haunting metaphor for Christopher Hope’s journey. Several decades ago, he had a conversation with Oliver Tambo in London and when the subject turned to the sadness of the constant push of the café de move-on, the ANC leader declared his wish for a land where no one was turfed out, where no-one would ever feel the menacing strains of ‘the move-on-blues’. Yet, as he tells us in his final sentence, ‘whichever way you play it, I hear the music’. Then, as now, a sense of common fellowship and decency is rarely, if ever, enough.

The Café de Move-On Blues is published by Atlantic Books. Bill Nasson is Emeritus Professor in History at Stellenbosch University.

POEM: Mother’s Golden Bracelet

BY KAY UGWUEDE

My mother once had a golden bracelet.
It became mine in the manner that things mothers own
become their daughters’.
Far away from home it’ll become a relic,
a memory of Sunday mornings,
the smell of warm milk,
of Sunday bests off the bottom of my mother’s brown trunk.
The smell of newness in the red earth.
Of my father’s cologne.
The drives to Sunday morning masses in his grey Peugeot.
A million laughters, late night stories and Amens.

POEM: Distance

BY NDABENHLE S. MTHEMBU

What does ‘relationship’ mean
A test to see if we relate?
Do I relate to You?
Am I relatable?

What does ‘sex’ mean
A test to see if we are the same sexually?
Do I find You sexy?
Am I sexual?
Am I sexy though?

What does ‘intimacy’ mean?
A test to see if we are close enough to disagree?
Do I find You agreeable?
Am I the distance between us though?

What does ‘love’ mean?
A test to see if we mean anything?
Do I find meaning in You?
Am I meaningful?

Oh, I see.
The only distance between us is You and me.

REVIEW: Killing Commendatore

GARETH LANGDON is a huge fan of Haruki Murakami, but is dismayed by the Japanese master’s latest novel, Killing Commendatore: an overwrought 700 pages of trite dialogue and simplistic, painstakingly detailed descriptions of everyday events.

Killing Commendatore

An interesting consequence of a move to New York city from “developing” Cape Town, South Africa, is the recognition of what it truly means to be faced with endless opportunity. New York is a big place, with a lot going on, and a lot to choose from, often to the point of option paralysis leading to a not-graceful decline into lonely alcoholism. But let’s keep it light.

In many ways though, the prospect of endless opportunity is more of a fantasy than a reality. Not in the sense that the city doesn’t, in fact, offer many worlds unknown, but rather than being able to actually access those worlds in a tangible way is highly unlikely. Most adult humans have commitments and limitations (importantly, financial limitations, which is especially true in NYC) which will prevent them from exploring, touring, engaging with every nook and cranny of the city in any meaningful way. I mean, some days I have to go and do my laundry, instead of savouring the latest craft brew the city has on offer. The possibility of fantastical escapism becomes narrower and narrower the longer you live in the city, and the more complacent you become with enjoying your simple apartment existence.

I’ve taken NYC here as my example, naturally, as it is where I live at the time of writing, but this could just as easily apply to any of the big and desirable cities in the world, from LA to London to Tokyo, and I think it is simply true of humans that our minds can only handle so much variety before we reflexively begin to narrow things down, cull the excess, or become paralysed by an excess of choice. This is not, however, true of fantastical novels.

Novels are a deliberate choice to move our minds into new worlds, which are truly inaccessible. The same way that someone might choose to read about NYC when living in rural Somalia, as a means of fantasist escape, so too someone who lives in NYC may want to read about Narnia or Middle Earth – that is to say, we are forever grasping for the unknown, believing there must be more, and are by nature, restless explorers. So naturally, you can imagine, to indulge my escapist urge and explore beyond the stresses of moving to NYC from Cape Town, as a salve for the anxiety of actually exploring when I really needed to focus on paying the bills, I spent an unnecessary $30 on Haruki Murakami’s newest, Killing Commendatore.

The novel follows the events of what appears to be only a few months in the life of a 36-year-old painter, who is never named. After a surprise divorce, he escapes to the mountains of rural Japan to live in the former home of famed painter, Tomohiko Amada, a fortune he comes by as a result of studying at art school with Amada’s son. During his time at the house, he comes across a hidden painting in the attic depicting a medieval scene of a murder, inspired by Mozart’s Don Giovanni but adapted into the Japanese style by Amada himself. The painting’s unearthing (or rather, de-atticing) leads to several supernatural events assaulting the tranquil escape that the narrator had been seeking, including the autonomous ringing of a bell in a black pit behind the house, the appearance of one of the characters in the painting — a two foot tall, strange talking fellow — and the eventual crossing into other worlds by way of aforementioned pit. There is also a lot of listening to records, making and eating of breakfast, vivid depictions of emotionless sex, and painting.

On the face of it, the novel is about a man’s attempt to escape the realities of his life — a failed relationship, and unfulfilling career as a commissioned portrait artist, apparently poor financial prospects — only to find himself drifting further and further away from the actual, physical realms of earthly reality. As much as the narrator attempts to tether himself to reality by buying groceries and listening over and over again to the same classical LPs, he is inexorably drawn to something other, something outside. This exhortation to the fantastical, I would argue, is analogous to the protagonist’s (and perhaps the 70-year old author’s?) own desire to escape life as he knows it and find something better. This is nothing new in Murakami’s work, all of which is perhaps known for, and successful because of, its artful juxtaposition of the fantastic and the mundane. Unfortunately, Killing Commendatore does not succeed in the careful balancing act required to pull this off.

What I found in Killing Commendatore was an overwrought 700 pages of trite dialogue, simplistic, prosaic description in painstaking detail of everyday events, and that same simplicity and triteness sloppily applied to the fantastical. I’m not sure if it is something that has been lost in the translation, or if this a deliberate manoeuvre on the part of the author to trick or perhaps communicate something deeper at the level of syntax to the reader, but the fact remains that it falls utterly flat. Far from providing me, a newcomer in a scarily large city at a new stage in life, or indeed the protagonist, himself in his own peril, with an escape, instead it left me feeling uncomfortable at the level of language I was expected to simply accept from a world-renowned master of the art of novel writing. It was for me, to paraphrase another critic, the kind of experience that made me feel embarrassed on behalf of Murakami himself.

What alternative explanations could there be for this lapse in judgement? Was the author rushed to produce this? Or is shitty translation the culprit: were the translators unable to accurately capture the Japanese as English, with symbolism lost in translation? Or is there something more insidious at play here, something deliberate, something cunning?

I remember once I attended a graduate seminar in which one of the papers on review was about Coetzee’s (bleh) Childhood of Jesus. Several days prior to this conference, I had myself read and scathingly reviewed the novel (also on account of the disappointingly third-grader level of language), and was curious to get the insight of a vastly more qualified academic on the matter. His general theory was that — get this — Coetzee was now so good and qualified to write well, that he had subverted the medium to the point where average writing was actually a sign of greater talent — he was beyond being any good, and could dismantle language to the point of it being what, at first glance, looked like crap. So in this conception, Coetzee had made some Picasso-esque move to regress himself to a child-like wielding of his form to send some kind of message, either about language itself or about his excellence as a writer. And so, do we find ourselves here again with another writer, Murakami, arrogantly thinking that he can get away with it?

Now, fair enough. Writers strip down and play with the form of the novel all the time, all the way through its history some would argue. But there is a limit. To continue the analogy of Picasso, his brilliance was that, even though the image was distorted, and child-like (his words) and perhaps indiscernible, it still formed a cohesive and striking whole. It was something beautiful to look at. Furthermore, you can get away with this as a visual artist, because it takes a split second to take in an image, and its colours, and to allow the effect to wash over you. But it takes a commitment of many hours (days even) to read a novel, and my feeling is that subjecting a reader, who out of reverence paid good money to buy your book and escape to some world other than their own, is borderline sadistic.

Now, I’d hate for this to become a rant about the obligations of writer to reader (there probably aren’t any) or to end up somewhere down the rabbit-hole of “I paid you, so you owe me” because we all know that is a slippery slope. But who isn’t upset when they fork over for their favourite band’s new album, or their favourite director’s new movie, only to leave feeling hurt, disappointed, and frankly, disinclined to favourably review said artist in an article?

I’d love to spend more time here dissecting the story of Killing Commendatore, its many metaphors, ideas, concepts etc, but really, it was so difficult and tiring to wade my way through the prose that I don’t even have the energy left to do so. All I can really see myself doing is going back and re-reading IQ84 or Hard-boiled Wonderland in the hope that I’ll discover that I was right — that Murakami is actually pretty good, and I still like him.

Killing Commendatore really does feel like Murakami’s difficult second album, his very own midlife crisis, a little blip in his past, and I think it is best that we, like a blighted lover, forgive him and try to move on.

Killing Commendatore is published by Harvill Secker, an imprint of Penguin Random House.