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.

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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.

EXTRACT: Dissecting Wobbles

In this extract from his memoir, ANDREW MARSHALL recalls the aftermath of his diagnosis with the degenerative neurological muscle disease, Friedreich’s Ataxia.

In the months following my diagnosis, we didn’t know which way to turn. We’d met the brothers in Boksburg, which may have put my parents’ minds at some kind of ease, but mine was still being beaten to a bloody pulp. Life had tossed a brick in front of my bike. Now I was flying over the handlebars towards an impossible, uncharted future.

We’d heard about a school that taught a wide spectrum of disabled children. We went to check it out because we didn’t know how much longer I’d be able to walk around the other one. When we arrived, the end-of-break bell had just rung and all the kids were filing back into their classes. Some were walking normally, but others had crutches and walkers and were brandishing very distinctive gimp gates. Some of them were pushing other children’s wheelchairs. One guy was laughing and battling to catch his breath. He reminded me of the monster from The Gooneys. I burst into tears and sobbed. I was slowly coming to terms with the future me. I was one of these guys. Me.

That evening, while pretending to study for a history test, I had a long conversation with myself. I had to face this thing head on. I was going to become increasingly similar to them. I should leave my normal school and grab the disabled bull by the horns. In my mind it was a done deal. I was going to leave Ferndale as soon as possible. I would go and be disabled. Meanwhile, Mom had it in her head that we should keep living as normal a life as possible, for as long as possible. In her professional position, she had witnessed other parents of disabled children molly-coddling them to the point of suffocation. Unbeknownst to me, she had another meeting with the headmaster and some of heads of department. They decided I would do better in a normal school environment. When I was told about it all I protested, angry. I had it mapped out in my head already. I was ready.

Still, a part of me didn’t want to let my old wheelchair-free life go. In the end, I decided to keep trucking. The school was fantastic. The staff did everything in their power to make my life easier. But they had to let the other children know why I was allowed to use the staff staircase instead of walking an extra hundred metres like everyone else, and why I didn’t have to participate in any of the sports. (I also had a few parents report me for being intoxicated. I will never forget the look in one teacher’s eye as she pulled me out of line and tried to see if this was the case.) They decided to make an announcement to the school at Friday assembly. I knew this was going to happen and as assembly drew nearer, my necktie got tighter. I felt as though the old, un-sick me was being led to the gallows. I stood by the doors at the back of the matric gallery while she explained about my condition. No one could see the humiliation and terror swirling inside. I was always a little different, but now my distinction had a label. I was petrified people were going to view me as a freak. I felt like one of the ants I used to torment and then finally incinerate with my gran’s magnifying glass. I slipped out back and ran down the corridor into the toilets. My head was a giant pressure cooker. I really didn’t think I could handle it. After twenty minutes of staring at the wall – twenty minutes of trying to work out how I was going to face my peers, I heard a stampede of kids leaving the hall. I had no choice.

I stood up, stuck my game face on and went out to greet it.

Find out more about Dissecting Wobbles on its website or visit its Facebook page.

REVIEW: My Life on Legs

SHIRLEY MARAIS is delighted by Hailey Gaunt’s debut poetry collection.
my life on legs
The cover of My Life on Legs — featuring a delicate etymological plate by Andrew Breitenberg, beautifully positioned on a background of palest “mint-moss green” (Morning walk) — give a sense of the poems and themes inside this collection: detailed, in-the-moment, idiosyncratic insights into Gaunt’s relationships with friends and family, and her relationship to the natural world, filtered through the stained-glass wings of her poetic mind.  

The collection takes its name from a line in Morning walk, which ends with a picture that makes you draw your breath in, quite literally:

I want to shed my clothes, shoes,
my life on legs,
throw my body back,
leave the whole shell of it behind
shoot across the wave in one wet line.

I am struck how Gaunt quite naturally and easily uses phrases and lines like ‘magical happenstance’ (The beginning), ‘effulgent runway’ (A pledge) and ‘playing at rumbunctious games’ (At the pool) without ever being pretentious or ostentatious, because she is so consistent – and so consistently and beautifully precise – in her careful stitching of these poems. Her consummate use of language serves the intricacy and detail of her narrative imagery, adding bright points of light, rather than weighing her work down.  

Her relationship with her world, and the people in it, is so intriguingly detailed and reverent, as to invite unselfconscious participation from the reader, even in her most intimate poems:

And I tell you something else —
part apology, declaration, pact:
“I’m willing to start over
as many times as we have to.”

This poet is not afraid of intimacy, but never jolts the reader, except very gently – I am thinking particularly of the line ‘rude and kind as a tongue’ (from Patronage), which speaks of her father’s habit of pushing a roll of banknotes into her hand as he says goodbye, and the last stanza of Caress:

And I’d slip between each adult embrace,
minnow my hands in a parting prayer –
it was around that time I prayed
the small, stiff buds back into my chest.

Although gentle, Gaunt’s work is neither bland nor predictable. Each carefully crafted poem holds the reader to the end and makes one want to go back later and read it again. The narratives are full of surprises and pictures that turn the everyday into the extraordinary, as in For the first time (second and third stanzas):

Turning it over,
I stare through the shell and soft wall
to a place within,
and somehow I’ve slipped
into terrifying territory – and yet,
my body softens.

I see a tiny hand
spread like a star
and all over as delicate
as the traces
of a nail’s paper rim:
it’s reaching.

Gaunt’s work is proof that being strongly rooted in ordinary ‘middle-class’ life and sound, loving relationships – so apparent from the many poems about her lover and her father (the ‘great-big fix-anything move-the-earth father’ in He can’t hear) – can also be fertile ground for beautiful poetry. 

The exchange is one of my favourite pieces in this collection. Like many of Gaunt’s poems, it is so rich in both inner and outer detail that it plays out like a densely woven art nouveau movie in miniature. Here is the final stanza of the poem:

She says nothing but her free hand
sweeps my wrist in a gesture so succinct,
barely perceptible and without a name.
I turn back to the bookstore and cover my wrist.
Now I am bursting, burning full of words –
oh, but I would give them up!

I certainly hope it will not be Gaunt’s last collection of poetry. I find myself constantly returning to the book to look again for a phrase, a word, an image, that I want to re-meet and re-explore. I hope she will continue to burn and burst with words, and give them up – to paper.

My Life on Legs is published by Aerial Publishing.

REVIEW: New Times

New Times, Rehana Rossouw’s vivid new novel about the early days of the Rainbow Nation, traverses familiar territory for YAZEED KAMALDIEN.

New Times by Rehana Rossouw

Although circles around myself and author Rehana Rossouw have intertwined, we’ve never met. Those circles would be obvious since we are both journalists but then it’s ironic that we haven’t met because we operate in a small media world in the same country.

While we may not have met, I did pop in at one of her book talks, held at the Goethe Institute in Johannesburg with her relative – my dear friend – Nasia Seria. And I’ve worked for a few years with Chiara Carter, editor of Weekend Argus newspaper, who spoke at the Cape Town launch of this novel and who is a mutual friend. Then there’s author Barbara Boswell who is also mentioned, along with Carter, in the acknowledgements section of this book, whom we also share.

We are connected through the people we know, but not directly. Maybe I should just add her on Facebook, if she’s on there. Anyway, at least now I feel connected with her after having read New Times, which takes its name from the newspaper title where the novel’s lead character Ali Adams works as a journalist. The point of all of this mentioning of interconnectedness is to entrench a bit deeper the fact that Rossouw’s book is terribly familiar territory to me. That stretches from her depictions of Ali’s reflections on life in a busy newsroom to the Islamic traditions in Bo-Kaap she participates in. And then there are references to Cape Town’s left-leaning crowd who forms parts of characters in New Times. We still see them at Cuban government events and Palestinian support rallies in the Mother City.

When Carter saw New Times on my desk at the paper’s office where I’m still doing some freelance journalism, she stopped to talk about the left crowd referenced in the book, although not named of course. Carter joked about how they were having conversations about who was actually who in Rossouw’s novel.

New Timesthus appears as a deeply personal work for Rossouw. It feels as if she has literally taken her diary from reporting on South Africa’s social and political challenges – particular understanding its post-apartheid identity – and published it here as the story of Ali Adams. I’m not sure if she has mentioned this in any interview or whether any book reviewer elsewhere picked up on this. I’ve chosen to avoid reading anything about New Times in favour of forming my own reflection without influence.

Back to the main character: Ali is a journalist who has direct access to Nelson Mandela during his second year in office as the country’s first democratically elected president.

Fresh out of apartheid, she has black friends who served time on Robben Island and works closely with a white journalist who had links to the apartheid military. She sees the many faces of the country, as journalists often do, and shares it through her newspaper writing.

Reflecting on Ali’s close proximity to her sources, I’m always sceptical of journalists who get too close to political parties and politicians but, OK, one can understand the context of those back-in-the-day times. Back then the post-apartheid South Africa was all mixed up – well, it remains still mixed up.

It was common for anti-apartheid activists to turn up in newsrooms while their comrades would turn up in government, right next to Mandela.

Rossouw shows us the life of Ali, the young journalist, not yet 30, who navigates ins and outs of Rainbow Nation lives to tell stories, fight her demons, make peace with her household and find peace with herself.

As mentioned, the novel appears autobiographical, and it does not pretend to make grander statements than what it reflects: the new times of a new country. And what it all means for a young, female journalist.

A line in the book that appears as a tagline for the new times reflected in this book appears on page 20: “Sometimes it’s hard to understand the choices people make when they’re finally free.”

And so Ali asks tough questions about how the African National Congress – regarded as the liberation party that shook South Africa free from white apartheid rule – has turned its back on the people who ensured its victory. (The ANC is referred to in the book as The Movement, by the way.)

The writing pace moves at the pace of Ali’s busy life. When she’s not at work chasing deadlines and fighting monster managers she’s enjoying simple moments of shared meals that her grandmother makes in Bo-Kaap – a community whose residents and history Rossouw depicts with great affection. It is portrayed with all its Islamic gatherings, patriarchy and laikoms (we will get to that later).

I really liked how Rossouw’s brushes off the patriarchy without trying to sound too self-righteous. She doesn’t need to go on That Angry Feminist Rant to make her point.

I’m not meaning to take a dig at that kind of non-inclusive feminism that demands women should not wear burqas because white women don’t wear it so therefore no women should. I’m just saying that I like Rossouw’s way of showing that Ali’s feminism isn’t about burning a bra. It’s about claiming her space in the world on her terms.

And as someone who knows the hell of newsrooms – and its accompanying patriarchy, chauvinism, and the way critical thinking can easily be trumped by knee-jerk reactionary drivel – it’s great to see a story about a female journalist of colour who kicks butt at her job.

We all know and can see that race and representation in media is still not as diverse as it could be. And racism is still an issue in the media, whether in newsrooms or in the endless reports of pathetic racism that erupts across South Africa and beyond.

To state the obvious: Rossouw is a woman of colour who wrote her story. She placed a character into the archive of our collective library that tells our stories. She writes without much fuss or pretence about navigating the journalism, politics, her community and race. None of it is blatant or pedantic, thank goodness. There is no political correct bullshit either. Rossouw has a sense of humour too, which shows in New Times.

Her Muslim, woman, journalist character is very real: she smokes, she swears, she prays, she loves her family, she tells men where to get off and she even does a shadow boxing bout with Mandela in Parliament. It’s a story that I’m glad has been told.

And when I do eventually meet Rossouw, I’ll greet her: “Laikom, Rehana.”

That’s the Cape Town version of the longer Arabic greeting Asalamu alaykom wa rahmatulahi wa barakatu.

New Times is published by Jacana.

Yazeed Kamaldien is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town.

EXTRACT: Navigate

Three poems from the new collection by KARIN SCHIMKE.
Karin Schimke

ii. not co-opted (From: Praxis – four steps to understanding change)

I give my mouth to no one.
I am the ears of everyone
and of my self. When you
shout, shells tilt. We nod.
We nod, the sea and I. We know.
We know. We lose ourselves in froth.

I will not staunch you.

I listen for a half beat,
a breath, and whisper back
the whispers of the waiting
gales. Pen-ink my voice
and silent so; willed to white,
whitened to bone. And flaccid.

 

Weed

those who are footloose
who roam to the ends
of untethered threads
those with battered bags
and make-do those
whose assertions
to place are brief or twee
those who are home-free:

how were they released?

me, i am planted here, awake
and calcifying. my roots ache.

 

What wedding is this?

This morning the mist-veiled
autumn mountain is all ours.

Leucadendrons’ pink muzzles
line the path like dewy bridesmaids
wearing sparkles. An orb-web spider
reigns from the middle of her wagon wheel
turned chandelier by drops of dew
and tufts of light.

What wedding is this?

In the dark bush, above the mist-slicked
rocks of the dry riverbed, moss grows
in the armpits of trees. Seed confettis the ground.
Older promises sweat from the stream’s vertebra,
and the mountain’s crotch smells like buchu and rooibos.

Oh, honeybush, this is not a wedding.
It’s an ecstasy.

Navigate is published by Modjaji Books. Read our review here.

BOOK CLUB: Navigate

LOUIETTA DU TOIT is entranced by Navigate, a dense and shimmering collection of poems by Karin Schimke.

Navigate by Karin Schimke

Karin Schimke’s Navigate sits on my desk for several weeks.  I gather, before having read it, that it is a deeply personal work and I intend to engage with it as devotedly as I imagine it was written. But amidst the incessant pulsing of my city and work life, an ideal bookended period of time to do this, does not arrive.

And then I am at the feet of the Waterberg, lounging on a redbrick stoep constructed by my grandfather almost three decades ago. I am here with my closest family on a celebratory weekend away – it’s my birthday soon.  More than we ourselves are able to, the unassuming landscape of the farm holds our shared history and each moment together offers something of this, interspersed with everyday wonder, affection and little traumas and distress.

As always, we move within the structures of this intimacy a little clumsily, but each with a somewhat refined steering method.

We are, perpetually, either finding each other, or trying to.

Navigate finds me here.

my lips blister, my tongue dries.
atonal winds, weather all wall-eyed.

Schimke’s evocative collection is woven on a number of distinct threads. It is a conscious expedition through roots and heritage and the complex, fluid meaning of home and belonging.  The refuge of nature in all its beauty and simplicity. And the becoming of a self – the poet’s finding, nurturing and placement of her voice – as a writer, a daughter, a woman and a citizen.  The implication that these threads are interwoven and interdependent, is strong:  a recognition which I greatly appreciate and resonate with.

A series of dichotomies, as striking as the natural metaphors Schimke employs throughout, appears – between the metaphysical and the earthly, the personal and the public, the private and the communal, the complex and the staggeringly simple.  The need for togetherness and simultaneously, an ever-present yearning to be separate. Together with these binary notions, a question is posed:  which takes precedence?  The answer I find is far from prescriptive – not one.

Instead, it is suggested that navigation, here so skilfully demonstrated through poetry, inherently requires a well-honed, multi-faceted attention and an ability to adapt.  This calls for a resolve to be acutely present in all conditions and Schimke appears willing to be exactly this – not only at the mercy of the “elements” she is faced with, but very much present within them.  She captures the heart of this process in Cleaning the wound:

the trick is to pull off the plaster
and look the wound in the eye
it’s not as bad as you think it will be
it’s just a doorway
a threshold to sweep
and polish and protect

It calls for what I find to be the most striking quality of Navigate– a down-to-earth-ness. The language of Cleaning the wound is both sincerely painful as well as reverent and nurturing. Rejection never emerges as an option. Only a flow and the willingness to receive it fully, to expand and retract, again and again.  In this way, human experience becomes, like this collection of poems, simultaneously tumultuous and beautiful.

As I am flung about, and taught, and held by Schimke’s dexterous wielding of harsh, methodical memories alongside deeply tender, redolent imagery, I am reassured by the grand coexistence of things which appear at first to be mutually exclusive.  This is the flood of the world.  The poet’s (and my) experience swings from an openness and delight to a shrunken, unanchored state and back, as does her sense of self and voice, her craft and her conviction within it.

The second section of the collection is prefaced by:

and now my mouth is small and hard
and now my tongue’s a fossil
now my lips are bone on bone
my chest’s an empty vessel

and she agonises in Taped Beak:

over and over
christ this chorus bores me
i’m doing whatever the verb
is for litany and grass grows
over my feet     i am that woman
that white that wash that
i am my own thick black
censor lines my hushing
terrorist up-shutter

Aside from the poet herself, the character of her father (the immigrant) is the most consistently present, whether as an explicit, literal subject or employed as a metaphor.  Schimke’s reflections on her father start off as a harsh, almost desperate disconnect, evolving through this exploration into something full and tender.  In parallel, her creative voice awakens, hesitates, expands and settles.  The father figure then becomes a marker on the map: the more foreign and inaccessible he is portrayed to be, the more tumultuous the conditions, the more untethered the poet appears.  But as we are granted a deeper access to and understanding of Schimke’s universe, a spaciousness grows around her father and around the poet herself.

We sweated.  You measured. You planned.
When I shifted my weight, you cursed.
Boredom grew.  I needed to pee.
My hands uncramped themselves.
My mouth excused me.
You shouted.  My fingers swore.
Relief is enough breath for one last stand.
You grabbed me by the hair

Retracing one’s steps also means deepening them.  I know this well.  But I also know and read again here that ultimately, through the process of revisiting and seeing, the old, deep traces of where we come from become less dire, less violent and less separate from where we are, here and now. This is indeed, on every implied level, a navigation from a state of Myopia (the title of the opening poem) to an uncomplicated belonging when the collection closes, intimately – My feet were at home in your lap.

Navigate – a most appropriate title for the narrative arc of this collection – offers neither injunction nor resolution.  Instead, it is an always tender and rarely sentimental telling.  In this telling a process emerges, divided into the four phases of the poet’s personal navigation.  These phases are not clinical, but emerge in the moment to moment unfolding, as do the beautifully crafted poems.  The resultant coherence is gradual and unforced.

Schimke writes her own trajectory amidst the elements, passing through conditions of chaos and turbulence, desolation, a palpable impasse where nothing moves, with eyes shut tight, waiting, and then into something akin to redemption, conjuring up an image of her standing, simply and gently, exactly where she is – in the eye of the proverbial storm.  The introductory verse of the final section signals this pause and arrival:

i knew no goodness till i’d trawled
the sky of his forehead for the bitter stars
and found none

It is a homecoming:  to the deep, safe waters of the other and the self.  And it is in this way that she can lay claim to the contours of her own voice:

I dream in
the alphabet of dance
where consonants
have fur
where vowels bleat
where vague
and precise
are the same
impossible
achievement.

It may be worth considering to what extent one’s response to a literary work stems from a kind of confirmation bias – do we simply read into it what we wish or need to see?  Can we put it down to that old chestnut of the right thing at the right time?

Perhaps it is really a matter of this:  one true thing, at any time.  To me, this is the birthplace of poetry, of art.  It is born in a non-exclusionary exploration, in the artist allowing the force of the flood.

Encouraged, I tug my thoughts back down to earth.  As I read, I try to couch my response in terms as basic and true as the pale cement joining the red bricks, the rarely seen Piet-My-Vrou calling to its mate. It is late autumn and the Limpopo sun is modest now, casting the shadow of a wild olive tree over my hands and across each printed page which I trace and turn.  I am feeling more, wanting more.  I am reminded to open and soften towards my own experience, my people, every moment – so often met with judgement and apprehension.

The voice of the poet is not glorified here – life and art are very much merged, becoming together.

This dense collection is nothing if not heartfelt.  Schimke’s poetry leaves me with a sense of fragmented completeness and in this contradiction, a freedom.  A testament to the myriad elements of what it means to be human, each in their mundane and dramatic, exquisite and distressing way, I close Navigate in the comforting fold of a sentiment expressed by Gustave Flaubert – ‘There is not a particle of life which does not bear poetry within it.’  Yours and mine.

Navigate is published by Modjaji Books. Read three poems from the collection here.

Author photograph by Paul Reeves.