For all my best intentions to read the stack of books I had planned to tackle with the new year, I keep getting side lined by new releases. And I am, it would seem, still caught in a South African vortex. This time I have been swept into the hypnotic landscape of words and images that is The Alphabet of Birds by S. J. Naudé. Originally published in Afrikaans, this debut collection of short stories has just been released in the UK and America in the author’s own English translation. A fascinating communication between Naudé and fellow countryman Ivan Vladislavic posted on the Granta website drew my attention to his work and I was not disappointed by a single story in this amazing collection.
Trained as a lawyer, Naudé spent many years working in New York and London before returning to South Africa to pursue a career in writing. As a result, most of the stories in The Alphabet of Birds explore the complicated existences of ex-pat South Africans who find themselves losing their footing abroad but are uncertain how to negotiate the emotional dynamics of family and the socio-economic realities of a new South Africa. Home is increasingly elusive, fleeting attempts to find meaning fall into emptiness. In one of my favourite stories, “A Master from Germany,” the desire to escape a soulless corporate existence leads to a fantastical hedonistic adventure that turns into an achingly sad domestic vigil at a parent’s bedside. There is a profound sense of alienation that runs through all of these tales: a husband unable to rescue his wife from herself, scattered siblings across the globe, men seeking solace with male lovers who are either too elusive or too intrusive.
These are not stories for those who prefer a traditional narrative arc. Naudé writes with a cinematic eye. The violent storms that stretch across the open South African skies in “The Van” are breathtaking, the slow and painful disintegration of a parent dying of cancer portrayed “A Master from Germany” and “War, Blossoms” are heartrending. Images and motifs recur. Illness and death. Sex and drugs. Love and loss. Music and birds. With a language that is poetic and precise, he focuses his attention on sounds and silences, brutality and fragility; opening wounds and blurring boundaries between identities. His characters tend to become increasingly opaque, mysterious even to themselves: “simultaneously armour-plated and flayed.”
I have been slow in coming to appreciate what can be done within the medium of the short story. In the Granta discussion Naudé explores his fascination with the processes at play in the work of W. G. Sebald and Thomas Bernhard, among others. As those two writers are a key focus for me as a critical reader this year, I was keen to see how such influences would play out in his work. In terms of possibilities for storytelling I find myself very excited by this collection. I simply did not want it to end.
The themes of borderlessness and alienation that drive these tales are very human and have far reaching relevance beyond the South African experience. Now that it is available to an English speaking audience, thanks to the subscription funded publisher And Other Stories (I just had to subscribe too), The Alphabet of Birds will hopefully reach a wider audience. I suspect it will likely be one of my favourite reads of the year too, and it’s only January.
11 thoughts on “Home is wherever you find yourself: The Alphabet of Birds by S.J. Naudé”
Great review and the book sounds interesting, but for now I’m very curious now if the title of the story “A Master from Germany” has anything to do with Celan’s poem “Todesfuge/Deathfugue”, in which there is the phrase: “Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland/Death is a master from Germany.”
P.S. I followed the link of your profile a couple of days ago, and have become an avid reader of your blog, which is great and makes me very interested in reading a potential book of yours. Great writing!
Vogelmonade from TLS
I was curious about all those hits from Germany and thank you for your positive remarks.
As for any direct link to the poem I don’t know but it would not surprise me and would definitely apply. The author includes a list of resources he drew from in writing these stories including works on modern music, Thomas de Quincey and more… interesting ideas are explored. And, as I know you will appreciate, Damon Galgut wrote the Introduction.
I’m afraid this one will have to wait a bit, Im’n in too many different books at the moment and I’m starting to get confused. What was this speaking cat doing in Maoist China again and what has it all to do with Dawkins, the strange hiker Reiner, and the reemergence of group-selection theory?
Another blogger I follow once commented that her readerly eyes are always too big for her readerly brain. Many of us have the same affliction.
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What an interesting sounding collection of stories! I’m not a huge short story reader but when I do venture there I like something a little different. I will definitely keep these in mind for that!
One of the beauties of this work is the way he takes a fairly limited number of themes drawn from his experience to create 7 very different stories, even though motifs and even characters recur. I will be interested to see how he moves on to longer form.
I’m not into short stories really but these do sound good. I like the sound of the theme you mentioned about the alienation from one’s home land
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I love short stories and this sounds like a wonderful collection. I haven’t read much South African literature beyond Coetzee, Gordimer and Lessing. I don’t think I’ve read any translated works from there. (I also like the cover! And I love your photos). Great post all round.
Thank you for the compliments (and you noticed I have taken your “readerly eyes” wisdom to heart – you might want want to print t-shirts). I find that South Africa, like central/eastern Europe, presents a backdrop against which the dynamics of the human experience can be explored. Or perhaps it just seems exotic against what feels like the blandness of my own country … the grass is always greener sort of thing.
Oh yes, I totally understand about your interest in South Africa … It’s how I also feel about World War 2. You can see the best and worst of human nature and everything in between.