You do not own life: Welcome to Our Hillbrow by Phaswane Mpe

The first thing you notice from the opening words of Phaswane Mpe’s only novel, Welcome to Our Hillbrow, is an unusual, and to Western readers, unconventional narrative voice:

If you were still live, Refentše, child of Tiragalong, you would be glad that Bafana Bafana lost to France in the 1998 Soccer World Cup fiasco. Of course you supported the squad. But at least now, you would experience no hardships walking to your flat through the streets of Hillbrow—that locality of just over one square kilometre, according to official records; and according to its inhabitants, at least twice as big and teeming with countless people.

This is not, as some mistakenly assume, a second person perspective, but rather a communal first person plural voice, speaking from a universal omniscient viewpoint to a character who is dead. It is a narrative form that freely moves from the physical to the metaphysical and back again. By drawing on traditional storytelling techniques, language, and expressions to tell a story that is rooted in one of the most crowded, disadvantaged, and violent inner-city neighbourhoods of post-Apartheid Johannesburg, Mpe is able to explore the intersection of complex issues—linguistic and literary marginalization, xenophobia, suicide, AIDS, and rural superstition—with a dazzling immediacy and intensity.

mpeMpe (1970-2004) was born in Limpopopo Province (formerly Pietersburg) in northeastern South Africa and, like his main character, Refentše, he moved to Johannesburg at the age of nineteen to attend the University of Witwatersrand, which had recently opened its doors to black students. Unable to afford accommodation on campus, he lived in Hillbrow. He would go on to complete an MA in publishing at Oxford Brookes in the UK—an experience that he would, in his novel, grant Refilwe, the female character whose life crosses and parallels that of Refentše. Thus, Mpe’s urban and rural experiences, informed by his modern liberal arts education, contributed to the development of a distinctive new literary voice, one which would be cruelly silenced all too early when he died suddenly at the age of thirty-four.

The voice that carries the narrative directly addresses the primary character throughout the course of this short novel, and is at once challenging and understanding. The voice recounts Refentše’s actions and emotions for him, reminding or reinforcing a memory of his experiences because he and  most of the primary characters have met untimely or unfortunate fates by end of the book (or, if you would rather, before the account even begins). This is a narrative to the dead from the dead. This unusual approach not only allows for a surprisingly effective engagement with a tragic tale of unfortunate coincidences, misunderstandings, and consequences, but it also creates a unique dialectical context for the exploration of the deep and critical issues that lie at the core of the story.

In simple terms, although it does not unfold in a straightforward manner, Welcome to Our Hillbrow, follows two main characters: Refentše, who comes to the city to study, and settles in Hillbrow, becoming a sensitive observer of the community; and Refilwe, his childhood friend and former girlfriend, who arrives in the city shortly before his death. He falls in love with Lerato, the “Bone of his Heart,” who is also an academic. But his mother and fellow villagers are not happy to see him with a city woman—urban/rural prejudices are acute. When a couple of unfortunate moments of infidelity “shatter” his enthusiasm for life and lead to his suicide, Refilwe exasperates the situation by implying that Lerato is the daughter of a Nigerian man, a curse that plays into a deep-seated xenophobia toward African migrants that still exists in some black South African communities today. Tribal justice, more suicide, and madness follow in the wake of Refentše’s death. Yet the narrator continues to address him in Heaven, where he is able to observe the action that ensues but is, of course, powerless to intervene.

I do not own life, you often said when you tried to laugh your difficulties away.

Many people could not see that you were not merely throwing jokes around. You did not own your life when you were alive. Now that you are alive in a different realm, you know for sure that you do not own life. You have watched God and Devil, gods and Ancestors, wondering whether *they* owned it, this thing called life. As far as you could see no one seemed to own it, judging by the way they too cast their eyes in the directions of our Hillbrow, Alexandra, and Tiragalong, clicking their tongues in deep sadness or grim amusement as people devoured one another. You were right there with them, still on your way to finding out whether any of them owned life.

The novel opens with a vivid evocation of the riotous atmosphere of Hillbrow, an area populated primarily by migrants from the townships, rural areas, and from beyond the borders of South Africa. Unemployment and poverty prevail. Those who have arrived from other countries, especially Nigeria, are rudely referred to as Makwerekwere, and are accused of bringing drugs, crime, and prostitution. AIDS is also beginning to take a toll, but the disease is poorly understood and also seen as imported by the outsiders. Rural residents, like the villagers of Refentše’s hometown, Tiragalong, believe they are protected from this mysterious ailment because they don’t eat Green Monkey meat as some West Africans are rumoured to do, and they don’t engage in anal sex. Xenophobia and ignorance in the face of the rising AIDS epidemic are two of the key concerns that Mpe sets out to address. The distrust of immigrants is both timeless and exceptionally timely. Refentše often debates the matter with his cousin, who claims that the neighbourhood had been fine before the arrival of the Nigerians with all their drug dealing:

You, Refentše, child of Tiragalong (and, as you insisted in the days just before your death, also of Hillbrow), had never shared such sentiments. It was your opinion that the moral decay of Hillbrow, so often talked about, was in fact no worse than that of Tiragalong.

Think about it, Cousin, you would challenge. How many people are here in Hillbrow? How many of them are criminals? If you consider that the concentration of people in Hillbrow is dense, and work out the number of crimes in relation to the number of people, I tell you, you will find Tiragalong to be just as bad…. And while we’re so busy blaming [the Makwerekwere] for all our sins, hadn’t we better also admit that quite a large percentage of our home relatives who get killed in Hillbrow are in fact killed by other relatives who bring their home grudges with them to Jo’burg. That’s what makes Hillbrow so corrupt…

Refentše tries to remind his cousin that many of those coming into the country are fleeing violence and deprivation elsewhere—they are driven into exile. Yet his cousin’s response echoes that which so often meets refugees, no matter the time or place:

Cousin insisted that people should remain in their own countries and try to sort out the problems of those respective countries, rather than fleeing them; South Africa had too many problems of its own.

During his years in Hillbrow, Refentše completes his studies and becomes a lecturer at the university. He dreams of writing a novel about his neighbourhood, believing it to be the kind of place underrepresented in literature. He only manages to publish one short story, one that explores, through the fate of its female protagonist, the limitations of writing in traditional tongues in a country with eleven official languages, but where only two dominate to the practical exclusion of the others. Mpe quite effectively works his arguments into and against the prevailing dynamics in South African literature: his main character reads Coetzee (Waiting for the Barbarians), while later, in Oxford, Refilwe introduces an Irish barman to Zakes Mda (Ways of Dying). He can be seen as attempting to build a bridge between established authors—with novels that reflect themes in his own work—and a vision of a literature that could be more inclusive of other languages, such as his native Sepedi.

Toward the end of the novel, the narrative zeroes in on Refilwe as she finally has the opportunity to pursue her MA at Oxford, but the narrator(s) will not actually address her directly until the closing passages of the book. Several years have passed since Refentše’s death, and guilt over her treatment of Lerato, plus her experiences living and working in Johannesburg, have softened her own xenophobic tendencies. While she is overseas she meets and falls in love with a Nigerian man. However, their bliss is cut short when they learn they both have AIDS, and would have in fact been HIV positive for many years. Her fate will serve to challenge the prejudices of Tiragalong when she returns home. Subtle shifts in the narrative voice through the final chapter, serve to add power to its heartbreaking conclusion.

The critical examination of contemporary themes, within a narrative shaped by the rhythms and poetry of an African oral tradition, offers readers an experience that is both fresh and deeply moving. Echoes of Mpe’s work, together with that of K. Sello Duiker, another young and tragically short-lived black writer who emerged in the early post-Apartheid years, has continued to resonate through an entire generation of young South African writers who are producing vital and original literature today.

Welcome to Our Hillbrow: A Novel of Postapartheid South Africa, by Phaswane Mpe is available from Ohio University Press, with an excellent introduction by Ghirmai Negash.

2017 Africa Reading Challenge.

Beginning to write through grief: A reflection & link to my poem at the Sultan’s Seal

I am, as many know, dealing with a multi-layered, complex grief—my mother, my father, and one of my closest friends—all lost within the last six months. When my parents died in July, I entertained an immediate grief project, my own mourning diary, an echo of Roland Barthes. I started with a subdued passion, an ache as intellectual as emotional. In truth, my emotions were, I can now see, constrained and intellectualized.

I was numb.

Others reached out to me in those early weeks, sharing their own stories. The terrain of grief is rocky, I was warned. The journey long. The pain uneven. But, although I am in mid-life, a loss of this nature—doubled and complicated—was something I had never faced.

Then my friend took her own life sometime on September 1st. Even though I knew, in my heart, that such an event was almost inevitable, the pain and anger tore me apart. I knew she had tried every available option she could afford to fight an erratic and devastating variation of bipolar disorder, and I fully respected her decision and her right to make it. But suddenly my world was a darker, lonelier place.

And she had lived half a world away.

Again, the first thing I thought of was to write. This time, my distance from her demanded and informed my need to write—and I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to gather words and sentences from her writing and our communications, and together with some photographs from my trip to visit her in South Africa, create an elegy.

An offering.beach

Drawing inspiration from a prose piece by Breyten Breytenbach, and the sound driven writings of my friend, Daniela Cascella, I set to work. And I knew exactly where I wanted to publish this memorial if I was able to realize my vision—The Sultan’s Seal, a most wonderful space created and curated by Egyptian writer, Youssef Rakha.

The result, “And I will Tell You Something,” was published this past weekend. Three hundred words, five images and almost three months shaping, reshaping, listening and accepting the silence that emerged. This is perhaps the most emotionally demanding piece I have ever written. Yet, now five days after my words were finally set free in the world, I feel a tremendous sense of rightness. An element of peace. I still ache, but, with this prose poem, I feel I can begin to heal.

And I hope that others may find something in it too.

Conversing in verse: Voice Over by Breyten Breytenbach

when you die, Mahmoud
when your aorta thrashing
all sluggish and crinkled
like a purple snake bursts
because the lines can no longer
slither the perfect metaphor.

A selection of stunning new translations of the poems of Mahmoud Darwish posted today, March 13, on the blog Arabic Literature (in English) marking the late Palestinian poet’s birthday inspired me to take a little time to re-read Voice Over by Breyten Breytenbach. The South African writer and painter had last seen his friend and fellow poet in France only a few weeks prior to learning of Darwish’s death during open heart surgery in Houston, Texas, on August 9, 2008. He was on Gorée Island off the coast of Dakar in Senegal at the time and, as he travelled from there through Catalonia to Friesland to attend a literary festival, Breytenbach took the time to meditate on his friend’s passing and engage with his work reporting that it was “refreshing to be bathing in Mahmoud’s verses.” The twelve poems in this slender volume are a reflection on this time in the form of a poetic communion. As he notes in an afterword:

“MD had always been a prolific poet. One could interact with him forever. The present ‘collage’ touches upon transformed ‘variations’ of his work, at times plucked from different poems and then again by way of approaching a specific verse, with my own voice woven into the process. The images, and to an extent even the rhythms and the shaping, are his.”

voiceoverThe first poems play with images of death, burial and moving on, but the tone is not sombre. There is a distinct sense of a conversation not ended but continued beyond the grave, a call for a celebration of life – music, not weeping, and a glass raised high. Midway through the journey, the verses take a turn to the political with the plaintive call “we shall be a people” that echoes throughout the 6th piece and continues in the 7th where Breytenbach tells his friend:

identity is gospel talk. Mahmoud
when as in a dream you hear
what others tell
and imagine you understand/exist

to be is to move
through a spectrum of volcanoes
and the spectacle of wars
              and poetry in catastrophic times

blood
              and blood
                            and blood
in your homeland

Small but powerfully affecting, this collection of poetic engagements acts as a kindling of the spirit of a voice silenced too soon. My favourite piece in this collage, to use Breytenbach’s term, is the 8th and longest entry. Here the question of the possibility and validity of this communication across the boundaries of language, and of death itself, is explored. Here, for me, lies the heart of the grief and the expression of fellowship:

who is writing this poem face
by face      in black blood
neither raven’s ink nor voice
pressed from an errant tongue?
luck’s hand snatches everything from night

Mirage leads the wanderer through the wasting
so that he may continue hailing the holy crocodiles
Mirage seduces him with sweet words read
if you can       write if you can
read       water / water / water

and write this one line in the sand
that if it weren’t for Mirage
I’d long since have died    for it is
the traveler’s talisman that hope and despair
be twinned in the blood of poetry

Ah yes, twinned in the blood of poetry. A gift, verse to verse, this heartfelt collection is a treasure.

darwish1Voice Over: a nomadic conversation with Mahmoud Darwish by Breyten Breytenbach is published by Archipelago Books.

 

Mahmoud Darwish, March 13, 1941 – August 9, 2008

Winter solstice (again): 2015 – The year in review

I tend to run solstice to solstice, so this seems as good a time as any to pull together my thoughts about the year that was. I debated the conventional “best of” list affair, but somehow that is not reflective of the way I read or engaged with literature this year. I began the year still finding my footing as a book blogger, my earliest reviews tended to be less critical, more personal. By the end of the year I feel I have endeavoured to establish a more critical but, hopefully still accessible approach. Off my blog, it was an honour to cap off 2015 with my first review on Numéro Cinq where I have been invited to join the masthead. I am most thankful to Douglas Glover, the fine editor of this fine magazine, for having faith in my ability to write.

8294617299_b22c0cd186_z(1)I read and write about books as a an effort to strengthen my own skills both as a reader and a writer, but behind it all is a writing project of my own that has been struggling its way into being, seemingly with an infinite number of forays down paths leading to dead ends. So the following is a review of the year and, along the way, a nod to some of the books, new and not so new, that kept me company.

Reading in translation: I have typically read widely, but I never stopped to focus specifically on literature in translation, or, for that matter, to even think of much that I did read as being translated – sounds odd, I know, I think I just thought of myself as someone who tended to read internationally. Joining a shadow jury for the IFFP and then devouring as much of the BTBA long list as I could manage was, for me, a significant turning point in the way that I saw and focused my reading. My books are now shelved (or stacked) by original language. Apart from English I read books in 20 languages over the past year; German, French, Afrikaans, Czech and Spanish topped the list.

istrosIndependent and not-for-profit publishers: This year I became more conscious about looking to and supporting independent publishers. I was already well aware of Istros Books, a small UK publishing house dedicated to bringing Balkan and Central European writers to an English speaking audience, but this year I had the pleasure of meeting with publisher Susan Curtis, and visiting her closet sized office in the heart of London. She has been a most supportive influence in my development as a reviewer, and because I believe in their books and trust her instincts as an editor, I always look forward to their new releases. I also became conscious of other publishers including And Other Stories, Twisted Spoon, and Two Lines Press, just to name a few. I would reckon I bought few books from major publishers over the course of the past year, and trust me, I bought a lot of books!

2015-10-22 11.21.29Seagull Books: Here I have to credit (or blame?) Anthony of Times Flow Stemmed for bringing Calcutta based Seagull Books to my attention in recent months. I may be late to the party as they seem to have a core of passionate devotees. A book from Seagull is, quite simply, a finely crafted treasure, a reminder why books will never be supplanted by their electronic versions. They are also willing to take on authors or works that other publishers often balk at as witnessed by their impressive German, Swiss, French and African literary offerings, but any publisher who can transform a child’s tale by Thomas Bernhard into a huge, gorgeous picture book for all ages is alright by me!

23818667295_d1e4f92c94_zSouth Africa: I have had a significant interest in the literature of South Africa for a number of years but this spring, feeling especially isolated and unhappy in my present circumstances, I decided, rather suddenly, to visit the country for the first time. I aimed for the solstice, effectively trading what would have been summer solstice here in the north for winter solstice in the southern hemisphere. I spent time with a dear friend in the Eastern Cape, then kicked around Cape Town and dropped a small fortune on books.

An ending does not give a life meaning: On my last full day in Cape Town, I sat in the Company’s Gardens, took the notebook I had carried and scribbled in, back to front as is my habit, throughout my journey; opened it to the first page and began to write. I felt I had reached a point, perhaps of closure, a space in which to truly start to pull together my endless personal writing project. I was certain I could, from that vantage point, look back over the months to June of 2014 when I walked away from my job, wildly manic after a period of unbearable workplace stress, and finally begin to give shape to that story I had been trying to tell for so long. I was at an end, of sorts, so I thought, and now I could work back.

14344933323_66912ab5a8_zBut I was wrong: Just over two weeks after I returned home, a pulmonary embolism I had unknowingly developed, a souvenir most likely of my recklessly long flight back, triggered cardiac arrest – in my sleep. The quick response of my son, who happened to be home, saved my life. I nearly reached that “end”, not the one that I imagined would be the point at which I could render my particular life experience and write some meaning into it, but an end final and complete. One that would have left me mute, distorted in the memories of those who have known me. The story would no longer be mine.

So what of writing? That is most critically the end to which I read, seeking ways into a story, or stories, I that need to be able to explore – to ultimately put behind me. I can write easily about other people’s words but I choke up on my own. And so the following list of books are those which spoke to me this year as a reader and a writer. I read over 90 books and enjoyed many including: the long overlooked Hansen’s Children by Ognjen Spahic, Ivan Vladislavić’s Double Negative, While the Gods Were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier, Can Xue’s The Last Lover, Marlene van Niekerk’s monumental Agaat, not to mention her wonderful Swan Whisperer from the Cahier series, and  Primeval and Other Times by Olga Tokarczuk. I have, by the way, excluded from this accounting a host of writers I expect to like and therefore read regularly, often repeatedly, including Bernhard, Sebald, Borges, Coetzee, Damon Galgut, and, added to the group this year, Bohumil Hrabal.

But the following books were, for me, the most vital. Thbirdse order is chronological, as read:

The Alphabet of Birds (And Other Stories) S J Naudé (Afrikaans/tr. SJ Naudé)
* This debut collection, of long, simmering, often disturbing, stories is simply some of the most sensuous work I have ever encountered. The characters are typically groundless, searching South African ex-pats, uncertain residents trying to find their place, and or those suspended somewhere in between.

atavisms

 

Atavisms (Dalkey) – Maxime Raymond Bock (French/tr. Pablo Strauss)
* The thirteen stories that make up Atavisms reach back hundreds of years, stand in the present, and spin into the future to explore the Québécois experience – at the personal and the political level. Bock skillfully employs a variety of genres to create what reads, in the end, as a mulit-facetted yet cohesive whole. Most impressive.

 

The Elusive Moth (Open Letter) – Ingrid Winterbach (Afrikaans/tr. Iris Gouws & Ingrid Winterbach )
* This novel about an entomologist in search of some way to fill or heal an ache that even she is at pains to articulate becomes an evocative exploration of memory, loss and anxiety. The story unfolds through scenes that repeat motifs, imagery, and fragmented conversations; set against racial tensions building in the small town where she has come to conduct research. The result has an unforgettable cinematic, art film feel.

 On Wing (Dalkey) / Signs & Symptoms (Twisted gal_on-wingSpoon) – Róbert Gál (Slovak/tr. Mark Kanak/Madelaine Hron)
* As I have tossed my own writing goals between fiction and memoir, happy with neither, I had sensed that an experimental approach might be part of the mix. However I had been frustrated with many of the works I had encountered – at least in so far as they spoke to me in a meaningful constructive way. With On Wing and then Gal’s earlier Signs & Symptoms I finally encountered works that I could enter into with my own observations and begin to map out ways of talking about the essentially philosophical issues I want to address. Re-engaging with philosophy years after my formal studies in the field, has also been critical to framing the way I view the essentially ontological questions I wish to articulate. So I am most grateful to Róbert for both his writing and his encouragement.

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (Farrar Straus and Giroux) – Peter Handke (German/tr. Ralph Manheim)
* This 69 page memoir, Handke’s finely wrought tribute to his mother written within months of her suicide at the age of 51, not only paints a careful and delicate portrait of a woman trapped by her circumstances, but offers reflections on the challenges of telling a true story – distilling an entire life to the essential elements – when it might be easier to simply make up stories, to, say, write a play. A whole life is messy to write about with elegance. Handke succeeds.

dreamhorsesA Dream of Horses & Other Stories (Roundfire Books) – Aashish Kaul
* This is a collection of dreamscapes populated by seekers of truths, purveyors of words, storytellers and readers. Most of the protagonists are writers, negotiating the fine balance between truth and imagination, struggling to capture the point of intersection in words. At least in my own experiences as a writer, or would-be-writer, that is what spoke to me throughout this melancholy, impressionistic book. And that is why it has to be on my list.

Vertigo (Dorothy Project) – Joanna Walsh
* Short story collections dominate my favourite books this year. It was an intentional focus, again with an eye to becoming more confident with medium. To that end, I recognize that the stories I am drawn to tend to have narrative arcs that are less pronounced, or more subtle, than some may like. The writing is typically more evocative, more ambiguous, more difficult to define and pin down. Like Vertigo – brutally sharp, spare and gorgeous, cutting to the quick of everyday life – an exquisite piece of work.

Dry Season (Istros Books) – Gabriela Babnik (Slovene / tr. Rawley Grau)
* I read many fine and challenging works from Istros Books this year, but the most stunning and devastatingly original has to be the EU Prize winning novel Dry Season. This tale of a love affair between a 62 year-old Slovenian woman and a 27 year-old man from Burkina Faso breaks every expectation, weaving African magical realism into a layered metafictional narrative that culminates in an ending so unexpected that it suddenly throws everything into a new light. Or does it?

sleepSleep of the Righteous (Two Lines Press) – Wolfgang Hilbig (German/tr. Isabel Fargo Cole)
* 2015 saw the release, for the first time in English, of two works by the late German author Wolfgang Hilbig – both championed and translated by Isabel Cole (The other, I, from Seagull Books is waiting on my shelf.) The magic of this collection, set in East Germany before and after re-unification, lies in the atmosphere created by the long sentences that flow, like a stream, back and forward again. Starting grounded in a harsh reality the narratives slip into a subtly surreal, gray-toned, world where reality blurs at the edges and memory takes on a haunting, dark quality.

Adventures in Immediate Irreality (New Drections) – Max Blecher (Romanian/tr. Michael Henry Heim)
* It may well be that my most memorable read of the entire year is one of the last – an impulse buy if I can be honest. A prisoner of the plaster body casts that were the standard treatment of spinal tuberculosis, Blecher’s creative imagination penetrates the experience of being in the world at the level of minute, intimate detail and manages to capture with acute sensitivity those moments of reality in flux and flow. I don’t know how unique this way of interacting with the world is, but as someone who has always had a discordant, dysphoric relationship with his own body, there is more for me, personally, in this book than I can begin to express. A fine closure to a year of excellent reading experiences.

Finally I am most grateful for the conversation and company of the book bloggers and twitter literary folk with whom I have been so fortunate to engage over the past year. I have a dearth of book lovers in my real life. I was at a Christmas party the other night and a game was played in which we were each to share our three worst Christmas gifts – two true and one lie. I was saddened how many people included books among their worst gifts ever. Breaks my heart. Bless you all for keeping me (somewhat) sane.

Honouring the unwritten: The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories by Ivan Vladislavić

“Not writing is always a relief and sometimes a pleasure. Writing about what cannot be written, by contrast, is the devil’s own job. Yet words on a page make all things possible.”

Central to this collection of brief odes to the fictional inspirations that once planted, failed to germinate, refused to take root and grow, or died off before even hitting the soil; is one full and essentially complete story – the magical titular “The Loss Library”. Surrounding this tale, to either side on the book shelf of South African author Ivan Vladislavić’s imagination lie a selection of meditations on the curious nature of the creative process and the many ways that an intriguing idea can lose its way on the path to realization, finding itself shelved in the place of the might-have-been, filed away in a writer’s own personal loss library. Looking back at the notes and outlines he explored during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the unsettling years of transition from apartheid to a democratic state, Vladislavić notes that his inspirations tended to arise from documentary sources – the past perhaps seeming more sound than the bloody history being made on the streets of his country at the time. Moving forward, within the scope of the “case studies” selected for this book, the pieces and fragments he gathers turn to dictionaries, reference materials and the “means to read and write – or not read and not write – books.”

2015-12-09 15.08.34But let us begin in the middle, at “The Loss Library”. With a clear nod to Borges, the master of the library of the imagination, a young man arrives at a most unusual archive, a repository of the all of the unfinished works, possible and impossible of all the writers who have ever lived. He is greeted by an attractive librarian. Fit and tanned she is the antitheses of what he expects. As she guides him into the library she first steps into slippers and advises him to do the same. They literally glide across the polished floors of the rooms and corridors as she directs his personal tour of the premises. The first room contains a single glassed in cabinet containing the books that would have been written had their would-be authors not chanced to die young:

“‘Arranged alphabetically and classified by cause of death.’ A wave of her slender hand. ‘Accidental death. Booze, of course. Disease – those old standbys, consumption and syphilis, and the new one, AIDS, a growing collection. Duels – little sign of growth there. Motor accidents. Murder. Suicide. A disproportionate number of Russians and Japanese, as you’d expect, and quite a few of your countrymen and women too.’”

As our protagonist leans in for a closer look, he can recognize no words on the spines. He tells the librarian he is looking for Bruno Schulz. Filed down with the war dead, six little volumes are found but he is not allowed to see them… after all, opening such a book could have consequences in all the others, in essence I suppose, the way fiddling with the future given access to a time machine might. In this library of potential works, one can’t risk having people “talk them into being.”

2015-12-09 15.02.54Together they encounter a room filled with books that remain unwritten because their authors lost faith in them, and he is shown a collection of the books that lost their way or were talked out of existence before they had a chance to be realized. They pass through a room containing books that were destroyed, stop at a shelf of books that comes into being by evocation of the proper author’s name (any guesses?) and, finally, enter a room of floating, ghostly, ethereal books – those that presented themselves to their would-be writers in dreams. In the end, is this excursion through the Loss Library a fantasy, the beginning of book that the young man himself will write into being, or another story that might have been, relegated to the back of a notebook, the bottom of a drawer or, in this day and age, lost somewhere on a hard drive?

Returning now to the startling opening essay, Vladislavić describes his attraction to the famous photograph of Robert Walser lying dead in the snow on Christmas Day, 1956, and reflects upon the way that the isolated image fueled his imagination before had even read any of Walser’s work. He contemplates writing a story about the writer’s last days, about that fateful final walk, the curious absence of footsteps or bystanders around the body, the precision the photographer must have employed to capture this solemn record, and with particular fascination, the dead man’s hat lying in the snow. However, before he sits down to write, Vladislavić engages in a little research and finds another photograph, taken from a different angle. From this vantage point he can now see many footprints in the snow, two men off to the side, and realizes that even the hat has fallen differently than he imagined. The curious, romantic and uncomfortable questions – the necessary elements of the creative process – are shattered.

As he continues to rifle through the pages of his notebooks, Vladislavić explores a variety of mislaid ventures, the inspiration or ideas behind them and the reasons they fell off the rails or, perhaps, only flickered for a moment or two. “Gross”, an intended venture into the land of the OuLiPo in which he set for himself a series mathematical constraints within which he would construct a novel, proves unsuccessful. Along the way, the character he was creating to take centre stage, morphed into someone else who would, ultimately wander off to join the cast of another novel,The Restless Supermarket, but more critically, he found himself completely overwhelmed by the prospect of the challenge he had set and decided that this type of approach was best left to Perec, et al.

In a later example, he describes his fascination with an unassuming sign on the side of a building in his Johannesburg neighbourhood that simply reads “Gravity Addict” with a phone number. He begins to wonder what a gravity addict is and how that might be imagined in a story. He thinks about the post 9/11 performance artist in Don Delillo’s The Falling Man, contemplates the structural format of that novel, and eventually imagines a woman, an aspiring writer, sitting on her sofa watching endless episodes of old cartoons – the ones where characters repeatedly chase each other off the edge of cliffs – and then, when one day the innocuous meaning behind the mysterious appellation “gravity artist” is revealed to him, his interest in the story instantly dissolves and he can go no further.

Finally, in light of the recent re-release of Vladislavić’s first novel, The Folly, the story “The Acrobats” special attention. In this outline for a story we see a man in a library reading a book. At some point he closes that book and retrieves a copy of Tristram Shandy from the stacks. He seeks out a particular passage which in turn, is a lengthy quotation from Gragntua and Pantagruel by Rabelais, so he stops and wanders off to fetch that text and goes on to read from the original, or rather a translation of the original, the same quoted passage describing the wild acrobatic exploits of Gymnaste, performed on horseback, as he faces down an enemy combatant. As such, Vladislavić envisions a post-modern inversion of a book within a book within a book, the initial level being, of course, at once the book that both the man and his reader are reading. However, the idea is set aside, in part due to the complication of modern versus contemporary translations of the nested passages.

Several years later, in the writing of The Folly, Vladislavić sees his character Nieuwenhuizen, the eccentric stranger who arrives out of nowhere to take ownership of and build a house on a vacant lot, as a direct descendant of Gymnaste. As he marks out the foundation of the ephemeral house that he will ultimately construct out of imagination and thin air, Nieuwenhuizen engages in his own acrobatic measurements, leaping, somersaulting, and throwing himself around the lot. Could the earlier story now be revived, with The Folly as the third book in the line, he wonders, could he develop the idea that his “ostensibly post-modern novel stood in a pre-modern tradition”? Ah, but for the paradox that his outline for “The Acrobats” was written three to four years before The Folly, how could a story refer to a book that had yet to be written?

Yet Vladislavić was, it would seem, not quite done with his potential story. Several years later he encountered the 18th century French writer, Diderot, who was a contemporary of and acquainted with Laurence Sterne. Although the publication of Rameau’s Nephew would arise through a circuitous route, there was an indication apparently, that Diderot’s initial sketches for the eccentric, rambling character who engages the narrator of his novel could have roughly coincided with the publication of Tristram Shandy. Now he wants to fictionally trace the lineage of Nieuwenhuizen from Sterne via Rameau… except for a new paradox that arises. The Folly was written before his discovery of Rameau’s Nephew. How could his own novel be influenced by a work he had not read?

In his note at the end of this account of the stubborn death of a story idea, Vladislavić can look back and recognize that, as a young writer, he demonstrated too great a concern with precedent. Wiser now, he remarks:

“Every writer belongs to one bastard bloodline or another, and laying claim to one can be a liberating lesson in perspective. But standing on the shoulders of giants is a skill that comes from long practice. When you start out, you are more likely to get under their feet. Don’t be surprised if the giants – or their legitimate progeny – come stomping after you in the playground: ‘We walk straight so you better get out of the way!’”

And herein lies the true gift of this slender collection of artistic musings,and inspirational dead ends – the insertion throughout of the author’s updated reflections on his varied false starts. There is no writer or would-be writer who does not have an accumulated hoard of ideas, outlines and abandoned projects. If they don’t, one ought to be suspicious.

Wandering through The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories is a rare privilege to spend time in the company of a thoughtful, gifted writer who truly appears to be without pretensions. This journey, contained within the covers of a finely crafted hardcover from the singular Seagull Books and accompanied by the original collages of Sunandini Banerjee, is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon, and treasure to return to time and again. After all, there may well be, within these pages, the inspirational seeds of other stories just waiting for the right gardener to plant them and bring them to fruition.

What can or should a story be? The Swan Whisperer by Marlene van Niekerk

The Swan Whisperer by Marlene van Niekerk is the literary equivalent of an impossible space – that is, this 40-page sewn paperback, lush with illustrations by fellow South African, famed artist William Kentridge, contains a tale much larger than its size would suggest. It begins modestly. Subtitled An Inaugural Lecture, van Niekerk opens with a series of questions for her imagined audience:

“What does one teach when one is a teacher of Creative Writing? The true? The good? The beautiful? Should one teach criticism, fantasy, or faith? What is the use of literature? What is its place on the greater canvas of human endeavours? And perhaps I should also ask: Can a story offer consolation?”

Voluminous texts have been penned to examine questions such as these, and yet within the 18 pages that lie ahead once the illustrations have been accounted for, is our esteemed professor at the lectern is planning to explore them all? No, she is going to tell a story, offer a fable within a fable, share an experience that she claims rendered these questions irrelevant for her.

2015-11-11 03.16.04What plays out in this inventive and thoughtful allegorical tale is an exploration of the relationship between language and meaning, meaning and truth, truth and the stories we tell which, in turn, leads back to language. Van Niekerk casts herself in the role of the skeptic. At the outset she is busy with the final revisions on a novel that is almost complete. Around her, the rest of her life and responsibilities have been suspended while she survives on frozen dinners and ignores her untended house and garden. The last thing she is prepared to welcome at this moment is a 67-page letter from a former student who, she discovers, is writing from a hospital bed in Amsterdam. She had recommended him for a student fellowship in the city with the thought that the change of place might finally help this pale, anxious young man finish off his MA and move on. But she is certain without reading beyond the first few paragraphs that there is little hope for him and most certainly nothing in his massive missive for her.

And so it goes. After reading a little further, she tucks his letter into a drawer and forgets about it until an unusual package arrives: a dummy of her new novel in which he has written notes and dates, along with 16 cassette tapes. Gradually she will be drawn into the story he wants – no, needs – to share. Cynically she reads about how her student, Kasper Olwagon, believes he has discovered, quite magically almost, an unusual homeless man who seems to have an uncanny ability to summon swans to himself. He watches the man for a while and ultimately takes this vagrant home. He longs to know how this apparent ‘swan whisperer’ calls to the magnificent birds, but for all of his efforts, Kasper is unable to encourage or help him to speak.

2015-11-11 03.18.55In his long letter, Kasper anticipates his professor’s reaction, but he persists and over time, as she is drawn into the mystery and returns repeatedly to his letter for clues. She reads about his attempts to extract meaning from the murmurings he believes he heard, his desire to translate the language of swans. She hears in his efforts echoes of Afrikaans. Slowly she will begin to understand the meaning of the cryptic note that accompanied his parcel containing the book and tapes. The last words he wrote to her were: “Farewell to the worlds of will and representation!” As readers we are invited to follow the entwined journeys of student and teacher to that place where all of those questions posed at the beginning seem to be archaic, irrelevant. And once those rhetorical questions are left behind, one begins to appreciate the expanse of the impossible space contained in this small book.

2015-11-11 03.21.17The Swan Whisperer is the latest addition to the “Cahier Series”, a joint project of the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris and Sylph Editions. Eminent writers and translators are invited to offer their reflections on writing, on translating, and on the intersection between the two activities. Each volume is accompanied by illustrations. Here, the striking black and white drawings by William Kentridge act almost as a visual soundtrack. His work has a tendency to explode off the page. The images complement the story by exploring the relationship between artists, animals and language. The text is translated from the Afrikaans by Marius Swart and the author.

2015-11-11 03.13.44I have to add that this particular volume held a special appeal for me. This spring I read, for the first time, Marlene van Niekerk’s magnificent novel Agaat. Not only is this a complex, deeply moving story; but the way that language is evoked and brought into play presented a challenge well met by the translator, Michiel Heyns. Not long after this encounter I made my first visit to South Africa and I had the singular pleasure of experiencing William Kentridge’s installation “The Refusal of Time” at the National Gallery in Cape Town. It was, I felt, like a command performance as no one else even ventured into the room beyond a quick glance at the door. Their loss and one of my fondest memories of my stay in the city.

And now I have both artists together in this enchanting and thought provoking book.

Castles in the air? The Folly by Ivan Vladislavić

Imagine an empty lot. A curious stranger arrives one evening. He steps into the lot and makes his way across the dry winter grass, stopping when he hits a large anthill.

“It seemed a pity to waste this discovery, so he stood on top of the hill and turned his face ceremoniously to the four corners of his inheritance. It was a big face, with a crack of a mouth and a stump of a nose, with unfathomable sockets, craggy brows and a bulging forehead dented in the middle, altogether suited to the play of moonlight and shade. His survey revealed a single tree in the elbow of the hedge, and he chose that spot for his camp.”

As this newcomer sets up camp, the residents of the house next door are settled in front of the TV consuming prepared dinners on tray tables while they watch the usual turmoil and violence exploding on the evening news. Yet for Mr and Mrs Malgas, the quiet, unassuming domestic existence they have enjoyed is about to be changed – disturbed, unwound and distorted – by the very presence of this most unconventional new neighbour.

follySuch is the premise of The Folly. Newly released in North America, this haunting modern day fable, originally published in 1993, was the first novel by South African author Ivan Vladislavić. Mr Malgas, the owner of a local hardware store, reaches out to this oddly eccentric character who has suddenly taken up makeshift residency on the dusty patch of veld next door. He imagines the newcomer with the best intentions, excited when he learns that, true to his name, Nieuwenhuizen does in fact plan to construct a “new house” on the vacant lot. The Mrs will not be appeased. She is suspicious at every turn.

When convenient, Malgas’ enthusiastic assistance is welcomed by his fickle neighbour but the building project is unlike anything he has ever known. Nieuwenhuizen is methodical and will not be rushed. He deliberates, meditates and paces around his piece of land, frequently flinging his ungainly long frame about in the most unusual manner. Prancing, jumping, spinning and throwing himself to the ground. All the while Mrs keeps an anxious eye from behind the lace curtains of her lounge. When the “construction phase” finally gets into full swing things get even stranger.

Nieuwenhuizen is an enigmatic character, he can be pleasant and sociable one moment, suddenly turning to shower insults on his eager helpmate the next. Malgas takes it hard. Back at home his wife feels increasingly powerless against this mercurial influence. One evening when her husband, exhausted from a long day working beside his neighbour, collapses in the La-Z-Boy in front of the TV, she confronts the state she has come to:

“Mrs went into the bedroom, seated herself before the winged mirror of her dressing table, and said, ‘Although I appear to be thin and small, and fading away before your eyes, I am a substantial person. At least, it feels that way to me.’

Her pale reflection repeated the lines in triplicate.

Yet she saw through the pretence. It was clear: she was made of glass. And under the bell-jar of her skin, in a rarefied atmosphere, lashed by electrical storms and soused by chemical precipitations, her vital organs were squirming.”

Parable or fable, comparisons to Borges, Calvino and Beckett have been suggested by reviewers, but this timeless allegory owes its intensity to the brilliant descriptive power and sly humour of Vladislavić’s prose. As this tale rises (and falls?) to a stunningly surreal and dramatic climax, we are, as readers, as completely enmeshed in Nieuwenhuizen’s architectural chimera as the hapless Malgas.

Originally published at a pivotal moment in South African political history, it is tempting to read politics into the allegorical dimensions of this tale. I read it more broadly as a parable of our complex anxieties and attractions to others. Malgas is drawn to Nieuwenhuizen immediately. Mystery, curiosity perhaps, but there is a romance in his simple camp life and his creative fashioning of implements out of found objects and trash that evoke the magic of boyhood adventure. As a man ensconced in a secure, if unexciting, domestic life this appeal sets the groundwork that will allow him to be drawn into Nieuwenhuizen’s scheme. The ephemeral success of the envisioning and realization, however fantastic and temporary, of their dream mansion depends on Malgas’ desperate desire to believe and his longing for companionship. For the Mrs however, the new neighbour is a source of fear at first, of danger, and then of loss. He threatens their privacy, their way of life, and ultimately their marriage. The “other” forever holds that mixed appeal and repulsion.

The past two years have seen a growing awareness of and appreciation for Vladislavić’s work outside South Africa. It is well deserved and long overdue. The Folly was released in North America by Archipelago Books in September of 2015, the UK release from And Other Stories is due in November.