Notes from underground

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The Reader’s Companion to the Twentieth-Century Novel (review)

The Reader's Companion to the Twentieth-Century Novel (The Reader's Companion)The Reader’s Companion to the Twentieth-Century Novel by Peter Parker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found this book quite useful to pick up at odd moments when there was nothing else to do, when Eskom was doing its load-shedding and the electricity was off, for example.

The plot summaries and comments on the selected novels were generally quite good, and served to remind me of books I had read and half forgotten, or to note ones that I had not read but might be worth reading.

One of the weak points, however, was the novels selected for inclusion. Of course one cannot include everything worth reading in the period in a single volume, but one of the first things I noticed about it was that it made no mention of the novels of Charles Williams. It dis seem to include almost every published novel by Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. They are both authors I quite like, and I think their best work ought to have been included, but Waugh, in particular wrote some quite mediocre stuff, and they could easily have been dropped in favour of Williams.

There were several books by Somerset Maugham, who described himself, quite accurately, I think, as being in the very first rank of the second raters. There was a rather patronising article on C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, with no mention of his science fiction.

The book was also published in 1993, when there were still seven years of the twentieth century to run — did they think that nobody would write anything worth reading in what was left of it?

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The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and DisappearedThe Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A picaresque novel about Allan Karlsson, who decided that he did not want to attend his hundredth birthday party at the old-age home where he was staying so he decided to leave, with no particular plan for what he was going to do.

He has various improbable adventures, and the story is told with a series of flashbacks to his life story. He was a self-taught explosives expert, and as such had played a minor but significant part in various world events, learning several languages along the way and earning the gratitude of several powerful politicians.

I read it mainly because I had seen a film based on the book which I had enjoyed, and from what I could remember of it the film seemed to adhere quite closely to the book.

While it is primarily a picaresque novel, the story seems to overlap several other genres. On one level it is a crime novel, a police procedural, though also with a lot of incompetent bumbling — in the film version it is more like The Lavender Hill Mob than a serious whodunit. But perhaps these are all part of the picaresque genre anyway.

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The Great (and dirty) City of Tshwane

This morning as we were driving to church we saw a bakkie dumping rubbish at the side of the R104 near the entrance to Saulsville. If we hadn’t been late we might have slowed down and taken a photo of it, but it is becoming all too common.

On the way home I did take several photos.

R104, entrance to Atteridgeville West.

All over the city there is rubbish dumped like this. Not just in Atteridgeville, but near the Botanic Gardens in the east, and in various other places, and it has been getting worse and worse. The place in Atteridgeville is noticeable because we drive past it once a fortnight, and see each time how more and more of the verges are covered with rubbish. Littering has become part of our lifestyle.

Political parties love to blame other parties for maladministration, but it was bad when the ANC confrolled the city council, and it is worse now that the DA controls the city council. It doesn’t matter who you vote for, the municipal administration will remain just as putrid as the rubbish littering the streets.

Thirty years ago I visited Singapore, which was then reputed to be the cleanest city in the world. And the reason was not far to seek — as you walked down the street, you would see lots of signs informing you that the fine for littering was $750. And that law was strictly enforced.

The City of Tshwane could deal with this in similar fashion.

Increase the fine for littering to R5000 or so, put up signs, and employ the Metro Police see that the law is enforced.

As one sports shoe manufacturer likes to tell us, Just do it.

 

Web Trackers

There’s a lot of interesting and useful stuff on the web, but how do you keep track of it, and find it again when you need it?

There’s that article that someone linked to on Facebook. It looks interesting, but you don’t have time to read it all now, so you want to be able to find it later.

It was for precisely such things that the blog was invented. The word “blog” comes from “web log” — a log of web sites one has visited and wants to remember, and possibly share with others. And I have just such a blog: Simple Links. And now, after trying all sorts of other things to keep track of web sites, I’ve come back to the blog as the simplest and most reliable method.

There have been many fancy apps for keeping track of web articles, but they all eventually seem to lose functionality and die, or no longer work as they should.

One of these was the web bookmark. For a while I used one called Diigo, which was quite good, but then it got hidden behind a paywall, so was no longer an option for poor pensioners like me.

Then there was Tumblr, which seemed very versatile and easy to use. It could instantly record a web site, it could aggregate blogs, it could include notes about almost anything. But then it gradually lost functionality until there was nothing left. The only thing it can be used for now is for posts to say how useless it is. And it’s useless for logging web sites visited because the pop-up linker has a button that must be clicked to save the item, but the button is invisible, hidden below the bottom of the screen.

Then along came Evernote, It would allow you to save a complete copy of the article and find it again. It was like the OneNore program that came with Microsoft Office, but more versatile. I even managed to find and buy a manual for it. Evernote was the  best of all, because you could bookmark or blog an article from the web, and the web site would close and your link would not work any more. But Evernote saved a local copy of the article so you would still have it even if the original web site closed.  But Evernote too gradually began to lose functionality. It would work if you were very rich, and could afford to buy a new computer every couple of years. But if you couldn’t, it would just stop working. So now, while I can still save articles on my laptop computer, I can no longer call them up on my desktop computer, because it will no longer sync them. And no doubt the day will come when it will stop working on my laptop too.

So it’s back to Blogger, and my Simple Links blog.

I’ve had lots of complaints about Blogger. Reduced functionality has made it more difficult to use, especially for graphics (you now have to fiddle with the HTML code in order to place pictures on the page), and so I moved two of my blogs where I wanted to use graphics, including this one, to WordPress, which had a better editor for graphics. But for the original purpose of blogging, a simple text web log, Blogger is hard to beat.

So when I see a web article I don’t have time to read now, but want to read or refer to later, I don’t book mark it. I don’t (or can’t) save it in Evernote, I go back to basics and blog it with Blogger.

 

 

A deadly trade (whodunit set in Botswana)

A Deadly Trade (Detective Kubu, #2)A Deadly Trade by Michael Stanley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having read one book featuring detective David “Kubu” Bengu and enjoyed it, when we found another in the local library we grabbed it, and found it just as enjoyable. It’s set in Botswana, which, though I have only visited it a few times, is sufficiently close to home to feel “local” and almost familiar territory — at least I can picture the landscapes in most of the places described.

In this one two guests at a remote tourist camp in northern Botswana are murdered, while a third has disappeared, and naturally becomes the prime suspect. Then two others who were present in the camp on the fatal night are also murdered, but while staying at different camps in different parts of Botswana.

The characters, plots and settings feel authentic in the “this could have happened” sense, which is what one looks for in a whodunit. The only thing that seemed as though it didn’t fit was the names of the characters. In a novel dealing with international crime and plots and murders of tourists, and ex-Zimbabweans living in Botswana one expects to have foreign names, but when characters said to belong to old Batswana families have Zulu names, some kind of explanation seems to be called for, but is not forthcoming.

The authors (for Michael Stanley is a composite) leave enough clues scattered around the text to challenge the reader to solve the mystery.

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South African Camelot

Today at our Neoinklings literary coffee klatsch we started off by discussing some of the problems of the country. Every day there is news of more political scandals and more corruption. The rich robbing the poor on a grand scale in the VBS bank scandal. Racism is making a comeback on a grand scale too, especially after being deliberately and assiduously promoted by the British PR firm Bell Pottinger.

There’s the story of land reform. One day our President is going around handing out title deeds to people and telling them how important and valuable they are, and the next day he is saying how expropriating land without compensation will solve all our problems, thus rendering the title deeds worthless. And expropriating land without compensation will make it much easier for the government to hand it over to foreign mining companies in places like Xolobeni.

And at this point David Levey asked why we weren’t talking about books, and I thought that it was actually a good lead in to a book I have just been reading, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table by Roger Lancelyn Green.

Roger Lancelyn Green was a member of the original Inklings literary discussion group, many of whom were very interested in the mythos of King Arthur. They incorporated elements of the Arthurian legends into their own writing. There are echoes of it in C.S. Lewis’s novels, especially in That Hideous Strength. Charles Williams retold many of the stories in his poetry. Much of their work on this topic was collected here: Taliessin through Logres, The Region of the Summer Stars, and Arthurian Torso.

Roger Lancelyn Green retells many of the stories in prose, for children. They have been retold many times, by many authors, in both prose and poetry. Since they are told for children there is no critical apparatus: no footnotes or cross-reference or explanations. Such explanations as are needed are incorporated into the text. But Green tells the stories in such a way as to bring out more clearly the Inklings’ take on them. One of the things that many of the Inklings emphasised was the distinction between Britain and Logres.

King Arthur’s adventures did not end when he had defeated the Saxons and brought peace to Britain: for though he had set up the realm of Logres — the land of true good and piety, nobleness and right living — the evil was always breaking in to attack the good. It would need many books to tell the story of every adventure that befell during his reign — that brief period of light set like a star of Heaven in the midst of the Dark Ages…

And that is where I see a parallel with South Africa. In the mid-1990s we experienced a brief period of light set like a star of Heaven in the midst of the Dark Ages. Apartheid, like the Saxons, had been driven out. “And the Saxons throughout the whole of Britain, and in Scotland also, fled away in their ships, or else swore to be King Arthur’s loyal subjects.”

In this way peace came to the whole island for a great many years: though still there were robbers and outlaws, cruel knights and evil magicians dwelling in the depths of forests and deep among the mountains, ever ready to break the peace and stain the realm of Logres in one wicked way or another.

The evil that threatened Logres was not merely external. It came from within. The Realm of Logres was set in the land of Britain, and Britain kept breaking through and threatening Logres. And so we read of the magic of Nimue and Morgana le Fay, how Nimue buries Merlin, and Morgana le Fay provokes fights between friends. The whole story is a kind of analogy of South Africa, where in 1994 we had a brief glimpse of our Logres, but even during the glimpses it was tainted with evil. How Jacob Zuma, who was once a loyal knight of the Round Table, became a usurper, and allowed evil to flourish. Could Winnie Mandela be cast in the role of Morgana le Fay, or perhaps the cap would fit Victoria Geoghegan better.

It’s not, of course, an allegory of South Africa, but there are many symbolic analogies, and one could probably find similar analogies to life in other countries as well. Maybe this is why the stories of King Arthur are told and retold, because they have an almost universal appeal and applicability.

Another version I have also been re-reading is The Quest of the Holy Grail. It concentrates on only one aspect of the mythos, the quest of the Grail. It’s also full of medieval moralising. Perhaps that’s why I prefer Green’s version — his modern moralising is more to my taste. But maybe I ought to heed the medieval moralising as well. The modern one deals with sins I am more aware of in others, the medieval one makes me feel uncomfortable because it reminds me of sins that I am more aware of in myself.

Death of the Mantis, a whodunit set in southern Africa

Death of the MantisDeath of the Mantis by Michael Stanley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A whodunit set locally in Southern Africa.

Detective Inspector David “Kubu” Bengu of the Botswana CID is asked to help with the investigation into the murder of a game ranger in the remote south-western part of the country. When a Namibian geologist discovers the corpse of another Namibian visitor Detective Kubu suspects that the murders are linked, and goes to Windhoek to follow up. There are tales of an old treasure map, purported to show the inland source of the alluvial diamonds on Namibia’s coast. After checking other earlier mysterious deaths that had originally been thought to be accidental it seems that the Botswana police are looking for a serial killer who must be caught before he kills again.

I found it an enthralling story, perhaps because of the “local” angle. Most of the crime novels we get to read here are set far away on other continents. This one is relatively close, being set in neighbouring countries which we have visited.

Kang in Botswana, through which Inspector Kubu travels on his way to Windhoek, is 773 km from our house. For a whodunit fan in London reading about the exploits of Swedish detective Kurt Wallander by Henning Mankell, Ystad, where Inspector Wallander is based is 1343 km from London. I did read a South African whodunit a few years ago, What Hidden Lies (see my review here). But that was set in Cape Town, more than twice as far away as Kang in Botswana, and also further away than Ystad is from London.

The detective stories from Botswana that are likely to be most familiar to readers outside that country are the series that begin with The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Be warned that this is nothing like that. These are not private investigators looking for lost pets and errant husbands. These are cops trying to catch a serial killer. I suppose one thing they do have in common, however, are that the scenes are well set, and the characters are well described.

As with some of the Inspector Wallander books, one of the factors in the killings is a cultural clash, in this case between Batswana cops and Bushmen. The first body is discovered by Bushmen, and they immediately become suspects. The only question I have about the authenticity of the setting is why so many of the character seem to have Zulu names. It’s not impossible, of course, but it does seem a bit disproportionate.

You can get an idea of what the countryside in the story looks like from our journey through the same country a few years ago — from Kang to Windhoek..

Anyway, I recommend it to whodunit fans in southern Africa, and perhaps those further afield might enjoy it too.

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Pet Sematary

Pet SemataryPet Sematary by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The other night they showed the film of Pet Sematary on TV, and I thought it was quite good, and stuck quite closely to the book. Well it would, since Stephen King wrote the screenplay. So after seeing the film, I thought it was time to reread the book, which I had last read about 25 years ago.

On rereading it I decided to up its rating to 5 stars. I really think it’s the best of Stephen King‘s books, and that was confirmed for me in rereading it after seeing the film. The difference in the number of stars is because I’ve come to think differently about his monsters since I first read it. I used to think that evil monsters in fiction should tell use something about the nature of evil. I suppose I was thinking that the protagonist, who is good, fights the monster, who is evil;. That, at least, is what happens in Dracula.

It was only afterwards that I really understood that in this book, as in some of other books, the monster just just a prompt to the battle of good and evil that takes place in the protagonist’s heart. I’ve written more about that in another blog post, dealing with another of Stephen King’s books that I have recently reread, here Danse Macabre: monsters in literature and life | Khanya.

That post also contains a review (with spoilers] of Pet Sematary, which doesn’t leave much to say about it here, other than a plot summary that doesn’t give away too much of the story.

Louis Creed, a medical doctor, gets a new job at a university clinic in Ludlow, Maine, and moves there with his wife Rachel and children Eileen aged 5 and Gage aged 18 months. They are happy in their new house, and their neighbours across the road, a retired couple, Jud and Norma Cranston, make them welcome. Behind the house is a wood, part of which is included in the Creeds’ property, but it goes on for 50 miles, and beyond the Creed land is a wilderness whose ownership is disputed between the US Federal Government, the State of Maine and the Micmac Indians. A path leads up into the woods to a pet cemetery, where generations of the children of the town have buried their pets.

Jud Cranston takes the family on a walk to the pet cemetery, and tells how he had buried his own pet dog there when he was a child. The path seems to go on beyond the cemetery, but the way is blocked by a fallen tree, and Jud Colston warns that it would be too dangerous to try to climb over it.

On his first day in his new job Louis Creed is faced with a badly injured student, who was knocked down by a car while jogging. The dying student apparently knows his name, and warns him to stay away from the pet cemetery, and above all not to go beyond it.

See also:

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The Mandela effect

As a South African, I thought I knew what the Mandela Effect, also known as the Madiba factor, was.

It originated on the day Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically elected president on 10 May 1994. Having stood in the crowd at the Union Buildings and waved our flags, we returned home and sat down in front of the TV and watched an international football match — South Africa versus Zambia. And we won.

Nel;son Mandela had gone from the Union Buildings to the FNB Stadium by helicopter, and was watching the match in person.

The next year, 1995, South Africa won the Rugby World Cup, and Nelson Mandela’s role in that was documented and made known to world through the film Invictus.

In 1996 we made the trek to the FNB Stadium, and saw South Africa play Tunisia in the final of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations. Nelson Mandela was there, and South Africa won. The Mandela Effect was well established, especially when people noticed that when he wasn’t there, the South African team usually lost.

Nelson Mandela
By Arquivo/ABr – Agência Brasil [1], CC BY 3.0 br, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2440492

More recently I began frequenting the Quora web site, where people ask questions and others answer. I found I could answer a few questions, and answered a couple about Nelson Mandela. Then I began seeing lots of questions about the Mandela Effect, but they were quite incomprehensible, as were the answers.

I asked about it on Quora, and got largely incomprehensible answers. One said it had something to do with lots of people forgetting or remembering things, but with no explanation of how Mandela came in to it. I wondered if it had anything to do with the film Invictus, as it seemed to be something spoken about mainly by people outside South Africa.

So can anyone explain to me how there came to be two Mandela factors, with completely different meanings, one known to people within South Africa, and one, apparently, known mainly to people outside? And what does it have to do with Madiba?

Genius, shades, ancestors and more

Our literary coffee klatsch this morning was quite long, and in fact lasted well into the afternoon. I can’t remember everything that we talked about or all the books that were mentioned, and I’m writing this mainly to confirm a couple of half-remembered titles. And this will be a blog post in the original sense of the word — a web log, with lots of links to click on if you want to know more

David Levey said he had been reading a lot of short stories lately, mainly science-fiction. Among them was an anthology by Brian Aldiss, A Science Fiction Omnibus.

The story that particularly struck him was The Answer by Fredric Brown, and he mentioned that another in the anthology has a metaphysical significance: Sole Solution by Eric Frank Russell, in which a deity comes into being, experiencing excruciating loneliness. He/she/it creates infinite worlds and creatures to escape this condition.

About a dozen other short SF stories have religious resonances, collected in other anthologies, They are by luminaries such as Arthur C Clarke, The Nine Billion Names of God, and Isaac Asimov, The Last Question and Hell-Fire. The finest, though, is by Ursula K le Guin, The Field of Vision. An astronaut sees God, and goes not only mad but blind.

Janneke Weidema had brought along a book of essays by John Woolman, and was particularly impressed with what he had written about Quakers and slaves. He had said that Quakers should not own slaves. Not only was slavery bad for the slaves, it was bad for the slave owners as well, and dehumanised both.

Literary Coffee Klatsch at Cafe 41 on Eastwood Road. Left to Right: Val Hayes, Tony McGregor, Janneke Weidema, David Levey

Val mentioned The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, which we had both read, a story of a person’s life pieced together from diaries, letters, newspaper cuttings etc., some real, some fictional. The protagonist was an associate of a famous artist, Diego Rivera, who sheltered Trotsky when he was on the run from Stalin, and it gives one a feel for some aspects of the history of the period.

That reminded me of another similar story with a local flavour, Recessional for Grace, by Marguerite Poland — A student of African languages comes across an incomplete dictionary of African cattle terms, and decides to write on it for her doctoral thesis. As she does her research, however, she becomes more and more interested in the compiler, a Dr C.J. Godfrey, who died in 1963, and her research tends towards biography, which disconcerts her supervisor. She visits the place where he was born, and the school he attended, and the place where he did his research, and also becomes interested in his relationship with Mrs Grace Wilmot, a war widow and teacher at the local school, who assisted him in his research. The cattle and their names are gradually revealed as a metaphor for love. The descriptions in the book range from very accurate to sloppily researched. Rural shops are described in evocative detail, but with the Methodist Church it is all wrong.

Another one by the same author, also set in the Eastern Cape, was Shades, also a historical novel, and an “eternal triangle” love story.

Another one I had read recently was The Writer’s Voice: A Workshop for Writers in Africa, by Dorian Haarhoff, which stressed the need for people who did not think they could write to tell their stories.

I noted in my review that the author had several motivational anecdotes designed to inspire people to write, but which I found interesting in their own right, as things to write about. One of these was the ancient Roman concept of Genius,, which Haarhoff mentioned in passing was similar to African concepts of ancestor veneration. “If one served one’s genius well during life, the genius became a lar, or household god, after one’s death. If one neglected one’s potential the genius became a spook, a troublesome spirit who plagues the living”.

I recalled learning about lares and penates in Latin lessons at school, but had not made the link between them and the genius. The lares were particularly associated with the hearth, and that seemed to me remarkably similar to the Zulu belief that one could meet one’s deceased grandfather, sometimes in the form of a snake, by the fireplace (isiko). And perhaps this is related to the biblical account of Rachel and her father’s gods (Genesis 31:17-55).

I was aware that one reason that early Christians were persecuted because they refused to worship the Genius of Caesar — they were not expected to worship the flesh and blood emperor. Only one emperor thought he was a god in his flesh and blood, Caligula, and even his contemporaries knew that he was nuts.

But the concept of genius is interesting, and I found more about it in another book I had just returned to the library, Spirits, Fairies, Gnomes and Goblins: an Encyclopedia of the Little People, by Carol Rose.

There was the Russian concept of domovoi, the household spirit that lived by the stove. In Russia, with its cold winters the stove is a much bigger affair than the Zulu isiko, but the principle is the same. And in the Moomintroll books by Tove Jansson at least one of the books mentions “the ancestor behind the stove”.

All this puts me in mind of the “little gods” referred to in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and the Christian concept of guardian angels.  And perhaps egregores, too (clicking that link will take you to a lot of stuff).

On the theme of ancestors, and also with links to the Eastern Cape, Janneke Weidema spoke of someone South African Quakers regarded as a spiritual ancestor, Richard Gush of Salem. Guy Butler had written a play about him. Another whom they regarded as a spiritual ancestor was King Moshoeshoe I of Lesotho, That caused a few raised eyebrows among the rest of us — Richard Gush was a Quaker, King Moshoeshoe wasn’t, in his lifetime at least. Did the Quakers, like the Mormons, admit people to membership after death. Janneke hastened to assure us that that was not the case. But Moshoeshoe was a peaceable monarch, and so was regarded as an ancestor in the genealogy of ideas. David mentioned the Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, who had said that good pagans were “anonymous Christians” as a possibly similar idea. Tony mentioned a booklet he had been reading, Islam is…, which said, in effect that everyone is a Muslim only they don’t know it yet. It also said that Islam did not condone war.

Tony had also been reading books by Bishop John Robinson, most recently In the end, God. Tony thought I didn’t like John Robinson, but that’s not quite true. I think when he writes in his own field, the New Testament, his books are quite good. It’s when he strays into dogmatic theology that I disagree, because I think he represents Bourgeois theology | Khanya.

We strayed into lots of other topics not directly concerned with books. Among these topics was politics, and we thought that with a general election looming in 2019, we were all wishing that someone would start a party we could vote for. None of the existing main parties seem any good. Janneke summed them up with a simple phrase: Job Creation, Livlihood Destruction.

 

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