Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the category “art”

Sometimes there is a void (review)

Sometimes there is a Void – Memoirs of an OutsiderSometimes there is a Void – Memoirs of an Outsider by Zakes Mda
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve often found that I enjoy literary biographies and memoirs more than the works of the writers themselves, and this one is no exception. I had read one of Mda’s novels, Ways of dying but I knew him mainly as a newspaper columnist before I came across this memoir in the library. I found it very interesting, partly, no doubt because the life and times of Zakes Mda overlapped so much with my own. As I often do, I’m expanding my review on GoodReads here, adding some reminiscences of my own, and comparing Mda’s experiences of some events with mine, because that was what I found most interesting about the book

Like me, Zakes Mda was born in the 1940s, so we belong more or less to the same generation, one of the ones before Americans started giving them letters. He grew up in Johannesburg and in the Herschel district of the Eastern Cape, near the Lesotho border. His father was a political activist, first in the African National Congress (ANC), later in the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), and had to go into exile in Lesotho, along with his family. So Zakes Mda finished his schooling in Lesotho after dropping out and going back to complete his high school education.

He describes one of his drop-out periods as follows

We saw ourselves as part of the international hippy culture. Make love, not war. Janis Joplin was our chief prophetess. “Mercedes Benz”. That was my song asking God to buy me the luxury German sedan. The one that I sang as Mr Dizzy strummed the guitar. I never learnt how to strum it myself, so he strummed it for me. And hummed along. Another prophetess was Joan Baez with her folk songs. And the prophets were Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix with his psychedelic rock. When we were around the shebeens of Maseru reverberated with some of their music instead of the traditional Sesotho songs that were a staple of drunken sing-alongs. And Mr Dizzy strummed his guitar.
Source: Mda 2011:159

And I can say much the same of when I was a student in Pietermaritzburg and Durham in the 1960s. Mda mentions Jeremy Taylor’s Black and White Calypso from the revue Wait a Minim, which I saw in Johannesburg in 1962 on my 21st birthday.  Mda heard it sung by his friend Mr Dizzy (Sechele Khaketla) in Maseru shebeens, and it seems that Jeremy Taylor’s satire was appreciated just as much there as it was by the all-white audiences in Johannesburg. And a few years later Bob Dylan’s satire had much the same effect, when he was singing about “you unpatriotic rotten doctor commie rat” — just how the South African government of the time thought of us.

Mda tells his story in a series of flashbacks — visiting places from his past, and then telling of past events in those places. And so I discovered that he was far more than a novelist and newspaper columnist. He had begun as an artist, hawking paintings to tourists in Maseru, and his fame was chiefly as a playwright. He also became a teacher, teaching literature and creative writing both in Lesotho and in the USA.

I knew vaguely that plays that were banned in South Africa were sometimes performed in Lesotho — my wife had once travelled from Durban to Maseru with her cousins to see Godspell, which was then banned in South Africa. What I was not aware of was that there was such a lively literary scene in Lesotho, with local authors and playwrights mingling with South African exiles, so Mda’s memoir reads like a who’s who of southern African writers.

I am more historically inclined, so what I found most interesting was Mda’s take on historical events that I had been aware of, but from a different viewpoint. The ANC/PAC split of 1959, for example, and its relation to the politics of Lesotho. I had then been living in Johannesburg and at university in Pietermaritzburg, where I had once tried to explain it to some of my fellow students, and I was interested to see that my explanations fitted pretty closely with Mda’s experience.

Mda’s father was critical of a preface to a book of his plays, written by Andrew Horn, which said that Zakes Mda questions the basic tenets of the PAC, saying that they rejected class analysis of South African society and adopted a narrower race-based Pan-Africanism, influenced by Marcus Garvey. Mda’s father rejected this analysis.

My father believed that in a free and democratic South Africa there would be only one race, the human race. He spoke of non-racialism as opposed to multi-racialism long before it became the trend in South Africa and wrote against “narrow nationalism”. Race as defined by the social engineers of the apartheid state came into play when he discussed the intersections of class and race. Even ardent Communist leaders like John Motloheloa came to him for his class analysis of the South African situation. Although I am not an authority on my father’s writings, as people like Robert Edgar and Luyana ka Msumzwa are, I’ll be so bold as to say Marcus Garvey never featured in any of them.
Source: Mda 2011:353

And that was how I tried to explain it to white South African students in 1965. The predominant perception among whites at that time was that the PAC was racist and anti-white (and anti-coloured and anti-Indian). And the PAC, being banned, could not correct this impression. No doubt some rank-and-file members saw it that way, and their opposition to communists in the ANC was that most of the communists were white. But that was not how Robert Sobukwe expressed it, and he had been a lecturer at Wits University when I was a student there. Sobukwe said that whites were Africans too, as long as they saw Africa as their home, and did not have one foot in Europe. In his book Mda reports that the PAC later did become more narrowly racist and chauvinist, and he then switched his support to the ANC, but at that time Robert Sobukwe was in prison, and could not influence its direction so easily.

I was disillusioned with the PAC, though I still believed in two of its three guiding principles, namely continental unity and socialism. It was with the leadership’s interpretation of the third principle, African nationalism, that I had a problem. It was quite different from the way in which my father used to outline it for us at one of his family meetings. His was not a narrow nationalism. It was all inclusive of all South Africans who identified themselves as Africans and paid their allegiance first and foremost to Africa. But the way my PAC comrades understood the concept it became clear to me that the rights of citizenship of a future Azania, as they called South Africa, would be limited only to black people of African descent. In the meetings which we attended, especially when I was staying at the Poqo camp, the leaders did not make any bones about that. I saw this position as a misrepresentation of the tenets of African nationalism as propounded by my father.

The PAC wrote extensively against tribalism: African nationalism was essentially about embracing Africans regardless of which cultural, linguistic or ethnic group they belonged to. But our PAC and Poqo cadres in Lesotho, who were predominantly amaXhosa, had a negative attitude towards their Basotho hosts. They viewed themselves as naturally superior to other ethnicities.
Source: Mda 2011:250

I had visited Maseru a few times in the 1960s when attending student conferences over the border at Modderpoort in the Free State. On free afternoons groups of us went to Maseru just to enjoy a freer atmosphere. There we sometimes met a bloke in a pub, Desmond Sixishe, whom we didn’t quite trust, and thought was a South African government spy. On one such visit we saw a procession of vehicles, mainly LandRovers, with flags waving, hooting and celebrating. They were from the Basutoland National Party (BNP), which had just won a by-election. We stood at the side of the road as they went past, giving the hand signals of the opposing parties, the Basutoland Congress Party and the Marema-tlou Freedom Party. A few hours later in the pub Desmond Sixishe told us he had seen us, as he had been in the procession. It turned out he was a big BNP supporter. And from Zakes Mda’s memoir I learned that he had become a cabinet minister. But he later died in an ambush on a mountain road.

I was in Namibia when the BNP lost the 1970 general election, but continued to rule by staging a coup. I was then far away in Namibia, but Mda confirmed that it was just as nasty from close up as it looked from a distance, and after that Lesotho immigration and other border officials went from being the friendliest and most welcoming on the subcontinent to being the surliest and most arrogant and officious.

Another link that I found was that Zakes Mda had stayed at my Alma Mater, St Chad’s College, Durham. Same place, different times. I was there from 1966-1968, and he was there 25 years later.

The following year I went to Durham, England, as a writer-in-residence at the Cathedral there. I was the guest of an organisation called Lesotho-Durham Link which was itself linked to the Anglican Church. My brief was to write a play that would be performed in the Norman Cathedral as part of its nine hundredth anniversary celebrations. I was based at St Chad’s College just across the street from the Cathedral and I spent a lot of time taking walks along the Wear River. It was during these walks that my character Toloki was born.
Source: Mda 2011:357

Durham Cathedral, above the banks of the River Wear, where Mda’s character Toloki was conceived

His character Toloki is the professional mourner who is the protagonist in Ways of dying, and I recall many walks along the banks of the River Wear (as it is called locally — the “Wear River” is a South Africanism). My friend Hugh Pawsey would give names to the strange alien vegetation that I had previously read about in books, but could not have identified or even imagined — beech trees, rhododendrons and so on. Rhododendrons are a bit like oleanders and azaleas, which we do know. I recall the “Count’s House”, a tiny dwelling once the home of a man who was only three feet tall. But I can picture the place where Toloki was born. .

Mda does not tell us how he felt, as an atheist, being asked to write a play to commemorate the centenary of an Anglican Cathedral, but he did leave before his term as writer-in-residence was up.

When I was a student in Durham in 1967 there was a civil war in Nigeria, and the Eastern Region broke away from the federation and became the short-lived Republic of Biafra. Someone from the Nigerian High Commission in London came to Durham to speak to the university African Society about the civil war, and noted that the Igbo people of the Eastern Region had a legitimate grievance, because 30000 of them had been killed, but he said that was not a sufficient reason to break up the federation.

I found  it interesting that Mda and I both supported the breakaway state of Biafra, though for quite different reasons. Mda and his friends supported the secession of Biafra from Nigeria in 1967, in spite of its being contrary to Pan Africanism. They knew the Igbo people well because of Chinua Achebe’s books, and did not know of any other of the peoples of Nigeria. In 1967 the only book by a Nigerian author I had read was My life in the bush of ghosts by Amos Tutuola, who was a Yoruba from the Western Region, It was a kind of magic realism story.

At independence in 1960 Nigeria was a federation of three regions. The Northern Region was Muslim and feudal and dry savannah or semi-desert, where Hausa and Fulani people dominated. The Eastern Region, where the Igbo people lived, was around the Niger Delta, largely forest, rich in oil, and the people were mostly Christian. Igbos from the Eastern Region migrated to the north for trade and business, but because of religious and cultural differences were regarded as exploitative foreigners, and were increasingly subject to xenophobic attacks similar to those on Nigerians and Somalis in South Africa in the 21st century. Eventually in a pogrom some 30000 were killed, which led to a civil war, and the secession of the Eastern Region as Biafra. And in the northern part of Nigeria the killing of Christians by Muslims has continued to this day.

Mda notes that such a thing went against his Pan Africanist sentiments. He wanted the countries in Africa to be united. He mentions admiring Julius Nyerere, who united Tanganyika and Zanzibar to form Tanzania. What he does not mention, however, is that Julius Nyerere supported Biafra, one of the few African leaders of the time to do so. After the secession of Biafra ended, and Nigeria ceased to be a federation and became a unitary state with the aim of avoiding such secessions in future, Nyerere published a kind of elegy for Biafra, explaining why he had supported it. He said it was an elementary matter of justice. But in this world oil counts far more than justice.

A couple of years later I was living in Namibia, where South Africa was busy tightening its control, and planning to apply the apartheid policy in Namibia as it was doing in South Africa. I saw each of these closer links as a retrograde step, and was glad to see the independence of Namibia. So I am not a strong pan-Africanist. And one of the reasons for that is apparent from Mda’s own life. He was able to escape the clutches of the apartheid security apparatus precisely because Lesotho was not part of South Africa, and though the South African security forces made incursions into neighbouring countries, and kidnapped or killed people, Mda and his family found a safe refuge there. An advantage of having a lot of small countries rather than just one big one is that there are more places where one can take refuge from an oppressive government.

Mda also makes some interesting observations about developments in South Africa since the end of apartheid. He describes attending his mother’s funeral:

Throughout the ceremony I wear a white Xhosa ceremonial blanket, which makes me feel rather silly. These are some of the traditional innovations that have been introduced by Cousin Nondyebo into our lives. We never used to practise any of these customs when my father was alive. We didn’t even know about them. But, what the heck, it’s only for a few hours. I might as well humour the neo-traditionalists in the family and wear the ridiculous blanket. It all has to do with the movement that is sweeping the country of black people trying to find their roots after having “lost” their culture due to colonialism and apartheid. The problem with this movement is that it does not recognise the dynamism of culture but aims to resuscitate some of the most retrogressive and reactionary, and sometimes horrendous, elements of what used to be “tribal” culture but have long fallen into disuse..
Source: Mda 2011:543

This neo-traditionalism and attempts to resuscitate the culture of an imagined past has been much promoted by the SABC, and has led to the phrase “our culture” being used to justify all kinds of dubious practices. A few years ago a student who had studied in another country was told by the college authorities that he would not be readmitted as he had committed adultery with a married woman whose husband had vowed to kill him if he ever saw him again. On being asked about this the student attempted to justify his adultery by saying “it’s our culture”. I wonder what King Shaka, who had no compunction about putting adulterers to death instantly, would have thought about that.

Mda also has some interesting comments on the tendency to refer to the people who used to be called Bushmen in English as “San”:

You’ll notice that I keep referring to these vanquished people as the Bushmen instead of the politically correct term that is used for them today, the San people. The reason is simply that these people never called themselves the San. They merely referred to themselves as “people” in the various languages of the tribal groups. The clans or tribes did indeed have names: the !Kwi, the /Xam and so on. The San label has the same weight as Barwa or abaThwa or Bushmen, it was what other people called them. They were called the San by the Khoikhoi people (who did call themselves the Khoikhoi) and the name referred to those people who were vagabonds and wanderers and didn’t own cattle,. The Khoikhoi even called fellow Khoikhoi who were poor and didn’t have cattle San. So the name, though generally accepted, has derogatory origins.
Source: Mda 2011:306

I found the last hundred or so pages a disappointment, however. Mda was going through an acrimonious divorce, and lets a lot of the acrimony spill over into the pages of his memoir. During much of that time he was teaching at a university in Ohio in the USA, but he says little about his classes or what he was teaching, or the literary characters he met. It was all about his wife and his marital problems. I’ve no doubt that that played a big part in his life and affected his creative work, and so could not be left out. But there seemed to be too much self-justification, and trying too hard to persuade the reader that his wife was an evil villain. But for that I might have given it five stars on GoodReads.

Mda was also asked by many why he lived in Ohio and taught at a university there, now that South Africa is free. Why did he not return home to help build the nation? And he explains that there was no place for him in South Africa, dominated as it is by crony capitalism, where who you know is more important than what you know and in applying for a job party affiliation trumps competence every time, whether one is talking about membership of the board of the SABC or running a municipal sewage purification works:

Though Mda doesn’t explicitly say so, it seems reasonable to me to infer from what he does say that the ANC has learned a great deal about how to govern from the Broederbond, and in this respect has confirmed the observations of Paolo Freire in his Pedagogy of the oppressed — that the oppressed interrnalises the image of the oppressor.

 

Judging a book by its cover

For the week 10-17 March 2019 my book The Year of the Dragon is participating in a competition to see which of 10 books has the best cover. I’m inviting you to go to this site — Cover Wars — and vote for it every day during this week.

Of course, if you think that one of the other covers is better, you can vote for that, but I think the cover of The Year of the Dragon is the best, so I hope you will vote for it seven times over the next week.

Because the image of the cover on the Cover Wars site is rather small, I’m posting a bigger version here to make it easier to judge it. And remember, you are being asked to judge the cover, not the whole book, so even if you think it’s a crummy book, you can still vote for the cover.

The cover was designed my son Simon Hayes, who is a freelance computer illustrator and animator. You can see more of his work and his current projects here.

Some people have asked about where they can get a copy of the book itself.  It is an ebook, and you can click on the icon of the book on the Cover Wars site, or click here to get to the Smashwords site where you can order it. It is also available from other ebook retailers. If you’d like to know more about the book and how it came to be written, see here: The Year of the Dragon.

As the graphic on the right says, one of the ways in which you can support artists is to share it with friends, and one of the ways you can do that is to share this post on social media. You can do that quite easily by clicking on one or more of the sharing buttons at the bottom of this post. If you see this on Facebook, you can both “share” and “like” it. If you got an email message about this, please forward it to friends or family members.

And we also have another artist in our family; our daughter Julia Bridget Hayes is an ikonographer living in Athens, Greece, and you can see her work here.

 

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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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?

White writing, dark materials

On Thursday 4th January 2018 we got together at Cafe 41 with David Levey and Tony McGregor for our monthly literary coffee klatsch.

David said he had been reading a book by Philip Pullman. La Belle Sauvage, that was supposed to be a prequel to His Dark Materials, and thought it lacked a sense of purpose. Pullman is apparently also planning to write a kind of postquel, or requel, as he calls it.

That got us chatting about other books where a book was followed by others to form a trilogy, which wasn’t as good as the first book, or the first trilogy. I thought of Dune, where the sequels were mediocre at best, and didn’t nearly live up to the original. Val mentioned Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books, where the first trilogy was quite good, but the second seemed to be running out of ideas. Another was William Horwood’s Duncton Wood, which was followed by five others, each one worse than the one preceding it. And probably the worst of all was the sequel to A Canticle for Leibowitz, one of the best science-fiction books I have read, whereas the sequel was one of the worst. Some people have only one book in them. David said he thought that Madeleine l’Engle’s books worked with sequels, though I haven been able to read more than the first two, because they are hard to find in book shops.

I have been reading J.M. Coetzee’s White writing and I find it more interesting than his novels, and David agreed that he thought Coetzee a better critic than author, in spite of his having won the Nobel Prize for literature and all. I have learned quite a lot about European art history from the book — Coetzee points out that the first writers about the southern African landscape were schooled in the European picturesque style, and nothing in southern Africa fitted it.

We talked a bit about the plaasroman, which Coetzee deals with in some detail, and Val mentioned three in the genre by Elizabeth Vermeulen (none of them mentioned by Coetzee), She had had one of them as a school set book, and it was the most interesting of their school set books, far more interesting than Thomas Hardy, which they also had. . She had mentioned this to a work colleague, who had found her copies of Vermeulen’s trilogy: Towergoud, Fata Morgana and Reënboog in die skemering.

Tony McGregor mentioned Alan Paton’s account of a journey to Malawi in search of the Mountains of the Moon, and David promised to send us a copy of his thesis on Alan Paton’s early writing, which was very different from his later works. I had thought that the Mountains of the Moon were further north than Malawi, and once read an adventure story about an expedition to find them that involved airships, probably written in the 1930s, about the same period as Alan Paton’s expedition.

In the abstract of his thesis David notes:

Paton’s earliest, fragmentary novel, ‘Ship of Truth’ (1922-1923) is read in some detail; his second, and only complete early novel, ‘Brother Death’ (1930), is commented on in as much detail as its frequently rambling nature warrants. A chapter on shorter fiction discusses his short story ‘Little Barbee’ (1928?), his short story ‘Calvin Doone’ (1930), his third novel, ‘John Henry Dane’ (1934), and a novel or novella, ‘Secret for Seven’ (1934). From all these readings it emerges that the Paton of his early fiction is markedly different from the Paton generally known: his concepts of human identity, of God and of religion, though earnest, are unformed and frequently ambivalent; his characterisation often stereotyped and wooden; his political views usually prejudiced and his stylistic and other techniques, though adequate in a young writer, highly repetitive

Perhaps that can form the basis of future discussions. I tend to find the concept of “identity” rather vague and problematic
as I have noted here.

Tony told some stories about his ancestors in the Eastern Cape, and David also seemed interested, so we recommended that he get the RootsMagic genealogy program and link it to the FamilySearch site.

 

 

The Midwich cuckoos: dresses and mannequins

We go into Woolworths to buy hummus because tomorrow is Wednesday, and there are two mannequins near the door, with little girls’ dresses. Val says that when she was little girl she would have loved to to have a dress like that. I barely notice the dress, I am struck by the mannequins, which look like something out of a horror movie, the Midwich cuckoos or something.

I stopped to take photos of them. As we leave Val mentions the dresses again, and how she liked them. I said I was so struck by the eyes of the models that I hardly noticed what they were wearing, and she was so struck by the dresses that he did not notice the eyes at all.

We walk down the mall, discussing how people rarely make their own clothes nowadays, and think of our family history research, where the occupation of so many people in 19th-century census records was given as “dressmaker”. Back then it was probably rare to buy clothes off the shelf.

Well, there’s my photo, but the eyes are far less scary in the picture than they were in reality. They look as though they are peacefully sleepwalking, but in the shop the eyes were fiercely glittering. Perhaps I should have turned the flash off.

But it is interesting how people can look at the same things, and yet see something completely different.

Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, where have you been?
I’ve been to London to visit the Queen.
Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, what saw you there?
I saw a little mouse under a chair.

Everything is illuminated

Everything Is IlluminatedEverything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I saw the film, and so I read the book, and then, having finished the book, I watched the film again.

The story is funny and sad by turns. The film, which deals with only one dimension of the book starts by being funny, and ends by being sad. Because I’m interested in family history, at the surface level a young man’s search for his family history interests me. Jonathan Safran Foer knows his grandfather came from a village called Trachimbrod in Ukraine, and was saved from the Nazis by a woman called Augustine. Since this is also the name of the author, it seems that he is one of the characters in his own story.

The film deals mainly with the search, while the book deals more with what he found, or what he imagines he found. His guide and translator is Alex, and they are driven around by Alex’s grandfather (who claims to be blind, and has a seeing-eye bitch called Sammy Davis Junior Junior).

From the film: Alex, Jonathan, and Sammy Davis Junior Junior, the See4ing-Eye Bitch

Alex’s English leaves something to be desired, and he seems to have learnt it mainly from books. Finding too many synonyms in English, he fixes on one word, which he uses on all occasions. He picks words for their imagined denotations, regardless of the connotations. When he is angry with people, he “spleens” them, until Jonathan tries to explain that English doesn’t work like that, so Alex substitutes “wrathful” for spleening. He confesses to Jonathan that he has never been carnal with a girl, and is rather distressed to discover that when Jonathan writes the story he writes that his (Jonathan’s) grandfather has been carnal with many women, mainly widows, from an early age.

The story is told from different viewpoints. Alex writes letters to Jonathan, while Jonathan sends him currency for the research he does. Jonathan tries to reconstruct the story of Trachimbrod and its inhabitants. The village was obliterated by the Nazis during the Second World War, and there were very few survivors, one of whom salvaged what she could, and another was Jonathan’s grandfather.

The name of the village does not appear on any map, because it came from an incident when a wagon overturned in a flooded river. The wagon may or may not have belonged to a man named Trachim, who may or may not have drowned when the wagon overturned. A baby, who may or may not have been Trachim’s daughter survived the accident, and the village decided who should bring her up. She was called Brod, and was Jonathan’s great great great great great grandmother.

The story that Jonathan reconstructs has a kind of dreamlike quality, and though Trachimbrod was very good at keeping records, many of the records were destroyed when the village itself was destroyed by the Nazis. As they discover more, Alex’s grandfather is forced to confront his own past behaviour during the war.

It is a book about many things, and especially memory, and how we remember and interpret the past and the present in the light of the past.

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“Stranger Things” Live Video Chat with Dr. Corey Olsen (Signum Series)

A Pilgrim in Narnia

Stranger Things is one of the hottest new series on Netflix this year. My wife and I don’t always overlap in tastes, but this show drew us both in. We zoomed through the series in late night sittings, and I honestly can’t wait until my son is old enough to watch it with us. Even Stephen King, the childhood horror version of literary Wheaties for me growing up, thinks Stranger Things is worth some time:

stephen-king-loves-stranger-things

stranger-things-dvdStevie, Kerry and I are not alone in loving this show. It has a Rotten Tomatoes ranking of 95%, and is the 3rd most watched series on Netflix behind Orange is the New Black and, well, I don’t know how to say this: Fuller House.

So it’s obvious that fan quality isn’t everything, there are a few reasons for its massive popularity, I think. The hero–I think she’s a hero though we won’t know…

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Oviston to Clarens

Continued from Ghwarriespoort to the Gariep Dam

5-6 September 2015

We woke up at Oviston, overlooking the Gariep Dam, and watched dawn breaking over the water.

Oviston: Dawn on the Gariep Dam, 5 September 2015

Oviston: Dawn on the Gariep Dam, 5 September 2015

The place where we was staying was right next to the pumphouse where the water from the Gariep Dam is pumped out to supply Port Elizabeth, via the Orange-Fish river tunnel.

Pumphouse on the Gariep Dam to provide water for Port Elizabeth

Pumphouse on the Gariep Dam to provide water for Port Elizabeth

We left Oviston at about 7:20 and drove towards Bethulie. We crossed the Orange River again on a road/rail bridge, more or less where it enters the dam, far upstream from where we had crossed it a couple of weeks earlier at Kakamas. We stopped on the bridge to take photos and only one vehicle crossed the bridge while we were on it. It was in quite bad repair on the Free State side, with grass growing in cracks, and concrete blocks covering the pipes carried across the bridge all broken. I wondered who was responsible for its maintenance.

Bridge over the Orange River near Bethulie

Bridge over the Orange River near Bethulie, looking north to the Free state side.

We reached Bethulie and drove in to the town. There seemed to be only one garage, and we filled up with petrol. The garage attendant spoke South
Sotho, and I could thank him in that language. We looked for a place to eat breakfast, but the only one that looked open said it only started serving food at 10:00 am. I wanted to pass through Bethulie because it was associated with my great grandfather William Matthew Growden, who, when he retired from the railways in about 1908, bought a farm, Mooifonein. He was actually based at Springfontein, which was a bit west of the route we were taking, but it was in the magisterial district of Bethulie. Bethulie seemed pretty dead for a Saturday morning.

Entrance to Bethulie in the Free State

Entrance to Bethulie in the Free State

We set out for Smithfield, passing a strange, almost symmetrical conical hill on the way, and wondered if, like, the slab of butter mountain at Vanrijnsdorp, it could be disguising the nose cone of an alien spaceship.

Conical hill near Bethulie -- disguising the nose cone of an alien spaceship?

Conical hill near Bethulie — disguising the nose cone of an alien spaceship?

Smithfield turned out to be a very nice place, bigger than Bethulie, and much better maintained than many Free State towns, in contrast to Wepener, which we had passed through on our last trip to the Cape four years ago, it seemed to be the kind of town where everything worked. There was a place called Buckley’s, open for breakfast, with a very pleasant garden, a friendly waiter called Martin Booysens (he was described as a “waitron” on the cash slip, which seems to be a peculiarly South African term, and makes him sound like a robot. It had good food, which made a change from all the chain restaurants which serve the same predictable stuff.

Smithfield Town Hall, Free State

Smithfield Town Hall, Free State

We left on the road to Wepener, which was a gravel road, crossing typical highveld grassland, and like most Free State gravel roads was in fairly good repair, and there were signs that it had recently been graded. We joined the tarred road to Ladybrand a couple of kilometres north of Wepener, and it was in better repair than it had been four years ago, in that many of the potholes had been patched, but the signs warning of potholes were still up from four years ago, and were now somewhat faded. We began to see fruit trees in blossom along the side of the road, at random intervals, and concluded that they must be from cherry pips that people had thrown out of car windows. Val recalled a vegetable hawker who, many years ago, had given her aunt a sales pitch for cherries he was selling, and assured her that they came from “Ficksburg, Madam, where Jesus was born”.

There are lots of fruit trees growing alongside the road to Ladybrand in the Free State, perhaps spring from pips spat out by passing motorists.

There are lots of fruit trees growing alongside the road to Ladybrand in the Free State, perhaps spring from pips spat out by passing motorists. The picture does not do the pink blossoms justice.

We stopped for lunch in Fouriesburg, and reached Clarens at 4:15 pm, and there noticed, as we had throughout our journey through five of South Africa’s nine provinces, the inequality that still persists 21 years after the end of apartheid. Clarens is regarded as the jewel of the Free State, and middle-class people from the big cities retire there, or go to spend weekends there, but, like almost every town we have passed through, it has a shanty town where poor people live.

Clarens, an idyllic village in the mountains of the eastern Free State

Clarens, an idyllic village in the mountains of the eastern Free State

There was a pattern to development in many towns, particularly noticable in towns in the North West Province and Northern Cape, that as you left the town you passed apartheid-era matchbox houses, then the rather smaller RDP houses of the 1990s, and last of all the shanty towns, or “informal settlements” as some call them. The ones in Clarens were somewhat better than most, in that the number of shacks was proportionately smaller than in the north west, and almost every garden had one or more fruit trees in bloom, and in some places people had planted neat vegetable gardens.

Clarens in the Free State

Clarens in the Free State — the bits the tourist brochures don’t usually show.

We stayed with my cousin Peter Badcock Walters and his wife Toni. Some years ago they bought an old sheep-shearing shed, and converted it into self-catering apartments, now called The Clarens Country House.

The Clarens Country House

The Clarens Country House

Peter has also built an art gallery in the centre of Clarens, The Gallery on the Square, where he exhibits his own art work and that of other artists. He had done many book illustrations, including The Illustrated Bosman.

Peter Badcock-Walters in The Gallery on the Square

Peter Badcock-Walters in The Gallery on the Square

Also on display were drawings from an earlier book Images of War.

The Gallery on the Square, Clarens

The Gallery on the Square, Clarens

Concluded at Clarens, and home again.

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