Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the category “literature”

Interrogating silence

I’ve been reading an interesting article by André Brink, on Interrogating Silence, which was in a book I found in the library.

No this isn’t a review of the book, which got poor reviews on GoodReads, and I haven’t finished reading it yet. This is rather some thoughts sparked off by reading a couple of the articles, and memories of old friends, and the kinds of silences that are imposed on us by changing circumstances.

Writing South Africa: Literature, Apartheid, and Democracy, 1970-1995Writing South Africa: Literature, Apartheid, and Democracy, 1970-1995 by Derek Attridge

I took this book out of the library mainly because it had an article by an old friend, Graham Pechey, who died in Cambridge, UK, in February 2016. I had known Graham Pechey when I was a student in the 1960s, and it was he who introduced me to Bob Dylan. He lived in a flat next door to another friend, John Aitchison, and had borrowed the Dylan records from yet another student, Jeff Guy, who later became a historian.

On one memorable evening, on 11 November 1965, after Ian Smith had unilaterally declared the independence  of Rhodesia, and Bram Fischer had just been rearrested after several months on the run, and I had received an official warning from the magistrate in terms of the Suppression of Communism Act, John Aitchison (who was banned) and I sat with Graham Pechey in his flat, and drank toasts to Bram Fischer, Harold Wilson, and Queen Elizabeth II. I’ve described the occasion more fully in another blog post here.

At that time Graham Pechey was an atheist and a bit of a Marxist, but he later explained his sympathy for monarchy, which I am inclined to agree with, on Facebook on the 60th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II:

‘The rise of Hitler, Franco and Stalin showed that there are worse institutions than a Monarchy–that a people deprived of a Royal Family can turn to far more dangerous gods. As one Socialist said before the war: “If you throw the Crown into the gutter, you may be sure that somebody will pick it up”‘. Wise words from the Observer, June 1953, reprinted in today’s issue.

Graham Pechey, 1965

Graham Pechey later married my philosophy lecturer, Nola Clendinning, who took to paining ikons, and in Cambridge, I am told, he was a pillar of the local Anglican Church. I would love to have been able to meet with him and chat about these things over a beer, but the last time I saw him was in 1971, and though we  were later reconnected on Facebook, it’s not the best medium for that kind of conversation. So now all I can do is interrogate the silence.

Though I do have the article in the book: The post-apartheid sublime:rediscovering the extraordinary.

The first article in the book, however, is by André Brink, on Interrogating silence.

In it he writes:

The experience of apartheid has demonstrated that different kinds or levels of silence exist. There is the general silence of which I have spoken above and which exists in a dynamic relation with language/literature; but there are also more specific silences imposed by certain historical conjunctions. If any word involves a grappling with silence, the word uttered in the kind of repressive context exemplified by apartheid evokes an awareness of particular territories forbidden to language. Just as surely as certain sexual relationships were proscribed by apartheid, certain experiences or areas of knowledge were out of bounds to probing in words. These were often immediate and definable: certain actions of the police or the military; certain statements or writing by ‘banned’ persons; the activities of the ANC or other organizations of liberation.

That recalled John Aitchison, who was banned from 1965-1970, and after a year of freedom, again from 1971-76. During those periods he was not allowed to publish anything, nor was any publication allowed to quote him. As described in the article mentioned earlier, in 1966 I went overseas to study in Durham, UK and was away for two and a half years. During that time John Aitchison and I were in frequent correspondence, writing, on average, about once a fortnight. In our correspondence we were constrained by the suspicion (which later proved completely correct) that our letters to each other were being read by the Special Branch (SB) in South Africa, so there was a kind of imposed silence there. The SB reports to the Department of Justice frequently referred to “a sensitive source” (‘n delikate bron) for information that could only have come from letters we wrote to each other when I was overseas.

John Aitchison, 1965

At one point John wrote to me expressing the fear that it would become even more repressive. There was a proposal to extend the restrictions in banning orders so that In addition to not being allowed to publish anything, a banned person would not be allowed to write, compose, compile or distribute any document, photograph etc which was not a publication within the meaning of the act, if it contained any political reference at all. That would have been yet another level of silence. Even private letters not intended for publication would have to be bland and non-political.

I returned to South Africa. We shared many ideas and talked about them and bounced ideas off each other. We published a small magazine called Ikon which shared some of these ideas, about human and inhuman settlements, about theological trends and various other things. John was still banned, so his name did not appear as an editor. Articles we wrote jointly bore only my name. By that time John had married my cousin Jenny Growdon, who was an art teacher and did much of the artwork. But silence was still imposed.

Ikon was originally published under the auspices of the Christian Institute, an ecumenical group that was itself founded to counter some of the silence imposed by apartheid, particularly on members of the Dutch Reformed Churches. But Ikon proved too radical even for the Christian Institute, which was seen by the apartheid government as dangerously radical, and was eventually itself silenced by being banned; both the organisation itself and its leaders were banned in 1977. But it was the Christian Institute itself that attempted to silence Ikon, so we had to publish it independently. Nine months later I was in Windhoek, sitting in the boss’s office in the Department of Water Affairs. After working there for a month as a waterworks attendant, I was told that I was sacked; no notice, leave immediately. I could see a press cutting on top of the file folder open on his desk,. As it was upside down I could only read the headline: CI keer wilde jeugblad (Christian Institute rejects radical youth magazine). O! the ideological perils of being a waterworks attendant!

John’s ban expired in 1970 and communication was freer, but he was banned again  within a year. I was deported from Namibia in March 1972 and stayed with John and Jenny Aitchison in Pietermaritzburg. We had embarked on a new project, the promotion of Theological Education by Extension (TEE) in the Anglican Church. John wrote a 20-page executive summary of a 600-page book called Theological Education by Extension edited by Ralph D. Winter. I duplicated it on a stencil duplicator on green paper and we sent it to all the Anglican bishops in Southern Africa, and all those responsible for theological education in the Anglican Church.

Then I travelled the country (at my own expense) trying to sell the idea to the those we had sent the document to. Many of them were suspicious because the “Green Thing”, as we called the document, was anonymous. It was anonymous because if the SB discovered that John was responsible for it, he could go to jail for five years. In 1972 a lot of Anglican bishops were still rather politically naive, and were not really aware that South Africa was a police state. The following year the government expropriated the Federal Seminary, run jointly by the Anglican, Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches, showing that they did indeed regard theological education as an ideological threat.

My career as unpaid promoter of TEE ended abruptly in July 1972 when I was banned. I was living in the same house as John Aitchison, but was henceforth not allowed to communicate with him in any way at all. More silence. The Minister of Justice dealt with that by banning me to Durban, even though I had nowhere to live there, and was dependent on the generosity of clergy (Anglican and Congregationalist) who took me in.

Steve Hayes and John Aitchison, 13 July 1972, about to part for 4 years, both banned and prohibited from communicating with each other in any way. If the SB had seen this photo and known when it was taken it could have meant 5 years jail for both.

But in a sense, that enforced silence was never lifted. It seemed to have a permanent effect. Even after our bans were both lifted in 1976, our friendship was never again as close. Instead of communicating once every couple of months, or once every couple of weeks, it’s now once every couple of years. Did the double ban make the effect permanent. Apartheid is dead, but perhaps in ways like this its ghost still haunts us. How does one interrogate that silence?

After the end of apartheid I wrote a couple of novels set in the apartheid years. One was a children’s story, Of wheels and witches, set in 1964. You can read more about it here. The other was for adults, set 25 years later, but having some of the same characters. It is The Year of the Dragon.

In these books there is a release from some of the immediate and definable constraints of apartheid that André Brink speaks of, the things that were out of bounds to probing in words, namely certain actions of the police and military.

For such things, the silence has been lifted — or has it?

In the last week of 2018 review copies of the book were available free, and I wondered if anyone would like to talk about these things. Eighty review copies were taken, but so far there have been only two reviews. One you can see on GoodReads here.

John Davies, sometime Anglican chaplain at Wits university, now retired in the UK.

The other review, by Bishop John Davies, has not hitherto appeared on the web, but I did send it, along with the invitation to take review copies of the book, to members of three book discussion groups I’m a member of. One group meets face to face once a month, the other two meet on line.

In all three forums The Year of the Dragon has been met by a resounding silence. Apartheid has ended, and so cannot be blamed for this silence. No one has said they have liked the book or disliked it. No one has said anything at all. It seems as though everyone is avoiding the subject.

How does one interrogate this silence?

In an attempt to get a wider readership than just people I talk to anyway, I promoted the book on Twitter, among other things by using the hashtag #iartg. That is the Independent Authors Re-Tweet Group. It provided an interesting assortment of books on my Twitter feed, quite a large proportion of which had covers featuring male human torsos. Perhaps they’re more attractive than dragons’ torsos.

I’ve invited people to ask questions about the book on GoodReads. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Lutho. Silence.

Can you interrogate this silence?

There is something else about the Writing South Africa book.

As I said, I haven’t read all the essays in it, only the introduction and a couple of the other articles. And it did get bad reviews. But it was about the period before 1995, and so was looking forward to a kind of postcolonial literary future, that would not be dominated by struggle literature. It is interesting to read it 20 years on, and compare hopes and expectations of 1995 with the reality.

After the Zuma years that sanguine outlook seems a little naive and unreal. Most of us are a lot more cynical and pessimistic than we were back in 1995. Is there any hope? Is there any reason for hope?

One lesson some of us may have learned is from a Psalm that is sung at almost every Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox Church:

Put not your trust in princes, in sons of men in whom there is no salvation.
When his breath departs he returns to his earth, on that very day his plans perish.

And as for hope after the Zuma years, perhaps this:

And I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten, the cankerworm, and the caterpillar, and the palmerworm, my great army which I sent among you.
And ye shall eat in plenty, and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, that hath dealt wondrously with you: and my people shall never be ashamed (Joel 2:25-26).

 

Bleak House

Bleak HouseBleak House by Charles Dickens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thought I had read this book a long time ago, and had even marked it as “read” in GoodReads, but I think that was because it was shown to me in one of those book compatibility tests, now hidden behind a “More” button. I soon realised that I hadn’t read it before, and I was probably thinking of Dombey and Son.

I was moved to read Bleak House because I had just read Black House, in which the characters read it, and I’m glad I did, because I think it is one of Charles Dickens‘s best novels. As it was published over 160 years ago there have been countless reviews of it, and so I won’t try to review it, but rather comment on a few themes.

I found it rather difficult to get into, because Dickens has a large cast of characters, introduced piecemeal, so that the connections between them only become apparent much later. It also seems to cover several different genres. Quite a number of Dickens’s novels have a storyline that is entwined with a moral crusade. In this case there are at least two moral crusades, one against rapacious lawyers, and another against people whose obsession with abstract causes leads them to neglect ordinary human relationships and become increasingly selfish and self-centred. So the heroes of the story are those who embody unselfish love. In a sub-plot it is also a crime novel, and from another point of view it can be seen as a love story.

One thing that strikes me about this is how it contrasts with the philosophy of Ayn Rand, who detests altruism and propounds the virtue of selfishness. She claims, in a rather contradictory way, that altruists are all self-centred, and that altruism is at its core selfish, therefore altruism is bad and selfishness is good. And she gets pretty preachy about it in her novels.

While Dickens appears to be making a similar point about the self-centredness of altruists like Mrs Jellyby in the novel, he ascribes it to a somewhat different cause. Those who are addicted to the Cause, whether it’s development in Africa, winning a law suit or fashion (Deportment with a capital D) manage to persuade themselves that they are being unselfish when at their most selfish.

But Dickens comes to a different conclusion. The characters who are so wrapped up in the Cause that they have no time for people lack love. People like Mrs Jellyby might gladly give their bodies to be burned, as St Paul says in I Cor 13:3, but if they have not love, it is worthless.

In this sense, Bleak House pleads for Christian values as strongly as Atlas Shrugged pleads for capitalist ones.

Another thing that struck me about it was the language, which seemed surprisingly up to date. I had no difficulty in understanding it, which shows, perhaps that in many ways English has changed remarkably little since Dickens’s day. But I suspect that while we may have little difficulty in understanding Dickens’s language, he might have considerably more difficulty in understanding ours. It is not that words have changed, but things have changed.

And perhaps for that reason I would not recommend that most of Dickens be read by anyone under 40. I think if I had read this in my teens, as a school set work, say, a lot of it would have gone right over my head. Or even in my early twenties, at university. For a start, I wasn’t aware of the difference between Common Law and Equity until I was in my 30s and researching genealogy. There are some books that people can enjoy at different levels at different ages, Gulliver’s Travels for example. Quite young people can enjoy the stories as adventure stories in strange place. As they grow older, they can appreciate other aspects, like satire. But in Dickens, with a few exceptions like A Christmas Carol and A Tale of Two Cities, the ground floor and first floor are not there. Bleak House starts on the third floor, and though it may sometimes go higher, it rarely goes lower.

View all my reviews

Boneland by Alan Garner

Boneland (Tales of Alderley, #3)Boneland by Alan Garner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is almost impossible to say anything about this book without spoilers, so I hope that anyone who reads this has already read the book.

It is a sequel to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. In those books twelve-year-old Colin and Susan go to stay on a farm near Alderley Edge in Cheshire, England, and discover that the Edge is haunted by all kinds of strange creatures, malicious goblins, suspicious fairies and elves and the like, and there is a strange woman, a witch, who seems to have evil designs on them, and especially a stone that Susan had inherited.

Some of the creatures, good and evil, that they encounter are from local folklore, and others from stories from further afield. Eventually the children overcome the forces of evil, and are left in peace for a while.

Boneland is set much further in the future, where Colin has grown up and become a professor of astrophysics.

One problem that Professor Colin Whisterfield has is that though he has an exceptionally good memory, he can remember very little of his childhood before he was 13.

He works at the Jodrell Bank radio telescope, and spends much of his time at work trying to find a twin sister that he thought he had, whom he believes has vanished into the Pleiades, riding on a horse. He has a bad conscience about wasting his employers’ time on this personal project, and so at one point he resigns, but his resignation is not accepted.

He is also worried about his missing sister, whom he can hardly remember, and thinks he might be going mad, so he visits a psychotherapist, Meg, She tries to probe his memories, but there are some places in his past where he both wants to go and fears to go.

It is impossible to go beyond this point without spoilers, so if you’ve read the book and want to go further, see my original review on GoodReads. See also my review of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.

If you have read any of these books and written a review of any of them in a blog or elsewhere, please leave a link to your review in the comments below.

 

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?

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

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.

 

Did Not Finish — books only half-read

It seems that lots of readers on GoodReads are using the Did Not Finish or DNF shelf. In my GoodReads shelving I’ve used Abandoned for such books. The 15 Most Common Books Never Finished, According To Goodreads:

Deciding not to finish a book can be a freeing experience. Our time as readers is limited and there are SO MANY good books out there. Choosing to DNF (or “did not finish” a book) isn’t an indictment of the book itself—usually—but a necessary aspect of the reader’s life nowadays. Some books, though, get DNFed more often than others.

What I would like to see is GoodReads making that shelf, or tag, official, like Read, Currently Reading and Want to Read. At the moment I’ve got a whole bunch of them sitting on my Currently Reading because I haven’t read them and I don’t want to read them, so I must be currently reading them, only I’m not.

When I read the article cited above two books that I hadn’t finished immediately sprang to mind: Jane Eyre and War and Peace. I could look at my Abandoned shelf to find more, but those are the two that immediately spring to mind. We actually have two copies of War and Peace — one, whose cover is illustrated here, and a much older single volume edition. Perhaps I should try the older translation, because one of the things I didn’t like about the translation by Rosemary Edmonds was the rendering of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy as “Mass”. I also found the notion of the spirituality of Freemasons rather alien, though perhaps they were different in Russia in 1812 from what they were in South Africa a hundred years later, when most of our grandfathers seemed to be involved in Freemasonry. My picture of Freemasons is solemn moustachioed stout gents in Edwardian suits with waistcoats and silver watch chains wearing fancy aprons, with all the spirituality of a bourgeois grocer.

Anyway I pulled out my copy to check the ISBN, and found my bookmark still in place on page 522 where I had stopped reading, two-thirds of the way through volume 1.

I checked some of the other books on my Abandoned shelf and found Underworld by Don DeLillo, The story of the last thought by Edgar Hilsenrath — I must admit that I was attracted to that one by its cover, a good example of why one should not judge a book by its cover.

Others were The Shack by William Paul Young, The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Inklings by Melanie M. Jeschke, and The Information by Martin Amis.

Also sundry books by Charlotte Bingham, which I had bought in error, perhaps because we had enjoyed a book called Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks, and I’d later confused it with the name of the author of a number of mediocre novels. We released them into the wild on BookCrossing, and no one has responded saying they’d found and enjoyed them, so they must have ended up in the well of lost plots.

Fathers and sons

Fathers and SonsFathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been reading about this book for fifty years or more, usually in connection with Nihilism as a worldview. Nihilism: nothing exists, nothing is knowable, nothing has value. A dreary philosophy, perhaps, but one expounded by one of the characters in this novel.

Back when I first heard of it, I was an Anglican, and the description of Nihilism reminded me of the Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity:

Almighty God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal that we finally lose not the things eternal. Grant this, O heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake, our Lord. Amen.

And so I conceived of a nihilist as someone for whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy. And without God, Nothing is very strong indeed.

This was later reinforced by a computer game called Mazeland, which entailed exploring a monster-filled maze, where one encountered ever more powerful monsters, the most powerful of which was a Nothingness. The game usually ended with the sentence. “The Nothingness hit you 264.76 times. The Nothingness killed you.”

I pictured the book as being in some little winter-bound Russian peasant shack, with father and son shivering in front of the stove having deep philosophical discussions.

Then my son gave me a book voucher for my birthday, and at last I saw the book and bought it.

It utterly failed to live up to my expectations.

It is the story of a couple of university students on their summer vacation. They visit the parents of one, then on their way to visit the parents of the other stop in a town, go to parties, meet interesting people, chat to them, go to the parents of the other, then repeat. On their travels they fall in love, fall out with each other, and do lots of other things that students do on vacation.

This could be any students at any time, but Turgenev manages to describe conversations between the characters that seem to have a hidden meaning, and infuse this picture of everyday student life with something deeper.

At the particular historical juncture in Russia when the story takes place, there was the emancipation of the serfs, and perhaps in South Africa today with all the talk of land reform it rings bells for us in our history too.

I don’t know if Anglicans still use that Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity; I don’t even know if they still have a Fourth Sunday after Trinity. But at the end of the book I wanted to read that collect, and it seems to be the most fitting epilogue to the story. Let the reader understand.

View all my reviews

Things fall apart

Things Fall ApartThings Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a short novel set in eastern Nigeria in the late 19th century. The protagonist, Okonkwo, is a man of renown in his village, first as a wrestler, and then as a self-made man who has worked hard to attain a position of respect in the community. But he is also hot tempered and something of a domestic tyrant over his family. He despises weakness in others, and in himself.

The traditional way of life of the village is disturbed by the coming of white men — missionaries, traders and colonial rulers. Okonkwo does not like the social changes they bring to the village, and urges others to resist them, but this resistance, and the manner of it, bring about his downfall.

The first half of the story is fairly static. It describes the village and its social life, the seasons of planting and harvesting, in a manner reminiscent of George Eliot. It enables the reader to experience something of the atmosphere of rural life. To readers from elsewhere, the description makes the unfamiliar become familiar. The main crops may be unknown in other places, but we are told enough about the farming methods to become familiar with the rhythms of rainy seasons and dry seasons, seed-time and harvest, and thus to appreciate something of the shock of social change when it comes.

As a missiologist and church historian I found the social change wrought by the missionaries particularly interesting. There are two missionaries in the story, Mr Brown and Mr Smith, The names are generic, deliberately so, I think. They represent two types of missionaries, and two different approaches to Christian mission in the 19th century.

The first, Mr Brown, represents the missionaries who preceded the New Imperialism of the 1870s and later. He is interested in the culture of the local people, and has religious discussions with them. I think this part is worth quoting in full, as it has much to say about Christian mission in general, and is thus of interest to missiologists:

(Mr Brown) made friends with some of the great men of the clan and on his frequent visits to the neighbouring villages he had been presented with a carved elephant tusk, which was a sign of dignity and rank. One of the great men in that village was called Akunna and he had given one of his sons to be taught the white man’s knowledge in Mr Brown’s school.

Whenever Mr Brown went to that village he spent long hours with Akunna in his obi talking through an interpreter about religion. Neither of them succeeded in converting the other, but they learnt more about their different beliefs.

‘You say that there is one supreme God who made heaven and earth,’ said Akunna on one of Mr Brown’s visits. ‘We also believe in him and call him Chukwu. He made all the world and the other gods.’

‘There are no other gods,’ said Mr Brown. ‘Chukwu is the only God and all the others are false. You carve a piece of wood — like that one’ (he pointed at the rafters from which Akunna’s carved Ikenga hung), ‘and you call it a god, but it is still a piece of wood.’

‘Yes,’ said Akunna, ‘It is indeed a piece of wood. The tree from which it came was made by Chukwu, as indeed all minor gods were. But He made them for His messengers so that we could approach him through them. It is like yourself. You are the head of your church.’

‘No,’ protested Mr Brown. ‘The head of my church is God himself.’

‘I know,’ said Akunna, ‘but there must be a head in this world among men. Somebody like yourself must be the head here.’

‘No,’ said Mr Brown. ‘The head of my church in that sense is in England.’

‘That is exactly what I am saying. The head of your church is in your country, He has sent you here as his messenger. And you have also appointed your own messengers and servants. Or let me take another example, the District Commissioner. He is sent by your king.’

‘They have a Queen,’ said the interpreter on his own account.

‘Your queen sends her messenger, the District Commissioner. He finds that he cannot do the work alone and so he appoints kotma to help him. It is the same with God, or Chukwu. He appoints the smaller gods to help him because the work is too great for one person.’

‘You should not think of his as a person,’ said Mr Brown. ‘It is because you do so that you imagine that he must need helpers. And the worst thing about it is that you give all the worship to the false gods you have created.’

‘That is not so. We make sacrifices to the little gods, but when they fail and there is no one else to turn to we go to Chukwu. It is right to do so. We approach a great man through his servants. But when his servants fail to help us, then we go to the last source of hope. We appear to pay greater attention to the little gods but that is not so. We worry them because we are afraid to worry their master. Our fathers knew that Chukwu was the Overlord and that is why many of them gave their children the name Chukwuka — “Chukwu is Supreme.’

‘You said one interesting thing,’ said Mr Brown. ‘You are afraid of Chukwu. In my religion Chukwu is a loving Father and need not be feared by those who do his will.’

‘But we must fear him when we are not doing his will,’ said Akunna. ‘And who is to tell his will? It is too great to be known.’

In Achebe’s report of these discussions, which is probably a condensed report of thousands of such conversations, it strikes me that Mr Brown’s interlocutor, Akunna, had a better grasp of Christian theology than Mr Brown himself had.

Last week I heard someone speaking about Christianity in relation to Graeco-Roman and ancient Egyptian paganism, and some of the issues that arose from that seem remarkably similar. Mr Brown and Akunna represent two different approaches, and in Things fall apart the first approach, that the gods of the pagans are human inventions, is presented as Christian, and the second, that there is a great God, the Creator, who made the little gods, is presented as pagan. That was also the approach of the speaker I heard on Friday. But if we read the Christian holy scriptures, we can find both approaches.

Akunna’s remarks seem to echo Psalm 94/95:3 — For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods; or, in the Septuagint, ὅτι θεὸς μέγας κύριος καὶ βασιλεὺς μέγας ἐπὶ πάντας τοὺς θεούς·.

This is seen even more clearly in Psalm 81/82, which is sung with great jubilation in Orthodox Churches on Holy Saturday, and perhaps indicates the line that Mr Brown should have taken with Akunna — that the little gods have messed up. They have ruled the nations unjustly, and the Psalmist prays “Arise, O God, judge the earth, for to Thee belong all nations.”

And just before his death Jesus announces that he has come in answer to that very prayer: Now is the hour of judgement of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out, and I when I am lifted up, shall draw all men to myself” (John 12:31-32)

That’s not what Akunna said, but it’s not what Mr Brown said either. Mr Brown missed the point.

This can be seen more clearly in Deuteronomy 32, where both approaches can be seen. In verses:8-9:

When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of men, he fixed the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God, for the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.

That implies that while all the nations had their own national spirits (Akunna’s “little gods”), Israel alone could by-pass the middle man, and approach the Almighty directly. The “to Thee belong all nations” cry in Psalm 81/82 is a plea that this will come to an end, and when Jesus says he will draw “all men” to himself, he is saying that the time has come. That is why mission organisations in the Orthodox Church use the slogan “panta ta ethne” — “all nations”.

Also interesting is that Akunna speaks of the little gods as “messengers” of the great King above all gods, and the Septuagint version of Deuteronomy 32:8-9 reads:

ὅτε διεμέριζεν ὁ ὕψιστος ἔθνη, ὡς διέσπειρεν υἱοὺς Αδαμ, ἔστησεν ὅρια ἐθνῶν κατὰ ἀριθμὸν ἀγγέλων θεοῦ, καὶ ἐγενήθη μερὶς κυρίου λαὸς αὐτοῦ Ιακωβ, σχοίνισμα κληρονομίας αὐτ

When the Most High divided the nations, he divided them according to the number of the angels (ie messengers) of God. In other words, the little gods are angels, or messengers of God, which Mr Brown failed to recognise, though Akunna knew it.

And back in the second century St Justin Martyr explained that the pagan gods of ancient Greece and Rome were angels, albeit fallen ones, as the Psalmist laments in Psalm 81/82. But I’ve written more about that here.

Though Mr Brown had his shortcomings, however, he also had his good points. It was missionaries of Mr Brown’s type who, earlier in the century, had consecrated Samuel Adjai Crowther, a freed Yoruba slave, as a bishop in western Nigeria.

Mt Smith, who followed Mr Brown, represents the new-style missionaries who came after the New Imperialism. They were more confident in themselves, more convinced of their own superiority, and less willing to learn anything from the local people. They were generally racist, and denounced their predecessors who had consecrated a native bishop in the person of Samuel Adjai Crowther, saying that it was premature, and the natives “weren’t ready for it”. For the Mr Smiths it would take centuries if not millennia of white tutelage before Africans were ready for a black bishop.

The Mr Smith-type of missionary was dominant until 1914, when the First World War shook European complacency and the tide of the New Imperialism began to recede. Achebe doesn’t take us that far, however. He just shows us the effect that it has on Okonkwo.

Achebe also shows how colonialism introduced or exacerbated corruption in African society, and how Christian mission became entangled with colonialism. If these things were unique to one small part of eastern Nigeria, it would perhaps make the novel less interesting, but in its very particularity, the story is universal. The society may change, its economy may change, but rural societies have often undergone such changes. The detailed descriptions at the beginning enable the reader from a different culture to feel at home in the society, to feel that it is not so strange. I’ve never seen or tasted a yam, but in reading the book I become aware that yams in that society play the same role as mealies in southern Africa, or wheat in England, or oats in Scotland. Achebe does that particularly well.

I find it interesting that one can learn quite a lot of missiology from works of fiction like this book. There are others that come to mind as well. The Poisonwood Bile by Barbara Kingsolver tells of an American missionary in what is now the Democratic Republic of congo, who is a Mr Smith-type missionary, and fails to come to terms with the local culture, and all the members of his family make their own different adaptations. Another that deals with modern mission, this time in South America, is At play in the fields of the Lord by Peter Matthiesen. In all these instances the missionaries have been immersed in modern culture, and come unstuck when they encounter premodern culture.

For a novel that deals with premodern missionaries and premodern people, an interesting one is Credo by Melvin Bragg.

View all my reviews

Post Navigation