Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the category “novels”

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (Tales of Alderley, #1)The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve just been re-reading some Alan Garner books. This time I read them in reverse, starting with The Owl Service, then Elidor followed by The Moon of Gomrath and now The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

I still rate them pretty highly as children’s fantasy novels, but perhaps reading them in reverse order puts them in a different perspective. The first two, the “Alderley” tales, both end in scenes of confused violence. In the case of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen it wasn’t as good as I remembered it, because of that. And I became aware of more of the plot holes. I still give it five stars though.

It’s about two children staying on a farm, and one of them, Susan, has a bracelet with a magic stone that holds the key to the reserve forces of good being held in a cave under a hill. The forces of evil want to get the stone to destroy the reserve force and increase their own power, so they conspire to steal it.

A common feature of quite a lot of children’s fantasy novels is the underground tunnel sequence. Quite a lot of non-fantasy stories also have it. A good many of Enid Blyton‘s “Adventure” and “Secret” series feature underground tunnels and caves. They are present in The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis and in the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien. I am sure one could find many other examples. But The Weirdstone of Brisingamen has absolutely, incontrovertibly, the most terrifying, claustrophobic and horrific underground cavern sequence I have ever read.

When I was 11-13 years old, perhaps inspired by reading such stories, I explored stormwater drains. The first ones were the ones that drained the sports fields at our school (St Stithians, Randburg, in case you were wondering). Others had explored them — they emptied into a stream and a small dam, and they had climbed up the round concrete pipes, which, I think, were about 2ft 6in in diameter. The told stories about people getting claustrophobia in there, and having to slap their faces (how? you couldn’t turn round) and encountering a scorpion. So it was with some trepidation that I first climbed up them. You couldn’t crawl on all fours, there wasn’t room for that. Just the thought was scary before I tried it. Alan Garner’s novel is ten times scarier than that. Later I explored the stormwater drains of Sandringham, Johannesburg. The lower broader bits were big enough to ride a bike up, but they got narrower when they reached the Sydenham border, and there we used to sit and frighten pedestrians and cyclists with hollow booming tunnel-amplified voices that came from beneath their feet. And one still occasionally reads news items about kids who were doing that and got downed when a sudden thunderstorm struck and they couldn’t get out in time. Rushing rainwater travels a lot faster than a crawling child. But Alan Garner’s book is much, much scarier than that.

Apart from that there’s a lot of running and hiding and trying to keep the stone out of the hands of the bad guys and a deus ex machina or two.There are quite a lot of allusions to mythology. The blurb’s like to describe this as “Celtic”, but that, I think, is because of the glamour that has been ascribed to the epithet “Celtic” in recent Western culture. In fact a lot of the mythology is Norse. Back when the book was fir5st published there was no Google, and one of the things that seemed to be missing was any explanation of the name Brisingamen. Perhaps Garner was hoping to provoke a generation of school children to be curious enough to find out for themselves, even though the only tool at their disposal was a card cataloge. And perhaps he succeeded in that aim too.

It’s a good tale well told, and well worth reading, I think. One can’t say much more without plot spoilers. But yes, the violence at the end is a bit much.

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The Moon of Gomrath

Moon of GomrathMoon of Gomrath by Alan Garner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Having just read it for the 5th (or is it the 6th?) time, I think I notice some flaws I did not spot in earlier readings, but would still give it 5 stars for the tension, the excitement, the facing of strange dangers. Though the blurb describes it as “Celtic”, the Einheriar of the Hearlathing sound pretty Anglo-Saxon to me, and the “old straight track” is anything but old, and was concocted by a 20th century businessman, but it still makes for a good exciting story, not of other worlds far away, but other worlds impinging on this one.

The flaw I noticed this time, however, was the heavy commuter traffic between Alderley Edge and Shining Tor. They rush the 9 miles to Shining Tor, on horseback or sometimes on foot, only to discover that they have to rush back again to consult the wizard Cadellin Silverbrow about something. This shuttling back and forth makes it seem that something is happening, but it isn’t really. It gives it the feel of one of those comedy films or stage shows where people are rushing from room to room in a house looking for someone who is looking for them, each one looking in the rooms that the other has just vacated.

I still like it, though. I think Alan Garner’s first three books are among the best and most exciting fantasy books I have ever read. I like his style, I like the excitement and the tension, I like their link to real places.

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On reading books you hate

Have you ever read a book you hate, right through, from beginning to end?

A waste of time, you may think. Toss it, before you waste any more time.

But this article explains why it is important to read books that you hate.

Why You Should Read Books You Hate – The New York Times:

Defensiveness makes you a better reader, a closer, more skeptical reader: a critic. Arguing with the author in your head forces you to gather opposing evidence. You may find yourself turning to other texts with determination, stowing away facts, fighting against the book at hand. You may find yourself developing a point of view.

But how do you know you’re going to hate a book before you’ve read it?

The first book I read that I was pretty sure I was going to hate was Atlas shrugged, by Ayn Rand. I had seen the book in a bookshop when I was a student in Pietermaritzburg, in about 1964. I picked it up and looked at the blurb — something about a man who had said he would stop the motor of the world, and did. I put it back on the shelf. Then, after a political meeting or demonstration of some sort, I was chatting to a fellow student who despised such things. I think it was a protest against the Bantu Laws Amendment Act, which would make life harder for black South Africans than it already was. He was doing a BSc in Zoology, and was into survival of the fittest and extended it to social Darwinism. He spoke about the philosophy of Ayn Rand, which sounded pretty unattractive to me.

A few years later, about 1970,  a work colleague was reading Atlas shrugged, and kept saying what a good book it was. So when he had finished it, I borrowed it, and after reading a couple of hundred pages told him that I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the characters, I didn’t like their lifestyle, I didn’t like their values, I didn’t like the style. He said, Ah, but it’s not about the quality of the writing, the thing that’s so good is the philosophy. I didn’t like the philosophy either, but I kept on reading, right to the end. That was partly because I knew that if I criticised it without having read it, he would dismiss my criticisms as mere ignorance.

The bloke who lent it to me was the third Ayn Rand fan I had met, and I thought that if this philosophy can get such a grip on people’s minds, I’d better find out more about it, so I went out and bought a book of essays by Ayn Rand and her associates, called Capitalism: the unknown ideal, in which she tried to do for capitalism what Marx and Engels had tried to do for socialism — turn it into a religion. And, far more than Marxian socialism, Ayn Rand’s capitalism was diametrically opposed to everything in the Christian faith. And the Neoliberalism that has dominated the world since about 1980 is largely a diluted form of Ayn Rand’s philosophy.

Being a sucker for punishment, I even read another novel by Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, and a biography of her written by one of her disciples. The author of the article on reading books you hate apparently began with The Fountainhead, and his comments on that are worth reading too. Why You Should Read Books You Hate – The New York Times:

My taste for hate reading began with “The Fountainhead,” which I opened in a state of complete ignorance as bonus material for a college class on 20th-century architecture. I knew nothing of Ayn Rand or of objectivism. I thought it was a book about building things. I even showed it off to a French friend, an architect and a die-hard socialist, thinking he’d be impressed.

“How could you bring that into our house?” he asked in disgust. “But it’s about architecture,” I replied weakly. Or was it? Within pages, I found myself suffering at the hands of its tyrannical egomaniac of a protagonist, Howard Roark, forever plunging a fist into soil and holding forth. The lead female character, Dominique, who naturally took second place to the godlike Roark, kept striding across rooms in long, column-like gowns.

Still, I persisted. A hundred pages later, I was more of a French socialist than I’d ever been before or since. I finished every wretched page of “The Fountainhead” in alternating states of fury and despair, and when it was finally over, I tried to leave the vague echo of Dominique, stomping around in her evening gowns, behind. What stuck was the abiding knowledge that I was not, nor would I ever be, a libertarian.

Another book that I read, and also hated, was Interview with the Vampire by Ann Rice. At the time lots of people were discussing it online, and I thought I’d better read it just so I could know what they were talking about. I hated it even more than Ayn Rand’s books, and had to force myself to keep reading to the end. Yet another was The Da Vinci Code, though in that case I had already read the book on which the plot was based.

So yes, I think it is good sometimes to read books that you hate. It’s not a waste of time, and can give you a better idea of why you like the books you do.

Postcards

PostcardsPostcards by Annie Proulx
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Loyal Blood is a farmer’s son who leaves home after his girlfriend dies. How she dies is never revealed, though he feels somehow responsible, and after that has an allergic reaction if he touches a woman. He wanders around doing various odd jobs. and occasionally sends postcards back to his family, but they can never reply because he leaves no address.

The book covers about 40 years, from 1944 to about 1984, and in some ways was an evocation of my childhood, remembering things like turning the handle of the milk separator to get the cream, and turning the handle of the wooden butter churn to make butter. Remembering what it was like to have no mains electricity, and waiting four years for the post office to install a telephone line. That was life back in the 1950s. I recall going to the Rand Easter Show, and looking at agricultural machinery, shiny in red and green paint, with springy metal seats for the operator, and then seeing such machinery, abandoned and rusted and useless, behind a ramshackle shed.

I wanted, at times to be a farmer in those days, and used to read Popular Mechanics and the Farmers’ Weekly. I never read the articles, just the small ads of farms for sale, or farm equipment. There was a course advertised in Popular Mechanics on “How to break and train horses”, which cost $50.00. That would have been about R40.00 in those days, but about R6000 in today’s money.

And this book brought it all back, with its descriptions of rural life, the life behind the Popular Mechanics ads. And the reason I never took it up is that farming is hard work with no let-up. Those cows have to be milked every day, rain or shine, winter or summer. The milking shed has to be cleaned or they get foot-rot. There are no weekends off, no holidays. And the book brings this out.

And I wonder if the urbanised people who talk about land redistribution are aware of this. Your grandfather may have been unjustly dispossessed back then, but are you prepared to go back and recreate his life, and take up where he left off? Back in the 1950s there were no big supermarket chains whose bulk buying could squeeze prices they paid for agricultural produce.

In Postcards Loyal Blood is sometimes a farm hand, sometimes trying farming on his own account, sometimes a fur trapper, sometimes a miner, sometimes a uranium prospector. And most of these rep[resent a way of life that has vanished. I remember those ads in Popular Mechanics for geiger counters and books on how to get rich quick as a uranium prospector in the 1940s and early 1950s. And somehow Annie Proulx manages to capture all of that.

So what genre is the book? A family saga? A snapshot of a period? Or a series of snapshots. It’s quite well done, in a way, and yet strangely unsatisfying. What happened to the girlfriend? Did he kill her? Did her family look for her? Did anyone wonder about her?

For the last 40 years we have been researching our family history, and in a way real family history is very like this book. There are snatches of recollections and old photos of cousins who disappeared and no one ever heard from them again. But they must have had lives, and perhaps some of them ended up like Loyal Blood in this book.

I recall Joan Rogers, who at one time lived in a caravan in our driveway. She had a horse called Royal and an old pointer dog. She worked in the lab at the South African Institute for Medical Research beyond Silvamonte, and at one time showed us the dessicated button spiders that they ground up and injected into the necks of horses to make the antivenin for the spider bites. She was something like Loyal Blood in the book, a wanderer, whose path intersected with mine for a couple of years but where she came from and where she ended up is unknown, at least to me.

And it was things like this that the book was evocative of. For other people it will be evocative of something else, other scenes, other people, other experiences.

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Elidor: children’s fantasy

ElidorElidor by Alan Garner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve just finished reading Elidor for the seventh time (or is it the eighth?), and was quite surprised to see that it was nearly 25 years since the last time I read it.

What prompted this reading was that someone wrote a rather nice review of my children’s book Of wheels and witches, and I began to wonder if it was worth trying to write a sequel, and I began to re-read Elidor to get me in to mood to think about it.

That’s because Elidor is, in my view at least, a kind of paradigm case of what a children’s fantasy novel should be.

It’s a bit like a combination of C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. Though Lewis wrote stories for children, Charles Williams never did, but I imagine that if he had he would have written something like Elidor. The first 50 pages are like Lewis — some children are snatched away into another world, the devastated dying world of Elidor. But the rest of the book is like Williams — the other world irrupts into this world.

The protagonist of Elidor is Roland Watson, the youngest of four middle-class siblings who live in Greater Manchester. In various parts of the story Alan Garner satirises bourgeois tastes and values and contrasts their tameness with the wildness of Elidor, which only Roland really appreciates until, in the end, the wildness of Elidor overwhelms them all.

We are not told how old the children are, though, because of the time that elapses in the story, a little over a year, they would be a year older at the end than the beginning. The one clue is that at the end the eldest, Nicholas, buys bus tickets for the four of them and asks for “one and three halves”. If Manchester was anything like Johannesburg, then children started paying full fares after they turned 12. So Nicholas is about 12, his sister Helen about 11, David about 9, and Roland, the protagonist, about 7 or 8. And they would all have been a year younger at the beginning of the story.

What I find interesting about this is that we are told that children like to read stories about children slightly older than themselves, and are less interested in ones about children who are younger. Yet in Elidor the protagonist, the one who takes the initiative, is the youngest. When my son was about the age of Roland in the story he tried to read it, and gave up because he found it “boring”. He was, however, quite happy to have it read to him. I think that may have been because he found it difficult to read. The reading level is more for 10 or 11 year olds.

So I wonder whether any children actually liked Elidor. Or any adults, for that matter. Perhaps it’s just me, and perhaps I’m looking for inspiration in all the wrong places.

But then I looked at the GoodReads lists that Elidor is on, and it is on quite a number of them. And perhaps the most telling, in the light of what I have just written, is:

Books for an 8-yr old boy with an older reading age

That pretty much says it all.

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Postscript

I originally posted this on 3rd April 2017, right after I had finished reading Elidor. As I usually do, I posted a basic review on Good Reads, and copied it to this blog with a few additional comments.

Three days later, at our literary coffee klatch, Prof David Levey raised one of the points I had made here — about Alan Garner’s fantasy stories being as much about this world as about other worlds, and the other worlds entering this world, rather than people leaving this world to go to other worlds.

I wanted to share the link to this post on Facebook to draw it to Prof Levey’s attention, but Facebook would not show the illustration of the book cover in the link, but rather something in the sidebar, linking to a Facebook group for a network of South African bloggers.

It seems that the people at Facebook, preferring people not to click on links that would take them out of Facebook, gave preference to an illustration linked to Facebook, no matter how irrelevant, rather than one in the article itself. In the past Facebook used to give one a choice of what illustration would display in links, but now there is only their arbitrary choice.

Eventually I deleted the widget with the link to the SA Bloggers Network, and copied this entire article into another blog post, and deleted the original. Then, and then only, did the link appear in Facebook with the book cover illustration. All that is to explain why this article is dated three days after it was actually written and posted, and why the link to the SA Bloggers Network on Facebook has been removed.

 

Where the rainbow ends

Where The Rainbow EndsWhere The Rainbow Ends by Clifford Mills
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 1965, at the age of 24, I wished I’d had it to read when I was younger. Even though I was preparing for final exams at university, I bought as many of the other Narnia books as I could find, and shared and discussed them with friends, and bought them as Christmas presents for children that I knew.

One day a group of us were discussing the genre of children\s fantasy, in a wood that reminded us of the Lantern Waste, and we tried to recall such books we had read as children. One friend mentioned The Princess and the Goblin, and I was sad that I had not read any of the ones the others mentioned. The only such book I had read as a child had “rainbow” in the title, and it featured children looking for their parents, and being helped by St George and hindered by the dragon, At one point there were two forests, one bright and good, and the other dark and evil, where the dragon tried to distract the children from their quest. But I could not remember the title or the plot, so I wanted to re-read it. I knew only that one of the children was called Rosamund.

The following year I was in London, and knowing that the British Museum was a copyright library, supposed to receive a copy of every book published in the UK I spent a couple of days there searching for books with “rainbow” in the title, without success.

Eventually I found a copy on a secondhand bookstall in Woolwich Market. I grabbed a copy, and read it. It was a huge disappointment. It was nothing more than imperialist propaganda. It featured a lion cub called Cubby, who always got sick when he wasn’t dosed with a patent medicine called “Colonial Mixture”. St George was no saint, but was a mascot of the British Empire.

All those passed me by as a child, at least consciously, thought it may have brainwashed me into being a closet colonialist. But in 1967 is stuck out like a sore thumb.

So why did I read it a third time?

I was taking part in NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month) and the novel I was writing featured St George, so I re-read it to remind myself how St George was handled in fiction.

I suppose, when I read it as a child, I would probably have given it three or four stars. But now, it’s somewhere between one and two. And I still wish I had had The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to read as a child.

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The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the DayThe Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A few days ago I read Embrace by Mark Behr, and then read this book. I picked them up almost by accident at the library, and found quite a number of similarities. The protagonists are separated by age, but there are also similarities, in that both look back on earlier parts of their lives. In Embrace the protagonist is a boy who has reached puberty, and looks back on his childhood. In The Remains of the Day the protagonist is a butler, looking back on his working life.

If I hadn’t read them one after the other, perhaps I might not have seen a connection, but what stands out for me is the similarity of technique. For the schoolboy the “present” is a year of school; for the butler the “present” is a holiday trip he takes to the West of England. But in both the bulk of the story is taken up with recollections of the past, and wondering how accurate those recollections are.

In both there is a contrast between the present, and recollections of the past, and it is the recollections of the past that gradually lead to a reinterpretation of the present.

There are also notable differences, based on the age of the characters, and Kazuo Ishiguro manages, in my view, to handle it better. The butler, self-effacing, writes his memoir in a formal and professional style, which is inevitably stilted. He is dominated by the requirements of his job, by the need to give everything to the service of his employer. His own feelings and needs must be subordinated to the needs of the job, and so it is the the job that dominates his life. Even a sense of humour is to be cultivated according to the needs of his employer. Ishiguro portrays this very well indeed.

It also brings out for me the discomfort I feel about the “servant culture”. I would hate to be a servant, and would hate to employ one. I once shared a house with someone who wanted a live-in servant. I was quite happy to pay someone to come in to clean or do the laundry. That is paying someone to do a job one doesn’t have time to do oneself. It’s like paying a mechanic to repair my car. I could do it myself, but because I’m an amateur, it would take me much longer. But a live-in servant is something different. It means having a dependant, and being a dependant, and to me that was a very uncomfortable relationship. And so my housemate and I parted on rather bad terms.

And Ishiguro brings out all the things that made me feel uncomfortable about having a servant, and being one.

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Steinbeck & Coetzee as chroniclers of their times

The Wayward BusThe Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What do you think of your fellow passengers on a bus, or a plane, or a suburban train?

Usually they are anonymous.

You might sometimes idly wonder about their lives outside the conveyance that briefly brings you into the same moving space, but rarely does it go beyond that.

But in this book it does go beyond that. A group of people, with their own lives and thoughts and histories are drawn together as passengers (and a driver) on a bus, and by the end of the book they have all interacted with each other, and their lives have all been changed in some way.

Some knew each other before they got on the bus: there is a family travelling on vacation, and two of the passengers were employees of the driver, but none knew all the others before they gathered for the bus trip, and before the journey ended they knew things about the others, and about themselves, that they had not known before.

There is little action, and no real plot. The book is a study of character and human interaction between people whose paths briefly, and apparently randomly crossed.

One of the other reviewers, Kim, writes (Goodreads | The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck — Reviews, Discussion):

The narrative is in the third person, with shifting points of view and an uncomplicated linear progression. The point of the work is not so much the plot – because not a lot happens – but more the characters’ internal conflicts and Steinbeck’s critique of post WWII American society. Steinbeck sets the work in a fictionalised Salinas valley and starts it with a quote from Everyman, the 15th century English morality play. This is a clue to the fact that the characters represent more than themselves and are to an extent allegorical figures.

And that invites a comparison with another book I have just read, Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee, because Coetzee seems to be trying to do for South Africa what Steinbeck was doing for America. Disgrace could be said to be about the characters’ internal conflicts and Coetzee’s critique of post-apartheid South African society The difference is that Coetzee writes from the viewpoint of one character, and all the other characters are seen through his eyes.

I disagree about the extent to which the characters are allegorical figures, though. They are stereotypical rather than allegorical. They don’t really represent abstract qualities or concrete historical personages, as those in allegories do. But they do represent types of people — the war profiteering businessman, the manipulative wife, the celebrity-obsessed shop assistant, the lecherous mechanic, the ex-serviceman salesman. And in Disgrace the disgraced professor, the hippie-going-on-earth mother daughter, the uptight puritanical school teacher, and the peasant, who calls to mind Roy Campbell’s poem The serf

I see in the slow progress of his strides
Over the toppled clods and falling flowers,
The timeless, surly patience of the serf
That moves the nearest to the naked earth
And ploughs down palaces, and thrones and towers.

And there is a similar abstracted “feel” to Steinbeck’s Of mice and men and Coetzee’s The life and times of Michael K. This quality is hard to put a finger on, but I find it in both Steinbeck’s and Coetzee’s writing. It’s more noticeable in Coetzee, because I have been to the places he describes his characters as visiting, and they feel like the same places in an alternative universe, where there are points of resemblance, but history has taken a slightly different turn. But in both the buildings feel like stage sets, and not places where real people live and work.

I compare The Waward Bus with Kerouac’s almost contemporary On the road. It’s not my favourite Kerouac book, but that characters are alive and the places real. And I had a similar feeling when reading Coetzee’s Youth. It feels as though a lot of important in-between bits were left out.

Disgrace

DisgraceDisgrace by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book won the Booker Prize, so someone must think that it’s great literature. I’m not so sure. I nearly stopped reading after the second chapter. I just didn’t connect with any of the characters.

It’s about a university professor who seduces a student. Her father complains and he is asked to resign and does. He goes to stay with his daughter in the Eastern Cape, and doesn’t really connect with her.

I didn’t connect with any of the characters, and their motivations seemed strange to me. Or perhaps their actions seemed to be unmotivated. I found the ending very sad.

That was about all I could say in my review on Good Reads, but I read it at a time when I was seeing a lot of posts about “farm attacks” and “farm murders” in social media. One of the scenes in the book is a “farm attack”, which which seems to link with what I was reading elsewhere, but that goes beyond what the book says, so I’ll say more about that aspect of it here.

One of the stories was this: Zuma should face the International Criminal court charges over murder of farmers: former Miss World Anneline Kriel:

Former Miss World Anneline Kriel has suggested President Jacob Zuma face charges of crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court for failing to protect farmers in South Africa.

Her call‚ which includes the deployment of the military to protect vulnerable farmers‚ comes after a string of farm murders and the release of quarterly crime statistics‚ which revealed that there had been 116 more murders than the same period last year.

And I think, how stupid can she get. Zuma has many faults, but he did not give orders to criminals to murder farmers, as George Bush did to his air force to bomb Iraq, or Tony Blair and Bill Clinton gave orders for their air forces to bomb Yugoslavia. If they weren’t charged in the ICC why should Zuma be?

The increasing bombardment of racist propaganda about “farm attacks” as “white genocide”, seems calculated, by its very irrationality and its racist assumptions, to make one lose sympathy for the victims of farm attacks. The propaganda tends to create the impression that the victims of farm attacks were themselves as racist as the propagandists and that that they therefore somehow deserved what they got.

I wonder, why this singling out of one occupational group, and I want to say “all lives matter”, not just farmers’ lives, but then we are also bombarded with constant propaganda from a different quarter that it is wrong, evil and wicked to think that all lives matter.

But then I think about my own personal experience. As far as I can recall, I knew four people who were murdered. They weren’t close friends, but they were people I had known and talked to. And three of the four were murdered in farm attacks. The fourth was murdered in a town attack. Those are the ones I can recall now. Neil Alcock, Theo Vosloo and Jan van Beima were murdered in farm attacks; Fritz Bophela was murdered in a town attack (a drive-by shooting). So among the people I have known who have been murdered, farm attacks outnumber others by 3:1. But all of them were pre-Zuma, and that is just my experience. Other people may also know people who were murdered, but possibly in different circumstances.

And that brings me back to the book.

It did not make racist propaganda about the farm attacks, such as one sees on social media. But nevertheless there was a racist subtext. The only black people in the story are described in a racist way, not directly; it is a subtext, not the main text, but it does tend to leave the reader with the impression that all black people are like this.

It is also from the viewpoint of the protagonist, and the protagonist’s viewpoint is not necessarily the author’s view. It is sometimes too easy to think that it is — I’ve seen people attributing views to Dostoevsky through quotes from his novels, but they were quotes from his characters, not from Dostoevsky himself. So it is dangerous to attribute the views of a fictional character to the author. Part of the skill of a novelist is to create believable characters with their own views.

Nevertheless, at the end of the book, the reader, or at least this reader, is left with the impression of black people that “give them an inch and they’ll take a yard”. That’s a common white racist stereotype. Yes, it’s the view of one character, but it’s also the impression created by the book as a whole.

Perhaps it did not strike the people who awarded the Booker prize like that, but that is how it struck me.

 

 

 

 

Sex and Stravinsky

Sex and StravinskySex and Stravinsky by Barbara Trapido
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I saw this book in the library I recalled reading another one by the same author, Frankie and Stankie, with its vivid evocation of a Durban childhood. I didn’t review that one on Good Reads, so I don’t know how many stars I would have given it, but I did write about it on my blog Growing up in Durban | Notes from underground.

But I found this one rather disappointing. The descriptions were not as vivid, and seemed somehow less authentic. When Barbara Trapido describes scenes from the 1940s to the 1970s she is usually spot on, but in Sex and Stravinsky the main action takes place in 1995, and the descriptions seem anachronistic. Perhaps the most jarring was the use of “the uni” to refer to universities. I don’t know if South African students use that term now, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t use it in 1995 (when I was still working at a university). In my own student days we spoke of “varsity”, never of “uni”, and I think I first encountered “uni” on the internet, and only in this century. I believe it started in Australia and was adopted in the UK, but does not seem to be used much elsewhere.

Another anachronism was the description of cell phones. In 1995 they were a novelty in South Africa, and were about the size of bricks. Very few people had them, and those that did would ostentatiously show that they had them. There was a story of a man walking into a restaurant talking on his cell phone when, to his embarrassment, it rang.

Apart from the anachronisms, there are serious plot holes. The story is about characters whose lives are linked by an amazing series of coincidences, which stretch credulity too far, and keep on happening. One of the characters, Josh, who lectures in theatre, perhaps explains this, when his mother-in-law takes him and his wife to see Rigoletto, which he did not enjoy:

-He likes early opera, for heavens sake; chamber opera, tightly-plotted comedies in which everyone is in love with somebody else’s betrothed, and sundry marriage contracts are called into question by a range of incompetent stage lawyers. Foppish drunken halfwits or scheming rogues. He likes it when the entire dramatis personae is cheating, spying, playing dead and dressing up in other people’s clothes.

Some of Shakespeare’s comedies are like that, and indeed A midsummer night’s dream makes an appearance in the book. In some ways it looks as though Barbara Trapido is trying to write the whole book along the lines of one of those early operas, but though it may have worked for 17th-century stage productions, it doesn’t come off too well in a 21st-century novel.

I quite enjoyed reading it, and wanted to know what happened to the characters in the end, but it was disappointing. There were too many dei ex machina, and some of the characters were too inconsistent.

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