Not being fond of Struggle Literature, I’ve avoided her books. I recall a huge hullabaloo over her novel The Innocence of Roast Chicken, (a best-seller in South Africa in 1996). I remember the PC brigade hated it. Quite why, I never discovered. But she has continued to write and this is her fourth novel . It’s a novel of great depth with an unusual format – quite a large part of the narrative – perhaps just under one-third – consists of letters written by Miranda to both Thomas (her first lover and fellow struggle comrade) and his sister, Lily (unwitting trigger of Tom’s discovery, arrest and 12 year jail sentence). The Book is in three parts : Pt 1 – Lily; Pt 2 – Thomas; Pt 3 – Bert (their father). The catalyst is the book which Thomas writes about The Struggle, which prompts Miranda to start writing letters to the pair of them, so there’s an oblique, third-person view and analysis of events already related by the other characters. It’s a complicated format, but it suits the novel about three complicated characters. Lily’s Pt 1 is about a nomadic childhood spent in the Eastern Cape with wonderful evocative sections on the landscape, the people, life as a child, with the shadow of apartheid restrictions on their friendship with the coloureds in the little towns. She adores her father (a complex mix of conman, drinker, trader & preacher), is brought up by her brother, but is much wilder and spontaneous than him. Ironically, towards the end of the book, their roles are reversed – she becomes the care-giver towards her step-brother Arnold and her father. Thomas’ Pt 2 takes us into his tortured soul – he’s tormented by his mother’s abandonment of their family, the fecklessness of his father, his responsibilities towards his kid sister and then her betrayal; his relationships with women, friends, God; his attempted career as a priest …. everything is deeply felt, unacknowledged, and the struggle has twisted him. How Louise, his girlfriend puts up with him, is a mystery. He’s remote, a workaholic, unforgiving, riven by anger that he claims he has left behind – he hasn’t of course, but can’t see it. And of course, despite his impeccable Struggle credentials, he’s abandoned by the New South Africa, when his life’s raison d’etre, an NGO, is swept from under him when the Board insists he be replaced by a Black. A White man, cannot in these new times, head such an organization …. it’s the ultimate cruel irony. Bart’s Pt 3 was quite difficult to read, he’s got Alzheimers and his view of events/people is all mixed up but it’s a short section only a few pages, from which it appears that Thomas manages to stay with Louise who has now borne his child; Miranda is on a visit from London; and brother and sister appear to have reconciled. I’m filled with admiration at the complex structure of the book, the depth of the characters, the subtlety of the book. I wonder why it hasn’t won a prize ? “Richards has an acute sense of place, in it’s small town and big city guises, and a wonderful ear for South African idiom. … Moving subtly between past and present, it casts a searing light on the way we reveal and conceal our truths in stories.” (Ivan Vladislavic) “Few South African writers can capture the complicated magic and cultural confusion of a constantly changing country like JR can … wry, moving and beautifully observed.” (Peter Godwin)
I’m so glad I picked up a brand new copy of his latest novel in Books Galore for only R140 as opposed to the retail price of R360.I’d been very tempted by pre-release offers from my favourite bookstore, but had resisted them, and tripped over a bargain instead. And I will have no trouble in taking this one back to the BG shop & claiming my one-third back on it. It’s not a book I want to keep and re-read.
This said, I have to report that the book has a stunning cover design : vibrant orange, red, indigo, black and white discs – anything but colourless! Plus a large pull-out sheet of small stickers which seem to be related to the story, but are confusing – usually its pre-teen girls who are sticker mad, not adults reading Japanese novels. I don’t know – visualize me shaking my head, shrugging my shoulders, at this point. It’s a mystery, but then this is Murakami.
Suddenly I’m over my Murakami madness. Having now read some of his other novels, I can see how he returns to the same themes over and over again. TT is yet another of Haruki Murakami’s self-sufficient 30-something young men who cook, clean and iron their shirts and lead quiet, modest, regulated lives, apart from a dramatic incident in his early 20s which nearly kills him, but leaves him stronger and even more self-sufficient.
And of course, Music plays a role – a piano piece by Franz List, Le Mal du Pays seems to be important but somehow isn’t. And there’s the ghostly jazz pianist Midorikawa, who features in Haida’s story, with a maddening clue about a mystery object in a cloth bag, reverently placed atop the piano, prior to playing. Yet another fascinating clue which evaporates into ..? what? I don’t know: I’m baffled! This is either the charm or the irritation of Murakami’s writing, depending on the reader’s mood.
However, in this book, there are no cats! Often these are a feature of his novels, particularly in Kafka on the Shore. Also much less of magic realism, or surrealism, or just plain magic, whatever you want to call it. There’s only one magical section where a long story is told to the main protagonist (TT) which – at one point – I thought might be a clue, or a suggestion as to the how & why of the murder in the NOVEL; but he never develops this suggestion and the story stands alone – a strange almost ghost story – it’s difficult to pin it down. And the murder is never solved.
Another strange element is the introduction of polydactylism – people who are born with six fingers. Very late in the book there’s a short section about lost property on the Tokyo Metro, and one of the bizarre things in the Lost Property is a mayonnaise jar containing two neatly severed fingers in formaldehyde. Which may or may not be connected to the jazz pianist and the ghost story.
Despite all my grumbles, I read on, quite intrigued, and continued to the end of the novel. One of the things I like about Murakami is his intense Japanese-ness. There’s a sort of stark minimalism about his work. Despite the oddness of his plots/story-lines, I keep on reading.
My friend Anita thinks his short stories are better than the novels and she may well be correct. I need to read them.
where’s the Escape Route?
I wonder how you start your day?
I’ll lay you a small bet you’re not out in your garden, poking around in the undergrowth with your trusty braai-tongs, SNAIL HUNTING in the cool, early morning hours. Let me tell you that snails emerge from their shelly homes while the dew is still on the leaf, and they come out brandishing their knives and forks, starving for greenery …. my greenery, my plants – what’s left of them, that is. Those snaily jaws are munching manically every morning and not only on the plants, but on the paintwork on the walls and patio. If my entire house disappears, it will be due to the ravenous molluscs. So out I go, cursing steadily while bending my aching back, but its Woman versus Garden Pests, and the war is on. My daily harvest fills up an empty 500ml yoghurt carton. Daily, mind you. The reproductive power of the snail is truly terrifying. Sometimes I wonder if my garden isn’t infected with a genus of super-snail that will eventually munch the rest of us out of existence. Forget about changing climate, Fukushima, political mayhem and the rest of it. It’s the snails that have got me worried!
I can hear your response: Huh? What’s a Time-trap?
Here is a brief guide to help identify the pests:
- They’re generally rectangular
- The casing is usually black, grey or silver; but they also come in funky colours, much loved by the young
- The small traps house their own power supply, but the larger ones require connections to the mains
- Their tribal names may include Nokia, Blackberry, Sony, HP, Apple, Samsung, Dell, Lenovo – do I need to go on?
Who wouldn’t rather be watching TV, or playing games on their i-phone/tablet, or surfing the net on their PC, rather than dutifully editing their novel? Come on, ‘fess up! We’re only human, after all.
I’m indebted to my writing friend, Dawn, who acts as my Writer’s Conscience, on writing issues, and she introduced me to this hold-all term. And I thought: Yesss! She’s right (again!) I know just what she means.
So on Saturday I vowed not to turn on my PC which is my biggest writing Time-trap. I don’t own a Smartphone, and my elderly Nokia mobile serves as a useful tool and nothing more. TV? My mother brainwashed me years ago about the crime of wasting daylight hours by watching TV, so that takes care of that.
For me the PC is a magic carpet to anywhere in the world – or the universe, for that matter. It’s an Aladdin’s cave of entertainment and information, where I’ve spent many happy exploratory hours instead of working on my novel, on my memoir, on my blog posts, on my competition entries – the list is endless. Sigh.
So I resolutely left the PC sulking in its corner on Saturday and accomplished so much without its evil influence – I was quite astonished by the end of the day, when I climbed onto the couch, for some mental chewing gum i.e. TV. I tidied out cupboards, sorted out my craft material – throwing out a ton of STUFF in the process; I made huge in-roads on a craft project that’s lurked around for months; I wrote a book review; I mended my favourite yellow jersey; I read 4 chapters of a novel that I’ve been struggling to finish; I made West African Sweet Potato Stew for supper, and last of all, I made my cat deliriously happy by providing under-cat heating once I flopped onto the couch.
All in all a good day. Today I switched the beast on, but it’s been strictly business, including typing this blog post.
Give it a whirl: go on a PC fast – you’ll save power, do a million worthy things, and feel so virtuous at the end of the day. In fact, I’m going to declare one quarantine day every week. I might even finish the tapestry I’ve been avoiding for the last two years. Stranger things have happened.
Because I’m currently reading, no : absorbing – or trying to – Mary Paterson’s book “The Monks and Me”, I’m paying careful attention to peeling carrots, the rasp of the peeler, and plop of the peel landing in the bin. Next comes the peeler over the cylindrical shape of the sweet potato – no rasping this time – just the thin purple peel dropping silently into the bin; noting the myriad little indentations still clad in skin. Taking the washed potato to the old yellow and white chopping board; the cool,wet pressure against my left hand as I grip it firmly, the pressure of the knife handle in my right hand, the effort to force the knife through the thick object. Then the crisp chop-chop-chop sound of the knife as I slice the potato into batons. The creamy white flesh against the bright yellow tea-kettle design on my antique chopping board. Paying attention.
How much attention do we pay to our daily lives? In my case – very little. Whilst I may be multi-tasking all day long, for how much of this time am I really present with my actions? Not much. I know I spend 90% of my time preoccupied with plans, thoughts, ideas, reminders, rehearsing speeches, more plans , the occasional memory fragment, more plans … and so it goes, all day long. Mary Paterson went on a 40-day silent retreat at Plum Village in France, the monastery of renowned Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn. She diligently followed the routine, the schedule, the meditation periods, the Noble Silence, the instruction on Mindfulness (be here now! as Ram Das so succinctly said, so long ago). And it paid off. As she puts it, “she returned Home” to a peaceful place within. The book is very readable, in short chapters, one for every day of her retreat. So: if you’re feeling beleaguered by pressures of modern life, read this book! And start paying attention. Slowing down. It works.
Another writer who is currently receiving a lot of attention, is the Norwegian writer, Karl Ove Knausgaard, with his mammoth exploration of his life titled in Norwegian ‘Min Kamp’ – yes, that’s right, ‘Mein Kampf” in German and in English : My Struggle. It was Socrates who proclaimed : . An unexamined life is not worth living. The unexamined life is not the life for man. KOK has certainly taken this dictum to heart.
One Goodreads writer sourly recorded that it had been too much of a struggle, and she’d abandoned the book. Others lavished 5-star reviews, while others wondered why the trivial minutiae in his daily life was of any interest or importance to his readers. I saw him being interviewed by Razia Iqbal on BBC arts & culture programme, Talking Books, recorded at the Hay Book Festival this year, and was smitten by his Viking good looks – those blue eyes and that silver hair! However, I’m not sure that I’m up for a 3 000+ page exposition of his life, some of which appears to be sordid and difficult e.g. the aftermath of the death of his alcoholic father. Not only this, but the account of Knausgaard’s life is not a memoir, says the author, it’s a novel, despite being a blisteringly true account of current events within his own family. Some of whom are now not speaking to him. No, really, he cannot have it both ways. Either it’s a memoir, or it’s fiction. And if it’s a factual account of events and people in his life, including himself, then surely its …. Oh I don’t know. Life’s too short. Go figure.
For some reason, whilst chopping veg for my soup (and obviously not paying attention to what I was doing – yet again!) I recalled reading a book by Marilyn Robinson titled Gilead*, which is narrated by an old minister, living in a small American town, at the end of his life, and the reader is privy to his reflections about his life. This remarkably short book was a masterpiece of simplicity and clarity, humility and wisdom. I think I’ll buy a copy of Gilead and forgo the task of enduing the Norwegian saga.
*Marilynne Robinson’s second novel, Gilead (2004), won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Ambassador Book Award. Gilead takes the form of a letter from an ageing Iowa preacher to his seven-year-old son. Written in simple and sparse prose, it is an uplifting meditation on life. http://contemporarylit.about.com/