Sunday, January 25, 2009

Local stays lekker

My patriotism doesn't necessarily extend to my bookshelf. What I mean is that I don't feel morally bound to praise South African books just because I was born in South Africa. So when I say that three of the best books I read during the past year are by authors born in South Africa, please believe me, it is an ode to pleasure rather than an act of patriotism.

I am delighted to realise that local can still be so lekker. For those of you who don't understand lekker, it is the South African version of fabulous, genial, prima, wunderbar... All of these adjectives, in whatever language, apply to Anne Landsman's novel The Rowing Lesson. It is a thing of beauty from beginning to end.

A woman, pregnant with her first child, is summoned from her home in New York to her dying father's hospital bed in Cape Town. From these sad and simple facts Landsman constructs a tale that is anything but simple and, though sad, never sentimental. On the contrary, quite a few passages are laugh-aloud funny, a rare feat in any book.

Landsman's 'language of fire and passion', as Nobel Prize winner JM Coetzee calls it, is spiced with Afrikaans, Hebrew and medical terms, producing a truly original new voice. The medical terminology makes perfect sense, not only because of the hospital setting, but also because the dying father has been a small-town doctor for decades. Harold Klein, once dedicated caregiver to a whole community, now needs to be taken care of as he lies in a coma, slowly slipping away from those who love him. The only way his daughter can still 'communicate' with him, is by meditating on his life - remembering, reliving, inventing it.

Thus the whole story becomes an act of imagination, brilliantly exposing the force and the fragility of a father-daughter relationship. It is also, perhaps above all, a book about memory - the many layers, the rich textures, the contradictions of memory.

Anne Landsman was a discovery to me, since I hadn't read anything else she'd written. Breyten Breytenbach, on the other hand, is a famous Afrikaans poet whose work I've been admiring for decades. His latest book, A Veil of Footsteps (Memoir of a Nomadic Fictional Character, as the subtitle has it), is neither poetry nor written in Afrikaans, but still a great read. Here too, as in Landsman's story, memory plays a pivotal role:

This should be kept in mind as I write Breyten Wordfool's black book of impressions. One must not let go of the memories; maggots and grubs are always needed to transform that which has been lived.

As always with Breytenbach, the borders between 'fact' and fiction, 'reality' and imagination, acting and dreaming, are deliberately and delightfully hazy. As nearly always, there is an undercurrent of anger - 'the sort of rage that produces great literature', according to The Washington Post Book World. And this time there are pictures too: simple black-and-white photographs used in much the same way as the melancholic German author WG Sebald had done in books like Austerlitz and The Emigrants. The photographs are supposed to confirm the 'reality' of what is written, but somehow they also convey a sense of alienation, an ambiguous process that seems particularly appropriate in such an undefinable literary work as this.

The third author in my trio of reading pleasure is Michiel Heyns, who only started publishing at retirement age, but is fortunately making up in productivity for all the years that we've been deprived of his talents. He has managed to publish no less than four books in six years, each in a different register, predictable only in its unpredictability, yet always retaining a stylish and ironic voice.

His latest offering, Bodies Politic, does in a way resemble its immediate predecessor, The Typewriter's Tale, in that it is also a historical novel fictionalising the lives of famous figures. In the previous book the famous figure was the English-American writer Henry James, seen through the eyes of his typist. This time we get to know Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, all of them passionate suffragettes and political activists, and the much lesser known younger brother, Harry, who died at the early age of 21.

It is only as I write this that I realise that once again I am describing a book dealing with a death bed, fragile family relationships, and memory - this time the often contradicting memories of three old women looking back at a young man's death many years earlier. What I love most about Bodies Politic, though, is its thoroughly convincing depiction of the personal price often paid for political victory.

Oh yes, and I also admire the fact that an author born and bred and still living in South Africa doesn't feel compelled to write only 'South African stories' - whatever that might be. Heyns spreads his literary wings to fly to other places, other people, other times. As a reader I am only too grateful to be able to fly along.