Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Children's Day has its day

Help! I'm suffering from serious withdrawal symptoms. I haven't read a book in two weeks and I'm in absolute agony. This is not by choice, simply the result of an impossibly hectic schedule. I'm touring through France with a TV team filming a cooking series, and the only reading I seem to manage between the long hours of travelling-cooking-eating and the short hours of sleeping is from magazines and on internet. Which doesn't really count as 'reading'- not for a book junkie like me.

A little ray of light in this bookless darkness, though, is that my friend and fellow South African author Michiel Heyns's coming-of-age novel The Children's Day has just been nominated for the Prix Femina in France. Jours d'enfance, translated by Fran├žoise Adelstain, is one of eleven finalists in the foreign section of what has been called 'the most gracefully slim, the most distinguished, the most pleasantly courteous' of French literary prizes. Graceful and courteous, maybe, but definitely not lightweight - not with internationally renowned names such as Edna O'Brien from Ireland, Shirley Hazzard from Australia and Bernardo Carvalho from Brazil among the finalists.

The selectors could also be praised for the geographic scope of their list, with authors hailing from Ireland to Iceland, Sweden to South Corea, United States to Venezuela. The winner will be announced in November - as is customary for most of the big literary prizes in France - which gives you enough time to read The Children's Day - in its original English version, in French, or even in Afrikaans - if you haven't done so yet.

And believe me, it is a delightful read, humorous and ironic and sad and serious, set in the sixties in South Africa, in a boys' boarding school in Bloemfontein, during the dark days of Apartheid. What I loved about the book is that it deals with so much more than the rather obvious moral problems of Apartheid politics; it also shows the class differences among whites - all more or less equally rascist - and the sometimes ridiculous discrimination between 'liberal' English and 'conservative' Afrikaner.

The protagonist, Simon, is the adolescent son of an English father and an Afrikaans mother, getting the best possible education in a good English school, while Fanie is working-class Afrikaner, attending a technical school where he will be taught a practical craft and not much more. Or maybe much more than Simon - depending on how you look at things. Sexual hypocrisy turns out to be just one of the moral pitfalls of sixties South Africa.

I haven't read the other finalists' novels, so I can't judge whether Jours d'enfance should win the Prix Femina or not - but all these translated novels are already winners just for appearing on such a distinguished international list.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Key to good reading

I've said it before and I'll say it again. I don't feel duty-bound to read or report on the literature of South Africa just because I was born and bred down there. My taste in books is as eclectic as my taste in food - variety truly is the spice of reading, eating and life in general.


But every once in a while I come across a South African book that is so great that I have to rave about it, urge all my friends to read it, post a blog entry to spread the word. Ivan Vladislavic's Portrait with Keys is just such a book. Provocative and poetic and deeply personal yet universally appealing (to anyone looking for more than mental candyfloss, of that I'm sure), Portrait with Keys is not fiction, but to describe it simply as 'non-fiction' doesn't do it justice either.

It is 'a chain of lyrical texts' linking memoir, history and geography. With a teasing sub-title like Joburg & what-what, it is also a kind of inspired guide to the city of gold. A love letter to Johannesburg with the power to seduce even people like me who never really learnt to appreciate this particular city. If you don't know Johannesburg at all, you'll want to visit it after reading this book. If you've lived there before, you'll be laughing in recognition and longing to return.

Vladislavic looks at his hometown with wonder and humour, never shying away from the darker side - the horrific crime figures, the beggars and the poverty, the obsession with keys and locks to protect against burglary and theft - yet always spotting the absurd, the unexpected or the unexplained in his everyday surroundings. Like the little girl in a school uniform with a satchel on her back walking towards him one spring afternoon in Roberts Avenue.

'A perfectly ordinary little girl on her way home from school. Or she would be, perfectly ordinary, I mean, if she were not wearing a diving mask and snorkel... Her eyes look out with the astounded, strained expression of a diver who has just sunk below the surface and discovered a second world. 'After passing this strange creature, he finds that his feet have turned to lead, his head become 'round and deaf'. 'She has submerged the world, and me in it. The light streams like water over everything, the grass on the verges shifts in currents of astonishment, as I press on into the deep end of the city.'

This constant transformation of the mundane into something nearly magical or achingly funny or incredibly wise, is what makes Portrait with Keys such a joy to read.

Here is Vladislavic describing the end of a lazy summer day on a stoep in Hope Street: 'We are talking, my friends and I, with our bare feet propped on the wall of the stoep, our cane chairs creaking. We have been talking and laughing for hours, putting our predicaments in their place, finding ways to balance in a tide of change...

'This is our climate. We have grown up in this air, this light, and we grasp it on the skin, where it grasps us... We will never be ourselves anywhere else. Happier, perhaps, healthier, less burdened, more secure. But we will never be closer to who we are than this.'

You can read this book - and do read it, please! - as you would any other book, from first to last page, beginning to end. Or you can read it following the Itineraries provided at the end; winding your way through all the pages dealing with Beggars and sellers, for instance, or Liars and thieves; finding your own path through Gardens or Memorials or Painted walls. There is an itinerary called Artists Book and another called Writers' Book and another and another...

You might even end up reading the book like me, first in the 'normal' order, and then, the moment you reach the last page, starting all over, this time following the author's suggested itineraries. It's always difficult to close and take leave of a good book; even more so in this case because you're leaving behind more than just a book. It's as if you have to part from a beloved city too - or rather a city you didn't realise you loved until you read this brilliant book.